The Prescription

Penelope Fitzgerald

After Petros Zarifi’s wife died his shop began to make less and less money. His wife had acted as cashier. That was all over now. The shelves emptied gradually as the unpaid wholesalers refused to supply him with goods. In his tiny room at the back of the shop he had, like many Greek storekeepers, an oleograph in vivid colours of his patron saint, with the motto Embros – Forward! But he had now lost all ambition except in the matter of his son Alecco.

The shop was not too badly placed, on the very edge of the Phanar, where Zarifi should have been able to sell to both Greeks and Turks. One of his remaining customers, in fact, was an elderly Stamboullu who worked as dispenser to a prosperous doctor in the Beyazit district. Both old Yousuf and Dr Mehmet drank raki, which they regarded as permissible because it had not been invented in the days of the Prophet. One evening when he was refilling the bottles, Zarifi asked Yousuf to speak for him to Mehmet Bey.

‘Ask him if he will take my son Alecco, who has just turned fourteen, into his employment.’

‘Can’t his own relatives provide for him?’ asked the old man.

‘Don’t give a father advice on this matter,’ said Zarifi. ‘What else does he think about when he lies awake at nights?’

Mehmet Bey took the virtue of compassion seriously. Once he had been told that Zarifi was a good Greek, who had won a reputation for honesty, and, possibly as a result, had been unfortunate, he sent word that he would see him.

‘Your son can clean my boots and run errands. That is all I have to offer. Don’t let him have ambitions. There are too many doctors in Stamboul, and, above all, far too many Greeks.’

‘Good, well, I understand you, bey effendi, you may trust both my son and me.’

It was arranged that Alecco should work and sleep at the doctor’s house in Hayreddin Pasha Street. His room was not much larger than a cupboard, but then, neither had it been at home. Loneliness was his trouble, not discomfort. The doctor’s wife, Azizié Hanoum, kept to her quarters, and old Yousuf, who was a poor relation of hers, jealously guarded the dispensary, where the drugs must have been arranged on some kind of system since he was able, given time, to make up a prescription when called upon. As to Mehmet Bey himself, his hours were regular. After a sluggish evening visit to the coffee-house to read the newspaper, he would return and spend a few hours more than half-asleep in the bosom of his family. But Alecco understood very well, or thought he understood, what it was that his father expected him to do.

Polishing the boots of the hakim bashi did not take up much of the day. Always obedient, he went about with the doctor as a servant, keeping several paces behind, carrying his bag and his stethoscope. Once a week Mehmet Bey, as a good Moslem, gave his services to the hospital for the poor on the waterfront, and Alecco learned in the wards to recognise the face of leprosy and of death itself. Then, because he was so quick, he began to help a little with the accounts, and from the ledgers he gathered in a few weeks how the practice was run and which were the commonest complaints and how much could be charged for them in each case – always excepting the bills of the very rich, which were presented by Mehmet Bey in person. The doctor, for his part, recognised that this boy was sharp, and did not much like it. A subject race, he reflected, is a penance to the ruler. But he reminded himself that the father was trustworthy and honourable, and in time the son’s sharpness might turn into nothing worse than industry, which is harmless.

Every day Alecco asked himself: have I gone one step forward, or one backward? What have I learned that I didn’t know yesterday? Books are teachers to those who have none, but the doctor’s library reposed behind the wooden shutters of the cupboards fitted into the walls of his consulting-room. His student Materia Medica were there, along with herbals in Arabic and the Gulislan, or Rose Garden of Medicines. Lately he had acquired a brand-new book, Gray’s Anatomy in a French translation. Alecco had seen him turning it over heavily, during the late afternoon. But it was put away with the others, and there was no chance to look at it, still less to copy the illustrations.

The dispensary, also, was kept locked and bolted. But that year the month of Ramazan fell in the hot weather, and both the doctor and old Yousuf, being obliged to fast all day until sunset, went out through the hours of darkness to take refreshment, Mehmet Bey at the homes of his friends, Yousuf at the teahouse. Security was less strict, and the house itself, windowless against the street, seemed to relax at the end of its tedious day. During the second week of the fast, Alecco found the door of the dispensary unfastened.

Just before dawn began to lift, Mehmet Bey returned and saw that a single candle-lamp was burning in his dispensary. The Greek boy was standing at the bench, copying out prescriptions. He had also taken down a measuring-glass, a pestle and a number of bottles and jars.

Bath-boy, tellak, son of a whore, the doctor thought. The hurt pierced deep. His friends had warned him, his wife had told him he was a fool. But in the end he had made a burden for his own back.

Alecco was so deeply absorbed that his keen sense of danger failed him. He did not move until Mehmet Bey towered close behind him. Then he turned, not dropping the pen and ink which he had stolen but gripping them closely to him, and stared up with the leaden eyes of a woken sleepwalker at his master.

‘I see that you are studying my prescriptions,’ said Mehmet Bey. ‘I know from experience that you learn quickly.’

He picked up the empty glass. ‘Now: make up a medicine for yourself.’

Sweating and trembling, Alecco shook in a measure of this and a measure of that, always keeping his eyes on his master. He could not have said what he was doing. Mehmet Bey, however, saw a dose of aphrodisiac go into the glass, and then the dried flowers of agnus castus, which inhibits sex, opium, lavender, ecballium elaterium, the most violent of all purgatives, datura, either 14 grams, inducing insanity, or 22½ grams (death) and finally mustard and cinnamon. Silently he pointed to the fuller’s earth, which prevents the patient from vomiting. Alecco added a handful.

‘Drink!’

The doctor’s voice, raised to a pitch of sacred rage, woke up Azizié Hanoum, and standing terrified in her old wrapper at the door of the women’s quarters she saw her husband seize the Greek boy by the nose, from which water poured out, and force his head backwards to dislocation point while something black as pitch ran from the measuring glass down his throat.

In the morning Alecco, who had been crammed into his room unconscious, appeared smiling with the doctor’s cleaned boots in his hands. Mehmet Bey made a sign to avert evil.

‘You’re well? You’re alive?’

‘My prescription did me a world of good.’

The doctor called his servants and had him turned out of the house. Picking himself up, Alecco walked away with fourteen-year-old jauntiness along the new horse tramway until he was out of sight. Not until he reached the foot of the Galata Bridge did his will-power give way and he collapsed groaning like vermin on a dunghill.

Preparing slowly for his rounds, Mehmet Bey at first congratulated himself, since if the boy had died he was not quite certain how he would have stood with the law. But the household’s peace was destroyed. Old Yousuf was so perturbed by the mess in the dispensary that he collapsed with a slight stroke. He had never been able to read, and now that the drugs were out of order he could find nothing. Azizié Hanoum poured reproaches on her husband and declared that if the little Greek had been better treated he could have been trained to help Yousuf. Zarifi mourned his son, who did not return either to the Phanar or to Hayreddin Pasha Street. In a few months the grocer’s shop was bankrupt.

Alecco had been picked up on the waterfront by a Greek ship’s cook, coming back on board after a night’s absence. He had some confused idea of conciliating the captain, who, he knew, was short of a boy. The Andro meda was an irregular trading vessel carrying mail via Malta and Gibraltar, and by the time she reached London Alecco had been seasick to such an extent that he was clear of the poison’s last traces. This seemed a kind of providence, he could never have cheated Death without some help. The captain had fancied him from the start, and when the crew were paid off at Albert Docks he gave him five pounds in English money to make a good start in life.

Ten years later Dr Mehmet’s career had reached its highest point and was also (he was sixty-five) approaching its end. Having been called, not for the first time, for consultation at the Old Serail, he settled down for a long waiting period before an attendant arrived to escort him to the anterooms. He took a seat overlooking the Sea of Marmara, and resigned himself. In contemplation of the lazing water, he allowed his energies to sleep. The ladies here were the old and the pensioned-off, but the appointment was an honour.

Quite without warning, and faintlydisagreeable, was the appearance of a secretary: Lelia Hanoum had wished for a second opinion, and he had the honour to present a distinguished young colleague who had hurried here from another appointment. But when a young man walked in wearing a black stambouline, the professional’s frock-coat, and followed by a servant carrying his bag and stethoscope, Mehmet Bey knew not only who he was, but that he had been expecting him.

‘I decline to accept you as a colleague, Alexander Zarifi.’

‘I am qualified,’ Dr Zarifi replied.

‘Your word is not good enough.’

Alecco took out from the upper pocket of his stambouline a card printed in gilt, which showed that he had recently been appointed to attend the Serail. This could not be contradicted, and after putting it away he said: ‘I am honoured, then, to join you as a consultant.’ He waited for the usual, in fact necessary, reply, ‘Thehonour is mine,’ but instead Mehmet Bey said loudly: ‘There is no need for us to waste time in each other’s company. I know the case-history of Lelia Hanoum, you may consult my notes. I have already made the diagnosis. Last year the patient complained of acute pain in the left side and a distention as though a ball or globe was rising from the abdomen to the throat. Palpitations, fits of crying, quantities of wind passed per rectum. A typical case of hysteria, all too common in the Serail, and entirely the result of an ill-balanced regimen. I advised firm treatment, iron pills and a gentian tonic. Recently, however, she has described the initial pain as on the right side. Accordingly I have changed my diagnosis to acute appendicitis, and I propose to operate as soon as permission can be got from the Palace. She is rather old for the operation to be successful, but that is in God’s hands.’

‘I cannot agree,’ Dr Zarifi replied. ‘The very fact that the patient is uncertain whether she feels pain on the left or the right side means that we must look beneath her symptoms for an unconscious or subconscious factor. During my training in Vienna I was fortunate enough to work with Dr Josef Breuer, the great specialist in hysteria. It is for the woman herself to lead us to the hidden factor, perhaps under hypnosis. It is my belief that there is no need for medication, still less for surgical interference. We must aim at setting her free.’

‘Well, now I have your opinion,’ said Mehmet Bey. ‘If I reject it, it is because I have studied the art of healing, not so much from personal ambition as to answer the simplest of all appeals – hastayim, I am ill. I accept that since we last met you have had the advantage of a good training, but your nature will not have changed. You are still Alexander Zarifi. What is more, there are universal laws, which govern all human beings, not excepting men of science. Cast your memory back, and answer me this question: Knowledge is good, but what is the use of knowledge without honesty?’

Dr Alecco looked down at the ground, and withdrew his diagnosis.