She jumped off the bus, umbrella blossoming against the rain, glad that it was home-time. She’d had an awful day at the office. The boss had been very full of it today. Picking on her for no reason, just looking for faults, so of course, he wouldn’t let her go early, so that she could miss the rush, that was worse when the rain started pelting down. Why is it, she thought, that when the sun is shining in the morning, the traffic is smooth but suddenly when there is a downpour in the afternoon there seem to be so many more cars and so many more people rushing, jostling, elbowing. Where do they come from, they seem to appear out of nowhere. . .
As she hurried to the train station, ahead of her, a slight figure caught her eye; bare head, rimmed with white hair above the collar of a shabby overcoat, hunched shoulders. No umbrella. He looked like a tramp. She accelerated past the pathetic little man, glancing sideways as she did. With a jolt, she recognised him. Those horn-rimmed spectacles. The moustache. Doctor Smith.
In a flash, it all came back to her.
The school dental clinic in the middle of town. For poor children. Her mother used to take her for her check-ups, and she’d loved going there. Once they had been to the reception desk to check in with smiley Mrs Barnes, her mother would take her small hand and together they would climb the magical, starry stairway to the second floor. It was only when she got a bit older and was allowed to go on her own, did she realise that the stars were only some kind of glittery additive in the concrete. The staff were kind and there were lovely toys to play with while they waited. Especially she remembered that mechanical rocking horse, that all the children headed for and laid claim to, as soon as they arrived. She seldom got a chance to ride on this wonder. But there were compensations; dolls and blocks and picture books to keep her busy.
But all that ended when she went to high school. High school patients had to go to the fifth floor. In the lift. No more starry staircase. And no more kind staff. The benches were hard and there were no pretty pictures on the walls, no more distractions. Just Doctor Smith and his stern-faced nurse. And you waited your turn with trepidation, as you sat, hating the smell of disinfectant and clove oil, the steam billowing from the steriliser and misting up the windows and worst of all the prospect of being in the hands of the Nazi.
He was a typical Roald Dahl villain, now that she thought about it. He had a Groucho Marx moustache and round wire-rimmed glasses that glinted in the light over the dentist’s chair. His breath and clothing smelled strongly of stale cigarettes, and he had yellowed uneven teeth, his scant hair parted in the middle. He wasn’t amusing like Groucho; he was cruel and nasty to every kid that climbed, trembling, into That Chair. He never used an anaesthetic, oh no! That would have been too nice. He would drill and grind away at cavities, not caring that he was making someone cry. And you would wait your turn, heart pounding. . .
The last time she went there, he performed a root-canal treatment on her, without an anaesthetic naturally, and when she was groaning and weeping under his rough handling, he told her, sneering, ‘It’s not sore! You are nothing but a cry baby!’ as he ground and dug away her tooth, until she was almost fainting with the pain.
She never went back.
A few years later, at a party she met a young man called Gordon, who, she found, had also suffered under the Nazi.
‘I never hated anyone as much as I hate Doctor Smith. There must be so many of us who hate that man,’ he said, ‘we should form a club. Did you ever see Murder on the Orient Express. How a whole lot of people ganged up on a villain and murdered him, by taking turns to stab him in the dark, so no-one knew who had actually killed him?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ she said, and she moved away, but she realised that, talking about it to another victim, her feelings of childish revenge had boiled to the surface once again. She hated the man too.
And now here she was, walking along the pavement with the dreaded Dr Smith. She fell back a few paces, but stayed near him. As they crossed the road to the station she felt a strong urge to push him into the path of the oncoming traffic.
She was shaken by the strength of her emotions and was relieved that her innate sense of self-preservation prevented her from doing the deed, but as she followed him into the station and through the barrier, all her frustrations of the day rose up and focussed on the little man in front of her. It seemed he was travelling on the same train as she was and they descended to the platform on the escalator, she, still a few paces behind him.
She mingled in the crowd waiting for the train, only just able to see the top of his head. Suddenly she became aware of a burly man not far from her. Gordon. The train was slowing down and Doctor Smith was in the front, as the crowd surged forward. Suddenly there was a scream, and a screech of brakes.
‘What has happened?’ she asked the man next to her, as she craned her neck to see.
‘A jumper. An old man jumped in front of the train.’ the man said, excitedly.
But she knew better.
Gordon. Their eyes met as he turned and slipped through the milling confused crowd.
And he winked at her as he passed and ran lightly up the escalator.