Theodore Dalrymple

Second Opinion | 29 October 2005

Sometimes I feel like a doctor in Chekhov

Sometimes I feel like a doctor in Chekhov: worn out, prematurely balding, old before my time and utterly superfluous. The trouble is that I’m not surrounded by Mashas, Irinas and Yelenas, but by Lees, Dwaynes and Craigs. As for birch trees, mandolins and tables set for tea, there’s not a one to be seen. On the other hand, there’s quite a lot of shooting offstage.

A patient said something to me last week that brought Chekhov to mind: ‘I’m bored out of life.’ Some critics believe that Chekhov was an optimist, and that it is wrong to stage his plays wistfully, or as the dramatic equivalent of faded cotton prints. And, as if to bear these critics out, my patient added brightly, ‘But, doctor, I’m going to make a new leaf.’

He was a drug addict as it happens, driven to the needle by what he called his common law. ‘She’s a terrible woman, doctor,’ he said. ‘Horrible.’

I don’t, of course, deny the power of women to drive men to distraction. On my walls at home is a portrait by Lemuel Abbott, who painted Nelson. The Dictionary of National Biography records that he ended his days in an asylum, driven there by his wife, ‘a woman,’ says the DNB, ‘of the most absurd conduct.’ I wouldn’t mind betting, though, that she was a very Portia compared with my patient’s common law.

‘She used to be an ex-model,’ he said. ‘I can’t go back to her.’

‘Where will you go, then?’ I asked.

‘My drug-worker will help me find somewhere.’

Ah, drug-workers: the people who never say no to drug addicts.

‘Can you phone her for me?’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Dag.’

All drug workers have names like that. I asked what his or her surname was.

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