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Services to the Community

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

“Didn’t work out for you in Dublin, then?”

She winced at the old man’s negativity. “Dublin was fine, Mr. Singer. Great. But I was there to train. To get my degree. I wasn’t there to work. You don’t just walk straight into a job on a national daily...” As you know better than I do, she almost added, but stopped herself in time.

“Damn right you don’t. Thirty-eight years I’ve been in this profession, come April, and I’m still on the same paper I started on, even if I am the editor. So you’d like to come and slum it for a while, back in your old home town. Use The Eagle as a stepping stone to greater things.”

“I didn’t say that, Mr. Singer. I don’t know where I’ll be in the future. I just know that I need a job in the industry right now.”

He stopped fidgeting with the microphone of his ancient dictating machine and looked her straight in the eye. “You seem like a sensible enough girl. And young people aren’t exactly queuing up to work on The Eagle.”

“You’ll give me a job then, Sir?”

“I’ll give you a chance. I’ll take you on for one week, let you try one assignment. That was the way I started myself on The Eagle. The way we all started. When I see what you can do, then we’ll have a serious talk. I’ll pay you for the week, win or lose, so to speak. Does that sound fair?” She nodded her approval. “You see, Evi, working on a paper like this, it isn’t a degree in Media Studies that you need. It’s other things. If I was to ask you what those other things might be, what would you say?”

She thought for a moment. “I would say that what you need most of all is to know who you’re writing for. What their interests and concerns are.”

“Damn good answer, Evi! Took me a long time to learn that. You might have a future in this profession after all.”

He rifled through the papers on his desk and fished out a large brown envelope with the name “Dr. Liam Merryfield” scribbled on the front. “Do you know Dr. Merryfield?” he asked as he handed it to her.

“Oh yes. He was our family doctor all my life. I think he delivered me.”

“Well, old Merryfield is retiring at the end of next week. There’s going to be a ceremony at the Town Hall, the Mayor is going to present him with something or other. Now Merryfield is exactly what you said, he’s a local personality, somebody people know and care about. I want to run a special feature on him to mark his retirement. I don’t just want a CV, where he qualified and what year he got married and all that. I’ve got that already, it’s in the envelope. I want to know who Liam Merryfield really is. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Yes, Sir. I think so.”

“All right. Prove it. You’ve got twenty column inches. That’s just under twelve hundred words. I want it on my desk by eleven AM this day week. Think you can do it?”

“I know I can do it.”

“Okay. There’s just one other thing. I don’t want Merryfield to know this is coming out. I want it to be a surprise. So if you talk to him, don’t let him know what you’re up to.”


At the newsagent’s shop across the road from her mother’s house, Evi bought a school exercise book. She chose one that fitted comfortably inside the brown envelope. On its cover she wrote the words: “Dr. Liam Merryfield” and underneath, on impulse “Services to the Community”. That would keep her mind on the theme she wanted for her article. She drove her ageing blue Fiesta the few hundred yards that she would normally have walked to the other side of the town square and parked across the road from the front entrance to Dr. Merryfield’s surgery. She felt a little thrill of excitement as she pulled on the handbrake. She was a reporter, and she was working under cover. It was what she had always dreamed about. Maybe this wasn’t the most glamorous assignment she could have imagined for herself but it was a beginning.

She watched his surgery door silently for a few minutes. It was a rented business premises, she knew. Dr. Merryfield’s private residence was many miles beyond the town boundary, among pleasant meadows on the fringe of the National Park. But today he was at work, as the half open doorway announced, and the somewhat dusty black Mercedes parked nearby confirmed.

She watched as a young woman with a baby in a pushchair arrived and vanished through the doorway. Evi had already thought of a good excuse to see him. The doctor at the Student Medical Centre in Dublin had put her on the birth control pill and now that she was home she would need a prescription from her own doctor to continue with it. The Pill was still a sensitive issue in Ireland and Dr. Merryfield’s attitude to such a request could be quite revealing.


Merryfield was still writing up the notes for the previous patient as she entered his dark little office and sat down. He bundled the sheets back into their manila envelope and smiled up at her with obvious pleasure, fixing her with a keen eye-contact that was almost embarrassing . “Hello Evi. You haven’t been to see me for a long time. Are you back with us for good?” Enthusiastic though the greeting was she could sense beneath his smile an underlying strain. She hadn’t seen him for a long time, he looked older than she had expected, but there was a reassuring quality about his face that she remembered from her early childhood.

“Well, yes. For the time being. I’ve got a job on The Eagle. Or I might have”

“Working for Tom Singer? I don’t envy you that. What can I do for you then?”

She felt guilty as she explained to him about the University doctor and the prescription for the Pill. It wasn’t embarrassment about the topic of birth control, but about the mild deception she was perpetrating. Merryfield just nodded as she finished her speech and asked her to roll up her left sleeve. “The contraceptive pill isn’t recommended if you have raised blood pressure,” he explained pleasantly. He held her wrist almost tenderly, she thought, as he operated his old-fashioned measuring instrument.

So that was it. No moral lecture. No questions about did she or didn’t she have a boyfriend. He gave her the prescription without demur and said that he hoped her mother and family were all well. She left feeling something of a fraud, but warmly disposed towards the subject of her investigations. As she passed the receptionist’s desk she noted the surgery closing time: six o’clock.

Sitting in the car she took out the exercise book and wrote: “Dr. Merryfield enjoys the confidence of his younger patients thanks to his tolerant and non-judgmental approach to the diversity of present-day lifestyles.” If it turned out to be wrong she could always change it later.

To kill the time until six o’clock Evi went back to the offices of The Eagle, and, feeling every inch the professional, started going through the archives to see what the paper had said about Merryfield in the past. Mr. Singer emerged from his office once during the afternoon, glanced at what she was doing and nodded his approval.

Time dragged. There was nothing of any significance in the archives as far as she could tell. She made a few notes: he played golf in his spare time, he went to the Mullingar races. His wife had left him many years ago, his family was grown-up. There didn’t seem to be a woman in his life, although he had been pictured with someone at a charity dinner. Evi took a note of her name. It was almost three years ago, if there had ever been a relationship it might well be over, but at least it was something. It hinted at the notion that the man was three dimensional, that he had some kind of existence beyond the doors of his surgery.

It was to these doors that Evi returned just before six o’clock, parking in the same spot to watch him leave carrying a small traditional black medical bag. He seemed to be deep in thought as he made his way to the dusty old Mercedes. Although he glanced once in her direction she was fairly sure he hadn’t suspected anything. She waited for his car to move off and followed at a discreet distance.

Dr. Merryfield drove slowly and soberly to his impressive country home and parked in the spacious driveway. Evi knew that she needed to be careful if she wanted to avoid arousing suspicion so she continued past the house and parked around the next corner, returning quickly on foot to a vantage point in the darkness of the tall hedge that lined the road opposite his gates. The daylight had almost faded and the chances that he would notice her slight figure in the shadows seemed remote.

She had no difficulty seeing where he was because all the front curtains were open and the lights were on. He had gone to in an upper room which looked like an office or den of some kind, and she saw him lift an object on to a small table and sit motionless for a long time, staring at it. She wasn’t certain, but it seemed to be the medical bag. After what felt like an age he got up, turned and pulled the curtains. As he did this he seemed to look straight in her direction and she feared that he might have seen her, then the curtains were across and the instant had passed.


“Poor old Merryfield,” Aiden joked on the slightly fractured cellphone link from Dublin, “can’t even sit down and rest after a hard day’s work without a prowler doing the peeping tom bit.”

“No, honestly, Aiden, this was nothing normal. You don’t just sit in a chair and stare at a bag for hours on end. It was totally creepy.”

“How do you know he was staring at the bag? How do you know he was on his own? He might have been having a conversation with a visitor. He might have been playing chess. He might be a classical music buff, listening to a symphony on the hi-fi. You’ve no idea what was going on. You just saw a man sitting on a chair. Big deal.”

“I thought you would be interested, Aiden. I thought you would be supportive. I thought you would be a bit more help than this.”

“Aw, come on sweetheart! Don’t be mad at me. I’m just trying to bring you back to earth. You’ve got your first assignment and you want drama. The job isn’t like that. There isn’t any drama. It’s hard slog, talking to people, finding things out. Little by little, inch by inch. Building up the story, one brick at a time. You’re doing fine. Talk to the people who know him next. What about his ex-wife? His receptionist maybe? The woman at the charity dinner? The guys at the golf club? You’re only beginning, Evi. You haven’t got anything yet. Don’t kid yourself. Okay?”

She sighed. “Okay Aiden. When are you coming down then?”

“That’s more like my Evi. Not this weekend but maybe next. Best I can do.”

“We can go to this retirement ceremony together then.”

“You’re obsessed, you know that? Great to be young and keen. You’ll go far.”


Evi slipped in quietly by the front door and found her Mum sitting alone in the lounge, her head bowed in a reflective reverie that seemed an eerie echo of Dr. Merryfield’s motionless pose of the night before. “Are you okay, Mum?” she asked anxiously.

“Of course I am, dear, I was just having a little rest... and thinking.” She smiled self-consciously, as though to set her daughter’s mind at rest.

“Do you do that often? I mean, just sit on your own and think?”

“What a strange question...”

“It’s just that I saw Merryfield do that. Just sit and sit... and it reminded me of Dad... before the end...”

“Goodness, what morbid thoughts you have Evi. I was just resting, I’d been doing a bit of ironing in the kitchen. What made you think of your father?”

“It’s this assignment. Dr. Merryfield. I have a bad feeling about him. I can’t get it out of my head.”

“Because you saw him sitting down and thinking? Goodness dear, he’s just coming up to retirement. He’s probably in that frame of mind where you sit down and look back at your life and wonder... where all the years went, and why you let so many opportunities slip by. You wouldn’t understand, Evi. You aren’t old enough.”

She felt foolish and smiled. “Yes, I suppose so. There isn’t anything you can tell me about him, is there?”

She considered the question. “We’ve never been personal friends. Didn’t move in the same circles. But any time I had any dealings with him he was very pleasant and kind. He went out of his way to see that I was alright when your father... died.”

Evi nodded. “That’s what everybody says about him. That he’s very kind and pleasant.”

“Then maybe it’s true. There was just one little thing...”

“Yes, Mum?”

“Well, this is probably me being foolish, but once or twice, I thought he... well, that he didn’t quite keep his professional distance like you would expect him to. No, forget that, it’s just my imagination.”

Evi smiled. “Come on Mum. I’m a newshound now. I need every little thing you can tell me.”

“Oh, it’s silly, but when I was going through all that awful stuff with your father, he sort of comforted me a few times. Held my hand. Patted me on the back. It was probably what I needed but it felt... a little bit odd, somehow...”

“I think he’s a bit clumsy socially. That was what the woman at the charity dinner said. She only went out with him once and she felt awkward all evening. The men at the golf club didn’t have much to say either. His receptionist was even worse, she wouldn’t say anything, as if she was being protective or something. Everybody speaks quite highly of him but nobody seems to know him any better than you do.”

“He’s probably just a quiet man who keeps himself to himself. Not everyone wants to surround themselves with other people and socialise. Some people like their own company. There probably isn’t very much to say about him. That’s going to make your job very hard, isn’t it?”

Evi shook her head. “I don’t believe that anybody is that simple and straightforward. I certainly don’t believe that he is. I’ll get there. I’ll find out who he really is.”

“I’m sure you will, dear. Poor Dr. Merryfield!”


“Aiden? Good news, I think. We might be able to get together this weekend after all. I have to go up to Dublin today. I’m just getting a few things packed in a bag right now.”

“How come?”

“Merryfield’s ex-wife lives there, and she’s agreed to see me.”

“Still on the Merryfield thing then. Have you got anything worth printing yet?”

“Not really, but his wife should be a good contact. My mum agrees with you about that sitting and staring business. Says I’m daft.”

“A very intelligent woman.”


Mrs. Brewster, formerly Mrs. Merryfield, sipped her lemon tea at the dimly lit corner table of Bewleys Cafe in Grafton Street and smiled pleasantly at Evi. “You want to know what he was like?” She seemed amused by the question.

“If you don’t mind me being... inquisitive,” Evi urged.

“Och, I don’t mind at all. He was a quiet, hidden sort of man. Very bound up in his job, and very good at it I think. You never really knew what was going on with him when he was away from the house. He loved his work. It seemed to be all that he thought about... He was okay as a father... a bit distant... I don’t know what to tell you about him really.”

“Would you say, he was more involved with his patients than with his home life?”

“Involved with his patients? There’s two ways you could take that, isn’t there?”

Evi could see that she had struck a nerve. Instinctively she said nothing but waited for the woman to go on.

“There’s something I could tell you woman to woman,” she said quietly, “but you would have to promise not to print it.”

“On my word of honour.”

“It’s just that... he used to have fantasies... about women. Nothing nasty or anything, but he used to get obsessed with a woman every now and again... the woman who served him in the Post Office maybe, or somebody he saw on TV, or even a patient. That was really the thing I couldn’t stand about him. He would sing the praises of other women to me, as if I should be interested, or pleased even. It was all inside his head, nothing ever came of it, but I had to put up with it, pretend I didn’t mind... I felt... degraded by it. It was unnatural. Beyond the pale. A kind of teenage infatuation thing that he used to go through... but it didn’t get better as he got older. It got much worse. There. I’ve told you now. I didn’t think I would, but it’s good to tell someone. I’ve never told a soul, and my own family used to try to blame me and make me feel guilty for leaving him. As if I was walking out on some kind of plaster saint. Liam Merryfield was no saint. Not inside his head he wasn’t.”

“We couldn’t print something like that anyway,” Evi said quietly, “but it was kind of you to tell me. I feel I know him a lot better now. I’m only doing a light piece. A kind of tribute on his retirement.”


“Yes. Didn’t you know he was retiring?”

“Why would he do that?”

“Why would he do it? Sorry, I don’t follow you. Isn’t he retirement age?”

“Well, no... not for two or three years, I think.”

Evi stared. “Are you sure about that?”

“Well, I was married to him for fifteen years. I do know his date of birth!”


“Aiden? It’s me. Listen, I think I may be on to something at last. Why would a doctor retire three years before he had to? One that loved his job?”

“Is this a trick question? Well... maybe because his own health was breaking down. Or maybe... because... oh, I don’t know. Maybe because he was up on some criminal charge... or some professional disciplinary thing. You’re in Dublin, why don’t you go and scratch around at the Irish Medical Associationl offices in Rathmines Road, see if you can come up with something there.”


Evi turned her charm to full power and blinked in a helpless female sort of way at the polished young clerk across the desk. “I understand that the Medical Register exists for the protection of patients, not doctors.”

“That’s perfectly true, Miss.”

“And all I’m asking is, do you think it’s a good idea to remain in his care? Is there anything I should know about him?”

“I’m not trying to be evasive, but I really have told you all that is permissible... ethically, I mean. His papers have been temporarily removed from the files. All that I’ve got is a place-keeper card, as we call them, telling me that he is at present registered with us and entitled to practice medicine in the Republic of Ireland. It would be completely unethical for me to speculate about why papers have been removed. And you shouldn’t jump to any conclusions yourself. Papers are removed for all kinds of reasons. It might be nothing more than a change of address that he’s recently reported or any other kind of minor correction or updating. And even if there were some kind of disciplinary proceedings in the pipeline it would be very wrong to make an assumption that the complaint or complaints were going to be upheld. In many cases complaints turn out to be completely groundless, and the doctor involved is entirely exonerated. The last thing you want to do, Miss, is start jumping to conclusions.”

She flicked her long eyelashes again. “Look, I’m just asking you off the record... as the nice kind man that I can see you are... do you think I should stay on his list?”

He lowered his voice and smiled awkwardly. “If there is another practitioner nearby, and it’s no inconvenience, maybe you should look elsewhere...”

She lowered her tone to match his. “Can I ask you one more question? Something completely hypothetical?” She gave him her sweetest smile and he returned it awkwardly. “If a doctor retired, would they bother continuing with a disciplinary hearing?”

“Oh, very much so. Retirement doesn’t mean a thing. A doctor could retire today and come out of retirement again tomorrow. Or he could keep on some private patients after he retired. Most of them do. We are here to assess a man’s suitability and competence to practice medicine. Like you said, we represent the interests of patients. Retirement doesn’t enter into it.”

“So you would go ahead with the case. No matter what.”

“If he was alive at all, we would go ahead with the case.”

“If... he was alive at all...” A terrible image suddenly entered Evi’s mind. Old Dr. Merryfield sitting on the chair staring at the medical bag. Then he reaches out and opens it...


Evi’s heart was pounding as she came to the end of her mad dash from Dublin and drew level with the gates of Liam Merryfield’s country house. The front courtyard was blocked by two white-and-orange Garda cars and there was an emergency ambulance parked clumsily awry across the driveway. She slowed the Fiesta to a walking pace and drew to a momentary stop beside the young officer who stood sentry at the gate - she wound down the window and said: “I’m Evi, the one who phoned the Guards. My hunch was right, wasn't it?”

He came close before he replied so as not to shout it out. “I'm afraid so, Miss. It looks like some kind of drug overdose.”

“Were they... in time?”

The officer shook his head. “We’ll need you to make a statement...”

“Later,” she cut him off and accelerated onwards towards the town.

Closing time had long gone and there was only one person still working at The Eagle. She threw open the door of Tom Singer’s office and flung the brown envelope down on top of what he was writing. “You used me,” she spat out in a voice that surprised even herself, “You harassed a good man to death, and you used me to do it!”

He moved the envelope to one side and looked up. “Sit down, Evi,” he said quietly. She remained standing.

“You knew exactly how he was going to react when I started poking around. You drove a man to suicide and you used me to do it. You’re a monster. You’re a monster and I don’t know why you did it!”

Singer paused to consider his words. “It’s true. I did use you in a way. I used you to get a message across to Liam Merryfield. You see, Evi, I may not have a degree in Media Studies but I do understand the media. Merryfield didn’t understand the kind of world he was living in. He thought he could retire, go and live in Dublin or Cork or god-knows-where and nobody would be any the wiser. But he was wrong.”

The old newsman pulled himself stiffly to his feet and motioned Evi to join him at the tiny dirty window that looked out over the town square. “Look out there. You think you see a quiet little Irish town where nobody knows what’s going on in the next parish let alone the next continent. But that’s not true. What’s out there is an ocean, Evi. An ocean of information. Data-bases, fax machines, e-mail, the Internet, mobile phones, surveillance cameras, satellite communications... there is no such thing as a secret any more. If somebody wants to find something out, they will. Every two-bit newsman on every little backwater rag like this one has contacts. Even you. Your boyfriend is Aiden Kerr of The Irish Chronicle. You didn’t think I knew that, did you? The point is, in this business everybody knows everything that they want to know. We’re all swimming in the same ocean.”

He turned from the window. “Liam Merryfield made one mistake. A moment of weakness and stupidity with a female patient. From that point onward it didn’t matter what he did or where he went. Even if the complaint wasn’t upheld, his whole lifetime of service to this community became worthless, was turned into nothing in those few seconds. All that I did,” he looked her in the eye, “and yes, I did it through you, was to show him that he had a choice.” He sat down again and she waited for him to go on. “I won’t say I knew Liam Merryfield, I don’t think anybody did, but I understood him. Because we weren’t as different as you might think. There was only one thing that he ever wanted to do, only one thing that ever mattered to him. He wanted to be a good doctor. That was all, nothing more. And if that was going to be taken away and his whole life ridiculed and dragged through the gutter, then maybe he would prefer to take the only other option that he had. All that I did was to make the position clear. It was his choice, not yours and not mine, and I believe that a man ought to have that choice. I don’t apologize for what I did.”

Evi’s voice when she spoke had become reduced to a whisper. “So you’ve saved him from himself. You’ve turned him into a saint. A dead saint. I don’t think I want to be a member of your profession, Mr. Singer.”

“How would you like to be remembered, Evi? As a man who devoted himself selflessly to this community for thirty-three years and took his own life in a moment of depression, or as a man who made a pass at the wrong woman patient and then tried to run away and cover it up? I know which I would choose.” He motioned Evi to sit down and this time she did, her jaw trembling and her eyes beginning to mist up with unshed tears. “What I did wasn’t irresponsible journalism. What would have been irresponsible would have been for me to print everything I knew. I could have crucified Merryfield. I didn’t do that because there are other considerations in this profession besides feeding people’s lowest curiosity. We create and maintain this community’s picture of itself. That means something.”

Evi opened her mouth to speak but the words wouldn’t come.

“Now stop talking about leaving this profession. You couldn’t anyway, even if you tried. I can see it in your eyes. It’s like looking into a mirror. Take a clean sheet of paper and help me to write Liam Merryfield’s obituary.”