The Tenth Circle

by Barry Baldwin

‘There you go, little man.’

The doctor held out a bursting cream bun which he had produced from the bottom drawer of his desk. His arms were long enough that he was able to do this without any relaxation of the rigid gun-in-the-back-of-the-neck posture that he always adopted in the comfortless chair of his own designing.

The boy, a living cherub torn from the canvas of some Renaissance artist, except for his eyes which at that moment were bulging almost as much as the bun, stretched out both his hands. He received it with good-mannered restraint, not snatching. With the wisdom that comes instinctively to a child of eight, the boy said nothing. He knew that the doctor did not wish to be thanked. The bun was a transaction, not a gift; they both understood that.

A third party in the room did not. The woman, her still naturally blonde hair compressed with daily discipline into a different kind of bun, pursed her lips which were thin enough to make this an almost effortless sign of disapproval as she watched them. She was officially in her middle thirties, though there was more than one school of thought about this among her colleagues and superiors, many of whom tended to revise their theories on a regular basis, depending upon whether she was wearing her state-approved breasts up or down.

She was the doctor’s factotum: nurse, receptionist, secretary. More than enough to be going on with, though she would have been willing to be more. But there was no chance of that, as she had concluded long ago. She was aware that there was no need to take this personally. The doctor was famously indifferent to women, whatever the colour of their hair or configuration of their bosoms. To boys also, whence one of the emotions she felt towards his gifting of the child.

Sitting in a chair that was far more comfortable than his, for the doctor did not make her suffer for his own spartan tastes, she wondered yet again why he of all men should be so drawn towards cream buns. This continued puzzlement defied the explanation which he had given her at the beginning of their relationship. Not that she had asked, of course, not that she ever would have, a reticence that owed as much to her philosophy that to show curiosity about anyone, superior or inferior, served only to diminish oneself, as to fear of him, though fear he did most certainly inspire, not just in her but in everyone including his own superiors, that most effective kind of fear, the kind engendered by his assumption of it in others rather than through its imposition.

On their very first day, noticing her noticing him, he had raised the bun high above his head in what came dangerously close to a mock salute and said, ‘I see you are wondering about this. It is my one defining characteristic, another term for weakness perhaps, albeit our leader nurtures a taste for this particular confection, hence I honour him thus, though I will concede to you that it is a philosophical question to what extent to do something one would in any case have done constitutes a genuine honour...’ His voice had trailed off at that point, a rare event: he tended not to run out of words on any subject, one of several reasons his company was not much sought out at the social level.

Still holding the bun, which he had not yet tasted or even seemed to have looked at, the boy walked with short careful steps to the door which he somehow manoeuvred open with an elbow and went out, closing it with an unchildlike dignity and quiet.

‘Was that wise?’

‘From his point of view, no. Soon he will develop stomach ache and the bun will be back. Ah well, as our friend Moll likes to say, give them something sweet to chew on. It will be a good lesson.’

‘For whom?’ Both appreciated that these words were only a form of punctuation.

‘For the boy. Though perhaps also for me. Not that he may be with us for much longer.’

‘No?’ A genuine question, this time.

‘Yes. No. Forgive me. The Yes-No game was a favourite of mine when I was his age. Excellent training, too, for rising in the professional ranks. No, or do I mean Yes, he may soon be gone. There was reason to think that a colleague might take him under his wing, so to speak, but apparently his interest has been diverted elsewhere. So there will be no more call upon our little bun boy’s services. At least, not in that particular direction.’

‘Then I should make the appropriate notation in the ledgers.’ She was already pulling one of the several pudgy brown volumes on her desk towards her.

‘Naturally. You do not need me to tell you that. Though much depends on his reaction to the other item I bestowed upon him earlier. Hence, it would be prudent to defer your emendation until it is clear which of the various possible outocmes shall have prevailed.’ The doctor’s gaze flickered towards her. He was a past master at changing the blue of his eyes from Mediterranean to Arctic latitudes. Just for a moment, the ice chips prevailed, then they melted back into Southern softness. ‘Tell me, are you familiar with the works of Gray?’

A strange question. ‘Gray? Well...’

‘Clearly you do not. I am referring to Gray, Thomas, English poet, 1716-1771. He composed verses upon his school, the famous Eton. Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, to be precise. In the sixth stanza, he writes

Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today.

An appropriate sentiment, do you not think?’

She said nothing, always her policy when she had nothing to say. Not that it made any difference. The doctor was already surging on. ‘And yet, it occurs to me, have all the verses in the world ever saved a single person from death? Well, perhaps once. I am thinking of a tale in the Greek biographer Plutarch whom we read at school. It is to be found in his life of the Athenian general Nicias. This Nicias was in command of the great armada that invaded Sicily and was utterly defeated. I pass over that part, it is not something we wish to contemplate in our own present circumstances. The soldiers who were taken prisoner were sentenced to the stone quarries of Syracuse. An unpleasant fate. Except, that is, for those who could recite from memory any lines from the plays of the poet Euripides, of whom for a reason not given, perhaps because there was none, these Sicilians were inordinately fond. Any of the prisoners who managed to quote a verse were spared the quarries. I wonder what would happen if we were to institute a similar policy? Perhaps I will raise the point at our next organisational meeting. Or perhaps not. The story may well be a polite fiction. According to our teacher, Plutarch was not the most reliable of chroniclers, and he was writing many centuries after the event. How, I wonder, shall we be judged by our Plutarchs..?’

The doctor eased out of his reverie. She was busy at her ledgers, the scratching of her pen her only response. Although her head remained half-cocked at a polite listening angle, it was clear that she had ceased to pay him any more than a small and very carefully measured portion of her attention. he smiled to himself at this well-judged blend of honesty and good manners.

‘I see that I am boring you. You are quite right, we must press on. So, what is on our menu for today?’

Without looking up or any pause in the movement of her pen, she said, ‘A fresh intake will be arriving at 1600 hours precisely. And you should look at that new file I placed on your desk this morning. It is from the commandant himself. One was given to understand that an immediate opinion is required.’

‘It always is.’ The doctor flicked open the file with a well-manicured finger. ‘As I thought. More of this technical matter from our glorious businessmen who want, I sometimes think, only to turn our work to their own advantage. Listen to this.’ He picked up the top sheet of paper, assumed a rasping voice that was quite at variance with his normal well-modulated one - he was, she acknowledged, an adept mimic, one of the ways in which he put the children at ease - and declaimed at machine-gun tempo. ‘We confirm receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting residue.’ Dropping the letter and taking up another one from a random shuffling of the fat sheaf, he gave a repeat performance. ‘For loading purposes, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders. for transportation from storage points to the furnaces, we suggest light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.’ The doctor returned to his ordinary tone. ‘Didier, Kori, IGF, what do I know? I am medical, not mechanical.’

‘Nevertheless, it would be prudent to make some pretence of having considered the matter. If you like, I can prepare an opinion for you to sign.’ As is often the case, she thought, more satisfied than resentful: an unspoken value of such services bound him more closely to her than any amount of verbal reminder. ‘The commandant is very concerned that we maintain our lead over the other establishments. As you know, there is much rivalry over quotas and...’

‘And these things are noted in high places. Quite. You may assure the commandant that while I have anything to do with it, he will not lose the lead which he knows we have been giving him for some time. You can mention, without making too much of it, that I dined not so long ago with the head of the Institute for Military Scientific Research, I think you have seen him here, that shifty-looking fellow with the inky-black beard, on which occasion he expressed the official satisfaction with our results in the warmest possible terms.’

There was a discreet knock on the door. The doctor tugged at the fob chain which he wore as appropriate to his station. ‘One minute early. Evidently more training is required. Arrange it. Meanwhile, let him kick his heels out there. Punctuality should be the politeness of peasants as well as princes. To be early is quite as discourteous as to be late. More so, in fact. It presumes that we are eager to set aside our duties for a mere diversion. A pleasant one, I grant you, but still a diversion.’

Covertly checking her own watch, while reflecting that he was never so fearsome as when indulging in this kind of banter, she observed that his rigmarole had used up the offending minute. Standing up, she straightened the pleats of her skirt, more an act of habit than necessity, marched over the bare floor - the doctor would not permit any carpeting or rugs - and wrenched open the door. An orderly entered, dressed in the regulation striped jacket. He set down on her desk the silver tray he was carrying, on which reposed their statutory mid-morning coffee. A delicate cup and saucer for her, a large mug for the doctor. As always, she, not the orderly, took the mug over to him. There was a protocol to be observed. The mug was amethyst-blue in colour: all three understood the significance of this.

At this fixed point in their days, it was the doctor’s custom to inaugurate conversation upon subjects that, if not light, were unrelated to their work. He rarely attempted to steer her down the paths of gossip, much less any kind of personal disclosures. Today’s topic was a play, The Daughter Of The Cathedral, that he had just seen performed. By a mutual consent that itself had never been, and never had needed to be, put into words, their definition of social conversation was that he talked while she sipped away at her coffee, casting sideways glances at her ledgers. So, after an exposition of the patriotic virtues of this play, the doctor again inspected his watch, narrowly beating her to this dutiful act, and made a show of sorts out of re-opening the file from the commandant. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that Proust had believed conversation dangerous, the more intellectual the more dangerous since, as he put it, it falsified the life of the mind by getting mixed up in it. He smiled to himself: it was not the done thing any more to read Proust, let alone talk about him.

Lunch, brought to them three hours later by a different orderly (the call she had put through about the first one had clearly set the wheels of his re-training into motion), an ample if somewhat indeterminate stew, eked out in the doctor’s case by another cream bun from his private cornucopia, was of a different complexion. Once fuelled by this meal, she deemed it appropriate to discuss (this did not count as conversation) the progress of their work and anything that might currently be arising from it. On this occasion, the file from the commandant, which despite the doctor’s post-coffee melodrama had spent more of the morning on her desk than his, was the main order of business. During this stage, the boot was on the other foot: she talked briskly, he nodded in silent approval. As always, he admired the swiftness with which she had mastered the brief, her grasp of the essentials, the diamond-hard lucidity that informed the prose of her suggested response. As always, he kept these compliments to himself.

The orderly returned, bearing two glasses of brandy which he distributed between them. The doctor took a sip, said nothing, took another sip, then nodded to her. she in turn nodded to the orderly who, having no nodding rights, stood briefly to attention, turned, and left them to their compotation.

Usually, this was a wordless pleasure. Today, though, the doctor had something to say.

‘No doubt you have heard that certain elements have been criticising our work again?’

‘There has been some talk of it at our level, yes.’

‘The usual religious obscurantists, of course. Old women, saving your presence, masquerading as old men, minus stomach and their eyes fixed firmly on the past. One would have thought that men of God would have the vision to embrace the new and work for the future.’

‘Will they cause us any great trouble, do you think?’

‘I doubt it. We have heard them before, and will do so again. Those in authority can be relied upon to confine their chattering to the sidelines.’

‘Religion causes strange behaviour, nevertheless. Reasonable people have no need of it.’

‘You are right, on both counts. Allow me to tell you a little story I heard the other day from a colleague. A Jewish story, nicely enough. Apparently a group of their rabbis met to consider all the evils of the world. They came to the conclusion that God could never have permitted them, therefore he must be dead. At which point the chief rabbi announced that it was time for prayers, so they adjourned.’

She seemed about to smile, but instead asked, ‘Is that a joke?’

The doctor drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment. It occurred to him that only someone who believes in God can blaspheme. ‘A joke? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Must a joke always be funny?’

Their philosophising at an end, the two returned to their respective papers. The next hour or so passed in silence, except for a single burst of noise from outside which sounded like guns going off but which might have been no more than one of the very old trucks backfiring. Not at that moment, but at others, the doctor briefly raised his head to look across at his companion, an action never acknowledged or reciprocated.

A knock on the door announced another visit from the orderly, the same one who had brought them lunch, again carrying his predecessor’s silver tray. Nothing for their stomachs on it this time, instead a large white envelope. He stood a distance from them both, clearly unsure as to whom he should give it; she had looked at him, but without seeming to. Then the doctor put up his hand, not unlike a child about to request permission to visit the lavatory. Relieved, the orderly took his tray over, delivered the envelope, and retired.

The doctor let it lay on his desk for a full ten minutes to establish its lack of importance in relation to his own work, then picked it up with a calculated sigh, opened it, read the single sheet of paper from within, shook his head, replaced it in the envelope, and slid it well away from his own files.

‘Professor Hirt again,’ he observed, ‘Professor Sigmund Hirt,’ laying an icy stress on the Sigmund. ‘Well, what can one expect from somebody with that name?’

‘Is it a message of any importance?’

‘No message from Professor Sigmund Hirt is of any importance, though that is not a view to be stated by either of us outside this room. He writes to inform me yet again that his work on temperature control is held in high esteem by the authorities, and that he has once more been summoned to the capital to receive formal congratulations. He also trusts that my own work is progressing as well as can be expected, and promises to put in a good word for me. Meanwhile, he is sure I shall be glad to know that his wife and their three children are in excellent health, considering...’

‘Considering that she is said to have produced them all after the age of forty-eight.’

‘Quite. You know, to return to what I was saying earlier, I have never doubted the need and value of my own work, whatever the religious element may say. They choose not to remember that I have sworn to abide by the Hippocratic Oath, a text that dates far back before the Christian era. Allow me to remind you of what it says.’

The doctor closed his eyes and recited for some time, again reminding her of a child in a classroom. ‘By and large,’ he added, when the droning was done, ‘I abide by its precepts where they apply to current conditions. I am chaste, I do not make sexual attempts upon my patients, I do not procure abortions. As with many other texts of importance, what it does not contain is as significant, if not more so, as what it does. what I do falls within the scope of its silence. So, I repeat, I do not doubt our medical work. But I do doubt some of our medical colleagues, aboe all Professor Sigmund Hirt and the hyper-fecund womb of his lady wife. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that these famous three children come not from the insides of the Professor’s wife but rather from some orphanage or other. I may plant that seed in the ear of our commandant. He is not best pleased at the fame that the good Professor Hirt enjoys, it tends to give precedence to another establishment over his own. Which cannot properly be laid at my door, but the commandant rests all the blame for his own shortcomings upon my shoulders. At the risk of hyper-egotism, I could and should assume his responsibilities, along with my present ones, it would not be onerous to combine his functions with mine. Indeed, viewed from a certain perspective, they already are essentially united. Naturally, this conversation has never taken place.’

As though clicking off a gramophone record, the doctor abandoned his monologue and returned once more to his papers. When the silence was again broken, it was not by him; it never was at this particular moment.

‘The new intake is arriving. I can hear the musicians tuning up.’

The doctor stood up, alacrity at odds with self-control. ‘Ah yes, the musicians,’ he said, as he always did at this time. ‘An excellent idea, I have always maintained, though I know not everyone agrees. Including you, I think.’

This unchanging verbal ritual made a soothing end to their working day. Ritual, they both reflected, was one of the key ingredients in the new order of their land. ‘I agree that the girls look very smart and welcoming in their white blouses and navy-blue skirts. One continues to have reservations about the choice of repertoire, however. The Merry Widow and Tales of Hoffmann are not to all tastes.’

The doctor laughed. ‘I know, you would have us all put on a diet of Beethoven.’ He walked with a stiffness that was part military, part caused by a long day’s sitting, over to a corner of the room which was sheltered by a rudimentary screen. It was behind this traditional decorous detail of a doctor’s office that he changed into his dress uniform, as he always did, as a mark of respect for the new arrivals and honour for his own work.

He wondered during the course of this robing if he might not soon be undergoing a more dramatic sartorial transmogrification. All depended upon the boy’s understanding of the message implied in the volume passed over to him. He had marked one specific story by the Brothers Grimm for immediate attention, that of Little Snow White, the matter of the half-poisoned apple. The doctor had not disclosed to his factotum the commandant’s specialised interest in the child, towards whom he might be trusted to show the same whimsy as that displayed to his dog. If the boy could be relied upon to prepare and proffer the cream bun in the manner of the queen in her anile disguise, the outcome would be most satisfactory. There was no lack of the requisite ingredient around their establishment. As for the child, he would be looked after in the usual way, something that would come as no surprise after he had read the other story waiting to be marked out for him.

The doctor went out and attended to his present duties. It was still just another day, a day of the kind that was routine in the camp. He had not reckoned with the higher loyalty of his factotum which obliged her to disobey his order and report the conversation that had not taken place to the commandant. Nor with the instincts of the child, who calculated that gaining the favour of the higher official was worth the sacrifice of his cream bun supplier. So, it would turn out that his story would be told, neither half of the bun would be eaten, and the boy would remain under the commandant’s protection until another such came along for whom he had to make way, and so for a different end came to read the other tale of the Brothers Grimm, that of The Jew Among Thorns.

The Tenth Circle
© 2006 by Barry Baldwin


About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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