Dr. Charles Townsend has suffered with panic and anxiety for five years. Feeling a change would be good, his therapist recommends him for a physician position at Whittingham Estate, a mansion off the coast of Rhode Island. He is given rules when he arrives: always speak in a proper manner, do not mention the time or year, and do not reference current events. Mr. Whittingham, the owner, is ill but won't discuss his illness. There is a large velodrome in the basement and a cellar containing thousands of bottles of the highly sought after 1929 Bordeaux.
Miriam Birchfield’s abdomen plagued her to tears. Her tears burned and irritated her cheeks, and they made her see the reflection of herself as a blotchy stranger in the mirror. She took the bottle of bitters from her vanity; it was the last bottle Dr. Morel gave her before he died. She didn’t know if she would ever get another, because in approximately thirteen minutes, she would welcome a new doctor into Whittingham Estate, the place she had worked as manager of the staff and had lived her whole life. She could feel it though. A change was coming. This new doctor, she could feel his energy from whatever span of distance lay between them at that moment. Like a power wave of electric energy, an acute difference in the atmosphere itself as he probably worked his way closer and closer to the estate, even the light coming in her front window seemed foreign like a shadow made from the sun in winter. Then the searing pain in her stomach again pulled her out of these thoughts. The pain was dull, mostly it just nagged at her comfort.
Dr. Morel told her it was stress. Stress she endured as the manager of the estate where time stood still. She was fully aware it was not the year 1929 outside the massive gates of the house. But for thirty years, she and the rest of the staff had pretended, and time stood still in the desolate stagnation of the marbled walls and coffered ceilings. And those thirty years passed slowly for Miriam, as they plucked the feathers of happiness out of her, one by one, because in the deepest part of her where she hid her most treasured secrets, was another nagging pain of the heart, because the one she loved most, Mr. Whittingham, the master of the estate, barely looked at her.
Miriam swallowed the spoonful of medicine, took one last look at herself in the mirror, and meticulously brushed her black jacket. Everything she wore had to be black, yet she thought it showed the dust too well.
As Miriam moved down the long hallway at her usual hurried pace, Caroline the estate seamstress popped her head out of one of the rooms. “Miriam, could you take a look at this before the new doctor gets here?” Caroline held a tie out with lingering tenderness like a mother would her newborn baby.
Miriam advanced and flicked her wrist at the middle-aged seamstress. “We don’t have time for that now. He’ll be here any minute. Meet me at the gatehouse with James.”
“Yes, ma’am. Do you think he’s up for the job, ma’am?” she called from the short distance between them. The word job held a heaviness Miriam could feel. “Or, do you think he might be a little too—inexperienced?”
“He’s much younger than Dr. Morel, but—,” Miriam’s voice trailed off as she put distance between them. Caroline lingered in the hall to hear the last muffled words of Miriam then vanished into her sewing room.
As Miriam made her way out the massive mahogany door, the chauffer called to her asking if she would like a ride.
“No, thank you. I prefer to walk. Turn the hourglass and watch the sand fall halfway. Pick us up at the gatehouse, then.”
Miriam walked the long drive with a familiar lingering anxiety in her gut; the bitters had not kicked in yet. A stranger was coming. She wondered if this Dr. Townsend would accept the terms and conditions of Whittingham Estate. It was hard, she was sure, to leave everything behind and start life again in some other decade. Though she didn’t really know the feeling herself, she had watched interviewees cry at her desk and had watched the shock come over them as she asked them to change indefinitely, told them they must use an hourglass instead of a clock, because universal time would no longer exist. They came to the estate to work and be healed in an unchanging world. They were searching for renewed peace, but they were not willing to give everything up for it; she always marveled at this. She took a cigarette out and turned backward to light it so the wind wouldn’t kill the flame. That house, she reflected, catching a view of it from the front as she stood in the drive, that massive house with all its secrets—marble and white, a stagnant existence, a refuge for the sensitive and weak, disguised as happy security. She turned back toward the gatehouse, smoked as she walked and huffed her way down the long driveway littered with wet cherry blossoms which had fallen in the morning rain.
Dr. Charles Townsend exited a cab at the gatehouse of Whittingham Estate. The cherry blossoms glued themselves to the bottom of his shoes. He was shown into the large vine-covered gatehouse by a man with a funny hat and nervous mannerisms.
“Miss Birchfield will be here any moment,” the gatekeeper said as he flashed a hesitant smile and shifted his stance to look out the window.
The gatehouse was vacant except for one desk and two chairs. Charles was asked to sit in the middle of the room. His chair was placed directly over an oriental rug which seemed to have many years of wear, weather-beaten and torn along its gold tasseled edges. It was silent. So silent Charles was afraid to move. A brush of fabric or the creak of the unfinished wood floor (in this silence) could possibly startle and sting his ears. The gatekeeper said nothing, just kept his eyes fixed on the empty stone driveway which stretched around the corner and on to eternity. It seemed the moments moved like molasses as Charles watched the back of him, observed his pants, the hem of his jacket, the way he stood, the wear of his shoes. He must walk on the outside of his feet, probably has a sore back every day walking like that, or sore knees, hips. He entertained himself with these medicinal thoughts while he waited, and sometimes to amuse himself, he made faces at the gatekeeper’s unknowing back.
He caught a glimpse of a wren in a distant pine tree and thought how nice it would be to have no awareness of time or his own passing mortality. To just solely survive. Forage for food and water. Procreate. What a life. Then flashes of sounds and images—he remembered the scraping of metal on stone. He remembered that first shovelful of dirt falling every which way around his mother’s casket. Six feet down, the hollow, quiet shuffle sounded like a faint farewell. It was then, he felt it for the first time. Panic. He remembered—like lightning in his mind, darkness reverberated, echoed, and with it an invisible storm of fear came over him like a black cloak closing in on him. It covered his mind in darkness. He could not escape. He could not find his way back to peace or comfort, he was blind to both.
He remembered he looked up and searched for his father, the last form of humanly comfort left to him on earth. Across the cemetery, he caught a glimpse of the man walking away with his new young bride, arms clasped solidly around one another. This vision of his father’s alien comradery only added to the gloomy clouds forming that moment in Charles’s unsuspecting, lonely mind.
He remembered that day which defined and twisted the last five years of his life. Unable to take it any longer, his shrink offered him the sanctuary and refuge of Whittingham Estate. So vividly the images appeared of his mother’s burial, like vapor they seeped in and seeped out again as he sat waiting in the gatehouse, but they were soon gone as Charles then remembered the fragile slip of paper in his hand. The “prescription,” or rather the address to the estate his shrink wrote, had been tucked in one of his books since he began writing to Miriam Birchfield. At the last minute, he grabbed it in case he got lost. It never occurred to him to flip the note over. After all, what doctor writes on the back of prescription slips? But in this instance of boredom, he happened to glance at the back and discovered a message:
"Be warned, Charles, as all medications have side effects, this one is no different. This is a prescription which may change you severely, and you may never be able to wean yourself off its dose.”
A turn of the doorknob startled him. He stashed the paper in his pocket and straightened in his chair, forcing a professional, alert air. Holding onto the threshold, Miriam Birchfield wiped the wet cherry blossoms off her shoes, her shiny and short black hair hung down around her face while she did so. Then, as if the meeting was of no consequence to her, she entered casually.
This was not the spinster type he was expecting.
Miss Birchfield was about his age. Her complexion was bright and her skin youthful. Her eyes—though they seemed to conceal stories of many lonely years—were large, beautiful and dark. Her painted red lips formed a perfect cupid’s bow at the top, while her lower lip seemed to swoop down into the most kissable pout Charles had ever seen. He imagined kissing her, caressing her cheek, smelling her neck—he couldn’t help these visions, they came to him without his control. He instantly regretted his dry response to her letters. If only he would have offered a little flirtation. He wondered childishly, regrettably—embarrassingly.
Passing his chair, Miriam walked around to the other side of her desk. Her enormous ring of keys bounced against her hip making a clang-clang noise, and she plopped her clipboard down abruptly.
“Ah, Dr. Charles Townsend,” she announced as if just noticing him. She extended her hand and gave the impression she was busy, barely making eye contact as she glanced at her schedule. She pulled her little coat off sleeve by sleeve and hung it on the back of her chair. “Edgar,” she addressed the gatekeeper. “Could you please ring the bell for Caroline and James? I believe we’re ready for them. Aren’t we?” she asked Charles.
He glanced around. “Yes. To go in, you mean?” He began to rise from his chair.
“No, no. For your change, of course. You must change, well—,” she observed him in question, roaming her eyes over Charles’ hair and attire, “everything about you, it seems.”
Charles looked down at himself. “This is not acceptable? I’ve worn it to interviews before,” he politely argued, pulling his tie away from his shirt and making sure his collar was straight.
Miriam stuck her neck out as if the question irritated her impatient temperament. She smoothed her face with a polite smile. “You couldn’t possibly meet Mr. Whittingham or any of the others wearing that! It looks as if you were going boating or something—no, no, no. It won’t do. I mean you don’t even have a vest for goodness sake!” she laughed slightly. “I’m afraid you will have to surrender all your belongings including that ensemble. This is an estate of very sensitive people. We’re going to dress you and arrange your hair before you’re allowed to enter. I trust Dr. Fusco told you all this before you left Boston, did he not?”
Miriam asked in such an interrogating manner, Charles thought she might kick him out if he said no. “Yes. Oh, yes. I understand, it’s like a uniform thing,” he said assuring her. “I figured that was why you asked for my measurements in one of your letters."
“Yes, we provide your clothes. You can think of it as a uniform if you like. You will have several uniforms, and you must wear them every day and night.”
“Ah! Here they are!”
Caroline and James entered with a bundle of jackets, shirts and pants, a bag of shoes and a small black case.
“Let’s do hair first, James. You can set up right here. Let him remain in that chair,” she gestured, flicking her wrist. “Will that suit you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” replied James, a clean-cut young man with short neat hair himself. He immediately got to work, covering Charles with a sheet, leaving only his head and neck exposed.
“Wait a second. How short are we going to go here? It took a long time to get it looking like this.”
“I’m afraid it’s too long on top, and this swoop you have here! What is this?” Miriam chuckled and lifted the long tuft of hair as if to give it a boost. She and James stood over Charles, brushing their fingers through his hair. James grabbed a clump and demonstrated with a gesture of the scissors how short he intended to go. They murmured and debated above Charles’ head, and he began to sweat with embarrassment. “Yes, do that,” Miriam concluded. “And part it in the middle, will you? I think he’ll look nice that way. Oh, and check for lice while you’re at it—just in case,” she winked at Charles.
He didn’t find it amusing. “Wait, I’m sorry, but I didn’t agree to any of this. I didn’t think I would have to cut my hair! Isn’t that too much to ask a new employee? I will be the doctor, after all. Don’t I have some say?”
“Dr. Townsend,” Miriam lined her voice with tenderness, “we have all come here and made the same sacrifices you’re making. You’re not alone. Everyone I’ve hired has had their qualms about this part. But I promise once you get settled, your sacrifices today won’t be a thought tomorrow.”
Caroline and James nodded empathetically. “It’s true,” they both murmured—hopeful, tender looks on their faces. “You’ll love it here,” Caroline added with a hand to her chest.
Charles reflected and decided he would rather not have to endure the long bus ride home. “Fine. Do what you have to, I guess.”
“What do you think?” James asked a few minutes later as he held the mirror up, his job now finished.
They all gaped and awed. Charles thought he looked very strange. Not a bit like himself. “I guess I’ll have to get used to it.” He shrugged but didn’t like the feeling lingering in his gut. That old familiar feeling of dread, but this time at least he knew its source. “I’ve never parted my hair down the middle before. Doesn’t look half bad,” Charles observed moving his head from side to side. “Looks good on them too,” he said, pointing to Edgar and James.
“Caroline, please introduce Dr. Townsend to his new attire,” Miriam addressed the lanky woman who at that moment was looking admiringly at Charles—she had yet to move her hand from her chest. She jerked and started at the sound of her name from Miriam’s lips. “Caroline is our seamstress, Dr. Townsend. Anything you need tailored or made you just run to her.”
Caroline picked up one item at a time and showed them to Charles, laying one of the collared shirts on her forearm as if they were at a high-end department store. She then explained to him how to put his outfit together each day. She disappeared behind a folding screen and emerged again moments later.
“You can change behind that folding screen,” Miriam suggested, flicking a wrist toward the corner of the room.
Behind the screen, Caroline had laid the suit out: a high-collared shirt, brown slacks, a pair of brown leather dress shoes, a brown sports coat, a vest to match, and a tie. Moments later Charles stepped out fully clothed.
“Ah! That’s better! He looks quite handsome this way, doesn’t he Caroline?”
“Yes, ma’am. Just like one of us.”
Charles looked himself over and down at his shoes. “Fits like a glove. Nice work.”
Caroline blushed at the compliment.
“All right then, are you ready to go to the house?”
Charles patted himself down remembering his suitcase. His belongings had been examined and piled on the desk. He looked at the pile, then at Miriam and back at the pile. “My suitcase? Do I just leave it here?”
Miriam sighed and rested her hands on her desk as if to prepare him. “You see, this is the second hardest part for most. I’m afraid I will be cataloguing and storing all your belongings for the entirety of your stay. Everything will be placed in a safety-deposit box, and I will possess the key.” She instinctively patted the rings of keys attached to her hip. “You’ll have new belongings waiting for you in your room. You won’t need anything you’ve brought.”
Charles glanced at the keys—too numerous to count—each representing a room, a person, a story, and Miriam possessed them all.
“But my toothbrush, my books? I didn’t realize I would have to forfeit everything.”
“You’ll have everything you’ll need,” she said like an assuring mother to a child who is complaining about leaving a toy behind. “Come, I’ll show you our expansive library on the tour, I think you’ll be quite satisfied.”
“But,” he questioned, growing hot with uncertainty. A tinge of fear bubbled in his belly. “I don’t understand, why can’t I bring my books?”
Miriam had her hand on the doorknob, and with an exhausted and desperate sigh of annoyance, she walked back to her desk.
“This book?” She held it up.
“Yes, and the other one, too. What would it hurt to bring two measly books with me?”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Townsend, but neither of these books are acceptable.” She quickly thumbed through the copy of Fredrick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday until she got to the chapter entitled Aftermath 1930-1931. “See!” She turned the book around to show him. “These are just material items, Dr. Townsend. Objects.” She tossed the book aside demonstrating her own indifference to the object. “Surely, it won’t hurt to lock them away for a few years?”
“We’ll replace them all, I promise.”
“I don’t know what the big deal is.” He had a feeling he shouldn’t push the issue and grumbled a bit. “Those books were my mother’s, though, so wherever you put them, make sure they’re safe—please.”
Miriam’s ears perked to the past tense of his phrasing. She picked the book up again and placed it with care on her desk. “Oh—yes—I’m sorry,” she stumbled. “I will personally place them in a safe spot for you.” She tried to smile but could only squint her eyes and nod at him.
Charles asked about the other one. Curious to know what kept it from approval.
“This one would have been fine, but I’m afraid it’s the publication date.”
“It was published like what? A few years ago?”
Miriam glanced warily at Edgar as the others had already left the gatehouse. Edgar turned his head to follow their dialogue.
“I’m sorry,” she said, replacing all the contents into the suitcase and locking it shut. “They will be kept safe for you, Dr. Townsend. You shouldn’t worry one bit.” She carried it with her toward the door. “Shall we go for your tour now? Max should be waiting outside with the car.”
When the old chauffeur saw the pair emerge from the gatehouse, he invited them into a vintage four-door coupe with stiff awkward movements. Charles shifted a full seat over so Miriam could climb in next to him. She tugged on her black pencil skirt and smoothed out her silk collar as she situated herself. The car smelled of oil and a hint of exhaust as it puttered slowly down the long twisty drive.
“Great ride,” Charles exclaimed with childlike delight. “What year is this?”
“Pardon?” Max asked, looking at Charles in the rearview mirror.
“The car. What year is it?”
“Oh. Uh—’25. That right, Miss Birchfield?”
“Yes, I believe it’s something like that.”
“Wow. It’s in great shape.”
“Yes, sir. She’s a beauty.”
“I’m told you speak French, Dr. Townsend,” Miriam inserted.
“Yes. My mother taught me. From the time I was a baby she would speak to me in French to the annoyance of my father. He could never understand us.” The memory made Charles chuckle. “Perhaps that’s why he always found reasons to leave the house. My mother and I were very close. The French language bonded us.”
Miriam only nodded and looked out her window at the passing trees.
Charles did the same. The drive centered a path of the weeping cherry blossoms which fluidly turned into birch trees lining both sides. He thought how beautiful they looked, or did he say it out loud? He couldn’t remember. He was so enamored with the majesty of it all, he became unaware of himself.
“How long has it been, Dr. Townsend, since your mother’s death?”
“About five years.”
Miriam nodded again, and after a reflective pause, she apologized for his loss.
“She grew up around here. Her grandfather owned the bicycle shop in town.”
“Is that right?” Miriam remarked with feigned question. “What a coincidence.”
“I thought so too.” Charles smiled toward Miriam but her gaze remained fixed on the passing landscape.
In the distance, with all its French-inspired, architectural perfection, there it stood: Whittingham Estate. They entered through a wrought iron fence and pulled up to the white marble mansion. It had seen better days. Light brown streaks of many years melted over and down its sides. The streaks seemed familiar to Charles. He blinked and gazed. An eerie feeling produced goosebumps on the back of his neck as he realized he had seen the mansion somewhere before.