Hi there. So, as I'm sure you're aware by now, this is the third instalment of a series of prologues I'm putting up for your consideration. This is Wendy's Prologue: Part Two. If you didn't read Part One, you can and should do that here. This a long one, but there's some actual plot here (yes!) so I hope you enjoy it.
Wendy woke up to the sound of running water. Panic gripped her as she struggled to remember where she was. She got out of bed quickly and found some clean clothes in the suitcase that she had been too tired to unpack. As she left her room the bathroom door opened and Madeline stood in a white robe, drying her hair with a thick blue towel.
“Good morning! Fancy some breakfast?” she asked, the size of the smile on her face belying the time of the morning. Wendy told her that she would indeed, and Madeline stepped to one side.
“Shower’s all yours; there should be plenty of hot water. I’ll see you downstairs in a minute.”
Wendy didn’t realise how hungry she was until she stepped out of the shower and the smell of frying bacon came wafting up the stairs. In the kitchen Madeline was standing over the frying pan, pushing the crisping bacon around with a wooden spatula. She wore a plain white apron. Thickly cut brown bread sat on a plate next to a bottle of brown sauce.
As Wendy ate she became aware of Madeline watching her. She looked up and saw that her new housemate was beaming at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve had anyone to share my time with. It gets very lonely. You’ll see that. More bacon?”
After breakfast Wendy made her way out of the house as Madeline pulled a formidable set of keys from her purse and locked up. She then followed Madeline’s instructions to sit down in her little red Punto. While they waited for the frost on the windshield to clear she looked up at the house. It seemed a lot less intimidating in the daylight. Madeline chatted about various things on the drive into the village. Wendy listened to about half of her conversation. Before she knew it, Madeline was taking the keys out of the ignition and opening the door.
“Here we are, then,” she said as she stood up.
Wendy got out of the car and looked up. They had arrived at an old brick house. It had been painted white long ago, and plant pots adorned the various windows. It looked like a home rather than a doctor’s office, and she told Madeline so.
“That’s sort of the point,” Madeline replied with a grin. “I’ve worked hard to make this place look friendly. We’ve got to be as friendly as possible in our line of work. Be a love and grab that bag out of the back and I’ll show you around.”
Madeline got her jangling keys out again and unlocked the front door. Wendy paused in the doorway as Madeline bustled off, turning on lights. Shortly after she went out of sight Wendy heard the sound of a running tap followed by the flick of a kettle’s switch.
Before long she was sat in Madeline’s office at the back clutching a steaming red mug of tea. Madeline had settled in her office chair and was staring intently at Wendy.
“So I was thinking we should just run through things again,” she said.
Wendy nodded with conviction. The nerves that she had forgotten about had returned. She looked up at the clock on the wall. Surely it couldn’t be long before the first patients started to arrive. Madeline saw where she was looking and chuckled.
“Don’t worry too much about that,” she said. “It doesn’t exactly get busy around here. We probably see between ten and twenty people a day. We’ve had some days where nobody comes in at all. Most appointments are made well in advance, check-ups and things like that. What we mostly deal with is people coming in with the sniffles, kids with their parents mostly. It’s pretty boring but it’s important that we’re always here and always ready.”
Wendy was listening intently. “Everything you will need is in the files,” Madeline continued. “I know you’ve been through the procedure a hundred times or more back at the head office, but I’ll make sure that I’ll be there to help you through them today. As far as people are concerned you’re a friend of the family who I’m looking after. You’re doing work experience.”
“What if I stay here for a long time?” asked Wendy. She thought, too late, that her question was a bit presumptuous but Madeline didn’t seem to mind.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, sweetheart. Now I need to get some things ready in here, do you want to go through to your desk and get acquainted with the files we have? The first appointment is for ten past nine, Mrs. Shelley. She’s a regular, just get her to tell you what she’s here for and wait for you to tell me that she’s here before you let her in.”
When Mrs. Shelley had been and gone without saying more than a few words to Wendy, Madeline came back out into the reception area and made a cup of coffee.
“It’s the parents that we need to deal with, to be honest with you,” she said. “The children will basically do what they’re told, and if we can get the parents on side then it’s just that much easier. It’s not too difficult to convince them that something’s wrong with their child, the trick is convincing them that we can deal with it rather than having them cart the little boy or girl off to a hospital. Where, of course, they would be told that there’s nothing wrong with them at all.”
“And we only take blood,” said Wendy. She knew the answer but she wanted reassurance anyway. Madeline seemed like a very nice lady but she had learned from past experience that nice didn’t always mean good.
“Yes,” she smiled. “What’s more, we only take the blood we’ve been told to. No more, no less. I assume you heard about the Fishers?”
Wendy had heard about the Fisher sisters. They had been a popular story back at school, a warning about what would happen if you overstepped your bounds and stopped listening to the ones in charge. But she was curious to know just how much of what she’d heard was rumour. Madeline had been around for a while, maybe she knew something closer to the truth.
“I’ve heard the name,” she told her. No need to embellish beyond that, might as well let Madeline start at the beginning. Madeline walked around the desk and drew one of the chairs closer.
“The Fisher sisters were called Isobel and Roberta. They worked together in a clinic just like this, down south. They weren’t really called Fisher, you know. They belong to the Génessier line. But Isobel didn’t want to keep the name, she wanted to be judged on her own merits. Which, to be honest, was fair enough. Isobel was phenomenally talented. But she didn’t do well with people, which was where Roberta came in. Roberta wasn’t as bright but she was incredibly beautiful and knew how to handle people. So Isobel did the work, while Roberta handled the parents and the kids.
Only Roberta wasn’t following orders. It turns out that someone had got to her and convinced her to sell some blood on the side. She was taking blood from all of the children in the village. It wasn’t too long before the parents found out. The sisters were spirited out of the village and Émilie Étienne figured out what to do with them. But Roberta escaped, she ran off. Étienne thought that Isobel knew where Roberta was and gave her a choice: give up her sister or give up her powers. Isobel choose to keep quiet, and she was sent away. No one’s found Roberta yet, but I hate to think what Étienne would do to her if they ever did.”
Madeline stood up, her story finished.
“So, that’s why we follow the rules. And that’s why families or old friends can’t work together any more. Do you have any family, Wendy?”
Wendy shook her head. Madeline’s eyes widened slightly and she clicked her tongue.
“I’m sorry, that was a completely tactless question. I was born into this; I forget that a lot of us had to come into it the hard way.”
Wendy shook her head and smiled.
“It’s not a problem, honestly. I’d just prefer not to talk about it.”
Madeline put her hand on her chest.
“I promise that I won’t say another word on the matter. Now, shall we have a look at the paperwork?”
Madeline was slightly less lively over dinner that night. They had covered everything at the office, with Wendy remembering more than she thought she had. Wendy looked down at the slightly burned pork chop on her plate and tried to think of something to say. How were they going to live together if they couldn’t even have two nights of conversation? She wanted to put Madeline at ease. She knew that she hadn’t meant anything by asking about her parents. But that awkwardness just hung there like the smell of a dead rat under the floorboards.
As Wendy opened her mouth to say something nice about the food the telephone rang. Madeline hopped up and lifted it from the cradle.
“Hello? No, it’s fine. Well, yes we were having dinner but it’s fine, honestly. I understand. And how long has he had it for? OK, give him some Calpol and bring him in tomorrow. We’ll take a look at him. Yes, it sounds like the flu but I agree, it never hurts to make sure, does it? Alright, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She returned the phone to its resting place and smiled at Wendy.
“Looks like you’ll be having your first time a bit sooner than expected,” she said. Wendy nodded. She wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not.
The next day Wendy woke up to the sound of the shower running again. Madeline was singing something that sounded familiar, but only vaguely. A golden oldie. Maybe the Shangri-Las.
Before she knew it she was sitting at her desk in the clinic. She clicked her pen nervously, trying not to stare at the clock. The appointment had been made for nine but Madeline had told her that parents were often at least half an hour early bringing their children. She could hear Madeline singing, the same song, from her office. She was doing questions and responses. It was definitely the Shangri-Las.
The doorbell rang. “Get that, would you?” called Madeline. Wendy stood up and walked over to the door, smoothing the dress that Madeline had recommended she wear instead of trousers. She opened the door just a crack, as she had been told to do.
A man and a woman, both in their late twenties, stood just outside the door. When they saw Wendy they opened their mouths to talk at the same time, and the first word out of each of their mouths was “Sorry.” They laughed nervously at the overlap, and the father deferred to the mother.
“I know we’re early,” she said, “But we were really anxious. George has been up all night with this cough and his fever hasn’t gone down.”
Wendy looked down at the small boy who was holding tightly to his mummy’s hand. He was certainly pale, and she noticed a thin trail of snot running from his right nostril to his upper lip. He saw her notice it and wiped it with his sleeve.
“George, really, use a tissue,” scolded his mother, but patted his head to let him know that she wasn’t really upset.
“Of course you can come in,” said Wendy. She opened the door of the clinic and the family moved quickly but politely inside. “I’ll just check with Dr. Hill, I’ll see if she’s ready for you.”
She left the family on the sofa and knocked on the door of Madeline’s office before slipping inside. Madeline gave her a little nod before she could even open her mouth to ask the question. Wendy waited for what she thought was an acceptable amount of time before returning to the waiting room.
“It’s fine,” she said, “She’s ready to see you now.”
The parents nodded gratefully at her and ushered the son through the door. Wendy heard Madeline’s warm greeting, then asking one of them gently to close the door behind them. Wendy felt a tiny bit hurt before she remembered that it was for their sake. The sense of intimacy between the parent and the doctor was vital. They absolutely had to believe that Madeline had their child’s best interests at heart.
Wendy busied herself with preparing the paperwork. She ordered the papers together, filled in all the relevant boxes herself. Of course, the paperwork was never really going to go anywhere.
After about ten minutes the family came back out again, both parents with a hand on their son’s shoulders. He looked slightly paler than before but was sucking on a lollipop. Madeline appeared behind them.
“I’ll send the sample off for some work and get back to you as soon as I hear anything,” she told them. “In the meantime, make a start on the antibiotics and keep him out of school until you come back and see me on Friday. Alright?”
The parents nodded happily. Wendy could see it in their faces. The strange comfort of having their fears confirmed. They were right; they were attentive, careful parents. Thank God they caught it in time, whatever this was. Madeline smiled back at them, happy to give them this degree of reassurance. “And is that alright with you, George?” she asked him.
George looked up at Madeline and Wendy saw something in her colleague’s face that she had not seen before. Benevolence, yes. That had been expected. But standing there, she saw quite how beautiful Madeline was. And the look on the young boy’s face showed that she wasn’t the only one who had noticed it. He was staring at Madeline in a way that bordered on worship.
Once the family were out of the door, Wendy turned to Madeline.
“Did it all go alright, then?” she asked. Madeline nodded.
“Yes, it was all fine. Let’s get that blood sorted, shall we?”
Wendy followed Madeline back into her office. She shut the door behind her. It wasn’t necessary but she had been told time and time again how important it was that what they did here remained secret. Madeline sat in her chair and leaned under the desk. When she straightened back up she held a small vial in her hand.
“Day one,” she said, “Sample one. George Murphy. AB negative.” Wendy wrote the information down as neatly as she possibly could. “Parents have been informed that they are to bring him back for a further check up on the 14th. On that date they will be informed that further blood tests are required.” Wendy ticked boxes and wrote in dates. “My guess is that they will be amenable to further blood taking. They are very concerned.” She looked up. “Alright. That’s it. We take it home at the end of the day and send the information off to head office.”
In the car on the way home at the end of the day, Wendy decided to ask Madeline what she thought of her job. Madeline nodded as if she'd been waiting for this.
“I had questions the first time I saw it done too. It does seem cruel, at least from the outside. But what we do here is a big part of what keeps us going. Keeps us where we are in the order of things. Obviously the most important thing that you need to know is that we’ve been told to do it. And if you back out of it, or try to tell anyone what we’re doing, well, you know what happens.”
Wendy did know, and if she was being honest with herself, she would have to admit that the possibility of not doing what she was told hadn’t crossed her mind. Not seriously, anyway. This was who they were. As Madeline steered the car into the driveway she smiled at Wendy.
“Look, here’s what I’ve learned. This thing that we’re doing. We’re being given a chance to practice our craft. We’re doing it in small ways, but it’s the small tricks that keep us from being caught out, keep us from being questioned. You saw the way that family looked at me this morning. You don’t think that was just because of my natural charm, do you? A little spell and they think that you’ve been sent from on high to deliver them from whatever nasty bacteria and virus they’re convinced they’re being persecuted by. So stick it out. Flex your muscles a bit. See what you can do.”
So, on the 14th, when the Murphy family returned with their son, Wendy tried something. Nothing big, nothing flashy. She just shook their hands when they came in the front door. If you had asked Mr and Mrs Murphy if there was anything unusual about that handshake, they wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything. But they would have told you that they felt very reassured by Miss Wendy Bright. They trusted her. She was good.
And every successive time that they came in, Wendy could see the relief and reassurance on their faces. They felt that they were in a safe place. And Madeline continued to take blood from their son. And so it went on for three weeks, until the day when the quota had been reached.
“Time to finish,” she said. The next time that the Murphy family brought George in, Madeline gave them a bottle of nondescript white tablets, and told them that they had finally uncovered what had been plaguing their son. They only came back once after that, when the parents came in to give the two of them a box of chocolates and some flowers. That was that.
Wendy felt settled with Madeline. It may not have been particularly exciting, but that was what she wanted. And there was a spark to her housemate, a twinkle in her eye that showed that she did enjoy what she was doing. Wendy was as certain as she could reasonably be that the two of them were getting on naturally, without any tricks from Madeline.
One night she sat in the kitchen as Madeline stood over the hob. She was cooking a pasta sauce in a pan, she’d made it from scratch. Wendy was leaning back in her chair, the front two legs ever so slightly off the ground. She rubbed her temples. A sudden headache, not too bad.
“Ow,” said Madeline. She turned to look at Wendy. “Sorry, think I might be getting a migraine or something.”
Wendy was worried. “Erm, this is weird, but...”
A flash of blinding pain stabbed its way through her eyes and to the back of her skull. Her legs pushed down hard on the floor, propelling her chair backwards and over. She didn’t notice the pain from landing on her back on the ground, her head felt like it was about to explode.
Madeline screamed, and her flailing arm tipped over the frying pan before landing on the hob. She had reflexes enough to move her hand away but not before burning most of the skin off it. She collapsed on the floor, now in too much pain to make any noise at all.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. They lay still on the kitchen floor for a while, both sobbing. Wendy saw blood on her hands and panicked, thinking she’d hit her head badly. She was relieved when she realised that it was only a nosebleed. Madeline lifted up her left hand and mewed in pain. Wendy rushed to the freezer and yanked a bag of frozen peas free. She clasped it to her friend’s hand.
It was about half an hour before either of them spoke.
“What was that?” asked Wendy.
“That was the witches in the Paris coven screaming,” said Madeline. “That was them dying. They’re gone. This is very, very bad.”
Hello, hope you enjoyed that. There's a bit of exposition dumping which I'm always a bit worried about, and I was also worried about bringing up the Fisher sisters, who I wrote about in The Novel That Nobody Wanted. This new one isn't about them, but you need to know who they are. Hence the heavy-handed "Let me tell you a story" bit.
Next week may be some writing about writing as there's quite a bit of work to be done on the Fourth Prologue, but we shall see. Things have been quite stressful with the writing at the moment as it seems to be difficult to find any sort of time, but I'm trying to make it work. I've had words of encouragement from friends and mentors lately, normally combined with words of more realistic "It's difficult and insanely stressful". I won't quote them directly, but it is swings and roundabouts. If you feel like you're losing it, you know you care enough, but there's so much fun to be had, so why would you stop?
Oh, I recommend that you see Take Shelter. It's a great film, and here's the trailer:
And I've been a bit obsessed by this song lately, so here you go:
So, next week is either The Killer and a bit of The Witch, or a bit of writing on writing. Hope you enjoyed this, and hope to see you back next week.