The District Nurse

If Doc Willoughby had truly received the classical education that he liked to imply, or indeed, possessed a half-decent dictionary, he would have been aware that the words ‘Patience’ and ‘Patients’ were both derived from the Latin ‘patientia’, meaning to bear, or to suffer. As it is, this particular homonym hung like a raincloud over the Doc, for while he had never enjoyed an abundance of patience, he always felt himself to be burdened with far too many patients. It was, therefore, with a certain amount of foreboding and an unwelcoming scowl that he answered the door to a young lady whom he did not recognise.

“Can’t help you,” he growled, before she had said a word, “too busy. You’ll have to make an appointment. Sometime during the week after next there might be a free spot.”

Doc said this, ignoring the fact that his surgery was obviously empty and the unmistakable waft of the Gannicox Distillery’s Finest Aqua Vitae emanated from his every pore. The girl tilted her head to one side and smiled with such radiance that even Doc’s frostiness thawed a little.

“Oh, I don’t need an appointment, doctor,” she said sweetly, “I was hoping you might be able to give me a job.”

“I don’t need a housekeeper, cook, secretary or any other domestic service you might be offering,” replied Doc brusquely, and made to close the door.

“No… you don’t understand. I am a qualified nurse and I thought I might be able to help. You obviously have a really heavy workload.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” lied the Doc, whose cure for everything usually involved alcohol, both for himself and his patient. “A nurse, eh? Well, maybe you can be of assistance. Come on in and let’s talk about it.”

The possession of curricula vitae or references have never featured greatly in Hopeless, Maine’s employment market. People arriving on the island generally have a short life-expectancy and frequently disappear without a trace. Any skills they might possess must be quickly utilised before they are lost forever. It was not deemed unusual, therefore, for the Doc to accept the nurse’s qualifications on face-value. ‘’After all’’, he reasoned, ‘‘what harm can she do?’’

Nurse Marigold Burleigh stood in the gloomy living-room, dispassionately observing the pale, angular woman sitting before her.

“It’s chest pains,” simpered Mrs Davies. “My husband, the Reverend, is concerned that I might have acute angina.”

“You needn’t worry on that account,” said Marigold, “I can promise you, you haven’t got a cute anything. Now, stick out your tongue.”

Mrs Davies obediently thrust out her tongue.

“Hmmm… that’s not good,” said the nurse. “Now show me the palms of your hands…  and keep your tongue out. Try humming a tune. Now wave your hands from side to side and roll your eyes.”

Marigold’s face registered no amusement, just professional concern, as Mrs Davies threw dignity out of the window and followed her instructions.

“Oh, that’s bad. That’s very bad,” said Marigold. “I’m afraid you have a bad case of numptiness, but not to worry. I don’t think it’s likely to be fatal.”

“Oh gosh,” said Mrs Davies, coming perilously close to blasphemy. “What can I do?”

“There is a cure… but you might not like it…”

“Tell me, tell me… I’ll do anything.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Is there a fresh-water pool anywhere close by?”

“Yes – Nudger’s Pond is quite near.”

“Perfect… now here is what you have to do… “

“Golly Mr Gannicox! I have never seen one quite as big as that before,” said Nurse Burleigh, with genuine surprise.

The bony lump which had formed at the base of Norbert’s big toe was unfeasibly large, by anyone’s standard.

“Bunions seem to be a family curse,” he said miserably. “Both my parents suffered with them.”

 “Sadly, there is not a lot I can do,” said Marigold. “Although, I imagine Doc Willoughby could remove it with surgery.”

“No, no, that’s okay,” said Norbert hastily. “I’ve put up with it for this long…”

“There is an old folk-remedy you might like to try. Do you know where Nudger’s Pond is?”

“Yeeees,” said Norbert, uncertainly. “What do I have to do?”

“Numptiness?” said Seth Washpool. “That’s a new one on me. How did I catch it?”

“It’s possibly congenital,” replied Marigold.

“That’s not likely,” said Seth indignantly, “not at my age. Why, I can’t remember the last time…”

“No,” Marigold quickly interrupted, “I mean that you probably inherited it from one of your parents.”

“Well, that would be all I did inherit,” said Seth, somewhat bitterly. “Can anything be done about it?”

“Hopefully, if you act now, it won’t be fatal. There is a cure, but you might not be too keen to try it… Do you know Nudger’s Pond, by any chance?”

Word soon spread that numptiness was, apparently, endemic on the island. Along with a series of very minor ailments that could be similarly addressed by the application of a quaint folk-remedy, the disease kept Marigold busy all day. She reported back to Doc Willoughby later that evening, reassuring him that nothing of any concern had arisen during her rounds and the islanders of Hopeless were, by and large, in rude good health. The Doc gave a most uncharacteristic smile – if, indeed, the chilling rictus that creased his face for the briefest instant could be construed as being a smile. Marigold beamed back at him. She was an absolute beauty, and no mistake. If the doctor had been a younger man and remotely sober he could have been more than a little smitten with her.  Sadly, he was neither of these things, and quite possibly, never had been.

Despite that it was almost midnight, Marigold had one last call to make. Durosimi O’Stoat’s house was more than a little forbidding in the misty moonlight, but it troubled her not at all. She banged on his door, making it rattle in its frame. Durosimi thrust his head from an upstairs window.

“Yes? What do you want at this hour?”

“Mr O’Stoat? I’m Nurse Burleigh. I am Doc Willoughby’s assistant.”

“I need no medical help,” said Durosimi dismissively. “Any business I might have with Willoughby has nothing to do with his quackery.”

“I must speak to you,” said Marigold. “It is regarding your personal safety.”

“My safety?” Durosimi laughed mirthlessly. “You should worry about your own safety, young lady, disturbing me in the middle of the night.”

“Oh, I am safe enough,” Marigold’s voice had changed. There was an ancient darkness to it that make Durosimi start. “You should beware, O’Stoat. A vengeful spirit stalks you even as we speak. It is the ghost of a young Night-Soil Man. Does that ring any bells?”

For a moment Durosimi’s face went ashen, then he composed himself.

“How do you know this?” he asked.  “Come to that, who are you, exactly? Certainly not some lackey of Willoughby’s, I’ll wager.”

Marigold laughed and walked away. A wind suddenly shook the trees and Durosimi could have sworn that it spoke.

While Marigold and Durosimi were exchanging unpleasantries, a mile away, across the island, Rhys Cranham and Drury were an hour or so into the Night-Soil Man’s round. Suddenly the silence of the night was broken by the sound of voices.  Rhys stopped to listen; there must have been ten or twelve people chanting, by the sound of things. That was unusual; Nudger’s Pond was no place to be at this time of night. The noxious odour of the Night-Soil Man guaranteed that no night-prowler could stand to come within yards of him, but if people were out there singing they were definitely in danger. And then he saw them, illuminated by the pale full-moon peering through the mist. Wading around the pond, dressed only in their underwear and obviously in a deep trance-like state, was a group of islanders.

Were they drunk? Rhys dismissed the thought when he recognised Norbert Gannicox, who eschewed strong drink. And there was the unmistakable scrawny form of Seth Washpool, who definitely didn’t. And… was that…? It can’t be, but it looks like…? Surely not! But it was Mrs Davies. Something had to be done. The Reverend’s wife could not be seen wandering around Nudger’s Pond in her nether garments. Drury must have had the same thought, for in an instant he was running as fast as his bony old legs would take him, excitedly barking towards the Vicarage end of the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Within minutes the wraith of Miss Calder could be seen fluttering towards them, while the Reverend, resplendent in a striped nightshirt with matching cap, came plodding behind her, intent on preserving his wife’s modesty and reputation.  It was then that the wind which Durosimi had heard rustled through the trees circling the area. It seemed to be laughing at them. Rhys thought that he caught a single word whispered in the leaves.

 The sound they made was “Triiiickksterrrr”.


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