Raymond was the early bird the next morning; he had arranged an early morning tennis match with Deidre, so her mother came and got him before Pierre had the chance to arouse himself with East Island coffee, closer to what he was used to than the more American brew the Verecundans drank. Arthur came a little later and brought him to the shop, eventually Raymond joined them, they returned to port and they were on their way back to Verecunda, very satisfied with Pierre’s intermediate stop.
The sun was just setting over Verecunda Bay when the ferry pulled into its wharf in front of the customs house. Even before they had a chance to step on the gangway and go ashore, Luke Allen, Pierre’s warehouse manager and a burly man with some Island native blood in him, greeted them in his usual straightforward manner. Luke wasn’t much for a sunny disposition but even before he helped Pierre and Raymond get their luggage off of the boat he delivered news as only he could.
“Madeleine’s in the hospital, Boss,” Luke informed Pierre.
“Hospital? For what? Why wasn’t I called, at least in Alemara?”
“She only went in this afternoon—felt a little woozy yesterday, went out of her head this morning, collapsed just before lunch. ”
“So what is the doctor’s idea of what is wrong with her?” Pierre asked, agitated.
Luke thought for a minute. “You’ll have to ask him, Boss—I’m not really sure. It’s serious, though.”
“Very well,” Pierre sighed. With that they disembarked. Luke did his usual magic getting Pierre, Raymond and their luggage into Pierre’s old Citröen 2CV—another of Pierre’s “trademarks”—and with Luke driving they puttered off to the hospital.
The Verecunda Municipal Hospital was an imposing building between Gerland Street and the university. It’s main virtue was that it was the only facility of its kind on the Island. People came from everywhere to be greeted by inadequate hall lighting shining on the green walls, resplendent in their lead-based enamel paint. While admiring this, doctors, nurses, patients and visitors alike were able to walk on well waxed, beige asbestos floor tile.
The main entrance lobby was decorated to match the rest of the establishment. Pierre and Raymond were only cheered by seeing Yveline des Cieux in the lobby waiting for them. They threw their arms around each other as they had not in a long time.
“So what has happened?” Raymond asked.
“She has encephalitis,” Yveline gravely reported. “It is a serious case. The doctor will be by in about half an hour. Let’s go.”
“Indeed,” Pierre agreed, and they headed to the elevator. As it rose up to Madeleine’s floor, it beeped and flashed as it passed the intermediate ones, echoing Madeleine’s own heartbeat and struggle for life. Pierre hoped that Madeleine’s own inner rhythm was quicker, because the elevator was interminably slow as it crawled upward past each floor. Finally they arrived at her level, burst from the elevator in uncharacteristically rapid fashion and made their way to her room, not far from the nurse’s station.
Pierre stopped dead in his tracks at the door—not for Madeleine, but for Pete and Alice Stanley, standing up to greet them. A couple in their early forties who still echoed in looks and demeanour the fact that they were high school—or Upper Division, as the Islanders would put it—sweethearts, they owned the feed and seed store that supplied upper Uranus along with Vidamera, Alemara and sometimes Aloxa. They were also tractor and farm equipment dealers as well, which meant that they purchased tyres from Pierre from time to time.
“It is very kind of you to visit,” Pierre said, not sure what else to say.
“It is her doing,” Pete answered, pointing to his daughter Carla awakening from a nap on her cot. A Sixth Former like Madeleine, Carla was almost the perfect “Aryan” in appearance: bleached wavy blonde hair flowing down her back, blue eyes and fair complexion complemented by broad shoulders and a slender figure. She roused herself and stood up, not well put together in the present situation.
“She insisted on coming and being with Madeleine,” Alice added. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Because of the crime that’s about, we came with her. My brother lives in town; we’ve made arrangements to stay with him while she’s here.”
Pierre removed his hat very slowly, as if in respect. “I have had many loyal customers over the years, but you have exceeded all of them.” From that he approached his daughter lying in the bed. Madeleine was wired with IV’s and monitors. She had a very pale look about her as she lay in the bed motionless. Raymond was right behind him; both were visibly shaken at the sight before them.
Pierre finally turned back to the Stanleys and Yveline. “My wife tells me it is encephalitis. But how?”
“We were playing tennis on Wednesday, up in Hallett,” Carla said. “We were both bit by mosquitoes. I guess her’s was the bad one.”
“But this time of year?” Pierre asked.
“Since they outlawed DDT, they’ve gotten worse,” Pete stated. “Even in a dry December like this one. We used to worry about the ones coming over the border. Now we’ve got to deal with our own.”
“So what are they doing about it?” Raymond asked.
“There isn’t much they can do,” Pierre gravely observed. “We must wait and see what happens.” He looked around. “How did she get this private room?”
“Pulled a few strings,” Pete admitted. “Makes it easier on Carla. They moved her out of intensive care because there wasn’t much more they could do there.”
“Surely you’re not going to stay all the time,” Pierre declared.
“I can’t leave her,” Carla said. “It takes forever to get anything around here. She needs me.”
“Since they set up national health care,” Pete came in, “things have gotten slower.”
“They lost quite a few doctors,” Alice added.
Pierre found himself lost in his thoughts at all that suddenly confronted him. He looked around to see the two flower arrangements that were in the room.
“I assume one of those is yours,” Pierre said, looking at Pete and pointing at the flowers.
“The other came from your people at the warehouse,” he replied.
“Has the priest come?” Pierre asked.
“About 16 hours,” Yveline said. “He came in, performed the last rites—or the unction of the sick, as they call it now—and left. That was all.”
Pierre stood in silence again. “The doctor’s supposed to be here shortly, isn’t he?” he finally asked.
“Supposed to,” Carla replied. “But they run slow too. If he’s here by eight, I’d be surprised. It took them three hours to figure out what was wrong with her to start with.”
“Why don’t we take the kids down to eat somewhere while you stay here for the doctor?” Pete asked after a very long silence.
“That’s a good idea,” Pierre agreed, “but I sense that I will be waiting for Godot.” With that the four of them left for the hospital’s cafeteria. Once again Raymond was the biggest winner, getting to sit with his sister’s friend, whom he thought pretty if two forms up from him. Carla didn’t feel like she was as much company as she was, a shell-shocked feeling unchanged by the cafeteria’s uninspiring cuisine. They returned about 1730 to find the des Cieux pretty much as they left them.
They didn’t have a chance to ask about the doctor, as he came in behind them. He officiously went through the diagnosis. The des Cieux learned nothing new: Madeleine had encephalitis, it was a serious, fast-acting case, there was little she could do, and the prognosis wasn’t very good. He bounded out of the room as quickly as he came in.
Pete could see that Pierre was beyond making decisions. “Why don’t we follow you home so you can get some rest and something to eat. There’s nothing you can do here, and there’s no reason you should have to endure Island hospital cafeteria food. Carla will let us know if anything changes.”
“It is the best thing, I suppose,” Pierre finally agreed. He leaned over and kissed Madeleine on the forehead, as did Yveline.
“Are you sure you will be all right?” Yveline asked Carla.
“I brought my things,” she said, pointing to her duffel bag in the corner. “I’ve got clothes hanging in the closet. I’ve done this before. I’ll be OK.”
“Very well,” Pierre agreed. The Stanleys hugged and kissed their daughter and everyone but Carla and Madeleine left.
“Your daughter is more than kind to do what she is doing,” Pierre told the Stanleys as they navigated their Ford estate car though the streets of Verecunda.
“She’s always been that way,” Alice said. “When her grandmother was dying, she stayed with her to the end.”
“She is very special,” Yveline added.
“We think so,” Alice replied.
“But how much can she do?” Pierre asked.
“May the Lord’s will be done!” Pete said as they turned into Pierre’s neighbourhood.
Back at the hospital, Carla tried to settle in for the evening. The room’s television’s picture tube was blown, so that wasn’t an option, and not much of one in any case since Verecunda had only one, state-owned TV channel. Nevertheless Carla ventured out to see if there was a waiting room where one was working, to pass some time and clear her mind. She found one only to discover they were in the middle of a Soviet film festival, so she turned her back on How the Steel was Tempered and returned to the room. She read her Bible for a bit but then closed it to pray.
She took Madeleine’s very warm, feverish hand and began to turn her heart and conversation towards God. As a Baptist, she had learned to pray prayers that were both spontaneous but well orchestrated at the same time. She started in on one of those but not too far into it she broke down in tears, pleading with God to save Madeleine’s life while crying into the bedsheet. She was so loud one of the nurses came down to see what was wrong. Carla regained enough of her composure to reassure the nurse somewhat, then she resumed prayer in a more conventional fashion. She soon found fatigue catching up with her, and it wasn’t long that she was fast asleep.