The setting of the novel The Ten Weeks was exactly forty years ago. This is one of a series of excerpts from the novel, one for each week (except for Weeks Two and Three, which were combined).
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.