This story is true.
Before I begin, I wish you to know that. The events I will recount happened to me and changed my life forever. They taught me that the world is not all that it seems and that the humblest of people can sometimes be the key to something much, much bigger.
But, you ask, why should I believe in this strange tale which is all too fantastical and bizarre for any sensible modern soul to take seriously? I cannot offer you hard evidence; that has either been stashed away in some police archive or been lost for good. I can only offer you my word and the word of those people who witnessed events along with me – the police, the doctors and nurses at the hospital, the residents of Burnellstanton. Some will happily testify to all I am about to relay, some will prefer not to say anything. Take their silence for what it is; a denial of the truth.
I am a doctor. That is the only profession I have ever known. In my twenty years of practicing I have seen many peculiar things, usually rare ailments or diseases. I am a fascinated collector of such oddities, creating my own personal archive that I might refer to at any time. I hope one day to donate this collection to one of the professional medical bodies for future study. The one case, however, that I shall not include in my donation, is the malady that afflicted Burnellstanton back in the winter of 1945. I still do not fully understand it, nor do the doctors at the hospital. They, of course, never contemplated the supernatural element of the condition as I did. Which is why this one case in my collection will never be sent to a teaching school or medical college. It is such an unbelievable disease that it would cast doubt on the rest of my collected ailments and render the entire archive useless. So, I must keep this disease, this plague that afflicted a handful of citizens in Burnellstanton, but which threatened a great deal more, a secret.
The night it all began I was attending to my usual duties as a family doctor in the village. I am the only doctor serving this small community and so I am kept suitably busy. It was the last few hours of Valentine’s Day, though I confess I was not aware of that. I don’t keep track of much more than Christmas and Easter, every other holiday tends to blur into one for me. After all, what use has a bachelor doctor, just into his fortieth year, for Valentine’s Day? I did not know at the time that this was also a day deemed to be full of magic and superstition. There are some locals who actually believe the fairies come out from their winter homes to dance in circles on Valentine’s. Others believe that the barrier between this world and the next becomes a little thin on this day. That you might accidentally catch a glimpse of a dead man. Considering the events that followed on from that particular 14th February, the local superstitions are not so remarkable as they might seem when read from a dry account.
It was several hours past my evening surgery and I had just struggled back into my warm house from an emergency call to an expectant mother. Her fears that she had gone into premature labour had proved unfounded, but the midwife had thought it prudent to summon me and alleviate the fraught woman’s worries. Midwives are remarkable creatures and fully capable of dealing with most childbirth emergencies, but some people require the gentle reassurance of a doctor before they can be convinced that what the midwife is saying is true.
It was now close to eleven o’clock and I was glad to be back in the warmth of my house. There was a nip to the air outside that bit at the nose and fingers, and I suspected a fresh fall of snow before the night was out. I sat down on the old sofa in the front room, before a well-stoked fire, and breathed a sigh of relief as I took off my shoes and toasted my cold toes by the flames.
Mrs Carter, my housekeeper, came into the room bearing a warm pot of tea. The woman is a saint and I could not survive so well without her. In her fifties and a widow, (after the unfortunate Mr Carter was diagnosed too late with appendicitis) she tends to me on a daily basis, except for Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. She is a relatively small woman, already grey from worry, (as she likes to tell me) and a harridan to the dust and clutter a house tends to accumulate. I rarely see her out of her house-coat, which is rather like a medieval herald’s tabard. Once I bumped into her in the street on her afternoon off and failed to recognise her, much to my embarrassment.
Mrs Carter has a knack for knowing the precise moment I shall return from one of my late house calls and always has a pot of tea ready for me.
“Dr Oakes are you settled and at home now?” Mrs Carter asked me in her rather sharp tone.
I am used to her caustic decibels, but some of my friends find her a little too forthright for their taste. Some even feel she hounds me as if I were her husband, and berates me for working too long or dawdling on my house calls. Perhaps I am getting old, but I rather enjoy being nagged and feeling that there is someone in this world concerned about my wellbeing. Mrs Carter seems to have decided her sole purpose in life now is to keep me fit and healthy. It is a purpose that suits me just fine.
“I believe so Mrs Carter. Mrs Mackintosh was just suffering from a gripe or two, nothing to worry about.”
“Mrs Mackintosh will worry though,” Mrs Carter clicked her tongue in mild disapproval. “That child will come out with white hair if she carries on as she is. Still, it is her first, and firsts are always a worry. Once you get past the third you tend to stop thinking about it.”
This was sage advice from a woman who had borne six children during her brief marriage to Mr Carter.
“Would you like some toast?” Mrs Carter was just asking when my front door bell rattled loudly.
The house has one of those old-fashioned arrangements where a pull chain outside is linked by a wire to a bell on a spiral of brass inside. When the wire is pulled, so the spiral is pulled, and the bell bounces and disturbs us all. Mrs Carter scowled into the darkness of the front hall.
“Who on earth is that now?” she muttered, before placing the teapot before me and hurrying to answer the summons.
I rested back on the sofa, enjoying a few more moments of relaxation and comfort before I was whisked out into the cold once more, for the only reason someone unexpected calls at my door at night is because of a medical emergency. My friends, aware of the nature of my work, avoid sudden visits knowing I shall react to my bell ringing as if someone is on the verge of dying. I value their consideration. Equally, many are scared of Mrs Carter.
Mrs Carter returned to the front room. Her usually stern demeanour had faded into something akin to concern.
“Jem Cotter is on the doorstep,” she told me, her brow furrowing. “Says old Charles Walton has been taken bad and needs a doctor at once.”
I instantly began to move and pull my shoes back on. Mrs Carter made a noise, rather as if puttering at a foolish child, then disappeared to return with my walking boots.
“You’ll be needing these,” she told me. “Jem says Walton is lying in a field.”
I yanked off my shoes and started pulling on the boots instead. I was moving with as much haste as I could. I knew things must be serious for me to be called. Charles Walton was a labourer and was cautious with money. I would only be summoned if he had no other choice. I feared he had suffered a heart attack or a stroke while out working.
Pulling on my thickest winter coat and grabbing up my medical bag I went to Jem on my doorstep. Jem Cotter is also a farm labourer. Only a few years younger than me, he had avoided conscription for war service because he was in a protected occupation. Jem is quiet and rather brooding. He has dark eyes which he tends to keep lowered when speaking with you. I wasn’t sure if this was through sullenness or a natural tendency towards deference. Jem was also Charles Walton’s only neighbour. The pair lived in tithe cottages that stood next to each other and shared a wall.
Jem gave me a nod as I left my house and pulled the door closed behind me, reminding Mrs Carter as I went that she ought to be getting off home herself. I knew the odds were she would ignore me, but I made the effort at least.
“Mr Walton has been taken ill?” I asked Jem as we started to walk along the road that led out of the village.
“Something like that,” Jem muttered, he seemed more hunched than normal in his old coat. “You probably won’t be able to help him though.”