The Valley of the Dolls

Nurse Bridget Brody stepped out of the shower and patted herself dry. Then going over to the bathroom mirror with its harsh overhead strip light, she dropped her towel and took a good long look at herself.

Bridget had thick eyebrows which she didn’t pluck, small intelligent eyes, an aquiline nose, a strong jaw and a large mouth. She never wore make-up – it made her look worse than she was without it, clownish even – and her skin was pale and freckly, the sort that didn’t go brown in the sun. Her best feature was her thick, auburn hair which she kept short in a bob. Every six weeks she had it trimmed and in her diary, she kept a log of the dates she visited the hairdresser. She knew her face would hardly launch a thousand ships and it came as little comfort that it was low-maintenance, only requiring a quick once-over with a damp flannel first thing in the morning.

Next her eyes fell to her breasts. Now, she thought fancifully, they were the shape of the Venus de Milo’s – firm and upright, the nipples like cherries on a cake. Before the operation, they’d been unwieldy entities in their own right, droopy udders she’d needed to carry about with her when bra-less, causing constant backache and making sport impossible. She lifted each in turn. Two angry red scars like zip fasteners confronted her.

She found some foundation and smeared it on thickly. At first, it made the scars appear more livid, as if they were on fire. Then, after a couple of moments, the make-up settled in and the skin looked calmer. She pulled on a loose-fitting cotton nightdress, flicked off the light and went through to the adjoining room. There, she set the alarm and climbed into bed, taking care not to disturb the cat curled up at the bottom.

 

‘Good morning Sister Rachel.’

‘Good morning Bridget. Nice and early as usual.’

Bridget was renowned for always arriving for work on time and for never taking a day off sick. But there was something joyless and mechanical about her reliability as if she was clocking in at the factory rather than doing it out of any sense of vocation or love of the job.

Today it was Dr Grant’s ward round. Bridget could feel the tension in the air as medical notes were updated, patients’ dressings rapidly changed and breakfast trays and linen bags disposed of. It was like a state visit, Bridget thought. She was surprised they didn’t have to clean the lavatories and repaint the walls too.

At exactly 8am, Dr Grant swanned into the ward, his entourage in tow.

‘Good morning Sister! I hope you’ve had them scrubbing the bedpans,’ he said, referring to Sister Rachel’s nursing staff.

She giggled, as bashful as a schoolgirl.

Dr Grant often started his ward rounds with a quip like this one; it lulled everybody into a false sense of security for his visits were anything but fun and relaxed.

Bridget followed the troupe from one room to the next. Dr Grant strode into each and held a brief one-way consultation with the mute patient before discussing her case with his surgical team.

Bridget, at the back of the group, was aware of how the early morning sunlight created a halo-like effect around his suspiciously golden head. To the others, Dr Grant was a rock star, a demigod. Adoration was apparent on their cosmetically-enhanced faces for they had all been worked upon by Dr Grant. It was a perk of the job.

They paused outside the room of a woman who’d had a tummy tuck the day before. Desperate to get her figure back in shape after giving birth, she was equally desperate to go home. She had a baby and a husband to look after, she had told Bridget earlier.

Over the assembled heads, Bridget could see Dr Grant perusing the nursing records kept in the patient’s room. She strained to hear the conversation.

‘Hmm…it seems your blood pressure’s a bit high, my dear,’ Dr Grant explained to the patient. ‘I think it would be wise to keep you in an extra day and reassess you tomorrow.’

‘My blood pressure’s never been high! I run marathons, or at least I did until the baby came along.’

‘I’m sorry but it is elevated. Let’s monitor it today and see how it goes.’

He muttered something to Sister Rachel who seemed equally surprised by the patient’s setback.

‘I suppose this is a clever way of getting me to pay for another night in this room,’ the patient continued, half-clambering out of bed. ‘I have a million things to do at home. I’ll discharge myself.’

‘Please, Mrs Gallagher, you can see for yourself it’s high,’ Dr Grant said, showing her the blood pressure chart.

‘This isn’t mine! Since when was I Emma Cavendish? Honestly, get your facts straight!’

Dr Grant whisked the chart away and looked at the name on the top. Indeed Emma Cavendish’s name was there, not Eliza Gallagher’s. Somehow the paperwork had got muddled and the wrong chart had been placed next to the wrong patient.

‘How did this happen?’ Sister Rachel demanded.

Bridget looked at her black lace-ups. Her diffidence was nothing unusual; it was just Bridget being Bridget. Indeed it would have aroused more suspicion if she had offered an explanation. Anyhow Bridget always kept everything shipshape. Obsessively so.

‘An accident?’ one nurse suggested, bravely.

Sister Rachel tutted and Dr Grant stormed off to the remaining rooms. It was not a good start to the day, at least not for Dr Grant, consultant plastic surgeon. Bridget could barely contain the little smile playing on her lips as she went about the rest of her duties that morning.

 

Bridget lurked in the shadows, conscious that any sound she made might give her away. Inside Dr Grant and his wife, Lisa, sat on one of their creamy sofas with its plump cushions, watching the plasma TV. His hand gently rested on her knee. Lisa was big, blonde and busty: exactly how Dr Grant liked them.

Bridget was glad they weren’t downstairs in the cinema or the Jacuzzi where she couldn’t see them. Standing here on the balcony, which had wooden stairs leading up to it from the lawn, Bridget enjoyed a panoramic view of Dr Grant’s open-plan living room.

How pleasant it must be in summer, Bridget thought, taking her eyes off the devoted couple for a moment and peering out into the black night. The two of them sitting here

with a cocktail, the view over the river and hills. Shame about Lisa. Her idiosyncrasies meant they would never quite make a colour spread in one of the glossy magazines. But almost. Nice try.

 

‘Any more takers for the ward barbecue?’ Sister Rachel asked, holding out a bunch of tickets. ‘Claire? Selma? It’s all for a good cause.’

They were in Sister’s office for ward handover. Sister Rachel had seized the opportunity when both morning and afternoon shifts were present, to try and flog her barbecue tickets.

Some of Bridget’s colleagues searched through their purses for change, expressing their enthusiasm for the event. In fact it seemed as if almost everyone, apart from Bridget, was going. No one had thought of inviting her. Now she kept her head down.

Just then, Dr Grant came into the office. He was here to see a patient.

‘Oh, mothers’ meeting. I’ll come back…’

‘No, you’re just in time,’ Sister Rachel said. ‘Would you like a ticket for the barbecue on Saturday? They’re selling fast. All proceeds to cancer research.’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Dr Grant, fishing out his wallet. He could hardly refuse.

‘What about Lisa? Do you think she’d like to come? We’re all longing to meet her.’

‘I’m sure she’d love to but unfortunately Lisa suffers from agoraphobia. She rarely leaves the house.’

There was a subdued response from the nurses. As well as being a brilliant doctor, he had a sick wife to look after.

‘How convenient,’ Bridget muttered under her breath.

‘What was that Bridget?’ said Sister Rachel.

‘Nothing…just talking to myself.’

The other nurses looked at her with pity. Then the group broke up. Bridget set about her tasks, noticing the girlish excitement on the ward. Dr Grant was coming to the barbecue. Minus Lisa. There was never any gossip about Dr Grant. No amount of flirting seemed to gain results. But maybe on Saturday? Surely his career was held back by a semi-invalid? Surely he was looking for a less neurotic replacement?

 

‘Oh, Bridget, would you nip this down to Dr Grant’s office?’ Sister Rachel said to her later, as she came back from her tea break. ‘He forgot to pick it up earlier and everyone else is busy.’

Bridget took the ticket and ambled off. She was frequently used as an errand girl, not that she minded – it was time away from the ward.

She reached his office. She had been here before. Several times. She knocked and on hearing an authoritative ‘Enter!’ went in.

‘I brought your barbecue ticket.’

‘Thank you. Just leave it there,’ he said indicating a gaping space on the large desk he sat behind. He avoided eye contact.

She set it down, taking in her surroundings as she did so.

His office had the hushed atmosphere of a hotel room. Everything here was in neutral – grey, beige and white. Some flesh-coloured orchids graced a flat-topped cabinet. A few pieces of virgin A4 paper, which looked as if they had been artfully arranged, and a white laptop were set out on his desk. The books on his shelves were covered with plain paper: Bridget assumed this was so he wouldn’t have to see their coloured spines.

He gave Bridget a curt nod as she left. He didn’t even have the decency to look at her, she thought. She was a reminder he was fallible.

On the way back to the ward, in the lift where she was alone, she lightly touched under her breasts. Sometimes the scars seemed to have a physical presence of their own. Like today – they ached. The only explanation Dr Grant had offered her was that some skin didn’t heal properly. It was just bad luck.

 

Bridget watched Dr Grant’s Porsche swoop out of his drive. Then, using the keys she had taken from his office and copied, she went into his house.

‘Lisa, I’m coming to get you,’ she whispered.

Lisa wasn’t in the living room or the cinema. So where was she?

Bridget wandered around, her feet sinking into the thick carpet. A few abstract paintings hung from the walls. The place was so spotless it was more like a laboratory than a home.

Finally Bridget found Lisa propped up in bed. Waiting for him when he came back from the barbecue. How sweet.

Bridget took out the scalpel she had taken earlier from theatre. This was no butter knife. It cut through human flesh.

She tossed aside some fluffy pillows and straddled Lisa. Then with the scalpel she ripped through her diaphanous pink negligee and yanked it off. She ran her hands over Lisa’s

body. It was as smooth as satin. Lisa’s breasts weren’t scarred. Maybe if you closed your eyes and suspended judgement, you could almost believe she was a real woman.

‘Goodbye Lisa.’

She plunged the scalpel into Lisa over and over again. The first slash produced a nice deflating sound but her onslaught became less satisfying once all the air was out of her. Lisa, in all her shiny, plastic perfection, was now reduced to a heap of shrivelled, crinkly shreds like a pricked balloon.

Bridget cut off a few locks of Lisa’s synthetic blond tresses and stuffed them into her pocket. Then she pulled up the sheets so that they covered what little remained of Lisa, as she might for a dead patient on the ward.

Poor Dr Grant, Bridget thought, letting herself out. So much for his dream of the perfect woman who didn’t age or decay, drip or bleed. And if he found a substitute Lisa, she would be back. Wasn’t that what always happened with damaged goods?

Louise Johnson lives and works in London. She has had short stories published in several online publications and in UK magazine The People’s Friend.

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