I am listening to my chest. Each breath makes a queer, fascinating rattle. It hardly seems worthwhile to make the effort to breathe in again but willy-nilly my chest expands again with that strange bubbling noise. Listening to it is my only interest in life.
Dust is dancing in the sun, split into rays by the open weave of the russet curtains that drape the great bay of long windows at the far end of the room. I close my eyes against the glare. I don’t know where Marjie is. She is not out there in the enclosed verandah where she sleeps. It seems a long time since I saw her.
My eyes rove to the high ceiling above the tall French windows, back past the door that is never opened, to the supporting scrolls and side panels of a handsome mantelpiece of white marble veined with grey. Marjie’s white lion lives on the mantelpiece and the wicked little red devil that gives me the shivers, off the front of my father’s first car. Two slinky red cats sit there too, one tall and slender with a smug grin, the other stretched long and thin with the tip of its tail curled, stalking its prey. Against the head of my cot is a writing desk with a bookcase above and toy cupboards below built into the recess between the protruding mantelpiece and the wall. The great panelled cedar door that opens back across the foot of my cot encloses me in a dark, cosy nook.
A long time later there is a movement beside me, and I half open my eyes. My mother’s face floats above me, and turns away. Words drift by…”- it’s bronchitis -“. I am intrigued. Even this unusual noise inside me has a name. I keep on breathing in and out, listening to the bronchitis.
Strange voices outside the door rouse me. I find myself lying on my side without any memory of moving. I lift my head to see who is coming. It hurts. I remember the doctor. I hope he will leave me alone this time. I don’t want to be disturbed and lifted and handled a lot when I only want to listen to my bronchitis and lie still.
He picks up my limp wrist and looks at his watch but I no longer care whether it ticks or not. I try a small protesting whimper but it emerges hoarse like the ghost of somebody else’s voice and frightens me. And hurts surprisingly. The soreness is so wide and deep and strong that I can’t imagine how it can fit inside my small neck. It is astonishing that my throat goes down so far.
They are still there, my mother and the doctor, still there, standing beside the cot looking down at me. I don’t care as long as nobody touches me again. I try not to breathe but my chest insists, bubble in, rattle out, hurting my enormous throat both ways.
A long time later I hear my name in the distance – “Dorothy Beatrice. Two years old last May”. I dream a nurse in a red cape sitting at the table writing. I open my eyes momentarily, puzzled. Drawing is forbidden on the good dining room table. Voices murmur. I hear something about fever and I understand that means that I am sick. My mother picks me up but I am too busy breathing to protest, in, out, in, out. I sag against her, reluctant to leave the warm cot tucked securely in its corner between the heavy panelled cedar door and the church windows of the dark-stained bookcase.
“Do you want to go for a motor ride?” my mother asks persuasively. That’s all right then. Perhaps it is worth being disturbed to ride in the car curled snug as a bug in a rug in my mother’s lap. The studs will glint in the sun as my father pops them together to fasten on the black leather side curtains that have something like glass in them to see through.
I can hear my big, beautiful sister crying as we pass through the bedroom. This is disturbing, for Marjorie never cries. She is too happy and good and gentle and loving for tears. I dream of running to climb on my parents’ big bed where Marjorie lies across the rumpled bedspread, sobbing, to put my arms around her. Don’t cry, Marjie, Don’t cry! Never mind, Marjie, don’t cry.
We leave her behind and pass out through the wash house and kitchen into the long side courtyard under the broad green hands of the fig tree. But we are going the wrong way. Bobbing and swaying in my mother’s arms I listen to feet crunching out of time on the gravel path through the front garden, not the dusty yard where the car lives in its shed. As we pass under the jacaranda tree I lift my heavy lids to search the thick clusters of mauve-blue bells where there is always a possibility of fairies. On the other side of the path my grandfather’s dahlias glow so vividly red and yellow and huge that I close my eyes against them.
Over my mother’s shoulder looms my father’s face his mouth buttoned up tight and silent. His forehead crinkles in wavy lines. There is no smile for me in his eyes. It must be an important occasion if he has taken the car round specially from the shedding at the back around the block to the front gate. I look for the silver gate. Every part of my home is special and beautiful to me but no other house I have ever seen has such a thing as a silver gate.
“Do you want to go for a motor ride?” My mother’s voice is uncertain. Something deep inside me wobbles like jelly. “Marjie coming too?” I croak. “No, Marjie’s not going.” The world dissolves a little. Marjie is to be left behind, crying? At the silver gate my stomach falls the way it did when the lift in the city store shot up and left it behind.
Cars aren’t like that. Cars never look like that. It is the wrong shape, the wrong size, the wrong colour. The doors are in the wrong place. It has terrible black window things that you can’t see through, black as the ink from the bottle I knocked over on my mother’s crimson velvet tablecloth that glowed like a jewel until I ruined it. Is it because I have been bad? Strange men don’t go on motor rides. I have been warned about talking to strange men. My mother hands me over to a strange man, turns her back on me and hangs her head. Truth dissolves in the tears that run down her cheeks. My father turns away too and puts his arm round my mother. The strange man takes me through the door in the wrong place and I am inside a car that isn’t a car with terrible black windows that you can’t see through. Somebody locks me in.
They take me away. A wild animal has me by the throat, grinding and worrying with hoarse, rasping growls and snarls. Everything around me is thick black glass, thick as the midnight darkness. All the world has vanished.
I wake to a cold bare dream. A weird white world. Sheet white, dead white. Not my soft brown wooden cot but a cage with hard white animal bars where I lie moaning drearily, unable to get the blankets over my chilly shoulders. I float shoreless in a clear, clean light with neither sun nor shadow. Why is there a strange lady sitting on a window sill dressed in bright floral print? I dream a wail for warmth and a slap for silence. The cold sheet drawn over me lets chilly little currents drift around my neck and sneak and pry and creep inside my shroud. Brisk hands tuck bedding round my neck and I drift back out to sea.
When I open my eyes again a blank white corner comes into focus and becomes a solid wall, close enough to anchor me. The window things behind the window sills opposite reveal nothing. Windows here are not for seeing through. The long wall behind me is mainly glass but only an empty corridor lies beyond. There is no world to see just more walls. The far end of this enormous space fades into dimness. There are other cots in a row with children in the cages. Some cry, some lie still. They are all out of reach. They do not play. They do not talk. If I keep my eyes on the blank wall close to me sometimes it makes me imagine I am in a real room. When I am not looking at it I lie with my eyes closed, numbed by the meaningless sounds around me. The sheets lie over me cool and crisp. I am not really cold again but never really warm and never snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug.
Sometimes through an opening in the wall beside me I hear the prolonged chink and rattle of plates and cutlery. This is a sound from the world I knew. It stops me floating and lays me firmly on the mattress. I wait for food to follow. It is something familiar, something I have known on some distant planet and the thought of it brings a small glow of warmth somewhere in the middle of me. The tightness in my chest eases and I breathe more freely. Somebody will come and sit me up, tie things round my neck and shift the pillows. Once the spoons are rattling they won’t strip off my plain white gown and wash me into a shivering fit. But when the food comes I am filled with sorrow that I cannot be good and eat it. It is tasteless as sawdust and my stomach contracts away from it. Sitting up tires me and I am glad to lie down again. I watch other children eating and wish I could be good like them. I turn back to stare at the solid wall.
There is no real day and night, never complete darkness nor bright daylight. There is no routine of nap time or going to bed or getting up for I am always in bed, my gaze fixed apathetically on the blank wall. Life has ceased to happen.
I am abducted to some place where nothing is familiar but the rattle of cutlery. Days of drifting in and out of sleep uncertain of reality, evaporate all my past experience. There is only a vague present that slowly grows into a new familiarity. The volunteer in the floral dress doesn’t bother me again. I look on at the occasional quiet bustle of overworked nurses as if through thick glass. Attention is silent, cursory and efficient. I make no trouble, cause no disturbance and demand nothing. I lie behind an invisible barrier, impenetrable from either side, for an immeasurable time.
There comes a day when I rediscover my legs. I am taken from my cot and a firm hand walks me to a long wooden form where I am added to a row of little girls in white. Through the door in the middle of the long glass wall comes a quick, thin nurse with dark hair carrying strange equipment. I look at her aghast. She is not a lady, for along her top lip is a strong short fringe of dark hair, like Grandpa. She can’t be a lady! Yet she wears a skirt, so she can’t be a man. There is something wrong! This frightening person hurriedly tells me there is something I must do. There is a name for it but my confused apprehension prevents me from taking it in.
This bizarre hairy-lip looms close in front of me and tilts my head back impatiently. I am handed a glass and take a mouthful. The strong medicinal flavour is like nothing I have ever tasted. In shock I swallow some and splutter out the rest. This is not a drink, drinks are for tasting nice and this tastes poisonous. Over my screams of fear and revulsion a high voice is scolding me. I must not swallow but I must not spit out the foul stuff. How is this possible? Drinks are for swallowing. More of the nauseous liquid is poured into my resistant throat and my cries gargle through it. The girl next to me isn’t crying. She takes a mouthful, tilts her head back and makes similar gargling noises. I recognize the sound and suddenly realize what is required of me. I freeze, letting my voice bubble through until the hairy-lip person is satisfied, releases me and moves on down the row.
Series continues in July edition
I am allowed to spit, and the dose is repeated. ‘It will make your throat feel better,’ assures a strange cheerful voice. Will it? A plump hand pats my head and moves away. Did I manage to be good? Have I heard that voice before from one of the change-daily faces? It spoke to me as if I was real. It is a tiny ration of comfort that steadies me enough to hold the next revolting mouthful and bubble through it until I am allowed to spit.
I wake one day to find that a wonderful tree has appeared in the dim distance at the end of the ward. Nurses hang beautiful coloured things on it that gleam and shine and sparkle. Each day, I watch the tree, waiting for a small movement of air to set the decorations glinting. ‘Christmas’ is coming, I hear. The word has a familiar ring that wakens hopefulness and a tinge of excitement.
Father Christmas arrives and stands smiling and waving beside the beautiful tree, dressed all in red. Out of his bag he draws unimaginably wonderful toys! They’re real! I watch in awe as he hands them to the nurses who bring them round to one cot after another. Even for me there is a present! And a smile!
My breath comes fast and my eyes can hardly take in the sheer beauty of what I see. Lying in a box covered with cellophane is a tiny china tea set, all complete. I am too overwhelmed to even touch the four little cups tucked into cardboard slots at each corner, each with its matching saucer and plate. In the centre of the box lie a real teapot, milk jug and sugar basin with a lid, fitted into shaped holes. Every piece sports an identical posy of minute, delicate pink and blue flowers.
I sit staring, rendered weak by the glow of delight that animates every cell of my body with joy. A rush of love and gratitude flows through me for grace unmerited has been granted to me. It is really for me, the bad girl! I lift the teapot out of its hole and find flowers on the other side too. Even the hole is magical, with a handle and spout of its own like a teapot ghost. I lift a cup to my lips, blissfully sipping air.
When it is time for us all to sleep off our excitement, there is joy in nestling each cup and saucer in its own place, reuniting the teapot with its ghost-shape and making the set look like a new present again. I am relieved to watch my treasure taken to be stowed out of sight where it will not get broken and soon drift into a deep sleep.
I wake to a new contentment and scramble to my feet to see what is happening. The child in the next cot sits engrossed in some activity of her own. She has plump, rosy cheeks and golden brown hair that falls into curls of its own accord without any bobby pins or rags or long hours of standing while it is brushed around fingers. I watch her longingly. The girl looks up, smiles and extends a fist through the bars. I reach towards her but it is too far. She stands up to lean over the side of the cot. She is taller and can reach further. She speaks! “Do you want a stamp?”
Nodding, I stretch a little further until our hands touch. The girl withdraws her fist, takes a small square of paper from it and passes it slowly and thoroughly over her tongue. She presses it firmly on the back of my hand. “Do you want another one?” she says. I nod, wordless but eager. I receive another stamp and another. They cling to the back of my hand, thick, wet and spongy. It is not newspaper that you can tear and crumple into balls that unroll themselves again with delicious papery sounds while you squeal with glee, romping and laughing…
It is story book paper. I look down into the girl’s cot and discover the mutilated book half hidden by the messy heap of blankets just as a passing nurse pounces. I am scolded as the slobber is washed from my hand, laid down and covered up. I hide my face under the blankets and ache with anguish. I have taken part in dreadful wickedness.
Home to mother, father, sister, books, dolls
Outside the entrance stands our real, square, familiar car. Its side curtains are all in place and I can see clearly through real windows made of stuff that isn’t real glass, in frames of dark, wrinkled leather. The handsome maroon-red paintwork gleams beneath its spattering of glistening drops. On the front seat Auntie Gladdie’s borrowed rug comforts me, greeting me with the promise of wrapping me warm and snug-as-a-bug.
This is my motor ride at last. Perched stiffly on mother’s knee I clutch a handful of woolly fringe as I watch the wonderful world flash past. The sky is just the crayon blue I remember. Trees in my real world do not hold presents but they have bendy leaves and wave their branches properly. I try to breathe in the scent of their dampness but can only smell stinking hair. “She doesn’t know me,” she quavers to him tragically. I wonder scornfully, how my mother can be so stupid.
She talks. I sit in silence, relearning the world and its words. She asks questions about the hospital. I do not want to hear. Why does she keep reminding me, now that I have escaped? She questions further. I grow rigid. She makes a small noise of distress.
Perhaps something is required of me. Perhaps speech? Perhaps if I speak, this woman who feels so disconcerting will somehow drive away the horrors – the alien nurse, the poisonous gargling, the filthy Phenyl. Perhaps then she will be sorry for me and cuddle me.
My mouth remembers how to form the words in my head, dragging them slowly from a pit of remembered terror. “I had to wobble for a nurse with a thing on her lip like Grandpa.” She bursts out laughing. Soon everybody who knows us will be laughing at me too as she repeats my cute saying over and over. There is no comfort in this woman.
I look around the room. Dust motes still dance in the sunbeams. They fall on the glowing golden silky oak table and the soft sage green of the carpet square with its one huge spray of pale pink roses. Behind me the wind rustles the leaves of the bamboo thicket that shades the single west window. My eyes rove past the tall glass doors and writing desk of the dark bookcase at the head of my cot, to the scrolled marble mantelpiece surrounding the small black grate.
Washing day. I stand watching my mother lunge at bubbling, steaming clothes with the fibrous end of the softened copper stick and pester to know the whereabouts of Teddy. My unwashable, straw-stuffed child has his orange-yellow fur kissed thin and grimy. I can’t find him. I want him. I miss him. He needs cuddling. He needs loving. I want him now. I want her to leave her work and find him. Now. I whine until she can fob me off no longer. She turns on me angrily. ‘I threw the filthy thing under the copper.’ I bend, stunned, to look into the fire and jerk back from its heat. There is no trace of Teddy. My beloved is dead and gone, consigned heartlessly to the flames. Deliberately thrown to the dangerous fire I had been so often warned off. Imagination conjures his writhing death agonies. I flee screaming from my murderous mother, hysterical with grief, rage and terror. If my child has been done away with, will hers be next? I am well and truly slapped for my unforgivable tantrum, repeatedly and hard.
“There’s Pearlie,” she says later, encouragingly. The opalescent kewpie doll on the white marble mantelpiece leaps magically back into existence, smiling at me impishly. My mother has put her there to wait for me beside the white lion, family photographs, and the red devil. Red cats still sit beside a tall dark one. A great black vase holds branches of the fluffy pussy willow that I love to touch. I know them all.
“Pearlie!” Sliding off her knee I trot across the room and reach up, yearning. I am lifted and perched back on the knee clutching my doll. I kiss Pearlie’s never-failing smile, her never-scolding mouth, warm the celluloid face against a cold cheek. I watch her iridescent colours change and move as I rock her. I touch the gleaming moulded arms and legs that cannot flail or kick, or smack, or hold people down.
She carries both things to the cot and lays us down. My Pearlie sleeps with me, nestled in the soft hollow of my very own bed with cosy blankets cuddling our necks. We curl up in my corner, at one with the things around us, surrounded by the protection of dark patterned wallpaper and warm dark cedar woodwork. There is nothing white anywhere in the room. I breathe painlessly, face to the wall. My cot is a safe place.
The green doors actually exist. More than half a century later the sight of them set me shaking. My head began to feel cold and damp as I walked through them again. My footsteps along the corridor brought the old familiar echoes. I gulped the taste of anxiety, guilt, unworthiness, rejection.
My infectious friend with her foreign disease lay cut off from the outside world, in a long ward built for fever patients in 1904, when “The only treatment available was to isolate the patient from others to prevent the spread of disease and all the diseases were accompanied by fever.”(Western District Health Service.)
I recognised the ward immediately. I discovered a dim screened alcove at the far end – so that’s why the Christmas tree was in the dark. As my hand rested on her sheet, I jerked it away from the cold hospital feel and knew for the first time why I can’t stand linen sheets.
I returned home shaking. Nothing prepared me for facing a nightmare become reality, fantasy become fact. Memories of emotion and sensation came surging back to amplify events never forgotten. I had scoffed at my own unlikely snatches of memory. Now wordless images flooded back, agonizingly real, filling forgotten spaces with the feel, the sounds, the emotions. Few words rang clear. The feelings were so intense but only now do I have the words to describe them and so begin to clothe my infant desolation with understanding.
THE QUEEN’S MEMORIAL INFECTIOUS DISEASES HOSPITAL, FAIRFIELD “The only treatment available was to isolate the patient from others to prevent the spread of disease and all the diseases were accompanied by fever.” Western District Health Service.