I WATCHED FROM our front window as a cart led by two sweating horses carried five hessian sacks, a whole family perhaps, for they were of differing lengths and shapes. The horses were chestnut and their tails flicked madly at the flies. Then came a more prestigious-looking vehicle, a barouche, with two ancient women in voluminous old-fashioned crinolines. They followed a hearse carriage with two coffins, each in polished black wood and heavy with flies.
A motor car trundled along next, no faster than the horses, nags though they were. It could not get past the jam of people moving towards the cemetery. There were more carts, sulkies and so on, each carrying several bodies in various coverings, pine boxes, sacks of linen, shrouds of cotton or canvas. Each conveyance was accompanied by onlookers, family and sundry mourners, who either rode up front or walked beside. They meshed into one in their black mourning veils and armbands. It was hard to tell who went with whom. Some, one suspected, were just there to see the goings-on.
For as long as I could remember men had been putting on uniforms, sailing over to Europe and lining up for the Hun to mow them down. Well, I was tired of being a prisoner of this invisible hand of death. I’d had quite enough of it. I watched this bottleneck of grief with a cold satisfaction and anger where I should have felt pity and horror. Life was about to get truly dull: tomorrow they were to close the libraries, schools, churches and picture theatres. Already everyone had to wear a mask; they had a law about it. The masks were intensely annoying and bothersome. But walking down the street without one was as conspicuous as going without shoes. Mother instructed the parlourmaid to sew us our own muslin masks because the government-issue ones had proved to be uncomfortable, unattractive and ill-fitting.
It was when mother was occupied with this and father was at work that I saw the telegram boy standing on the other side of the street waiting to cross.
I ran to the front door before he could ring the bell. Although the telegram he handed me did not have a black border (for who else that mattered was left to die?), I shooed him away as soon as he handed it to me, before mother, father, (or cook, for her son Robert was still alive somewhere in northern France as far as we knew) could see him. The boy was quite accustomed to the aversion he inspired and hurried off.
John sick. Please send help.
It was typical of my sister, Vera. She had a cook, two footmen, a stable hand, a housemaid, a parlourmaid and a gardener as well as her husband and his farm workers yet, if she were ever called upon to do something besides flounce about, she complained and needed help.
As I sat at the window reading over the telegram I saw a man go by with one sleeve empty and folded up to his shoulder. Beside him walked a man with a face like melted lava, and they both limped slowly and awkwardly along. In the country there would not be these hideous men about, there would be only trees and air. All I wished to do was go to the country, the bush, to see what Mr Paterson wrote of – that land of sombre, silent hills. I wanted to be a part of that and not of things malformed and rotting. I wanted to feel the fresh open air and not have to hear about the Great War and all its takings for ever more. I liked the idea of perhaps riding a horse and smelling straw. And from these things I would receive inspiration and be able to begin my life as a poet. Unfortunately, Vera would be there and this
could only threaten my intellect and finer thoughts, for her stupidity inflamed me.
I was not sure what kind of help it was she thought she required at the homestead. Someone to peel her grapes perhaps. But I imagined I could take the children for walks (there were three boys and a baby girl at last count), I could pick fruit from the orchard and there would no doubt be kittens and puppies. I was not so keen on the larger animals such as cows and horses and to be honest, I had no interest in sheep.
Vera’s telegram meant, of course, that it should be Mother who went to help her with the children. Instead, Vera would get me, her fourteen-year-old sister. She would not be pleased. Nor would Mother and Father when they discovered me gone.
As with the Commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and in just proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort and well-being of a family.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
Vera had never been domestically inclined, despite being quite capable. I, on the other hand, was neither inclined nor capable of anything, so Mother told me, save lying in my room reading books all day. But Vera had always been a great beauty who believed she was destined for great things. She would be a beautiful wife to a man with much wealth, good looks and many servants. She would be adored and spend her time doing the things she loved: dancing, singing and being a ‘hostess’ – her word for ordering people around.
And so it came about, when she found a husband in John, who, as a farmer with flat feet, had been denied the honour of dying for England somewhere in France while fighting Germans and so retained all his arms and legs as well as his bon visage, although he now had a collection of white feathers to go with these faculties.
Vera had written regularly to Mother. She had never written to me. But Mother read most of the letters aloud to Father and me. At the end of each letter, Vera had added: Regards to Father and M. She didn’t even bother writing my name.
From these letters we learned that Vera and her husband John lived in an expansive timber homestead, with wide verandahs on every side, keeping the place cool in the hot summer afternoons. She had a library of course, she said, which had been stocked with all the important books. She spent much time arranging their order according to colour and thickness. I ask you.
She wrote of her orchard that grew nectarines, peaches, cherries and apricots. There were also apples and pears. She tended a small vegetable patch with the help of the children who were always sweet and helpful. There were grand dinner parties and dances at their house every month.
Ever since the war began, life had been lean and hungry for everyone we knew. Rationing, tightening of belts, brave faces. People living on the land had it much easier. All the things that Vera had fresh off the farm were as accessible to most as magic-carpet rides: butter, milk, flour, fresh meat. Fresh cut flowers! It was decadent and wonderful.
Vera could not keep this efficient and bountiful household going alone; it was far too much work for one lady. She had help from John, her husband, and then there was her maid, Maisie. She spoke often of Maisie’s skills and frugality. And she spoke of Maisie sometimes as a companion. Sometimes Maisie could be stubborn, sometimes Maisie could be mischievous. But she was always loyal and jolly.
Sometime between midnight and dawn, I closed my book, put on my white muslin mask, tiptoed down the stairs and stepped outside.
I was tired and in a lather when I arrived at the platform and bought my ticket. I faltered and thought of going back. But I knew that to go back home now would not mean falling into the loving arms of my mother or father. In fact, it would greatly surprise me if my absence was noticed at all until dinner time.
Since both my brothers had died in the Great War – Edward in Palestine, David at the Somme – Mother and Father took breakfast and lunch in their own separate rooms. Father rose early and went out to work at the bank, not returning until dinner time. Mother stayed in her room.
Mother had been, like Vera, a very beautiful woman. But now her hair was white. And I suspected she no longer wore a corset. She had shrunk, hunkered over, lost her shape. Where before she had been tall and erect, she was now so often leaning against a wall, or in a doorway. I thought it must be some palsy of the legs at first and I tried to make her go to see the doctor, but she just looked straight through me. When I appealed to Father, he got up and left the room as though I had not spoken.
Father had aged as well. His collars now gaped, and his hair was sparse. He had developed a lust for order that no one could fathom and which differed in its detail every day. First he wanted the serviettes folded this way. The next day he yelled because he swore that he had wanted them folded the ‘opposite way’. He demanded eggs and steak for tea and then stomped about in a huff because he said he had asked for celery soup and bread. Tea usually ended with father finding fault with something and scraping back his chair in disgust as he retreated to his study to drink his port alone. The servants lived in fear of his changing habits and fastidious demands.
ON THE TRAIN I forgot all about Mother and Father and I sat up straighter. I felt like a grown-up and wished that I had let Mother take me to have my hair done before I had made this journey. Mother had said I was getting too old for my childish plaits and ponytails and soon I should have to have it styled as other young ladies. It had been suggested to Mother that I should have my hair shingled, as some girls were doing. But Mother considered that terribly risqué. And I had decided I did not want to change my hair anyway. I did not want to look like a ‘young lady’.
There was a man already seated in the compartment. He had stood and hoisted my small suitcase onto the overhead luggage rack. I looked at his mask and wondered if he was disfigured with a war wound, as so many are: his mouth could be twisted and scarred, his teeth missing, his jaw gone, his head like a half-eaten peach dried in the sun, but I would not know. For men like that, I imagined, the masks were a godsend. His mask, like mine, was already stained with sweat and breath.
AS I STEPPED off the train and it lurched away, the morning was clear and musical with birds, and I felt the wonder of the air upon my skin. There was not a soul to be seen, so I pulled my mask down around my neck. I breathed in the magpie gurgles and trills; I could hear better without that horrible mask on. There was no crunching of car cranks, no rumble of motors nor cries of their horns. No noisy hooves upon cobblestones or grinding of carriage wheels.
Ever since I was very small I have had a feeling that I should like to dissolve into the trees and the dirt. That I should like to find a place where there were no people, no buildings and no sounds except those made by the animals and plants, that I should like to melt backwards in time and place to an era before Mother and Father and before their parents and before their parents still, before humans even walked upon the earth. I should like to be truly alone.
I sat on my cardboard case upon the platform and waited. The air felt so lovely and cool after the stuffiness of the railway carriage. Oh, it was grand to feel cool. Even cold. For, now that I was not moving and I was not inside, there was a breeze that bit in around my neck and made my nose wet.
I thought about going to the waiting room for a little warmth. The cold began to irritate me. It was summer for heaven’s sake, why was it so cold? Why could these things not be meted out in reasonable doses? The sweet warbling of the birds rather began to get on my nerves too. They were saying they did not mind that it was cold, and they would not mind later if it were warmer, it was all the same to them. Damned birds.
Why were there no porters? I yawned. I’d had almost no sleep.
And why was there no one to offer me a warm drink and a blanket or coat? Why was Vera’s carriage not here waiting?
But, of course, I had not telegraphed Vera to let her know of my arrival. This was surely a prime example of the lack of common sense that Mother so often assigned to me. But someone would surely come along, I consoled myself. They would soon notice a girl alone and lost on the station platform.
Finally, the stationmaster came out and as he approached we each pulled our masks into place. The influenza was a nasty little ghost, a horrid little swagman that walked among us, cloaked and secretive. It could be on the hand or in the breath of any stranger.
He had been expecting me, he said. But not until tomorrow. ‘It’ll take a bit to get the sulky ready. Have to ride my bicycle back and get the horse hitched and so on.’ He showed me into the empty waiting room. I rested my head back against the wall and looked forward to a comfortable sofa, a cup of tea and some scones when I arrived.
Clearly I fell asleep, despite the discomfort of my situation, because I awoke to find the man shaking me roughly by the shoulder, and I could tell – by the stifling heat and the sweat dripping off the man and blinding light bursting in – that morning was long gone, and the afternoon was getting on.
He helped me up onto the rickety sulky. I was hungry and thirsty. The journey was rough and long. The rutted track made me wince and jar. We spent a long time rocking and jolting along tracks and roads. After an eternity, the station master pulled the sulky to a stop abruptly in the middle of a dry, treeless paddock. I worked out that he must have to do something with the horse, or fix some mechanical thing on the sulky. He helped me down and handed me my suitcase. The horse stomped its foot.
‘It isn’t far,’ he said. ‘They will be glad of a nurse.’
I looked to where he pointed but could only see a workman’s hut in a far corner on the other side of the paddock, under a sparse stand of trees – and beyond it, the eucalypts thickened at the base of a hill. He had climbed up again and turned the horse around to face the way we had come. Then he simply prodded the horse forward and off they went. I was so surprised and furious that by the time I came to my senses and called after him, he was too far away and could not hear over the clopping of his horse and the trundling of the wheels. Nor did he look back and see me running after him across the rough ground, the dirt kicked up by the cart billowing in my face, hurting my eyes. I tripped, nearly fell, then righted myself and stopped, watching until he was completely out of sight. My throat was burning with thirst, and I was no longer cold. The sun was up and shining strongly, glaring and dazzling, adding to the confusion of my position. I began walking towards the hut and the shade in the distance.
As I got closer, a dog leaped out of the hut and started running towards me. Then a figure appeared, and I guessed it was a child – boy or girl, and of what age, I could not tell. But we stood staring at each other across the paddock through the heat, with the dog running excitedly first back to the hut then straight at me, never reaching either destination. Finally the child called to the dog, it spun around and went back and sat down. As I got nearer, I saw that the child was a scruffy boy of about seven years old. Smaller versions of him soon appeared, two other scraggly boys.
None of them had masks on their faces, nor even resting around their necks. None of them came towards me to help with my suitcase. As I approached, a puff of hot wind blew more dust up into my eyes, and flapped something above the hut. It was a yellow flag. I felt for my mask once more. The next gust of wind delivered an odour so foul that I clasped my hand over my mask and coughed.
The dog whined with anticipation as she sat beside the boys. ‘Easy, Maisie,’ the middle-sized boy said.
For a moment I thought the boy was talking to me, that he had mistaken me for Vera’s maid, Maisie. Then I saw that he was talking to the dog. The cries of a baby came from behind them, as Maisie jumped at me, sniffing and licking.
‘Father died,’ said the eldest child.
‘And now mother is sick with the ’flenza,’ said the smallest.
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza,
I opened the window,
American Skipping Rhyme, circa 1918
THIS WAS NOT a workman’s hut, nor a cabin on the outskirts of Vera’s manicured estate. Nor was it the elegant homestead of pastoral ease, culture and wealth that Vera’s letters had spoken of. It was a bark hut with a tin roof and a yellow flag of sickness winding around itself in the confused wind.
There was no verandah on the north side that bathed in the winter sun, nor on the south side to escape the summer blaze. There was a porch of sorts out the front, a roof sloping precariously over the dirt.
Around the hut were trees that been cut off at various lengths, dead stumps standing colourless and thin about the place, like an old man’s stubble, grey and meagre upon the landscape. The whole place had a look of chaos and hopelessness. Surrounding the hut was the detritus of farm life. A sulky resting on its haunches, the wheels broken. There were other small structures, or half-structures, sheds without walls, walls without roofs, piles of stone and bundles of wood, bits of felled trees. I perceived no farm animals.
I heard moans from inside, rising above the crying of a baby and I pushed past the three children and the dog into the darkness.
I do not know which of us had more shock and disappointment in their eyes as Vera and I looked upon each other. She was so changed since I had seen her last that I should not have picked her out of a crowd. But I recognised the familiar expression of disappointment. I recognised family.
I knew from Mother that Vera was with child again, but I could see no sign of it; she was thin and flat in the bed. Her face was grey. There was blood, brown and dried, on her face and bedding. It was a dirty, sickly colour, as though the blood itself were ill. It had left a path from her nostrils to her top lip, then down the side of her face towards each ear. Blood splattered her chin and neck. Her long dark hair was loose and matted.
She lay in a narrow bed against a partition in a room that was bedroom, kitchen and living room all at once. She looked like she was being smothered by wild animals, for her bedding was animal skins, pelts and furs. Possum, rabbit and kangaroo – red, brown and grey. The spine of a kangaroo ran down the middle of the bed, its paws flattened out across her like protective arms.
The three boys stood there, and I discovered that I had not expected them to be here, or anywhere. I had not expected anything. I had expected me; I had expected me to be changed on the journey into a character in one of my books. I thought that I would become more real and they would become more like characters in the story of my life.
The boys – Douglas, the eldest, who would be seven; Jack who would be six; and Vincent who stood naked and brown and was not yet five – stood and stared at me.
Finally, Jack asked, ‘Are you Grandmother?’ and when I did not reply, Douglas asked, ‘Are you the nurse?’
As I looked around at this hovel, I realised that six people had lived here. Vera, John, the three boys and the baby. As well as the dog.
The smell in the house was solid in its horror. Was this the smell that was in David’s nose when he died at the Somme? A smell of things that should stay hidden, of things that are not meant to touch the air. A smell that could surely kill. It was the smell of sickness and death, of blood and fluids, things I knew nothing of. Bodies and filth.
Vera was staring at me, wondering what cruel apparition I was. Perhaps if she stared more I would become Mother – capable, skilled, hard, ordered – that was how she would remember Mother. She would not know the faded, leaning woman that mother had become.
Vera’s baby whimpered. Douglas held her out for me to take. But I stepped backwards. I knew nothing of babies and had never in my life held one. I had always been the baby in our family. I took off my hat.
I fiddled uselessly for a few minutes, retying my hair ribbon and dabbing at the sweat on my forehead with my handkerchief. The children watched me. Neither the boys nor Vera showed any awareness of the smell. Was this merely the smell of poverty? Why did none of them wear masks? I thought now about all the times I had not had my mask up and properly in place, about when there were little holes and gaps around the edges where the influenza may have gotten in.
Vera closed her eyes and lay back. The baby was crying hard now, and Douglas seemed annoyed and handed it to the middle boy. Maisie, the dog, sat beside the youngest, Vincent, looking at him as if for an explanation. I clutched my hand over my mask and took in short breaths.
DUTIES OF THE SICK NURSE
All women are likely at some period of their lives to be called on to
perform the duties of a sick nurse… The main requirements are a good
temper, compassion for suffering, sympathy with sufferers which most women
worthy of the name possess, near handedness, quiet manners,
love of order and cleanliness. With these qualifications there will be
very little to be wished for…
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
I TURNED AND walked out. I wanted no delay in getting myself away from that shed of horror. My legs were trotting faster now, deeper into the shade and the trees, trotting like a little girl. The baby’s angry cries followed me.
I would walk back to the station later, when the sun was going down, in the cool of the evening – it was too hot now and I was too tired and thirsty. I would tell the station master there had been a mistake. I was not a nurse. I was no one. I was not any good at all. I was useless. I was clumsy and awkward. Heavens to Betsy, I was merely a child! And these people were in need of help. But I had nothing to give them – I was just a little girl.
I could hear the sound of running water. It looked shady, it looked cool. This was where I had expected to find David and Edward again. But, how ridiculous! They were both dead. I knew that. Yet still I had imagined I would find them here. To my oldest brother, Edward, I would again be a plaything, a bauble. A willing servant. To David, I would again be a keepsake and a disciple. Eleven years stood between David and me, yet we were two of a kind. David was my bottomless well of happiness. David was a promise of what the world could be.
People thought that boys were the best of everything: strong, helpful, useful, smart. And my brothers were that, too. They had always been the cream on the milk, the handle on the churn, the diamond on the ring. Then why, oh why, if these men were all so good, so much better than us girls, why did they send them all off to be killed by the Hun? Why couldn’t they send Vera instead? She would have been unable to dig a trench, of course, or touch her lilywhite hands to the metal of a rifle, but the Hun may have stopped in their tracks at the soft waves in her dark hair, the elegant turn of her ankle. Then they would have shot her dead. And David and Edward and I would have been able to live forever together, and Mother and Father would not have turned into cranky, saggy, silent old people.
When I thought of Vera I thought of The Rape of the Lock: ‘A Cherub’s face, a reptile all the rest; Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust; Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust.’
To Vera, I was an annoyance of the highest order, an object of supreme irritation and disgust. From the moment I was born, we could not be left alone in a room together. When I was a baby, she had tried to kill me in a hundred different ways. By lying on top of me in my crib; by putting the cat in the crib with me; by filling my mouth with bread; by hitting me on the head, first with her hand, then with the heaviest object she could find: a book, a slate, a shoe. She would hold me in a loving embrace until someone looked away and then let me fall to the ground.
Even in the same room Mother had to make sure she or one of the boys stood between Vera and me, until I was old enough to defend myself and be aware of her movements.
When I was older I had discovered my own ways of attack. I put droplets of honey in her hairbrush; I cut tiny holes in the back of her best dress, so small that she wouldn’t notice them when putting it on at home, large enough that boys could see them and see through to her underwear when she was out in the daylight.
At the creek, the peaceful swaying of the eucalypts mocked my agitation. I clambered down and drank, half choking in my breathlessness.
The three boys had followed me. The middle one – Jack – carried the baby. They were still wordless and staring. The baby’s face was bright red with heat. I slipped down into the shallow rocky water, my skirt billowed and finally I began to feel cooler and calmer. The boys got in the water, too. The water seeped into the baby’s wrappings and her crying halted. Jack wiped her face with wet hands. He dribbled water from his mouth into the baby’s mouth.
‘Don’t do that,’ I said.
They all looked at me.
‘It’s disgusting,’ I told them.
The sound of the baby’s crying was appalling and constant and got right on my wick. ‘What is wrong with that child?’ I asked.
‘She’s a baby. She cries,’ said Douglas.
Jack then climbed out and emptied her nappy while I looked away.
Was the baby still at the breast? Was she starving? Would Vera still be alive when I returned? Where was their father in all this? They said that their father had died. But how long ago or where or what from was not clear. Were they mistaken? They were only small children after all. But children on a farm would surely know the difference between a father who was alive and a father who was dead.
I looked at the baby in the Jack’s arms. She was supported in the crook of his elbow. Her eyes were large and brown. Her dark hair so slick against her head it looked painted on like a doll’s. I could recall nothing of their natures or behaviours or histories, if indeed they had been relayed in Vera’s letters.
The boys had got out and were on the bank sitting under the trees. Vincent, who was sucking on a thumb, put his other hand up for Elsa to grasp in her tiny fingers.
‘I am your mother’s sister.’
Vincent took his hand from Elsa’s and inserted it into his nose, where he rummaged thoughtfully.
My plan was to retrace my steps, return to Sydney. I would have to go back to the house to collect my case, then find my way to the train station. But the road had ended soon after leaving the station. I had not been paying attention on the journey. We had gone through several paddocks, over a rickety bridge, over a creek, through many trees, over a hill. There was no other habitation we passed once we had left the station. I might as well be on the moon. And how should I go? Walk? In this heat? No, later, when it was cool. But when it was cool, it would also be dark. During the time in between. That would be the best time to go. Before it is too dark, but after the sun has gone down. And maybe the moon would light my way.
Douglas said, ‘Who are you?’
‘I am your mother’s sister.’
Windows, however, must be opened from above, and not from below, and draughts avoided; cool air admitted beneath the patient’s head chills the lower strata and the floor. The careful nurse will keep the door shut when the window is open; she will also take care that the patient is not placed between the door and the open window, nor between the open fireplace and the window.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
OUTSIDE UNDER THE sun it was very hot, but inside the hut it was a darker, scalding corner of hell. I left the door open wide. As soon as it was cooler, and I had rested a bit, I would follow the tracks back to the train station.
I wanted to rip my mask off from where it hung around my neck for it felt like a noose, but I pulled it up over my face. It smelled of my old breath and sweat and was stained a dark brown from the dust and dirt, but it was a smell far better than anything that came from Vera’s corner.
Vera’s eyes opened, and this time she smiled at me, her face trusting and sweet. She held out her hand, which shook and was grimy with dried fluids – blood, snot, I know not what. I moved towards her and pulled up a seat, merely an old butter box with another animal pelt upon it, rabbit again.
‘My darling,’ Vera said, and reached for my hand. Her touch was hot as a poker, and I drew away. ‘My darling. It is so wonderful that you have come.’ She looked at me with a care I had never seen from her before, and I was transfixed. Of course I must stay and help this poor wretched creature. She was my sister. I smiled and began to say something. As she heard my voice, she stared at me intensely again and with a trembling fear.
‘John? John?’ she said. She peered behind me to the open door, then back at me with disgust, disappointment. But it was only for a moment. Then her eyes returned to the door, lost and worried, until again her face opened with delight. ‘John!’ And she shook herself free of my hand, holding it out towards the door.
I looked behind me – her gaze was so convincing. Perhaps he was not dead after all; it was only a child who had said that he was. But behind me I saw only Douglas. He took his mother’s hand. She softened and calmed at his touch.
‘Your mother is ill,’ I said. A great medical mystery solved.
His forehead creased. He nodded and waited for me to say more.
‘I shall go to town and get help when it is cooler.’
‘Everyone is sick,’ he said.
‘You all should have got inoculated. Did you not get inoculated?’
It was not as if people did not know it was coming. There were advertisements about inoculations, and notices about wearing masks and how to fit them, where to get them, how to make your own. Then it was on for young and old, and everyone pointing fingers and clearing up the dead and keeping three feet away and all the schools and churches and markets and what have you closed until further notice. You should stay in bed. You should be out in the fresh air. You should stay away from others, you should go to hospital, you should stay warm, you should stay cool. There was no end to it. Of course there were those who said it was the scourge of God on an evil people. But they had already said that of the war. They had set up the hospitals in readiness, but there were not enough nurses or doctors to staff them because they were all still trying to get home from the war. It was all the doctors and nurses and soldiers coming home that was bringing it to us. Why didn’t they all just stay where they were? Hadn’t we had enough death?
‘The infection is not so bad in the country,’ I reassured Douglas. But I knew we were both then thinking of his father, dead. Tell him that it was ‘not so bad here as in the city’. Tell my brother David that the battle he died in was a great victory for the Allies.
‘Father was sick. Then he died.’ His eyes danced around the room, looking for something to rest upon.
Vera rolled over and said ‘John, John’ to the splintery wall against which her bed stood.
‘But they must have come to see your father?’
‘Who?’ said Douglas. He looked hopeful and more childlike than his younger brothers just then.
‘When did they come for your father?’
‘Come for him?’ he echoed.
Exasperating child. ‘When did they take his body?’
‘Father is in the scullery,’ he said.
Despite all the death that surrounded us over these years, I had not seen the flesh nor face of the dead before. The war dead were far away. Those sick with the influenza back home died fast and were disposed of with little ceremony. Children, girls in particular, were not allowed at funerals. Those who died in the war had no funerals. Their bodies remained where they fell, in mud or in trees, splintered and wracked. The young men died, the telegram boys knocked, the mothers wailed, the sisters comforted, the older men shut up their doors and cleared their throats.
We walked out the back door where the roof extended to an awning covering large stone tubs, and across the earthen floor – a few slabs of wood that made a floor of sorts – and upon that a dead man, covered to the chin with a dirty sheet. I realised that this was not their father, for he was a black man. I raised my hand to cover my nose and mouth, and the movement disturbed the blanket of flies that was upon the sheet and the face. Flies flew out of the mouth. Douglas looked on, stepping behind me a little. He was now not sure if he should have shown me. Had he done something wrong?
‘Someone will come,’ I said as we hurried inside away from the sight.
‘They come in the evenings usually,’ Jack, the middle one, told me.
‘There. See,’ I said.
They would come in the evening. I would no doubt meet them halfway on the road. They would take me back home to Mother and Father. These people who would come – practical women and strong farming men – would laugh and be disapproving of my childish weakness, but they would see what a child I was and they would send me back home. They would take on what needed to be done here. They would move the body, they would wash the children, they would nurse Vera, they would provide food, they would stop them all from dying, and I would go home and play with my dolls and books.
But, until they arrived, there was no they; there was only me. Until then, there was only us children.
I felt as though a game was being played, a trick, or a test. Yet how to play? I had no rule book, no one to ask. Just as the air was still, the children, too, were strangely unmoving, looking, waiting. Vera also was still. The dead black man, the dirty children. My sister.
Something had to be done about the dead man. The smell was dreadful, and surely there was infection. It had to be gotten rid of. The miasma, the smell, the sight. I checked that my mask was on. It was wet with sweat. Oh, the flies and the heat. Could I dig a hole for the body? Should I order the others to do it? How would we get the body moved? Would moving it be the wrong thing to do? I did not feel it would be right to make such a decision.
There was a loud and sudden cracking sound, and I jumped, my eyes wide.
The three boys stared at me in wonder. Not at all perturbed.
Eventually, Jack said, ‘It’s the roof. When it gets hot, it makes that sound.’
My ignorance was sinking into the faces of the two older boys. The sun was lowering into the afternoon, but the heat was not abating. It would be several hours before I could start my trek back, and I was not sure how best to spend the time. Clearly lolling about in the library was not an option. Nor playing with kittens among juicy nectarines in the orchard. And scones with jam and cream appeared to be completely off the menu.
‘Water,’ Vera moaned.
The boys looked at me. I saw neither trust nor fear.
‘Where do I get the water?’ I asked them. There was clearly no tap, and if there were a well, I had not yet seen it.
‘Water,’ Vera asked again. Then she seemed to like the taste of the word, for she kept saying it over and over in a highly irritating fashion. She was still the Vera that demanded and forbade me as a child. I did not quail in the face of her suffering. As always, I just wanted to give in to her for some peace and quiet, to have her leave me alone.
‘The waterhole,’ said Jack.
‘Where we just were?’
Why did they not bring water back when we were down there? Why didn’t the boys tell me this was where they got the water from earlier? Was this really how they got water? No tap, no well? Could they really be such doltish savages? It was still blazing hot and getting hotter. How long had Vera been without water?
The boys and Maisie, instead of helping me, wandered off in another direction. These boys, like all boys I knew (except for Edward and David), were useless, soft in the head and lazy.
I huffed and puffed as I stomped my angry way back towards the creek. I was supposed to be here in a place of quiet and idyllic bliss. I was supposed to be here to get away from Mother and Father. Perhaps to teach them something of a lesson. I was here for the quiet and the beauty and the cool and the peace: A land of sombre, silent hills, where mountain cattle go; By twisted tracks, on sidelings deep, where giant gum trees grow. And the wind replies, in the river oaks, to the song of the stream below. I was here to be away from the sickness and the dying and the grief. I wanted to read the poetry books that Vera used only for decoration. But Vera’s books of poetry did not exist.
When I arrived at the creek again I discovered I had not thought of how I would get the water from here to there. In what? My hands? Why on earth did they not simply have a tap the way that proper households did?
I considered soaking myself in the waterhole and then wringing the water out into bowls in the hut. It was starting to form in my head like a stroke of clear thinking, when I turned and saw the boys, standing in a line, looking at me stupid as broomsticks. The middle one, Jack, had the baby in his arms – she seemed to be his property or some such. The dog was always beside the youngest one. They each had a wooden stick across their shoulders with a kerosene tin on each end. I watched as they filled their pails.
The patient should be fed on liquids until the doctor allows solid food. Plenty of water, barley water, lemon barley water, &c., and milk in most forms, such as soda and milk, milk beaten up with eggs, milk and barley water, &c.; sometimes broths, beef teas, &c., but no solids while the temperature lasts. Then semi-solids – jellies, custards, milk puddings; after this, white meats, such as fish, poultry, rabbit, tripe; and finally full diet, with plenty of red meats.
Dr Edith Barrett, Influenza from a Private Practice Point of View, 1919
I FED VERA as much water as she would let me. She did not open her eyes. The three boys and I stood and sat around Vera’s bed. Jack placed baby Elsa between his mother and the wall. We had each tried to give water to the baby, but she twisted her head in confusion, spluttered and sucked without taking much in. When she was quiet, she was a pretty little thing. A rosebud mouth, soft cheeks, and such tiny little toes and fingers.
I looked at the dull stupid faces of the boys. Not one of them was wearing much more than a rag upon their bodies. Their feet were bare, dirt covered their legs, faces and arms. Their hair was wild. Had the sun fried their brains? I felt like my own head was an egg being slowly boiled in its shell.
Vera, too, was dirty – perhaps dirtier than her children. She was caked in muck: dirt and dust and grime, but also in dried sprays of blood. How had she lived like this? Perhaps she had been like this, abed and crazed by nothing more than her own life, for months or even years, lost in a fantasy world that she wrote to us of. Perhaps it was not the influenza but a sickness of the mind. Why all the blood?
Looking at this place that housed my sister and her life, I saw only the bare essentials. A table, a fireplace, a broom, kerosene tins, butter boxes. I could see no food, no wardrobes, no ornaments. There was only this one room, divided by a partition. No floor. Just dirt. There were several lines of rope tied between trees with raggedy clothes and linen hanging. The whites were dark brown from the dust kicked up over the days or weeks, and the darker colours – the children’s pants, a man’s jerkin and a woman’s skirt – were fading to a vague grey in the bright light.
Outside, I fancied I heard a cow’s mournful cry. There were kangaroos and rabbits that I had seen at a distance. There were saddles about the place, and other things related to horses, bridles and bits and buckles. There were rusty pieces of machinery.
Vera’s library consisted of two frayed and faded books on the mantelpiece: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and My Brilliant Career. The first was a volume which I knew had been part of Vera’s trousseau. What had become of the rest of her trousseau? The Royal Doulton china, the silver cutlery and tea service? The crystal glasses, the lace-edged tablecloths and antimacassars, the candelabras, the rose epergne? And the many dresses and underthings, ribbons and cloaks, hats and jewellery? Where had it all gone?
Vera had always been fastidious about her appearance. She had never tried to hide her fascination with her own looks. She was in love with herself the same way all the men were in love with her: captivated and enraptured by it, warmed by its presence and unable to believe the reach of its perfection.
I alone knew that the soft dark red of her lips was just the door to a viper’s soul, a source of words that were never clever or subtle in their nastiness. ‘You are horrible, ugly and stupid,’ she would tell me. She flinched from me when we passed on the stairs or in the hall.
I remembered her in our drawing room, her bosom like soft satin pillows bursting from the dark green silk evening dress that was her favourite.
Father coyly tried to point out to her now and again that a woman could not make a life out of such things (meaning ribbons and bosoms and so on), not unless she were to go on the stage or some such. She had to marry, which was fortunate because that was what she wanted; it was the ultimate prize for her beauty – she had merely to choose her judge.
And now there she lay, beneath the skins and fur of dead animals, her beauty smeared and soiled. Part possum, part kangaroo, part rabbit. Now she was just a shapeless beast, her breath like a snoring man’s.
Was it better to sit and wait like this, to watch Vera and do nothing? And if, in the watching, I were to see something moving forward of the illness, what was I to do? In which case, what good would it be to sit here?
Someone would come. ‘They’ – an ambulance man, a doctor, a neighbour, someone from one of the emergency relief depots – would come and take over.
The boys were down by the creek when I put on my hat and my shoes. I walked across the clod-ridden paddock to the place where the stationmaster had left me. Then I followed the tracks of the wheels across the paddock where there was a fence. There was an opening in the fence, so it was clear where to go and I went through it.
I came across kangaroos sleeping on rough dry grass, and crows cawed up above. I tried to bring it together in my mind with the Banjo Paterson I had been hoping for. But my head was light with hunger.
Looking back I could no longer see the hut. I came through sparse trees and then realised that in my daydreaming I had forgotten to keep an eye out for the path, which was becoming fainter and intermittent. Several times I had to turn and go back to the hole in the fence, where the tracks were clear, and try again. I could not rely on my memory of the journey from the station because I had daydreamed and dozed as I had journeyed atop the sulky. I had looked at the small things we passed without putting them together in my thoughts as a route or a path.
I tried and tried to work out how I had got to this world where I did not belong. But all I recalled was the rocking of my body as the horse ranged over the rough ground. I remembered the presence of a strange man sitting beside me and I remembered thoughts of my dead brothers and of what the countryside in France might be like.
I walked and sweated until I felt sure I would drop. When I realised that I had to turn back once again, I was without energy or hope. All I had inside me was thirst and hunger. I found a tree, one of the few I had passed in this so-called ‘bush’. I sat with my back hard up against the bark. I watched as a kestrel fluttered and hovered not far off, waiting in blank air for the longest time before shifting its position only slightly and quivering elegantly again, creating a stillness that was made of pure movement.
Two kookaburras eased into a gentle chuckle from somewhere near and high. Not far off I noticed there was now a group of kangaroos in the lee of a small hill. Two of the kangaroos stood tall and tussled brutally at each other while the rest ate and ate at the food that they stood upon.
I roused myself, for I had indeed been sleeping a little, and began the walk back in the direction I had come. As I drew into sight of my sister’s home I walked through clouds of tiny insects. The sun was down but the light still clear, and a discordant choir of kookaburras and magpies pushed me forward.
When I settled down on my bed of dirt beside Vera, she rolled over and said to me, ‘They told me there would be dancing.’ I reached out to feel her forehead and suffered a wave of intense emotion for this, my sister, always older than me, haughty, knowing. I saw again the discrepancy between this hovel and the lilting grand life that Mother, Father and I had believed in for so many years. That life evaporated in a puff of cool mist leaving the hard reality of Vera’s lost dreams.
She opened her eyes at my touch, but then closed them and shook her head.
When a mistress takes a house in a new locality, it will be etiquette for her to wait until the older inhabitants of the neighbourhood call upon her; thus evincing a desire, on their part, to become acquainted with the new comer. It may be, that the mistress will desire an intimate acquaintance with but few of her neighbours, but it is to be specially borne in mind that all visits, whether of ceremony, friendship, or condolence, should be punctiliously returned.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
THE NEXT MORNING we all woke with a start to an ear-splitting bark from Maisie, who then flew out the door. The boys and I followed. It was the herald of the long-awaited ‘they’ who had not turned up the day before.
I had forgotten to put my boots on in my hurry, so I ran over the ground barefoot and in pain at every step. The sulky stood in the same place it had dropped me off, but it was not the same man driving. It was a younger man and a woman, perhaps the same age as Mother. The woman atop the sulky looked distracted but strong and knowledgeable. She was climbing down as we approached. The three boys and I would be exchanged for this woman. I would gladly go without my case or my shoes, which were back in the hut.
I began calling my story, the misunderstanding, how I was not a nurse and I needed to go back home to Sydney and they needed to get someone here to help with the boys. And the baby and the mother. ‘And there is a black man in the scullery!’
‘Father was sick,’ Jack told them.
‘Father died,’ said Douglas.
I walked towards them, ready to get on board, but both the woman and man shouted at me to stay back. The woman put a pot on the ground and climbed up again.
Vincent was crying, and it was hard to hear what the two people were saying to us.
I went a few steps closer. ‘It is not their father who died,’ I told the woman. ‘I do not know who it is. My sister, Vera, is sick and there is a dead black man in the scullery.’
Vincent looked hopeful and moved closer to me.
‘See, he isn’t dead, Dougie! She said he isn’t, Dougie. It isn’t Dad.’
Douglas frowned at me. ‘It is father, it is,’ he said.
Jack looked very confused as he turned from me to Douglas to Vincent.
‘Tisn’t, tisn’t,’ sang Vincent, wiping his tears and cuddling into Maisie on the dirt.
‘A black man?’ the woman asked.
We were straining forward to hear. Any attempt we made to get closer to them was answered by a movement in equal measure away from us.
I nodded, but Douglas contradicted me loudly. ‘No, it is father. He got sick three days ago. He died yesterday. Mother got sick then.’
‘But he is black,’ I said, irritated.
The woman looked at me and then at Douglas, deciding who to believe.
‘In the worst cases, the blood turns thick and dark and clogs the lungs so they cough blood. They turn grey then purple then black. That is why some think it is the plague, because the dead are often black. The doctor told us that the oxygen that makes the blood red cannot get into the blood. The lips and ears turn blue or purple while the rest of them goes grey like ashes,’ she said.
Douglas was wet-eyed but quiet. Jack, the middle one, pinched Vincent, the youngest, which made him howl and then Douglas slapped Jack on the back of the head. They all looked at me as though this violence were my fault.
The woman touched the man’s arm, and he gently flicked the reins on the back of the horse.
‘Wait!’ I called. They stopped and looked. ‘What…what shall we do?’ I asked. ‘How are we to live?’
She whispered to the man and he whispered back. We stood there awaiting our fate.
‘Keep a clean house, eat well and drink water. We will try to come again tomorrow. How bad is your sister?’
‘I do not know.’
‘She is very sick,’ said Douglas. ‘Since she lost the baby.’
This boy was infuriating. No one had lost the baby. Elsa was right there in Jack’s arms. But the woman nodded.
The two figures bent to each other again.
‘What’s your name, dear?’ the woman called.
‘Margaret.’ And now I began to sniffle, for this lady sounded able, and so pitying. I pitied myself, for I knew if they would not let me come any nearer to them, they would never take me away with them.
‘I am not sick,’ I called. ‘I can come with you.’
‘Margaret, dear, we cannot take you. You must remain here now. Nobody can risk coming near…’ Her words trailed off. Now I was sobbing and so were the three boys. We stood apart from each other.
‘What about the man from the train station?’
She looked startled. ‘Martin?’
‘Yes. Him. The station master man. He could come and take me back to the station.’
‘No, no, he can’t.’ She sounded angry. ‘He is no longer with us. And travel is forbidden now. Margaret, dear, you must do the best you can. This form is more dangerous than the other.’
I coughed, and the horse quivered.
‘You must be strong, young lady. Everyone has troubles. You are not alone.’
‘Don’t leave me here,’ I cried. And I broke into a run towards them, but they turned and whipped the horses up. I ran and ran until I was out of breath and could see them no longer, just a blaze of dust against the dark dawn. I walked slowly back towards where they had left the pot, and sank to my knees beside it. My hunger momentarily thwarted by disbelief.
You are not alone. Of course I was alone. What could she have meant? Others share your suffering? You are not the only one who needs help?
The boys had known better than to chase them. They were clearly used to this desertion. They had broken out of their line and were straggling back to the house. It was as though there were more of them than just the three – they were broken into little pieces. Jack had the baby, who was crying of course. Douglas went past me and picked up the pot that had been left. I stayed where I was, kneeling there, staring after the people who had left us. Douglas gave me a look of such familiar hatred. I saw how his round face was like his mother’s as the top lip curled back and his eyes narrowed. It was Vera’s face gazing down upon me.
‘Stupid girl,’ he muttered and gave me a kick from behind, that landed on my ankle.
I stood in a rage, ‘Don’t kick me! You stupid, dirty boy!’ I pushed him hard from behind. He fell forward and the pot fell into the dirt, spilling its contents on the ground.
We all took a sharp breath in of horror. Then I took a few moments to indulge my anger, kicking him hard until he was crying and I was not.
‘See what you have done,’ I yelled and kicked him where he lay. He was no longer staring at me with a nasty insolent expression.
I scooped up as much as I could of the stew from the earth. The liquid had soaked into the ground and stringy lumps of meat and carrot were all that I could salvage. I threw it all back in the pot, even though it was coated in grit.
‘Is that all there is?’ said Jack, as he stole a glance inside the pot.
‘Your brother spilt it,’ I said.
‘It’s got bits in it.’ Jack had put his hand in and pulled out a small stone, which he nonetheless put into his mouth to suck off the taste.
‘You made me,’ said Douglas. ‘You pushed me.’
‘Don’t talk back to me,’ I said. I was much taller than he was. ‘You shouldn’t have dropped it.’
‘You shouldn’t have pushed me.’
I wanted to slap him in the face the way his mother used to. I drew back my hand. But then he jumped upon me, all knees and fists. I called to his brothers for help. But instead they heeded Douglas’s calls to sit upon me so he could better hit me. Douglas snarled and spat above me, smacking me in the face with his closed fist. I was so taken by surprise I barely defended myself. Despite my recent foray into violence, I was not accustomed to actual fighting. It had been so many years since Vera and I had entwined ourselves in our vicious tussles. I fought back as best I could when I regained my senses somewhat. I closed my eyes and screamed and flailed like a wild cat with no clear aim. I would like to kill them all with my fingernails and rip their hair out.
Then Jack called out, ‘Maisie is at the stew.’ Jack jumped on Maisie and pulled her away. Vincent tried to comfort her as she whimpered from the violent thump she had got from Douglas when he snatched the pot and saw that it was now empty.
‘You idiot,’ I said to Douglas. But I was too tired to try to hit him again and too worried the three of them might turn on me once more.
‘It’s all your fault.’ Douglas squinted at me, casting a spell.
Underneath my hatred there was a sorrow I remembered from years as the little sister.
‘Naughty Maisie,’ said Vincent. ‘She didn’t mean it.’
Jack sank down in the corner crying. Vincent watched his brother indifferently while Maisie cuddled up to him and licked the snot from his nose. Douglas left the hut and started kicking something outside.
I had always thought I was a good person, one of the best of all the kinds of people there were in the world. I was a little bit smarter than everyone else, a little bit taller. A little bit more awkward perhaps. But it was only people’s shallowness that they did not see what a superior creature I was at heart. Yet here I had seen myself as a hungry scrabbling animal.
How could it have come to this? All that poetry? Were we all to descend to this, given the right or the wrong circumstances? Was I especially nasty?
I had never felt so split in two before. Was I not a good person?
HOW TO TREAT INFLUENZA PATIENTS
Bed should be sought at the onset of symptoms. Complete rest is the best way to prevent complications. Plenty of food and water should be taken. Quinine, salicylates, acetyl-salicylic acid, and phenacetin have proved to be the most useful drugs in relieving symptoms. They do not, however, prevent or cure influenza. Air and light should freely enter the room. Owing to the dangerous complications that may follow even a mild case of influenza, medical advice should be obtained early.
Professor Wade Oliver, Spanish Influenza, All About It
WHEN I WOKE, I had a headache and a sore neck and I was cold. My mask was soaked with sweat and dribble, and my hunger was a deep pit of wanting. Jack and Vincent had fallen asleep on either side of their mother; dirty and shrinking into her for warmth. It was hard to believe in this cold after it had been so horribly hot all day long the previous day. At least this might mean a milder day ahead without that searing blinding heat.
In the night, through the creaking of the trees, I had been briefly woken by howling. Then a demonic growling, and a dragging and wet gristling. Maisie had whimpered and whined in response so that I had to put my hands over my ears. I had held tight to the empty animals that lay upon me and pushed my face deep into the blanket that separated me from the earth. But after that I had slept like someone in a fairytale drugged by an evil witch.
‘Last night I heard wolves,’ I told Douglas as we lay there waiting for a reason to get out of bed.
‘You didn’t hear wolves,’ he said.
‘I did. They were howling.’
‘There aren’t wolves,’ said Vincent in his lispy little-boy voice. ‘Wolves are only pretend, in kids’ stories.’
‘Dingoes. Or wild dogs,’ said Douglas.
I was, of course, wrong about the day not being as hot as yesterday. The sun was still low in the sky, and yet the heat drilled into my skin, and my hair was hot treacle upon my head. I could not fathom or keep up with this vast difference between night and day. At night so cold, one could not imagine the heat of the day; and the day so hot one dreamed of the chill night to come.
I looked about the place once more for food. But the house was so completely empty of sustenance that I still found it hard to believe that this was not some outpost of their real home, which was elsewhere. Perhaps for some reason they had come to camp here and had become trapped in this limbo.
‘Do you always live here?’ I asked the boys.
They looked confused.
‘I have searched and there is nothing here. No food. No belongings. Is this the place where you always live, where you eat and sleep and so on?
‘Yes,’ said Douglas.
‘But, it can’t be. What do you eat?’
They looked blankly at me.
‘We don’t need your help,’ said Douglas.
‘Don’t you have neighbours?’ I asked Douglas. ‘Can’t you ride a horse? Go and see if they can give us some food.’
‘Mother already tried, when Father first was unwell. We only have two lots of neighbours. She went to the McArthurs first, because they are close enough to walk to in a day, but when she came back she told us they couldn’t help. Then she rode the horse over to our other neighbours, the Lonsdales, which is much further away, over the mountain, but she felt sick on the way and had to come back. We were waiting for Grandma to turn up. But then Father died and Mother got even sicker and you turned up.
I tried to imagine my sister, the grand beauty, riding a horse, in the heat and dust, asking strangers for help. It was unfathomable.
‘But how do you survive? There is no bread. There is no meat. There isn’t even sugar or salt.’ I was thinking they had perhaps resorted to some other form of sustenance, secret hoards of berries or roots or mushrooms.
‘We don’t need sugar or salt,’ said Jack.
Vincent nodded. But then he said wistfully, ‘I like salt.’
‘Food. What do you eat?’ I motioned as if to savages who spoke no English. ‘Chickens, eggs, a cow? Milk?’ I suggested. Only Maisie looked as though she comprehended.
‘There is the cow,’ said Vincent.
‘Father…’ said Douglas.
‘Every morning, Douglas milks the cow,’ Vincent said.
‘Mother makes bread,’ said Jack proudly.
‘You have a cow? Where?’
Douglas chimed in now. ‘Yes. We have a cow. We take the milk to town every week and in exchange we get some flour and Mother makes bread.’
‘Father said that we have to tighten our belts since the drought. And the wall,’ said Vincent.
‘The war, dummy,’ said Douglas. ‘The war not the wall.’
Jack said, ‘And Father brings home rabbits. And Father was going to slaughter a sheep. But then he got sick.’
‘What your father was going to do is of no use to us now,’ I said. ‘How long has it been like this?’
Jack and Vincent blinked. Douglas ignored me.
‘Where is the cow?’
‘We forgot…’ said Vincent.
‘You forgot? Is there anything else you have forgotten? A batch of scones? A bag of oranges? A vegetable garden? A side of pork?’
‘I didn’t forget. It’s just that, since Father…’ Douglas tried again.
They were thin and dirty and confused.
Then I realised: Douglas would have had to go past his dead father to get to the cow.
‘The wolves…’ Vincent’s lip trembled.
‘There are no wolves,’ I said and went out the back door.
Their father was not where I had last seen him. There was a trail in the dirt of thick brown and black. The sheet that had been under and over him was ripped but had been dragged with him. I was angry at this man for dying and pretending to be a black man and then scaring the life out of us by being torn apart by wild dogs and, now, birds. For there were ravens the size of dogs pecking at the carcass, which was some way off. I did not want to slow down and give myself a chance to revise my intention. Perhaps dealing with dead bodies was a skill I should get started on. I unfocused my eyes as I grabbed the corner of the sheet and used it to drag what was left across the dirt and into the trees. Once there I pulled him as far as I could into the trees and covered him with as many leaves and branches as possible. No one would be able to see him from the house. I used a small branch to brush the drag marks away. I went around to the front door, nearly frightening the life out of Vincent and Douglas who were staring at the closed back door.
‘Douglas, you can go to the cow now.’
He opened the door gingerly and peeked about. I had done not just boys’ work but men’s work, without even thinking, and they had trembled behind a door like little girls. Douglas looked back at me and walked slowly over to a paddock beyond a ramshackle building I had not paid attention to before.
I turned to Vincent. ‘What else is there? Eggs?’
Vincent explained that foxes ate all the chickens because when their father got sick, they forgot to lock them away.
‘And what else? Oats, bread, vegetables? Meat?’
He just stared at me.
My feet were hot and swollen in my boots. Who would be here to tell me that it was not ladylike to show one’s ankles, or that one should wear this or that or sit with one’s knees together? Nobody. So I unlaced my boots, and the dirt felt cool and smooth beneath my feet.
The emptiness was scratching inside my belly again as I sat on the edge of the porch, my naked feet in the dirt. The door to the house was open, and I looked back over my shoulder at Vera. She reached an arm out to me. Her black hair stuck to her pale brow, her lips were a dark purple. I wondered if I would have left Vera to die if the boys were not there as witnesses to my cowardice. On the other hand, I might have been more caring of Vera if the boys were not present, if I did not feel their dislike and watchfulness at all times. I dug into myself to see if I could not become a person of strength, someone who could help others, someone who could be of use. I found little except hunger. I tried to imagine Vera as she was when she was my age. I tried to have pity for her.
Vera was pretty, an adornment. She brought happiness to people just from having them look at her. I might be useless, but she was less than useless. It served her right to be so ill. But it didn’t serve me right. I had come here to help, not to deal with this grot and grime. I excelled at school. I should likely go to university someday. But all the poems I could quote, all the maths I could solve, all the capitals of countries I could recite were of little use. I could not eat facts; I could not heal with facts.
I did not have physical strength or prowess. I was clumsy. But even so, how much dexterity did it take to survive? Robinson Crusoe had done it. Surely any imbecile could do it. Vera had done it. But how, when she did not have a cook or a maid? When there was no market from which to buy cheese, no baker from which to buy bread, no grocer to buy oranges or apples or potatoes from, no butcher to kill the animal and cut it up, no fire to cook the meat, and no money to buy any of these things? How did it work? How did life work? And how on earth did anyone expect me to make it work?
I took down Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management again, looking for the answers to my questions. The woman who had come on that first day had told me with some emphasis to ‘keep a clean house’ when I had asked her what I should do about the influenza, so I expected to find in Mrs Beeton’s book something about keeping illness at bay through expelling all dust using special instruments or through washing the walls. At home, it took at least five servants plus Mother and Father organising them to keep a clean house. How was I supposed to keep a clean house on my own? Being one person, I could not do it all. I had to decipher what was important and what was not. How is one to know such things?
The book fell open at a page pertaining to the hiring and firing of butlers and maids and the difficulty in finding good help. A page describing how to smoke a kipper had a bookmark holding the place. The sections titled Etiquette and Entertaining were also well thumbed. The reader was told that the ball was generally opened with the Lady of the House dancing the first quadrille, and that during the week after the ball the hostess should expect to receive from every guest a call or a card expressing the gratification experienced from her entertainment.
I think perhaps I dozed off for some time, because I sat up with a jolt to hear the baby screaming and the boys yelling at each other. Douglas had been unable to get any milk out of the cow. He said she only gave her milk in the mornings. This I did not understand. What difference did it make to the cow as to when she gave her milk? But I had no choice. I did not know how to get milk out of a cow. So we filled ourselves again with water, and the night came fast and damp after that.
I lay my ragged bedding on the floor beside Vera, the pain in my stomach writhing, and the smell of the earth rising up. I had come here looking forward to smelling the earth. It was a smell that I had desired, but I had imagined it from a distance and laced with jasmine and straw, not a trampled floor an inch from my nostrils. But it was at least a smell that covered a little of the stench around me: the soiled bedding of my sister; the mess of a baby and the distinct odour of Maisie.
The three boys, the baby and the dog slept together under a pile of animal pelts and a rough blanket on a sawdust mattress. I wanted to get my teddy bear out of my case but I was too tired and sore to even do that. I wanted to sleep, the sooner to wake up to some fresh milk. But my mind tortured me with thoughts of food, memories of lunches of lamb cutlets and pork chops. My imagination fed me baked rice pudding, queen pudding and little meringues. Sunday meal at home was always a roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and baked potato. Then apple pie. In summer it was the same except we had ‘deceptive pudding’ for afters. That was stewed apple rubbed through the sieve with the white of an egg. For dinner we would have arrowroot biscuits soaked in milk.
I heard Vera’s breath rise and fall, and in my weakness I reached up a hand to touch a part of her – a hand, an arm, a lock of hair – something to remind me we were family. Vera felt the movement, snorted and flung my hand away.
I hated Vera, and Vera hated me. How could I have forgotten that for even for a moment? She was vain and selfish and stupid. Edward and David had been the best of us.
I remembered waking often in the night, each time feeling colder. I looked over and saw Vera shivering, but perhaps this was a symptom of the influenza. My lips were hard and dry; my nose was wet, my throat felt tickly. Was this how it began? Had it passed from Vera to me? Did it travel through the air, the miasma, the poisonous fog of the breath of those infected? Was it in the dirt that stayed upon their hands and moved on to the next person they touched? I had brashly ignored the sights and stories of the influenza. People dying of a cold must be weak and stupid. And selfish – it meant the libraries were closed and the schools were closed. The activities that kept my life afloat were sucked away by this illness that ducked and weaved and tricked. It was like Vera herself, and I wanted to show it that it could not hurt me because I did not care one jot for it or what it could do.
Sooner or later, everyone would die. First, it was all the men who died in the war, all the brothers and sons and husbands and fathers. Edward and David. Now it was the turn of the women. The mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters and daughters. Then it would move down the line like hand-me-down clothes. I felt for my mask before realising it had been ripped off in the scuffle yesterday. I looked across and saw it on the floor, torn and filthy.
The two most important points to remember about the influenza are –
(1) It is infectious; (2) The patient is very ill.
Dr Edith Barrett, Influenza From a Private Practice Point of View, 1919
I HAD WONDERED over the signs of the coming of the illness, as if it would creep up and ask quietly to be recognised. But things were much simpler than that. I was waking up, discovering anew that I was sleeping on the floor of a bark hut in the middle of the country, beginning to daydream of warm scones with jam and cream, when I heard Jack get out of bed. He placed baby Elsa next to his mother on her bed.
Then he fell down unconscious, and his face landed right beside mine. His slack features shone with sweat, and he panted like a dog, his tongue protruding. As I watched, blood came out of his nose. It did not dribble or ooze but shot out in a spurt that hit me on the chin, warm and bright.
I was shocked to find that, until now, until the exact moment that I found myself lying with my face in the dirt, with my sister dying beside me and my face spattered with a boy’s hot blood, I had not believed any of it. Before this assault of blood and horror, somewhere deep inside I had doubted the very existence of, first, the murderous Hun and, now, this pestilence of the influenza. Until this, I had not seen either of them. I had not touched them or heard them or smelt them. Just as no one here ever saw the breath leaving the brothers and fathers and sons who had gone to the Great War and not returned. The Great War was just some ghastly game of chess where the men were taken away here and there, until all that was left was a bunch of silly women running around looking under the furniture hopelessly for their men.
I leapt to my feet, all thought of my sore limbs and hungry stomach forgotten. Then Vera moaned, rolled onto her side and vomited upon the floor. I shifted her back into her bed, for she was in danger of falling on her son.
Vincent was now awake and standing nearby. ‘Mummy,’ he wailed. Then he cuddled Maisie.
Douglas, too, had gotten out of bed. He looked at me, my face bloodied, Jack on the floor, his face surrounded by blood that continued to come from his nose, his face white. Douglas took a step towards his mother. I took a step back. Then Vera retched again, this time violently, but her eyes still did not open. What dripped upon the floor was a pinkish foaming liquid. Douglas looked at me again. We were cringing away from each other and away from Vera, who seemed to have passed out, a long line of the pink stuff hanging to the floor from her mouth. If all those men who fussed over her trying to get on her dance card could see her now, I thought. Douglas took his next step backwards. He turned and ran out the door, and I heaved Vera into a sitting position.
For the first time since I arrived, for the first time since I could remember, my body worked faster than my mind. I bent over Jack. Vincent was still whimpering in the corner, his eyes huge, his whining driving into my head.
‘Go back to bed,’ I yelled at him, and he obeyed. I kneeled down beside Jack. Jack opened his eyes but looked confused and uncomprehending. ‘It’s alright,’ I told him. ‘Lie still.’ He coughed weakly and closed his eyes, insensible on the ground once more.
Vincent was peering around the corner of the partition to see. He repeated my words to his brother. ‘It’s alright, Jack. You be okay.’
I tried to remember the instructions I had heard. Keep them in bed. Keep them warm. Keep them cool. Make them drink water, perhaps. I found a cloth and wet it, then wiped most of the blood from Jack’s face, but the blood kept coming from his nose. I rolled him onto his side so the blood would run into the cloth that I put under his cheek.
I looked out the door for Douglas and called his name, but he was nowhere.
When I returned to Vera, Maisie had licked up all that had been on the floor and was happily washing Vera’s face of any remaining goop with her tongue. I shooed her away. I filled a basin from the now shallow tin of water, and found another cloth and wiped Vera’s forehead. She did not move. Blood still dribbled from the corner of her mouth. She coughed, and a light mist of blood sprayed from her mouth.
What was all this? I imagined the influenza to be sneezing and coughing and so forth. A runny nose, not all this retching and fainting and bleeding. Many of us had had the flu before. It meant a few days off school, time in bed to read. Father had come down with it just before we heard about Edward dying in Palestine. Father simply slept a lot and stayed home from work at the bank. He was brought his meals on a tray. I was allowed in to see him and, in fact, he seemed to be having a fine old time, sitting up in bed, reading magazines and newspapers.
I turned my attention once again to Jack. I lifted him back on to the bed as easily as if I had spent my life lifting bodies. I looked about several times for Douglas, but he was still nowhere to be seen.
I took off my sailor dress and began to rip the skirt into strips to be used as cloths. When I had transformed it to convenient rags, I stood wearing only my camisole and pantaloons. I took one of the tins of water and began cleaning and caring for Vera.
I wiped Vera’s face, her neck, her hands. I felt the heat rising from her skin. I drew back the pelts. Her breathing was loud.
Vincent kept a watch over Jack, calling to me if there were any change.
‘Margaret, there’s more blood coming.’
‘Margaret, he is all red in the face now.’
‘Margaret, his hair looks funny.’
‘His hair looks funny.’
Each time I left Vera’s side to see – I do not know why, for what could I do? I would check that Jack was breathing. I cleaned away the blood that continued to ooze from his nose. If he seemed too hot, I would pull the covers back and tell Vincent to mop him with wet cloths, and if he seemed cold, we would cover him with more pelts and blankets. I also put Vincent in charge of making Jack drink as much water as he could. This was a tricky job, but Vincent did it seriously and used much ingenuity to get water into his brother’s mouth whenever he showed the smallest sign of being conscious. Maisie often licked blood off his face as soon as it appeared.
The baby was sleeping. I did not want more crying, so I left her where Jack had put her beside her mother.
When Jack seemed to be breathing easier, I sent Vincent to the creek to bring back water, which he eagerly did. But the kerosene tins when he returned were all but empty. ‘I must have spilt some on the way back,’ he said. ‘Usually I am too small to do it. Dougie does it mainly.’
I tried to hide my disappointment, for he seemed exhausted from his efforts.
I turned back to my sister. ‘You will be fine,’ I told her jauntily as I tried to get water down her throat. My sister will die, was what I was thinking. I told Vincent, ‘Jack is a big strong boy. He will get well soon.’ He looked so weak. ‘It will be nice when they bring us a lovely fresh pot of stew this evening.’ All the adults of the world have left me here with these children.
I rolled Vera onto her back and adjusted her covers, for although it was stifling hot, her skin was cold, wet and pale. Only then did I notice the stench rising from beneath and find that she had soiled herself with every kind of stuff and that she had been lying in this for days, and it had dried, making the bedding stiff and hard. Then I remembered that she had been with child.
The laundry maid should commence her labours on Monday morning by a careful examination of the articles committed to her care, and enter them in the washing book; separating the white linen and collars, sheets and body-linen, into one heap, fine muslins into another, coloured cotton and linen fabrics into a third, woollens into a fourth, and the coarser kitchen and other greasy cloths into a fifth.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
TO CHANGE THE linen and clean Vera up was a problem I was not sure how to solve. At home, the housemaid would collect our laundry. Our underthings, our clothes and the linen were all put in separate baskets. Then the scullery maid would label them and list them in the laundry book. They were collected from my floor where I left them and they reappeared on Thursdays in my cupboard, folded, the creases tight and smooth. The tablecloths and serviettes were arranged on the mahogany dining table fresh and cool. The housemaid changed the linen on the beds every week. But I had never seen them do it, or if I had, I had taken no notice.
I began by taking the baby out of the bed, gently so as not to wake her. I lay her down with Jack. The blood had dried on his top lip. I felt a moment of dizziness as I straightened my aching back.
I peeled off the layers covering Vera. On top was a blanket made of soft grey rabbit fur, then one of kangaroo and then a sheepskin. Each weighed more than I had imagined. She now had only a sheet upon her. Her pillow was hidden beneath her dark mass of hair. She was a grotesque sleeping beauty: red lips, white skin and dark hair, but filthy, matted, mottled.
I kept the top sheet draped across her. The bottom sheet had become wrapped about her legs and shoulders, like a shroud. I tugged and pulled at it, trying to extract it from her and from the mattress and other bedclothes. To no avail. At least Vera seemed insensible to the pushing and pulling I was doing. Eventually I untangled it from her legs, but it was still stuck beneath her. She was too heavy for me to simply pull it out from under her. Or else she was glued to it with all the muck. I needed to use more force. I stood on one foot, putting my other foot against her hip and pulling at the sheet below; I managed to push her so that she rolled towards the wall. She landed on her face with her thighs exposed to the world, but I had set the sheet free and I laughed at my small triumph.
I turned to see Douglas in the doorway, watching as I stood laughing over his soiled, half-naked deathly ill mother. The look on his face was one of fury and disgust. I pushed him back and shut the door, leaving Vera and me in the stifling, stinking room again.
I removed the top sheet and her nightdress in a strenuous dance of rolling and lifting and shoving and rocking. It was now that I realised that I should have cleaned her before taking off the sheets, for now I would have to clean her while she lay on the naked mattress. Why was I so bad at things, at planning and doing and knowing the best way to do things? It would have been better to drag her down to the creek and throw her in.
These were not interesting problems to solve. I knew that nurses and mothers and so on must do this every day – in a more efficient way – and that I was having to solve a problem for myself that had been solved many times before by other people. It was not a problem for which there was reward or glory; no prize for performing well in cleaning bedclothes.
The image I had of gently wiping my sister’s face to reveal a cleaner, better sister foundered when I discovered that the crud on her was hardened and required brutal scrubbing to remove. I had to hold her head firm against the pillow with one hand while rubbing hard with the other. The water was soon dirty. It was mainly dried blood of different types, blood from the nose and blood from the mouth. Old blood, crusty and black, new blood, deep red, dark auburn, rusty brown, sweat that smelled and stained, and dirt as if she had been rolling on the ground.
It was a short time before I had to change the tin for a fresh amount of water. This time I found a smaller bowl, a wooden one, and poured a little into it and used that for four or five wipes until it was dark. Then I tipped that water out and filled the bowl with fresh water from the tin and so on.
When I had cleaned her face, I stood back and admired my handiwork. She looked so much better. But now my back ached, and I felt hotter than ever.
I managed to wrestle her hair back from her face and tied a string tightly about it. I wiped Vera’s neck, for the blood had drained from all sides of her face down her neck. When her neck was clean, I tried to reach beneath the kangaroo pelt without looking or noting what I was wiping. There was no other way but to go at it like hard physical labor. Through all of this Vera showed little sign of life. She did not cough or sneeze or show signs of illness. Now and then I glimpsed her eyeballs rolling senselessly beneath her lids. I rubbed and scrubbed at little bits of skin at a time. I brought the water jug and basin close. I just about rubbed a hole in the rag. It was heavy work moving a body about that did not lift itself. I devised ways that were better than others of getting at parts of her. I realised afterwards that there were better methods and I planned to use those the next time.
The next time? I would have to do this again? The room came swinging back at me as I recalled that this was my sister and this was where I was.
I had been so intent upon the small wipes, the cupping of the rag, the scrubbing at caked-on clumps of blood that had formed on her chest from what she coughed up days ago, I had been absorbed in my task and the thinking of how best to do it. I had for a moment forgotten the realities: I did not know what I was doing and we were all going to die. What point was there in breaking my back to clean Vera when we would all die. I should instead be working out a way to get someone who could help us all. I should be finding food and a way to survive.
I thought of how it would soon get cold again. I thought of making a fire. Did that not mean firewood? From where? I had seen men chop wood. I had seen children chop wood. Perhaps there was some already chopped somewhere about the place. How does one light a fire? There were too many things to weigh up and no answers arrived as to which to choose and which order to do things in.
When Vincent and Douglas returned with the last tins of water for the day, they stared at Vera, peaceful and pale without the brown and red of illness and neglect stuck to her. I was proud of her body as evidence of my skill. I had transformed a caterpillar into a butterfly. It was like having solved a maths problem, perhaps not the best way, not the quickest way, but solved without teacher nor book nor help.
‘Is she dead?’ asked Vincent.
‘No, she is not dead,’ I said, irritated.
And now more decisions. What should I do next? Again and again I thought of leaving. Of trying to find my way back to the train station. I told myself I would be going to get help for the boys and Vera. If I left here, wouldn’t it be better for everyone?
I told Douglas to get the things off the clothesline – there were sheets and tablecloths hanging there that in normal circumstances one would never have used again, for they looked as though they had been hanging there since before the war.
‘That’s not boys’ stuff,’ was his response.
Vincent enlarged upon the theme, ‘That’s girls’ work. We are boys.’
‘You’ll do as you are told.’ How good it felt to hear myself say to Vera’s children what she had so often said to me.
Douglas stood in indecision. Vincent looked up at him for a sign.
I would give them a sign, I thought, and I drew myself up to my full height and growled at them. ‘You will do as I ask.’ I wanted to stamp my foot, but stopped myself, realising this would look like a child’s tantrum. Douglas locked eyes with me and cocked his head a little.
‘Cleaning is a girl’s job,’ he muttered.
‘It should be a doddle for you then? Isn’t girls’ work easier than boys’ work?’
He wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t sure if that was how the story went either. But he shrugged and motioned for Vincent to follow him.
Douglas started ordering Vincent around then and telling him how they would do the work better than the women ever could. They were men and they could do it faster and better. ‘Girls’ work is easy when you’re a boy,’ he told Vincent.
Life – Oh! life. Isn’t it strange how we ask only for what we took as a matter of course before – just to be allowed to live, to go on being.
Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
THE NEXT MORNING, I woke to the joyous sound of Douglas lumbering in with a pail of milk. Vincent and I dived for the warm milk. Douglas and Maisie had clearly already drunk their fill while doing the milking.
We dipped our cups in, slurping and sucking down the creamy richness. We glugged and gorged ourselves on it. When the pail was almost empty, I remembered the baby and Vera, and fed them as much as they would take, which was very little.
They consumed hardly the tiniest portion of what the boys and I had drunk. What did it take to keep a body alive? Did it take more to keep a sick person alive, or less? But I did not think of this for more than a second. Baby Elsa started to cry softly. In an effort to do something useful, I picked her up. Jack had been the one who took care of her. I realised the strength there must be in five-year-old Jack’s arms because after holding her for only a few minutes my arms ached and my neck burned. I looked at her shape in
my arms. She was so young, so small. I looked at Vera: she was so ill; she would probably die. We would all probably die. We would die from the influenza like everyone else, and it was my fault. If I had not arrived here, someone would have got down off that buggy yesterday and tended to the children.
Douglas went out to check the rabbit traps again, and I returned to tending Jack and Vera. The cleaning of the bedding was now left to little Vincent.
He saw the pile of stinking soiled sheets and cloths. ‘But, Aunt Margaret, how shall I carry it all to the creek?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Is there a cart or something?’
He was pensive for a bit. Then said quietly, ‘Sometimes, I put Maisie in the perambulator and pretend, like a girl’s game…’
He was looking towards his baby sister, and I think he meant that he pretended that Maisie was baby Elsa, because he was too small to be allowed to hold or carry her about. He’d checked that Douglas was not within earshot when he confessed this unmanly pastime. He showed me the rusty old perambulator and it turned out to be a fine idea. I piled high his carriage. It towered over him, and he had to look to the side of it as he pushed to know where he was going.
‘Aunt Margaret?’ Vincent called as he left ‘You will look after Jack for me?’
I nodded in a soldierly way.
His chin wobbled, but he went out the door to his work, Maisie close on his heels.
I went to see how Jack fared. He had rolled over and now cradled the baby in one arm; Jack’s forehead crinkled as though he were deciding a difficult thing. The baby lay loosely in her cloth, her arms splayed.
When the sun was going down, the light as it came across the paddock was delicate. Coolness fell like a pale sheet, flat and slow. I suddenly hungered to read. I hungered for the shape and feel of books. For my books of poetry, and for the bits I snipped out of newspapers. Sometimes a sentence, sometimes only a word, and often words I didn’t even know the meaning of. Words I would come across and like the sound of, or the look of, the shape of. I would snip them out when I was sure Father had finished with them, and keep them squashed together in my notebook. Words such as pinion, sapient, doggerel, triptych, vulpine, ratchet, garrulous, chicanery.
I went and claimed one of the two books that I had discovered earlier. My Brilliant Career.
I had confined myself largely to poetry before this, for when I read something, I liked to possess it wholly, to memorise it and take it for my own, to have it as a keepsake for always and this was not something I could do with longer pieces, with novels or other publications. Yet, not long before the libraries closed, I had begun to reach out from the clear complexity of poetry to the more hidden depths of novels and stories. I had as yet to find much that pleased me in this world. Robinson Crusoe was perplexing in its geography, although thrilling in its violence and drama. The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess.
I turned to My Brilliant Career and left my place of illness and confusion. After a few minutes, I found Douglas squinting down over my shoulder.
‘Don’t be rude,’ I said.
He looked confused.
‘It is rude to read over someone’s shoulder like that.’
This was clearly news to him, and he seemed embarrassed.
I turned back to young Sybylla who was out with her father in the bush.
‘It’s Mother’s book,’ he said.
‘Well, I have just as much right to read it as you.’
‘But I am reading it now.’
‘What is it about? Is it a good story?’
‘I don’t know yet, do I?’
‘Can you read it out loud to us?’
I was about to say no, but I thought it would perhaps be good for him to hear a poet read aloud, although it was not my own work.
‘Can’t you read yourself?’
‘You just told me I shouldn’t.’
‘Have you taken to listening to what I say now?’
He did not respond.
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Sit down then.’
He sat behind me in the doorway, with his back against the open door of the hut. Behind him, I saw his mother’s shape on the bed.
‘Possum Gully, Near Goulburn,’ I read. ‘Just a few lines to tell you that this story is all about myself – for no other purpose do I write it.’
I paused. It was a strange beginning.
‘I make no apologies for being egotistical.’
Vincent had appeared. ‘What is egotistical?’ he said.
‘Shh,’ said Douglas.
‘It means vain. To like yourself too much.’
‘…an improvement on other autobiographies…’
Douglas said, ‘What’s an autobiography?’
‘It’s when you write something about yourself. No more questions or we shall never move ahead.’
When I came to the word congenial, they both shifted in their seats, but didn’t say anything.
‘It means good,’ I said.
‘Better be born a slave than a poet…’ I read on until it was too dark to see.
And so night-time came again, and no one had come to bring us more food or hope, information, escape or relief. I put the blanket made of rabbit pelts on top of Vera’s sheet, for it was the softest. I put it fur-side down in case this might feel gentler for her. Then I put the possum one, then the kangaroo one, with the long, elegant, darker-coloured spine running down the centre.
When the movement stopped and the sun was gone, we were hungry again. I thought of all the things I should have done. As it became colder and darker, the pain in my stomach grew. Pictures of Yorkshire pudding with gravy appeared, of porridge with brown crusty sugar and thick cream that melted to yellow around the bowl, of freshly baked bread.
I harboured a sense of injustice that I was being deprived of the feel of warm doughy bread in my fingers, deprived of the chance of lifting it to my lips. These thoughts threatened despair.
Take care not to spill into your patient’s saucer; in other words, take care that the outside bottom rim of his cup shall be quite dry and clean. If, every time he lifts his cup to his lips, he has to carry the saucer with it, or else to drop the liquid upon and to soil his sheet, or bedgown, or pillow, or if he is sitting up, his dress, you have no idea what a difference this minute want of care on your part makes to his comfort, and even to his willingness for food.
Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing, 1859
IN THE MORNING, Vera looked better, at least to my untrained eye. She was definitely breathing, which was more than could be said for little Elsa, who was stone dead. Her face was the prettiest shade of lilac. I was aware of a faint relief; Elsa being dead meant there was one less thing I had to worry about. I wrapped her up tight, hiding her face in her blanket. I lay her between Vera and the wall in such a way that the others would not be able to easily inspect her.
I sat beside Vera and her swaddled dead baby for a moment to drink some water. I wondered if I could have some feeling for my sister other than this sour taste and hot anger. If she died, then Mother and Father would have lost another child, and I would be all that was left. This I did not want to happen. I would almost sooner die myself than suffer that fate. No, Vera must live, I decided. And Jack. Poor little Jack. His illness was something that frightened me differently. He was only five years old, a child, something to be cared for, an innocent. Would Jack’s boyness make his illness different? Would his youth make the illness better or worse? Would he have more chance or less than Vera or his father, or any of us?
And what of the baby? Little Elsa who I had failed to keep alive. Would they now believe me that I should not be here, that I was not the person to do any of this and I should be returned from whence I came? Would they now retrieve me from this place and thereby save these other innocents from my negligence? But to call it negligence implied a responsibility and I was not responsible for any of this, for I was an innocent, too.
My back ached, my feet throbbed and I wanted to sleep. I felt strange and awful. Exhausted and heightened. I was becoming too large for my skin, yet shrunken inside my clothes. Had I contracted the illness? I had been coughing. My feet looked swollen and perhaps I had a temperature. I contemplated how to frame my ailments. A death knell, growing pains? Or just what came of heat, hunger and work? But I could not come up with an answer; I felt incapable of the solution of so many collisions of body and soul.
And just then, I heard them rattling towards us again from far away. They gave a loud cooee as they came.
You are not alone, she had said. They sounded as if they had come nearer than before. My hunger throbbed and twisted.
I was halfway out the door, when I remembered the baby. I did not want the boys to know she was dead. They would blame me. I was ever more turning to practicalities.
I took her from beside her mother. Vera’s eyes opened and looked straight at me, and I knew she knew me as her sister in that moment, even though I was dirty and dishevelled, with no shoes and no mask, and for a moment I felt self-conscious of my appearance. She looked at me and then at the baby. I tried to hide the little blue face. She glanced sorrowfully at the bundle, and reached out to grab a scrunch of blanket and a few tiny baby fingers in her shaking hands.
I heard them cooee again.
‘I must go,’ I told Vera.
Vera’s hand fell. She nodded. But she kept watch on the bundle as I held and rocked it. As I left, I heard a deep moan of pain, like a newly suffering animal, not the capering ridiculous sister I had known.
I approached the sulky. It seemed to be the same horse as before. It was at least the same colour that I remembered. But there was only one person atop the seat, a young man, some might still call him a boy. He was talking in a cheery, hearty fashion to Vera’s boys. Perhaps the horror was over. They had found a medicine for it, and all would be well. A spoonful of tonic, a bitter taste in the mouth, and the dying would become the living again.
Douglas had a pot in his hands already. The man was fit and tanned and strong-looking. Young, healthy men were such a rare sight. Were they cowards who had not gone to war or warriors returned from battle? Were they patriots, cripples, malingerers or all that was left of hope? All those young men. To so many he would have been the man who had lived where theirs had died. To young women in search of husbands, to young children in search of fathers, he would have been a Christmas present, an apparition of strength and survival.
‘She is our Aunt Margaret come to help,’ said Vincent.
‘I am not supposed to be here,’ I said.
Without saying anything, I held the baby up to him.
Vincent said, ‘That’s our baby sister.’ He thought she was being held up to be admired.
The man looked into the bundle and glanced down at me, then at the boys.
Douglas suddenly said, ‘Give her back. Give back our sister. Why are you taking her?’
‘Should we go, too?’ asked Vincent. He turned to Douglas, ‘We could leave, too?’
The man told Douglas something about how he would take the baby to be cared for by the nuns. He asked Douglas what her name was.
‘She’s our baby sister,’ Vincent said proudly again.
‘We are in trouble here,’ I said to the man. ‘I must come away with you to get help.’ And this time I was not only thinking of myself. I was thinking of Jack and of Vera.
The young man smiled out of the side of his mouth and wagged his finger. ‘Now, young lady, I can’t do that. No one can travel. Especially not those from a sick house.’
‘But we are not sick.’
‘Not yet.’ He looked towards the hut, the yellow flag hanging. ‘Someone is sick.’
‘Where is the lady from last time?’ I asked. I wanted to ask her so many questions about what to do and how to do it. ‘And there was a man.’
He glanced at the boys, then said quietly as if they would not hear, though they were standing right there, ‘Both gone to God.’
I thought he was referring to some nearby town.
‘Where?’ asked Vincent.
‘He means they’re dead,’ said Douglas.
‘Was it the flenza?’ Vincent bent down and enclosed Maisie protectively in his arms as though the influenza might approach from any direction at any minute.
The young man nodded.
‘But it was only two days ago. They were fine,’ I said.
‘It can take people very quickly. In one town, in New Zealand I think it was, it took all the children overnight. People woke up to find their children dead in their beds. The night before, there had not been a sniffle or a cough. No pain. They just went quickly and quietly. All in the one night.’
Why was he telling us this? What did he expect? Why did he tell it like it was good news, like the story of a picnic he had gone to?
‘You must be vigilant.’
What point is there in being vigilant? Vigilant means to watch. But how did it help someone to just watch them die?
‘Take the pulse, test the temperature, sponge the body, lots of liquids, keep the patient in bed, keep the linen clean and provide lots of fresh air. The auxiliary ladies or I – someone – will bring you soup when we can, but everyone is sick, nothing is sure. You are not the only one. People are dying everywhere. You are lucky, you are healthy like me, and the rest of your family, or some of them, may survive. They are sick in England, America, France, all over the world everyone is sick.’
‘Oh, really,’ I said. I intensely dislike exaggerators. ‘In India? Africa?’
‘Of course, Sydney.’
I thought of Mother and how if she were sick and Father were sick, who would look after me? Whose child would I be, if they were to die. Even now they could be dead, and I might not know.
‘I need help,’ I said. ‘We need help. You cannot just leave us here. It is criminal. How…’ I began. But I didn’t know which question to ask or how to ask it. How do we survive? How are we to live? How do others live? How do I stop my sister from dying? How will I know when it is alright, when it is safe? Will they live? Will we ever be safe?
‘The other boy is sick and his mother. They cannot…’ I had been going to say, they cannot die. But instead I said, ‘They cannot walk.’
‘Keep them clean and fed, keep them cool in the day and warm in the night. If they improve, they say you shouldn’t let them exert themselves. That is very important. Even if they want to get up, you must keep them in bed.’
‘But medicine. There must be some medicine. A doctor, a nurse. Someone…’ I wanted to say, ‘I come from a house with a gardener, a cook, and a parlourmaid. I go to school and read books. This is below and beyond me. I have no power over these dirty stupid boys.’
He saw my predicament, my darted looks to the boys, my hidden meaning, a message from a captive to a rescuer. But he just smiled in an offhand way and left, just like the other two, a cloud of dust, no questions answered.
I stamped my foot. I said a word I did not even know the meaning of but that felt cruel and strong and loud. Then I looked around at the boys and saw so many things in their faces. I saw confirmation that all there was in the world was useless and terrible.
As we walked back to the house, Douglas muttered, ‘Tits on a bull.’
‘Father would have said that man was as useful as tits on a bull.’
I felt I should reprimand him, but instead I giggled and so did Vincent.
But then Vincent asked, ‘When is Daddy coming back?’
All I thought of now was the food that was in Douglas’s hands. I saw the way he held the metal pot, one hand on the lid, one on the handle. His fingertips were white where they gripped the handle. This time we understood each other.
I divided up the stew in breathless silence, with Maisie, Vincent and Douglas watching without blinking, looking out for a spilt drop or any favouring of helpings. We ate like animals, forgetting to breathe, forgetting to chew. Maisie whimpered and watched.
The sensation of having that food touch my lips was both painful and pleasurable. I could not eat fast enough and I could not eat slow enough. I wanted it to last, but I had to chew and swallow as fast as I could so that I could get to the next mouthful. The movement of a chunk of meat from the first touch on my lip to the top of my tongue made me hungrier even while it was becoming part of me. After I had licked the rough enamel bowl clean several times, I thought that perhaps I should have saved a portion of it for eating later, but then I thought about the risk. Maisie might find it. Someone might knock it over. Or perhaps it would spoil in the heat. The thought of this I could not bear. And I knew that even if there had been a safe I could have locked it in, I wouldn’t have been able to resist eating it all at once. My mouth would not have stopped eating, my throat would not have stopped swallowing. I had gorged on the smallest portion I had ever had put before me.
I wondered, if the boys had not been there to see, would I have eaten both the invalids’ portions myself? If I were not there to watch them, would Douglas and Vincent have stolen food from their sick mother and brother? Was any of us better than the others?
Vincent stopped eating suddenly. ‘Maisie! We forgot to give some to Maisie.’ He put down on the ground what was left in his bowl for Maisie, who slurped it up. ‘You should give Maisie some, too,’ he said to Douglas and me. ‘We should share. The food was meant for the whole family.’
Douglas put down his bowl for Maisie, but it was already licked clean like mine. Douglas turned to me and said, ‘You shouldn’t have gotten any. The food was meant for our family. Our family is us plus Maisie. Not you. You should go get food from your own family.’
‘Maisie shouldn’t get any. She’s a dog,’ I stammered. I didn’t want Maisie to go hungry. But I didn’t want to starve either. Dogs always seemed to manage, didn’t they?
‘You shouldn’t get any, you’re a girl,’ Douglas went on.
‘You shouldn’t get any, you’re a toad,’ I said.
Vincent said, ‘Why can’t they just bring us a bit more food? So there’s enough for Aunt Margaret and for Maisie?’
‘Why don’t they bring us enough food for a whole week?’ I wondered aloud.
‘Because it doesn’t keep,’ Douglas said.
‘They should come more often then,’ I said.
‘They can’t. You heard him. Everyone is sick.’
Each time he spoke his voice was nastier and quieter, telling me I was stupider than stupid.
Vincent sighed. ‘There are too many sick people. And not enough helping people.’
‘They said they would come again,’ I said.
‘They all say that,’ said Douglas. ‘Then they go and get sick and die and we are stuck with no food. Why don’t you go for help instead of hanging around here eating all of our food?’
‘What would you have me do exactly, Douglas? Tell me?’
‘You’re the grown-up, you should know.’
Should I feel insulted, or complimented? It was the feeling one has when caught out in a fib. I gave a sigh to show that I found children tiresome.
Douglas watched me closely.
‘You are Aunt Margaret,’ Vincent said.
TURTLE SOUP (founded on M. Ude’s Recipe)
INGREDIENTS. – A turtle, 6 slices of ham, 2 knuckles of veal, 1 large bunch of sweet herbs, 3 bay leaves, parsley, green onions, 1 onion, 6 cloves, 4 blades of mace,
¼ lb. of fresh butter, 1 bottle of Madeira, 1 lump of sugar.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
MY HANDS ITCHED for the feel of food. My mouth kept opening and closing, expecting something. We had the milk from the cow but that was only in the morning and then there was nothing but water to be had. I fought the urge to suck on a piece of my own clothing. Sudden spasms jumped down low in my stomach and I heard the gurglings of hungry bellies whenever I passed one of the boys.
I remembered Vera writing of a vegetable patch to Mother. And an orchard with many different kinds of fruit. Was everything in those letters a lie?
I wandered around outside the house in ever widening circles, searching. Eventually, I found what used to be a vegetable patch, a little way off from the house, in the opposite direction to where the creek was. It was now rows of dead brown leaves, flat against the dirt. I dug up the mounds of dirt, but there was nothing that could be eaten. Whatever might have once been there was gone now.
I wondered if it could be resurrected. Was there some small thing I needed to do that might force the ground to produce nutrients again? Or was this some blight of the area, the result of drought?
Beside the dead garden, there was a fruitless orchard. The leaves on the trees were dark green and thick, but there were no splashes of orange or purple hanging or fallen. Vera had written of all kinds of fruit: plums and oranges, nectarines, apples. Clearly this was more of her fiction.
I walked back to the house, thinking of stewed rhubarb and apple with custard; of fresh oranges dripping sweet juice; of the sound of biting an apple, green and tangy, the white and glistening meat inside.
The night before, I dreamed that I died. The others had all lived and not even noticed that I was lying among them dead. They stepped over me as I lay there. Even little Elsa was alive and older, and she crawled over me as if I were a lump of wood. Vera was up and well and rested her feet upon me. They sat around together and told stories of how useless I was and how it was terribly lucky that I had died in the influenza war and none of them had. How it was just as it should be. And I was yelling out to them from inside my corpse that it was not a war – they were two separate things. There was the war, the Great War, which was against the Hun; and then there was the influenza, which was just a disease, an illness, nothing to do with the war. I kept telling them as if I were correcting their grammar, as if I were writing an essay for school, but they could not hear me.
Yet here I was and I was not dead. I was hungry, but alive. I looked at Vera and found that her eyes were clear and she was watching me. I stood over her in nothing but underwear, my hair loose and dirty with no hat or ribbon. She was terribly pale, but she was clean of blood and dirt.
She had been this way for most of the day. I had been about to say something to her, to see if it was me or her husband she saw standing in front her, when I heard a terrible thump from the other side of the partition. I dashed around and found Douglas fallen to the floor, shaking and spasming, his eyes wide, blood pouring from his nose, his face wet with sweat. His arms shook, while his legs thrashed and his torso twisted, his head tilted back and throbbed against the floor.
I knelt down to him, and tried to comfort him with words and gesture. But his eyes showed a terror and begged me to do something, but I did not know what to do.
I wanted to give him more water. Water was all I had to offer. I had nothing to fight this illness. I did not have knowledge. I did not have medicines. I had no skills. I was not what I wanted to be. I did not know him well, but I wanted this child to live. Perhaps he would be one of those boys who poked me at school and made fun of me. But perhaps he would be like my David. It did not matter if he were either. His skin was so soft and pale, and I knew that his brothers and his mother loved him dearly. If only I knew what to do.
Gradually, his thrashing slowed. Part of me wanted it to keep on, for what would happen when it stopped? Would he be dead?
He was breathing easily as though asleep, but my own breath was bursting in and out of me. Against my will, my mind summoned some verse of Sassoon:
Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadow’d from the candle’s guttering gold:
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and shift your head
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.
What could make a body do this? This influenza was a multi-headed demon; it tortured people in every kind of strange and horrible way.
When I looked up from him, I saw Vera lying on the floor near us, one arm reached out towards Douglas. She had dragged herself out of bed to come to her son. I was exhausted in a way that made my body loose and free and soft. Vera closed her eyes, and her hand twitched. I reached out and pulled her closer.
‘Margaret,’ she said.
I wanted to get them both into bed soon because I did not want Vincent to come back from his trip to the creek and discover this tableau. But I felt the strength going from me as I sat there, and desires began to overwhelm me: the wish for sleep and coolness and books and Mother and David and Father and Edward, and the desire for the world that Vera had written to Mother about.
The walls of the hut faded into the walls of a library so expansive and extensive it contained all the books in the world. All bound in leather. All with gold writing stamped on their spines. Here was every book I had read and every book I would ever want to read. Ones I had imagined and ones I had not. There was poetry and fairytales and biographies and books explaining how to do everything.
I took down a book called How to Cure a Cold and began reading. But there were many complicated words that I could not understand. I knew that it was English because there were words such as the and how and now and this, but all the words that meant anything were long and Latin-looking. I put it back and took down another, which was called A Tale of Two Margarets. I opened it, and the spine snapped loudly.
My head had nodded onto my chest and woken me. The walls were again the naked walls of the bark hut that was my sister’s house. How much she had dreamt up and put into those letters! Perhaps she was the writer, not I. But I banished that thought. David was the artist; Edward was the man of the world. I was the clever one, the writer. Vera was the dull-witted beauty.
But we had all become something else. David and Edward had become the dead brothers. Vera was the sick mother, the grieving widow. But what was I becoming? If not a poet, what was I? I clearly was no nurse. I had been all but disowned as a daughter. I was not wanted as a sister or a daughter or an aunt. I was not allowed to be a schoolgirl for they had shut the schools.
When I woke, the three of us were asleep on the floor. Vincent could be back any moment. I managed to get Douglas settled into bed quite easily. He was not as heavy as I thought he would be. We were all lighter than we had been. Vera was another matter. I shook her shoulder gently, and she woke.
‘Douglas?’ she said.
‘He is fine. I have put him to bed.’ I tried to haul her to bed as I had Douglas, but she pushed me off gently.
‘I am much better, Margaret. Really I am. I can get to bed.’
I stepped away, and she dragged herself across the floor and tried to pull herself back into bed. I stood behind her and lifted her under the armpits and together we twisted her around. She was propped up in a sitting position for the first time since I had arrived. She was sweating a little, but when I felt her forehead she was not hot. She lay back with a sigh.
‘It started with a cough,’ she said. ‘Just a tickle. Then a pain behind my eyes. A throbbing. I could feel my heartbeat in my eyeballs, in my eardrums, in my spine.’
Vincent came through the door, and Vera held out her arms to him. He looked at me for a moment, not sure if this was real. Then he ran to her. ‘Mummy!’ He curled up beside her, and she wrapped her arms about his head and shoulders, his face buried in her chest. Then she held his hand in hers and played with his fingers, intertwining them with her own, as though they were hers as well as his.
I was so pleased to see Vincent happy and calmed by his mother.
Vera spoke again. ‘I wanted water so desperately, but as soon as it was in my mouth I wanted to gag. It was torture. Who was that famous Greek person? You would know these things, Margaret? The one who was dying of thirst, and surrounded by water but could not get the water?’
I opened my mouth to tell her about King Tantalus and his thirst while standing in a pool of water, but she just kept talking as though I wasn’t there.
‘But I feel so much better now,’ she said to Vincent. ‘So very much better.’ She said to me, ‘Children are everything. Children make you good.’
I sighed. I had been a child: why did that not incite in her the love she now bestowed on Vincent? Was it only ever boys that she was able to treat well?
‘Margaret.’ Vera reached out her hand for me. I flinched away but she did not look perturbed. ‘Margaret. We are not the same person.’ Her statement was so ambiguous that I blushed in confusion and started down to the creek to collect more water.
ALTHOUGH VERA INSISTED she was much improved, I now had three invalids to care for. Vera was still very frail. Jack was now in a fever and coughed blood and vomited often. Douglas was wretched but was able to speak in the short periods that he was not asleep. The fit he’d had repeated itself at least once a day, leaving us all in terror, and him exhausted and confused. None of them were able to leave their beds.
Fear was partly what urged me to activity now. Fear that I would find one or all of them dead and myself alone. Because just in the hour that it seemed perhaps Jack was improving, Douglas would fall into a fit upon the floor. And as I got him settled back in bed beside his brother, Jack would vomit on himself and Douglas, and I would have to clean up the entire bed and both of them. Then Vera insisted I help her outside to go to the toilet, but she fainted as soon as she stood upright, and I had to put her back to bed and bring the dish we used as a bedpan.
I discovered what hard work was. I sweated, strained, panted and hurried, day and night, ordering Vincent about and never stopping for fear they would all die. I ran from one bed to the other, from blood to blood. I cleaned sheets and cloths and dried them and put them away. I fetched water and cleared sputum from faces. I even swept the earthen floor. I don’t know why. Sometimes I could not stop my body from moving. I feared the end of movement would end my life. If I stopped I did not know what would happen.
We had lived on nothing but milk for days, and now that was becoming scarcer. Douglas had explained to me in panting starts and stops how to milk the cow. At first the cow seemed eager for me to relieve her of milk, but she soon became frustrated at my ineptness and would not stand still. Each time I was only able to get a small amount of milk from her.
At first the hunger had been irritating, like a small animal scratching at the door. Then an obsession. A fantasy world of cakes and steaks whenever I closed my eyes. Then it was a physical pain in the belly.
As I collected water, and as I washed and rinsed and carted, the poems that went round and round in my head were not the clever poems of Pope or Wordsworth. They were ‘I Want Some Figgy Pudding’ and ‘This Little Piggy Went to Market’. There was no Blake, no Rupert Brooke and no Yeats. It was all mindless nursery rhymes and silliness. It was appalling how quickly one was brought down to the level of a beast.
At any moment I had spare during the day I still searched Mrs Beeton for solutions to our predicament. And in the late afternoons for just a few minutes, I would read aloud from My Brilliant Career to Vincent and Maisie and whomsoever of the patients was conscious. As I read I realised how much more real Sybylla’s story was compared to Mrs Beeton’s elaborate notes on tennis parties and the evils of vegetables.
I tried to follow Mrs Beeton’s instructions, applying cool wet things to their faces often. I got fresh water from the creek three times a day, because the amount that Vincent was able to convey on his own was not equal to our needs.
Mrs Beeton told me that in order to prevent the bleeding starting again, I must sponge the patient with cold water every morning, which I did for each of Vera, Jack and Douglas, beginning with whoever looked sickest in the morning. She said the patient should have open-air exercise and, if possible, saltwater bathing. These I could not provide.
I emptied volumes of bodily fluids from containers. I wiped vomit and blood and everything in between. I scrubbed and sponged and washed. I rubbed and dubbed and scooped and shook.
‘The silver always glimmering. Fresh linen every week,’ Vera said.
I put the water down in the corner where it could not be accidentally knocked over. I covered it with cloths so Maisie would not drink from it. I was not sure quite what she was referring to and resented her interrupting my work. I still had to have another go at the cow.
I thought she was being wistful, but when I looked at her, she clearly found it funny. I smiled. I had been thinking the same thing. The invisible hard work of a servant’s life. Day in, day out. Hours on end. And all for what? Yet if it were not done, there would have been such a sing out.
‘Yes, sheets, coverlets, antimacassars, pillowcases, valances, tablecloths, serviettes. And I don’t think they just rubbed it all around a bit in the creek,’ I said.
‘No, it was all to be boiled, scrubbed, washed, rinsed, blued and then starched, folded and brought back.’ Vera went on, ‘Then there were Father’s shirts and collars and my dresses and gowns, your pinafores and nightdresses and pantaloons – and mother’s corsets.’
‘Before she gave up wearing them,’ I interjected.
Did the servants’ bodies ache like mine? Did their limbs feel tugged from their body, their necks stiff? Did their legs wobble and jerk as they fell to sleep, their feet throbbing? And what about Edward and David, carrying food upon their backs, tramping through mud and rain?
‘Do you remember, Margaret? There was a day for everything. Mondays was laundry. Tuesdays the floors. Mending on Wednesday evenings.’
‘Every Thursday morning, the Chinaman came to the back door and sold vegetables to cook,’ I added.
We longed for the order and comfort of those things that had happened without us understanding why or how. We knew now that we had to eat and we had to drink. The rest was not necessary, yet it had always seemed so.
‘How much do you suppose they were paid?’ Vera asked.
I had never before contemplated the fact that the servants were paid for their toil, that they were given money, a bedroom to sleep in, food to eat, and an apron to wear.
I looked at Vera and realised she must have done the cooking and cleaning for years for her family, and the only payment was family, duty, love.
I went to wrestle once more with the cow and her udders.
ROAST OR BAKED RABBIT recipe
INGREDIENTS. – 1 rabbit, forcemeat (Recipe, p.128) buttered paper, sausage-meat.
MODE. – Empty, skin, and thoroughly wash the rabbit; wipe it dry, line the inside with sausage-meat and forcemeat, to which has been added the minced liver. Sew the stuffing inside, skewer back the head between the shoulders, cut off the fore-joints of the shoulders and legs, bring them close to the body, and secure them by means of a skewer. Wrap the rabbit in buttered paper, and put it down to a bright clear fire; keep it well basted, and a few minutes before it is done remove the paper, flour and froth it, and let it acquire a nice brown colour. Take out the skewers, and serve with brown gravy and red-currant jelly.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
THE NEXT DAY brought a change in the hunger that worried me more than ever. My mind still churned over thoughts of food constantly, but I felt that if food were in front of me I would not be able to eat it. I no longer wanted it, and it reminded me of Vera’s King Tantalus feeling with the water. No one mentioned food anymore. We were no longer hungry.
At my last interaction with the cow, she had flung her haunch at me and knocked me backwards into a block of wood, bruising my back badly. And she had given me no milk, no matter how I tugged and pulled at her. Then she had looked at me with those huge eyes, and I felt hard and cold towards her. And I thought how here was a large piece of food living among us. Beef. Still, it was truly beyond my imagination to kill a cow. How? What with?
Vera did not know where the rabbit traps were. If Jack knew he was not capable of saying. Vincent did not know, although he made enthusiastic suggestions that I did not put much store by. Douglas was the only one who knew. I had asked him time and again to tell me where I could find them. But he had lost his senses and kept saying, ‘Nothing there. Nothing there.’
But then one night I heard him fall to the ground in a fit. By the time I got to him the fit was over, and he was merely lying there looking a little perplexed. And he started whispering as though he were retelling a dream he’d had. He took my wrist and whispered instructions urgently in my ear.
I was not sure that Douglas’s directions to the rabbit traps were accurate or another delusion. I was not sure I understood or would be able to follow them. But I had no choice. Nobody had come to bring us food since that last man. We still looked towards the open paddock in hope whenever a crow cawed loudly or the wind rustled the roof. Perhaps it was someone arriving to save us. Perhaps the whole world had died by now.
The next morning, after making sure everyone was as well provided for as they could be and telling Vincent what to do, I left the house. It was a hot day so I wore only my drawers and camisole. I had long ago forsaken shoes and hat and mask. I tried to confirm with Douglas his directions before I left, but it was no use. He had returned to delirium and frowns.
I walked to the waterhole and then followed beside the creek against the way it was flowing, as Douglas had told me. When I came to where the creek forked, I was to follow the left branch. I had reached a spot where I was supposed to turn north, when I realised that I did not know which direction was north. By a process of elimination I decided it was to the left.
And now I was to look for several large fallen logs. I had been walking for an hour or so, and I was not at all sure how far away the traps would be. Up ahead I saw a rabbit, its white tail bobbing away from me as I crunched across the dry ground of twigs and leaves, then a terrible snap, and the trap that had been hidden revealed its jaws. I gasped and flung myself towards the carnage, whether I intended to save it or kill it, I do not know, because I saw the blood and I saw it moving and I was sorry and hungry and appalled. But in my awkwardness to get there, I tripped and must have smashed my head upon something as I fell.
When I awoke it was beginning to get dark. I wanted to continue lying where I was even though I was getting a little cold. But I saw the rabbit’s white tail just a few feet from me and remembered Vincent waiting for me. And Vera worrying for her children’s lives, grieving for her husband and her baby. And I thought of David and Edward and the terrible things they must have seen when fighting for their country in foreign lands. It was surely something worse than a dead rabbit.
I wrestled the dead rabbit from the trap, and I made my way slowly home. It was hard to see at night. I must have stopped and slept by the creek without realising it, because when I saw the hut again it was sunrise. I walked through the door, with the dead and slightly mutilated rabbit in hand, ready for a hero’s welcome.
I had a little of my own blood on my forehead and perhaps some from the rabbit upon my clothes, and I was very much covered in dirt on my skin and on my ragged clothes, because when I entered and held the food aloft, Vincent, lying with his mother, sat up and screamed.
I put the rabbit down and tried to calm him. When he realised it was only Aunt Margaret back from the dead, he threw his arms around me.
Despite all this commotion, there was no movement at all from Vera. I sent Vincent down to the creek and tried again to wake her. I got only a groan. Her colour had changed a great deal. Her ears in particular were a dark grey colour. I needed time to think. I also needed to check the condition of the others.
Jack and Douglas were both awake and waiting with wide eyes. They would have heard Vincent’s wailing and then my explanations. They were huddled together. Jack in particular looked a little better. He was even able to utter a few whispered words.
‘Aunt Margaret,’ he said, ‘I’m hungry.’
‘Tonight we shall have rabbit stew,’ I told them. Jack and Douglas beamed.
Going back to Vera, it was clear to me that death was near.
Vincent and Douglas had seen rabbits prepared many times. They instructed and encouraged me as I skinned and cleaned it, providing half-informed opinions of exactly how the procedure worked.
I greatly surprised myself by overcoming my disgust almost immediately. I thought again about the milkless meaty cow eating grass nearby. Vincent and I collected firewood until we were close to dropping from exhaustion. I had never made a fire before, but Vincent and Douglas seemed confident in their knowledge here, and I followed their instructions: first twigs, then small branches, then the heaviest ones we could carry. Vincent found the flint and was thrilled when I told him he should light it. We put the pot on the fire.
I made sure Douglas was comfortable in bed. I told Vincent to rest. He was so small, just a child, and he had done the work of a boy three times his age. His eyes were dark-ringed, his hands always tensed, and his back was bent forward from the habit of carrying the weight of water to and from the creek.
I then hovered over Vera, fearing what I knew I had to do. I leaned in to look closely at her face. I sighed in exasperation. Her eyelids fluttered at the disturbance of my breath. I touched her face, and she was hot. But why now? She was recovered, she was well. Yet now she looked worse than ever. Her face was wet with sweat. I thought of Rudyard Kipling’s poem:
I have watched a thousand days
Pushed out and crawl into night
Slowly as tortoises.
Now I, too, follow these.
It is fever, and not the fight,
Time, not battle, that slays.
As always I found solace in words on a page in my time of need. The fire crackled, the room was stifling. I picked up Mrs Beeton and turned again to the passage I had been reading over and over for days now.
In cases of great emergency, such as the strong kind of apoplexy, and when a surgeon cannot possibly be obtained for some considerable time, the life of the patient depends almost entirely upon the fact of his being bled or not.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
MRS BEETON’S INSTRUCTIONS on illness began with a list of ingredients and medicines required to save invalids and people in need. None of these things I had. I had not antimony wine or jalap in powder or sal ammoniac, sulphate of zinc, clyster or opodeldoc. The more strange words she released onto the page, the less my anxiety was salved, for she had prefaced all of this with the encouragement that with these things, much suffering and perhaps some lives may be saved.
I read the warnings about only attempting to bleed an invalid in the situation of most dire emergency. Until now I had let myself believe that we had not yet reached that stage. According to Mrs Beeton, bleeding my sister should save her life.
I brought all of my concentration to the detailed passage. I rehearsed it in my mind until I could recite it in a whisper to myself without the aid of the book. I had to do it while there was still light. I sent Vincent to the creek again, and told him to stay away until it was nearly dark. I had no idea how long this process might last. He was a little suspicious, but I told him it was girls’ business that had to be done in private. He did not know what to make of that, but left obediently. The other two boys were asleep, dreaming of rabbit stew for dinner.
I poked Vera hard in the ribs, to see if she would feel what I was about to do; my finger burrowed deep between them. She did not flinch, yet I could see the pulse in her neck and I heard tiny breaths every few seconds. I looked at the mottled skin of her arm closest to me. It was as limp as the rabbit I had just skinned and gutted. Naked, exposed.
I tried to see what lay beneath the skin, the key to her health. Mrs Beeton did not give a vast amount of detail about where this violence should begin. Her words suggested a fine balance in how one proceeded. I should thrust gently with the lancet.
Some part of me thrilled at inflicting a sanctioned pain and intrusion on my sister. As I scrunched her hand in mine, as Mrs Beeton advised, I saw the colour of her skin change and the outline of dark veins begin to show themselves.
I traced her veins with my finger, seeking what must be the outside one as described. My confidence was growing. I made sure the bowl to catch the blood was on a stable surface on the floor.
I centred my lancet – Douglas’s treasured penknife – in my right hand and tried to find the correct angle and hold, then I drove it into the vein with what I hoped was a gentle thrust.
At first it seemed nothing happened, merely that Vera’s arm now had a penknife stuck in it. Confused, I held everything motionless, waiting. Still, nothing happened.
I drew back on the knife, liberating it from her body, and blood went everywhere, on to me, Vera, the floor and the bed. I knocked the bowl over in fright, but kept a hold of Vera’s arm. Her hand was filling with the slow dusky blood as it dribbled down her arm. I looked up to find that Vera was panting, her eyes wide open in terror as they found mine. I held her gaze as I brought the bowl under her arm with one hand. With the other I restrained her feeble efforts to release herself. She did not have the strength to scream despite the pain and horror that showed in her face.
After a time and an amount of blood that only Mrs Beeton and I knew to be right, I bound a fresh cloth folded into a wad against the wound.
When Vincent returned, I had cleaned the blood, and the stain it left was invisible in the dying light.
THAT NIGHT WE ate rabbit for dinner. It was rabbit boiled in water. Without sage or butter or potato. But it was more than we had had for such a long time. And it tasted just wonderful.
As the air outside cooled and the firelight flickered, Vera looked no different. Her ears were dark and her face was grey. The bandage on her arm showed a little red, but I kept it tucked beneath the covers so the boys did not see.
One by one we tried to feed Vera some of the rabbit. She did not open her eyes, but she did take some water, and then, after I had tried and Vincent had tried, I gave it one last attempt, gently rubbing her lips with a tiny fibre of rabbit.
Vincent stood beside me talking to his mother. ‘It’s rabbit stew. Aunt Margaret made it for us, Mummy.’
Her jaw loosened a little and her mouth moved up and down. I pushed the piece of meat inside. We watched her throat bulge as she swallowed. After that, we were able to feed her water and then some more rabbit. And her colour became more natural and her face alert. I dared to hope that Mrs Beeton and I had turned her away from death.
It felt like autumn had come early, or maybe it was because there was so little flesh on our bones, but the night seemed cooler than usual. We kept the fire blazing. I dragged my bedding to a position halfway in line with the partition that stood for a wall, so that when I read aloud they could all hear.
I heard Douglas gasp when Sybylla struck Harry Beecham across the face with the horse whip.
At this point, Vera came to life. ‘I always think of you when I read that book,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Sybylla. You are Sybylla, aren’t you, Margaret? With her words and her cleverness and her strangeness. You are the interesting one. The smart one.’
‘Why didn’t you come home when Edward died?’ I asked suddenly, surprising myself with a question I had long wanted to ask.
She took a time to respond. ‘I was near my time with Douglas.’
‘And when David died?’
‘I was giving birth to this one.’ She reached out to Vincent.
It did not seem like an adequate reason to me.
She tried to explain, ‘Having a child is very hard.’
‘Then why did you keep doing it?’
Vera glanced at the boys, who looked at least as interested in the question as I was. ‘Margaret, it is not something one can… Think of Sybylla.’
‘Well, Sybylla wants to write.’
‘So she cannot marry Mr Beecham, can she?’
‘I do not understand why she has to do one or the other.’
‘Then you know nothing. But of course you are only a child,’ she said.
I closed the book and left Vera and her family together. I went outside into the night. Although there was no moon as yet, the glow of daylight was still around the edges of the sky and the birds had yet to settle.
When I returned, they were all asleep and I, too, fell asleep.
IT SEEMED LIKE only moments later that I woke to the sound of coughing and the exaggerated brightness of the morning. I sharpened my hearing to discover which of the patients it was, only to find that it was me coughing. I tried to open my eyes, but they stung dreadfully, and my nostrils felt aflame with a wretched heat. As I tried to clear my throat, I saw that the light was not the sun in the morning, but the wall of the hut glowing with fire.
The others, who had spent so many days coughing and thrashing, were horribly silent. Vera was the first who I dragged to safety, all the while yelling at the others. Soon I heard Maisie come to life and join the fray.
Vincent was groggily whimpering, and I guided him out the front door as the ceiling became a vile sunset of flame. Maisie stood and barked in great confusion. I had to re-enter through the back door to get the other two boys, who were both awake but confused. Douglas, I only had to shout at and then push through the door, but Jack was without response and I had to drag him out as I had Vera. Then, one by one, Vincent and I dragged them further and further as the hut collapsed on itself. I was exhausted and parched. But there were no containers to fetch water in, and there was no moon so it would be too hard to make it down to the creek. I kept checking and checking that we all were still alive.
At the first sign of light in the sky, I began organising to transport us down to the creek. Vincent brought his old pram over, and although I tried to get Vera in it first, she refused. She gestured that I must take Jack first. So I lifted Jack like an oversized baby into the pram. Then with Vincent on one side of Douglas with his arm around him, and me on the other side propping him up, we walked a long slow path to the waterhole. I did not want to leave Vera there alone, but she would not have it any other way. And we were all too sore and blackened to use words.
By the time we had arrived at the water and managed to drink, the birds were chirping happily and the day looked like it would be a glorious autumn day, with a sky the colour of Wedgwood.
I returned to Vera. She lay on the dirt with the sun shining in her eyes – her face contorted in pain or fear or sorrow. As we had no containers, I had dunked myself in the water so that enough water might remain in my clothes and I could squeeze some out into Vera’s mouth for the journey down to the creek. When I squeezed those drops onto her blackened face, she looked back with gratitude such as I had never seen from her. I helped her into the pram, and employed the final vestiges of my strength into pushing her down to join the remnants of her family by the water.
I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss.
POOR MOTHER! TO arrive and find us like this, blackened with soot, laid out like corpses on the ground.
I woke to find her kneeling beside me, shaking my shoulder. Her crying joined the sound of the creek. I heard Vera say something to her, and she left my side. I closed my eyes and heard them talking in subdued voices.
‘Have we survived?’ I asked. I think it was Vera who said yes. Then Mother swallowed a sob. I sat up to see for myself. Vincent was sitting in his grandmother’s lap. I had never seen Mother sitting on the ground before. Douglas was asleep alongside Vera. Jack was lying on his back with some clothing, which Mother must have brought, under his head. Maisie was dozing near his feet. He turned to look at me, and blinked.
Mother was trying to keep from crying. ‘My little girl,’ she said.
I stood up wearily, and mother gave a start at the sight of me. ‘Margaret? What has happened? Your dress? Look at your hair! You have no shoes. What happened to your boots?’
I looked down at myself and saw what mother saw. I had scratches on my legs, knots in my hair. Blood from the rabbit and my sister. Soot from the fire, and dirt from sleeping on the ground. I imagined how Edward would have laughed heartily at the sight of me. He would have picked me up and thrown me about, not caring about the mess I put on his uniform. And David would have wanted me to tell him all about my strange transition from clean, confused child of books to raggedy animal of the country.
I put myself in the creek, waking up suddenly and completely in the cold water. I scrubbed at my face and clothes.
When Mother heard about John and baby Elsa and Vera’s lost unborn baby, she said, ‘But what did you wash with? What have you eaten? What medicines?’
I told her about the creek and the cow and the rabbit.
Mother nodded, wide-eyed.
Vincent said, ‘We are only kids. Except for Aunt Margaret. She came and saved us.’
I felt proud and brave and sorry and weak. I had not saved baby Elsa. Jack was alive, but it seemed that his hearing was affected and he was too weak to walk, as was Douglas. Mother said she knew of such things left behind after the influenza.
Mother said that when she arrived this morning at the burned-out hut, the local man she had found to bring her from the station had looked inside and told her he was fairly sure that no one had died in the fire. So he brought her down to the creek. When she saw the state we were all in, she instructed the man to return to the station and send for our father. She asked him to come back as soon as possible with food and blankets and whatever vehicles might be got hold of to transport us all to the station. She told us we would get to the station in time to catch the evening train to Sydney.
Mother assured us that the worst was now over. The schools and libraries were open again. Masks were no longer required. And, she said, with tears in her eyes, ‘The war is truly over. They will soon be signing the treaty and Germany will pay.’
What did I care who paid? I had paid with my brothers.
‘It is all settled. It is all over now, Margaret. You did as much as you could,’ Mother was telling me. ‘Sometimes people need help to die as well as to live.’
I must have looked horrified.
‘I only meant,’ she said, ‘that it can make all the difference to someone who is suffering, to have someone there, someone like you to show that they matter. To show that they care.’
Had I cared? I had tried my hardest, but I was not as kind and gentle as I could have been. I swore I would try to be more useful in future. Better to be born a slave than a poet, Sybylla had said. Better be born a soldier, I say. Better be born a man. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon. At least they had comrades and weapons. I had a dirty washcloth, a kerosene tin and a strong constitution.
Had I really done anything more than sit there and watch? Did I make any difference? But then, did David or Edward? Did their dying do any good? Who knew what they were fighting for. The Belgian children? In the end everybody said it was a senseless slaughter.
Next time, the women should be sent to fight the wars, I thought. Plenty wanted to go and do their bit like their brothers, sons and husbands. They didn’t want to stay sitting like a pretty painting while others threw themselves before the machine guns. They would prefer to be there and die with their families. They would prefer to fight than to suffer the grief without action.
‘And, Margaret,’ said Mother, ‘they would have been too ill to fetch water if it weren’t for you. They would have starved if you were not there to feed them. They might have become too cold in the night and got worse for it and expired. They might have died from a fever, except that you were there to keep them cool.’
‘But Elsa… And John. I should have buried him properly. I should have…’
‘You’re just a child,’ said Vera kindly.
So the schools were open. People could go to the bakery and the butchers. Buses and trains would be running. Men would shake hands again, and mothers would let their children play with their friends. But people knew now that there was always something else that might come. It was best to move on and forget. What was left would have to be dealt with.
While waiting for our transport back to the station, I walked up to the hut to see the devastation. It smelt terrible. There had been many things to burn in the empty hut, just different kinds of fuel: kerosene tins, cloths and sheets and mattresses, butter boxes. I remembered the smell as the animal pelts began to burn. There was nothing much to see in the rubble, and it still gave off heat and smoke.
I walked down into the green orchard. The last time I had looked, there had only been rock-hard green apricots hanging; the only ripe-looking gems were too high for me to reach. I watched as a flock of cockatoos landed up high and gleefully picked one ripe fruit after another, taking just one bite each time before wantonly discarding the rest. But, close to the gnarled trunk, I came across several bright and untouched apricots. I tried one. The pip was huge, and the flesh was barely three little bites, but the taste was strong. I tucked as many as I could into my pockets.
In the late afternoon a farm cart arrived at the creek to take us to the station. Hay bales had been arranged on the back so the invalids could travel in relative comfort. The farmer had also sent bread, butter, smoked ham and scones with jam. We spread out the blankets the farmer had brought, and Mother, the farmer and I carried Vera, Jack and then Douglas onto the flat bed. The man said that he had telegraphed Father as instructed and he would be meeting us on the station in Sydney.
As we set off on the bumpy, uncomfortable ride to the station I took the apricots out of my pocket. I gave one each to Vera, Vincent and Mother, and one to the farmer. Douglas and Jack were asleep, but Vincent asked if he could mind theirs for them. I handed over as many as would fit in Vincent’s pockets. I held the few that remained in my hands, and I stroked their furry skin as the dust swirled behind us and the trees swayed high in the afternoon light.
Edited by Aviva Tuffield