Authors: Ian Townsend
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
For my lovely wife, Kirsty
\af*fect”tion\, n: 1. Kind feeling; love;
tender attachment. 2. Disease; a morbid or
abnormal state of body or mind; malady.
D BEEN SEARCHING THE
faces of passengers as they chattered past fearing twenty years might have changed him, and then there he was in front of me conjured from a flurry of parasols and hats and peering up at me like I was some damned specimen he’d misplaced. Of course, I’d have recognised him even if he wasn’t wearing the topee and waving a butterfly net in my face.
‘Your eyes are worse, Row.’
‘There has never been anything wrong with my eyes, Dr Turner.’
A woman pressing a large feathered hat to her head gave us a queer look as she hurried past with two bawling children.
I said, ‘Welcome to my asylum.’
As the ferry grumbled away, I was looking at a man who’d in fact changed little in two decades, although he must have been now, what, seventy?
‘For Heaven’s sake.’
Well, sixty then. Nearly.
He smiled and tucked his pith helmet under an arm and I thought for a moment he was going to salute, but
he simply patted down his hair, which was thinner. His beard was grey and trimmed to a neat Bolshy goatee. Thick, round, wire-rimmed spectacles magnified many fine lines around his eyes.
He’d accepted my invitation, he said, because he rarely had an excuse nowadays to escape town. The pleasure of seeing me was a sort of bonus.
His little joke.
We walked up the road from the wharf, slowing to let holiday makers hurry ahead to their buggies and motorcars, or clamber on to the flat bed of Dalton’s lorry that would take them to the ocean side of the island.
‘And where is this asylum of yours, Row?’
‘Just ahead a short way.’
The vehicles clattered away and we were left with the wind and sand.
Formalities first, I supposed.
‘Hilda?’ I asked. ‘Is she well?’
‘Yes. Yes.’ Perhaps I should have told my wife Turner was coming, but she’d already made her plans. ‘In town. Shopping.’
‘Oh?’ he said.
He asked about Allan, Marjorie and Eileen, but as I answered he gazed off into the hazy hills, as if he didn’t really care or already knew. I tried to think if he had any family, and we fell into silence.
,’ he said, eventually.
I chewed at an icing of salt on my bottom lip.
‘I’ve been meaning to add it to a tray of Lycaenidae,’ and he looked at me. ‘That’s a butterfly.’
‘So I gathered.’
‘Found only here. On this island. Apparently.’
Turner was slapping the net against his leg and looking around with a restless, boyish energy. I remembered that about him now.
In front of us were scrubby hills, and hard clouds shot over the top like cannon shells. We walked up the road through the village towards the asylum, a few cottages on our right, the fishing co-op on our left, some thin shrubs here, a pine there, mostly sand with some ragged islands of grass. There’d not be an insect left alive if I had my way.
‘I don’t remember mentioning any butterflies when I called,’ I said.
‘No?’ He twirled his net as if preparing for tennis. ‘Do you remember the Blue Tigers, Row?’
A sudden image dragged up after twenty years made me breathless.
‘No,’ was all I could say, and kept walking into the wind.
He looked over at me. ‘Are you writing your memoirs?’
‘I’m not writing my memoirs, Dr Turner. The last thing I want to do is dredge up the past.’
‘But that’s what we have in common. That’s why I’m here, is it not?’ he said, twirling his net. ‘The past?’
I’d begun to regret inviting him.
Turner stopped to poke his net into an exhausted low cottonwood to see what he could flush out.
‘Why didn’t you keep in touch?’ he said. ‘You know I named a moth after you?’ He pronounced it ‘moff’.
’ He gave up on the bush and we kept walking. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘Ages. Before the War. And then back here afterwards.’
We were approaching a long yellow hut. ‘Your namesake is a very small moff, even for small moffs. Not just that but he hides on the bark of the ghost gum. Dashed hard to see. Has this remarkable colouration, a bit like blue cheese.’ He looked up at me. ‘You’re very pale for someone who’s been living on an island for all these years.’
‘I caught some gas in Ypres.’
‘I’ve been busy.’
‘You should have kept in touch, Row.’
Then he gently tapped me on the shoulder with his net. Silly, I know, but it moved me and I had to turn away.
We walked in silence for a while.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Why am I here?’
I cleared my throat.
‘Pardon?’ he said.
His stride faltered a little, I was pleased to see.
‘That’s the short of it.’
‘You’d better tell me the long of it. It seems I have plenty of time.’
The long of it.
Well, Ronald Merriment had sent a telegram ordering me to the hospital to see a patient. I sent a telegram back suggesting a nurse could accompany the patient on the barge. I assumed it was leprosy, you see. My only speciality, as far as the Health Department’s concerned.
But no, a telegram came back insisting I go, a matter of medical urgency, and no further explanation. This had happened once or twice before, so I went.
And there he was. I couldn’t have been more surprised, as you can imagine. I took a smear and did a microscopic examination there and then. There was no doubt about plague, but they must have already known that. The symptoms were quite obvious. The hospital telephoned the ministry and Ronald sent a motorcar.
Turner was nodding as I told him this, and I stopped walking.
‘You might ask why,’ I said.
‘You mean, why you and not me?’ he said.
‘I’m retired.’ He smiled. ‘I suppose they wanted the next best bacteriologist in Queensland.’
I walked off and Turner caught up.
So. Picture me standing outside the office of the Under-Secretary of Health. I’d had time to wash, of course, but I had no change of clothes. It was all very rushed. I noticed a spot of blood on my shoe, so I asked the young woman there if anything else about me seemed odd.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Nothing in my hair?’
She shook her head. ‘No.’
I leaned closer. She shook her head again, more slowly. I straightened my jacket and the woman knocked and opened the door in one movement.
I was surprised to see someone else behind the table. My first thought was that the room’s usual occupant, Under-Secretary Ronald Merriment, finally had his promotion to Tax and they’d given his job to someone older and in poorer health.
The man didn’t stand, but said, ‘Dr Row? Come in. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m William McCormack.’
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, but I usually came to Brisbane only for budget meetings and dealt only with Ronald at that table. Home Secretaries
didn’t have their hands in departmental pockets, but they often had them around departmental throats, as it were.
He waved me over and pointed to the creaky red leather chair. The room was lit by large vertical windows opaque from grime on the outside, and it wasn’t until I sat that I noticed Ronald standing in a dark corner. Under the circumstances, no one shook hands.
‘So I take it you’ve seen the poor chap?’ said the Home Secretary.
‘Sorry to send you straight to the front, but we needed an opinion fast. How bad is it?’
‘Well, he died. He was dead when I arrived.’
‘Yes.’ He leaned back and blew out a long stream of pipe smoke towards the ceiling. ‘I take it that’s not a good sign.’
‘And the hospital’s coping? Can cope? In your opinion?’
I’d been at the hospital only for the two hours it took to watch the autopsy and look for bacteria.
‘They isolated the patient,’ I said. ‘They seem to have done the right things.’
‘The superintendent seems to think the hospital’s going to go broke over this.’
Ah, I thought. ‘He did ask me to ask about more money,’ I said, picturing the harried little man. I hadn’t taken much notice. ‘I suppose it depends on how many
more cases there are. Isolation is expensive. A whole ward had to be cleared for one man.’
The Home Secretary leaned forward as far as his belly would allow. ‘It’s only this one case so far.’
‘But it is plague. There are bound to be more. In my opinion.’
The Home Secretary slapped the table suddenly. ‘Bound to be more. Did you hear that, Ron?’
‘Yes,’ I heard Ronald say from the gloom. ‘That’s Dr Row’s opinion.’ It obviously wasn’t Ronald’s.
‘What is your opinion on isolation hospitals?’ said the Home Secretary.
‘It would be wise. To build one,’ I said, carefully, feeling like a rabbit with one foot already in the trap. ‘Or find one. As soon as possible.’
He leaned back and puffed for a while, staring at a point above my head.
‘What about Peel Island?’ As if he’d just thought of it. ‘That’s under your jurisdiction already, I understand.’
I should have seen this coming. I didn’t have a pipe to light, so I took off my glasses and rubbed at the lenses.
‘To be frank, Mr McCormack, I wouldn’t even put my lunatics there, let alone anyone who needed urgent medical attention. A large amount of money would have to be spent. The lepers moved.’
Through the smoke, I saw him wince. ‘I thought Peel Island was closed.’
It was no longer a quarantine station, yes.
‘Well for pity’s sake. Lepers?’
That seemed to be a cue for Ronald Merriment to step into the square of light from the window.
He stood there like a newspaper advertisement for Gentlemen’s Tweed Suits, looking a little sad in a way many younger men affected nowadays. In Ronald’s case I put it down to
and I knew this because Ronald had told me – and, I assumed, the world and his wife – that flat feet had let him down and he had to stay behind for the War, which no one believed, but I suspected was true.
It felt suddenly stuffy in the room and I wished I were back home.
Pipe smoke curled like a vine through a shaft of light and Ronald seemed quite unhappy standing there, leaning backwards slightly in his comfortable loafers and avoiding my eye.
He said, quite sarcastically I thought, that in such matters as Peel Island and Dunwich, I was the Home Secretary’s best advisor, and the Home Secretary had asked about lepers.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Peel Island is a lazaret. There are fifteen of them.’
‘Why?’ said the Home Secretary, pressing forward, the table moving slightly.
‘Lin?’ said Ronald. He was looking at me, his head at an angle, as if one of us had nodded off.
I was blowed if I knew where these sensations came from, but there you go. I had a ringing in my ears and my head felt squeezed as if a shell had exploded nearby.
I said, ‘Could you open a window?’
‘Jammed. Would you like some water?’
The Home Secretary and Ronald exchanged glances and McCormack himself reached for the jug on the table, poured a glass and pushed it towards me.
‘Well,’ he said, suddenly jovial. ‘Lepers. Fancy that,’ sitting back, looking to me and then to Ronald. ‘I didn’t know we still had lepers, Ron.’
Ronald completed the ridiculous triangle by telling me, ‘Mr McCormack has a large portfolio, Lin. I’m sure you understand.’
He turned to stare out the window again, and the Home Secretary faced me. I finished the water and wondered why the Under-Secretary (‘please call me Ronald’) had left it to me to mention the lepers.
In fact, I wondered why I was there in the first place.
I took a deep breath and explained that, yes, in years long past the old Peel Island quarantine station had been used for cases of fever: cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and the like, any ship’s company who arrived in suspect health. He either died, or recovered and moved on. Modern medicine had put the quarantine station out of business. After it closed some lepers were sent there, never recovered and so never left. It was convenient, I supposed, to have them on an island. They took care of themselves, there was an administrator, and there’d been no reason to move them. I visited Peel nowadays to treat them for
pneumonia or childbirth and, apart from the obvious, they were generally in good health.
‘Ha! Lepers!’ said the Home Secretary. He picked a piece of tobacco from his tongue and placed it carefully on the table. ‘And they can’t be removed?’
‘Yes, but we’d have to put them somewhere.’ I didn’t say, of course, that they’d be moved over my dead body.
‘Do they have to be moved?’ He looked at Ronald.
‘I believe this is a good example of the difficulties inherent in this suggestion by the Premier that we need to find a site for a plague hospital now,’ said Ronald to the window. ‘As Dr Row suggests, it will cost money and a great deal of inconvenience. In the case of Peel Island, for example, if the island is something we must consider, then in this case we’d have to allow that we’d be exposing the current residents to plague, and I think Lin would also point out that we’d be exposing the plague patients to leprosy.’
It was all absurd, of course. They both turned towards me, and I was forced to play along, determined to protect the island.
‘The trouble also is that it’s a long way to send someone who’s very ill,’ I said. ‘If someone is ill enough to present with plague symptoms, he might not survive. And you’d need medical resources. At the moment it’s just me and I have to row out there as it is.’
The Home Secretary stared at me for quite some time, but I’m a good starer. ‘I think Dr Row has some
good points. Can we get them in the report to the Premier? Ronald?’
‘Of course. Lin?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Good-oh,’ said the Home Secretary.
There were a few moments’ silence.
‘Why was I asked to see the patient?’ I said.
The Home Secretary raised his eyebrows. I heard Ronald say, ‘We understood you had some experience in these matters.’