In a bed in an isolation ward, a young man dies. There is no one to hold his hand in his last moments of consciousness for the room is sealed according to strict pandemic protocols. He can receive no visitors. A nurse had been in to check him earlier, covered from head to foot in protective gear. She pummelled pillows and administered medication before retreating to the safety of the chamber outside his room to watch from a distance. He last saw his family through the window the previous day. His weak smile frightened them about his safety and their own. They wept for him and for themselves. His mother sat silently watching, eyes glossy marbles full of tears. He was just a child, for all the amazing growth of beard. His lungs fill up with fluid until he can no longer breathe. At the sound of his death the medical staff gather quickly; exhausted, haggard and sunken under the weight of their job. They attempt to revive him, but his body already lies cooling. A victim of a chain of ill-luck. He has been hastily repatriated as the borders shut. Poor, Bill. May his dear soul rest in peace.

***

At the coach inn on Northallerton High Street, the young brothers Vaiben and Emanuel, sell two of their father’s new German styled coloured pencils and then take some time to drink a pint of ale quietly at a corner table. They watch the hawkers and the hustlers from a distance. One is down from Edinburgh to sell cattle at market; a woman complains about poor laying hens; farmers curse the unusual weather. A rag and bone man presses a woollen coat on them but they have no money for luxuries. The boys walk out of the warm public house with its raging fire and fiery talk, into the countryside until the cold damp night falls early. They rest in a wood on the edge of town, careful to stay hidden from view and away from livestock. It has been a slow year and their father has sent them hawking. The eruption of Mt Tambora in the Dutch Indies causes a year without a summer across the globe and has extraordinary consequences for these peddlers from Spitalfields.

***

At some point during the festive dinner, Miriam offers her dilemma up to this wise council of friends and family for advice and discussion. She is in agonies of indecision about her future. A part time job at a newspaper has introduced her to an adult world set amongst the giant presses, the editorial bull pit, and the pub when the paper has gone to print. Miriam has an offer of a cadetship and a place to study nursing. A classic fork in the road. The consequences of that choice will have a profound impact on the rest and the end of her life. Of course, it will.

***

Bill wakes up at the first sound of the wattlebirds and hears Mother and Lucie already up and making tea in the kitchen, their voices light and lively. His bedroom is the old lean-to at the back of the Mary Street house, behind the kitchen. It is March 1918; his birthday. Bill is as old as the century. He slides his hand underneath the pillow to touch the letter from this brother Ralph that lies there. Words written from the Front: ‘I am still ok and living’. He rises, puts on the clothes he selected and laid out last night. The suit is new, and the shirt has been starched.  Slowly and carefully rolls his socks over sunburned feet. He reaches over to the bedside table to collect his wallet, mindfully placing it in his suit jacket. He puts a clean hanky in his trouser pocket. He tugs at his jacket to settle it. He glances back at the bed as he leaves the room to check that the letter is hidden. In the hall he stops at the mirror and adjusts his tie, flattens his hair, almost smiles at the neat face before him. He ducks out through the hallway and bypasses the kitchen.

Striding down Mary Street, he can smell the ocean and see the frothy crown of the waves ahead before he turns toward Fitzroy Street and the tram stop. The day is already heating up. He sees a returned solder coming towards him with a scarred face and he nods respectfully as he passes. He reaches the wide main street. Standing at the railings of the tram stop he is surrounded by schoolboys skylarking while they too wait for the tram to come. He recognises a couple of younger boys from school and still in Head boy mode silently notes their uniforms breaches. His own well-worn schoolboy’s shorts have been mended and passed down. He notes the discomfort of his stiff new suit and pulls at his starched collar. Climbing aboard the tram he makes his way to the front compartment, taking a seat on the bench beside the front wall so that he is tucked out of the way. His feet rest lightly on the ridged wooden floor and he feels the rattle of the tram on the tracks through his feet.  The journey is known in his body, having taken it so many times before. He knows where the road is uneven and braces as the tram turns into St Kilda Road. At the school the noisy children alight and Bill has to will himself to stay seated. He watches as the boys flood across the road and enter the grounds of the College.

The journey becomes less familiar and Bill pays more attention to the outside. This wide road leads into the city and is considered a notable boulevard comparable to the Champs Elysée by the city’s mandarins who have not been to Paris. Bill thinks the buildings are grand. He twists his watch around to loosen it and shifts in his seat a little. He plays at guessing the professions of the other passengers: secretaries, bank clerks, dentists all making their way to work. A small child in spectacles leans on his mother’s lap and narrates the scene outside the tram as they push on. He notes the leaves on trees, a big dog on the road, a distant figure climbing the hill up to the Botanic gardens. For he has been given new sight and finds each vision a revelation. ‘Mummy, why is the flag on the pole in front of the Barracks halfway down not at the top?’. ‘It’s for the soldiers, Love’, she says quietly. ‘Soldiers like your daddy, away at the War’. Her little boy moves on to quiz her about something else, but Bill’s eyes move toward Victoria Military Barracks. There is a line of men stretching out of the gates. This is one of the remaining enlistment offices and bad news from France has brought out those once rejected, younger, older, less fit.

***

At daybreak the brothers Vaiben and Emanuel share an inadequate meal of bread and cheese and get back on the road towards the next village by way of some isolated farmhouses, where they offer their novelties to farmers’ wives and kitchen maids. At the elegant and sizable home of a gentleman they make sure to speak softly and enunciate clearly to a bustle of servants who pick over their wares and asked them all sorts of questions about the pencils made by their father in his workshop in Spitalfields. Vaiben makes sure to look the imperious housekeeper directly in the eye and listen respectfully to her questions. He thinks she looks like she’s held together with starch.  ‘Did you hear that our neighbour Mr Prest was robbed last week’, she says deliberately. He struggles to meet her gaze. ‘They’re people of fashion and the Master had his best coat snatched right from under him by a rag and bone man.’ She peers at him meaningfully making Vaiben shuffle nervously. Emanuel on the other hand is relaxed and charming. He makes a joke and winks, moves his body around them and their kitchen with ease, and deflects their attention like a true magician. He shows off their stock and himself in smooth moves. He has wide cheekbones and hooded eyes and the chamber maid thinks he would be pretty if he wasn’t so dark. His quick wit and humour make them forget their suspicion. The younger servants giggle and blush as they select their colours. Pink, for the pretty scullery maid to match her cheeks. Blood red for the chamber maid with the biggest heart in Christendom. Vaiben watches his brother in fear and awe.

***

It was in 1990, just after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Miriam, just an adult and living independently, was on the cusp of making a significant decision about the direction of her life when she attended a dinner at the home of old friends of her parents. She wanted to be in that room with these intriguing people who offered a model for a meaningful life. These friends had recently moved to the most cosmopolitan apartment in town. The apartment was in a high-rise on the town’s main arterial, considered a glamourous boulevard, lined with Victorian buildings like the Victoria Military Barracks and the hospital opposite. The new apartment floated high above remaining mansions. On arriving she had to mount an elevator. The complex had an outdoor swimming pool on a terrace halfway up the building on the street side. She considered this the height of luxury. The decor was overwhelmingly brown with a lot of sleek wood veneer finishes and wall to wall carpets in caramel. The view out one apartment window looked towards the central business district with its jagged rising skyline and on another into a large park with symmetrical gardens and historic cricket oval.

***

Bill stays on the tram, heading to the other side of the city. Past the city baths and at the brewery the tram terminates, and he gets off to walk up to the University. Bill hurries to walk by as he doesn’t enjoy the pungent yeasty smell. An old worker wheeling barrels out of the facility nods at him. Bill thinks that this man wonders why he is not also in the War. He walks up to the University through the fields taking large strides. He walks eagerly through the iron gates trying to orient himself as he is seeing the quadrangle and the bluestone buildings for the first time. He imagines himself attending classes in the cool solid lecture rooms, taking lunch in the wide bright dining room, anatomising in the lab. He will make new friends.  When he gets to his destination other students are gathering on the lawns and in the hallways of the medical faculty. He makes the necessary arrangements to enrol. Bill loiters in the grounds, hoping to spot someone he knows. He leans against a wall to listen to conversations, which are mostly about summer holidays. ‘I had a postcard from Bertie the other day’, one boy says as he rolls a cigarette. ‘He’s in France waiting to get into it. Says the food’s horrendous.’

When he is ready to go home Bill walks back to the terminus at Madeline Street. He alights the tram, tired now: his head aches with hunger and thirst and effort. He did not eat while he was out. His new clothing is crumpled, and he slumps against his seat. A man in a brown jumper stands too close to him. The smell of this man makes him nauseous. The layers of smells start to separate lamb chops from dinner, kippers from breakfast, cough syrup sticking to his clothes and a wet patch at his groin. At Flinders’ Street Station a young woman gets onto the tram and sits opposite him. She has a crinkly early autumn leaf caught in her shoe. She removes it decisively, arranges herself on the bench and sits very erect, feet tucked to one side, hands in her lap clutching a small bag. She is very still; her lips are pursed, and her brow furrowed. Her hair is parted severely and plied down into a bun at the nape of her neck. She is young but looks faded. She’s wearing mourning black. She stares directly at young Bill wilting across the aisle. He smiles at her but gets no response. When the woman rises and moves toward the door, she passes him and drops something into his lap. He is startled. On his knee is a delicate and fluffy white feather, like the under layer on a sea gull’s belly. When he looks up, she is gone. She left her message loud and clear.

***

When they have finishing charming the servants and made a good few sales the boys get on the road again. Emanuel is energised and chatty. Vaiben watches his brother bounce down the road and shuffling behind him attempts to mimic his brother’s confidence. He throws his arms around behind his brother like a shadow, but the gesture doesn’t have the ease of the older boy. Emanuel turns around and catches his brother’s mimicry, mistakes it for clowning and calls Vaiben a coxcomb, a zulik, a fool.  They continue walking through the narrow country lanes in silence for a while. The hedge rows so tall they cannot see the fields or houses. They are off the main thoroughfares and there is nothing for it but to continue on until they happen upon a hamlet where they might make a sale. In his head Emanuel calculates how many sales they must make until they can go home.

***

Pierre sat that the head of the table. Miriam’s father had known him since their formative days in university politics. Her dad and Pierre had been particularly engaged in political activity in those cold war years. They had the easy intimacy of two old men who had known each other in long past intense times. They both had a kind of shuffling geniality born of generosity towards the world and other people. This was surprising given the savagery of their life experience. Pierre presented as gentle and scholarly, though Miriam knew that he had been a fighter in the French resistance. He had a slight accent that gave his speech a pleasing lilt. He spoke quietly but commanded attention with careful words. Pierre recalled the disappointment they felt at the failure of socialism. He had abandoned the party early in light of its failings. Miriam’s father remained captivated a little longer, not wanting to believe the rumours and truths. Pierre spoke eloquently, weaving politics and personal in a velvety tone, musing on the significance of recent events. After this introduction, conversation broadened. Miriam said something that was meant to be funny but might have been offensive, as she tried to keep up with the bonhomie.

***

Sitting with the white feather in his lap Bill turned bright pink with shame and glanced furtively around him to see if anyone on the tram had noticed. How many times had he had the conversation with his mother begging her to let him enlist? ‘You’re too young, Billy’, she insisted and refused her permission. A motherly woman sitting opposite him on the tram softly smiled knowingly at him. He imagined it was encouragement to do the right thing. They were just passing the Hospital and approaching the Barracks again. Bill stood up and pulled the chord. It was past lunchtime and the queue was shorter than it had been this morning on the inward journey.

***

The road is wet and there is drizzle as the boys march purposefully towards the next village when they see walking towards them the very rag and bone man who approached them at the inn last night trying to off load a fine coat. ‘Maybe he’s interested in bartering for pencils?’, says Vaiben, shivering in his too small thinning suit.

***

When she left dinner that night and walked to her car, Miriam noticed that the University’s Department of Nursing was housed in a building right next door to Pierre’s apartment and took that as an omen.

***

Bill arrived in France after the Armistice and did not see battle, but he saw blood. So much blood that he revised his aspiration to become a doctor and planned to study to become an accountant. Repatriated on one of the last boats home he caught the Spanish Flu. Though he was fit and young it took him before he could make amends to his mother for leaving that day without saying goodbye.

***

Vaiben and Emanuel were each sentence to transportation to New South Wales for larceny in 1818.

***

Confined to the house in pandemic isolation in suburban Melbourne in 2020, when not at work, Miriam disinfects the door handles with alcohol wipes and bakes sourdough and wonders about this uncomfortable moment and its place in history. As she cleans the bathroom and folds washing, she is preoccupied with the critical moments, the decisions, the random unchangeable events and actions that impact people’s lives. These are life and death musings to match her job as a nurse on a COVID-19 ward. After she’s done enough tidying Miriam snuggles down with a book, a cup of tea and peanut butter toast in her back room with the winter sun flooding in. She is filled with the pleasure of small things. She remembers that formative dinner with Pierre, who is now dead, and weighs up the choice she made that evening. She takes a mindful bite of toast feeling grateful for its salty creamy unctuousness. She finds she cannot swallow and begins to cough and wheeze.

 

Article by Author/s
Avatar
Deborah Rechter
Deborah Rechter is a JWOW editor. She works in museums and heritage sites as a curator.

Comments are closed.

NEVER MISS AN ARTICLE AGAIN!


Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter