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Edition 60

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Fiction

The trench

DOCTOR JUNK STOPS his car facing the heavy white gate, from where he can see a few outlying buildings of the Barambah Aboriginal Settlement. He gives a double-blast from his car horn, leaving the engine idling while filling his pipe. After a few puffs he sees a man riding down the hill towards him. The rider has a felt hat, but no shoes, and his horse has a bridle, but no saddle. The man’s buttonless shirt, tucked into his trousers, is open wide enough to see the patterned scars across his chest. The doctor taps out his pipe and pulls a white cloth from his coat pocket.

The black man is smiling as he removes the padlock and chain, and pulls the gate inwards.

‘How are you Sydney?’ Dr Junk calls.

‘Why you here?’ Sydney says. ‘You bring that bad flu, hey?’

The doctor ties on a facemask, and climbs back into his car.

‘No, I’m here to stop your people getting the bad flu,’ he says, driving onwards and leaving Sydney to lock the gate behind him.

The painted tin sign nailed to the gate declares:

QUARANTINE
Entry Strictly Forbidden
Do NOT Enter

Barambah Settlement is not much of a place. It takes the doctor no more than a minute or two to pass through the main part of the town. White painted rocks mark each corner where the road from Murgon intersects with the only other road. A few dirt tracks branch off each into the surrounding bush. He drives slowly past a few larger buildings – the superintendent’s residence, the hospital, the boys’ and girls’ dormitories – and parks in front of the storekeeper’s house, adjacent to the ration shed. The only other buildings – apart from the school, which has a corrugated roof but no walls – are the inmates’ homes. There are several dozen gunyas, humpies, huts and small houses, all rudimentarily contrived from milled timber, canvas, dismantled fruit boxes, sheets of iron, bits of hessian, flattened kerosene tins, eucalyptus branches. Some stand neatly in rows of three or four, others are clumped closely together with little regard for straight lines, while a few more sit alone further out in the grassy paddocks.

Junk presses his car horn, turns off the engine and gets out to stand in front of the storekeeper’s residence, and looks around while he waits for Williams to appear. From this spot he can see most of the settlement. A creek winds around below the town, and the hills beyond the creek are heavily timbered. Remnant scraps of bush sit in some of the gullies, with occasional wattles and casuarinas, but the only noble trees that offer any shade to the place are a few big gums and a couple of old bunya pines. Acres of native grasses extend to the split rail and wire perimeter fences. The cemetery is at the far edge of town, up on a hill to the south.

‘Do you have to wear that?’ Williams asks, gesturing towards his own mouth and nose while staring at the doctor’s mask.

‘Don’t you ever read the papers?’ Junk replies. ‘It’s for your benefit, more than mine.’

‘I’ll take your word for it, but you can see how it makes a fellow feel.’

‘I hope it frightens the hell out of you. When you tell your grandchildren you survived the biggest killer in history, tell them you did it with help from me. And the government. Now, let’s have a look at what they’ve sent us,’ the doctor says, following Williams into the ration shed.

The storekeeper unlocks his desk drawer, takes out a key and uses it to open the cabinet behind the desk. He lifts a wooden box off one of the lower shelves and carries it to a table that’s below the closed window.

‘It’s all in here, they sent it all in the one box,’ he tells Junk, and uses the short blade of his pocketknife to prise off the lid. ‘Is it true about Samoa, and those other places?’

The doctor frowns in annoyance.

‘Oh, you have been keeping current with it,’ Junk says. ‘Yes, by all accounts the flu was a disaster in many islands. A quarter of Samoans died, if you can believe that. Fiji almost as bad. New Zealand copped it hard too, of course. It’s difficult to say. More than a million dead across Europe. God only knows how many Chinese and Indians, and there’s Russia too. Hard to imagine anything more horrid than the war, but it’s here now and we have to see what we can do to get through it.’

The wooden box, lined with zinc and packed with straw, holds two paper parcels and four bottles of serum, each wrapped in a flannel cloth. The smaller parcel has two new glass syringes and a tin of hypodermic needles. The larger package contains five bundles of gauze face masks. Slowly, Junk counts out one of the bundles.

‘Twenty,’ he says. ‘One hundred altogether. For six hundred people!’

‘Brisbane on the job,’ Williams says and rolls his eyes in agreement.

‘All of these are for adults. They’re the same damned size! Do they think there are no children here?’ Junk throws the bundle down and picks up one of the bottles. ‘Well, at least there’s enough serum for everyone. My instructions are to inject everyone aged five or older.’

‘Does it help?’ Williams asks.

‘It won’t stop anyone getting the flu, but it seems to stop the worst effects. It should prevent the pneumonia. We’ll soon see,’ Junk says, and places the bottle back in its box. ‘I’ll be here on Tuesday, giving the first inoculations with the matron. I guess the flu will be here within a couple of weeks, possibly three. Certainly before the end of May.’

 

THE LEAN-TO OFF the hospital’s back wall has an angled tin roof supported by two posts, no floor. Matron Rich, the settlement’s resident nurse, sits behind a small desk, checking people in a queue as one by one they parade through the small allotment of shade. Dr Junk sits next to the desk, and a third chair is adjacent to his.

Only women and young ones are waiting to be inoculated. Some young men stand off a way, gathered along a fence, and the old uncles sit in small groups on the ground adjacent to the hospital, smoking and yarning. The other men – those with jobs – will come in for their shot after the families have been through.

The nurse gauges the temperature of each person that comes forward with the back of her hand, checks their eyes and inside their mouth and ears. She does not ask the patients if they are feeling well or if they have any problems, but several mothers are given stern admonishments – spoken through the nurse’s cotton mask – before they move forward and sit on the empty chair by the doctor. She makes a tally-mark for each injection, and gives the doctor the totals when he asks.

Dr Junk’s medical bag sits open on the desk, next to four clear quart bottles labelled SPECIAL INFLUENZA VACCINE. Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne. An enamel tray holds two syringes, scissors, tweezers, an oral thermometer, a few bandages and a box of safety pins. There is a brown bottle without markings, a medicine glass, and three large bottles of Bayer aspirin tablets. Two huge jars contain a barley sugar lolly for everyone who has been injected.

As each new patient comes forward, he pinches their skin midway between the elbow and shoulder, takes the syringe, angles it into the muscle and pushes down the plunger about a quarter of an inch. As soon as he has finished, he gives each newly inoculated patient an aspirin and calls ‘Next’. After six or seven arms, the syringe needs refilling and he rests his injecting arm – the only times he puts the syringe down – after four or five refills.

‘How many is that?’ he asks.

‘Umm… It’s… Yes, 234 now,’ the nurse says.

Junk puts the syringe down on the table and motions the next patient, a young woman, to re-join the queue. He stands, stretches forward and back with his hands on his waist, and rolls his shoulders.

‘I need a break. Will you please make us a cup of tea?’ he says to Matron Rich.

‘Of course,’ she replies, standing up to face the waiting natives. ‘You’ll wait here. Ten minutes. Don’t go home, you all have to stay here and wait for the doctor. Ten minutes. You all stay here.’ Her voice is loud and halting, as she might speak to someone who was deaf or senile.

Junk arranges a cloth to cover the bottles and utensils. He folds his spectacles into his waistcoat pocket, snaps shut his bag, walks to entrance of the hospital and goes inside. The hospital consists of a single room that contains three iron beds arranged along each wall, four of which are empty. Two elderly men lie in the beds closest to the table at the wall opposite the door. As Junk puts his bag on the table and pulls down his mask, the sound of a car pulling up outside diverts his attention and he walks back outside. He smiles as three figures – Superintendent Lipscombe, his wife, and their daughter – face him.

‘Are you sure we need to get stuck with that stuff, doctor?’ Lipscombe asks with a friendly grin, as he climbs the steps and shakes the doctor’s hand.

‘Only if you want to live. It’s really up to you, I suppose,’ Junk tells him, and smiles good-day to the women. He realises that his mask is down and quickly pulls it over his mouth. ‘Sorry. Give me a moment. If you’ll sit inside… On the beds near the door, they’re clean.’

Junk walks around to the back of the small building and returns with a full bottle of serum, a bottle of disinfectant, and the syringe. Inside the hospital, Lipscombe is sitting on the edge of one bed, and his wife and daughter are on the bed next to it.

‘I’ve brought a fresh bottle. Just a minute.’ Junk sits at the hospital’s table, and takes a small sharpening stone from his medical bag. ‘I’ve got to hone the needle. You don’t want me poking you with a blunt point.’

He strokes the needle slowly and deliberately along the stone then peers closely at the point. He draws some disinfectant into the syringe then squeezes it all out in a fine jet onto the floorboards. Poking the needle into the other bottle, he fills the syringe with inoculation fluid, turns to the family and says, ‘Who’s first?’

The matron comes in with a tray with five china cups on saucers. ‘I saw you arriving,’ she informs the superintendent, who is anxiously watching the needle as it punctures his wife’s skin.

‘We’ve done more than two hundred so far today. We’ll do the boys and girls tomorrow morning. In their dormitories, not here,’ Junk tells Lipscombe. ‘Please tell Williams and the other staff I’m here until four. Half-past four at the latest. We’re doing children only tomorrow.’ He removes his syringe from the superintendent’s arm, wipes away a bead of blood and drinks his cup of tea in two gulps. ‘Matron… Shall we get back to it?’

When the doctor and nurse return to the inoculation queue all the waiting people get to their feet, and the young Aboriginal woman takes her place back in the chair as the doctor picks up his needle.

 

DOCTOR JUNK SITS at his kitchen table, reading The Murgon Record, a flimsy broadsheet of four pages. The kitchen in his small cottage is clean and tidy. The steaming teapot rests on a doily. He notices his hands are trembling, and studies his left hand, turning it both ways. Taking a metal tube from his shirt pocket and removing the thermometer from it, he shakes it and places it in his mouth. He goes to the cupboard and pours a small glass of gin, which he puts next to his teacup. After reading the thermometer he cleans it and replaces it in his pocket. He gulps the gin in one slug, and sips his tea.

 

JUNK STOPS AT the big gate, below the Barambah Settlement sign. He blows his car horn outside the locked gate, but by the time he’s finished smoking his pipe no one has come to let him in, so he turns his engine off. He climbs between the hardwood rails of the fence and walks up to the settlement, stopping to tie on his mask as he nears the first dwellings. Around him a couple of horses are grazing, a few dogs trot around, and birds fly to and fro, but the doctor does not see a single person.

‘Matron?’ he calls. ‘Are you there?’

There’s no reply. He goes up the steps warily, stopping at the edge of the top step. He winces, turns his head away and coughs. Taking a tiny bottle from his bag and the kerchief from his pocket, he sprinkles a dozen drops of eucalyptus oil on the cotton and ties it around his face, over the mask. He puts on a pair of soft leather gloves and buttons his dustcoat all the way to the collar. He scans the road and nearby houses. There’s not a soul in sight. Leaving his bag next to the verandah post he steps through the curtained doorway.

Junk surveys the dimly lit room without moving forward. Six beds each have one or two people in them prostrate, and several more forms are discernible lying on improvised beds on the floor. To his left, a man alone in the bed closest to the door is dead. Most of the others – all adults – are making faint noises or small movements. Stepping carefully to avoid the prone figure and the full chamber pots between the first two beds, Junk pulls the dead man’s blanket over his head and quickly exits the hospital. On the small verandah he can breathe safely, inhaling deeply as he leans against the post.

A dog’s bark makes him look up. Three young boys emerge from between two humpies a couple of hundred yards down the side road that runs towards the creek. The doctor turns back into the hospital and comes out with a tin bucket, which he half fills from the tap on the tank near the bottom step. He takes a bottle of tablets from his case and counts out two for each patient, putting them in his dustcoat pocket. After a few slow, deep breaths he parts the curtain and carries the bucket inside.

Junk steps over and around the people on the floor to begin his work at the far end of the room – nudging and rousing, shaking some by the shoulders, propping them up to drink the water and swallow their tablets. ‘Here you go… Come on… Drink… More, you need to drink more… Can you hear me?... You need these… Come on, damn it…’ His manner is brusque, urgent, and when his words do not break through the delirium he uses his free hand to force each prone figure to sit up. He gives each person a cupful of water from the same enamel mug, and places tablets in as many mouths as he can encourage to open. There is not one lucid patient in the place. He works his way from bed to bed, stooping to those on the floor, breathing quickly and shallowly, and using fewer words as he gets closer to the doorway. He drops the mug into the bucket, casts a quick glance at the dead man and puts the bucket down just inside the doorway.

Junk grabs his bag on his way down the steps into the full sunshine some yards away from the hospital, gulping fresh air. He takes off the gloves, squats and retrieves a brown bottle from his bag. Holding both the gloves in his left hand, he pours liberally from the bottle, wrings the excess carbolic from the gloves, and then wipes the gloves over both sides of each hand and all over the bottle and the handles of his leather case. Standing – still taking deep breaths – he removes his dustcoat, and uses a little more carbolic to disinfect his hands again. He turns and stares at the doorway of the hospital, at the dark stillness through the gap in the curtains. Untying the kerchief, and then the face mask, he folds both into his shirt pocket, gets a bottle of Listerine from his bag and rinses his mouth, gargling the second swig before spitting it on to the dusty ground.

Commissioner of Public Health,
Brisbane.

Sir,
I visited Barambah Settlement professionally today.
I regret to say that since Sunday there have been numerous deaths in all some 35 fatal cases.
The epidemic is now so general that not more than a dozen individuals have escaped infection including the official staff. Yet I cannot say that this disease is of a very severe type – rather it is that our poor aboriginals make bad subjects for any disease whatever.
Yours faithfully
Dr Junk GMO.
Wondai, 28 May 1919

 

LIPSCOMBE IS SITTING on a wicker two-seater on his verandah, wearing a maroon cardigan and with a grey army blanket over his legs, when the doctor joins him from inside the house. Junk brings two glasses of water. The men are shaded from the late afternoon sun.

‘The women will be back to rights in a couple of days, but you have to tell your daughter to rest for another few days after that,’ Junk says, pulling up a wicker chair and sitting down. ‘And to keep checking her temperature. She will certainly relapse if she tries to do too much too quickly.’

‘Thank you, David. Thank goodness all the staff have come through,’ Lipscombe says.

‘One blessing in the middle of a disaster,’ Junk says, as he places a thermometer under the superintendent’s tongue.

When his mouth is once again clear, Lipscombe asks: ‘How bad is it out there?’

‘Well, seven or eight patients in hospital at Wondai. Still only one fatality, the boy brought over from Kilkivan last week.’ Junk looks at the thermometer. ‘Right on one hundred. That’s good... Your fever’s definitely broken, but you can expect another week of feeling crook.’

Junk takes a cloth, cleans the thermometer and puts it in its case in his medical bag. ‘Murgon’s worse, I hear. Eight or ten houses now put under quarantine notices. Last figures I heard were about seventy cases, and maybe twenty in the isolation hospital. Doctor Lavery and his wife are down, but not too bad I suppose, probably exhaustion mostly.’

‘Damn! What are you telling me? One death in the whole bloody district, and almost fifty here?’ Lipscombe sits forward, his face flushed. ‘Why is it so bad here, then? What the hell am I supposed to tell the Chief Protector?’

Junk turns away, and stares at the hills.

‘It’s actually fifty-six now,’ he says. ‘And we can work out how best to explain it all when we have finished dealing with it. Plainly it isn’t our fault – not yours, not mine. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s something about the natives. Think about it.’ Junk returns his gaze to the sick man. ‘Are we to blame for most of them running off to the bush? Is that your doing? Did you make them panic? You need to be thinking more about how to get them all back into the settlement, rather than worrying yourself about how you’ll report this.’

Lipscombe sips water from a glass, and leans back into his chair.

‘I followed instructions,’ he says. ‘I had Williams paint up the signs, and put them on the bridge and the gate. We had everyone take the needle. Not a single soul in or out, except you. Even the vegetables are crossing the bridge in a basket, did you see that? I made damn sure there was enough food, and gave out new blankets to everyone who wanted them. Everything I was told to do. Everything I could do.’

‘Yes, I know,’ Junk replies. ‘I did my job, you’ve done yours, and I cannot see what more we could’ve done. But I can assure you – listen to me! – this awful situation will only get worse if there are bodies left inside those houses and humpies.’

Lipscombe sighs, ‘Oh God.’ He begins to laugh, which makes him cough. Junk asks what he finds funny about it.

‘Nothing funny. Nothing,’ he says when he has suppressed the cough. ‘Only I was thinking… When the plague was in London people were told to bring out their dead. We haven’t come so far then.’

‘Well, you can’t say that,’ Junk says. ‘We have medicines, antiseptics… We have proper ways to fight diseases. And we know what causes them. Back then people believed that noxious odours brought plagues, or they were cursed. They blamed bad smells or bad luck. They knew nothing of germs. Now science has driven out superstition.’

Lipscombe says nothing. His eyes are closed. When Junk realises the superintendent has fallen asleep, he stands and leaves quietly.

 

OUTSIDE A HUMPY, Junk straightens up, turns away and, through his mask, says: ‘No one.’

Williams makes a note of it as they move on to the next. The doctor steps up and peers inside.

‘Empty. What a hovel! These are a disgrace. It’s appalling that people live in these things,’ he says. ‘They’re all empty. Every damned one of them seems to have gone bush.’

Junk walks to the adjacent humpy, about a dozen yards further along the track. He bends to poke his head inside, and immediately withdraws and tells Williams to stay back – then goes into the tiny dwelling.

Two young adults are lying together, sharing two blankets. They are sleeping or unconscious. A very young child is sobbing and feebly pulling at his mother’s clothes and hair, trying to access her breasts. Trying to wake her.

Junk leans through the opening, looking at Williams with anguish, his hands and words shaking: ‘Go and get the Matron, tell her to warm some milk and bring some beef tea. Run, damn you!’

Commissioner of Public Health,
Brisbane

RE INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC AT BARAMBAH SETTLEMENT

Sir,
The following is an epitomised statement of the features of this outbreak up to daye [sic] (Sunday) 1/6/19.

Affected aborigines (with Influenza) 596
Not affected 10
Total deaths males 45
Total deaths females 22

29 deaths took place amongst the aged, infirm and diseased. Of the remainder it is conceded on all hands that a great many died of simple funk and some through grief and panic made little resistance or even courted death.
There can be no doubt as to the result of this fatalistic creed amongst Australian aborigines as amongst the Kanakas.
All the white officials and their families numbering 16 were also affected, so far fortunately without any deaths.
Total number therefore up to date of patients affected with Influenza reaches 612.
I possess a complete list of names which can be sent in if necessary.
Dr Junk GMO.
Wondai, 3 June 1919

 

THE ABORIGINAL TEAMSTER leading the bullocks carries a stick almost as tall as himself, but directs the beasts with quiet words, and little pulls and pushes on their yoke. His partner sits in the dray smoking a clay pipe. The pair of them are dressed in the same striped shirts and woollen trousers held up by braces, and each has a straw hat. The rig moves slowly, unhurried, casting eccentric shadows on the late afternoon grass as it makes its way up the gently rising track.

Junk waits in his idling car on the side road, watching the dray lumbering through the crossroads on its way to the graveyard at the top of the hill. He peers intently at the piled bodies, wrapped in their calico windings, laid lengthways on the silvered boards. There are too many to count, despite the slow progress, and there is a tragic chaos in their mingled arrangement.

The man in the dray turns his head and nods at the doctor, and then half turns his body to look behind the dray, over the load of bodies. Junk looks to see what the man has noticed. A young girl, maybe seven or eight years old, has come from the other side and is following the dray. The teamster jumps down from his seat and tries to chase her away with a frantic gesture and a shout, ‘Get home’. The girl stops, but does not turn away.

‘Get away, get home to your mama,’ the man says, waving his hat at her.

‘Mama’s in there,’ she says.

‘You get on home now,’ he tells her, more quietly, as he puts his hat on. He trots to catch up with the dray.

The girl looks at Junk through his windscreen. He gives her a small wave, but she doesn’t acknowledge it. She turns and runs off in the direction she’d come from.

Commissioner of Public Health,
Brisbane.

Sir,
RE BARAMBAH ABORIGINAL SETTLEMENT
I was informed today while visiting there that 10 new deaths had taken place since Sunday, bringing the total deaths to date from influenza to 76.
Three more of the natives who had therefore escaped infection were down, leaving about 9 on the settlement still unaffected.
I have not seen any cases of Pneumonic Complications and this I attribute to the inoculation, as the aborigines are particularly prone to Pneumonia which in previous Influenza attacks was a very fruitful cause of death during the past 12 months.
Dr Junk
Wondai, 4 June 1919

 

THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE is amply lit by three kerosene lamps – two on opposite walls, and the third on his desk. It is a room typical of a small medical practice, with an assortment of books, instruments and medical substances in a variety of bottles and jars. A spaniel sleeps in the shadows next to the desk.

Junk is typing a letter and drinking brandy from a teacup. He uses both index fingers on the keys. Each sentence is completed slowly, hesitantly as he ponders the phrasing, pausing after every few words, sipping brandy and referring to handwritten notes between each sentence.

He takes his temperature, holding the thermometer level with the light of the desk lamp to read it. He pours out a measure from a bottle labelled Opium Tincture into a tiny conical glass, and winces after swallowing it. Then he shakes two aspirin tablets into his palm, swallows them in turn with sips of brandy, and returns to his half-finished letter.

Dr. Moore, Commissioner of Public Health,
Brisbane.

Dear Sir,
I beg to report that the news from Barambah Settlement is most reassuring. No deaths have occurred since Friday and normal conditions are quickly settling down amongst the residents.
Yours faithfully
Drunk GMO.
Wondai, 9 June 1919

 

A COLD BRIGHT morning, the climbing sun has chased the frost off the yellow-gold grass, and Doctor Junk exhales steam between puffs on his pipe as he stands in front of his car. He is alone on this hill, surveying the dead. The cemetery is a large cleared space past the settlement, above the creek. As old as the township – fifteen years since its first use – it now holds more souls than are living in Barambah. From the fence line of the adjoining paddock the last few scattered humpies are in view, and outside the other boundary lies many miles of forest.

The oldest graves are closest to the top, near to where he has parked his Ford. A wide empty space with knee-high grass lies between those and where the flu victims are buried. There are a score or more new markers in two rows, lightly constructed wooden crosses of mostly uniform dimensions – then a few more crosses made of sticks bound with twine or wire. Beyond them is a trench, about thirty yards long and two wide, with freshly heaped soil rising some inches above the surrounding surface. No markers adorn it.

The papers had been quick to report on this, publishing and repeating the same sensational stories. ‘Ravages at Barambah’, ‘Died Like Flies’ read the headlines; ‘61 Deaths’, ‘83 Dead’, ‘Buried in Trenches’. Junk alone knew the exact count. When the original gravediggers fell victim to the flu, others took on the terrible job until illness claimed them and new hands were called to the work of extending the trench. In the first week they buried a few at a time, later they interred dozens, but Junk was on his feet throughout the epidemic keeping his lists of the dead. Eighty-seven bodies in all.

Junk walks past the crosses and stands next to the trench for a minute or two, looking along it. He shudders, pulls his coat more closely around him, and sighs. Deep breaths bring forth big clouds of condensation. He lifts his face to the sky.

The breeze through the trees around the cemetery makes a beautiful sound, constant and quietly abundant.

He turns back to his car and is startled to see five Aboriginal men standing a little way from the vehicle, watching him. Two or three of them are familiar faces. The others are recent arrivals who he has not seen before. A couple of them are speaking their own language, but so quietly that even if he could understand it he could not hear the words they said. After hesitating for a moment the doctor continues towards the car. The men begin walking off as silently as they had arrived – only one man stands his ground and eyes Junk directly. The doctor looks away as he knocks the vehicle into gear and wheels it around towards the town. He doesn’t look back.


From Griffith Review Edition 60: First Things First © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review