Tuesday, February 8, 2011

For Trees Have No Tongues (Muse 5)

First Muse Part 1
First Muse Part 2
Deep Sleep, Deep Space, Deep Shit
Reluctant Titans Part 1
Reluctant Titans Part 2
Fuck Origami
Ein Plein Air Part 1
Ein Plein Air Part 2
A Faint Hint of Ambergris

Santalum spicatum, sweet sandalwood’s scent begins to fade. Diseased, her loose leaves curl and fruit falls far from the tree. Her fragile limbs in synchronicity with the pain below, she weeps and silent lips tell a tale of woe. Surrounded by black death Banksia waits for the liberation of fire in need  of Hellish heat to fertilise hungry seed. Heath and herb, long used by Aborigines to cure, lie now as view for modern medicine will cure their ills, nature's apothecary neglected.

Bedraggled and befuddled they are ushered into the North Head Quarantine Station, usually the preserve of immigrants suffering Small Pox or Spanish Flu but these aren't immigrants.  First their clothes, removed and steamed in carbolic whilst the now naked wearers are showered in light acid and segregated. Some already show the tell tale sores and pustules of Bubonic Plague, others in close habitation during the breakout are quarantined just in the event of infection.

The view is fantastic, the harbour sprawling from North Head across to South, dotted with boats and activity. The landscape scattered with wind swept Tea Tree and scrub, fresh air, fresh winds, fresh dressings.  It is a good place to die, a good place to recover. This will be home for the rag-tag citizens who chose to come for treatment rather than stay prisoner at home from Millers Point east to George Street, along Argyle, Upper Fort, and Essex Streets then south to Chippendale, covering the area between Darling Harbour and Kent Streets, west to Cowper Street, Glebe, along City Road to the area bounded by Abercrombie, Ivy, Cleveland Streets, and the railway.   As the foreshore is cleansed of poisonous rats, residents sick and well disinfect burn and demolish. Chloride of lime, carbolic and water, sulphuric acid replace the masking perfumes of the past.  Rat catchers make a killing, metaphorically and in fact.

Jack Vale has the pragmatic sensibility of his mother and the adventurous spirit of his father. He is nothing like his benefactor Jonathon Vale, save the cut of his jib and his height. His mother, now almost 70 is still at Richmond, long after Vale’s death and he is unaware that he is Cartwright’s son. That secret went with his birth father, to the grave.

Determined to be his ‘own’ man, Jack has completed his medical Studies at the Sydney Hospital, the colony’s first yet still impressive infirmary, now extended with the most recent wing opened less than a decade ago in 1896. He loves medicine. He loves alchemy and chemistry. He loves working with new technologies. He’s excited at the prospect of a blood transfusion saving lives. He’s enthralled by Mendel’s work with heredity and genetics. He’s particularly interested in the work of Pasteur and the science of immunity, a field that put him on the front line as Assistant Medical Officer at the Quarantine station on North Head. A curiosity that did not prepare him for the things he was to witness.

Here 'inmates' are segregated, those showing symptoms isolated and the balance accommodated in makeshift dorms.  Despite growing scepticism, his charges still use perfumed oils and aromatics as remedies and the faint hint of ambergris can be perceived wafting amid the smoke of burning clothes. One 'patient' even carries a ball of the rare stuff in his pocket believing it will prevent disease. Jack is a man of science, administering SmallPox vaccines and preferring quarantine. Forty days will tell the difference between death and recovery.

The Q Station has been open since the mid 1800's and many immigrants have been granted quarter there to heal or die before being admitted to the colony. Talk of ghosts and strange goings on are frequent among it's inhabitants. The complex houses a labyrinth of accommodation first, second and third class. Even an Asian quarter for the Chinese disembarking from the orient. There are two infirmaries, the shower block and fumigation room, dining quarters and of course a mortuary and a graveyard. There is the Dutch girl with the plaits who grabs a hand or waves goodbye. The Chinaman with the long plat and silk gown who promenades along the Asian quarter deck. There's the woman in her nightgown who plays the flute on the infirmary verandah and the Post Master's house where strange orbs can be seen at night. Of course, he believes none of it. Silly superstition and the result of delirium.

It's whilst making his rounds one evening in what's referred to the 'dying room' where patients with little hope are made as comfortable as they can be, he sees her. She is efficiently folding hospital corners around a bed who's inhabitant has just passed. Pale and almost translucent. She wears no veil but the tell-tale red cross upon her apron marks her as a nurse. Sleeping patients oblivious to her presence, she tucks and tightens with alacrity. "Sister?" he calls but she scurries attentively about her work, ignoring him completely.  He is a Doctor and not used to being ignored. Moving closer from the ward doorway half-way into the room, he sees her clearly as a hurricane lamp will allow, shadowy and staccatoed against it's flickering light. "Sister!" he insists, the light extinguishes and she is gone. He's a man of science and the comprehension of what he's just seen escapes him. He shakes off his suspicions and acknowledges that he's tired, very tired. He's been working double shifts for two weeks now and must be hallucinating. Over 300 patients, some with plague, most with  Spanish Influenza. He feels his own pulse and brow and wonders if he's coming down with an affliction. He continues his inspection and retires.

As cleansing, quarantine and sustenance do their work, he tends his patients, studies their pathology, writes papers for the Medical Gazette.  Evenings spent pouring over his research papers and manuscript until one night, the flame begins to fade. He rises to replenish the lamp oil and sees her once again. Just a glimpse through the infirmary window. She too is holding up a lamp, her face illuminated as she gazes directly into his darkened quarters. This apparition so intent on being seen disappears the moment that she is. The following night the same and so he follows.

He is a man of science and sure this is a practical joke. The infirmary door is open about six inches ajar and he sees her walking the length of the room, hurricane lamp slowly swinging, the noxious fumes of the room assaulting his olfactory. She stops at the foot of the fifth bed on the left. Stands still and silent in the low throws of light and removes her mask then fades, flickering and fast. He forces the door and hastens to the bed, the patient alive, just moments ago, is now dead. Again, his scientific mind in a whirl, he retreats to the safety of his quarters and ponders the phenomenon in disbelief. No, he had definitely seen a ghost.

Late upon the following afternoon, after an arduous shift of care and cleanliness he peruses the small library of books and records.  His hands sore and red, with acid wash, sift through each with care, in search of the mysterious nurse. Logs of previous inmates, stories of previous staff. The records are complete but so many since its opening. Then, amid a series of old sepia photographs he recognises her. She's standing proud with other staff in full regalia, cape, veil and the red-crossed apron.  Hurricane lamp in hand. The Matron, the one and the same, she who walks the dying room and helps souls to their rest or pushes them beyond the brink of life. He is not sure.

"She was my mother. . " Jack  jumps out of his skin! His chair and three precariously balanced books accompany a splay of photographs as they cascade onto the wooden boards. He thought he was alone. "She died six years ago of influenza after nursing patients." He turns and is relieved that the source of confession is a young woman. She's in her 20's, sweet soft voice, kind brown eyes, slim waist, simply dressed and carrying an unlit lamp,  "I'm sorry? " is the only phrase Jack can muster as he begins to 'collect' himself. "Why is she still here? Forgive me, I'm being rude. I'm Dr. Jack Vale, Assistant Medical Officer." He's embarrassed at his clumsiness and brushes himself off. She extends a hand, covering a girlish giggle with the other and introduces herself as Katherine Morton, daughter of Matron Mary Morton who after being quarantined herself took on the vocation of nurse at the station. "I've never seen the apparition," she says with a little sadness, "Others tell me about it but no matter how I try, I've never seen her. I'd like to. She was a good mother, a little preoccupied with her position but kind, caring and a good provider. She raised me alone after my father went to sea. No mean feat for a woman alone."

"I was born here," she continues unsolicited, "Right here in the Quarantine Station! I only lived here a few years before we moved down the hill to Manly. My mother was always concerned that my playing with detainees would affect my health, and of course I was never allowed in the infectious zone." He thought her something of a medical miracle to have survived even the remotest contact with contagion. "Ah, hardy stock then" he joked, still feeling a little jittery and flushing and Immediately regretting the assumption for she was delicate and feminine.  He enquired as to why she was there at the moment amid an outbreak of the plague. "I came of my own volition after suffering a fever, I thought I had the disease but subsequent investigation has found me suffering little more than a cold and I'm to be discharged tomorrow." Jack is relieved. She's very attractive and after working amid the pustules and sores of the afflicted, not to mention nights tormented by an apparition, he too is due for a sabbatical once his medical is clear and his carbolic shower completed.  This is the end of his stint at the station and meeting Kate is serendipitous. "Perhaps we could meet on the outside?" he asks, "Indeed," she replies and hands him her card.

As she leaves him to his thoughts, and to tidy the cluster of books and photographs, he glances over to the infirmary and sees her face. Matron is at the infirmary window, lamp lit and she's smiling. At least someone approves of his intentions.

Posted for Tenth Daughter of Memory - River of Mnemosyne Challenge
Continued at:
Space Illiad 


  1. 2nd to last paragraph, last sentence--quotation's.

    like the way this is skipping along

  2. Great chapter. This flows so well from muse to muse.