One Autumn

It began with that first leaf falling. No one saw it happen, but you felt it in the morning the moment you woke, a chill as though someone had left the door open in an otherwise heated room. Tendrils of cold crawled over your skin. And then before you knew it, goose bumps erupted on the surface of your skin. 

When I woke that morning, my sister could not get out of bed. Her eyes were glazed, and she groaned. No school that day so no one was fussed she did not dress as usual and over the course of the morning when my mother came to check, the first spark ignited. Something was wrong.

 I bolted. Down the road to friends. My sister did not join me. An unusual move. Typically, she and I went everywhere together but this day she turned to face the wall when I said, ‘Let’s go play with Janice and Lesley.’ Two kids who lived round the corner and down the hill in a red brick half house opposite the park. The perfect location for fun. More so because both their parents, who were from Scotland and spoke with the strangest accents, were away at work. Even on a weekend. 

Janice, the elder of the two, even older than me, and at ten, I was old, was put in charge of her younger sister. And although they were allowed to entertain visitors in the form of me and my sister they were not to mess the lounge, go into their parent’s bedroom, or leave any dirty dishes unwashed and stacked away. 

Their mother returned every lunch time to check on them and otherwise they were free. By the time I left my sister languishing in her bed it was mid-morning and more leaves had fallen.

Later in the day when the ambulance came to take my sister away, and Janice and Lesley had decamped to my house, I overheard my mother mutter the word ‘polio’, and although I did not know what it meant, I knew it was serious. As serious as the girl at my school who had to leave in the middle of the day one day, not because she was ill, but because someone else in her family was.

With TB and it was contagious. You caught it off one another and. So, it was best for people with TB to be taken away to sanitoriums where they could get better, if they were lucky. And every member of their family had to stay at home and be tested to see whether they had the disease too. Something that caught in your lungs and made you cough and cough till blood came up. 

My sister was just red in the face, and drowsy. Not coughing.

‘A fever,’ my mother said and hoped she’d be okay. We should pray for her.

You prayed for sinners. You prayed for the dead to keep them out of hell or get them out of purgatory and into heaven. You prayed for people already in heaven that they

have a good time there and you’d meet them one day after you died. You prayed for the sick and dying in the same way so they too might reach that perfect place. Where anything you wanted you could have. 

There were times I longed to get to heaven and other times I was terrified at my prospects of ever getting inside, given all the stealing I had done over my ten years. All the lies told, all the times I’d harboured impure thoughts. 

My sister was different. If she did things wrong it was only at my prompting. She was young. God could not blame her for any bad behaviour if she were to die. But I did not want to think about this.

Her bed empty at night and the days and nights of her absence stretched into months and a whole school term passed before I went one day with my mother and the two youngest ones on the yellow bus though Ivanhoe to the infectious diseases’ hospital in Fairfield. There was my sister in a bed in a room filled with people, grown up women, and looking for all the world like a queen.

To this day I have wondered why my sister was taken away. Why she was the one whose body was invaded.

How it is that illnesses decide to attack one person and not the next? Why some are born strong and others with weakened constitutions that do not allow them to live long. While others can reach over one hundred years. 

Th lottery of life. And one I cannot fathom. But like all lotteries it is one of chance. Hence cruel and unfair. As unpredictable as which leaves fall from the tree first, and which ones fall last. 

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