Bugs that burrow under skin

In the year I turned seventeen, I took a holiday job at the Antonian Children’s home. The migrant branch of the church had set it up for deprived boys and girls of Italian origin and that year for the first time, the nuns at my school offered an opportunity to senior girls who wanted to give back to the community. 

In the spirit of giving as preached by Catholic nuns and priests, my mother believed the best way to overcome adversity was to give to others. So off I went. The Antonian home was a single storey, brick building, stuccoed in white, on Church Street in Richmond. The nuns kept it secure with a cyclone fence in front, wood paling at the back and apartment blocks on either side. Italian style architecture gone to seed. It was once someone’s home with a large entrance way and two big rooms in front with a rabbit warren of smaller rooms off a central corridor down the back. The nuns had organised builders to rip out walls and make room for a refectory where the little ones could eat their meals and for the rest the children stayed in two partitioned rooms: a baby’s room for littlies under one and a toddler’s room for the rest. About forty children in all with five adult helpers, including me. 

We were headed by a nun from an order whose convent sat several houses down Church Street over the road from St Ignatius. Their long habit was less foreboding than that of the nuns who taught me at school. The Daughters of Divine Zeal also dressed in black and white but with a bold white bib in front and a looser fitting wimple than the one worn by my lot, the Faithful Companions of Jesus.

This was the summer when my mother had decided she could not take living with my father anymore, or perhaps my older brothers decided it for her. In any case, one of my oldest brothers arranged for the younger ones of our tribe to move into a shack down by the beach in Parkdale.

For once it wasn’t scary to go home at night. There was a predictability to each day. A certainty about what breakfast time might be like. No surly overhung father snarling in a corner. No volcanic ash burning father at night. Just the quiet lull of the ocean waves in the distance and the thump of pine tree branches as they clipped against the tin roof of the bungalow where one of my older brothers lived. 

We four little ones shared a wide room in the centre of the house, four beds cheek by jowl. It must have once been a dining room as it flanked the lounge room through opaque double glass doors that glowed all night from the streetlamp outside. I did not mind. The murmur of my sibling’s breathing at night was a comfort against the fierce uncertainty of our lives back home in Cheltenham.

Because we lived free of the strictures of our father, it was nothing for my little brother to come home with a stray cat he’d found in a laneway near the beach on his way from school one day. And nothing for the cat to skulk off under our house to give birth to a litter of pink babies who looked like tiny furless mice. 

Without my father for constraints, our mother was helpless against any interlopers we children brought home and although she told us we could not keep all the kittens she let us keep two until we found homes for the other three. The mother cat was a given. No one else would want a feral mother but in no time this cat gave up on mothering and left the cradle of her kittens to roam free once more.

One morning I woke to a scratchy itching on my arm. A ring of red welts that circled my inner wrist. 

‘Looks like ring worm,’ my sister said. She who read more books about facts than me. She had dreams of one day becoming a nurse. No children for her. Nurse Spinster Bowen my brothers nicknamed this sister. She could diagnose ringworm from the illustrations in one of her books and I worried all the way to childcare whether I should be going there at all.

I took the precaution of wrapping the offending arm in glad wrap as if to protect children from any creeping bugs crawling inside my arm. Not that any were visible to the human eye. My sister had told me they were buried under the skin. They must have escaped into me from the kittens.

It was a hot day but not too hot to hide my glad-wrapped arm under a cotton blouse which hid my wrists and although I’d have loved to travel without sleeves it was the only precaution I could imagine. I could not miss out on my work at childcare. I was volunteering, and the nuns needed me.

All day long I tried to avoid direct contact with the little ones. The hardest thing in the world to do in a place teeming with small people who regularly ran to anyone taller than them for comfort when they fell or brawled with another child over someone’s preferred toy.

It was a Friday. I had the weekend to recover. I had the weekend to go to a chemist shop and buy the necessary ointment to eradicate the bugs from under my skin. To choke them to death rather like the fly spray we spurted into the air after someone had left doors or windows open, so flies could swarm into each room. They lay lifeless on window ledges, giving off tiny flecks after you left them for several days. I thought of my miniature bugs similarly though I did not know they had wings or whether they were simply the crawling variety living under layers of skin.

By the Monday, despite my glad-wrapped arm still covered in the fabric of my blouse, I feared some parents might report their little one had come home covered in red welts.

It did not happen, not in my hearing and the days into summer and my holiday job advanced without hiccoughs. Even as it took ages before the welts disappeared.

When the pandemic erupted across the world in 2020 and people everywhere worried about our proximity to other people, my memories of contagion erupted once more. Only this time other people’s bodies were the carriers. Unless of course speculation was accurate. The Corona virus first appeared in bats, then crossed over the species barrier and spread through us humans. 

In 2020, I needed to revisit my scepticism about all things contagious, including in my time at the Antonian when I understood more about the way feelings can also be contagious from person to person. Though I did not fully understand it then. The way we send messages to one another without words. And sometimes those messages can leave another person sick, with a ring of red welts around their minds where the bugs of another person’s concerns can settle on their sense of themselves like the bugs that burrow under human skin to take up residence. One parasite on another. 

Filthy fingernails and green leaves in fishbone

‘My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back.’ Abigail Thomas.

When she was eight, an ambulance took my eight year old sister to the Fairfield Infections Diseases hospital which was then a quarantine facility to guard against polio and tuberculosis. These diseases floated around my childhood consciousness in words I overheard on the lips of grownups. The way they took people from their homes, disrupted lives and whole families implicated in the contagion. 

At least rheumatic fever did not spread from person to person in the way of polio, but it erupted in overpopulated areas and unhygienic places. With hints at the contagion of dirt, even as we knew a modest amount built up resistance. 

Thomas Embling hospital for the criminally insane has replaced the infectious diseases hospital in Melbourne today. When you walk through parkland close by the Yarra River you can see the old buildings in their higgledy-piggledy glory, as if they are still trying to keep people at arm’s length. 

For many months my mother struggled to visit my sister in hospital, not only because of restricted hours but because her youngest still needed a pram and my mother had to endure a long walk beyond our primary school to the bus stop near Cotham Road and from there the yellow bus all the way to Ivanhoe.Then more walking. An eternity’s worth of time, so many houses to pass, so many strips of grassland, so many foreign sights before green pastures and eucalypts surrounding row upon row of wooden buildings came into view. 

Me and my sister among the hydrangeas before they hauled her away.

It comes back to me now during this most recent Covid pandemic alongside memories of my time at Heatherton psychiatric hospital, which was once used as a sanatorium. 

And all these places, these sanatoriums and quarantine stations bring to mind Janet frame’s Owls do Cry in which she writes about the fictional Withers family: Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks, dirty children. To be dirty was to be spurned and set aside like so much rubbish in need of removal.

‘Look at your fingernails,’ Mother Mary John said to me in my tenth year when she inspected my doily for needle work. A lace edged piece I had chosen; it was covered in deep crimson red poppies and blue cornflowers. The stamens were buttercup yellow. The colours sent thrills through me, so much I failed to notice the smear of grubbiness that inched its way into the linen gaps every time I stitched my corn flowers and poppies into place. Chain stitch round the edges, stamens in French knots, and green leaves in fishbone. 

I hid my hands behind my back as Mother Mary John scolded me for the dirty child I was. How was it most other children in my class had pink fingernails with white moon crescents at the base and clear white lines where the nail ended? None of them had the thick pencil line of black that sat as stubbornly as a bitumen road under each finger. 

Filth amazed me, the way it built up over the course of each week. From Saturday night when we each had a bath – our only bath – all the way through to the end of the week when I noticed other lines of black on my legs and arms, like ants crawling in disorder. My socks which started the week a dull white from too many washes, by the weeks end were brown with a build-up of dirt that crept through the gaps in my blue plastic sandals and turned to mud whenever it rained.

These things were a problem at school. At home with my sisters and brothers no one cared. No one checked my nails for the black lines, as my older sister dragged my long hair into tight plaits that sat on either side of my head. 

‘Hold still,’ she said as I fidgeted from one foot to the next and she tugged at my head to keep it in place. Her hands were firm and deliberate. She only hurt when she encountered a snag of tangles, which happened often enough but less often once she had wrangled my hair into braids. I slept in them at night so that in the morning when my sister unravelled them to begin again, the only tangles were in the superficial stray hairs that fell out of place by day.

This could be a metaphor for my life in those days, a metaphor for my life now, only I do not know how to use it beyond the thought of life as unruly, and unpredictable. And even though in my head I’m steeped in Murakami’s notions of fate, the way all seemingly random events come together to create an order that makes some sense. In my life the patterns which become evident when I step back and cast an eye over past decades, once upon a time seemed as random as the weather. 

My admiration for Murakami pales by comparison to Janet Frame’ s writing. A woman who speaks to my childhood like no other. 

One of my literary supervisors once complained that although the character of Mrs Withers in Janet Frame’s Owls do Cry was said to be based on Frame’s mother, her actual mother was nowhere as slovenly as the book suggests. 

Does this matter? 

Frame’s story is of a mother, like her own, a woman of elegant words, and strangled hopes who tries to survive against the odds. Who fears her husband and is terrified of things going wrong. As they do. She cannot wrangle her children into shape any more than my sister could. My sister pulling my plaits into order only to have their strands fall loose. A thick strand falling across my eyes in class, and my teacher, who could not abide dirty children, whose presence offended her eyes, scowled. 

We were a blight on the landscape like the people in quarantine facilities and infectious diseases hospitals who must be kept separate from the rest of us for fear of contagion.