War stories

A few weeks ago, I shared a dinner with my three sisters, four women squeezed onto one small table in Thom Phat restaurant in Brunswick.

It’s the first time we four have been together in several years and the first time ever we could remember the four of us being alone together.


In other words, without parents or brothers or children, or partners present.

Two of my sisters I see regularly but the one below me, twenty months younger, I rarely see. She lives in NSW and we fell apart in our early twenties after years of closeness as children.

This sister was eight years old when they called for the ambulance. I was playing with friends a few doors down.

‘You’d better go home,’ my friends’ mother said. ‘Your sister’s ill. She may have polio.’

The woman could not get me out of her house fast enough and I went home to an empty bedroom.

It was not the same without my sister. The house had a hollow ring for all that it was still filled with people.

We visited my sister one Sunday several weeks later. By now we knew she had contracted rheumatic fever like our older brother had some years earlier and that she would most likely be okay. No polio or life threatening illness, but she needed to stay in hospital till the bacterium that had attacked her heart cleared.

We took the yellow bus from  Deepdene to the Ivanhoe East railway station and from there walked to the Fairfield Infectious Hospital, now home to my younger sister.

The hospital consisted of a series of rectangular wards scattered apart from one another on flat land perched above the river at Yarra Bend. It was a long walk from the station, my brother in the pram, me on one side of our mother, and my little sister on the other.

We found my unwell sister in one of the long wards, her bed one in a row against a wall, and opposite another row of beds on the other wall in the women’s ward. My sister was the only child in this room filled with mainly old women, the youngest our mother’s age, but my sister did not mind.

The others in the hospital, staff and patients alike, had taken to looking after her and I figured it was better there in that white walled hospital, with its rows of beds and green bedspreads, with its fly wire doors that led out onto long open verandas and its smells of disinfectant, cooked cabbage and onions, much better than at home.

My sister looked smaller than I remembered, her dark curly hair stark against the white of the pillow.

‘Hop out of bed now,’ the nurse said to her when we arrived. ‘You have visitors.’

The nurse helped my sister onto a chair and fussed over her with an extra blanket across her knees while we kids stood around like cows approaching an open grille. We dared not step forward to greet her.

Our sister had become a stranger and she had a new authority she never had at home. My little sister who was close enough to me in age in my mind to be my twin but we looked completely different, as different in appearance as my mother and father.

Beside her bed I noticed the pile of books, the story of war heroines like Violette Szabo and Vivian Bullwinkle. By then matron of the Infections Diseases hospital, Vivian Bullwinkle had loaned them to my sister.

War stories sustained her during this hospitalisation in a way I could not understand, though when we met for dinner during the week and my youngest sister talked of life in Singapore where her daughter is currently living, I heard my other sister of rheumatic fever fame mention her recent visit to Changi prison while in Singapore.

Now when I imagine that infectious diseases hospital and my sister holding court at her bedside and her books on war stories, especially the women who made their mark, I come to see her with fresh eyes.