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.

8 thoughts on “War stories”

  1. I love the picture of you and your sisters — a cool bunch! And this is a wild story that you’ve told — it’s hard to believe that young children were “left alone” in those days for long periods in hospitals. It was the same here in the United States and something that I can’t imagine doing! I felt the power and the chill of your statement about envying her that lonely spot in the hospital where she reigned — how it was favorable to being at home.

    1. It’s remarkable to me that child care in the days of my childhood are so different from today, Elizabeth. It ought not be so strange given that everything changes over time, but lately I’ve begun to sense a vast disconnect between then and now. As If in writing memoir I’m getting into historical fiction. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  2. As you revisit your past, you seem to have an uncanny ability to help us see things with fresh eyes too – what it is to be a sister – what it is to feel connections ebb and flow – lovely.

    1. You know that saying Kass: the past is a foreign country. Even writing my own past feels that way to me these days. As if I’m writing about another place, and certainly another time, and most certainly about a person. And yet it all resonates with my own story. Thanks, Kass.

  3. When I was a little boy I came down with meningitis. I had bacterial meningitis, the worst kind, so I was always told. I was isolated and could only see my parents through the hospital window. Thank God my room was on the ground floor. Three years later my brother also came down with meningitis. In his case it was the viral kind and he was in a ward with others. I know we visited him but I don’t remember any of the visits; just a vague impression of entering a ward. Three years separate my brother and me and three years separate him and our sister so you can imagine how closely my parents watched her when she reached the age we were when we fell ill but she was fine. I always associated, rightly or wrongly, my falling ill with being struck on the head with a stone some kid threw at me. I still have the scar under my left eyebrow. There’s probably no connection.

    I understand what you mean when you talk about holding court. I have a vague memory of my parents standing on the grass outside the pavilion. They were protected from me by the glass but I was also protected from them. For the first time in my life they didn’t have total control over me. I had never imagined such a thing possible.

    The only other time I’ve been hospitalised was when I was twelve. I had to have my adenoids out. The doctor also wanted to remove my tonsils but for some reason my dad fought him on that. I didn’t take history books with me. I took a French textbook. It wasn’t one issued by the school but one I’d got my parents to buy for me prior to going to the academy to get a head start; I was that kind of kid. I should’ve taken comics because the textbook bored me and I was left with nothing to do. I wasn’t a poet at this time so the valuable opportunity passed me by. I was the oldest in the ward although there was a girl about my age at the opposite end. I remember wishing she was prettier than she was. Also for some reason I had to clamber off the gurney and climb onto the operating table myself; that was very strange.

    I’m pretty sure the next time I was in a hospital for any reason was to witness the birth of my daughter.

    1. You don’t say much about how you actually felt during these hospitalisations, Jim, but that’s okay. I can guess. The strangeness of it all. The strangeness of such a world for a small kid and all you can remember, on the level of feeling, is one in which your parents could not control you. I suppose in a sense someone else, the hospital, was controlling you instead. Thanks, Jim.

      1. How did I feel? I remember very little about the time I had meningitis. I remember my parents at the window. I remember standing at the door to my room and talking to another patient (a boy about my age) and being chased back to bed by a nurse. I remember the toy Dad bought me, a clown that balanced on a string tied to the end of my bed. I remember crying and think a nurse comforted me but I don’t know why I was crying. I don’t remember the spinal tap. I don’t remember being especially afraid or interested or wanting not to be there.

        The second time is clearer. I enjoyed the novelty of not being at home and I found the whole experience mostly fascinating. I didn’t miss my parents but I did dislike the lack of control I still had. The nurses treated me like a child and I was getting to the stage in my life that was irritating. After the operation I didn’t feel much like eating but I did take some soup. A nurse came by later and didn’t believe me when I said I’d had soup and forced some rice pudding down me. I hated that. I’ve always detested rice pudding—the smell alone is enough to make me retch—but I hated more being accused of lying. I had been brought up to tell the truth and I was offended by the mere suggestion I’d lie. That reduced me to tears which embarrassed me.

        1. So you can remember these things, Jim, albeit from a distance. I too remember a time in hospital when I was around seven and had been hit by a car. I was in the Box hill hospital overnight for observation. The nurse who came on in the morning doubted there was anything wrong with me and the look on her face when it became clear someone had not ordered a breakfast for me and she needed to do it then, was one of almost hatred, or so it seemed to me at the ripe old age of seven, alone and in hospital. Powerful memories, Jim. Thanks and happy Christmas to you, two days away from the event.

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