A short story by M. L. E. Brown
He lifts his nose out from under the scratchy blanket. If he can just get there, he will never complain about the cold at home again. He doesn’t want to be awake. Back within the dream, a warm breeze still ripples the kawakawa bushes in his parents’ garden. His mother is inside making tea from the leaves – an old Māori remedy – as she always does whenever any of them have aches or fevers. She adds mint and then steeps the brew a long time before serving it with honey and lemon …
The tent smells of carbolic, starch, and eucalyptus oil. He must be getting better. It’s been days since he could smell anything. Outside, in the distance, he can hear the band playing “Abide With Me”. It is April 25th. Has it really been three years since those terrible landings? He wants to attend the Remembrance Service. But he can’t even get up.
All the beds in this hastily built isolation ward are full. Spanish Flu starts off as a fever and turns into pneumonia fast. Having got all the way from Gallipoli to Bapaume without a scratch, it never occurred to him he might be felled by a ruddy virus.
The officials talk about rats, and cold, dirt, dysentery, living in close quarters. But as Ernie, his mate, insisted, that’s only part of it. Ernie always said ‘flu is a condition of grief and exhaustion. Respiratory complaints usually are. Ernie was a homeopath’s assistant before the war. It’s how he became a medic. He reckoned the body doesn’t differentiate between illness and stress. The body is all muscle and survival instinct. If you weep hysterically the same muscles engage as if you had a head-cold. If your heart aches from misery, it hurts as if you had overstretched it working long hours in a mine or a sweat-shop.
Ernie died despite his own knowledge, delirious and choking in his own phlegm and blood. He misses Ernie terribly. He thinks there’s something in what his friend said.
He closes his eyes, trying not to move. Everything hurts. Some poor bastard several beds along is coughing fit to drown. He knows everyone is thinking the same thing: The ones who sound like that always die.
It was supposed to be a lark, joining up. Bloody fools, roared his father. Harold, said his mother, but the Old Man was furious, jabbing an angry fork across the table at them, almost upsetting the gravy boat. Rich folk minding other people’s business. It’s always the poor who work, who fight, who pay for war. When Frank pointed out that Grandpa fought the Māoris and Dad himself fought the Boers, Dad snapped – Yes. We learned the hard way. And you will too – before throwing down his serviette and leaving the table abruptly.
Now Frank is dead in a cemetery in Armentières. He thinks about his parents, how Frank’s death will have devastated them, how worried they will be. A tear squeezes out of his eye and he wheezes. He must stop these bad thoughts. It upsets his breathing.
The incongruously delicate vase on Matron’s desk blazes red. Whoever picked those flowers must have found them on the edge of a forest, on some abandoned farm perhaps. Poppies? It’s warmer than it was this time last year and the blooms are early. His father grows poppies. They like churned up earth and lots of iron. Plenty of both here in France, these days. The vivid scarlet reminds him of flowering pōhutukawa trees lining the beaches at home. Suddenly that link seems tremendously important. He can’t die here. He must see New Zealand again.
But what will home look like, after this war? He tries to imagine the long afternoons, the horses and carts. Sunday best, minted lamb, cricket in the reserve. Somehow it won’t work. Everything seems changed. Faster. Louder. It’s hard to guess what’s coming. Perhaps that’s just him …
Drifting, uneasily, he imagines a blood-hued thread flowing from the battlefields through the poppies on matron’s desk back across the oceans to the pōhutukawa trees on the beaches of home. If he follows that thread he will shake his father’s hand again and taste the tea his mother makes. Life will go on … if he can just get back to the people at home …
Comforted, he grasps the scarlet thread, and follows it. And shortly, when the duty nurse passes by, checking, he is asleep again, fever gone and breathing easier …
M. L. E. Brown is an Auckland-based novelist, poet, essayist, and photographer. She was one of two 2019 Emerging Pasifika Resident Writers at the Michael King Writer’s Centre and has had poems published in Tahakē Magazine and Cauldron Anthology. Her interests include humanities, sustainable economics, and the working relationship between allopathic and complementary medicines.
Also by M. L. E. Brown on Corpus: Community Transmissions
For more about kawakawa, read Discovering Kawakawa by Lorraine Ritchie.