Golden Grove

***

In order to control disease outbreaks in early Sydney, the houses of sick people were resumed and demolished. During one epidemic, an entire suburb was razed. This story tells of a family living in such a suburb, Golden Grove, during this time, the effects of the sickness, and the effects of the attempts at treatment and control.

***

Lily walked down the empty dirt streets, pulling up her threadbare petticoat from trailing in the mud of the central drain with one hand, hauling the half full bucket of water in the other. Half a bucket was as much as her little arms could carry. The early morning winter sun had not yet managed to warm the air, and the world seemed frozen. It was eerily quiet. You could hear things you could never normally hear; the wind picking up discarded bits and pieces, rustling them around, playing within them in the silence. The caw of a currawong, his beady yellow eyes watching, waiting. It was unnerving for what you couldn't hear: there was no Mrs Mcallister singing as she hung up the days washing, no babies crying, no dogs barking, no hawkers, no horses plodding down the narrow lanes. There hadn't even been anyone at the water pump, no gossiping women waiting their turn, no shrieks and laughter of playing children. Lily had pushed and pulled the pump handle alone, the rusty regular squeak of it filling the empty world around her.

Last night, it had been loud. Half visible in the light of flickering lanterns, people were piling a life's worth of belongings onto ponies, into carts, or onto their own backs. Others going into houses they had no right to be in, breaking down the flimsy wooden paling doors, taking what was left. Which wasn't much, because there had not been much to begin with, even before everyone had packed up, even before the sickness. Lilly liked horses, and had gone out to watch them. She knew she wasn't allowed to stroke them when they were working so she kept well clear of the frantic hustle around them, as people packed up and left. But she watched, watched into the night until the last horse was gone.

Mother had not packed up. Mother had lain in bed, silent, staring, as she had for days now. Before, she had been hot, murmuring, her body jerking around in a frightening way. Lily had been relieved at first when she quietened, and cooled. But now she was cold, and silent, and did nothing but stare at the wall. Lily understood Mother was not getting better. She had seen dead bodies before – everyone had. Every family had someone taken by the sickness. Often it was whole families at once. Father had been one of the lucky ones – Sam had taken him up to the hospital, caring for him there by day and going back to Aunty Beth's by night. They relied on Father, and while he couldn't work, they went hungry.

Mother hadn't gone to the hospital. There was no one to take her, for one, and no money to pay for anything besides. Also, Mother refused to let on she was sick. Lily had stared at her wide eyed one morning, hearing the characteristic cough. But her mother had only glared at her and turned away.

"You keep yourself to yourself, you hear? Now mind those taters don't burn."

And Lily had turned back to the potatoes, though they wouldn't fear burning for an age yet.

When she got back to the house, she hauled the bucket into the back room, and curled up under the old iron bed. Her house was as quiet as all the others, but it was familiar, and she could pretend Mother was just sleeping. She tried to sleep too, ignoring the pains in her stomach. The water hadn't done much to fill it. Maybe Sam and Father would come today, and bring some food. Some of Aunty Enid's biscuits... she fell asleep dreaming of cooking.