Chapter 5 - It's the flu
The door was open before the knocker had struck the door. The two women stood in the hall and exchanged the usual formalities of greeting. Mrs Mills placed her bag on the floor and proceeded to remove her coat. It was curious that she always left her hat on when about her business. A dark plain straw hat with a bright ribbon around the crown, which she replaced, when necessity dictated that a new lease of life was required for it. The brim was narrow and the hat in its entirety was of a summer fashion, fashionable some twenty years previously. In fact, it had been all the rage with a bustle when it was new as could be seen in Paris fashion. If one but took the time to look at some of the paintings by Monet, whose reproductions where in the local municipal library. The formalities concluded, the bag was picked up.
‘You show me the way dear.’
‘Yes - this way.’ With no more words they climbed the stairs and went to the child’s room. The child was asleep and fitful, its breathing was wheezy and whiny and within the redness of its face you could notice the bursting of the small capillaries under the skin, as the lack of oxygen began to take hold. The brow of the child was felt, then her chest. She looked at Jane and by feminine instinct they both withdrew to the fireplace.
‘Ay, y’r, reet... it’s definitely the flu. The poor mite really has it bad. I - I, don’t know, but we’ll try dear, it’s the best I can say. She’s awfully young and doesn’t have a lot of strength.’
‘Please Mrs Mills,’ she gasped at her nearly in tears.
‘Anything you can do would be a blessing.’ With this, they returned to the bed and the covers were pulled back. Mrs Mills now took control and issued her orders. She could have been a Sergeant Major such was her manner while issuing them. The course of action was thus: in the first instance foul smelling poultices were to be applied at at four hourly intervals, they were to be as hot as the child could stand and she would perform the task herself such was the essential need of this part of the treatment. Secondly, the child was to have the fever broken “by the sweat”, so the fire should be kept on both night and day. An extra weight of bed coverings taken from the other beds if no spare bed linen was available was to be placed on her and lastly the air tracks.
‘It’s vital we get the vapours into her, to ease her.’ The instruction here as the room was too large, was to peg a candlewick bedspread over the iron bedstead and this with a brush handle inserted under it would make a small tent over the child. The idea being, to create a smaller area where a bowl of boiling water might be placed with a balsam solution added. Which the child hopefully, would breath in and allow the bronchial tract to clear.
With her orders received, Jane went about her tasks. Her bed now had no coverings, all were provided for the child, so that the boys beds might remain intact. Indeed, they would use their coats and any other spare clothing as bedspreads. All the bedding was placed in the room, the next point of call was placing her large soup pan and boiling pot - the one she usually boiled the white or stained clothes in - on the range. These would provide the steam for the required vapours, after which she gathered the sundry items to build the tent and returned.
In this time, Mrs Mills had laid out her wares on the washstand and prepared the first poultices. Now they needed warming up to release the essence. These were placed in the cooker of the range downstairs to heat up, there was not a lot more that could be done while they waited, it would be some 20 minutes before all was prepared so they sat in the kitchen.
Jane busied herself by making a pot of tea for her guest. The copper kettle was on the range and was sufficiently hot to accommodate this task. She first warmed the pot, a medium sized brown glazed earthenware teapot and proceeded mechanically to make the tea. Cups and saucers were laid on the kitchen table as well as some scones that she had made the previous day.
They sat quietly, Jane having no appetite. While Mrs Mills helped herself to a couple of the scones, complementing her on the texture. The uneaten scones were placed back in the larder and the tea pot was moved to the side of the range to keep it warm, cups and saucers deposited in the white pot sink; on her way back to the table she stopped at the dresser taking out a small tin. From it she withdrew a number of silver coins and returned to the table.
‘Mrs Mills, please accept this from me for your help. I would be so grateful.’ The stock reply came.
‘Well I don’t like to deary - but it helps with the things I need to get, y’know - the linen for the poultices and the balsam and things.’ A handkerchief was produced from one of the nooks within her dresses and the money secured in it, all disappeared from view in one quick movement.
It was now time to start the treatment. Jane provided some tea towels to wrap around the two metal handles of the large pans, which allowed them to be picked up off of the range without burning or scalding themselves. They proceeded upstairs to the room being very carefully, ensuring not a drop was lost.
On entering the room, the pans were placed at the side of the bed as the most convenient location. One rested on the rag work mat at the side of the bed and the other was placed on the spare tea towels which had been carried up for the purpose, so as not to damage the linoleum floor covering. The tent was hastily erected to capture the steam and the balsam was added to the water.
‘There you see, you only need five drops in each, that’ll be plenty, too much stings the eyes… Now, have you got that?’ An answer in the affirmative was given.
‘I’ll come round and do the poultices and mark me, you’ll need to do this every two hours for ten minutes. No more and no less - make sure she doesn’t fret and kick the bed clothes off’.′
Again, an answer in the affirmative was given.
‘I could do the poultices... If you wish?’
‘Oh no deary, there’s an art and sometimes... Well it can break a mother’s heart when they are applied. But this is no time to be weak, we’ve both got to be strong for your daughter, do you understand what I’m saying to you?’ Jane replied in the affirmative. Most had heard of the pain and screaming that could be caused by applying hot poultices, her dread became real to her at that moment.
She recriminated against herself, what type of a mother she had been to let her child become so ill. It must have been noticeable, as Mrs Mills took her arm.
‘You sit down for a moment dear, you look quite pale.’ She thanked her and did.
‘I’m just going down to get the poultices.’ The very words made her head swoon, she felt sick to the pit of her stomach. Within a couple of minutes, the woman stood before her.
‘You’ll have to be of some use deary, now pull back the tent and the bedspreads I’ll need to apply them while they’re hot.’ As instructed, the tent and the bed clothes were pulled back she placed her hands behind the child’s back and head and sat her upright, loosening the clothing so that the poultices might be applied. The heat applied directly to the chest and back was intense and the child shrieked and screamed in pain and terror and still, Mrs Mills persisted in applying them.
‘They’re too hot, they’re burning her!’ Cried Jane.
‘Nonsense, the child is just shocked and fretful, it’ll pass’. Retorted Mrs Mills.
‘No, they’ll hurt her!’
‘Look dear, if you love your daughter, you’ll let me get on with my job, otherwise you’ll lose her for certain!’ She was practised in her art and new how to hit below the belt. This statement had kicked the legs out from underneath Jane, she had no idea how to reply. The child was in pain, but if the pain was short and could bring forth the end from this cruel malady, it would be worth it. But she didn’t know this, all she knew was the fact that thousands of people were dying from this flu and each year there was a different one, which took the young and the old alike with no exception.
She did not have the financial resources for the doctor’s bills and credit was not an option given by these humanitarians. Her husband had just got back to work in the last few months. He had spent several months, up until late last year at the General Havelock Isolation Hospital at the edge of town, when they thought he had consumption.
Their finances had scraped through that and they were only now getting back on their feet. This was the first time, she had ever resorted to seeking out the services of a local nurse. She must follow this woman’s advice, it was the only path that was available to her; she did not have the knowledge this woman had. She would have to trust to her faith in the Lord. That he was watching over her and would hear her prayers.
There was now an abruptness to Mrs Mills tone. She new, that she had gained the upper hand and was now the mistress in this assignment.
‘Well dear,’ she stated in a more bombastic tone. ‘That seems to have gone well, she’s quietened down now. Well, remember what I told you about the vapours. I’ll leave the medication on the washstand and be back in four hours.’
As promised, the visits went on for several days, each day there was less resistance from the child and Jane was at her wits end. She had no idea what to do, it was as if she was in a darkened room with no exit no Matter how hard she tried, she could not find the exit. She felt utterly useless.
Albert’s parents had managed to take the boys for a few days. It was not worth the risk of having the boys infected with the same contagion. She missed them dreadfully, having her family split under these circumstances further ebbed her moral; her one true support was her husband Albert. She tried as best she could to shield him, being strong while in front of him. He comforted her, but her face belayed the fact that she could not be comforted, she tried to behave as normal as possible, while he was in the house, asking about his day. He responded, though he could see how tired she was, the blackness around her eyes, her cheeks sunken and her complexion sallow. He responded, as requested, knowing that for the last several nights, she had sat alone in the chair in their child’s room, a constant vigil.