Viral echoes from history

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Bella with her daughter, Susan

So surreal is the current Corona virus pandemic that I’ve found it almost impossible to write about it, even privately.  Even if I could formulate some thoughts on it, I doubt that there’s anything new I could say.  Being in quarantine seems to enhance the feeling of emotional distance from the experience. A privileged position to be in, I realise.

It’s a strange paradox. Ten years ago, however,  without having any first-hand experience of it, I was writing about a time of plague.

The eponymous heroine of my 2013 novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press),  the sister of the playwright Sean O’Casey,  had the ill-luck of becoming an early Irish victim of the Spanish ‘flu, over a hundred years ago.

The ‘flu epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has, at time of writing, claimed 25,410 lives with over 565,000 cases registered world-wide.)

The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year.  It was known as the Spanish ‘flu because it was only in neutral Spain that newspapers were free to publish accounts of the spread of the disease. (Compare with Donald Trump’s odious “Chinese Virus” name-calling.)

However, it is now understood that the 1918 epidemic may have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence.  Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.

In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent  bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood)  – a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu.

Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and, ironically,  in China, both in 1917.

In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “When the 1914 War ceased, pneumonia swept through the country – every country ─ and took families away. . . The Black Flu came in 1918.  I was still a child.  It was a horrible old thing.  Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.

Bella Casey was not so lucky.  Her health was already compromised.  She had an underlying condition.

She had developed erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or St Anthony’s Fire, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it has the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.

In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time.  Although an educated woman, she spent the latter days of her life in poverty working as a charwoman. In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey, Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of spotless white gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s husband’s name.)

“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors.  The headaches ─ symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”

Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had died in his early forties suffering from GPI, general paralysis of the insane, an accompanying condition of tertiary syphilis.

In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey in 1918.  Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52.

And now for the fiction from those facts.

Babsie, coming in at noon, found her mother still abed.  That in itself was strange for her mother was an early riser, but since Christmas she’d been poorly, laid low with a purulence of the lungs and a wild fever that had made her overheated one minute and perished the next. Babsie had put her husband’s dinner on – oh how she loved to say that, her husband; Babsie was a new bride – and leaving the door on Clarence Street on the latch she’d run around the corner to check on her mother.  She was relieved to find a peaceful scene and not the wracking sounds of coughing that had been going on for days. There was some kind of infection going round.  Some people blamed the soldiers for it; others said it was a kind of swine fever.  But that couldn’t be what Mam had, Babsie thought, for when would her mother have been mixing with either of those? She had urged her mother to call in the doctor but Mam had set her face against it.

“It’s just my old trouble,” she’d said to Babsie. “It goes quiet, you see, for a long time and then. . . it emerges again.”

The erysipelas was her mother’s old trouble.  Soon after she’d taken up charring, her mother’s skin had broken out in a rash. She’d had to wear gloves up to the elbow to hide her contagion.  A dress pair with a pearl detail for these were the only gloves her mother owned. But the rash had spread anyway.  It found its way to her face and washed up in a high tide close to her hairline.  She had to wrap a turban of fabric round her head when going out to keep the condition a secret.

“People will think it a want of hygiene,” her mother had said.  “But it’s a surfeit of cleanliness I’m suffering from, up to my oxters in suds all day.”

If you passed her on the street, you’d have given her a penny, Babsie thought, or be calling the clutchers what with the strange headgear and the dress gloves. The neighbours mistook it for another of her mother’s eccentric affectations.  My, my, the airs and graces, they would say, look at the Protestant wan, all tricked up as if going to a ball, and only off to do her charring.

Babsie’s brother John was sitting at the scored table reading a book.  Just like Uncle Jack he was, always stuck in a book. She poured tea from the cooling pot.  The milk when she added it curdled.

“How’s she been?” she asked him.

He shrugged, barely lifting his head from the pages.

“You’ve let the fire go out,” she said.  She tried to raise a flame from the embers in the grate.  The poker made a grinding sound as she hit the firebricks.

“Shh,” John said, “you’ll only wake her.”

“I wouldn’t have to do it at all, if you kept the place warm for her.  Is it too much to ask?”

Babsie was peppering for a fight so sick with worry was she about her mother.  But she seemed to be the only one.  She wanted only to be immersed in the newly-minted world of her marriage.  Everything about this house, like every other house they’d lived in, spoke of struggle.

“Has she eaten anything?” Babsie persisted.

John shook his head.  “She hasn’t moved since I got up.”

Only then did Babsie get up to investigate.  She tiptoed into the back room and over to the bed.  Drawing back the covers she placed a hand on her mother’s forehead.  She shook her gently by the shoulder.

“Mam,” she said gently, “wake up.”

She shook again, this time more roughly.

“Mam,” she repeated, panicked.

A tiny smart of irritation came over Babsie; she was forever trying to shake Mam  into action. She reached for her mother’s scabbed wrist – peeled back one of the gloves; yes, she even wore them in bed for fear of scratching herself unbeknownst in her sleep –  but Babsie knew even before she tried for a pulse.

“John,” she said evenly, “go and get Reverend Brabazon.”

“Ah Babs, I’m in the middle of me book,” he wailed.

Books, she thought, bloody books.

“Go,” she ordered, “this very minute.”

When he was gone, Babsie drew the curtains and stopped the clock.  She put the kettle to boil, for whom she did not know.  It was just something to do so she would not have to approach the bed again and look on her mother’s closed-in face.  She could not take it in; that the end would come like this, so quietly, as if her mother had just suddenly upped and surrendered.   Typical, Babsie thought, and inexplicably she felt her ire rising again.  It was something she had never understood. It wasn’t that her mother had lacked spirit – hadn’t she raised up five of them as a widow? – but her striving seemed always directed at appearances, the look of things as opposed to how they were. Well, Babsie thought, looking around, something would have to be done here. The scene looked peaceful, though hardly dignified.  Her mother’s face had a par-boiled look where previous bouts of the erysipelas had left angry blotches. The gloves and the makeshift turban seemed foolish and pathetic, and Babsie set to, unwinding the scarf from her mother’s head and peeling off the gloves, so that when the clergyman saw her, she would not look like something out of a harlequinade.

She unwound her mother’s hair from the matted mound the scarf had made of it.  Babsie lifted her head then while she combed the tangles out of it.  When she laid her mother’s head back on the pillow, her hair settled like a tortoiseshell fan.  Babsie laid her mottled arms by her side.  Then she straightened the bed.  Something tinny fell off as she turned down the counterpane. She had to go down on all fours to retrieve it.   It was her mother’s little birdcage. It was a useless little thing, she thought, not even brass but brightly painted metal made up to look like silver.  No pawn shop in town would look twice at it and so it had survived, a priceless treasure.  She weighed it in her hand and then lifted her mother’s and folded the stiffening fingers around it in a fist.  Tears came then, but nothing operatic – that was not in Babsie’s nature.  She wiped her eyes and steeled herself.   She went into the other room to fetch the two-pair  candlesticks.  There was a large dent in the stem of one, from what Babsie couldn’t recall. A domestic skirmish with her father, no doubt.  One of the many.  She lit them with a taper from the reawakened fire and set one down on each side of the bed. She bent and kissed her mother on the brow.   Then Babsie passed her fingers in swift benediction over her mother’s eyelids and closed them, her lips moving to some silent prayer.

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