The Darkened Room

short-story-thumbsDorothy grew up during the depression. Her circumstances were probably not all that unusual for the times though there were bizarre and unique experiences that left her in awe of her apparent and much wanted normality. The earliest photo of her depicted a fairy tale childhood. She had short, fluffy, blond hair and the sun caught the corner of her eye as she smiled radiantly for the camera. She looked like a Shirley Temple doll but with an extra softness – the warm camaraderie of her arm draped over her cousin’s shoulder, an unconscious joy.

Dorothy’s mother had created a scandal when at sixteen she dropped the bombshell of her impending motherhood. The family were appalled that the young man in question loved their daughter and wanted to marry her. This could never be contemplated. They reacted with the usual harshness of the generation and forbade the marital union desired by them both and that might have reduced the humiliation they subsequently endured. The pair did marry eventually, when the law allowed it and they carried on, thrust into the world at a young age to fend for themselves. They were poorly educated and worked in menial factory jobs. Dorothy’s mother worked for years in a very noisy industrial plant and developed tinnitus before going completely deaf.

By the time Dorothy was three or four, ‘three spinsters’ or better known as ‘aunts’, who were not in fact related, had honed a benevolent relationship with Dorothy and her struggling parents. The aunts, Nanny, Evie and Dolly, presented themselves to Dorothy’s parents as their saving grace and they gradually extended their kind deeds to include overnight stays, pretty dresses and good nourishment. Of course Dorothy’s parents were relieved and grateful. Their struggles were immense and any help they received, a welcome relief. The three spinster aunts opened their door to Dorothy and over the course of time their house was as much the family home as her parents.

The aunts were good providers in terms of satisfying hunger, warmth and shelter. Nancy was an excellent seamstress and so Dorothy always looked a little over dressed and out of place in her lovely frilly dresses as she attempted to mix with the neighborhood children whose clothes were tattered and worn. The aunts loved having a little girl to dress up.

Nancy and Evelyn worked as bookbinders and Dolly, the youngest of the three stayed at home cooking, cleaning and caring for various relatives who became bedridden in their old age. Nancy was always thought of as the brains of the three. Dolly, the youngest was a kind soul and Evelyn- Evie, rather lacked sensitivity though fortunately she knew better and always deferred to her older sister Nancy’s reckoning.

The three aunts were starved of maternal expression and the happenstance of a little girl in need of or care finding her way to them was an opportunity to indulge them selves. Who other than three unencumbered spinsters living only a few blocks away from the original family could consider shouldering the responsibility of a small child during difficult economic times? On the surface it seemed to have been of mutual benefit to all.

An otherwise healthy child Dorothy became ill at the age of three. Overnight her throat was caught in slumber by nature’s unseen predators and she was pushed and pulled by the ravaging turbulence of fever. The aunts were gripped with foreboding and terror. Dolly quivered with fear, Evie bustled about offering useless suggestions and Nancy observed and planned, knowing their little Dorothy could be lost as so many were, to infectious disease. Her condition deteriorated over the following two days. Her breathing became labored and she became limp, a wilting flower, delirious. Her throat was so swollen she could not drink and a doctor was called to the house. The grave faced man, a minimalist as far as verbal communication was concerned, informed the aunts that their child had diptheria, necessitating her immediate removal by ambulance to The Coast Hospital as it was then known. Dorothy was to spend the next three months in a darkened room isolated from all patients and with minimal interaction from the medical staff.

It was a long way by public transport from Pyrmont to Little Bay, the site of the infectious diseases hospital. Dolly would make the trip when she could but she was not allowed to go into the room, just a wave from the behind the glass. It was pre World War Two, a few years before research and discovery produced fruits such as antibiotics and immunization. An infectious disease could kill a child without warning. Dorothy was lucky. She had little memory of the course of the disease, what was done for her or to what extent she suffered but as her condition improved, the hours of the day stretched out in front of her and her solitary existence became a void, a suffocating loneliness.

Nurses rushed in and out as necessary like a flock of white cockatoos, all starched and masked, uniforms rustling and crushing as they laid out fresh, starched sheets. An occasional intimidated young doctor appeared in luminous white, sidling around the perimeter of the room, peering through the darkness. The doctors made awkward attempts to conceal their fear of the unknown forces of her disease with bold greetings.

‘And how is Dorothy this morning? Keeping the chin up? Come on Dorothy, let me have a look at you, don’t breath on us now.’

What else could she say? Yes Doctor. Silence, and Dorothy was swallowed up in her blankets. Touch so foreign, the cold shock of the stethoscope an assault. These were the few intrusions that broke up the torment of complete isolation.

As Dorothy began to recover, the nurses allowed Dolly to come into the room when she visited, but she had to stay back from the bed. A light came on in Dorothy’s life when Dolly showed her how to knit. At last she had something to while away the hours. She could not see in the darkness, she was only three and could not yet read. But she could knit, in the dark, at any time. Dorothy knitted and knitted and knitted. She knitted from the time she woke up to the time she was told to go to sleep. Knitting filled a need for industry and comfort throughout Dorothy’s life, during times of social isolation and unhappiness, a vehicle for creativity, meaning and purpose, to relax, meditate and enjoy.

Dorothy got better. She returned to Pyrmont starved of just about everything except shelter and food. Pyrmont was the same. Lurking predators in every shadowy corner, the long grimy back lane home only to the tom cats, the incessant heart beat of the neighborhood, pumping, regurgitating its metallic call from the granary and it’s rancid dust blustering haphazardly into the unsuspecting air. The granary reminded her of the desolation of where she had been. She imagined a thousand slaves dragging heavy bags of flour up and down narrow planks, their trials in a harsh and godless place. A place Dorothy feared. She saw the starkness of it, while trying to rest on the big shared bed, from the front window of the house, peering above the long brick wall along the other side of the street, as if demanding privacy.

Dorothy reacquainted herself with the dark hallway of the single story terrace, the graceful but cold bust presiding on the oak sideboard. Everything as it was but nothing quite the same. Her convalescence continued and by the end of the long, long nightmare she emerged from hospital with a firm allegiance to the aunts. Dolly had made the weekly trips to see her. She never saw her mother, brothers or sisters. Dorothy returned to the neighborhood as daughter of the three aunts. Her own family was lost to the trials of poverty. The aunts had earned their place in Dorothy’s life and they enveloped her in a protective vacuum.

In her adult years she began to understand the heart wrenching reality and selflessness of her own family. Guilt, remorse and at times depression plagued her. The aunts would never forgive her for accepting her own family. They had paid for her loyalty. It’s just that at the time Dorothy didn’t know that she had entered into any agreement. How could she, at three years of age? She had been trapped in a dark and lonely room, a cauldron of physical and mental turbulence and she felt the cold ripples of mental torment decades into her adult life.

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