The Pull of the Stars Page 2

A man’s explosive cough on the bench behind me. Then another. Hack, hack, a tree being axed with too small a blade. The mass of bodies leaned away. That ambiguous sound could be the start of the flu or a convalescent’s lingering symptom; it could signify the harmless common cold or be a nervous tic, caught like a yawn just by thinking about it. But at the moment this whole city was inclined to assume the worst, and no wonder.

Three hearses in a row outside an undertaker’s, the horses already in harness for the morning’s first burials. Two aproned men shouldered a load of pale planks down the lane to the back—for building more coffins, I realised.

The streetlamps were dimming now as day came. The tram rattled past an overloaded motor launch that looked tilted, askew; I saw two men kick at the rear axle. A dozen passengers in mourning wear still sat pressed together on its benches, as if stubbornness might get them to the funeral mass on time. But the driver, despairing, let her forehead rest on the steering wheel.

The man sitting jammed against my right elbow trained a little torch on his newspaper. I never had a paper in the house anymore for fear of upsetting Tim. Some mornings I brought a book to read, but last week the library had recalled them all for quarantine.

The date at the top reminded me that it was Halloween. The front page was offering hot lemonade, I noticed, and life insurance, and Cinna-Mint, the Germicidal Throat Tablet. So many ex-votos sprinkled among the small ads: Sincere thanks to the Sacred Heart and the Holy Souls for our family’s recovery. The man turned the page, but his newspaper was blank inside, a great rectangle of dirty white. He let out a grunt of irritation.

A man’s voice from the other side of him: Power shortages—they must have had to leave off printing halfway.

A woman behind us said, Sure aren’t the gasmen doing their best to keep the works up and running, half staffed?

My neighbour flipped to the back page instead. I tried not to register the headlines in the veer of his shaky beam: Naval Mutiny Against the Kaiser. Diplomatic Negotiations at the Highest Level. People thought the Central Powers couldn’t possibly hold out much longer against the Allies. But then, they’d been saying as much for years.

Half this news was made up, I reminded myself. Or slanted to boost morale, or at least censored to keep it from falling any further. For instance, our papers had stopped including the Roll of Honor—soldiers lost in the various theatres of war. Irishmen who’d signed up for the sake of king and empire, or the just cause of defending small nations, or for want of a job, or for a taste of adventure, or—like my brother—because a mate was going. I’d studied the roll daily for any mention of Tim during the almost three years he’d been posted abroad. (Gallipoli, Salonika, Palestine—the place-names still made me shudder.) Every week the columns had crawled another inch across the newspaper under headings with the ring of categories in a macabre parlor game: Missing; Prisoner in Enemy Hands; Wounded; Wounded—Shell Shock; Died of Wounds; and Killed in Action. Photographs, sometimes. Identifying details; appeals for information. But last year, casualties had grown too many and paper too scarce, so it had been decided that the list should from that point on be made public only for those who could pay for it as a threepenny weekly.

I noticed just one headline about the flu today, low down on the right: Increase in Reports of Influenza. A masterpiece of understatement, as if it were only the reporting that had increased, or perhaps the pandemic was a figment of the collective imagination. I wondered whether it was the newspaper publisher’s decision to play down the danger or if he’d received orders from above.

The grand, old-fashioned silhouette of the hospital reared up ahead against the pallid sky. My stomach coiled. Excitement or nerves; hard to tell them apart these days. I struggled to the stairs and let gravity help me down.

On the lower deck, a man hawked and spat on the floor. People twitched and drew back shoes and hems.

A female voice wailed, Sure you might as well spray us with bullets!

Stepping off the tram, I saw the latest official notice in huge letters, pasted up every few feet.







I supposed the authorities were trying to buck us up in their shrill way, but it seemed unfair to blame the sick for defeatism.

Written across the top of the hospital gates, in gilded wrought iron that caught the last of the streetlight: Vita gloriosa vita. Life, glorious life.

On my first day, when I’d been just twenty-one, the motto had made me tingle from scalp to toe. My father had stumped up the fees for the full three-year course at the Technical School for Nurses, and I’d been sent here for ward work three afternoons a week; it was in this hulking, four-storey building—handsome in a bleak, Victorian way—that I’d learnt everything of substance.

Vita gloriosa vita. The serifs were tipped with soot, I noticed now.

I crossed the courtyard behind a pair of white-coiffed nuns and followed them in. Religious sisters were said to make the most devoted, self-abnegating nurses; I wasn’t sure about that, but I’d certainly been made to feel second best by a few nuns over my years here. Like most of the hospitals, schools, and orphanages in Ireland, this place couldn’t have run without the expertise and labour of the various orders of the sisters. Most of the staff were Roman Catholics, but the hospital was open to any residents of the capital who needed care (though Protestants usually went to their own hospitals or hired private nurses).

I should have been down the country. I’d been due a whole three days off, so I’d arranged to go to Dadda’s farm for a little rest and fresh air but then had to send him a telegram at the last minute explaining that my leave was cancelled. I couldn’t be spared, since so many nurses—including Matron herself—had come down with the grippe.

Dadda and his wife’s farm, technically. Tim and I were perfectly civil to our stepmother and vice versa. Even though she’d never had children of her own, she’d always kept us at a slight remove, and I supposed we’d done the same. At least she had no reason to resent us now we were grown and supporting ourselves in Dublin. Nurses were notoriously underpaid, but my brother and I managed to rent a small house, mostly thanks to Tim’s military pension.

Urgency girdled me now. Eileen Devine, Ita Noonan, Delia Garrett; how were my patients getting on without me?

It felt colder inside the hospital than out these days; lamps were kept turned down and coal fires meagrely fed. Every week, more grippe cases were carried into our wards, more cots jammed in. The hospital’s atmosphere of scrupulous order—which had survived four years of wartime disruption and shortages and even the Rising’s six days of gunfire and chaos—was finally crumbling under this burden. Staff who fell sick disappeared like pawns from a chessboard. The rest of us made do, worked harder, faster, pulled more than our weight—but it wasn’t enough. This flu was clogging the whole works of the hospital.

Not just the hospital, I reminded myself—the whole of Dublin. The whole country. As far as I could tell, the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt. Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs. We had it no worse here than anywhere else; self-pity was as useless as panic.

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