Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tales of the Dead Tropics -chapter 1

The first hint of the plague about to destroy our world came with a brief report on the morning news.  I barely registered it, really, as I tried to persuade the twins to stay in their seats and eat their breakfast.  There was something about some miners being diagnosed with an unidentified form of encephalitis in the nearby village of Mossman.

Joe snorted from his easy chair.  "That's what you get for messing with nature.  The Cape Tribulation rainforest has been untouched by humans for millions of years.  You've got species of plants and insects that have never been identified!  I wouldn't be surprised if they discover that this strain of encephalitis predates the dinosaurs."   I rolled my eyes.  I loved my husband dearly but the last thing I needed this morning was a lecture on the dangers of destroying the virgin rainforest of Cape Tribulation.  He had been impossible for the last few months since the mining companies had won permission to mine part of the rainforest around Mossman. I guess I can't complain now; I knew he was an environmentalist when we started  dating at uni.

"Are you likely to get called into work this morning?" I asked, as I wrestled a porridgy spoon away from Sarah and pushed Alex firmly back into his high chair.  Joe switched off the tv and stood up, stretching his lanky frame.
"If they do call, they're sadly out of luck."  He grinned, grey eyes twinkling.  "Or have you forgotten that somewhere out there is a marlin with my name on it.  They can find another sucker to slave over a microscope."  That's my hubby - a scientist with his priorities straight.

He came over and wrapped his arms around my waist.  "And, of course, I have the most understanding wife in the world, holding down the fort for the whole weekend." 
I laughed and squirmed as he nuzzled my neck.  "Stop crawling and help me clean these kids up before you leave."
He grabbed two year old Alex and lifted him high as he headed for the bathroom.  "Okay, rugrat, try not to make your mum's life a misery while I'm away!"  Alex squealed and tried to swat his father's face.  Sarah, of course, demanded loudly to be picked up, too. 

As I gingerly tried to lift her out of her chair without getting porridge all over my clothes, Michele wandered out of her room.  At 15, she had reached an age where she seemed to want to sleep all morning so I was a bit surprised to see her before noon.
"Good morning, sweetness." I called out as I shepherded Sarah ahead of me to the bathroom.  My teen grunted a greeting as she flung cupboard doors open, no doubt in search of a breakfast that didn't scream healthy.

All in all, a normal morning in the Nelson home.  No awareness that our world was already in the process of changing forever; no hint that, somewhere, an impossible disease was taking hold; no clue that we would be committing unthinkable acts before the day was through.

Twins cleaned up and occupied helping their father pack his bag, I poured myself a cup of tepid coffee and joined Michele at the breakfast table.  She was looking a bit more alert after a sugary cereal hit. 
"So what gets you up so early, honey?" I asked chirpily, knowing how she hated cheeriness first thing in the morning.  Michele narrowed her golden brown eyes, one of the few features she had inherited from me, but refrained admirably from making a sarcastic reply.  Instead she smiled sweetly, which immediately sent off alarm bells. 
"Seeing we don't have any exams today, Hannah wants me to go shopping with her.  Can you give me a lift to Central Shoppingtown? Please, mummy dearest?"

That's the thing about being a parent.  Even though you can spot your kid's manipulations a mile off, they still work more often than not. "Yeah yeah.  If you want a lift, you'd better be ready in half an hour.  I have to drop your dad off at the jetty and your brother and sister at Aunty Kaye's, not to mention get to work by 10." 
Michele jumped up and gave me a hug. "Thanks Mummy! Oh, and can I borrow $20?"

Surprisingly, we got out of the house on time.  Being winter, Cairns was enjoying a glorious day.  Brilliant blue skies, balmy breezes and lush green hills on all sides.  Even after all these years, its beauty could still take my breath away.  However, it seemed I was the only one taking notice of our beautiful surrounds.  Michele had her ipod plugged in, the twins were loudly singing a Wiggles tune while Joe tried to listen to the news.
"Shush, kids!" he called out abruptly as he turned up the radio.

" least 5 suspected cases of the unidentified strain of encephalitis are currently being transported from Mossman to the Cairns Base Hospital where they will undergo testing to confirm the diagnosis. All the victims so far have been employees of the Coldman Mining Company; however, anyone who has been to the Mossman region recently see their doctor immediately if they experience  symptoms such as a sensitivity to light, headaches, vomiting  and a stiff neck.  It is suspected that the virus is being transmitted by mosquitos which may have been disturbed by the mining operations.  As a result, people are being advised to stay clear of Mossman until further notice..."

I sighed.  "Looks like I am going to be busy at the hospital today."  The shortage of nurses at the hospital meant that we were spread pretty thin and an influx of Emergency cases was going to make it a hairy day.
Joe shook his head in dismay.  "If they have this many patients in one day, this could very well turn into an epidemic."
"I wouldn't worry about it, the Department of Health will be on top of it."
He quirked an eyebrow at me. "I love your trusting nature, my sweet."
I snorted. "You know what you can do with that condescensing attitude, mister.  You wait and see, this will all blow over in a few days." 
Yeah, I know, I owe the man an apology.

At the jetty, my brother in law, Andy, was already waiting with a few other guys in front of a medium sized fishing boat.  "About time, git." He called out as we pulled in.  "Putting on your makeup, were you?"
Joe pulled his gear out of the back of the four wheel drive. "Don't need makeup, mate.  I'm naturally beautiful.  You, on the other hand..."
I interrupted their good natured bantering. "Hey Andy, make sure you guys do less drinking and more fishing this time, will you?  That puny fish you brought home last time was an embarassment."
Andrew wandered over and gave me a hearty kiss on the cheek. "Leave the fishing to the men, Lori, and we'll leave the childbearing to the women."
Joe laughed and pulled Andy away.  "We'd better get on the boat now, mate! Lori may be 5 feet nothing but she's a fiend behind the wheel, and I don't like the way she's looking at us!"
I grinned at them as I reversed out of the car park.  "This is me secretly jumping for joy at the prospect of not seeing your sorry asses for a whole weekend."  My last glimpse of them was in the rear view mirror as they laughingly loaded their gear onto the boat. 
After dropping Michele at the shopping mecca which was Central Shoppingtown, I drove along the highway towards my sister's home in the hills.   I passed the usual droves of tourists lounging on the Esplanade, a green stretch of park paradise that separated the city from the sea.  It was an irresistable attraction for families, bird lovers, sun seekers and active people with its boardwalk, mudflats, palm trees, playgrounds, bicycle paths, skateboard park, barbeques and saltwater pool.
"Muddys, Muddys" the twins hollered as we passed the adventure playground.  Even this early, it was already full of children climbing rope and running through fountains.
"Maybe tomorrow, kids.  Mummy's got to work today." I answered distractedly.  For some reason, a mother and child standing outside the gate to the playground caught my eye.  Maybe it was the nurse in me but I immediately recognised that the woman was sick.  She was clutching the gate, her skin was pale and sweaty and she seemed to struggling for breath.  My foot hovered indecisively over the brake but before I could make a decision, she had opened the gate and was gone.
'I guess she'll go see a doctor if she is sick." I muttered under my breath, trying to talk myself out of the instinct to find the woman.  

My sister was sitting on her verandah drinking a cup of coffee as I parked at the bottom of her steep driveway.  Nestled in the midst of a rainforest, Kaye and Andy had built a beautiful pole home, or as my children called it, the treehouse.  As always, I complained about the hike as I walked up the driveway, lugging the twins behind me.  " Ever thought about installing an escalator?"
Kaye's dark hair fell around her laughing face as she leant over her balcony.  "And deny you the only exercise you get? I think not."
"Hey, these kids keep me plenty fit, thank you very much!"  I retorted as I ushered the twins up the spiral wooden staircase.  As always, the view from the house was breathtaking.  There was lush rainforest on three sides and a river running through a deep valley on the remaining side.  On rainy days, a low mist hung over the tops of the mountains making you feel part of a world untouched by man. 
I greeted my sister with a kiss and gratefully took the hot cup of coffee she held out for me.    I plonked myself down on a chair and took a sip of freshly brewed black coffee. "You do know the way to a woman's heart."
"Of course - coffee, chocolate, massages and time alone to read a good book."  She sat down gracefully in the cane chair opposite me and picked up her china cup.  Next to Kaye, I often felt as graceful as Fergie must have felt next to Princess Di. Kaye was all finished elegance and gentle manners while I was a t-shirt and jeans gal with foot in mouth disease.  She took after mum with her dark colouring whereas I had inherited my Dad's honey -coloured hair and fair skin, not to mention shortness.
"Ooh, you really do know me!" I said admiringly.  From within the house came the sound of four toddlers creating havoc, but we ignored it with an ease that only mothers can. "Uh, I suspect I am going to need a caffeine drip for the day ahead."
"Yes, I heard about the encephalitis outbreak on the news.  Do you think you will be looking after them?"
I raised an eyebrow at her.  "I'm working in Emergency today.  There's a good chance."  I sighed.  "I'm supposed to finish at 6pm but if I'm not here by 6.30..."
Kaye grinned. "Feed 'em and bed 'em.  Yeah, I know."
With a glance at my watch, I finished off my coffee and went inside to bid farewell to my kids.  Needless to say, they brushed me off with a hasty goodbye and returned to their game with their cousins, Beth and Allie.  I grinned to myself as I returned to my car.  At least I didn't have to go to work worrying about separation anxiety.

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