Within two days, Jimmy had said. Within two days they would hit Madagascar. Jones realised he hadn’t even thought about where they were going, other than it was close to Mozambique and he would be closer to reuniting with his family who had been holidaying there when Australia was invaded.
He tried to remember what he had learnt at school. Too many years ago, he couldn’t even remember if he had learnt anything at all about Madagascar. Hadn’t he helped his daughter do a school assignment? Was that Madagascar? Yes, yes it was!
Back then the population had been about 22 million, roughly the same as Australia. Jones remembered he and his daughter, her eyes shining with new knowledge, laughing about the difference in land size between the two countries for roughly the same population. Some 580,000 sq km compared to, what, 7,620,000 sq km for Australia. He remembered them discussing the infant mortality rates: over 47 for Madagascar and under 5 for Australia. Good Lord, he thought, what will this place be like? Would there be drinking water? Medical facilities? He couldn’t remember the details of his daughter’s assignment, just some rough numbers and climate information.
Jones assumed the boat would make landfall on the east coast of the island and he knew that was the wet, hot, humid side of the island. Battered by trade winds from the Indian Ocean, the rainfall was high. He remembered something about tropical fevers and a parasite…..Jones struggled to remember the name of the resulting illness, the parasites bred in the rice fields…….what WAS that name? Scitoss, schitimosis…. then he remembered: schistosomiasis. He remembered because his daughter had taken a while to get her tongue around such a word for the class presentation. He’d been home from Canberra that week and spent a lot of time with her. Jones wanted so desperately to hold his children in his arms, to breathe in their smell, to know they were alive.
Would he ever see his wife or children again? What was going to happen when they landed? Would the malaria, dengue or schistosomiasis get him before he got off the island? Would the Red Cross be there to provide clothing, food or medical treatment?
It was now late October – any later and the crossing would probably not have been possible. The sea had become rougher each day, many people were now very sick. One of the pregnant women was very close to her due date and everyone on board was hoping she would not go into labour in the next 48 hours. No-one, not even Jones, wanted to see a baby die.
One little girl on board had been very sick with measles. Luckily she had arrived on board in a very healthy condition, but the lack of food during the trip had meant she didn’t have much energy to fight off the disease. She seemed to be recovering, although still weak. No-one else had come down with measles yet. Damn anti-vaxers, Jones had thought at the time.
Images of his children playing in the back yard at home played like a movie in his mind. Their laughter rang in his ears. He tasted the salt of his tears and realised he was crying. The soles of his feet were hard and cracked, he stank worse than a milking barn and his growing beard felt like he had been cursed with a thousand fleas. The furriness of his teeth was a constant reminder of the nearly seven days without a bathroom. He scratched his groin yet again. When would this end?
Wearily Jones reached to pick up his remaining milk container to stumble to the deck to see if there was any spare water for the men. As he reached down his wedding ring fell off. He realised how much weight he had lost. He bent down and retrieved the ring, slipping it on his index finger. The tears flowed again as he remembered standing before the celebrant, his wife’s elegant fingers slipping the ring on.
He remembered standing in the Australian parliament defending off-shore processing. Defending Nauru and Manus Island. He prayed Madagascar were more humane in their approach to boat people. He would know soon enough. Would anyone sleep tonight? They would see land tomorrow. Land. Hope. Safety. Maybe.
Continued at Blood spurted from the ripped flesh