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The baby who barked
Wednesday 12 July 2000

First, the baby was born. Then everybody became ecstatic. When they brought her home two days later, the house overflowed with a new kind of air. People came in cars and on foot to adore her. Small crowds of visitors fell naturally into the configurations of religious paintings. The women pushed their faces in close, to smell skin. The men stood further back with their arms folded, smiling, talking quietly among themselves, but always with their bodies turned towards mother and child. The father's school friend struggled in, carrying, in a pot, the Greek tree that she was named after. It was found that one bottle can supply enough champagne for nine people to toast a baby.

She took the breast. Milk flowed. The father cooked and served. The nanna washed dishes and clothes. The granny got down on hands and knees and went at the kitchen lino. It was early in a Melbourne winter. The extended family hummed like a well-cranked top. The heart-broken old blue heeler slunk with impunity on to a forbidden rug, and rested her muzzle on her crossed frontpaws.

Two weeks passed in peaceable veneration. Everything about the baby was a perfect glory. Her hairline. Her orange poo. Her squashed right ear. Her long fingers. Her very small cough. "Like a bark!" said someone fondly. One cough at a time, maybe once a day. "Bark!" through stiffened pink lips. Then twice a day. Two at a time. Then three, then more.

And then one day when she coughed she didn't stop. Everyone rushed to the sofa. The mother held her folded forward like a tiny choking koala. Out, out, out went bark after bark after bark, and not a single breath came in. Her eyes screwed shut and disappeared. Her face went red, then royal purple, then greyish-blue. Before their eyes she shrank, intensified. At last she got to the bottom of it and a harsh thread of air sucked itself into her with a noise like a hammy actor dying. The man from along the street said, "You take that kid to hospital".

Whatever she had was very infectious. They put her in an isolation unit on the fifth floor, with her mother beside her on a fold-out couch; and every hour or so, for five days, the baby coughed and went blue and fought for breath. They even clapped a weeny little oxygen mask on to her. After each paroxysm, nasty pale sticky foam coated her lips and she sank into an exhausted sleep.

They pushed a tube down through her nose and sucked muck out of her. They got some blood out of her tiny sausage of an arm. The tests were "inconclusive". Whooping cough? Her parents weren't even sure how to pronounce it. Isn't it a disease of the olden days? Hasn't it been wiped out, like polio? It's coming back, said a nurse. I've seen this whole side of the thoracic ward - nothing but babies with whooping cough.

The baby coughed, the mother coughed, even the nanna coughed, but the father stayed healthy, which was just as well since attending mothers don't get fed: he was bringing in three meals a day. By the time the baby left hospital, she was three weeks old and a different, darker, more serious person. The nanna crept home and stayed in bed for a fortnight, choking and gasping, her tear ducts spouting water and the whole front of her torso in spasms.

And once they started telling people about it, they heard that whooping cough is indeed cropping up all over the place. The baby's uncle had it at 14. An academic in Newcastle at 42. Somebody's mother up in Woy Woy at 80 (she swore by Bonnington's Irish Moss). The baby's great-grandfather, from the Mallee, thought he felt it coming on, but claimed to have kept it at bay by frequent gargling with Listerine. One of the nanna's friends told her that she'd heard you can immunise a baby against whooping cough with garlic. Gradually it all started to seem a bit ordinary, a bit ridiculous, as if they had over-reacted.

But the fright was real. And the nanna had missed three weeks of the new life. She missed the baby and the baby's parents, and the work she'd been doing around their house, and the privilege of spending hours of each day holding her grand-daughter in her arms, watching the waves of expression sweep and falter and resolve over her pure face.


Daily news carry constant warning from our Government and experts that preventable disease is increasing in our community. Parents are urged to vaccinate their children. Often parents are not vaccinated themselves. There is resistance to vaccination.

Word from East Timor is that tuberculosis is everwhere. It's coming here so they say. Now so many people are arriving with the Olympics. The equestrians are warned not to be in contact with the 250 horses from overseas...some mosquito born horse flu' that kills people - a cross-specie horror. The beat goes on...

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (, July 11, 2000


according to-prophecy--WE AIN,T SEEN NUTHIN YET!!

-- al-d. (, July 12, 2000.

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