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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 5 - Close To Death

"At last, after many months, when I was close to death with blood poisoning, our young doctor suggested we try a new drug from Russia...'' Gayle Woodward continues her story of growing up in New Zealand. To read earlier chapters of her autobiography type Gayle's name in the search box on this page.

I had not been back at school long after the hospital trip when I developed a streptococcus infection caught in the hospital, and came out in boils all over my body. We were on holiday at Onetangi when the first signs appeared. I became so sick with the poisoning that occurred that I could not attend school when it began in February.

To take my mind off the pain I was given a treasured little celluloid doll that would wet its nappy after being given water to drink and would crawl if wound up. I remember sitting on the concrete front porch in the mornings, making my doll crawl around and watching all the kids going off to school. I did so want to go back to school.

However I was covered all over with gauze pads, stuck over my seeping boils with sticky tape. When removed, the tape would rip off the hairs on my legs and arms and I would scream and beg and weep. Baths of Condy’s Crystals were supposed to make the boils come to a head and expel the core more quickly. They were strange smelling purple-red baths. Then after a painful drying around each infection -and there could be twenty at a time, each site had to be attended with Mercurochrome and a new bandage attached. It was an awful time and Mrs Hansen was often there to tell stories and try to jolly me out of my misery.

My little sister, Mary, was missing out of a lot of attention and was so lonely. Dressing my infections took so long several times a day that it was thought that she would do better if she were sent to stay with our aunt, uncle, grandmother and cousin Billy. If this illness was a devastating thing for me, it was just as traumatic for a quiet little girl of two. I missed her dreadfully and felt so bad that she had to be sent away.

At last, after many months, when I was close to death with blood poisoning, our young doctor suggested we try a new drug from Russia, which had just emerged from trials and was sold through Auckland Hospital. Nobody knew what affect the drug would have on my small wracked body, but it was given to me and I recovered. Purple scars remained on my body for years and some are still visible, pale and shiny, fifty years on.

I went back to school. To the Primer One class with Miss Ogilvie, who drew the most wonderful pictures onto the blackboard. She was most talented in drawing especially in the way she could smudge the chalk to resemble pastel. The room had a strange smell of chalk and sweaty bodies. Two of the walls of this beginner’s classroom in 1953 were lined with blackboards at child height and it was here that we had our first lessons in printing. We all had a small cushion on which you could rest your head for an after lunch sleep. I could never sleep on such a hard floor, but I pretended.

I found the words written on the blackboard amazingly easy to read, although they did not make any sense to me. ‘I am Janet. Here is John.’ What did this mean? What is the story? I was so entranced by the stories that had been read to me at home that this school stuff was very boring and silly. I tried to do everything right because I loved the teacher but I was not happy in the class.

I was horrified though, when one day the teacher in charge of infant classes came into our room and told me that I was being moved to Room 3, therefore missing out on Room 2 and the rest of Room 1. Deemed that I could read already and was very good, meaning quiet and biddable, it was thought that this promotion would suit me. The schoolwork did, the reading books were better but everybody was older than me by at least a year. I was five, nearly six years old; they were six going on seven and so much more grownup and talkative and bossy than me. However, I fitted in and began to assert my bossiness and organisational skills. But for the rest of my school life, I was always younger by one year or eighteen months than the rest of the class. In later years I hated being the youngest always.

I made a friend of Marian Macdonald, who was athletic, friendly and came from a family of six kids, three boys and three girls. I found this to be amazing, especially as she wasn’t scared of her big brothers like I was.

We would walk to and from school together. A house on Riddell Road with a stone wall at the front had a pepper tree hanging over the footpath. It was believed, by the local kids, that a witch lived in this grey stone house and that if one spoke while under the pepper tree, one would lose the ability to speak ever again. We would be chattering when the call would come, “Shut up! Here’s the pepper tree!”

A little way past the witch’s house was a reserve known locally as the Horse Paddock. It was a grassy, weed-ridden section with a path that let us take a shortcut from Riddell Road through to Whitehaven Road. The pungent smell of the fennel that grew taller than me is evocative, and memories of walking through the Horse Paddock flood back when I smell that odour now. At the end of this shortcut, Marian went one way and I had a steep hill with no footpath to reach my house at the top. Often I had a bladder bursting as I minced my way awkwardly up the hill in agony. Occasionally there were accidents. To the six-year-old me, that hill was a huge mountain


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