On that morning, as on many others, my little sister Susan and I were grazing William and Mary, our pet goats. Our attention was first attracted to some very strange and disturbing noises that were coming from the dirt road which led up past the dispensary to our house.
It was then that a middle aged Indian couple came into view, husband in the lead as was the custom, and the source of the noise was revealed. The wife, clearly angry, was giving her husband a severe chin wagging. Or, she would have except that her chin hung down well below her open mouth and her harangue consisted of just some strange gurgling in a language that we had never heard before. Her husband, on the other hand, couldn’t conceal his glee. He had a smile on his face a mile wide and every couple of steps would break into a giggle, without ever looking back to his obviously furious wife.
We learned the story when Dad came in for breakfast after seeing to his morning round of patients. It seems that the woman in question had awoken that morning in something of a mood and had spent some time nagging her husband for every conceivable fault he may ever have had. Until … in the effort she dislocated her jaw.
Little wonder that she was still annoyed and possibly in some pain; even less of a wonder that her husband was so amused. Father fixed her jaw and we didn’t see them leave. I imagine she was still nagging him but I doubt he was still smiling.
This little cameo was one of many that were played out on the mornings when the dispensary was open. The dispensary, a small wooden building on stilts, stood a little way down the hill from our place and was about the size of any doctor’s surgery you might see today. There was an office and an examination table and a covered verandah that served as the waiting room, although many patients preferred to gather under the shade of a nearby mango tree.
Dr. Richard William David Maxwell, M.B.; Ch.B; D.T.M&H; D.P.H. (and later O.B.E.) was a District Medical Officer in the then Colonial Service and had charge of the local hospital and several dispensaries, which today might be called clinics, in the surrounding villages and outer islands of his region in Fiji at any time. We moved often.
In Labasa, on the larger yet more remote island of Fiji, the doctor was permitted to run a small private practice in addition to his official responsibilities. Thus – the dispensary. It was, I think, considered valuable by the local population because there was on most mornings a stream of the sick, the not so sick and the real emergencies making their way up that dusty road.
On occasion payment was made with live fowl, fruit and vegetables, fish and anything but cash. It wasn’t an arrangement that would make a young doctor and his family very rich – but it could have been. As just one example: I well recall my father telling me of an Indian man who had come to the dispensary with his ill wife and had insisted that Dad give her “the very best medicine”. To demonstrate just how appreciative he would be of this extra and exclusive treatment the man took from his wife’s neck not one but two strings of gold sovereigns which he offered to the good doctor. I am proud to say that Dad was not only a good doctor but a good man. He provided the best treatment he could, the patient survived and she went on wearing her very expensive necklaces. They might well have paid for my education.
Some of the sights I remember seeing on those mornings so long ago were pretty horrible. We lived in a sugar cane farming community and almost everyone, myself included, had a cane knife which was always kept properly sharpened. When fights broke out among the Indian cane farmers and cane cutters the results could be dramatic. Never more so than the sight I saw of a young man who had been struck a descending blow on the shoulder by one of these knives. The knife had peeled the flesh to the bone from his shoulder to his wrist. Disturbing enough, but instead of holding that flap of flesh to the wound he was making his way up the hill with a piece of meat hanging down from his bleeding arm, trailing along in the dust. His wailing could have been heard for miles. I think I missed breakfast that morning.
Another story that relates to the dispensary is less about patients than patience. It involves my effort, with my sister’s assistance, to capture a bird or even birds by pouring salt on their tails. Not only had I been told that this would work but I had visual evidence. The illustration on every pack of a popular brand of salt clearly showed a small girl chasing a bird whilst attempting to pour salt on its tail. If she were to succeed the bird would not fly and would be easily captured, or so they said, but I realised that the problem in all of this was getting close enough to the bird. This, I thought would take far greater cunning.
So it was that I constructed an ingenious trap. Two forked sticks were stuck in the ground while between them was suspended a jam tin. In the jam tin, as you may have guessed, was salt – a lot of salt. From this contraption stretched a length of string and the length of string ran under the dispensary. Under the jam tin, I should have mentioned, was a generous mound of bird seed. The tests were complete, the string was pulled, the tin tipped; so the salt was added and two small children lay for what seemed like hours in silence and great expectation hidden under the dispensary.
Then came the moment! The birds, probably mynahs but they may have been pigeons, arrived at last and in numbers. The string was pulled. The device worked. The birds, covered in salt, flew away. Our parents, who had watched all of this, later admitted to feeling just a little guilty but excused not telling us on the argument that it had given us so much fun. It did that. The birds were safe until I made my first shanghai, but that’s another story for another time.