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“Hello, my name’s Judith Martinez and I’m reading from my manuscript, The Plague Diaries.
‘The Bubonic plague had devastating results in many ports around the world,’ announced Miss Bones, ‘but there were just 103 deaths in Sydney, three of those in The Rocks.’
She’d captured my attention. I looked at the whiteboard and saw PLAGUE underlined three times. I wasn’t alone – heads popped up like curious meerkats.
‘How is it,’ she asked, ‘that while thousands were dying in Hong-Kong and India, we had so few casualties?’
She had us in her grasp, something rare in Australian History class at William Dawes High.
‘Bubonic plague is a killer. A disease that takes no prisoners. It is carried by contaminated fleas. Fleas that live on rats.’ She had a full house, eighteen sets of eyes fixed upon her.
‘In the early 20th century Sydney was surrounded by ships. Ships that had, as non-paying passengers, a large number of rats. So,’ she continued, ‘how did we get away with it? The Rocks, just around the corner from this very school, was filthy. Turn to page 88 and you will see how people lived.’
Eighteen textbooks opened, sounding like a flock of birds taking flight. We buried our noses in the black and white photographs from the early 1900s. Children in laneways, some without shoes, wearing white smocks and flat caps. Houses, barely standing, with outdoor toilets and rickety fences. A group of men, professional rat catchers in bowler hats and suits, held bunches of dead rats, hooked like fish, as if they were the catch of the day.
‘Stella,’ Miss Bones said to me, ‘please read from the top of page 89.’
‘George McCready was employed by the government to cleanse the city of plague. He and his team swept through Sydney like a broom. Fumigating, disinfecting, lime-washing houses and streets. The Rocks was a slum, the harbour used as a dumping ground.’
‘Class, ‘ Miss Bones said. ‘Look at the Sydney Harbour Trust’s 1902 report.’ She held up her book and started reading.
‘During the cleansing of Sydney Harbour, the following has been retrieved: 2524 rats, 1068 cats, 283 bags of meat, 23 sheep, 14 pigs, 9 goats, 3 kangaroos, 162 rabbits, 3 flying foxes, and the remains of one man. Unidentified.’
A dozen hands shot up.
Miss Bones smiled. ‘His identity was never discovered. To this day, it remains a mystery that has baffled historians, archaeologists and government officials.’
The bell rang. Class was over.”
ABOUT JUDY MARTINEZ:
Judy is a Blue Mountains based graphic designer and artist. She has designed poetry book covers for Five Island Press and Profile Poetry, as well as audio poetry CDs for River Road Press.
The Plague Diaries is a young adult manuscript challenging the historical events that took place in The Rocks during the early 1900s. The mystery is uncovered by Stella Smiley, a fifteen year old student at William Dawes’ High.
“I attend events and community days at Varuna, and at the Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival (Blue Mountains). Several of the poetry books that I have designed have been launched there, or contain poems written while the poets were in residence.” Judith Martinez
Judy’s artworks can be viewed at:
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