Frank Gold’s family, Hungarian Jews, have fled the perils of World War II for the safety of Australia, but not long after their arrival, thirteen-year-old Frank is diagnosed with polio. He is sent to a sprawling children’s hospital called the Golden Age, where he meets Elsa, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen, a girl who radiates pure light.
Soon, Frank and Elsa fall in love, fueling one another’s rehabilitation, facing the perils of illness and adolescence hand in hand—and scandalizing the prudish staff of the Golden Age. Their parents, meanwhile, are coping with their own challenges. Elsa’s mother must reconcile her hopes and dreams with the reality of her daughter’s sickness. Frank’s parents are isolated newcomers in a country they do not love and that does not seem to love them back. Frank’s mother, a renowned pianist in Hungary, refuses to allow the western deserts of Australia to become her home. But her husband slowly begins to free himself from the past and integrate into a new society.
A winner of multiple literary awards in Australia, The Golden Age is a deeply moving novel about hardship and resilience that “graciously captures young love in a quiet and beautifully sculpted story that is easily devoured in one sitting” (Library Journal).
“Poetic intensity suffuses the novel . . . Resisting easy sentimentality, [it] presents polio rehabilitation as a metaphor for postwar recovery.” —The New Yorker
“Beautiful.” —The Dallas Morning News
“The Golden Age is pretty much perfect.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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One afternoon during rest-time, the new boy, Frank Gold, left his bed, lowered himself into his wheelchair and glided down the corridor. There was nobody around. It was early December, already hot, and Frank, veteran by now of hospital life, knew the nurses would be upstairs in front of their fan. The door to Sister Penny's office was closed: she'd be catching forty winks on her couch.
His first goal, as usual, was to set eyes on Elsa. He peered into Girls through the crack between the hinges of the half-open door. Elsa's bed was behind the door. He liked to see her face asleep. Even if her head was turned away into the pillow, the sight of her thick gold-brown plait somehow gave him hope. But this afternoon her bed was empty.
He rolled on, past the silent kitchen with its bare, scrubbed benches. Even the flies were sleeping. It was as if the whole place were under a spell. Only he had escaped ...
He'd been waiting for this moment. In his pocket was a cigarette and a little sheaf of matches, stolen from his mother during her last visit. She'd slipped off to have a word with Sister Penny, leaving her handbag on his bed. Later, he thought of her standing on the station platform in the twilight, delving for her matches, dying for a smoke. Visits upset Ida. She didn't come every week.
But the act of taking them was like reclaiming something. He was turning back into his old, sneaky self. He felt suddenly at ease, in charge again. Sneakiness was a form of privacy, and privacy here was the first loss. A resistance to the babyishness of this place, its pygmy toilets, its naps and rules, half-hospital, half-nursery school, and his feeling of demotion when he was sent here.
'We are so very glad to have you,' Sister Penny had said firmly when the ambulance delivered him. 'The younger children do look up to the older ones as examples.'
Frank searched her radiant face and knew there was nothing there for him to test. Everything had been resolved a long time ago.
He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home.
Now he was gliding down the ramp of the Covered Way, past the New Treatment Block, out to the clothes lines, hidden behind a wire trellis, the only place where he wouldn't be seen. The washing had been taken in, dried stiff by lunchtime. The ceaseless rumbling and throbbing of the Netting Factory across the road was louder out here. It was like entering the territory of a huge caged animal. Even the white glare cheered him. Ever since the fever of polio had subsided, light had seemed less bright to him, older, sadder.
Moments of solitude were rare and must be grasped with both hands. He put the cigarette into his mouth and struck and struck the row of flimsy matches, one after another. Sweat trickled into his eyes, his hands shook, he wanted, unreasonably, to curse Ida.
A man's shadow blocked out the glare. A huge pair of red hands was cupping a lick of flame. 'Light?' Norm Whitehouse growled. Frank inhaled, his head spun, his heart surged with love. He knew now why everyone loved Norm, the gardener, who just as silently ambled off. As if to say: a man has a right to a smoke in peace.
The next moment the cigarette was stubbed out on the post of the washing line and thrown across the fence. Frank thought he might be sick. Dizzy, blinded, he veered back down the dark corridor, heaved himself onto the bed. His body was not a normal boy's any more.
He wasn't a little kid either, smelling of soap, asleep like those around him. Yet after a while, as his heart slowed, a smile spread across his face. He could still hear the rumble of Norm's voice.
He may as well have said: 'Life?'
But where was Elsa?CHAPTER 2
The Golden Age
Because he was so small and undeveloped for his age, Frank Gold, though nearly thirteen, had been admitted as a patient at the Golden Age. It was agreed, unanimously, at the IDB (Infectious Diseases Branch of the Royal Perth Hospital) that it really wasn't suitable for him to stay amongst adult patients. Also, his parents were New Australians who both worked, and had no other family members to help with his care. He needed the nurturing atmosphere of the Golden Age, and supervision with schoolwork. Arrangements were made almost immediately, and he was delivered there by ambulance that same afternoon.
Elsa Briggs was twelve and a half, but her mother had a little baby and couldn't look after her at home. The other patients were younger, from all over the state: from Wiluna in the desert, from Broome up the coast, from Rawlinna, a siding on the Trans-Australia line. Nowhere, it seemed, was too remote for the polio virus to find you.
The Golden Age had been built as a pub at the turn of the century, in Leederville, five minutes' walk from the railway station, two stops out from the city centre. It stood alone, bounded by four flat roads, like an island, which in its present incarnation seemed to symbolise its apartness, a natural quarantine. Three of the roads were lined with modest suburban houses, each one drawn back behind a stretch of dry lawn, a porch and front windows sealed by venetian blinds. Along the fourth road the two-storey WA Wire Netting Factory pounded and throbbed twenty-four hours a day. Some considered that this wasn't a suitable location for a hospital. But the children found the noise soothing and loved the lights shining all night through their windows.
The pub had been bought by the Health Department in 1949 and converted into the Golden Age Children's Polio Convalescent Home, to service the years of the great epidemics. Inside, with its ramps and bars and walkways, its schoolteacher, trained nurses and full-time physiotherapist, it was a modern treatment centre, which could accommodate up to fourteen children, some from the country, some who could not be cared for at home.
Outside, rearing up above the dusty, treeless crossroads, it still looked like a country pub. Brick, two-storey, the wide upstairs balcony shaded the verandah beneath. It had thick walls for coolness, long alcoved windows, a sheltering iron roof like a hat pulled down low. Wheelchairs rolled easily along the wide, shadowy passageways, over the old polished jarrah boards. The very plainness and familiarity of its exterior seemed to proclaim its function, to give fair shelter and homely comfort. A watering hole.
The name, inherited, could be considered tactless by some, even cruelly ironic. These children were impaired as no one could ever wish a child to be. But perhaps because of its former role, its solid and generous air, it was a cheerful place. The children were no longer sick, but in need of help to find their way back into the world.
The staff and parents were well pleased with the Golden Age. Its rooms were spacious, cool and high-ceilinged. The children were surrounded by faces shining with hope and encouragement. Even Ida Gold (known as Princess Ida to the staff), though never slow to find fault, had to admit that she was grateful for the haven it provided.
The children enjoyed the benevolence of the attention. Here, they were not a worry or a burden to make their mothers sigh with weariness. They felt different — exclusive, like a family — from the day kids, who lived at home and arrived by ambulance for schoolwork and therapy. All through the morning, children came and went between the schoolroom and the New Treatment Centre.
As for Frank, he was a new boy again, working out how to be himself. He was desperate to be normal. Finding his feet, this time, meant learning how to walk. He resolved to behave well because he didn't want another expulsion.
Also, in bed at night, and sometimes in the day when it was quiet, he could hear the distant whistle and hooting of the trains pulling in and out of the Leederville station, which always reassured him.
Above all, he didn't want to leave Elsa.
A line ran through his head, which might be the start of a poem.
Your bed was empty today when I looked for you. Why?
Polio had taken his legs, but given him his vocation: poet.CHAPTER 3
Elsa was with Rayma Colley in the Babies Room. The thin wail had wafted across the corridor in the afternoon stillness and seeped into Elsa's head. Finally she'd left her bed and wheeled her way to Rayma's cot.
'Stop that,' she whispered to Rayma, peering through the bars of the cot. Her tone was ?rm. Elsa was not sentimental about babies. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't had a younger sister to look after. The first thing to do was to stop the crying. She put a finger in her own mouth, puffed her cheeks and pulled the finger out with a pop. Rayma paused, mid-wail. Her little dark face was wet, her eyes swollen.
You had to make them think of something else.
'Come on,' Elsa said. She lowered the bars at the side of the cot, reached across and undid Rayma's splints. By leaning onto the mattress for support, she was able to drag the little girl to her and pull her onto her lap. Hiccups juddered the tiny body.
Tucking her chin over Rayma's shoulder to hold her, Elsa rolled over to the window. She lifted one of the long white curtains and pulled it around the wheelchair so that she and Rayma were screened off from the rest of the room. All their world now was the view, shaded by the verandah, the slice of empty road and the houses along it, a scene as remote to them as the other side of the world.
'Look,' she instructed Rayma, pointing upwards. The afternoon whiteness had taken on a steely cast, a thin, ragged cloud flitted across their view. The sea breeze must be in. During the long days in hospital, the sky passing across the high window in the Isolation Ward had become Elsa's backyard, her freedom, her picture show. Watched, the sky slowed itself to a silent, endless semaphore of shapes and colours, as if it were signalling a message. She was amazed at how she had neglected it in all her years free to roam, with the sun on her face, the wind past her ears.
'Your mother looks at the sky and she thinks of you,' she said to Rayma. She spoke firy, looking into Rayma's big, frightened eyes. For of course it was her mother whom Rayma cried for. It always was. In the Isolation Ward, Elsa had listened all day for her mother's cloppity footsteps down the corridor, hurrying in her old orthopaedic shoes to find her, waving to her through the glass panel, smiling, trying not to look sad.
And because the sky had become so important, the two — mother and sky — grew to be entwined in Elsa's thoughts. When she looked at the sky she thought of her mother, and it seemed to be telling her that some feelings would never change and never die. If her mother didn't come, the sky also told her that each person was alone and the world went on, no matter what was happening to you.
When at last she'd left the Isolation Ward and her parents were allowed to sit by her bed, they looked smaller to her, aged by the terror they had suffered, old, shrunken, ill-at-ease.
Something had happened to her which she didn't yet understand. As if she'd gone away and come back distant from everybody.
Rayma had to learn to be alone. Without your mother, you had to think.
It was like letting go of a hand, jumping off the high board, walking by yourself to school. Once you'd done it, you were never afraid of it again.
All the kids could identify their mothers' footsteps. They all longed for their mothers, except Frank Gold, who said he'd rather his father came.
Sometimes even now in the Golden Age, after her mother visited, Elsa had the funny feeling that there was another mother waiting for her, blurred, gentle, beautiful as an angel, with an angel's perfect understanding.CHAPTER 4
Black cockatoos flew over the stout brick chimneys of the Golden Age as the children ate their dinners — macaroni cheese — on trays, in their beds. They heard their cries and looked towards the windows but could not see the large black birds swirling and dispersing over the Netting Factory and across the railway line. Bathed and combed, the children were content to eat in silence. Whether they came from the suburbs or the country, they knew the sound as homely, comforting, a good omen, predicting rain.
The Golds heard them as they passed over the roof of their house in North Perth, two stops by train from the Golden Age and a mile's walk up Fitzgerald Street. Meyer was in his tiny front yard, smoking and watering his vegetable patch. The cockatoos were heading for the park opposite and the nuts in the pine trees. They sounded like a hundred little wheels that needed oiling, Meyer thought.
At the kitchen table, Ida, also smoking, thought the cries were melancholy, harsh, echoing into emptiness, an Australian sound.
She and Meyer had wanted to go to America. They waited for months in Vienna to hear from a cousin of Meyer's father who'd migrated to New York in his youth. Finally, at the end of '46, a sponsorship was offered from Western Australia. In Vienna they were living in a dormitory with only a curtain between them and ?fty other people. Some had been there for years. So they accepted. When at last they landed in Fremantle, Ida wanted to get straight back onto the ship.
Every day, Ida found something that proved their voyage had been illfated. If she missed a bus, it was because they should never have come here. Once, after a visit to see Frank, they'd sat at the kitchen table drinking brandy. Ida talked of the old days, when she used to catch the train and bribe the commandant of the work camp to give Meyer a food parcel. One day in a street in Buda, dressed like an old peasant woman with a scarf across her face, holding Frank by the hand, she had come across Meyer's brother, Gyuri, a butcher, who was carving up the carcass of a frozen horse surrounded by a silent waiting crowd. He told her he'd had word that Meyer was alive.
But here they were, in a free, democratic country, and they were gutted, feeble, shell-shocked. Frank had been a resilient little fellow, he'd survived cellars, ceilings, bombing, near starvation. Then they came here.
'Ida,' Meyer said. 'Polio is in every country in the world.'
'Play the piano,' he said. She didn't answer. The reason they'd rented this little half-house was the piano in the dining room. They'd paid for the piano tuner themselves. But ever since Frank fell sick, Ida hadn't touched it.
'Why, Ida?' Meyer asked. He never dreamt how much he'd miss the driven sound of Ida's scales, daily, over and over, a morning carillon.
She shook her head.
He knew the reason. Once, before they were engaged, flushed and heightened after her final, stunning performance at the Academy, she'd admitted to him shyly that although she was anti-religion, she sometimes believed that her gift, in its insistence, its surprisingness, came from God. Playing was a sort of conversation, she said, embarrassed.
It was what was most mysterious about her, most alluring, and, in her daily struggle to be equal to it, most endearing.
Now she was a bird who refused to sing.
'Go to bed,' he said. 'You are tired.'
But she shook her head. If she was tired, the dreams were worse. She poured herself another glass of brandy.CHAPTER 5
Frank was very happy with his vocation. He'd always sensed that he had one, but he hadn't known what it was. It wasn't music, though Ida's dream had been to produce a prodigy. He hadn't inherited Meyer's hand-eye co-ordination either.
But there'd always been something that accompanied him, ever since he could remember. A secret longing. He'd felt it as a lack more than anything else.
Now that he knew he was a poet, he felt stronger. His future had been restored to him. He felt adult, solid, the equal of anyone on earth. He could overcome any hardship because he had a vocation.
Though, like his past in Hungary, it was something he didn't talk about.
There was one reliable gap in the Golden Age routine, between dinner and lights out, into which Frank could disappear. After the trays were taken, before the splints were put on, for twenty minutes or so the patients were left to themselves. Sometimes the boys read — much-handled Spider-Man comics, Enid Blyton, Biggles, Treasure Island — sometimes they fooled about with spitball fights. Recently Malcolm Poole had been taking himself over to Warren Barrett's bed — they had a craze for Monopoly. Lewis took out his stamp collection.
It was late twilight. Sounds of laughter drifted down the stairs from the staff quarters, where the nurses were eating their dinner. Soon, in a bright swarm they would descend on the children and leave them splinted, smoothed, kissed, the curtains drawn against the dark.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Golden Age"
Copyright © 2014 Joan London.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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