• Carmen Radtke

Solitude in Paradise - the inspiration behind 'Walking in the Shadow'

On a calm day, Quail Island is captivating. Lush and verdant, hilly but not dauntingly so, surrounded by clear water with the sunlight glittering like diamonds on every ripple.

Today the 81-hectare island is a nature reserve and a popular day-trip from Lyttelton Harbour in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s perfect for a hike with children. But it also has a less beautiful history...

The quails it was named for by Captain Mein Smith in 1842 were native korekere. Thirty-three years later, there were none left. By then, the island had become a quarantine station after the first farmers, the Ward brothers, had given up after two of them had drowned. Prisoners were ferried over to work in the quarry above Walkers’ Beach. The rocks were used to build walls and terraces along the foreshore.

In 1907, Quail Island became home to New Zealand’s only lepers’ colony. A replica hut for patients, and a graveyard where the only leper who died on the island is buried, made a lasting impression on me on my first visit to the island. The very notion that I sat in the sunshine, having a picnic in a place where a century ago patients had endured being cut off from the rest of the world forever, kept me awake at night.

I’d been quarantined myself as a teenager, with a diagnosis in salmonella. I’d suffered six weeks with only a few minutes of company every day, when the nurses or doctors made their rounds. Visitors had to stay outside and peer through a window. Six weeks with barely a word. I had a small portable tv in my room. Arguing with newscasters or actors kept me sane. The idea of being marooned so close to the mainland, with boats that could have taken them across, must have been agony.

Then I read about Jimmy Kokere, who would become my protagonist in 'Walking in the Shadow'. Not only was he cured – a miracle in an age before antibiotics, doubly so because nobody really understood completely how the bacteria causing leprosy spread. But Jimmy had also returned to Quail Island, to care for his old, half-blind friend Will Vallane.

I did not want these men and their quiet bravery to be forgotten. It is brave to shut yourself away, and to accept endless isolation. I marvel even more, now the world is struggling with social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have phones, video calls and endless distractions. Their solitude was only interrupted by visits from their physician, Dr. Charles Upham, and from a church group. They received a gramophone and books, but how many hours every day were spent without hearing another voice?

Although most of what I’ve written is fictional and I’ve stretched the timeline a little, surrounding events like the International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906, the diphtheria outbreak in the Lyttelton orphanage and the fire that destroyed the original building are all real. And the resilience is real, the quiet spirit of muddling through, and of helping each other. That in itself is worth remembering.

Between The Pages' first release, 'Walking in the Shadow', is available now in ebook and paperback HERE

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