ELISE EDMONDS: On Monday 6th January, 1919, a letter from R. McAnderson of Bundanoon was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
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R. McANDERSON: “Sir, probably because nerves are somewhat frayed after four years of war, we are apt to lose our sense of proportion so that inconveniences loom large and benefits are accepted as a matter of course. For that reason, it is seemly to draw attention to the splendid service performed by our health authorities in saving Australia from the ravages of influenza. Correspondence from stricken countries tell terrifying tales and as a modest estimate Australia’s death roll, had influenza obtained a footing here, would’ve been 30,000 people.”
ELISE: Three weeks later, a suspicious illness is reported in the suburbs of Sydney. After being successfully kept at bay for over three months, the deadly Spanish influenza had broken out of quarantine and would upend Australia for the better part of the year. As we decide to make this podcast and begin our research, Australia is two weeks into government orders to limit gatherings and self-isolate as the world grapples with its latest pandemic, COVID-19. The first fines for order violations have been issued. Community testing is being rolled out. Boris Johnson has been admitted to intensive care. Italy and Spain’s death rates are finally dropping, while the state of New York is preparing to dig temporary mass graves. As politicians and commentators have been sure to point out, this is a 100-year event and we just happen to be here at this moment in time to experience it and we’ll be feeling its consequences for many years to come. But while we look forward to hugging our loved ones, sitting in a café or even having a job again, while many are feeling shaken and perhaps a bit scared about what’s to come, could looking back help us find a way forward?
I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of New South Wales. While COVID-19 shakes our present, we’ll be raking through the library’s archives to bring you
The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems.
ELISE: I think if we peel off here to the right we can go down the funicular stairway.
It’s the 26th March, 2020, the day after Stage 2 of the COVID-19 gatherings order has come into place and my producer Sabrina and I are walking through the sprawling grounds of Sydney’s historic North Head Quarantine Station.
It’s actually a really steep place, isn’t it? It’s built basically on the side of a hill. Just behind the grand entrance to Sydney Harbour, we can see a Manly ferry slowly heading towards the city and then we can see the CBD in the distance. We’re going to have to walk all the way back up this, I think.
For 150 years, this place played a crucial role in protecting Australia from infectious disease. If you were unlucky enough to have boarded a ship where sickness broke out, this is where the long and arduous journey to Sydney was brought to a halt, a tantalisingly few kilometres short of the settlement. Here at Spring Cove, on the lands of the Guringai people, amongst the sandstone cliffs and eucalypt scrub, you would wait for a clean bill of health or to be laid to rest with a headstone looking out across the Tasman Sea.
Yeah, so we’ve walked down these steep stairs down to the main building, which is now a restaurant. We’re right down at the beach, at Quarantine Beach, so you can hear probably the waves lapping on the sand. So it’s a really beautiful space. This was people’s introduction to Sydney, introduction to Australia. Of course, we’re looking out now over the suburbs of Manly and Balgowlah and lots of lovely sailing ships but, you know, certainly 19th century, early 20th century, there was not a lot to look out on except bushland. And along the side of this road is typical Sydney sandstone and basically this is where so many crew members have carved the details of their ship and the names of some of the crew members who were quarantined here over the life of this place as a quarantine station. This is just one section where there’s a lot of the carvings.
SABRINA: RMS Makura.
ELISE: Makura. May, 1923.
SABRINA: 1879. SS… What does that one say?
SABRINA: Maybe some of the letterings missing. The Batavia, down the bottom there.
SABRINA: With a little Japanese flag there.
ELISE: Yeah! Captain Blackmore, 1922. And there’s the SS Shelley, 1922, with a lovely little green star in the middle there. Yeah, some of them have completely worn away, really.
There are over 1,500 of these engravings, scraped into exposed rock across the grounds. They date back to the very first passengers who were dropped at this cove in 1835, when it was just a clearing in the bush. But going back to the earliest days of the colony, it wasn’t at first apparent that a place like this was necessary.
DR PETER HOBBINS; Voyagers from Europe to the Australian colonies would often take up to six months and during that long sailing voyage, it was plenty of time for any infectious diseases on board to appear and to be treated and isolated.
ELISE: This is historian Peter Hobbins, Honorary Associate of the Department of History at the University of Sydney and co-author of Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine, Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past.
DR PETER HOBBINS: It didn’t mean that they died out by the time the ships arrived in Sydney Harbour but usually it meant that when a ship did arrive, if there was an infectious disease on board, it was well known to the captain and if possible, if there was a doctor on board, they would know about it as well. There was a surprising absence of sickness on a lot of convict voyages to Australia in the first decades of white settlement here. I mean, there weren’t actually that many voyages, for a start. The numbers of Europeans in NSW was under 10,000 for the first few decades. So initially there was no formal quarantine system in the Australian colonies.
ELISE: Without a quarantine system to isolate the sick, the First Nations population didn’t stand a chance. It’s thought that at least 70% of Aboriginal people in the Sydney area died of smallpox when it broke out in 1789. According to accounts written by naval officer Newton Fowell, their bodies were found lying on beaches and in the caverns of rocks with the remains of a small fire on each side of them and some water left within their reach. It would be over a decade later that the need for a formal system of quarantine was recognised.
DR PETER HOBBINS: In 1814, three convict ships arrived in Sydney Harbour that were very sick indeed. There was a very high mortality or death rate amongst the convicts on those three ships and that was alarming, partly because of the risk of bringing the disease onshore but it was also still really because they were a labour force, you know, the convicts, of course, were being sent to NSW as punishment and to free up British gaols but they were also being sent here as basically indentured labour to help build this new colony, and so to lose that many workers and to run the risk of infecting more of the workers and seeing them die or seeing them unproductive was the major cause for alarm at the time. There were still not that many free settlers in Sydney so it wasn’t so much concern about the disease spreading from the unworthy to the worthy but rather about the hindrance of productivity that would come about.
ELISE: It was an ex-convict, William Redfern, now one of the colony’s primary surgeons, who was tasked with figuring out how Sydney could protect itself from introduced disease, and set about making some changes.
DR PETER HOBBINS: So in 1815, a whole new series of systems came into play, including basically detaining arriving ships that might have disease onboard in Sydney Harbour. Now, that system applied to convict vessels but not to immigrant ships so free citizens arriving in the colony weren’t subject to any of that officially, but gradually that system was adopted, particularly in the 1830s, by most immigrant ships coming to the colony as well. That system worked to a point but diseases were still coming in to the colony so, for instance, in 1828, whooping cough arrived in the colony and actually killed the Governor’s son, amongst other people, so that rather drove home the importance of protecting the colony against these infectious diseases but also showed that nobody was immune. Even the higher classes, those in positions of privilege and relative cleanliness, were not immune from the spread of these infectious diseases. So in 1832, it was decided to set aside an area at North Head, which is one of the Heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, should be set aside as a place of quarantine, a quarantine ground. And several ships were moored off the coast in the next few years, if they came with disease onboard, but in 1835, the very first passengers came ashore.
JOHN DAWSON: “Thursday, September 3rd. Came in sight of the Heads this morning at 7 o’clock. At 2 o’clock, a sailor came off but not come on board. He went before in his boat and piloted the vessel through the Heads and ordered us to hoist the quarantine flag till further orders.”
ELISE: These are the words of 16-year-old John Dawson, documenting his arrival in Sydney Harbour on the 3rd September, 1835. John and his family were aboard the Canton, an immigrant ship carrying predominantly free female passengers, part of a scheme devised by the London Emigration Committee to balance the ratio of males to females in the colony. Four of John’s sisters were among the many females aboard. Every day of the five-month voyage, John wrote in his journal, a document that survives today in the State Library’s collection. About two months into the voyage, John reports that a case of smallpox has been discovered among the passengers. For the rest of the journey, alongside notes about the weather, the varying quality of the food, sightings of sea life, of various accidents and punishments aboard, are updates about the spread of the disease.
JOHN DAWSON: “Thursday, July 30th. A fine day but quite calm. I’m sorry to state that another child named Davies, aged about four years, died of the smallpox this afternoon at 2 o’clock. The beds were ordered on deck this afternoon and the bunks sprinkled with chloride of lime. Had pudding, pea soup and beef for dinner today.”
ELISE: When the Canton arrives in Sydney Harbour, the ship is stopped from coming any further and ordered to raise their yellow quarantine flag.
JOHN DAWSON: “Saturday, September 5th. A very hot day. Orders from His Excellency the Governor came on board, giving the Captain directions that we were to be landed in Spring Cove on Monday.”
ELISE: And with that order, John Dawson became one of the first occupants of the North Head Quarantine Station. John’s final entry, made on his first full day on Australian soil, is a poignant reminder of the premature endings and new beginnings that so often punctuated life at that time.
JOHN DAWSON: “Tuesday, September 8th. A beautiful day and very warm. A child of the name of Hargraves died some time last night of the smallpox and buried ashore today. A woman of the name of Davies delivered of a daughter about the time the other died.”
ELISE: Through days of torrential rain and hailstorms, the Dawson family and their fellow passengers were kept at North Head. During their 33 days of quarantine, John sets a precedent for future residents by carving a simple message into the sandstone, one which survives to this day.
JOHN DAWSON: “J. Dawson. Landed here to perform quarantine.”
DR PETER HOBBINS: There are plenty of accounts of people sailing to NSW who arrived healthy and loved it. They’d been aboard this ship for months on end, having salt meat, biscuits infested with vermin, water that was brackish if not actually green and, you know, the same people for company day after day after day. And suddenly they appear in Sydney Harbour, come ashore into this beautiful bushland, it’s no longer smelly, there are healthy breezes blowing, there are animals and birds around, there are oysters that they can pick off the rocks, they can go fishing. Even though it’s a quarantine station, little boats were coming out from the harbour, trying to sell the new arrivals fruit and bread. So you actually read a lot of accounts of new arrivals saying that this is a wonderful place and they were delighted. That first quarantine in 1835 basically involved putting them up in tents but gradually from the late 1830s, as the number of immigrant ships increased and as the number of infectious diseases arriving on those ships increased, permanent facilities started to be built so that by the turn of the 20th century, the quarantine station at North Head was actually a very large facility with upwards of 30 buildings dedicated to different classes of passenger, different races of passenger, their laundry needs, their servants’ needs, their leisure needs, so it actually became a huge township, you could almost call it. But it often sat vacant for long periods of time until one or more ships arrived when people were sick on board.
ELISE: Over the life of its operation, the quarantine station served as a temporary home to thousands of people. 600 never made it past the gates and were buried on the grounds. Ship after ship arrived, bringing whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, smallpox, typhoid fever, typhus fever. Then in 1918, pneumonic influenza, better known as the Spanish flu.
ELISE: Look at this one. So this is a carved piece that’s in the shape of a flag, a maritime flag and it’s RMS Niagara and it says, “Influenza, October 1918.” So this was the first boat, the Niagara, that was coming through from New Zealand and there was influenza on board that ship. They knew it at the time and so it didn’t spread at that point so the quarantine station did its job.
ELISE: The Niagara arrived on the 25th October, 1918. In that same month, Australian troops fought in the final offensives of the war. But in a cruel twist of history, though the battles were over, death still loomed.
DR PETER HOBBINS: It’s easy to forget that about 2,500 Australians died overseas before the disease ever reached Australia and they were soldiers serving with the Australian Imperial Force in Western Europe and in the Middle East and also the nurses who were caring for them as well. And that was a significant number of deaths out of the 62,500 who died throughout the course of the war.
ELISE: The First World War is often spoken of without any mention of the Spanish flu but it’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Spanish flu without also talking about the First World War. The two go hand in historical hand, each influencing the outcome of the other. Around 20 million people died as a result of the Great War. The nature of the fighting and the living conditions were brutal. On the frontlines of Europe, rival forces dug themselves into trenches on opposite sides of battlefields, strung end to end with barbed wire. Through beating sun, drenching rain and icy winters, they would wait for the order to attack.
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ELISE: When it came, soldiers would drag themselves and their guns over the top, only to face a wall of machine-gun fire and heavy artillery. Their bodies then would lie in the middle of the field, no-man’s-land, for weeks, unclaimable in the deafening stream of bullets and shells. For four long years, it flattened cities and towns, created famine and left Europe in a debt spiral. It’s difficult to comprehend that while humanity was already suffering this nightmare of its own creation, nature was about to unleash additional devastation to the scene. The barracks and trenches were fertile ground for sickness and disease: cramped quarters, poor diet, stress, little hygiene. Built as protection, the trenches instead became what many historians have called hell on earth – muddy, filthy and infested with rats and lice. And when pneumonic influenza appeared, it ripped through the frontlines with as much force as the machine guns that sat atop their battlements. In fact, there are some epidemiologists who argue that it was the conditions in the trenches that allowed the virus to evolve from the first more benign wave that arrived in the European spring into the far deadlier strain that emerged later that year. It was undoubtedly the movement of troops all around the world that ensured its status as the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing up to 100 million people. Press censorship, intended to protect Allied information from the enemy, also stifled swift and accurate reporting of the spread and severity of the illness. Spain, as a neutral territory, had no such restrictions so it was the first country to report on the appearance of the illness, giving the mistaken impression that it was not only the birthplace of the sickness but that it alone was suffering cases. Like the rest of the non-military world, the Australian public first learnt of the flu via reports from Spain.
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NEWSPAPER REPORT: "Wednesday 29th May, 1918. A Madrid message states that a mysterious epidemic is spreading over the country in an alarming manner. 40% of the population have been stricken. The railways, tramways, factories, newspapers, schools and theatres have been seriously disorganised owing to the depletion of the staffs, and many have had to be closed. The King and several of the ministers are ill.”
ELISE: Within a few short weeks of what could now be looked back on as a global public health warning, Spain was forever branded, becoming the namesake of a virus whose origins, even to this day, are uncertain. By the time this report was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in late May, the influenza had already been spreading through the Allied Forces in France for almost two months. American troops were among the hardest hit. In fact, many US training camps reported outbreaks of a flu-like illness in March, leading some researchers to conclude that this was the first wave of the pandemic which then travelled with US troops into France. Throughout 1918, as the virus worsened and continued its spread, 30,000 American soldiers would die before they ever reached the battleground. Ultimately the pandemic would kill more US military personnel than the war itself. Whatever its origins, it spread incredibly quickly. By June, its effects were being felt in England.
NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 26th June, 1918. Spanish influenza is spreading in London. It is extremely contagious and immediate isolation for five days is essential, directly the lassitude, aching limbs, headache and higher temperature commence. Huts are being erected in some districts where the hospitals are crowded.”
ELISE: Of course, it wasn’t just civilian hospitals that were brought under pressure by the arrival of pneumonic influenza but military facilities too. All along the Western Front, transport trains and field hospitals were overflowing, influenza patients far outnumbering the war wounded. Soldiers brought from the frontlines to England were treated in temporary hospitals which took over various buildings, including schools, the Brighton Pavilion and in the case of the number one Australian Auxiliary Hospital, the stately home Harefield House in Middlesex, just outside of London.
SISTER ANNE DONNELL: “Influenza, or as the boys say, “the dog’s disease” has arrived and is still raging here. Half the staff and patients must be laid low with it. Matron says to do the most important work, give the treatment and keep the place as tidy as we can. Several sisters on duty are feeling sickly but are still sticking it.”
ELISE: This incredible first-hand account was written by Sister Anne Donnell in her diary in June 1918, while serving as a nurse in Harefield House. We have this record thanks to the efforts of principal librarian Willian Ifould and Mitchell librarian Hugh Wright, who decided that the State Library should collect the diaries of Australian servicemen and women as they returned from war.
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ELISE: (IN LIBRARY): There’s seven levels underground in the library so we’re the second to bottom stack area, so here we’ve got a huge bay upon bay of bound manuscripts, so that’s like journals and log books and diaries.
ELISE: (NARRATES) It was around ten years ago that I first started spending a lot of time with this collection. Many of the diaries weren’t recorded in our online catalogue so my first project was to come down here to the stack, work through the shelves and determine how many diaries we had before delving into their individual stories.
(IN LIBRARY) So we have around 236 diary collections that were acquired, recognising that these voices, these accounts, were going to be of great significance to future generations of Australians.
OK, here’s this box. We’ll just bring them out to a flat area so we can spread material out.
(NARRATES) Among the sea of soldiers’ diaries acquired straight after the war, Anne Donnell’s was the only account written by a female while on active service.
(IN LIBRARY) It’s a very small little diary that you can support in the palm of your hand. She’s just writing quickly, as you would in a library.
(NARRATES) Anne was a 39-year-old nurse living in Adelaide when she enlisted in 1915 and was first sent to Egypt, then to treat the Gallipoli wounded on the Greek island of Lemnos. She’s then moved to Europe where she spends 1916 and ’17 serving at various hospitals, before ending up at a casualty clearing station in France, not far from the frontlines.
(IN LIBRARY) So by the time that she’s celebrating New Year 1918, she’s pretty down and she’s pretty depressed and she’s talking about how she can’t sleep and the incessant bombing and the noise and that some of the hospital staff were celebrating the new year but she couldn’t and she didn’t feel up to celebrating and she just sat and was very homesick and she said she just cried and the exhaustion, I think, has hit her by 1918. And so ultimately she’s moved back to England by the middle of 1918 and it’s actually there that we start to hear about Anne’s experiences with this influenza.
ANNE DONNELL: "June 23, Sunday. This morning I missed Sister Dickinson’s tired face at breakfast and on making enquiries, someone said she was very ill through the night. Then later it was whispered that Sister had pneumonia.”
ELISE: Even after having seen three years of war, some of Anne’s saddest entries detail her fellow nurses ending up as patients in their own hospital.
ANNE DONNELL: “Poor little Sister. She passed peacefully on at 4.30 am with her friend beside her. She really had died at her post for she was on duty the day before. It is one of the saddest things that has happened yet, to think that she was in the midst of professional help and yet so far. We’re so pleased that she is to be buried in the ANZAC corner with the boys here. It is such a peaceful spot by the side of the church.”
ELISE: The day after Anne writes of Sister Dickinson’s burial, Archie Barwick, a 27-year-old soldier from Tasmania, arrives at Harefield House and is put to bed feeling about the worst…
ARCHIE BARWICK: “..about the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. Didn’t care what happened.”
ELISE: Archie’s diaries were also acquired by the library around the same time as Anne’s and it’s interesting to think that for the few days he spent at Harefield House, it’s likely that she was one of the nurses who cared for him.
ARCHIE BARWICK: “27th June. I passed another wretched night. No sleep, heavy sweats, bones aching, head splitting and as weak as a kitten, a pretty state of affairs, and my chest and throat are red raw. Plenty of blood comes up. They say I have this dog’s disease in a very bad form and I believe them. This epidemic is raging throughout England and it attacks anyone. It knocks you out in a few minutes, it’s that sudden. I have eaten nothing all day, only lay and squirmed in my bed with the intense heat and they don’t seem to worry their heads in the slightest over anyone. And as for tucker, well, don’t mention it. Nothing but salty kippers and rabbits. It makes me sick to look at them. It’s a regular starvation hole for a sick man. A big batch of men left here for Australia last night. Nearly all had lost limbs or something.”
ELISE: Archie, having already survived the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Belgium, makes a recovery and is released in the first week of July. Anne remains at the hospital but doesn’t write of influenza again until October.
ANNE DONNELL: “My poor old diary. With the best of intentions I haven’t made an entry for ages but really I don’t ever remember fighting so against time. For a fortnight we have had very sick influenza patients in. It’s a terrible flu, the worst I’ve come in contact with. It starts with an ordinary cold and then almost without warning an acute pneumonia sets in which makes it hard to combat. We lost one of the dearest boys that way and so suddenly, Sergeant Bradford from Murray Bridge.”
ELISE: While Anne continues to lose patients to influenza at Harefield, Archie, now living in a military camp in the south of England, waits for a transport ship home. Though fully recovered, he finds himself still affected by the flu.
ARCHIE BARWICK: “The boat that loaded up the other day has gone and we’re left on our own and heaven only knows how long they’re going to keep us. We were to have gone some days ago but for the outbreak of flu. They then decided to put fewer men on each boat so that’s how we came to be stranded. Everyone is fed right up to the neck. If they would only tell us how long we’re here for and let us make our plans accordingly it wouldn’t be so bad. But as it is, now we don’t know what to do. There’s practically nothing to do here. Ah, she’s some camp.”
ELISE: The same day, Archie complains of the flu holding up his trip home the SS Niagara steams into Sydney Harbour. Its passengers and crew are disembarked at the quarantine station while the ship is taken for disinfection and its cargo of mail is fumigated. By this time, Australian papers were publishing regular articles charting influenza’s spread as it raced around the world, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, America. As the final days of the war played out, England and Wales continued to be overrun. Just days before Germany’s official surrender, 7,417 influenza deaths are reported across the two countries in a single week.
DR PETER HOBBINS: We had multiple warnings about this before it ever came near our shores. There were the Australian medical authorities who were part of the Australian Imperial Force serving overseas who could report back on what cases looked like, how this disease was developing, how it was moving through the troops and then into the civilian populations as well. We certainly needed to make sure that troop ships didn’t bring it back to the country. We then also had Government health correspondence coming through from England and the Middle East and from the United States and New Zealand, where the health authorities in those countries were sending urgent messages to Australian health authorities saying, “Be prepared, because once this gets into the community, you can’t control it. It’s so overwhelming, it’s so infectious and it debilitates so many people so quickly that you won’t be able to keep up, so do whatever you can now to be prepared.” And, of course, they also saw any press reports as well, which were raising alarms, particularly after the war ended and censorship started to relax at the end of 1918.
ANNE DONNELL: “November 11, Monday. The armistice is signed. The guns went off at midday. There’s a certain amount of quiet excitement with most of us. The Sisters who went to London said there was great rejoicing, everything packed and people shouting. A band was playing down Oxford Street.”
DR PETER HOBBINS: Victory celebrations of the armistice in Europe, England and in the United States were famous, infamous, for accelerating the spread of pneumonic influenza in the community.
ARCHIE BARWICK: “Everyone is kissing in the streets and no-one seems ashamed of it! Procession after procession goes by, singing and waving flags. This beautiful and historic place is crammed with people all laughing and shouting.
DR PETER HOBBINS: And, of course, this came at the end of a very long and very harrowing war and people were desperate to celebrate as well, so certainly in England, by November 1918, the pandemic was in full swing, it was at its most infectious but also its most deadly as well and in places like San Francisco, in the United States, victory celebrations and parades were definitely associated with a major acceleration in cases because so many people came together and mingled and yelled and cheered and breathed all over each other at exactly the moment they shouldn’t have been doing it. Australians almost alone amongst the countries that had fought during the First World War could celebrate the armistice in November 1918 without fear of picking up the influenza because it hadn’t made it ashore in Australia at that time.
ELISE: Australia did celebrate the end of the war. It seems the whole country came out onto the streets, cheering and waving flags. But while brass bands marched up and down towns and cities all over the nation, four influenza patients quarantined at North Head died and several new cases broke out. As the ships kept coming, Australia was on its guard now quarantining passengers at most major ports. But how could the country prepare for what many said would be an inevitable outbreak?
DR PETER HOBBINS: The problem is how do you deal with preventing a disease when you don’t know what actually causes it?
ELISE: And when it finally happens, who is to blame? That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks to the wonderful Peter Hobbins for sharing so much of his knowledge with us. And thanks to you for listening. Please take a moment to rate and review. It helps others find the podcast.
ELISE: So this is the plaque that’s saying that this place functioned as a quarantine station from 14 August 1832 through to February 1984.
SABRINA: “Commemorating the quarantine service officers. Their dedication and vigilance has significantly contributed to the health and prosperity of our nation.” Wow. Alright, shall we head up to the morgue?
SABRINA: This is the other thing. The checks that they would’ve done on incoming passengers probably weren’t much more sophisticated than what’s been done in recent days at the airport where they just waved people through, you know, and said, “Go home.”
ELISE: Absolutely. Well, I know that they were definitely checking temperatures and checking for other flu-like symptoms.
SABRINA: They were checking temperatures?
SABRINA: We didn’t even do that!
ELISE: I just bought my first thermometer the other day. I have not had one in the house for a long, long time, since I was a kid and Mum had it. But it’s a digital one. I’m thinking, “What?” I don’t know even know how to use it!
SABRINA: Yeah, the old thermometer under the tongue. Those were the days. Makes it sound like we’re 112!