Who Killed Matilda

The essay ‘Who killed Matilda?’ was the co-winner of the National Calibre Prize in 2011 and was published by the Australian Book Review. It was written in Canada and in Australia while carrying out research for the novel Cicada. An excerpt can be found below. The full essay can be obtained from ABR. Or contact author at moirajmckinnon@gmail.com

I am a doctor. Once I was a doctor of individuals, now I am a ‘doctor of populations’. Population health is about actions to improve the health of communities, nations, and the world. Challenges are many: the mobility and density of populations, contemporary desires and pressures, the safety of food in complex systems, poverty, the immense power of big businesses such as tobacco companies. All this, yet it was the rise of infectious disease worldwide that caught my curiosity, a J curve swooping up, exponential. My days became consumed, working alongside others to detect and respond to emerging infectious disease threats. Old diseases thought banished returned, shaking off the dust and spinning their DNA. Something was amiss in our carefully designed strategies. I came to suspect a deficiency, a mistake, maybe a corrupting thought or belief in our basic assumptions about the interaction of microbes and the environment. I wanted to find out what it might be.

It all began with Matilda. She took my breath away in her audacious non-conformity. A scrawny Aboriginal, maybe thirty-five years old, her skin black as night and her eyes sparkling with humour and a snippy wit that could cut me down. She wore a thin floral dress with vibrant red roses and white dance shoes with near stiletto heels. The  shoes were too big; her dusty bony feet disappeared into the shadows. She clip-clopped up the stairs and across the cracked linoleum of the waiting room.