222 – The Malady

Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.

While the British public are burning their own cities, let’s talk about something that really matters – like this sore throat I have.


That’s me, coughing.


It’s not a big cough, not the mighty kind of cough I’m more used to. One of the many things Rosemary Conley never told me about losing weight is that once I was thin I’d no longer be able to cough in the full-on boisterous manner to which I’d become accustomed.


Now my coughs sound like a unicorn breaking wind and I can’t get enough heft behind me to fully clear my throat. It’s infuriating. It must be how Prince Adam feels once his He-Man powers wear off. I bet he can’t clear his throat either.

I’d be a proper baby when sick but the world still turns and jobs still need doing. Even when I’m so sick I’m vomiting I still have to take care of anyone around me who needs taking care of. “I’ll start dinner in a minute!” I tell my wife as I wipe the last liquefied remnants of our previous meal from my lips.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’ll go to to Wendy’s.” Unlike me she’s a firm believer in eating out. It’s part of American culture: Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonalds – places selling limp, tasteless food designed to be swallowed before your taste-buds have a chance to kick in. Even in illness I resent these places; my stubbornness manifests and I prop myself on the stove cooking, trying to avoid sneezing into the sauce and slamming the finished meal on the table, my vision dark with dizziness, my mood even darker:

“Here,” I say, reduced by phlegm to monosyllables. “Food. Eat.”

She regards the pasta and the oozing hanky I’ve plopped on top of it. “Wendy’s. Really. I don’t mind. I told you, you didn’t have to-”

“Food! E-huh. Eat! E-huh, e-huh.”

Hushed by the miserable slouching beast her husband’s become, she slowly chews on a square of Andrex alfredo.

I wouldn’t say I was martyr to my illness. If anything I’d rather be angry and sick than mewling in my bed. When I take to bed and refuse to get up, that’s when everyone around me knows things are bad. I roll home without a word and fall beneath the sheets. Sleep comes fitfully; I lose track of time, and every once in a while pale, worried faces appear like wraiths at the door. “Are you okay?” says my eldest niece.


She hovers in the doorway, unsure of what to do next. Yesterday my wife took her out to lunch and tweeted that she’d rather be our kid than her mom’s. We had her stay over for a night at Christmas, just the three of us and the dog. We made and decorated cookies, drank hot chocolate and went out to look at the Christmas lights in the neighbourhood. While my wife and I had a joyous, festive time our niece seemed somewhat less impressed. At one point she asked if she could sweep the floor; bemused, we handed her the broom and watched her go to work.

“Kayla,” I asked her, mid-sweep. “What is it exactly that you like about staying over here?”

She gave it some consideration. “The peace, mostly,” she eventually said, nodding. “The quiet. It’s really . . . peaceful . . . here.”

Which was kind of sad as I’d enjoyed the hot chocolate, the cookies, the game of Forbidden Island we played before bedtime. To me all of that was Christmas as Christmas should be, but to Kayla visiting was her only means of escape from the yelling competition her siblings often fell into.

She hovers in the doorway, wondering if there’s something she should do or say to make me feel better, then, suddenly, she’s off down the stairs and away from the invalid.

Children are plague factories. I can’t spend any time in the company of my younger family without coming away from them sick. It would be bad enough if I was a native New Jersey-ite – my wife, mother- and sisters-in-law have all fallen foul of their terrible diseases – but as I have a frail foreign metabolism I’m prone to their lurgies. They  hit me like Superman’s punch; I fly backward through buildings leaving Campfire-shaped holes in them, all the while coughing like a bicycle pump that has just started to squeak. I’ve spent just as much time in the US in my sickbed as I have up and moving about.

Over the years I’ve come to believe all families have their own equally strange folk remedies for dealing with common ailments. My wife’s family believe in the healing power of ginger ale. It’s a common belief in the US, so much so that billboards advertise the medicinal properties of Seagrams and Schweppes. As soon as anyone in her family’s sick they reach for ginger ale from the fridge, or if it’s empty, have some kind soul bring home a bottle of Canada Dry.

My family, on the other hand, drink Lemsip. It’s a tradition in which I’d always partaken until someone – and I forget who – pointed out that Lemsip isn’t a cold remedy at all but a hot lemon drink with a headache tablet and a bit of decongestant in it. This was revelatory at the time: for so long I’d believed drinking Lemsip would make me better when all it did was alleviate my symptoms slightly. I read there was no cure for the common cold, that everything purporting to be a remedy was tantamount to snake oil, and while that might have been an over-zealous opinion – even when ground and laced with lemon, paracetamol is, after all, paracetamol – I was shocked at how deceitful this cold remedy business was. Drinking Lemsip was little different to taking a headache tablet – well I’ll be.

What’s more, there was never likely to be a cure for the common cold – at least not within my lifespan – because there was no ‘common cold’. ‘The common cold’ is a collective name given to an untold multitude of viral mutations we catch and overcome, time and time again. My mind was blown again. The human immune system’s a powerful thing, but it can be fooled by similar cold viruses showing up like characters from Guess Who? and saying “Me? Naw, I’m not a cold. The cold you’re thinking of had glasses and a ginger beard.” and your body responds “He’s right! This guy has a fez and a brown beard. Welcome, friend!” and then spends the rest of the week putting up ‘Do not serve this virus’ signs while the cold runs rampant.

The virus is so malleable, the only way ever to beat it would be to catch every iteration of it, Pokémon style, and at the rate it mutates and travels from person to person I’m not sure that’s even feasible. Maybe if one guy travelled the world getting us to E-huh in his face he might be able to study it and cobble out a cure: maybe an anti-virus, a biological immune system booster that mutates at a faster rate than its nemesis and prepares your body with all the identikit ‘no service’ signs it could ever need.

But that’s science fiction, not virology – and even if it came to pass it would probably do something terrible like make human eggs immune to sperm, and the Rod Serling would appear from behind a curtain and give us all a ticking off for meddling in things we don’t understand.

E-huh. I’m still coughing, feebly. There’s a nasty reservoir of gunk building at the back of my throat and when I try to dislodge it it laughs and tells me I’ll need to do better.

This post is rather free-form, having been written without a clear goal in mind. Actually I did have a goal when I set out: I wanted to avoid talking about the damned riots again. I was doing rather well at that until I reached these final paragraphs.

Apart from that bit right at the start. Damn.

Ah well. At least I managed to keep my mind off major, real world troubles for a thousand words or so. I hope I managed to do the same for you.

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