Saturday, 24 July 2010
The Plague, Insect Bites and Me
Oh dear. Who knew that a horsefly (as nasty as they are) could cause so much trouble? Bitten on Tuesday, at the doctor on Thursday and at hospital today. Gulp. Wretched thing. It's all I can do to sip some tea from special cup and saucer (reserved for poorly days) force down the big blue pills and comfort read.
The Plague and I by Betty Macdonald is such a relief. It's like having a cold compress to the fevered brow and a beloved and amusing friend perched on the bed. Perhaps her most well known book is The Egg and I which was made into a film starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in about 1940 - the descriptions of Ma and Pa Kettle were later decried as cultural stereotyping but - hey - she wrote them as she saw them. She is a dab hand at the amusing day to day trivia that makes up life. She had a loving and slap dash childhood in a large family, married (disasterously) young the first time round, deserted the chicken farm and re-married, moving to Vashon Island where she wrote Onions in the Stew (such a favourite of mine that I paid hommage to it by entitling my first book Capers in the Sauce) But in 1937 she was diagnosed with TB and spent nine months in a sanatorium outside Seattle.
It should be a fairly grim book (she was poor, had two children, hospital care was erratic, and the treatment of TB seems to be positively archiac) But it's not. It shimmers with delight. Her humour and eye for detail, an isatiable curiosity for other people coupled with a good dose of healthy cynicism makes this book a delight. And its funny. You only have to have spent a week or so in a modern hospital to identify with the characters. The stone cold food, the petty rules, the Southern minx that hams it up for the handsme doctor, the lack of privacy, and of course the one nurse that can make life hell. In her case it was the Charge Nurse -nicknamed by Betty - Granite Eyes. Betty complains timidly that she is cold. It as, after all, December, in Seattle, all the windows are wide open and she is freezing. After days of shivering Granite Eyes relents and brings her a paper blanket. This crackles and makes so much noise that Betty is reduced to laying perfectly still so not to disturb anyone.
Silence is the golden rule in The Pines. Silence and fresh air. But the inmates invent countless ways to have fun and outwit Granite Eyes. Betty becomes best friends with Kimi a beautful young Japanese girl, who demands that her family bring in Soya sauce which she smothers all the food in to make eatable. (Years ago when I was in hospital my best friend who was working in France left a message to be relayed by a puzzled nurse asking me 'Have you drenched everything in Soya yet?') Kimi also makes her mother come in with dainty embroidered tray cloths that she substitues for her own terrible efforts at the laugable Occupational Therapy. These useless things are called by Betty 'toe covers' and are the bane of their lives. Tangled efforts at crochet, knitting, macrame, sewing and embroidery all get reduced to sweaty chains of sagging ribbons. In my family, any unwanted decorative object was instantly dismissed as a toe cover, and still is. But above all it was the lack of privacy and not being with her chaotic and loving family that Betty missed.
I like people, but not all people. I'm neither Christian enough or charitable enough to like anybody just because they are alive. I want people to interest me and amuse me. I want them fascinating and witty or so dull to be different. Perfectly charming or 100% stinker. I like my chosen companions to be distinguishable from the masses and I don't care how.
Should you have the misfortune to fall ill, The Plague and I will be a tonic. I won't be getting rid of it, but may well invest in a new copy, for mine is ailing itself with a broken spine and fading pages. Bless.