When I was being treated for TB in the old St Mary’s Hospital on Harrow Road in London – this was in 1972, a long time ago – the nurses used to give the patients a bottle of Guinness every day, to aid our recovery. The trolley would come round at about 4pm, and we’d be handed our daily dose. Most of my fellow sufferers on the women’s ward didn’t drink, so as time went on I accumulated a lot of Guinness in my bedside cabinet. When some people from my university in Durban came to visit, I was able to swing open the door of the cabinet and offer them a drink.
The act of swinging open that door is connected in my memory with evenings in Durban, South Africa, when things were calm enough for my father to open the sideboard in the dining-room, fetch out his bottle of gin and my mother’s sherry, and pour them both a drink. I can see him now, in his white Bri-nylon shirt (in Durban’s humidity!), his back stiff and stooped from the rheumatic fever he suffered in Egypt during WW2, swinging open the left-hand door of the sideboard and reaching down for the bottles.
Usually my father drank outside the house, in the bars of downtown Durban. Quite often, by the time he came home, his supper would be drying out under a saucepan lid in the oven, and my mother would have retired to lie on her bed and read the latest Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark from the municipal library (if ever serious contemporary literature sustained a person, it sustained my mother). I’d be cloistered among the dark furniture of my bedroom, learning the apartheid syllabus by heart. But sometimes when my father was home, and my mother wasn’t cross or disappointed or weary, she’d remember that she used to enjoy his company, and have a drink with him. I have a clear image of them sitting at close right angles to each other in the armchairs in the living room, my mother lighting a Du Maurier, my father almost airborne with animation, and them telling us vivid, funny stories about the Cardiff they grew up in, their courtship before the war, and how they ended up in Durban (where he was afloat, and she was beached).
I’m not sure why opening my bedside cabinet full of Guinness and offering people a drink reminded me of those peaceful evenings. Maybe it’s that the drinking was open, allowable, pleasurable – on doctor’s orders, even; not the occasion for extensive snot en trane (a graphic Afrikaans expression that means – well, ‘trane’ are tears, so you can’t go far wrong with ‘snot’). On the ward, I’d even managed to get hold of a bottle-opener – maybe the nurses handed them out as well. Guinness is Good for You.
We patients were mostly migrants who’d done that usual migrant thing of bringing disease into the country. At the time we were rather cavalier about our outsiderness (or maybe that was just me, since in those early years I often felt like a wild dog running round the streets, alarming the English householders). It’s only reading about TB now that I realise how lucky we were – the combination of antibiotics that killed the bacteria in our lungs was only perfected in the 1950s.
My best friend on the ward was Mrs Ayah, from Kenya; our beds faced each other across the aisle, and we laughed a lot because, I think, much of what happened on the ward seemed surreal to us (or maybe we were just delirious with relief). The nurses were pretty martial. Every morning they gave us an injection in the tissue at the top of the buttocks from a large syringe full of viscous liquid. They’d hold it high up at the start of the plunge because the needle was thick and they had to be sure to get it through the skin and muscle. I don’t know if it hurt. I don’t think it did.
The treatment involved a hundred of these inactions. Now I know the viscous liquid is streptomycin, and that on its own it doesn’t work well enough to kill the bacillus in pulmonary TB (George Orwell, I’m reading here, imported streptomycin privately from the US in 1948 because the NHS wouldn’t pay for it. It caused bleeding ulcers in his throat and mouth and a rash all over his body, and he stopped taking it. We were lucky).
The other antibiotics came in a very large tablet that was encased in rice paper, because the only way you could get it down your throat was to float it in a glass of water until the rice paper achieved the right degree of saturation. If you didn’t pay attention, your precious medication dissolved at the bottom of the glass. We took, I think, six of these tablets a day for eighteen months, long after we’d come out of hospital. And the treatment worked. I see now that the bacteria started to become resistant to at least two of the drugs as early as the 1980s, and it’s not as if TB has gone away. The excellent Partners in Health says someone falls ill with TB every three seconds, and every day roughly 4000 sufferers die. We were so bloody lucky.
I think I caught TB in South Africa (where it was, and still is, extensive). The year before I left the country, I was living in an old tin house near the university and losing my bearings in an unhappy love affair (though love was never really part of the affair. I went from being an earnest scholar, immune to alcohol because of the unhappiness it caused, to swilling whisky, teaching erratically, and not eating). On the nights I made it back to the tin house, I’d lie in bed and hear someone coughingcavernously in the servants’ quarters next to my room. In my feeble state, it’s likely to have been that person who infected me. Did news that I was sick get back to the tin house? I know I didn’t write that letter.
Being diagnosed with TB seemed a heavy punishment for what had been a year of heavy drinking. But it appalled me also because we’d grown up in Durban with a family connection to killer TB. My mother’s mother – the faraway, unknown grandmother – died from TB in Cardiff in the early 1950s. This grandmother was a spectral being to me – the one tiny snapshot we had showed a thin, long-faced, shy-looking woman in a dark dress with a white collar. She was probably already not well when the picture was taken, and she was definitely not well when my mother left Cardiff in 1946. She’d had a hard life, and not just because of her own lungs. The man she married – the grandfather of whom we had no photographs – was a McCarthy from Cork, a large man whose lungs were damaged by poison gas when he was in the British army in World War 1. After the war he ran a Brains pub in Cardiff (we inherited a bottle-opener with the legend ‘It’s Brains You Want’), drank heavily, and beat his children (my mother told me thissotto voce, as if he might hear). There was never much money – my mother said her misshapen toes and painful feet came from always wearing hand-me-down shoes (in consequence of which my feet were repeatedly x-rayed in the shoe shop in West Street, to get the sizes right). But some time in the mid-1930s, the grandfather’s damaged lungs stopped working, leaving my grandmother with seven children. Her family of origin, the Jenkins, had disowned her when she married an Irish Catholic. She was on her own.
Maybe the children felt relieved their frightening, ailing father was gone; they certainly rallied round their mother who, my mother said, started making and selling sandwiches. But the scramble to survive meant that my mother, a clever girl of 15 or 16 who wanted to be a teacher, was pulled out of school and apprenticed to a tailor – a blow to her ambitions so profound that even decades later she could scarcely bring herself to sew on a button. (One of the more gormless things my father did for her birthday one year was to give her a wooden sewing-box packed with little trays of needles and buttons and thread.) The war saved her from tailoring – she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Services, became a sergeant in a munitions plant, and emerged even more capable, eloquent, well-organised and literate; but South Africa in the 1950s didn’t welcome those qualities in a woman.
Was there ever a possibility of my mother getting back on the mailboat for the three-week trip to Cardiff to see her mother again? I don’t know, but I do remember the day she got the news of her mother’s death. My father was home in his suit in the middle of the day; my mother was hunched over, pressing her hankie into her eyes, speechless and sobbing. I was probably frightened; now I think it must have hit her very hard how alone she was, cut off from her old life and from anyone who could grieve with her. My father was the only one who knew who she was and what she’d come from, and my father was off living a new life in the world of newspapers.
I fear that when my mother learned I was in hospital in London with TB, her painful history with bad lungs and their consequences was re-awakened. I fear she might have felt that all her efforts to prevent her children suffering what she’d suffered, give them what she hadn’t had, had been in vain. I don’t know how she knew – did I phone her (from a public call-box) in the hours between the final X-ray and going into hospital? I doubt it, but she did know, because in a matter of days her brother, my Uncle Bill, appeared on the ward with an enormous basket of fruit tied up in a yellow ribbon. Was I grateful? Probably not. But he wanted to reassure my mother about me, and I think he did.
I’d gone to see a GP towards the end of my first summer in London because I’d been cold all the time, there was a cough I couldn’t shake off, and I was permanently irritable (with no-one to take it out on, since I hardly knew anyone). Pretty much all I was eating were Ryvita with Boursin cheese, so I was wafer-thin; a few weeks on the ward fixed that. In those far-off days, hospitals had proper kitchens, and we ate three freshly-cooked meals a day – the full English breakfast, lunch, and supper. I resisted initially – I wanted to stay ‘healthy’; I was mad – but I became as addicted to steamed puddings as the next person. It was heaven.
After about seven or eight weeks – surprisingly quickly, I thought – they said I wasn’t infectious any more, and encouraged me to walk around outside the hospital during the day, I suppose to get used to ordinary life. I started to scour the Harrow Road for Boursin. It may be hard to remember quite what a food dystopia much of London was, in spite of Elizabeth David (and the Caribbean and Indian presence). Day after day I stumbled into dark, uninviting premises where shopkeepers (did they really have fags between their lips?) gestured at shelves of baked beans and Omo and shook their heads at the foreign-sounding syllables. Now you’d be hard-pressed to stagger away from the Harrow Road without Egyptian strawberries, Turkish bread, eight kinds of olive, Ras el Hanout, Palestinian dates, Bulgarian sheep’s cheese, Lebanese tahina, Syrian baklava, coarse burghul (am I just showing off here?)…but in those days – forget it. Sorry, love.
My ten weeks in hospital ended a year of failure to make any headway with the Masters on Shakespeare’s Sonnets I’d been given a scholarship to write (through the agency, now I think about it, of the unhappy love affair. I was going to produce the essential Leavisite textual analysis of the poems – none of this ‘Who was the Dark Lady?’ tosh). I didn’t write a word. It was a blessed relief to walk away from it, and with a cast-iron excuse (‘TB? My god…’). Of course I needed to figure out how to earn a living, but the albatross wasn’t around my neck any more. I was alive, and in London.
Jenny Morgan was born in Durban, South Africa but has spent most of her adult life in London, U.K. working as a film maker in television and independently. During the apartheid regime’s occupation of Namibia, Jenny worked in support of the Namibian people’s struggle, and more recently has been active in support of the struggle for Palestinian human rights. For more info, please check out her website.