Jason Goodwin: ‘The downside of being ill was feeling ill. Otherwise, it was like a holiday’

Our columnist reports back from his sickbed, where a bout of what his mother used to call 'Heavy Knee' lays him low in the best possible way.

If you must have flu, now is the time. There’s nothing doing in the garden and hedging can wait. It’s not as if you’re missing any fun. Your friends probably have flu, too.

My bug arrived without preamble, unless you count a sudden tiredness on a Sunday night and the odd feeling that accompanied it of having swallowed a spoonful of dried peas. In the morning, I could barely open my eyes.

Kate packed me off to the spare room, where I hovered between death and consciousness with the curtains drawn for the next two days, now and then gratefully imbibing a little chicken broth embittered with ginger and garlic. Starve a fever, feed a cold.

‘I was too far gone to read or do anything at all, so I just lay there and dreamed and had the same thoughts asleep as awake, again and again’

For all the panic about jabs and Asian strains, the flu doesn’t seem to come round very often. As far as I recall, I’ve had it three times in my adult life and the first was in the last millennium, when we all lay like hot sardines in bed for a week, just about managing to fill a jug and distribute the water.

I’m not sure that what I had just now was the full-blown bug, either. It reminded me of a category of illness my mother used to call Heavy Knee, which covered, I suspect, a multitude of possibilities from a major hangover to feverish shakes.

I was too far gone to read or do anything at all, so I just lay there and dreamed and had the same thoughts asleep as awake, again and again, the delusions and memories gently nuzzling one another and floating off like so many rubber ducks in the bath.

The downside of being ill was feeling ill, with the withered eyeballs and the aches and tweaks. Otherwise, it was like a holiday. I was absolved from the school run and from feeding the chickens. I enjoyed drifting in and out of the routines of the house, identified by the sound of tyres on the gravel, the wail of distant music, a barking dog, voices in the kitchen and the scream of a vixen outside a sleeping house at 3am.

‘My only regret was that we hadn’t had the chimney looked at: it would have been cosy to drowse by firelight, like a Victorian invalid’

I liked looking at things, too. My eye roved over the 20 Ottoman costume prints above the mantelpiece and the 14 bishops and musketeers nearer the bed. I counted ladybirds, which have never been as thick as they’ve been this year, hopping about in the window in the up-draught from the radiator.

My only regret was that we hadn’t had the chimney looked at: it would have been cosy to drowse by firelight, like a Victorian invalid, and healthy to have the vapours drawn off the room with the smoke.

On the third day, I rose again, if not out of bed, then at least up in it, grateful for a cup of tea and a banana and to have the curtains open. From my pillows, I could look straight out into the woods and watch as the changing sunlight picked out first one tree, then another, for me to study in awe and wonder.

Soon, I was darting out of bed to raid the bookshelves. Reading in bed is unquestionably the best sort, when you can drift off at will to 18th-century Bath or Brideshead or Imperial Rome.

When the children were growing up, their own illnesses often marked a developmental stage. They would emerge from bouts of coughs and night sweats a little thinner, a bit older and at least an inch taller, as if they had shed a restrictive exoskeleton to reveal the new one growing inside.

I considered that, too, and when I started feeling better, I had a quick glance in the mirror, just to see that I hadn’t gone white overnight.


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