My son came off school last Thursday and since then we’ve been having a fairly permanent pajama party. Years ago, when he was little, one of his favourite stories that he’d ask for over and over concerned a boy whose birthday party was cancelled because he’d had the measles. As an illness that requires quarantine, it wasn’t going to be possible for him to have the celebration he’d been looking forward to. And then his mother realized that several of his friends had also been ill and so she organized a dressing gown party, where all the children who were convalescent could come and eat a cake decorated with spots for the occasion. My son adored this story and has always been keen to create the same ambiance. We’ve had dressing gown New Year’s Eve parties before now, and this year he’s simply come off school and not got dressed unless it’s entirely necessary. Then on Friday, my husband came down with a nasty flu-ey cold. Determinedly he trudged into work and was, naturally, much worse on Saturday when he joined in the dressing gown party, although his unshaven look robbed it of some of its innocence. I tend to be cat-like in illness and hide away in dark corners, but my husband is sociable with his germs and sat in the main thoroughfare, wrapped up in blankets and exuding a miasma of virus like a noxious form of Eeyore’s thundercloud. This meant that by Sunday, I had joined the dressing gown party, too. My husband by now had a full-blown cold going on, with a racking gravelly cough and a 20-tissues a day habit. My old Spanish teacher used to claim that snot was one of the great untapped resources of the planet, and if only we could find out how to make energy from it, all our worries would be at an end. Ever since I’ve had chronic fatigue, however, I’ve stopped getting noisy, visible colds, and only go in for the silent symptoms – sore throats, headaches, feeling generally rubbish. It’s hugely unsatisfactory as no one ever believes that I’m ill.
I can understand my son’s lure towards the pajama party because it feels so comfortable and laid back. There’s something about socializing that makes me uptight, and there’s nothing like the festive season for obliging me to be sociable. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, we collected legendary tales of weird things the academics did, and one of our favourites was the tale of the English don who left a party because he couldn’t formulate to his satisfaction a request for where the bathroom was. I promised myself when I became an academic that I would remain normal, but it’s Christmas that forces me to revise my opinion. Saturday night there was a party down the road at our neighbour’s. I knew my husband must be really poorly because he said he’d stay home – an unprecedented move as he is generally first to arrive and last to leave, given the opportunity. I wandered down on my own, thinking it wouldn’t be too bad, but I’d only been there a few moments when I realized there was hardly anybody I knew. But I did see a small gaggle of our neighbours and I sidled into it and did my best. I talked for what seemed like absolutely hours about people’s foreign holidays and their plans for Christmas and who had caught the ‘flu this year. Then I nipped upstairs to see what the boys (including my son) were doing. I’ll not get away with that much longer. They appeared to be playing poker but paused to give me a cheery wave. When I came back downstairs, I couldn’t find one of my hosts, the other was deep in conversation with a group of people I didn’t know, and there, right before me, beckoning in such an enticing fashion, was the door. There wasn’t anybody in the hallway, and before I knew what I was doing, I was outside and briskly walking home. That was bad of me, wasn’t it? I returned home to wait up for my son, wondering how it had come to this, when only yesterday it seemed I was waiting up to give him a last feed in the hope of a few hours’ sleep. I did write a thank you note in my host’s Christmas card, but it was like I’d used up my social tolerance. I was gasping for the kind of oxygen that can only be found in peacefulness. Perhaps these things are better if you drink.
It’s really not that I don’t like people, more that I feel compelled to look after them to a reasonably high standard. I have this theory that to be sociable, you have to be able to ignore people quite well, and I find I notice every tiny little thing they do. We were also supposed to have a festive visit from my friend, her husband and their two-year-old daughter. This was scheduled for a day early this week when we were all only just over the worst of our colds. So, I rang up to tell them that we might still be a bit germy. When my son was small I really wanted to know where the germs were; for his sake, of course, but also for mine. When you have chronic fatigue and catch everything going, it’s almost impossible to be cavalier about contagion. As it turned out, my friend was just about to take her daughter to the doctor, and so we said we’d speak again once she had the verdict. It turned out that she had a stomach bug and so my friend said she’d stay home with her. I monitored her voice, as I do in each and every phone call, and was concerned that she wasn’t happy with this decision and might rather have come anyway. But I didn’t want to read too much into any conversation with a mother who’s been up most of the night and has a sick child on her hands.
When her husband walked through the door, his first words to me were: ‘You don’t look like there’s anything wrong with you.’ This is always a tricky one. I had a stab at explaining about the invisibility of my colds but he looked very skeptical; it’s not surprising, most people do. Inevitably, I monitored the husband’s conversation with us, which was mostly addressed to my husband anyway (just between you and me, I’ve never thought he liked me much anyhow) but when it concerned his daughter it was to tell us what a cheerful tot she was in illness, so good you’d not know that there was anything wrong with her. Of course, it could have been my guilty conscience casting a pall; I was relieved not to have to contend with a two-year-old who had a stomach bug. But if you asked me to say what I frankly thought his first words would be about us when he got home, I’d say ‘They were perfectly fine and she was making a fuss about nothing.’ I didn’t think the situation had pleased them at all, and I was afraid that it was viewed as my fault. Not, you understand, that I had told them not to come; I’d only rung to say we were not in complete health, but I am so conscious of all the possible unsaid implications in social exchanges. I don’t always know what people are thinking, but if they are close enough in proximity I can feel what they feel, in all its contradictoriness and confusion. The problem is that I can sense feelings in people that they aren’t necessarily fully aware of themselves, or perhaps wouldn’t wish to admit to. It would be fantastic if I didn’t do this as I often come to the wrong conclusion subsequently or just give myself unnecessary worry. But there’s no plug you can pull for perception; it comes in regardless and it’s quite sort of tiring. I don’t make resolutions any more, but the one thing I will try to do next year is accept that I am not a sociable being and that it’s okay to be reclusive; I am that weird academic. The one place I’m readily available is the virtual world, which is wonderful because people are not here in flesh and blood, overwhelming me with how they feel, and even better, they are usually upfront and straightforward about what they want to say. I find that immensely restful. So, blogging friends who celebrate Christmas, here’s to a wonderful, peaceful festive season. May it be full of the purest feelings of goodwill and happiness in all those around you!