An anxiety that haunted my childhood was the fear of catching a mysterious disease called ‘something’. Such were its powers that it could invade the body in a myriad of ways, and it lurked almost everywhere waiting to be caught by an unwitting host.
Something, according to my mother, bred and multiplied in all forms of dirt. It lurked in the soil and could enter the body through the soles of the feet simply by one walking about barefoot. It effortlessly found its way onto unwashed hands and then into the food of unsuspecting diners where it was known to cause serious internal trouble.
My mother was somewhat of an expert on the causes of something citing information extracted from The Modern Home Doctor (published February 1935 edited and specially written by MEMBERS OF THE MEDICAL PROFESSION illustrated by 16 plates and drawings in the text. Requirements for a healthy home: good construction, soap, hot water, elbow grease, and fresh air.)
These persons of the MEDICAL PROFESSION were known in the family as ‘they’.
‘They’ advised – according to my mother – never putting your face near the cat. This was a guaranteed way of catching something. Eating unwashed fruit would produce a similar fate.
Other children were frequently carriers of something Wearing other children’s shoes, drinking out of the same glass and most definitely using the same comb would result in a serious case of something and must be avoided at all costs.
Random bouts of something occurred on school camping trips when the washing of hands before meals was not strictly enforced, and stomachs had to adjust to suspect water supplies. Many children had their holidays aborted after having caught a nasty bout of something.
Something was especially prevalent, according to my mother, in public toilets. Virulent strains of something lurked on toilet seats and could be caught by simply sitting on the seat (rather than perform a balancing act, our family developed strong bladders and learned always to ‘go’ before leaving home.) Not only was there a danger from the seats, but also from ill-informed members of the public who didn’t wash their hands after going to the toilet and therefore left something on door handles.
Eating establishments also had to be vetted. Those that my mother ‘didn’t like the look of’ - principally hot dog vendors and dubious-looking seaside fish and chip establishments – were not patronised. She could not be pinned down to specifics, but as the authority on something and the one who had to deal with the consequences if one of us actually caught something, we knew better than to argue.
Something was also capable of skulking in clean and thoroughly hygienic areas. Wearing blouses or shirts, or even more seriously an item of underwear that hadn’t received a proper ‘airing’ could result in pneumonia or something. The clothes-horse, with its freshly ironed clothes, always took precedence in front of our fire.
In 1950s England, foreign travel was quite rare. When travelling to Africa one was likely to catch rather exotic diseases such as malaria, or dysentery. However, countries nearer to home were rife with something, whose symptoms more often included diarrhoea and vomiting. A specific strain of something could, according to the MODERN HOME DOCTOR be attributed to ‘taking unsuitable or indigestible food’, which my mother translated into ‘eating all that foreign muck’.
These days, except for sporadic outbreaks of ‘something going round’, it has either died out or mutated and given way to grander sounding afflictions such as gastro-intestinal disorder, which commands more respect than the anonymous something.
Thanks to my mother’s vigilance, we rarely caught something.
But childhood fears often lie dormant. Whenever I experience unexplained symptoms I think of my mother and wonder if, after rubbing noses with the cat, I may after all have contracted something.