He wasn’t certain when the slow-growing bacillus had entered his body, but Mycobacterium tuberculosis had stealthily spread through his system – a silent invasion as he coughed up great wads of red-stained sputum. He imagined the army of bacteria marching onwards, tiny warriors intent on harm, relentless in their advance.
He pictured his lungs full of holes, patterned like spider webs or lace. He could feel them labouring to do their job despite the damage they had suffered. One moment he was sweating and feverish, throwing aside the covers, desperate for a cool breeze; the next he was huddling under the blankets, shivering uncontrollably, his teeth click-clack-clacking in his head. Sometimes his bones ached. He knew that was a bad sign.
He had taken to tying a length of string around his waist to hold up his trousers but now even that was insufficient, so he’d fashioned a pair of makeshift braces from a piece of rope and some pegs. His legs were thin and spindly. His stomach concave. His eyes sunken and red.
He knew there was no cure, no remedy other than bed rest. Not that he often had the energy to be out of bed. Nutritious meals, they said, but that was hard with the rationing. At least here, in the countryside, there were fresh eggs to be had, and milk. Whatever they could coax from the soil in their vegetable patch.
The frustration was the interminable not-knowing. How far had it progressed? Was it improving or getting worse? What was happening inside his own body? It was like fighting an unwinnable battle against an insidious and incomprehensible enemy. Like the war, it was a day-by-day struggle to keep going, to refuse to allow the uncertainty to mess with his head.
It seemed a cruel trick of fate that he should survive war only to be attacked from within once he returned. But even here, back in his own country, he was treated like a leper, banished to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere because the high altitude would be good for his lungs. Or so they said. And, he supposed, therefore less of an infection risk to his family.
He didn’t dwell on those interminable months, the freezing days in the trenches, cold muck in a cup, rats as big as cats, men going slowly doolally with the madness of it all. The horror was somewhere deep inside his head, unexamined. He would not press on that tender place.
He did remember her last letter. Recalled folding himself into the space between two sandbags and retrieving the fragile, onion-skin paper from between the pages of his Bible. Jean had sent it in November. Four months. God only knew the journey it had taken to get to his hands. It was a miracle any mail made it at all.
He had re-read her words so often he knew them by heart. Her commentary on their neighbours: who was ill and who had joined up; who had tried to cheat with their ration cards and whose crops had failed; who had signed the petition about shelters; whose son had come home in a box. She talked about the girls: Alice’s award for penmanship; Vivian always such a help around the house; Laura’s scones being the talk of the church fete. And she described little Thomas toddling around after the girls, curling asleep with the dog, following Jean closely, like a shadow. “Looking the picture of his dad,” she said.
He had refolded the letter with care and held it gently against his breast, closing his eyes and trying to imagine this child. Jean said she’d sent a photograph after the birth but he’d never received it. Hadn’t even known about Thomas until a fellow from another unit congratulated him, after he’d heard the gossip in a letter from his sister. He’d opened his eyes and stared out into the night. Fancy that. Had to hear from a stranger about the arrival of his own son.
Jean said that when they finally did meet, it would be like looking in the mirror. Same sandy hair, same jug ears. He wondered if the boy had his firm grip, his sweet tooth, his dislike of birds. He imagined Thomas sleeping in the curve of Nip’s soft belly, his chubby fingers gripping a handful of fur, the old dog nuzzling his hair and licking his toes with his raspy tongue. Relieved to know that the child and Nip seemed to have an affinity. He’d worried about leaving the dog; worried the old fella would pine. But from what Jean said, he and the youngster appeared to have become pals.
The wind blew across the snowy terrain and whipped through the trench, finding its way into every nook and cranny, and his eyes teared up. He told himself it was because of the cold. He unfolded the letter and read it again. Her closing lines were pragmatic and purposeful. You’ll need to see to that water tank when you get home, she said. I’m sure it needs resealing. And the front steps could do with a new coat of paint. Best be off now, attend to the chores before the girls are home from school. All my love, your devoted wife, Jean.
She hadn’t signed off with kisses marked by crosses, nor pressed her red-stained lips against the paper, like some of the other wives. She never did.
Even now, she managed to write entire letters without mentioning the dreaded words. She used euphemisms like “your difficulties”, “the condition”, “the illness”. He knew she was frightened. For him. And of him.
Only once did she ask him directly, in a moment of uncharacteristic openness.
What does it feel like? she said. For you and the others. Are you in pain? Does it hurt?
His pen had wavered over the page as he considered his reply.
Only when you breathe, he said.
Only when you breathe.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Breath".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.