Although it might appear strange to suggest that catching a cold marked a monumental new phase in my life, that was the case.
Illness kicked in on a glorious mid-July day. Summer colds are the worst, of course – a blocked nose is never a comfortable bedfellow with high humidity and intense heat.
If the truth be known I’ve always been susceptible to colds, a fact that my unsympathetic ex-wife Stella was forever keen to point out. Judging by frequency of use, she could well have been the star publicist for the term “man flu”.
This one turned out to be particularly nasty, keeping me awake on an awful first night with a razor-sharp sore throat and a pounding headache to add to the bunged up nose.
I passed the time watching the clock digits trudge towards morning, though not nearly as quickly as I would have liked. At 03.28 I got out of bed and rummaged through the medicine drawer. Until her departure my wife had supervised this, and my assumption was that I would find it well-stocked. Sadly, all that remained was a near-empty box of plasters, an unopened tube of KY Jelly and a half-full bottle of TCP. Judging that one of the items might be of use, I put a capful of TCP into a glass and added warm water. My mouth and tongue burned as I gargled with the insufficiently diluted liquid. My parents had instilled the belief that discomfort was the mark of a good medicine, so hopefully the TCP would do the trick.
They were wrong.
The morning chorus burst forth at 04.41. No doubt for many this was a delight and I did try to relish the melodiousness of the birdsong, but to no avail. All I wanted was for the clock to get a move on so that I could reach the chemist.
At 08.59 I was standing outside Boots in a queue for one. When the doors finally opened, late I noted it being 09.04, I raced to the pharmacy, passing perfume stands that inevitably brought back memories of Stella.
‘Yes?’ snapped the woman behind the counter.
‘I have a dreadful cold. What do you suggest?’
‘Symptoms?’ she barked.
‘Headache, blocked nose, sore throat. The usual I suppose, although this one seems particularly severe.’
‘Cough?’ she asked, single word pronouncements seemingly her preference.
‘No,’ I replied, deciding to match her curtness.
‘That will follow.’ This longer statement could be perceived as an improvement, but a cruel smile suggested otherwise. ‘I’ve had no end of customers with colds this week,’ she complained, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this should surely be expected given the nature of her job. ‘People are coming back day-in day-out with no sign of improvement. It’s this mild weather. Summer colds are the worst. The germs love it.’
At least we were in agreement about that, but I had no inclination to acknowledge the validity of her statement.
She gathered up products I was all too familiar with, setting packets of Lemsip, Sudafed and Strepsils onto the counter. I’d been hoping that there might be a new wonder drug on the market. Seemingly that wasn’t the case.
‘That only leaves something for the cough,’ she told me as she held two bottles aloft. ‘Is it dry or are you bringing up phlegm?’
‘Neither, so it’s not necessary.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘I’ve already said. I haven’t got a cough.’
‘Maybe not yet, but you soon will,’ she said with another of those malicious smiles. She reminded me of that woman in the film Misery who rescues and nurses her favourite writer after he’s injured in a car crash. In his most recent novel the author had written off the woman’s favourite character and she sets out to get that mistake rectified, forever smiling as she tortures the poor man.
This lookalike held eye contact, waiting for me to yield.
Well, I wasn’t going to. ‘I don’t want cough medicine!’ I snapped, followed by, “Thank you very much” in a marginally more conciliatory tone.
‘Well it’s up to you, you’re not compelled to take my advice,’ she muttered as she replaced the bottles on the shelf behind her before putting my purchases into a plastic bag.
‘I’m assuming you haven’t brought your own bag – to help save the world.’
As it happens, unusually when out shopping, I hadn’t. Feeling guilty, my dislike of the woman heightened.
‘That will be £16.49,’ she continued.
‘That’s rather a lot.’ It crossed my mind that I was being overcharged as a punishment for intransigence.
‘You’re paying for the brand names. You should have gone for our own products, they’re exactly the same.’
‘But you never offered them.’
‘Well, it’s too late now.’
Was it too late, I thought? I lacked the energy for further argument so placed my card above the scanner to pay.
‘You will be back for cough medicine,’ she reiterated as she handed me the receipt.
Despite Lemsip-Sudafed-Strepsil overdosing during the following three days, the shop assistant turned out to be right. The cold worsened with a rasping dry cough emerging to add to the sore throat, pounding headache and blocked nose. It crossed my mind that my shattered immune system was the result of what had happened at work.
I returned to Boots to be greeted, confronted, by the same malicious lady at the pharmacy counter.
‘I bought some cold relief medicines a few days ago but they haven’t helped. In fact, I’m worse than ever.’ I stated this in a warm and engaging tone, thereby providing an opportunity for her to develop her customer relations skills.
‘You can’t have a refund if you’ve part used them,’ she snapped.
It’s possibly unfair to reach a conclusion based on two brief conversations, but I was thinking that this woman had made an inappropriate career choice. Perhaps she’d be better suited to data entry. If desperate to do something involving interface with fellow humans, a prison officer might be a good fit.
‘I’m not after a refund, I just need something stronger to get rid of this cold.’
‘It has to take its course. I can give you something else, but to be truthful, nothing works.’
‘Nothing works! Then why do you sell the stuff?’
‘You misunderstood me,’ she replied, furtively looking at the line of waiting customers behind me. ‘What I said was that it takes longer when you’ve got something else wrong with you.’
‘No. You said nothing works.’
‘No, I didn’t. You misheard.’
I turned to the elderly lady in the queue behind me. ‘Excuse me, madam.’ I had to raise my voice and repeat my salutation before she would even look at me. ‘Could you please assist? Did you hear what she said?’
The woman’s look of terror was fitting for an interrogation by secret police in a tin-pot dictatorship. ‘I’m sorry, I’m deaf.’
‘If you’re deaf, how come you can … oh, never mind.’
Abandoning the allegedly deaf woman, I turned to the second person in the queue who promptly acquired the urgent need to scrutinise the toothpastes on the shelf behind her. The fact that there were already two tubes in her metal basket seemed immaterial.
Seeking a witness was proving to be futile, but I can be obstinate when I’m certain I’m in the right. Defiantly, I turned back to the shop assistant. ‘Let me add, despite your insinuation, that I have nothing else wrong with me. I’m absolutely fine apart from this cold.’
The shop assistant was equally combative. ‘You do realise, sir,’ she said, spitting out the “sir”, ‘being under stress affects the immune system.’
How did she know? It was impossible. But she had hit a raw nerve and I decided to terminate the conversation.
She hadn’t finished. ‘If you’re worried it could be something more serious, I suggest you see your doctor.’
This comment, uttered ever so softly, miraculously was picked up by the deaf elderly lady behind me. ‘It takes weeks to get an appointment,’ she stated.
‘Not necessarily,’ declared the woman having returned from her expedition to the toothpaste shelves (with no additional tubes added to her basket). ‘There’s a drop-in surgery on Saturday mornings. I always use the service, especially for the children.’
‘I get told off for wasting their time,’ replied the old lady.
‘That’s not on. Who’s your doctor?’
‘Well, I’m not surprised then. I was with him but I swapped to Bridges.’
‘Why did you switch?’ another queuer asked.
‘That’s a story and a half.’
The shop assistant’s attention had turned to the gossip.
‘I’ll leave it for now,’ I said to no one in particular and headed towards the exit.
A coughing fit left me gasping for breath as I stepped out of the shop. I’d made a mistake. Based on years of susceptibility to colds I should have known that if medicines didn’t cure, at least they soothed. I wasn’t going back though.
At home I made a cup of tea, took my drink to the lounge, slumped into an armchair and pressed the remote in search of anything worth watching.
The doorbell chimed. I was inclined to ignore it but the ringing persisted, so I got up and ambled out of the lounge at tortoise speed in the hope that the caller would give up before I reached the door.
It was Stella.
‘I knew you were at home because your car’s here.’
‘I could have been out walking.’
‘You? Walk? Hardly. Anyway, you aren’t out walking because you are here.’ She stepped into the hall and handed me a bulging buff-coloured envelope. ‘They’re the settlement papers for you to sign.’
‘I think I’d best read them first.’
‘Your solicitor has already checked them, but if you feel you must you’ll need to post them to mine.’
I looked at the handwritten note on the envelope. For Mr Neville Watkins. Please sign both copies and return.
‘It hasn’t taken long to come to this,’ I said, as much to myself as to Stella.
‘We agreed to settle things quickly so that the house can go on the market.’
‘You know I don’t want to move. Can’t we discuss this?’
‘Honestly, Neville. We already have, many times.’
‘But it’s all happening so fast.’
‘It’s best to get things sorted.’
‘Best for who?’
‘Well, me. I need the cash from the house sale. Look, I must dash, we’re going out this evening. Sign the papers and make sure you send them on; both solicitors are keen to complete and neither of us wants to pay unnecessary fees for added time, do we? We can work out the timescale for selling later on.’
I nodded. However unfair, however illogical were her arguments, I’d never been able to counter Stella’s reasoning.
Without so much as a goodbye, Stella exited through the still open door. She strode along the pathway and I watched as she got into a new car – red, sporty – and drove off. I was left standing there, coughing, sore throat, nose streaming, headache. Heartache, too, because my ex-wife was indifferent to taking away my home.
If you added the shock of being made redundant to Stella leaving me a matter of weeks beforehand, it was hardly surprising that my immune system had collapsed to bring on this mother of all colds.