Friday, 8 January 2010

From Russia With love: Part One, the Cold War

I never told my mother about the myriad foreign trips my school organised during the holidays, as I assumed it was not something we could afford. I was not envious of friends who went on cruises around the Mediterranean, on boats later requisitioned as troop ships during the Falklands War. But then I have always had a distinct sense of uneasiness if ever I venture down inside the hull of an ocean-going ship. However the trip to Russia was different. First, it would be by train except for the short journey across the English Channel. Second, it was at the behest of the Russian Authorities and they were footing the bill. I realised it was the kind of opportunity I would never have again. To visit Russia as a tourist was unusual during the Cold War. The chance to go to Russia as the guest of the Soviet authorities and to live amongst Russian school children was exceptional. I almost didn’t get to go at all as I was waging a cold war of my own, to recover from the debilitating effects of quinsy

My school held an anniversary pageant and I had been chosen to personify the city of Venice. Of the pageant itself I remember very little, other than being dressed as an Elizabethan noblewoman and leaning against the mullioned windows by the oak staircase as I awaited my turn to go up on stage and deliver my lines. That night I began to feel ill and my throat hurt. My condition worsened. My doctor was summoned. He arrived late in the afternoon, having first spent a good deal of time canoodling with his girlfriend in his car parked outside, according to my mother, who was keeping a look-out from an upper storey window. When he did finally deign to come into the house, the doctor prescribed large tablets. By that stage the glands of my throat were so swollen I could neither drink liquid nor eat food. In a single week I lost over two stone in weight. Despite my condition, my mother decided not to alter her holiday plans and left me on my own in the house, whilst she flew off to her villa overseas.

I was 12 yeas old when my mother first left me on my own in England. She had gone to Paris on a romantic weekend, leaving me to fend for myself in our rather spooky Victorian house. At the time, a friend’s mother made her disapproval very clear. I was bemused at the latter’s censure as I felt very mature for my age and was often mistaken for someone far older. Three years later, I was not so sanguine at the prospect of being left on my own when I felt so ill with quinsy. But my mother airily dismissed my plaintive concerns about my health and assured me I would soon be on the mend, despite the fact I was coughing up the tablets the doctor had prescribed. After she left I began to panic and rang up the family who had raised me when I was smaller.
“How long can someone survive without food or water?” I asked in a faint voice.
They thought I was simply being melodramatic. Nevertheless they drove over to see me and ended up taking me back with them to see their own doctor. He injected me with penicillin which allowed the medicine to enter my bloodstream and get to work straightaway. Their doctor insisted on seeing me again a number of weeks later, as I had been so painfully thin he assumed I must be suffering from a severe case of anorexia.

I never discovered what words were later exchanged between my mother and the family who had come to my rescue, other than that my mother muttered darkly about how she could sue them. The Cold War that raged between my two sets of parents was as bitter as anything that existed between the global superpowers of the era.

All the while I was ill with quinsy and could neither eat nor drink properly, I fantasised about having milk mixed with Ribena, a blackcurrant drink. I have no idea what put that thought into my head but I just knew once I had drained a glass of milk and Ribena it would signal that I was well on the way to making a full recovery.  After that, I never drank Ribena again but it proved the incentive to make me fight to be fit enough to pass the medical, and be allowed to make the journey to Russia. Once I got to Russia, I had a relapse and was confined to a sanatorium for a while. But that is a story for another time.