Remembering Fifth November
I think it’s the film Back to the Future that opens by asking if you can remember what you were doing on November 5th 1955? Watching the film on TV with a friend, I remembered.
It had all started a few weeks earlier, in the autumn of 1955. I was coming home with my mother from the telephone box at the top of the road where we had trudged in the cold and dark to ring my grandparents and tell them how my brother was getting on. As the neighbours’ little girl had been rushed into hospital the week before, we didn’t want to disturb them by asking to use the phone in their front room, and so we walked to the public phone box, a round trip of about half a mile.
Having set out feeling normal, I nearly didn’t make it home again. As I struggled to shift one leg in front of the other, I knew with seven-year-old clarity that I had caught the illness my little brother and young neighbour already had. I knew it was serious because I had seen the expressions on the faces of the grown-ups, and I knew I didn’t want to have it too. So with seven-year-old optimism, I thought that perhaps if I ignored it, it would go away. But the effort to prise my legs from one step to the next, my back that was stiffening into immobility, and the pain that was beginning to crush my whole body wasn’t going away anywhere.
Back home, I was given a plateful of green jelly as a treat before going to bed. I couldn’t swallow it; for some reason it had taken on the texture of leather. I burst into tears and said my legs hurt, and my back hurt. It all hurt, even my neck.
I don’t remember what happened immediately after that, but the isolation ward at the local hospital was already full and my mother begged the doctor to let her nurse us at home. My father was not allowed to go to work in case the infection spread. The doctor visited every day and bowls of disinfectant were set at the doors of our bedrooms, with another one just inside the front door, for my parents and the doctor to rinse their hands. A consultant from the hospital came one day but no other visitors were allowed in the house.
By Bonfire Night, I was well enough to be propped up on the bed with my father supporting me as I still couldn’t sit up unaided. Through my bedroom window we watched the firework display in the public park opposite the house while my mother in the other room similarly sat with my little brother.
In December, I was carried downstairs for the first time and in the new year was back at school, although taking it easy at first as far as physical activity was concerned. A year later, I raced my best friend from the corner of the street to my house, arriving exhilarated and out of breath. Effectively, it was all over.
But polio doesn’t go away, although some will say that it has. It crumples vitality and periodically sears old pain through the muscles it once assaulted. By the late 1990s, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to work through to normal retirement age. At the turn of the millennium, I finally approached the medical profession but the response was to ask why I thought I had had polio, as I hadn’t been left with a ‘withered limb’.
As if, somehow, I don’t know exactly what it was I remember doing on 5th November 1955.
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