It was just a small piece in the Washington Post a month ago, one quick column that I might never have seen had I not forgotten to make the children take out the recycling and wound up doing it myself. There it was amongst the sliding piles of gossip columns and news from Iraq, like a deathly Tarot card in a pile of Old Maids.
”Winter Bug Unleashes its Misery,” it said. “Protracted Vomiting Torments Sufferers.” The first paragraph warned easily nauseated readers to read no further, and being somewhat delicate these days, I obeyed, but not before catching sight of the name of the croup de jour: Winter Vomiting Disease.
I should have paid attention. Like King Belshazzar, when the mysterious Hand began writing on the wall of his feast hall, my color should have changed, my thoughts should have alarmed me; my limbs should have given way, and my knees knocked together. But such is my blithe, Panglossian nature that I gave it no further thought.
Happy, queasy days unfolded with no further thought of WVD. Every now and then, I’d overhear a mother at school or at the park rueing something that was “going around,” but the evident rude good health of our children made it seem pretty likely that whatever was going around was avoiding us, and anyway there were other things to think about, such as whether my husband and children would object to having macaroni and cheese for dinner three nights in a row, as I yearned to do.
One afternoon I am lying on the sofa taking refuge in a catalogue from a sudden bout of queasiness when Phoebe comes over.
“I am the doctor,” she said gravely. “You are the sick.”
“Bleah,” I agree, little suspecting what was soon to unfold.
“I’m going to get out my centipede,” she says. She rummages in her pocket, removes an invisible something, and places it on my bosom. “There!” she says, exuding a firm bedside manner. “The centipede is licking you. That will make you better.”
“Are you sure you mean centipede? You don’t mean stethoscope?”
“No,” she shakes her head. “It’s a bug. Now, here comes the blood pincher.”
Late that night I struggle from a deep sleep to hear a tumult upstairs. I stagger up to find Phoebe cheerfully dancing about on the landing, and my husband holding his breath while he strips her bed. It is 3am, and she has disgorged her supper all over the bedclothes.
When you become a mother–and I expect it is similar for fathers–your find that your circuitry has been marvelously re-mapped, your software dramatically updated, and situations which hitherto would have caused you to flap your hands fastidiously and emit little “Ew’s!” instead bring out throbbing maternal sympathy.
Thus, at the sight of the bespattered nudist, comes: “Oh, poor baby!” and “That must have been awful,” and “Never mind, sweetheart.” My husband squeezes past me down the stairs with an armload of reeking sheets, his face resolute.
“Let’s get you into our bed,” I tell Phoebe soothingly. Together we brush her teeth, scrub her face, clad her in a clean nightie, and make movements towards tucking her into our bed one floor down. At this point, on the far side of the room, Violet begins to cry.
“I’m afraid to sleep in my nursery without Phoebe to protect me!” So down she comes, too. Four in the bed, and cosy as all get-out, yet hanging over us, unread in the darkness, is that writing on the wall, the awful retribution of the Tarot card…
Phoebe folds herself around me, then turns and embraces Violet, then leans over and gives my husband a big wet smack on the lips. Violet makes tiny marsupial noises as she snuggles her lamb fleece. The adoration of Phoebe goes on. She sits up, and strokes my hair. She hunkers down, and breathes in my ear. I am just saying, “Darling, settle down now, we really need to–
Ralph Steadman: Artist!
Ralph Cramden: Sit-com character!
Ralph Feinnes: Actor!
Phoebe Gurdon: Ralph!
Some minutes later, my husband walks heavily downstairs with a second armful of ghastly sheets. Persons are scrubbed, beds remade, sighs exchanged, and lights go out. A day and another night passes. Again the household is settled into silence and oblivion, when–
“Aw, Daddy, yuck,” I hear Paris shout from upstairs over the sound of running water.
“Shhh, don’t wake the others,” says my husband, and I hear the thud of the linen door shutting.
“It went all over–”
“Keep your voice down, darling.”
“But I didn’t make a mess, did I Daddy?” comes Violet’s voice.
I struggle out from the heavy bedclothes, find a bathrobe, and go up the stairs into the glare of the bathroom light. It is 3 A.M., the ralphing hour, and the household has just experienced its first bona fide simul-barf–Paris in his bed and Violet, in the nick of time, appropriately in the bathroom. The children are remarkably springy and untroubled, considering. My husband is remarkably stoic as he passes me on the stairs beneath a pile of fetid linens.
“Thank goodness we’re all done with that,” I could be heard to say, Pangloss-style, a few days later, “It’s been going around, you know.”
Which just goes to show how unthinking one can be even in the act of thinking. When Belshazzar saw that spectral writing on the wall he at least had the good sense to perceive its threat to him, though it took Daniel to translate the grim message in full. Me, until 3am came around again, I thought WVD was for the little people.
The next day is spent grey-faced and supine. My husband makes a little nest on the sofa for me, and eventually I join the family for a game of dominoes. Spirits begin to rise. Dare we hope that the sickness has run its course? Suddenly Violet jumps up from the game and makes it a short distance across the parquet before–
Violet stands still, catching her breath. The other children look on in silence.
“She ate a plum, all right,” Phoebe says.