On the second day of my absence from school, a programme called “Defeat Tuberculosis” came on telly.
I normally didn’t pay attention to the BBC’s public information films. They were dull, had no children in them, and tended to air on weekday evenings while I was helping Mum scrub the supper dishes. But that night, Mum sent me to the front room early with my cup of tea and a packet of Garibaldi biscuits. “Best be safe ’til we know for sure,” she said, calling Tim to wash dishes instead. I was kneeling by myself on the front-room carpet—Tim and I weren’t allowed food or drink near the furniture—when the programme’s intertitle appeared on-screen. I recognised defeat but had trouble with tuberculosis. The word seemed familiar, but barely so. I’d learned plenty of new words for the 11-plus exam recently; this one was nothing special. It hadn’t yet taken on the low, frightful tenor that rang deep in the pit of my stomach, as near to me as the sound of my own breath.
The programme was about two sisters, Betty and Joan, who went to be tested for the disease. Betty’s x-ray was normal, but Joan’s x-ray looked just like mine: black cavities for lungs, barred behind white ribs, and inside one of them, a single fist-sized splotch that reminded me of a cumulus cloud.
That cloud was a “shadow,” the technician had told me. That cloud was TB.