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.
By this time, I’d scooted up to the telly’s screen, my teacup sitting cold on the tea tray with a Garibaldi biscuit drowning in it. I twisted the volume knob as far left as I could, afraid that Mum would hear it and turn it off. No sense in giving yourself a fright, she’d say. But I needed to know what happened to Joan. I needed to know what might happen to me.
Joan, as it turned out, was sent to a sanatorium. A boy I’d known in fourth class, I remembered, had disappeared into one for a whole year. He’d seemed happy and normal when he returned, albeit a bit quieter, but we’d had different teachers for fifth class so I never got the chance to ask him about it. I doubt anyone had. It wasn’t exactly something people nattered on about. From what I could recall, we’d all pretended that he’d just taken a particularly long holiday, and for some, that he’d never left in the first place. Tuberculosis was never mentioned. The sanatorium was never mentioned. Perhaps that’s why these words were unfamiliar to me now, and why they carried the strange weight of something whispered, something secret.
A sanatorium, the programme taught me, was a place where they crushed the tuberculosis out of you by pumping air into your chest. This procedure was called “lung rest.” On the telly’s screen, Joan lay half-conscious on an operating table, naked beneath a medical tarp and cockeyed with anaesthetic. Her eyelids fluttered as a needle as long as my forearm slid between her ribs, filling her chest with air. An animation showed Joan’s bad lung shriveling up inside of her like a dried fig.
After that, I shut the telly off.
The screen fizzled out. The front room was quiet. Mum and Tim were still washing dishes, and I could hear the clink of flatware in the fireclay sink. Dad must’ve been reading the evening paper at the kitchen table. I was alone. No one had seen the programme but me.
As I kneeled in front of the telly, my legs fixed like magnets to the floor, I replayed Joan’s “lung rest” procedure again and again in my head. What if the pump broke? What if it kept pumping air into Joan’s chest until her ribs burst open? Or what if they poked the needle into her lung on accident, blew it up, and then popped it like a balloon? Beneath the clamour of these questions, I was suddenly conscious at that moment of how it felt to breathe: the ring of coolness around each nostril, the dry spot at the back of my throat, the gentle rise and fall of my stomach. I imagined, then, what it would be like not to breathe—that this breath now would be my last-ever breath—and a flicker of panic lit in the back of my mind, in the place reserved for the most ancient of fears.
Then again, maybe the x-ray machine had made a mistake. Mum had said that this sometimes happens with the mobile units. We wouldn’t know for sure until I saw a real doctor, she told me, though she said this while stirring a pot, or hanging the wash, or lighting the stove, and never while looking directly at me.
In the kitchen, the larder door clapped shut. Mum must’ve been grabbing more Garibaldi biscuits for tea. Soon, everyone would take their usual seats in the front room—Dad in his armchair, Mum in the settee, and Tim and I on the floor with the tea tray. Conversation would carry on as usual, rolling forward with the coordinated stop-and-go of cars at a traffic signal. No one would know that I’d watched a needle pierce a woman’s chest and pictured myself on the same operating table. No one would notice that I was breathing differently now, as if there was something fragile at the bottom of my lungs that I was trying not to break. No one would ask if I was afraid.
That evening, I drank my tea cold, ate my drowned biscuits, and asked to go to bed early. Mum felt my forehead and asked if I was feeling ill. I said I wasn’t, and that I was just tired. As I climbed the stairs, though, I had the strange sensation that each step I took in this new direction, away from Mum, Dad and Tim, would be one that I couldn’t get back. A part of me wished I would turn around, forget all about the programme, pour myself a new cup of hot tea and plop back down beside Tim. But another part of me knew that I couldn’t.
When I reached my bedroom, I undressed, put out the lamp, tucked myself in, and listened in the dark to their voices drifting up the stairwell.