There's Something Going Round

Added on 28 January 2009

Douglas Lindsay is currently writing the upcoming blockbuster, The Final Cut. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 11th February 2005:

Whenever your kid gets sick and you mention it to another parent, there is a kneejerk response. 'There's something going round.' It's impossible to say in the vicinity of another adult that your child has a cough, a splutter, a bit of a cold, a runny nose, a temperature, vomiting, diarrhoea, the bubonic plague and a weird collection of spots, without that adult immediately removing all individuality from your offspring by attributing the illness to every other kid in the school. And, depending on the personality type of the parent, they will then add either a) yeah, yeah, my kid's had that, she's had pretty much everything going, leprosy last year you know, lost a leg, fell right off, grew back of course... or b) my kids don't get sick, because we feed them fresh fruit and vegetables every day, and echinacea, and they never eat junk food or sweets, and they do their homework as soon as they get in from school, and my son's only three and he's writing his PhD in applied astrophysics, and my daughter's in line to be chairman of Proctor & Gamble by the time she's seven.

It's wrong to hope that someone else's kid breaks an ankle or gets smallpox, but you find yourself doing it sometimes. But not that you don't also find yourself coming out with the 'its going round' line. Just can't stop it, unless you're really concentrating. You're standing at the school gates, trying to be unsociable, and some woman has grabbed you to talk about 400 year-old ethnic rugs, then she mentions that her kid is ill, and because you're not focused, you just blurt out, 'yeah, there's a lot of it around.' Then the mother looks at you and says, 'She got her head chopped off and we had to bung it in the freezer for an hour until we could get to the hospital to have it sewn back on by the best neurosurgeon in the whole of eastern Europe,' and you're still not really concentrating, and you absentmindedly mutter, 'aye, it's the time of year,' or 'a couple of sachets of Calpol should sort her out.'

It all started with the vicar in The Exorcist, during this brief exchange:

Linda Blair's Mum: There's something wrong with my daughter's head.
The Vicar: Aye, you're right luv, it's going round.

It is bitter winter in Belgrade. Snow, ice, temperatures which haven't been above freezing in nearly three weeks, plummeting to minus 20 in the dead of night. A gnawing piercing cold that scythes through you and freezes your blood, a cold so cold that no amount of clothing can keep it out, so that even the act of stepping out the door causes your muscles to stiffen, your nostrils to freeze, and your hands and toes to gallop headlong towards frostbite, stopping at length along the way at the doors of soreness and pain. And, like the rest of humanity in situations such as this, having spent December and the first half of January bemoaning the mild weather and the ruination of the seasons thanks to fridges and freezers and chemical waste and underarm deodorant, we are all holding candlelit vigils, praying for the onset of spring. Before the temperatures plummeted into the icy depths, it snowed more or less for six days running, so that it now remains in mountains around the city, and the roads are rutted with ice. But now the snow has turned dirty and black, and the city is overcast, bleak and grey, beholden to the crabbed Apollyon of Dickensian squalor.

People mince through the streets, bent double like old hags against the cold, faces white with pain and suffering. The bins have gone unemptied for weeks, as the rubbish trucks do not venture out into this glacial madness, and empty packets and cartons and the contents of rubbish bags, ripped asunder by starving cats, litter the once leafy and attractive suburbs. There is a gloom abroad that will not be lifted for some time, as if the dark hordes of Abaddon had flown out across the city and laid waste to all that is good and honest and true. Yet, as we take our first steps out the door in the morning, on the short walk to school, the lad cries, 'This place is too cold for hell!', before slipping on the ice and bursting into tears.

And you know, there's nothing more frustrating, nothing more likely to rend the spirits of the day and to start one off in the pit of despair to match the weather, than having to get your kids dressed for minus 15 before they go to school. Vest, t-shirt, jumper, jumper, jacket, waterproof coat, tights, thermal underpants, trousers, snow pants, hat, gloves, scarf, ear muffs, snow boots. You need to start getting them ready for school at some time around five-thirty in the morning. And then, being Scottish, when you pick them up at the end of the day, they're out in the playground wearing t-shirt and shorts, with a baseball cap worn at a jaunty angle their only concession to freezing temperatures, while the rest of the European kids are dressed for the Antarctic in winter, and all the other parents are looking at you as if you're parental filth and incapable of looking after a child, like it's your fault.

Then when you tell your kid off for being improperly dressed, you can see the mums looking at you like you're mean for speaking to your kid like that; then the kid starts screaming that they don't want gloves on because they want to get frostbite and die, and the mums are regarding you judgmentally because you're clearly some kind of lower life, bottom-feeding scum, while your children are perfect and they wonder if they should take them off you so that they can be looked after properly, and you just know that you're going to be discussed over coffee at someone's house the following morning; and when you mention to one of them that your daughter's got a streaming cold, they say, 'Yeah, there's a something going round,' but what they're actually thinking is, 'Of course she's got a cold, you idiot, you're a terrible father and wouldn't know how to look after a cockroach!'

Thrice-weekly training by the Sava river continues, despite the low temperatures. You'd think that with the weather this cold, we would not currently be being asked to jump in the river. And you'd be right. Jumping in the river would be too easy. It hasn't frozen over at this stage and, in the morning, when it's minus fifteen or whatever, there is steam rising from it. The river is at least fifteen degrees warmer than the air. So, instead, at the moment we have to strip off and crawl topless through the snow on our stomachs and on our backs, and do forward, backward and sideways rolls, and then wash with snow. If I'd been told six months ago that I was going to be doing this three times a week, I would have laughed the easy laugh of a PG Wodehouse character, ordered another gin & tonic, and casually instructed the punkahwallah to up tempo because the thick August air was becoming just a little too uncomfortable. Yet, here I am, regularly diving head first into the snow, half-naked. And it's not just any snow. When it was fresh, there was something to be said for it. Now it is two week old snow, with a hard crunchy layer of ice over the top, so that to do a forward roll is to take a journey into the world of pain, so that one emerges with a reddened back, scratched as if one has just crawled through a briar patch. It's clearly insane behaviour, and yet to have done it feels absolutely wonderful. It's the miniature equivalent of rowing across the Atlantic or walking the Silk Road with your legs strapped together. You know you've done something which is completely and utterly fatuous, not to mention idiotic, painful and liable to lead to hospitalisation, so naturally you feel great at the end of it. The rank insanity of human nature. And worse, as my children are aware of what I get up to while they are at school, when I descend upon them with the wrath of the evil saints of old for not dressing properly, they just look at me like teenagers and say, 'Who's the muppet rolling around naked in the snow?'

And the international mums get wind of this, and they mutter darkly about stupid husbands, and then they gather together in small groups and say, 'Yeah, there's a lot of it going around.'