Five years ago I caught glandular fever, the viral infection that is frequently and rather dismissively referred to as the “kissing disease”. It tends to affect people differently: for some, it consists of a lousy week of tiredness and a blisteringly sore throat that makes eating near impossible; for others it’s months of nausea, depression, lingering fatigue and roughly a week of tonsillitis either side of those effects.
The latter description is how I remember things. Having recently enrolled at university at the time, I had just begun adapting to an awful existence in student accommodation, living above a group of dim-witted twenty-somethings who were undergoing something of an identity crisis.
One of the flatmates, for example, was a white middle-class rasta, who despite being born and privately educated in Kent, was convinced that his true roots lay in Jamaica—his grandfather’s supposed homeland. Yet given that middle-class rasta was so inherently well-spoken, I suspect that his grandfather more likely owned plantations in Jamaica, rather than having actually hailed from there as a citizen.
Nevertheless, his grandfather’s alleged connections (along with the fact that he owned a CD copy of “Bob Marley: The Best Of”) made him feel somewhat at one with the land he’d never visited before.
Middle-class rasta lived a peculiar existence in the flat downstairs, upsetting everyone within a mile radius of his stereo system and getting so colossally stoned that he forgot to eat, shower and (on occasion) breathe. Naturally, he shared residence with likeminded individuals, one of whom once vomited into their bedroom sink and then left the festering mess to lie there for several weeks.
This particular student had a terrible addiction to online gambling and inevitably ended up blowing his first instalment of his student loan within the first couple of weeks of his studies. Then he spent the proceeding four months penniless and living off “Nourishment”—not the substance necessary for growth and good health, but a kind of pink-coloured drink that’s consumed exclusively by people who are too stupid to figure out how to eat.
The drink was also popular with another dweller from downstairs: a thick sporty type whose hobbies included football, tits ‘n’ ass and mashing his penis against soft things. Sporty type’s lessons at university seemed to include merely an hour of football practice a week, although somehow he was still the first person in the entire flat to drop out of higher education.
Other residents from downstairs included somebody who defined their entire existence on liking the band Oasis, middle-class rasta’s female counterpart and someone who exhibited possible signs of being a rapist—but that’s a story for another time!
Collectively, these people were the bane of my existence for the good part of a year, breaking down the long-standing conventions that have represented stupidity and redefining the term for future generations. In one Nourishment-fuelled haze of senseless destruction, they broke into my flat and reorganised the kitchen so that the contents were in silly places: the teabags were found in the fridge, the bread was deposited in the sink and the bin was—well, kicked into a thousand tiny pieces.
You might presume that these actions were carried out maliciously, but you’d be wrong. This was all done in the name of good fun. It was a hilarious prank that, they were upset to learn, didn’t tickle me quite as much as they’d hoped.
Perhaps I was wrong to object to the senseless destruction of my bin. I could, after all, have been more sympathetic to their militantly dim-witted attacks on common sense and dignity. But I was sick and their actions, after only a few months, had long worn thin.
Around the time that the kitchen incident occurred, I was spending much of my time lying around making the sounds of a man apologising for being alive and occasionally screaming into the toilet. So much as a cup of tea could make me feel nauseous and meals were frequently interrupted by what felt like my stomach trying to force its way up through my mouth.
I also found myself becoming hypersensitive and overly emotional, particularly when watching The Wonder Years it seemed, which made me breakdown in a pool of tears at least twice. However, a real low moment came during the first few days of December that year, when one morning, I awoke with an intense shooting pain in my arm.
I was convinced at the time that what I was experiencing what was almost certainly a heart attack. Yet despite the perceived severity of my condition, the pain was so intense that I had no choice but to lie there on the bed as I stared up inertly at Philip Schofield’s smiley face on the television.
There Schofield was, shining down on me radiantly as if he were some kind of inoffensive but bland God, introducing me to such public figures as Gino D’aCampo and a man from The Bill.
Fortunately for me, after a few hours, the pain seemed to dissipate and I began to accept that I had a) either died or b) managed to will away a full on heart attack. Now, fairly chipper and happy, quite frankly, with either outcome, I headed into town to make up for the several hours that I’d wasted lying on the bed in agony.
I had seen the face of God (Schofield), I thought, and now was the time to repent my sins. I must have done something terrible to deserve such distress; perhaps, I considered, buying everyone I know expensive but utterly useless Christmas gifts will help me find peace and salvation.
Yes, I had gone mad. I had lost mind that morning and this was now the equivalent of running naked through the streets with a butcher’s knife in hand. The difference, of course, being that my public embarrassment took place in HMV in Leeds and, quite fortunately (for the benefit of shoppers more than myself), I was not naked.
I returned home later that day with a number of items in my bag, including Scrooged on DVD and the Star Wars Christmas album, which features the classic song “What Do You Get A Wookie For Christmas When He Already Owns A Comb?” (the answer to which is presumably anything that is not a comb).
Later on that evening, I decided that there was to be a Christmas celebration in my flat, which would be spearheaded by me and include decorations, gifts and cheap newsagent booze. Naturally, a bottle of wine was much cheaper in those days—so I bought two, which I shared amongst seven people.
Well, on the day of the sham celebration, things got off to a decent enough start. We began by watching some Christmas specials in my room, which I had decorated to look all festive and welcoming, covering up the brutal white brick walls with posters of things that I didn’t like from the student store.
We spent the first few hours of the day watching Christmas episodes of The Simpsons, The Office, Arrested Development, Seinfeld—and yes, even The Wonder Years—before moving on to Christmas films and listening to Vince Guaraldi’s wonderful Charlie Brown Christmas album.
Alas, I can’t remember too much after this. I just recall somebody suggesting that Billy Murray couldn’t act and that his performance in Scrooged was proof of this. All I can piece together after this is my memory of hitting a full bottle of brandy, which within only a few minutes, was soon an empty bottle of brandy. Then I seem to vaguely remember lying on my friend’s bed as I complained about still emotionally sore events from my past.
When Christmas finally came around, I couldn’t have been happier to leave Leeds, although the proceeding few weeks were an absolute endurance. It was to be one of the most dejecting holidays in close memory, with me spending much of my time lying in bed and watching baffling monkey-based films like Dunston Checks In through periods of semi-consciousness.
By this point, I’d had many blood tests to try and determine what was wrong with me, although I was yet to be conclusively diagnosed with anything other than “a virus”—a type of non-descript illness that guarantees that the doctors won’t be giving you drugs anytime soon. The best you can do in this situation is self-medicate by attempting to drink your entire bodyweight in Buttercup—doing so at least dealt, in part, with my sore throat.
Fatigue, unfortunately, is hard to overcome and, on Boxing Day that year, I accidentally flooded the house, running a bath at 6am and falling asleep halfway through. It was then I knew that I had to make plans to get a definite diagnosis, one which meant that I would get big white pills that had the power to really shake up my immune system.
Indeed, when I finally got my hands on them, the enormous white disks were sensational. The only problem was, that I had to spend three hours in hospital beforehand.
I went to the hospital around the 30th and waited for about two hours in a room with an elderly woman. Her head was bleeding, but all things considered she seemed quite cheery, shooting me a smile that suggested that the torrent of blood descending from her scalp was surprisingly soothing.
I smiled back politely and then we watched a few episodes of Are You Smarter Than A Ten Year-Old?, which in those days, we were all sure was going to be the new Deal Or No Deal.
When I was finally called in to see the doctor, he didn’t seem particularly sympathetic towards me—not that I was surprised. In fact, he seemed like an irrepressible jumbo-sized prick, who appeared to treat his colleagues much like he treated his patients: with the utmost contempt.
To say that I had issues with confidence and self-worth back then would be an enormous understatement. I had spent much of my life avoiding ever having to be naked, and even alone privately in the shower would be, frankly, a little too much for me. Needless to say, I wasn’t fond of even taking my shirt off, particularly in front of cantankerous doctors holding massive syringes.
“You could have had a shave,” he snapped, stabbing a needle into my arm. “Didn’t you know that your chest is slightly deformed?”
I was stunned, naturally, by what I was hearing. No, I hadn’t the nearest idea that my chest was slightly deformed. Nor could I have shaved before coming to the hospital, because I was ill and scarcely able to stand. The hospital, you’d surely imagine, would be one of the few places where unkempt facial hair would be accepted, or indeed at least tolerated—apparently not.
Startlingly, this was to be my fourth blood test of the year. Moving from Leeds to Bristol and back had, it seemed, deemed all previous tests invalid. Of course, doctors don’t own computers, and instead rely on carrier pigeons to transport their patient’s blood tests. I was still waiting for mine to arrive.
Still, there was a plus side to this: the many needles that were jabbed into my arm that month did make me believe that, if I really wanted to, I could become a heroin addict. And although this might not seem like a particularly positive venture, you have to remember that the good thing about heroin is that it makes you feel really, really good.
For me, though, co-codamol was my heroin: I swallowed it, I gargled with it to relieve my sore throat and I pumped dense rocks of the stuff into my veins. In fact, on a co-coda binge I could drug myself into a hallucinogenic state of pure euphoria, where food was almost consumable. My diet at this time consisted mostly of ice-lollies, herbal teas and sloppy (or as the highfalutin French say: “négligé”) vegetables.
My recovery was coming on nicely, and soon I decided that it was high time I return to Leeds, back to my flat above a middle-class wannabe rasta and someone who enjoyed mashing his penis against soft surfaces.
I returned to the flat and was met with surprisingly cold response. People, evidentially, hadn’t even noticed I’d been gone. And what’s more, my sickness came back within moments of entering the place, as if my low-budget student halls were somehow making me ill. Perhaps they were.
Feelings of depression and nausea lingered on well into the New Year, and by mid-January, I looked like a mess, so I booked an appointment to have my hair cut at a place called, rather imaginatively, “HAIR”. The lady there was lovely and she asked me what I’d been up to, politely inquiring the best she could about my shaggy, tramp-like appearance.
“I’ve been ill for pretty much the last two to three months,” I said.
“Oh, dear,” she replied. “Nothing serious I hope.”
“Not really, just glandular fever,” I said.
“Oh, glandular fever. That’s not very nice, is it? Because my sister, you see, she has cancer.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded (not a great thing to do when you’re having you hair cut) and told her that I was sorry, that my best wishes were with her sister.
When I finally got a good look at how my hair had been cut, I was shocked to say the least. I looked uncannily like Paul Weller. She, I was devastated to discover, had given me “The Weller”, a haircut that men choose in barbers when they don’t want “The Owen”, which is the standard haircut for most men.
She must have presumed that I was little bit of an indie kid, that maybe I played in a middle-of-the-road rock band like Embrace or Starsailor. I didn’t, though, thus I was alarmed and concerned about making my way home. What if somebody I knew saw me?
Fortunately, no one did (I didn’t have any friends, you see), and as soon as I got home, I immediately set about making myself look non-descript again. Over the years, I’ve become a master of fitting in, which is no easy feat when you’re 6’5”. I dress inoffensively, minimising style and the possibility that someone might think that I want to be cool. Of course, as a cripplingly awkward nebbish, I don’t want to be cool; I just want strangers to look through me and, if they must, shoot me a look that implies that they don’t think I’m very cool.
Somehow this second haircut, I felt at the time, was slightly symbolic of something, although I struggled to comprehend what exactly. As I pruned my feathered mod mullet, I felt as if I were moving forward somehow, boats against the current. And although the coming year was a miserable stretch of time, where I stumbled from one agonising disappointment to the next, this was to some degree true.
I hated university while I was there. As a college student I entered my final leg of education with such great optimism. Perhaps, I whimsically considered, I could write for the school paper, start a band, join interesting societies—write comedy.
None of this paved out how I predicted. My university was geared up towards people who enjoyed mashing their penis against soft surfaces; the societies and opportunities there were for people who did sport, not me.
Nevertheless, I only have myself to blame. I shut myself away for close to a year, failing to adjust to my surroundings. It really wasn’t until the end of my second year that I started to genuinely enjoy myself and garner enough self-esteem to do something productive with my life.
Nowadays I look back on the period in which I had glandular fever, as well as the several months that followed, and wonder who I was exactly. As 2013 approaches, I feel extremely fortunate to be alive and honestly relieved to finally be surrounded by people who are genuine and inherently good-natured. This year I’m looking forward to Christmas and the New Year, content with all that I’ve been blessed with.
There’s a part of me that feels whole-heartedly ashamed about having to break character and ditch my typically cynical disposition, which has become something of a comfort blanket for me. But in truth, I couldn’t be much happier. So, indeed, Merry Christmas.