November 11, 2011
… was a Calvin Klein swimsuit from Saks Fifth Avenue, a one-piece in a blue so deep it’s almost black. My old suit was all crumbly and worn and with the sales on in the New York stores I decided to get serious about finding what the Brits refer to as a bathing costume. And never mind those photos of 60-year-old Helen Mirren looking very do-able in a red bikini — restrained elegance, that was my goal.
I didn’t achieve it. I bought the Calvin Klein, but it was snit buying, one of those choices you make when you’re fed up with shopping, fed up with struggling into a succession of nylon garments with plastic lining in the crotch, none of which – the garments, not the lining – looks good in the three-way mirror. I was in denial about a certain reality, namely, that Calvin Klein doesn’t make clothing for women like me: short women with 1950s’ bodies. He designs for women with shoulders and height, women like Princess Charlene of Monaco, the reluctant bride, or any number of transvestites. But that hot day in New York I’d had enough. I paid what seemed like an awful lot of money (for a bathing suit!) and I pretended it was okay; I would amortize my investment by swimming every day, once I was back in England.
The thing about England, it’s temperate — not too hot, not too cold — the perfect porridge. That same moderation extends to the wildlife: no lethal spiders, piranhas or marauding bears, hardly any snakes and unless you’re mooching around Scotland in August, mosquitoes are a non-event. Mildlife is more like it. Throw in a bit of global warming and you can swim the River Cam through October. As I did, until the plague hit.
I don’t mean to come off all mysterious and ominous about this plague business, or to trivialize real catastrophes — AIDs, Spanish Flu, the Black Death. My plague isn’t deadly, but it has meant the end of something special, which is swimming in the river. Submerging yourself in a dark body of water, fields and trees on either side, is not to everyone’s taste, but for me it falls under the heading of small, keen pleasures. More and more I’ve come to think that it’s the small stuff that makes for happiness, and now one of those gratifications is gone. The reason is something called, variously, river itch, swimmer’s itch or duck itch. It’s a worm, a parasitic flatworm that lives in fresh water. The actual name is schistosome and what it does is burrow into your skin. And if that’s not creepy enough, this worm – which lives on snails and ducks – burrows into you in order to die.
This is what happens: you come out of the water and there are red dots on your neck and legs. You go home, eat dinner, and by the time you’re stacking the dishwasher, the dots have turned into bumps. Then you go to bed and three hours later the bumps are itching so badly that you are shocked out of sleep. Your husband, awakened by all the thrashing around, is unreasonably annoyed. He turns on the light to see what’s going on and there you are, covered in little red tombs.
You have become a flatworm cemetery.
I don’t think the term plague is inappropriate.