when the plague came

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.


8 Responses to “when the plague came”

  1. Douglas Cheek Says:



  2. Georgina Born Says:

    seems like all we insomniacs read your blog in the wee hours. i wish i hadn’t had to learn that swimming in the Cam causes you to get flatworm-cemetery disease, but i much enjoyed learning that it does! that amortization rationale does come into action a lot when buying clothes, bags and shoes these days – i recognised that, as i did the idea of very small pleasures. just off to get my almond croissant from the great french-canadian bakery round the corner (here for the big anthropology meeting, AAA, in montreal!): now that’s one very small pleasure i can count on. georgie x.

  3. Brilliant as usual!! Have never heard concept of ‘snit buying’ encapsulated like that. I so often experience it – that frustration and the feeling you’d better buy something after all that heat and heaving – and now feel so much better for it having a name. Assume you made it up?
    But what a horror…
    Well done 😉

  4. J S-B Says:

    How totally hideous – tell me it is only a 24 hour plague or are you going to be a red bulgy friend for months to come??
    Really hope you are your beautiful smooth skinned self again by now and that we are going to catch up at Christmas

    loved reading, thank you

    Jessie x

  5. Sonia Says:

    Michelle! You can’t swim in the Cam any more! Of course you can’t, and this is a tragedy. Kayaking over the water rather than in it, is very nice too & ‘the dark body of water surrounded by fields & trees’ works there too. You might even like it better. No need for a snit-bought swimsuit and no suicidal schistosomes. Try it! Much love Sonia xxx

  6. Kate Says:

    That is just gross! But it could have been worse – I’ve heard a story about a girl who had a spider burrow in and run up and down her limbs just under her skin…
    So, does this mean that you will now have a new worm skin coat? Will it be glossy or more of the snake skin variety? will you shed it at Christmas? Or will all the dead worms erupt from out of your mouth? Now that would be dramatic! Can you give me an illustration?…Don’t worry, we still love you. In fact, when I tell the kids I’m sure they will be impressed – she swam, worms burrowed in, she scarpered, they died, she survived!

  7. lizzie Hart Says:

    Now I am DEFINITELY not ever swimming in the Cam!

  8. Alex Smolin Says:

    Came across this blog today, on my birhday. I am the same age as you, and your stories made me smile. Thank you.
    I bet you are a Sagittarius too.

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