'I'm still amazed that no one found out about the outbreak'

Rowan Pelling
Rowan Pelling's mother and father 
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The Covid-19 pandemic is not my first brush with a notifiable disease. As these long lockdown weeks have passed, I have found memories of the summer of 1984 returning in an insistent manner, bringing many unanswered questions in their wake.

When did my father become so worryingly irascible? Did my little sister disappear for a month, or was it two? When did Granny come to run the household? Why was I told never to speak about what happened?

So I phoned my four brothers and sisters to see what they remembered.

It started around spring, with Dad’s deeply-embedded cough that built to fierce crescendos.

This was still the season of flus and colds, so no one took too much notice at first. Also he was a heavy smoker and was still puffing away at his full-tar Rothmans. Although it must have been disconcerting for the drinkers at my parents’ country pub – perched in woodland high above the Kent Weal – to see my 74-year-old dad hawking up phlegm near their pints of ale.  

His personality seemed off-kilter, too. My father was infamous for calling people, “bloody idiots,” telling customers to “Bugger off the lot of you,” at closing time and for giving regulars rude nicknames like, “John the Rat.” But he was kind-hearted and funny under the gruffness and was always dolling out free drinks, giving racing tips and helping locals find work. As the cough bedded in, though, he began to seem genuinely foul-tempered. He shouted at drinkers and spat into a big cloth hanky he kept in his jacket pocket.

I was in my O-Level year at school and my desk for doing homework was stationed just outside the door connecting the pub to our cottage, so I could hear every fearsome, shuddering hack. The cough escalated over a couple of months. On a couple of occasions I stuck my head round and saw my father trying to hide a sherry glass, which was odd. Dad has spiralled into alcoholism in his early years as a publican, but became a teetotaller when I was four. My mother was beside herself with worry and was aware some customers were now staying away. My father never consulted the doctor, but after days of forceful cajoling when he seemed close to collapse, my mum managed to haul him off to the GP.

That’s when everything started moving at speed. Mum returned from the doctor’s without my father; she was dazed. Dad had been rushed into hospital for urgent X-rays and tests, and the medics were certain he was suffering from a serious case of tuberculosis. Our GP had told mum that if she hadn’t bought him in when she did, he’d have been dead within a week.

Now the entire family needed to be X-rayed and checked, with my five-year-old sister, Dorcas, first in line. We were all suddenly keenly aware that she’d also had a bit of a cough. Within a day she was in hospital – although we four older siblings were given the all clear. My mother was in tears as she relayed how five nurses had to hold my little sister down as they took blood tests and put a tube down her nose.

If this had happened today, there’s no doubt the pub would have been closed down and notice given of an outbreak of TB, which would have destroyed our customer base. I imagine my sister’s village primary school would have been subject to restrictions, too. Certainly parents would have been told, tests offered and we would have felt like social pariahs.

Rowan Pelling with her grandmother and brother Hereward

Tuberculosis was a Dickensian contagion that had pretty much been eradicated in Britain by the Eighties. I later found out that the doctors suspected my father had become infected in Ghana - where he had worked when he met mum - and that the bacteria had lain dormant for years until his immune system weakened.

He’d starting drinking alcohol again in an attempt medicate the pain in his chest, but all it had done was exacerbate the inner fire. Without advances in TB medication, he and Dorcas would have perished like the consumptive souls of Victorian novels, coughing into blood-stained hankies.

But instead of closing the pub and putting out public safety alerts, our family GP of many years somehow managed to hush the outbreak up. He would have known my parents were barely scraping a living as tenant publicans of a large brewery. A prolonged closure would have bankrupted them and left seven people homeless.

Mum once told me she would always be grateful to him that he somehow managed to circumvent the protocols that would have necessitated a public alert. I should probably point out here no one else in the family or village contracted TB -  you generally need to be in close contact with a cougher for a prolonged period to catch it, and my little sister was only vulnerable because she often shared a bed with my parents.

We four older children, aged between 12 and 20, were informed we mustn’t tell anyone. So my big sister, Holly, and I prepared to sit our A Levels and O Levels with two family members in strict isolation at Orpington hospital, not knowing if Dad would live or die – all the while pretending in public that things were normal.  

Meanwhile, Mum spent her waking hours with one or the other, and nights on a camp bed beside Dorcas. Granny, her mother, moved in to oversee meals and help with the school run.

What’s amazing to me now is how the tale never leaked out to our customers or school-friends, and how vague we five grown-up siblings still are around the details.

We were told so often that nobody must find out about the TB that we seemed to have pushed the whole episode into deep recesses of our memories. My mother must have invented a cover story about dad’s and my sister’s absence that satisfied all enquiries.

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Measles, or mumps perhaps? My younger brother, Hereward, who was just 12 at the time, says he was barely aware of the crisis, while my big brother, Justin, had just started at university and was away for the key five weeks of hospitalisation.

But I remember helping with domestic and pub chores when I should have been doing revision, and having to sit up late cramming.  Holly keenly recalls sleeping on a makeshift bed on the hospital floor alongside Dorcas, while Mum spent the night beside our father at the peak of his illness. “I took my A Level biology exam the next day and spilt the Bunsen burner practical experiment all over the lab surface because my mind was elsewhere,” she tells me now.

Dad and Dorcas were returned to us by the start of the summer holidays, but my father never regained his previous age-defying vitality. Four years later he died of lung cancer, brought on by the scarring in his lungs. But then lungs are a family weak spot. Asthma runs down the generations, while my mother was also to die, 15 years after Dad, of secondary tumours that had formed deep in her chest.

Only Hereward and I seemed clear-chested until we both caught what we think was Covid-19 in early March (though neither of us was tested) and felt a tightening around our rib-cages and, in his case, a terrible cough. We’re both fine now. My case was pretty mild compared to friends and it’s only as a range of symptoms have been brought to public notice I’ve become convinced it was the virus. Mercifully, this time round there were no hospital visits - and no cover-up.