I’m out, driving, on chore-related business. The radio, as usual, is on. Tuned – also as usual – to BBC radio middle-middle-class. No, not the classical one. No, not the middle-of-the-road music one.
The talking one.
Crikey, even radio’s becoming difficult to pin down these days.
Anyway, as I tune in mentally I hear a person talking about holding someone’s hand and prepare to switch off – but hesitate. And before I can indulge in second thoughts a different voice is speaking and I’m hooked. Tears welling up.
Four tiny fingers and one tiny thumb, curled around one of a grown-up.
Best friends holding hands as they skip to the park.
A small hand safe in big sister’s as she crosses the road.
Young, first-loves, aware of each heightened beat of their pulses, turning to look at each other – shy, excited, hand-in-hand.
Italian sailors fresh off the ship in crisp clean uniforms holding hands.
Zambian men laughing and swinging their hands, held in friendship as they chat.
A stranger pulled to safety by a gripping hand as a boat rocks and tips.
A lonely, sick person, imprisoned in bed, hand enveloped in that of a kind stranger as life ebbs away.
Possession, friendship, reassurance, love, fear – so many reasons and times and excuses for holding hands.
I begin to notice people walking down the street holding hands. Older couples, mostly, I’m surprised to see. I’d never have noticed that if I hadn’t been listening. And I think about my own hands.
When I was still a child, not yet heading for my teens, they were quite nice, really – a good shape, reasonably long fingers – except for one thing. Three fingers on each hand and the palm of one were covered in sores.
The skin was tight on my fingers. It was hard to open them out fully without breaking open the small wounds. A jewel of blood, like a pomegranate seed, would seep out. Not much, but it was still blood.
Often I went to school with one, or sometimes two fingers swathed in a bandage called Tubegauz – its application an art well-mistressed, by the age of 12 or so, by me. I could manage it single-handed with the plastic applicator and a pair of scissors to help, the cut ends tied around my wrist to keep it on. Sometimes – if appearances were important – a leather or plastic sheath over it to keep it clean.
At night I often wore white cotton gloves to stop the ointment from marking the sheets and – probably more important, to keep it on my hands.
I was never a fan of netball, but the dry ravines of cuts where the skin had split would erupt with blood as I caught the wretched ball – how I hated it. The smarting. The shame.
And then there was formation dancing. Who wants to hold hands with someone who’s doing a passable imitation of leprosy? (Children don’t hold back on these things.)
And so to adolescence.
Imagine it – holding hands and sneaking a kiss. Magical. Except you’re terrified your sweaty, scabby hands will put him off. (Perspiration or ‘glowing’ it really is not.)
Well, the good news is, it began to subside as I passed sixteen and by the time I was eighteen it was nearly gone.
And I think about friends. One with callipers on her legs, recovered from polio only to limp through life. One with a fatal disease that filled his lungs with water. One recovering from leukaemia. And I know how lucky I was. I do, really, I do.
My hands still bug me a bit – because I still have sweaty hands – that bit of my affliction never stopped. A rather unpleasant (rich, white) man in Zambia comes to mind – ostentatiously wiping his hand on his trousers after shaking hands with me. He made no attempt to hide it.
I know, this isn’t a nice thing to write about, but this is – in parts – a memoir. Sometimes it won’t be pleasant. Because sometimes life’s not pleasant, or I’m not pleasant, or someone’s not pleasant to me.
You don’t have to be here, to be reading this, but if you are – and have made it through my eczema – thank you. No more of that, I promise.
I wrote about it because it hurt. And I don’t mean the sores.
This was a beautifully written piece about a subject that might normally make one cringe. This is a wonderful reflection that anyone can relate to- and not the eczema- but the hurt.
Hi Lauren, thanks so much for taking the time to reply. I hesitated a long time before posting this as I kept feeling the old shame… old habits die hard. Thank yo for making it feel worth it. Mary
When you’re a kid you have so much less perspective, and everything feels about you, only you. And of course other kids generally don’t have an edit button, even if they aren’t being unkind. As an adult you see more, people have an edit button but don’t always mean well… judge you before you judge me. And there are ignorant people of all kinds. No matter though, hurt still hurts.
I have psoriasis, most visible on my legs. I prefer not to wear skirts or shorts but please myself if I want to, and people are mostly curious or say nothing, to me anyway.
You’re right, the children around me weren’t ever intentionally cruel – it was more that I felt bad. I suspect you have a bit more self-confidence (now at least) than I did then – but having psoriasis you will certainly understand. I think in some ways well-meaning friends are the most difficult to deal with when something physical is bothering you – ‘what are you going to do about x’. I’m lucky the eczema went away eventually – occasionally threatening a comeback when times are tough – and hot! Thanks, as ever, for reading and making the effort to comment, Mary
Never anything quite as unpleasant as you describe, but since the age of about nine I’ve almost always had some mild form of skin eruption, mostly mild psoriasis on knees and elbows. At school, cadet parade, being inspected by a visitng general or some such, he stopped in front of me and said “Wash your knees” (this was Rhodesia and we were in shorts).
Ah – how mean!
Out of the closet. Me too. Hands, teens and 20s, white cotton gloves. It looks like we rule!
Sisters Against Eczema! We might be related 🙂