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.