The little boy opposite me on the underground train was riddled with angry red welts, like the exit wounds of a whole bomb's worth of shrapnel. He smiled at me, his mouth the gapped-toothed graveyard of a six-year-old. You little bastard
, I thought. You've just given me chickenpox
. I'd walked into his blinding viral fog. I could feel its spectral goop dripping from me. I'd been slimed.
I had successfully avoided chickenpox for 21 years, despite dangerous flirtation with it on a number of occasions. Despite its high levels of contagion, it had torn through everyone in my class at school but me, like a bolt of electricity only I didn't conduct. My mother had even taken me to "chickenpox parties," a seemingly perverse concept where healthy children are made to play with infected children in the hope that everyone will catch chickenpox, flushing the virus from their system at a young age when it is still relatively harmless. I never caught it. I was impermeable, my invisible force field of well-being thick and warm. In youth, immunity was good to me, but it would desert me like an errant father on the tube that day. And I would know the devastating power of its absence once it had.
The next morning, I had a solitary but terrifically painful red blob on the soft skin at the back of my knee. The entry point. First blood. The morning after that my entire body purpled and lumpy, as though wasps pumped with spite were trapped underneath the top layer of my skin. In adults, chickenpox renders the body a battlefield. I had its searing, itchy nodes on the insides of my eyelids. I could see and feel them when I moved my eyes. I had them underneath my fingernails. They queued down the sides of my tongue. I had them inside places. They grew on and inside me, pervaded parts of me I'd never even seen. My skin crackled and split when I touched it. The swollen bubbles popped, a giant executive toy for a sadist. Worse still, my joints had stiffened like rusty hatches. Each movement was a new torture. I had been wrapped in fire and dropped in the desert.
For two weeks I lay in my bed, rubbing myself with a viscous cold ointment, its grease staining my sheets. And with time to fantasise, I imagined a thriller about a man who, bed bound by illness, plotted the hunt for and elaborate revenge he'd take against the person who had passed the disease on in the first place. I still remember his face.