Hot summer nights: ‘My brother brought friends to marvel at the awful state of my body’


The hottest summer nights of my life were in Australia around the Christmas of 1988. My brother was on a gap year with a mate, working in a factory in Dandenong, a suburb of Melbourne. They were living in a tiny, scruffy caravan in an overgrown field when I went to visit. It had come with air-conditioning, they explained, but on their first night it shook violently for a few seconds upon being switched on, before dying.

The heat in this oven they called home was simply appalling. I slept not at all. But this was only the third-most terrible night of my life; the second-worst and the very worst were still a couple of weeks away.

We travelled by bus up to Queensland, where we ended up in Coolangatta on the Gold Coast. While my brother made a clown of himself attempting to surf, I lay on the beach reading a book, having inexplicably ignored his entreaties to put on some sun block. I was reading The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh. I looked up only once as my brother walked past cursing. Marching back to the board hire place, having abandoned surfing very quickly, he had tripped over the leash and broken his toe. I paused briefly to enjoy this moment before returning to my reading.

So engrossed was I in my book that I didn’t notice the colour my skin was turning. The full horror of the redness didn’t become apparent until evening. We lay awake all night, his toe throbbing and most of my body on fire. This was the second-worst hot night of my life.

On a bus journey south to Sydney, I felt increasingly sick, as well as being, to all intents and purposes, on fire. I was also developing strange little spots all over me. This, a doctor told me in Sydney, was one of the worst cases of chickenpox he had ever come across. Thousands of the things, perhaps hundreds of thousands, bullied their way up through my flame-grilled skin in a dermatological double-whammy for the ages.

The ensuing dozen sweltering summer nights in a tiny flat on Blues Point Road in North Sydney were the joint worst of my life. In the punishing heat, I swear the only thing keeping me from expiring entirely was the very torment of those innumerable spots. Suspended miserably in an ecstasy of itchy soreness, sleep was quite impossible. One night, I found some relief by lying in a cold bath. On subsequent nights, I didn’t bother with the bed at all; I just went straight for the bath.

By day, I became a minor tourist attraction as my brother brought various friends and acquaintances to marvel at the stupendously awful state of my body. There was something oddly gratifying about their gasps of horror. My nights were spent in the bath. I finally finished the Sword of Honour lying in tepid water in the barmy heat of the early hours of a Sydney summer’s morning.

Eventually, the sores ravaging my body burst, either of their own volition or from the scratching, which at times was impossible to resist. Once the scars on my face began to subside, and I judged I could board a plane without causing a stampede for the exits, it was time to fly home. My only evening out in Sydney was the night before my flight. We spent it in a bar around the corner, drinking very cold beer and playing pool. Some time after midnight, a couple of women we had got talking to suggested cooling off by skinny-dipping. This sounded to me like a capital idea. It looked as if my not entirely pleasurable time in the city might, after all I had been through, end gloriously.

I’ll never forget the howl of horror one of those women let out as we waded in. The other one said: “What? Shark?”

The screamer said: “No! Him!” pointing in revulsion at my naked form, a thousand scars somehow more vivid and macabre when lit by the moon. The women made their excuses and left. I lay back in the shallows and smiled in resignation at the night sky. It made a nice change from the bath.