Mother Teresa would have stuffed the duvet down my throat

IT WAS the half term from hell. In my more cheerful moments I imagined that Saddam Hussein was using our house as target practice for germ warfare. But when things got really bad I even wondered if an invitation to stay with the Conservative parenting role model from Modern Times might have been preferable.

All my plans for a culturally enhancing, activity-packed week (well, we were going to see Flubber, anyway) were laid waste when the youngest came down with what sounded like a close relation of consumption. "Hacking" is not the word to describe the cough that goes with this flu-like virus that has been cutting classes across the country to sizes usually found on remote Hebridean islands: this is a cough that could demolish 20-storey buildings, that propels a child upright in bed at 20 minute intervals throughout the night.

Just as I and my eldest son joined the phlegm chorus half way through the week, my husband conveniently found a job to do in New York. ("Should I go Air India or Virgin?" he rang from his office to ask me.

A Simple enough question, you think? Ha, no, he was trying to put the onus of responsibility on me to choose the plane which wasn't going to crash. Not that we are paranoid or anything.) But his absence, I reflected, between nocturnal lung evacuations, was probably a good thing, because however much you love someone, you actually want to murder them in the night when they can't stop coughing.

If Mother Teresa had been lying beside me in bed (now there's a spooky thought), even she would have been tempted to stuff the duvet down my throat. ("Stop it! Stop that cough right now" I bellowed at my poor little five-year-old in the middle of the fifth sleep-deprived night: thank goodness there was no Modern Times camera crew around.)

As half the country has already been in the grip of this particular virus, there has been no shortage of medical tips. "Try Potter's Cough Remover" advised a sophisticated publishing executive. It was only when I read the label that I remembered this woman is only sophisticated two days a week - the other five days she lives within divining distance of Glastonbury. Black Cohosh, Skullcap, Pleurisy Root and Skunk Cabbage are some of the more picturesque ingredients - and surprisingly delicious lt is too: the addition of chloroform and ipecacuanha adding an authentic Victorian flavour to my Emily Bronte impersonation. Anyway, I think it is doing the trick, though it does seem to be removing my lungs along with the cough.

There's only one thing worse than being ill in a hypochondriac household - and that's not being ill. The 11-year-old has been solicitously tucking the thermometer under his little sister's tongue - but more in Olympian than Hippocratic spirit. He's just checking to make sure no one beats his record temperature of 106 degrees. "You're not as ill as I was," he keeps crowing.

Our first nanny, who looked after him until he was one, and who is now an educational psychologist (the two events being entirely unconnected), assured me when she came to pick up the girls to take them for a bridesmaids' fitting, that this sort of competitiveness is natural in large families. In order to persuade my clinging five-year-old to go off with this unfamiliar woman, I had told her Virginia worked with "problem" children - meaning she probably had some good stories up her professional sleeve.

"But I haven't got any problems" she protested Indignantly. "No darling" I said, trying to think what the other awful family on Modern Times would have said, "but I expect you're angry with Mummy for being ill aren't you. I mean, this note I've found pinned up on my office wall..."

If she wasn't so good at phonics I might have hoped it was just a random assortment of letters - FUC TO M HSE. But clearly she was expressing - and of course, that's got to be healthy, even if it is not perhaps in the language I would have chosen - her inner rage.

"Oh God, Mum" she said in exasperated tones "don't you even know about emergent writing? Miss Blanchard could read that. It says 'friends are coming to my house'."