Harriet Walker: I thought the chintz pattern on the sofa was an elephant trying to have a conversation with me


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The Independent Online

Writing this through a murky, slightly damp haze of being Really Quite Ill, I realise what inherently social animals we are. Even as we submerge our consciousnesses in social media, as we engineer our every living detail to our own digital specifications and do away with the need for company, we crave contact more than ever; we can't exist without the importance bestowed by someone who spends time with us despite our flaws.

I know this because I haven't seen or spoken to anyone for three days.

Being Really Quite Ill is bad enough when you have company, but it's that much worse when you have to make all the Lemsips yourself and drag your aching, shivering mass to the shops when the tissues run out.

What a depressing simulacrum of the independence I have tried so hard for these past 10 years. What cynical puppetry of a process that more usually declares that I am fine on my own two feet, thanks very much, and before you ask, no, I don't need any help packing the bags. The supermarket is where I express my individualism and confirms how well I know my own mind: Berocca, for instance, because I am a health-focused adult; Super Noodles and Rolo desserts because, hell, I have tastebuds, too.

When I first lived away from home, it was in the supermarket that tiny blows were struck in the formation of my own personality. By buying butter (we only had marg at home), chocolate cereal and white bread ("cricketing flannel", as my grainy parents had it) and no vegetables. More recently, I've been struck by how my shopping habits now cleave to what I was brought up with. I've come round to the fact that chocolate before 8am is no way to start the day.

As it was, my own two feet practically went from under me in the dry-goods aisle, as I scanned frantically for something that would ease the pain of being Really Quite Ill. I ended up coming home with a packet of plain poppadums and some grapefruit juice, like some kind of dry-mouthed martyr with a point to prove. I wasn't, of course; I just had one of those terrible fluey colds that make you feel like you've gone temporarily insane.

The last time I had one this bad was around 20 years ago, when even my parents leaving the sitting-room made me feel as isolated as an unpopular politician. I remember thinking the chintz pattern on the sofa was an elephant trying to have a conversation with me.

Fast-forward two decades to two nights ago, when I hallucinated that Karen Carpenter was in the same room as me, until I feverishly realised that upstairs was having a 1970s party at 4am. I was too weak even to be annoyed.

Normally I relish coming home to an empty flat and enjoying my own space. Living alone was meant for people like me, I always think: a person who enjoys watching niche medieval history programming and becomes irritable if they have to pour tea for anyone else. That isn't to say I don't also have a raring social life – more that I set a lot of store by nesting among my own things and doing whatever I want.

But there's nothing like living at your weakest to make you realise how resilient you are at your strongest. The mere fact of living in a world where hardly anybody talks to each other makes you far stronger than you know. It's like armour. You take it for granted, the way you are wrought, when you're doing the most basic things – shopping, commuting or even drifting off to sleep.

So when you attempt any of those without the steely resolve you have come to subconsciously rely on, you quickly realise you need somebody around to help; a person to tell you it's just a shadow where the curtain falls, not a grinning death's head. Or to bring through a Lemsip. And eventually to say, "It's been three days, you should wash your hair."

Then again, we say things at the peak of fever that we don't mean. We recant on our deathbeds only to find out we've come through the worst and have been granted another chance. There's every likelihood that, once my temperature drops again, I'll carry on as usual, anti-social as ever.

But maybe there'll be that phantom of a feeling. Like the day after a terrible hangover, when you weep and give thanks, like a pilgrim coming through a hard winter, for feeling normal again. When the Lemsips cool and the tissue tide turns, I'll remember this and be nicer for it.

And I'll never let my boyfriend go on holiday without me again.