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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: All the obsessive hand-washing in the world won't stop those nasty little germs

My swine flu buddy rings the helpline and they say, yes, sounds like swine flu to them

These are testing times for hand-washers. You could say that times are always testing for hand-washers otherwise they wouldn't be hand-washers. But these times are more testing than previous ones, unless you count the years between 1348 and 1350 when the Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe. A thought so morbid I must pause to wash it from my hands.

By hand-washers I don't simply mean those who know to wash their hands after they have been to the lavatory or before they eat, which, going by what one sees in restaurant washrooms, is by no means everybody. I mean those, like me, who wash their hands compulsively and at all hours, whenever the opportunity arises or they can't think of anything else to do, hobby-washers who never feel entirely clean until they've given their hands a 15-minute scalding.

Don't ask me where my obsessive hand-washing comes from. Guilt, is the predictable answer. But what have I done? I am neither Lady Macbeth nor Pontius Pilate. I am guilty of murdering neither Duncan nor Jesus Christ, though in the latter case there are some who would have it otherwise. You can of course be guilty without having done anything to be guilty of. You can be guilty in advance of any deed by simple virtue of knowing your capabilities; but with me it feels more like superstition – not to protect oneself against bacteria, viruses and all the other protozoa with which creation swarms is not only to risk one's own and other people's health, it is to ignore a moral injunction originating it is impossible to say where. Never mind the reasoning, it's just best to do it.

Enter swine flu. With swine flu even a 15-minute scalding every half-hour is not enough. Touch fingers with someone who's touched fingers with someone who knows someone whose child's been near another child and you're a goner. Strictly speaking, the only safe course with swine flu is to sit with your hands in boiling water, a mask on your face, and a thermometer under your tongue. Not so easy these days because digital thermometers won't stay under your tongue unless you tape them to your mouth, a procedure which makes you so hot and bothered that you're certain to get an unreliable reading. That's if you can read it. An alarm goes off on a digital thermometer, a series of low mouse-like peeps, to tell you when it's done, but if you've got swine flu, the chances are you won't hear them.

How to stay clean when you are out of the house is a conundrum that has always tormented hand-washers who don't want to travel everywhere with one of those folding washbasins you buy from shops called The North Face of the Eiger or Kon-Tiki, but now there are little bottles of antibacterial hand hygiene gel you can get from any chemist. They come in several sizes and assorted aromas. The beauty of them is that they need no water. You just flip open the top, squirt into your hand and rub. I keep one by my bed, one by my phone, two by my computer – let me warn you about keyboards, reader, which, as the preferred habitat of Escherichia coli, Salmonelli typhi and of course Staphylococcus aureus, are the filthiest places on the planet – and one in each pocket of whatever trousers I'm wearing. I even keep a bottle in the bathroom which you could argue is overdoing it since there's already a plentiful supply of soap and water there, but no one ever suffered as a consequence of making doubly sure.

What I can't decide is whether it's best to wash my hands before applying gel or after. Does the soap remove the gel or does the gel override the soap? They don't tell you this on the bottle...

At which point, reader, this narrative comes to an abrupt end because – I swear on all that's holy – I no sooner write the word "bottle" than I fall into a fit of violent shaking the like of which you do not expect to experience outside the tropics. I can barely get myself to my bed. For two days my temperature rages. I cannot eat. Every bone in my body aches and every organ feels as though it's swollen to twice its normal size. I say my temperature rages but I cannot be scientifically sure of this because my wife – hereinafter to be referred to as my swine flu buddy – cannot find the thermometer. I am anxious about her going out to buy another one from the chemist because a) outside is germ hell, and b) if there's one place you can be sure there will be promiscuous exchange of lethal micro-organisms, it's a chemist's. But unless you can give the National Health helpline your exact temperature, they won't confirm that it's swine flu you've got. So a new thermometer it has to be.

Trouble is, it won't peep, and when finally it does, we can't read it. Seems to say 130, but whether that's Fahrenheit or centigrade – and either way I am a dead man – we don't know. By the time we have inveighed against unnecessary innovation, and reminisced with fondness about the old mercury thermometers which stayed wherever you stuck them and never gave a false reading, my temperature has gone up another three degrees, whether Fahrenheit or centigrade I don't care.

At last, after buying two further thermometers, my swine flu buddy rings the helpline and they say, yes, sounds like swine flu to them. But what do they know? They have had half an hour's training. They were cleaning windows yesterday, and probably not remembering to disinfect their cloths. In fact, they're wrong. I don't have swine flu. What I do have is not relevant to this column, but the doctor treating me – who by the by tells me he has never seen anyone with cleaner hands than mine – diagnoses something with the word bacterium in it.

So there you are: one way or another the little bastards sneak up on you. The gels, it turns out, create as many problems as they solve. They dry the skin, dry skin abrades, and there's nothing a germ loves more than open wounds. But I doubt it's through the skin they have attacked me. Call me superstitious but I believe they got me because I was making fun of my precautions and therefore, by implication, light of them. Germs are vindictive and humourless. They're like gang members. Treat them with disrespect and they'll have you.