I would lie on my back in the sick-room at Michaelis House and watch the flies play about the light-bulb. There were usually two flies, sometimes one or three. The flies would circle and dodge for no reason. The sick-room was my refuge, and although I did not actually fake illness, I did magnify any slightest symptom if I thought it would give me a day off school. Symptoms had to be carefully managed – a pain that was too heavy, complicated or obscure might bring the doctor, and anything too trivial would not have the desired result. Sips of hot water from the tap would help with the temperature, but dipping the thermometer into a cup of hot water would be overdoing it. If my medical presentation was successful, I could get a day in bed reading, designing rockets and dozing.
Lesley’s preoccupation with her health had not subsided with her marriage to Anton. It got worse, as she was assailed by a barrage of ‘minor’ illnesses, including cystitis, thrush, ovarian cysts, kidney infections, headaches and backache. She took pills for everything: antibiotics, fungicides, anti-flagellants, vitamins, minerals and above all, painkillers. At meals she would place a small mound of assorted pills and capsules next to her plate ready to be swallowed, with food. We called her the Pill Queen. Consultations with doctors and specialists were common, but did not change the overall picture, which was of a succession of non-fatal but uncomfortable and painful illnesses, each of which might be cured if only she took the right medicines.
After the 1960s, the urino-genital problems seem to have lessened, but the backaches and headaches persisted. Lesley was a thin, light-boned person of pale complexion, an ideal candidate for osteoporosis. Vere had been osteoporotic, with a calcified spine, and I remember her as an exceptionally thin, brittle-seeming woman. She had had back ops. Lesley had ‘spinal problems’ from the mid-1960s onwards – backache and stiffness and headaches. Her back got worse and worse.
During the twenty years after 1969, she tried every type of therapy available. Having had no more than symptomatic relief from mainstream medicine, she turned elsewhere. As her commitment to and involvement with satsangis grew, so she came in contact with the purveyors of all the alternatives, for many satsangis were alternative types, ‘seekers’ who were unsatisfied with or unacquainted with medical science, and sought more metaphysical or Oriental ways of understanding the world and their bodies, although the term ‘holistic’ had not yet been applied to these practices. They experimented with the many different therapies that were beginning to be offered in growing profusion. Lesley tried them all. They all gave relief, even relaxation, but none cured her back or made the pains in her abdomen go away.
Chiropractors, polarity therapists, homeopaths, naturopaths, iridologists, Philippine healers, Bach flower remedies: all came and went. But the painkillers stayed, and got stronger every few years.
Did Lesley’s poor health make her unhappy? I can’t say. She told me about pain and she told me about great peace and happiness, such as is said to come to the devotees of the mystical quest. The wince on her face in the face of the pain in her body was as real, to me, as the expression of calm and love that overcame her at times.
Did she use illness to elicit sympathy from those around her? As the label ‘Pill Queen’ suggests, there was a perception that she did. I imagine that it was a way to hit back at Jack’s indifference, Anton’s passion, to draw attention to the impact they were having on her health, and to get the time out of the system which illness allows.