While I was growing up, I liked nothing more than curling up with a good book. Any book; mythological tales, teen horror, childhood classics. Every so often, within the first few sentences, I became aware that something was amiss. “U”s where they didn’t belong. Transposed “r”s and “e”s in words like “theater.” Children who drank tea, called their moms “mum” and stored their boots in the family car. They lived in wet places, saw fairies, and said things like: “Wot have you got there, then – wot did he give you, eh?” That wasn’t the way people lived. That wasn’t the way they talked. Something was seriously wrong.
Years later, I still maintain that something was seriously wrong, but I did eventually come to understand that those tales were written by people who came from Ireland and the UK. I also came to prefer them to stories written by people from my side of the Pond. Colours somehow seemed lovelier than colors and afternoon tea seemed the height of sophistication. How nice to fall into a chocolate river. How jolly it must be to have a cruel governess to outwit!
Those plucky English and Irish kids – they seemed to have such fun lives. I did, however, notice that it wasn’t all fun and games for them. In between the giant peaches and the wolves and the magic cupboards there were often painful cases of chilblains, which sounded very unpleasant indeed. They seemed to be connected to the cold, damp moors. They seemed to happen only to the hands and feet of British and Irish children. I was sure I wouldn’t like to have them myself – whatever they were.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where a sprinkling of frost on the truck dashboard inspires citizens to yell, “Maw! Git the camera – we got ourselves some snow!” Certainly, we never suffered from chilblains; sunstroke was more like it. And then I lived in New York City, where winters were chilly and damp and the thermometer often flirted with the 0 degree mark. I wore boots and slogged through icy puddles. Still, we never talked about chilblains – frostbite, the huge puddle between Broadway and the Astor Place 6 train stop, or our giant Con Edison bills, maybe. But never chilblains.
So now I live in Ireland. I drink several cups of tea per day. I wear thick knit jumpers. I wave at sheep as I ride the train between Dublin and Cork. I eat biscuits and cottage pie. I walk on the left side of the road. I’ve grown so used to reading about the James Joyce Centre at school that I’ve begun to spell it “centre,” too. I trudge through hailstones and gray skies. Last month, I noticed that the second toe of my right foot was looking strangely puffy around the joint. It was as though a callus had formed, except the callus was red and shiny. Fantastic, I thought. A 6-inch scar on my shin and now this. So much for taking part in sandal season ever again!
Then, something queer – the red, shiny bulge went down. Queerer still – it came back, except smaller. And then it went away again. Then came two of them. And then I saw Sean’s fingers – covered in shiny red blisters that looked just like mine.
“These?” he said. “I’ve got chilblains. I always got them when I was little but haven’t had them since I moved back home. No need to point them out.”
Wikipedia’s definition of a chilblain:
A medical condition that is often confused with frostbite and trench foot. Chilblains are acral ulcers (that is, ulcers affecting the extremities) that occur when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold and humidity.
All right. I get it. I live in a cold, damp climate and I’ve perhaps have not bundled up my feet properly. But I was just as lazy in New York and Osaka, which were also cold and damp places, so what I don’t get is why do I have chilblains now and not then?
And where is my cruel governess?