Later, Maurice would recall the days of nursing Alec through Spanish flu as the worst days of his life. Mercifully, they were few, as the malady was quick to develop as any influenza is. It started with a headache, a bit of fever. They had rented lodgings for two weeks, and he gave Alec a sound advice:
- It’s probably a nasty cold. Take some Aspirin, stay in bed and force fluids. I’ll make you tea.
Yet, at night, he was worse. His temperature had risen; he was clammy, incoherent and felt very bad.
Maurice was up all night making him drink plenty of sweet hot tea, giving him Aspirin every few hours, keeping his temperature down with a wet cloth on his forehead. Alec slept but it was agitated, unrestful sleep. In the morning, the temperature went up again, he had developed a cough that exhausted him and Maurice called for a doctor. He was a young fellow, roughly about his own age and looked extremely tired. Gave a quick look around and asked no awkward questions. He understood these close friendships built during wartime.
- It’s the Spanish flu. – the man said – There is really nothing we can do for him that you are not already doing. It’s influenza, so try keep his temperature at bay, keep him warm, fed and hydrated, try not to catch it yourself… Don’t overdo the Aspirin, two tablets every four hours, at the most. I know most fellows say it is harmless, but I am not absolutely sure of it. Somehow, I cannot believe it can be a safe practice to swallow medicine as if it was nothing, no matter how wonderful it appears to be.
- Keep on the safe side, right?
The man gave him a half smile.
- That’s my idea… I’d rather my patients don’t die from the medication… See that he eats. Liquids mostly. Hot milk, soup if you can cook some. Never give him his tablets on an empty stomach. Remember tea is mostly hot water.
Maurice sounded rather educated, so the doctor could guess he knew what to expect and what to fear.
- I won’t lie to you. This thing kills a great deal. First round was bad but this second one is even worse. He is better here, with you, who obviously know what you are doing, to take care of him, than in hospital. Hospitals are full of sick people, all down with the same damned thing. Nurses have no time to see to them all. If he is still alive in two days, he will probably survive. Give thanks he was already weak from overwork, because by now this seems to kill more often the stronger and fitter. I hate to say this but it is probably a question of how lucky you are…
For the rest of that day, he was in agony, fearing the worst, taking the utmost care no to become ill himself and surveying every lungful his friend drew, leaving his bedside only to make a fresh pot of tea, to warm milk or to go to the toilet. He would avoid his breath and wash his hands oftener than during nursing duty. He spent most of his time turning the wet cloth on Alec’s forehead or holding Alec’s burning hand and talking to him, nonsense really:
- Don’t you die on me! You cannot die now. The war is over; we can go away, start a new life! Please, hold on. What am I going to do without you?
Alec murmured some incoherent words in answer, and he would hush him.
- No, no, be quiet, don’t tire yourself! Let me do the talking, you rest.
He longed to kiss him, go get in bed next to him and hold him, but that he could not do. When fever went down one or two degrees, he tried to make him drink something hot and nourishing. His landlady, a sweet old thing who thought the world of them for being so respectful and quiet, «not the kind of behaviour one would expect from young men these days», brought him soup, when she noticed they were quite alone, and had the decency to ask no questions. Anyhow, the temperature would not return to normal, as if the body refused to be healed by any other means than its own hard resistance.
The two days seemed to last a month. Once he fell asleep for a few minutes and woke up startled, terrified, only to find everything exactly as it had been half an hour ago. He forgot to eat and did not sleep. On the morning of the second day, the doctor called in, and scolded him badly:
- You look worse than he does! That will simply not do! You know it will not help your friend if you breakdown from exhaustion, don’t you? You have to eat, and you must sleep when he is sleeping. Set an alarm clock if you wish, but you must have at least two or three hours sleep. After mid-day, give him the Aspirin and the soup, have some soup yourself and then sleep.
Maurice knew the doctor was right, so he tried to sleep, but could not really rest. He would sleep lightly for about three hours, and it did help a bit, but was far from enough. Alec was still coughing badly and still feverish and delirious and he was still dead tired. During that day, however, he began to form a routine: three hours sleep, check Alec’s temperature, and make him drink something, eat something himself, talk to Alec a little, to let him know he was not alone, try to put his fever down with the wet cloth, give him something light to eat and his Aspirin, then sleep again.
When dawn broke on the third day and Alec woke up breathing regularly and talking normally, his temperature still high but descending, he wanted to cry of pure relief. But what he did was give him a glass of hot milk, change his sweat soaked pyjama top for a dry, clean one, make him lie down again, and collapse on a chair where he fell deeply asleep for the next three hours. For the next month or so, he would wake up every three hours to see if Alec was breathing.
They were lucky: Alec got steadily better. It was a slow recovery; he was weak, drawn, peaky, but alive. The cough lingered for some time, he slept a lot, had to be careful and sit up slowly or the whole room would seem to spin around him. They stayed for a few weeks more. It might be dangerous for Alec to travel so soon after the flu.