It is sometimes said that truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes it can be. Many years ago I was trapped in the infectious diseases hospital in Belgrade. The diagnosis was infective hepatitis: so far as I know, the classification into A, B, C, D and E types was not then made. Nonetheless, the docs could tell you a thing or two about your bilirubin count. Symptoms of the disease included those you would associate with jaundice (yellow corneas etc), an inability to keep food down, and an intolerable itching of the feet.
I contracted the disease in Afghanistan, probably due to drinking tea. There were times when refusing it would not have been a good idea if you wanted to live longer. Where did the water come from? Not always from the best possible place. On the way home I couldn’t keep going further than Belgrade and knocked on the hospital door.
After three days spent on a drip I began to eat, though only a little at first. And then the diet began. Breakfast consisted of a piece of steak and a saucer of honey. Lunch tended to be based on chicken – chicken broth being common. A fat-free diet and strictly no alcohol. Since the staff had complete control over what you ate, you kept to it.
Visitors were not allowed, though this didn’t seem to apply to the two-year-old gypsy boy who began to rock violently in his cot when his supply of cigarettes ran out. Every now and again he was visited by his mother and several siblings, one of whom always passed him a fresh supply of the noxious weed. Medical attention, in his case, was making sure he didn’t set fire to his bedding by mistake and keeping him on the diet.
Every morning we were zapped over the ward loudspeakers with a children’s radio programme – I can still remember the little tune it began with – though there was only one child in the ward and he paid it no attention. Maybe, like me, he spoke no Serbian.
When I got a bit better I was allowed to join some of the patients and staff of an evening at the long trestle table in the corridor outside, where much was discussed and remarkably strong coffee served up. Not knowing Serbian, I listened and drank the coffee. They also let me type up my notes there, which was very civil of them given how noisy the typewriter was.
It turned out that one of the patients had a private room off the corridor. It was very small but private nonetheless. His name was Savo and he was the only one I could converse with well because we both spoke German. He described himself as a businessman and told me that though he was able to make quite a lot of money, this came with risks attached. To let me see how true this was he showed me his bullet wounds, of which he was just a little proud. He was also proud of his wife and not all businessmen can say that. (Well they can, but it may not be true.)
Then came the time to leave. An official from the embassy collected me by car. As he drove down a one-way street the wrong way he explained that he had a wife and children. He was sure I would understand. I was slow on the uptake here, but finally caught up with the man. This was his way of saying that he couldn’t risk taking me to his house in case I infected his family. Did he really think the doctors would have signed me out if I was a danger to the public? Apparently he did. And now for the bit that’s stranger than fiction. If you put it in a novel you would be accused of going over the top.
I was to catch a train to Paris the next day so where was I to spend the night? Not in his house, plainly. I ended up in an embassy outbuilding, where I wrapped myself in some surplus carpet, bedded down on the floor and was wakened by field telephone the following morning. Field telephone! You couldn’t make it up, but I didn’t have to.