Jean sits in a wheelchair with a box file on a table next to her. She indicates a photograph of a young man in his late teens, also on the table. 

That’s my boy.


C’etait mon fils. 

Il est mort.


The start of 1986. Wouldn’t have his photo taken once he was diagnosed. By the end of 1987, he was gone. One of the “average 15 months from diagnosis” brigade.

If he’d been in The Middlesex in 1987 rather than in Birmingham General, it could have been him as the Poster Boy of the People’s Princess. Lady Di. Princess Diana. Diana, Princess of Wales. She had all her own trials and sorrows but she travelled around the country to break down the myths and she visited my boy and held his hand when he was being treated like a leper, even by the hospital staff. I’m not a fan of the Monarchy but probably neither was she by the time they’d spat her out.

No gloves. No mask. She didn’t seem to notice the Kaposi tumours that made him so ashamed nor the fact that he looked like someone just out of Belsen. Just held his hand like he was a real human being and not a monster. Such a contrast to the staff who opened the door a crack and shoved his tray in with their foot.

He died three weeks later. 

It’s like that in here too. Course, no-one can shake your bare hand but even though they finally have their masks and aprons and face shields, there are some who make you feel human and others who handle you like you were a bucket of fermenting potato peelings. 

I love a bit of irony, especially the bitter kind. There was Martin, couldn’t pass his virus on just by social contact but surrounded by people so covered up you couldn’t even tell whether they were male or female – and here’s me, highly vulnerable, dead ringer for the profile of worst case scenario and it takes the government weeks to get the care staff the PPE they need to stop the spread of our virus. The history of the world in small absurdities.

I haven’t seen anyone apart from the staff for weeks. Although they took their time deciding what to do about us, we are all confined to barracks and no parole for good behaviour. Course the conspiracy theorists are arguing that we were ignored for so long because we were expendable. We live too long. We clog up the health service. If thousands of us can be wiped out so much the better.

I wonder. Because we are a high risk group, are they, our Lords and Masters, trying to protect us from the outside world or protect the outside world from us, with our aged bodies and our obesity and our heart complaints and our diabetes? Walking - or not walking in some cases, including mine - disease-spreaders.  So, more parallels with my poor boy, if you believed the Daily Mail and The Sun at the time. And then Chief Constable James Anderton weighs in declaring that gay men are dying because they are swirling in a cess-pit of their own making. If it is only gays who are dying of this disease, then let’s leave them to their perverted practices and unnatural lifestyles. If we don’t talk about it, Margaret and Ronald, it will go away. Except that it didn’t, did it? 

The tabloid press had a field day once the numbers started to double and double again. Warnings about the “dangers of predatory and sexually violent AIDS carriers”. It was dismissed as “just” a gay plague before they knew it could infect anyone, before they realised that the virus didn’t actually stop to check: “Are you gay?” “Do you need a blood donation.” “Is your mother a drug addict, child?”

You could “reasonably be deemed guilty if you belonged to those deviant sub populations, engaging in moral depravity and endangering your own lives.” I suppose the haemophiliacs and the babies were just collateral damage. 

Am I sounding like a newspaper report? That’s because they’re all here in this box. All those hate-filled judgements and prejudices for 20 pence. I shout at the cuttings even now, after 33 years: “That’s my beautiful, kind, timid, confused son you are talking about!” 

And the bigotry’s still there. I heard one of the care staff – a gentle, lovely Chinese woman - telling another how, on her way to work, a bloke had coughed in her face, shouting “’Ave it back, you Chinky cunt”. Once Martin started to show the signs, the neighbourhood yobs were always screaming abuse at him, so that he stopped going out.

My Martin was seventeen. Rob was his first boyfriend, a couple of years older than him. Course the age of consent was still 21 but how was that going to stop a young lad, madly in love, all the torment finally making sense? The doctor said that he was “one of the unlucky ones”, infected by his first partner by a disease that took hold rapidly in his case, dead just before his nineteenth birthday. Il a brise mon coeur. 

That’s about all the French I have left from the first year of a French degree. Bit of a pattern there. First freedom away from home, first boyfriend, pregnant by term two. Had to leave of course. It was 1970. And then it was just me and Martin for nineteen years. 

Developed multiple sclerosis soon after he died. I was 37. Another autoimmune disease but of unknown origin. Two to three times more likely in women and one of the most common disabilities in younger adults. Did my research. Could have been related to extreme stress. Well, I had that alright.

Mine was primary progressive MS so no remission. MS. AIDS. KS. COVID19. Coronavirus Disease19. 

Lives lived – or lost - through acronyms.

The rattling of a tea trolley can be heard.

Mary Dunne