Waking with a persistent cough, I sat up in bed. The congestion didn’t clear, so I got up and walked around. Being upright shifted the irritation.
In childhood days, I would not have so easily drifted into such breathlessness. My mother propped me up with so many pillows that there were times when I seemed almost to be sitting in the bed. The elevated position meant that sleep was not easy, but it also meant that I tended less often to wake gasping for air.
Breathing was a serious business at school, it was the chief reason most of us had been sent to the remote cluster of buildings deep within the National Park and three miles from the nearest village, which had not so much as a shop for anyone inclined to walk there.
Problems with breathing were potentially fatal. Two of the eighty boys at the school died in the summer holidays of 1974. Many of the boys would go on to live lives that were severely shortened by respiratory illnesses, many more would find themselves restricted in the lives they could lead.
Whatever the negative points about a Christian fundamentalist school in a fold in the Dartmoor hills, and there were many, they did their best to teach us how to stay alive. The regime was Spartan, the rules arbitrary, and the religion oppressive, but the concern for respiratory welfare was unmatched.
There was a full-time nurse on the staff responsible for the daily administration of medications, but the available range of drugs in the 1970s was limited and the main response to breathing problems was physical rather than medicinal.
There was a preventative approach: the daily exercise regime, supplemented by the cross-country runs on alternate Saturday mornings, and a constant encouragement to engage in physical activity, whether it be playing in the games of football at every break and lunchtime, or taking moorland walks on Sunday afternoon.
There was also a reactive approach. This being Wednesday, it would have been the day for the weekly visit by the physiotherapist. A stern woman with short dark hair, thick-framed black glasses and a white coat, an encounter with the physiotherapist was a cause for both anxiety and relief. Struggling to clear congestion would have meant lying face down over a triangular wooden frame and having your back pummeled. It was not a pleasant experience, but it was effective, and must have been hard work for the physiotherapist who must at times have wondered if there were not an easier way to make a living.
Coping with the dreaded lurgy was something we had to learn to do. We knew too well what might happen if we did not do so.