Once Again Assail Your Ears
Hamlet I, i

Neither Moss nor his parents were aware at the time of the link between the event at the Infirmary and the ‘gatherings‘, as Lizzie called them, in Moss‘s ears in no long time after the operation.

Some six or seven months later, Moss awoke one morning earlier than was usual with a feeling of discomfort in his right ear. He lay for a time, weighing the chances of turning it to his advantage as an excuse for missing school that day.

He knew that his mother‘s first act of diagnosis would be to feel his forehead. He tried it now. Nothing to hope for there. Next she would look at his throat, but there was not yet enough light in the sky to allow him to put that to the test. He coughed violently, hoping that the strain on his tubes might affect his vocal powers to the point where his condition would be audible. But, though he coughed long and loud, the only result was a certain amount of discomfort, and no semblance of a convincing croak.

Earache‘s useless, he thought. Nobody can see it. Nobody but me can feel it. And even he had to admit that he couldn‘t fairly claim that the pain was unbearable. On the contrary, there were times when he was hardly aware of it any more. It was just a mild sort of uneasiness in that region that might, or might not, develop into something worth-while.

Suddenly he recalled that it was Tuesday, and Tuesday meant Composition. He liked Composition. It gave him a chance to show off his spelling, and to earn plaudits from Mester Caxton.

He decided on the instant not to be ill after all.


But, by the time he came home from school at noon, it was not with Mester Caxton‘s praise that his ears were ringing. There was no need for pretence now. His right ear really was hurting, and he told his mother so.

Lizzie looked in his ear, but saw nothing there that might help her to establish whether or no this was genuine other than a slightly pink appearance, This, she told herself, might well be just another of those flights of fancy which her son dreamed up whenever, for some reason, he wanted to get out of going to school. Clearly, a little guile was called for.

‘What did yer get inter trouble for this mornin‘, our Moss ?‘

His wide eyes and his blank stare convinced her even before his reply.

‘Nowt, Mam !‘

And then, quickly becoming aware of his mother‘s drift, he added,

‘An‘ A got nine out o‘ ten fer mi division sums !‘

‘An‘ what lessons ‘ave yer got this afternoon then ?‘ she asked.

But she had lost the advantage, and he was ready for her now.

‘It‘s Drawin‘, Mam ! An‘ Mester Caxton says as if A do another good drawin‘ this week, ‘e‘ll purrit on t‘wall again like ‘e did las‘ week ! An‘ then A‘ll get another two team marks !‘

Lizzie, still not wholly convinced, took another look in his ear, and pronounced judgement.

‘Well, A can‘t see owt ! But A‘ll purra drop o‘ warm olive oil in it. An‘ if it in‘t better termorrer, we‘ll see !‘

And with that Moss had to be satisfied.

Indeed, he was not entirely displeased, for with a little luck he might make the next morning‘s performance convincing enough to be allowed to stay at home. Wednesday was Drill, and he hated Drill, especially on cold days. Perhaps, he thought, it might be a good idea to start tilling the ground now, in the hope of harvest on the morrow.


But next morning there was no need for pretence or play-acting. He awoke even earlier than on the previous morning, and by now the pain was severe.

Lizzie, still a trifle suspicious, looked in his face and saw there the unmistakable signs of distress. She warmed a little olive oil, poured it into his ear with a spoon, and tucked him up in bed once more.

For a time, the warmth from the oil and the flannel pad which his mother had told him to hold against his ear, gave him a short respite, and his tears ceased to flow. If only the pain would go away, he told himself, he might begin to enjoy the luxury of lying in his bed while the school bell summoned his less fortunate schoolmates to their lessons – and especially the hated Drill in the schoolyard.

But the pain grew worse, and now there was no place for doubt or suspicion in any mind. As the hours passed, the agony increased in intensity until his entire world was condensed into a core of pain in his right ear, a core that throbbed and throbbed with every pulse of his life-blood, every throb bringing a stab of pain worse than the last.

Lizzie‘s concern was now real. In desperation she tried every remedy she could think of to ease his pain, even. on Maggie Willett’s recommendation, putting the core of a boiled onion inside his ear.

But all to no avail. Nothing helped. Her son, all too clearly in a state of high fever, and moaning continually in his suffering, was beyond all she could do. She was powerless to relieve his suffering, even by a little, and her own mental suffering almost matched his physical torment. When Jim at last returned from his chapel duties, it was not only Moss whose eyes were wet.

Through the hours of that long night he slept not for a moment, tossing and turning in his bed in an unavailing effort to escape the torment which racked him. And now there were not even brief periods of respite when the agony abated sufficiently to promise him a little peace. He grew light-headed, moaning and sobbing in the grip of the unremitting pain. Lizzie, heavy-eyed by his bed, was in despair, her only comfort Jim‘s promise to get the doctor, choose what, if in the morning Moss was no better.

And then, as the first light of day began to show round the edge of the curtains, his cries ceased abruptly. Inside his head there was a sound as of a rushing mighty wind and the bursting of a great barrier, and the pain ceased on the instant.

There was no need to tell his mother that the agony had passed. His face was eloquent testimony.

She gently removed the pad from his ear, saw the flow of blood and pus, and knew that, after all, Jim‘s promise to get the doctor in would have to be honoured.


Doctor Pringle snapped the catches of his bag, and reached into his inner breast-pocket for his pen. Lizzie, mindful of his reproaches on the previous visit, of the added cost of this visit, and of her long night‘s vigil, thought he had given her son but scant attention.

‘Is there owt as A can do, doctor ?‘ she asked.

‘Aye, there is that !‘ he replied. ‘Ye can tak this bairn doun tae the Infirmary, and let the ENT folk tak a look at the lad ! I‘ll drop them a line, an‘ they‘ll tell ye when ye‘re to go ! An‘ if ye‘ll tak my advice, ye‘ll no be meddlin‘ wi‘ auld wives‘ nostrums !‘

The unknown initials and the knowledge that they had not done with hospitals served merely to add to Lizzie‘s terrors . Apparently becoming aware of the fear and the bone-weariness in her, the doctor spoke more kindly,

‘Ye‘ve no cause for alarrm, Mrs Garrett,‘ he said. ‘The bairn has otitis media – middle ear disease. He‘s in need of a course o‘ trreatment, that‘s a‘ ! I‘ll just give ye a note to tak wi‘ ye !‘

Lizzie, somewhat reassured, saw the doctor out and returned to her son.

Now that the agony was over, or so it seemed, Moss could begin to enjoy bad health. All that day he luxuriated in his mother‘s obvious and loving concern, and her almost constant presence. The only cloud in a blue sky was that mention of the hospital. The memory of the operation was still close enough to make any idea of a return to those portals far from palatable. So, as the day drew near for his visit he began once more to suffer all the terrors which an active imagination could provide.

He pictured white-coated figures probing inside his ear with fearsome instruments, every touch of which brought exquisite pain. He told himself that after all, perhaps, his ear might still get quite better and the dreadful prospect which disturbed his nights and haunted his days might then vanish.


It was a white-faced boy who passed through the swing-doors on the appointed morning, though had he been less concerned with his own apprehension, he might have seen that his mother was in little better case than he. For Moss‘s powers of imagination were entirely inherited.

But in the event his fears proved groundless. True, those same white-coated figures might have been a little gentler with an ear still tender, but at least there were none of the dreadful instruments which he had pictured.

There was one horrid moment when the doctor pushed a small funnel into his ear, apparently in preparation to pour in some scalding medicament which would have him screaming in pain. But all that happened was that he looked down the funnel with a light, ingeniously reflected from a lamp before him on to a mirror strapped to his forehead. Then he grunted, scribbled something on a pad, called a nurse to him, and handed Moss and the slip over to her, without in all this addressing one word to a living soul. All rather disappointing, thought Moss, now that the danger seemed safely past.

But he was not yet free to go. First, the nurse must instruct his mother in the treatment she was to give.

He was told to bend his head over and turn it sideways, and to hold an enamelled kidney-bowl against his neck, so that the nurse could drop some kind of liquid in his ear. Moss, who had thought himself out of danger, now cringed, expecting the agony to begin after all.

But all that happened was a gentle bubbling and tickling in his ear, intriguing and by no means unpleasant. Then the nurse said, in a cool, matter-of-fact tone,

‘Now just hold it like that for a little while, and keep your head quite still.‘

And now she turned to Lizzie, and showed her how to make the probe by twisting a small piece of cotton wool round the roughened surface of an aluminium wire. Then, turning back to Moss, she gently inserted the probe, quickly mopped out his ear, repeated the whole process until she appeared satisfied that the ear was now quite dry, put in a loose plug of cotton wool, and all was over.

Moss, who had missed not one particle of the entire performance, was jubilant now that all his perils were over. Far from being called on to bear unspeakable pain, he had been provided with enough raw material for bragging to last him for many a day. He would make his schoolmates green with envy of his unique adventure, at least until his frequent recitals had driven them all into a state of apathy.

He could hardly wait to get home and begin.


Had he known that this experience was but the start of some twenty years of recurrent trouble, his spirit might have been less exalted. Throughout that long period his life was to be punctuated by bouts of agony so intense that he came to an intimate knowledge of pain. And only the later curiosity of a scientist brooding over an apparent accident to a culture plate, that same man’s blessed sense of wonder and the need to find an answer, would eventually bring Moss‘s long ordeal to an end.

Aye, God moves in a mysterious way, said Lizzie, when that day came. Moss, remembering the days and nights of pain, nodded, but said nothing.