I've recently read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (which, if you haven't already read, I highly recommend). In this theological novel disguised as a children's book, a group of kids are pursued through parallel universes.
I was struck by the concept, as we have recently moved from London to rural Wiltshire, and the contrast between the two is obvious. I grew up on a farm in Cape Town and had wanted to get out of London for many years, as I feel so much more at home in the country.
But quite aside from my daughter being at school in London and having all her friends there, I was too nervous to stray far from my HIV clinic.
Once I did fall seriously ill, while staying with friends near here. Rather than face the local A&E, I got into my car and drove 200 miles to the Royal Free in north London. I promptly passed out in the waiting room and on coming to was asked how I got there. I said that I had driven from Dorset. They gasped. "But Caroline, you have a temperature of 104 and E-coli septicaemia!" "Yes," I answered, "That's why I drove here."
But now I've had six years of successful HIV treatment, married a fabulous man, and my daughter is at university in America. So I thought it was time to take the plunge and go back to my country roots. Through a friend, we found a gorgeous 400-year-old thatched house on a country estate near Salisbury, and four weeks ago we moved in. I promptly forgot about HIV, and telling the locals about it seems not so much impossible as irrelevant. I will drive up every three months for the usual check-up at my clinic and catch up with friends at the same time, but almost instantly I felt the stress fall away. Our two dogs and cat think they have landed up in paradise. We do not need to drive to the nearest park for a walk – it is right outside our front door.
Everything was perfect until my daughter returned for a break, and we decided to drive to London so she could catch up with friends. Setting off on a sunny day, we got to a crossroads just outside the nearest village, where there is a completely blind corner. I edged the car out so I could look to my left and was promptly hit by a bus driving at around 60 miles an hour.
It all happened in a second. I blacked out for a few minutes and came round to find the airbags in our faces and smoke pouring out of the car. How we stepped out alive I don't know. The car was a complete write-off and the bus missed my daughter by inches.
Other than a few bruises, we seemed to be physically OK, but the shock was indescribable. In the midst of it all, however, I found myself laughing. In all the years of having HIV, the one thing that drove me completely mad was the old phrase: "Yes, but everyone dies one day. You never know, you could be hit by a bus!"
I would try to explain that being diagnosed with a terminal illness was very different, and anyway, how many people did they know who had ever actually been hit by a bus?
Well, I have now. Here I am, 16 years after diagnosis, eleven years past the sell-by date I was originally given, still alive, still HIV-positive, but no longer in a position to feel anger at one particular unthinking remark. Next time someone mentions being hit by that bus I'll say, "Well, I already have, actually."
I am now getting country sympathy about the appalling driving of the local bus drivers, speed limits on country roads and how this corner has been a notorious black spot for years. Also the odd condescending remark, such as, " Oh well, now you know that driving is different here in the country. You'll have to adjust." Parallel universes, indeed. Takes the mind off HIV, anyway.
This first appeared in issue 80/81 of Positive Nation, July/August 2002. Many thanks to both Caroline and Positive Nation for giving permission to reproduce it.
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