Winnie the Pooh,
And Tigger too,
Went for a walk in the park.
Jack the Ripper was there,
He was hunting for bear
And he needed to kill before dark.
Jack the Ripper said, "Pooh,
I am coming for you!"
But Winnie the Pooh wasn't scared.
He faced up to Jack
And threatened him back.
"You're dead!" Jack the Ripper declared.
"Oh no," said the Pooh,
"That really won't do.
I'll not play at your silly game.
You cannot kill me.
We're related, you see.
We've both got the same middle name!"
The Saga of Baron Sloan
– Anona R. Slob
From the anthology: Refractory Nose-Pickings For the Gentry
Edited by Nola Bronas
(c) Nasal Boron Press (2016)
The streets of the town where I live are deserted. The shops are mostly closed and so are all the schools.
Our water supply is contaminated with campylobacter bacteria. More than 5000 people, about a third of the population, have suffered terrible gastric problems. One person has died and two are in intensive care. Queues at doctors' surgeries and at hospital emergency departments go twice around the block. Until further notice, we have to boil all our water before using it. Careful hand washing before preparing food is mandatory.
I first became aware of the problem when, quite out of the blue, a friend sent me an email asking me if I was boiling my drinking water, and providing a reference to a story on a local news site that, somewhat breathlessly, outlined what was going on. Since the news site in question generally shows as much respect for the accuracy of its stories as it does for the spelling of the words that make up the story and for the grammar of the sentences its so-called reporters construct from those words (i.e. not very much at all) I treated the report with some scepticism. I knew that the local hospital had recently identified an outbreak of gastric problems in its wards which was quickly isolated and contained and which really didn't amount to anything very much at all. So I simply assumed that the news site was reporting a garbled version of that old story, and I paid no attention.
Over the next few days, it became apparent that we really did have a serious problem. More and more news outlets began reporting on it. Schools began reporting that many of their pupils and some of their staff were absent. As a result, the schools eventually all closed down completely and sent their few remaining pupils home.
A lot of local businesses had so many of their staff off sick that they too had to shut up shop. Cafés and restaurants were particularly badly affected because they, of course, were completely dependant on a clean water supply and without it, they were unable to properly infuse and cook. But even if the cafés and restaurants had remained open, it probably wouldn't have done them any good – there simply weren't any customers around to drink the coffee or to eat the food.
Something was clearly very wrong, and the description of the symptoms sounded quite alarming. Advice about boiling the water before use to keep it bacteria-free began to appear in the news bulletins. A spokesman for the council repeated this advice on the radio and claimed that all local residents had been informed of the problem – a blatant lie. Neither I, nor any of my neighbours received any official notification about what was going on. To be fair, the council was very quick to post information on its web site, but it had little practical effect. Many of the local people are quite elderly and very few of them have any internet access. A report appeared on the news of a person who lived alone and who was suffering from severe diarrhoea. Knowing that this put him in great danger of dehydration, and being quite unaware of the water contamination, he was drinking lots of water and continually reinfecting himself. His condition got worse and worse and worse... Fortunately he was found in time and was able to be treated.
The council quickly moved to chlorinate the water supply in an attempt to kill the bacteria, but the advice to boil the water remained in place. Council spokespeople were interviewed on the news and proudly proclaimed that they had worked with the Red Cross to knock on every door in the town to check on the health of the inhabitants and to keep them informed of the crisis. Again, a blatant lie. The Red Cross pitched a tent in the grounds of the bridge club where they dispensed advice and electrolytes, but nobody actually came to see me or my neighbours.
The local supermarket brought in huge loads of bottled water which they sold at cost (a marvellous public relations exercise as well as being a very practical and useful thing to do). The council got in on the act as well and provided water tankers from which people could fill their own containers at no charge. However this proved to be a less than successful exercise since one of the water tankers turned out to be contaminated with E. Coli, and the water from it was potentially just as dangerous as that from the domestic supply. Again the news broadcasts on the radio were quick to latch on to this and people who had taken water from this tanker were advised to pour it away.
Two whole days after the contaminated water tanker was discovered, I received my first (and so far my only) official communication from the council. A leaflet arrived in my mailbox advising me not to use the water from that tanker. I could clearly hear the sound of horses bolting away and stable doors slamming shut...
I find it somewhat ironic that the local supermarkets and chain stores have no problem whatsoever in promptly delivering junk mail detailing their special offers to every house in the town. And yet the council consistently fails to to distribute its informational leaflets efficiently or in a timely manner. Perhaps the council should ask the chain stores to run its communications division.
Personally, the infected water supply has had little practical effect on me, other than the inconvenience. Certainly I've not had any gastric problems at all. Perhaps that's because I seldom drink water straight from the tap. Mostly it gets used to brew coffee and tea, and in cooking of course. All these activities require the water to be boiled. However I do take some medications with water, and of course I use water when I'm brushing my teeth...
For the first couple of days after the outbreak was reported, I paid no attention to the alarmist reports on the increasingly shrill news sites. After all, I expected the council to tell me if there was any danger (silly me). So during that time I was potentially at risk. Probably my minimal usage of water direct from the tap helped me to avoid any bad effects. Also I'm a stickler for hand hygiene during food preparation, which also helped. I studied chemistry at university and there's nothing like a session in a chemistry laboratory to teach you about the importance of clean hands – some of those chemicals are nasty. Chemists define themselves as people who always wash their hands before they go to the toilet...
Once I accepted that the council's deafening silence meant that there really was a crisis, I started to avoid tap water completely. I took showers with my mouth firmly closed, and I put a glass and some bottled water by the bathroom sink. I had a stock pot full of water in the kitchen which I boiled for five minutes and then allowed to cool. I used a soup ladle to extract what I needed for this and that culinary purpose. Eventually I got fed up with that laborious process and I started using bottled water instead. But sometimes instinct kicks in, particularly in the early morning when you are still half asleep and one morning I cleaned my teeth and took my morning tablets with tap water before I woke up and realised what I'd done. Bugger! So much for the glass and the bottle of water on the sink...
There wasn't much I could do about the tablets after I'd swallowed them. But I could (and did) sterilise my toothbrush. I put it in boiling water for five minutes. Then I hung a towel over the bathroom taps and tied it down so that I simply couldn't get at the taps any more. That proved to be a very effective deterrent and I haven't made the same mistake again. Fortunately I seem to have got away with that one relapse. It has had no discernible effect on my digestive mechanisms.
One good thing has come out of this public health débâcle. I was taking Jake the Dog for his evening walk late one afternoon when a car overflowing with District Nurses on their way to succour the sick came screeching to a halt beside me. Jake looked on benignly, wagging his tail as he enjoyed the spectacle. A District Nurse in full regalia climbed out of the car and spread her arms wide.
"Jake!" she cried. "It's me!"
Jake went absolutely berserk with happiness. His tail wagged so fast that it helicoptered his rear end off the ground. His ears were flat on his head and a huge, joyful grin lit up his whole face. He slobbered all over her and she hugged him tight and told him how handsome he looked.
It was Caroline, his foster mum, the lady who had rescued Jake from the pound and put him up for adoption. Jake hadn't seen her for eighteen months but there was no question that he remembered her and he was absolutely thrilled to see her again.
Dogs are great rememberers. Keep that in mind the next time you meet a dog.