Friday's child

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on what it's like to be a malingerer

It's Monday again, and Annie has a tummy ache. She had a sore throat last Monday, a headache the Monday before that, a grazed knee the Monday before that.JAnd the first Monday of term, she just cried.

Annie's mother is at her wits' end. She has been called home from work for a "broken finger", two "possible head injuries" and one "can't get my breath". The doctor has confirmed Annie has not got an ear infection, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome or adenoids."It's only Mondays," says Annie's mother, "but Mondays are important days at work, and my boss is getting fed up."

Mondays are also important days at school. That's when Year 5 do their assemblies and decide the work for the week. That's when everyone swaps news from the weekend. It's when homework gets handed in. And that's when Annie feels bad.

It's called performance anxiety. Everyone has it to some degree - sweating palms, butterflies dancing round the diaphragm, the feeling of not being quite able to swallow or take deep enough breaths. Then, the moment in the spotlight, the speech, the interview, the confrontation, the confession. And lo and behold, heart rate normal, temperature fine, vital signs all aglow.

So this is how Annie's school has been working things out. Annie says she doesn't feel well. The welfare assistant listens to her symptoms, looks at the child, who is a little pale but not hot, and says comfortingly, "That sounds a bit worrying. I expect you would like to sit down quietly for a while. We don't want to bother your mummy for a little thing, do we?" Annie sits down quietly in the medical room. It's boring there, but when the welfare assistant comes along after 10 minutes and asks if she is ready to go back to class, she feels all hot again. Not to worry, says the assistant, gives her a glass of water and goes off.

Ten minutes later, Annie appears at the office. "Could you phone my mummy now?" "Oh, I don't think just yet, do you?" "I really don't feel well," says Annie tearfully.

The welfare assistant smiles. "I know, sweetheart, but do you know, I felt a bit queasy this morning and once I started working, the feeling just went away. Quite often, that just happens."

"Oh."

Shortly after this, Annie's teacher looks in. "All better now? We've missed you Annie. Are you coming back after break?" Very slowly, Annie nods.

After school, Annie and her mum have a chat. "What happened to you today, Annie?"

"I wasn't well, Mum, I had some funny pains but they didn't call you. And I still don't feel completely good, Mum."

"Oh dear."

A pause, then, "What happened to you today, Mum?" "I had to visit Aunty Annie, who we named you after. She's not well, in hospital."

"What's it like in hospital?" "You can't do what you want, you can't eat what you want and someone even has to help you go to the toilet and get washed. It's very boring. And she has to have injections and lots of pills."

Another pause, while Annie looks round her comfortable living room. Suddenly, she flings her arms round her mother.

"I feel better now," and dances off to play with her sister.

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