The results of my father’s first RAST test came through a few weeks later. The news was encouraging: his blood samples revealed the definite presence of IgE antibodies, which meant that Frank Marshall was almost certainly suffering an allergic reaction to something. Whether this allergic reaction had resulted, however, in the loss of his voice, was yet to proven. All that the doctors knew for sure is that some foreign substance, be it ingested or inhaled, had tricked his body into thinking that it was under attack and had set off his immune system’s natural defences. Further confirmation of this diagnosis was also provided when the doctors found an abnormal level of histamine in my father’s bloodstream, a substance manufactured by the body in response to an allergic reaction that is known to cause contraction of the smooth muscle of the bronchi, ultimately affecting the sufferer’s breathing. Now all the medics had to do was to work out what was causing this allergic reaction and there was a chance – just the very slightest chance imaginable – that the solution to the problem which had wrecked my father’s life could be found.
Unfortunately for my father, the only way that this could be done was with another round of scratch tests. To prepare for this, his instructions were to gather up samples of every substance that he came into contact with during the course of the day and place them in carefully labelled specimen bottles, My mother and I helped him to do this, packing up bits of the soap that he used; fragments of toilet paper; fibres from the carpet, and clippings from the sofa that had become Frank Marshall’s permanent home; cuttings of plants from our overgrown garden, samples of the newspaper that he read, we tried our best to leave no stone unturned. We left it to my father to gather samples of the food that he stuffed down his gullet. When it was all over, my mother wrote down a long list of all the booty we had collected. The three of us sat down for several hours in the sitting room, trying to work out anything we might have overlooked. Strangely enough, this was a happy time for me. I enjoyed working as part of a family unit and felt closer to my father than I had ever done. Having been given a ray of hope, his mood was more positive; at one point he even patted me on the head, an unheard of gesture of affection.
My father went in for the first of his scratch tests on 5 November 1971, just two months short of eight years since he had last sung a note. Little had changed in that hospital room since the last time he had been forced to do this. Unfortunately, after three separate rounds of tests, it soon began to look like the outcome would be equally indeterminate. The doctors pricked my father’s bloated back with pins containing minute morsels of the food he ate; they jabbed his arms with samples of the shampoo that he used and fragments of the tobacco that he smoked; they punctured his skin with specimens of everything that Frank Marshall touched, consumed or inhaled but his body resolutely refused to offer anything remotely resembling an allergic reaction. They tested him with fibres from his underwear, particles of the dust that he breathed in each day, samples of the cheap perfume that his wife sometimes wore, and still nothing. As well as resembling one, my father also appeared to possess the constitution of an ox. Had they chosen to inject him with pure arsenic it is likely that his great fat body would have found a way of absorbing it. Frank Marshall’s bloodstream proved immune to anything that the specialists could throw at it.
The tests had been going on for more than three weeks when my mother received a unexpected request to go and visit one of the allergy specialists at the hospital. I accompanied her and can recall that the gentleman in question’s expression was serious when he sat us down at his desk. “I didn’t want Mr Marshall to be here when I tell you this,” he said gravely, “But we’re beginning to run out of ideas. We’ve tried every test available and everything has come up blank. Knowing how much Mr. Marshall has been counting on the success of the test, I thought it best if you gave him the bad news yourself. Somehow, I didn’t think that a letter would be appropriate”
My mother began to cry; it was all too much for her. It was rare for her to do this and reflected, I believe, the amount of hope she had been investing in the success of the resurrected search for her husband’s voice. “You can’t give up,” she sobbed, grasping my hand tightly in hers. “Surely, there’s something that can be done…”
It was at this point that my life changed forever. It was at this point that all our lives changed forever. This was the moment in time that led on to everything else; the fork in the road which, instead of condemning me to an adolescence dominated by my father’s battering fists, was to culminate in my meeting Sophie Vega and the other fat man. I don’t know what it was that made that light go on inside his head at that particular instant. It may have been the hand of god or it may have been the claw of the devil. Put it down to luck or divine intervention. I don’t know. All I know are the repercussions of that nameless doctor’s flash of inspiration. All I know is that things would have been very different but for the spark of electrical energy that made him put two and two together and come up with five.
I’ll never forget the doctor’s expression as he regarded the two of us: blubbering mother and frightened child. Had he been a cartoon character, steam would have been coming out of his ears and his eyes would be have been showing three cherries. “You’re absolutely right,” he announced. “There is something else that can be done – I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”
The doctor had my mother and I sit in an examination room, where samples of our skin, hair, nails and spittle were collected. He didn’t tell us what he intended to do with these savoury items but said that he’d be in touch in a week or so.
To be continued…