‘More Than Just the Disease’, written by Bernard McLaverty has one major character, Neil. The story is seen through his eyes and illustrates the problems that he has to deal with at this point in his life. Arguably the biggest problem Neil has in the story is his psoriasis, this is also a contributor to another of his problems, which is his huge lack of confidence, and it also contributes in a profound way to his insecurity.
McLaverty has written the character of Neil Fry with many quite complex problems one of which is the astonishing influence Mrs Fry – Neil’s mother – has on him. He frequently hears her voice in his head commanding him, telling him how he should act, what he should do in certain situations and how to feel on certain matters. This occurs when Neil is having breakfast with Michael’s family. His mother, without being present, tells him that he should, “Close his mouth when he is eating” she goes on to say, “Others have to live with you Neil.” He hears her again when he is unpacking after arriving at Michael’s holiday home. She says “Be tidy at all times and then no one can surprise you”. I could go on for pages listing more and more instances of this but I won’t get any marks for doing that! I regress. Although Mrs Fry means absolutely no harm, in fact quite the opposite, when implanting these views, ideas and reactions into Neil’s head, she is actually contributing to many of Neil’s problems: such as his lack of confidence, his ignorance and his insecurity.
Neil finds, when he goes to stay with Michael on the coast, that his mother is entirely wrong about the middle classes and how they live and behave. He finds contrary to his expectations that they do not fit the stereotype, they are not ‘posh’ but in fact they are reasonably laid back.
Neil is very insecure possibly, again, owing to his mother’s domination over him and because “Neil kept hearing his mother’s voice” A good example of this is him going to the bathroom to put on his pyjamas and buttoning the jacket right up to the neck, whereas Michael while “bending his arms and flexing his biceps” announces proudly; “I only wear pyjama bottoms”. This, as well as illustrating Neil’s insecurity, also is a good illustration of Neil’s massive under confidence and Michael’s abundance of it.
Neil lives in a very sheltered world and does not know a lot about the world beyond his home and school life. This is evident in one instance in particular; when Neil is making an excuse for not going swimming to hide his psoriasis he says, “The fact is…I’ve got my period.”
Mrs Wan helps Neil with his lack of confidence. She is a duchess and owns the house in which Michael and his family stay throughout the summer. While doing this she lives in a dirty caravan at the bottom of the garden with her “millions” of cats. Mrs Wan proves another one of Mrs Fry’s stereotypes is utter nonsense, she does not dress as expected – not at all glamorously – but does not seem to be interested in her appearance in the slightest. McLaverty describes her as being, “An old woman in a bottle green cardigan and baggy mouse coloured trousers and…a pair of men’s leather gloves.” She is a complete contrast to Mrs Fry who likes to be “tidy at all times” and “cannot abide milk bottles at the table”. If, with no background information you were asked to choose the duchess between the two of them it is most likely that Mrs Fry would be the one chosen.
Mrs Wan, although only meeting Neil briefly, has a large influence on him, which is rather more positive than that of his mother’s. She listens to his and seems interested in his opinions’ and experiences’. Most importantly, however, she gives him confidence, the confidence to reveal his psoriasis instead of making excuses to get out of going swimming. She shares her experience of lepers with him this also helps him and boosts his confidence in a big way.
The end of the story illustrates very well how Mrs Wan’s advice affects Neil. The closing scene could be taken as a symbol for life. Neil because of his under confidence dabbles in the shallows nervously, meanwhile Michael is out in the deep riding the waves and happily accepting all the challenges thrown at him by the sea knowing he will succeed.
The story teaches Neil a lot. He is taught to move out with his mother’s domination. Not to worry too much about how other people perceive him and that he should not be at all afraid of revealing his psoriasis, not keeping it hidden. He has nothing to be ashamed of and therefore he should not hide away or dabble in the shadows but be sure of himself, confident enough to do what he thinks best not what his mother – often wrongly – thinks he should do, to be his own person and not a clone of his mother.