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Bodily Functions

On November 5th I usually lock the cat flap and keep the cats indoors so that they don’t get inadvertently blown to smithereens. Normally they don’t mind, but on this particular November 5th, Ginger was somewhat restless, scratching at the cat flap and whining occasionally. I put it down to general cussedness – after all, everybody knows that whenever a door is locked, the cat, by definition, is on the wrong side of it. Eventually she gave up and grumpily snoozed a while. Occasionally she woke, and paced up and down.

At last it all appeared to get too much for her and the real reason for her restlessness quickly became apparent. She marched decisively off to the back of the house, climbed into the green bowl we soak the tea towels in prior to washing them (fortunately it was empty at the time) and took an enormous crap.

She seemed quite nonplussed at the lack of scratchable things to cover it with and peered pathetically over the rim. She was quickly rescued and the bowl was hurriedly cleaned and disinfected. She climbed up onto the toilet, perched precariously on the rim, put her head down and her tail up and took a celebratory drink. All was well in her world again.

Animals have a natural and quite uninhibited approach to the mysterious workings of their bodies. Humans have a much more peculiar attitude about the whole business. The astronomer Tycho Brahe (he of the silver nose) is popularly supposed to have died of an exploded bladder because he refused to leave the dinner table to relieve himself as long as his host was still present. I can’t claim to have gone that far, though once, for a bet, I did go for a month without taking a dump. It’s a good job I have brown eyes. Nobody could tell I was full of shit…

When I was a child, I led a sheltered existence and much was mysterious to me. I had no idea that other people went to the toilet; I thought I was the only person in the world who did that. Wasn’t it generous of my parents to have a whole room fitted out just for me? I don’t recall ever spotting them using it at all. Either I was a singularly unobservant child, or they only used it when I was asleep. I suspect that both these facts are true.

Consequently I was most ill-prepared for the hurly burly of school life when I was finally packed off there aged about five. I vividly recall bursting for a pee on my first day but being completely unable to ask where the toilets were because I was sure that nobody would have the faintest idea what I was talking about. The inevitable result ensued and I still recall the humiliation of being dried off and told off simultaneously. It was an inauspicious start to an academic career…

As I grew older I began to suspect that I might not be completely solid inside. Up until this point, if I’d considered it at all, I’d just assumed that I looked rather like a leg of lamb all the way through. However the fact that stuff leaked out at regular intervals began to suggest that something might be going on in there.

I started to ask increasingly awkward and embarrassing questions of my (rather strait-laced) parents. Then one Christmas I was given a toy called "The Visible Man". The box it came in contained plastic models of all the human organs and a clear perspex body to fit them in. When fully assembled, you had a naked man with a transparent skin and you could turn him round and see where all the interesting little bits fitted together. It was absolutely fascinating. And, it would appear, it was me.

The back of the box advertised a companion toy "The Visible Woman". I asked for one for my birthday but my parents seemed strangely diffident and I never got one, much to my disappointment.

Now that I knew I had tubes and interesting chunky bits inside I began to wonder if perhaps other people did as well. Prior to this I’d tended to regard other people as somehow not quite real. I vaguely felt that when I wasn’t around they probably turned themselves off and hung themselves up in a wardrobe somewhere (any child without siblings is a natural solipsist). But the evidence of "The Visible Man" suggested that perhaps there were one or two other freaks of nature like me in the world. I kept an open mind, and gradually it filled up as the evidence accumulated…

When I was a student I would spend the summer holidays working in the pathology laboratory of the local hospital (a vampire’s ideal job). I soon got quite blasť about blood. I used to measure haemoglobin levels and erythrocyte sedimentation rates. Sometimes, as a special treat, I was allowed to make and stain the slides. At first I layered the blood too thickly (a common mistake, I’m told). But after a bit of practice I managed to get it right. The insides of the body and the biological functions they followed gave up some of their secrets.

Unlike the permanent employees, I wasn’t allowed to stick needles and scalpels into people and take the blood myself. All I was allowed to do was put it into machines and on to slides when it arrived in the lab. I was quite peeved about this; I rather fancied the idea of sticking sharp, pointed objects into people, but apparently it was AGAINST THE RULES.

The closest I ever got was from the other side when I acted as a crash test dummy for a very new and very nervous lab technician who was being trained up to stick things into real people. She’d practised on a model and now it was time to try it on a living body. I was a student and therefore expendable. Would I volunteer? Well, why not?

Her first task was to take a smear from my thumb for microscopic examination. This involved sticking a small, needle-like scalpel into my thumb and squeezing a tiny drop of blood out onto a slide. The scalpel was unwrapped from its sterile package and she clasped my thumb in one hand and the scalpel in the other. She brought the scalpel down gently onto my thumb and it bounced off again. We both peered closely at the thumb. No blood. Try again – harder this time.


The scalpel sunk about quarter of an inch into the ball of my thumb (I half expected to see it sticking out of the other side). She let go and it vibrated gently back and forth then came to rest. Dumbfounded, we both looked at it for a moment and then we screamed in unison. To this day I don’t know who screamed the loudest.

Once a technician went collecting samples in the geriatric ward. Draw the blood into a syringe and squirt it into a test tube with an anti-coagulant in the bottom. Shake well, don’t stir; just like a martini. She stuck her needle into an old lady’s arm and as she started to draw blood the lady died.

There was no connection between the two events; it was just a rather grim coincidence. It wasn’t funny, but we laughed about it for days…

Shortly after I started working in my first permanent job, I was sent on a first aid course and I saw many gruesome sights as the teacher (a doctor) tried to accustom the class to the many ways a body can be injured. "You can be sick afterwards," he used to say. "While it’s going on, somebody needs you. You aren’t allowed to be sick. So I want you to know what you are likely to see." He played us films and showed us slides. And he took us on a visit to a hospital so that we’d smell the injuries as well. That was the worst part.

Now I really did have objective evidence that people didn’t look like a leg of lamb all the way through. "The Visible Man" had been completely truthful in everything he’d said to me all those years ago.

I learned how to bandage wounds and splint broken bones. I learned how to make a ring bandage to protect wounds with glass in them so as not to drive the glass further in (and once I used that knowledge in real life when my neighbour walked through his ranch slider and bled all over the shag pile carpet). I learned how to put a patient in the recovery position (and when not to). I learned a method of treating burns that completely contradicted one I’d been taught several years previously. As knowledge advances, sometimes treatments change.

I learned how to treat someone who has fallen off a building and impaled themselves on a fence. "Don’t do anything," was the doctor’s advice. "Ring for an ambulance and then hold their hand and talk to them until the ambulance arrives. The paramedics won’t do anything either except saw through the fence. They’ll take the patient to the hospital with the fence still stuck through him. Do you know why?"

The class thought hard about that one. "It needs very special and delicate surgery?"

"Don’t be daft," he said. "They want to give the patient something to hang on to when the ambulance goes round the corner too fast."

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