Vile Body by Barbara Nadel

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I’ve just had a cold, a nasty little virus that has left me with a gruff voice, pale skin and spots. Not a good look I know but it did put me in mind of Colin’s recent self coruscating blog Looking forward to the year 3000. His descriptions of bodily imperfections and decline made me laugh out loud. I’m a sick individual, in more ways than one, and I related to a lot of what he was saying, if not the actual conditions themselves. And so in a spirit of solidarity with Colin here are some of my ghastly medical details for anyone who gives a toss to laugh about.

When I was a little kid I suffered from repeated ear infections. Virtually deaf, I would stagger around the school playground talking to walls and exuding green puss from both sides of my head. I didn’t have too many friends as you can imagine. I was weird and toxic and would find myself involved in fights and incidents I didn’t understand. That’s how my nose got broken.

Even the cure for the wretched ear infections was ghastly. We lived in an unheated house in the east end of London in those days and so when I was confined to bed and ordered to take penicillin it was no great relief. The shivering aside, I had to take my antibiotics in suspension. Some moron somewhere had decided that kids shouldn’t take antibiotics in tablet form, liquid was much better. And not any old liquid either! No, this was strawberry flavoured penicillin and even to this day I can clearly recall just how vile that was. I can’t tell you how it was vile or even what it tasted of, but I’d know it if it somehow fetched up on my tongue, mainly because I would vomit. When I finally ‘grew out’ of ear infections, I entered puberty over which I think we’ll draw a veil.

I know that men read this blog and so I’ll spare you the horrors of childbirth and gynaecology in general too because I know you’re a bit delicate around those areas. But I do feel you will find my biggest health bete noir a hoot and so let’s share bowels, shall we?

I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I’ve had it for years and it developed mainly because I couldn’t handle the vast pressures that life decided to throw at me back in the mid-1990s. Unemployment, debt and sick kids will do that to you. But anyway… I just managed the thing until 2006 when yet another massive stressor came along and my bowels went critical. I was in a seaside town on the Thames estuary that day. I’d just parked my car and was making my way towards somewhere I now no longer recall when my abdomen lurched and I felt as if I might be about to give birth to a giraffe. I hurled myself into the nearest place that might, I thought, have a toilet which was a small, greasy spoon café. Doubled up by this time, I ran up to the counter and said, ‘Can I use your toilet? Please!’

The woman behind the counter, a heavily made up elder with baby blue eyes and red hair looked at me as if I were the spawn of Satan and said, ‘We don’t have a toilet.’

Astonished and now in agony, I said, ‘You must have! Where do you crap if you don’t have a toilet?’

‘Oh, I have a toilet for me,’ she said. Then she looked down her nose, ‘But not for you. Health and Safety. Can’t help you.’

I wanted to do so many things at that point. I wanted to collapse on her café floor and pour ordure all over the lino, I wanted to punch her in the face for being so inhumane and I wanted to ring up my Prime Minister and tell him to machine-gun every member of the Health and Safety Executive immediately. But instead I ran back out into the street where I half hoped I might just fall over and die. Instead I found another café, weirdly named after the Portuguese football club, Benfica. Now a very worrying shade of green, I asked the woman behind Benfica’s counter if I could use her toilet. She stopped what she was doing immediately and took me up to her own toilet above the café. She said, ‘Take as long as you wish.’

I shut the door, collapsed onto the toilet and cried with relief. One of the biggest concerns that an IBS sufferer has is that he or she will shit themselves in public. These days I have that covered and journeys are only attempted when I have taken enough anti-diarrhoea medication to bung up London. My condition is not that bad now anyway, but I’ve learnt a lot in the past four years and so the whole Benfica thing is unlikely to happen again. But I was so grateful to that woman! When I did finally emerge, having completely cleaned and disinfected her bathroom, she was waiting for me with a bottle of water and a cup of tea. She wouldn’t take payment for anything and wouldn’t let me go until I’d sat down and got some colour in my face. This is why I will be supporting Portugal in the World Cup.

Of course in order to properly diagnose this ghastly condition I’ve had to endure some less than comfortable procedures. Having a tiny camera shoved up your backside even if you are sedated at the time, is not a whole lot of fun. But it is instructive. I didn’t, for instance, realise that my colon actually had sharp corners. But then who would know that unless someone rammed a flexible pipe up your bum? It’s all a voyage of discovery.

And so the ghastliness of middle age continues. What next I wonder? But I try not to think about it too hard. I just put on make up, dye my hair, take my anti-diarrhoea stuff and carry on. In my head I am someone who doesn’t have IBS at all. In my head I’m still twenty five.

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