Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much.
The elegant Lady G visits me most mornings with a cappuccino and cheerful gossip. She is an acquaintance of Isabella and a distinguished research doctor at this clinic, where she works in a lab. She is another new friend who is generous and kind, and someone I would never have met otherwise.
She tells me a lovely story about a woman who became paralysed and could only communicate by winking. The woman was becoming very agitated and Lady G was worrying about her: was she having a heart attack? Was there something terribly wrong with her that she couldn’t communicate? With the use of an alphabet board the woman was able to explain at last that she had an itch on her nose that she needed scratching. It was making her mad.
This story was particularly poignant for me because, as I am unable to use my hands, I cannot scratch myself either. Indeed, as I write this I can feel a particularly virulent itch developing above my right ear, an itch that is spreading across my head the more I think about it.
Getting yourself itched is therefore quite a procedure. You have to ask somebody else to do it, and, if they are willing they then have to find the exact spot and provide the right amount of scratching – not too much, not too little. As you can imagine you can only ask them to do this so many times before they become irritated. And of course some itches are in difficult spots, inside the ear for instance, or around your balls.
If you look at real people on television or examine others in a café where you are having a coffee, you will notice how often they touch their face. They are constantly touching their eyes, pulling their nose and rubbing their cheeks. It is only now I realise what a luxury and a pleasure it is to scratch yourself.
It is sensual, reassuring; it is sexy; it can be ecstatic. The surface of the body is alive and reacts to being touched, caressed or lightly scratched. Recently when I allowed my beard to grow for more than three days the underneath of my face become rabidly irritated and I desperately needed to have it scratched. Isabella co-operated from time to time; it was a profound bliss to have her scratch me under the chin. I understand how lucky our dog Cairo is since his family and indeed strangers on the street rub, tickle and caress him all the time. I am jealous; I envy my dog.
You might have noticed that there are very strict social rules with regard to which parts of the body you can touch or scratch in social situations. You can touch your face and even your hair but not your arse, teeth or pubic area. The rules are different on beaches and in restaurants; they are also different for men and women. Children have to be taught which bits of themselves it is legitimate to touch, and where and when. It is complicated and somewhat arbitrary.
As opposed to their bodies, people are constantly playing with their phones. In the 60s and 70s, I remember people constantly fiddled with cigarettes, lighters and matches. It gave them something to do with their hands while having conversations. Now people look at their phones, and even send texts during conversation. These distractions, far from being an annoyance, are a funnel for anxiety; they help one communicate and are necessary, since they create a distance between you and the other person. You want to be close to someone but not too close.
Sigmund Freud realised how difficult it was to sit face-to-face with a patient for eight hours a day. Being looked at, if not examined for such a long time, made him uncomfortable. Therefor he invented the couch situation for psychoanalysis. This distance – the patient on their back - also enabled the patient to freely dream and free associate within the session, and not to have to try to keep the analyst amused or entertained.
I can’t play with my phone; I can’t blow my nose and I can’t rub my eyes. My hands move a little but they feel as though concrete has been poured into them. They are stiff and unmalleable; they won’t do what my brain wants them to do, though they have started to move a little now after hours of physiotherapy. I still can’t do anything useful with them.
The whole thing is a terrible loss but it also means I am entirely dependent on the good will of others. I have discovered that others do, fortunately, have plenty of good will. They are keen to do things for you if you ask them, and they often volunteer.
My injury has stimulated a different kind of love in people, and a desire in them to be useful in new ways. I can see what a pleasure it is for others to help me, and how much satisfaction it brings them. It has been a magnificent discovery for me although this new form of love doesn’t feel like an equal one. Others are doing things for me and I cannot reciprocate except with gratitude. It seems like a feeble exchange. But it matters.
As babies our first form of exchange is that of being loved. We are kissed and caressed, gurgled at and appreciated by everyone who comes into contact with us. We are loved into the world and even as age we expect love from others as an initial impulse. We don’t expect to be harmed; we are shocked if we are. As we get older we may become suspicious and afraid but this first feeling of the expectation of love is rarely erased. It always remains. It may only be an itch that one requires to be scratched but it is also a demand for love.
Lady G's story of the paralysed woman reminded me of a very fraught day at the hospital where I used to work.
There was a patient – a boy in his late teens – no longer a child, but not quite a man – and therefore fated to be wheeled back and forth between the children's ward and an adult ward where more specialised treatment could be provided. He was dying from one of those rare genetic disorders that lie beyond the reach of medical science. He eventually lost most of his bodily function. He could still talk, but it became increasingly hard to understand him
One morning, he was asked a question by a nurse, who I imagine was just making friendly conversation. He answered vigorously. As the nurse could not grasp what he was saying, she summoned one of her colleagues. She could not understand him either. What followed rapidly assumed the dimensions of a parable or a fairytale – a parade of hospital staff, representing a wide array of medical disciplines, attempting to interpret the mysterious declaration of their patient.
It wasn't until the afternoon that somebody cracked the code. He was telling them to: “Kiss my arse.”
I spoke to his mother the day he died. She was ready for it; it wasn't a shock. I asked her what she was going to do now. She thought maybe some voluntary work. I suggested that she should take some time for herself. For years, she had struggled on her son's behalf – for his treatment, for his quality of life, for his dignity. She got nothing from him in return, but she fought for him anyway. I think that is the unequal kind of unreciprocated love that you mention at the end of this dispatch. It is something that I struggle with too – a girlfriend once described me disparagingly as a “typical Libran” - I want balance. The problem is that many manifestations of love are intangible, while others only become obvious when they are absent. I suppose everybody has, at one time, wondered whether they are giving enough, in return for what they get. The ground is continually shifting underfoot – sometimes you give more, sometimes you take more.
On the urgent subject of itching, I cannot think of any writer, living or dead, whose balls I would scratch upon request. It is a very big ask and once you've done it, you've set a precedent. You also have to take into account that writers share agents and publishers. Scratch one writer's balls and eventually you are going to get an awkward phone call from someone representing one of their peers - “We hear you scratch balls. We can't pay you, but it would be good exposure...”
Before you know it, you are the ball-scratcher-de-jour for any writer who cannot, or will not, scratch their own balls. After you die someone will pen your biography, titled 'The Ball-Scratcher of Bloomsbury' - a weighty hardback, focusing on the period of your life when you scratched the balls of some of the greatest writers of your generation. Imagine all of those books, piled-up in ziggurats on podiums, in the Christmas window display of Waterstones – your life distilled into a highbrow gag gift. I have too much pride for that.
I have my own battle with itching, which is related to a disease of the bile ducts called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis. I have been fortunate in that it is not continuous itching. Some people really suffer. I keep my fingernails short and smudge away any tingling with the flat of my hand. Occasionally the itching is sub-dermal. You can scratch the skin as much as you want without neutralising the irritation. In those maddening moments, I have come to sympathise with flies as they pound themselves against an invisible layer of glass in a bid to get outside. When I was new to the disease and didn't have a very good understanding of it, I once raked my palm with such ferocity that my hand swelled to almost twice its normal size and I couldn't close it.
Here's a huge gift you've given that you may not have considered. Since reading of your situation, I confess that almost every time I have a big itch that needs scratching, I think of your inability to do so. Having that that ability gives me great joy and it's made me appreciate the "little moments," or Ikigae as the Japanese call it. Thanks for your most personal column yet.