Body shocks

Inspired by Bill Bryson’s eye opening new 'occupants’ guide' to the human body, we asked four writers to tell us about a time part of their anatomy took them by surprise - and what (if anything) they learned as a result.

Illustration by Penguin 2019

Reading Bill Bryson’s new book is an out of body experience. I mean this in a good way. More than once it made me sit back and gasp at my own flesh and bones.

Take, for example, his explanation of why no one wants to kiss you first thing in the morning: 

‘Your exhalations contain up to 150 different chemical compounds, not all of them as fresh and minty as we all might hope. Among the common chemicals that help to create morning breath are methyl mercaptan (which smells like old cabbage), hydrogen sulfide (like rotten eggs), dimethyl sulfide (slimy seaweed), dimethylamine and trimethylamine (rank fish)’

Or how about this, on where our hair goes:

‘Probably no mystery of the outer surface causes more consternation than our strange tendency to lose our hair as we age. We each have about 100,000 - 150,000 hair follicles on our head, though clearly not all follicles are equal among all people. You lose, on average, between fifty and a hundred head hairs every day.’

Every day! In Bryson’s telling, the human body is indeed a miracle. Just not always a particularly glamorous one. It’s the details that make you squirm or wince a bit that are, paradoxically, the most magical. What could be more humbling than learning your breath is made up of 150 different rank chemicals or that we’re all walking around moulting like a German Shepherd?

Astronauts call the transformative experience of viewing the earth from space the 'over-view effect'; a sudden sense of perspective that is at once deeply awesome and peaceful. The Body is full of tiny moments like this, except the planet is the body you spend half your time ignoring or complaining about.

In the spirit of The Body, we asked four writers to tell us about a time they experienced their own moment of anatomical revelation, from broken teeth to faltering voices to a kidneys-induced hallucination.

Kidneys, by Amelia Tait

Illustration by Penguin 2019

The kidneys – according to all officially sanctioned, lab-coated explanations – are two bean-shaped organs that filter blood, waste, and water to create pee. In reality, kidneys filter so much more than that. When I was 22 and hospitalised after a urine infection spread up, into my beans, I realised that properly functioning kidneys also filter out our inhibitions – or in my case, my personal impulse to perform a rendition of The Simpsons theme tune to the bed-bound patients of A&E.

We don’t talk about kidneys much – except when our uncles joke that we’ll need to sell one to afford our uni 'digs', and later, while eating 40p packets of instant noodles in those very same digs, we contemplate going on the dark web to raise enough money for an EPIC FRESHERS FOAM RAVE PARTY ticket. We don’t talk about kidneys because they mostly do their jobs quietly and well, like an intern whose name you never learn, or a sewer worker who unclogs your make-up wipes from London’s fatbergs. But when things go wrong with our kidneys, they can go very wrong.

'Kidneys are like an intern whose name you never learn'

It started in 2014 with a run-of-the-mill UTI: a urinary tract infection characterised by the urge to pee every five minutes. I didn’t go to the doctors because I – like all women – had been taught to (wrongly) believe that a carton of cranberry juice was nature’s miracle cure. Within a few days, the infection spread through my body and caused flu-like symptoms: vomiting, extreme sweats, and a 40C fever.

For the first time in my life, I appreciated the delicate balance between body and brain. As my kidneys failed to filter the bacteria in my blood, I began hallucinating Harry Potter characters and started speaking to myself in my grandmother’s Polish accent for comfort. When I finally dragged myself to hospital – teeth chattering from how cold I felt, but not allowed a blanket because my body was actually burning up – I’d lost every inhibition. Not only did I sing The Simpsons in a series of 'do do do do do do do's,  I also muttered to myself, shouted the occasional 'No!', and recited some primary school prayers.

I have to conclude, then, that kidneys are excellent. They are unsung heroes: filtering 180 litres of blood every day without thanks, getting none of the praise or care that we put into bellies and butts and teeth and skin and eyes. You don’t have to rub your rib-region and whisper your thanks, but please, if nothing else: don’t sell yours.  

Scars, by Joel Golby

In a particularly violent run of form I am referring to as ‘being a boy below the age of 13’, I managed to suffer three of the injuries that would mark me for the rest of my life.

The first, a medium-sized scar running like a dent along my shin, happened when I aggressively tried to trip up Joe B. during a mazy run through the 40-man break-time football game, and instead of successfully tackling him he clunked into me toes-first with his Kickers, leaving a bruise that blushed first purple, then green, then – months later, finally – yellow down to brown. The area is still concave, beneath the leg-hair of adulthood, and still twinges electric when you push two fingers firmly into it, though why you would ever do that is beyond me. 

The second: a gash that erupted with vivid red blood when I fell face-first into an upturned lemonade bottle studded in some allotment mud, a slice along my hairline that made my parents – carrying my limp, bleeding, toddler body to an awaiting ambulance – fear that I would be disfigured for life, that they would have to raise me in some sort of bell tower lest my monstrous appearance scare other children, but actually turned out to be more-or-less OK after about eight days of plaster-swaddled healing. 

And the third, a punch from Dominic T., him running half the length of the pitch with his fist cocked behind him like a cartoon character before crushing it into my jaw and mashing my glasses askew as he did it, Nobody Can Remember Why, but the jaw swelling and presenting green for weeks afterwards, which became my first association with this peculiar human quirk we have where we see a visibly injured person and ask them, in an affected voice of shock, 'What did you do?'. I did receive a punch in the face from some kid in my class’s older brother, that is what I did. Yes, my still teeth hurt.

'He clunked into me toes-first with his Kickers...'

The injuries don’t present themselves much day-to-day – I mean it’s safe to say my football career never exactly took off, seeing as I’m not saying all this into a BBC microphone immediately following the World Cup final, so we know who to blame for that – and don’t impact on the way I move, or think, or see. But there is one place where they do come to the light, and that is in the blue-grey darkness of the bedroom of a girl you’re just getting to know, and she’s getting to know you, and both of you are naked and panting slightly on the damp surface of a duvet and running fingers over each others’ bodies and saying: do you have any scars. 

There is no better question than DYHAS?: no better way to know the frail intimacies, the rosaries of trauma, that make us who we become. I take their finger and run along my hairline and whisper how they changed lemonade bottles more widely to plastic not long afterwards, that I was one of the last living victims of the glass soda bottle; I tell them about the aborted Joe B. tackle, how close I was to stopping the run and saving my team from the disaster of conceding another goal in a 10–8 lunchtime thriller. And I take one finger and run it along my jaw, where a jut of hard bone materialised as the swelling went down and never went, invisible in the grander scheme of my face but there, always the size of a pea, a little nugget of bone known only to the girls who let me see them naked, the last remnant of getting decked in the face by Dominic T. for reasons no one can really remember. 

Every single impact felt huge and life-changing at the time, and each time my body just puffed out two cheeks of air and got on with quietly healing it away over the course of about three weeks, and now you can only really tell I’m damaged by looking very closely, by running fingers over me, by kissing along my hairline. You can know someone by what they can show you – their face, their body, the way they sit and the way they walk, the Instagram page you go back forty photos through as soon as they match you on Tinder, the smell of their breath after a cigarette – but you don’t know them, really know them, until they show you their scars.

Teeth, by Sam Parker

Illustration by Penguin 2019

What’s the most expensive meal you’ve ever eaten? Mine was a Pret a Manger sandwich. The ham one, with the little pickles in it. I sat down at my desk one morning, took a bite and... felt a crack that would haunt the next eight months of my life. 

There’s a reason why a missing front tooth is used in popular culture as a visual shorthand for 'idiot', why The Simpsons gave one to Cletus Spunckler and why Jim Carrey had half of his chipped off in Dumb and Dumber. It's impossible to look smart, or serious or even sane with a missing front tooth. Which is why, while waiting for a ‘full dental implant’ to be made in a factory somewhere, I had to wear a denture for the entire spring/summer of 2016.

How I came to loathe this ugly little thing. A small square of white plastic stuck onto a large piece of pink plastic (my ‘gum’), I had to wedge it into the front of my face every morning and spend all day feeling it slip around all day. I acquired a lisp, and a permanent face-ache. Once, in a pub, while telling a story, it burst out of my mouth and landed on the table. At least one person physically recoiled; everyone else just looked at the floor like they might be sick. Another time, as I leapt for joy alongside a hundred other people as England finally won a World Cup penalty shoot out, it tumbled onto the asphalt beneath everyone's leaping feet. I had to quickly swipe it up and go wash it off in the toilets while everyone else sang songs about Jordan Pickford, thinking: I’ve been waiting since 1994 for this.

'I felt ugly.'

At nighttime, I’d take it out with an enormous sense of relief, like a miner removing a pair of heavy work boots, and spend the evening laughing at the sight of myself in the mirror. But outside, I felt conscious of it at all times. I avoided important meetings. I cancelled social engagements. I learned how fragile my self-esteem and confidence truly were. Although it was temporary and easy to disguise from others (providing the Polygrip worked), I felt I had what amounted to a facial disfigurement and it made me feel, well, ugly.

There was one person I didn’t hide it from, and that was my girlfriend. She bore the full weight of my front toothlessness, from my constant moaning to, more disturbingly, the sight of the denture floating in a cup of water next to our bed every night like the mise en scène of a serial killer movie. She kept my spirits up and promised me I was still handsome, even if she did take to calling me ‘Shane Macgowan’. When I lost my denture swimming in Lake Bled - it’s still down there somewhere, waiting to be discovered by a horrified snorkeller - and she had to spend the final days of our holiday ordering dinner for me so I didn’t disturb any waiters, she didn’t mind.

And when, finally, after several rounds of drilling and some stuff involving 'gum extraction' I’m still not ready to talk about, the nightmare was over and I had my permanent new front tooth, she smiled and kissed me and went back to her book and never mentioned the whole ordeal ever again. Love can be expressed in passion and grand gestures, but one of the most powerful forms it can take is tolerance. It was, in the end, a lesson worth learning. Even if I’ve never been able to look at a jambon-beurre the same way again.

Vocal chords, by Jessie Thompson

'All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie,' WH Auden once wrote. Such a profound man. Knowing those words were profound - if not really what they meant - I used them to open my UCAS statement. But the truth is, I wanted to use my voice for different things. 

Namely: starring in Les Miserables in the West End. And that means you have to have a very good voice. This is the realm of Anne Hathaway, Michael Ball, Susan Boyle. In other words, very serious business. I’d practise in my bedroom, miming to my iPod mini in the mirror, trying to imagine that I was all French and hungry and covered in soot. Eventually, I took the next step: singing lessons with a man wearing a purple scarf called Simon. 

Simon got me singing all the classics. We did 'Joseph', we did 'Oliver!', we did 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. We even did 'Walking in the Air'. The only problem was, I wasn’t very good. 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs'? It turns out Karl Marx lied.  

Betrayed by my own voice, I kept trying, sounding like the reject from the after-school choir club with chronic laryngitis as I tried to scale the top notes. Simon took my money (well, my mum’s); maybe he was in as much denial as I was. I practised my A-Level music recital with my teacher and was halfway through the first verse of I Don’t Know How to Love Him when my teacher yelled: 'STOP, Jessie, STOP! This is the best I’ve ever heard you sing it. Preserve it.' I was confused; I was singing it badly.  

That was my last public performance.  

'I realised I'd only get to be in a West End musical if there was a zombie apocalypse and I was the sole survivor – and the zombies didn’t have ears'

When I realised that I was only going to be in a West End musical if there was a zombie apocalypse and I was the sole survivor – and the zombies didn’t have ears – off I popped to do an English degree instead. Only when I arrived at uni, my voice betrayed me again. In a pub surrounded by people introducing themselves by their name, and then, their pen name, I nattered back as if I wasn’t scared. 

'You’re from Essex, right?' they’d ask me, pronouncing all the vowels. 

'What! You think I’m from Essex?! I’m from Kent!' I’d squeak. 

For some reason, that made people laugh, and they repeated what I said, except... in an Essex accent.

'You fink ahm from Esseeeekssss? Hahaha'. 

I’m not from Essex. 

Now I am reconciled to my voice. Not only because three years of university has flattened my Estuary English accent by osmosis (and actually, I miss it), but I still get joy out of my singing, even though other people don’t. Recently I was singing a group hymn at a wedding, and two people in the row in front turned around to look at me with alarm. I smiled back. All I have is a voice; now I just use it in other ways. Ways that don’t make small children cry. 

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson is out now. 

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