Squeezed Middle: Sleepless nights and Highbury flats

I tell Mum straight out what I think of her plan to buy a million-pound flat in Highbury - because we are facing financial Armageddon.

Another sleepless night. At 6am, I stagger out of bed. It is semi-dark outside. I reach for the phone and, before I have even thought about it, I dial Mum’s number. She answers straight away. She’s an early riser.
 
“Hello, darling. Is everything all right?”
 
No. It’s not. I make a weird choking noise.
 
“Oh, dear. What is it? Is something the matter?”
 
I tell her straight out what I think of her plan to buy a million-pound flat in Highbury. I don’t hold back. I tell her that I love her and that I want her to have everything in the world that she could possibly wish for – but that we are facing financial Armageddon and we need her help. She listens and she doesn’t get offended or cross. She sounds shocked. And sad.
 
“If you feel like this, darling, I won’t buy the flat. It was just a silly idea. I got carried away. And that’s the end of it. OK?”
 
I sniff. I thought I’d feel better but I don’t.
 
“OK. I’m so sorry.”
 
“Shush. Go and get some sleep.”
 
Three hours later, once I’ve made Larry and Moe porridge and brushed their teeth and wriggled them both into their clothes and washed their faces and distracted them for long enough that I can throw some clothes on – the same as yesterday, but who cares? – and tidied away the breakfast things and wiped the table and started to think about how on earth we’re going to fill the eight hours until Curly gets back from work and I can finally sit down and close my eyes, the phone rings. It’s Mum.
 
“So, I’ve been thinking about our conversation,” she says.
 
“Oh, right?”
 
“And I’ve come up with a plan.”
 
I give Larry and Moe two gingerbread biscuits each so I can fully focus on Mum’s plan. It’s an amazing plan. It’s a plan that will change our lives.
 
Mum is proposing to stay in her current house but to rent out two of her bedrooms and give the income to us every month. It will be enough money to cover our mortgage repayments. Curly and I, between us, will only have to earn enough to pay for food, bills and fun. She will do this for a year and then we will review the situation.
 
By the time I put the phone down, the world is a different place. So we will still be in the slightly-too-small flat but we will be free! We can be real people again, people who enjoy life and don’t worry all the time and even maybe go out for a pub lunch and on holiday sometimes. I can stay at home for a bit longer with the children. Curly can take some time to retrain.
 
I am so delirious that I sit smiling stupidly for several minutes before noticing that Moe has smeared his gingerbread man all over the carpet and is eating earth from the plant pot.
 
I pick him up, bury my mouth in his chubby neck and blow a big raspberry. He squeals with delight.
 
“Bubbalicious baby,” I whisper in his ear.
 
“We’re going to be all right.”
Rooftops in Highbury. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear