Klimt's The Kiss: a vital clue? Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
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It’s been a strange week: I have no idea who wrote the love letter I found on my table

It has been cut out from a reproduction of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and is about the size of one of those special stamps you get which are a bit too big for the envelope.

I find a little note on the table in the Hovel. It has been cut out from a reproduction of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and is about the size of one of those special stamps you get which are a bit too big for the envelope, obscuring part of the address you’ve already written. On the obverse is written: “I love you not only for who you are – but for who I am when I am with you x”.

I do not recognise the handwriting. Something about it seems familiar, but not enough for me to able to pin it down. It looks a bit like [name redacted]’s – but not exactly like it.

Is it, I wonder, even for me? I’ve just opened an invitation for the Baileys Prize for Fiction and it may have fallen out of that, this being someone’s idea of a tantalising marketing campaign for one of their shortlisted books. I moisten my finger and run it across the words to see if the ink smudges, this being the way to tell if something is printed or not. It smudges. This does not preclude, though, the possibility that some minion with nice, neat handwriting has been employed to put one of these in each of the envelopes, although it seems a pretty cruel thing to ask a minion to do, given that by the thousandth envelope the minion would not only be ruling out ever using such a sweet formulation in real life, but she would also be thinking dark thoughts about the very word “love”. (The handwriting is feminine, I am pretty confident of that.)

I put the question of handwriting to one side and think of all the women I know who could have written it. I think we can rule out my wife. Others, too, we can rule out, for various reasons. And I doubt that the woman who was referred to some years ago in this column as the WIL (short for Woman I Love) would have written it.

It may, I reflect, have been meant for another inmate of the Hovel entirely. However, the thing that is hammering at my conscience as I write this – and that gave me severe misgivings as to whether I should even write about it at all – is that I know perfectly well who wrote me this charming note, but I have forgotten.

I do this, I know. I forget. My memory is like an Emmenthal cheese: very solid throughout, except for the enormous holes. I was once clearing out the freezer at two in the morning, with drunken resolve, together with H—, and we came across a quarter-bottle of Zubrówka whose provenance I queried aloud. “I think some bird gave it to me,” I said (using the word “bird” ironically, I promise). “That was me, you jerk,” she replied. (We polished it off and woke the next day with two of the worst hangovers either of us has ever had in our lives.) So it is entirely possible that the author of this note, one of the sweetest I have ever received, is reading this and saying to herself, in tones of unimaginable hurt and outrage: I cannot believe he does not remember.

All I can say in my defence, if this is the case, is that initially receiving it must have caused some kind of bomb to go off in my soul, as if the blush I would surely have experienced at the time immediately caused a mini-stroke, obliterating the memory of it at exactly the same time as it was forged.

There’s a nice paradox for you. And there are some compliments that are so vast, I feel I cannot contain them, because I sense not only that I can’t live up to them, but that I would become insufferably big-headed if I kept them in mind. So the nice things get swept under the conscious carpet while the cockroaches and other vermin crawl about freely in plain sight.

So there it is: I am haunted. Meanwhile, another funny thing happened to me the other weekend. The eldest boy, having turned 18, fancied a pint at the Duke after Sunday lunch. A nice idea, I thought, and as we were sipping our drinks at an outside table there was a tap on the window beside us. It was the woman who was once referred to in this column as the WIL – with her younger daughter and her New Man. “So?” you may ask. Well, she lives sixty miles away and was down in London for the weekend, and I happen to know there is at least one other pub in London open on a Sunday afternoon.

Well, we all chatted civilly. Later my son asked me if I had had any further thoughts about this coincidence. Temporarily channelling Doc, the permanently stoned private investigator from Inherent Vice, I replied: “That was no coincidence, man.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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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