Speed dating

It occurred to me my personal equivalent of speed dating is, in fact, the hotel fire scare. In many

I am writing this on a train – to be precise, the train that I had to buy a ticket for when it turned out that the train I had a ticket for didn’t exist as a result of obscure and perhaps satanic influences – or simply because it’s a British train and therefore one small, but highly effective, part of a multi-layered plan to make travelling by public transport impossible.

So I spent two hours of this afternoon huddled in a hot corner of Kings Cross, eking out a soda water and lime and waiting to climb aboard what these days constitutes my office. No one phones me on trains, no one faxes me, no one can email me (because the advertised wi fi doesn’t work) I can drink cups of appalling and vaguely stimulating milky tea (my intolerance to both caffeine and dairy making this a heart-racing and phlegmy thrill) I cannot distract myself with household chores, or minor acts of self-harm (except for the tea) and I can actually get some work done.

The only story I’ve ever had accepted by the New Yorker was written on a train, the short story I am currently writing is being written on a train, this is being written on a train – dear God, I had exactly one day to deal with my washing, ironing and post after returning from the Fringe and then I was off again – on a train - and now I’m heading back – on a train. Before being off some more. I may never find out what’s in my own freezer again. If I had enough time, I might find it alarming that spending a month surrounded by showpersons, comics and diseases while performing at least once a day constituted a restful burst of sanity and a chance to bond and chat with people I hadn’t made up earlier out of my head.

The lunacy of my current existence was recently brought home to me when I considered speed dating. Not as a thing I would have to be drugged, handcuffed and forced to take part in at gunpoint – just as a concept.

My innate shyness, alarming sense of humour, twitches and ridiculously high boredom threshold effectively prevent me from dating, even at a moderate pace, and should I suffer a personality-transforming head injury that makes me want to sit at a table opposite a succession of sad-eyed Brians and Dereks, my being semi-permanently on a train would prove a grave obstacle to nervous glances and whatever “small talk” might turn out to be.

It occurred to me the other night that my personal equivalent is, in fact, the hotel fire scare. In many ways, piling into a damp car park at 3am with a load of strangers is an ideal way to meet new chums. There you are, united by adversity, with plenty of amusing grumbles to share and ample opportunity to check out the night attire of potential mates – will you nod enticingly to the flannel pyjamas and anorak, or the bare feet, jeans and pullover, or go for the mysteriously rakish overcoat and ankle boot combination?

Being more that a little paranoid, I’m comforted by knowing how someone will react in a crisis. And, being a night owl, I do tend to shine in the small hours - especially if I’m the only woman present who doesn’t look as if she’s been regurgitated by a killer whale – even more especially if I happen to be in a sharp suit and my lucky shoes. Not that my state of enviable readiness would in any way suggest that I might have left some smouldering leaves in a vestibule for some reason and forgotten to smother them with sand.

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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