A glorious, magical evening

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

"This thing is a bloody death trap." Curly is examining one of the light fittings in the caravan. We are on holiday, for the first time since baby Moe was born. It’s a free holiday, obviously; we have persuaded the parents of a friend to lend us their caravan in Essex. They warned me it was a little bit run-down but I assured them that I didn’t mind. I don’t mind anything that allows me to escape the four walls of the slightly-too-small flat for a whole weekend. The most exciting expedition I have had for months is to Ikea Edmonton; at this point, the Thames Estuary seems about as remote and exotic as the Galapagos Islands.

So I wasn’t bothered that caravan No 18 was the only one on the otherwise pristine campsite to be crumbling, peeling and propped up on bricks, or that the door swung on one hinge when we opened it, or that the steps had rusted and fallen apart. In fact, I was charmed by its retro interior, with the little lace curtains and 1950s-avocado green sofas.

I am slightly less cool, however, with the large scorch marks on the ceiling. The caravan is fitted with ancient gas-powered bulbs, which you have to light with a match. Each one has created its own blackened ring on the plywood roof. Every time I look at them, I hear a sinister voiceover from one of those TV reconstructions: “little did the young family know that, as they slept, the caravan was filling with deadly carbon monoxide . . .”

Bugger it, we’ll just have to use a torch. I throw open the door and, remembering just in time that there are no steps, jump out into the field outside. Everything is bathed in glorious evening light. The grassy slope runs gently down towards undulating salt marshes and a scrubby little beach. Gulls are swooping over the water and wood smoke drifts from one of the little huts lined up along the shore. In the distance, the looming cranes of Harwich harbour are strung with winking lights.

Larry, in a frenzy of excitement, is already halfway down the track to the beach. “Hurry up, Mummy. We need to go to where the pirates are to find the treasure.”

The little stretch of sand is deserted. After trying – and sadly failing – to find the pirates’ treasure, we collect some driftwood and light a fire. Curly produces a packet of marshmallows and helps Larry choose a suitable toasting stick. The sun is pink and low over the horizon.

“The sun has got its jim-jams on because it’s about to go to bed,” I explain.

“They’re even nicer than my jim-jams,” Larry says approvingly. He dangles his marshmallow over the flame, where it promptly catches fire. We rescue it just in time; melted sugar fluff oozing through sticky black caramel.

“Mmmmmm,” he says as he chows it down. “I like holidays.”

So if we do all die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the night, I reflect later as we snuggle up in the creaky double bed, at least we’ll have ended it all with a magical evening.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

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.

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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