In the DC Comics universe a rare skin complaint gives superpowers, but all it gives me is stress

Everyone I know has an opinion on why I have got eczema, and it is that I am stressed – an assumption I find somewhat stressful.

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A month ago, before our Easter break, I wrote what I’d like to think was a humorous enough column about my hands turning blue. The big reveal, as professional scriptwriters like to put it, was that my hands were turning blue because of the dye on the hardback cover of the book I was reviewing. I also mentioned “a nasty patch of dry, flaky, itchy skin” on my right palm. So relieved was I that I wasn’t going to turn blue all over that I thought no more about this for a while.

That said, I do now recall what I should have mentioned at the time: that there is a precedent for someone turning blue, and that is in the case of Dr Manhattan from the Watchmen comics, but he only turns blue after a horrific nuclear accident, the kind which would kill anyone outside the DC Comics universe. He also has incredible superpowers and goes around in the nude the whole time, though I don’t think that would suit me, especially not with the weather we’ve been having.

Anyway, the skin condition that wasn’t blue got worse and worse and began to spread to the other hand. The skin on the fingers started peeling. It looked as though I had been in an actual nuclear accident, and not the kind that gives you superpowers. If anything, it reduced whatever meagre abilities I already had. Washing up, which is most definitely not one of my powers, let alone a super one, became not only a chore that I would put off for ages, but was actually painful.

In the end I called up the GP. Send us a photo, said the GP, who then replied pretty quickly (my local surgery is wonderful). I should also add that the doctor who spoke to me was called Doctor Finlay, which pleased me greatly – all doctors should be called Doctor Finlay (or Doctor Manhattan) – as did the fact that she was a woman. It was as if the BBC had brought the show back, and, in the manner of the producers of Doctor Who, had changed the titular hero’s sex. She was still Scottish, though. You don’t mess around with the original formula too much.

“It looks like you have pompholyx,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

She repeated herself.

“Sorry, I thought you said something that sounded like ‘pompholyx’.”

She prescribed me some steroid cream to try, and told me to see what the condition was like in two weeks’ time.

[see also: Which of two distractions to concentrate on: a Twitter spat or a hand that has turned blue?]

Meanwhile, I looked up “pompholyx”. Doctor Finlay was on the level, it really exists. It could have been much worse: you can get it on the soles of your feet. That sounds like hell. But no one knows what causes it, no one knows what makes it go away, apart from having it smeared with the steroid cream, which in my case glories under the name “Clobavate”. This looks like a made up name to me, rather like pompholyx. (“Ah,” said a friend, “my least favourite Asterix character.”)

Naturally, everyone I know has an opinion on why I have got pompholyx, and it is that I am stressed. This assumption, I have to say, I find somewhat stressful. What, I ask them, and myself, do I have to be stressed about? Apart from great penury, paying through the nose to live in a shoebox, lockdown, a pandemic, Brexit, the daily insecurities attendant on my profession, the fact that I have not had a home I can call my own for 13½ years, and the daily, unending nightmare of knowing that my Prime Minister is Boris Johnson? Apart from that everything is tickety-boo. Even not being able to go on holiday is fine now because no one can.

If I were Doctor Manhattan I would be able to split myself into an infinite number of identical and autonomous versions of myself, at least one of which would be sunning itself on a beach in Antigua with a good book – but I’d probably get bored after a while. Until a few months ago the only thing really bothering me was not having a partner, because having one makes it a lot easier to put up with all the other things I have listed. As it happens, I do have a rather wonderful partner, and have had one for a few months – my lockdown has not been too hard on me, really. In fact, the thing that’s actually stressing me out at the moment is this sodding pompholyx.

Pompholyx. What a word. I have lived nearly 58 years on this planet and I’ve never heard it until now. Doctor Finlay could have told me I had dyshidrotic eczema, which is what it is also known as, but I suspect the medical profession gets a kick out of using the word “pompholyx”. You know that thing where you keep repeating a word and it becomes meaningless-sounding? Pompholyx has a head start on pretty much every other word in the dictionary. And yet there it is, messing up my hands. The cream seems to be barely working. Maybe Doctor Manhattan could fix it.

[see also: I’m not sure which I fear more, Legionnaires’ disease or the thought of a stranger in the flat]

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 appears in the 14 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people

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