Sunday, 29 March 2009

He’th A Thquid, He’th A Mutthel, He’th A Clam. He’th A Bithnethman, Not A Fighter.

I’m always trying to plug the gaps in my children’s film and musical back catalogue knowledge. It is a project they strenuously resist, but two weeks ago, I persuaded my sixteen-year old son to sit with me and watch the genius that is ‘When We Were Kings’, the documentary of The Rumble in the Jungle, when Mohammed Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. I even persuaded him to memorise Ali’s fabulous pre-fight rap
I done wrassled with an alligator, tussled with a whale
Handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail
Murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick
I’m so mean – I make medicine sick.......

I don’t know if there is a direct connection, but I spent many hours of the last week sitting with my son in fracture clinics. He had got into his first fight, lamped a drunk who was roughing up his cousin; breaking a bone in his hand in the process. This is exactly the thing you pray is not happening while your teenager is out and you’re lying in bed with half an ear for the late night key in the door.
The next morning, when I saw his hand, out poured the Mother’s Speech: that although he had acted bravely and nobly, he’d crossed a line and he mustn't now forget that flight is always preferable to fight & what if his cousin – who is older, but smaller – now looks to him as his late night ‘enforcer’? What if the man had hit his head on the pavement & died, or had a knife, or a bigger friend in the shadows? When I was finally done, he put his good hand on my shoulder & said gently, ‘Mama, if it happened over again, I’d help him again, ok?’

After five days in a heavy slab cast we returned to see if the bone needed pinning. I dreaded this. Not only are his AS exams imminent, but operating theatres no longer offer help exclusively; they offer an array of horrible infections. The fearsome bustling matrons who once ruled our wards have been replaced by underpaid contract cleaners, wrongheaded government
‘targets’ and chronic failures in the most basic hygiene.
We were directed to an especially drab waiting room with such astonishingly uncomfortable chairs it’s a wonder we didn’t all develop stress fractures to our coccyxes. Between bouts of existential misery came shafts of gratitude for those
members of our species who opt to spend their lives patching up their fellows.
A new doctor removed my son’s cast & organised further x-rays. When it came to asking how the break had come about, my son looked at the floor, explaining very quietly, it was because he’d socked an attacker in the jaw.
‘Thank goodness for that,’ the doctor said gaily, ‘a person is so much better than a wall – at least they move; walls never do.’
I shot the doctor a mid-voltage look, but he carried on. ‘What you are presenting young man, is a fracture of the metacarpal, behind the right little finger, known as
the “boxer’s break”. Now, don’t be too flattered by that name because no professional ever breaks that particular bone; they break the second and third knuckles.’
‘You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen in the paper.’ I interrupted - hoping to change the subject. ‘Today is the anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm Röntgen, who invented the x-ray in 1895. Isn’t that a coinciden….’
[above, the good doctor R from the west & an early x-ray of Herr Deiter Von Simpson]

No. There were three of us in that consulting room, but for two, this news fell far short of being even marginally fascinating. The coincidence of dates diverted them not one jot. They slung me tired looks and then turned back to each other. ‘No need for a pin, it’s heeling very well’ said the doctor.
My son beamed. ‘Like Wolverine.’ And the doctor nodded in sage agreement.
‘Come back in three weeks, and if you have to defend someone again,’ he said, waving us to the door, ‘you really need to ball your fist quite a bit harder.’

We went home clutching as a memento, the spectral x-ray of his hand. It is a beautiful thing, and something for which the pioneering professor rightly won the 1910 Nobel Prize for medicine [although his living was not secured by this achievement and when he died, was almost bankrupt]. Röntgen performed one of the very first experiments on his wife's hand & when she saw the result she screeched, ‘I have seen my death!’

My son now has Röntgen’s legacy hanging in the window of his bedroom. It joins another family heirloom; also in the form of an x-ray, given to me about twelve years ago. This one was taken by a nurse I knew in Nairobi hospital. It is of a young Turkana herdsman who had got into a skirmish over some inter-tribe cattle rustling.
A long time ago, a candle fell on the photograph & burned it, but luckily did not damage the important elements of the image. Amazingly, he was walking wounded. God knows what they did about the barbs, but no doubt he left the hospital with a doctor's advice to ‘throw your spear faster next time’ ringing in his ears.

If you click on it, you can see more clearly.