At first the nurse is merely a voice, sweeping in behind the half-hearted shelter of a bathroom curtain. Without even glancing to my side of the consultation room, she asks me to remove my leggings and pants, and to lie down on the examining table and pull up my knees. She fiddles with something hidden and tells me to call for her when I’m ready to begin. Then she exits the room. No looking back, no waiting for confirmation that I’ve understood her instructions.
The poor lighting in the place is the only surprise so far. It seems a little odd that what they describe as a ‘holistic’ procedure should be carried out in this discrete half-dusk. The word ‘holistic’ makes me think of someone’s aura, blasting its light onto every nook of subject matter, allowing nothing to slip between logic and bliss. Both the cold-cut-science and the mindfulness promoters, I think, could live with ‘holistic’.
I obey the nurse and lie down on my left side, facing the monitor. She didn’t specify how I should hold my hands, and forced to improvise I place them awkwardly an inch or so from my face, the fingers curled as if to pray or be tied up. Then I wait. I can’t bring myself to shout ‘ready’, like a child who needs help wiping herself. Lying here in the foetal position, while the nurse still hasn’t seen me properly nor heard my voice, I could be any other patient with a backside and some issues, the likes of which she’s seen a couple of hundred times before.
After a minute or so I hear her stomp back into the room, eager to get on with it: a journey, a spectacle pencilled into her calendar, where people are fitted one after the other like bricks. She’s good at what she does; I can tell she’s on her way up whatever ladder she desires to climb. She stops. I hear a gasp.
‘Mel,’ she says.
I turn my head and discover that she’s pressing both her hands together, flat against her mouth, retreating with very small, ergonomically-shoed steps. She wears her hair differently at work. I’m not allowed to like this better than the other way.
‘But it wasn’t your name in the booking,’ she bursts.
‘Of course, it wasn’t.’
Holding my head this way is hurting my neck. I turn back to face the monitor. Under its impeccable surface, her reflection continues to stare at me, her eyes huge with irises of no colour but that of clowns.
‘But there’s no one else here today who can do it. You’ll have to reschedule.’
‘I have an appointment. And you want customer feedback.’
She’s clenching her teeth now. Our short acquaintance hasn’t yet earned me the right to guess what she’s thinking, but I can tell from her face on the screen that she certainly is. She’s ladling up pros and cons into separate bowls, only to end up with the same facts in each: it’s still me, it’s still my bum, and she can’t make it go away.
‘We’re not supposed to treat people we know. It’s bad practice.’
‘Pretend it’s not me then,’ I say. ‘Pretend like you don’t know me.’
She laughs. She still thinks I’ll leave.
‘I won’t tell if you don’t.’
One step forward, and fumbling as if against some clock, she’s putting my index finger in a plastic clip which will monitor my pulse. When she sits down behind the examining table I can no longer see her reflection. The screen is bigger than a television but doesn’t quite cover the entire wall. She asks me to relax while she inserts the cold metal. Childhood memories of thermometers and fevers arrive uninvited, and there’s an urge to put up such a fight that it will change the first impression anyone I ever met has had of me.
Then we’re off, and from the very first frame the screen looks as if it could be full of stars.
After I booked the appointment the clinic sent me a padded envelope, the kind that might have contained paperback books, just thin enough to fit through the letterbox. Inside I found a sachet of powder, to be mixed with water into a cleansing solution, along with an instructive leaflet. If successful, the preparation was meant to flood you, leaving only the hurtfuls, as they’re called, which the camera would then be able to find. It’s a new, but not entirely unpleasant, feeling, being empty except for that which is a permanent part of you.
We’re entering at a speed I didn’t know I had in me.
The recent hurtfuls are the introductory credits. There’s the quick hands of the Lothian Buses driver who, two mornings ago, accused me of not having paid the full fare because I handed it all over in twenty pence coins. I wasn’t looking at his face (it’s too easy for me to start crying when complete strangers decide they don’t like me), which must be why only the hands have been recorded, repeating the same slow gesture of exasperation over and over. They are followed by a flash of the letter reclaiming my housing benefit, which I decided to forget about underneath a pile of other mail.
Before a new image comes into view the screen flickers and becomes striped with turbulence, then the clips appear like little two-second vignettes picked up by the camera. Somewhere we hear a phone ringing, but have no way of answering it. As effectively as stainless steel, the lens moves along through the rectum and into a wider tunnel which resembles the inside of an elephant’s trunk.
‘That is your Sigmoid Colon,’ she explains. ‘This camera is brilliant. It’s so sensitive it will pick up anything floating around in there. Our plan today is to go as far up as your spleen, but we’ll make a few brief stops along the way and see what we can find.’
At one point I would have loved to watch her at work, doing whatever science she did for a living.
‘All of these are minor ones,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t worry about them. Basic psychogastric theories say we always have some hurtfuls, but these won’t cause you much trouble.’
Good to know, I think, as long as they remember that.
I get why this has become so popular. It’s more thorough than chemical peeling and a lot quicker than therapy, but the scenes are also spoon-fed to you, without the need of professional explanation. Familiar faces get on with their winning-over, loving and leaving me perfectly well by themselves on the screen, repeating past episodes in short snippets. We’re not sticking around for long in front of each of them, though. That would quickly become boring.
The revolutionary thing, she says, is that we can watch it all in a language we understand now. The lens translates the writing in the gut. Like developing fluid, the solution I drank has cleansed the intestine to make the images sharp, and the camera clears what’s left of liquid by blowing air in front of itself. When I exhale a little bit too deeply she asks me to please lie still.
That was Dave, which is a bit surprising. He works with me at the museum. We’re not exactly friends, but we do pass the time on meet-and-greet duty discussing what we’d stuff the giant rabbits with, to give the taxidermists the best surprise the day it’s time to give them a stuffed-rabbit-MOT. When I spotted him at Tesco once he pretended not to see me. Next there’s Else, whom I went to primary school with. I did hate her, with all the intensity an eight-year-old has in her belly; she escaped with me during recess and told our teacher I talked her into it. Neither of them asked for permission before they took up residence in there: a permanent re-run projected onto my mucus membranes.
When Dad finally pops up, sitting at what looks like a hip, wooden café table, knitting and—it appears—showing off a latte he’ll never drink, I laugh. No surprises there.
My clipped and monitored finger throbs, tucked under my left cheek. I’m not supposed to know in what way my heart may break. I’m not the one holding the camera. I am the streets on which the chase is happening. When I burp everything shakes, like this doll’s house has been picked up by giant, sacrilegious hands.
After Mum died I began to go out protesting on behalf of a smorgasbord of causes, every other month a new awful thing that couldn’t wait. Smiling at my ever-changing badges, Dad would tell me about the seventies. He’d taken part in marches; he’d supported the pill. Whatever I was raging against these days, it was never going to be as stubborn as the walls they’d broken through back then, with bare hands and bleeding noses.
Once I moved out of the house, he set up a feminist knitting and discussion group down at the community centre. He kept calling the members of the group his ‘ladies’, and eventually he started an affair with one of them.
The problem with Dad was that we’d had each other figured out for too long. The way the two of us were together was like a memorised script I couldn’t remember ever reading for the first time. In a few months, when he remembered to call me again, I knew I’d have to listen to how the disastrous ending had unfolded, and exactly how it felt, and hear intricate descriptions of the detritus left behind.
The tissue of the intestinal wall, visible between scenes, looks glossy and a little chafed. When the camera accidentally touches these burnt walls I shiver. I’d forgotten I was still wearing my socks and I wiggle a toe inside one of them, pulling an off-stage face.
‘It all looks pretty normal,’ her voice assures me. ‘Only minor hurtfuls so far.’
She sounds a little sleepy. This makes me think of her in bed.
She says the hurtfuls are like cave paintings. It doesn’t matter who the original artist was, as long as I understand their meaning. If it doesn’t itch I should forgive them and move on. It’s obvious she’s quoting from a textbook. I’m not even worth fresh metaphors.
I first heard about the procedure during a lunch break in the museum staff room.
‘It’s called psychoendoscopy,’ said the short girl who works in the shop. ‘I can’t recommend it enough. It helped me hunt down my ex-boyfriend.’
‘What happens when you find them?’ I asked.
She looked at me, then smiled at the other two people around the table, who’d also recently undergone the procedure.
‘You deal with them,’ she said, knowingly lowering her voice as if to meet me in my various sorrows.
One of the others said they’d gone home with neat recordings of bullying and depression which they labelled and kept in their DVD collections, filed under the name of each pain.
Around the time I heard about Dad’s affair there was a book on my bedside table: Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson. It had been overdue at the library for weeks.
‘The galaxa goes through the belly,’ it proclaimed.
The book wasn’t about gastric medicine, only about affairs, but I thought: and what if?
The woman Dad began to sleep with rarely smiled. My father explained that she hated her teeth. She knew she had a questionably young face, but she also resented others pointing it out, the way a tree would be insulted if a mere human asked how old it was. Her habit of drinking milk in pubs didn’t help.
Dad invited me to come and meet up with both of them after work. He said it would make things less weird, later on, if things continued as he was hoping they would.
They held hands for a while on the table, like an aperitif I was supposed to only eye so as not to ruin my appetite. Her thin fingers picked up the glass of milk she’d ordered, in that very tender way some people do, never truly touching anything, and then she downed it. She pinched both sides of her mouth to wipe off any residues. Dad looked like he didn’t know whether to eat her or nurse her. When she went back to the bar to get a pint, he looked into his beer and asked me what I thought.
‘I guess she’s nice. Does she like you?’
‘I mean, Mel,’ he said, drawing lines on the wet glass. ‘Do you mind?’
‘We never see each other, Dad,’ I said.
He picked up his pint. Then he pressed his lips to the edge of the glass and swallowed. He drank so slowly I began hoping that what I’d just said was the surprise we’d been waiting for all these years, a change in our coordinates.
‘She told me she’d never met a bloke who knitted,’ he said then.
When she came back she reported that the barman had asked if she was sure she didn’t want another glass of milk.
‘Do you know how many women suffer from osteoporosis in the northern hemisphere?’
She blinked, hiding her teeth behind a thin, moist crevice.
Soon after that Dad received a call about a flat he was trying to sell, and he decided to ‘leave us girls to it’.
We went to a café where they served goat’s milk. She said most people didn’t like it, probably because goats were small and cute, and most people don’t like drinking what comes out of anything smaller than a cow. I got to hear about the difference in nutrients between skimmed and semi-skimmed, and about how in so many other languages the Milky Way has nothing to do with milk.
‘Does it ever make you sick?’ I asked her.
‘You make me sick,’ she said. ‘Do you just let him say anything to you?’
On the couch in the flat I was sharing with three strangers, the woman Dad was sleeping with licked my hair and stroked my breasts, as if to prove she wasn’t most people, and that surprises were not yet extinct.
The camera has just flickered through a series of ‘apparent sleep disorientations’ on the way up the descending colon. All of them are wearing insomnia uniforms: there’s a panoramic view of a city I should leave; an empty T-shirt belonging to the first girl I had a crush on; the stubborn rash in the nook of my left elbow, and they’re all wrapped in the brackish blue of three in the morning. She explains how sleep difficulties often target this particular area, and that they’re common in people who work in the arts—people who wish they cared less about not being paid more. Mine, although they may be connected to older, more serious hurtfuls, don’t seem to have developed further than a few nights. Today we’re going after the big fish.
The information leaflet said you should remain open-minded, and to avoid discussing what you’re hoping to find during the procedure itself. This will give you the best shot at locating what’s really clotting up your system, without all the hurtfuls being triggered to create diversions in the form of false images.
Although I can’t see her face from where I’m lying, my back tells me it’s an open, unsuspecting window, genuinely and objectively interested. These people are the Stanley Kubricks of the gut. My tummy is her film set.
We’re almost there now, as far as we’re planning to go.
For a full intestinal scan you need to have presented symptoms much more serious than a few weeks of anxiety and, of course, pay double the fee. It makes sense; you don’t go to Mars in the same kind of vehicle you’d use for the moon.
Thinking this, waiting for the biggest surprise I know is about to hit her, I begin to hurt. When the pain makes me tense up she stops for a second and sighs irritably.
‘It’s just the air,’ she says. ‘There’s not much room in there.’
It feels like my womb is about to drop from a very tall building.
‘It’ll all be over in a minute,’ she says, and keeps pushing.
Then, just as an even wider channel seems to open up on the screen, and I think I have no walls anymore—that my insides are just something I made up—a smoother kind of darkness serenely folds across the screen.
The nurse stops and we stare at the monitor. We’re both breathing in slow bursts, as if trapped inside space suits.
‘But we don’t even know each other!’ she says, her hand still, but her tepid, naked back right up there on the screen, in front of the lounge window in my shared flat. ‘If anyone it should be your dad in there, not me!’
All piled up are the tired hours I’ve spent feeding the idea of her. She seeped in with the milk, until those inner cavities began to recognise her. Her shoulders look exhausted, jaded from the repetitive sequence of dressing and undressing.
‘It should have been him, not me,’ she says again, her hand beginning to shake and send reverberations up my already sore spine.
I lie there facing the signs of life. In the place which is deep, pure as ink, and holds the greatest volume in this particular human body, I see her: a white, seemingly dead star. For the first time, oddly, I can feel how close her hands are to my own bare skin.
I take a deep breath and push.
The screen is immediately invaded by horizontal signal flaws. She’s caught in the torrential of wind, rage and star dust, everything on its determined way out. I can see all the little film sequences passing by, as the camera tries to focus but is catapulted by the muscle lining, backwards through time and the native flora: the most hurtful, which is never who it should have been, and all the milk.
After they pick her up from the consultation-room floor, the receptionist takes her away. As they rush out I can hear her trying to explain that she tripped on the equipment. I stay where I am, turning away from the now blue-screened monitor and looking up at the ceiling where I discover there’s a poster of star constellations. This room must be used for other procedures too, which require people lying on their backs, being distracted.
A trainee nurse with a Mohawk comes in and asks me to get dressed and to wait outside for the results. While I tie my shoes he clears his throat.
‘It’s ok,’ he says, ‘every once in a while the camera comes too close to the key hurtful. The entire abdominal area reacts. It expels anything that’s not, well, native. That’s not part of you.’
I straighten up just in time to see the trainee nurse smile, with great, learned patience.
‘Also,’ he says. ‘You might want to cut down on the lactose.’
He ushers me towards the door, and tells me not to worry. The technique, after all, is still being perfected. We are going down passages, testing new ground.