Dexter has been studying his body at school—last week he brought home a shaving of fingernail in his book-bag, reverently displaying it on the palm of his hand for me to admire. He has clearly chosen to disassociate this precious relic from the fortnightly tussles we have in the bathroom where I attempt to trim his nails and he wriggles and wails with the injustice. School it seems can do this to you—legitimizing and sanctioning the previously abhorrent. He’s still at an age where his body won’t always cooperate fully with his intentions for it—it’s a body in training—clumsy and springy and quite unpredictable most of the time. When he breaks one of my semi-precious ornaments he protests that it wasn’t him, it was ‘the hands’ that did it. Likewise he didn’t mean to kick the cat, it was ‘these naughty feet’. He tells them off himself—in a perfect mimic of me, “This is not acceptable behavior, naughty toes!” The cat looks on disdainfully, and throws me a stare as if to say, “Are you really going to listen to this rubbish?”
He’s particularly fascinated by those bits of him that he can’t see: the stuff on the inside—bones, guts, heart, blood. He prods at himself when I’m trying to get him dressed, frowning. He can feel his ribs, but he doesn’t quite believe in them yet. We get together with some other kids and mums with the intention of making pictures of skeletons and skulls for homework—the kids run around crazily knocking into things and giving each other bruises while us mums colour in pelvises and tibias, keeping inside the lines and jostling for the felt-tips. A few days later I take Dexter to look at some spooky Halloween skeletons in a local shop window, while at school they are reading the Funny Bones books and playing in a ‘stinky hut’ full of different smells. It all adds up to a rich broth of confusion until I’m wondering whether this topic was especially well-timed for the weeks leading up to Halloween. Then I hear that up in Yorkshire my sister-in-law is working on a Memory Box based on WWI for her four year old’s ‘homework’, so I count myself lucky.
I find myself going over and over all this as I lie face down on the massage table at the local beauty shop. The music of whales issues from the invisible sound system while an LED projection of the Milky Way drifts lazily across the walls and ceiling. I’m supposed to be relaxed, but it’s hard to let yourself go when there is someone digging and scooping at the flesh between your vertebrae with fingers of steel. My therapist looked so fresh and sweet when she brought me down here, but in the semi-darkness she has turned into a witch with fingers like knobbly twigs, probing away at me to see if I’m fit for the cooking pot yet.
“You’re holding a lot of tension up here,” she purrs in her girl-sweet voice, while her witchy fingers squeeze and push and pinch. “How’s the book coming along?”
And there she has me, my muscles give up their ghost of resistance, my skeleton shudders soundlessly, and the little pool of acidified breakfast in the basin of my stomach turns like a dog in its basket. In a weakened moment on a previous visit—probably during some kind of hair-removal scenario—I must have told her that I am writing a book, and she has remembered this and decided to check in with my progress—of which there has been very little of late.
“It’s finished but I’m editing it down a bit,” I say defensively, my words muffled and squashed because my face is poking through that hole in the massage table and gravity has been working its own evil fingers into my face-flesh. “I need to strip out some of the dead weight and make the text leaner.”
“Good idea” the enchantress murmurs, and digs her hands even deeper into my own excess flesh.
And that’s when I have it, the Eureka moment—I’m actually right —I do need to go back to the bones of my story, but forget the scalpel, it’s the surgeon’s saw I want for this job. All this time I’ve been attempting a tummy-tuck here, a lift-and-smooth there, when really I should have been excavating back to the bare, naked skeleton of my plot, the blood, guts and heart. How did I let my plot get so fat? All those words, swelling the word-count like a bulimic gorging on empty calories.
I lie on the massage table tensing, the hairs on my neck standing erect with the drama of my apotheosis. I need to go, now. I’ll just give the therapist an excuse, like I’ve left the oven on, or forgotten my son’s lunch box and I’ll run straight home and start work straight away. My book is much, much too long and I need to cut a big chunk out of it today, this very hour. Ideas burst in my brain like fireworks—fizzing brilliantly but then disappearing before I can make a note of them. If I don’t leave now I’ll lose the momentum.
The witchy fingers stop their probing and become gentler. “You look a bit shivery, shall I turn the electric blanket up a bit?” the therapist asks. “It’s your favourite bit coming up now, the neck and head bit.”
Ah, the neck and head bit, it would be a shame to miss that. Those little knuckles of vertebrae at the top of my spine really need the neck and head bit—spent so long hunching over the computer recently, hunching over Dexter’s skeleton books.
The therapist turns up the heat, and pours a little more massage oil into her hands. The whales sing and the blue and green planets continue on their course.