A few years ago in a lecture, I used the film Belleville Rendez-vous (Chomet 2003) to make the point, among others, that what we do shapes our bodies. The cyclist in the film is almost like an insect, with huge limb segments (thighs) built up to take him through the Tour de France. I still do not know what I have been doing, if anything, to make my immune system so mutinous and murderous. But I was intrigued by a recent CT scan, done to explore my current breathing difficulties, which showed two of my thoracic spine vertebrae had started to crumble: wedge compression fractures. Another gift from the wonder drug prednisolone, maybe? Or a jolt from the past, preventing nostalgia for supposedly happier times? Spending so much time in hospitals made it easy to think what one of the jolts might be, but the other? What about that?
I have thought about Peggy on and off since 1984, whenever my upper back has echoed our encounter. I have also been intrigued by the cultural tendency to define and categorise people, like superheroes with superpowers. Peggy’s superpower would have been petulance, being unpredictable with an emotional overlay that made us all wary of her. In an institutional setting, this was possibly a helpful strategy but I can’t think that she knew what she was doing. She was unable to stand without two people helping her, one on each side, spending her final days on a long stay hospital ward without really knowing how soon the end would be. In contrast, I was new enough on the ward to notice its smell when I entered, but swiftly and sufficiently institutionalised to know how long I intended to stay each time I went there. I worked with two occupational therapy assistants to do washing and dressing practice: where rehabilitation started each day with us painstakingly encouraging weary older people to get dressed. With Peggy, one challenge was getting her knickers on. Some days she would help us as we supported her to stand, reaching down to pull her knickers up the last few inches of an upper thigh. Other days she didn’t. One such day she appeared to be stuck in her wheelchair, so we wheeled her over to the wall, in the hope that the hand rail on the wall would inspire her with confidence, as we had clearly failed. Our lifting technique involved counting to three and heaving. Suddenly Peggy decided to help, propelled herself forward and banged her head on the wall in front. My back seized in response, Peggy’s revenge.
When I saw the doctor in occupational health, I told him about Mrs Clucas, whose superpowers would have been the eyesight of an eagle and the organisational capacity of a head ant, if there is such a thing. Being a school teacher in the 1970s, she would have needed at least two superpowers. For some reason one week, we could not have our needlework lesson in the usual classroom, with its high ceilings and wide smooth tables. Or even in the classroom next door which smelt of chalk, a smell which could be enhanced by sniffing the curious triangular piece of tailor’s chalk, a mandatory item in our needlework kit. We were in a classroom downstairs in our usual state of fear, waiting for Mrs Clucas to organise us before criticising our stitching, no matter how far away we tried to sit. Like ants, soon we were segregated, and I was in a patient little group who had to go upstairs and fetch the sewing machines, which were heavy and awkward to carry. Later, at home, I complained that my back hurt and my father furiously wrote to the headmistress, complaining. We never went in that classroom again, but my needlework was never right for Mrs Clucas.
Now I wake up, consider my pain relief options, recall the CT scan image of my spine, and remember Mrs Clucas and Peggy. Feeling powerless to put my body right, mulling over who was powerful back then. Could it have been different? Of course, with legislation on moving and handling still to come, bringing technicians and hoists. But in other ways, maybe not. Negotiations lack subtlety when options are restricted: my body is evidence of that.
Chomet S (2003) Belleville Rendez-vous/Les Triplettes de Belleville. France: Les Armateurs.