Searching recently for a good read-aloud children’s story, I pulled from the bottom of the bookshelf How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. Young Tom lives with his aunt, Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She’s no soft-hearted dearest Auntie Fidge. She is aways, strictly, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, a woman who “wore an iron hat, and took no nonsense from anyone.” In Quentin Blake’s illustrations she’s a big-beamed human battleship wearing a rivetted-on grey dress and a high grey helmet. Tom – colourful, cheeky, cheerful – is clearly dancing circles around her. Readers naturally side with Tom. He’s all risk and movement. He’s teetering and testing, nimble, flexible, curious and persistent. He’s full of life. Poor old Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong makes flowers droop and trees shiver. Ridiculous in her rigid posture, bound tight by her unbending rules, she represents a fatal stillness of the soul, a kind of living death.
When I was eighteen, I found myself in the presence of a someone very like Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She taught anatomy at the school of physiotherapy where I was enrolled as a first year student. Wide-hipped and waistless, with an imposing ledge of a bosom, whenever she walked into the room we tender blossoms drooped. She stomped, each footstep an insult to the floor. I would eventually learn to figure out where a person was hurting by watching them walk: low back, tummy, ribcage, shoulder, neck, head, hip, knee, archilles tendon – the site of pain always lends a signature adjustment to the gait. But even as-yet untrained, I could tell that Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong was through-and-through sore. Some long-ago irritation had lodged within her, had spread through her entire body, and vibrated out into any environment through which she moved.
Her hair was set on her scalp in smooth, grey whorls, the way ivy leaves in relief decorate a tombstone. She delivered loud, withering judgements when students weren’t quick to respond or gave the wrong answer. Her temper simmered, battle-ready. In How Tom Beat Captain Najork, young Tom is the bane of Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong’s life. He likes to fool around; she hates fooling around with a vengeance. She wants him to eat greasy bloaters and cabbage-and-potato sog and learn by heart the Nautical Almanac. Tom carries on fooling around. He fools around with barrels in alleys, and on high-up things that shake and wobble, and he fools around by dropping things in rivers and fishing them out. “It looks very much like playing to me,” Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong tells him disapprovingly. Just so, our anatomy lecturer disapproved of us. She believed that if left to our own devices we’d fool around all day and half the night.
You bet. We were young and for many of us it was our first year living away from home. We were boisterous, a pack of puppies off the leash. Fooling around was a force within us; we were full to bursting with laughter and physicality. When we walked we had a tendency to romp, and if the flowers and trees shivered as we passed it was with a surge of delighted, sensual anticipation. We could, and did, giggle anywhere, those withering looks from Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong notwithstanding. Her Nautical Almanac was Gray’s Anatomy. As physiotherapy students our main focus was the musculoskeletal system: muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, joints, nerves, arteries, veins, cartilage and fascia. If Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong said deltoid we thought origin, insertion, nerve supply, actions. If she said scapula we mentally murmured spinous process, medial edge, lateral border, subscapular fossa, suprascapular notch.
We spent hours in the Medical School’s anatomy library and dissection room. There we abandoned book learning and travelled, at first sometimes a bit queasily, through this new, strange territory of the dead body. Gray’s was an excellent map but, like any migrant fresh off the boat, it took a while to recognise the actual landmarks and to confidently navigate between them, and longer still to become fluent in the unfamiliar language of this different place.
There was slang, expressions like “See you in the bod room” to toss lightly into a conversation with a classmate; there was the secret pleasure of being in that gang, seeing the arts students’ eyes widen with, what was that – fear? There was a whole new formal vocabulary to get our tongues around, words like septum, fossa, zygoma, trochanter and trabeculae – a lexicon that was sensual in its chewiness and shamanic in its power. “A treasure trove of words!”, as neurosurgeon Abraham Verghese puts it in his novel Cutting for Stone. The novel’s narrator soon discovers that learning this “special language” is a way of “amassing a kind of force”. Like him, we learned, we amassed, and we felt the force accrue. Radius, ulna, olecranon, epicondyle, bicipital groove. Of course, too much amassing counts as hoarding, and there is no one poorer than someone who does not know how to gift their gold, but there was no space in our student curriculum for reading novels like Cutting for Stone that might have reminded us of that.
Lectures always opened with a roll call, Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong calling our surnames in alphabetical order and each of us in turn responding “here” or “yes”. For me, someone who hated speaking out in classrooms at the best of times, this was an ordeal. Plus, it was like listening to the radio’s weather forecast when you live in Dunedin. Auckland, rain and 14 degrees … Hamilton, morning fog clears to a fine afternoon, 14… Wellington gusty northerlies and 12 … Christchurch, 10 and sunny … Chatham Islands, cloudy, chance of rain. My surname, near the end of the alphabet, was the Dunedin of roll calls. Too often I missed me. Someone would poke me, and I’d startle awake to find all faces turned to me and a cavernous, waiting silence filling the room. “Here!” I’d peep. But how many times had Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong been standing there bellowing my name? Had she already said, in that iron voice, “Are you available for this class or do you have better things to think about?”
I did tend to have better things to think about, or at least more intriguing things. For instance I thought about Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong. How old was she? Hard to tell, but old. Forty-five? Fifty? Was she married? The thought! And why so mean and mirthless? Was she born this way, or was she a cutie-pie baby turned sour? What sours people? Surely it was unpleasant being Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong. Could she smile? I mean could she? Or had her muscles grown too weak from lack of practice. And what were the muscles for smiling? I had never before thought of how a smile needed a muscle. That hairdo … it had to be a salon wash and set. I shuddered.
One of my first after-school jobs had been helping at a hairdresser’s, sweeping the floor, sterilising the combs and refreshing the towels, greeting customers and leading them to the basin or chair. Churchmouse shy, I was quaking in my sneakers most of the time, but I must have measured up because after a couple of weeks I was told I’d be allowed to wash clients’ hair. The prospect was terrifying. It seemed such an intimate thing to do to a stranger, to someone tipped backwards helplessly, throat exposed. When my very first hair-washing customer turned out to be the mother of a boy from my class, I wanted to run out of the salon and not come back. I was scared to fasten the cape, scared to adjust her neck on the headrest, scared of getting shampoo in her eyes, or of freezing or scalding her head. Mrs F ought to have got that haircut free – she worked so hard to reassure me while I tentatively wet her head and then massaged in the foam. Mrs F was a salon regular and after a few weeks I began to look forward to her appointment.
Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong was clearly also a salon regular … but how the heart would sink to see her on approach. A pall would be cast. The salon’s aviary-like chitter-chatter would thin, cease. I could all too well imagine draping the cape over her formidable torso, helping her lie back in the chair (that bookshelf bosom undeflated, pointing straight up), adjusting the nape of her neck on the basin’s padding, testing the water temperature on the back of my hand and then running my fingers through the concrete swirls, loosening the strands, touching the pallid skin on her scalp. Oh, horrific! And worse, what if, instead of berating me, she closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure? I couldn’t tell if that was hilarious or nauseating – it was right on the edge.
Most weekday evenings I studied in my hostel room with Gray’s open on the desk. I pored over the illustrations and wrote notes listing each body part’s essential features – which of course I understood to mean its examinable features (I was so very young). I also kept on my desk a wooden box containing the right half of a human skeleton. Skeletons for students were usually sold as halves, it being the obvious way to add value to one body. I had bought my set from a medical student at the beginning of the year. It cost me more than the usual half skeleton, because it still had the skull. The skull was quite a prize, and therefore I didn’t leave it in the box. I placed it on my bookcase, which I felt made me seem both sophisticated and mysterious, like someone who actually belonged in this strange new world, this world of the peeled person. Meat, bone, gristle … was this what being human amounted to, in the end? My own body was becoming strange to me, both more and less marvellous, more and less mundane. I’d gaze at my warm, dexterous, feeling, touching hand, amazed and appalled in equal measure by its structure and connections. By its cleverness, and by its limitations. The carpals, for example, two rows of Boggle-like bones snugged in at the base of the wrist: trapezium, trapezoid, scaphoid, lunate, capitate …
Visitors to my room were drawn to the skull. “Is it real?” they’d ask. “Yes,” I’d say, and very often a reflex response, not quite a grimace, would flash across their faces. If a person happened to have a hand on the skull at that moment, that hand might jump away – but it would soon return, stroking the tight seams where the cranial bones zipped together or testing the teeth in their sockets. People liked to pick up the skull. They made a show of weighing it on an upturned palm and staring into the eye sockets. There was a fair bit of misquoting Shakespeare. Alas poor Yorick. To be or not to be. I knew him well. Hubble bubble toil and trouble. I said those same things myself from time to time, but mainly my relationship with the skull was low key and domestic. I usually said “hello” when I came in at the end of the day but otherwise it and I kept our own counsel. Most of the time it just sat on the bookcase keeping me company while I studied, or looked over me while I slept, there to greet me when I woke. But no, I didn’t actually believe that. The skull was just bones, although what that actually meant I had not thought through. Surely otherwise I would have kept it in the box with the remainder of its skeleton, and not allowed so many strangers to handle it like a stage prop. But my journey towards the bones themselves, towards their realness – towards, you might say, their marrow – was slow. I was still only capable of learning the simplest anatomy, the disarticulated version.
This is Part One of A Box of Bones. Read Part Two here. A Box of Bones was shortlisted in the 2017 Landfall Essay Competition and first published in Landfall 234.
Sue Wootton is a writer and former physiotherapist. Sue is co-editor of Corpus.