Broadside #41 (Fall 2015 / 15.21)
On the first day they sat in a lecture theatre with a skeleton. The Dean said there were one hundred and eighty medical students. He asked if they had any questions. Zane asked if the skeleton had a name. Everyone laughed, which was weird, because he wasn’t trying to be funny. 1, 2, 3.
On the second day he sat next to a Fijian girl with skin like raven’s wings. She told him her name was Sarah. He was fascinated by the two-tone colour of her hands, blue-black on the dorsal surface and ghostly pale on the ventral surface, and by the tiny braids in her hair. 8, 9, 10.
On the third day he went home and hole punched all his handouts. Eventually he looked down and realised he’d also cut lots of holes out of his favourite book, Catcher in the Rye. He spent the next two hours putting the circles back in the holes, and securing them with tiny pieces of sellotape.
On the fourteenth day he studied for his Anatomy test. He took delight in the design of the spine with its vertebrae stacked like Jenga blocks, clickety-clack. He imagined running his fingers down Sarah’s spinous processes until he reached the top of her firm, moon-shaped buttocks. He thought the most beautiful vertebrae were her cervical vertebrae, because they formed the middle of her swan-like neck.
At first his classmates asked him his name and where he was from and where he was flatting. He must have given them the wrong answers, because one by one they stopped talking to him, except to ask him why he was counting under his breath all the time. He didn’t tell them the counting helped when he got nervous. 98, 99, 100.
He got an A+ for his Anatomy test but he wore his hair the wrong way and there was something wrong with his shoes. There wasn’t a textbook for that. So he took his class photo to the hairdresser and asked for a haircut like Craig in his class. But still no one talked to him. Except for Sarah, who said hello and smiled when she walked past, her teeth like sun-bleached coral. Teeth could be used to establish identity. They told them this in a forensics lecture, the one where they learned about patterns of blood splatter. 298, 299, 300.
997, 998, 999. Zane had to count to one thousand before he could start his anatomy test, and then he couldn’t remember all the cranial nerves. Afterwards he asked Sarah what the twelfth cranial nerve was called, and she told him hypoglossal. All in her beautifully accented English; he wanted to chase the words around her mouth with his tongue. Which, of course, is innervated by the hypoglossal nerve.
A few hundred years ago physicians thought that blood moved back and forth across the heart, like tides. Blood spurts out of arteries and oozes out of veins. Zane wrote a note of memorandum on his abdomen, the skin parting beneath his scalpel like a banana being peeled. He wrote XII = hypoglossal nerve, so he would never forget it again. After that he had rusty red spots on his carpet. He thought about the little pulse at the base of Sarah’s neck, and what it would be like to kiss her there. He worried he would get it wrong because there was an artery under there and blood comes out very fast if an artery is punctured. He would have to remember that when he kissed her.
Zane got 41 on his Pharmacology test. He went home and drew some more on his arms and the tops of his thighs. He thought about Sarah’s delicate neck, clickety-clack, and her tongue against his, XII and XII is XXIV. Then he counted to five thousand as the blood pooled beneath his thighs and the love gathered in his chest like a rising tide. In the morning (-72) he examined the red-brown Rorschach blots beneath his chair. He saw two humans, their skeleton limbs entwined.
The skeleton started whispering to him in class, clickety-clack. It told him his classmates were conspiring against him. All except Sarah, who let Zane borrow her notes because he was too busy counting and listening to the skeleton. Sarah’s pathology notes told him that necrosis was irreversible, unprogrammed cell death. Apoptosis was when cell death was planned. The skeleton agreed a plan was wise.
Zane ran out of space on his bedroom walls for the numbers. At night the numbers started jiggling and jostling one another, Brownian motion, and then he got confused and had to start counting all over again. In class they learned how to take blood off each other. Sarah let him take her blood. He spilt a couple of drops on his glove and licked them off when no one was looking. After that he wanted to taste the rest of her.
Sarah hadn’t been to class for a week. The police came to talk to them. Zane wanted to tell them her blood tasted just like his, but the skeleton shook its head at him. Clickety-clack.
Zane lay awake all night, listening to the sound of the blood swishing back and forth across his heart; the tide comes in the tide goes out. There was a tsunami coming. He could feel it in his bones.
With Sarah it was necrosis because it wasn’t planned. He put flowers in his wardrobe, with her, but it didn’t help the smell. With his classmates it was apoptosis but he only managed ten with his father’s rifle before one police bullet shattered his femur and the other his second cervical vertebra — don’t move — and as he closed his eyes he saw the flesh falling off his bones, and he called out the skeleton’s name.
He’d known it all along.
There is a little bit of myself in all of my writing, no matter how odd the characters turn out to be. The genesis of Clickety-Clack was a sentence from a book I was reading to my six-year-old son at the time, a book about the evolution of medicine. In this book they told how, in the 1500s, prevailing wisdom had it that the blood swished back and forth across the heart rather than circulating around the body. And then I thought about my first day as a medical student, and the story evolved from there.
I remember sitting in the lecture theatre with 179 fellow students and thinking someone must have made some kind of mistake and soon someone would tell me I didn’t belong there. I remember the skeleton hanging at the front of the lecture theatre too, a skeleton that became our constant companion over the next two years. There was a wide variety of personalities in my class, and there was at least one student who was probably somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. I magnified his personality traits and then superimposed a state of psychosis, to see what might happen.
As I wrote the piece, the theme of numbers began to emerge. Individuals with Asperger’s often have a fascination with letters and numbers, so it was very appropriate that Zane uses counting to calm himself. This is why the vertebrae fascinate him (seven cervical, twelve thoracic and so on). The cranial nerves also slot in well here, because they are numbered from I to XII.
The numbers at the beginning of each paragraph are an idea I stole from my workplace. I’m a haematologist, and our sickest patients often have stem cell transplants to try and cure them. The days leading up to the transplant (which is day 0) are numbered in negatives (-1 is the day before the transplant, for example). That’s how I lit on the idea of counting down the days until Zane’s death (day 0), and placing that as a negative number at the start of each paragraph (a bit of fun for the reader, who won’t know what the numbers mean until the end).
And that’s how Clickety-Clack was born. Some stories take on a life of their own. At time I sit back and wonder which dark corner of my brain they came from, but then I think everyone has ideas in dark corners. It’s just a matter of harnessing them and bringing them to life.