Itchy bums and other tales
Inside the mind of a celebrity scientist
16 December 2007
'Full economic costing’ is the kind of obfuscating clap-trap that inevitably falls on the heads of even the brightest of our scientific stars
A note from marketing manager Mark Booth: My client, Dr Joseph McCrumble, has fallen on hard times. Not so long ago he was a successful, independent scientist-artist, director of the Cumbernauld Institute of Parasitology and head of the Cumbernauld Institute of Art. Nowadays he lives anonymously and potters around the partly-converted barn where his family have taken refuge after an arsonist torched his beloved laboratories. As husband to Dolores, and father to twin adolescent boys and an eight-month-old son, Joseph tries his best to keep some sense of order in his life, but the next challenge is never far away. (Most recently he accidentally uncovered a cult operating out of the local manor house where he had been taken on as gardener after being ejected from the family by his wife – who also worked there as a cleaner). Here, we see the results of him trying to teach his twins something about parasites, some weeks after returning to the family.
Life continues here at the barn without much interruption to the daily routine. We are still waiting for the insurance money to come through (though in truth it appears that we might not get a penny due to my inefficiencies in keeping the policy updated). Uncle Jake has apparently lost a bundle in the recent sub-prime fiasco in the US, and has told us he can’t spare any significant amount ‘in the foreseeable future’. After I uncovered the cult up at the manor house, Dolores was forced to give up her job as cleaner, but has found a part-time job as housekeeper/companion for an elderly lady in the village. I spend my time keeping up with the literature and thinking about how to get back into parasitology. Until now I’ve never had to worry about funding, and it’s taken me quite a while to get my head around all the myriad rules and regulations, and something called ‘full economic costing’ which sounds like the kind of obfuscating clap-trap that inevitably falls on the head of researchers whenever government and universities are in cahoots on how to make life more difficult for even the brightest of our scientific stars.
But anyway, back to more local matters. As part of keeping abreast of the subject, I decided the other day that the twins would benefit from some education in my specialist area. I haven’t given a lecture for a while, but was confident that the old skills hadn’t left me just yet. Dolores has been home schooling them in recent months, but I saw nothing wrong in supplementing their education with something a bit more cutting-edge. Where better to start, I thought, than a short lesson on the life cycle of one of our most ubiquitous parasites – the pinworm (Enterobious vermicularis)...
‘Sit down boys, and pay attention. I’m going to tell you something that will require your full concentration,’ I said, my voice firm, unwavering. This, I knew from years of trying to bend their ears was by far the best way to extend their normal attention span by at least a few minutes.
‘I’ve given up concentrating for Christmas,’ announced Twin X, his arms folded.
‘We’ve done nothing but concentrate for ages,’ said Twin Y, picking his nose.
I immediately saw the problem. Dolores is nothing if not fulsome in her education of the twins. It was highly likely they were already close to burnout, and I actually felt a twitch of sympathy as I held up my first drawing (I don’t have a projector at the moment).
‘What’s that?’ asked Twin Y, his face screwed up.
‘It’s a worm, stupid,’ said his brother helpfully.
‘That’s right!’ I exclaimed, eager to build on this early momentum. ‘It’s not a perfect likeness, but you can see the main features. Here is the head end, and here is the tail...’
Twin Y interrupted. ‘It’s got a tail? Is that, like on a dog, or the one hanging off my...?’
‘I mean, the end of the worm opposite to the head,’ I interjected, sensing that the boys may already be trying to subvert my attempt at sensible education.
‘I know what the inside of a worm looks like, Dad, I pulled one apart this morning!’ shouted Twin X, miming the act of rending a foot-long worm asunder with his bare hands.
‘Now boys, you shouldn’t do that kind of thing – worms have feelings too, you know,’ I said, a little uncertainly.
Twin Y must have noticed the millisecond of hesitation in my voice and narrowed his eyes. After a short pause, he said, ‘Well, Dad, that’s not what Mum says, actually.’
He had me. Two words in particular made me realise all was lost. The first was ‘Mum,’ the second was ‘actually’. In evoking their mother, they were challenging me to disagree with whatever she had said. This in itself is not always wise. In applying ‘actually’ as a suffix to this challenge, they were compounding their advantage by playing a joker with absolute certainty that it would win them the game. ‘I, er, ok, what did your mother say?’
Twin Y took a step forwards and fixed his eyes on mine, just like his mother does when she is about to give me a tongue lashing. He said, in words that carried just a tiny hint of patronising tone, ‘She told us, right, that worms have a brain and a ‘simple but sensitive’ nervous system that goes all along the body and connects each segment. But they don’t actually feel anything because they don’t have pain receptors, so there.’
‘I heard it scream when I pulled it apart,’ said Twin X, who then vocalised the death-cry of his earth-worm victim before falling on the floor to simulate its demise. Twin Y immediately fell on top shouting ‘Kill the worm, kill the worm!’ and the two began grappling on the barn floor. It occurred to me that I might quit at this point, whilst I was still marginally ahead (no blood lost yet), but I could already see my wife admonishing me for giving up too easily.
‘OK boys, that’s enough,’ I said firmly, grabbing Twin X and hauling him to his feet. Twin Y hung on just long enough to bite his brother’s ankle before I could get between them. ‘Sit down, four feet apart and pay attention.’
The boys protested slightly before agreeing to sit down. I held up my poster once again and began to explain the rudimentary elements of a pinworm’s natural history. They became increasingly wide-eyed as I went into detail of how the female worm migrates down the colon at night to deposit her eggs on the outside, secreting a chemical irritant to make you want to scratch your bottom and thereby pick the eggs up on your fingernails. They exchanged glances of horror as I told them that the parasite is transmitted to other people when unwashed hands are put in mouths, and shook their heads violently when I asked them if they could remember having an itchy bum recently.
Then Twin X asked, ‘Dad...have you ever had an itchy bottom?’
‘Oh yes, of course. This parasite is everywhere. I remember when I was a child...’
‘No, Dad,’ interrupted Twin Y. ‘I mean, like, recently.’
‘I, er, well...why do you ask?’
‘Nothing. Can we go now? We need to pee.’
I was content that I had imparted some information, and was impressed with myself that I’d made an impression on their fertile minds, so was minded to let them depart the make-shift classroom.
‘That wasn’t too hard,’ I told myself as I took a walk in the neighbouring field, and even felt encouraged enough to begin formulating lesson plans for more lectures in parasitology over the coming weeks. Perhaps, I thought, I was in the early stages of establishing a legacy! After all, there are many examples, are there not, of sons who have followed in their fathers’ illustrious footsteps? Admittedly not many of those footsteps belong to parasitologists, but surely that would be no barrier, would it?
‘Actually, Joseph, I told them all about pinworm several weeks ago – just after you came back from the manor,’ said my wife when I revealed the details of my successful engagement with the twins over dinner. ‘Y said his bottom had been itching and he’d scratched it and had a small white worm on his finger. Don’t you remember – he said he came into show you but it fell off his hand?’
‘It was a dream...the idea for the lesson came from a dream,’ I said, confused and more than a little deflated by Dolores’s revelations. ‘I dreamed the twins infected me as an experiment, by dropping a worm into...I thought it was time they knew about...’
There was a moment’s pause as we let our minds fill in the blanks. ‘We don’t have any drugs, you know,’ said Dolores eventually.
‘I thought the itch I had last week was psychosomatic,’ I said quietly, ‘a symptom of thinking too much about the lesson.’
‘Do you want to punish them?’ asked my wife.
‘It’s difficult to think of something suitable. They’ve already been infected themselves. Maybe it was an accident. Let’s face, it, they’ll hardly admit otherwise. We’ll just let them know that we know, so they won’t be tempted to pull this kind of stunt again.’
I found the twins later that day pretending they were Roman soldiers hunting Christians to take to the Coliseum. I approached them and started scratching my bum through my pants. My clever plan was to pretend I had found something on my hand and then hold it out for them to inspect, saying ‘I think this might be yours.’ Now, I’m not sure whether they anticipated something or not, but as soon as I started scratching they jumped up and backed away.
‘Euugh!’ shouted Twin X. ‘Daddy’s got worms and he wants to infect us.’ With that cry, he then produced his mobile phone and waved it at me. ‘Get away!’ he shouted, holding the phone towards me, ‘or I’ll phone Childline!’ One finger was poised over what I could only guess was a rapid-dial button.
‘Call them!’ I shouted back, in full anticipation that my bluff would work. I didn’t even bother to wait for him to dial and instead walked away, scratching my bum. It was a tactic they’d used a few times before, and what they didn’t know was that I’d reprogrammed the key to phone the speaking clock.
They came up to me later in the day to inform me of their conversation with Childline. I let them reveal the various horrors that the authorities had in store for me (including, in no particular order – immolation, incarceration, exile and the stocks), before asking them what time they had made the call. They didn’t blink an eyelid between them as they told me in unison that it was ‘One twenty-five precisely.’
So, no legacy just yet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t continue in my quest. Parasitology may not have the draw of some scientific fields, but my sons have at last shown a willingness to engage with the subject. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this whole episode represents a turning point. This week, pinworms, next week it’s a roundworm called Toxocara canis. I’ll just make sure they don’t go near any dogs in the next few days.
- J McC