An extract from The Quick and the Dead, a memoir by Palmerston North pathologist Cynric Temple-Camp.
Books editor Catherine Woulfe writes:
A strong recommend for this medical memoir, the second by the most excellently-named Cynric Temple-Camp after his 2017 bestseller The Cause of Death.
Ostensibly a collection of yarns and case studies, after a chapter or two you’re slightly desensitised to the visceral stuff and what becomes interesting is his coalface take on life and death and luck. There’s a stand-out bit about a croc attack: “He could still hear the damp, popping noise of breaking bone as the reptile re-asserted its grip.” There’s an interesting take on the Scott Guy case. There’s a real instinct for pace and arc, and a structure that holds still just long enough to honour some desperately sad moments, before hurtling you into something else.
Yeah there are gory bits but Temple-Camp is easily grossed out, too – especially by maggots. This story, from his childhood in Africa, perhaps explains why.
My mind flicked back to the early winter of 1967. I was 13 years old and swaggering around in my newly washed rugby jersey. During my very first practice game for the season, I was roughly grabbed around the neck in a maul and squeezed by my team mate. I felt two or three stabs of pain at the base of my neck and the discomfort persisted throughout the game. Afterwards, in the shower, I could see two red spots on my skin.
Pimples, I thought, and put them out of my mind. Most of us were throwing up our first experimental pimples as we stumbled into puberty.
But these pimples did not run true to form. They grew and grew, until they were embarrassing. I covered them with plasters and told no-one. They weren’t painful or even itchy but I kept getting this strange feeling that something wasn’t right. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that something was moving in there.
One day, when everyone in the family was out, I carefully locked the bathroom door and closely examined the lumps in my father’s magnified shaving mirror. And suddenly I saw they were indeed moving up and down. A small, dark periscope was pumping up and down out through my skin at the head of each pimple. I watched with horror and disgust. When I touched it, the periscope vanished inside of me and became still. After a bit, it cautiously popped out again, made a few exploratory wriggles and then happily began its pistoning in and out again.
I was appalled and mortified at the same time. It was another week before I told anyone. Finally I confided in my older brother, Lawrence. He knew all about animals, kept snakes and had a harrier hawk as a semi-tame pet. He would know what to do.
My worst fears were confirmed as he looked, grimaced and then retched. He stood there staring at me, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Aggh, sies man!” He used the Southern African slang used for anything that was revolting. “You’re just bloody disgusting. It’s a gogo! Where the hell did you get it from?” Gogo was local slang for an insect.
I wept a little then. I just couldn’t help it. Where would it end?
Lawrence had no idea what it was. I made him swear not to tell anybody. He readily agreed, and the look of utter revulsion as he did so made me wonder if I’d been wise in telling him about it at all.
Soon afterwards, my sharp-eyed grandmother spotted the plasters as we were getting up from the breakfast table. “What are those plasters covering?” she demanded, and when I did not answer she suddenly grabbed me, pulled me towards her and tore the plaster away. She bent over, peered intently at my shame and then gasped in disbelief. Her eyes became steely.
“Joan! Joan!” She summoned my mother. “Look at this!”
She spun me around and wrenched my head down to one side to bare my neck as if for an execution. I will never forget her words.
“This boy is riddled with putzi flies!” she crowed. “I’ve told you and told you the servants aren’t ironing the washing properly!”
My grandmother had been waging a long-standing campaign to assume suzerainty over the family home and give orders to our cook and gardener. My itchy lumps were further ammunition in her relentless struggle.
Putzi flies. The name still makes me shudder half a century later.
I was taken to our GP, Dr O’Brien, an urgent appointment. He examined me, and then sent me out of the room. I wasn’t party to the discussion that followed: this was standard in those days. My father explained it all gently to me that night.
“The flies lay their eggs, which hatch into grubs called larvae. They have sharp fangs with which they bite a hole in your skin and crawl inside. The skin closes over except for a breathing hole and they grow and grow inside their little cave.”
“What happens to them? Will they be there forever?”
It was so awful. As if adolescence wasn’t enough, I had these things writhing inside me – three of the little monsters in my body, all around my neck just like old-fashioned collar studs. I was terrified that I would carry these creatures with me for the rest of my life. I think I was psychologically scarred: years later, I was traumatised all over again as I watched the movie Alien, where a creature erupts from the ribcage of a man in whose chest it has been pupating. That was exactly how I imagined these ghastly grubs.
My dad tried to reassure me.
“They will eventually hatch and a fly will climb out and go. It will be all right in time.”
I couldn’t see that being all right at all! God, I could just imagine a fly wet and dripping like a baby crawling out of my neck in front of everyone as we sat in Mrs Chambers’ Latin or Mr Conchar’s History lesson. My life would be over. I would be “Fly Boy” forever. My. Life. Was. Over.
“Why can’t Dr O’Brien take them out?”
“He says he can write a note to a surgeon to ask him to cut them out but that will mean an anaesthetic and an operation. And there could be infection. He thinks we should just let nature take its course.”
In desperation, I went to my grandmother. This time I was weeping properly.
“You have to do something!” I wailed. “You have to get them out!”
“Be quiet, boy!” she snapped. “I will get them out. But stop blubbing! It doesn’t help, you know.”
I stopped and looked up hopefully, wiping my nose on the back of my sleeve.
“Don’t be disgusting! Here’s a tissue!”
She was as tough as an old boot, my grandma Maude. The men who courted her as a young girl mostly fell on the Somme at Delville Wood, and her husband, my grandfather, finally died the year I was born of the diseases and injuries sustained fighting in German East Africa. She carried a sadness within her, but hid it well. All the same, the look that she was giving me was kindly and reassuring. Maude was always medically very sure of herself. I felt some hope at last.
“Now tell me: when did it start? How did you notice it?”
I explained about the rugby practice.
“Ja, I remember!” she said, her eyes gleaming. “That’s when it must have happened. You needed the jersey for Monday afternoon practice, but you only put it in the wash on Sunday night. Naison washed it on Monday morning and ironed it before lunch to be ready for you. But it was still damp and he didn’t iron the collar properly. There is where your putzi flies have come from!”
“What do you mean?”
“The flies lay their eggs into wet washing and they hatch out in an hour or two. I tell the servants over and over to dry the washing properly and then iron it with a very hot iron to kill the eggs and the grubs. But because they can’t see them, they don’t believe me, and your mother thinks I’m a foolish old woman, too. But that is also why we iron all our sheets too. The British laugh at us and say we colonialists want to iron the creases out of our sheets and pillow cases just to show we have servants. But it’s not true!”
She beat her fist on her breast. “I would gladly iron them all myself just to keep the putzi flies away! It’s your rugby jersey that was the culprit! Those servants!” she tutted to herself.
“But how do I get the maggots out?” I felt like crying again, but I didn’t dare. “I hate them!”
“Ach, they’re disgusting,” she agreed. “But I can help you.”
Grandma Maude was gone a while and then came back to her room with a sharp knife and a plate containing a fat, raw rasher of bacon. I watched apprehensively.
“Are you going to cut them out?” That idea didn’t appeal at all, but knowing my grandma, it had to be a distinct possibility.
“No, you stupid boy! Just sit there and be still now.”
I watched as she cut three squares of thick, white bacon fat, each one centimetre by one centimetre. One by one, she carefully placed the bacon fat over the maggots’ breathing holes and secured each in place with a large swatch of tough, pink surgical plaster.
“There.” She patted the last one on the back of my neck with satisfaction. “That’ll fix you, you skelm!”
A skelm was a bad insect or animal or sometimes a bad man in Africa. It was appropriate: I was part insect and part bad boy at that moment.
“What have you done? Are they gone?”
“No, boy. Now you must wait.”
The young have no patience and I had no insight.
“How long? I hate them!” I was wondering whether to indulge myself in tears again. “Why aren’t they gone now?”
Grandma smiled kindly at me and patted the side of her bed. “Come and sit and I will explain what we are going to do.”
I sat next to her and she put her arm around me.
“We are going to fish those skelm maggots out. They are finished already. You see, they can’t breathe through the bacon fat so they have to make their breathing hole longer until they reach the air at the top of the bacon. That they will do easily enough. Then they will put up their breathing tube to drink in the fresh air they need and what will happen?”
Maude chuckled in expectation.
“I will tell you. Their breathing tubes will stick to the plasters so that they can’t go back down into their caves. When the time is ripe, we’ll pull off the plasters and the whole lot – lock, stock and maggots – will come out, still stuck to the plaster! The maggot’s body will come easily because he will already be halfway out of his cave in the bacon fat just to reach the air to breathe!”
Eight hours later, at dawn, I went and woke my grandma.
She ripped the plasters off and grotesquely hanging stuck to each of the adhesive sides were the plump, segmented, pulsating maggots. I will never until the day I die forget the horrible sight of them, plucked ripe from my body. I remember that the maggots’ warbles, which are what the caves in my skin were called, were gone by the next day. A minor red spot was all that remained of those awful aliens.
My grandma Maude sure knew a thing or two that my doctor didn’t.