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“CARS ARE MADE OF PAINT,” my son A shouts one evening as we walk home from the park.
I giggle, enjoying this gleeful three-year-old moment of half-formed material understanding, this unawareness of layers. I notice him reach out a hand to stroke the shiny candy shell of a red car as we pass.
By your logic, I think, you and I are made of skin.
I have this habit, developed in the weeks following A’s birth, of pulling at the skin on the back of my hand to see how far I can stretch it. I remember, many nights into that year’s many nights without sleep, my boyfriend B watching the freckles on the back of my hand distort as I pulled and stretched, and his tired face distorting a little too as he said: “we have old hands.”
There are some creatures which appear not to age at all, creatures which are “biologically immortal”. Untouched by the effects of ageing, they live like kids for a hundred years.
Amongst them are:
- roughly rockfish
- ocean quahog clams
- naked mole rats
- the immortal jellyfish
- the olm
The immortal jellyfish! The olm! Isn’t that just the sort of name you would give to a near-immortal being? The olm is a cave dwelling salamander that does not undergo metamorphosis, It lives, and appears not to age, for over 100 years. An olm’s cells do not deteriorate as ours do. Death will eventually find them by way of disease or predators, but their lives are not ones of slow biological decline. Scientists think that they might help us understand the mysteries of ageing, and inevitably they will be co-opted into a human immortality project. The olm, I read, is known in its Slovenian habitat as the “Human Fish” for its “fleshy” (white-skinned) colour, though the thing that strikes when I scroll through the images of pallid worms with elbows, are its almost human arms and hands.
“We have old hands,” B said, and I probably looked down at the curled hands of our son, asleep next to us in his Moses basket. At that age babies’ hands are just unbearably adorable, all smooth and puffy with dimples for knuckles. While my skin had (suddenly, it seemed) begun to pull away from my flesh, his hands would have looked full and taught and of a piece.
Hands supposedly reveal some kind of biological truth, at least according to the people whose job it is to scrutinise famous bodies (“Are your HANDS ageing you? Expert reveals the celebrities betrayed by their baggy skin and brittle nails”). But before milk filled out his edges, A’s hands were purplish and wrinkled, with long slim fingers and long sharp nails grown in the womb, as if he had been planning to scratch his way out. I remember being vaguely disturbed by the tiny, ancient hands that had grown inside me. Whose hands were these?
I do not have my mother’s hands, she told me as a child. My fingers are short and “a bit stubby” she said, apologetically, whereas she has the elegant fingers of her mother whose hands remained beautiful throughout her nearly 10 decades. Both sets of beautiful hands were moisturised plenty of times a day, the nails kept trimmed, filed into soft rounds and painted glossy with a clear varnish. Both sets of beautiful hands would sometimes be paraded on outstretched arms, long fingers separated and bent back in a curve, to be regarded with admiration.
The very first night of motherhood, A lies in a plastic crib next to me. I am kind of out of it. During labour I had taken the diamorphine I was offered, and had blissfully floated away from my body, meaning that our small brushes up against death – moments of peril muffled by medical intervention – barely grazed the edges of my consciousness. In the crib beside me, A starts to cry, and I realise that I am still paralysed waist down from the epidural, and that as much as I try to shimmy my body towards him, the plastic crib is too far away and I am unable to reach him, I am unable to lay a finger within his tiny palm. The ward is busy, and nobody comes to help us, and so he cries and cries. I watch his hands flail wildly over the side of the crib, like a miniature conductor, or person in peril sinking beneath the waves. Then suddenly he is asleep, but still he continues to reach out. He has long fingers which flex and separate, curving backwards towards me to be admired,
At three years old, A has found himself in the middle of a pandemic. It feels like the middle, but perhaps it’s just the beginning. “Don’t touch, please don’t touch”, “hands, face, space”. He stomps through our door ahead of me, drags a chair which is bigger than himself into the kitchen, clambers up and washes his hands before I’ve got my coat off. But there’s no way to shut down a three-year-old’s need to touch every surface we pass on the way to the park. “Wood”, he’ll declare, stroking a neighbour’s fence, “rock”: stooping over to examine the pavement, “dirt.”
The two of us have started to see hands everywhere, like a clumsy metaphor for this period of avoiding human touch. On bin days round here, the streets fill up with rubbish. It blows into our front yard and rattles down the street. Amongst the receipts, drinks cans and wrappers is a flurry of gloves: blue plastic gloves, white latex surgical gloves, builders’ gloves, gardening gloves and the occasional lost mitten. The seemingly endless rain of this autumn plasters them to the pavements where A, when my back is turned, will pick them up, and I, turning back, will yell in horror, conscious of the stranger’s hands which once inhabited them. They sign to us, on our endless walks to the park. One day, a builder’s glove by our front wall is holding a discarded fag. Another day, a surgical glove, ballooning with rain water, gives me the finger.
Gloved hands rummage inside me, unpacking a baby from somewhere within my overstuffed interior. The reality of my insides in this moment is a shock. What is that they are tugging on? What is being pushed away, and reached beneath? The hands plunge beneath my skin again to thrust bits of me aside, someone says “there we go”, and A is presented to me above the curtain, red, slimy and bawling, but once he is dried off he is so smooth and unblemished from his extraction that the vastness of what has just happened already feels improbable.
One day – more months into the pandemic (is this the middle?) – a kids’ magazine slides through our letter box to briefly rescue us from another day of slowly sinking into boredom and screen time. Attached to the magazine is a free packet of “Slime”, the packet reads in a dripping, green font. I mix green crystals with warm water in a big bowl, and A plunges his hands in, his face breaking into a huge grin at this new sensation. He looks straight ahead, and his eyes lose focus, his mind’s eye now served only by his fingertips.
I film his fingers wiggling in slow-mo through the fluorescent glop, and have to blink away an image of specimen jarred hands, curled and milky in the yellowish liquid. New hands, I think, that are older than mine. And his hands, I think, pass through the world prodding and poking into all these things that predate all of us. I look at the ingredients on the back of the slime packet and google Borax: deposits laid down during the Miocene. The sand in the pit at the playground, the soil in the yard, the plastic shell of a toy tractor: crushed exoskeletons from darkest times clutched in a fist that has only seen three cycles of the planet. This thought drifts through my mind and expands into something vaguely comforting, something to do with “this too shall pass.”
But what would these timelines even mean to a three-year-old? Our world may be tiny right now (home, park, home, park), but when you are three, you seem to be adrift in a vastness, untethered from linear time. “Are statues dead? Are dinosaurs alive? Am I a grown up yet?” he asks me, in the moments before he falls asleep. “Did I have a mummy and a daddy before you made me? Where was I before you made me?”
When we die, our cells die with us, mostly – as you’d expect, right? Neurones, muscle cells, stem cells, and almost all the cells which make up our body (our somatic cells, from soma, the Greek word for body) are made anew in each embryo and they die either during our lifetime, or at longest, survive till our death. They get sick and age as we do – running out of steam, ceasing to divide and grow – this is the process of biological ageing, or senescence. But, but, but, and we all know this, I guess – we do have cells that have the potential to escape our bodies, and our deaths, by creating a new generation: our sperm and eggs, collectively known as “germ cells”(from the Latin for offshoot, bud, sprout). These cells pass on their DNA to the next generation, and that DNA is used to build a new germ cell, and so on, ad infinitum, potentially. For this reason, the germline – the lineage of germ cells – is often described as being immortal. It is an unbroken chain of cells that stretches back to our most distant ancestors, back, in the end, to whatever single-celled organism the last universal common ancestor was, an ancestor that we share with all current life on earth: with grasses, slime moulds, olms and viruses.
And forwards of course, I find myself thinking as A falls quiet and sleep-heavy beside me, because here is what we have done: we have sent some part of ourselves – the part which can escape our bodies – at least some way into the future.
“Time has gotten strange,” people keep saying. They say it after two months, and after six, and after a year.
“Cars are made of metal,” I hear A say one day. And another day, in the aftermath of a grazed knee, “am I made of meat?” Interiors are a thing now, then. We talk about bones and fat and blood, and pore over a book about the body. “But can I make more blood and more skin?” he asks. Over the next few days we watch as a scab forms on the graze and then marvel at the shiny red skin revealed when it falls off.
When A was around six months old, I began to wonder if the gloved hands might’ve unpacked more than they’d let on. Parts of me, I felt, were missing, parts of me that I thought I could count on. My skin, had stretched to accommodate something immense and infinite, and now here I was deflated, lacking, and terrified.
During this time I would sometimes drag my nails along my arms, erasing the blood from beneath my skin momentarily to create dusty looking lines running from my wrists to the crooks of my elbows. The scratches would turn pink-red, and would then raise themselves up from my arm and start to resemble small angry pink hills. If I drew blood there would be a scab too, just the thinnest line of one that I could peel off like a thread. I told people that the baby had scratched me.
“Better feelings underneath all of this???” reads one of my notes from that time, because sometimes is was as though I was blanketed by something incredibly heavy. Was I scratching away at my surface in an attempt to find my way underneath it, to “better”, warmer feelings? That sounds poetic, but what I actually remember of those moments is a wild attack from came from inside, as though whatever had been lost (removed?) from me had been replaced by something which did not fit, and which could not be contained. In need of release, it had to surface.
But the body heals I guess, if it can, and today there are no traces of all this on my arms.
Olms (and salamanders in general), have extraordinary regenerative capabilities. If one of those human-like hands was amputated it would grow a whole new one. The process follows a similar pattern to scarring: clots form, then skin cells divide and cover the wound with an epidermis, and then cells migrate from nearby tissues and form this blob, called a blastema, which forms a structure “much like the developing embryo’s limb bud”, from which the new limb grows. These “lower” animals: hydra, sea urchins and salamanders who quite possibly hold within their genomes the secrets to eternal youth and eternal rejuvenation, maintain bodies as unmarked and un-mappable as newborns.
Human tissue may heal, but it doesn’t regenerate after injury, in most cases, I read, with a few exceptions including the liver and the endometrium. Cut the skin and it will bleed. and then it will heal. But healing is not regenerating, it is an emergency response in which speed is prioritised over perfection. Cut the skin and clots form to staunch blood flow, immune cells flood the region, and then cells in the skin’s outer layer divide rapidly in a race to close the wound, which begins to fill with collagen and the other proteins which provide tissue with structure. And within weeks the wound has healed, but the structure of the healed skin is changed. Collagen fibres have been speedily laid parallel to each other rather than forming a nice lattice as they do in healthy skin, and so healed tissue – scar tissue – is stiffer and weaker than undamaged skin. All but the smallest of wounds will alter the skin in this way.
And actually, look closely and I am able to find a couple of small, hairless scars climbing up my forearm, perhaps from deeper scratches than the rest. Look: I can regard these with detached fascination. Look: the structure of my skin has been changed by those uncontainable feelings, look: a small accumulation of damage.
Heavy rains sometimes wash an olm up and out of its subterranean caves and into waterlogged Slovenian fields. In the seventeenth century olms were thought to be the underdeveloped offspring of great dragons which lived beneath the Earth’s crust. Their pale, seemingly helpless forms were mythologised as baby-something-more-fearsome-and-impressive. For the potentially decades-old olms though, this displacement from their dark, watery homes must be an all encompassing sensorial explosion. Being of no use in a pitch dark environment, the olm’s eyes are atrophied and covered with skin, but without vision, its other sensory systems are highly developed. The creature can, for example, sense light through its skin. A displaced olm is washed up from the pitch black to find daylight blazing in throughout the whole of its body.
“Cakes are made of atoms”, A tells me one day. I know that he has learnt this from a cartoon, but I swell with parental pride. “Cheese is made of milk, the moon is NOT made of cheese, the sun is made of fire and I don’t want to get burnt! I am a person. I am a little bit old and a little bit young.”
New declarations are coming thick and fast at the moment, and are ever more accurate. They include facts learnt from us, from preschool one from TV. I think about that moment that A came into the light, unpacked from the darkness inside me into hospital fluorescents, to be held aloft in a chaos of light and sound and cold. I think about how quickly he is beginning to make sense of some things.
We have bought a cheap USB microscope, or another few hours of distraction. We examine everything within easy reach: a lemon, a leaf, a jumper, a drawing: tentative lines magnified into massive solidity. We look at our own hands under the lens. I’d wanted to be able to show A the skin cells which form our outer layer, but the lens is cheap and only reveals the grid of hundreds of crevices, criss-crossing my skin. “My hands are smooth”, he says, “not old”. He reaches over and pulls at the skin on my hand as he must have seen me do, and then pinches his own taut little paw. He slides it under the microscope to find, as though biding their time, his own intricate webs of lines and folds.