Not the title of a Hammer House of Horror movie, but a symptom, possibly of colon cancer, possibly of Crohn’s disease, or more prosaically, of piles. Faecal occult blood cannot be seen (obviously, or they wouldn’t call it occult) until a sample of poop is dribbled with some chemical or other, when the blood, if blood there be, will turn blue.
I have booked myself in for a medical later this month, the sort of thorough going-over you can only get if you pay for it. They will test my blood, urine and stool, and I get my first digital rectal exam to detect any enlargement of the prostate. This I suppose is some kind of a landmark in a male life; it might be far from the first stranger’s finger you have had up your arse, but hitherto only in a social setting. Nobody in the past would withdraw the digit and then possibly say ‘I’m afraid it’s bad news.’ Certainly the gesture would never have communicated ‘well, you are getting on a bit now, aren’t you?’ At least this time it might be a relief not to be expected to reciprocate.
The DRE doesn’t bother me that much but the haemoccult test did. You have to take a sample of poop each day for three days, and take them with you to the medical. Having watched the appalling Gillian McKeith, the food-police harpy, and her antics with people’s cack samples on her programme You Shit what you Eat, or whatever it was, I was apprehensive. I have a ninety minute train journey to the surgery in Leeds. Would it involve conveying one’s entire three day output, say in a shoebox, with fellow passengers checking their soles and edging away to disown the surrounding air? And how should you actually go about collecting the stuff? After all these years of simply flushing it out of your life as quickly as possible, here you are, having to pay it serious attention, working out the logistics of wrapping it up, packaging and transporting it.
In fact, you don’t need to do any of this, you will be glad to know, for when it’s your turn. The test kit I have been sent is tiny, a card with three circles on it, onto which you dab the merest tweezering of poop each day until each circle is completed. It looks more like a book of matches than the bucket and spade I had envisaged.
I don’t think there is anything wrong in the bowel department, really. I worry more about my head, and the way I am experiencing all those things everyone says you will experience as you approach fifty. Today something jogged a previously unvisited memory from 1978. I was flying from Toulouse to Frankfurt via Lyons. At Lyons we had to get off the aircraft and board again. I had left a book on my seat (a copy of Volpone – I can still see the cover, with an Aubrey Beardsley drawing on the front) On re-boarding I couldn’t find the seat I had occupied earlier, until the middle-aged German lady who had been sitting next to me stood up and said ‘Sie verstehen etwas Deutsch, nicht wahr? Wir haben drei Reihe nach vorne gesessen’ (I don’t vouch for the total accuracy of my memory of German but she said ‘You understand some German, don’t you? We were sitting three rows further forward.’) I can remember this so clearly, thirty years later. But just now I went to check on the progress of the chicken I thought had been slowly roasting for the last ninety minutes, to find it stone cold and raw, sitting bedecked with thyme in the dark oven because I had not remembered to switch the power on.
Far more humiliating than carting one's own turds by train to Leeds in a shoebox would be to have to answer gentle, encouragingly enunciated questions like ‘what’s the date to day?’ and ‘do you know who the present prime minister is?’ That is another landmark I hope is a long way off.