How I learnt to love my body, and nearly had fun

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At eight minutes past nine last Thursday evening, I burst. Coughing did it. I bent over to dredge up one of those rusty, terminal seal-barks and was rewarded with a rubbery, crunching twang from somewhere in my insides. It was obvious that something had gone, like a cheap toy aeroplane with a perished rubber band.

It was the ribs. The ribs had gone. Broken. I had broken my own ribs, all by myself, and the relationship between me and my body is changed forever. At seven minutes past nine, I thought of it as an irritating old friend. We had been through a lot together. Most of the time we could just mooch about in companionable silence. Every now and then it would throw a fit of hysterics and go stiff, swell up or break out into spots. It had irritating habits, of course. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, chirpy, raring to go, demanding cake and cheese; in the mornings it would refuse to function at all, so that I would have to spend several hours dragging it about after me, mute and numb, like a stupid bull terrier on a string. It didn't travel well, either: set us down in a strange city, and, by midnight, it would be hauling me all over town in search of after-hours drinking dens and sleazy commercial sex.

On the whole, though, we were contented together. I felt we could grow old together and it would see me out. But at eight minutes past nine, last Thursday night, all that changed. It betrayed me; turned on me, and cast me into bed, aching and ruined, barely able to breathe. "This," I thought, "must be what it is like to be old. You hurt, and can do nothing."

I lay in bed for two days, trying not to cough. The odd thing was that I didn't want to cough; the bursting-spasm was, I think, the literal last gasp of the winter's bronchitis. But even though I didn't want to cough, I was so anxious not to cough that, for two days, I lay there wanting to cough. There is a lesson about life there, I expect.

There were, of course, compensations. I learnt to sleep lying on my back, prone or supine, I've never known which. Perhaps I'll look it up. I had always envied the ability to sleep lying on your back, ever since my first major proper girlfriend, who used to sleep on her back by way of practice for when the time came to have babies. So there was a compensation, and another one was thinking about her and how nice she was, and how everything was somehow intensified then, like a landscape covered in hoar-frost, all the edges so sharply defined and everything there to be made sense of.

And of course off I went, rambling happily through my memory; people I hadn't thought of for years, places I hadn't seen for years, places I had seen, now despoiled, but here stripped of their dull dusty veneer of lassitude and disillusionment. For two days I lay there and pottered affectionately through an endless list of scenes and vignettes, like Scrooge being shown around by one of those sodding ghosts, and then I thought: This really is what it must be like to be old: you hurt, and can do nothing, but somehow it doesn't matter because you've got your memories.

Then I thought: this won't do. So I got out of bed and bought a whole lot of bandages and mummified my back, and crunched my way through a lovely packet of Neurofen Plus, and went out to play.

It was a curious experience. My body, burst, strapped-up and heavily drugged, had nothing to say for once, and the rest of me found myself in the position of an NCO suddenly promoted on the battlefield to company commander: for years he had chafed under the idiocies of whatever bloody Peregrine or Godfrey had been in charge, but now that he had got the chance to take control, he hadn't a clue what to do. "Fun!" I thought to myself; "That's what we want: fun!"

You can spend hours trying to think up Fun to have, but there's no need, these days. We live in sophisticated times, the Entertainment Age, when thousands of first-class brains labour away in California and Japan, researching, designing, coding and marketing Fun: all you have to do is give them your money, and Fun - Fun on a scale unimaginable when I was young - is yours for the asking: Fun as fantastic and inconceivably hospitable as Saturnalia, Nirvana or the bordellos of my dreams.

So we went to Sega World, my body and I; Sega World in the Trocadero Centre at Piccadilly Circus. Sonic The Hedgehog Is A Health Freak So Do Not Smoke! Epsilon semi-moron youths stood around and pointed speechlessly, perhaps blissed-out on Fun. You have to pay pounds 2 just to get in, before you can start to spend money on Fun, but it's money well spent: the two quid is to let you know how much Fun you are going to have.

Up interminable escalators stood a collection of half-hearted slot machines. Dazed families shuffled around. A sad youth in dreadlocks poked gloomily at a Flying Bicycle ride with the wrong-sized spanner. Speechless, sullen 16-year-old staff grunted, pointed and took your money: two quid entitled you to stand for half an hour in a bleak industrial corridor for a two- minute go on the world's slowest dodgems, five of them (and one, broken, desolate in the corner): "Mad Bazooka!" they were called, because they shot ping-pong balls, but they were still slow dodgems, and the mood of the queue was disgruntled disbelief. A dozen handsome black teenagers were indulging in noisy excitable mating behaviour, until the prettiest girl suddenly said: "That rotten Sonic don't even look like a hedgehog." It seemed to sober them up and they started grumbling about wanting their money back.

I turned to go, thinking: "This must be what it is like to be young: you want Fun; you are prepared to pay for Fun; and what you get is Sega World." Like a jowly executive, spurned in a mid-life crisis, I suddenly saw my body in a new light. It wasn't such a bad old thing, and maybe after all we still had a future. It rewarded me with a bolt of white-hot agony up the spine, and we tottered off home together to sleep on our back. !