In here: Pierce the pain barrier

God, I feel old. Suddenly I can't handle a teeny bit of excruciating pain

The perils of modern living increase apace. My friend Richard shares an office with a designer who tends towards the dreadlocked. One Monday, she turned up having undergone a complete personality change. She had suddenly turned into a mother: complaining about untidiness and suddenly yelling, "Shaddap when I'm talking!" in the middle of conversations. The next day she started labelling the mugs so everyone could take responsibility for washing their own. Soon after that, notices started appearing about spilt sugar in the kitchen and people ignoring the smoking zones. Her colleagues crept round her and talked behind her back. We won't be able to live with this much longer, they said; does anyone know what's going on? Richard was deputised to ask if everything was OK. "Of course everything's bloody OK!" she yelled. "Have you got a problem or something? And why are you always so late every day, anyway?"

After two weeks, the entire office was dreading work. Then on another Monday she appeared wreathed in smiles. "Hi," she said. "I'm really sorry I've been so foul the last couple of weeks. I took my belly-button ring out and everything's great now. I think it must have been going through a mood line."

I was talking to this heavy metal geezer on the train the other day. It's always wise, on long train journeys, to sit opposite the heavy metal geezer with the tinnies, because you can guarantee the surrounding seats will remain unfilled. He was showing me his tattoos - he had a lovely green-and-red snake a bit like the lost king in King Solomon's Mines and a Pamela Anderson that stuck her chest out when he flexed a bicep - and we were discussing body piercing. He had eight holes in one ear, a stud on one side of his fine aquiline nose and a ring hanging off his eyebrow. He hauled up his T-shirt to show me his nipple rings. "Have you got any others?" I asked. He stuck his tongue out. "Euugh, god," I said, "doesn't that hurt?" "Well, it did at the time," he replied, "and I've had to give up bubble gum."

And snogging, too, presumably.

The subject of self-mutilation has been high on my agenda recently, as I decided a while ago, that, now I am an adult and possess the odd (the very odd) piece of decent-ish jewellery, it was time I got my other ear pierced. I thought it might be nice to be a little less asymmetrical to match my fabulously balanced personality. So after a few weeks' procrastination I got out of bed one lunchtime and headed in to town. I found a jeweller who also plunged staplers through the ears of the general public, a bit like Sweeny Todd, though less useful come suppertime. Hung around while she practised the nefarious deed on the customer before me. Felt increasingly sick and tried to comfort myself with the racks of Genuine Gold Studs. And when a small child was carried wailing from the cubicle, lobes bloody and newly trimmed with tiny sleepers, I realised that I simply could not go through with this. My left ear has had a network of four holes in the shape of a lozenge (the man who did them slipped with No 2 and put it very low down the flap of skin, which provided a lovely space for creative placement of hole No 4) since I was 14, but at 33, I'm too much of a wimp to handle the thought of a needle going through my virgin lobe.

I guess this means I'll never get that fleur-de-lys tattoo, either. God, I feel old. Suddenly I can't handle a teeny bit of excruciating pain. It's less that my pain threshold has gone down - evolution would be on a sticky wicket if women's pain thresholds dropped while they were still in their childbearing years - than that my squeamishness has shot up. I don't think all those ads on the telly featuring the epidermis help much. Every time I slice a finger open on a piece of paper these days, those cod-medical diagrams illustrating how Synergie keeps your skin looking young flash through my mind, complete with knobbly bits and whiskery nerve endings. It was probably more the thought of all those skin cells bursting beneath the needle that anything else that preserved me from getting into hard drugs in my youth.

Of course, like picking a scab, I am unable to leave these thoughts alone. It's a form of saturation therapy: if I expose myself to enough pictures of tarantulas then the British house spider won't seem so bad. My house is scattered with photographs of bound feet, Amazonian Indians with frizbees under their lower lips, Dinka with their lower front teeth bashed out, close- ups of raised-scar tribal markings, anecdotes about tooth piercing and dermabrasion and removed ribs and pumped-up lips. None of this was having much effect, though regaling people at dinner tables was ensuring a steady supply of leftovers. Then I started flipping through Jean Sasson's Daughters of Arabia.

Be warned: if you're squeamish, you might want to read this paragraph with your eyes closed. Although the circumcision of women has been largely abandoned in Saudi Arabia, it still goes on sporadically among some strata of society. Now, we all know about female circumcision. Barbaric. Disgusting. Think of the infections. Something should be done. But did you hear about the other practice outlawed by Abdul Aziz Ibn Al'Saud earlier this century? The flaying circumcision of men. To do a flaying circumcision you remove all the skin of a man's body between his navel and the insides of his thighs.

And to think I couldn't handle a bit of sissy ear piercing

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