Southerly by David Haywood

A Bad Back

If proof was ever wanted that I am bone-idle lazy, then this is it. Yes, I have a bad back. But it is not your normal sort of bad back which hurts when you pick things up, or when you do physical exercise. I can cycle and kayak and even drink beer -- all the things I enjoy -- without a twinge. No, I have the sort of bad back that is normally associated with dodgy ACC claimants. As soon as I try to do paid work I am crippled. Sitting at my computer has me writhing with pain. As Jennifer says, with a certain amount of spousal scepticism: "It seems like a funny co-incidence."

It has been my observation that there are mild illnesses and serious illnesses, but that I usually end up with the serious ones. A bad back is a serious illness in my opinion. Some illnesses, however, are positively light-hearted. There are few of us, for example, who haven't derived innocent amusement from seeing someone drop a cannonball on their gouty foot. Gout is quite a humorous condition -- as, I imagine, gout sufferers will readily acknowledge. But a bad back isn't remotely funny. Television programmes which show back-sufferers falling down staircases are in poor taste. In fact, back pain humour is perhaps the lowest form of amusement.

To be honest, I don't deal with pain very well. It makes me crabby and irritable, and leads me to do things that I wouldn't normally countenance. Last week, in my professional capacity as an energy engineer, I not only accused the venerable CC-Amatil business executive Carl Crowley of being on drugs, but I also implied that he was a dwarf. Mind you -- as the Hopi Indians believe -- it's possible that intense pain can give you flashes of deep insight that you wouldn't normally attain.

Actually, I think illness was much simpler back in Carl's time. You got ill, then you died. End of story. People were more accepting then. My grandfather was occasionally crippled with sciatica, but all he ever needed was a dab of Fiery Jack and then he got back to work. Fiery Jack -- if you have never encountered it before -- is an unusual treatment. The back of the Fiery Jack box depicts the devil sticking his pitchfork into a man's back. The man has an astonishingly realistic expression of anguish on his face, and I have long considered this image to be one of humankind's great artistic triumphs.

Before I tried Fiery Jack I assumed that the depiction of the devil represented back pain. After I used Fiery Jack I understood that the devil represented the treatment. Roughly speaking, Fiery Jack operates on the same principle that prevents forestry-workers from noticing their toothache after they have chain-sawed off their foot. It contains 96 per cent of the same ingredients used to manufacture Napalm. My brother and I used to smear it over my little sister to make her cry.

The doctor suggested that deep tissue massage might be a suitable treatment for my bad back. The only problem with this is that I'm not too keen on strangers rubbing their hands all over me. Not unless they're particularly attractive strangers, which -- in my experience -- they never are. Of course I wouldn't mind if Jennifer rubbed my back. The only difficulty with this concept is that Jennifer (as she puts it herself) "can't be arsed."

I think my aversion to being pawed by strangers is probably the result of coming from a non-hugging family. I have never hugged my brother or sister, and I have only once been hugged by my father. The incident with my father is explained by the fact that he had just come back from four years in California.

Being a non-hugger makes travel in Europe difficult. I am fully fluent in two foreign phrases: "N'embarassez pas s'il vous plait" and "Nein! Nicht umarmen!", but unfortunately they never seem to work. My friend, Malibu Katie, is horrified by my reluctance to hug. Malibu Katie -- and I'm not making this up -- is the real-life sister of the famous Malibu Bomber. She thinks hug-deprivation will have wrought irreparable psychological harm on my siblings and me. Possibly. But on the other hand, unlike her family, none of us have ever been the subject of a police manhunt.

It is a measure of my back pain that I did indeed pay a visit to a massage therapist yesterday. The first thing that she did was to ask me to get undressed. The possibility of this had never previously occurred to me. I thought I would be massaged through my clothes. You feel so defenceless when you're in the nude. The masseuse got me to lie down naked, and then poked her fingers into my sore back as hard as she could. For an hour. Then she charged me $60.

As I limped from her studio, the masseuse told me that she believed her work would make a huge difference to my back. She was right. Everything had changed when I got up this morning. Previously I was in pain, but now I am in agony.