Back in early December 2015, I travelled out to Hirson, France, to oversee the screening of this animation in concert with the Orchestre de Picardie. It was coming up to the end of the autumn term and I was knackered, but not especially. On the trip out to France, I had the makings of a stye in my right eye. My eyelid was red and a bit swollen, but again, this was hardly remarkable after the long first term of the academic year, after all the screen work, late-nights and usual running around after undergraduates.
But as my trip continued, it soon became clear something more serious was going wrong with my face. The swelling of my eyelid increased, then the first of the blisters appeared, and the top right quarter of my face began to puff-up in different places. I was stuck in France without the ability to come home early, and anyway, the show had to go on, so I skulked in the shadows like the guy from Phantom of The Opera. The orchestra’s stage-manager began calling me ‘monster face’ and insisted I go to A&E, whisking me away in his car to a filmically deserted French hospital, where I was looked at with naked curiosity by the doctors on duty – who, it seemed, had never seen anything quite like it before. They (mis)diagnosed me with a bacterial infection and gave me antibiotics. Then, with one more day to go before the long road trip home and back through the tunnel under the channel, I began to feel very unwell indeed. My colleagues, who’d accompanied me on the trip and were due to sit in the same car with me for the journey back to the UK, were compassionate, but wary. My face, it seemed, was beginning to slide from my skull and no one was talking about just how unpleasant I was starting to look.
Home finally, my husband putting me to bed and hiding his distress at my sudden and unexpected transformation, I slept. Never have I been more grateful to be in my own bed and safe. The following morning, I shambled to the doctors; by now, something odd was happening to my nervous system, in that I was struggling with noise, and with light, hanging on my husband’s arm like an elderly person, flinching at every passing car. I was diagnosed with shingles immediately – chicken pox essentially – a virus more usually suppressed very effectively by our immune systems, but which had now attacked my trigeminal nerve on the right side of my face. Soon afterwards, I was on powerful anti-viral drugs and my situation improving. The portrait above was taken a few days after that treatment had started. I actually look much better in this photograph, which isn’t saying much, but should give you some idea as to just how gruesome I was looking when my shingles was at its worst.
I share all this for this week’s Friday retrospective, not to simply put you off your food, but rather to reflect wryly on the irony of this particular illness, or rather on how apposite a malady it was. Even as I suffered with it, too weak to eat more than a teacup’s portion of mashed potato, the fried nerve-endings of my face misfiring with a sensation like the crawling of ants, a part of me was amused at the specific aesthetic of my predicament. After all, the best Christmas present I ever had was Dekker’s Movie Horror Make-Up – a Do-It-Yourself self-disfigurement kit of highly questionable taste, its popularity with a particular sort of child riding high on the horror-boom of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, so ignited by the box-office and critical success of The Exorcist and parallel publishing phenomena of Stephen King. When I was given the horror make-up kit, I certainly hadn’t watched The Exorcist or read any Stephen King, for I was much too young, but my creative imagination had already been fired by the idea of spectacular transformations and rubbery technologies designed to corrupt human flesh or monsterise it.
The kit itself was straightforward enough: you mixed up your ‘Flex Flesh’, a sticky goop deriving from powder and water, which you then poured into ‘wound moulds’, which, once set, produced Haribo-like exit wounds, gashes and lesions ready for sticking to your own face with spirit gum. Happy as a pig in mud, I enacted terrible simulations against my own face, my mum soon tiring of finding me ‘dead in the broom cupboard’, or lurching from behind my bedroom door, fake blood oozing from the bullet holes in my forehead.
Years later, my Horror Make-Up Kit long since consigned to the wheelie bin of history, I still found excuses to disfigure myself in the service of special occasions, like Halloween parties requiring zombification. With no handy sachet of Flex Flesh at my disposal, I turned to the famously fishy, eye-watering stink of latex adhesive, applying the stuff directly to my face from the glue bottle. Once touch-dry, it then becomes possible to fold your skin together, nipping and tucking to produce scarring, blisters and dreadful-looking delaminations.
As recently as last week, I was at it again for The Kick-About, splashing the Copydex about my much older, much saggier person to produce a series of canonical mutilations in the pursuit of some postmodern tomfoolery. This time, I was applying layers of latex to parts of my face damaged and discoloured permanently by the Human alphaherpesvirus 3. Even as I did so, I couldn’t decide if this was funny, or just deeply insensitive to my own self, or, more worryingly, if I was once again inviting the cosmic joker to play at ‘life imitating art’. I’ll tell you this for nothing though; one of the big differences between me as a child gluing rubbery things to my body, and me at forty-six doing the same, is the no small issue of then extricating said same rubber things from your own excess body hair… And I thought shingles was painful.