The One With The Magnetic Ball

Added on 21 January 2009

Douglas Lindsay is currently writing The Final Cut. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 19th January 2005:

Looking up from his post-school snack, yesterday afternoon, my wee lad broke a long silence with the words: 'If one of your family dies, it's wrong to put them in the garbage.' And you know, you can't fault him. It's wrong to put one of your family in the garbage under any circumstances, dead or alive. No matter how much you might feel like doing it. It's good to know that the school are teaching them the core principles of body disposal.

What the boy really needs to learn at school, since he steadfastly refuses to do so at home, is a list of things not to swallow. Somewhere on the list, albeit not at the top, would be 'small magnetic ball'. A couple of weeks ago he was playing with such an item, when he suddenly stared at his mother with a vaguely concerned look on his chops. 'Did you swallow that,' she asked? 'Yes,' he replied, 'it's stuck in my throat.' So, the very fact of being able to utter the words 'it's stuck in my throat', is a bit like being able to say, 'I'm dead, take me to the garbage.' Clearly, you're not dead, and clearly the ball wasn't stuck in his throat, at least not in a turning his face purple way.

(I saw this poster in a doctor's surgery once, which stated that if someone is 'talking, breathing or coughing, they're not choking', and have applied it happily to the kids ever since, so that every time one of them swallows something too quickly, and they start coughing and gasping for air as if they're about to die, I casually turn to the sports section and pop another hot dog on the barbie, confident that in a few seconds time, they'll be back at their apple juice; and if I'm in a particularly parental mood, I might throw a 'serves you right for drinking too quickly' at them whilst they're at their most distressed. Conversely, on the odd occasion when they've been neither talking, breathing nor coughing, I'm a useless blob of panic, frantically searching for the nearest competent adult.)

So we had a quick debate about whether or not we should waste our Sunday afternoon by taking him to the doctor, but since there was nothing on the tv and the medical centre is five minutes away, we decided we'd better get him checked out. Mother and child poddled off down the road, while me and the girl stayed at home to man the fires and keep the potato and gruel soup on the go for dinner. So, the nurse checks out our lad, gives him something like a large bar of chocolate to eat just to prove that there's no blockage, ruffles his hair, smiles all round as if they were in a BUPA advert, then she turns to my wife and utters the inevitable, and yet brutal words: 'You'll need to check that it comes out the other end.'

Now, if it had been me there I believe I would immediately have demanded that he be stomach-pumped on the spot. That might have been a little unpleasant for him, but children have to be taught a lesson after all. One good, solid, horrible stomach pumping, and the wee fella wouldn't even have been thinking twice the next time some non-food substance came anywhere near his mouth. However, he was, from the beginning, completely fascinated by the thought of his mother and father having to rummage through his excrement with a magnet. As soon as he understood what was going to happen, you could see him idly browsing his toy collection, searching for something else which was going to pass all the way through him without causing too much discomfort. And so, we buckled down for the duration, ran a quick sweepstake on how long it would take for the ball to emerge, and huddled around the campfire waiting for his next bowel movement. We did have a large industrial magnet to hand, but since there are approximately three hundred and seventeen miles of intestine in the average human body, the nurse had already warned us about the frustrating futility of this course of action.

That night we slept uncomfortably, each of us aware of the horror which awaited the following morning. There was a tension in the air, which seemed to cling to the skin, making for a long, sleepless and restless night. When sleep did come, it was fitful and unpleasant, filled with fetid nightmares of sewage and waste disposal units. The hours before daybreak seemed to last forever, the dawn took an eternity. Finally the first birds of a cold winter's day in the Balkans let rip the battle cries of morning, and a frosty dawn crept slowly over the rooftops of Belgrade.

Looking each other in the eye, my wife and I realised our chance of revenge. And so, with the day a little after 0645hrs, we charged into the boy's bedroom, leapt on top of him, and started shouting, 'Wake up! Wake up!' Four year-olds have no sense of irony, so he cried a bit. And then, when he'd settled down and muddled down the stairs for breakfast, we began part two of our version of Children's Water Torture. 'Do you need to poo yet? Do you need to poo yet? Do you need to poo yet? Do you need to poo yet? Do you need to poo yet? Do you need to poo yet?' He still had no sense of irony.

The morning dragged on, an acrid acknowledgement of the post-Christmas malaise, nothing but a bitter succubus to the blight of cold mince pies and leftover cranberry jelly. And then finally, at some time just before 1000hrs, the cry came up. 'Mum! Dad! I need to poo!' Smoothly, as if we'd been training for this eventuality all our lives, we leapt into action. Empty ice cream carton at the ready, one of us placing it into the toilet bowl, making sure there wouldn't be slippage, the other reaching for the digital camcorder, while number one child danced around in a feverish excitement at the thought of an actual faecal examination taking place here in the house. To be fair to the lad, he was not daunted by his place at the heart of the drama. He was straight on there, no stalling, no hesitation, no fears or concerns that there might be a problem expelling the merchandise. Little bottom wiped, and he was punted off and we were left with a 1 litre ice cream carton of excrement. Now, in these situations, there has to be a strict division of labour. Mum pulls on the rubber gloves and dissects the faeces; dad puts the kettle on for the post-traumatic-experience cup of tea. It's the natural order of things. The kids buzzed around excitedly, until they cottoned on to the fact that live poo, steaming gently in the crisp morning air, is genuinely gross, rather than kid-excitement gross, which is an entirely different concept. So they melted away into the background, and the parent currently know as Mum was left alone at the business end of the problem.

While we waited, the kids and I sat around the kitchen table, telling ripping scatalogical yarns, deeds of derring-do and empire building, involving rolls of Andrex and dark toilets half way up Moroccan mountains. Hours passed, and slowly a tense silence descended over the house. We began to worry that we'd never see Mum again. Eventually we heard the tentative creek of the floorboards in the hall, and an ashen figure appeared at the door. 'Did you find it?' we cried excitedly. She paused, she held us in the grip of anticipation, she let the silence engulf us like flame. And then finally, horribly, with all the damning injustice of the false gods, came the reply: 'No!' The kids looked a bit disappointed and wandered off to destroy their bedrooms. Only I, the parent known as Dad, realised the true horror. With our lad being as regular as trains in Britain aren't, there was to be no bowel movement due until the following morning, by which time Mum, who was now standing with a malicious grin of retribution on her face, would be back at work.

It was a long day. Occasionally I cast a plaintive glance the way of the child and enquired if he needed to visit the bathroom, but he held firm. I thought of grabbing him and squeezing really tightly, but that was liable to just make him vomit on me; and anyway, Mum was keeping a close eye out for anything nefarious. And so, a second night without sleep followed, where the wind ominously troubled the windows, and the shrieks of the wringwraiths could be heard above the towers of the city. The hours were long and dark and slow, when even the relentless ticking of the clock seemed almost to stall. And through it all, came the contented quiet breaths of my wife, sleeping the sleep of the just, the sleep of someone who had already taken her turn at the trough of ablution, knowing she would not have to return. The morning broke to an ugly squall, the shutters rattled in the gale, the rain hammered at the windows, an incessant noise, a portent of the black deeds which were to come. My wife was up and out the door faster than Superman in a telephone box. Never before had she charged off to work with such undiluted gusto, and I was left alone with my two children, one of them laden with his magnetic cargo.

And then, somewhere between a bowl of Cheerios and Bibs & Bobs on BBC Prime, the lad ran into the kitchen, where I was attempting to hide, and shouted, 'Caeser's spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side, come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice cry, 'Havoc!' and let slip the poo of war.' Oh god, I muttered, and with spirits low I gathered up a new ice cream tub, pulled on a new pair of rubber gloves, and followed the angelic dwarf to the toilet. Therein, with his sister once more dancing the jig of the deranged, the boy delivered on his promise. I wiped his bottom and cast him from the toilet, and then stood facing my doom. Serenely in the morning sun, like some lilting scene from an elven forest, steam rose beautifully to meet the day. I hesitated, I fought the gag reflex, and then finally I took the plunge, and thrust my rubber-covered fingers into the morass...

Tomorrow, part 2 of this enthralling five part drama, soon to be a major blockbusting series on BBC2. Starring Renee Zelwegger as Mum, the man who played Gollum as Dad, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L Jackson as the children, Keanu Reeves as the Magnetic Ball, and Jack Nicholson as the brooding, malevolent Faeces, "Three Days in Belgrade" promises to be the very best that television has to offer in 2005.