House sales and anal glands…

I have been a little preoccupied with household matters recently. Beloved Mr. B left last week to film in New Zealand. Alongside his declaration of undying love was the instruction to “sell the house”. I am not unduly fazed by these sort of ex cathedra decisions from my husband nor do I generally pay much heed to them, after all a great many complications can occur during his absence, which will render the application of his wishes as implausible but this time I was in complete agreement. It was time to move on!

It has been our desire for over twenty years to buy a house in South Shropshire, with at least five acres of land where we can create a haven for wildlife. What my husband dismisses with a regal wave of his hand, is that to sell our house requires an enormous input of labour; my labour to be exact. So, I started at the furthest bedroom and began the transformation. Ceiling, walls and skirting boards painted, carpets cleaned and all extraneous clutter recycled or donated. There I was, a woman in possession of a steam cleaner, disposable gloves and a plan. But as we know the ‘best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray’, or in my case, of ferrets and women.

IMG_2393 (1)Gus is our pet ferret and we’ve owned him since he was a kit and he’s now an impressive nine years old. He is an outdoor pet, never having been worked and lives in a large, two tiered enclosure under the sycamore. I would say that despite the odd burst of energy, Gus has committed himself to a twenty-three hour sleep pattern, rising indolently for breakfast and taking a short, lethargic constitutional in the afternoon. I am sure that Gus is extremely happy with this arrangement but to spice up his life, he is often brought into the house to have a play in the annex, which is accessed internally via one door. This enables me to separate him from out terrier Lily, who has a plan of her own for poor Gus. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to forget that he’s in the annex and leave him to it. Two weeks ago I suddenly realised what I’d done and went to look for him, predictably he’d found the pile of dustsheets to bury into and after a lengthy hunt I located him, much to his and my surprise. It was the element of surprise that did it for the future house sale, that and my head cold. Gus, being a card holding member of the mustelidae family, is equipped with anal scent glands, which blow off when the animal is shocked, threatened or generally irritated. Pleased not to have lost the wily fellow I popped him back into his pad and locked up for the night.IMG_1884

In full decorating mode the following morning I spread the dustsheets over the carpet and furniture in our bedroom and began to paint the ceiling and the walls. I love the smell of paint, it wakens the senses and clears the sinuses and, more relevantly, overwhelms the subtle, yet monumentally persistent stench of ferret anal gland secretion. An unpleasant, urine-like smell began to rear its ugly head about an hour into the decorating frenzy. Confused but committed I carried on, finishing late into the evening. I grabbed all of the dustsheets, admired my skill and fortitude and dumped them into the annex workshop. It was only when I got into bed that the smell began to permeate. There didn’t seem to be a source to the stench, or an explanation as to what it was, just the oily, musky smell of bladder weakness. The following day I shampooed the carpet, convinced that it was the source. It barely made a dent in the pong. I bought carpet freshener and ran the cleaner over it again but still the smell persisted, if anything it was digging in, seeping into the bed linen and the upholstery. I had to carry on with the decorating so, leaving all of the windows ajar upstairs, I spread the dustsheets over our leather suite and painted the living room ceiling. It must have taken me about an hour or so before the penny dropped. It was the dustsheets and Gus must have emptied his anal glands into them and now they were leaching the smell all over the sofa. I balled, bagged and binned them, drove to Homebase to purchase a bigger steam cleaner and a box of leather wipes. None of which made any difference.IMG_2397

Two weeks have passed and there is still a heady tang of urine around both rooms. It fades into your subconscious after a few minutes but I can only hope our early viewers are of a forgiving nature.


In 2002 I applied for a work placement at Mid Staffs General Hospital Pathology Department and spent two weeks learning how to prepare tissue for display on slides, use a microscope and observe postmortem examinations. In my alternative life, the one where I got A’s in every subject and regarded study as a joy, rather than ‘what asshole’s did’. I would have been a pathologist. I am now way too old to pursue a career in medicine but fifteen years ago I gave it a shot. Medicine is a vast multi-disciplinary area but lacking anything resembling bedside manner, I was drawn to pathology. The peeling back of layers from macro to micro, in order to nail the culprit(s), scores very high on the job satisfaction stakes for me forcepsThe body on the gurney was that of an elderly woman who had been brought down to the morgue following a road traffic accident and a brief stay on the ITU. She had arrived covered lightly in a white sheet but that was gone now. The pathologist read the case notes, tutted, shook her head and then said, “Bless’. There was nothing empathic about the surroundings though. An eye-aching fluorescence bleached all humanity from the proceedings that and the combination of industrial white tiles and stainless steel. fst085039This wasn’t the first dead person I had seen, just the first that I hadn’t glanced away from. I had wondered when the last traces of her humanity would be lost. It wasn’t at the opening of the chest cavity. The woman’s indifferent expression to the violence made the process quite bearable but I found myself wincing at the snaps, cracks and slurps and as the viscera were removed the sulphurous compounds made me gag. I had been absolutely determined to not respond physically but controlling millennia of automated responses to death weren’t so easily fought off. I had been standing up to this point but surreptitiously dragged a stool forward and perched. The dissection of the organs and tissue sampling had been far quicker and more brutal than I’d anticipated and as I was shown the thickened heart muscles, the blackened lungs and damaged kidneys I felt as though I was back on solid ground. Intellectual curiosity is no slave to atavistic fears. If you haven’t had experience on how healthy tissue, organ and bone look like in comparison to unhealthy specimens, there is no glaring difference. I could see that her heart had a ‘toughened’ quality (Here I was only allowed to see not touch. I had been able to physically examine organs that had been preserved in formaldehyde in the histology labs but these chemical processes hardened the tissues, giving a false impression of texture and flexibility.) heart2The chambers of the heart were small, the walls inflexible and the superior vena cava narrowed. This must have compromised oxygen flow to her upper body. Her lungs were blackened and I would have suggested a smoker but apparently it was evidence of her age and a result of having always lived in an industrial city. The elderly lady had never regained consciousness after the accident and her kidneys had begun to fail very shortly after admission. They had probably been bruised on impact and, combined with her head injuries, had begun to stop producing sufficient urine, a notable jump in her blood pressure being the result. The spleen was undamaged, as were the intestines but when placed on the dissecting table directly below me, the smell was stunning. There had been no evidence, or possibly time, for bacterial infection to spread but the viscera was examined for integrity. One small puncture and septicaemia sets in quickly. The bowel contents were squeezed out during the examination and the smell of week old faeces hits the nose, palate and brain like a hammer drill. There was nothing so far to determine the exact cause of death but the chief suspect was next. lung tissueFor me the transition between a recognisable human being to cadaver happened the moment woman’s face was peeled back from the skull, rolled over on itself and tucked under the calvarium. The Stryker saw, which initially had been a clear monotonous shriek was becoming muted and thickened and the cold sensation that had started in my thighs was spreading like an anaesthetic. I felt heavy and cold and saw, through a ‘fish eye’ lens my unsuccessful lunge for the door. “How’re you doing up there?” said the pathologist, peering over the Perspex divide. “Good,” I replied optimistically. She nodded and smiled. brain sliceOnce down I felt fine. I lay for a moment or two, observing the ceiling, declined a call for help and then made it back onto the stool. I lay my head on my knees for a couple of minutes and then sat up. The moment had passed and I felt a sense of relief that the collection of systems arranged on the dissection table was now an object of study, rather than a reminder of one’s inevitable mortality. The brain had been removed and was being sliced laterally. It was a muted pink and seemed to have the consistency of blancmange. The slices cut through the pons, hippocampus, medulla and frontal cortex exposing the likely cause of death. A vessel had been ruptured, as the brain bounced between the front and back of the skull, forming a clot the size of a marble in the parietal lobe. Over the course of a few days the bleed applied pressure within the skull and combined with her failing kidneys and compromised respiratory system her elderly body could no longer fight on all fronts. Case closed. It was a privilege to witness a post mortem and its influence is always there when my story takes me into the autopsy suite. It is, for me, as important to understand how your victims die as to why they died.