zoogenic (adj.): formed by or derived from animals or their parts
Glik was to have a pig gristle nose. That set him apart from the rest of us on Ward III, with our full thickness grafts or pedicles attached in advance of an operation. He was scheduled to actually have some foreign matter under his new skin, not just shrapnel or catgut sutures.
His nose wasn’t the only point of difference, either. He spoke next to no English and only the odd word of French, so he rarely joined in with our hi-jinks. Instead he’d sit sullenly on his bed, watching, as Freeman rode his bicycle through the ward – bell dinging – or Simpson and Jones brought their tennis game indoors to avoid the drizzle. There was little wrong with the raucous spirit of the airmen in the hospital, even if they had suffered the most horrific of injuries.
Clean the burned area with saline, then dress with penicillin cream. Apply tulle gras and gauze. Repeat twice daily and once through the night.
There was a barrel of pale ale on the ward, but Glik never partook in the drinking of it. It was watery stuff, mostly to keep us hydrated, but he just sipped at tea. On the odd occasion he might nod to a nurse when she was changing the flowers by his bed or as she lifted the wire cage to put more coke on the fire, but never more than that. Never the bawdy comments of the others; the hand stretching out of bed to pinch at a bum; the attempts to steal a kiss in the corner of the cedarwood hut once the surgical staff had left for the evening.
He was mobile enough – most of us were – and went for strolls around the grounds or, if he could hitch a lift, up in Ashdown Forest. And he was a willing listener, if we wanted to tag along and talk about the glycol igniting, or struggling to wrench the cockpit canopy open, or hurtling down towards the sea with fingers so scorched they couldn’t grip the parachute release. He’d listen and he’d nod and he’d pass a hand across the lump of bandages in the middle of his face.
Take the skin for the pedicle from the shoulder. A Thiersch graft. Roll from donor site into pedicle then stitch to graft site. Leave for six to eight weeks to attach.
We became a regular sight around East Grinstead. In our uniforms, yes, but with lots of new paraphernalia too: drip-stands as walking sticks, silk scarves to cover the gauze. And those pedicles, like thin elephant trunks running from our cheeks to our shoulders. Glik had one, but he turned that side of his face to the wall, or held a book up to hide it. The books were in English, so we doubted he could read them.
The rest of us had no such qualms about being seen. We walked up through Blackwell Hollow, a troop of us, to the Whitehall Dining Rooms. Some of us had hands so gnarled that we couldn’t light a cigarette and others needed a constant mop-up job around the eyes because their eyelids had shrunk away, but we made do. We could still dance – the majority of us – and the nurses were still willing partners – again, for the most part.
When the skin flap is ready, build up the nose with pig gristle and secure in place with the graft and catgut sutures. The aim is for tension, pressure and immobilisation across the graft.
We watched Glik get his new nose. A group of us accompanied him as his bed was wheeled out across the courtyard and in to the operating theatre. From the balcony, we cheered him on as Hunter put him under. He lay there on the slab and all was quiet. Then, as McIndoe wielded the knife, one of the chaps – Simpson maybe – began to oink and soon the whole theatre was filled with the sound of it. McIndoe called out to tell us we were ‘bloody fools’ but he was smiling beneath his surgical mask, we could tell.
After that, Glik left the hospital for a spell. He was at a convalescent home, I suppose, or perhaps he had some family in the country. Either way, we felt his absence. The hoodlums needed their balance. There needs to be a lull in the storm, from time to time. Glik’s silent presence, in the corner, had kept some of the airmen from the worst excesses: the ruining of gardener Bill’s begonia bed; the damage to the leaded window at the Whitehall; the decree that Freeman and Jones should wear hospital blues as punishment for conduct unbecoming.
There was a feeling that none of that would have occurred if Glik had been present. He was a salve, a bucket of cold water. So we were delighted to hear that he was coming back for a tidy-up just a few short months after the initial operation.
Lacemaker’s fingers are needed, to tuck the skin in at the side and to cut away any blebs or haematomas. The goal is to provide shape and definition.
As soon as the dressing came off, Glik took to admiring his nose from a variety of angles with a hand-held mirror. He still didn’t speak, but he was never done grinning. The nurses took to giving him little peck-kisses on his nose as they passed his bedside.
He no longer contented himself with watching from the side either. If there was a piece of jazz on the gramophone then he was the first one up dancing and he’d always be at the table if we were dealing out a pack of cards. He still rarely took a glass of beer, but it wasn’t unheard of any more.
And, in this way, he came to be present at the founding of the Guinea Pig Club. In that cedarwood hut off to the side of Ward III. It was intended primarily as a drinking club, yes, but also as a means of supporting one another and keeping in touch as we drifted off, back to civilian life or to instructor roles in the airforce. Glik was essential to that side of things – the camaraderie – because he was steady and he was undaunted. He was also the first of us to be rebuilt not only from recycled parts of ourselves but from breakfast meat.
In those first meetings, we decided that the secretary should be a member with badly burned fingers, so that he couldn’t take minutes, and that the treasurer should have hash-browned legs, so that he couldn’t abscond with the funds. There was quite a bit of laughter about all that and, when it settled down, someone looked across at Glik – good old Glik – and asked him what role he would like to take on in our new club.
‘I am…’ he said, haltingly. Then he tapped the side of his pig gristle nose. ‘… the sommelier.’