Read Perfect Skin Online

Authors: Nick Earls

Perfect Skin





Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring Australia's cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation's most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia's finest literary achievements.






Nick Earls is the author of fourteen books, including the bestselling novels
Zigzag Street
Bachelor Kisses
, a collection of short stories, and two novels for young adults—
After January
48 Shades of Brown
, which won the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for older readers in 2000.

His work has been published internationally in English and in translation, as well as being successfully adapted for film and theatre. He worked as a suburban GP and medical editor before turning to writing. Nick Earls lives in Brisbane.



Perfect Skin

This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012
First published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd in 2000

Copyright © Nick Earls 2000

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act
1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin

Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London

83 Alexander Street

Crows Nest NSW 2065



(61 2) 8425 0100


(61 2) 9906 2218


[email protected]


Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available
from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 74331 220 9 (pbk)

ISBN 978 1 74269 946 2 (ebook)






I didn't think my life would be like this. As naive as it seems, when I was at uni I think I assumed that everything would be sorted out long before I was thirty
. . .


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22



You'll be under a drape, a green paper drape, and you'll have to lie very still. You'll hear some zapping noises, and something that sounds like a vacuum cleaner. That's just the sucker, and it's there to suck up the smoke that we get when we zap the cancer with the laser. That's all totally routine. And we'll have someone else in there, probably Nigel, our nurse, holding the sucker so that I can concentrate on the zapping. Okay?


Good. Any questions at this stage?



And every time I get into the preamble to minor laser skin surgery, I try to stop it seeming totally routine. I try to take myself by surprise, as though each idea is occurring to me for the first time, and then leading me to think the next. Rather than the whole thing coming out as a long and tedious list of effects and side effects, personnel and noises and what we can hope for. All lost in a drone as even the patient loses interest.

I check that we've got time to do this one now, and that Nigel has the treatment room prepared.

Okay, Brian, I tell the now well-informed patient,
sitting there with his skin cancer on his ear. We're ready to roll.

I put my surgical glasses on, and my mask, and I scrub. Meanwhile, Nigel checks where the lesion is and sets everything up. I prep the skin, drop the drape into place so that the ear and not much more is left exposed. I inject the local and fix a sterile handpiece to the laser.

How are you going there, Brian?

No worries
, he says, from under the drape.

Can you feel this?

I touch the ear with a needle tip.

he says, and shakes his head.

Can you feel this? And this time, if you could try not to shake your head, that'd be good. It could be a bad habit to get into if I'm lasering your ear and I have to ask you questions.

No problem.

Could you feel the needle?


Okay, let's get to it. Let us know if there's any problem under there, but I don't expect there will be. You'll feel me fiddling with your ear. That's normal, since the whole ear's not supposed to be numb. The top bit should be, and you shouldn't feel any pain. So let me know if you do. And remember there'll be noise – zapping and sucking. So don't be put off by that, and just stay nice and still. Okay?

No worries.

I get started, holding the foot pedal down and passing the red guide light along the edge of the tumour, dropping circle after circle of Silktouch CO
laser on there, ablating the skin to a depth of one hundred
microns each time. I lift off a sample to be sent for analysis, and I work away, working down through tumour, lifting the debris off with a cotton bud. I clear the malignant tissue and some normal epidermis around it. Thinking of skin, the layers of skin. Knowing skin well enough that I know what's happening at a microscopic level as I follow the tumour down through the dermis until I can be sure that what I'm seeing is normal deep tissue.

And then it's done. The same preamble for each skin cancer, but a different job each time as I face each specific tumour and work my way to its tidy elimination.

Looks pretty good, I tell him. Nigel will put a dressing on there, and he'll explain everything you've got to do to look after it. We should get results through by the end of the week. Okay?


Any questions?

Do you think you got it all?

Yeah, I do. Like I said before, there's a small chance it'll come back, but just a small chance. So if you notice a lump developing like the one you had, get it looked at. But it's very unlikely. That all went just the way it should.

I wash my hands and I leave it to Nigel to finish. Sylvia, our receptionist, is in the corridor when I walk out of the treatment room.

So now can I check my emails? I ask her. Once I've written the file up?

Once you've written the file up.


I was late today. Not late by much but by Sylvia's
reckoning that's still late, and patients take priority over email. Mornings don't always organise themselves easily for me – the multitude of baby rituals, the run around the uni campus, the shower before starting work. Before my first patient. Today, Brian and the skin cancer on his ear. I seem to have found myself a lot of things to fit in before eight-thirty, but babies do wake you early, so it works most days.

Back in my room I hit the On key and my terminal kerboings into life as I make notes in the file. Something called a Window Weasel pops up on screen. It looks pretty cheery, but it says:

Hi, Jon. Your trial period is up. We hope you're enjoying your Window Weasel software. Click YES!! I LOVE MY WEASEL!! and you can register to use Window Weasel for life for only $30! Click LATER to register later.

This mystifies me. Where this crap comes from I have no idea. I really don't have a clue about the software that might be lurking among the vast numbers of megabytes that George said were essential to make the system worth having. Not that it'll be completely worth having anyway until everything's on there, but some of us are still more attached than we should be to the practice of scrawling a few notes on paper after each consultation.

So, if I'm to be honest about it, I'm at best AMBIVALENT ABOUT MY WEASEL, and clicking LATER seems the only option.

And then all I've got when I check my mail is a bunch of jokes from George, yet again putting his share of the megabytes to great use. Ten blondes conquering a jigsaw
puzzle, important things Mariah Carey has said about life. Why do I get my hopes up? Why do I have it in my mind that there might be something interesting waiting for me? Why do I treat the process of checking my emails with any kind of enthusiasm, when the paper mail in my in-tray gets nothing but disdain and has to wait its turn? It can't be because George only sends me jokes electronically.

George, meanwhile, is no further away than the next room. I can hear him talking through the wall, the wordless murmur that I know is his voice explaining something to a patient. There is no actual need for George to email me anything, he's just having a love affair with the electronic transmission of text. What I don't get about it – and I'm sure George isn't even aware of this – is that he's never actually told me a joke in his life.

Seventeen years I've known him – half his life, or thereabouts – and never once has he verbally told me a formally constructed joke. We get email access, and in minutes he's zapping me things about dogs, mice and elephants going into bars, or various famous people on fishing trips together or dying simultaneously and confronting a very droll Saint Peter at the pearly gates. There's a vaudevillian lurking in George that, sadly, in the real world will never be done justice.

Jon, your next one's arrived,
Sylvia says.
No hurry. Here's the file.


And your running clothes are still in the change room.

Yeah, sorry, I had to move a bit quickly when I got here, didn't I?

I hand her the file I've been writing in and I go to load my running gear into a plastic bag before the room takes on the smell of this morning's sweat. The theme song from
Porky Pig
comes back into my head, the way it has done the last few days when I've been out running. Why is it that I always seem to run with a rhythm that takes my mind to something crappy like that? Is it that way for everyone else too? I can't believe my timing's so different that they're all out there with something interesting and contemporary in their heads, and I'm the only one stuck with a cartoon theme song. And I can't believe I can remember so many of the words.

My running gear is particularly foul today. My run finished at about eight and it was already too hot then for running in comfort, and rank with the steaming wet smells of a lifting monsoonal low as the sun hit the ground for the first morning in a week. Not that there's any good time of day to run in February.

So I wasn't at my best when I had the conversation that made me late. Conversations, two of them, a few minutes apart. Me with sweat stinging my eyes and my shirt slapped wet across my chest and the theme song from
Porky Pig
still bouncing through my head in its jolly way as a student pulled up in her car to ask directions. Just as I was spitting, but managing a neat, professional runner's spit so I don't think she noticed anyway.

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