The sweet scent of stale urine

Don't you just love rhetorical questions?

‘Gee doc, you want to see the stuff coming out of my nose?’

‘I took those tablets you prescribed and was I sick or what?’

‘Oh it’s rank, I tell you, have you ever seen anything like this?’

‘Do I really have to listen to this stuff?’ I feel like replying.

But after years of general practice, I’ve become pretty hardened, both to tedium and to unpleasant bodily secretions. For example, stale and pungent urine no longer offends me; sadly, it is now a central part of my life and I carry the whiff around with me wherever I go.

You can drench yourself in Yves Saint Laurent after-shave, you can scrub and scrub and scrub as much as you like: ‘Out, out, damned spot!’ you may cry, but just like Lady Macbeth you will find that its tenacity is implacable, turning the multitudinous seas incarnadine is only the half of it; it can indelibly stain the defile even the most solemn occasion, because smell is the only sense that travels forward in time.

Stand on a mountain peak on a glorious spring morning, eagles soaring far above you, feeling like you could slip the surly bonds of earth, the sky almost close enough to touch, all the freshness of an early world, your best girl by your side with a thermos flask, sandwiches, a hip flask spilling over with Napoleon brandy, a warm blanket and, of course, condoms.

She has carried this load up the mountain herself — it goes without saying, that’s what best girls do. I was too busy being one with nature and living in the now. These metaphysical, pre-Raphaelite raptures require a lot of concen- tration and heavy physical labour is a distraction.

Inhale the free frosted air with deep, grateful, exultant breaths. And yet there will be, inescapably, the almost inaudible whisper, the faintest hint, the rumble of distant thunder on a summer picnic, a stinky little ghost to remind you who you are and what you’ll be back doing come next Monday morning, and that you should not be getting big ideas about yourself.

What can you do, it comes with the territory, it’s all part of the deal we signed up to. You can’t be a doctor and be squeamish.

I remember once gently palpating a large sebaceous cyst (I hardly even touched it, I swear) and the whole lot exploding all over me. To call it ‘caseous material’ doesn’t even get near to explaining the horror.

But every cloud has a silver lining — for that day at least, I didn’t smell of pee.

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.
Email him at

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