To whet your appetite for our first reading event, here’s a new essay by Adam Farrer, ‘The Lump’. Adam will be reading it, alongside Laura Barton, Benjamin Judge and co-editors Nija Dalal and Kate Feld on January 20 at 7:30pm at Gulliver’s in Manchester. More info here. Image by Emma Farrer.
On the roof of my mouth there’s a lump. A tiny, peaked thing, roughly the diameter of a popcorn kernel. It’s been there since my teens, never really growing but periodically rising up angrily, itching and throbbing whenever I get a cold or eat acidic fruits. I lived with it for years but inevitably there came a point, some time in my mid-20’s, when I began to think of it as evidence of brain cancer.
I’ve never smoked and there’s no real history of cancer in my immediate family but I became convinced that there had to be a first and that the first was going to be me. So the lump stopped being a lump and became instead the tip of the iceberg. The extreme end of a cabbage-sized tumour that jostled for room alongside my brain. Explaining why I sometimes struggled with names or caught myself putting the iron in the fridge. No longer finding space in my skull, I’d decided that it was burrowing down into my mouth on its way to advancing into the rest of my body.
I arranged to see my doctor for some tests and he called me back in a couple of weeks later to discuss the results.
“Well, the good news is,” he said, smiling up at me from the results of my oral swab. “it’s not herpes.”
He sensed my unease at the word.
“It’s not cancer either.” he added quickly. “To be honest, I’ve no idea what it is.” He paused for a moment and chewed his tongue in thought. “At best I’d say it was a flaw where the two sides of your body don’t quite match up.” To illustrate this he raised his hands, lined them up then slid the left downwards slightly. “See?”
I did see. At least the concept of something being misaligned, not how that could apply to my body. Was this a joke or an educated medical opinion? Faced with such a diagnosis I was left to reach my own conclusions and, having read an article about parasites living on humans, it wasn’t long before I thought of myself as the host organism for the creature that surely lived inside the lump. Or rather, the pupae.
Some mornings I would awake dehydrated to feel it pulsing gently, dry to the touch and formed into a tusk-like apex. I would lie there, trying to picture what kind of creature was swimming around inside it. Waiting to see if this would be the morning when I’d hear the splintering crack as the pupae opened to reveal the thrashing head of a ravenous grub, bent on devouring my tongue. Maybe a set of slowly extending, wire-haired legs or a cloud of flies.
These thoughts cost me my sleep and my sense of ease. They haunted my dreams. And when I was awake I couldn’t leave the lump alone
“What are you doing?” I’d be asked when caught jabbing my thumb against the roof of my mouth.
“I’ve gat thish lunf.” I’d reply, before removing my thumb and repeating myself. “Sorry, I’ve got this lump. On the roof of my mouth. I don’t know what it is, just that it’s not herpes.”
This never went down well. People didn’t want to hear about mysterious lumps or that I’d been tested for herpes. So eventually I started telling them that I was sucking my thumb, which was an ignominy that was easier to handle than the truth. But something had to be done about that truth. I knew that if I ignored the lump for much longer the fear of it would drive me to a psychiatrist.
Before it could, relief came in the form of my testicles. A sharp pain between my legs sent me back to my doctor with a fresh array of wild concerns. This time it was cancer for sure. I’d not been kicked between the legs since primary school so I could think of no other reason why they might be hurting. The ante had been upped. My head could go hang. These were my balls.
There was no lump this time, just a persistent ache punctuated by jolting incidents of leg crossing pain. A pain that once more I ascribed to cancer. My doctor asked me to drop my trousers then knelt in front of me, kneading my testicles as if trying to fashion them into a thumb pot. He dryly quizzed me as he worked.
“Does that hurt?”
“Does that hurt?”
He diagnosed it as epididymitis, an inflammation of the epididymis. The area of my testicles, he explained, where sperm is stored and matures. I considered this to be disgusting news. True, it wasn’t cancer or a venereal disease but I now had to live with the notion that a part of my body acted in the same manner as a cheese ripening facility. He prescribed a course of antibiotics and advised me to drink plenty of water. In time the pain subsided and I was free to return to losing sleep over the notion that my mouth might suddenly flood with newly hatched spiders.
A year or so later, the pain returned. Once again I was diagnosed with Epididymitis.
“It happens,” my doctor said casually. “If an area is affected by the scars of an infection then it’s prone to re-infection.”
The scars of infection. My genitals bore the scars of infection. Not the type of scars that chicks dig. Not for me the dashing slash across the cheek but an ugly little thing, deep within my cheese ripening facility. But again, it was not cancer and I decided that any time that something is not cancer it’s a good thing.
When the pain returned for the third time, I could no longer be convinced that it wasn’t cancer. At that point I was starting to see it in all things. A spot should not be picked at in case it transformed into a burrowing cyst. If my skin itched, it was alive with cancer cells. So again I visited my doctor. My usual GP was not available and a locum occupied his consulting room. A mousey woman in her early 50’s wearing a small gold crucifix around her neck. I mentioned my problem and her eyes flicked down to my groin then back up to my face.
“Ah,” she said apologetically, “That’s not really my area.”
She nervously fingered her crucifix like a bad actress overplaying her role in a Dracula movie. She was ‘fearful villager No.3’. My crotch, a vampire about to bear its fangs.
“I mean, I’d be happy to have a look if you want but I’d feel more comfortable if you saw a specialist.”
She was not happy to have a look, I thought indignantly as she rang through to the hospital to make me an emergency appointment. She was rejecting my balls. Giving me the brush off. She sensed that Satan sat behind my zipper and she wasn’t going anywhere near it, happily or otherwise. I felt that if I’d found the guts to bring my balls into the surgery, then she should find the guts to look at them. That was only fair.
She scribbled some notes on a card and asked me to hand it in at the hospital. I read it as I left but the scrawl didn’t state anything alarmist. No demand for immediate castration and a regime of chemotherapy. Regardless, when I arrived the hospital and was shown into a cubicle, I struggled to remain calm.
My balls seemed to be throbbing. Pounding. They couldn’t have been more demanding of my attention if they’d been a wildly waving clown honking a bulb horn. The longer I waited, the bigger and more obvious they felt. It seemed as if every nurse who passed me could see them, expanding in my jeans like a gradually inflating bouncy castle.
Eventually a small, portly man entered my cubicle, pulling the curtain around him as he moved. He had a beaked nose and wore tan Cuban heels that matched the tone of his tight, high-waisted trousers. He looked like a fat bird sitting in an egg cup. He also looked like my childhood ice cream man. But he introduced himself as a doctor and I took him at his word.
“If you can just lower your trousers and underwear.” he said, snapping on a pair of latex gloves.
I shuffled them down and he advanced on me, dropping to one knee as if in proposal. Where he should have been presenting a diamond ring, he cradled my balls. He prodded around for a minute or so then got to his feet.
“I’m not too concerned,” he said, peeling off his gloves. “But I think you should come in for an ultrasound just to make sure.”
A few weeks later I was laying trouserless on a gurney in a hospital side room, my hands covering my balls. My deceitful balls. That had maintained a veneer of whistling innocence, allowing me to fret about my mouth when all the while they were conducting sinister business in my underwear.
A bearded medical trainee meekly entered the room and asked if I would mind letting him have a trial run with the ultrasound probe before the consultant arrived.
“Yeah, no problem.” I replied, scared but benignly complicit. It was a problem, of course. I didn’t want a learner driver probing at my groin. I didn’t want to suffer the genital assessment equivalent of a forcefully mounted pavement or a kangarooing hill start. But he was gentle and cautious. It felt illicit but innocently so. Virginal and slightly clueless. He spoke gently as he worked.
“Is that okay?” he said as he scanned the area. “I’m not hurting you am I? Just tell me if I am.”
I should have lost my virginity in this way, I thought. Careful. Considered. Not rushed.
I relaxed and watched the monitor, looking out for the barbed tumour that I was certain had consumed and replaced my left gonad. The image swirled, my tissues forming patterns in the blackness. These were the ghosts of my testicles. Not the terrifying HD content I had imagined.
A sudden clattering noise caused the trainee to start and the image disappeared. The consultant had arrived, bullishly making his way through the door and immediately talking loudly and quickly.
“Hello, hello, hello.” he said. I was immediately struck by how much he looked like Super Mario. The trainee also seemed taken aback, his face reddening as if he’d been caught doing something that he ought not.
“So, what have we got?” the consultant said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together as he sized up my crotch. They made a noise like sandpaper. I felt my genitals recoil as if a string had been tugged at the base of my spine.
I detailed my pains and the consultant grunted. He seemed to consider my situation but I could tell that he thought I was wasting his time. His was the demeanour of a fireman who had raced to tackle the great fire with which he could make his name only to discover a child with his head stuck between some railings.
“Okay,” he said to the trainee, a note of weary resignation in his voice. “Show me what you’ve been doing.”
The trainee retraced his steps and the consultant frowned.
“No, no. You need to be firmer,” he said, taking the probe from the trainee’s hand. “Here.”
He picked up my penis and yanked it to one side. Out of the way.
“Hold that, please.” he said to me briskly. To my ears this was the same ‘that’ people use when referring to an object of disgust. Like a mysterious puddle of goo on the floor or a particularly repellent bug. Shamed and cowed, I obeyed., watching as he greased up the probe, adjusted the settings and began to crush it into my testicles, navigating every inch.
There was no doubt that this was effective. The screen suddenly showed a detailed image of one of my testicles, lurching out of the inky darkness like a deep sea fish. I was fascinated. I had seen an ultrasound before when my wife was pregnant with our daughter but at that point I wasn’t hoping to see defects. I was looking for a regularly beating heart and a head that wasn’t shaped like an anvil. But this time I was looking for a cause. A terrifying, spiked tumour gnashing at my balls.
“No, there’s nothing there.” he said. I chose not to see this as another slight. “Perhaps a little calcification,” he continued. He pointed to the monitor. “There look.”
And there it was. The smoking gun. It didn’t look like much. Just a few tiny white speckles. But to me it represented a justification for all this. The confirmation that this wasn’t all in my head. That there was something real down there. I pictured this calcification magnified as dozens of tiny teeth crimping my epididymis as they nibbled their way along it. And I was good with that. I left the hospital content. Not happy about it but no longer living in dread.
Years later I still think of them when I get the occasional twinge down there. These glitter-sized molars gnawing away. But they’re okay. They’re not cancer. They’re not going to kill me. And they’re a welcome distraction from the pain in my mouth and the fear that one day my wife will wake to find that my head has been sucked dry by a giant, pulsing tick that lays bloated and satisfied on my chest. The parasite that had been so patient and had finally got what it always wanted.
ADAM FARRER is a columnist, short story writer and spoken word performer whose work has been published on The Real Story and as part of National Flash Fiction Day 2015. He has been publishing nonfiction over at The Unsmoked Pipe since October 2013. You can read his previous piece for The Real Story, ‘A Kodak Moment’, here.