The 12th Cup – by Nick Thompson

“You don’t need me to tell you how to have a wank, do you?”

I look at the guy for a long beat, making sure I’m hearing him correctly. I want to say, “Now that you mention it, I could do with a hand.” But I just stare at him in awkward surprise. He is called an orderly, but his hair is dishevelled and his clothes are scruffy, untucked. They look like he’s slept in them, for at least a night. He stares at me belligerently before turning to exit The Room.

The Room is where you “produce”. “Producing” is the man’s main role in Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, ICSI. I have produced “samples” for the hospital to test, more for them to freeze and now, it’s the big day. I’m back in The Room to produce the sample. The doctors hope to identify a single sperm – the chosen one – to inject directly into one of my partner’s harvested eggs. If all goes to plan, the fertilised egg will be implanted in her womb, become a foetus, become a baby.

A baby.

My partner and I call production “jizzing in a cup” to try and make it feel less medical, mechanical and weird. But the small, cylindrical, plastic receptacle used for these occasions isn’t really a “cup”. For starters, the vessel’s opening is approximately a centimetre in diameter. This, along with the necessity of “abstaining” for three to four days before producing, means that the ability to aim takes on the utmost importance. Getting to the level of stimulation and abandon necessary to climax is tricky when at least thirty percent of the brain is occupied with the angle of emission and how and when to catch it in the tiny plastic cup held in the hand not holding one’s jerking, erect penis. Missing the cup means another few days’ wait before trying again. Today is the big day, hopefully the last day.

Today, missing would be a disaster.

In the past eighteen months, I have masturbated into eleven cups.

Early test samples were produced at home. Only as the actual fertilisation process drew closer was it necessary to produce in the hospital.

Producing at home was more difficult than you might expect. My crumpled, faded sixth- or seventh-generation photocopied instructions stressed the importance of getting the sample to the hospital within half an hour. It was a twenty-minute drive in light traffic. I told my partner to be ready to go to the hospital in “about five minutes.” I went into the bathroom. And closed the door. I knew what I had to do and I knew that, downstairs, she also knew what I was doing. Which didn’t make it easier.

Having produced, I closed the cup tightly, rinsed it under the warm tap and took it downstairs. My partner waited, car keys in hand.

“All done?” she asked, her face a mix of hope and apprehension.

“Yep. Let’s go,” I said quickly, avoiding her eyes.

The instructions recommend keeping the jar warm in “your underwear or partner’s bra.”

I just held it quite tightly in my hands.

When we finally got to the hospital, there was no parking near the entrance. I half-walked, half-jogged to the appropriate department and handed it over to the lady behind the counter.

It was always a lady.

She knew what I had just done. And I knew what I had just done. And, as I handed the small cup over to her in its clear, labelled plastic bag, it was still warm.

Producing at the hospital was even trickier than at home. The first time, I arrived, full of nerves and abstinence, reported to reception, and waited to be shown into The Room.

The Room could easily be mistaken for a cleaning supplies cupboard. The walls were a medical green. It housed a toilet, a sink, a small hospital bed with blue paper stretched over it from a roll and a hospital issue bedside cabinet. On the upper drawer of the cabinet was an ancient punched Dyno-label strip: it said MAGAZINES.

There were two magazines in that drawer: a grubby copy of Club International and a niche publication called XL (“for lovers of the larger lady”). I visited The Room three times in four months. For four months, the magazines in that drawer did not change.

(Incidentally, in 2010, Freedom of Information requests were sent to NHS trusts, asking how much each spent on pornography for the purpose of fertility treatment. The average spend on magazines was £21.32 per trust per year. The total estimated NHS spend on pornography was £700 per year.)

And now, on the most important of all my visits to The Room, a fellow human just asked me if I need him to tell me how to wank.

The receptionist actually called me and another man at the same time. The walk from the waiting room together was awkward until we realised there were two Rooms. I wonder how he’s getting on. I wonder if the orderly asked him the same question.

I open the drawer for a bittersweet reunion with the Club and XL girls. Normally, I might think it’s degrading and demeaning for women to be objectified for the purposes of masturbation. But in this environment, with this pressure, I need the drawer. In my past visits I have grown fond of Rosie from Surrey and her gold hotpants on pages forty-three to forty-seven of Club. She is still there, more creased and tattered than the last time we met. At least her pages aren’t stuck together, unlike XL’s.

Finally, I buck and, most importantly, catch the issue in the cup. Relief. I hold it up to the light. This cup contains nothing less than the possibility of life. A slim possibility – I have been through too many humiliating tests and appointments with phrases like “low sperm count” and “low motility” to be under any illusions about that – but a possibility, nonetheless.


I twist the lid closed and wash my hands, making sure I button my fly and fasten my belt. Just like every time I’ve done this, I have a mild panic that I’ve made a monumental, humiliating mistake. That I will hand over the pot to the waiting receptionist, who will look at it with a puzzled, then disgusted, expression, and say, “Err… this appointment is actually for a urine sample.”

Outside, the scruffy orderly waits for me. I hand the pot to him. This is the last time, I find myself thinking. If this doesn’t work I’m not sure I – we – can go through all this again, indeed, if we will be allowed to again should this fail. In the cup are all my hopes, represented by a few thousand (at most) low motile sperm.

Two days later, five of these have become fertilised eggs, fragile collections of six or seven cells.

Now, two thousand days later, they are James and Robyn.

NICK THOMPSON writes non-fiction and fiction, not all of which is about heavy metal or professional wrestling. Nick read ‘The 12th Cup’ at The Real Story: Live 3 at Gulliver’s, Manchester on August 19th 2015, headlined by Michael Symmons Roberts.