I first became aware of the worm on a dentist visit. I’ve never liked dentists. I don’t trust them. It isn’t that I’m afraid of them; I just don’t know what they want. This was my first time in six years. I’d hoped never to go again. But a month before, on holiday in Syria, I’d cracked one of my molars on a pebble – it’s a rocky country, full of pebbles, perhaps you will go there yourself one day – and at night the pain made me feel as if I was in an aeroplane, but instead of flying through normal clouds I was flying through clouds of pain. The right side of my mouth wouldn’t chew. My face was becoming unbalanced. And that was why I was in the dentist’s chair, gazing up at the underside of the dentist’s facial features, and it was while I was in the dentist’s chair that I became aware of the worm.
Another reason I don’t like dentists is because they are so clean. They have an unpleasant glistening quality, a bit like dolphins, who I don’t trust either. And all the instruments around them are clean, glistening also, like the instruments dolphins might use for whatever unpleasant things they get up to down there, in those underwater caverns where no-one can see them. This dentist was clean, like all the rest. The lights were so bright and white I could see into every pore of her skin, and not a trace, not a mote of dirt, could ever be concealed in there. ‘How did this happen, then?’ she asked, smiling a dolphin smile.
‘On a pebble,’ I said awkwardly, as she pushed back my lips with a rubber-gloved thumb that smelled like a condom.
‘What were you doing with a pebble in your mouth?’ she asked next, an expression of horrible interest rippling over her face.
It’s an old desert trick, I wanted to say. I also thought of saying: I was perishing of thirst. But I didn’t want to be forced to converse in such an undignified fashion. ‘Just fix my tooth,’ I said. ‘Please.’ The dentist smiled, another dolphin smile, a smile like a dolphin trying to pretend that it isn’t a dolphin, but something else entirely. She produced a little mirror on the end of a stick, and lowered her face towards mine.
‘Okay, open wide,’ she said, corresponding to cliché.
In the second I opened my mouth, which caused seams of pain to shoot around my jaw – or in the very first fraction of that second – a long, fine tendril like a hair coiled out from between my teeth and stroked the dentist’s face.
She brushed her hand over her forehead as if a stray hair had fallen. I closed my mouth instinctively and ran my tongue over my teeth. I couldn’t feel anything inside, but I knew what I had seen. The dentist did a good job of hiding the look of shock and surprise on her face. ‘Open wide,’ she said again, as if this might reset the situation. I obeyed her command. Nothing emerged. She stared tentatively around my gums, but nothing was forthcoming. She brandished the little mirror again, and the ordeal proceeded as before.
You might expect me to say here that I thought I must have imagined it, that strand reaching out for the dentist’s face from the sanctuary of my mouth. But actually, I accepted it. I knew I’d seen it as clear as day, the way you know you’ve seen a speck of dust the sunlight briefly catches.
Anyway, the dentist fixed my tooth, and then scrutinised my other teeth and went through the standard motions of grave, even wounded disappointment, as if my teeth did not belong to me but were merely on loan from some kind of charity. She gave a short speech about brushing and flossing, staring with interest at my mouth as if she’d had the sudden idea that the thing that brushed her face was perhaps a strand of dental floss; dentists, as you may well know, have little imagination. And then I paid an extortionate fee and went home to tell my wife all was well.
That was my ex-wife, you understand. I’m not talking about your mother. I’m telling you this so you know how it happened. I think you’re old enough now.
I studied myself in the mirror that day, forced my mouth open as wide as it would go. I took a pen-torch and shone it inside, watching the shadows of my teeth wash across the rippled walls, scanning every fleshy nook for traces of the strand. I saw nothing. Perhaps it was a freak occurrence. My wife appeared at the sink beside me and started brushing her hair. We gazed at each other’s reflections like two frogs regarding each other in a swamp, frogs who don’t know the other is there until a bright light is switched on. Then my wife squinted; a dull, froggy squint. ‘There’s something in your eye,’ she said, without pausing her rhythmic scraping. I bent closer to the mirror. Sure enough, in the white of my eye lay something very thin, much thinner than an eyelash. I stared hard. I saw it flex. And then it slid quickly across the lens, disappeared for a moment in the blackness of the pupil, bisected the iris as it passed, then vanished from sight around the other side of my eyeball.
I rubbed my eye with an index finger knuckle, and then rubbed the other eye too, for effect. ‘Gone?’ my wife asked, dragging the brush with a noise like a corpse sliding on a concrete floor.
‘Gone,’ I said, and left the bathroom. But I knew it wasn’t gone.
From that point on, the worm appeared – it was undeniably a worm, a worm that seemed as thin as a single atom, but a living, moving organism beyond any doubt – with increasing frequency on my person, or rather, just inside my person, like a deepwater fish that comes up to the surface every now and then to feel the sun. It came up from my throat and tickled my lips, it slid through the gaps between my teeth, and glided, as I’d seen in the mirror, across my eyeballs quicker than I could blink. It seemed very busy.
I could never tell when it might appear, or in which region of my body. It appeared to travel at great speeds inside me. Initially I saw it in my face, ducking and weaving through the upper orifices as if this were its primary dwelling place. Then it discovered how to glide beneath my skin, travelling a couple of layers below, using my epidermis as a highway to access other regions. Sometimes I’d see it underneath a fingernail, lying there like the splinter of a splinter. I’d tap the nail sharply with a pencil as if I was knocking on the window of a zoo, and the worm would quickly travel on.
Sometimes, if I was sitting quietly, it would protrude from the tips of my fingers to brush against teacups, the pages of books, exploring the outer world. I permitted it to wander, though not too far. I had no idea how long it was. Clearly it had a will of its own; perhaps its own agenda.
I toyed with the thought of getting rid of it, unravelling it like a loose thread and throwing it in the bin. Once I made a grab for it, seeing it extending from my knee as I sat in a tepid bath, finishing a glass of tequila. I caught hold of its tip between two wet fingers and tried to draw it out. It resisted. I pulled it out about thirty centimetres but it tugged back like a fish on a line, and after a short, indecisive tug-of-war I let it slip away. I examined my knee with a feeling of vague guilt. It hadn’t left any perceptible mark. It was so fine it merely squeezed between the pores. It had done me no injury, no more than a spot or blackhead would.
I knew where I’d picked it up, of course. Parasitic worms, it is known, inhabit exotic, otherworldly countries, and I had only been to one country like this in the past dozen years. That fortnight in Syria with my wife. The holiday was her decision. Syria was mine. She’d lobbied for a Turkish beach, but something about Syria called to me, something about the strangeness of the name, a twisting, twining sort of name that hinted at ancient mysteries. A worm-like name, in retrospect. It seemed to make a kind of sense. Although at first, I admit our destination wasn’t nearly as exotic or as otherworldly as I’d hoped. My first impression was that someone had piled a heap of concrete boxes on top of each other, concrete boxes covered in dust, and then rigged satellite dishes and wires onto every available surface.
We saw the usual tourist sights, the crumbled remains of ancient things, the mosques that looked like evil space-rockets, rockets built by ancient robots that hid the true purpose of their design with coloured tiles and intricate patterns that might have been computer codes. My wife swam in the hotel pool. I dipped my feet in the hotel pool, but its colour reminded me of cleaning fluid, and I felt aloof and disappointed and yearned for some private adventure. Before we left London, I’d had an image – foolish, I know, but a man has to dream – of myself struggling through luminous sands, my face swathed in a turban I’d made by wrapping a t-shirt around my head, the sky dark with swirling clouds of sand and dust that blocked the sun and gave the scene an eerie brilliance, dying of thirst, or at least half dying, just about to stumble on some glorious oasis where I could swim to my heart’s content and feel manly and triumphant at coming so close to death. I tried to explain this to my wife, and she smiled and offered me a dish of warmed almonds that a waiter had placed on our table. I ate the warmed almonds methodically, but my vision didn’t fade. So that afternoon I told my wife I was going for a walk, took a knapsack and a bottle of water, and set off for the edge of town.
After an hour, I had drunk half the water, and was making my way down a rocky track that led off the main road towards a horizon that struck me as suitable. There were low hills in the distance. I could see no buildings, no pylons or satellite dishes. Admittedly the terrain through which I was passing was not so much desert as arid scrub, littered with sun-bleached plastic bags and occasional twists of metal. But I imagined sand dunes ahead, tracts of desert between me and the hills, perhaps an oasis after all. It was certainly closer to my vision than the hotel pool.
After two hours, I had finished the water, and the hills felt no closer. The plastic bags and twisted metal were gone. There were occasional bones in the rocks, bones of sheep, I supposed, or other ruminants. The sun was less distinct than before, hidden by a yellowish haze.
After three hours, the sand storm hit. Actually, it was more dust than sand, like the bursting of a giant vacuum cleaner bag. It blocked the sun and obliterated the vague shapes of hills on the horizon, hurling the dry earth on which I walked into my eyes and nose. I carried on, but the dust disrupted all sense of time and direction. It was like being trapped in a filthy snow-globe being shaken by an idiot. I could hardly distinguish up from down. The sky was the colour of orangeade. I sweated, and the sweat hardened with dust. I took off my t-shirt, and made a turban by wrapping it around my head.
Actually, the storm didn’t last long. Maybe only about five minutes. It was more like an unusually long, ragged gust of wind than a storm, if I’m truly honest about it. Nevertheless, its violence spooked me. When the dust settled again the sun seemed hotter, much hotter than before. I coaxed one last drop of water from the dust-covered bottle. I felt like the dust was in my lungs, clogging up my veins. The thought of water was more like an ache. I wondered if I could drink my own sweat, but the idea was unappealing.
It was then I remembered the old desert trick. I picked up a pebble and stuck it in my mouth. This is supposed to generate saliva. I sucked it, but it didn’t help much. My mouth and throat felt like quick-drying cement. I rolled it around. I held it in my teeth. And then I tried chewing it, and heard a crack inside my head and spat out a little bit of tooth in the shape of a trapezium.
After three and a half hours, I stumbled upon my oasis. Perhaps the term oasis is a little romantic. There were no date palms, for example. Very little in the way of greenery, except an ugly thorn-covered bush that wasn’t even green. My oasis was actually a concrete tank about the size of half a tennis court. The water wasn’t azure, or even blue, but a murky grey surfaced with a coat of yellow dust. There was some type of valve at one end, and a dirty plastic pipe that snaked off between the rocks. On reflection, I think it must have been part of some irrigation system.
Nevertheless it corresponded to my vision, if only symbolically. I plunged in – it came up to my knees – and splashed around for a while, falling forwards onto my face and spurting water out of my mouth until I started to feel a bit ridiculous and clambered out again. I’d gulped down a few mouthfuls, and it didn’t taste so bad. At least the filth was washed from my body, and now my skin was coated instead with a tepid layer of slime. I stood there drying in the sun, and was just starting to wonder what a concrete tank full of water was doing out here, in the wilderness, so far from civilisation, when I noticed the telephone lines above my head, a faded billboard advertising soap powder, and, a few metres away, the road that led back to our hotel.
‘You swam in a lake?’ my wife exclaimed when I finally tramped back in, powdered grey, a dripping sandman, halfway through eating a box of dates I’d bought in a shop on the way.
‘I had to,’ I said. ‘I was hot. I was thirsty.’
‘A lake? Here? You swam in a lake?’
‘Well, it wasn’t a lake exactly. More like a concrete tank…’
‘You can’t swim in lakes in countries like this! Standing water carries parasites. Didn’t you read the travel advice? There’s worms that get in through your skin. Everyone knows you get infected that way. Everyone knows that.’
‘I feel fine,’ I said. I did. I had survived a sand storm, a desert. I had stumbled upon my oasis. I felt manly and triumphant, just as I’d imagined. I’d come close enough to my vision to justify the hotel pool and the mosques, the dull inertia of coming on holiday and not getting on with my wife. ‘Actually, I feel more than fine,’ I added, treading sand across the carpet. ‘Apart from the fact my tooth hurts a bit.’
‘Your tooth? What’s wrong with your tooth?’
‘I cracked it on a pebble…’
The holiday didn’t go well after that, but there were only two days left, so it didn’t really matter. I was done.
That, it seems, is how the worm first came to inhabit me, gliding through my internal pathways at its own leisure. It smuggled itself back to London in my body, undetected by customs. I didn’t resent its presence at all. I even grew a little protective. On one occasion, as I was driving, my wife reached across and made a grab for it, the tips of her nails like a pair of tweezers fashioned from mother-of-pearl. ‘You’ve got a nose hair,’ she said, as the worm wavered for a moment in the breeze, and I automatically twitched my head like a horse evading a fly. The manoeuvre wasn’t necessary. The worm, with its lightning quick reactions, had withdrawn in an instant. ‘Why won’t you let me look after you?’ my wife asked, aggrieved.
‘I don’t like you pulling the hairs in my nose while I’m trying to drive,’ I said. ‘Isn’t that reasonable?’
‘You’re never reasonable,’ she replied. Since the holiday, we were finding it increasingly hard to get along.
As my wife and I hit the doldrums, the worm became more bold. It extended itself, little by little, perhaps being aware of a vacant space it could tentatively explore. On rainy, grey East London days it would waver from the tip of my thumb as if it was tasting the air. Once, on the tube, it emerged from my elbow to brush the moustache of an old man, and sometimes it brushed the faces and breasts of women who stood close to me. The old man didn’t notice anything. The women sometimes shivered or adjusted their hair or impulsively checked their mobile phones, as if vaguely disturbed by a sensation they couldn’t identify. Sometimes I would meet their eyes, but they’d look away quickly.
As time went by, it grew stronger too. It developed the ability to move things. I felt a soaring sensation of pride the first time it shifted the page of a book, pulling it almost imperceptibly closer to my hand. It did the same with a paperclip. It idly rolled a pen across the table, whipping back into my finger at once as if it had startled itself. Sometimes if I sat very still, scattered objects within reach would be drawn little by little towards me – crumbs of food, cigarette butts, dust-balls – giving the impression my body possessed some force of magnetic attraction. Once, in the street outside, as I went to work with a lollypop stick to gouge chewing gum from the tracks of my shoe, a five pound note nudged up against my fingers, drawn by that hairline strand.
That was when it occurred to me that these scraps were offerings. A payment, of sorts, for inhabiting my body, comprised of whatever pickings lay within reach. It made me feel generous and expansive. I felt like a grateful god.
The five pound note incident wasn’t repeated. The worm appeared indiscriminate in the nature of the objects it chose. I imagined it was incapable of distinguishing between high and low value offerings, that it simply dragged in whatever was close. I know different now.
My wife and I were eating Thai green curry from the pan-Asian takeaway. The worm had been especially active that day, and now I imagined it curled up safely somewhere, in the crook of my elbow, perhaps, or coiled snugly beneath my left nipple, recovering from its efforts. I wondered where this would all end. What length had it attained? Had it infiltrated every part of me? Was it tangled inside my brain? Could the worm hear my thoughts, could it influence my actions?
It was at that moment that my wife – as if she’d felt the cold wind blowing, as if she somehow sensed its powers – told me that she’d booked me an appointment at a tropical diseases clinic.
When we got back from holiday, I’d confidently agreed to sort this out myself. I’d gone as far as looking up the number of the tropical diseases clinic and writing it down on a piece on paper, attaching that piece of paper to the fridge with a magnet in the shape of a camel I’d bought in the airport coming back from Syria, despite the fact that we hadn’t even seen a Syrian camel. But my wife kept persecuting me about it, telling me to be responsible, asking me why I hadn’t booked an appointment yet, and this constant barrage of admonition only made me want to shirk the duty.
‘You have to be pre-emptive,’ she said, which put the image in my mind of rockets falling on a desert city, one of those cities in Syria, say, all concrete boxes and wires and satellite dishes. ‘I looked into it myself, seeing as you can’t be bothered to lift a finger. Immediate treatment is recommended if you suspect you might have been exposed. I still can’t believe you were thoughtless enough to swim in a lake, in a country like that…’
‘It wasn’t a lake,’ I repeated, ‘it was a concrete irrigation tank,’ and as I clarified the point yet again I saw the oasis of my vision shrivel to a filthy puddle, the date palms wither like neglected daffodils.
‘Standing water is a magnet for diseases. You might as well swim in sewage. These parasites enter through your skin. Sometimes the symptoms don’t show for months. You haven’t noticed any symptoms, have you?’
Gloomily, picking up a prawn cracker, I neglected to reply.
‘An early symptom is peeing blood. You haven’t done that, have you?’
‘Oh, please,’ I said, grinding the cracker to powder in my hand. I wondered if the worm had stirred. I imagined it doing manoeuvres in my spine, weaving in and out of vertebrae, blissfully unaware of the ominous course the conversation was taking. ‘No, I have not peed blood.’
‘Well I booked you in for tomorrow afternoon. Will you please go, for your own sake? It says that water-dwelling parasites can cause blindness if you don’t get treated. They can cause brain damage later in life. I’m not having you getting brain damage. Do you promise me you’ll go?’
Inevitably, I agreed. I was a weak man, I admit it. It had always been the same, for as long as I could remember. There seemed to be nothing else for it, it had been a pleasant few weeks but the worm would have to go. So midway through the next afternoon, I was sitting on a green plastic chair in the waiting room of the tropical diseases clinic, staring with a sense of doom at the medical posters on the wall, which gave information on dengue fever and yellow fever and hepatitis and rabies and polio and pig flu and other barely credible afflictions.
The waiting room in which I waited was eerily identical to the waiting room that had preceded the dentist’s. I suppose all waiting rooms are the same, wherever you go in the world. And as, a few short weeks ago, I’d been sitting in the dentist’s chair, where I’d first become aware of the worm, soon I’d be sitting in the doctor’s chair, where presumably that awareness would cease; or rather, lying on the doctor’s couch, if those things are even called couches, those shiny beds with metallic legs, covered by a blanket no thicker than a paper napkin, the sort of napkin you might find while eating in a very cheap restaurant, the kind of restaurant that’s so cheap they have carefully cut the napkins at the folds to produce four single sheets from each one, the kind of restaurant, I imagine, you might find in Syria if you went to a working-class district of town, though my wife would never have considered eating at any place like this. Those beds that are usually blue or lime green, the colour of detergent, or the way detergent smells, and over which you know for a fact all manner of bodily fluids have been spilled, perhaps bodily fluids you’ve never even heard of, for doctors have a way of getting to these things, of accessing secret juices.
As a rule, I don’t dislike doctors as much as I dislike dentists. They don’t have that glistening dolphin quality; doctors are generally grubbier. That isn’t to say I like them, however. They make me feel vaguely repelled. There is something unpleasantly sexual about them, something like bonobo monkeys. I imagine this is because their profession involves as much proximity to sex as it does proximity to death, and a simian masturbatory essence somehow must rub off.
The worm had not shown itself all day. Perhaps it was hiding in the deepest part of me, rolled into a tight ball in the marrow of my bones, where in its dark, wormy way, it imagined it would not be found. Of course, this wouldn’t save it. They’d blitz my system with pre-emptive pills, dropping fizzing payloads of poison to penetrate every hiding place, no matter how deep it burrowed. It would be purged, liquidated. There was nowhere it could hide.
Again, I had a sensation of guilt. The worm wasn’t doing any harm. It only wanted a place to live. I felt certain I would miss its comings and goings, its thoughtful, if useless, offerings; its touchy-feely fascination with the world.
Just as I was thinking these things, someone else entered the room. It was a young woman with short, dark hair and sunglasses over her eyes. She sat three chairs away from me, took off her jacket, crossed her legs and settled down to wait. I glanced at her without much interest, brooding on my worm. And then she picked up a magazine about healthy diet or home decoration or reading matter equally as dismal, and took the sunglasses off her face. And I found myself looking again.
My head swivelled, my eyelids opened. It felt like my features rearranged themselves. A tendril of incredible fineness reached from the corner of my eye and honed its way towards her through the air. From her eyes, which were green, I noticed, or greyish green like light falling through water, an answering tendril hesitantly emerged and crept its way towards mine. They met in the centre of the room, briefly drew back from one another, then quickly bound together. And then we were staring at each other, and we couldn’t stop.
Strands began creeping from my fingers, sliding out from the nails and skin, reaching for the corresponding strands that had begun their stealthy approach from the tips of her fingers, which, I noticed, were slender and appealing. They threaded, tightening like wires, tugging our hands together. And then, though neither of us knew how, we were sitting in neighbouring chairs, and our arms were fumbling for each other’s bodies, delving this way and that.
‘Why are you here?’ I asked, dry-mouthed, as if the question was needed.
‘I have some sort of parasitic worm,’ she mumbled in an unsteady voice, and then something about backpacking, a stagnant lake in Equatorial Guinea, but already our mouths were closing on each other and we both became lost for words.
We left the waiting room before we were called, clumsily gaining the street. With urgency, we found a cheap hotel, almost dragging one another up the narrow staircase, where rapidly clothing was removed, new tendrils emerged from unexpected places and tugged us together in gratifying ways, and gifts of a vastly more personal nature than paperclips or five pound notes were duly offered, and accepted. By the next morning we were so tangled up it took a coordinated effort to extricate ourselves enough to get dressed.
And that is how I met your mother. That’s how you were conceived. Nine months later you popped out, perfect in every way. And when we examined you, of course, gliding through your grey-green eyes, which I’ve always thought have the quality of pebbles, pebbles plucked from the desert and polished by the sea, we glimpsed just the hint of a hint of a strand, a mere tendril, the width of an atom, so fine we might almost have missed it.
And that’s why our love for you won’t be unravelled. That’s why you will always be protected in this world. No matter how far you might drift from us, dear, we will reel you back in with love.