By Will Ashon
The first time was when he came out of the shower after shaving his head. He had three towels piled up – one to wipe any remaining hair from his skull, one to do the same to his face, neck and shoulders and the last to properly dry himself with. The first two were hand towels that had been in the bathroom for a couple of weeks and needed a wash anyway. He always did it like this. It might seem complicated but then again he was saving on the cost of a haircut.
He had got soap in his eyes so he didn’t open them properly until he’d used the second towel to wipe his face. Then he stepped out of the bath on to the mat and began sweeping any remaining bits of hair from the top of his left arm. He hated the itching feeling you got when you put a t-shirt back on so he did this very carefully. He tried to use a different bit of the towel with each sweep so that he removed the hair rather than moving it around.
That was when he saw it. He pulled the towel back ready to brush down again and there was the worm on the side of his bicep. It was brown and bedraggled-looking, curved round into a collapsed S, thin and flat with a ragged fringe running down each side of it. There was something prehistoric and dark about it, as if it were the sort of creature that lived deep in your intestines, that had done so before homo sapiens existed and would continue to do so after it had sucked the last one dry. He yelped a strangled bark of surprise and swiped the thing from him with the towel, which he threw across the room in the same motion.
Once he had made sure it wasn’t still on him – hiding in his armpits or creeping out from between his buttocks – he used a finger and thumb to pick up the towel. The worm wasn’t underneath it. The worm wasn’t anywhere. He checked round the side of the toilet and under the box by the bath. He checked himself again, squeamish, repulsed by the thought of it stuck to him somewhere, terrified that it was burrowing into him. It had gone. All evening his thoughts returned to it. Was he going mad or had he really seen it? In which case, where was it now? Neither option was comforting, exactly.
Over the next few days he forgot about the worm and perhaps wouldn’t have thought about it again, if, two weeks later, he hadn’t woken to find it lying on the pillow right next to his eye. He later regretted his violent reaction. He flipped the pillow out from him as he scrambled up and away from it and, when he had recovered his nerve enough to look, once again he could find no trace of the creature.
He was waiting now for another reappearance and when it came he jolted, but didn’t cry out or try to pull it from him. He looked in the mirror one evening and there it was, a squiggle on his cheek. He stood watching it for a long time and it didn’t move. It looked like it might be dead. He didn’t move either. He watched it but it didn’t seem to watch him. They stayed locked in this stand-off and he wondered how it would end. Finally he went downstairs with it still there on his face and his wife didn’t say anything when she saw him and it had gone when he went to wash his teeth before he went to bed.
So he was mad, he concluded, and at first the fear of this was as bad as the fear of an existing, physical worm. He began drinking heavily and started smoking dope again, something he hadn’t done regularly since he was a student and which, he knew, was unlikely to help. But then, over a number of weeks or months, he adjusted, forced himself to think sensibly about it. This madness caused him no great psychic pain. He was of no risk to anyone else. It was disgusting and upsetting, but little more. If he could learn not to draw back, not to be afraid or repulsed by the worm, he could carry on as normal. It needn’t get any worse than this. The most important thing was that no one found out, that he wasn’t locked away somewhere cold and disinfected, unable to see his children, electricity surging through his brain, his bloodstream full of old-fashioned pharmaceuticals. If he could hold down the fear and remain calm it need have no effect at all.
It was almost as though the worms understood. They seemed to build his tolerance carefully and with a great deal of subtlety. He would have expected to be horrified by the sight of two of them together, but when a pair finally revealed themselves it was little more than a curiosity, a nice change from the norm. He knew they weren’t real, often went out with them dripping from his hair or hanging out of his nostrils and mouth and no one ever noticed. He just had to keep saying it, his tiny mantra: If you know they’re not real you are not mad, if you know they’re not real you are not mad. One day he lowered himself into a bath brimming with them and it felt surprisingly good – warm and calm and not unlike water. He rested his head against the lip of the tub, closed his eyes and felt normal for a moment, at ease. Life, somehow, was not so awful, was at least navigable.
The worms were very patient. They waited until they were absolutely sure he didn’t believe in them before they began to eat him, slithering into his ears and sucking at his brain, nibbling at his finger tips, rolling round behind his eyes, burrowing in and gorging on vitreous humour. You didn’t rush things if you’d been around as long as them. You knew the importance of patience. And anyway, they liked him, he was an excellent host. If truth be told, they felt sorry for him and more than a little guilty when, despite himself, unable to stop it, he signalled to them in some way – pointed them out, displayed them – and the person chosen to share his secret looked baffled and discomfited, crossed the road or sped up her stride, moving away until he and his guests were once again alone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Ashon writes novels (Clear Water and The Heritage so far, both published by Faber & Faber) and (kind of) runs Big Dada, a record label. He also sits very well, stands adequately and moves without difficulty. He can be found at Vernaland.