Tuesday, 29 April 2008


By Ben

It’s about 3 am, and I’ve just locked the bathroom door behind me. There’s no real purpose in locking the door; I’m the only one who lives here now. It’s an old habit, though, and at times like this, old habits often step in as a sort of co-pilot. The rest of my brain is concerned with things other than the bathroom door. My insides feel like somebody is running a branch of bramble back and forth, up and down the length of my intestines. I’m sweating and when I pull the string cord that operates the shaving light over the mirror, I see a red, wild face. My eyes look like dirty windows with something shadowy moving around behind them. My face hasn’t looked like my own for several weeks. I’ve been watching it ageing quickly into the face of a stranger. The sensation of something splitting inside seizes my attention. I pull off my boxer shorts and sit on the lavatory, with my bare feet smacking around in agony on the tiled floor. Something is leaving my body in a horrible fashion. It just keeps coming out, yards and yards of it. Oh God.

I stand up, shakily. I open the bathroom window to breathe in some cold air, and lean on the window frame for a while, feeling the sweat on my face and neck cooling and drying. Then I turn around and go back over to the toilet bowl, just to look. There’s this thing, long and flat and whitish. It looks like a strip of fat from a rasher of bacon, but it’s far too long for that, and it’s moving, swimming and squirming in the water. I see its head (‘scolex’, I learn later) and its four sucker things. Then it seems to panic, and it starts thrashing around like mad. I’m about to close the lid on it, but as my hand goes out, the thing whips right out of the bowl. I think I actually scream, and I turn and try to pull the door open, forgetting that I locked it on the way in. When I turn back, it has settled again, coiled up like a snake in the washbasin. Its head is resting on top of the coils, as if it’s looking at me.

‘Hey, bud,’ it says.

‘What’s your name?’ it says.

‘You can call me Tom, if you like,’ it says.

I perch on the side of the bathtub, as far from Tom as I can get, and stare stupidly at him. He’s talking to me with this lazy, growling, shambling, sleepy voice. If I’d ever imagined how a tapeworm would sound if it could speak, it would not have sounded like this. This sounds like Tom Waits. I haven’t listened to Tom Waits since before I was married, I realise. I swallow my revulsion and quell my disbelief. After all, it’s company.

‘Sorry about all that, you know, all that scratching around. Just had to get out of there.’

‘That’s ok, I suppose.’ I don’t know what else to say.

Tom is on the move again. He’s winding over the designer taps that I had put in a few years ago, moving slowly and deliberately. He’s making judgements on my furnishings. After a while, after he slips round the edges of the wall-fitted up-lighters, he begins humming with approval. He flops down onto the mocha-brown Italian tiles, and slips across the heated towel rail. He coils up around the warm chrome bars. There used to be fresh, white towels there every day, but I don’t bother with that, these days.

‘This is all real nice’ he gurgles. ‘Real nice.’ Then he keeps going, moving around the entire bathroom, commenting on all the fittings, the paint colours, the Swedish wooden bench and shelves, and the big glass jar full of sea-shells and coloured rocks that my ex-wife collected, one summer in Cornwall. I always wanted to give the bathroom the feeling of a sauna, lots of blonde wood and clean lines. Maisie kept saying it was too ‘masculine’, she kept adding little decorations, bits of carved driftwood, clamshells for soap dishes, things like that. Tom seems to like it all, though.

I try to spark up a conversation. ‘Don’t get too attached’, I say, awkwardly. Tom just goes on making happy, gurgling, bubbly noises.

‘Yeah, well, I’m selling it,’ I say. ‘I’m selling the house, and moving somewhere smaller.’

‘Uh huh,’ he says, not showing a lot of interest. ‘Why?’

I change my mind. I don’t feel like discussing this with him, especially if he’s only half listening, so I tell him I’m going to make coffee. I unlock the door and leave him in there while I go downstairs to put the kettle on. When I bring the coffee back up into the bathroom, I feel ridiculous. I’m carrying a tray with a whole coffee set laid out on it. A smart cafetière, little coffee cups from Finland with a matching milk jug, German coffee spoons that cost more than the rest of the set combined. I balance the tray on top of the cistern. Tom is in the bathtub now, laid out in long coils that run several lengths of the tub. He must be four metres long at least. I plunge the coffee and pour out two cups. ‘Milk?’ I ask. Tom shakes his scolex. I put his coffee cup in the bathtub for him, and he dips his tail end into the cup, absorbing the coffee directly. His body shakes with pleasure.

‘Oh, boy’, he sighs. I think about trying a different topic. He’ll have forgotten the other one anyway. ‘So you’re leaving,’ he says. ‘What gives?’

And despite myself, it all comes out. I tell Tom all about my life. I tell him about my wife, and my kids, and how my kids grew up and moved out, and how my wife grew up and moved out.

‘And now you?’ says Tom.

‘Just moving out,’ I say. ‘Like you. Why did you come out?’

‘Well, bud, in truth, it was getting pretty boring in there. It used to be fun, it really did. There was good food coming through, something different every day. And you used to do a lot more. Now you just sit around. Drink a beer now and then. Pasta bake every day.’

‘I’m no fun anymore? My tapeworm is dumping me?’

‘Sorry bud.’ He absorbs a little more coffee. He avoids my eye. I feel cheated.

I want to know how I ended up with Tom in me in the first place. He tells me the whole story. I fill in the details from my side for him. He was a larva in a piece of beef when we first met. It was my first date with the woman who would eventually become my ex-wife. I ordered a steak, medium rare. It came almost blue, but I didn’t want to complain and send it back. That was a pattern of behaviour that would last long into our relationship. Tom lived in my gut for a long time as a larva. He was about the size of a pea. Maisie and I started seeing each other regularly. We discovered a mutual love of Japanese cinema and we went to the BFI together a lot. Three years after that first date, we got married. We did it quite cheaply, and we held the reception in kind of big barn that had been turned into a health food café. I didn’t like the venue much, but I was already in the habit of just going along with Maisie’s ideas. I didn’t resent it; more than anything I wanted her to be happy. There were butternut squashes hanging from the ceiling and sacks of lentils around the walls and everyone was getting drunk on beer that we were smugly assured was pesticide-free. After we were married, I took on a new job. I left my job as a projectionist and started as a junior manager in a company that claimed to offer great promotion opportunities. Tom started to change. He grew and grew. His proglottid segments became differentiated. He was becoming an adult. Maisie and I stopped renting and bought our first home, a basement flat. We bought a big Kurosawa poster to hang in the living room, an original one with Japanese writing, not English. Then later we moved to a little house. We took the poster with us. The frame got damaged in the move but we hung it up anyway. Tom kept producing more proglottids, always from the neck. ‘They always grow at the neck,’ says Tom, but he can’t explain why. As quickly as he grew new segments, the old ones would break off and leave my body to reproduce. Maisie and I had kids – first Mark, then, four years later, Grace. When Grace was five, we moved again, to this house. This time we didn’t take the Kurosawa poster. We decorated this house more expensively, but with less excitement. Tom was up to full size by now. He says it was already feeling cramped, even then.

I talk more, and Tom talks less, and then we take a break from piecing our stories together to sip our coffee. It’s starting to get cold. I’m getting numb from sitting on the lid of the toilet. I get up to take my dressing gown from where it’s hanging on the back of the bathroom door, and notice my boxer shorts, still crumpled in the corner. I feel mortified at firs, but Tom doesn’t seem to have noticed my lack of underwear, and, after all, he’s lived in my colon for thirty years. I take my dressing gown and fold it into a cushion to sit on. I put my coffee cup on the shelf that runs along the bottom of the window, and notice a faint light through the frosted glass.

Even when I set out the whole story like this for Tom, I can’t quite understand the transition from those first years with Maisie to this. We used to struggle to count all the things around us that took on a beautiful warm glow whenever we looked at them. Just ordinary things, like shoes, and ice-cream cones, and train tickets, they would reflect our happiness back at us without fail. Now the same objects look as if they’ve been drained of colour and hammered flat. I walked past out first flat a few weeks ago, in a fit of nostalgia, and I almost walked straight past it without noticing. I can’t pin down what was different. There was the same metal staircase leading down from street level, and the same two streaky windows, that now peered up at me mournfully. Somebody else’s curtains were hanging behind the windows anyway.

I’ve been telling Tom all this, and more in the same vein. I can’t tell whether he’s listening or not, but I’m pretty sure he is. We seem to have reached a sort of understanding. I reach out for my coffee again and take a sip, but it’s truly cold now and I spit it into the basin. Tom has wrapped part of his body around a big sponge of Maisie’s that had been sitting on the edge of the bath, and he’s busy tightening and relaxing his coils, squeezing out the water that had soaked into the sponge the last time I had a shower.

We’ve been talking for hours. We fall back into silence for a while, until the timer on the central heating clicks over and we hear the boiler rumble downstairs in the kitchen. The radiator warms up beside me, and I lean over to push the window open. The morning air wafts in, chilly and clean, bringing with it the smell of the apple blossom from the tree that Mark planted on his tenth birthday. I hang out of the narrow window, resting on my forearms, and Tom pops up next to me. I can see the sunrise if I lean right out, and it occurs to me that Tom has never seen the sun before. I let him crawl along my arm, which I hold out of the window, stretched as far as I can reach. He hums happily as he watches the dawn.

‘I’ll miss you, Tom,’ I say.

‘Yeah, I’m going to miss you too.’

‘Really?’ That surprises me.

‘Of course, bud. Don’t you think I’ll miss you?’

‘But you wanted to leave. You chose it. You could have stayed inside, if you’d wanted.’

‘Sure, I know that. I had to leave though. Even so, I mean, you’ve been like my whole world for thirty years. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.’

‘Well.’ I’m touched. Then a terrible thought comes into my head. I see a ripple flow down the length of Tom’s body and I think the same thought must have struck him too.

‘Hey, Tom.’


I notice how dried up he looks now. ‘Um, what are you going to do now? I mean…’

‘Yeah. I know. Oh boy. Do me a favour, bud?’


‘Flush me.’

Those are his last words. He’s crumbling in my hands as I carry him from the window to the toilet. It takes some time to get rid of him entirely. I have to stop and wait for the cistern to refill several times before all of him is flushed away. I pick up my cold coffee and swill it around in the bottom of the cup for a while. I stack everything back onto the tray, and think about going downstairs to make some more. Then I get distracted by the sunrise, and the coffee can go to hell.

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