It was his habit, strictly observed, to take 45 minutes for his lunch in the park on the other side of the road from the office. There was a cafe within a green pagoda at the centre of the park; if the weather was fine, he sat at one of the round tables outside. He drank his coffee, ate his sandwiches and cakes, and watched the afternoon strollers. When he was finished, he went back to work.
The job was not important – he disliked it – but it paid relatively well. He would have struggled to explain its details and responsibilities to anyone who thought to ask, but few people did. His wife was not particularly interested, his daughter less so, but they both respected the hard work he put in to help support them. Often he was so tired when he got home that he sat through dinner in silence and fell asleep on the sofa watching the news. He was reasonably content.
One afternoon, a day bright enough to banish all shadow from the park, he took his usual seat outside the green pagoda and placed his usual order. When the food was delivered to his table, a soup, coffee, and cream cake, he ate and watched pensively the young office workers lounging on the grass, the children from the nearby primary school playing football, the burgundy disc of a frisbee passed back and forth between two groups of students.
While he waited for the bill, a young man and a young woman sat down at the table next to him. The young man studied him, but he pretended not to notice. A moment passed. The young man said:
“Hello,” he said.
The young man said, “How do you feel?”
“You don’t look well. You look ill.”
The young woman was watching him too. She nodded and smiled, gently encouraging.
He could hear children shouting on the other side of the park, a swarm of compact bodies massing around an unpredictable sphere.
The young woman said, “We can help you get home.”
“There’s no need.” Then, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I feel fine. Absolutely fine.”
The young man smirked, and took from his jacket pocket an open packet of cigarettes. He lit one and passed it to his partner – girlfriend, wife.
“Stake your life on it? Very bold…”
He called for the bill, paid, and stood up to leave.
“Careful,” the young man said. He blew a tube of smoke into his cupped hand.
Back in the office, after an hour or so, he began to feel bilious and sick.
It was two o’clock.
He went to the communal toilets, locked himself into a cubicle, and experienced the most furious, implacable bowel movement of his life. It scorched from him, acres of a black, fiery paste. When he was finished, he wheeled around and barked some vomit into the bowl. There were flecks of blood on the upper reaches of the porcelain.
He washed his face, and on borrowed legs walked back to his desk. In moments, he was rushing back to the cubicle, still swamp-rank with his leftover smell. Another monstrous evacuation, guts heaving into the bowl, clenching and unclenching like an agitated fist. While he was washing his hands it came on again, but this time there was nothing left in him to expel.
He spoke to his supervisor and was sent home. He drove, twitching on the seat, nervous in case his stomach launched a final rebellion while he was equidistant to the toilets at home and back at work.
The house was empty when he got home. It was possibly the first time since he had gathered a family to him that he had been home alone, and the thought was oddly exhilarating. He drank a pint of water and went to bed, casting off his sweat-soaked clothes. He fell asleep and dreamt fitfully of gigantic machines that operated through the administration of thousands of human beings, crawling over their surfaces like pink ants; little fleshy cogs in a vast, unflagging mechanism.
He heard first his daughter then his wife, back from school and work. His daughter was oblivious, but his wife must have noticed his jacket in the hall. He woke again to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking his hair. She asked him if he was ill, and he mumbled a reply.
When he woke up again it was dark outside. There was a cup of tea on the table by his bedside. It had gone cold, but he drank it.
Intending to go to work the next day, he got as far as putting on his tie when his wife intervened. Sweat had already darkened his shirt; his face was thick with it. His stomach was on the rampage under his belt, and he had shuttled into the toilet five times already that morning.
“Back to bed,” she said. “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at.”
He assented at once, glad that someone had made the decision. His wife phoned the office for him, and by eight o’clock he was back asleep, the dreams equally fitful and catastrophic as they had been the afternoon before. It was as if he were dreaming of the cataclysms of the distant future, or all the hell and violence of the distant past.
He stayed off work for the rest of the week. By Friday, his wife could no longer disguise her alarm.
He could keep nothing down, and had trouble getting anything in. Spoonfuls of soup were sour in his mouth, and he had to spit them back into the bowl. He choked on more generous fare. He kept secret from his wife the strange protrusion he could feel in the centre of his gut, an oval of hard, obdurate matter, like a thickened column of muscle. Taking it in both hands, he could move the growth, or the swelling, whatever it was, first from one side then to the other before it met any internal resistance.
A doctor’s appointment was made. In the days beforehand he felt that he was putting on weight rather than losing it. Smothered in a greasy sweat, his skin puffed up and swelled to swallow his features. His wrists vanished under a spongy covering of fat. The protrusion inside him began to deliquesce, and was absorbed back into his swollen trunk. His dreams, in the broken moments of his sleep, were extraordinary. No details remained with him when he woke now, just a tone and atmosphere of incredible threat. Strictly, he couldn’t call them nightmares, because they did not make him afraid.
The doctor, when he saw him, hurried to take swabs and blood samples as if acting under a time limit. He was given an immediate referral to the local hospital, and was told to go home and pack a bag. An ambulance would collect him tomorrow.
In the car, driving home, his wife began to cry. He felt ashamed for the strange thrill in him, the low exultation that official notes and medical certificates were legitimising his absence from work. The job – which he frankly despised – was consigned now to a storage room in his memory, temporarily shelved while he devoted himself to more important concerns.
They tried to have dinner as a family that night. For their daughter’s sake, his wife controlled her weeping. His daughter interrogated her plate with a bright blush in her cheeks, unused to these levels of high seriousness. He couldn’t eat, but he tried to propose a toast. His breath came short. When he sipped his wine, he retched into his palm.
His hair started falling out. Over the years, his hairline had made bold advances against the unflappable defence of his temples, but now the hair was reeling back in plain rout. Even his eyebrows started to thin. The ambulance came for him first thing in the morning.
A platoon of doctors brought their specialisations to his immobile body. Now almost twice the size he had been in that epochal period of good health, he lay under starched white sheets as the doctors collected their samples; a vast and paralysed mammal held captive for its milk.
He couldn’t get out of bed unassisted. All energy had drained from his white, hairless body. He was wreathed in dreadful smells, and a continual viscous sweat ran from him in torrents. He was put on a drip to replace lost fluids; at night, while he waited for his consciousness to switch off into sleep, he watched in the subdued light the level in the bag decrease under the slow pressure of a sequence of continually expanding circles.
His wife and daughter came to visit him every day. In the expression on their faces was the map of his illness’s route. Every morning before they arrived, he told himself that he must present a front of affable optimism, for their sake, but as the days went on this did not seem so much like a role or a position falsely adopted, but a genuine feeling. A fever boiled in him, he felt like a sack of skin loosely folded over a cauldron, but the peace of the hospital, its rituals and enforced lack of expectation, became comforting and restful. Here was somewhere he could luxuriate. In the same way his swelling skin smoothed away the lines of his body, the illness planed away every wrinkle of anxiety, all the uncertainties that had rattled in his head at night and prevented him from sleeping.
His wife and daughter loved him, and he loved them entire, and he did not like to see them in pain on his account. Withdrawing into this new and quiet life of contemplation, where every need was taken care of, he still thought with shame and regret about how easy he was finding this compared to how difficult it must be for them. Then the breeze would move the curtain lace, opening the view to a wide slice of green, the hospital grounds, and from a distant ward came the melody of a classical station; the bustle of the nurses, the drifting sense of a world you could opt into and out of for moments at a time, spending the rest of the day in twilight rest, bouts of sleep and dreaming …
He was moved one day from his ward to a single room, isolated, where his bed was sealed off inside a tunnel of transparent plastic. It was pleasantly humid in there, warm as an early summer’s day. Doctors came to him in protective suits, eyes fastened behind plastic visors.
The screen of his vision was now bordered by two rolls of fat. His skin was luminous and white. He breathed through a tube; food and nutrients were pumped through another ridged tube which connected at a discreet angle directly to his stomach, and a third tube hooked beneath the bonnet of the bed removed waste, unseen.
He looks up and sees the face of his wife. A head below her is the face of his daughter. Both are writhing in grief, framed in the porthole window of the double doors on the other side of the transparent plastic barrier.
All discordant sounds are rounded off and smoothed away, all sharp edges are made safe. The tide of his thoughts is slow and relaxed, untroubled, and he knows that when he falls asleep tonight he will have no serious dreams. He tries to raise a hand to wave at them, let them know that he’s okay, he’s fine, but they’re gone.
For a moment, he thinks he sees a young man and a young woman replacing them, a sharp, snide young man and his cheerful girlfriend, but this must be a mistake. There’s nobody there.