Tales from the back of the eyelids


  • This story is based on a dream I had shortly after one of my front teeth was knocked out by a rebounding branch that I was trying to cut in the garden

I am a space traveller by trade. I work the routes between the planets of the solar system. It's not a bad job. The rewards aren't brilliant, but I like the flexibility and I have a lot of spare time. I always have the weekends off and quite often I take leave during the week too. I could take on more and earn more but I prefer to come home every few days and have a break.

I did go interstellar once: a couple of decades back I went to Alpha Centuri. The pay was good but the work didn't suit me. Before I set out I didn't imagine that something as petty as boredom could bother me. But it did. And I thought money was the most important thing in life. It isn't, though.

I remember exactly the moment I realised this. I was lying on my bunk, one thousand one hundred and thirty seven days into the journey, when I asked myself what was the point of a fat wage packet if I couldn't spend it. Once I had thought that I began to hate everything. The stale air, the tasteless food, the artificial lights, being cooped up, everything. The spaceship felt like prison. I wanted to be back on Earth, but that wasn't possible, of course. Not for another seven years, anyway. The rest of the trip was hell. After that I never did a long haul again.

What I also hated about going interstellar was the preparation. It was almost as bad as the travelling itself. It took me more than a year to get ready. This is quite normal. You wouldn't believe how much there always is to do before a journey. The paperwork and the legwork isn't called The Hassle by those in the business for no reason.

To start with, there is the bother of getting all the stuff together. For such a long journey there has to be a lot of stocking up. Not only do you have to take everything you might need, but also enough of it to last. Once you leave the solar system you can't buy anything until the first relay station. That means that if the toothpaste or toilet paper runs out, you have to do without for up to five years. And if that happens, it's inconvenient.

The stocking up isn't the worst part of The Hassle, though. That, definitely, is the medicals. You have to visit so many doctors and go through so many unpleasant tests. I've been told they're still pretty bad: everyone always complains about them. But they're no way as terrible as they were when I did them. In those days the tests were much tougher because doctors were wary about space sickness. They believed that high speeds made the condition worse and could eventually lead to permanent damage to the body, or even to death, unless precautions were taken.

It's true, of course, that the blood circulation isn't so good and most people feel numbness in the fingertips and toes. I did hear of one fellow who lost his teeth: they all fell out, one by one, without any pain, within a week. Apart from that, no one has ever had much trouble with space sickness. They didn't know that then, though. At the time some people even tried to get mega speed flights banned all together. There was no chance of that happening, so instead they stopped anyone who had even the smallest health problem from travelling at mega 8 or faster. And because of that rule I went through torture.

They spun me in circles, dangled me upside down, put me in freezing boxes, put me in pressure capsules, injected me with hallucinogens, made me vomit, asphyxiated me and put tubes deep into both my ends. When they were done, I was made to rest for a month. After that they checked to see if I was ok, and then I had to do the tests all over again, just to make sure.

When everything was ready I went for an interview with the chief consultant. I thought the woman a bit gruff. I started to explain who I was, but without saying a word she shushed me, took my papers from my hand and waved me to sit down in the chair. I sat silently while she read the reports at her desk. At the end of a good twenty minutes she put the papers down, looked up at me and said that the news was bad.

Apparently, she said, some of my arteries were narrower than usual. Especially in the lower abdomen area. This meant in particular that there was a high risk that the restricted blood flow would cause my penis to shrivel up. After some time it would fall off. This was not something to be taken lightly: gangrene could set in and without proper medical attention I would probably die. Under those circumstances she could not recommend to the board that I be allowed to fly.

I suppose I looked glum because the consultant got up and touched me on the shoulder.

"Don't worry," she said. "A simple operation can solve the problem. We can remove the penis surgically and replaced it with an artificial one. It's a common procedure nowadays. It's easy, quick and painless: you would come into the hospital in the morning and by the evening you could be home again."

She must have guessed that I wasn't wowed by her suggestion because she quickly added that modern artificial penises were technological miracles. They could hardly be distinguished from the real thing. In fact they were better than the real thing because they didn't have any of the annoying downsides that all men know only too well. There was no chance either that it would wither up on me. They were so good, she went on, that she encouraged all men - not only space travellers - to have the operation.

I understood what she was saying about all the advantages. I also knew that if I wanted to go interstellar I probably couldn't do anything else. Something, though, made me feel less than keen on the idea. It was, after all, my penis that was at stake, not hers.

Seeing as I was hestitating, the consultant told me to go away and think about it for a few days. She realised that some people were more sensitive than others over these kinds of personal issues. That was fine, she said, but she was quite sure I would come back not only begging to have the operation but also wondering why I hadn't got it done earlier.

I did go and think about it for a few days, as she had advised me. Actually I couldn't stop thinking about it: I thought so hard that during the next two weeks I hardly slept at all. (I found out later, during the counselling sessions, what was bothering me was that unconsciously I didn't want to lose my penis. I had some kind of sentimental attachment to it - I had grown up with it, it was mine in a way that even my house or my cat weren't.)

But I wasn't idle in that fortnight. I did a lot of research. I looked on the internet. I asked everyone I could think of who might know something. I went to my GP and asked her. I even asked my old biology teacher from secondary school. Everyone agreed that I should go for it. It was amazing what science could do these days, they all said.

The only one who disagreed was Susan, my ex. "Don't do it!" She screamed down the phone. "Don't be crazy! Once it's cut off, it's gone for good. A new one won't grow in its place, you know."

Susan's one of those New Age types. I always rib her about her opinions. According to her we should live free of all chemicals. "Everything is made of chemicals," I tell her. She doesn't understand that. "Yes, but there are chemicals and there are chemicals," she says. She also says "never eat meat and tropical fruit," and "don't ever have surgery - unless it's absolutely necessary".

I know where Susan's coming from. She's got a good heart. I also think that if you want to restrict yourself in life and can arrange it, then by all means go ahead. But if you want to see more places than you can get to on your bike, you need to make some compromises.

The truth is I didn't really have a choice in the matter. There were two options: I could either stay at home and be jobless, or I could have the operation and travel without risk. What else could I do? A couple of weeks later I signed the consent form. The anaesthetist put me under and I was wheeled into the operating theatre on a trolley.

When I awoke I was confused and grogy. The nurse who had been tiptoeing around noticed that my eyes were open and came to look at me. "Can you hear me? How are you feeling?" My head was spinning. I couldn't move. My eyes hurt. I wanted to be sick. The post-op definitely didn't feel as painless as I had been promised it would be. "I'll go and get the doctor" the nurse said.

The doctor checked me over and told me all was fine and I would feel as right as rain soon. I was not to worry. There had been a slight complication, that's all. It had been fixed now and everything was going to be ok. Having managed to register that, I was out again.

When I came round, I felt much better. I felt better but I still didn't feel quite me. The doctor sat on my bed and smiled at me in a kindly way. The nurse stood next to her and peered down at me with a sympathetic look on her face. That set off the alarm bells. Why was she feeling sorry for me? Something must have gone very wrong.

"The operation wasn't a complete success," the doctor admitted. She started to explain what had happened, using words I'd never heard before. I couldn't make any sense of it, so after a couple of minutes of her waffling, I interrupted and asked her to say exactly what they had done to me.

Her smile disappeared and for a moment she appeared to be suffering. "More of you had to be replaced than we had originally anticipated," she said. She winced, took a deep breath and blurted: "The truth is, not much is left of your real body." Making a clean breast of it obviously made her feel better because, after a slight pause, she also added:"Well, in fact, nothing at all." .

"Do you mean you've made me into a robot?" I shouted out, louder than I had wanted.

The doctor laughed. "Not at all," she said. "You've still got your brain. That's all original. All that's happened is that you've got an artificial body."

(I began to suspect later that the doctor still hadn't managed to come completely clean. I don't believe I have my brain. Something doesn't feel quite right there. I think that all that was left were a few scraps of my consciousness, that's all.)

"Now, what's wrong with having an artificial body?" She asked. "That's not such a bad thing, is it?"

"What do you mean? How can't that be bad? I've lost my body! Where is it? What have you done with it?"

"Try not to get excited," the doctor soothed. "You've had a difficult operation. You should take it easy until you get used to your new body." The doctor smiled her kind smile again. "I'm afraid we had to dispose of your natural body. The thing about living tissue is that even a short time without oxygen is fatal for it. You'll be glad to know you won't have those kinds of problems ever again. And if something does go wrong with an organ in the future, it's easy to get it replaced. That means you can now look forward to a long, illness-free and pain-free life. What could be better than that?"

I stayed in rehabilitation in the hospital for two months. I have no complaints whatsoever about the post-op care. I was given a comfortable room all to myself, anything I wanted was brought to me. Everyone was very friendly. The staff all told me how lucky I was to get a new body, but I guess someone somewhere had a bad conscience because I never was billed for my operation.

You are probably saying to yourself that in my place you would have been furious. Well, I was very upset, to say the least. My emotions went on a rollercoaster. Some days I was so angry that I felt I could have trashed my room. At other times I felt very down. I had days when I didn't get out of bed at all. On those days everything seemed bleak and pointless.

I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror. Sometimes I managed to convince myself that I didn't look too bad. If the light wasn't too strong and I didn't smile, nobody would ever know. Not much, anyway. Mostly, though, I felt awful. Somehow you can almost always tell it's an artificial body, even from a distance. It's too shiny, for a start. And the limbs don't move smoothly enough. Then there's the face. It can't make all the expressions. It looks as if a piece of cellophane has been stretched over it.

They say that everyone has similar feelings after this kind of operation. It's the grieving process. I knew what to expect because I'd been through it before. When I turned twenty-five one of my front teeth was knocked out by a rebounding branch that I was trying to cut in the garden. To get over that took me a year. Losing an arm or a leg is much worse, of course. Imagine, then, what it's like losing a whole body! In a word: devastating. Knowing that feeling devastated is normal doesn't help much, though.

If I felt that way, why didn't I sue? It's a good question. I did think quite seriously about it. I went to see a lawyer and she warned that the case could take years. There was a fair chance that I would win, but also a fair chance that I would lose, which meant I would be saddled with all the expenses. The hospital would certainly claim that no harm had been done. After all, an artificial body could be thought of as an improvement.

Even if I could be sure of winning I was in no mood to get bogged down with the courts. I had a journey to prepare for. When I was discharged from the hospital I got on with my life. Did I make the right decision? I think so. Sometimes, all these years later, when I think about my lost body I still feel a twinge of regret. I ask myself if I had done things differently, would I have had a better life? The answer I come up with is always "no". Anyway, there's no point in wallowing in the past. It can only spoil the future. And once I begin to think like that my gloomy thoughts disappear.

The most enjoyable part of the Hassle is organising the leaving party. That's not to say it's easy or cheap. When you are going away for so long, you have to invite all your relatives, friends and anyone who knows you even slightly. After all, some of them probably won't be around by the time you come back. In return for showing up everyone expects a good bash. You need to book a venue, and arrange live music plus some other kind of entertainment. Then, of course, there has to be plenty of food and drink.

My leaving party was standard, as these things go. Not too big, but not too small, with only about a hundred and twenty guests. There was the welcoming ceremony during which I was given gifts, then everyone sat down to the meal and afterwards there were the speeches. Some were witty and some were serious. Everyone who spoke told me how I was going to be missed and what a good bloke I was. The only sour note happened when one of the speakers made a feeble joke about my operation, to which the hall gave out an embarrassed groan. I made quite a good speech in which I mentioned all the guests individually using not-completely-true incidents from the past, and managed to get some good laughs. Following that the toast was proposed, glasses were raised, and "For he's a jolly good fellow" was sung loudly many times.

As always, as the night went on and the drink flowed, the party became more fluid. I tried to spend a few minutes talking to each guest and by the time I got to the last ones, they were so drunk that the next day they probably didn't remember talking to me. At around one o'clock I went up to a group of my old school friends. They were cracking up over everything and nothing at all. Tyrone, my fifth form best friend, announced he needed a waz, which reminded others that they needed one too.

"Hey, that gives me an idea," said Tyrone. "Let's see who can piss the furthest!"

Tyrone used to be the school champion, because (as he used to boast) he had the biggest dong. He was also the kind of person others liked to follow. Soon all the guests were out in the car park waiting for the competition to begin. I was there too, but probably I was the only one who hadn't wanted to follow. I had tried to slip away secretly but Tyrone had noticed, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me along.

It goes without saying that it is a man's game, although women do enjoy being spectators. The idea is simple: we stand behind a line and aim at empty beer cans which are placed at different distances from the line. The one who knocks down the furthest can is the winner.

Tyrone made me go first. I suspected that I was being set up, but it was too late to back out. In any case, I never thought of Tyrone Connors as a friend again. Not that that matters: he died three years ago, of an aneurism caused by thinning arteries. Having a natural body didn't do him much good. And what's the use of his huge dong now?

I stood and got ready to shoot. Nothing happened. I pushed hard. Still nothing happened. "Damn," I thought, "organ malfunction." I grinned as if I found the situation funny, but inside I felt desperate. Again I pressed, this time even harder. Nothing.

Finally I crouched down on my haunches and squeezed with all my strength. Nothing - for a few long seconds. Then a few drops appeared. Afterwards a small stream dribbled down between my legs. Victory! It's true, I had weed more like a woman than a man, but at least I had got something out. I felt pleased with myself until I looked up to see the faces around me. They were disgusted. I wasn't a real man. I was nothing more than a machine. I had peed too little and too late.

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