I have a spider living in my belly. It’s big and it’s black and its pointy legs skitter around my tummy. I can feel it down there at night, when I take my covers and wrap them tight around me, when I fold my knees to my chest, make myself as small and as tucked away as I could possibly be, I can feel it.
It’s a horrible feeling sometimes, when it’s at its worst. Every inch of my flesh tingles and crawls. The only feeling I’ve ever found like it is when you hold a finger close to, but not touching, the skin of your forehead. Your finger being there but not touching, the skin expecting to be touched, that uncomfortable waiting crawling, that’s what it’s like, but it’s my whole body. My whole body is in the presence of another, and waiting.
It’s always been there, living and snickering and growing. My mum tells me that I couldn’t possibly remember that far back but I can. My mum tells me a lot of things that I know are wrong, but I’ve found that it’s easier for her to be right about those things, and for me to be secretly right. Easier for everyone.
I know things about it; what colour it is, when it sleeps, what will happen if it should ever climb its way out of my throat, out of my mouth and out into the world. I don’t know how I know these things, but ever since I’ve known anything, I’ve known about the spider.
When I was a tiny baby, as I wriggled and thrashed, twisting myself, bending myself around, exploring the limits of my arms and legs and back, I carried the spider then. Another thing I know: it was small and white, no bigger than a winkle shell, wriggling its tiny legs. We were both feeble, unaware and both so new. But we were linked. I knew it even then. I knew it like I know the rules.
It mustn’t ever get out. That the simplest rule, the one that’s bigger than all the others. It mustn’t escape and it really really wants to. To be honest, I think that’s what the spider is for, to get out, and perhaps what I am for is to stop it.
The second rule is not to talk about it. “Shut up about that pissing spider,” my mother screamed at me once, slamming the phone back into the wall. I knew she was going to be angry at me because she was smiling so tightly on the phone, her voice stretched and artificially tuned, lilting and bending like it never normally does. She was sweetening Mr Cauldwell, because he had asked the class to draw what we thought was under our skin, and I had told the truth.
Mum gets angry and my dad just looks over his glasses at me, cocking his head to one side like a bird. “Perhaps it’s something you’re feeding him, something spider-like? Maybe cress?”
“It’s nothing bloody to do with me!” my mum shouts “Why don’t you stay home and deal with him, why don’t you try to talk to his teachers?!” She slams doors and occasionally we find her standing alone in the garden. Dad just looks at me. “Go to bed, there’s a good boy.” No one can help me, and I don’t want anyone to be sad just because they’re wrong, so I’m secretly right and that’s all there is to it.
But it’s hard when all the spider wants to do is escape. Some nights it climbs, step by step, leg by leg, up my throat, creeping towards my mouth. I feel it tick-tacking under the skin of my chest, feel it probing my stomach with its brittle legs, cry out sometimes when it nips at me.
Sometimes it gets so close. It makes it to my mouth and I have to keep my lips tight shut, and clasp my hands over them with all my strength to stop its legs from prying their way out. Normally it’s at night, but sometimes it’s more difficult. Once I was at the dinner table, toying my carrots around the plate with a fork when I could feel it scamper, quicker than it’s ever moved, under it was in my mouth. I smacked my hands to my face and squeezed. My mum shouted at me to eat, to explain myself, but I could not speak, dare not open my mouth. My dad just sat there looking at me, waiting for it to end. My mum stood from her chair, tried to grab my hands, pulling at my wrists, prising my grip loose – “This won’t happen. I won’t let this be something he does” – so I kicked her as hard as I could in the leg and ran, slamming my side into the back door, out into the garden. She did not come after me, but I didn’t stop. I pelted down the garden, hands still pressed to my face, panic flush and hot in my chest. I scrambled down the bank that lead from our garden into the plough field and ran until I tripped. I lay there where I fell, thrashing at the soil with my legs, on my back, looking up at the night stars, sobbing, waiting for the spider to retreat.
It mustn’t escape. I have dreams where I’m all alone in bed. The spider’s escaped. I have nothing in my belly and for a moment I feel so light and wonderfully empty, but then I realise that the spider is out there, and because it’s out of me it’s free to grow bigger and bigger. And then I’d wake up screaming. For the first few nights my mum would come and hold me until I stopped. Now no one comes and I bring myself down, wheezing, cheeks burning, alone in my room.
Well, not alone.
One night, after one of these dreams, I woke up screaming to find legs poking out of my mouth. Eight wriggling legs scratching at the air, picking at the back of my teeth. I tried to shove them back into my mouth but its pin-thin legs lashed out and cut into my palms. When I finally pressed the claw of legs back inside and brought my hands to cover my mouth they were slimy with blood and tasted sour like metal. The spider increased its thrash, cutting my cheeks open. With the spider’s hairy body resting against my tonsils, my throat pinched and convulsed, trying to gag it out and I swallowed as hard I could, trying to force it down, but it fought me. Though my cheeks bled and stung, I held my jaw tight shut for at least an hour after the spider finally gave up and scuttled back down my throat. My mum screamed and threw herself instinctively back against the headrest when she saw me stood at the foot of her bed, eyes streaming with tears and thin strings of blood dripping from my mouth.
“He chewed his cheeks to absolute rags, and god knows what he did to his hands” my mum said to Dr Saddler, squeezing the tips her fingers, as she did whenever she didn’t know what to do with me. The bed I lay in was stiff, with baby blue covers that felt papery in the bits of my hands that weren’t bandaged. I had a private room to myself this time, but it still smelt of hand soap and old fruit. My mouth was clammed up, plastered on the inside with gauze and thick medical paste that tasted bitter and awful. Dr Saddler and my father stood mute at the end of my hospital bed, throwing occasional suspect glances my way as my mother fretted and gabbled. When looking in my mother’s direction, Dr Saddler’s eyes widened with sympathetic agreement, but when he looked at me, they narrowed slightly, the whites retreating, leaving only his pupils, brown and dark, to examine me. My dad said nothing.
Eventually Dr Saddler ushered my parents into the hall and shut the door behind them. He pulled a small polyester-padded chair to the side of my bed and sat down. He looked at me and smiled. He was trying to comfort me but all I could notice was the brown that stained the roots of his front teeth. He caught me looking, and coughed politely.
“Your mother tells me maybe … er … a spider…” his words ran out and he coughed again. I just looked at him. “Is that true?”
I looked away. I might have tried an awkward cough too, but it would have burst my dressings.
“Well,” he went on, crossing his legs. “If this spider of yours is real – and who’s to say it isn’t – that would be very serious.”
I garbled something at him, feeling a swell of pain in my cheeks.
“I can recommend to your mum and dad that you see a colleague of mine who’s more … suited to your needs. Perhaps he might give you some tablets, medicine that might do away with this little spider of yours. How about it?”
I looked at him. This was just the game of kick the ball that everybody played. I went to the children at school and they kicked me up to the teacher, who kicked me to the headmaster, then to mum and dad, who passed me back and forth, then here and now the doctor was telling me to go elsewhere. At that moment, more than anything I wanted the spider to climb up my throat. I wouldn’t have stopped it.
Dr Saddler was still looking at me. I shook my head.
“You don’t want to?”
I shook my head.
“Is that because there is no spider?”
“Did you do this to yourself?”
I nodded. He smiled, baring the brown stains again. He placed a hand lovingly on my shoulder, squeezed it sympathetically and left. The doctor, Mum and Dad all knew best, they would always know best, but I was secretly right.
On the ride home, as my mum and dad talked excitedly about easier lives now that all this spider business was out of the way, I felt a scratching in my stomach. I placed my hand on my belly and thought perhaps it would be best to ask them to turn around, get them to turn back, delve further into my problems, find me medicine, but they were smiling now.
I felt a few sharp prickles in my gut, but I coughed and stayed silent.