Jeff Clayton awoke from uneasy dreams to discover that he had a different penis.
At first he thought it was just the unfamiliar hospital smell, the crisp, white sheets hugging him to the bed a little too tightly, the blue curtains pulled around the bed into a claustrophobic infinity; he had an impression of endless blue on all sides, as if he was trapped on a tiny, white island in a vast ocean. Hurriedly he wriggled in the bed to loosen the sheets, trying to throw off the illusion of constraint.
He blinked. Things were beginning to come into focus, but he still felt that something was wrong; or different, at least.
Experimentally, he touched his left cheek. His fingers met with smooth skin. He stroked it once, feeling a mild satisfaction at the new experience. That had changed, then. His operation had been a success. A single night in a hospital bed and his non-malignant mole was gone forever.
His mole had been non-malignant only in the strictest medical sense. Aside from the fact that it wasn't actually cancerous, it had been a truly vicious little bastard, from the names it had earned him at school to the vindictive way it interfered with shaving. Good riddance to the bloody thing - there would be no more standing in front of the mirror for hours, pulling his face first one way then another to shave round it. No more accidentally cutting it before parties and walking around bleeding into a hanky.
Yet Jeff Clayton found that he now felt strangely vulnerable. Could the loss of a single mole do that?
He stroked his cheek again. No, that didn't feel wrong at all - his face felt free and unblemished. He should have been smiling, but something in his gut continued to protest that all was not as it should be.
Gingerly, he started to pat his body, massaging his arms and ribs as if checking for breakages. He wasn't sure what he expected to find, though the touch of his hands was reassuring.
As he moved his hands further down his body to feel his legs in the same way, he lightly brushed against his penis. He caught his breath as his heart gave a shudder, a shock resonating through his whole body; the sensation had been foreign and frightening. He lay as still as possible, taking quick, shallow breaths, and realised that he was shaking.
What was it that had alarmed him? He had only touched his penis, he'd been doing that for the last thirty-five years. He moved his hand back up to his genitals and let it rest there.
His heart started to beat faster, a thudding, panicked crescendo. It was just his hand, he told himself, on his penis - what was there to be afraid of? He forced himself to hold it there, trying to get used to it, but he felt as though he was being touched by an unwelcome second party - a parental hand in forbidden caress.
He withdrew his hand quickly. It was damp with sweat. That was it - he had felt violated. Exposed.
He was still shaking and breathing heavily. It was hardly surprising - he had never had a problem touching his penis before. He had never had a problem with other people touching his penis, come to that.
There must be something wrong with it. Worried, he untucked the precisely arranged sheets and pushed them to the bottom of the bed. Then, anxiously, he lifted up the elastic waistband of his pyjamas and peered inside.
Nestling in a mass of troubled pubic hair, his half-erect, slightly sweaty cock looked like an alien object submerged in thick foliage; he barely recognised it.
Or rather - as he stared into his pyjamas in growing disbelief, he realised that he didn't recognise it.
Well - he recognised it as a penis.
Just not his penis.
He held his breath, listening for other human activity beyond the illusory seclusion of the blue curtains. He certainly had no desire to be caught with his trousers around his ankles by some trainee nurse. Except perhaps the attractive young trainee nurse who had helped administer the general anaesthetic. Momentarily caught up in this fantasy, he smiled to himself, but was jolted back to reality by the thought that she would be looking at another man's penis.
Another man's penis? What did he mean? How could it possibly be another man's penis?
It was time to throw off this ridiculous phobia. He pulled down his pyjama trousers and sat up to get a better view.
And there was no longer any doubt. It was definitely not his own penis.
It wasn't substantially different to the one he was used to - a little bigger maybe, not that he'd had a small penis before The pubic hair was a slightly lighter colour, with a hint of red. He shuddered. There was nothing actually wrong with it, it simply wasn't his.
Unable to move his horrified gaze from the stranger proudly sitting between his legs, he frantically wondered how his penis could possibly have been replaced with a different one. The events just prior to the operation darted through his mind; had there been some kind of misunderstanding when he had checked in to the hospital?
But what sort of misunderstanding would lead a surgeon to give him a different penis instead of removing a non-malignant mole? He wildly thought through possible links between the two actions. Only there were none.
He was assuming it was surgical. Without daring to touch it, he studied the penis for anything to show how the substitution had been achieved. He could see no marks, no scars, nothing to suggest that it wasn't exactly the same penis that had always resided there.
Maybe, he thought, it was concealed by the pubic hair. As if putting his hands into raw sewage he warily parted the unfamiliar, reddish thicket, but sickened by the colour and the texture he took his hands away again. He felt as though he had touched another man's penis - God, that was so so gay. The more he looked at the thing the more it repulsed him, and as he stared in dismay it slowly reared upwards, taunting him.
Feeling the bile rising in his throat, he pulled up his pyjama trousers. For a moment he thought he would actually throw up, but free from the necessity of looking at the penis he found he was breathing more calmly.
His agitated thoughts slowed down, arranging themselves more rationally, and he began to wonder if he'd allowed himself to become scared by an infantile trick of his mind. However different it had looked moments ago, it was clear that it just couldn't be somebody else's penis. It occurred to him that it had been a long time - years, even - since he had actually examined his genitals. Gone were his adolescent days of standing naked in front of his parents' full-length mirror, inspecting himself critically and worrying about the way it looked, or later on concluding that it looked pretty good and just admiring himself. In fact he had continued this pastime long after his adolescence had ended - but he hadn't done it recently.
And penises did change, after all. That was a fact of life. Not having looked at it with any interest for such a long time, it didn't seem unlikely that, in this unfamiliar setting, he had been alarmed by a change he just hadn't noticed before. He recalled a similar feeling of shock when, as an eleven-year-old, developments he had been fully briefed on but totally unprepared for had started with alarmingly dramatic speed.
Maybe it was even a side-effect of the general anaesthetic. Could anesthetic cause a temporary change in genitalia?
Just as long as it was temporary, he thought. There'd be hell to pay if they'd caused his dick to change shape without his permission. There ought to be a form to fill in, like when you agreed to take drugs which gave you nightmares and rashes - they couldn't just assume that people were happy for their private parts to change.
His resentment died away - he was being irrational. His penis probably hadn't even changed temporarily. More likely it was all in his head, his mind recovering from the effects of the general anaesthetic.
He froze. One thought had crossed his mind and refused to peacefully slip away like the others. Was it normal, he wondered with growing doubt, to have a general anaesthetic for the removal of a single mole?
He hadn't even questioned it. The need to be put to sleep, to have all ability to protect himself robbed from him. They had all be so helpful, so friendly
He was gripped with rage. Of course they didn't need to put you to sleep to remove a mole! Mockingly helpful hospital faces rose up in his mind, leering contemptuously at his vulnerable body. All the time they had been steering him into a position where they could do what they wanted to him, and like a bloody fool he had let them do it, let them knock him out for - how long? He might have been there for days, even weeks certainly for long enough for them to remove his penis and replace it with another!
That didn't make sense, did it? Rationality took over again and his anger
subsided instantly. Why would anybody do that?
He realised how idiotic he was letting himself be. There would be a reason for the general anaesthetic - he could ask them, there would be an obvious explanation.
No, damn it, he didn't even need to know! Let them get on with being doctors and nurses, let him just get on with life and get out of here. With his penis. Nobody had replaced it, he'd just been confused by the unusual light, the unfamiliar surroundings. That was all. The whole thing had been a product of his addled, recently-awoken mind.
Relief flooded him, in anticipation of looking at his penis and seeing that, like a nightmare, the alien phallus had departed with the light of consciousness. He almost laughed out loud at the absurd panic he had felt just minutes ago.
But pushing his pyjamas down a small way, he found himself unable to look, restrained once again by the dread of what he knew couldn't have happened. Had the illusion, the dream, afflicted him so badly?
Pensively, he looked down, and all of his false optimism drained away. In his alert state, he could no longer cling to hopeful doubts - all that was left was empty, relentless truth. It was not his penis. For whatever reason, somebody had given him a different one. And whoever had done it, his thoughts raged vengefully, was going to pay for it.
Getting out of bed, trying to ignore the nauseating weight of the parasitic genitals hanging from his body, he checked the cubicle for his clothes. The cabinet next to the bed was empty and he could see no other storage space. Still he continued to look, reopening the bedside cabinet as if hoping that his clothes might, like a cheap conjuring trick, reveal themselves on the second or third check. Throughout his fruitless search he told himself repeatedly how much he would sue the hospital for and how he would see to it personally that everybody responsible had their dicks cut off.
Frustrated by his failure to find his clothes, unable to contain his wrath for any longer, he threw back the curtains around his bed and angrily stepped into the ward.
Out of the claustrophobic certainty of the cubicle Jeff felt unsure and exposed. The hospital was thick with the sickly, mortuary air of sleeping patients; the whole building echoed with vacant, infinite longing. Jeff silently trod past the empty beds and empty people, out of the ward. The bright, sterile hospital lights veiled every corridor as pervasively as the blackness outside. Bland reproductions of famous paintings had been placed in stairwells and along corridors to try to inject some life into the building, but instead the familiar works lost their vibrancy and wept tearlessly with the rest of the awful place. Jeff started to yearn for human company, the loss of his penis aching with a greater loneliness.
Reception was as deserted as the corridors. The intensity of his isolation growing every second, Jeff followed the signs to A&E. That part of the hospital would be open, surely. And this was an emergency.
The waiting room was cloaked with the gloomy timelessness that shrouded the rest of the hospital; people sat soaking up hopelessness, waiting without expectation. Weary hospital staff mimed their activities, dislocated from any sense of time and body. But the sight of other, conscious human beings filled Jeff with a kind of relief, accompanied by a renewed anger at his treatment.
He approached reception purposefully. "I don't suppose," he began, his voice shaking with concentrated anger, "you know what's happened to my penis?" The waiting patients turned to look at him, too long entrenched in the atmosphere of perpetual tedium to find the interruption entertaining or even surprising. A little girl clutching a bloody tissue to her forehead looked at Jeff with curious eyes.
"No," replied the receptionist with a terse smile. "What has happened to it?"
"It's gone," snapped Jeff. The receptionist's smile flicked off.
"Could you return to your ward, please, sir," she instructed. "We can see to you there."
"You can see to me now," Jeff retorted. "I've woken up from an operation and they've swiped my bloody penis."
"I'm sure there's a perfectly simple explanation, if you wouldn't mind just "
"Are you listening to me?" yelled Jeff, slamming his hand down on the receptionist's desk. "I have had my penis stolen!"
"Really." The receptionist looked tired and harassed. Suddenly she met Jeff's eyes challengingly. "Show me."
"Well - " Jeff faltered. "They've put another one in its place."
Something in the receptionist's tired mask broke and all pretence of politeness dropped. "I haven't got time for this."
"I want to see somebody in charge." Jeff was not about to let this stroppy bitch stand in his way.
Her eyes flashed dangerously. "Get out."
Every eye in the waiting room was observing him, accusing even in their resignation. He experienced a momentary pang of guilt about causing a fuss, a feeling that he should wait his turn, or maybe just apologetically leave and never mention it again. No, he told himself angrily, he had rights - and this was his penis, for crying out loud!
"All I am asking," he said through gritted teeth, trying to control the wrath threatening to burst out of every word, "is to see somebody in charge. Why is this simple request so "
"I'm not listening to this," the receptionist said, turning away from Jeff. "Who's next please?" she asked, sweetening her voice for the other waiting patients. The little girl clutching the bloody tissue stepped forward and stood next to Jeff, accompanied by a worried-looking woman who Jeff presumed was her mother. He tried not to look at them, but could sense the little girl's innocent, hopeful eyes. "Oh, dear!" cooed the receptionist, "you've been in the wars, haven't you?"
Jeff hadn't finished. "No!" he shouted, unable to avoid glimpsing the little girl's bloody tissue again. "Look, I'm not going!" He could feel the air of disapproval growing around him as the waiting patients started to stir; Jeff had brought with him a new measure of time and their docile resignation was ebbing away to be replaced by annoyance. Now arguing with the entire room, Jeff insisted with determined fury: "look, it's my right - "
"Is something the matter, Ellen?" A good-looking male nurse had halted in his pre-programmed path across the waiting room, animated by this unexpected glitch in the routine.
"This gentleman says he has lost his penis," the receptionist answered, curtly.
"Oh, really?" The nurse wasn't even bothering to conceal his amusement. Jeff wanted to punch him. "So - when did you last see it?"
"Before my operation." Jeff clenched his fists so hard he could feel his knuckles splitting through his skin.
"I see," grinned the nurse. Jeff wanted to shake him, to yell "they've taken my penis, what's funny you bastard?" To bring his knee into sharp contact with the nurse's bollocks and ask "still think it's funny? Still think - "
"Could I er have a look?"
"No, you don't understand," - how many times did he have to explain? - "they've put another one in its place, there's nothing to to not see."
"Oh." The male nurse nodded. "So what's the problem then?" Jeff's blood pounded through his veins with a repetitive thud.
"The problem is that it isn't my penis!"
The entire waiting room was now deeply engrossed in the proceedings, fully awakened from their trance-like depression, now angry, impatient and interested. People tutted their disapproval as loudly as they dared, whilst the receptionist gently talked to the young girl with the bleeding head. Jeff was aware of the girl's mother close to him, tensed and ready to snatch her daughter to safety if violence broke out. Jeff told himself again that he had no reason to feel guilty, he had rights, he was being deliberately antagonised
"But it's not faulty in any way?" asked the nurse as if enquiring about a photocopier.
"No, but that isn't the point!"
"Perhaps you could tell me how yours differed from it?" Gareth Ellis was enjoying the conversation - it was his ninth, overstretched hour on the shift and any break from the intensity of the night's work was a welcome one. But his enjoyment was not appreciated by Jeff. Nor was it shared by Roland Irvine.
Roland Irvine had cut open his hand with a screwdriver whilst adjusting his bicycle brakes almost five hours earlier. He had been waiting in A&E for three hours and twenty-six minutes and he'd had enough. "Excuse me," he said, getting up, "I've been waiting here for six and a half hours to get my hand sewn up, I'm not in the mood to wait around while this moron wastes time "
Jeff swung round to confront Roland. "Excuse me, I couldn't care less about your fucking hand, I've had my "
"Yeah, I know, your penis has been nicked - I don't care if it's being sold as cat food, you can wait in the fucking queue like everybody else."
"That's enough," interrupted Gareth, all trace of his former amusement gone. "Either get back to your ward or pack up and go."
"But - "
"No, get out of the waiting room." Bad language disgusted Gareth - now that the f-word had been used he was determined to end the conversation immediately. "I'm not having you insulting other patients."
"He insulted me!" objected Jeff, outraged.
"Are you listening?" Gareth's goodwill, worn thin by lack of sleep, had run out. "Either get back to your ward where we'll see you shortly, or leave now."
"I want to see somebody in charge," Jeff demanded.
"You can't," barked Gareth. He was shocked and upset by his own vehemence - he hated shouting, he didn't get angry. He wanted to be back at home, to fall into the comforting arms of his partner, Mark.
"Tell him to leave," whined Roland, "look, if he doesn't go I'll be the one asking to see somebody in charge "
"I have every right - "
"Shut up, both of you," Gareth ordered, longing for them to leave him alone. "We're overworked and understaffed, if you don't "
"Listen," Jeff bellowed.
"NO!" Gareth bellowed back, tears pricking the back of his eyes.
"I'm leaving," said Jeff, impulsively. He was further irritated by the audible sigh of relief that went up from the waiting patients. "But you haven't heard the last of this!" Already nobody was listening.
Furiously he strode outside. Only then did he realise that he was still wearing his pyjamas.
He couldn't go back in. He couldn't bear the thought of the smell of ill people, the looks of wearied scorn, the patronising response of the staff and all the humiliating attention he would receive -
Shit, they had his phone as well. And his wallet. How was he supposed to get home? The bastards had stolen his penis and all his belongings.
A taxi pulled up outside the entrance. Jeff quickly walked towards it. An old man was helping a decrepit, confused old woman to struggle out; Jeff waited and despised them for being old and slow and in his way. The man glanced at him suspiciously as they walked towards the entrance, and Jeff felt derided by the knowledge that the old man was almost certainly in possession of his own penis. Old as he was, he possessed a dignity which Jeff might never have again.
And the whole world taunted him with that fact.
As he was driven away in the taxi, he experienced a sickening wrench in his stomach; his penis was in the hospital diminishing in the rear window, and every second took him further away from it.
"What you bin in for mate?" called the taxi driver into the back of the car.
"I came in to have a mole removed." Jeff could see his reflection in the rear view mirror; there was an almost imperceptible scar on his face where the mole had been. It should have pleased him, but now it represented a greater loss.
He felt a sudden need to unburden himself. "You know what happened?" he asked the taxi driver. "I woke up after the operation, and they'd given me somebody else's penis."
"Mate, the number of people who come out of there and tell me that," said the taxi driver, shaking his head sympathetically.
This offhand response threw Jeff. "Really?"
"Oh, mate - they're always cutting off the wrong thing - amputating the wrong arm, circumcising the wrong baby, taking out the wrong appendix - you know what I reckon, I reckon they've got so much to do, they don't know who's in for what so they just do everything on everyone to be on the safe side. My Aunt, went into hospital for an x-ray, she had a lung thing, see - they only went and mixed her up with some mountaineer with gangrene, amputated both her legs!"
"Really," said Jeff, feeling that his own problems were being unjustly marginalised by the driver's Aunt.
"Course, they gave her false limbs, but it's not the same, is it? Loads of compensation, though."
"Really?" This was of more interest.
"Oh mate, you've gotta milk 'em for all they're worth. My sister, they took out her liver by mistake - she complained and they gave her two livers, just to make up for the inconvenience, like."
Jeff's first action was to inform the police. "What time did the theft occur?" enquired the regional-sounding officer on the telephone.
"While I was under general anaesthetic," explained Jeff impatiently. "It could have been any time after about five o'clock."
"You can't be any more specific?"
"No. I was unconscious."
"I see." The officer clicked his teeth softly. Jeff imagined him
logging the details in a big book at the police station. He was about to ask
what they intended to do about the disgraceful way he had been treated when
the officer spoke again.
"Was it marked in any way, Sir?"
"Anything identifying it as your property, a security number or something similar?"
"No!" What did they want - a tattoo?
"Any distinguishing features?"
"It was a penis, for God's sake!" exploded Jeff. "Don't you know what a penis looks like?"
"How many stolen bikes do you think we'd recover if people just told us 'it looks like a bike'?"
"How many stolen penises are you looking for?" Jeff retorted angrily.
"Well - not many," admitted the officer. There was another thoughtful silence, then: "You'll receive a crime number through the post in a couple of days. I'll keep my eye out for it, but if you drop by the police station in about three weeks' time to check that it hasn't been handed in "
"Wait - " Jeff's ears were almost bleeding with rage, "I've reported the theft of my penis to you, the police, and you're telling me that I've got to come and check if you have it?"
"We do have other crimes to deal with - these things sometimes slip through the net."
Jeff hung up.
He sought legal advice from an old university friend who had been an almost successful concert pianist before becoming a lawyer. They met up for overpriced drinks in Soho.
"They gave you a different penis? God " commented his friend, shaking his head and sipping at his gin and tonic. "Hell!" he burst out, "they've given me a gin and soda water, I hate it when they do that. Hold on a minute "
When he returned with his drink, he told Jeff that he was in a "difficult" legal situation. "If they'd taken your penis altogether you'd have a much easier case, there'd be something to show the court." He shook his head again. "I'm not saying you would lose the case, but once you've paid all the legal costs I wouldn't risk it." He sipped his (now acceptable) gin and tonic. "Anyway," he said. "How've you been?"
Jeff decided that the best way to gain some attention (and possibly some financial advantage) would be to approach the national press.
The broadsheets rejected his story out of hand. The tabloids also decided it was too preposterous for their pages, except for one which fleetingly considered running the story until a junior editor pointed out that only two weeks ago they had given much coverage to a man who had trapped his penis in a microwave - the stories were felt to be to similar for Clayton's to be of use.
Getting increasingly desperate, Jeff decided to put his rights as a voter to the test and wrote a long, aggrieved letter to his MP.
Amy Liddell was a conscientious woman who felt a genuine concern for the people she represented. So when Jeff Clayton's letter landed on her desk she was shocked by the levity her P.A. was showing towards it.
"Timothy, the basic rights of one of my constituents have been violated," she insisted. Tim Court rolled his eyes - usually he filtered out this kind of letter and replied to it himself, but he had unwisely decided that this one was too funny not to share. He should have realised that Amy might not appreciate the joke.
"Well - " he began, "only if you believe his story in the first place."
"We have to start from a perspective of believing everything our constituents tell us," Liddell disapprovingly reminded him.
"He does say that he was given a replacement," Tim reasoned.
"No, I'm sorry Timothy, I can see no option but to pursue this. People need to be made aware of abuses in the system."
Tim was suddenly worried. He could imagine Amy, with the best intentions, following the issue through to the highest levels and damaging her credibility both in Parliament and the public eye. "Amy, I'm just not sure you should make this a campaigning issue," he told her. "I'm as concerned as you are, but the NHS has a lot of problems which are being addressed - this is just one man "
"Timothy, statisticians believe that for every person who takes the time to write to their MP there are ninety-nine others who don't - I can therefore only assume that there are one-hundred people who have had this experience. As such, it deserves the Government's attention."
Tim's heart sank as Liddell left the office, clutching Jeff Clayton's letter with a look of determination.
The matter was indeed brought up by Amy Liddell three weeks later at Prime Minister's Question Time. Although she had gathered some fairly convincing evidence to back up her comments, the issue caused a degree of hilarity in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister, always relieved to receive a question which didn't directly challenge his policies, allowed himself the tiniest smirk as he reassured Liddell that the matter would be enquired into, adding that he had been wondering "exactly how private parts of the National Health Service have been going." He considered this very witty given that he had thought it up on the spur of the moment, and it ensured the dialogue a place in Radio 4's "political highlights of the year" that Christmas.
Clayton's penis was added to a list of topics to be covered in an NHS inquiry later that year. The report which was delivered eight months later at the expense of half a million pounds noted the complaint by a man in the East of England that his penis had been replaced, but concluded that there was insufficient evidence either to confirm or to counter the claim. As such, it was acknowledged that there was at least a possibility that such a substitution had occurred, and a further inquiry into the matter was recommended.
The report's findings were circulated to Government officials and therefore remained unread, until six months later a disgruntled anonymous hospital employee approached the Minister for Health and the Daily Mirror with photographs of what he claimed was Jeff Clayton's penis. The report was hastily consulted, official statements written to explain why action hadn't been taken previously, and a dramatic front page prepared by the Daily Mirror which would have scandalised the nation and brought Jeff Clayton's penis very much into the public eye, but for the fact that the same evening a large-scale military bombing campaign was launched by the Government against a small dictatorship in the Middle East. Clayton's penis was replaced by a grainy picture of distant explosions, whilst official statements explained that the bombs were necessary "to combat a regime which oppresses the rights of its people and threatens Western democratic freedom."
Clayton's penis was forgotten and he learned to live with the one he had.
© Copyright James Lark