The Stone Tide (excerpt) — Gareth Rees

Pissing on the Ridge 

After a year in Hastings we were still cooking on a camping stove. In a desperate attempt to restore our dilapidated kitchen, Emily and I left the kids and dog with my parents in Wiltshire and headed back to Hastings to get the job done. It was dark by the time we pulled into town, and we were hungry, so we parked the car by the Stade and went to The Dolphin pub. A plate of rock and chips and a couple of pints later we were in the Royal Standard, drinking another round, marvelling at the wonder of being in a pub without a bag of wet wipes and children pulling at our arms, demanding crisps. All the crisps were ours now. All the chips. All the cider. All the ale. We filled our veins with it. Eventually, we decided that we absolutely must go home so we could get up first thing and start painting the kitchen. Staggering past The Jenny Lind we heard a voodoo rockabilly band called Vince Ray’s Loser Machine make a fantastic racket. Inside, revellers cheered, danced and waved their glasses in the air. 

‘Just the one,’ we agreed, and inside we jigged to the tunes with a young couple who were necking cheap plonk. I felt jubilant enough to buy a few bottles. This was like the old days, when Emily and I were first going out. Years fell away from our eyes and I swear she was glowing. Misinterpreting our inebriation as happiness, our new friends made the mistake of inviting us to their flat, which had a well-stocked fridge and a spiral staircase to a roof terrace. We plundered their wine and jabbered about God knows what. I tried to hug the woman, crunching my face into her bosom, while Emily shouted nonsense at the man at an excruciating volume. Soon the couple were hiding behind their breakfast bar, guarding the fridge and loudly suggesting taxi numbers. The last thing I remember was falling down the spiral steps on my arse and Emily howling with laughter as we were hurled from the property. 

We awoke in our bedroom the day after, surrounded by boxes, layered with plaster dust. We were bruised and sick. Even before our binge I’d been feeling unwell. Something had been nagging me since I left London. A throbbing lower back. Intermittent pain in the testicles. An incessant urge to wee. It was so bad this morning it felt as if my gonads were filled with molten magma, shooting jets of fire towards my kidneys. I could hear Emily spewing liquidised chips and cava into the toilet next door. It was hopeless. There would be no DIY today. The painting was off. The best we could do was to switch on a laptop and watch TV with the curtains closed. But all through the day we were tormented by rustling and scratching from the chimney breast, with intermittent thuds descending incrementally down the wall. 

‘What the hell!’ Emily hissed. ‘There’s something in the chimney!’ 

I pulled the duvet over my head. ‘Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away.’ 

The following morning, we ventured downstairs. The rustling had descended to the chimney breast above the fireplace in our living room where scaffolding cast hieroglyphic shadows on our sheet-shrouded furniture. Little parps and hoots echoed in the flue as florets of soot coughed from the duct. We sat on the sofa and watched in fearful amazement as the scratching intensified and a dirty cloud began to billow. Eventually there was a soft crump. Something heavy fell into the grate then flopped onto the floor. A black mass writhed and squeaked. We watched in horror as a creature unfurled itself, fanning its matted wings, neck craning. It staggered left, then right, yellow eyes frantic, leaving webbed prints in the wood. 

‘Get it out!’ I yelled. 

‘You get it out!’ yelled Emily. 

I opened the front door. ‘Grab a broom!’ 

‘You grab a broom!’ 

‘No, you!’ 

With a sigh, Emily ran to the cellar door to find the weapon, then came around behind the juvenile gull, shaking itself to a ragged whiteness, gaining confidence as it minced back and forth, coughing and squawking. Sliding the broom roughly on the floor to make a noise, she ushered it onto the doorstep where it hopped and flapped in a dash across the road to the park. Emily slammed the door and that was that. In silence, we stared into the hall, a mass of sagging woodchip, wooden planks and the scribblings of Victorian builders. Beyond was the gutted shell of the kitchen, a repository of all our failures. For the first time since we got married it felt like we had stalled. Like the future was empty and decrepit. 

‘This was all your idea,’ I said. ‘You can do what you like. I’m going back to bed.’ 

* 

The hangover passed, yet the pain in my pelvis worsened. I was no medical expert, but there seemed to be a pulse in my perineum and there could be nothing good about that. I checked for lumps in my balls but everything seemed lumpy suddenly. My testes felt like those knobbly rubber chew toys we bought for the dog. Had they always been this way? Whatever the case, they hurt the more I walked but I wasn’t about to give up the walking habit. If I wanted to write another book it was the only way to find the plot. In this town stories were written into the benches. Carved in the rock. Whispered in pubs. Printed in the mud. Washed up on the shore. I could smell them in the salt air. Hear them pounding on the shingle. Stories of sorcery, shipwreck and tragedy. Stories of fraudsters, inventors and dreamers. Stories of environmental catastrophe and prehistoric extinctions. Whatever my fears, I had to sort this problem out, even if it meant going to the doctor’s surgery, one of the worst places on earth. So that is what I did. 

When I was thirty years old I went to a GP with a similar kind of pain in a similar area of my body. He asked a few questions about my lifestyle then booked me in for sexual health tests. The subtext was: hey, roving young buck, with all your carousing, get thee to a clinic. But aged forty-one, things were very different. When men pass the age of forty there’s an automatic shift in the algorithm on the medical computer system. After forty, when the doctor types in your symptoms—no matter what the complaint, whether it’s a headache or an ingrown toenail—the following will appear: 

FULL RECTAL EXAMINATION 

This time the doctor asked no questions. Instead he sighed, reached for his surgical gloves and said: ‘Please lie down on your side and tuck your knees in to your chest.’ Before I could register what was about to happen, it was happening. It’s not as if I expected the doctor to make a speech or give me five minutes alone to gather my thoughts, but this was brutally sudden. First cold gel, then what felt like a slithering octopus. 

So began a peculiar journey in which I was the topography, the doctor the traveller, the destination my prostate gland and the map an anatomical diagram of the male human. It struck me that I knew very little about my internal geography. I could vaguely locate most of my major organs, if pushed, but I’d no experience of the territory. Now a man’s finger was pressed on my prostate gland, as if angrily ringing a doorbell. 

‘Is this painful?’ he asked. 

It was impossible to answer. I didn’t feel pain, nor a lack of pain. I had transcended these binary concepts. This was more existential than painful. Until this moment, the prostate had been nothing more than an idea. A concept talked about by old men and people who keep old men alive. Now it was very real, a fiery meat peninsula, bristling with nerves, recoiling at the intrusion of the doctor’s rubber-clad finger. My prostate was like that first Incan who beheld a conquistador on a horse coming over the hill’s brow: sheer bewilderment, then terror. A realisation that nothing would ever be the same. In that moment, the world he knew was lost. 

As I pulled up my trousers, the doctor washed his hands and asked, ‘What do you do?’ 

‘I’m a writer.’ 

‘Do you sit down a lot?’ 

‘Yes, but I walk a lot. Every day.’ 

He squinted at his computer screen. ‘Have you been under any stress lately?’ 

‘A year ago, I got into debt and had to leave London and now my wife and I are living in a building site with two young children and a dog,’ I said. ‘Other than that, no.’ 

I leaned forward and caught a glimpse of my medical notes. I could make out the words ‘ACTIVE IMAGINATION’ in block capitals on the screen.

‘Are you really worried about this?’ he asked. 

‘Yes.’ 

‘Then I’ll arrange for some tests.’ 

Four weeks later, I was sent to Conquest Hospital, a convenient mile away from the cemetery on The Ridge, a wind-blown upland behind Hastings. In the nineteenth-century it was lined with grand Victorian villas, their inhabitants drawn by the invigorating healing air and majestic views of the sea. But by the end of the twentieth-century most had been demolished, replaced with new-build estates. 

On the day of my appointment, I raced there in my car with a bladder full of water, as instructed on the forms, so they could measure something known as a flow rate. Once seated in the urology department I realised my appointment would be delayed. It was pandemonium. Nurses ran down the corridor, muttering something about a problem with a catheter insertion. I could hear an old man howling beyond the curtains. His sister, a spindly woman in her seventies with nut-brown dyed hair, was seated a few chairs away. ‘Something’s gone wrong,’ she clutched the nurse, ‘hasn’t it?’ 

I felt terrible for her, and even more so for her brother. But I urgently needed to unleash several gallons of urine. I broke into a sweat, eyeing the toilet sign. A nurse dashed into the office opposite to make loud cancellation calls. As the kerfuffle dragged on, water continued to flow into my bladder until it began to throb. Finally, scraping curtain rings heralded the emergence of a bed containing the catheter patient, alive but moaning, one hand reaching up to God. He was raced down the corridor by a phalanx of nurses and porters, his arthritic sister giving chase. 

Calm descended upon the urology unit. An Irish nurse came up to me. ‘Are you waiting?’ 

I nodded, doubled over with pain. 

‘I expect you’re desperate for the loo,’ she said. ‘Come with me.’ 

She ushered me into a small room then up to a funnel with a mechanical contraption at its base and a bucket underneath. 

‘You’ll be doing your doings in there,’ she said, leaving the room. ‘Wait till I give the say-so.’ 

I heard her heavy shoes clop away, then rustling beyond the wall of the room. A service hatch flipped open and her grinning face appeared in it, like some demented 1970s dinner party hostess. 

‘Ready when you are!’ Her head disappeared from the hatch. 

The moment I relaxed my bladder, piss gushed into the funnel in bursts followed by streams followed by bursts followed by streams followed by bursts. It simply would not stop. As soon as I thought I was done there was another surge. It was as if Old Roar Gill had re-emerged after all these years through my stricken urethra. The bucket was filling up fast, with a beery head of foam frothing dangerously towards the rim. Dear God. Finally, the flow became a trickle, then drops, then one final surge, and it was over. 

It was many, many minutes later before I trotted sheepishly around the corner and entered the room where the nurse sat, monitoring a spidery graph. 

‘That was a lot of the old huffing and puffing there,’ she said. 

I sat down. ‘Is that bad?’ 

‘Look at this,’ she pointed at the graph. ‘Normally you’d expect the curve to go quickly up, then come down with a long tail.’ 

I nodded. 

‘But yours,’ she said, ‘yours just goes up and down, up and down, up and down, with little peaks and little troughs.’ 

‘That’s not normal?’ I asked. 

‘Not at all!’ she said, cheerily. ‘Lie yourself down here.’ 

I lay on the bed while she smeared oil on my pubis and pressed down hard with an ultrasound device. After a while she sighed. 

‘Your bladder’s not emptying properly, I can see that for a starter. You might have a narrowing of the urethra or something. Prostate disease maybe.’ 

‘Oh God.’ 

‘Never mind. I’m sure it’ll all get sorted in the end,’ her face darkened suddenly, ’one way or another. What tests have you got next?’ 

‘Blood, then semen.’ 

‘Oh, semen, righto,’ she said. ‘You’ll enjoy that.’

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Gareth E. Rees is the founder and editor of the website Unofficial Britain, and author of Marshland(Influx Press, 2013). His work has featured in anthologies including An Unreliable Guide to London(Influx Press), Mount London (Penned in the Margins), Acquired for Development By… [Influx Press], Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (Rowman & Littlefield), The Ashgate Companion to Paranormal Cultures (Ashgate), and the spoken word album A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes (Clay Pipe Music). He lives in Hastings with his two daughters and a dog named Hendrix.

The Stone Tide is available from Influx Press’s website.

Image: Jostling PebblesAlan Bloom, Creative Commons.