The Mutant by Timothy Shearer

Entering their bedroom late one Thursday night, Carolyn was surprised to find the radio on and her husband in the en-suite shower. Usually, when he had work the next day, he was in bed by half-ten as he had to get up at six. She wondered whether he’d been out himself – the curtains were still open even though it was almost midnight.

She went to the dressing-table, took off her earrings, and began to brush her hair. Unaware that she’d returned, Adam emerged from the shower-room wearing only a pair of slippers and a towel, draped round his shoulders like a cape. ‘Oh, hello, I wasn’t expecting you back just yet. Did you enjoy yourself?’ He let the towel drop to the floor and as he reached across the bed for his pyjamas she noticed there was something sticking out of his back, midway between his shoulder blades.

‘What’s that?’ she said, turning from the mirror to face him. In the light of the streetlamp it looked like a narrow piece of bone. It was about an inch long and curled back on itself like a ram’s horn.

‘What’s what?’

‘That thing sticking out of your back!’

He reached his hand over his shoulder and touched it. ‘This? Oh, it’s nothing.’

‘Nothing? It looks like you’ve got a horn growing out of your back! Have you had an accident?’

He shook his head. ‘I told you – it’s nothing. Don’t go on about it.’

‘But doesn’t it hurt?’

‘No.’

She raised her hand slowly, showing him the palm as if she were reassuring a nervous dog, and moved closer to him. The horn vibrated and appeared to contract. She reached round his shoulder and took hold of it between her fingers. It felt cold and clammy. ‘Did you feel that?’

‘No.’

She switched on the bedside light and looked at it more closely. The skin from which it protruded showed no sign of having been recently broken; on the contrary, it had a somewhat weathered, wrinkled look.

‘How long’s it been there?’

‘All my life.’

‘You were born with it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me?’

‘I assumed you knew.’

‘I’ve never seen it before.’

‘You must have done. You’ve been married to me for almost five years.’

She shook her head, unable to understand how she hadn’t noticed it. She knew he had a birthmark at the base of his spine and a skin tag on his scrotum – yet they were a fraction of the size of the horn.

‘Is it still growing?’

‘No.’

‘I just saw it move.’

‘It changes position from time to time. I’m not sure why. I used to think it had something to do with the weather or the atmospheric pressure. But now I think it’s to do with how I’m feeling – a barometer of my moods.’

‘What did the doctor say?’

‘Which doctor?’

‘You must have seen a doctor about it.’

‘Why? It doesn’t cause me any difficulty.’

‘But it’s dangerous!’

‘Who to?’

‘To me, for a start. It could cut me.’

‘It’s never cut anyone. I always sleep facing you so it won’t catch you in the night.’

‘But it might be possible to have it removed.’

‘I don’t want it removed.’

‘But we were talking last week about starting a family.’

‘Well?’

‘I can’t have a baby with a horn growing out of its back! Imagine giving birth …’

‘My mum gave birth to me, she’s none the worse for it. Anyway, it’s not certain it would be passed on.’

‘It might be, though.’

‘So might your knobbly knees.’

‘But knobbly knees – that’s common. That’s not a problem.’

‘Nor is this. Just forget about it.’

But she couldn’t forget about it. What else hadn’t she noticed? What else had he assumed she’d known about? She didn’t like to think he’d deceived her but that was what it felt like. It felt like the day she’d found out that her first husband was having an affair. She’d been entirely unaware of that, too. She liked to trust people. She’d never suspected Adam of being unfaithful but later that night, as they made love, she found herself recalling certain aspects of his recent behaviour. One detail, in particular, kept coming back to her. On Wednesday evening, when he got home from work, he came into the kitchen where – as usual at that time – she was preparing tea, and kissed her on the lips. Up till then his invariable practice had been to put his head round the door and ask how her day had been.

In the morning, after he’d left for work, she decided she had to speak to someone. She was feeling sick with worry and couldn’t get the image of the horn out of her head. The only person she could think of who was qualified to give an opinion was an old school friend of Adam’s, Charles Mason. He was a GP and practised just a few miles away. She rang him and arranged to meet him during his lunch break.

‘What’s on your mind?’ he said when she sat down at his desk.

‘It’s Adam. He’s got something sticking out of his back.’

‘You mean he’s had an accident?’

‘No, it’s some kind of growth.’

‘When did it appear?’

‘He says it’s been there all his life.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘I don’t know. It feels like bone.’

‘How big?’

‘About an inch.’

‘What does it look like?’

‘Like a twisted horn.’

‘Ah. It’s not bone. It’s a mutated form of an enchondroma – a cartilage cyst. It begins inside the bone marrow of an embryo, then when its growth can no longer be contained by the bone, it breaks out through the skin and continues to grow for up to two years, absorbing minerals secreted by the infant body. It’s usually no more than half an inch in length, although I’ve seen one or two that were longer. It’s related, though distantly, to a nonossifying fibroma, or bone cyst, except that it occurs in the shoulders and spine rather than the leg. It’s not uncommon.’

‘Is it dangerous?’

‘It’s no more dangerous than your fingernails, for instance – and, given its position, less likely to come in contact with anyone.’

‘I just can’t believe I’ve never noticed it. We’ve been married five years.’

‘I’ve never noticed it, either, and I’ve known him since we were eleven. Although, now I think about it, there was something …’

‘Yes?’ she said anxiously.

‘It was a long time ago – the lower fourth, if my memory’s correct. A Kenyan boy called Shaba had just started at the school and Adam went home with him one evening for tea. As they were getting up from the table, Shaba’s mum, a doctor, noticed a lump on Adam’s back and mentioned it to Shaba. Next morning, while Ma Scho was taking register –’

‘Ma Scho?’

‘Mrs Schofield, our form mistress – while Ma Scho was taking register, Shaba asked Adam about the lump his mum had noticed. But God knows what he said, because Adam went crazy – told Shaba to mind his own business, called his mum an interfering bitch … None of us had ever seen him like that – he seemed out of control. At long break Ma Scho took them to the head. Shaba was caned twice – which was the usual dose – but Adam was caned five times. Which was unheard of. When he came back he seemed in a kind of trance. Shaba apologised to the class for his behaviour, but when Ma Scho asked Adam to apologise, all he kept saying was: ‘I’d rather eat my own scrotum.’

‘He said that?’

‘Word for word. My own view is that the caning was to blame. It seemed to set something loose in him. But there was no repetition and everything settled back down again.’

‘I’ve been worried about him for a while, actually.’

‘Has he been acting oddly?’

‘Not oddly, exactly.’

‘What, then?’

‘Untypically.’

‘H’m.’

‘Is that significant?’

‘Difficult to know. When an established behaviour pattern suddenly changes, there’s often a reason for it.’

‘I’m worried he might be keeping something else from me.’

‘Is it fair to say he kept this from you? Maybe when you’ve lived with someone for a long time you lose sight of these things. You probably never notice his ears or his feet –’

‘He’s got big feet.’

‘Has he? Well, there you are. I never noticed that either.’

‘It’s just that we were talking about starting a family.’

‘No reason on earth why you can’t.’

Despite Charles Mason’s assurances that the mutation was nothing to worry about, Carolyn continued to feel deeply uneasy. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that Adam had concealed it from her. He’d told her he slept facing her so that she wouldn’t be in any danger from it – but it might also have been so that she didn’t notice it. Whenever they made love, he pinned her arms to the bed so that she couldn’t explore his body. With the exception of last night, when he wasn’t aware she’d returned home, she didn’t recall ever seeing his back fully exposed. He always dressed and undressed in the shower-room, and on the rare occasions he went swimming he went alone.

Since she’d first set eyes on it, she’d been unable to put the mutation from her thoughts. She saw it in the hook she hung her coat on; in the snails in the garden; and when she peeled the potatoes for tea, the blade of the knife contracted and twisted back on itself. She found it hard to talk to Adam or even stay in the same room as him, such was the revulsion it inspired in her. She decided that the only way to dispel its image from her mind was to remove the mutation from his back.

She knew he would never agree to such a course of action: he refused even to acknowledge it was a problem. He seemed proud of it in some perverse way. So she would have to remove it herself. She would do it while he slept – he was a very deep sleeper, especially when he’d been at work during the day. During a thunderstorm last Monday night, a tree had been uprooted from the garden and had fallen against the back of the house, shattering the kitchen window. She’d leapt out of bed in terror – he hadn’t even woken.

But how to do it? She didn’t like the idea of removing it with a knife – for one thing, she would have to touch it; for another, she wasn’t sure how effectively a knife would cut through cartilage. Then she remembered something she’d heard on the radio when she was a girl. The cricketer Fred Titmus, while swimming at sea, caught his left foot in the propeller of a motorboat. Although two of his toes were sliced off and two others severely damaged, he was not immediately aware of what had happened due to the speed at which the blades rotated. She had no idea where to get hold of a propeller but she imagined an electric saw would achieve a very similar effect. Adam would wake in the morning and find the mutation gone.

She went to her local hardware store to see what saws were available. There was one that was ‘ideal for cutting wood and plastic’, one that was ‘ideal for cutting metal’, and one that was simply described as an ‘all-purpose’ saw. She found it hard to decide between them – they were all about the same price and she imagined that they would all enable her to carry out the task she had in mind. In the end she chose the ‘all-purpose’ saw because it felt lighter than the others. When she got home she tested it on a raw carrot and a frozen sausage, then stored it in the bedroom wardrobe beneath a pile of jumpers.

That night, when they’d been in bed for an hour and he was fast asleep, she got up, switched on the light and took the saw from the wardrobe. She plugged it into the socket by the radiator and made sure it was working. Then she pulled back the duvet and undid the buttons of his pyjama top so that the mutation was fully exposed. She gazed at it for a few moments; it seemed to tremble in the current of air between window and door. She picked up the saw and turned it on. It hummed faintly. She stepped back to the bed and placed the teeth of the blade against the base of the mutation. The saw hummed more loudly but the protective mineral sheath proved more resilient than the carrot and sausage – she could make no impression on it. In frustration, the saw juddering in her hand, she increased the power to maximum and tried again. But as the blade finally penetrated the sheath and came into contact with the cartilage interior, she lost her footing on the parquet floor and watched in horror as the saw slipped from her grasp and embedded itself in Adam’s neck, severing his jugular vein. Blood spurted from the wound, spattering against the headboard and turning the pillow red.

As the bleeding slowed and she began to comprehend what had happened, she noticed with astonishment that the mutation had disappeared. She examined the skin between his shoulder blades: there was no trace of it, no scar or discoloration, no variation in texture or tautness. She gazed at him in a kind of sensuous agony. He looked more at peace in death than he ever had in life – more at ease, too, his limbs spread out in an attitude of sprawling repose.

She went to the shower-room to wash off the blood that had splashed on to her hands and face. She knew she would be blamed for what had happened, even though it was an accident. His mother, whose only child he was, would certainly blame her: she’d always doubted her suitability as a wife and would portray his death as proof that her reservations had been well-founded. Her own mother, too, who had criticised almost everything she had ever done, would say that she had acted impulsively, without thinking things through. And she didn’t like to imagine what Charles Mason might say.

But a few days later, having thought things over, she saw his death in a very different light. After all, she’d done nothing wrong: she’d acted with the best of intentions and with Adam’s interests at heart. Her only concern had been to save their marriage. She had no reason to reproach herself. Indeed, when she saw his corpse laid out in the chapel of rest, she derived a deep pleasure – even a certain pride – from the knowledge that his body would be buried without any major blemish.

 

Tim Shearer lives in Manchester and works as an editor/proofreader. His short fiction has been published in Metazen and broadcast on BBC radio. He is fiction editor at Confingo Publishing.

 

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