Story Club

Pain33 min read

A shocking story by Chen Xiwo – translated by Nicky Harman


Editor’s note: For the January edition of story club, we turn to a controversial Chinese writer, Chen Xiwo. Chen’s fiction has shocked his readers (and censors) for decades, and much of it remains banned in China, including his most trigger-warning-worthy tale, ‘I Love My Mum’. First published in translation in the collection of his stories The Book of Sins, ‘Pain’ narrates the unspecified suffering of a woman in visceral, unescapable detail. Questions about the meaning or meaningless of such pain  – is it physical? spiritual? societal? – are raised in the story, but not answered.
To get to the bottom of it, as best we can, we welcome your own questions and comments on the story at [email protected], which we will relay to Chen Xiwo and his translator, Nicky Harman, with a discussion post to follow at the end of the month. – Alec Ash



by Chen Xiwo 陈希我
Chinese: 《我疼》


Does it hurt? Have you got a headache? The kind that makes life not worth living. The kind that hits you when you wake up in the morning, even though there was nothing wrong when you went to sleep – no cold, no bad dreams, nothing. You just fell asleep, and when you woke up, there it was. Now your whole day is wrecked. All you can do is blunder through until it’s time to go to bed again.

Then again, a toothache’s much worse. Worse than anything. A toothache grabs hold of you and forces you to do something about it.

I’ve always had toothaches. I blame my mom. All our suffering is genetic, unless you get smashed up by a car. When I was a kid, my mom had a lot of faith in preventative education, but then she was a primary school teacher. She was always really worried about my teeth. She taught me to clean my teeth properly when I was three. “You don’t want to get teeth like your mom’s,” she’d say. She went on and on about the terrible state of her own teeth, like an old woman, but seemed full of confidence about her daughter’s dental health.

The trouble was, I could never hold the toothbrush steady, I just jabbed it all over the place. “From top to bottom – at a 45-degree angle,” she’d sigh. “Left side, right side, slowly, slowly, brush, brush … slow down, slow down. Remember: patience and perseverance.”

When we all had to do military drills, I stood on the school parade ground and kept thinking back to the training I’d had cleaning my teeth. My teeth earned me a lot of beatings, though they can’t have been that bad – the pain has faded now. I never dared defy my mother. If I ever said ‘no’, she’d jab her long, straight forefinger at me and make me stand with my face to the wall for hours. I just knew I had to avoid toothache, whatever it took.

I was never allowed to eat anything sweet, even candied olives. I remember leaving school on Children’s Day with armfuls of sweets – even the wrappers looked good enough to eat. But as soon as I got home, my mother grabbed them and took them away.

“People can do without sweet things, but they can’t do without teeth,” my mother said. “And once your teeth rot, you’ve had it.”

There was never any sweetness in my childhood. When I was a child, it was never: “The big bad wolf will get you!” It was always: “Your teeth will rot!” But they rotted anyway.

It started before I was five years old. I can see it clearly now. We were eating dinner – pork belly – when a sharp pain jabbed into my left molar. Cold sweat trickled down my spine, my mouth gaped. It wasn’t the pain so much, it was more the terrifying prospect it opened up. My mother was staring at me in horror, so I shut my mouth and carried on chewing as if nothing had happened. But my mother wasn’t so easily fooled.

“Open your mouth!” she commanded. I kept on munching. “Open!” she shouted again, threatening me with her chopsticks. But before I could move a muscle, she threw them down in despair. “I’ve told you a thousand times to brush your teeth properly. Properly! But you never listen.”

God knows I tried. I mean, I was worried about my teeth, too.

The toothaches which followed were so awful I wanted to die. It was all my mother’s fault, that was obvious, I’d inherited her teeth. The pain was unbearable.

As I lay in the dentist’s chair for the first time I couldn’t see his face behind the mask, all I could see were his eyes swivelling back and forth. I had no idea what he was going to do. I was full of imagined terrors. The instruments clattered in the metal dish as I gripped the arms of the chair.

The drill turned, then stopped – a fierce warning – then approached my mouth.

I opened wide, not out of fear, but to please my mother, to ask for her forgiveness. The drill turned in my mouth. It didn’t hurt, it just whined and tickled – it was almost pleasant.

It started to hurt, but only a bit. I could bear the pain. When it hurt more, I dug my fingernails into my palms and put up with it. I stuck my legs out, like a boiled frog, taking it, taking it, until I passed out.

I’ll never forget that nightmare as long as I live. I gradually lost my teeth one after another. They were drilled, filled, and pulled again and again, with every conceivable kind of dental tool, but it was always the same.

“All I can do is kill the nerve,” said the dentist, rapping on a sore tooth.

“That way it won’t hurt,” said my father. “Pain comes through the nerve.”

My father was a medical man too, a doctor. He thought that the science lesson would calm me down, but it only made me worry all the more. Our bodies are covered with a dense mesh of nerves, he said, with blood flowing through countless veins and arteries. As the blood brushed the artery walls, a nerve might crackle into life, like an electric spark. The thought terrified me.

My head was full of weird ideas like this. When my face got red in PE I’d say “It’s the blood rushing to my head.” If someone had a cold, I would explain how the white blood cells were locked in battle at that moment with the invading germs. It didn’t make me any more popular, in fact I think it made my classmates sick. I wasn’t even popular with the teacher.

She was never very sympathetic when I said I was in pain. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“But it hurts!” I protested.

“You’re such a little flower,” she said, and pointed to the class monitor. “Why can’t you be more like her?”

The class monitor was a tough one, even though she was a girl. She was very grown up, too. Once she fell into an uncovered drain on the way back from school – she just crawled out with a huge bump on her head and a broken hand. The highways department tried to make out it was all her own fault, but she stood up in front of the class, her head held high and her bump throbbing, and told us all how she conquered the pain. At the end she raised her arm in salute but came up short – the sling got in the way. Still she didn’t flinch. How come it didn’t hurt? I flinched just looking at her.

I’ve been through agony. Headache, toothache, backache, bruises, sprains, torn muscles – they’ve hounded me with intense, raw pain all my life. I’ve thought about ending it all, but that would hurt even more, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, once you’re dead there’s no more pain, and that’s some sort of liberation. I used to rack my brains for a way to die that didn’t hurt. Jumping into a river? Hanging myself? Cutting my veins? Maybe overdosing on sleeping pills – after all, it couldn’t hurt once you were asleep. I started sneaking into the pharmacy at my father’s hospital, messing about and chatting up the technicians while I figured out which brown bottle held the sleeping pills. I’d steal a few when they weren’t looking. Just a few – I didn’t want to get caught.

Planning ahead came easily to me. I didn’t dare keep them at home, in case my parents looked in my room, so I tucked them in the lining of my pencil case and carried them around in my school bag. Setting out for school every morning was like saying goodbye for the last time. I’d slip away with a long, sad look at all the familiar things I was leaving behind.

Then there was something on the news about some woman who’d killed herself with an overdose. Her face was bright purple, as if she’d been strangled.

“But she just took too many sleeping pills,” I blurted out. “How can that hurt?”

“What makes you think an overdose isn’t painful?” my father asked.

My heart sank like a stone. It seemed impossible to die without pain.

“What a crazy kid!” said my mother. “You’re too young to think about dying.”


My periods started when I was thirteen – and so did the period pains. Once in biology it hurt so much I rolled off my chair and under the desk. The teacher rushed me straight off to the sickroom.

“Just your time of the month,” said the nurse.

But I was in such pain that I couldn’t help rolling around on the bed. The lesson finished and my classmates clattered down the stairs, making the whole building shake. They crowded round the sickroom door – I was so ashamed. There was nothing I could do. Some of the boys even started calling me names. Then the biology teacher came and chased them away.

“What do you think you’re doing? What’s all the fuss about? It’s a normal thing that happens with girls’ bodies!” All the boys ran off shouting.

It was so embarrassing. The boys gave me weird looks, like I was that plastic model of the human body in the lab and they were taking me apart to read my secrets. And the girls ignored me, because somehow, through me, they’d become specimens too and I’d revealed their secrets. When we had to line up separately, boys and girls, the girls bunched up together and left me on my own. It was as if I was a different sex, as if they didn’t have periods, as if the ads for sanitary towels on the TV weren’t aimed at them. They were ever so careful to stuff their sanitary towels firmly inside their knickers so they wouldn’t show. They talked and laughed as if there was nothing going on. If the PE teacher asked them to run the 1,500 meters, they just ran. But I couldn’t. I wanted to act like normal when I had a period, but I couldn’t keep running. I made a fool of myself again: I tripped and fell over. The school called my parents and I was sent off to my father’s hospital.

An old man was bent over at reception, gripping on to the bars of the window and vomiting out his guts. Where were his family? My dad took me straight in – no need to wait in the queue, or register at reception – and they started all the checks: temperature, blood pressure and so on. So much for special treatment. Every patient has to be checked over, even top Party officials, special treatment or no.

The doctor ordered me to lie down and take off my trousers. I was really embarrassed, even though it was a woman. Suddenly I felt a strange, tearing pain. All my nerves went into spasm. For the first time I really noticed that part of my body. It hurt. But that hand was pitiless, the way it pushed itself inside. Then she stood up and washed her hands.

“There’s nothing the matter.”

Nothing the matter? I was obviously still in pain. She sat down at her desk.

“I’ll write you a script for the herbalist.”

Herbs? That wasn’t going to work in a hurry. You had to pick them up from the pharmacy, take them home, soak them, cook them, then steep them again like tea… I’d seen my mother do it a thousand times. But this pain was so severe I couldn’t bear it for another second!

“I don’t want herbs! I want Western medicine!” I screeched.

The doctor was surprised. Then she looked at my dad and smiled. “She knows a lot about medicine for such a young girl.” “Herbal medicine has fewer side effects,” my Dad put in, smiling back.

“I don’t care about side effects! I want Western medicine!” She smiled again and stroked the back of my head. “There’s nothing the matter.” She’d said it again. What was she on about? There was nothing wrong with her, obviously, she wasn’t in pain. I just wanted to curl up under the bed.

“I don’t want herbal medicine!” I wailed.

Eventually I got my prescription. But it didn’t do any good. A month went by and it hit me again. I was rolling around on the floor in the middle of the night, all sticky. I was rolling around in blood.

My room was wrecked. The bed was messed up, the clothes were all over the floor and my sheets were tangled round the legs of the table. My mom panicked and begged Dad to go fetch his friend, the director of gynaecology. He went off and my mom started clearing up the room, yelling at me to get up. But I just couldn’t, even when she tried to drag me to my feet.

“What’s the point in lying on the floor,” she shouted. “How’s the floor going to make it any better?”

But the floor did make it better. I was at one with the blood, the mess and the dirt. I pressed my face against the tiles and gave them a kiss. She pulled at me and slapped me and my face burned and I started to sob. My mother opened the door and the director came in, bringing the cold night air with her. I stopped crying and looked at her feet. They were very bony, like a wise, old face. I crawled nearer. Lying in front of her, I started to hope she might save me.

She bent down to me, stethoscope at the ready, and listened to my chest. I longed for her to find a symptom, to tell me what was wrong.

Her face was as blank as her feet. She stood up slowly and put the stethoscope back into her pocket. She asked my father to show her what I was taking. Was it the wrong medicine? Maybe she’d start criticising the doctor who’d prescribed it and give her the sack. After all, she was the head of department. But she didn’t do any of that.

“Just keep taking those,” she said.

It was as if the lights had gone out. Couldn’t she see when someone was ill? What kind of a director was she? Was she just in the job for the perks?

“Once she’s married, it’ll get better.”

Dad stumbled out his thanks, took her to the sitting room and shut the door.

Get better once I’m married? Why? I had no idea. Surely marriage would bring even more pain? All that rubbing, that pressing… and what about giving birth? All that straining – your womb swollen, the skin stretched tight, the vagina torn as that thing forces its way through. There would be no salvation then. All you could do was repent. Repent getting married, repent growing the vile seed inside you. Why were all these women so over the moon about girls getting married, having babies, living like this? It seemed like a con to me. The director of gynaecology conned the sick, old crones conned the young, mothers conned their daughters, pregnant women conned themselves and as soon as the pain was over, they started thinking about another child. Couldn’t they remember? Was there no end to suffering?


It wasn’t the gynaecologist’s fault. She really was a very good doctor. But if there was nothing a doctor like her could do for my pain, then what was the point of medicine?

I only made it into the world thanks to her. I was a breach baby. They asked my dad if they should save the mother or the baby. He said the mother, of course – it was what everybody said back then. But the operation was a success – in fact a pioneering success – and my long-suffering body survived. Maybe that’s why I resented the gynaecologist.

My father also used to go around with a stethoscope and a white coat. He would stand very straight by the bed with his hands in his pockets, and as he watched the patients writhe and cry out in pain all he would do was push his specs back up the bridge of his nose. He was used to it.

He was a doctor. The bottom line for him was saving lives, even if the patient wound up a vegetable. That was all he knew how to do.

My father always stood up tall, until the day liver cancer felled him. Everyone said he’d got the wrong disease. He didn’t smoke, or drink, or eat pickles or any fried food. He had none of those bad habits which are supposed to cause cancer. If you were superstitious, you’d say that it was because Yama the King of Hell hated him for snatching so many people from its jaws. But I reckon he got ill because he had seen so much suffering. A doctor can’t live the good life, spouting the kind of pleasant bullshit people want to hear. May you live a long, long life. May you be prosperous. May you enjoy your rest. No, doctors have to face up to the relentless cruelty of human existence.

Without his white coat, my father lost all his dignity. Those coats look after doctors even better than the Party looks after its members. Other people get sick, catch diseases, die … but not doctors. As soon as he was diagnosed, my father was reduced to a mere mortal.

Frail and helpless, they wheeled him from surgery to radiotherapy, from radiotherapy to chemotherapy. He used to plead with his old colleagues like a child as they prepared him for treatment: “I don’t want it! I don’t want it!” Stage four cancer is horrifically painful.

No one could save him. All we could do was watch and weep as he shrivelled up. At the end he was nothing but skin and bones. He had been a big man, 1.8 meters and 73 kilos, full of energy for all his forty years. Now something unimaginably powerful was crushing that vitality out of him.

“Dad,” I asked. “Does it hurt?”

“Yes,” he said, and then more loudly, “ife is just a big trap, and I fell right into it!”

My father knew he wouldn’t get better right from the start. He knew far more about it than the rest of us. He was a doctor. We made pathetic attempts to deceive him. Sometimes we told him he looked better, plumper in the face. Other times, we said his tumor had reduced in size, or that before the year was out there would be a new, groundbreaking anti-cancer drug. He just smiled. His smile was all that was left of him, but sometimes it allowed us to believe, naïvely, that there was hope.

One of the doctors looking after my dad had worked under him as a junior doctor, and had become his assistant. In those days, he was my father’s shadow – they would go everywhere together. Three days before my dad died, he stopped his assistant while he was doing the rounds.

“Give me some pethidine,” he said.

The doctor flinched as though he had been knifed in the ribs. Pethidine is an opiate – everyone thought it was as bad as heroin. He opened his mouth to speak, but my father stopped him with a look. The assistant left the room without a word.

My father was very dignified while he was dying. He just lay there quietly until he sank into a coma. Once he called my name, his voice filled with an extraordinary calm. I was amazed to see how he accepted death.

Another time his colleagues were conferring in whispers by the window, the sunlight pouring in and giving them a sort of fantastical halo. And then he said it again: “Pethidine.” I’ll never forget the look of panic on their faces.


My father’s assistant was always there when me and my mom visited the hospital. If he was sitting down, he would stand up straight away, arms by his sides. If my dad wasn’t with him, he would say politely “Ah, the Director is…”

After my dad died, I bumped into him at the hospital.

He stammered out, “Ah, the Director is…” and blushed scarlet.

I smiled and finished it off for him “…in the grave.” He smiled back and said he was sorry.

I was always bumping into him at the hospital, accidentally on purpose, of course. I liked the way he panicked whenever he saw me, like a rabbit in the headlights. I used to go straight to his consulting room and lean against the examination couch, watching him. He’d carry on, but he knew I was there. His colleagues would come in and give me a knowing smile, but I didn’t care if they thought something was going on between us. I liked it. He was always embarrassed. After the patient left he’d make a clumsy show of surprise, as if he’d only just noticed me. “Oh! Were you looking for me? Is something up?” He wouldn’t even look at me. He’d just stare at the wall, as if he was talking to the poster hanging there. It read: “The Party is our mother and our father. Patients are our family.”

“You mean I can only come looking for you if something’s up?” I asked.

Now he was confused. I liked seeing him in a fix. He looked like a thief. All men are really thieves – I was just persuading him to follow his instincts.

Of course I knew what would happen if I carried on like this. Pain. That was the price I’d have to pay. I’d never been in love, was never going to be. But would I be able to avoid the pain of making love? That gynaecologist who’d burrowed so brutally into me said that things would be better when I was married. But I could remember the pain, the way my vagina went into spasms. I still had bad dreams about a drill tearing into those walls and bloody red pulp gushing out.

For women it is pain and more pain. Pain is a woman’s fate. When Chairman Mao asked his ministers how to get a cat to eat a chili, Liu Shaoqi said to starve it for two weeks. Zhou Enlai said to hide the chili inside a piece of fish. But Mao shook his head.

“Stick the chili up the cat’s arse,” he said. “The cat licks where it hurts, so it eats the chili. The more it hurts, the more it licks.”

The more it hurts, the more it licks…

My dad’s assistant told me it takes time for feelings to grow, that he didn’t believe in love at first sight. He was like a key fitting tooth by tooth into a lock, with his fine words. He was pure reason, but I was a piece of trash. I loathe reason. Reason is the sort of rubbish you can indulge in when life is sweet, like love and honor. I totally reject it. The way he said the word “marriage” made it sound so right and proper, but he couldn’t see how it was tearing me apart.

I hated it when he took me out shopping, or to the cinema. I detested sitting in tea houses, sipping all sorts of brews. I couldn’t stand going to Western restaurants, hacking at a slab of steak with a fork in my left hand and a knife in my right. And he would just sit there, cold and uncaring, bragging about his qualifications. I told him he was just like Zhang Yimou. He wasn’t happy about that at all.

“What do you mean?” he protested. “He’s just a director. He’s only famous because his films get good reviews. I’ve got exams.”

He could never bear the cheating that went on in examinations. He wanted so much to believe in them, to believe he had got into medical school purely through his own talent. But it’s pathetic to take an exam, whether you cheat or not. People with real political clout never need to sit them, they make other people study hard and take the tests, they control the system.

Once he brought all his certificates along in a briefcase.

“This is my capital,” he said as he showed them to me, one by one. “All my capital!”

I pictured him laying them out every night on the bed in his room like a winning hand of cards, then flinging himself down beside them in an ecstasy of delight. As for me, I was like a whore touting her pussy, or rather a girl trading her virginity and finding there was no one who was willing to invest.

I shoved his precious certificates away. What good were they for a headache or a sore foot? He quickly put them back in order.

“This is science,” he said, like a primary school kid putting on his red scarf for the first time. He knew all about science, he had all sorts of technology at his fingertips. But sometimes it seemed he didn’t really believe in it.

“If everything goes well, I’ll get promoted soon – the first in my year to get a proper job.”

He was always very careful with his prescriptions, even lowering the dosage sometimes, thinking that the slightest mistake could ruin his career. He used to tell me that his family was different to mine.

“My grandfather was a peasant, my father was a factory worker and now I’m an educated man,” he said. “I love my job, but it wasn’t easy to get here.”

Sometimes I prayed he would screw up and prescribe poison. He’d be destroyed – it wouldn’t do him any good loving his job then. But every time he wrote out a script, he’d tilt up the pad and check it over. He even shredded his old pads. I could never get hold of one.

My mom knew I was up to something, even though I never breathed a word. She must have figured my pain would lead me to do something stupid. After my dad died, our home crumbled, leaving my mother pitiably, ridiculously, alone, a pillar left standing in the ruins of the Summer Palace. She worried about me more and more. Every time I cried out “It hurts!” she’d snap back, “Why are you wailing like that?” My illness scared her. It was as if I was a ghost howling at her. Howling at the whole world.

The doctors all knew about the famous clinician’s daughter who had this terrible illness. Did doctors pass down disease to their children, they wondered. But no one lifted a finger to help me.

Mom would tell me how her generation had lived – putting things to rights after the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening Up period, respecting education, developing the economy, the fight against corruption, the progress towards a glorious future.

“Your generation is so lucky, what more do you want? You just don’t know how lucky you are…” ’

But the word “glorious” was like hitting a gleaming pane of reinforced glass – I was in more pain than ever.

“What more do I want? I want to be happy!” I shouted. “You think I’m really happy? I’m in pain, I’ve been in pain ever since I was born! You shouldn’t have had me if you couldn’t give me happiness. Why shouldn’t I go and look for happiness myself?”

“Of course there’s still a dark side to society,” she admitted. It was something she would never have said before. “‘There are people out there who who pretend they know just what you’re going through, but actually they’re just trying to get you on to their side. The dark side of society,” she continued, whispering now, “comes from the speed at which society is developing, a speed which has produced psychological disorders in some people. It’s a problem we will have to face…”

So it was just psychological? Hadn’t she seen me sick for the last 20 years? She was behaving like some big doctor, more doctorly than any doctor, brandishing her miracle cure. No. It wasn’t true. I didn’t have a psychological disorder. I was just in pain. It had nothing to do with the dark side of society. I was just in pain. Pain. Pure pain!

I hated the way no one would really treat my illness. I hated the strange way my mother wanted to deal with it instead. I hated her logic. She was so complacent.

“So how come all you did was cry when dad was sick?” I asked. “Why did you let him die in so much pain?”

“You think you’re the only one in pain?” my mother howled back. “I hurt all over too! I’ve had all sorts of gynaecological problems. Eroded cervix, inflamed pelvis, obstructed fallopian tubes. None of it’s ever cleared up. I don’t go around shouting about that, do I? No one should ever expect to be completely well!”

I looked at her in astonishment. She was drowning in her own despair. I burst into floods of tears, crying like a helpless baby.

“A girl shouldn’t let people think she’s too easy!” my mother yelled.

“Easy?” So she was calling me a whore. I ran out of the house.

It was a moonless night. As I walked down the street a 17-car alarm went off and the neighbors poked their heads out between the bars of their security grilles – frightened birds shut away in their luxurious cages. Every possession was guarded by alarms, defended by metal bars with reinforced, galvanised, stainless steel tubing, protected by lock after lock as if otherwise it would just fly away. A locksmith society. A society where prescription medicines had given way to quack remedies. A society where all our troubles would be solved by city-building, share-trading, property-holding, piano-playing, English classes, Peking opera classes, the internet economy and the virtual world. But it had nothing to do with me. I was a whore.

I went to the hospital accommodation block and knocked at his door. The assistant opened the door and I collapsed at his feet. He picked me up and panicked and pulled me inside.

“I’m in pain!” I cried.



Of course, I wasn’t in any pain at all. I was just making it up.

Now I was pretending, I could see pain was nothing to fear. I was writing pain on to my body as if I was writing it on to a piece of paper. I struggled and yelled so skillfully that it was more convincing than the real thing.

“Please! Stop screaming!” he begged. “Someone’ll hear!” He was starting to sweat. I carried on screaming.

“I’m begging you! Stop screaming! I’ll go and get you some medicine.”

“Medicine! It doesn’t do any good! I’ve had this all my life!”

“OK … then I’ll tell your mother.”

“Don’t you dare tell my mom. I’ll die right here in your room!”

He went pale.

“So what do we do?”

“Give me some pethidine!”

It was as if my father was talking. His stern, commanding tones rang out, pronouncing the name of that blessed, addictive drug that allowed people to live and die with dignity. The assistant grew paler still.

“But that’s a controlled drug!”

“Give me some pethidine!”

The three syllables landed like blows from a whip.

“Stop saying that!” He didn’t care if anyone thought he was up to no good with a woman in his room, so long as they didn’t hear us talking about pethidine.You don’t realize how addictive it is …”

“Give me pethidine!” I insisted, like a vengeful spirit.

“Listen …”


He fell silent.

He went across the room, opened the door and swung round.

“No more noise.”


At last there was no pain. For the first time ever. No pain. So this was happiness. His bed was very soft. His room was spacious, spanned with an A-frame of beams. A furled mosquito net hung down like a whip, twitching in the breeze. My body was strangely empty, waiting for something to fill it up. Was this love? I called his name, but he didn’t answer. He just stood there, looking at me as if I shouldn’t be so happy, as if it wasn’t me any more, as if it was only me when I was sick and racked with pain. I had no right to be happy.

“To be honest, I wasn’t really in love with you before,” I said.

I didn’t care if he was shocked, if he was angry. He’d forgive me and take me in his arms. But he just sank down on to a chair. I felt so sorry for him. I stretched out my arms to embrace him, but he jerked away as if a terrifying hole had opened up before him. Was he so inhibited he couldn’t take happiness when it was offered to him?

“It’s true!” I said. “Honestly. All I really wanted before was that…”

I pointed to the empty syringe on the bedside table. He shot out of the chair and rushed over to pick it up, jabbing his hand on the needle. I grabbed him and started to suck at the wound. I loved him. But again he jerked away, as if he had been electrocuted. I put my arms around him and held him tight.

“It’s all my fault! Blame me, hit me if you want!” He pushed me away and stood up.

“I’m taking you home.”

“I’m not going!”

“OK,” he said. “I’ll go and sleep in the office.”

“No!” I screamed. I threw myself at him. He backed away, as if scared by the warmth of my body. My pain flooded back, a sharp pain like a cold wind blowing over a rotting tooth. My happiness had gone up in flames, disappearing like a smile on a photograph thrown on to a raging fire. Why couldn’t he stay?

“Just give me a little bit more!” I begged him, grabbing at his arm.

He wrenched away from me, terrified, and leaped for the door, still clutching the empty syringe and dripping blood.

I grabbed it from him and he yelled, “What are you doing?”

I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was that it hurt, just like when I was a child lying in the dentist’s chair. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to kill myself. Or I wanted to make myself hurt all over, to be saturated in pain and happiness. Or I wanted to cut out my emotions, I wanted to kill them. I jabbed the syringe at my chest. He threw himself at me and snatched my weapon. I hung on to him like grim death.

“You’re crazy!” he yelled. His body reeked of formaldehyde. So the world thinks I’m crazy. The world is dead to me.


He turned himself in, saying he couldn’t forgive himself for prescribing pethidine illegally. He got off scot-free. Pretty soon he was the mainstay of the unit, hailed as a model doctor. He probably did a deal with them.

When he took me to rehab he told me he no longer believed I was in love with him. They tested my blood and my urine – there was nothing wrong, but they wouldn’t let me out all the same. Maybe they were just jealous I had felt the ecstasy of pethidine instead of the pain of ordinary life.

“Did it really feel that good?” they would ask, greed glinting in their eyes.

“Try it for yourselves.” I said.

“We can’t do that,” they said, suddenly serious. “We’re here to make you better.”

They told me my family had come to see me. They led me down the corridor to the visitors’ room, past the noticeboard full of press cuttings about the assistant’s high principles, the banner with the glorious slogan: “Say goodbye to drugs! Make a new life!”

He was standing with my mother – I hadn’t expected that – his arm around her shoulder as if she was an old woman. She smiled as if she was being looked after by a dutiful son. But she was just putting on an act, trying to make me forget real happiness.

“We’re waiting for you,” he said solemnly, as if it was something to do with him.

“Waiting for me to do what?”

“To come out!” Mom said.

“Come out and do what?”

“Just come out…” she smiled. “Silly girl. We can begin a new life.”

I smiled too, and said with a touch of pride, “But you don’t understand pain.” ∎


This translation by Nicky Harman was originally published in The Book of Sins (Forty-six, 2014), and is published here with permission.
Header: The Torment of Saint Anthony, by Michelangelo, a free-use image from Wikipedia.