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01/09/2014

Withnail

Stephen Fothergill

I wonder what would happen.

Daniel Prowse had asked himself this many times, and, now that he was at university, and truly independent, it was possible to find out for himself. Daniel was fascinated by Dermaptera: earwigs, as they are commonly known. This had begun when he was a seven-year-old boy, when Ralph, his elder brother, terrorised him by describing how lethal earwigs could be.

‘They creep into your ear when you’re asleep,’ Ralph said, ‘to bury themselves deep into your brain to lay their eggs.’

With characteristic sadism, he embellished the tale further.

‘If the eggs hatch it means certain death,’ he said. ‘The hatchling earwigs devour your brain and cause insanity. Death would be a welcome release from the pain of them slowly munching their way through your head.’

Ralph had smirked with satisfaction at his brother’s apparent terror, but Daniel was no fool. Though no physical match for his twelve-year-old brother, he knew that Ralph was easily manipulated. Daniel’s terror was just a feint to appease Ralph’s cruelty. In reality, he was sceptical. As soon as Ralph’s attention had wandered, he began to research earwigs in his encyclopaedia.

In the years since, Daniel’s observations confirmed to him that the wriggling insects were almost certainly harmless.

Even their vicious looking pincers posed no significant danger—to humans, that is.

Daniel’s knowledge of earwigs grew. But, regardless of his conviction that they were harmless, he was tantalised by the question of what it would be like if one did crawl into his ear. I need to do more research, he thought, but was mystified when he failed to unearth a single corroborated study of long-term earwig occupancy in the human ear. He was intrigued. He became convinced that there was an opportunity, and his determination to carry out his own experiment began to grow.

*

Daniel did well enough at school to gain a place at university, but, disappointingly for his parents, he fell short of what was needed for Cambridge. Daniel didn’t care. He knew that they only wanted him to get a place there to be able to brag about it to their friends and neighbours. In fact, Daniel was perfectly content with Sheffield, his second choice. It had a good reputation for biology, and in particular, entomology. Sheffield was also largely devoid of the crushing snobs that he had found when he had gone for the interview at Cambridge. He knew perfectly well that he was capable of achieving top marks, but decided instead to do just well enough for his own objectives. Sheffield was his real choice, and he took pride in his ability to maintain control over the admission process to suit his own ends. He knew exactly what was required to gain top marks, and had successfully pitched his efforts a fraction below. His parents were crushed with disappointment. Daniel was flushed with elation.

He had found the first year in Sheffield enjoyable and he liked the city. He also found his course interesting, but he was disappointed at the limited opportunities for actual ‘hands-on’ laboratory and field work. He decided to take the initiative and to make full use of his independence. All he needed was a few days of seclusion. On the pretext of catching up with a backlog of work, he phoned his parents to say that he would not be coming home for the forthcoming Easter holiday.

*

Daniel’s experiment began. His left ear housed an earwig that he had selected and placed there himself. He was convinced that it posed no physical threat, and in fact he had predicted the exact opposite. He had not expected the earwig, which he had named Withnail, to survive for more than a few hours, but in this he had been proven wrong. Not only was Withnail still alive, but after five days actually seemed to be thriving.

Daniel knew that the ideal Dermaptoran environment is dark, moist warmth, but despite his ear providing exactly those conditions, he had assumed at the very least that Withnail would find the human ear hostile, and would quickly depart in search of more suitable habitation. Either that or his ear might actively respond to the intrusion, and reject the intruder by increased earwax secretion. But neither happened, and he could still feel Withnail’s rhythmic wriggling as the insect went about its business. He had not expected the earwig to be so active, and Daniel would sit motionless, in deep concentration, as he tried to imagine what Withnail was up to as he wended his wriggling way back and forth along Daniel’s aural canal.

*

On the sixth day of the experiment, Daniel woke with a severe headache. He sat on the edge of his bed for several minutes, trying to decide if Withnail was definitely the cause, as he had suffered from headaches as a boy. He tried to recall what medication his mother had used. Was it paracetamol, or codeine? He couldn’t remember which, but he resisted the urge to call his mother to find out. If only he could speak to his girlfriend, Esther, he thought. She would have been decisive in dealing with his predicament, but she was not contactable.

Daniel was alone. He didn’t want to alert the halls staff, and considered instead attending the local Accident and Emergency Department. He was almost on the point of actually doing so, but then relented and decided to give his experiment another twenty-four hours. If Withnail is still thriving tomorrow, he thought, I’ll definitely seek medical help. After rummaging around in the communal kitchen, he found a box containing four paracetamol capsules. He swallowed two with gulps of tap-water. The pain began to diminish within minutes.

Prior to the headache, Withnail’s wriggling and scurrying caused just a tingling sensation, similar, Daniel thought, to when water invades the ear when swimming. Withnail was also the smallest earwig specimen that Daniel could find, and his estimation of his aural vestibule providing adequate space for an earwig to live in seemed to have been confirmed. However, his growing confidence in proving that earwigs were indeed harmless was offset by his corresponding alarm at Withnail’s continuing survival. Though convinced that his brain was not the earwig’s ultimate objective, he was nevertheless deeply concerned at the increasing duration of Withnail’s occupancy.

Daniel tried to put the experiment from his mind, and to concentrate instead upon his coursework. The solitude in the halls suited him. His only expeditions outside were brief visits to the local convenience store for essential food items. Other than that he stayed in his room. Not going out avoided the need to take a shower, so he didn’t risk ruining the experiment through Withnail’s accidental drowning.

*

Despite his best efforts to ignore Withnail, Daniel lay in bed at the end of the sixth day with a sense of intense foreboding. The headache had returned during the afternoon, and he had tolerated it until almost midnight and then took the remaining two paracetamol capsules. Withnail’s activity and habits seemed to have synchronised with his own, and as the pain subsided once more, Daniel made himself comfortable. As he began to drift off to sleep, and had the uncanny feeling that the earwig was preparing to do likewise.

*

The following morning—day seven of the experiment— Daniel was shocked to find Withnail dead on the pillow. He examined the tiny corpse closely, but could find no obvious signs of distress or injury. A little disappointed, he put the dead insect in a specimen dish for a more detailed laboratory examination after the holiday. He was relieved that his ear was now vacant, the headache had not returned, and his hypothesis was apparently proven. But he felt a slight sense of loss nevertheless. He felt oddly alone.

He showered for the first time in days; afterwards, as he shaved away his growth of stubble, he considered going home to his parents’ house for the last few days of the holiday. No, Daniel thought, he would stay where he was. Besides, Esther had sent a text saying that she was returning early. He felt rejuvenated by his shower and shave, and the thought of Esther’s return. He tapped out a reply to her message saying that he had decided to take a walk through nearby Weston Park, and then to get something to eat in the West Street restaurant district.

*

Later that afternoon, in the student quarter close to West Street, Daniel browsed a second-hand bookstore that doubled as a coffee shop. He and Esther were regulars there. And, as he scrutinised the bookshelves, he became aware of eyes upon him. He turned around to find Esther seated at one of the cafe’s small round tables. When she saw that Daniel had noticed her, she smiled and theatrically beckoned him with a flourishing sweep of her hand towards the chair opposite hers.

He gazed directly into Esther’s eyes as she told him about the wonderful time she’d had with her sisters at the family’s holiday home in Whitby. Daniel tried to ignore increasing pulses of pain in his head as he sipped his coffee and listened to her. I’ll tell her about Withnail some other time, he thought, as he tried to put the growing headache from his mind. His left ear was still inflamed, and was infuriatingly itchy. He continually poked it to try and ease the discomfort. Eventually Esther paused in mid-sentence.

‘What’s wrong with your ear?’

Daniel shook his head in surprise as he realised she was asking him a question. ‘Eh, what was that?’

‘Why are you constantly poking your ear?’

Daniel lied, explaining that he had always been susceptible to ear infections. They decided to have another coffee, and Daniel went to get them. As he placed Esther’s cup on the table before her, the surface of the coffee rippled as a small object dropped into it. Esther also noticed, and they both stared at the cup as the ripples subsided. After little more than a second, a tiny shape burst forth on to the surface of the coffee, its six tiny legs wriggling. Esther gasped.

‘Ugh, it’s a bug,’ she said, and shivered.

Daniel felt increasingly uneasy as he took his spoon and carefully fished out the still wriggling creature. As he leaned over the table, another identical insect dropped onto the shiny, aluminium tabletop. Daniel recognised the species immediately. He raised his eyes towards Esther’s. Her pupils were fully dilated now as she raised her hand to her mouth in horror. Daniel knew instantly what was happening, and as he raised his fingers to his left ear, three more of the newly hatched earwig nymphs fell wriggling onto the table. Esther wavered, and began to slide off her chair. Daniel stared, in horror as she fell to the floor. His head was now pulsating with pain, and as he held his hands to his ears, he realised that, despite his growing knowledge, he still had much to learn.

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