Peter Sedgwick

The Reader’s Digest

(a short story)


Peter Sedgwick, The reader’s digest, New Left Review, No.13-14, January-April 1962, pp.129-136. (short story)
© 1962 New Left Review. Reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holders.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The nurses had not reported anything very distinctly unusual about the patient. (I myself, of course, saw him only for the first time in the operating theatre.) One or two of them, however, did notice one singular trait. Throughout the days that preceded my own contact with him, he was seen to ask with particular anxiety for newspapers and reviews of a more serious character than is ordinarily available on the vendor’s trolley. Once these publications were, with some disorganisation of the ward’s routine, obtained for him, he would fall to reading or rather scrutinising them with some intensity. Other patients have commented how absorbed in this he always seemed to be for the first couple of hours after breakfast, so far as to be almost entirely oblivious of his fellows in their surrounding beds. On Fridays and Sundays he appeared quite immune to all normal conversational gambits, for most of the day. His bed would then be piled untidily with a variety of newspapers and periodicals, whose slovenly and profuse extent made it difficult to keep his bed clear for meals, temperatures, sheet-changes, gargles and the like.

Then again, always at certain set hours of each day, he would reach for the radio earphones above his bedpost, and spend some time listening attentively through them. There is nothing odd about this fact, except for the great regularity of his listening, and its concentration. He never smiled or showed any sign of enjoyment while the earphones were on. The rest of the ward concluded that whatever he was tuned in to, it was not a comedy show. Indeed, a careful checking of the hours at which he used to listen suggests that the broadcasts to which he was so warmly addicted were nothing more interesting than the news.

In the patient’s locker we have found sundry manuscripts, some of them letters, indignant in emphasis, addressed to various editors, others more lengthy, whose contents are, quite unanimously, political. (Obviously I have not read these in any great detail.)

Otherwise, the man seemed reasonably average and adjusted. Certainly he displayed no more than the ordinary degree of apprehension concerning his operation.

Electro-encephalography and other observation having revealed the presence of a malignant tumour, surgical extirpation was felt to be necessary. The consent of the patient and his closest relatives was secured for this course. Anesthetisation proceeded smoothly, and a circular section of skull was removed without any apparent complications. I located and excised the tumour – a small growth on the frontal cortical surface – fairly easily; haemorrhage was arrested as it came, all uneventfully. I was about to terminate what had so far been a simple and routine operation, when my attention was drawn to a peculiarity in the patient’s cerebral anatomy. A perfectly spherical surface, jet black in colour, was poking up visibly from an involution of the exposed frontal hemisphere.

So unprecedented a phenomenon could hardly be left unexamined. Probing told us nothing, except that it was uniformly hard – hard enough, indeed, to blunt several of our instruments. At the risk of causing minor damage, the grey matter and blood-supply in the appearance’s immediate neighbourhood were thrust back with clamps, enabling me to ascertain the full size of this remarkable and alien form. It was, from what I could make out, about three inches wide at its maximum diameter; its regular roundness continued with uninterrupted precision down to the level where it disappeared into the embedding mass of white fibres below. There was, what is more, no evident connection, neuronic or arterial, between it and the proximate tissue. Did we not know that this was the first time the patient’s brain had been exposed, one would have said that it had been inserted, or left there negligently, by some lunatic surgeon of the past.

My decision had to be taken there and then. After hesitating a little, I resolved upon extraction, reasoning that a presence so extraordinary could not serve the individual’s health, mental or physical. My forceps, though, could find no purchase upon its hard, slippery-smooth exterior. In fact, whenever I tried to grip it, it rolled. That is to say, it revolved away in the opposite direction from that in which it was at any moment pushed. Clearly it was now unseated from any nervous or other connection that it might once have had. The damage, if any at all, had been done. I therefore redoubled my efforts to seize the sphere (as it now appeared to be), and after some grappling managed to take it firmly in my gloved fingers. A single smart lifting motion, and it was out.

The theatre was in a hubbub, verging on hysteria, at the find. I summoned the most disciplinarian sister within call, and bade her restore order. I then checked the patient’s pulse and respiration, which both seemed unimpaired. Leaving my assistant to tidy the cortex, replace the skull-segment and stitch up, I retired with my stupendous booty to the hospital laboratory. The door I took care to lock, and stationed a porter outside to fob off all likely intruders. I confess that I am impatient of teamwork in research; the kudos of discovery and its publication would be mine, and mine alone.

In solitude, I filled a glass dish with saline solution, and immersed the little ball; as yet I had no idea whether any organic properties it might possess would survive the atmosphere. The ball, however, reacted to its wet environment in a peculiarly violent manner. It rolled furiously to and fro across the bottom of the glass, striking against the sides as though in quest of an exit. When these manoeuvres failed, it began to bounce up and down with mounting force, like a trapped swimmer trying to get his head above water. This likeness was reinforced by the clouds of spluttering bubbles that emerged, throughout its motions, from some orifice in it which I had failed to notice. Hurriedly, I removed my prize from the noxious element, wiped it and laid it on a table. After disgorging a few salty drops, it gradually ceased to roll, and lay immobile before me.

I was now able to examine its surface with the aid of a lens. Viewed very closely, its blackness no longer seemed quite so uniform, but rather mottled finely here and there with streaks of bright red. Its sphericity also seemed less finished, there being a few pocks and protrusions dispersed all around it which spoiled its otherwise superb contours. These imperfections were, nevertheless, scarcely evident, even when refracted through the magnifier. I had no time to speculate upon these faint blemishes: all the marvels streaming into my visual medium now receded abruptly as, to my utter astonishment, hunched as I was close over the ball, I heard it speak.

Its voice was tiny but very articulate. ‘I want blood,’ it said, ‘I want blood.’ These words were, repeated at least ten times without a pause. Whatever was emitting the noise, it did not have to stop for breath. I asked back, sensibly as I thought: ‘What kind of blood?’ (I had the ridiculous hope that the voice would specify the appropriate group.) There was no sign that I had been heard. ‘I want blood. I want blood. I want blood,’ it piped, in tones ever more rapid and shrill. There were several bottles of plasma on a nearby shelf. I selected one with a group ‘O’ label, poured a little of its contents into the glass dish, and set the ball down in the liquid for what I imagined would be its meal.

The response was even more violent than with its previous sojourn in the dish. As soon as the sphere touched the blood, it shrieked; following this, it projected itself against the glass walls with such truculent force that the dish, along with its solid and liquid burden, was dashed to the floor. Once escaped from the shattered fragments, the organism (for such it undeniably was) proceeded to roll across the parquetry in a blind, zig-zag path, stopping only briefly when it collided with a chair-leg, a wall or some other such obstacle. Invariably, however, it shied away from such contacts faster than it had arrived, seemingly in a gesture of rejection or even revulsion. ‘Not that, not that,’ the thin voice said after each collision, and: ‘I want blood. I want blood.’

I was now about to test the acceptability of a blood-sample from group ‘A’. Fortunately, I was spared the trouble by a chance encounter of the black orb with its proper nutriment. On the floor, beneath an adjoining table, just where it had been tipped from a waste-basket by the sphere’s boisterous locomotion, lay a newspaper. It was, as I recall, one of the popular or tabloid variety, and certainly more lightweight, both in bulk and format, than those which had so preoccupied our patient. (But here I anticipate: my mind had not yet forged that particular link of explanation.) Towards this discarded mass of paper the ball was now momentously wheeling. It touched the margin of the outermost page and immediately stopped in its track. Then it leapt in a frenzy on the newspaper, and commenced a swift traverse of all the columns on the back page. The sports news could not have been to its liking, for it snorted, ripped through the sheet, cast it aside and went on to the next. The business and gossip sections were likewise rejected; photographs of celebrities, comic strips and show-reviews all received short shrift, and soon lay in heaped shreds upon the floor. One long item on the front page did, however, engage the sphere’s full attention: this passage it severed from the neighbouring paper by a series of sharp impacts, crumpled, squashed into a tight lump and finally, after one or two unsuccessful essays, ate. At least, so it appeared to me, and I had situated myself reasonably near. One moment the crushed wad of paper was there next to the ball, then there was a flash of something white and the wad had gone. The spheroid attack was so impetuous that I could obtain only a glimpse of the paper scrap, before it was bunched and wadded into insignificance; and then all I saw was the tail-end of a banner-headline: VE THOUSAND REBELS KILLED.

The ball seemed satiated by its catch. It lay still again, evincing no symptom of life, except for a slight, regular sound as of mastication. Above this rhythm the piping voice could now and then be heard, only at a much-lowered volume. I approached closer, somewhat tentatively after this display of fury, and listened. Once again there was a certain repetitiveness in its utterance, though less obviously so than before:

‘Five thousand: a likely story. You can’t believe a source like that of course. Besides, they keep pretty quiet other times, don’t they, when their butchers have been on the job. Of course, there must have been some bloodshed. There would be innocent people probably killed, I admit. But then think of the situation: all those agents of the Conspiracy infiltrating, inflaming, controlling. You can’t expect us to abdicate our responsibilities when that happens. There may well have been some excesses on our size too: I’m not blind to that. Individuals may well have been provoked by the atrocious acts which can be proven even from their Press; isn’t it only human if people retaliate eye for eye? Naturally one can’t condone any barbarity. But – it’s very easy for us sitting here to condemn the men on the spot. And in any case five thousand! A suspicious figure. I know that there are those who swallow all this propaganda. Whose interests do they, serve, that’s what you have to ask. There may be a case for some enquiry under proper auspices, and even, when all things are considered, for some criticism. There are many aspects of the present affair which are unfortunate and – what’s the word? – blundering. But I notice that certain elements are jumping in pretty quickly with their resolutions and letters of protest. I can see one or two certain old names there, you bet. Did they protest when ...’

These ratiocinations were repeated, with some variations, to the accompaniment of the chewing sounds; occasionally there would be other noises, a sort of belching or painfully suppressed vomiting, or the odd grinding against some prima facie indigestible morsel, which however always seemed to be successfully assimilated in the end. After some 20 minutes of these proceedings, the ball heaved a sigh and expelled, from a chink whose rapid opening and closure I only just managed to discern, a sizeable blob of some red liquid. This done, it returned into a state of impenetrable quiescence.

Gathering a small speck of this secretion (or excretion) upon a slide, turned to a convenient microscope. I remember noting how peculiar it was that I was not surprised to find myself gazing down through the lenses at a specimen of blood.

As I was collecting my thoughts, the internal telephone rang. I answered it unwillingly, for I expected the call to be coming from a colleague, maybe even a Professor, who had heard of the revelation in the theatre downstairs and would doubtless be anxious to give me the benefit of his specialised assessment. There would be, then, two or even three names above the initial piece in the medical journal; teamwork was going to triumph after all.

It was, in fact, the matron. She had rung to tell me that the patient had regained consciousness, and seemed none the worse for the operation.

In the next days I subjected the little globe to a great assortment of mortal stimuli. Statistics and stories of infant death-rates, fatal accidents and natural calamity were of little interest to it: very little time or effort was expended in the digestion of, for example, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year or of the road casualty reports. The consumption, absorption and excretion of the Lisbon Earthquake occupied altogether no more than 4.3 seconds. Histories of war tended to take longer, especially as their sequence approached the current century. But the metabolic capacities of the organism were nowhere more strikingly in evidence than in its consideration of all material to do with revolution, counter-revolution, civil war or modern large-scale political repression. All such items were habitually tackled with at least the same degree of energy and ferocity as it had exhibited on that first afternoon in the laboratory.

It was, inevitably, not long before my colleagues and learned peers came into the secret. Indeed, I had no desire to keep the discovery to myself, once the priority of my own part in it had been duly established. The sphere therefore made several journeys with me to gatherings of men skilled in my speciality, at which it was regaled with the concentrated presentation of relevant excerpts from history books, newspapers and the like. It even gave one or two Press conferences; the newsmen, forewarned of its nature and capabilities, came equipped with an assemblage of verbal horrors fit to appal the most resilient reader. But the sphere passed through all these trials magnificently, showing, despite the lengthy convulsions one could infer as operating within it, not the slightest response indicative of strain or fatigue.

My colleagues and I were at a loss to explain a good many features of this novel organ. We did not dare to attempt its dissection, for fear of spoiling the mechanism. Radiography proved to be of no avail, yielding only a formless globular outline on the developed film. Despite its phonetic facility, the sphere itself would answer none of our questions about its purpose and structure; in fact, so unremittingly obsessive and philosophically monotonous was its language, that all investigators soon decided that this verbal behaviour was no more than a functionless by-product or effluence from the actual absorptive processes that must be mysteriously at work behind its opaque armature.

During these feverish days of enquiry, the patient had continued to convalesce normally enough. The effects of post-operative shock were now thinning away, and it became a vexing question whether or not we should acquaint him with the fact of the sphere’s removal. It was plain that the news of so drastic an amputation, and so unnatural a growth, might impede his full recovery, or even cast a depressive shadow over his whole future life. On the other hand, our patient could warrantably claim, if he ever chanced to learn the identity of the organ’s former owner, that a part of his body functioning perfectly well, and possessing no feature which could truly be said to be one of degeneration, had been excised without his consent. Whilst the success of a suit for damages brought on these terms seemed to me to be less than likely, it was not a risk that I felt eager to venture.

As it happened, circumstance intervened to melt the dilemma. Just after the first Press conference, when I was restoring the sphere to its resting-place in my safe (where it now spent every night, along with a sheaf of atrocities in case it awoke hungry), I noticed it lay perceptibly heavier in my palm than hitherto. A brief transfer to the laboratory scales confirmed that this was so. Whereas on our first encounter it had weighed no more than 336 grammes, it now tipped the pan at 518, or about a pound avoirdupois. Moreover, as I examined it more carefully, other changes were clearly in evidence: the cavities and lumps on its circumference were far more pronounced than before, and the red flecks among the black had multiplied to a fiery patina, spread evenly across the entire surface. These observations disturbed me, but I had no inkling then of their cause, or even of their interconnection. I put down the increase in weight to some process of natural growth, and the distortions of the surface to contamination or erosion from the atmosphere. Accordingly, I took care to enclose the ball perpetually, except for the times when it was performing before an audience, inside an oxygen tent kindly loaned by the maternity department.

Not that this measure made any difference. The density, discoloration and distortion of the organism all continued in their increment. I soon noticed that additions of this order were particularly marked just after a feeding session, and most so if its fare of revolting political anecdotes had been more than usually indigestible (as evidenced by the time devoted to mastication, and by the definitely hysterical character of the shrill verbal apologia by which the meal was invariably attended). For instance, after one anguished tussle with the particulars of a recent war which had entailed the deaths of 16,000 civilians, counting women and babes, the obliteration of several cities and the suppression, whether by imprisonment or slaying, of the most dedicated of that nation’s young men, the ball gained a further 11 grammes in weight, three fresh protuberances (besides the enlargement of several others) and a vivid ring of crimson extending well over a quadrant. I concluded that these deformities were the result of incomplete assimilation: as though certain features of the diet had proved too tough and intractable to be transmuted and passed out in the brief jet of blood, but were instead retained, in all their crudity, within the organism; hence its disfigurements, by reason of the constant pushing and permeation of these harsh fragments into the shell itself. There could now, of course, be no question of re-instating the globe within its original host. The cavity whence it had been extracted would now be too small and smooth to endure its new dimensions, and it was not certain that the brain tissue beneath could bear the extra load without the chance of some crucial rupture. I was even able to reflect that my decision to extract had been firmly justified; for, had the sphere remained in its natural site, subject over the years to incessant bombardments of bloody information from the patient’s reading-habits, it would have assuredly undergone, before his decease, no less dangerous a metamorphosis than that which we had just witnessed. The man simply could not have survived another decade in that condition, without some frightful invasion of his higher faculties from the swollen devourer. What his behaviour would have been like under such a handicap, I for one am mercifully unable to imagine.

The patient had now been moved to a convalescent hospital near the outskirts of the city. Occasionally I went to examine him, without of course disclosing that I was the surgeon responsible for his operation. He was, I was glad to see, intact in every sense. I gave strict orders that his environment be kept free of all matter that might excite him unduly. His visitors were warned to keep their conversation muted in tone and content, and the daily regimen in his private ward was held to its mildest minimum. The day would soon come when I could introduce myself, broach the news of his late and unique appendage, and ask him whether its presence, or its contemporary absence, had been the cause of any untoward experiences.

It was even my whim (though this was not to be until he was recovered to the very pink of normalcy) to crown my exposition with a display of the little ball in the midst of its quaint activity. Alas, this ambition (and so many others with it) was frustrated by a mishap which I cannot forgive myself even today. I was crossing the grounds of my hospital one night, rejoicing in the virile sharpness of the weather, and holding the glass dome in which, pumped intermittently with the purest air, it was my custom to transport the sphere on its shorter journeys. Its convulsions that evening had been extraordinarily powerful; in order to provide a finale for its posturings before my distinguished spectators, I had reserved a notable morsel of injustice for its last dish. This consisted of a copious Press-cutting relating the disappearance, in most suspicious circumstances, of a gifted and rebellious young idealist associated with a political trend highly prejudicial to the interests of a certain government. The government concerned (it is one sufficiently well-known) did not even deign to issue a statement justifying the grisly abduction. Consequently, aside from the bare details of the deed itself, the sphere had very meagre data of the sort that might be ingested to dissolve and reduce the more awkward facts of the case.

Its fits and burblings showed no sign of nearing completion when the session drew to its close. It may be that its capacity for digesting such stuff had been overtaxed by constant stimulation; or, conceivably, the individual character of this particular death, in contrast to the undifferentiated mass of killings enumerated in other items, had served to pick out or render symbolic the innocence of the victim. At all events, the sphere was still grappling inwardly with the affair as I was walking back with it through the -hospital grounds. As I journeyed, trying to distract my mind from its palpitations by gazing into the beauty of the stars, I began to experience a mounting disgust, of a kind I have never felt before or since, towards the organism and all its operations. A spate of loud clangs from it as it rolled fretfully against the glass caused me to glance, involuntarily, towards my charge. The ball, if its manifold distortions would permit it still to be named thus, was revolving over the dome’s base, aimless and babbling.

As I looked, the orifice in its red-blotched mass opened, and the remainder of the cutting, pulped, wadded and half-bloody was thrust out into the air. It remained so only for a few seconds: for, as if determined never to concede defeat, the sphere again pounced upon the wad and engulfed it, gnashing and snapping with whatever it possessed for teeth. The high obbligato of rationalisation still went on, but in a form no longer distinguishable as articulate speech. Digestion would, no doubt, have been resumed, but at this point my disgust rose within me to a veritable paroxysm. We were passing close by the hospital incinerator; blind with wrath, I rushed to it, opened the door of the active furnace, and hurled the dome, the base and the little ball far inside. As I slammed the door tight upon its instantaneous agonies, I thought I heard a shrill, piping cry: it sounded like ‘Thank you’. The loss to science is irreparable.

My grief and self-reproach at this foolish act was intensified a few days later by the sad news of my patient. Against my express instructions to the contrary, some idiot of a nurse had brought him the day’s newspaper. The consequences were so swift and pell-mell that all reports are confused. It seems, however, from the most reliable accounts that the moment after he set eyes on the newspaper, he issued a tremendous scream; that he then leapt from his bed and ran, demented, out of the ward, along the corridor and through a door leading to a balcony, from which he dived to the concrete path 60 feet beneath, head first. Strangest of all, the page whose scrutiny had clearly impelled him (for it lay open beside his bed) upon this suicidal course contained nothing in the way of political news, tragic or otherwise. Its chief contents, signalled by a large headline which must have been the first feature to catch his attention, consisted of a report telling the death of a child killed in a street accident.


Last updated on 21.11.2004