The year is 2041 and an Amazon drone has just dropped a shrink-wrapped package through the window of my gaff. I tip the courier-bot with a Bitcoin wand, unbox the parcel, and pair it up to wireless electricity. There is a single button (pink, triangular) protruding from its graphene shell, which I tap with my wizened old finger. The tiny device hums a four-note melody and a deep, tepidly friendly voice emerges from within.
"Thank you for purchasing Aide Memoire version 4.3. Get ready to scrapbook your memory. To get started, you'll need to switch your Braintooth to open mode."
I reach behind my ear and flick an implanted switch to turn my brain on for remote access.
"Do you grant Aide Memoire administrator access for this brain? We'll never share your data with third parties – that's our promise!"
I assent, and a progress wheel begins to pulse on the flat screen.
"Hold on just a tick,” the device speaks, now from within my brain. “I'm indexing your memories... I have found: 9595829283 memory fragments."
It's been a long life.
"Now, I'll begin filing your memories into playlists to make browsing easier for you."
When the Aide Memoire has finished curating my past, I navigate through the clips, clumped neatly into time, place and emotional boxsets. A folder marked BAD FEELS :( catches my attention – I'm feeling a bit morose today.
Swiping out a drop-down menu, I find a sub-folder marked GUILT, which cascades out into multi-terabyte collections: PARENTAL GUILT, DIETARY GUILT, GIRLFRIEND-RELATED GUILT, SECOND ORDER GUILT.
It makes for such grim, compelling viewing that I want more. I load up another folder: SHAME.
Opening it up I'm disappointed. It's pretty fucking empty. I would feel ashamed at its emptiness, but then my lack of shame reflex is what has kept it bereft of files in the first place.
I am a man who makes the minimum order of chips so as to write stories alone at a bar table in Byron, spilling wasabi ketchup down my shirt-front before the hordes of first-date student couples. I am a man who answers the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses in nought but boxers. And I was a boy who, when caught red-handed calling chat-lines on the house phone, insisted the babysitter leave me in peace. Shame has never come easy to me.
Apart from the time my dick broke.
I'm not talking about frenulum breve, the nightmarish rupturing of the banjo string from its drum (this has happened to me twice, and let me tell you there is no room in the conscious mind for any feeling other than sheer agony).
No – not that. Let's load up the memory.
On weekend nights, C would sneak me up the stairs of her family home while her parents slept (or, in hindsight, were quite prepared not to hear the creaks of our clumsy, sock-foot ballet up the wooden steps).
We will fast-forward through the sex we had on the night in question, but assume that it encompasses the standard acrobatics involved in late-teenage trysts. But the morning coupling is marsupial – eyes clamped shut to the grey light of Irish late spring glinting through the skylight, spooning like koalas.
Post-coitus, she rises and leaves for work as I sink back into a doze. Waking later – maybe 15 minutes, maybe two hours – I reach for my phone to find the time. Dead. The need to piss outrides the desire for yet more sleep, so I fish a pair of gaudily-patterned Topman jocks from the sea of duvet and wriggle into them.
Then the pain. A twinge like a sprained wrist shoots from dick to brain. Throwing off the sheets, I am confronted by my penis as never seen before, the head pulsating like an a sergeant-major in high dudgeon, the flaccid shaft turned the blue of the recently suffocated. It is the 8th Prince of Hell incarnate.
I reach down to pull the foreskin forward, resulting only in more jabs of pain. Spit. Try spit. The spit achieves nothing. It's like salivating on a Pringles tin in order to squeeze a football through it.
Piss Christ Fuck.
The internet will know what to do. I shuffle along the bed to where C's laptop usually sits. Nothing but Nylon magazines and tights. I hobble about, underwear still cuffing my thighs for no good reason and digging through her desk drawers cop myself in a mirror: some grim spectre of Prince Albert, back to haunt the genitally mutilated.
Cursing and running through the troubleshoot manual in my head, one last idea occurs: get stiff again. But physical manipulation is out of the question. I look desperately to PJ Harvey glowering at me from a magazine cover and for the first time in my life wish it were Playboy instead of the NME. Perching back on the mattress, I breathe deep and try to project something pornographic on the wall of brain.
A flashback comes: in the Mater Hospital, a pretty doctor administers an anaesthetic jab tomy seven-year-old hand so that I might be circumcised. Faulty penises are part of the Gray pedigree, a family where circumcision is so commonplace we may well not be Gentile. I was to carry on the grand tradition.
On waking from catatonia, a nurse tells me the 'good news': there was no need to cut it. Instead, the surgeon stretched it out (the creepiness of which act thankfully lost on me), meaning that I'd have very little pain, but would have to dip my pecker in a basin of Savlon every night for a week.
Well thanks a lot, Mater Misericordiae. I am about to wind up back in your lobby with a gangrenous lump of meat for you to amputate.
For, short of stepping out onto the street and asking the first passerby if they could help me with my tumescent domepiece, 999 is clearly the only option left to me. I dig out my phone charger and will the screen to light up.
Am I really going to call an ambulance to solve an issue apparently born from my own anatomical ignorance? I think back to an episode of the Adrian Kennedy Phoneshow when a paramedic relayed the tale of a man who had become lodged inside his wife's ass, his amusement at the situation clearly overriding his Hippocratic responsibilities.
Tomorrow on the Phoneshow: the boy who doesn't know how to pull his own foreskin forward.
I imagine myself in the back of the ambulance with the FM104-listening paramedic snapping photos for a book of medical marvels as we weave up Dorset Street. I arrive at the hospital and am left, cross-legged, beside a man clutching a stab-wound in his chest. "What are you in for mate?" he asks, then cackles so hard at my reply a fountain of blood spurts out of his wound. "Stop! I'm in stitches!" In the emergency room, the sweet-faced doctor from 12 years earlier, remembering me, flicks my bulbous glans and tells me, injection in hand, that they'll have to amputate – though with a specimen this small it's hardly worth her while. I wake from castration to find a tabloid journalist waiting by my bedside to trial out headlines for the story of my calamity: “FORESKIN OR NOT FORESKIN?', 'COCK UP OF THE CENTURY?', 'Surely we can do something with FREE WILLY?
Shame is its own storyteller. In a state of hyperarousal, the prefrontal cortex parks the car and hands the keys over to the limbic system to run bloody riot. The first ink-drop of panic splatters out Homeric epics in an instant. If novels were written as quickly as the detailed scenarios that unfold in this heightened state, I would be the Stephen King of the malfunctioning penis.
I could text a friend instead. Vladimir maybe. No. I have to see this man at the Debs. We will stand side-by-side at the urinals and he will snigger while his piss streams onto the floor. My father – it is, after all, biologically his fault. But I haven't spoken to him in a year and I know my thirty-or-more cousins will hear about my woes within the hour. Girlfriend. She'll break up with me by phone, and I will, neutered, be left to find a new lover. Mum. She is not supposed to even be aware that I have a penis, and the very mention of it will result in a stroke.
And as this tapestry of tragedy unfurls, so does my foreskin. With a rush of blood to the (dick) head, I feel all the euphoria of Houdini breaking out of a milk can.
The relief is short-lived. Almost immediately a black hole opens under the force of my own utter imbecility and swallows me whole. If it righted itself this easily, there could not, surely, have been anything else to blame but my own dopiness.
I make a pact with my remaining sliver of dignity to never speak of this episode again.
Until asked to write this article, my chode trauma had been buried deep in one of those subconscious boneyards, never to be disinterred. Resurrected pre-emptively, however, I decided to rehearse the tale on an unwitting friend. To my awe, I discovered that he too had his gear stick jammed in a similar disaster. Expecting to hear that he had dealt with this phallic emergency capably, it emerged that his, too, was marked by panic and perplexity.
I know now we were victim to a none-too-rare phenomenon called paraphimosis. In fact, I was quite fortunate that it fixed itself. My other options would have included on-the-spot circumcision, something called the 'Dundee technique' which involves the jabbing needles into the mickey until it wheezes out blood and pus, or a good old-fashioned gelding.
Amongst the WikiHow articles and MensHealth forum topics I combed through in anticipation of writing this piece, I discovered a (rather poncey) psychology paper on castration anxiety which reads thus: 'We note with surprise that castration anxiety is seldom discussed as a variation of shame even though it always involves shame dynamics. [Castration fear] has to do with the person's sense of self-worth and integrity... we need an 'object' to maintain our poise and sense of self.''
The author of this tract writes, of course, about castration in the metaphorical sense; it's not like a human being of any emotional complexity would build their entire sense of self-worth and integrity around their actual meat flute. That would just be shameful.