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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

Once more with feeling

The NHS has given me an insight into a story I am planning. Wednesday it was. ENT surgeons, hunting for further nasty cells after a recent excision, engaged in a second assault on my left ear. I’ve always thought my left ear a decent accessory, but it turns out to have greater abilities than I had realised, and has given me an affinity with spiders, of all creatures.

Context: next year, the lively and thoughtful Arachne Press is celebrating its eighth birthday. It has a call-out for stories about spiders. I’m up for that. Already I have learned that many spiders are terrifically sensitive to vibration. Their sensors are highly nuanced, and a spider can, for example, tell from vibration alone what kind of prey it has caught in its web. (As spiders are near-sighted, despite having eight eyes, such intelligence is vital.) I fancy playing on that capability in a spider story.

Waiting my turn for surgery, between eavesdropping on my fellow patients, I worked up some spider ideas.

And then came the insight, through a kind of participant observation.

Having a local anaesthetic means we lose feeling in the sense we generally understand it – pain especially. But vibrations are transmitted even through numbed flesh. While my ear was being worked on, I was able to distinguish the smooth slicing of flesh by a scalpel (a uniform, high frequency sensation) from the discontinuous plucking of forceps and something called, excruciatingly, a skin hook. The subsequent sutures were dead easy to sense: a rapid, uneven stuttering from the thread being drawn through, followed by the miniscule shockwave of the cut.

So here’s the thing: if my senses could be tuned like this at only a second sitting, think what a spider, whose countless years of evolution have optimised it for such differentiation, might learn of the world through its receptors.

And who might harness such a capacity; the good, the bad, …?

I see Dominic Cummings – surely a devotee of spinning webs, if ever there was one – Dom at dead of night communing with his stables of tarantulas and black widow spiders. ‘Ah, my lovelies, come tell your daddy, tell him true; those vibes you feel, are they the European Research Group nodding their heads, or are they just the boss upstairs expelling hot air?’

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