This is an extract from a novel-in-progress, provisionally entitled, Heartsick.
Ellie isn’t supposed to die yet: she’s only twenty-two. But her car collided with a lamppost, the doctors have declared her brain-dead, and her parents have agreed to donate her organs – Ellie’s objections don’t come into the matter. Ellie finds herself tied to those who received her organs, forced to experience their lives due to a quirk of flesh and blood.
Erin the social worker comes clip clopping along the ward floor. She peers round the curtain corner, her bob slicing a sharp shadow on her neck. ‘How are you guys doing?’
Oh, just hunky dory, thanks Erin. My parents think I’m dead and have decided to switch me off and recycle the parts, and I’m some sort of ineffectual sprite whose only method of communication is giving someone the goosebumps.
My dad shifts in his seat. ‘Can we talk to the nurse –’
My mother breaks in: ‘Abigail.’
‘Yes. Could we talk to Abigail please?’
I’m torn between sitting Shiva with my body and following my parents to watch them sign my life away.
I wonder if the slip of paper I signed is stored somewhere, the red print faded, my signature still standing black. It could be stuffed into a filing cabinet in a basement (next to all the other Clarkes), or stacked in a box along with all the other official fragments of my life: birth certificate, medical records, exam certificates, driving license, student loan debts.
It’s more likely that some minimum wage government employee ticked a box on a computer screen and my assent got spirited away to a database, coded into meaningless strings of symbols and letters. My signature was probably shredded into hamster bedding curls, sliced into unrecognisable fragments and wrapped into a polythene bag with other people’s promises.
A signature on its own means nothing.
Someone’s left the door of the Nurse’s Station open and I can see my parents nodding as the nurse speaks. Billy’s staring at the floor and digging clenched fists into his stomach.
I turn, stare at the monitor, trying to make sense of the lines and numbers. My heartbeat is plodding, artificially slow. I look from the screen to my body, adding the two together and losing the answer, then move down and press myself onto my chest.
I think of the other times I’ve counted heartbeats, sated and sticky on someone else’s skin, playing doctors with a plastic stethoscope, counting extra slow to a hundred before a game of hide and seek, accelerating as the pressure builds.
Panic rises inside me, but my breath doesn’t stir, my heartbeat doesn’t quicken. It makes no change to my body, how I’m feeling.
Maybe this is supposed to happen, maybe people just get cast out from their bodies moments before their death, maybe this is how it is meant to be. But I haven’t seen anybody, or sensed them, or anything. And surely a hospital would be crammed with severed souls, packed to the brim with the imminently or recently deceased?
There’s the morgue, line after line of flat still bodies, chilled into acceptance. The wards filled with the sick and dying, bodies and minds split as the heartbeat stops: as the blood pools with a drip drip drip, a knife slips, a pillow is pressed down, a screaming bloodied mother, a flopping empty child, a small clot slipping, too many pills swallowed, a sharp corner, a long sickness, a cancerous cell, an extra drop of morphine sweetheart, some sort of infection (they think), a drunken snort of something that was supposed to be coke, a fight on a Friday night. So many ways to die.
I look back at my family, at the nurse. I can see Abigail’s lips moving. I bet she’s telling them that I won’t feel a thing. That’s what they always say, isn’t it? It’s the kindest way, it won’t hurt a bit, it’s for the best, they won’t suffer this way. Like I’m a cat that’s been run over, cowering in my cage, about to have my fur parted and a thin needle inserted.
I stare at my body in disgust. It might not feel a thing, but I’m pretty sure I will. I’ll have to watch my body sliced up, a piece of meat on a butcher’s slab, or I’ll fade away as they cut out my organs one by one, and everything will just stop as they pick my heart out of my chest.
I poke myself again, hard above my right breast, then move towards the open door. Abigail’s speaking; ‘The operation – it’ll save so many lives. It’s no compensation, of course, but it’s a little bit of hope.’
I wish I’d been given the hope, rather than having it parcelled away in a perverse Pandora’s box.
Enough. Like I need to hear about how my death is going to be beneficial to strangers, why my tragedy is someone else’s miracle.
I touch the box charting my body and thrust my hand through the screen. The glass doesn’t shatter and the display barely flickers. I trace a wire behind the box, following the snake down to the bottom, feel the stubby joint of the cord and learn its heft, before focusing myself at it one hard urge.
The lights dim almost imperceptibly and my box starts to beep. I look down at my body, suddenly reminded that it’s only functioning due to the pulse of a machine.
A nurse walks over, her thin-soled shoes scuffing at the floor, and presses a few buttons so the noise stops. I watch my life displayed in another language, reduced to its most cursory summary.
‘There we go, much better.’ She peers down at my body, then tucks the sheets in around my shoulders.
Abigail holds the door wide and my family file out one by one. My mother’s eyes are red-rimmed, and she’s holding my father’s hand.
The nurse glances at my family then turns back to me. ‘They’ll come back and see you before you go, don’t worry.’
There’s a collection of white-coated vultures cluttering up my bedside. They’re discussing the options for my organs, the viability of my flesh. I’m on the bed alongside my body; the folded shadow settled next to my skull, an unknown spectator.
‘Do you think her parents might agree to donate her brain?’ It’s a girl speaking, with close-cropped hair and a glistening nose piercing. She looks too eager to please, poised to reveal her sheath of top-notch qualifications. ‘Only they’re doing some fascinating research on schizophrenia down at Queen’s and I know they’re looking for control samples.’
I don’t want my brain to bob in a bottle, its whorls and creases on display for everyone to see. I don’t want it to be shaved into Carpaccio and served on a slide. I want my brain to stay safe in my skull, swollen sides pressed against solid bone, wedged intact at the start of my spine.
I don’t want my body to become an experiment for undergraduates, my breasts to be rated out of ten, my eyeballs to be cut open. I don’t want to lie on a metal gurney for months, wheeled out on weekdays to be cut and prodded and ineptly carved. Everybody knows that med students are not to be trusted.
The medical students were the ones to avoid back at uni. They’d gather at The Shift, drunk and raving in lab coats, pouring booze down their throats and chanting mnemonics, picking up girls to practise anatomy on: rollicking already, inflated with the promise of power over life.
Leave my brain alone, bitch.
The doctor in charge tips his glasses down his nose and peers at the girl: ‘Let’s just concentrate on the job at hand.’
I cheer him on, my new balding ally.
‘An organ harvesting is an unfortunately rare event, so it is of the utmost importance that the family doesn’t change their mind.’
‘Our transplant nurse, Abigail, will co-ordinate with other hospitals to find suitable recipients.’
I picture a lucky dip; the slowly-dying in hanging hospital gowns queuing in front of a barrel, ready to sink their hand into the sawdust and pull out a gift-wrapped hunk of meat.
The bald doctor turns, ‘I’d recommend that you all take the opportunity to observe this operation,’ he says, walking away without looking back, his flock of students following obediently.
I hadn’t realised my death was a spectator sport.
The grey dawn is filtering through the blinds, turning the now empty ward into a dim lit set. Bodies bulge under sheets, still apart from the slow rise and fall of chests. I move to the foot of my bed and examine the clipboard fastened to the edge of the frame. I can’t read the handwriting.
I reach for the clipboard, intending to tilt the page to see if it makes the writing more legible, but it’s like I’m trying to capture fog in my hands: impossible. I pull myself closer to the chart, try to make sense of the scrawl and the strings of numbers, but it’s nonsense, gobbledygook: a foreign language of abbreviations and symbols.
I will my neurons to knit together, for the spindly fringes to reach and connect and spark. I shrink my swollen tissue down; let the blood carry oxygen around my brain. I watch each section slowly glow, each cortex brighten. I feel myself back into my body, suddenly whole, ready to take full advantage of my precious flesh, ready to run and skip and conquer. I stretch, splay my fingers, point my toes, pull my spine.
My body stays still.
I itch to squeeze the tube full of air tight shut, to close my body off from oxygen: a short sharp shock, like turning it off and on again, an attempt to restore my body to its factory settings. I feel as if I’m tightrope walking along a steep sharp drop, tempted to throw myself over the edge even as I command my legs to walk away, to not take that extra teasing step into nothingness.
My parents still haven’t arrived.
I’m beginning to think they’re not going to come at all, that they’ve decided it will be too traumatic to say another goodbye, that they’re already busy booking the funeral parlour and packing away my clothes and spreading the news.
I can’t believe Mum didn’t stay with me. When I get ill she always tells me to come home, to let her look after me, that I’ll heal quicker if she’s on hand to dose me and feed me and check my temperature. But now I really need her and she’s just left me here, another length of human carrion.
I wish they’d left me to die in my car. I’d rather my last breath had been tinged with diesel instead of this disinfected air. I wonder if they could bronze the car, place my corpse inside, leave it as a crumpled statue in memoriam. I’d prefer that to a bench.
The accident’s a blur of smoke and pain. It wasn’t my fault, I know it wasn’t my fault, the light was green. Green for go, green for life, green for safety. I think the other car was red, a bright shade of danger coming fast towards me, but maybe the blood was already colouring my view.