Body Parts – a short story
I wrote this again as characterisation and a lesson in dialogue. The old man in the story was modelled on John Gielgud. I could see and hear him in the part, his mannerisms and how he would say things. Again the theme was future and inspired by rising temperatures – something we Brits aren’t used to. Well at least not consistently.
I often wondered on the ethics of modern technology, that now could so easily replace worn out body parts. It had created a demand. A whole industry had grown up around it. Clinics were springing up everywhere.
This one was sighted well away from anywhere. That was its charm, its bleak country setting. Acres of neatly trimmed grass, well watered, so it stood out brilliantly green against the rest of the dry September landscape.
From the windows of our canteen in the training centre across the plateau from the clinic, we could watch the daily deluge of people, coming and going – a continual pounding of feet. We students thought it funny. The walking wounded we called them, although strictly speaking this was not so. All clients who could walk were encouraged to leave on the day of their operation, to make room for those who needed more care; or who had more complicated dissections, amputations and insertions.
From a distance there was cartoon pathos to it. Real people though, some being helped, some with sticks, all forced into this slow moving stream by the narrow concrete paths that dissected the grass.
As a research student I was bound to do a tour of duty, unpaid and with little experience.
‘I’m reporting for duty,’ I said to a sickly looking man in a white coat.
He pointed me in the direction of the desk and said I should give my name, and a task would be allotted to me.
It was all a bit of a crush, with just as many clients arriving as leaving. The outside air temperature was touching forty-two degrees, and the stream of people was overwhelming. Always more so when it was hot as there was an increase in burns accidents and overheated organs. It was proving too much for some who were seen to be keeling over. In this unusual heat people needed shade of which there was none, and it was a long way back to the car park. Their prosthesis without adequate time for adjustment, were going sort of rubbery and wilting, like newly planted seedlings might.
A lot of it of course was just routine checks – people not risking the age of their parts – not wanting to suddenly find something had gone wrong.
Prevention is always better than cure. For years and years this theory had been practised in dentistry and ophthalmics, now with such advancements it was the turn of other vital parts, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, a quick check of the limbs, fingers and toes.
The brain was still a different matter. None of us had figured out a way of renewing that – not and keep a personal identity. We’d got as far as the doing bits like limb movements, seeing and hearing, and function of course, but it was how you saw, and heard; the abstract areas that we couldn’t come up with a solution for. How could you replace individual memory? Still we were working on this. Maybe I would be the lucky one and come up with some sort of downloading system, so that it could all be put back once the overhaul had taken place. This had other implications though; people could be made to live forever.
‘Blundell,’ I said to the woman at the desk.
‘That with two ll’s.’
‘Three actually,’ I said, trying to make light of her bland tone and the way she didn’t look at me. She threw me a look then through her rainbow irises.
‘Do you know how many people I’ve had to process today?’
I could imagine her hopeless task, and even equate to her frustration, and her mind numbing concentration to her singular task of checking everyone in, and taking details and assessing people’s ability to walk, sit, stand – hold a conversation. She was a bit strange though; she had a little pointy chin that went into a series of non-conformist dimples as she spoke, a bit like orange peel – or even the dreaded cellulite, which thank goodness, was now a thing of the past. I guessed she was like this because her bottom lip didn’t fit her top one, and it seemed to control her chin in little spasms.
I withered under her sharpness though, and confessed that I didn’t know how many people she’d processed today, other than to say innocently enough, ‘must be lots.’
‘What is it for you,’ she said softening her tone a little and giving me a look up and down. ‘Internal or external – you look all right – breathing are you?’ This last remark wasn’t sarcasm.
‘No, no – I’m a research student. I’ve not come for surgery, just a turn of duty.’
‘Oh…right,’ she said, ‘give us your bag and put these on.’ She flung a pair of green overalls at me. ‘Go through those swing doors, you’ll find a wheely bin, it needs emptying – follow the signs to disposal.’
I suddenly wasn’t sure about this, feeling from the pit of my stomach a deep sense of foreboding, and even abandonment. I wanted to go home. I was happier reading books and conducting laboratory experiments, than having to deal with the products of our research – the nuts and bolts so to speak – the ‘hands on’ experience.
As I turned, clutching my overalls, I faced a great queue of sad faces – hundreds of eyes searching for atonement. I dared not look at any of the other parts. Somehow it wasn’t so funny at this distance.
I pushed through the doors, malleable ones that gave under my touch. When they closed they sealed me into a quiet space. It was also cool. Not so much a room as an enclosed piece of corridor, with another set of doors almost directly ahead.
I could see the wheely bin in front of me sitting quietly and unobtrusively by the wall, waiting for me to push it through the other doors. There was a neon sign with an arrow pointing straight up. It said, microsurgery – nothing about disposal.
I climbed into my overalls. They were big enough to pull over my sandals and up over my bare skinny brown legs, which I looked down on everyday. I was secretly saving for a new pair, not feeling at all satisfied with the shape of them. My new thinking was that it would be much cheaper and possibly quicker if there was a medical reason, something life threatening due to the risk of infection. I’d thought of serious sunburn. Great blisters that I could persuade to become septic, not being the self-mutilation type. Before I’d come out today, I’d been warned to cover them up – but what’s a warning to a person that has eighty percent of her life left. Especially a research student who knows what’s possible. For days I’d gleefully left them bare and fully exposed, but all that was happening, was they were just getting browner and browner, they’d never burn now. I’d probably have to try next year.
I didn’t know which way I had to go to disposal but had just noticed a set of buttons on the wall. I pushed the one that said disposal, and the sign lit up with two arrows, one going straight up, and the other pointing left.
I positioned myself behind the bin and took the brake off, thinking I couldn’t go wrong whichever way I took when the doors burst open, bending concavely in the middle – not so much opening as squeezing, and they closed together again with a satisfying thwack.
A tall man stood in my way, a very tall, very old man, with a grin on his face that showed a set of very even teeth. He was waving a wooden stick in the air.
‘Halt,’ he said, ‘don’t go anywhere with that bin.’
‘But I’ve been told to take it to disposal,’ I protested.
‘You may take it to disposal just as soon as I have done with it.’ The emphasis was on the I. He spoke very majestically and looked at me with his chin tilted upwards. His hair was grey and cut short, so it was spiky all over his head.
He pointed the stick directly at me and completely barred my way. I didn’t know what to do.
‘That bin,’ he said, ‘contains my leg.’ With a grand gesture he swept the stick around and tapped the side of the green plastic receptacle I was about to push.
‘Your leg,’ I said hesitantly. At reception I hadn’t asked what I was disposing of. A friend, who’d already done his tour, had warned me not to ask – that it was better not to know.
‘I’m very sorry about your leg, but I have to take this bin to disposal. Is there something else I can do for you?’ I enquired politely. I didn’t think he ought to be here at all, and thought he might have escaped from somewhere.
I could have bolted back through the doors behind me, but some obscure sense of righteousness made me think I could do more good by staying put. Maybe I could save the day, or the wheely bin, or both. Besides my choices were limited to the sickly man in the white coat or the woman at the desk who already had her work cut out. I reinstated the brake.
‘That leg and I have been together since I was a boy – I’m now ninety seven – don’t you think that’s a long time to be attached to a leg.’
I nodded sympathetically. ‘A very long time. But look on the bright side – you’ve probably got a brand spanking new one which will give you years of support.’
‘Don’t think I’m complaining, I’m very happy – look.’ He lifted his leg so that I could see. He was wearing shorts but until now the bin had obscured his bottom half.
I clapped my hand over my mouth to stifle my gasp. Prosthesis were usually grown by first having your cells scanned, and the structures fed into the growing machine, then it was just a matter of exposing the stump, and a new one grew directly onto it. The time it took depended on the size of part you wanted. Because it grew from your cells, it came out perfectly like your old one, a bit newer looking, but definitely like your other one. His wasn’t.
‘It’s someone else’s,’ I gasped again.
His own biological leg was old and withered, white and hairless, with little muscle structure left, and was very saggy round his skinny knee. The other leg being held aloft was the leg of a young man, a body builder maybe. It was tanned and muscled with sheen to the skin. The thigh must have been the size of his waist; the top of it being squeezed inwards to fit the width of his hip, so it bulged exaggeratedly out from his body.
He put the leg down. ‘You look shocked my dear.’ His head tilting to one side enquiringly.
‘But it’s not even remotely like your other one. Aren’t there some channels you can go through to complain? I’ll even help you. I hope you haven’t paid them yet…is this the reason you’re trying to find your old one?’
‘No, no, dear,’ he said, ‘you make it sound so terrible. They gave me a choice, but you see at my age cells are more reluctant to regenerate. I might have been here for hours, I can’t do with hanging around in a place like this for hours – there’s so much to do and so little time left to do it, besides this leg will be much more useful to me. Just think what I can do with it.’
‘What was wrong with your old leg?’
He came back pragmatically, ‘Got crushed.’
I glanced down at the bin. ‘How awful…how did it happen?’
‘Awful…yes, considering. It was one of those damn transport things, called them lorries in my day – god knows what you could call them these days? – Bloody great monsters. What on earth do people find to put in them? Houses I expect, no, no, whole bloody estates.’ He was elevated and stick waving again like life had become an inconvenience.
He had the stage and my full attention, and then as he carried on I began to think about his brain. How an old man like this would be a perfect subject. I mean to say his memory banks must have been packed with information, and he could do with a bit of regeneration, and he’d already lived so long that maybe it didn’t matter if things went a little wrong – I mean how long had he got left anyway? Although I had to admit I wasn’t entirely happy with what I was thinking. Old he might have been, but that didn’t invalidate the rest of his life. You see when you’re young you only think in terms of how much time you have left and what you can do with it, and that when you became old – you also became dispensable. I couldn’t conceive of being old myself, because I supposed that it wouldn’t happen, that by the time I’d reached this great age there would be enough advancement to never be old.
I wasn’t listening to him – he’d been talking the whole while, and I just came back to hear.
‘…I squashed myself against the wall, but it wasn’t enough. It went straight over my foot. Well you can imagine the pain, so I buckled, and the next wheel went over my leg.’
He stopped talking. I imagined it was the transport vehicle – the lorry – that had gone over his leg.
‘Why didn’t it go over both your legs?’ I looked at him sideways, I was sceptical that this had happened, it was plausible, but I’m surprised he didn’t die of shock, an old man like him, although he seemed terribly sprightly for his age.
‘Ahh,’ he said waving his finger around in front of his face with a little expression of glee.
‘That’s the clever bit, as I fell, I tucked the other one up behind me, so that I was sitting on it.’ At this point he was making little jerky movements with his hands and his head. I wasn’t sure what it was illustrating, but it was very entertaining. ‘I knew you see,’ he continued ‘that if I lost both legs together, I’d never be able to walk.’
It was a revelation to me that someone in that situation and that much pain could have the foresight to save the other leg.
‘Someone would have brought you here,’ I said, having some faith left in human kindness and sponsorship. Besides the idea that he’d walked straight here with one crushed leg, seemed absurd.
‘I don’t think I’d have got a lift, I don’t know anyone, and besides companies like this one, that offer direct to you warehouse prices, don’t make those kind of provisions, specially for old timers like me. There is a kind of pathos to all of this you see. All companies exist to make money, and like all products you pay for what you get. People will patronise places like this because you seem to get what other places are offering, but for half the cost, but of course you compromise and don’t get any of the frilly bits – the niceties that make you feel you’re being cared for.’
‘But at least people who can’t afford it can at least aspire to something.’
‘Oh, I agree…but my dear,’ he became very grave. ‘If affordability did not exist, the lorries wouldn’t have got so big, and I would still have my own leg. I would not have spent any money at all, and the money that I did spend I would not have needed, so I would not have had to worry about making it. Maybe then when I was younger, I could have spent the time more profitably enjoying myself, rather than making enough money to be able to afford to keep myself alive – and might I add, on my own two feet.’
I sighed. I spent all my time thinking I was doing a service to people.
‘What do you do my dear?’ He said, as if he read my mind.
I bit my lip, ‘I’m a research student,’ I replied, quite glumly. Then carried on in defence of what I did. ‘We’re always making new breakthroughs. I think it’s great that people can have the limbs they want, and new hearts and things, it helps people to live full normal lives – lives that would have been plagued by illness and death. Now children don’t lose their parents, and parents don’t lose their children, and there’s no pain and heartache and emptiness.’
I’d let go of the bin and had sunk to the floor with my back against the wall.
‘And I agree with you,’ I said, ‘about affordability.’
‘You do?’ He looked surprised.
‘Yes – you see it in the graveyard.’
‘You do?’ He said again.
‘They’re all the same, the gravestones.’
‘All the same size, the same distances apart, and even in some cases with the same wording, but with the name changed. As shoddy in life as one expected to be in death, all saying we can’t afford something different so lets just get something that will do. They’d have been better in a mass grave with one fine memorial celebrating their lives – there would be less to read, it would be more memorable, more heartrending, and more honest.’
‘You’re sure?’ He said, looking at me earnestly.
I looked back at him just as earnestly. ‘Yes, I said ‘I’m sure.’
‘Ahh,’ he said, ‘you are a thinking student.’
I felt rather proud of this, and as I sat preening my own ego, saw him move surreptitiously towards the bin. At least saw his feet get closer, one pale old foot, and one brown young foot.
I sprang to my feet mindful of my position.
‘What are you doing.’
‘Getting my leg,’ he said.
‘But you don’t need it anymore, you said you were happy with your new leg,’ I pleaded with him.
‘So happy I’ve asked them to do the other one, then my arms, and my chest and last but not least my bum…and the other twiddly bit in the front.’ The last was said with a little gesture of his hand as if to explain which bit he meant. ‘I shall be a new man,’ he finished with his arms outstretched thrusting his bony chest forward so that it appeared to fill out his thin short sleeved shirt with palm trees on. His face was pointing towards the ceiling, as if I should applaud him, and he would take a bow.
‘What if none of it matches,’ I said, bringing him back to earth.
‘Oh it will,’ he seemed quite confident. ‘They promised to match things as closely as possible. Unfortunately the owner of this new leg had a worse accident than mine, and the rest of him was so badly damaged that he didn’t recover.’
‘I expect they’ll grow things from the cells of the new leg anyway, so you’ll end up like the man that died.’
‘Yes..yes,’ he said quickly and tried to open the lid of the bin, but I slammed my hand down on top of it.
‘You can’t go in there, you shouldn’t even be here, and I don’t know what sort of contamination I’d be letting out. Your leg might be in there with lots of other things – things that might not be so recognisable.’ I shuddered at the thought.
He looked at me defiantly then pointed his stick at me again.
‘You’re a research student,’ he said quizzically, his chin in the air. I could see up his nostrils. Then suddenly he came very close to me and peered at me, his eyes now very wide showing me how blue and alive they still were.
‘I don’t suppose we could do a deal.’
I looked at him. I had to confess that in the short time of our acquaintance I’d grown rather fond of him.
‘What sort of a deal.’ I looked at him suspiciously. I thought him rather extraordinary. ‘Whisper to me,’ I said.
He smiled showing his perfect teeth, and leaned in closer to my ear. I had already begun to see the new man in him.
‘Whatever you do,’ he whispered, ‘do not lose your legs.’
I swallowed hard – how did he know? How did he know about my legs?
I stood back and let him open the lid of the bin. He knew what I was thinking, I couldn’t risk him saying about my legs, I might get stuck with them. Or did he know? If he didn’t it was a good guess. Suppose he’d said, don’t lose your nose, or your tits or something, but he didn’t, he chose my legs.
He poked inside the bin for a minute with his stick, then fiddled with his bare hands, while I pulled a face and hoped no one would come through the doors. Then he pulled it out and held it in the air. No, not his leg, but his sandal – a little worse for wear.
‘But it won’t fit anymore,’ I pointed out.
‘But,’ he said lifting his chin; ‘it is mine, and will be a good keepsake.’
Then he turned to me again and poked me in the chest with his stick – gently – not maliciously. ‘I think you do a splendid job my dear – splendid – splendid.’
‘How did you know about my legs?’
He lifted his finger. ‘Ah, my dear,’ he said, ‘the brain is only as old as your body, but the thoughts inside are as old as you want them to be.’
I frowned – my head whirring – trying to understand whether this was an answer to my question.
He turned and left, repeating splendid – splendid. It made me smile, and as the doors settled, made me think. It was one thing replacing parts that go wrong, quite another when your own bits are good enough. I would have to change tack – change the nature of my research – forget the brain. People should remain unique to the end. This could not be altered, and even regeneration would be dangerous. Best leave well alone. I had learned a lesson from an old man.
I knew of course that someone else would come up with some groundbreaking way of fiddling with the brain, in order to make us live longer and healthier, if it wasn’t me. Could I face that, allowing someone else to take the credit, and the fame and the money that would come with it? Then I remembered, I hadn’t done it yet – wasn’t even close, and neither was anyone else. Fortunately, for the time being, mans’ abstract brain remained a limitless puzzle. Unfortunately, the same too could have been said of personal ambition. That it was a limitless trait heavily disguised by the words: mans’ curiosity: his need to know; and separate from, his ability to think about the consequences of his knowledge.
I took the brake off the bin so that I could take it to disposal, to get rid of the bits that no one wanted anymore.
by Jane Bregazzi