Nobody has answered my oat question from the other week, so I’m going to give you one more chance. Who said this, and to whom: ‘Am I an oat?’
Meanwhile as I wait for your answers to flood in, here’s a short story I’d like your comments on. Specifically I’d like you to think about:
a. Did it grab you?
and b. Could you see the end coming or was it a surprise?
Here it is:
It was a few years ago when all of this kicked off.
I’d always known I had a weak heart: my GP told me when I was eighteen, like it was some coming-of-age present. ‘Keep calm, avoid over-exerting yourself and on no account be tempted to smoke.’ I remembered his exact words.
I never had any intention of smoking – and since I became the manager of a charity for the disabled, I’ve seen enough lung disease to put me off the habit for life. Take Arthur, for example. Arthur Pewter: fifty-nine years old, worked down the mines for years, now has emphysema and can’t climb the stairs. So guess what? ATOS – or whatever they’re called this week – passed him fit for work. I ask you, what work? He can hardly sit at my desk without collapsing. Nobody wants to employ a deadbeat old crock like me, he says. His money was cut and his compensation long-gone. Might as well just cut me losses and top meself, he said. Took me ages to talk him round.
Most days you can wear yourself out trying to do even a half-decent job. It was bad enough when I started and it’s worse now. One day on a visit I nearly collapsed. I staggered to the doctor’s; my GP put the stethoscope on, inflated the cuff and squeezed her little rubber ball. The column of mercury sank like a stone: my blood pressure was through the floor. She wrote me a prescription; but we both knew I was on borrowed time. The only option was a transplant.
She got me on the list – and on that list I stayed. I knew there were more urgent cases than mine, but organ-donors were few and far between. I knew I shouldn’t worry, but I couldn’t help it: what would happen if the poor old jam tart just gave up the fight? Leon would be left alone; the children would be motherless, and without me to fight for it my job would disappear into a funding black hole.
Leon was forever moaning about having to watch people die – but this time it was personal. He was all set to go on another campaign, but then – god bless the EU! – they passed a directive changing the default position from opt-in to opt-out. You were presumed to be donating your organs when you died unless you stated otherwise. And all of a sudden that list began to move like crazy.
It was a Friday when I got the call to say that my new heart was waiting impatiently for me and I should get to the hospital pronto. The timing wasn’t great – I had a new client who was just starting to trust me – but it couldn’t be helped. I phoned Leon. ‘I’m on my way,’ he said. His voice was shaking – whether from anxiety or relief, I couldn’t tell.
Of the actual operation I remember nothing. Leon wanted to come in but there was no way they’d let him, so it was just me and the team; and next thing I knew I was coming round in resus. I brought my eyes into focus on a nurse’s watch. It said 3.30: I’d been out for two hours.
‘Congratulations!’ She gave me a condescending smile. ‘It’s all gone really well.’
I looked up at the heart monitor: my blood pressure was strong and the heartbeat was peaking with an almost indecent enthusiasm.
‘That looks quite in order,’ I said. ‘Please give the surgeon my thanks.’
She smiled again, and left. After that there was an irritating procession of staff, all wanting to know how I was feeling, to which I returned the short answer that I was absolutely fine and that I could see everything that was wrong with them. When I asked how soon I could leave, they just smiled. I was getting sick of people smiling instead of giving me answers.
Leon arrived. He looked worried; I couldn’t think why.
‘Ah, Leon!’ I said. ‘Good. The operation went very efficiently and I need you to get the news out. For a start, you can call work. Tell them I’ll be back on Monday – then you can sit down while I work out the rest.’
He sat down next to the bed, looking puzzled.
‘You can’t go back on Monday!’ he said. ‘It takes weeks to recover – you won’t be in the office for a month at least.’
I swept his objections aside. ‘Nonsense! I can’t possibly be away for that long.’
Leon put on his professional voice and started to talk about organ establishment and recovery time-frames, but I was having none of it. I told him to get out a notebook and pen.
‘Now,’ I said. ‘I’ve been thinking.’ Once I put my mind to something I always know what to do. ‘Before I go back to work we need to find a Home Help.’
‘OK,’ he said, carefully. Instead of writing this down, he was looking at me as you might look at an unexploded bomb. ‘But what I really want to know is how you’re feeling.’
‘For heaven’s sake!’ I exploded. ‘Must I have this continual nannying? First the nurses, now you! I’m fine. There’s nothing whatever the matter with me. I had a problem but it’s been resolved. My heart is now functioning perfectly and I’m ready to get back to work.’
Later Leon brought the children in and I talked to Daniel about school. Ivy had made me a card but it was rather messy as she hasn’t learned to paint properly, so I laid it on the table.
The next day I discharged myself. I brushed aside the nannying objections of the hospital staff, though I felt very irritated at being obliged to sign some sort of ‘disclaimer’ before they would let me out. Then I went home and spent the weekend getting up to speed with emails. On the Monday I was back at my desk, reflecting with great satisfaction that I had hardly taken any time off work. People make such a fuss! It’s just a little change of heart, that’s all. Nothing to fuss over.
‘My goodness, what a bunch of nannies!’ I said to my colleagues. They were all flapping around my desk, demanding to know how I was feeling. I cannot stand this modern mania for airing your emotions at every opportunity. So I waved them all away and I’d got through most of my backlog when Sandra arrived. She just stood in the doorway and gaped.
‘We weren’t expecting -’ she began. I cut her off; the last thing I needed was more fuss.
‘I’m perfectly all right, thank you,’ I said impatiently. ‘Now. Come in, shut the door.’ She did.
‘I’ve spent the morning going through the files,’ I told her.
‘Oh!’ She stared at the neat tower on my desk. ‘What are these then?’
‘These,’ I said briskly, ‘are rejected cases.’
‘Re-jec-ted?’ She pronounced the three syllables as though she didn’t know what they meant.
‘Yes!’ I snapped.
‘All of them?’ She glanced at the file on top, marked with the name A. Pewter. ‘Is that Arthur?’
I sighed. ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘there’s no earthly reason why we should continue to support these people. It’s quite clear they’re just not pulling their weight. And by the way, I want a meeting tomorrow about the way we run things. This whole operation must be put on a different footing.’
Sandra was positively gaping now. ‘A different footing?’ she echoed.
‘I don’t want to say everything twice, Sandra, so please pay attention. I think we ought to get a private company in to manage some of these cases. They are a drain on resources. We ought to be making some basic income from these clients, rather than just letting them
hoover up money.’
Sandra looked ready to keel over. I dismissed her impatiently and went back to my files: by keeping my nose to the grindstone I had got through all of them by the end of the day. I got Sandra to convene a meeting for the following morning and left work feeling quite exhilarated. But I arrived home to find Leon looking deeply troubled.
‘What’s the matter now?’ I said. I may have snapped a little.
‘It’s you,’ he said. ‘You’re not being yourself.’
‘Nonsense! Of course I’m being myself! Who else could I be?’
‘That’s a very good question.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘But the way you’ve been acting since the operation – it’s not like you.’
I thought back to the previous week. Maybe he had a point – yes, now that I thought about it, I had been different before. Less efficient. More tolerant of weakness. Not able to get through as much work. But I’d just put it down to having a – well, a weak heart.
‘The thing is,’ Leon continued, getting into professional mode, ‘sometimes people feel different after a transplant. They report having strange thoughts; unusual feelings. It’s as if part of our personality lives in our organs.’
‘What utter tosh!’ I said.
But Leon wouldn’t let it go. ‘Maybe you should go back to the hospital and find out whose heart you were given,’ he said.
‘What a ridiculous idea!’ I retorted. I considered the subject closed, but to my annoyance, Leon’s idea seemed to have lodged in my mind, and in my spare moments I couldn’t help wondering whose heart was now beating inside me. It was irritating: I’m not given to speculation. I’ve never seen the point. But, since the hospital had made me an appointment for a ‘check-up,’ I decided to make use of it. I parked the car and walked towards the building. What on earth had possessed me to come to an NHS facility? I thought as I entered the reception and stood in a queue. At the head of it was a young Indian woman seated at a computer.
‘I need some information,’ I said briskly – and I outlined the purpose of my visit. She listened with growing incredulity.
‘I’m pretty sure we don’t keep that information,’ she said.
‘My husband works as a transplant surgeon,’ I said firmly. ‘He was the one who suggested it.’
‘I see.’ She looked down at her screen. ‘Well, even if we do have it I’m not authorised to give it out,’ she said.
‘Perhaps I should speak to your supervisor,’ I said, my eyes boring into hers. I was not used to being thwarted in this way. Why on earth had I come here? There would be none of this nonsense at a private clinic.
In the end I had to fill in a form and wait to see her superior. When she came I was summoned into an office. The woman logged onto a computer, put in my details and waited. As the screen changed her face took on an expression of the utmost horror. She stared at me and then back at the screen as though I could read what was written there.
‘Come on,’ I said impatiently, ‘it’s my body – I need to know.’
‘I don’t believe this!’ she said. ‘But it’s here.’
‘I’m really not sure I -‘
I’d had enough. ‘If you don’t tell me I will take legal action against this hospital under EU legislation,’ I told her. I don’t like the EU but sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got.
She seemed to be considering: eventually she took a deep breath. ‘Impossible as it seems,’ she said, ‘it would appear that you have been given the heart of Margaret Thatcher.’
For a full minute we gazed at each other in total disbelief.
(c) Liz Gray 2015