‘101 Days’ by Al James A short story donated to support the work of Kidney Research UK
Annie roused herself from some kind of dream and for the few moments before she was conscious was aware something awful had happened without quite knowing what it was. In the instant she turned to see Jack sitting upright and staring ahead of him the familiar lurching feeling was in her chest. “It’s a hundred days isn’t it,” she said. “That was yesterday. Don’t you remember?” Of course she did. Why did he have to say it like that? As if it was her fault. Suddenly her whole body knew it had to move. She threw back the cover and prized herself upright. For a moment she stood staring at him and daring him to say something but he wouldn’t look at her so she turned and stamped into the bathroom.
The bathroom door escaped from her grasp and slammed as she closed it, echoing round the small bathroom as she ran the water, squeezed toothpaste onto her brush and began the ritual scrubbing. The activity felt better until suddenly from nowhere a great wave rose up through her body and seemed to spill out of her mouth into a loud howling beyond any reach of her control. Throwing the brush from her hand she found herself dropping to her knees. From nowhere Jack was beside her, easing her body upwards. “Don’t, Annie, don’t love.” “He’s dead, Jack,” she said, “he’s never coming back, ever, ever.” His arms were round her holding her, but there was no way he could ever get close to the pain inside.
She let him take her back to the bedroom and gradually the howling subsided, but every so often a sob from deep within her rose to the surface and convulsed her. “Don’t blame yourself, so much,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let him have the car,” she said. The words spluttered out of her amongst sniffs and tears. “We can’t go backwards,” he said. 2
“Oh Jamie, why did you do it?” she said, more quietly now, sitting and staring at his photograph on her dressing table. Jack was behind her. He was stroking her like an animal, but she let him do it, although nothing ever reached the deep darkness within her.
“I’d better get ready for work,” he said. For a moment she felt the urge to clutch onto him, stop him from leaving her too. “Yes,” she said. She looked up from the photograph to see him nodding at her in the mirror before turning and making his way out of the room. In a short while the sound of the shower filtered through the bedroom doorway. She picked up Jamie’s photo into her arms and felt herself rocking it as if he was a baby. * Nelson was very happy as Emily stroked him from his sensitive ears and outwards along his spine. When she stopped for a moment he turned to look at her as if willing her to carry on. “You’re just a selfish beast,” she said out loud to him, “you don’t care at all about my transplant.” He looked round at her winking his single eye reproachfully with a little miaow that seemed to say ‘oh yes I do’. “You’ll have to get up now,” Emily said, “I’ve got things to do.” Gently she eased him off her lap and stood up.
It was hard to believe how much better she felt now. Even in the early days after the operation when there was still a lot of pain and her energy seemed to have disappeared permanently she knew her body still felt ‘healed’ – like it was made whole again. It was hard to find the right way of describing it, but that was how it felt inside. And today was as important a day as any since then. She was going back into school. Not to teach her class again, not just yet, but at least see them and maybe, well, talk to them. It was 101 days since the transplant. She’d set her heart on getting back after a hundred days and finding out that was a Sunday was a disappointment. Quite irrational she knew, it was just random,
but she did love symmetry. So on this one hundred and first day she’d got up early, and put her school clothes on for the first time since magic transplant Saturday.
Her mobile phone was ringing from the kitchen. She hurried through to get it, noticing it was already quarter to nine as she went. ‘Rachel’ the display said, deputy head from school. “You still OK for this morning?” Straight to the point – that was Rachel. “Hi Rachel, wouldn’t miss it for anything.” “Just wanted to be organised when you got here.” “Organised?” “Well yes, you’re a special visitor.” “Am I?” “You know you are.” It felt strange. It was her school and she was a teacher. How could she be a special visitor? “I just want to start getting back into things, Rachel. Back to normal.” “Give yourself time. Meanwhile, enjoy coming in today.” “I will. See you about ten o’clock.” “Ten then. That’s fine.” And she was gone. Why had she rung? Rachel knew she was going to call in today, it didn’t need a special call. Just slip in and see her class, get used to being there again, ready to start work in a couple of weeks. That was the plan.
Nelson making a noise brought her out of her reverie. She fed him. ‘Miaow’ he said appreciatively and started eating. She leaned against the fridge door and watched him for a moment before walking through to her work desk to gather up what she needed for the visit. The little parcels of sweets and cards were there waiting for her, but her attention was drawn to the copy of the letter she’d written on day 95. It was still on her desk. The surgeon told her early on it was a young student’s kidney inside her. That was all she knew, although he did also say she was one of a magic nine people his donated organs had helped. ‘His’; it felt like the word had just slipped out. That was strange; inside her now she had a man’s kidney. And on day 95 she’d felt able to write something that had been on her mind for 4
some while. A letter of thanks to his family with the names added by the transplant team. But she was in her own world again. Time to make use of all the time she’d gained. No more dialysis to build into her everyday life. She could get into school and start enjoying life. * Leaving Annie each morning was hard. Jack wished she had a job to go to like he did. Yes there were trust board meetings and her friends were very good in inviting her out, but it wasn’t the same as a regular commitment to dull the fierce pain of loss that was always there inside him now. For several weeks he didn’t think there were more than ten minutes at a time when he didn’t think of Jamie. Then, one morning for perhaps two hours in a technical meeting he became absorbed and forgot. It felt like a betrayal; the sudden stabbing inside which surged back after felt like no more than he deserved.
Sometimes on the journey to work he found himself wondering what had happened to the heart and lungs and kidneys and all the rest of whatever the surgeons had wanted after they’d agreed to respect Jamie’s wishes to donate his body for transplanting. It felt strange, weird even, that he might walk past someone with part of Jamie living inside them. But the more he thought about it, the more he was glad they’d done it. It really did feel to him like Jamie wasn’t quite dead, although he knew it wasn’t the same for Annie; not yet anyway. “You may never know, it just depends,” the surgeon had said when he asked if anyone might contact them, “only time will tell, but you won’t get a name or anything. A letter maybe, filtered through us.” He didn’t know if he wanted that or not. Only time will tell, he found himself thinking.
The blaring of a horn roused him suddenly from his reverie. A large Renault had cut up the Peugeot 307 in front of him. Its sudden slowing made him brake quickly too. ‘No more accidents please’ he said to himself, watching the angry gesticulations and more blasting from the car horns ahead. Part of him wanted to join in, but it all seemed so trivial. Boys stuff. Did Jamie behave like that as a driver? He didn’t know; never would know.
Was it a generous thing Jamie had done – they’d done – in letting the surgeons have his organs? ‘You will have transformed up to nine lives with your generosity’ they’d said at the hospital. It had made no sense at the time. The words ‘nine lives’ kept spinning in and out of his brain in those terrible first few days. Nine more lives and none for Jamie. Cats have nine lives and Jamie doesn’t have one. He’d wondered if he was going mad.
His office was ahead of him. He slowed the car, turned through the gateway and found himself a parking space. The constant swish of the traffic on the main road as he lifted his key fob to lock the car as he walked into the building seemed surprisingly loud. ‘Like life, moving relentlessly onwards’ he thought to himself, and Jamie was no longer part of it. * It was five to ten when Emily drove her car into the school car park and suddenly she was nervous. One hundred and one days was a long time to be away. As usual, everything seemed quiet. It wasn’t playtime yet so every class should be hard at work, including hers with the supply teacher. ‘A nice young man,’ Rachel had said. It was good to know, but she couldn’t help feeling just a little jealousy that someone else, nice young man or not, had been with her class all that time.
She was just about to put the usual code into the security panel when someone opened the door for her. She walked in to see children, lots of children standing there in the entrance hall. A reception committee! A foyer full of grinning eight year old faces; her class, all cheering! She stood in front of them astonished. After a few moments the head raised his arm for quiet. When it arrived he spoke in his usual formal manner, but smiling, which was very different from his usual seriousness.
“The children wanted to give you a special welcome, Miss Taylor, we’re all very pleased you’re coming back,” he said. Behind him she could see Rachel and a young man she didn’t recognise. “Mr Williams has done a great job in your absence. . .” he paused to stare at Jason who was interfering with the boy standing in front of him and while he did she
glanced across at the young man who noticed and smiled at her . . . “but we’re all ready for your return.”
It was the cue for more cheering before the young man who was obviously Mr Williams began ushering the children back into the school. Two little girls waved enthusiastically at her as they went. She could feel tears welling behind her eyes, but held them back and smiled dutifully at the head as he hurried back into his office promising to speak to her ‘in a few minutes.’ She turned to Rachel. “I didn’t expect that.” “It’s a primary school remember. A child’s world.” It was. She grasped it as an oasis from everything that had happened to her. New kidney, new life, fresh start.
“That teacher; Williams is it? Young student is he?” “Older than he looks; about your age I think. Got fed up with marketing and retrained.” “What happens to him when I’m fully back?” “Didn’t you know?” “I’ve had a kidney transplant remember!” She pointed ostentatiously to her abdomen where the surprisingly small scar had already healed, grinning. It felt good to be back, good to be normal again. “Siobhan’s pregnant. Goes off next week. He’s taking over her class.” “That’s cool. Good is he then?” “Man in a primary school? Head start hasn’t he. But yes, he is good. Children love him – almost as much as you.” “You had to add that.” “They do love you Emily. I’m so glad it’s all worked out.” Without warning Rachel’s arms were round her in an embrace. Somehow it released the feelings she thought she’d kept under control and over Rachel’s shoulder the shape of the head emerging from his office fractured through tears. * 7
The arrival of the morning post startled Annie for a moment. For two or three weeks after the postman had dropped cards through the door. She read every one over and over, came to expect their arrival. Eventually they dwindled and then stopped. When one morning all that arrived was a council tax bill and some stupid advertisements it was like another death, and the tears that morning had felt as bitter as any she’d experienced.
She was surprised to see just two letters. The clonking sound must have been the letter box closing noisily. One of them looked like a bank statement. The other was addressed to Mr and Mrs J. Andrews. She picked it up and stared at it for a few moments before peeling it open. It was from the hospital; a formal looking letter. But it began ‘Dear Jack and Annie’ which seemed surprisingly personal. As she read on it felt almost as if everything inside her literally stopped – no breath, no heartbeat, nothing. ‘The recipient of one of Jamie’s kidneys wanted to write to you’ it said. Inside was a separate envelope addressed by hand to ‘The family’. It was a neat, large hand, like whoever wrote it was used to handwriting.
‘I can’t tell you how much you’ve changed my life’ she read, and then stopped, unable to continue. All the pain of that evening in the hospital came surging up inside her again like a great wave. She hadn’t said yes to the organ donation, couldn’t bear the thought of his body being cut open. The hospital said Jamie had signed the organ donor register and Jack’s words stayed in her head: ‘He wanted to be a doctor, save lives,’ he’d said. All she’d done was nodded her acceptance. There had been times since then she’d hated him for that. Now here was someone with one of his organs inside; living when Jamie was dead. For a moment she wanted to rip the letter into tiny pieces. She stood for a moment with it in her hand not knowing what to do.
Then, from nowhere, into her head came the words: ‘Read it mum’. Jamie? All this time she’d been desperate to see him again, looked for him in the street, in the supermarket, outside his favourite pub, thought she’d seen him so many times only to be disappointed and now his voice?
“Jamie?” she said out loud, and as she said it a strange calm seemed to fill her body. It was like nothing she’d ever experienced before. ‘Read it mum.’ The words were still there in her head, no longer with Jamie’s voice, but she knew with absolute certainty he wanted her to read the letter which was still in her hand. “I’m so sorry my gain has come as the result of such a terrible loss for you. Every day I think of you and whoever has died in your family. You must be very special people to have agreed to the donation. I can tell you the kidney I’ve received means I can live a full life again. Next week I’m going back to the school where I’m a teacher of twenty nine lovely eight year olds. I won’t waste the wonderful chance you’ve given me. Thankyou so much.’
Annie found herself reading the letter over and over, wanting to grasp every word. It felt like Jamie was reading it with her and the calm feeling seemed to suffuse itself throughout her body. ‘I did get it right then’ she found herself saying, and in her whole being she knew now that she had. * Nelson was waiting for her when she got back. His plaintive miaows said ‘feed me, feed me.’ She went to the cupboard and opened a sachet of tuna for him before she did anything else. It had been a good visit. Everyone friendly and her class so pleased to see her. Little Tyler with her pigtails and missing front teeth had kept looking at her and grinning. “She kept asking me about you,” Paul Williams told her, “obviously one of your stars.” “She wrote a little piece in her exercise book for me,” she’d said, “Made me cry when I read it. Just think, that was on my last dialysis session.” “Must have been hard. How long did you have to do that?” The sound of children playing outside wafted through to them. “Too long. Five years and four months if you really want to know.” “Long time! D’you know whose it is?” “The kidney you mean?” He nodded. “They never tell you. I’ve written a thankyou letter though. Hospital staff get it to them.” “Best gift ever then.” 9
“Cool,” she said, smiling at him. There was no way of saying how much it all meant. Even that cliché about the gift of life didn’t say just how much difference it all made to her. Despite the drugs she had to take now, she felt normal. The relief had spread itself throughout her body in the months since her operation.
As soon as she’d organised herself, Nelson was on her, wanting to be stroked. “You’ll have to get used to being left again,” she said. He looked up at her purring. Another life seemed to stretch out ahead of her. No longer a restrictive existence revolving round all those dialysis sessions. Friday nights would be her own. She tried to imagine whoever it was whose kidney was working so well inside her. He was young; they’d told her that. If he was a student, probably even younger than she was. At least it felt good to have written the letter to his family. How could they ever get over that? It was impossible to imagine how hard it must have been to let the doctors take his organs. At least she hoped it would be some comfort for them into the future.
How amazing it would be next week to get back into action. She lay back in her chair as Nelson opened his single eye for a moment and looked up at her. She smiled at him, to herself, to everyone. Watch out world, Emily is back! * Annie was in the kitchen when Jack got home. He no longer asked how she was. It seemed a pointless question. Usually these days they maintained a sad silence broken only by simple communications about necessities like eating, although neither of them had done much of that since Jamie’s accident. The growing tightness at his waistband had been replaced by a gap, forcing him to use a belt.
But surprisingly she spoke to him straightaway. “We’ve had a letter.” “Oh?” “From the hospital. About Jamie.” “About Jamie?” 10
“A thankyou letter.” She was wearing one of those skirts with big pockets she always liked and from one of the pockets she produced the letter and handed it to him. He took it and read the handwritten words, and then read them again. Beyond his control he could feel tears coming to his eyes. Annie was there putting her arms around him, holding him tightly, and he could tell she was crying too. He knew they must have held the embrace for more than a minute, and only gradually did she release her grip and step back from him.
The tears in her eyes were obvious, but something told him there was more. “Jamie,” she said, “it felt like he was with me when I read that.” He looked at her, not sure what she was telling him. “I got a strong sense of his presence. It hasn’t left me all day.” “His presence?” “Like he’s here with me. Like he thinks we did the right thing.” There was a smile on Annie’s face he hadn’t seen for such a long time. He could feel the tears welling again inside him, and as if she was sensing it, she stretched out her arms to hold him again. He let her comfort him.
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A Short Story donated to Kidney Research UK