A/N: Hello, thank you for coming by! This is just a short story based on the novel - I haven't managed to see the film yet. I've done my best to get Kathy's tone right. The cryptic crossword clue is a real one from the August 31st edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.
My name is Kathy H.
I'm a carer. I work full-time, or maybe longer than that if you include travelling between recovery centres. You can't really organise a rest or a holiday when you've got emergencies to attend to. I'll admit it, even now sometimes my heart jumps when my phone, which has multiple alarms, gives the single beep for 'Emergency Op'. And even after the window of time for major complications is past, I get donors whose demands don't fit into a neat eight-hour shift. But I like to think that after all these years I've got more than enough physical and emotional strength for it all. Everyone who works complains about their job, but somehow, day-to-day, they settle down, and subconsciously remember that it's not really that bad.
Although sometimes it's not bad in a way you can predict.
I was at a centre down in Kent. The weather was overcast so the lights were on in every room. My donor was a morning person; by eleven o'clock she and I had usually been up for six hours, so we'd take elevenses with the other donors in the common room and attempt to do the crossword in the paper. The cryptic one, of course, the kind you seem to have to have an encyclopaedic memory to be able to do. She was the sort of person who is most sociable when the subject of the conversation is something that isn't real. I don't think it's necessarily a recovery thing - even children seem to be like that sometimes. But since encouraging mental and physical fitness after donations was still part of my job, I appreciated the chance to do it with my feet up and a cup of tea in my hand.
'"Periodic table ends up with a lot of ducks in it". Seven letters.'
'We don't have any of them yet?'
She gave me a sideways glance and smiled. 'No, none. This may take some time. You want to take it? It's short.'
I helped myself to a Bourbon cream as I turned the clue over in my mind. Periodic table, that must have meant elements, and an element could be Fe, Al, Na, Ca, C, H, O...and what did those have to do with ducks?
'The "ends up" probably means it's got a backwards word.'
I moved my glance away from her and the paper and stared out at the room holding my eyes open, as if I had a blank canvas in front of me to throw ideas at. There were two donors in tracksuits opposite us, also enjoying tea and biscuits, but in my little moment of intellectual posturing my senses didn't pick up any impression of them right away. My mind was compiling a list of ducks. It actually was.
'I don't know much about types of ducks. Mallard ducks..."drallam" then? Eider ducks. Rubber d...'
'I'm sorry I ain't talkative, John. I've been thinking about a mate from Kingswood, did you ever go there? Tommy D. He completed yesterday.'
The words were just background noise but the effect they had on me was violent. I subconsciously tensed my arms and clenched my fists, the way you do when a stray football hits you in the park, and my mind slipped a little out of control too, as it immediately repeated to me that word 'completed'. I refocused my glance, looking deliberately now at the two donors who were still talking about Tommy. As I'm putting this down I can tell you that I had known Tommy would complete for a long time, as he had, and I'd spent far too much time, mostly when I was alone attempting to sleep, rehearsing the moment I found out in my mind. I've been around a long time, for one of us, so I know all the different ways to find out and to pass the news on. But no amount of repeating the words in my head had prepared me to hear them really spoken.
And as I goggled vaguely in their direction, their conversation continued along the lines I'd heard so many times before. Four donations, now, not everyone could manage that, it was something to be proud of to get that far. Didn't some people just have a knack for recovery? No, no, it was all down to having the right carer. Oh no, that wasn't right, sometimes it really was luck. And so on.
I put my hands back on my knees. No, it was alright. It was as I imagined it'd be, and I could handle it. Tommy had completed, yes, it had actually happened. Fortunately my donor hadn't noticed my extremely brief loss of self-possession; she'd been too busy figuring out 'Caesar's messenger to Cleopatra heard to favour US currency'. I might have returned to thinking about ducks if one of them hadn't said, in a voice so quiet it could have been inside my head;
'It makes you think, doesn't it? Here we are, trundling along day by day, but some day will be the last one, and we'll be dead as well."
I stood up so quickly I nearly fell off my heels. I turned to my donor and told her I was going to the bathroom and I'd be back shortly. When she asked me if everything was alright, I smiled and told her I'd think of ducks. Which must have sounded pretty mad, thinking back, but I wasn't thinking straight. And as soon as I closed the common room behind me, I raced to the loos.
On this side of the building the clouds were passing over, and a stream of light came through the high windows, illuminating the ordinary plain green stalls and beige laminate floor. I closed the door and walked over to the centre of the room. There was no one there, and the thick door reduced the noises of the corridor outside to a vague murmur. I held my head down and mentally repeated the words.
Tommy was dead.
People who don't know much about how things are for us, when we hear from them anyway, seem to think we use the word 'complete' as a euphemism, to protect ourselves from the terror of our fates. I suppose in some ways this has to be true, but there's more to it than that. I had never associated the word 'death' with myself or anyone I knew. 'Death' was Madame Bovary dribbling black in the throes of arsenic poisoning, or Sidney Carton under the guillotine. It had an inherent beauty and power which wrung your heart and soul like a sponge. Or at least that was the idea. Our approach to completing is more scientific, probably because we're all taught how it can happen. Organ failure is common, so are infections. Botched surgery and whitecoats' incompetence also happens on occasion. The whitecoats make records of the time and the cause, and once they've done that…
I covered my eyes with my hands. I knew about completions, I'd witnessed them a number of times, and, like I said, I knew it would happen to Tom as it had to Ruth and it would to me. But suddenly all I could think of was death, dying and dead. For a moment I wished I could be like the other characters in the book. The death of course wrenches them apart, so they collapse into tears and die themselves of broken hearts. Or they take strength from it and name their future children in the late character's memory. They dress in black, hold a funeral, hold hands and sing songs.
I covered my hands with my eyes, my hands which weren't covered in silky gloves over my eyes which weren't shielded by a veil, and for a moment I had a dark orangey-pink oblivion to look into. That was all that a donor's story came to. Oblivion.
At that moment, like so many others, I suddenly thought of a time at Hailsham. When we were tiny, I mean can't-spell-your-own-name tiny, we had a game of thinking of something for our last initial to stand for. When it came to my turn I put my hands on my cheeks and said Kathy Hearts. I was a typical little girl and very fond of the heart stencil in our Art Room. And Tommy, of course, was a typical little boy and very fond of getting up to high spaces. He said;
We'd just fallen about laughing, some with him and some at him, as became usual with Tom. And all at once I was overcome with the thought that there had always been part of that boy in the man he'd become, and I had loved both, and perhaps if I'd just known, or if I'd just done something - even just written Kathy Hearts Tommy on my notebook – we could've had just a bit more time. And I sobbed into the darkness I'd made with my hands again, because now he really was dead. I'd never see or hear from him again, and all the proof that he'd ever existed was in my mind and a folder full of pictures I struggled to look at again.
After maybe a full minute of this, I withdrew my hands from my face and looked in the mirror. I think some part of me hoped I would have disappeared. But instead, I was there, of course. My hair had come a little loose and my eyes looked tired and red. I was older than most, and healthier than most. He was Tommy D., I was Kathy H. He had completed after four donations. I hadn't received the notice for my first, so even if I got it tomorrow I'd typically have another two years to live. And there was nothing I could do to change that.
I took in a deep breath, tied my hair back again and splashed a little water on my face in the random hope that'd perk it up. I smoothed down my skirt, hitched up my tights, and left the bathroom. By the time I got back to the common room I had a neutral look on my face.
'Epochal, it's epochal'.