Each tiny filament of blood vessel must be covered.
The dark-haired woman gazes at the shape in front of her, not actually heart shaped at all, more beefsteak tomato in shape and not a bloody, bulging purple. No. Not yet. Though that would come after she’d finished with it in its drained and creamy glory, a tuberous corpse bride squatting in a white dish.
Squinting she lifts the syringe and with a steady hand drizzles the stem cells in a shining veil over the heart’s network of exposed fibres. She can hear the hum of the air conditioning and the fridges, the smell of the crisp packet in the waste bin over the paint-stripping scent of the formaldehyde rising from the dish in front of her. The heart has been soaked for twelve hours in Persil but there was no trace of that now. She blinks with tiredness and straightens her back with a click. Nearly finished. Just the last quarter to do around the base of the left chamber. It was well-developed in this heart. Its former owner must have been an athlete or a farmer; someone strong anyway.
The door opens and a steaming cup of coffee is put down next to her.
“How much longer do you think?”
She doesn’t look up. “An hour maybe.”
“Do you want some help?” She thinks it is a pity Dan’s voice is so attractive. It makes his overbearing manner more difficult to detect, but she’s been working with him for long enough. That cup of coffee wasn’t fooling anyone.
“I’m fine thanks, Dan.” She looks up and pushes her goggles into her hair. Her eyes itch and she rubs them. Dan puts a hand on her shoulder, which feels warm through her white cotton coat. She shrugs it off. She’d have welcomed it once.
Dan raises heavy dark brows.
“All right, don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
She puts her goggles back on.
“I’m not. I just don’t like you touching me.”
“You know it would be a lot more pleasant working in this lab if you weren’t so touchy.” He had a spot of colour on each cheek, high up where his sideburns tried to grow onto his cheek, kept ruthlessly in check by the stainless steel trimmers she’d seen in his bathroom cabinet. Mono-brows, beards, nostril hair; all were excised. All the staff were drenched in deodorant for fear some reminder of their animal origins might creep through their coats.
She turns back to the heart. “It’s not me who is touchy, it’s you.”
Dan reaches over and pushes the plastic cup over, hot coffee steaming its way towards her work. She doesn’t jump, but moves the base of the stand holding the heart out of the coffee’s milky reach. She doesn’t even take off her goggles.
“There’s a cloth by the sink.” She says.
“You do it.” Dan’s voice petulant now, like a child’s, then the sound of the lab door slamming.
Two hours later she spreads the last cloak of cells onto the ghost heart. It gleams at her like a just-iced wedding cake and she carries its stand over to the bioreactor where it will sit in state, bathed by a running stream of proteins and warmth. Whether it would ever beat was no longer up to her. She’d done all she could.
The glass door closes with a gentle hiss and a puff of steam is released and obscures the metal stand so the ghost heart appears to hang unsupported in midair. It is beautiful and otherworldly in its design like nothing man would have ever invented. It looked, on first inspection, like a piece of machinery which ought not to work, with its irregular sides and great overlapping branches of artery over vein, vein over artery. The whole thing wrapped in gossamer tissue of protein.
You couldn’t argue with evolution. It had done a marvelous job.
Her back clicks again and she becomes aware of a pain in her feet. Time to go home. She double-checks the lock on the bioreactor, slips on her trainers and running clothes and hangs her day clothes in her office. They’d be good for another day. The security guard is reading a comic.
She walks for a few minutes as a warm up and then begins to run, under the railway bridge and through the cobbled alleys around Tooley Street, the flagstones still the same as in Jack the Ripper’s day, the rumbles from London Bridge tube chasing her along the pavements. Another thing Dan had disliked was her running, said it took her away from her time with him, but actually it was about control.
She jogged waiting for the lights to change. Though it must be midnight, the street was still busy with tourists and young office workers with loosened top buttons and pink cheeks.
The light in the hall of her apartment was low and the mirror beneath it in need of a good clean, but she could see enough of herself in it; certainly enough to make her want to look away from her thinning hair and face, both lined with grey. Her body was good though – younger than that of most forty-five year olds. A little on the scrawny side from too much running and not enough eating. Or that’s what Dan had said. She was sorry it hadn’t worked out with him as it could have been great. Or maybe she was mixing up ‘great’ with ‘convenient’. There had never been a moment when she could see what her own view of the relationship ahead would be. Or she just hadn’t thought about it at all, and entered each relationship as it presented itself and exited without fanfare when it was over. Maybe that’s why he’d been cross.
She strips off as she walked through the living room to her bedroom. The curtains were closed already; she couldn’t tell you when she’d last been home in time to open them. The hot water hits her in the face washing away the smell of the formaldehyde and she towel-dries her hair on the unmade bed when the phone rings.
Her mother’s voice is querelous.
“I know it’s late, but I needed to talk to you.”
“Is it Jack?” Kate’s heart clenched. Jack was her mother’s beloved ancient terrier. There was a gulp.
“I was going to wait until you were back this weekend so you could go with him to the vet, but…” Now a sob. “The vet said it was best to put him out of his discomfort.”
‘Misery’ would have been a better word. The poor animal had been blind, deaf and incontinent with no use of his back legs and yet still her mother had insisted on prolonging his life. Still, her mother had loved him in a way she’d never loved any of her children. Kate’s siblings all now lived abroad.
“Christ, with your qualifications you could go anywhere you liked.” Her eldest brother had stormed at her on his last visit, expanded and tanned like the lone star state where he’d settled. “Why do you stay with the old bag? You know she hates you.”
Kate had winced.
“I’m not here for Ma. I stay because I love my job.”
“But you would get four times the money from Harvard or Princeton.” Disbelief is all over his well-fed face.
“It’s not about the money.”
He’d looked confused.
“Well, it should be.”
She’d smiled. “I have enough.” She said, not adding that having a house the size of his would just make her nervous. He’d frowned and waved at the waiter for the bill.
“I just don’t want you short-changed is all. I think they take advantage of you.” Only her older brother could come out with that line. Everyone else she knew was either scared of her or in awe of her.
“Lionel, no one is taking advantage of me. I love my work and my college is the best place for me to do it.”
“They have transplant units in the U.S. you know.”
“I know.” She shrugged not quite meeting his eye. Lionel narrowed his eyes, but to Kate’s relief said nothing.
“Well.” He took out a leather cheque book holder. “When Ma needs anything – you know, carer, nursing home, whatever. Just fill it in for her…whatever you need.” He handed her a blank signed cheque.
“Thanks, that’s good to know.” She’d tucked the cheque into her serviceable black handbag.
That had been back in October and it was now February and the cheque was still in her bag.
“So when will you be coming down?” Her mother asks, her voice high with need. Kate looks at her feet, veiny and puffy. How had they become like that? Time seemed to have evaded her grasp and where she expected to see a teenagers’ toes, there were only these middle-aged toes which seemed fused together so they look like trotters.
“I’m not sure, Mum. The experiment is at the very important stage. We’ve just seeded the shell with…”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Her mother cuts her off, her voice regaining its usual caustic tone. Kate replaces the phone in its cradle and gets into bed. Sleep is never slow in coming.
Kate had known a female lab technician once who’d turned up for her shift at the end of the day, instead of the beginning having woken at six in the evening from a nap and believed it to be six in the morning. The technician had been terribly upset, convinced of imminent dementia. Kate thought of her often, more than one would think. Maybe it tapped into her fear of growing old alone, living in a confused twilight of time where one could never really be sure of anything without someone else to confirm it. Yes. That would be scary. This lab was the same all year round, day and night. It would have given the technician no clue as to her mistake.
Kate’s coffee sits next to the bioreactor. She was first in, eager to check her handiwork. She allows the hot sugary liquid to scald her tongue before swallowing it. She squints at the heart.
“It’s not going to be beating just yet.” The professor’s voice comes from behind her. There is humour in his tone. “Did you think it might?” She turns to him, his pale mouse’s face blinking at her, fine white hair standing up on end.
“Just give it time, Simon. It will.”
“I don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t. None of us know if it ever will.”
“The rats’ did.”
“They did. But you, above everyone, know that’s not a guarantee of anything.”
The other scientists and technicians were coming in, drawn to the heart like filings clumped around a magnet.
“I don’t need a guarantee that it will start.” She could feel the dratted colour rising in her cheeks, giving her away. “I know it will.” She moves Simon away from the others. “I could feel it. As I siphoned on the stem cells, it moved a tiny bit each time.” She looks at his face. “I wasn’t imagining it.”
The professor smiles.
“Heart cells formed already do you think?”
“Maybe.” She frowns. “I really don’t know.”
“I don’t think any of us do.” Kate smiles her wide smile and the professor raises his brows.
“I agree it would be wonderful, but try to keep your hopes in check. I’d hate for you to be upset.”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t be?”
Simon goes a little pink and moves so his back is to the room.
“Don’t be like that, Kate. That’s not what I meant.”
Kate keeps her voice low.
“Yes it is. You mean you don’t want me dripping tears all over the place.”
The professor’s face closes like a book.
“I’m tired of this feminist rant, Kate. I don’t want you to be upset because you are my friend. I don’t care whether you drip tears or not.”
“Simon, I’m sorry.”
Kate lifts her hand to Simon’s arm, but he shook it off.
“You’re very hard to work with, Kate. And it’s such a shame.” She watches him walk back across the room and open the door, then she sits down at her bench and wonders why she wants to cry.
A sudden dimming of the lights makes her look up and she waits for them to go back to normal, a sign the university’s generator had kicked in. Neil, the quietest of her doctoral students stands next to her bench.
“Dr Ravensdale? I don’t know if you know this, but I share rooms with two other doctoral students.”
“No Neil, I didn’t know.” She turns back to her work but something about Neil makes her look back at him. His whole body is tense and his tongue flickers in and out.
“What is it, Neil?”
“They work in genetics too.”
“What interesting conversations you must have.” Neil goes pink and backs away a little. Kate stood up. “I’m sorry Neil, it was a joke.” Relief floods his face. You must be gentler than you are, Kate. The students idolise you. Simon’s voice from the past – this was what he’d meant.
“You were saying?” Neil’s feet shuffle again.
“They’re in Dr Gaspar’s lab. Over at Imperial,” he adds, though he’d got her full attention since he’d mentioned Dr Gaspar.
What would it be this time? Had he published a paper claiming her results were made up, that he hadn’t been able to reproduce them? Or had he written a supposedly new piece of research which was little more than a re-hash of one of her own?
“No. I didn’t know they had the pleasure of Dr Gaspar’s company.” She smiles as she speaks so Neil would know she was still joking.
“He doesn’t like you very much, does he?” Neil is emboldened by her smile.
“No, he doesn’t.”
“I know I shouldn’t gossip.” He’s gone pink again. “But I’ve heard he’s started work on his own ghost heart.”
Kate feels her face slacken.
“But I thought they were working on the cancer thing.”
Neil’s face blanches. It wasn’t like her to be so imprecise.
“They were. Or rather, they still are but Dr Gaspar has – unofficially.” Only Dr Gaspar could do such vital, expensive work ‘unofficially’.
She leans on the counter and straightens her back, which suddenly hummed with pain as if a thick band of rubber had been wrapped around her middle.
Her eyes slide back to Neil.
“Do we know how far he’s got?”
Neil clears his throat.
“As far as we have, apparently. The heart is in their bioreactor.” She raises her brows. She was quite surprised the clumsy Dr Gaspar had got that far.
“He must have someone helping him.”
Neil nods, his face serious.
“He does, Dr Mesfin. Who used to be here.” Kate nods. Dr Mesfin, of course. Light-fingered with a barracuda’s face and one cold eye fastened on immortality. She’d be behind him all the way.
“Do you know how long it’s been in there?” Neil shakes his head. “And it’s all hooked up?” He nodded.
“I could get you in to see it, if you’d like?” His cheeks are pink again.
“No, I won’t thank you, Neil. Much as I’d like to.” She turns her head back to her work in a way which means he should leave, except he doesn’t.
“What would happen if they beat us?” She looks at the wall.
There is a single point at which stem cells, having formed heart cells start to vibrate. This in turn informs the other cells and they pick up the movement until gradually or maybe within the space of a few seconds the whole heart is beating, all the cells firing at the same time as if to the tune of a gigantic unseen conductor. Kate had hoped to catch that moment, document it as the only real evidence that there might be a God, in that silent gap between stillness and movement.
A gap all were at a loss to explain.
But the ghost heart, maybe remembering its owner, had other ideas. Despite Kate hovering over it for close to twenty-four hours straight, the heart began to beat whilst she was in the bathroom, its contractions making its glossy surface glisten; a valentine’s card from the Hammer House of Horror.
To her, it was a thing of monumental beauty and those first few moments of watching it beat would come back to her often in the future, blocking out red maples rusting in the glow of an Indian summer or the view from a train she took to Cornwall-when she had come out of a tunnel to find herself looking at a seascape where nothing had changed since the century before last.
If she could get it to beat now; happily, the healthy cells turning pink as they took on the oxygenated blood which pushed its way around the heart’s chambers, then what were the chances of successfully growing other organs? Spleens, livers, kidneys – all seeded with the recipients own stem cells so there would be no chance of rejection. The weight of the possibilities was too much to think about. She was cross she’d missed the moment, God turning his back on her again, but she’d be able to watch it on film from the cameras set up around the lab.
She sits down and a chair is pulled up next to her.
“Well, what do you know?” Simon’s face is rapt in front of the glass window of the bioreactor. “It does change colour. I had hoped it would. I couldn’t see it working otherwise.” The ghost heart was now a raspberry mousse pink. “Imagine having to transplant a white heart.” Kate tears her glance from the heart to look at him, though she could still see the heart’s reflection in his glasses, as he wrinkles his pink nose. “It wouldn’t seem quite right.”
Kate smiles, then yawns, the anticipation catching up with her leaving her drained, almost boneless.
“It’s been a long stretch hasn’t it?”
“Did you hear about Gaspar?”
Simon nodded. “Yes.”
“Do you think it’s beating?” She asks.
“Probably out of fear.” His tone made her smile. “Don’t worry about him. He’s been snapping at your ankles all your working life.”
“But this is the most important…” She inclines her head. If she stops speaking now she won’t cry.
“And you want it to be all yours.”
“Childish, I know.”
Professor Chambers shakes his head.
“Not childish no. But naïve, yes. Just publish what you have. Gaspar may be right behind you, but the man’s a fraud. Everyone knows it.”
Kate wants to ask why that had made no difference to his career. Why she and all the women scientists had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously, but it makes her feel sick, so she says nothing.
By the time she leaves the lab the heart is pumping thirty percent of its volume. Kate doesn’t really want to leave. She feels she’d like to sleep curled around the warm bioreactor as if some of the life in her might seep through the glass to make the heart even stronger.
On one of the white walls is a board of photographs. Patients who needed transplant. She’d had her team paste them up so they could remember why they were here – where life was reduced to a few chemical reactions – so they wouldn’t forget these moon-faced men and women who once had lives where they ate, laughed and fought. Had been able to breathe in and out without wondering if each breath might be their last.
Her eyes wander over them. She knows them by heart. If she could choose, she’d give the heart to Magdalena, an immigrant from Nicaragua with a face like an empty room and twenty percent heart function. With thirty percent she’d be able to run for the bus. Kate lifts her hand and soothes the photograph’s curled edges, re-pinning its corner flat. There was only so much research money for transplants, such a difficult and unpredictable science. Cancer was far more fashionable. Lots of money sloshing about over at Cancer Research. She sighs. Rightly so, she supposed. Her funding was up for review in April. It had never crossed her mind she wouldn’t get it.
Magdalena looks past her.
Today is Sunday and there is a man in her bed. This happens sometimes. She works in a masculine world, there are men everywhere, in her way, tripping her up. She doesn’t mind. She likes them. Neil’s back is white and too slack really for someone his age, but hours at a microscope will do that to you.
“Can I get you a coffee?” His face is eager, young.
“I don’t know if I’ve got any.” She smiles. “Shall we go out?” He nods and smiles back. He is, thank heavens, not embarrassed by their encounter. They’d been celebrating last night with Simon and some others and the opportunity which had been growing in her mind presented itself far earlier than she’d expected. Kate took this as a ‘sign’. She’d been quite drunk last night so it hadn’t been a chore and at least he was young. In the shower she washes her hair and forces herself to put on some make-up. Then she dresses quickly. She has about two hours before the make-up settles into her wrinkles.
Over coffee she asks Neil if they can visit his flat mates at their lab and his face falls like a broken blind. Kate’s innards contract. Has she misjudged him?
“I thought we’d spend the day together.”
She blinks. No, she hadn’t. “Well we will.” She smiles, not making a good job of it, but it is a smile nevertheless.
Neil is petulant. “Not work related.”
She leans over and pats his hand. “I don’t know how else to live, Neil.”
That at least, was the truth.
Dr Gaspar’s college sits like a smug stone scarab in the middle of the most expensive real estate in the world. Her lab, by comparison, is at the armpit end of London, south of the river where the sirens never stop. Kate pictures the funding committee arriving here and then coming onto her college. The warm yellow brick reeks of security and good deeds done. She smiles at Neil as his friend buzzes them in, but she doesn’t feel guilty. Not yet anyway.
“Dr Ravensdale? Such an honour!” Neil’s fresh-faced flat mate walks backwards in front of them down the hall, his white coat flapping over pale beige chinos.
“Is Dr Gaspar here?”
The student nodded.
“But that’s not a problem,” he rushed on. “He’s pleased you’re here.”
Dr Gaspar is small and round and aggressively heterosexual. It’s been twenty-five years since his red, sweating face had been positioned over hers; his plump, clumsy fingers had pulled down her evening gown tearing it, despite her protests to him to stop; twenty-five years since he’d been pulled off her by a rugby-playing anaesthetist who’d punched him in the mouth for good measure. Her last memory of that night was Gaspar in his red-spattered dinner jacket, his right eye closing clutching a tooth in his hand.
He bounds towards her, a small terrier likely at any moment to start humping her leg. His face is eager, as if what he wanted most that day was a visit from her.
“Come this way.” His technician hands them a pair of white coats which look odd over her tights and high heels. Maybe that’s what you had to wear if you worked here. The door opens onto a sparkling sunlit lab. The sounds of Knightsbridge waft through the open window and rows of awards are modestly positioned against the back walls above the sinks. It is a lovely room and Kate’s heart sinks.
How can she compete with this?
No amount of Magdalenas will make any difference in the face of such an assured set-up, where success is built into the stone.
The bioreactor shines, new and shiny as a fifty pence piece. Gaspar’s ghost heart is bigger than theirs, but less attractive, Kate feels. It’s over-developed chambers make it look like the cardiac version of Popeye.
And it is still.
As still as frozen pond on a winter’s day. As still as a snake between swallows. A pregnant, poignant stillness. But still, nevertheless.
And Kate, who is usually comfortable with the unexpected feels her cheeks flame and her pupils dilate with the pleasure that life can still surprise her so much.
Gaspar’s gaze is on her face.
It is Neil who speaks first. “Isn’t it beating yet?”
Kate smiles inwardly.
Dr Gaspar’s eyes narrows. “Is yours?”
Neil nods proudly. “Twelve hours wasn’t it, Dr Ravensdale? How long have you had yours in here?”
Kate keeps her eyes on the ghost heart. She can see the darkening of its edges, the loss of its colour, like a poppy just about to go to seed. No one had ever loved that heart. Not the way she loved hers. Did it know that?
“You know the tissue will be too old at eight days?” The colour leaves Dr Gaspar’s face. “But I’m sure it will be beating by then.” She finishes.
“It was just a little experiment,” he blusters. “Just a sideline.”
Kate turns and leaves the room.
That day and night Kate sat with her ghost heart, lulled by its movement, working quietly on another project. She’d watched the film of the heart’s early flutters again and again, checking no eager student had rushed in with a cattle prod or that Zeus might have appeared whilst she sat on the toilet. But there was nothing.
One minute the ghost heart was still. The next it wasn’t. God not turning his back, as it happened, but working in a gap as narrow as a cell wall. Kate supposed if she were God that might be how she’d want to work too.
When the night shift came she took out her brother’s blank cheque and cashed it at the late night supermarket. Then she drove to Battersea Dog’s Home. The puppy was a soft coffee colour with black stripes and big brown eyes. She was sick twice whilst Kate drove to her mother’s.
But they made it in time for breakfast.
Hannah Parry is an editor based in London. She has had two short stories published and has a full manuscript on submission. In her spare time she wonders what she should be doing with her life.
© 2019, Hannah Parry