Render Unto Caesar
A face appears in the thin gap between door and frame. Nose too big, lips too grey, eyes red and glistening.
“Mr. Joseph Franklin Odberry?”
“Yes?” the rabbit at the doorway nervously replies.
I flash my ID card and give him a reassuring smile. “I’m Ms. Adriana Prescott, from NHS Blood and Transplant. May I come in?”
“Is this… is this about my kidney?”
I nod, solemn now. “Yes, yes it is.”
The inside of the council flat matches Mr. Odberry. Like him, it is devoid of any hope, any colour, any future. It’s dark, it smells, and it looks like it curled up to die sometime in the 1990’s and somehow forgot to do the dying part. I perch primly on the edge of a frayed brown sofa, while Joe peers from the depths of his easy chair.
“Now,” I say, tapping on my tablet. “Just to confirm, Mr. Odberry, you received a kidney transplant in June of last year, at Barts and the London. Is that correct?”
Mr. Odberry jerks his head in assent.
“If you please, could you clearly say ‘yes’ or ‘no’? For my records?”
“Y-yeah,” he confirms, and I press the appropriate button on the electronic form.
“Thank you. Tell me, Mr. Odberry–Joe. May I call you Joe? Were you ever told who your donor was?”
Joe shakes his head and then, at my raised eyebrow, stutters a: “N-no.”
“Let me enlighten you. Your donor was a…” I carefully read the name, though I know it well enough. “Mr. Sanjit Parul, declared deceased following a Road Traffic Accident on the 2nd June at 3.43pm.”
Joe blinks owlishly up at me. No doubt, he fears whatever news I’m about to impart. I wonder what he imagines? Some case of malpractice? A recently uncovered medical issue with the donor? Or does he hope that this is just a routine check-up, albeit one without the customary month-in-advance appointment? I put him out of his misery.
“Well, Mr. Odberry; Mr. Parul would like his kidney back.”
There’s a small shake of the head. Disbelief. Perfectly understandable. “I thought…” the voice is almost lost in the dullness of the room and I have to strain to hear, “I thought you said he was… deceased?”
“Quite so. He was. But, after the change to the laws as part of the Returnee Act, passed in April, he is nevertheless entitled to claim back any possessions he had at the time of his unfortunate death. And that does, I’m afraid, include his organs.”
There’s a look of realization, of horror. “Mr. Parul is a… a zombie?”
I wince. “Please, Mr. Odberry! There’s absolutely no call for the ‘Z’ word. Mr. Parul is a returnee, legally registered as such.”
“But… I need his kidney.”
“I’m sure you do. However, Mr. Parul has a priori rights. And, before you point out that removing his kidney may well kill you, I’d like you to note that even though Mr. Parul was dead when the organ was taken from him, removing it was surely done in such a way as would have lead to his certain demise, were he alive at the time. So it does all rather balance out.”
There’s a pause while Mr. Odberry does his best to process this. He blinks. He shifts as if his chair, the one moulded to his desiccated form, has suddenly become ill fitting. Uneasy. At an educated guess, he withdrew into his council flat shell shortly after his operation and hoped everything and everyone would stay away, thus missing the bulk of the news about the End of the World.
Finally, he manages, in strangled voice, to utter: “You’re here to remove my kidney?”
“Heaven’s no, Mr. Odberry!” I laugh, “Do I look like a surgeon? I’m here merely to inform you of proceedings and to answer any questions you may have. The date for the operation is set for Tuesday-week. I do hope that is convenient?”
He gulps. Surprised, I suppose, at the speed, but, if it were done…
“I, um… will there be a replacement?”
“Ah,” I frown and do my best to show sympathy, “Well, obviously, the NHS is rather stretched at the moment, with much of our current effort dedicated to returning organs to returnee donors. So there’s a halt on all transplants, I’m afraid. You see, unless we know for certain that the donor won’t be returning–if for example, his remains are to be cremated–we rather have to assume that he might still want his–or her!–organs back.”
Mr. Odberry has turned a most peculiar shade. It’s almost reassuring to see that his doughy skin can still adopt a colour, any colour, though green wouldn’t have been my first choice. He gasps for air.
I hurry to reassure him. “What the NHS can do–subject to your approval–is to infect you with the Lazarus virus.”
“I’d… I’d become a zombie?”
I wince again. Really, the gutter press has a lot to answer for. I thought we’d moved on from such brain-dead prejudice, particularly as the previously deceased now outnumber those who were alive at the start of the outbreak. Which was why the Act had been so swiftly passed: to buy their precious votes.
“A returnee, Mr. Odberry! Though, strictly, if you’re inoculated before the operation, you’d never actually die, so there would be no issue with your retaining your status as a living, never deceased, being.”
He doesn’t look particularly cheered by the thought. I guess it’s hard adjusting to this brave new world.
I sigh. “It is, of course, entirely your own decision.”
He nods, distractedly, his breath coming in short wheezes. The green has taken on a yellowish tinge. I half wonder if I should be calling for an ambulance.
“And I’ll be okay, will I? If I’m infec– inoculated?”
He’s grasping at straws, bless.
“You’ll remain alive… But as for healthy, well, no. Not without a working kidney, necrotic or otherwise. The timing has rather conspired against you, Mr. Odberry. If you were diagnosed with organ failure today, they’d simply inoculate you and send you on your way. The virus would reanimate your necrotic flesh and the body’s natural repair system would do the rest. Assuming you stayed off the drink, of course!”
He blushes at that, which means he’s now pretty much covered the full spectrum; just blue missing. That might yet come. I suspect Mr. Odberry has ignored his physician’s advice to ‘never touch another drop’. And, if so, Mr. Parul might have a legal case for damages, if neglect could be proven. But as Mr. Parul was–and presumably still is–tea-total, it shouldn’t do him any lasting damage.
“So what happens to me?”
“Well, you never know,” I say, brightly, “They’re scouring the medical labs and pathology museums. Perhaps they’ll fit you out with something from Victorian times? I hear the Lazarus virus can bring even such antique specimens back to a semblance of life. And of course, there are benefits.”
“Oh, indeed. Since the Human Tissue Act doesn’t apply to specimens over a hundred years old, you can opt to have a Perspex window put in, if you like. With medical schools suffering a severe shortage of cadavers–ones who sit still, anyway!–you can earn a small but regular fee simply for letting trainee doctors look in on your kidney. And then there are body-parties…”
I let my patter trail off. I don’t think Mr. Odberry is the sort to exhibit himself in that way. Business like, I conclude: “So, if I can just get your signature that we’ve had this little talk and you’ve taken note of your appointment date, I’ll be on my way.”
He fumbles with the stylus, his signature running wild across the slippery glass screen. Doesn’t matter. It still counts. Gladly, I get up, ready to go.
“Actually, Mr. Parul would like to thank you,” I say, as I brush the back of my skirt, checking that no residue of Mr. Odberry’s flat remains.
“Thank me?” he echoes.
“Oh yes. While his kidney has kept you alive, you in return, have kept his kidney healthy. Or healthier than it would have been, if it were rotting in a grave for six months! We’re finding that of all the formerly deceased, organ donors are the ones who end up with the best quality of life. Once they get their organs back, of course!”
As the door snibs shut behind me, I step into the bright sunshine, breathing deeply. The list of Mr. Parul’s still to be reclaimed organs dictates the rest of my working day. A Northern colleague has already ticked off his liver, which found its way up to Manchester, but the rest of his body parts are scattered around London. Next up is his other kidney, in Lewisham, then double corneas over in Hampstead, and to finish the day, his pancreas somewhere near Bethnal Green.
I can afford a brief respite before I set off. A moment to absorb the sun’s warming rays, chasing away the grey of Mr. Odberry’s dreary flat. All in all, far too reminiscent of that re-awakening, two months back: cold, and dark, and six-feet below.