Stitch-up, by Jaki McCarrick
artwork by Kirsty Greenwood

At least I’m still breathing. If I make small heaves with my ribs, I can just about get enough air: piney, laced with some kind of oil, perhaps Eucalyptus. Little to do except cast my eyes around the room’s brushed chrome and steel; at the immaculate white and jade-green tiles and, poker-stiff, ponder my incredibly good fortune.

The room looks different. I know that before I was oblivious to its beauty. Before, I would never have marked, for instance, the sensitive design of that kidney bowl. How beautifully it curves and relaxes to one side.  How it glistens in a file of pale, dustless light.  And my drip: a clever, labyrinthine construction. If I had the wherewithal right now, I think I would kiss my drip.

There is no fruit in the room. No flowers, no fruit, no soft drinks. It is essential that I be sealed off from every kind of germ.

Caulked with sleep, I seem to have kept company with the figures of dreams for an aeon. Last night, for instance, I met a woman clad in thinly woven gloves – a sort of greeny Prussian blue. They hugged her fingers like net. She sat in profile, dark-haired, spindly. She tried to tell me something but I can not remember what. This morning, I think I dreamt I was driving. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive a white car and sometimes an orange car. Anything orange usually indicates some kind of revelation. I love when I get orange. I love when I get the orange car. But usually I get the white car. The white car brings me through a lived experience, possibly so that I will examine it some detail. I cannot remember if I drove the white or orange car this morning.

They will come in, I hope. When they realise the operation was a success they will enter. Perhaps I have woken up ahead of schedule. I like to be ahead of schedule. I am punctual to a fault. Hopefully, one of them will write a little something about me for the Herald: I am a miracle after all.

Plaistow described the procedure in detail. As a noted scientist myself I needed to understand what he would do. Let me explain: I was born with an exceptionally weak heart. I had open-heart surgery at two weeks old in Great Ormond Street hospital in London where I was born. I was hailed the miracle boy: Anthony Blythe, saved by a radical new procedure. (It was the sixties.) I was expected to die at five, then perhaps fifteen; certainly, I was not expected to live past thirty. I am now thirty-four years old. Plaistow explained that after incision, my heart would be removed and packed in ice whilst a pacemaker was fitted, and a small, flexible metal gauze placed over the hole. The heart would then be replaced and reattached to the veins.  It was to be, as has been my good fortune, yet another ‘radical new procedure’.

Boston General is to all intents and purposes, a Victorian building. The Cardiac annex however, is a state of the art addition – all gentle sheen, brushed chrome, glass bricks and steel. An architectural triumph, it was designed by Salina Foster, Norman’s protégé and wife. It is a comfort now to guide my thoughts through the serpentine splendour of the place. Corridor floors consist of squares of sturdy, multi-layered tempered glass with steel rivets; the wall-to-wall white tiles are sheets of small mosaic squares. All non-tessellated surfaces are wipe-able; there are no soft furnishings, no chintz. Standards of hygiene are second to none. The sense of clean, reductive distillation in this ward is tense, almost sexual. A sterile but nonetheless stirring place.

I have always been rather amused by the fact that the place where surgery takes place is referred to as ‘the theatre’.  It is as if the surgeons are the actors performing a rehearsed, intricate task; the nurses standing conscientiously in the wings the Greek chorus and the patient the willing, trusting audience. Except that one can’t get up and walk away from a bad operation as one can from a play. One has no choice but to endure.  One wakes or one doesn’t. Destiny plays the pivotal role. This is difficult: control of self given over entirely to someone else. Absolutely difficult.

Before they cut into my baby stitches, I asked Plaistow if I could inspect the wards.  A colleague of my wife, he came with impressive credentials.  Of course I take nothing for granted. One shouldn’t. I wanted to ensure I was in the best possible hands and, in all honesty, wanted to allay my nerves by contriving to gain, via some modicum of understanding of his process, an element of control over my impending surgery.

We talked. I then went alone to Plaistow’s Heart Theatre. Walked through, in the obligatory white coat with a hard, starched-linen mask secured tightly over my mouth. The instruments had been sterilized and placed elegantly in their white and dark-blue plastic pouches. They lay flush under sparkling glass. Containers of acetone lined a long, white marble table.  Sink areas were spotless; soaps made from bleached tallow were grooved neatly with a ‘please dispose of after use’ emblem. I felt entirely at ease. Though I did happen upon one very annoying thing on my way out of the theatre. It had certainly not been there on my way in: on the long glass floor of the landing, where the tempered glass met the vinyl tiles of the Victorian block, lay a row of eighteen dead flies. They had half-mounted the verge of the glass partition as if they had attempted to crawl under, perhaps through.

In a shaft of the blue-white Massachusetts morning pearling along the floor’s rim, the flies both compelled and disturbed me.  It has always been my particular idiosyncrasy to become rather electrically stirred by anything grouped: maggots, bees, rats, ants, sometimes even people. A strangely pleasurable repulsion that has been known to extend to inanimate objects. Once, I observed an April blossom in Krakow draped in a corolla of Christmas bulbs. The unlit bulbs appeared to me then as tumors devouring the tree, and it at once repelled and held me. Faced daily with sprawling, often mutated cellular formations under the microscope, my eye is drawn naturally to groups of anything; there is a certain magnetism for me, therefore, in swarms.

The flies had not been there before, I was certain. My sense of confidence in both Plaistow and Boston General, despite my peculiar fascination, had been undermined. How did they get there? Each miniature metallic body upturned with black legs hooked lying on the creamy floor. I put it down to a hatching from an imprisoned female that had probably made her way down the vents. There are no conventional windows in this block. The air is entirely controlled. Out of sheer courtesy, I felt compelled to mention the sighting. Plaistow confirmed the females came in search of heat and sustenance and, as there was neither sustenance nor means of escape once inside, the offspring would die. Boston had had snow for four long months; the warm mouths of the vents, he said, had clearly offered sanctuary.

I am looking forward to seeing them – my children, family and sisters. Even Mel. Such robust, vibrant people. I am lucky to have spent my days with them. I, a cobweb in this demandingly physical world, the runt of the litter, am miraculously still living. I have treasured my days more than I have expressed. It has been difficult to articulate one’s love. People would have inevitably considered such declarations determined by one’s daily possibility of dying.  But I rarely dwell on such things. I drink, I have smoked, I’ve played cricket and football. I’ve also suffered a collapsed marriage, yet I believe I would do it all over again. Melanie loved the Boston Science world; the Harvard cocktail parties; the Cambridge soirees and charity evenings at American Rep’. She loved to spend her Saturday mornings on Newbury Street, then dropping by the Diabetes Clinic at the Evelyn Centre, where I still work, usually to dangle elaborate credit card bills in my face. There were scenes. To put an end to her vituperation I would usually capitulate. I thnk there were times she had hoped I’d turn blue and die. Perhaps she will be disappointed I have survived. Because of my condition, my insurance is enormous; cashed in, my premium could have made her a tidy sum.

If I could fling the kidney bowl at the door someone would come.  There is now an awful smell in this room. A bad, bad smell. It stinks. Of oils, flesh.

The silence is shrill. I have been singing songs in my head in order to short-circuit the overpowering strength of it but this has been creating its own monotony, its own tyranny. I will just have to continue with these short rib-breaths, and wait, though I do seem to have developed an ache from all this waiting and heaving.  If only there was even the faintest hint in here of the efficient hive that is the Cardiac annex, but - nothing. The room is like a sealed container. The high, miniature glazed brick that serves as my ‘window’ an impediment to sound and air. Only, I do hear something. A tiny, flapping murmur. And it’s been there for some time, merged within the shrill, rhythmic silence, not distinguishable enough for me to have hitherto singled it out. Something faint. What is it? To the left. I see it. It is a fly.


The fly. Its dark, silver-green body has been flitting along the upper tiles of the room for such a long time. Sudden flight and rest.  Sudden flight and rest. Though I seem unable to sense the passing of time, I do think I’ve watched him now for at least an hour.

The door opens. Three men in orange uniforms brush past the side of my bed, disengage the pus and blood-filled drip. They bring with them the familiar smell of sweat. They do not catch my eye. I certainly cannot form words. At last, I think, I will soon be out in the clear air and the drip that has saved me, provided vital fluids and cleansed my blood, will no longer be required. Soon they will take me to sanctuary, to a light room with bay windows and fruit; views of the harbour; the iced-over pond where Canada geese will be screeching their rubbery heels to a halt on the ice; people skiing to work through placards of white fog, perhaps over parked cars as they had done the morning I arrived. Perhaps it has stopped snowing.

The fly lands on the crisp, white linen cuff of my sheet. Crawls a light, haphazard path up my pale, flaxen-haired arm. Hovers around my chest, lands on my raw pink stitches. I lightly blow him off. He springs to my wrist, where I notice I have a large vinegar-brown cloakroom tag dangling from a hoop of twine.  My chest absolutely aches. From breathing and waiting and heaving yes, but also from something else. There is a frenzied buzzing inside my heart. It echoes the fly. The fly is wiping his pin-legs like paws.  Licking and wiping and resting. Licking and wiping and resting. Hopping at intervals.  His eyes drill. He watches with slow intent, like a basilisk. I see his eyes are lashed.  I begin to wonder if he is a she.

The men in orange enter again, wheel me out. Talk about last night’s game in hushed tones, stop. I want to ask about the cricket. England versus New Zealand. Who opened?  Who bowled? Had it been Woods with his trademark parsimony? For a second I think of the Ashes in summer, and wonder will it rain at Lords.  People are crying in the corridors. Melanie is crying. Melanie was always a terrible actress. Plaistow is plying the crying Melanie with white tissue from a blue box.  His steady hands reach out for hers. My blue-eyed children are crying and shrinking from me.

They wheel me into a large red and black room, heavy with that smell, Eucalyptus, pine, flesh. I feel instantly marooned. The room is in the Victorian block. It is stygian, colder. They leave me alone. With the fly. Why is she so attached to me? Why does she wait? Ah. Eyelids weigh down on a throb, on a pitch-black breath.  And finally, it dawns.

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