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Nurse Julie starts the session as she always does, by asking us how we’re doing. I take a gulp from my polystyrene cup of tea, which it turns out is so hot it strips the top layer of nerve endings off my tongue. As she talks her way around the circle, I drag the numb patch against my teeth. Worrying that when I speak, it might come out all garbled.
I find it strange, being in a church. Or rather, I find it strange how I don’t hate being in a church. It’s warm and clean and calm, and when I’m bored I can look at all the weird details on the stained glass windows. In one of them Jesus holds up an ugly little rabbit like it’s a sacrifice – when I asked what scripture that was based on, Nurse Julie told me gently that we “ought to stay on topic.” The rabbit wears a crown of thorns, a shard of red glass trickling down the side of its face.
I say what I always say when Nurse Julie gets to me, which is “I’m good, thanks,” and I don’t sound like I am burnt or in pain, which is a relief.
The group discussion begins and when someone says something vacuous like “dialysis is giving me cankles” I make smirking eye contact with Hakan. He mimes tying a noose around his neck, yanks the invisible rope upwards. After the session he fucks me in the disabled toilet, knocking all the loo rolls off the shelf, and I don’t feel too bad about it because the church is deserted on Saturday afternoons and technically we are both disabled, so we’re allowed to be in here.
The first thing Hakan ever said to me was, “I didn’t expect to meet someone so fit at kidney group,” and I took the piss out of him for saying it, although I hadn’t expected it either. He is tall and broad with big arms and eyes that scrunch at the corners when he smiles. His voice is deeper and rougher than mine, the Yorkshire accent more pronounced. When we kiss his stubble carves a hatch of tiny, tingling scratches into my chin.
It was my first time at group. I had skulked quietly around the graveyard behind the church for half an hour, before slinking in and taking the plastic chair opposite his. The other kids seemed pretty sombre, which I guess is their prerogative, but Hakan cracked stupid jokes that landed poorly and made me snort into my sleeve. I noticed him notice me, the way he looked at me across the chasm of the circle, like he had an appetite. At the biscuit table afterwards he gave me his number on a square of kitchen roll, said the thing about me being fit. I wore heavy dark eyeliner to the next session, and dragged him into the toilets for a blowjob at the end.
“I don’t normally do this,” I had said lamely afterwards, as I washed my hands. He started laughing and said “me neither,” and his laughter had this relieving effect on me, like all my shame was evaporating off the surface of my skin, no more meaningful than sweat.
The theme of today’s session is “coping with physical changes” and Nurse Julie has made flyers. There is a word cloud on it that says things like hair loss and nail discolouration and weight gain. I glance down at my thighs, which spread out like pancakes on the chair. I was big before I got sick, but people don’t make snarky comments about it now.
“Sometimes,” Nurse Julie says, “kidney disease makes our bodies look and feel different.” She is wearing one of those big chunky necklaces that middle aged women like to wear, with misshapen pieces of plastic in rainbow colours. I wonder where she got it from, if it was a gift from a husband or child who also has terrible taste. “And these changes,” she continues, “can affect our confidence.” She swallows hard. “And our sexuality.” She reminds me of a little bird, with her dainty angular shoulders and giant nervous eyes. “So I don’t know if anyone would like to share reflections about that.”
Hakan raises his hand and my heart starts beating fast. I watch him with what I hope comes across as a steady nonchalance, my expression the right amount of interested. I’ve noticed he spooks if he thinks people know too much. Like an unbroken horse, one probing question away from kicking someone’s head in.
“I think it makes me better at sex,” he says, and Nurse Julie grips the edge of her chair so hard that the tips of her knuckles go white. I can tell she isn’t sure whether to engage, whether he is goading her or actually opening up, when it’s probably both. “Because like, I just don’t really give a shit anymore.”
Her voice comes out small and thin. “What do you mean by that?”
“Life’s just like, too short, isn’t it? For me to get all self-conscious and not want to get my belly out or whatever. Gotta have some fun whilst we can.” He grins at her and his teeth are big and white and perfect.
“Well,” she says, and smooths her skirt even though it isn’t rumpled, “that’s, that’s good. Would anyone else like to share?”
Others in the circle talk about low libido and poor body image and not being able to come. Hakan holds my eyes the whole time, his fingers drumming on his leg. The sun pours gold through the glass onto his skin, like he is being anointed, and I squirm in my chair.
His parents are out for the night, “they need a break from me,” he says, so we go back to his house after and he spreads me out across their leather couch, slaps the back of my thighs until the skin is raw and pink. When we’re done we watch re-runs of Friends on the big TV in the lounge. He pulls a blanket over us and I nestle my head into the soft pad where his shoulder meets his chest.
“Is that true, what you said in group?” My voice is sleepy, the corners of the room going soft. In the distance, Rachel is getting everyone’s coffee orders wrong. “About it making you better in bed?”
“I dunno.” He laughs a little, and the vibration of it reverberates through my skull. “I mean, my kidneys stopped working when I was thirteen, so the fuck do I know.” I laugh as well, and it feels easy, like slipping into a warm bath. “You know me,” he says, “just trying to freak out our Jules.” He runs his hand through my hair, gently twisting each strand, and when I wake up it’s to the sound of a key in the lock, Hakan laughing frantically as we scramble to get our clothes back on. I slip out the back door, up the garden and over the fence, and the jump makes me wobbly and breathless but my synapses fire with something like energy.
He sends me a photo whilst I’m on the bus, my underwear in his teeth. U forgot something. I already knew this, because the seam of my jeans is slicing me in half and I have to keep awkwardly adjusting myself in the seat. I reply never mind. They’ll look better on u x because at some point I set a rule with Hakan, the same rule I set for group, which is that I never, ever, ever speak about pain.
Mum says dialysis should be a time to rest, but I’m behind on my coursework, so I lie on the bed surrounded by books. We are studying a mundane novel set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and every time Sophie or Becca say something in lessons like “I just can’t imagine the kind of hopelessness that they feel,” I have to resist the urge to kick their skinny little ankles under the table.
I haven’t finished the book. I flick between the blank document and a lengthy Wikipedia page, the words swimming around on the screen. Every sentence I type makes me sound stupid. I rub my eyes, flakes of mascara crumbling onto my knuckles, and then watch my blood. It travels away from me, my insides out, and returns to me purified. I draft a message to Hakan, does all this make u feel dirty, and delete it, slam my head back against the headboard over and over, until I see little white stars flashing in my vision.
“Phoebe?” Mum calls up. “You okay?”
I call back “fine” and after a moment, the whirr of the electric whisk starts up again. My mum has started baking obsessively, and every time I go downstairs the counters are lined with fairy cakes, apple pies, trays of brownies, things I am too nauseous to eat. She will look at me with that smile she’s started doing, like someone else is pulling her mouth open, and ask “you hungry?” even though I never am. Underneath smatterings of flour, her apron says everything is better with cake.
The book sits face-down on the bed, taunting me. I wonder briefly if anyone in my class likes me enough to show me what they’ve written, but I already know that they don’t. I scroll back through my sent emails, most of which are me declining deadline extensions. I don’t need any special treatment, I’d written, trying to sound noble whilst chained to a machine running my blood in endless circuits, tainted, clean, tainted, clean.
At school, I lock myself in a toilet stall. Once, I’d have been embarrassed to do this – to hide in a damp cubicle that smells of piss and bleach, to listen to the girls shuffling in and out, sharing lipsticks, gossiping. The girls know I’m in here, too. They can see my scuffed school shoes, hear my rustling and sighing. They’d have made fun of me for this once. Phoebe, the chunky girl who squats in toilets. The freak. But sickness has made me untouchable. There is something deifying about it – when I glide through the halls, people avert their eyes. They probably assume I’m doing something medical in the toilets, something brave and tragic. What I’m actually doing is pulling up my school shirt, unhooking my bra, and taking photos of my tits.
Hakan goes to the college in town, where the kids get to wear their own clothes. I used to hate my uniform until he saw me in it. He said the tartan skirt and long socks did something to him. I drape my school tie over my boobs, push them together with my free hand and use the other to click my phone camera. Caption the picture school is boring.
After, I eat lunch, a slice of unbuttered bread that turns to clay in my mouth, and promptly throw it back up. Through the afternoon I check my phone compulsively. Maybe he is busy, I reason when he doesn’t respond, maybe he pays attention at school. Finally, at 2:45pm, he says lol you are obsessed with sex.
I can feel my pulse in my temples, my wrists, the side of my throat. My face is hot with embarrassment. I thought you wanted this, I reply from under the desk. If anyone looked at my phone they’d see the bottom half of the photo, my nipples just in the frame, but I don’t care enough to hide it. I watch the dots float, he is typing, and then he is not.
I knew that eventually, something would change. When mum sits me down in the lounge, her hands shaking around her cup of tea, I realise with nauseating clarity that eventually is now. “I’ve found someone,” she says, and I feel light-headed, like I might faint. Her name is Annika. My third cousin. Flying over from Germany next weekend.
I knew mum had been investigating the sprawling branches of our family tree, ever since that frostbitten, aching morning when we found out we weren’t a match. But I hadn’t expected that her snooping on Facebook and ringing up her senile great-aunts would amount to anything. I’d catch her doing it sometimes, when she thought I wasn’t looking. Phone to her ear, crossing names out of an address book. Foot bouncing relentlessly on the carpet, like she was trying to crawl out of her own skin. Admittedly, I’d seen all this research as more of a hobby. Something to keep her mind busy, like doing a jigsaw puzzle. But here she is. Annika. Hope personified. She’s a veterinary assistant, mum says, and I imagine her in bloodied rubber gloves, holding slimy little animal kidneys in her hands.
Walking to group, things feel different already. Spring has cast powdery lilac light over the afternoons, and the breeze lifts me somehow, like I’m walking on the moon. I get shreds of blossoms stuck to my trainers. I wonder what I’m going to say, and when I arrive, the sameness of the church hall disorientates me. I pour out a cup of tea from the steel dispenser, dump a pot of milk in it, and write 200ml in the note on my phone I use to track my fluid intake. I wonder if maybe I won’t have to do this soon, and my heart thumps.
I sit down, and when Nurse Julie gets to me I say, “I’m good, thanks.” She has cut her fringe, seemingly by herself, with kitchen scissors. She keeps moving and parting the grey chunks, like she is self-conscious about it.
I didn’t pay attention to what the theme of the session is today, but I listen to Jamie tell a story about not being able to play hockey anymore. Jamie has thinning blonde hair and a small, pinched face which I mostly see scowling, because he doesn’t like me and Hakan. He overheard us at the biscuit table a few months ago, making jokes about what the group should be called. I’d suggested “friends with failure,” which made Hakan laugh so hard he spat out half a jammy dodger. Jamie told me, sternly, that I was being insensitive, and I heard him say to Nurse Julie the following week that he’d “had a word with Phoebe.” I had thought back to my old self, mousey and tentative in the security of health, and smiled to myself that I was now someone who needed having a word with.
I try to act normal but at the end of the session Hakan follows me out into the churchyard. “Something’s different with you,” he says, eyes searching mine. I fiddle with the strings of my hoodie, knowing I’m incapable of lying to him. “They think my cousin could be a match for me. And she wants to do it.”
I have learned a few things about Hakan from going to group. I know he is as big and bright and lively as a bonfire and that no one in there likes him, which makes me like him even more. I know that peanut butter sandwiches are the only thing he can stomach after dialysis. I know that he has been waiting four years for a kidney and that I have been waiting for one. He says nothing.
“I mean, I don’t know for sure,” I start to ramble, his silence pounding in my head, “obviously there’s a chance it might not work out, but they really think there’s a –”
He grabs me then, with the kind of forcefulness that knocks the air out of my chest, and hugs me so hard it hurts. He is mumbling something into my hair, his breath hot on my neck, over and over, “thank you.”I don’t know who he is thanking. On the church roof, the weather vane spins.
Seven to ten days, the doctor says. Seven to ten days and I will know if the transplant is going ahead. Annika is staying at our house. She is white-blonde and squeaky-voiced and wears jumpers with Disney characters on them even though she’s twenty-five. I realise quickly that she irritates me, and this makes me feel like such a psychopath that I punch my thigh in the shower until a bruise blooms dark under the wet flesh. I say “I am so grateful” so many times, to her and to my mum and to the doctors, that it doesn’t sound like words anymore.
After dialysis, when I can hear the faint huffing chorus of mum and Annika sleeping, I wrap myself in an old coat with nothing underneath. Time feels warped and slippery, my whole body vibrating with something like panic. I get a taxi to Hakan’s house, and stand at his back door shivering until he lets me in.
I kiss him through the kitchen and the hall, up the stairs and into his bedroom, and push him down on the bed. His sheets smell old and fusty, like unwashed skin, and I want to bury my face in them. I grab everything, his hair, the fleshy part of his upper arms, his warm solid middle, and beg into his mouth, fuck me fuck me fuck me,and then I reach into his boxers and nothing is happening. I pull my hand away, try to meet his eye. But he won’t look at me. He stares straight ahead at the TV, which is still on. Formula 1 cars zip around a track, the commentator shouting in a fast Scottish slur. “Sorry,” he says, voice barely above a whisper. “It’s, um, it’s not working right now.”
I sit back on my heels, draw the coat over my naked front. “Oh.”
For a moment we say nothing. Someone overtakes. The crowd roars. I wait for him to come back, to start acting like himself. Instead, he grabs a pint glass from his night stand and hurls it at the wall next to the TV. I flinch as it smashes, falling to the carpet in a shower of broken pieces. Surely, I think, his parents will wake up, call up to the attic, ask him if he’s alright. But the house is silent. The sound of shattering rings in my ears.
“You can go now,” he says flatly. He still won’t look at me, and I feel stupid. Stupid for pouncing on him in my ratty old coat, for pretending we could be normal. I study his side profile. The dented bridge of his nose, which he broke playing rugby in year 11. The hard set of his jaw moving slightly as he grinds his teeth, back and forth. “I know I’m no good to you right now.”
There are smart things I could say, I’m sure. The right things. About how he is always good to me. But he pains me so much that my skin itches, the need to be closer to him gnawing like starvation in my gut. I pull off the coat again, my skin a ghostly blue in the television light. Finally he turns to me. His eyes are damp, and I notice with a hitch in my breath how long his eyelashes are – long enough to tangle when wet. “Don’t you understand? I can’t –”
“Be quiet.” I yank back the covers. “And lie down. I’m tucking us in.”
He does as he’s told, and I pull the duvet tight around our shoulders, like I am swaddling a baby, except the baby is us. We watch as a car swoops into the pit stop, how the crew swarm over it like ants and replace everything broken, how it shoots away again, brand new.
“I guess it’s finally done it,” he murmurs, voice still watery. “It’s taken everything from me.”
Eventually, someone wins the race. The driver stands on a podium holding flowers and spraying a fountain of champagne over the crowd. And we sleep, my legs pressed into the back of his, his skin warm and alive against mine. Not everything, I think.
Dawn wakes us up, glowing pale through the thin curtains. I had been dreaming that I was on a plane and no one would tell me where it was going. The stewardesses just ignored me, and kept bringing me stuff I hadn’t asked for, peanuts and wine and magazines. We sit up in bed, my eyes heavy with unfinished sleep. I know mum will be panicking about where I am, and I know that I ought to care. But when I think about going home, dread curdles in my stomach.
“What’s Annika like?” Hakan says, tracing slow circles on my back with his finger. Our voices are hushed, even though we know his parents aren’t listening.
“She hung a dreamcatcher over my bed.” I stretch out my legs, pins and needles tingling in my toes. “And she made me do a Buzzfeed quiz to see which Disney princess I am.”
He scrunches up his nose in disgust, says “that bad?”, and the relief is so overwhelming that I start laughing. Once I start I can’t stop. I press my face into his side, and I can feel him laughing too. I’m not articulate enough to tell him how this feels, to be absolved of the worst parts of myself. I can only cling to him and pretend, momentarily, that I am the only one drowning.
When movement begins in the house, the creaking of stairs and clatter of crockery, Hakan slips into the kitchen and comes back with a single coffee, so as not to arouse suspicion. We take turns sipping it, caffeine and heat flooding my bloodstream, and I think about Annika, how she won’t drink coffee because she is “health conscious,” how right now she’ll be out for a run in the sunless drizzle, her ponytail swinging and her smart watch counting her steps and her arms stained with green and purple bruises from the needles and blood pressure cuffs, I think about how she is mottled with all the things she is doing for me. How soon she might be scarred by them.
“I think she makes me afraid,” I say after my turn, slipping the mug from my hands to his.
“Afraid of what?”
I pause. “Myself. I’m afraid I might be a selfish bitch.”
He pulls me to him, says “you’re not,” and kisses me slowly. I taste his sleep, the richness of his coffee. Feel his heartbeat against my chest as if it is my own, the rhythm of it steady, firm, still working. I wait for him to tell me that things aren’t going to change. I wait until the sun slices blinding through the cloud, and its wink on the broken glass reminds me that they already have.
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