:: Article

The Missing Kidney

By Ben Myers.

Assembly Announcement

1988. The day of the operation they prayed for me in assembly. Prayed for me, right there between an educational anecdote about a boy who pretends to be Bobby Charlton’s nephew and the usual; announcements (congratulations to Gary Tibbs in fourth form for breaking his opponent’s arm in the judo junior nationals at the weekend, maintenance in the art block, all first and second year pupils no longer allowed to hang round the shopping precinct at lunch time, two pupils suspended for smoking weed).

What madness. Praying for me.

I didn’t find out about it until years later, when a friend a couple of years older than me who I didn’t happen to get to know until after we’d left school, happened to mention it one time. Didn’t you die during an operation or something?

Not quite.

No doubt most of the pupils didn’t have a clue who I was, and why would they?

A nice thought though. A nice thought for kidney boy.

*

Counting Backwards From 10

“I want you to relax, and then count down backwards from 10.”

She slipped the needle into my vein and fiddled with some dials on the machine.

“From ten?”

“Yes.”

“OK. Can I just ask a quick question?”

“Of course – but you better make it quick.”

“Does it have to be from 10 for scientific purposes, or is it for more random reasons?”

I felt a pleasant warmth spread throughout my body. It was like being injected with treacle and everything slowed down and took on the agreeable hue of the most beautiful sunset you’ve seen. Or sun-rise. Either/or.

“It’s just random, really. People never make it to 10 – at least not if I’m doing my job correctly anyway!”

She laughed at this, silently, but with a vigour that involved her entire body. She laughed like a tar whirlpool.

“OK, you better start counting now.”

“T…”

I was out.

Gone. Immoblised.

The last thing I remember is grasping for the tip of an iceberg marked ‘Ten’ as it slowly drifted further and further away, melting as it did so under those warming rays of lights that beamed down from above.

‘Ten’ was the kidney and it would not return.

*

Kidney Myths Of New Orleans

The following statement was released via the New Orleans Police on January 30 1997 after they were inundated by calls from members of the public – many of them in town for Mardi Gras – concerning supposed stories of business travelers awakening up in bath tubs full of ice in New Orleans hotel rooms, with only a telephone and note saying ‘call 911’ for company.

Over the past six months the New Orleans Police Department has received numerous inquiries from corporations and organizations around the United States warning travelers about a well organized crime ring operating in New Orleans. This information alleges that this ring steals kidneys from travelers, after they have been provided alcohol to the point of unconsciousness.

After an investigation into these allegations, the New Orleans Police Department has found them to be COMPLETELY WITHOUT MERIT AND WITHOUT FOUNDATION. The warnings that are being disseminated through the Internet are FICTITIOUS and may in violation of criminal statutes concerning the issuance of erroneous and misleading information.

Any organization wishing to speak with members of the New Orleans Police Department is asked to contact Lieutenant Marlon Defillo, Office of Public Affairs at (504) 826-2828

- New Orleans Police

Human beings are very good at passing around such stories until what was once subject to outside forces like change, opinion and conjecture the edges become smoothed away and it turns into a solid, irrefutable object of truth, like a pebble that has ridden the Tsunami of time all the way into the shore.

The setting and the main characters may differ, but the story remains the same: man wakes up without kidneys, but has plenty of ice for his drinks.

Or, the more concise version: never drink with surgeons.

And at this point, the genesis of the tale becomes irrelevant. It is now urban myth, something that is far more interesting than the truth, which actually looks kind of jagged and dirty and not all crafted by the tides of the social sea.

Urban myths reflect the imagination of the culture – like a kidney they filter out the waste and impurities of the subject and get down to the raw basics, even if you have to put in a whole load of external influences or stimuli in there first. All of which is really just a strange way of saying that to find the truth sometimes to you have to fictionalise it.

So though no-one on is on record as having woken in that old time voodoo town New Orleans without their kidneys, it doesn’t mean its untrue.

Just because a kidney doesn’t go missing somewhere, doesn’t mean no kidneys have gone missing anywhere.

*

The Boy Who Cycled Into A House

I opened my eyes and there was a boy in the bed next to me. Previously it had been empty, though everyone knows hospital beds don’t stay empty for long. No matter how quickly they patched people up and sent them on their way, they just kept coming with their cuts and burns and breaks and mystery illnesses.

The boy was a couple of years older than with a thick mop of hair. He was dark in the way kids who run carefree through fields and streams and housing estates are dark, though I knew it was as much down to poverty and a lack of parental responsibility. He sat up on bed, topless, looking perfectly at ease. He had the un-self conscious look of someone who was used to not wearing a T-shirt anyway

“What are you in for?” he asked, like we were two old lags coming together in a cell of own physical making.

“Kidney,” I said.

“Shame,” he said, breezily.

Neither of us said anything for a minute or two, then he spoke.

“Me, I cycled into a house. It was a choice between this car that was, like, speeding towards me or the side of a house. I chose the house.”

“I think you made the right choice.”

“Perhaps. Though I was knocked out and woke up here in hospital listening to you moaning and groaning, so who’s to say?”

“Maybe if you’d made the other choice it would have been a lot worse.”

“Maybe. They told me that the bike was bent double so what the hell am I supposed to do now?”

I imagined this boy’s bike, bent in half lying on a pavement somewhere, one wheel still spinning as the ambulance departs and the crowd disperses.

No one is sure what do about the bike, so they just leave it lying there.

The wheel stops spinning and bike looks dead and useless, a tangle of metal and scraped paintwork that’s of no use to anyone. Nobody wants to take responsibility for the bike because they know it’s ruined, but all the same, maybe someone should put it aside in case it’s of sentimental value to the boy, which all bikes are to all children. But no-one does anything except go into their homes or drive off or continue serving customers in the newsagent across the road, the same shop that sold the boy sweets this morning.

The image of the abandoned bike is the saddest thing in the world. Night falls, and the temperature falls. At some point some kids younger than the bike’s owner come along and stand around the bike. It’s pretty late, but it was one of those areas. The parents don’t care much about what their kids do; they gave up contributing to the world long before they had even given birth to them.

One of the kids kicks the bike and the wheel spins again. They discuss whether it’s worth salvaging, then decide it against so they kick and stomp the bike, then snap the spokes off the wheel and run off, hitting each other with them.

Early the next morning someone will remove the seat and someone else will make a half-hearted attempt to remove the tyres, but abandon it half through, bored or hungry, no doubt.

By lunch time tomorrow the husk of the bike will have been kicked into the road, then finally moved out of the way by a man in a delivery van, who had the rare distinction of having never learned how to ride the bike due to a bout of childhood polio.

Nevertheless, sitting here now the boy appeared to be very philosophical about it all, maybe because he hadn’t seen the same sad abandoned bike scene that I could.

He also seemed like a pro at this patient business, a point confirmed to me when the Sister said ‘Oh, back again Darren?’ and he just grinned beneath his dirt and hair. Maybe he knew what he was thinking because then he said:

“I’ve been in here before. They all know me.”

“What for?”

“One time for a broken arm, another when I fell out of a tree and knocked myself out. Once when I cut my leg open on some broken glass. Oh, and once when my cousin beat me with a bike chain. Wait a second,” he said, reaching for the plastic bottle on his bed-side table. “I’ve got to piss.”

He put the bottle under his sheets, settled back and began to piss, the glow of relief and relaxation spreading across his face. He looked like the most content person in the world

“I’m going to be a stunt man when I’m older,” he said.

*

Hare-Lip Holiday

After I’d been in hospital for what seemed like an aeon but was actually only about half that, and was hard at work resting at home it was decided by my parents that they would take me away for a couple of days. Reasoning that sea-air was always historically associated with convalescence and recovery, and a seaside holiday would compensate for spending most of the summer holidays on my back in a ward with little in the way of ventilation and a very loud television, my dad hitched up the caravan and drove us south to Scarborough.

Scarborough got its name from two Icelandic Vikings, Thorgills and Kormak Ogmundarson. They were two bad boy brothers. In 966, having determined to single-handedly attempt to write the Sagas with fists and hatchets alone they stocked up their boat and with a small army of strong blond Icelanders left their homeland behind in search of adventure and bounty. They undertook a series of show-no-mercy raids on the coast of Britain. Soon they had established a particular stronghold in a dramatic sweep of conjoined bays backed by green slopes on Yorkshire’s East coast, which they named ‘Skarthaborg’, a variation of Thorgills’ nickname ‘Skarthi’s Burg’, meaning ‘hare lip’.

Thorgills had been born that way and it had only served to make him a better Viking. All the childhood teasing had made him bitter, angry and violent – perfect warrior material. Just wind him and watch him go, the other Vikings used to say, and then laugh from deep within their whale-skins. Sometimes you just had to look at Thorgills the wrong way and he’d skin you.

At ‘Hare Lip’ they enjoyed good fishing and good rutting with those local women who had not managed to flee the area in time. Like I said, bad boys. They didn’t need an invitation. Soon they were breeding and a stronghold grew into community into a fading holiday resort. The fading bit was relatively recent addition.

This took many centuries of conflict and dispute and set-backs but this is no place to tell that tale. This is a book about a missing kidney, godammit.

And that’s how I found myself resting and recuperating in a caravan on a hare-lip that sat below the nose of vicious Viking warrior, and the hare-lip was trying to smile but it just sort of twisted into a weird geographical grimace of cliff-face that followed the coast line, perfectly parallel to a flight path of many screaming seagulls who also had just enjoyed some good fishing well over one thousand years after the Ogmundarson’s first salted a cod there and Thorgills brained Bjarni Sigmundsson with a rusty oar-lock for calling him Skarthi’s Burg a little too sarcastically.

*

Half-Man, Half-Coal Mine

There’s a sauna I frequent when ever I’m back in the town that took my kidney and paraded it through the streets of my imagination like a returning war hero.

The sauna is the domain of the miners. Or, the ex-miners, for the heart of that industry was ripped our and not given a heroes welcome. Instead it was thrown in the dirt and stomped on by some mad old woman, who then lifted her M&S skirts, squatted and pissed on it, steaming in the northern soil. Then, just to be sure, she cut the throat of the body from which it came.

No matter how long they shower or many hours they pass in the steam room or sweating it out in the pine-lined sweat box, the miners always seem to glisten within an unseen layer of local history. Its like no matter what they do or how long they’ve been retired, they spent so long underground that they gradually become at one with it.

They are all in the Sixties, naked, their cock and balls hanging like intricate mechanisms. Some are skinny, others carry their pot bellies before them as if they were crates of glass bottles, clinking empties brought up from the cellar

They look liked normal once-working men now relaxing into their old age, but I know they are each half-man, half-coal mine.

Their father’s and their father’s father were miner’s before them. And before them, their father’s father’s father, and his father too. And on and on, a line of father’s standing at the mouth of a pit tunnel, new born baby in his arms, who they each gently streak with coal dust and say “This is what will be” too. Centuries of tunneling and digging and shunting, and nightly tin baths in their subsidised home has shaped them into a new breed. A dying breed. All they know and have ever known is earth and industry; a trade to pull them through the darkest hours, little realising they were no different to the canaries the mine owner’s also employed. Hours in the darkness with the dirt digging deep into the soul of it all until coal and

flesh began to meld and contort until each became something else, half-man, half coal mine.

Many of them are called Ralph – pronounced ‘Rarf’, round here.

But now the mine is closed and the line is over. These miners of today – their sons won’t be able to tell the tale of their father’s fathers. They’ll do something else, like demolition work or web design. They’re the last of the breed, the half-men, half-coal mines.

Though their every conversation is entrenched in mining culture, they don’t seem too bitter. Their blood line had been cut but they weren’t going to let that spoil things, not when theirs a sauna as hot as Hades and special week-day reduction for pensioned miners.

I sit in there, up on a shelf, listening as one rises to ladle iced water onto the hot coals, then him self back down. Another tells a dirty joke and they all laugh. All except one, who they call a ‘miserable get’ but he just ignores them then launches into a long-winded anecdote about a belt he bought in Spain, and even though they roll their eyes still join in share their own accounts of international travel.

Though they are the last of a breed, they were also the first. Before them no other half-man, half-mine had holidayed on the Med before. Those opportunities hadn’t been available until the boom-time of commercial airlines and worldwide travel agencies on every high street that came in the 60s and 70s.

It would be funny to turn and look at the pool-side lounger on the left and see a half-man, half coal-mine rubbing sun tan oil into his pulleys and dust-carts. Well, you’d probably blink and then look again. And if you were brash and insensitive you might shout ‘Hey, look over here! It’s one of those half-man, half coal mine’s I read about. No way!” and perhaps a crowd would gather around him, blocking the rays of sunlight that he’d hacked six tonnes of raw coal to lie under, and look at him like suddenly Spain was a circus and he was the freak show.

They rarely speak to me, which is fine. I go to the sauna to sweat lots, not for the conversation. After ten minutes in there even breathing becomes hard work; there is no room left in the lungs for anecdotes.

This one time though, one of them did ask me about my scar.

“Where’d you get that, lad?”

“From a kidney operation. I had it removed.”

“So did I,” he said and pointed to his waist where a scar disguised as a crease in the ripples of flesh made himself known, like it had been hiding there in the world’s longest game of hide and seek, but was now bored and hungry.

And he had, and we both laughed, and neither of use felt like we needed to add anything else to add to the conversation. Two scars sitting there side by side. We knew.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Myers is a writer and journalist. He has published a number of short stories, poems and music biographies and his first novel The Book of Fuck is out now. He lives in London, where he also runs the Captains of Industry record label.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 12th, 2005.