Jade Cuttle is a winner in the 2018 Creative Future Literary Awards for her short story 'Hearts for Sale', selected by Lemn Sissay, and will receive her prize at the Southbank Centre in London as part of the 2018 London Literature Festival. The extract below is taken from the Creative Future Winners Anthology 2018.
Hearts for sale
There’s a place you can go to buy a new heart, deep in the countryside, away from the city drawl. It’s a greenhouse the size of a supermarket with aisles of specimens to browse. They’re producing boxes of hearts on an industrial scale, churning out bulbous cheeks of beating tissue faster than you can blink.
These hearts might be gleaming examples of biochemistry, but they don’t stay ripe for long. The watering schedule is very strict: once every thirty-eight minutes, the sprinkler kicks into action and tends to this farm of hearts. Each time, they lose a layer of cells with this gasp of cold water and gain a brighter shade of blood-red. It does these lumps good to shrug out from their drowsiness whilst the UV light keeps them sucking at the silt of dreams.
The store attendant fluffs them up with an old rag before the customers arrive, smoothing out the flaws to make them shine; like proud new teeth shifting up through soft gums.
In the old days, people just had to learn to love the stains that rotted them to the core, patch and powder over; but not in today’s world. You get all sorts of people coming through these doors, but none were quite like him.
The first day, he slid in without a sound and kept shyly to the frozen aisle. He didn’t even open the glass door, just peered at the hearts stocked behind the glass screen from the corner of his eye, clearly awe-struck and overwhelmed by the choice but keen to not let it show.
The second day, he picked up a basket, took a few steps, then turned around to put it back down and left. It was easier to leave empty-handed than to commit to choosing.
He agonised for weeks over which heart he should choose, passed through almost every day to marvel, open-mouthed at each one. Sometimes decisive on his bolder days, he’d bag up as many as five hearts and bundle them over to the scales. He’d lay the flesh down with the utmost care, but they’d always end up dumped when he’d back-pedal, buying nothing. A store assistant came over once to ask him if he wanted any help. But he got all flustered, mumbled something and ran, so they left him alone after that.
The day finally came when he made his choice, and it all came down to chance.
‘Mop up on aisle six.’
It’s important to always apply a balanced nutrient solution, but one day, the store had an intern who misjudged the dose. By the next morning, the whole aisle was swimming in a slosh of mushy hearts, sagging like remnants of wet spinach, mimicking the slouch of soil. The foul stench chiselled holes into the next aisle’s stock of hearts and, by morning, the maggots came to claim their share.
Somehow, amid the slush, there was one heart still clinging on. It had taken a fancy to the shade, sucked at the shadows, pumped for its dark juice. How it survived remained a mystery, for it was below average size for its age, trailing way behind the others with its blood capacity per cubic inch. But the man wanted this heart, needed it with every fibre of his being.
The heart winced when the scientists lifted its shaking mass out from the mess, plopped it into the man’s hands for him to take a closer look. He sized it up against his chest like you’d do with a new brooch, handled with the care of a car boot sale dealer. He palped the plum-sized specimen and knew this was the heart for him.
The man returned the very next day to receive his new heart. They laid him out on the trolley and wheeled him in. They made the cut and, all of a sudden, a howling sound was released from the minuscule incision. It sent a stream of wind whirring around the room, and chilblains down the surgeon’s fingers. They widened the cut, but then stopped in astonishment. Beneath the layers of fat, there was a whole farm of hearts, whirring like turbine engines. As the clean air of the surgery room wormed its way in, the hearts seemed to whir even faster.
At least six hearts were crammed into the cage of his chest. There was a whole range of them. Some were barely the size of a pebble, swallowed by the shadow of larger specimens that hogged all the light. One was deformed with the overcrowding, shaped more like a kidney than a heart, hobbling along as though each pulse of blood could well be its last. They were layered atop one another, like a disgusting lasagne.
When the last of the tissue was flopped aside, there was one heart that caught everyone’s attention. It was an ugly monster of a beast that blocked the light from the other hearts, seemingly happy to watch the smaller ones shrivel into gristle.
The surgeons had never seen anything like it before. They knew that the outlook wasn’t great for this new heart surviving beyond the integration stage. It would be like tossing a lamb to the lions. But, the money was good, and you never turn down a client. So they squidged the hearts, scooped out a heart-shaped hole, and plopped the new one in.