BY TAYLOR B. MULHOLLAND
I REMEMBER AS A little girl seeing the first synthetic heart on TV. I ogled at the screen, my mouth hanging open. It sat in the palm of a doctor’s hand, beating of its own accord. It started an industry that would soon take a life of its own.
‘It’s out of stock!’
Mum poked her head around the door frame. Her face was scrunched up like a crisp packet.
‘Any alternative sellers?’
‘Really? That last cheap hip crumbled after a month.’
She gave me a glare, reminding me that I’m the daughter, not the parent here. She finally curled the rest of herself through the door, her arm tucked up in a makeshift sling. I moved across my bed automatically making space so she could see the laptop.
‘How long then?’
‘Says two days to a week. Shoulder blades are always hard to get in the summer. Too many idiots with Wimbledon fever.’
Mum let out a sigh; her breath felt wet.
‘Set up an alert. In the meantime, find me a cheap one. I need a shoulder for tomorrow,’ she commanded. A few taps later and it was done.
It had all started with surgeries. The news was practically chronicling the decline in the donor wait list. Major breakthroughs were always like that; amazing at first. A few years later, as I entered secondary school, the first bones were released to the NHS. Mum had cheered at the TV, startling me whilst I manoeuvred maths homework at the kitchen table. She used to joke that if only she could buy a new body.
The door thumped with the familiar knock of a delivery. I gave the capped man a small smile as he handed me the box, but he didn’t acknowledge it. I jogged up the two flights of stairs to Mum’s workshop. She was attempting bead work one-handed. I wanted to laugh, but the cruelty of it held me back.
‘One shoulder blade for Mrs Fernando.’
She looked up and beamed, quickly unwrapped her arm and slid her top up. This was the tricky part, working out the intricate jigsaw puzzle that was her makeshift body. She was as much womanmade flesh and bone as she was manmade materials now. Airport security was a bit of a nightmare these days.
‘Go for it, sweets.’
I kneeled by her, my hands flat on her back, searching for the right spot. It was like trying to find the end of sellotape. Even after plenty of practice, it took me a few minutes to find where fake and real met. I peeled the curtain of skin back and applied pressure to the old bone. It had a click in click out system.
‘Out with the old, and in with the new.’ She rolled her arm forward with a grin.
At one point, everyone and their nan was getting the surgery. Such a regular thing that that’s what it became known as: ‘The surgery’. Like the donor list, the waiting list for major replacements like hips went down month after month. Mum was at the top of one of these lists. The chronic pain from a car accident made her an ideal candidate. When she went for the surgery, my grandma and I waited with her to be taken. The hospital made me panic, there were posters everywhere with reassurances about the procedure.
Is your family member having plastic part replacement (PPR) surgery today?
Plastic Part Replacement: What You Need to Know
Is your child a candidate for PPR surgery?
Too many reassurances. At age twelve I was taught how to assemble my mum’s body. This wasn’t normal, but everyone seemed to be acting like it was. It felt too good to be true. Turns out it would be.
I stayed in the workshop, packing up Mum’s handmade jewellery. I was trying to look useful, when really I was just standing by for any rejection. It had happened once to Mum. I wasn’t home but her friend Lily was. Lily was a bit of a hippie and had moved to the countryside before the fun build-your-own-skeleton business started. When the ambulance crew arrived, they all took the mickey out of her, saying she was wasting their time. A simple removal was all that was needed.
Mum concentrated on placing beads on an intricate necklace of greens and blues. The sun peeked through the clouds and onto her table, making them glimmer. Seeing all her beads and jewels transported me straight back to being a little girl, when I wished to be a princess. She made me tiaras and necklaces for parties, the other parents envious of her skills as I twirled around. Mum, being fed up with her office job, decided to jump at the gap in the market. Soon, me and my friends were all belles of the ball with our parents soon following with their more grown up dangly earrings.
‘I know you’re watching me.’ She didn’t look up from her table. I gulped, folding over the signature sage tissue paper of the packaging.
‘I’m not. I know you hate doing the packing, so you should be grateful I like doing it,’ I boasted. I grabbed a gold pen and began writing the customer’s address.
‘You’re hovering, don’t deny it.’
‘Can you blame me?’
She rolled her eyes and folded her arms. It was hard to remember who was the teenager and who was the adult when she did that.
‘I’ll be fine. And you’re not going anywhere today, right?’
Mr Rainforest Inc Jr, the man, or man child as most referred to him, was the one responsible for expanding upon the insanity. The popularity of the surgery soon meant we were back in our favourite queues again; resources couldn’t meet the demand. Replacements couldn’t be made fast enough, doctors couldn’t be trained fast enough. Everything had to be faster. Rainforest Inc Jr was primed and ready.
Around eleven, Mum came downstairs, ready for her usual mid-morning coffee. I was used to this routine, the clicking of the kettle, the clink of the mug and the heavy sigh of the mum. She opened the fridge and swore.
‘We’re out of milk. Could you go across to the corner shop?’
‘Can’t it wait? I’m swimming in notes here.’
‘Think of my bones. I need to get that calcium in my diet.’
It was my turn to sigh. I wanted to argue that it didn’t matter when they weren’t not real bones. But I was in the middle of an essay and fed up with looking at lecture notes. I got up and slid my feet into the nearest pair of trainers. Mum shouted thanks from the kitchen.
As I walked down the street, I remembered Mum cheering on the day of the first online PPR store. She’d begrudged paying but as the months between replacements got longer and longer, she minded less and less. The news reported record sales for weeks, showing Rainforest Inc Jr gleaming from ear to ear like the jewels in Mum’s workshop.
‘Have you got any oat milk left?’ I asked the teen behind the counter. She was the spitting image of her dad, tall and skinny with olive skin and copper hair. The shelf was empty but Mum would be disappointed if her flesh and blood didn’t at least ask.
When our post had arrived, the day after the PPR store launched in the UK, you would have thought Santa was at the door with how Mum squealed. She ran so fast, she didn’t look like she needed what was delivered. The box was labelled with PPR warning stickers, as if that would make whoever or whatever was delivering be more careful.
Drones were delivering more and more packages. The ever-louder conspiracy theorists believed this had something to do with how Rainforest Inc were meeting the demand. Sending delivery staff to some slaughterhouse for their skeletons. Talk about a bad day at work.
I was itching to get back. At least I was the only customer. What was taking so long?
Mum had slid her top up before I had even sanitised, I wanted to read the instructions. This wasn’t some Swedish flat pack furniture. A missing screw meant more than a wonky leg; I didn’t want to disable her more.
‘Sorry about that. I knew I’d seen some in the delivery.’
I tapped my card, gave a generic smile and left. Mum would be antsy without her caffeine.
‘Would you hurry up, child? Your mum needs a new shoulder blade ASAP. You’ve watched the nurses hundreds of times. They’ve let you help before.’ But helping nurses play with your mum’s body like a jigsaw was much easier than doing it alone.
I yelled an apology whilst I slid back into my slippers. I dropped the milk when I turned into the kitchen.
There was a purple pool of real and synthetic blood.
Mum twitched around on the floor next to it.
Eyes as lifeless as the plastic bone sticking out of her back.
© In Our Prime, 2023, Taylor B. Mulholland
Taylor B. Mulholland is a writer/maker from the Scottish Borders. In 2020, she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing and was longlisted for Penguin WriteNow. When not working on her debut novel, she can found baking, crafting and hanging out her cat Blue.