‘Life Hacks’ is the third and last in our series of this year’s short stories, inspired by science and written by science communication students at Imperial College London.
They left the church. The funeral was over.
Outside, a crowd of reporters were waiting. A microphone protruded from the mass. “Mr Hendricks, how do you feel today?”
He replied, indignantly, “How do you think I feel? We’re completely devastated.”
The couple pushed through the crowd to the car. The driver was waiting, holding the door open.
As the car pulled away, Francesca sank into the seat and burst into tears.
Three weeks earlier
The doctor walked into Emily’s room. Her father stood up, expectantly. “Well?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have a suitable match. I’m so sorry.”
There was a collective sigh. Emily’s mother gestured to the doctor to leave the room. Out in the corridor, life in the hospital was going on as normal.
“So what happens now?”
“Ms Hendricks, I’m afraid unless someone comes forward, there’s not much more we can do for your daughter.”
“But, in the whole system, there must be someone who’s a match?”
“Well, yes, but donors must come forward voluntarily.”
“If the hospital has a list of potential donors, my husband and I could contact them ourselves.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that. Patient records are confidential.”
Francesca wasn’t used to being so powerless. “So what is the point of having access to everyone’s records if they can’t be used?”
“This isn’t exactly what the system is designed for, Ms Hendricks.”
Exasperated, she left the doctor standing in the corridor and went back into the room. Emily and her father were playing a game together on her iPad. Francesca looked at her husband, and shook her head.
“What’s wrong, mum?” Emily asked.
“Nothing, my love.” She cleared her throat. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Francesca chewed her lip. She’d never been to this place before. That was probably the point.
She looked uneasily at her husband. “I don’t know how I feel about this, Hugh.”
“I know how I feel about our daughter.” He squeezed her hand. “Isn’t this what you want?”
“Well, yes, but … ” She turned back to the Analyst. “It’s definitely not traceable back to us?”
“Ms Hendricks, I assure you, my team are highly skilled. For the right price, we can find information you probably don’t even know about yourself.”
Hugh was intrigued. “Go on.”
“It’s possible to access all kinds of things from this database. Everything’s connected these days. Not just medical records, but financial records, police records … ”
Hugh cut in. “Police records?”
“Yes.” The Analyst reclined in his chair. “For the right price.”
Richard sat down at the table with breakfast. His fiancée, Jen, had left the paper open on a story about the Hendricks kid. MEDIA MOGUL’S DAUGHTER BRAVELY BATTLES RARE CONDITION. She was always reading these ridiculous celebrity stories.
Jen came in, looking for her keys. “Did you read that? It’s so sad.”
“I haven’t, and I’m not planning to. Why should I care about some kid I’ve never met, just because her parents happen to have more money than all of the rest of us put together?”
“I don’t know, maybe because normal people care about dying children?”
He went back to reading the paper. “Aren’t you going to be late?”
Jen scowled. Richard found her keys under the newspaper, and handed them over with a self-satisfied look. Jen left, slamming the front door on her way out. She’d been doing that a lot recently.
The phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number; international, maybe.
“Good morning. Could I speak to Richard Davis, please?”
“Mr Davis, how are you today?” Richard didn’t get a chance to respond. “I’m calling on behalf of a client. I believe you might be able to help their young daughter. You might have seen her in the newspaper. Emily Hendricks.” This was weird. “I have information here stating that you would be the ideal donor for Emily.”
“What information? I haven’t had any tests. I haven’t seen a doctor in years.”
“Please, allow me to clarify. I’m not from the hospital. I’m a personal representative of Mr and Ms Hendricks. I’m sure you can imagine how grateful they’d be, and, of course, they’d be willing to compensate you quite generously.”
“How did you get hold of this ‘information’?”
“Mr Davis, obtaining data such as this is nothing to what my colleagues can do when they apply themselves. I thought that you’d perhaps welcome the opportunity to do a good thing, you know, given the circumstances.”
“And what circumstances are those?”
“I think you know.”
“Who are you? This is an invasion of privacy.”
“I’d say this was a matter of public interest. I’ll give you until seven this evening to think it over.”
“I don’t need to think it over. What happens at seven?”
The other line hung up. Richard held the receiver to his ear for a few seconds, then put the phone down uneasily.
Jen was serving dinner. The phone rang; Richard looked at the clock.
“Don’t answer it.”
He turned the ringer on the phone off.
The next morning, Richard picked up his rucksack and opened the front door. Cameras, microphones, booms were thrust into his face. Questions came from all directions.
“Mr Davis, why don’t you want to help this innocent young child?”
“Mr Davis, why should the taxpayer support you when you’re not willing to give anything back to society?”
“Mr Davis, do you not see this as an opportunity to make amends for what you did?”
He backed into the house and slammed the door. He went through to the living room and picked up the phone. As it rang, he looked through the blinds at a huge group of reporters. “Jen? You’d better come home. Now.”
They looked at the newspapers laid out on the table in front of them. Headlines shouted aggressively from the pages.
CRIMINAL VALUES OWN LIFE ABOVE INNOCENT LITTLE GIRL’S
EX-CON STILL DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO DO THE RIGHT THING
YOUR TAXES USED TO SUPPORT ‘STRATFORD SIX’ GANG MEMBER
It was so long ago now, Richard had almost forgotten it all. He was a different person back then. A kid who chose the wrong friends. ‘Friends.’ He hadn’t been in contact with any of them since he left the Young Offender Institution.
Jen spoke first. “What are you going to do?”
He looked up at her. She’d been so supportive when he first told her, a few months before they got engaged. He hadn’t thought she’d ever have to deal with any of it. “I don’t know. I don’t even understand how this happened.”
“I think I do. I was reading about something like this the other day. You know that actress, Sara Butler? The one who’s married to Anthony Stewart?”
He looked at her impatiently.
“No, listen, it’s relevant. Well, she’s pregnant, and one of the tabloids found out she conceived when Anthony was out of the country filming. The media had a field day. She reckons they must’ve hacked into her medical records, because she didn’t tell anyone. Obviously.
“I felt a bit sorry for her. It’s so invasive. You’re not even supposed to be able to access any of this data. It’s meant to be impossible.”
“And, you know, illegal,” Richard pointed out.
“Well, we’ve seen before how much notice the media give to things like that.”
Richard noticed the light on the phone. It had been ringing all day. But this time, he recognised the number. He grabbed the receiver. “How dare you call here again. I’m going to tell the police what you’ve done.”
“The best of luck with that, Mr Davis.” The voice on the other end of the phone was more frank this time. “This can all go away, you know. Just give my clients what they want.”
Richard couldn’t believe the shamelessness of it. “You’re sick, you know that? Why would I want to do you a favour?”
The response was cool. “Because we’re the only people powerful enough to fix this for you.”
The waiter put down their plates, his eyes pausing a little too long on Richard’s face. “Is that everything, guys?”
Richard had known that going out was a bad idea. “Yes. Thank you.” He started to eat. Jen was looking at a table on the other side of the pub.
“That guy keeps staring at us.”
Richard looked over his shoulder. “Just ignore him.”
“I can’t.” She quickly lowered her eyes, and turned back to face Richard. “Shit, he’s coming over.”
The man approached their table. He pointed an accusing finger in Richard’s face. “You’re that guy from the papers, aren’t you?”
“Sorry, we’re trying to have dinner … ”
The man was uninterested in what Richard had to say. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Think someone like you is worth more than that poor little girl?”
People were starting to look over at their table. Jen shifted uncomfortably.
Richard feigned composure. “Not at all. What I do think is that everyone has a right to privacy. Do you mind leaving us?”
“Yeah, actually, I do. You’re living a nice life here, aren’t you? Being paid for by hardworking people like us. After what you did.”
“Maybe if you thought for yourself, instead of just believing everything the tabloids spoonfed you, you’d be interested to know that I actually have a job now … ”
Jen got up from the table and rushed outside. Richard followed her. She started walking faster, in the opposite direction to home.
“Jen, wait. What’s wrong?”
“I just think if you’re going to cause a scene everywhere we go, it’d have been easier if you’d just … ” Her voice trailed off.
“Oh, God. You think I should’ve done it, don’t you?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think.”
“No. Of course. It never matters what you think. I just have to guess what you think, and if I get it wrong, I’m the bad guy … ”
“Alright, then, yes. I think you should have done it. Any decent person would have done it.”
Richard stopped walking and looked at her, appalled. “You bitch.”
He turned around and walked off.
The house smelled of days-old takeaway and stale alcohol. Richard hauled himself into an upright position and reached over the bed for his phone.
Text from Jen. Staying at her mum’s for a bit longer. Fine. She could stay there.
Voicemail from work. Probably best not to come in for the rest of the month. Agreed.
17 missed calls from unknown numbers. Fucking journalists.
He threw the phone on the floor and reached for the vodka. He read the letter over one more time, before putting it in the envelope.
Jen walked in and tripped on a pile of post. The house was a mess. She looked down at that morning’s newspaper. It was the Hendrickses; they’d found a donor for Emily.
“Richard, are you home?”
He hadn’t returned any of her calls and texts for two days. She needed to see him. To put things right.
On the coffee table, Jen noticed an envelope with her name on it. She walked down the hallway to the bedroom.
She pushed open the door and saw him.
Laura Childs is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.
Image credit: Newtown Grafitti (via Flickr)