Friday, April 2, 2010

Mortuary Employee

In 1974 I fell upon hard times and became a night watchman in an old Victorian mortuary. My shift was from midnight to 8am, and the work was dead easy. There was little for me to do except sit at a desk and guard the dead bodies.

My desk was in the middle of the main mortuary vault, in which the surrounding walls were lined by refrigerated cadaver drawers. Each numbered drawer had a temperature gauge and a glass viewing panel through which you could see the incumbent’s feet. A label was tied to the big toe of the left foot, stating the deceased’s name, expiry date and cause of death.

1974 was the year of the three-day working week, and there were occasional power outages which plunged the building into darkness. When that happened, I had to go down to the basement with my torch to start the generator to keep the bodies cool, and then return to check all the temperature gauges. The generator didn’t supply the main building lights.

So I would sometimes be left sitting at my desk in darkness, surrounded by the silence of the dead, and if I was lucky I’d have a moonbeam for company, shimmering through a cobweb that clung to an overhead skylight. It was spooky, but I’d amuse myself by shining my torch on the drawers and letting the beam bounce off the glass viewing panels. Or I’d flash my torch at the skylight and try to annoy the spider. You do silly things like that when you are alone.

But I digress. Of all the lonely nights that I spent in the mortuary, there was one that was very different. It still sends shivers down my spine, although I can laugh about it now.

That particular night started badly enough, with a power outage immediately after the evening shift clocked off. So I stumbled down to the basement with my torch in the dark to start the generator and came back up to check all the temperature gauges on the refrigerated cadaver drawers. I'd only just started checking when mains power came back on. Back down I went, to turn the generator off, and then back up to check the gauges. But again, before I could check the gauges, there was another power outage. This carried on for an hour, during which time there were about six power outages, with me jumping up in the dark, stumbling down the stairs, and then running back up the stairs like a dervish.

Eventually, mains power was properly restored and the lights stayed on. But the temperature gauge on one of the drawers was above danger level. I tapped it. No response. I tapped again, harder. The temperature reading shot down, but my tapping had jolted the drawer fractionally open. As I pushed it to, I caught sight of something weird through the viewing panel. Instead of the customary label, there was a book, bound in black leather, attached to the big toe of the left foot of the body inside.

Curiosity overcame me. I pulled the drawer open and gingerly removed the book from the corpse’s toe. Then I closed the drawer and took the book back to my desk.

The book was a personal diary, containing scattered notes, meeting times, venues, all the usual things that you might expect to see. But in the latter pages, the writer had began a long essay on the wonderful life he had lived, and how he was now ready to die, to meet his Maker, and enjoy eternal peace. The final page contained a simple statement: “A Curse upon the Devil that disturbs my Final Sleep”.

As I closed the diary, the lights in the building flickered and went out. So I went down to the basement to turn the generator on. As I returned, all the lights came back on again. But the diary was no longer on my desk. Then to my horror, I saw the drawer, the one from which I had retrieved the diary. It was wide open. The drawer was empty. The body had vanished. And the lights flickered, flickered, flickered for what seemed like an eternity, then died, flickered, and came on again.

That’s when the mortuary managers and the evening shift burst in, roaring with laughter. I’d forgotten it was April Fools’ Day.

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