First published by Writers Billboard as Story of the Month, February 2013
Mal Roberts was an unmagnificent man. You might have seen him once or twice, but if you had you probably wouldn’t remember him. Thin hair, specs? Looked like he weighed about nine stone? No, thought not. Guy whose grinning face was just like his sneezing face? No?
Mal had this thing he would do when he was a kid and wanted the day off school. Just before his mum came in to get him up, he’d spend two minutes breathing into his pillow. Then he’d press his forehead into the warm space for just as long, hoping to feign a fever. The trick worked surprisingly often. Later in life Mal would realise this was because he’d usually been a dull and obedient child, so his old dear had no reason to think he was trying it on. But at the age of twelve, the duping felt like a triumph; proof, Mal believed, of some kind of minor genius that would one day make him famous. What he couldn’t know then was that minor genius guarantees nothing and often results in very little.
The pillow trick was handy on days when Mal really couldn’t face running into Joel Rickard, his bully. Rickard was only four about months older than Mal, and yet they were physically as different to each other as Mal was to a bull. So far puberty had taken to only a few boys in their class of thirty, selecting them early like the quality players bagged first by the captains of lunchtime football teams. Rickard was one of those boys. He’d shot from an already relatively tall five feet three to an intimidating five-nine in half a year. The hands he used to shove Mal off his seat in registration periods were already rough-skinned and manly, unlike the moist paws Mal kept until he started playing bass guitar at seventeen. Once, Mal heard Rickard peeing in the next cubicle and had been shocked by the deep waterfall sound it made. At this point Mal was in the majority group of classmates who hadn’t been selected for the team, who still looked like the blazered babies that they were. What this really meant was that Mal couldn’t claim any special victim status, because he was just one case in a wide portfolio of kids that Rickard casually brutalised. But Mal‘s problem was that he sat directly in front of Rickard in form class, so on a day-to-day basis he stood a higher than average chance of being terrorised. On a good day that might mean finding a piece of used gum slipped into his jacket pocket. On a bad day Mal looked back on the good days with wretched longing. On these occasions Mal would wish Rickard had just put something in his bag, rather than taking the holdall from him, melting off the plastic strap clips with a lighter and forcing Mal to tote the thing around like a dying dog for the rest of the day. Or that the gum had ended up in his pocket, and not been blotted into the crown of his dandelion hair. Or that Mal had just sat there and silently taken the punishment, rather than like that one time when he’d madly leapt at Rickard with tears in his eyes and got punched full in the face for his trouble, while their supply teacher, two inches shorter than Rickard and immeasurably ill-suited for this line of work, was too meek to do anything more than hand Mal a tissue for the blood. Mal used the pillow trick right up till sixth form, when he left school for college across town, while Rickard was forced by poor attendance and some stomach-droppingly low mock GCSE results to repeat year eleven at the school. Losing his virginity would put less of a jounce in Mal’s step than this development, and knowing that from here on in he was outside the radius of Rickard‘s leash. Sometimes during that next year, though, his heart still darkened with an abstract sympathy for the next kid to be bounced around the top deck of a bus by that ignorant and abusive giant.
Unmagnificent men do unheroic jobs, and so when Mal grew up, he eventually found work as a hospital messenger. By nine thirty AM he’d be three instant coffees to the good and sparking down bright corridors past medics in aspirin-white coats who’d never once acknowledged him. All except one: Jonathon Arrowsmith, an anaesthetist in Trauma. Jon was the only person in this place Mal would even pretend to call a friend, and he had his suspicions that Jon’s mateyness was due to his obvious class complex as much as it was due to actual fondness. Which is to say Jon was friends with Mal, a Little Guy, precisely because he was a Little Guy. Mal was aware of all this; Little Guys often are. But Jon was good company, so Mal was happy to leave the blurred lines of his superior friend’s motivations as they were.
Nine forty, a Tuesday, and Mal came back into the corridor from a Paediatrics office to find his messenger trolley had gone. He looked down to the corridor’s far end and saw Jon riding along on it, feet-on-rear-axles, like big kids do on supermarket carts. When he’d rolled to the end wall, Jon shoved the trolley through a fire exit, turned, and beckoned at Mal with a cigarette-lighting gesture. Smoky Time.
“That stuff‘s no good for you,” said Jon, leaning against the car park wall. He indicated Mal’s coffee – his fourth – while they lit their roll-ups. “It’ll make you grind your teeth down to nubbins. It’s not healthy.”
“Uh, okay, and what about smoking…?” said Mal, feeling like he’d landed a blow.
“Smoking is the most logical thing for a young man to do,” replied Jon instantly, “because smoking is cool and it may get you laid. So puff on, brother.”
Mal squirmed. He wasn’t good at sex-related banter.
Some consultant-level doctor pulled into one of the reserved parking bays in a very new-looking BMW. “Look at that bastard,” said Jon, exhaling a whistle of smoke. “You ask him, I bet he’d tell you he got into this game to help people.”
“I’d probably treat myself to a Beamer too if I was on his salary,” said Mal, and this time he did land a blow, because Jon didn’t seem to have any answer for that.
The consultant in his suit passed Jon and Mal on his way in, nodding a hello to Jon and ignoring Mal entirely. Jon nodded quickly back and stamped out his cigarette as his pager started to beep. “Listen,” he said, reading the number, “how long have you worked here?”
“Three years. Why?”
“Three years in a hospital, and I bet you haven’t seen one dead body, have you?”
“Uh, I… no. Do I need to?”
“Yes you bloody need to. You don’t know how to live till you’ve seen a corpse.”
“What’s wrong with how I’m living now?”
“Well, nothing. It’s just you’re…” Jon hesitated. “Look mate, that’s not the point. Seeing a dead body is good for everyone, is what I’m saying. It’s like dental floss for your brain. So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to go and get a soldier ready to lose his nuts. You’re going to get down to the morgue. Give them their post and wait for me there. Then we’ll go on in and you can meet your fate. Who works on reception there these days?”
Mal snorted, poked up his specs. “That would be Elaine Reid,” he said, thinking that would be enough to put Jon off of this craziness. But no.
“Evil Elaine? Delightful.” Jon pocketed the pager and made for the corridor. “Tell her I’m coming to say hi. No, give her a kiss. She won’t mind if you tell her it’s from me.”
Mal squirmed again. He looked like a worm having a dream about the hook. “Jon, I can’t. You might be allowed in there but I-”
“Malcolm Powder,” Jon interrupted, with a clap on Mal’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine, I promise. I won’t let you get in any trouble, all right?” Jon backed into the corridor, his voice breaking up into echo. “Trust me, I’m an anaesthetist.”
Mal waved at Jon in consent, but he looked like a man who’d just found a lump.
* * *
So many dead human hearts up behind that door at the back wall, yet the coldest one in the morgue belonged to the woman whose arm was shot out expectantly at Mal now as she waited for her post, her palm upraised and fingers beckoning in the manner of someone wanting a fight. Evil Elaine Reid.
“Sign this,” she squawked when Mal handed over the stuff. Elaine was a ferocious career administrator, legendary among the hospital staff as a pioneer of yet new ground in the already vast NHS bureaucracy. And now Mal was signing on to one of her newest innovations. She’d set up a kind of double-receipt mail system in Mortuary Services, so not only did she sign to acknowledge receipt of her post, like everyone did, but she’d now drawn up a new pro-forma of her own too, which Mal had to sign to acknowledge Elaine’s acknowledgement of the post she’d just received. Two months ago there’d been a scandal when a coroner’s report had gone missing following the town MP’s very public checking-out at the opening of a new RNLI boathouse; the keystone wasn’t exactly heavy, but the exertion of shoving it into place had been too much for the poor old MP, who’d lifted nothing heavier than a lobster pick for twenty years and whose heart was used to twitching like a sleeping kitten. The post-mortem documents had been signed for by a temp and then gone missing, which, once the local paper got wind of it, led to what was let’s just say a stressful period in Mortuary Services’ history. The report had shown up at the end of the week, but by then Elaine already had the whole place on administrative lockdown, with the new receipt-receipt system just one of several procedures set up in the wake of the whole farrago. It might well have been due to her deep sense of professionalism, but Mal suspected Elaine’s behaviour was really inspired by cowardice. Adding to the paper trail like this meant she personally would never be found at its end, could never be blamed for any future disaster. And Mal tried not to, he really did try not to, but in a strange way he found himself identifying with her because of it. It meant that despite the malaise she brought out in him, Mal couldn’t truly despise Evil Elaine. When the mob bears down, we all want to be able to wave them along to the next house and say Not I, my lords, not I.
But that didn’t mean he wanted to sit and chew grass with the woman. Mal raced his signature across the sheet and waited while Elaine went to make a copy of the receipt-receipt. As Elaine leaned over the photocopier, a junior doctor appeared jauntily in the doorway. Then, noticing Elaine, the doctor panicked, dived to the floor and crept silently away on her elbows, S-shaping down the corridor like a salamander. Mal watched the doctor’s feet slide horizontally out of view as Elaine returned with the papers.
With his official business here complete, Mal wasn’t sure what to do till Jon showed up. He pretended to notice something jamming up a wheel of his trolley, and bent down to mock-investigate. Elaine’s irritation was immediate and obvious.
“Can I ask you to do that somewhere else?” She was typing as she spoke, and she typed quickly, without pause or error. The room was silent except for Elaine’s flawless keyboard work and the soulless hum of many pieces of electrical equipment.
Mal groped for a lie. “Actually, is it all right if I hang around here for a bit? I’ve got a meeting.”
“You? Who with? You’re not booked in. And anyway, the answer’s no. I’ve got a couple coming in to ID a body.”
Mal flushed. He was a poor liar, and had chosen the worst kind of lie to use on Elaine. This was her territory, and she knew and ruled it absolutely. But to his own surprise, he improvised a path around her. “Well, I say ‘meeting’,” he said, “but really it’s just a chat. Jon Arrowsmith asked me to meet him here, is all. He should be along in a sec.”
If Elaine could flush, it would have been her turn to do so then. “Mr Arrowsmith?” she said, suddenly interested. “Okay. Okay.” So Jon wasn’t just being cocky, thought Mal. She actually does have a thing for him. Mal smirked internally, both at Elaine’s crush and his own ability to outwit her like that. But why be surprised? Mal was a minor genius.
“You can wait in reception,” said Elaine. “But don’t talk to any of the visitors, and let me know when the doctor arrives.”
“Thank you, I’ll do that,” said Mal, with what he imagined was a winning smile. Elaine flattened her hair with a palm and returned to her keyboard, although she seemed to have trouble remembering what it was she’d been typing a moment earlier.
When Mal breezed back into the office five minutes later, with Jon just a foot or two ahead of him, he could have sworn Elaine had put on some lipstick or something. There was definitely a different quality to her, something incongruous. Maybe it was just that she was smiling. Mal stood off to Jon’s left as he did his stuff. They were just going to have a coffee and talk about development opportunities, Jon told Elaine. Mal was thinking about applying to become a paramedic, he told her. But first Jon had to post some certificates, he said, but he was rubbish with that kind of thing, and he really hated to ask, but was there any way Elaine could help him out? Mr Arrowsmith was a typical useless man, Elaine told Jon, and rolled her eyes sarcastically, but she was sure she could do it for him this once. Elaine was a star, said Jon, an absolute star. He told her he’d have to take her for a coffee too next time to say thanks, and Elaine had to put a hand on the wall to keep steady as she walked out of the office.
“Will you really take her out?,” asked Mal, amazed, when Elaine had clacked out of earshot.
“Of course I will,” said Jon. “It’s unethical to lie, Malcolm Powder.” Then he dragged his security card through the lock to the morgue and waved Mal through ahead of himself. They were in.
The door was heavy, and subject to some kind of air-pressured hinge mechanism thing, so Jon had to push hard to get it to close swiftly behind him. As he pushed, it made a hushing sound, as if to remind them that they ought after all to show some respect; and when the door finally clicked, Jon and Mal did quieten down, despite themselves.
The room was far bigger than Mal had expected. Four aluminium autopsy tables were lined up in parallel down the centre of the room. Along three of the walls, which were painted in the plainest bureaucratic white, ran a set of low shelving, also aluminium. At intervals along the shelving were sinks used for draining away God knew what. The fourth wall, to Jon and Mal’s left as they entered, was taken up by the storage units, and these were what generated the only sound in the room: the quiet roar of large-scale refrigeration. Mal eyed the metal wall uneasily, imagining toe tags, bloated bodies.
“You all right?” said Jon. “It does get you, don’t it?”
Mal did not feel okay about this. He wished he hadn’t come in today. He still wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to be learning from all this. But he was here now, and Jon had told him to do it.
Jon leaned in. “I’ll go and keep an eye out while you pow-wow with one of the gang here. These things are pretty simple – just pull on a handle and it‘ll slide right out. I’ll be right outside, okay? But be quick. She won’t be long.”
“All right, all right,” said Mal. “Hang on – which one should I pick?”
“Any one you bloody like, mate. They’ll all tell you the same thing.” And the door hushed again, leaving Mal alone with the bodies.
The drawers ran three high and about ten along. It made sense to take one from the bottom row, since the top drawer was out of reach anyway, while the middle one was at chest height, and Mal was not about to have a corpse right up in his face, no matter how instructive Jon might think that would be. So he reached for the lower drawer nearest to him. In the artificially cool room, the handle was cold to the touch. That alone sickened him, for some reason.
Okay, Mal thought. It’s like pulling out a hair. Just grab it and yank it out.
Only he couldn’t just yank it out, because he was pulling on the full weight of a human body. As Mal dragged on the handle, the drawer slid out hideously slowly. Mal closed his eyes reflexively. When the shelf was fully extended he positioned himself alongside it, inching slowly around with his eyes open but with his gaze averted to the ceiling, careful to make absolutely no contact with the drawer and its awful contents. He took a deep breath. Slowly, slowly, he looked down…
..and the years folded like a paper plane and flew out the window. The dead person was Rickard, the school bully.
Horrified, Mal ran to the door like a victim in a horror movie, as if Rickard’s zombie would at any moment sit up and lurch at him. But the door was locked from the outside, and Jon, who was twirling orbits in Elaine’s office chair, couldn’t hear Mal’s open-palmed slapping. It took half a minute and some leaning-on-knees deep breathing for Mal to regain some workable level of calmness. When had, he returned queasily to the body. As he approached the table, he realised he was as actually as thrilled as he was appalled.
At first it was the simple, grim excitement of seeing a dead human body. The inert facial skin was as unlovely as a moulding apple, unnaturally firm yet streaked with folds. The eyes had been pinched closed by some well meaning morgue assistant, but the mouth, whether through the assistant’s negligence or the jaw’s rigor mortis, had been left to gape open in a terrible O. There was no sense that the person was just sleeping, as per the cliché; an absolute absence of sentience arose from the body, in pure counterpoint to the human aura it couldn’t help producing while it had lived.
Mal took good time to sink through this top layer of general intrigue, but once he did, he settled into the fuller understanding that this wasn’t just any old cadaver. It was someone he knew.
Rickard looked old. When they’d been kids and Rickard had been big enough to boot Mal around the playground with impunity, Mal had dimly thought there would come a day when he wouldn‘t be so obviously deficient, physically speaking. He’d assumed that with adulthood would come a kind of levelling-out, that there would be far more similarities than differences between his body and those of guys like Rickard. But it hadn’t panned out like that. He’d never had anything like a bulging bicep. His pee still rattled the water in an embarrassing treble. In more ways than he wanted, he felt he’d always be more boy than man. Rickard, though, looked like he’d never been a child at all. His shuttered eyes were ringed with tired lines that seemed to have been there since long before his death, and his hair was shaven down to a blond baize, apparently to mitigate the baldness Mal could see creeping over the crown of his resting head. Seeing him now, it was hard for Mal to remember how Rickard had appeared as a teenager.
Mal’s eye scrolled along the sheet-covered body. Whatever had killed Rickard, it had done so by taking a big bite out of his left side. This was getting hard for Mal to look at. Where the left hip would be, the sheet angled sharply downwards, hiding a chunk of torso that was obviously no longer there. The lower part of the left arm was clearly missing, too, under that suspiciously shallow and taut part of cloth. A car crash, Mal thought, or maybe an industrial accident of some kind.
Somewhere in his chest, Mal sensed many different emotions jostling for space. He wasn’t thinking about Jon, or how he’d stopped twirling in the chair, wondering whether what he’d just heard was Elaine clacking back down the corridor.
Joel Rickard, dead. Jesus.
Mal closed his eyes. Of all those feelings grabbing at him, resentment had the longest reach. He resented everything about this. He resented Jon for making him do it, that was for damn sure. But now, crazily, he resented Rickard even more. Resented him for showing up even now and ruining this one fucking time when he’d tried to do something daring. Mal even resented Rickard for the resentment itself, because he knew that the decent thing at this time would be to feel compassion for another family’s tragedy. It must have been Rickard’s mother he’d sat across from in reception while he waited for Jon. Boy, that was awkward. She was a round little bird, perched silent and unsobbing on the fabric reception chair as she waited to identify the butchered body of her enormous son. A fist of car keys and a yellow hard hat, presumably belonging to the dad, lay on the chair next to her. But the man himself was nowhere to be seen. Mal tried to picture the father, the person Rickard would never now become, and drew a blank there too.
Mal had wanted to blame his life on having been bullied at school, but his heart had never been in it. He hadn’t seen or heard from Rickard in a decade. Had the bullying forced him to stay in this temp job until time had warped it into something permanent? No. Rickard hadn’t come between Mal and Deborah, had he? Had Rickard sat between them on the sofa that evening last winter and told them both in turn that the relationship had run its course, and wouldn’t they both be happier if they just called it a day? Of course not.
So why had Mal started crying?
He stood sniffing, eyes open again, and watched the corpse shatter and multiply through the tears. As he snorted back the flutes of snot, he didn’t hear Jon tapping on the other side of the door, whispering as loudly as he could that Elaine was coming back with some next of kin, so he’d better start wrapping things up in there sharpish.
And fucking hell, Rickard’s bullying hadn’t set his other victims back, had it? In fact plenty of them were thriving despite it. Lewis Sturridge had become a wealthy property guy for gay first-time buyers. Rhys Passfield was married. Dev Patel, who’d somehow paid for his own plastic surgery at the age of fourteen after being sent half mad by Rickard’s taunting of his sticky-out ears, was on tour in America. What had happened to them, freed them, that had never happened to Mal?
Mal rubbed his gluey nose. And then he had the best idea of his whole stupid life. It was so good it fascinated him, and its thrall he never wondered about what was happening outside. How, in the doorway, Jon was flirting for his life, trying to stop Elaine coming back into the office. How Elaine’s professionalism trumped everything, and how she’d brushed past him with Rickard’s parents and said this really was not an appropriate time, Mr Arrowsmith.
Mal tipped back his head and let a quid of tearful, self-pitying mucus collect at the back of his sinuses. When a good gobful had settled there, he hocked it up into his mouth. Behind him, the door clicked, but the sound didn’t register. With his cheeks full, Mal leaned forward over Rickard and parted his lips like a man about to whistle. He fed the gunk forward with his tongue until it lolled overboard, extending into a green rope that thinned and grew lighter as it dropped towards Rickard’s own open mouth. He watched the snot drooping towards the corpse’s face. The spit stopped and hung an inch above the dead man’s tongue. There was a sharp, breathy sound, like the hush of a door opening, or a woman gasping. The tongue looked like a dry root, and there it was, right there. Somebody said a name.
(c) Martin Cornwell 2013