A Night in the Mortuary
In 1974 I fell upon hard times and became a night watchman in an old Victorian mortuary. The job was dull and uneventful. For the most part, there was little for me to do except sit at my desk and keep watch over the dead.
My desk and chair were the only items of furniture in the mortuary vault, in which the surrounding walls were lined by refrigerated cadaver drawers. Each numbered drawer had a temperature gauge and a large glass viewing panel through which you could see the soles of a dead person’s feet. And each corpse had a label tied to the big toe of its 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. These power outages didn’t happen very often, but when they did, I had to take my torch and make my way out of the mortuary vault into a hallway, then down a flight of stone steps, picking my way carefully through a series of connecting cellars to the emergency generator. The generator supplied standby power to the refrigeration system which kept the dead bodies cool.
My job was to start the generator, and then return up the steps to check all the temperature gauges on the refrigerated cadaver drawers. Unfortunately, the generator didn’t supply the lights in the main building or in the cellars, so I had to do all this work in the dark.
Sometimes a power outage would last for only 30 minutes or so, and when the lights came back on I’d go back down through the cellars to switch the generator off. But there were also times when the lights stayed off for longer.
So I would occasionally 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. The skylight was the only window in the vault.
It was spooky, but I’d go boil a kettle by torchlight on a gas ring in the staff canteen and then make my way back to the vault and settle back down at my desk in the dark. Sometimes I’d amuse myself by shining my torch on the cadaver drawers and letting the beam bounce off one of the glass viewing panels so that it would ricochet across to illuminate another viewing panel on the opposite side of the vault. 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 and in the dark.
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, to this very day.
That night I’d arrived for work early and chatted with the evening shift in the staff canteen as they prepared to go home. When the last one had left I started my rounds to check each of the temperature gauges on the cadaver drawers. I was halfway round the vault when I saw the gauge on one of the cadaver drawers was showing an abnormally high temperature. And I noticed the drawer was slightly open. As I pushed it to, I caught sight of something weird through the viewing panel. Instead of the customary label, there was a large book attached by a long cord to the big toe of the left foot of the body inside.
Well, that intrigued me. I was fascinated by the sight of that book. From what I could see through the viewing panel, the book was old, well used, with a burnished leather cover that had become cracked with age. Oddly, the book had no title that I could see on either the cover or the spine.
Several minutes passed, and slowly the reading on the temperature gauge fell back down to normal. By that time curiosity had got the better of me and I plucked up courage, opened the drawer and grabbed the book. It was at that precise moment that the vault was plunged into darkness by a power cut.
I fumbled for my torch, switched it on, and pushed the drawer to. I had the book, which I dropped off in the staff canteen before I went to turn the generator on. I wanted to read the book, but duty called.
I made my way down to the cellars by torchlight to start the generator. I was halfway back up the steps when mains power came back on. Back down I went, to turn the generator off, and then started back up the steps, only to be stopped by yet another power outage. This carried on for twenty minutes or so, during which time there were about six power outages.
Eventually the mains power supply came back on, and stayed on, so I was able to switch off the generator and return to the mortuary vault. I was worried about the length of time the bodies had been left warming during the intermittent power outages. And to my horror, I saw the drawer, the one from which I had taken the book. It was wide open. The drawer was empty. The body had vanished. And I stood there, rooted to the spot, absolutely petrified, as the lights in the vault flickered, flickered, and flickered, growing dimmer for what seemed like an eternity, before coming back on again.
That’s when the mortuary manager and the evening shift burst in, roaring with laughter. I’d forgotten it was April Fools’ Day. And I was the Fool.
It had been a clever prank. They’d deliberately left the cadaver drawer slightly open, and the book had been put inside to help catch my attention. One of them had stayed behind in the electrics cupboard to repeatedly turn the mains power on and off and to let the rest of the evening shift back into the mortuary whilst I’d been down in the cellars. They’d moved the corpse to another drawer during these “power cuts” and had then waited for my return to the vault. What a mug they had made of me. I tried to laugh with them, but I was still shaking and all knotted inside when everyone finally left.
Alone again, I decided to make myself a nice cup of tea. The book was still on the table where I had put it earlier. I went to pick it up. And, just before the lights went out for good that night, I saw the book still had a cord attached to it.
And dangling from the other end of the cord was the big toe of a left foot...