This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the 10th Anniversary of Billy’s Book Club, an august institution which meets monthly at the excellent King William pub in Bath
My chums and I graduated in Theatre Design in 1968. Everyone disappeared in different directions, some to work at the acclaimed Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; others to Sadler’s Wells Opera, one even to become Shirley Bassey’s dress designer (blame him for all those sparkly fishtail gowns!). Me? I got a job in a hospital mortuary.
I’d done hospital work before. One Christmas I was briefly employed as a waiter in the staff dining room of a vast mental institution in Brentwood. This scary-looking turreted Gothic pile is now an equally scary-looking luxury apartment complex. At the time the institution was situated at the end of a long rhododendron-shaded drive. Heading for the bus stop along this dripping tunnel of dark shrubbery after the evening shift, I would quicken my pace on hearing the siren which I supposed signalled that one of the mad serial killers incarcerated within the secure wing had escaped. I later found out that most of the patients were harmless sufferers of nervous breakdowns and the terrifying banshee wail was in fact the steam being released from the giant potato boiler in the basement kitchens.
I say ‘briefly ’ as my employ was sadly terminated when, on one of the silver service days that were inexplicably and randomly inserted into our work programme, I managed to lose control of the three bowls of steaming tomato soup balanced on my arm (we weren’t allowed trays on these ‘posh’ days) and deposited the contents over a senior matron. I remember noting that, what with it being Heinz, the effect of bright orange soup on starched white apron was particularly vivid. Jackson Pollock’s ‘57 Varieties’!
At the second hospital I wasn’t immediately put on ‘death duties’ as we called it. I had more menial tasks meted out to me, like the regular collection of poo samples to take to the path lab. Not the most fragrant of tasks on a hot June day! Or loading sacks of wee-soaked sheets onto the same electric truck that shortly afterwards would be delivering dinners to the wards.
The thing was, the largely Italian night porters refused to go to the mortuary after dark. There was a kind of tacit agreement. If I did night time death duty, they would hump the pissy sheets.
True to form, the grim little mortuary was also situated down an avenue of dripping rhododendrons. Contributing no end to its Hammer Horror ambience was the faltering neon cross over the door, the intermittent flashing of which was made even more atmospheric when viewed through the billowing clouds of steam caused by drizzle falling on the piles of hot ash from the adjacent central heating furnaces.
Not to criticise the hospital catering, but people always seemed to die at supper time, when the endless corridors of the converted army camp would be redolent with the smell of over-boiled cabbage and cheap mince (leaving me with an unfortunate association of elements that would last a lifetime).
When the bleeper went it was inevitably during our evening break. The Italians would stare resolutely at their shepherd’s pie until, with a sigh, Muggins here would push his plate back and head off to collect what was euphemistically referred to as The D Trolley. This particular piece of equipment was basically a large aluminium box feebly disguised with a white sheet. The box reverberated ominously as it trundled along, and being fitted with those annoying castors often found on errant supermarket trolleys, it was very difficult to keep hold of, especially when squeezing through the crowds assembling at visiting time or negotiating the steep concrete paths that criss-crossed the hospital grounds. I fully admit to once losing control and depositing the occupant in a rose bed. Luckily no one witnessed this disaster. And obviously, he/she was in no position to complain.
In the mortuary it was no mean task to single-handedly transfer the deceased from the D Trolley to one of the sliding drawers in the giant fridge. Usually the bodies were fully wrapped and mummy-like (they did not use body bags) but sometimes the face was exposed. They looked very peaceful. And yes, the name tag was always tied to their big toe. I always looked at the tag and would give them a cheery ‘Good night Mr So-and-so’ as I slid the drawer into the cooler.
And then it would be back to my now congealed plate of shepherd’s pie in the canteen.
One day I was summoned to Matron’s office. Our mortuary was just a holding bay, not for public view. Seriously suited undertakers from the Co-op would whisk the deceased away to lie in state in the more salubrious surroundings of the chapel of rest in town. But, Matron explained, on this occasion the guy’s sister was emigrating to Australia of immediate effect and she wanted to view the body before she went. ‘I hear you’re artistic. Can you make the place presentable?’
I had all of two hours. I whipped my Italian cohorts into action. Out came the mops and buckets and disinfectant. In came milk bottles containing flowers hurriedly picked from the ash heaps outside. Out went the piles of dusty X-rays and the stack of broken chairs stored in the place. The stray cat and its recently born kittens that had set up home in the lobby were banished to a back room. One kitten got stuck behind a large filing cabinet, from where, after a great deal of manoeuvring, we managed to safely extricate it with the use of a bent wire coat hanger.
I started to really get into it. I discovered a damp purple brocade curtain in a cupboard and draped it artistically over the slab. Then, joy of joys, I opened a drawer and found not only a rusty can of lavender air freshener with which to disguise the smell of Jeye’s Fluid, but also an elaborate paper collar, not unlike those used by chefs to decorate a crown roast. This I arrange around the neck of the corpse. It was the piece de resistance. One of the lads whacked the stuttering neon cross above the door with his broom, bringing it splendidly back to full operation and we stood back to admire our work.
Down the steamy drive came the veiled mourner. As she stepped across the threshold, the sun came out, sending celestial beams of light slanting through the dust motes our activities had stirred up. What she saw was not weeds shoved into bottles and jam jars, the crumpled curtain and the cracked tiles, but a heavenly vision, her dear departed brother lying peacefully on his catafalque bathed in glory. A vision only slightly marred by the sound of mewing cats coming from behind the steel door in the corner.
Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa it was not, but I had found that you can create theatre out of nothing, a discovery that would keep me in good stead for the next forty five years.
And what’s more, the grieving lady tipped us all twenty quid each, which was a blinking fortune in those days!