Death is not funny, least of all (I glumly envisage) my own. But just sometimes…
Some forty years ago, I worked as a rotary shift hospital porter. Most of my colleagues were gnarled old car workers for whom work at the hospital delayed the penury of old age and funded their hobbies and holidays. We all wore grey nylon coats over white shirts and ties, and were expected to know our place in the hierarchy. Below us there was nothing. Above us stretched a ladder which disappeared into the Olympian heights of the consultants, whose names appeared on the operation lists each day.
Stan, our Head Porter, was separated from us by the blue serge uniform he wore, which made him look like an old-fashioned policeman. An imposing heavy jowled man with luxurious dark eyebrows and Brilliantined hair, he had his own office next to the Porters’ Lodge from which we would hear his gravelly voice booming out in a rural Oxfordshire accent. Fastidious to a fault, he insisted the Lodge should be swept and mopped four times a day and the ash trays emptied and wiped. He liked to stroll around the hospital, keeping his relations with all the ward sisters in good working order, and exuding an air of ponderous good humour. We resented and respected him in equal measure.
The rotary shifts involved a week of earlies (7-3); a week of lates (3-11) and a week of nights (11-7). The early shift was done with pretty much a full Lodge of porters, the late shift was undertaken by a team of two and the night shift by one porter on his own. The night shift porter had various routine tasks, collecting up meal requests from the wards, patrolling the grounds, locking up the Nurses’ Home with the matron (on hand in case any illegal boyfriends were discovered), escorting tipsy nurses to the Home if they arrived after hours (usually decanted from a taxi, fresh from a disco) and locking the canteen early in the morning.
None of these tasks were especially demanding but there were two requests I dreaded. One was an emergency call to bring the resuscitation trolley – which had four wheels, all inclined to go in different directions, and on which it was impossible to practice “driving” (in case there was a real emergency). I had no idea how I would cope on my own, if indeed I would cope at all. I imagined careering off the walkway or crashing into something while a patient’s life ebbed away. Not nice. At all.
The other was a request for ‘the mortuary case’. This was a small brown case, kept in a cupboard in the Lodge and containing the accoutrements necessary to prepare a dead person for the mortuary. I only once saw the inside and glimpsed a pair of scissors and a white cotton garment, but the very words ‘mortuary case’ sent a shiver through my soul, because the first request would, in time, give way to a second request for the mortuary trolley to be brought to the ward as discreetly as possible. What happened thereafter I preferred not to think about. Whenever that little brown case appeared in the Lodge, I looked at it with barely contained repulsion, as if death itself had appeared among us.
Even the mortuary filled me with apprehension. It was situated below a bridge leading from a rheumatology ward to X-Ray and Pathology and, when ‘occupied’, the light was always left on and a pair of purple curtains drawn. When I walked across the bridge in the middle of a night shift, I would look down and quicken my step if I saw the drawn curtains There was a poorly lit stairwell leading down to it and, if nobody else was around, I broke into a trot in case some bandaged wraith in a white hospital shroud should float out of it and bar my way.
I worked for almost a year at the hospital and until my last month, the worst that had happened was a request for the mortuary case just as my shift was coming to an end, leaving the aftermath for the incoming porters. But, on a grey Sunday afternoon in my very last month, a terse message was left on the answering machine. “Mortuary case to Mayfair please.” I had just arrived on my shift. I asked one of the other porters how long it normally took for a body to be ready for removal to the mortuary. “Couple of hours at most, mate,” he observed casually. “But what if there are complications?” I asked weakly. “Like what?” “Wouldn’t the next of kin need to come in to see their loved one,” I gently suggested. “Sleeping peacefully, as it were?” He looked at me disdainfully. “Get that bloody case to the ward before Sister Lyndsey phones up to ask where the hell it is.” I seized the case and scuttled out of the Lodge. Normally I would go along the back road, but this time I walked at a dignified pace up the corridor and onto the covered pathway which ran by the wards. On the way, nurses, cleaners and other porters looked at the case and then at me. I was the Grim Reaper’s accomplice with the case and not to be trifled with. Respect.
It being the afternoon shift, and a Sunday, there were only two of us on, me and Fred, an old Cockney with a ridiculous toupée which managed to mock rather than mask his baldness. Fred smoked non-stop and talked endlessly about bowls matches and his trips to Eastbourne with “Nan”, whom I assumed was his wife. He somehow managed to make it all sound rather louche and risqué, as if all those rolling balls and white trousers went with a culture of dissipation and gentle debauchery. I wasn’t buying that but it certainly made old age seem more interesting.
Sunday afternoons were usually a leisurely shift. There were no operations or admissions, so things just ticked over and Stan had us clean windows in Reception and the Porters’ Lodge to keep us busy. As the more experienced porter Fred carried the emergency bleeper, which was probably not good news for anybody needing the trolley as Fred was incapable of hurrying (and probably would have had a cardiac himself if he had tried). I made a grand job of cleaning the windows in Reception, as if spinning the job out could defer the dreadful moment when we would be summoned back to Mayfair Ward. An hour passed, and then another, and I roused Fred from the Lodge where he had nodded off, with an inch of un-smoked ash on his cigarette, to help me collect the food trolleys for the wards.
“’Ere,” he said, the cigarette stub glued to his lip. “You take the trolley to Mayfair and ask when they want us to move the stiff.”
I gulped. The last thing I wanted to do was to suggest any impatience on our part. A few more hours and the night porter could deal with it. When I got to Mayfair, a ward for private patients at one end of the hospital, I parked the trolley in the normal place and was about to slip away when one of the nurses, a short stocky girl with large calves and a big behind, came out of a room and shut the door behind her.
“He’s in there,” she said. “We’ll be done after supper.”
“Who’s in there?” I asked blankly.
She looked at me impatiently, moved closer to me and whispered “Him. Mr Morden. He died,” she added helpfully.
“Ah,” I muttered knowingly. Now he had a name. I wondered whether I might actually have delivered something to his room recently.
“We have to be discreet,” she hissed. “Not good for patient morale to know we’ve lost one…”
I nodded sagely. Of course not. People came into an orthopaedic hospital with a reasonable expectation of walking out, with their brand new knees and hips, especially when they had paid a lot of money for the privilege. Death was not part of the deal.
An hour later, after we had returned the food trolleys to the kitchens and were enjoying a quiet cigarette in the Lodge (Fred a Woodbine, me a Rothmans – was the difference more generational than social?) the phone rang and we heard a message being dictated. (We hardly ever picked up the phone.)
“Two porters to Mayfair with mortuary trolley.”
Damn. Blast. The moment of truth had arrived. We stubbed out our cigarettes and walked purposefully to the mortuary, which Fred unlocked. I sniffed a faint aroma of formaldehyde and saw a mop in a bucket in the corner, which alarmed me: surely we were not meant to clean out the mortuary too? And there was the mortuary trolley, basically a metal stretcher on wheels with a lid which came over like the cover of a gas-fired barbecue. Very tasteful. We gingerly wheeled it out and Fred locked up again.
“Good job there’s nobody in there. Can be an ’orrible smell when they’ve been there a few days,” Fred observed laconically, and then proceeded to tell me a gruesome story of how Frank, the deputy Head Porter, had had to clean up a body in the mortuary which had been bleeding. Oh my God, I thought. What if Mr Morden starts to leak?
We had to lift the trolley over a few kerbs and potholes en route to Mayfair, taking a back path which was out of view of any of the wards. It was very light so manoeuvring it was no problem, and in a jiffy we were quietly wheeling it into the ward. The sister tapped on Mr Morden’s door and we were just pushing the trolley into his room when a patient in a wheelchair was pushed past by a relative. Fred neatly stepped back to block the view within.
“What’s that?” asked the relative, referring to the trolley.
“Nothing,” says Fred as calm as you like. “Just some blood and stuff. You have to keep it cool, you know.” Before they could respond he slipped into the room and shut the door. “Blimey, that was a close one,” he exclaimed.
A nurse called Fiona was in the room: I remembered escorting her, accompanied by a heady aroma of vodka and perfume, to the Nurses’ Home after midnight on my last night duty. She giggled then covered her mouth as her whole body began to shake. It wasn’t that funny, I thought, then I looked at the white-shrouded figure on the bed and the glass of orange squash on the bedside table with a banana, a newspaper and a pair of glasses. These signs of the life he had so recently left alarmed me. Could death really come so abruptly, so unexpectedly, that you could be reading the Daily Mail one minute, and be dead the next minute without even having time to eat one last banana?
“Right,” said the nurse, recovering her equanimity. We need to lift him onto the trolley. If you could get either side of the bed…”
“No, that won’t work at all,” interjected Fred. “There’s a trick to this. I’ll take his head and shoulders and you, young Richard, take the bottom half, and you, nurse, stand by the trolley to stop it skedaddling away.”
We took our assigned positions.
“Right, on the count of three. One… Two… Three.”
We lifted – and nothing happened. The corpse on the bed felt as though its blood had turned to lead.
“Christ,” Fred muttered. “He weighs a fucking ton…”
We ceased straining and looked at each other. Was he tied to the bed or something?
“Dead weight,” Fred explained. “Always heavier than alive.” A self-evident truth.
We decided the nurse would have to lend a hand. She glanced at Fred with a look of distrust as if to say “You’re just too old,” but Fred simply swivelled his toupée, which had become slightly dislodged, and we returned to the fray. Nurse Fiona was to take his feet, I was to somehow get my hands and arms underneath the mute Mr Morden, and Fred would lift him by the shoulders. The trouble was there wasn’t much to grab as he was all wrapped up. And it wasn’t the kind of thing anybody ever told you about in advance.
Fred pushed him forward and I got my hands under his back and his legs, which were slightly raised. Mr Morden felt cool and hard underneath the shroud, and very unalive. On the count of three we heaved again, and this time had lift off. With Fred and Fiona trying to keep up, I staggered backwards towards the trolley – and bumped into it. The trolley rolled away and one end hit the door with a hollow thud. Now we were between the bed and the trolley, and our knees were beginning to sag with the effort.
“Put him back on the bed,” Fred gasped, and with a thump we dropped him onto the bed. A moment longer and he probably would have been on the floor. Fred was now sweating and breathing heavily. Ominously. I wondered how we would cope, how I would cope, if Fred expired on the spot. One death in a private ward was bad enough, but two? But I knew the reaction to Fred’s death would be entirely different. He was only a porter.
The problem, we decided once Fred had recovered his breath, was that if we lifted Mr Morden from the bed we would somehow have to swing him round 180 degrees to be facing the trolley. There simply wasn’t room. You couldn’t swing a cat, let alone a corpse. Better to get the trolley by the bed and somehow slide or roll him onto it. Which is what we did, without too much of a struggle. Mr Morden was now lying on his side, on the trolley, with some bedclothes underneath him. Fred stuffed the bedclothes on top of him and closed the lid.
“That’ll do,” he said. “No point breaking our backs just so he can lie on his back. ’E won’t give a damn anyway.”
Our troubles, for the time being, seemed over. The nurse delicately opened the door a few inches and looked into the corridor. There was silence, apart from the burble of TVs behind closed doors and the voice of the sister on the telephone. Seizing the moment, we pushed the trolley out of the ward, down the smooth asphalt of the covered way and onto the path which led to the mortuary.
To begin with, dignity prevailed. We wanted to make Mr Morden’s final journey (well, one of them) as smooth as a hearse driving to the crem.
“Nice and slow,” said Fred in a low voice.
“That’s right,” said Fiona, simpering. “Home James.”
Her hair was beginning to unravel from her nurse’s cap, so we paused while she attached a hair clip, and Fred touched his toupée to make sure it hadn’t shifted again.
“Right ho,” he said. “Off we go.”
The rhyme was stupid but we all tittered rather feebly and set off again, looking around warily. The trolley suddenly thudded to a halt, with one wheel stuck in a pothole. And there was an almighty thump from within as some part of Mr Morden cannoned into the front end of the trolley.
“Bleeding hell,” said Fred. “’Ow did that ’appen?”
“We’ll have to lift it out,” I said, pointing to the front wheel.
“If he wasn’t dead, he must be now!” said Fiona, and started to giggle.
I frowned at her and, together, we heaved the trolley up and out of the offending pothole and resumed our progress. The path now became full of small ruts and bumps and holes, and the trolley started to rattle and lurch. Mr Morden started to rumble within as he was flung from side to side.
“’E’s restless,” Fred muttered, at which point the trolley leaned to one side and started to teeter like a listing ship. Fred moved sharply to block its fall while I pulled from the other side, clutching the handle on the lid. As the trolley banged back onto the level, I somehow nudged the handle. The lid half-opened and Mr Morden’s shrouded legs swung out.
“Oh God,” I shouted. “He’s coming out…”
Fred seemed stunned. I knew what I had to do but somehow could not bring myself to touch the corpse.
“Everything alright?” a jocular voice of indeterminate gender boomed. We looked up, startled, and the avuncular figure of the Night Matron hove into view in her sensible shoes and brown tights. Matron James had an Amazonian physique, only slightly gone to fat, and the physical aura of an ice hockey player.
Nurse Fiona sidled in front of the lolling legs as Fred answered.
“Yes, fine, we were just taking… taking some plaster casts to the workshop…”
Matron James frowned. “In the mortuary trolley?”
“We’re short. Very short, Matron, and the plaster casts are needed urgently…”
She paused, furrowed her brows and looked at Nurse Fiona and at the white something she could see protruding from the trolley. Then she looked at each of us in turn as if remembering the scene of a crime.
“It’s inappropriate,” she snapped, “but if you have to improvise, I suppose you must. But get the trolley back to the mortuary quickly. You never know when we may need it.” With which she marched off, swinging her arms athletically.
When she was out of earshot, I turned on Fred. “Great. She’s on her way to Mayfair and the first thing they’ll say is a patient has died and he’s been taken to the morgue. And then we’re stuffed.”
“Don’t panic, young Richard,” Fred replied, placing a fresh fag in his mouth. “We take ’im there quick as you like, and then take the trolley down the workshop just to cover ourselves.”
“And what do we say to Ernie?” I asked, bridling at Fred’s reference to “young Richard”. Dammit, I was twenty-two, a grown man, and not to be patronised by an old Cockney. I also worried what Ernie, the irascible plaster man, would say. He was cross enough when there was nothing to be cross about, so God knows how he would respond to our appearance with the mortuary trolley.
“Don’t you worry about Ernie,” Fred said dismissively. “We’ll say we’ve come to pick him up…”
Ha bloody ha, I thought, but buttoned my lip. We needed to get Mr Morden safely stowed in the mortuary.
While all this had been going on, Nurse Fiona had actually been doing something useful and bundled Mr Morden’s wandering legs back inside. I slammed the lid shut again and we resumed our journey.
Somehow, we reached the mortuary with no more alarms. Mr Morden still thumped within, like an angry rabbit, as the trolley rattled and careered along the pathway. But we met nobody else and, as far as we could tell, were unseen and unheard.
Once inside, we cautiously opened the lid to find Mr Morden curled foetally with the blankets tied around him. It seemed as if he had composed himself into this position rather than having been composed by the motions of the trolley. We looked at him doubtfully, all thinking but not daring to articulate the same thought. What if he was not dead?
We somehow rolled him onto the mortuary bed. Mr Morden sighed. Definitely. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising, like a cat’s. But Fred and Fiona said nothing and I thought I must have dreamed it. The complications of his sitting up, Lazarus-like, to berate us for our behaviour was too much to bear. It would make a lot of trouble for a lot of people, way beyond our pay grade. So we simply laid him on his back, turned on the light and closed the curtains. Then we locked the mortuary and left with the trolley for the plaster workshop. Nurse Fiona did not have to be there, but insisted on coming along for the ride.
We then trundled down to the workshop. Half-way there, Fiona suddenly yelped and crouched on her knees.
“Stand in front of me. It’s Matron. She’ll kill me if she finds me here…”
I looked back from where we had come and saw Matron bustling towards us.
“’Ere,” said Fred. “’Op in, sharpish!” and he drew up the lid. To my astonishment, Nurse Fiona clambered inside, and Fred closed it.
“I’m looking for Nurse Seaton,” Matron called, stopping twenty yards away.
“She’s gone to the Pharmacy, then she was going back to the ward,” Fred said authoritatively.
“Good. I thought she might have wandered off to the workshops to see that gormless boyfriend.”
“Bitch,” I heard Nurse Fiona say from inside the trolley.
“Shut up,” said Fred. “She’s turning back.”
I assumed we would then stop to let her out, but Fred stayed my arm. “No, leave ’er in there.”
So on we went, with much bad language from within the trolley which I won’t bore you with. I thought porters swore a lot, but Nurse Fiona was something else.
When we got to the workshop, Ernie was sitting in his brown workshop coat with white smudges of plaster, his feet on a chair, sucking on a pipe and reading a Model Railway Magazine. A short man with a balding head and large glasses, he looked a bit like a miniature Eric Morecambe, as he was often reminded.
“What the fuck are you lot doing here?” he asked acerbically. And then, eyeing the mortuary trolley, “And why the fuck have you brought that bloody trolley?”
“We’ve got a stiff inside. Sister asked if you could remove the plaster before we put ’im in the mortuary.” Fred replied laconically.
“I suppose you think you’re being funny,” Ernie responded menacingly, sending a large plume of pipe smoke towards us. “Coming ’ere, wasting my precious time. I’ve a good mind to report you two wankers to Stan.”
“Yeah, we can see you’re busy,” Fred said.
“Piss off,” Ernie said, and resumed reading his magazine, licking his thumb to turn the pages.
At this point, there was a tapping from within the trolley.
“Stop knocking that fucking trolley,” Ernie said.
“We ain’t touching it,” Fred said. We both moved back from the trolley, held up our hands and assumed a suitable expression of mute astonishment.
Again there was a tapping. Ernie lay his pipe in the ash tray and dropped his magazine, revealing another magazine within, all bums and tits. His hands were trembling.
“Let me out,” Fiona intoned in a low voice.
“I’m off…” Ernie shouted and shot out of the workshop, running as fast as his little legs would carry him.
We kept straight faces until he was out of earshot and then let rip. Fred laughed so much he started coughing, and then went so red I had to slap him on the back, which sent his toupée flying. Recovering himself, he snatched it off the floor, and restored it to his bald head.
“Right. Time to get a move on before ’e comes back,” he said, normality restored.
Fiona hopped out and made her own way back to Mayfair Ward. We returned to the mortuary, parked up the trolley, took a brief look at Mr Morden – who, to our relief, was in exactly the same position in which we had left him – and returned to the Lodge.
Back at the Lodge, I made an entry in the Log Book: “8.15 Mayfair. Call for Mortuary Trolley. To ward to lift patient into trolley and convey to mortuary with nurse. Nothing to report.”
A month later I left the Hospital to resume my university studies, and never returned. I hope Mr Morden had a decent funeral… As for Fred and Ernie and Stan, they must be long dead now, bless them.