The orderly had wheeled her in at just after eleven, two hours into Dennis’s shift. Lots of people admitted that evening; the tiny portable radio on the desk had crackled with report after report on the riot currently burning through South Kensington. He’d been a young man, this orderly, but he looked grey, sweaty, visibly shaken. Apparently, he’d never heard a noise like it; a deafening, angry roar of pain and rage and panic. It was roughly one street from the hospital now, moving steadily towards the police cordon. And that was just outside. Inside the hospital itself it was catastrophe. Hundreds of people screamed and moaned and whimpered through sterile white halls. The orderly’s shoes were shiny and red with trodden-in blood. Clearly things were slightly out of hand up there. Dennis had to admit, it was certainly a first. Though his department tended not to take too vivid an interest in developing situations. There was, after all, something undeniably final about a morgue.
‘Well? Has anyone found what’s causing all the fuss?’ He’d asked the orderly, mildly interested. ‘I’d imagine you would have had the chance to speak to the patients? The living ones, obviously.’ He smiled his wet little smile. The orderly had given a numb little shake of the head, and headed back to the elevator with the mumbled pretext of having ‘a bloody crisis on his hands’.
He could go on having it for all Dennis cared. People were like that; they got all worked up about queer little issues that wouldn’t matter in the long run at all. Probably something to do Race, Homosexuals or Socialism. Everybody was angry about something these days. As part of an oppressed people himself, Dennis could partly understand, but nobody ever heard him making such a fuss. The thing would be sorted out and over when those in charge got serious. In the meantime, he had a steady flow of diverting work; the old ‘meet and greet’ with the bodies, before putting them on the ice. It was most reassuring to be working in an environment that had a routine to it, even in a crisis. You could hide away and work quite comfortably with little interruption. Although it was undeniable that from time to time certain pleasant little distractions got thrown your way.
While his newest delivery hadn’t been the first to die on-site this evening, she was certainly the freshest. This in itself was something of a rarity. Contrary to the risible stew of popular fiction surrounding hospitals, actual death in the ward was a slightly rare occurrence. Most had the tact to go at home or in the ambulance. Not tonight, though. Three this evening, not even counting Her. He’d be running out of storage space at this rate. Apparently, she’d been without any immediate next of kin. That made her special. Dennis licked his lips.
The grey iron doors of the elevator had been silent since the orderly’s departure several hours ago. Clearly, things were slowing down a bit up there. There was every possibility, of course, that someone might come down with a fresh cadaver. But no, he didn’t think so. When you worked in a place long enough, you got a feel for it. Dennis had been working at the hospital for over a decade, and in its cold, white womb he put his absolute faith and security. The surplus stiffs were in the freezers, all the relevant paperwork had been filled in. There was a lull in the atmosphere, he could taste it. No-one would come, no-one soon at any rate. Dark, familiar whispers hummed their way through the cold meat of his mind. Satisfied, Dennis walked over to one of the storage units.
Five minutes later, he was sat at the table with his interesting new friend.
It had been tricky getting her into the dress (he’d collected so many sizes over the years, he would’ve thought he’d have had an eye for measurements by now); even trickier had been getting her onto the chair, despite the fact she’d only been frozen for an hour at most. Still, he was certain she’d thaw quite nicely. The little red number brought out her wonderful grey complexion. It was extravagant, he knew, to lavish so much attention on someone he’d only known for a short amount of time. But that was him all over; an old-fashioned romantic, a Cary Grant of the crypt.
‘Alone at last.’ he raised his wine glass, and chinked it against his companion’s. The wine, as usual, was a smooth, dry red with hints of elderflower. He kept it stored in a little cupboard underneath his desk. Ritual in these situations was important to a man like Dennis. Equally necessary around this time was the paying off of Bernie or one of the less judgemental or indifferent staff to keep an eye on the door for him. Their hands were apparently full tonight, but it was a crisis after all. He very much doubted they’d be down any time soon. Dennis felt odd about that, but not for long. He and his lovely new friend could really get to know each other, have a proper conversation.
Certainly, neither of them was going anywhere. He really had done a fantastic job with the rope, she wasn’t slouching or moving an inch. Bits would start falling off eventually, of course, but by that point Dennis doubted either of them would notice much. Little details away from the big picture and all that.
‘Here’s to the little bon mots of sanity one can salvage from an indecent world, my dear. Do you like it?’ he sipped, ‘mm. You know, you really ought to give it a try. Tesco’s, own brand. No, I don’t know the vineyard. I will have to look it up,’ he sighed wistfully. ‘Wouldn’t that be lovely, to visit don’t you think? Not on my salary. Certainly not on yours.’
His date remained fairly taciturn. Still, that was only to be expected. Their voices usually came to him a bit later on. Anyway, he reasoned, he could talk for two with a fair amount of confidence.
‘Terrible business about the riot this evening,’ he smiled sympathetically. ‘I imagine it was tough for you, out there on the picket line, was it? Oh, what am I saying? of course it was. How nice it must be, to come and put your feet up for a bit. I know it’s a bit cramped in here, what with the refrigerating unit, but I try to make it homely.’
She held Dennis’ gaze evenly, full of admiration at his taste. What lovely eyes she had, he thought with longing. Emerald green stones they were, and only slightly discoloured with bloodshot. Raven-black hair, lovingly washed and combed. Enviable proportions, creamy white skin. Entirely wholesome, with only the faintest tinges of grey at the edges. True necrosis wouldn’t begin until later on; the freeze had seen to that. Even her perfume allured him, that clean, clean whiff of hospital disinfectant and bleach, just a hint of corruption underneath. She’d worn it for him, just for him.
‘You really are a little lovely, you know,’ Dennis told her, stroking an icy hand absently. He saw himself reflected for a moment in her eyes, and winced as reality wore through the architecture of the dream. Face too pallid, watery little eyes, great red pores that mottled the skin, a flourish of chalk-white hair that sprouted behind the ears but did nothing to cover his bald scalp. Not the kind of romantic hero he’d read of avidly as a young man with a promising career in medicine ahead of him. That had all been before the board kicked him out of the practice, of course. Black failure tainted his palate slightly. Dennis forced it down like a rising gorge. He had a good life now, a salaried job with a forgiving boss. He was successful. She could see he was successful. She had that look about her. Dennis relaxed as the gossamer threads of delusion once again spun themselves gently through his mind.
‘You know, I think my favourite thing about you,’ – he took a tart sip of wine, with more vigour than he’d meant to – ‘is your personality, my dear. You stood up for what you believed in, didn’t you? Down with the system and all that, was it? Very droll, very well done,’ he sniffed, ‘the whole thing needed to come apart anyway. People can be so controlling. They just don’t understand the average working man, that’s what it is. Up to the gates of Buckingham palace, wasn’t it? Dear me,’ he chuckled indulgently, ‘that must have been quite a show.’
The radio blared on, the worried-sounding Jamaican on Radio 2 broadcasting through what seemed to be a thick fog of static. Apparently, some of the protestors had been practically throwing themselves at the police outside Whitehall. Not just the police, either; civilians, ambulances and derelicts had also felt the brunt of this aggression. They certainly were a fervent bunch.
‘I don’t think much of your tactics,’ Dennis reproved gently. ‘Innocent bystanders? That’s a bit rum, isn’t it?’ Not that it bothered him in the slightest, people were meat. But a show of conscience couldn’t hurt, now could it? The modern woman wants her man to get behind the right side of history, he’d read that in a magazine once.
‘Well, I’m sure we can move past it,’ he thought aloud. ‘So many people are brainless sheep these days. You’re probably doing them a service.’ He raised his glass again. ‘Here’s to the salt of the earth.’ He downed the glass in one swift motion. No point in hanging about now. She’d be thawing rather rapidly.
They talked for some time while Dennis poured and subsequently drank the third glass. Like him, she’d had her sights set high in life. A talented cellist, she’d first risen to prominence with a quartet at Jesus College. Talks of a spot on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had naturally followed. That was, until the discovery of her more radical social beliefs, combined with a penchant for the older man, had seen her sent packing. It was remarkable how alike they were, Dennis thought slyly.
There was a soft creak as her head sagged forward. Dennis was delighted; she’d read the atmosphere, alright. Flirty, vivacious, charmingly independent. He hadn’t even had to position her.
‘A touch more intimate?’ he leaned forward over the table, close enough to smell her. ‘Do try the wine. I’m sure you’re probably as nervous as I am.’
In response, his date slumped even closer. A little odd, Dennis thought to himself, and I was so sure I’d fixed you nice and tight. Still, it was a touch of novelty for someone else to make the first move. The modern way, he supposed. A modern man might’ve taken her there and then, but Dennis was nothing if not a traditional sort of romantic; he firmly believed in the woo, the allure of the candlelight and the softly-spoken nothing. When he had the time for it.
‘Goodness me,’ he whispered, his throat painfully dry. ‘I think I’d better fetch us some more wine before we get carried away.’ He gave her a light, tender kiss on the cheek, noting the soft, cool wetness with pleasure. Nearly time. He rose from the table. Another glass of wine, he thought to himself, and then…the romance. He really ought to fetch a towel, too. She was starting to drip.
‘A little music?’ he asked lovingly. ‘I’m sure there’s something on the wireless besides the reports.’ Taking the towel from its accustomed place on the radiator, he turned on channel number four.
‘Witness reports of severe mutilation, among the protestors and police-‘
Irritated, Dennis switched to another channel.
‘Several major cities have shown signs of-‘
‘That’s quite enough of that,’ Dennis huffed. Typical of them to ruin a lovely evening with sensationalist nonsense. Several major cities, indeed. Probably only one or two, if that. Still, things were getting fairly out of hand up there, if his old friend the orderly had to be believed. How long ago had that been, he wondered, and looked to the clock. Gone three in the morning. The initial stir of mad panic as he realised how careless he’d been quickly bled out. Someone ought to have been down by now. If no-one had come, then no-one was going to. This ought to have reassured him, and it did, but only a little. A tingle he was only half-aware of feeling crept slyly between his shoulder blades. He picked up the bottle and turned back toward the table.
And stopped. And looked very, very carefully at the definite change in front of him.
‘You know, my dear,’ he told her gently, surprised at how calm he sounded, ‘I’m sure that wasn’t the way I left you.’
The corpse was still slouched over the table. The ropes that held it were a darker shade of brown from the water that trickled down freely from the skin. One hand was held outward, half-open where he’d been holding it. The other was now holding the wineglass. The surface shimmered blood red as ripples lapped from side to side, recently disturbed.
Dennis stood there for a moment, lost in thought. It would have surprised him to know that his face had gone a botchy, waxy colour. He did not feel disturbed, had no sensation of horror or madness; the psyche of Dennis from Mortuary had swum in deep, cold, wreck-infested water for far too long to be affected by such trivialities. In the seconds he stood standing there, he processed the change before him with the same level of attention he might give to a crossword, or a difficult sum. Apparently satisfied with some conclusion or another, he sat down and began to fill his glass, watching her all the time.
The other wine-glass moved. An uneven, dragging motion, lurching and uncertain, back towards the holder. When it reached the edge of the table, it lifted, meeting a pair of sealed lips. Wine spattered down the front of a red silk dress.
Dennis discovered his right hand was wet. Wine ran down the sides of his glass with a chilled, expensive trickle. My cup runneth over, he thought wildly.
‘Look at us,’ he muttered. ‘What a clumsy pair we are.’ He’d meant it to be a joke, but the voice that carried it sounded stilted and flat. He looked into those eyes again and met a gaze that fully returned his own. Two lights burned back at him with a dim, guttering fire; the final, shoddy light of a candle burning through its last inches of tallow. Maimed, half-formed, undeniably there for all that. A thrill of wild, dark glee coursed through him.
She was, Dennis knew, impossible. It was every dark and shameful thing he’d done and dreamt of doing, every cold little moment of stolen passion made flesh. Vaguely he wondered what it could mean, and was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t really care. The wider implications were lost in the madness of the singular fact. Two metres above him, at ground level the world began its inexorable slide into superstition, madness and hell. The great cities crumbled, and a whirlwind of fire and fear poured out into the countryside. Millions died atrociously. Humanity discovered its second dark age, bloody and howling with agony, driven by a fear it had not known since the days of the cave and the firelight and the glittering eyes just beyond. And Dennis drank from his cup, and joked with his guest, and lived out his wildest dream.
She sat the glass down on the table again, lovely mouth dripping with red. Dennis smiled lovingly. The thing at the end of the table smiled back.
‘I’m so pleased to see you’re enjoying yourself,’ Dennis cooed. She carried on smiling. That flickering-candlelight of consciousness remained fixed on him entirely. What a polite guest she was. And such poise, too. The stillness of her; she could have been made of porcelain. It occurred to him that this was because she was no longer breathing, or touching her hair, or doing any of the dozen little movements people did when they were…well, alive. Not that that had ever been a problem before. But then all his old girlfriends had never been this lively, this compliant. It jarred a little.
‘What do you think of all that on the radio?’ Dennis asked tritely. If she could talk…now, that really would be something.
She remained motionless, that knowing little grin etched in marble.
‘Awful weather we’re having,’ he droned, ‘just ghastly. Do you know, I had to take my umbrella with me to work today?’
Nothing to that, either. And yet she could sense him, he knew it. Was a little gratitude too much to ask for? He had been the one who’d taken her out to thaw, after all.
‘I suppose you’ve heard this often, but you really are beautiful, you know,” he crooned. ‘A beautiful, delicate lily-flower.’
Dead silence, as before. And that awful, taunting grin. Dennis decided he’d had enough of playing with his food. He pushed himself away from the table and started around to her side, intent on claiming his prize.
Her head snapped around to follow him. He stopped dead in his tracks. She’d responded. She knew he wanted her. The flicker behind the eyes had grown brighter. That was lust, he told himself. He was sure that was what lust looked like; an avid look, blank and yet radiating a feral intensity. Bless her eagerness. My little lovely is waiting for me.
And why not? After all, why not? He was her knight in shining armour, after all. They’d got off to a rocky start, certainly, but that was fine, all was forgiven now. In his head, she whispered to him in that soft Irish brogue he knew she had
‘Really, that’s a very forward suggestion,’ he murmured to her softly. ‘And with an old curmudgeon like me? I suppose it makes sense, though,’ he sighed philosophically. ‘We’re not getting any fresher.’
He knelt down, and took both her hands in his. Cold, cold, they were icy cold, but they wove in between his with tact and longing. Everything he’d hoped it would be, the real touch of a lover. Gently, he raised her left hand and kissed it. A sharp pressure dug his right palm. He winced, touched but uncomfortable. They’d have to do something about her nails. Quite a bit sharper than he’d thought, not very ladylike. He looked up at her. She smiled down at him, showing two rows of perfect white teeth.
‘Do you love me?’ he asked her, softly. Yes, said the voice in his head, yes my darling, come in and give me a kiss. Dennis moved in closer. The cold grip fastened tighter around him, nails digging down into both of his palms. She was fully aware now, couldn’t stand the pressure any more than he could. Ecstatic, Dennis prised himself free from her grip, and drew her in for that first cool embrace.
Or he tried to. He found he couldn’t quite move his hands. They were pinned beneath the nails. He tried a second time, and gasped as a sharp pain tore through his palm. The grip was like iron.
‘My dear,’ he remonstrated gently as he could, ‘Could you possibly let go of my hands for a moment?’
No response. No change to that big, grey smile, those incandescent green eyes. Watchful stillness. He’d been wrong, wrong. The way she was looking at him, that wasn’t desire at all. It was a look found at the bottom of every British garden; every adder in the leaf-pile, each prowling moggy and perching hawk, even the grey warted toad that lay waiting in the pond, they all wore what passed for an expression identical to this one. The sham he’d created for the two of them cracked and crumbled like an empty snail’s shell.
‘Look, I’d quite like for you to let me go, please,’ he stammered, desperately clinging to the pretence of civility. ‘Maybe we’re being a bit hasty. We’ve plenty of time to get to know each other, you know.’ The nails dug deeper, and he yelped in pain and anger.
‘Look, can you just let go of me for one fucking second?’
For a moment, there was dead, shocked silence. Dennis really wasn’t the swearing type at all. How grotesque, he thought vaguely, as what was left of his sanity snapped. He felt ashamed he’d shouted.
With a meaty snap the smile tore open. A piercing shriek ripped out of the ragged hole, inhumanly horrible and triumphant. The nails bit further and further down into his hands. Dennis shrieked in agony as thick, warm blood oozed through her talons. He was being stigmatized, quite literally. Gasping in short, juddering breaths, blind to anything but feeling, he opened his mouth to scream again.
The yowl cut off. She was on him in a flash of teeth. An awful tearing inside his mouth, a white-hot sheet of fresh pain. Cat got my tongue, Dennis thought obscenely, as the thing in front of him snapped and slavered. He saw the bloody shred of meat stuck between its teeth. With the sight came a blissful disconnection. Then she was over him again, smiling that awful, beautiful smile of hers. My lovely, my little lovely, he thought, over and over, quite unable to think anything else through the biting, rending, tearing. As she burrowed like a maggot into the expanse of his belly, even that last flickering candle went out for good.
Peter Thorn is a teacher of English living on a blasted heath somewhere in South Surrey. In his spare time, he goes bird-watching, blunders through Italian lessons and secretly thinks Coldplay are OK up to the fourth album. His writing, at times serious, tends to revolve around his own sad, horrible sense of humour, in the hope that anyone similarly disaffected will at last be able to have a reassuring chuckle. Goes well with brie.
Read more of his work at aloka here: https://aloka-magazine.com/2020/05/10/the-roman-peter-thorn-fiction/