The mystery of death.

click on this image to visit the morgue

By June of 1970 I had scraped together enough money for a cheap flight to London where some friends from the voyage of the Caledonien had just arrived after traveling overland from Australia. They invited me to come to stay with them in Twickenham. This was my first time ever in London and yet I felt immediately at home there. Of course we spent hours reminiscing about the good times we spent together on the Caledonien and at the same time wondering what new adventure we might tackle. The obvious choice for me was to go back to the South Pacific on the Caledonien and soon after I got all the details from a local travel agency. Even though the trip was still very inexpensive, it was more money than I had and further to this I wanted to go to the Islands and settle for life , which meant I needed more money. My friends suggested that I get a job in London, something that I hardly imagined possible. Yet I soon managed to get one by going through the regular channels. Starting with the Job recruiting Center in center of London. They sent me out for a job interview at the West Middlesex Hospital in Isleworth which wasn't far from where we were staying. Even though I wasn't the only one applying for this very basic job of a Janitorial nature. I still managed to get it, with a basic salary that was the lowest imaginable, 14.50 pounds a week.

I started straight away and spent most of my time going around to all the wards picking up waste materials as well as working in the afternoons on a huge mechanical bottle washing machine that was quite a challenge. In a short time I knew most of the Hospital layout that was anyway extensive, being a very large and ancient Victorian age, multistory complex. Within a month I was offered a better paying job, working in the hospitals internal Ambulance department. "Ambulance Internal" as it was called, was occupied mainly with the transfer of patients to and from the various wards, that could be either from an emergency admission or transfer of patients to different parts of the hospital for treatments etc etc. A much better job with more status and better pay, (21 pounds a week, 4.5 in tax?) There was only about five or six of us in this department, where we were actually considered as drivers and we did in fact often actually drive small electrically powered ambulance vans to transport the patients from one spot to another. If I wanted to make a somewhat exaggerated but nonetheless true claim for myself, it would be that I was employed as an ambulance driver in London. We would work in rotating shifts so there was never more than two or three of us working at any one time and we were quite busy except for during the night shift.

Probably the most interesting and or bizarre part of this job was working the night shift. Quite often I would be working with a rather eccentric but genial old soul named Roger who had been doing the job for decades. Roger spent many of his weekends at Oxford taking in Shakespearian plays and was often quoting something from Shakespeare while we were sitting about the office brewing up endless cups of tea. It happens that patients in the geriatric wards quite often pass away in the night. And if this is the case it was our job to go up to the wards in the dead of night (to use an apt phrase) to remove the body and transfer it to the Morgue. The morgue and the building it was situated in seemed very old. Perhaps built in 1894, I believe, and very much in the old Victorian tradition. At night it seemed like something straight out of an old horror movie. Once you got there, you would have to fumble around with the keys in the dark to unlock the door, and once inside, be greeted with an unearthly smell of death and embalming fluid. Immediately inside there were series of refrigerated compartments, each sealed with a large latched door, each door opened to expose three or four shelve spaces. The body that is in a bag would have to be placed in one the compartments. The first shock is that many of the compartments are already occupied, and if someone has been the victim of a traffic accident that same night you might come across the fresh corpse that is not even in a bag.

While in an adjoining room was one of the most amazing sites I have ever encountered, here in a large room were a series of huge white porcelain dissecting tables, and surrounding these were shelves lined with large bottles containing preserved curiosities, that I supposed had been recovered from nearly a century of autopsy disection. On those shelves there was everything from pickled brains to deformed fetuses and other sorts of monstrosities too numerous to describe.

One night as we were moving a corpse from the stretcher, Roger warned me of a strange circumstance that is one of the hazards of doing this job. He explained that in the case where a patient dies at night and the death happens to go unnoticed for a number of hours, rigor mortis will begin to occur in the body. The nurses may then have to "straighten" out a crouched or fetal position body to get it into the bag and on to a stretcher. This body can sometimes, of its own accord, move to return, almost like a spring to its original position at death. This, if it does happen, is likely to happen just as we are transferring the corpse to the fridge compartment. Imagine the unwary worker having his cadaver suddenly sit up at the moment he is trying to get it into the fridge!

I can remember quite a few strong moments working in that job, even though I wouldn't consider myself overly squeamish. I remember one afternoon when I was called to the Emergency ward to urgently transfer a traffic accident victim to a surgery room, when I arrived, I was greeted by a nurse who was hard pressed trying to stop the bleeding coming from the patients face and neck, blood was squirting out of his face like a miniature fountain. The nurse told me later that she had seen a lot of shocking or strange things in that Emergency ward, including a man who came in with his penis stuck in vacuum cleaner hose. That case was so bad she said, that they had to call the fire department to come and cut the hose pipe. A difficult job in anyone's books. Her most amazing story was a case of a man who tried to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of a 10 story office building. He landed flat on his back on the top of a car roof and survived the fall. They rushed him into the West Middlesex Emergency but he had only suffered minor injuries and later walked out of the Hospital without assistance. I remember that I found this story very hard to believe but now researching this further find that it is not impossible.* (Barbara writes: "You do remember that I was actually working in that office building where the person jumped off don't you? It was Regal House next to Twickenham Station, he had recently lost his job and decided to end it all."

*Chinese woman survives 27-storey fall
June 16th, 2009 NEW DELHI - A 29-year-old Chinese woman miraculously escaped death after she jumped off the 27th floor. Chen, a hypochondria, tried to commit suicide by jumping off the 27th floor of a building and landed on the car roof, reports China Daily.

See the next page. The mystery of Dreams.