When I was six, I remember my teacher telling me that thunder was clouds bumping together, he was proud when he told me that. I took it at face value. It’s amazing what you believe at such a young age. When I was helping my father work and lightening struck, filling the room with bright light, illuminating the bodies that lay peacefully on the benches, I told him. He could see I was scared. I hated helping him, I dreaded it.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said, and went back to his work.
It was my job to wash them. I had a sponge and bucket. I’d count each stroke, knowing that it was one less I’d need to do, and one less until I could finish and get out of that place. If I had to say, I’d say I preferred the women. They reminded me of my mum, she was quiet and never made a fuss. I wished I could spend more time with her, instead of there in the cold room filled with steel cupboards. The men just reminded me of my dad. Some of them stank. It got easier over time, but that’s not something a six-year-old should be put through; it messes you up.
My dad was a mortician. He worked out of the building next to our house. It was a large square structure that had all the charm of the occupants inside. It was probably the best job for him. He couldn’t have been a doctor; his bedside manner was less than desirable. Sometimes the bodies would begin to sit up and gasp. I never got used to that. I’d stand petrified while my father would swear to himself, run over and force them back down. I’d hear cracks of what I thought were bones as the bodies resisted.
“It’s bacteria and gas!” he’d shout, “nothing to be afraid of.”
The air would fill with a putrid odour, and I’d heave.
“You have to man up,” he’d say, and I’d think I was a disappointment. I knew I was when he gave me ear muffs. Pink ones, almost as if to degrade me, like the bodies that sat on those slabs.
I remember going to school and my classmates, that’s not the right word – they were hardly my friends, they’d say I smelled. I’d shower before bed and in the morning, but nothing can get rid of that stench. It was as if I was a prisoner at home and in school, solitary confinement. I became numb to it.
By age twelve my father was showing me how to perform the Y-incision. He’d hold my hand and drag the knife down the chest. I’d shake and sweat at first. But over time it was me pulling the knife and my father only guiding.
“You’re really good at this,” he said to me, with genuine pride in his voice.
It had been so long since he’d praised me, I didn’t know what the feeling was that rose in my stomach. I lived for that, but only seldom did it come. I wanted him to be proud of me, so I’d get there before he did and practice. I’d slide the metal drawer out, too small and weak to pick the bodies up and place them on the slabs. I’d undo the stitches he had done the night before and then sew them myself, training myself so I could impress him. I’d fix up the equipment to drain them, watch as the red liquid dripped into the bucket below, a staccato slap before the flow began. I’d always be tempted to dip my finger in and take a little taste, as the copper smell rose up making my teeth hurt. At some point I did. It was reminiscent of when I bit my tongue after falling off my bike. I didn’t get a taste for it.
I grew to ignore the groans and moans. At first, I’d slam the drawer shut and hide. Sometimes my father would emerge at the bottom of the stairs. I’d wait in the darkness for him to do his checks, then emerge from my hiding place to continue my nocturnal work. Over time though, I knew there was nothing they could do to me, so I let them moan. It’s just bacteria. I’d laugh when they did it, come to enjoy it. Sometimes I’d take the opportunity to slice off their tongue. I hid these in a box under my bed. A child of twelve shouldn’t be doing things like that.
I graduated from school at sixteen. It was as if I had Stockholm Syndrome, I knew I could leave home, but I didn’t want to. I knew where I wanted to be. My mother said I should get a job, make some friends, it wasn’t normal for a kid of my age to be so obsessed. All I could wonder was why hadn’t she said that when I was six.
A day after my seventeenth birthday, I met James. He’d moved in down the street, and was well into computer games. He invited me over and for the first time in my life I experienced what I could equate to friendship. What disturbed me was thinking about what his insides looked like. I wondered how heavy his heart was, I surmised it must weight a lot as he seemed to have so much love to give. I did my best to shake these feelings. Father wasn’t happy when I told him I was going to stay the night. Mum and him argued for hours.
James and I stayed up late playing Mario Kart. I was terrible, my hands had been trained for something very different. When he fell asleep on the couch, I just watched him sleep. He woke screaming as I loomed down on top of him. I held him in place, telling him to be quiet. I held my hand over his mouth until he calmed down.
“Please promise you won’t scream?” I asked, and he nodded.
Slowly I removed my hand. My heart was thumping and I could feel his thump hard too. His breathing calmed down and he spoke.
“I like you, but not in that way,” he said softly.
It took me a moment to understand and relief washed over me. He had no idea what I was going to do. I walked home that night and laid in my own bed thinking.
Over the coming days dad would ask for help and I’d turn him down. He was upset to start with. I could see my proud father turn into a stranger, until the point he ignored me entirely. Mum set me up interviews with some of the local businesses. I took a job at a gas station, nightshift, it was when I felt the most comfortable.
“You should get your own place,” she offered.
At the time I thought she wanted to get rid of me, but knowing what I know now, she wanted me to have freedom, a life of my own, so I did.
Over the years the macabre thoughts began to subside. The damage that had been done to me as a child began to repair itself. I ended up working in the fashion industry, all that sewing didn’t go to waste after all.
A year ago, mum told me dad had left her. She didn’t sound upset. I flew her up to see me. She ended up getting a job down the road from mine, and I had a relationship with her I could only dream about when I was a child.
Today she phoned me, she wasn’t upset, more resigned. She said dad had been in a car accident. She said someone needed to identify the body. She asked if it was okay if I did it. I told her that was fine. She never helped out with dad’s business, so wasn’t used to it, and besides, I don’t think she wanted to see him again.
It was oddly familiar standing in that room with steel tables and steel cupboards. A man in a lab coat saw me waiting and asked me to confirm who I was.
“He’s in a bit of a state, are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asked, he had a much better bedside manner than my father.
“Yes, I’ll be fine. My dad was a mortician too, I used to help him out when I was a child.”
The man smiled and led me into a room. He let me pull back the sheets.
I gasped a little as I saw his face. It was him, what was left of him at least. His chest appeared crushed under the sheet, I left him his dignity.
“That’s him,” I said.
“Thank you,” the man replied and wrote something on his clipboard.
“Say, how do you keep this place so quiet?”
He looked up and chuckled, “well the residents here don’t talk much.”
“But the ones that are still moving, where do you keep them?”
He gave me a strange look.
“Well if they are moving, they hardly belong here do they…” he said trailing off.
That’s when it hit me, I don’t think my dad was a mortician after all.