The following story was written entirely by Colin G. Livingstone. Livingstone is an illustrator who resides somewhere in the UK. He grew up in Kenya and New Zealand, just a few blocks away from the home of the great running coach Arthur Lydiard. Livingstone went on to run for Lydiard’s running club and later competed at national level in New Zealand.
His contributions can be seen in the best-selling book about Arthur Lydiard’s training principles, “Healthy Intelligent Training”, which was written by his twin brother Keith. You may recognize Livingstone from his contributions to the seven part series, Fartlek and Low Things in West Auckland. FaLTWA provides a comical look at the lives of a collection of national and international level Kiwi athletes from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Expect at least one more part to the series soon, part eight of course.
I asked Colin what this story provides or how it may be running related, as on the surface it appears there is no subject matter even remotely related to running whatsoever. Many of the characters cannot run, as they happen to be dead. He said, “yes, there is a running link…uh…the mortuary was nearby the Auckland Domain (a popular training area for competitive runners)….lots of parkland…and sometimes I’d be in my running gear with gown over the top, checking in on a stiff”.
‘Mortuary Nights’ A true story by C.G. Livingstone
In the mid 1980’s, I had an evening job at a major New Zealand hospital…4pm to 12am. Having worked as an artist in the television industry, as a track cutter and guide in the Volcanic Plateau and various other outdoor pursuits…this was something new. What happened here, though, was more bizarre than any movie.
The evenings consisted of ‘special watches’ over unruly A&E patients, monitoring psychos and prisoners, or doing spinal lifts in the Critical Care Unit. But for several years, I was mostly assigned to mortuary duty. I had one set of keys, the duty Police and Ambulance another…as did the Coroner’s office.
When a life expired, it was my job to retrieve the carcass in a sensitive manner and deliver it through an underground labyrinth of tunnels to the Medical School mortuary, across the road. We called it ‘Ward 13’.
The tunnels were used to dispose of the deceased quietly and efficiently, as discrete measures of removal took on bizarre twists of invention. Months before, when no undertakers or special duty staff were available, two orderlies were called to remove a couple of wizened corpses from the Geriatric ward, a Victorian building across the way from the main hospital. The Matron assumed that common sense and discretion would prevail, the bodies being wheeled incognito, as usual, to a room by Accident and Emergency and then moved on later. Not this time.
Our two heroes…both rugby league players missing a few brain cells, moved the bodies alright. This happened at teatime, with an agog ward full of visitors, as the rugby players picked up the cadavers, ‘fireman style’ over the shoulder and walked out to an awaiting vehicle. The car was a hospital courier, a tasteful orange Vauxhall Chevette 4 door, with ‘Orderlies Department’ emblazoned on the sides
Dead bodies from wards are usually wrapped and laid out in sheets awaiting their next journey…but these two were marched out with all the ceremony of a sack of spuds, then deposited willy nilly in the back seat of the Chevette. The worn brown vinyl seats, broken ashtray and crackling RT intercom became their carriage to eternity as they were roughly placed side by side…sitting upright and neatly belted in.
Without authority, the two Einsteins proceeded to drive the short distance to the mortuary…not realising that Right Seat Cadaver’s sheet was unraveled, revealing a ghastly frozen countenance pressed up against the glass, staring with unseeing eyes at horrified passersby. That wasn’t so bad…because Left Seat Cadaver’s door wasn’t shut properly, becoming evident as the car swung sharply into Park Road. The two Einsteins in the front were oblivious as Radio Hauraki blared out of the speakers, whilst a ghastly dangling torso clawed the tarmac, head banging against the brown vinyl door panels, emaciated paperish flesh showing every rib and vertebra through the dishevelled shroud of hospital sheet, with its broad green stripe.
It could have been worse…the seat belt held fast, negating the possibility of lean pickings for squadrons of hovering seagulls. Sharp-eyed observers alerted the driver to his plight, before the incident incurred further outrage. After considerable shame to the relevant authorities, an inquiry was held to prevent anything like this happening again.
Due to the fiasco, the ‘Powers That Be’ initiated strict procedures, also commissioning a special device for the removal of the departed. No body could be removed without the right paperwork or appropriate staff. Neither could it leave the ward without the ‘device’.
Like the boatman on the River Styx, I ferried my bulky cargo in a supposedly discrete ‘mobile bed’ which steered like a bad supermarket shopping cart. It looked like a regular hospital bed with dummy sheets and a pillow, but with a suspect ‘box’ below the counterpein, amid rather large central wheels. Within this, lay an elaborately engineered stainless steel tray with a hydraulic pumping jack.
Being the Reaper’s shadow, you whisked into the ward with the Undertaker, removed the dummy bedspread, then pumped up the tray to the required height…then the two of you pulled the sheeted stiff into the awaiting bag on the tray. Resembling a gigantic Adidas bag, but without the logo…it had a sturdy zip which hummed as you pulled it, like a two second requiem. Then you released the tray on the trolley…but you had to do it carefully, so the corpse descended into the box with a subtle ‘PSSSHHH’ instead of a sickening ‘THHUNNKKK‘.
Quite often, an uneven weight, or a large uncooperative cadaver would trip the pump into a rapid and premature descent into the box. Once, a massive stiff flew down with a rigor mortis arm wedged between the tray and the box, the trolley teetered with the gargantuan bag as we tried to counter it, then collapsed like the Bridge of Remagen, as 300 lbs of wrapped meat bombed the tiles with a splattering KFFRAKK. That took a fair few minutes of spontaneous engineering to clear up, with several aghast nurses keeping visitors at bay.
Then… there was the paperwork…it was no good if the stiff had the wrong toe tag when the relatives identified a 5’2” ginger haired female of 51, or a 6’3” 260lb Polynesian steelworker instead of their 84 year old Uncle Sid . Everything had to be spot on…no mistakes here.
Formaldehyde penetrated the nostrils amid the stainless steel and marble slabs. It was the smell of the Final Curtain…an aroma that defined The End. The polished tile floor was a neutral grey-blue; everything was neutral but the smell, which never left you unless you went for a run in the clear midnight air.
We got all sorts of deaths rolling in through those cold stainless steel doors. Junkies, winos, drag queens, messed up suicides… and once the full 96 weekly installments of body parts from the 1979 airline disaster in Antarctica, where a specially chartered Boeing 747 ploughed into the Erebus Volcano at 12000’. We were still getting wee bags of bits as late as the mid eighties…
A particularly gruesome but nonetheless noteworthy stiff was the bloke in overalls who got ‘crimped’ and pressed into a plastic rubbish bin lid whilst inspecting an injection moulding machine. The poor bastard was trying to free a large sprue of waste plastic from the press.
I guess it ran like this…..
Disabling the override button
Disabling the override button with the confident swagger of those who frequent the factory floor, he decided he knew better than the manufacturers of the 100,000 volt steel monster with the 5000 lb psi hydraulic rams.
That day he was on machine NO.3, pressing out olive green plastic trash cans.
Sonya in packing was looking his way… he kind of ‘had a thing’ for Sonya, and she was clearly impressed by his mastery of the steel beast, with its myriad of buttons and flashing lights. He’d show her that a blocked mould could be handled by raw arm power !!
His tattooed arms firmly gripped the favoured tool for the task at hand. After all, he’d done this many times before….
Leaning into the machine and rolling back the perspex safety canopy, he levered the large plastic motion out of its steel bowel with a large crowbar. Ignoring the manufacturer’s written pleas not to open the canopy whilst in operation he continued to jimmy the steel bar a few inches above a live wire of direct current. The plastic was pulled free with one burst of strength as the bar glanced the wire. As he was mid thigh over the canopy, his torso was completely at the mercy of the gigantic steel plates whilst thousands of volts raced through his frenzied, convulsing body…
A mega short circuit!!
The safety override did as it was designed to do in those circumstances…it closed the gigantic moulds. A ffhoooshh of the hydraulic rams and pressing of hot, molten plastic at 5000 lbs per square inch rudely signaled the end of this endeavor.
I remember when it came in. Especially the boots dangling out of the powder blue overalls. Riding the seams were one patterned sock, one grey. The overalls were quite clean really….that is until about mid trunk….where an amorphous gel of congealed blood and bone juxtaposed its grisly composition across a blue canvas. A deeply impressive shield of green plastic (in the shape of a plastic trash can lid) permeated clumps of roasted flesh, hair and exploded bone. The torso was neatly ‘heat crimped’ into a broad pizza base of glob furnished by the garment. The steel ‘clasp buttons’ of the dungarees were burnt into the epidermis like a culinary masterpiece.
I remember an oddly pleasant smell of ‘roast pork’ wafting its way around the aroma of charred bone, burnt hair and new plastic. The brain was a hot red porridge …. as if you threw a hundred prawns in a blender and took the top off. All over the show. The skull, like the splattered watermelons of childhood, was a crunched, exploded mat of roasted bone and skin. An eyeball was intact…surveying the scene like a sentinel. Teeth and shattered skull were pressed through a 14″ wide leather mat of crushed bone, orifices and brain splattered hair in an amazing abstract ‘sculpture’.
And then there were the tats…still proudly defiant….surfing the ripped waves of torn skin and muscle in a sea of carnage.
Many think of death as a fanfare of trumpets, whilst loving relatives gather at the bedside to hear ebbing words of wisdom. It aint so….take it from one whose seen it as it is. Did I tell you about the 22 stone alkie who died in the toilet ? Well, he was wedged up against the wall with his……
More ‘Mortuary Tales’ to be continued…