Courage abandoned her as she stared into the darkness. Her legs turned to rubber, as if she’d run long and hard, and her heart thudded as she dragged in air. Her mind froze with indecision. She needed to get a grip. To just get on with it and start searching, before the porter returned and caught her there. Her week of spying on him and following and noting down times of his every movement could change. His nightly routine of hanging up his porter’s jacket in the staffroom, with keys still in the pocket, before getting into his car and driving off-site to one of three neighbouring takeaways was no guarantee he would not return any moment and catch her in the act. She needed to be quick.
She pressed her trembling hands together, attempting to squeeze away the tremors, and stiffened her legs to give them strength. It was not the fear of looking that stopped her taking this step, it was the fear of what she would find.
She reached out and patted the wall, feeling for the light switch, hearing the pings and buzz of electricity as each Perspex square on the ceiling above illuminated brightly. The noise filled her ears and in her heightened state she imagined it being heard outside the building. She listened intently, but the momentary sounds had already ceased, and she could find no more reason to abandon her mission. The place was silent except for the sound of her own breathing.
The room – rectangular, windowless and very private – looked like a bank vault with safe deposit boxes, where clients were taken and left in privacy to open a box and store their most valuable items. The difference here was in the size of the boxes. Each was big enough to take a body. The first and last were even bigger and were used to take the largest of the cadavers. On one wall she counted twelve doors – enough fridges for twelve bodies. That meant there were twelve spaces to check, not counting those on the facing wall. If she hurried she could be out of there in minutes, have the keys back in the porter’s pocket with him none the wiser to her being there. It may only take the opening of one door to find who she was looking for . . .
The small terracotta floor tiles were worn and the black scuff marks told of the back-and-forth journeys of rubber-wheeled trolleys. Parked trolleys and a hydraulic lift sat at the far end of the room, the lift plugged in for battery charging. A single chair was set against a drab grey wall.
She would open doors from left to right, bottom to top so that she didn’t miss any out.
She made her way to the nearest fridge and gripped the handle. The heavy door opened with barely a sound and cold air cooled her heated face. The cadaver was zipped inside a white body bag. She held her breath, not wanting to breathe in the air of the dead, the lingering scent of hundreds of bodies that had lain here before. The temperature was set to keep bodies cool, but could not prevent rot. When she finally took a breath, she was relieved to find that all she could smell were the harsh chemicals that the fridges had been sterilised with. Her fingers trembled as she eased open the zip, relief flooding her as she saw grey, wispy hair. Inside was a featureless old man or woman with hollowed-out cheeks. She closed the bag, shut the door and moved to open the fridge above. Her eyes fixed on a bald head, noticing wrinkles and liver spots. There were similar bodies in the next few chambers, with more grey hair on some, whispery white patches on others, a peach-coloured afro on another, then a shock of white-blonde hair tied back with a scrap of bandage. Someone young.
Resting for a moment, she tried not to imagine a face to fit that body. She unzipped the next bag, gagged and had to cover her mouth. The head was charred black with red congealed blood that had settled like jellied lava pushing through burst skin. She banged the door shut and gulped the air, trying not to imagine the particles of dead flesh that she could be inhaling. The dead can’t hurt you, she whispered into her cupped hand. Only to discover a moment later that they could. Inside the next fridge was a tiny, cocooned shape wrapped in a white sheet. She felt an unbearable ache inside her throat. There was a pink teddy lying atop the shrouded baby. It may have been a gift from the parents, and she felt unforgivably intrusive for seeing something so private and precious.
She slumped to the floor and leaned back against the cold steel. She was torturing herself in this place. She should have requested this search in the presence of someone else; demanded that they show her the inside of every fridge, but she couldn’t run the risk of being refused or seeing the pity in their eyes as they reluctantly agreed. They would think she had lost her mind to request such a search. As far as they were concerned the patient had simply absconded and was not one of the dead lying in this mortuary.
She crawled to the last two doors and reached up to open the top one first. Hardened by what she had already seen, she unzipped the bag fast and was surprised to see the soles of feet. The underside of the toes was pure white, the arches and heels dark purple. They were young feet, smooth and unworn by time. They could be male or female, though they were small. Using the door to steady herself she stood up and felt her insides buck as she saw the painted toenails. Blue’s so much prettier, don’t you think? It shows off your tan better. With fingertips, she reached in and touched the feet. They were cold. She cried out, unable to stop herself. It could be her. A white identity band circled the left ankle, the name hidden from view. She twisted the band slowly until she saw a printed name: Jane Doe. It was the name used for an unknown, the unidentified. Her breath felt ragged. Until she saw the face, she couldn’t be sure.
The body was in the fridge but the wrong way round. She would have to pull out the tray to see the face. She gripped its rim and pulled, but it didn’t slide out. She tugged harder, but it stayed put. She stared at the sides of the tray to try and see why it was stuck but could see nothing obvious. Maybe it just needed a stronger pull. She placed a foot against the door below, leaned back and pushed hard with her foot to put her weight behind the tug, but it was hopeless. The tray refused to move. Frustrated, she stared in at the body bag, staring at the space above it. Calculating. Thinking. Maybe there was enough room for her to climb in over it. The compartment was bigger than the others, and there was a further tray slot midway up the wall, room for a second body. She would have to unzip the bag as she went along so that when she got to the end the bag would be completely open. But fear filled her. The space looked so small, a narrow icy tunnel with only darkness at the end. She would have no room to turn around. She would have to get out of the fridge feet first, slide over the uncovered body and pray she held her nerve.
Placing her knee gingerly on the tray, she positioned herself; left foot on the left side, right foot on the right side. Keeping her head low and her weight off the body, she crab-crawled her way in. The air she breathed was dense and cold and it chilled her skin as it clung to her. Her thighs were already beginning to tremble as she held herself awkwardly on toes and hands, in a spread-eagled press-up. Arching her back to relieve the stress, she was startled as she felt the ceiling pressing down on her, reminding her how tiny the crawl space was. She gulped at the air, trying to quell her rising panic. She needed to use her knees to take her weight, so that she could rest on her elbows. She shook from the strain of her position and needed to get comfortable. Clumsily she moved one knee forward as the edge of the metal tray dug into the bone, before bringing the other forward to lessen the pressure. She brought her shoulders back and straightened her arms so that she was on all fours, and immediately realised her error. She was now higher, her back a solid plane fixed in position, a feeling of weight on top of her as she pressed against the roof. She had taken up all the space with her change of position and now she was stuck.
She struggled, instinctively, shaking her head like a rabid dog stuck in a hole, banging it against the steel, grunting with the effort to get free, but her hands and knees were locked and her inability to go backwards or forwards petrified her. She wheezed, a whistling sound as her airway closed, and then, spent, weak with effort, she flopped down, resting on the body beneath her. She touched the plastic bag, feeling its smoothness, its coolness, and slowly her limbs stretched out and she realised how foolish she was to have panicked. There was enough room for both her and this body.
Moving her hand beneath her, she reached down as far as her fingers could stretch, searching for the zipper. Her fingers fumbled as they touched the bag, and she felt a solid mass beneath, but no goddamn zip. Her face mashed against the plastic as she half twisted, pushing her shoulder down and straining her muscles to reach it. Please, please just give it to me, she chanted inside her head, and then let out a cry of victory as the metal piece slid between her fingers. Wasting no more energy she pulled the zipper towards her. The scratching of metal against plastic echoed loudly in the confined space. She stopped as she reached the neck, seeing the sudden strands of dark hair, her fingers becoming like boneless appendages as they touched its softness. Tears blurred her vision and she was thankful for the watery screen. She could view the face through a teary waterfall and climb back out of here and still not know if it was her. She could hold on to the hope that she wasn’t dead.
She blinked away the tears and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. Slowly she brought the zip all the way up to see the top of the head, and somewhere in the region of where her heart lay, she felt a stillness. An absence of a heartbeat to match the one against her. The eyes were closed, lips pulled together and skin a washed-out milky grey. She gazed at the face. Then it came. A crushing, a squeezing, a pressing feeling right inside her heart. She had found her.
She wrapped her arms and legs around the unyielding form, trying to make it move. ‘You’re not dead,’ she cried. ‘You’re just cold. People can be brought back to life when they’re cold. You simply have to get warm. Come on. Wake up. Please!’
Shuddering with grief she huddled into the still figure, placing her warm face against the cold face, her tears and mucus dripping down the neck of the body she held. Her cries changed from howls to sobs to whimpers as her mind slowly absorbed reality. Her search had finally ended. She could now lie there. She would stay for ever. She would not leave her in the dark. Stay there till—
The fridge began to hum, a healthy sound to indicate it was on. The air had suddenly become colder. Solid blackness filled the space where she lay. The square of light, from where she had crawled into the space, was now gone. While she lay there someone had entered the morgue. Someone had seen the fridge open. Someone had closed the door.