I’ve not written as many posts as usual recently because I’ve been finishing and editing my book ‘Past Mortems’ due for release in April 2017. It turns out writing a book is incredibly time consuming – who knew?! The book will also be released in the US, in May 2017, under a different title: ‘The Chick and the Dead’
The book, released in the UK by Sphere (an imprint of Little Brown) has a beautiful cover and I want to thank the amazing illustrator for that!
However, I know we’re not supposed to judge books by covers alone so for a sneak peek of the type of content featured then read on (this article was featured on The Guardian website in October 2015 and contains some material from ‘Past Mortems’, heavily edited.)
I work with the dead, and people find that unusual. Whether it was during my years carrying out autopsies or my current job conserving Victorian human remains, I’m always asked the same question: “What made you want to do that?!” It’s difficult to answer because I’ve wanted to work with the dead for as long as I can remember. I was an avid reader from an early age, and loved biology from the moment I got to school. I considered it a calling, like those experienced by people entering the priesthood; something that I just needed to do. But I could have worked in any biological field so why pathology specifically?
The more I think about it, the more I know I was influenced by one moment in particular: the moment I watched my grandad die. My grandad, Frederick, gratefully took the weight off his legs and sat back into his favourite chair with a gravelly sigh, which metamorphosed into a smoker’s cough. We had just come in from the garden at the sheltered accommodation that he and my nan, Lily, called home. Looking back now, my grandad reminds me of Sid James with his slicked-back grey hair and mischievous laugh, which forced his shining eyes into tight slits. But in younger years, in photos of him marrying my nan, for example, he was like Humphrey Bogart – all sharp suits and Brylcreem. He fought in Burma and never spoke about it, and he played the accordion because he was descended from Gypsies: the ones from the Old Country who traversed the land in brightly painted horse-drawn caravans called vardos. This is really all I remember of my grandad. This, and the look on his face as he died.
Just after he sank back into his chair that day, he began to convulse. From my vantage point at his slippered feet I looked up and found myself staring into the face of death itself. My grandad’s eyes rolled back into his head, one lone droplet of blood trickled from the corner of his lips and painted a delicate crimson trail across his crêpey cheek. Then, like an exclamation point, his dentures comically shot out of his mouth and landed on the carpet with a thud. I don’t remember who wrenched me away from the scene, but the implication was clear: this was something a seven-year-old child shouldn’t see.
My grandad had suffered a massive stroke. He didn’t technically die in that chair, but he never recovered once he reached the hospital. I didn’t attend the funeral, because I was considered too young, and I don’t remember how my family behaved on that day. However I do remember one thing about his death – I hadn’t been afraid. My brief encounter with death may have frightened many children, but I was fascinated. I saw this enigmatic and insolent Grim Reaper as a challenge; something to research. Perhaps I was just naturally a more “unusual” child? Inquisitive, precocious and determined, I went about the task of demystifying death so I could have power over it and free myself from future fear.
The first time my mum heard I wanted to be a mortician was when I was about 10 years old, in the salon chair, as the hairdresser carried out the usual ploy of chatting to me to distract me while she lopped off chunks of my hair. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asked sweetly, to which I replied, just as sweetly: “A mortician.” I’m sure the scissors probably paused in mid-air at this, while the hairdresser glanced at my mother who returned her inquisitive stare with a shrug as if to say, nothing to do with me. It just wasn’t usual for a small, blonde girl to say they wanted to be a mortician in those days; long before the media made death and forensics “sexy”. It wasn’t a career that was well known, and it wasn’t a trade that ran in my family.
I had been fascinated by the body and how it worked, long before I associated the miracle of life with inevitable death: a lesson I had learned at my dying grandfather’s feet. After that fateful day, I wanted to know what had happened to his body to snuff out his life so quickly, like a clockwork toy shuddering to a stop just before the key stops turning. I asked for a microscope around my ninth birthday and did a show-and-tell about how it worked for my primary school classmates (who I can only imagine were thrilled). By age 10 I could often be found at the local library looking at the A-level biology textbooks. I was like a tiny Dr Frankenstein with pigtails and knee socks, searching for answers to prolong life – or at least predict death.
The more you know about something, the more you can control it. In the case of tragedy, demystifying it helps regain control of the emotions and I did that with death. They say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Well, I kept my enemy, Death, so close to me it eventually raced ahead, did a complete lap around me and ended up becoming my friend.
There’s also a playlist on Spotify that corresponds to some of the music I mention in the book and that I listened to in order to ‘take me back’ and put me in the righ mind frame. I hope you enjoy!