I’d only just stepped out of the lift when I saw Steve hurrying down the corridor. “You’re late,” he said, without looking at me. I checked my watch. 9:10pm. Shit.
“I’m sorry, I’ve had this stomach bug, and—”
“I’m supposed to be going out for a meal tonight, and now I’m late.” Steve punched the button for the lift I’d neglected to hold for him.
“I know, but I’ve been ill in bed all day with this stomach bug, and the bus didn’t turn up, so…” Steve glared at me for the few seconds it took the doors to open.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” He stepped into the lift, a smile playing on his lips. “Check out what came into the cut-up room this morning. It was a cancer patient, just twenty eight years old, died on the operating table apparently. Good luck.” His smile was gone, and then so was he.
I made my way down to the Histology lab, my stomach churning as it attempted to digest Steve’s words. Died on the operating table. Shit.
The lab was quiet when I entered, the coarse rumpling of synthetic material sounding unnaturally loud as I put on my lab coat. I was the only one on the night shift tonight, but there wasn’t much work in, just a few post-mortem tissues fixed in paraffin wax and ready for cutting. I picked one up and sat in front of the microtome, but my eyes had already strayed to the cut-up room.
I didn’t want to look, but soon enough I was at the entrance to the room, staring at today’s large specimen pots. There were six in total, each one anonymised into a seven digit number, looking like six large, round tubs of ice-cream on a supermarket shelf. I donned some latex gloves and started from the left.
The first held a kidney with a tumour twice its size, bobbing in formalin. Cancerous, but not unusual; I replaced the lid and moved on. The next was a foetus, tiny and intact, barely bigger than my thumb. It was awful, but much more likely to be from a miscarriage than a cancer patient, which brought me to the third specimen pot. I opened the lid, and immediately knew this was it.
A pale brown eye stared up at me from the shrivelled flesh around it, the eye glassy and dead, the skin looking like soft pink plastic. It wasn’t the whole face, I imagine removing that would have been rather counter-productive. It was actually the left eye socket and cheek, right down to the upper jaw, where four large teeth protruded. It reminded me of the mask from The Phantom of the Opera, if the mask had been made of skin and bone and teeth.
I went back to my work, trying to concentrate on cutting the tissue and mounting it onto the microscope slides, ready for staining.
Died on the operating table.
A water pipe clanked, and I jerked my head towards the noise. A creak from somewhere, and I dropped one of the slides, my heart, and my stomach, lurching. Christ, just get it together. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it on my ribcage, and my hands shook as I picked up the slide I had dropped.
A thump from the laboratory entrance, and I watched as the handle moved down, and the door slowly, hesitantly, pushed open. A figure stumbled into the lab, leaning heavily on a stool that rocked under their weight. It was a woman, her bloodless arms extending out like the thin, gnarled branches of a white birch, from beneath the blue hospital gown around her. Her head was bowed, her blonde, dirty hair cascading down to the middle of her stomach. Eventually, her head lifted, and it was with no surprise that I saw a large, reddish-black hole in the left side of her face.
She took two steps towards me and I took one back, swallowing the foul liquid that had risen from my already unsettled stomach. “Pleeaathe.” The word came thickly from her half-mouth as her one eye stared at me, unblinking, from beneath that lank blonde hair. I shook my head, swallowed again, hard, and wet my lips.
“I’m sorry,” my words came out high and shaky. “This is a laboratory, the public aren’t allowed in here.” She took another lurching step forward, and I another back, hitting my leg against the bin behind me. “If you have any problems, you need to go through your GP. We’re not allowed to give… anything… back.”
“Pleathe… rethepthion…” Reception! Those idiots told her to come here! Why can’t anyone follow procedure?
“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. You need to make an appointment with your doctor. They can refer you to someone who can help.”
I don’t know how long we stared at each other in that horrible stalemate, but eventually the woman lifted a hand towards her face, her fingers gently probing the putrefied mush where an eye used to be, and she wailed, long and loud. Oh how I wished I could help her, but I needed my job and she was dead, so I did nothing. After a while she turned, and made her way slowly back out of the door.
Nobody knows why the patients started coming back; maybe the NHS had gotten so bad that people were actually rising from the dead to complain. If I was trained in any other discipline I’d get a job doing that, but I wasn’t, and jobs are scarce. So instead, I retrieved an incident report form from the incident report folder, filled it in, left it on the manager’s desk, and got back to work.