The subject is wheeled in on a trolley, swathed in white linen, an amorphous bundle whose only distinguishing features are the peak of the feet at one end and a red stain at the other. The assistant manoeuvres the trolley alongside one of the six stainless-steel tables, their surfaces covered in an elaborate system of grooves and canals, each ending in a drain. He puts on a pair of disposable plastic gloves and starts to unwrap the sheeting. The corpse is female, in her late forties. The red stain is due to a flow of gore from the mouth, which has dribbled over the lips and chin like food sicked up by a drunk.
The assistant slides his hands under the thighs and upper back and flips the corpse over on to the waist-high table. It bounces slightly, like a plank. A brown luggage label bearing the woman’s name and dates of birth and death dangles from the big toe of her left foot. The toes are cramped and pinched from a lifetime in tight shoes. The left arm is bent up at the elbow, the hand raised as though waving. The assistant grasps the wrist and bears down, arm-wrestling with the dead. A sound like knuckles being cracked signals his victory over the rigor mortis, and he lays the now-docile limb down on the table.
Apart from some long dark marks near the throat, the skin of the upper body is a very pale off-white, the tone of beeswax or old ivory. By contrast, the lower half is covered in huge livid blotches, as though heavily bruised. This condition, known as post-mortem hypostasis, is caused by the uncirculated blood draining downwards under its own weight and saturating the vessels. The body retains a pair of white panties whose presence in this context is as embarrassing as their absence would be in the world we left behind at the door. The pathologist’s assistant – a mild, shy man whose Gloucestershire burr is occasionally disturbed by a stutter – removes them with a pair of scissors.
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