Dinner for one
(Or, The Mad Mortician of Brindle Street)
Joshua looked on in horror as Hickson skilfully removed huge slabs of meat from the body lying on the table before him.
“This,” he said, “is the best bit,” holding up a darkened orb that resembled a heart.
It was the first time that Joshua had seen his employer behave this way but then, it was also his first experience of being an apprentice and being the only funeral directors for many miles meant that Brachs & Barton encountered a steady turnover of customers in that borough. Thomas Barton had died a few years earlier and Brachs had sought an apprentice to train up; to assist him with the work needed to prepare the deceased for internment. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant job and he had struggled to tempt anyone in spite of the handsome salary he had been offering but Joshua was young, built like an ox and quite poor.
London was buoyant following the coronation of George V earlier that year, but work was still scarce. He was fortunate, in that: the job included a small room at the top of the house where he could live. In the beginning, he had been assigned to lesser duties such as tending the horses and dressing the departed’s faces for those who wished to offer their last respects but after some time, Hickson believed that he was ready to learn the process of presenting the cadavers in the gruesome and professional task that, until now, only he was proficient.
The rich aroma of bacon greeted Joshua as he arrived downstairs for work and he found Hickson merrily frying breakfast in the small kitchen at the back of the parlour where he lived.
“Breakfast lad? We have a busy day ahead of us and you’ll need sustenance inside you for the tasks that I have in mind.”
Joshua thanked him and sat at the small table in the centre of the room. Being of humble origins had meant that he was used to spending most of his time in a state of hunger so when his employer was offering the bonus of a free meal, how could he resist?
As Joshua devoured the plate before him, he wiped his chin and commented: “I needed that. I was starving.”
“What do you know of hunger?” snarled Hickson as he poked at the embers in the fireplace. “Have you ever wished you could sleep just to escape the wringing ache in your gut, day after day?”
Joshua was taken aback by his outburst but thought no more of it and thanked him for the meal and all the while, Ratchet, Hickson’s dog, barked around the legs of the table.
“Quiet, you hound! Be silent!” growled Hickson and taking a leash, fixed it to the animal’s collar and lifted it a clear six inches from the floor until its barks became a husky yelp.
Joshua felt that he should say something, but his master’s manner prevented him.
“I’ll bloody teach you to behave like a gentleman’s dog, you…” and without finishing, he dragged the animal across the floor and out into the yard beyond, where it returned to barking as he slammed the door behind him. Later that morning, a thin light shone across the tiled walls of the preparation room as Hickson prepared to treat the corpses and Joshua looked on, as his master began to slice away at the grey mass before him.
“First we must drain all the fluids, like this,” he said and with a few skilful moves he had begun the lengthy process.
An odour, the likes of which Joshua had never encountered, filled his senses and he covered his nose with his sleeve as he coughed. Hickson laughed and looked back at his work.
“Take great heed lad, for these are the secrets of the craft and I am putting great store in you by imparting them.”
However, Joshua was sure that what followed could not be part of the trade as Hickson produced a leather apron filled with butchery tools and began to dissect the various limbs of their muscle, placing the cuts neatly onto a marble slab to one side of the table. Disgust and revulsion bowled through his every vein as he watched this slaughterhouse madness and his mind retched at the anvil memory of his morning meal.
“Aye, It looks like what you are thinking but I am not suggesting you copy this part of the operation. This is for my own purposes,” he said as he delved into the gut of the thing and removed first its liver and then the heart. After a while, there was a banquet of fresh meat arrayed on the block and Hickson reached into a store room for a bag of hay that he had taken from the stables. Stuffing it inside the skin, he stitched up the incisions and washed his hands.
“Now it is ready for the embalming fluid,” he said, stepping closer to the trembling apprentice and punctuating his words with a blade, “but if you should ever tell of my passion for the ‘corpus humanis’, I shall find you; kill you and eat you as well. Mark my words well: An eye for an eye.”
At the funeral the following day, Joshua single-handedly hauled the coffin from the back of the hearse and heaved it into the waiting arms of the pallbearers; the strongest of the deceased family, who took the casket through the stone arch and along the path. Only Hickson knew that the cabinet was heavy with the bricks that he had secreted in its lining.
“Will you not join me in the chapel Mr Brachs?” said Joshua.
Hickson took a hip flask from his waistcoat pocket and shrugged as he leaned against the coach. Joshua looked back at him downing the cheap gin and spitting at Ratchet who was barking at his feet and went inside the chapel. Sitting at the back of the congregation, he began to reason that the cause of Brachs & Barton’s success was that his master, he suspected, was becoming greedy and had begun to murder his clientele - choosing only the ripest victims for his own, as he learned how the deceased had been ‘struck down’ by a vicious assailant ‘at such a young age.’
That night, Joshua was awoken by bitterly arguing voices downstairs.
“I’ll have my money from you one way or another, if it’s the last thing I do,” said a woman’s voice.
“After what you did to me Gwendolyn? I can scarcely believe your impudence in the matter.”
“You owe me alimony stretching back for months now. That child of yours needs shoes and clothes. Just how do you expect me to provide those?”
Ratchet was barking furiously as the two jousted their positions ever closer to conclusion.
“If you hadn’t ruined my business, none of this would have happened.”
“We all know what happened to Thomas and I’m sure that there are others who would be very keen to learn about your ‘business’ if I had the inclination to tell them. See that you have that money for me by Friday week,” she said and Joshua heard the sound of the front door as she disappeared into the night.
For a long while afterwards, Hickson could be heard clattering about in the kitchen along with Ratchet’s incessant barking which eventually came to a husky halt. The incident had troubled Joshua greatly and in the days that followed, the seeds of curiosity took hold and his resentment grew like vine, encircling every corner of his thoughts.
As the two of them rode back from a funeral a week later, he felt compelled to confront a question that had been foremost in his mind. “What happened to Barton?”
Hickson thrashed the reins, snarling: “Don’t ever let me hear you utter the name of that scoundrel in my presence!”. Joshua steadied himself as the horses recoiled from the chastisement.
“Why?” bellowed Hickson into the wind, “Because he stole my wife whilst she was still heavy with my child and I will not speak of it again.”
The following afternoon, Joshua was surprised to receive a visit from Gwendolyn who arrived without announcement when Hickson was out, having gone up to London on business.
“I’m afraid the master is not in, Ma’am.”
“I know,” she said, “it is you that I wish to speak with.” Joshua showed her into the sitting room and sat, facing her.
“I suspect that you know of Hickson’s practices, but before you deny it, let me say that: I am well aware of the extent of what happens between these walls.” Joshua was stunned but she continued- “I have been extracting money from him for my silence but now I want more and I am prepared to pay you handsomely if you can assist me in …disposing of him, so that I may inherit his fortune.”
Gwendolyn’s empowering words echoed through the haunted corridors of Joshua’s mind from that moment forward and as he went about his daily work the next day, he became resolute in the allegiance that her conspiracy had offered him. He didn’t join Hickson for breakfast that morning, or any other that followed, as he had already begun to cook his own wicked recipe. Having access to the bodies now provided him with the perfect opportunity to inject them with the embalming fluid before Hickson’s intervention and this he did with furious intent. Each day he watched him devour the poisoned steak and he recalled Gwendolyn’s carefully detailed instructions - His death would never be detected as it would be seen as a hazard of the job following his demise, she had told him - it seemed the perfect murder.
In the weeks that followed, Joshua saw the master descend from being an imposing and incumbent force within the household to being a frail and pathetic shadow and how he relished every passing signifier until the day that he finally died, without struggle, as he slept. Joshua was elated to discover him lying in his pit and was particularly energised after he had informed the authorities and began the process of preparation for the funeral but he had a final act of defiance to complete, for his own sanity.
As the body was lain on the table, he used the skills which had been imparted to him in removing the most select tissue which he later prepared as a feast for Ratchet. The dog gobbled the the fresh meat with adoring enthusiasm as Joshua stood proudly in the kitchen feeling freed at last from the horrors he had learned to endure. Little did he know: the true implication of this pedantry gesture.
The minister spoke quietly in the autumnally muted cemetery the next day and his voice hung heavily on the pitiful few who were gathered there. Reciting the words of Job from his crow-black leather book, he gazed emptily at the darkened sky.
“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery…”
“I need to speak with you Joshua,” whispered Gwendolyn so slightly that her words were almost unspoken beneath her veil as she leaned toward him.
“Oh?” he mouthed. His hands clasped before him, tightened their grip.
“In the midst of life we are in death…”
“You have served me well, master Hepton, but I have a final task for you. My underwriters have attended to matters in my favour, as it is the building that is quite clearly the true extent of Hickson’s wealth.
“…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
“Therefore, I need you to be absent for a few days. Consider it a compassionate sabbatical. Further, I would suggest that you find suitable lodgings as there might well be a significant ‘accident’ to the building.”
Joshua’s mind reeled like a sailor, freshly landed in port - such was the intoxication of her implications.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I shall provide for you, for you have more than provided for me” and Joshua was sure that the vaguest smile played about her lips.
“…and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.”
That evening, in the still darkness of a cheap lodging house not far from the parlour, Joshua looked out across the rooftops and saw the crimson glow of flames engulfing the building. As the smell of the blaze was thick in the air, he felt the weight lifting from his heart into the night sky and the torment of such terrible deeds (and his own part in it all) peeled from his soul and drifted out to join the rank stench of evil. As he watched in the stillness of his contempt, Ratchet - the innocent animal he had saved from the catastrophe, with the taste for human flesh still on its tongue, snarled with him in its sight.