from her father. She tugs absently at one of her curls escaped from its knot,
a habit that John finds endearing, and asks whether he has considered his
“Wouldn’t you rather that, darling,” Nora asks, leaning forward,
“wouldn’t you rather work in a proper clinic, with proper patients,
than at the General?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Are the poor not deserving of care as well?”
She has decency to colour at that remark. “You know very well that’s
not what I meant.”
John sighs. The truth is that he has little interest in the living, rich or
poor. At least his patients at the General are usually docile and do not
bluster and debate the cause of their sickness or argue about the treat-
ment of a gouty foot. Mostly John considers his work at the hospital as
but a means to an end, a necessary extension of his work at the college.
He is not eager for an argument, though, especially this late at night, and
so to placate her says that he will think about it, will arrange to meet with
Matthew in the coming weeks. She smiles, pleased, and leads him to bed.
He barely sleeps, his mind alert to the day ahead, so instead contemplates
the still novel sensation of a body resting next to his, the sound of breath
not his own, and lightly touches the pulse of life that beats in his bride’s
wrist, holding her slim hand in his.
“I take it you’re pleased, sir,” says Richards, hands clasped behind
his back as he leans forward to watch John’s work.
“Enough. Strong for his size anyway,” says Richards, shrugging. He
stands quietly, watches as his teacher sorts through his surgical kit and
notes his careful selection of saws, knives and forceps. John feels his student’s eyes following each motion, knows that he expects something for
his work last night. There is something in Richards that John recognizes,
the quiet, bright-eyed eagerness, or something more; a sort of greed, an
urge similar to his own. He’ll allow Richards to assist, that will be the reward. He’ll trust his protegé to pay attention, stand ready in anticipation
as John peels layers away, flesh and fat and muscle and sinew, holding his
hand out for the next instrument, readying for the next incision.
If John is particularly skilled at anything it is this. Standing in front
of a horde of medical students, his shirtsleeves rolled up, a butcher’s
apron looped round his neck, he holds the first blade and the room’s attention. “Observe,” he intones, the first cut steady and true, carving the
body from sternum to groin. The meaty smell of the body fills his nostrils
as he labours over the table, pausing now and then to remark on the function of a glistening muscle or organ. The students crowd around and he
must bark at them to step out of his light. He tries to ignore their glittering eyes, the way they shuffle around like pigs at a trough vying for a
better vantage point, and instead concentrates on the flesh that yields
beneath his hands. Eventually, as the excitement dulls, he peppers them
with questions. He is merciless in this endeavour and only Richards, his
answers clipped and sure, avoids John’s scorn.
He is drenched with sweat at the end of five hours. At last he stands
back, gives Richards the floor and lets his young student supervise the
closing of the body, Richards’ criticisms of his classmates’ techniques
harsher than John’s own. The room is hot and frankly stinks. The lab is
rank with the stench of sweat and blood, the unwashed and the unburied,
the smells of the living mixing with the smells of the dead. John scrubs
and scrubs after such mornings but yet the scent lingers on his skin.
When he lies with Nora that evening, she’ll question the odor that clings
to his hands, the very fingers which trace her mouth in the darkness, and
he’ll mumble some excuse, all the while thinking that a mistress would
be an easier secret to keep.
Though the city swarms with people, fresh bodies are in short supply.
As John walks down the city streets he looks through the crowd, his eyes
stripping clothes from flesh, skin from bone. He is lost in daydreams,
strange musings that he attributes to the change in weather, the slow
lurching of spring into summer. When he ought to be writing papers, he
finds himself studying his hand instead, observing the threading blue
veins and the ripple of muscle and tendons beneath the skin. Eventually
he begins to avoid the lab. The emptiness unnerves him, gives life to
thoughts he must repress. Besides that, Richards is always hanging about,
hinting at guards and priests who might be bribed, and John realizes that
he has misunderstood his young student’s ambition. He is little better
than the others, thinks John; he enjoys the show too much, the clandestine frisson that accompanies the dark searching nights and the spectacle