Monday 16 July 2012

For The Greater Good

Dorothy Davies

A stiff whisky

‘Shut the damn door, Crouch!’
‘What’s up, Joseph?  Too cold for you?  Get too hot in here and the stiffs’ll start to rot.  That what you want?'
            ‘ No, just some heat for them as are drinking, is all.’
            Ben Crouch studied the belligerent face of the landlord, wondering what the problem was this night.  He'd had his share of the advance paid out by the surgeons to get the bodysnatching season underway, what else did he want?
            ‘All right, look, the door’s shut.  Now if any of the medical students wants to come in and take a look at the stiffs, they better be quick about it ‘cos if they start smelling we got problems.'
            Joseph Durham swabbed at the bar with a dirty cloth, a token gesture of cleanliness which fooled no one, least of all Ben Crouch and his cronies.  Ale was poured into a thick tankard and pushed along the bar until the ex-prize fighter was able to grasp it and lift it to his lips.  He spluttered and coughed.  ‘In the name of all that’s holy, Joseph, what the hell’s that?’
            'My best ale,' Joseph retorted. 'Shows you got no taste, Ben Crouch!’ A ripple of laughter went around the Fortune of War pub.  The regulars knew of the ongoing half-friendly half-nasty banter between the two men; it had been going on for a long time.  It seemed to get worse when the bodies were laid out in the back room, awaiting Sir John Abernethy's minions to come and assess the haul.  Digging up bodies was not illegal, stealing a grave shroud was.  Technically, the Fortune of War was not acting illegally in displaying the bodies, but Joseph Durham was happier when they were not there.
            Even as he thought this, the door opened and two medical students came in.  One was new, his nerves showing even as he tried to hide them.
            'Sir John asks...'
            'Three big ones and one half size out the back.’ Ben Crouch gestured with a sweep of the arm clad in a most elaborate jacket.  The ruffles on his shirt showed, the lights in the public house glinted on his gold jewellery.  He was the most dandified person in the place and stood out because of it.
            The more experienced student made straight for the back room, the other hesitated in front of Ben Crouch.  ‘You the famous prize fighter, Sir?’ he asked with obvious awe.
            ‘That I am, sonny! You heard of me then?’
            ‘I have indeed, sir.  My father has seen many of your fights and said you were one of the best.  I am honoured to meet you, sir.'
            Ben Crouch seemed to grow several inches in all directions in the light of the compliment.  A huge grin split his face and he grasped the young man's hand.  'Right pleased I am to meet you, young man.  Gonna be a surgeon, are you?'
            'I would like to be, sir, I need to see how I get on with the dissection.’
            ‘Nothing to it,’ one of Ben Crouch’s ‘helpers’ butted in.  ‘A body’s a body for all anyone ever wants to say to you about it.  When they‘re dead they’re just meat.’
            Ben Crouch realised the young man was beginning to go rather green, so he clapped him on the shoulder, turned him toward the bar and shouted, 'give this boy a shot of the best hard stuff, would you?  Put it on my bill.'
            A very small glass containing an extremely dark liquor was put on the bar and the young men took it hesitantly, looking at Ben Crouch for encouragement.
            'Drink it down in one go,' he advised, 'then go take a look at the stiffs, go report back to Sir John and tell him we have a right good collection here for him this night.'
            The drink disappeared, the young man coughed and went very red in the face, but it seemed to give him courage.  His associate was beckoning to him from the back room, he walked boldly over and looked in.  'Look all right to me,' he said, his voice slurring very slightly. 
            'But you haven't looked properly!' 
            'Don't need to.  Mr Crouch here says to tell Sir John he has a right good collection for him this night.  Don't need to know any more than that.’
            It was obvious that the other young man was nerveless when it came to dead bodies.  He looked at his slightly drunk companion with disgust.  'We'd better get back then, seeing as how we have a message for Sir John himself.’
            The two young men left the pub.  The drinkers waited until they were out of earshot before they broke into riotous laughter.  Ben Crouch laughed so hard he had tears pouring down his face.  'I never saw anyone drink your liquor like that before, Joseph, good job he don't know what it is!'
            Joseph Durham joined in the laughter.  'Tis naught but the dregs of all that gets left,' he said through his mirth.  ‘And there was him thinking he had my best hard stuff!'
            The door opened and everyone turned to look, expecting to see medical students come to take the bodies away.  Instead the imposing figure of Sir John Abernethy stood in the middle of the floor.
            'Was that your idea of a joke, Crouch?' he demanded.   ‘If it was, it was damn fool, that student is trying to project his stomach out through his mouth outside Bart’s at this moment.  He will soon find it a medical impossibility.’
            Joseph Durham wiped his eyes with the corner of his apron.  'Was but a small jest, sire, the lad were that green at the mere thought of the stiffs, we felt we had to boost his courage a bit.’
            Sir John's stern face cracked into a small smile.  'I can see why you did it, but you must have given him some strong stuff for him to be vomiting it so quickly.'
            'While you’re here, sire, take a look yourself at what we have the night.'  Ben Crouch moved quickly to cover up the moment, knowing they had played a mean trick on the student
            'I will, Crouch, that's a good idea.'  Sir John strode over to the back room and looked in.  'You were right, fine ones tonight, I'll get someone across to collect them.  We can get on with the dissection in the morning.’
            The surgeon walked out of the pub, leaving behind a sense of anti-climax.  It had been a small joke, it was a shame it had such a violent effect so quickly, but on the other hand, Sir John had not made trouble over it, he must have realised himself that the boy was nervous, not having seen a dead body before.  He must also have known that to send somebody so naive into the den of body snatchers was asking for trouble.  Or so Ben Crouch reasoned to himself, as he could find no other explanation for Sir John’s attitude.  He sighed, patted the pocket where the guineas rested and thought bodysnatching was a good deal easier way to make money then prize-fighting had ever been.  This way he didn't have to get hurt, he didn’t have to train, he didn't have to pummel another man into the ground, just to use his cohorts to get them out of the ground and into Bart’s Hospital, there to be dissected for the greater good of the rest of the population.
            Feeling very benevolent at that moment, he threw a golden guinea at Joseph Durham.  ‘Drinks for everyone,' he said, just as the students arrived and took the bodies away.

Factual note:
In one year 8 bodies went into Guy’s Hospital in London for dissection and 137 bodies went into St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the City of London.  No contemporary books make reference to Sir John Abernethy’s use of the body snatchers but it is a matter of record that Ben Crouch and his gang supplied the hospital with all that they needed in the way of ‘raw material’ for their anatomy lessons.  Ben Crouch was known as the ‘Corpse King’.  Records show that Joseph Durham was indeed the landlord of the Fortune of War public house at that time. The building no longer exists; in its place is a banking establishment which has a plaque set in one wall commemorating the Fortune of War and its place in the bodysnatching story.  When I researched the background for my novel on the bodysnatchers (still being written) my mother told me that her father used to drink in the Fortune of War pub...

Bio: Dorothy Davies is a writer and medium who is fascinated with history and the way it reflects on modern life. She is also a horror fan and likes to include horror/ghostly elements in her work. She lives on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England, reputed to be the most haunted place in the UK.  It suits her well.

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