Before we start this story of dressed-up cadavers, a femme fatale chasing the secret to eternal life, and two awkward uncomfortable twenty-somethings falling in love, a little background.
Chirpy Wilberforce was asked to choose a career. He was twelve, at school, and in a class of other students doing the same thing. They were sitting in a circle listening to Mr. Baxter read a speech given by some supposedly successful celebrity that Chirpy and company had never heard of. .
The teacher had gone around the room asking each pupil what they wanted to be.
“I want to be a vet,” said Lucy, the cute girl with glasses and a hole in her heart.
“I want to be a teacher,” said the teacher’s pet, to melt the teacher’s heart.
“I want to heal the lonely,” said a pony-tailed Catholic girl who went on to become a high-end prostitute.
Chirpy, being the outsider of the group – not counting the boy who brought his imaginary friend to play with in the playground every break time, told the class, “I’ll work with the dead.”
And he did.
It turned out several people in that class had a long-running bet that Chirpy would achieve his dream job working with the dead by becoming a serial killer. Mandy Croshaw had 50p on a serial rapist killer at 20-1. Mandy was a total bitch.
But Chirpy showed them all. He became an upstanding citizen, doing a useful service for the community, earning an honest wage unlike two-thirds of everyone else in that class. Only Lucy had had any real promise and she’d died of heart-hole-related problems in the final year of her veterinary science degree, two days after accepting an internship with a prestigious city vet surgery. Since Lucy’s passing, Chirpy had started donating 5% of his wage to a charity for disadvantaged gifted children called [something]. It was the least he could do.
Chirpy wasn’t rich. Morgue technicians didn’t earn a lot, not really. Working with dead bodies did mean it was harder for a company to find people who wanted to do the job so salaries were higher than in similar positions in a different field, a technician in a school, for example. But the real money was doing the autopsies themselves. Using the scalpel rather than sterilising it. Making notes rather than reading them. Talking to families rather talking to the cold, dead, non-discerning stares of the dead.
Rupert, Chirpy’s only long-time friend, had repeatedly asked Chirpy, usually after a few drinks on a Friday evening after Chirpy had left work late again, “Why don’t you try for a promotion? Go study autopsology or whatever they call it and do something meaningful. You’re wasted just moving stuff around and cleaning. And you stay late almost every day, unpaid. It feels like you practically live there sometimes. Does it feel good having dead people for housemates?”
Chirpy admitted he did spend a lot of time at work. More time there than at home. He’d even stayed the night at work once, lying on a steel table reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue by candle-light until the early hours before sleeping facing the recently-deceased Brian Cobbles, 42, head trauma.
“I like having no responsibility. If Lauren,” — she was the autopsologist, as Rupert called her – “was to discover that Raquel Smirnoff, 19, traffic accident, was actually Raquel Smirnoff, 19, assassinated,, she’d have a lot of paperwork to do, she’d have to talk to the Inspector and she might even have to tell Mother Smirnoff too. That’s a lot of stress. Meanwhile I’d be in my space out back, concerning myself with which fridge I’d left my lunch in.”