William Toils lifted his leather bound note book and traced down the list of crossed out names until he recognised the final title on the list: T. N Elliot. He studied the extra notes frantically scrawled beside the name and address, detailing the unusual profession of Anatomical Inquisitor. William tapped the page with a gloved finger, a curious frown on his face. Soon, however, he strode steadfastly along the uneven cobble path towards his destination. It would have been a beautiful morning, but the sky was as grey as an old washcloth– damp, filthy and suffocating any rays of early sunshine. He caught a glimpse of the street name, and was certain he travelled in the correct direction to the professor’s studio, where he would finally become an apprentice. At least he hoped he would. It was a dream, a resilient dream, and it was sure to come true. William warily tipped his hat to the scruffy fellows staring at him as he turned into an enclosed street. The road became soft dirt beneath his shoes, damp with rain and sewage– he was forced to slow and take careful steps. His nose wrinkled at the smells. He had truly found the darkest rookery of Birmingham.
Cautiously, he wandered down the alley and noticed a light brown door, contrasted clearly against the rain soaked bricks and decorated with a golden 37. William knocked softly, briefly yielding to his nerves. He bunched his hand together and knocked a second time, much bolder.
The door swung sharply open and a hawk nosed man jutted his head out, wide eyed at the young visitor. He squinted at him before speaking rapidly, “What do you want, boy?”
“Hello, sir, I’m sorry to disturb you, I hope I wasn’t, I mean I hope I didn’t wake you up,” He bit his lip when he began to drivel and noticed an impatient glare from the Professor, “Yes, um, anyway, you see, I’m a medical student and I’m looking for a tutor–”
The door slammed closed in William’s face and he stumbled ankle deep into mixture of putrid mud and water. He stood there, chagrined to the core and freezing to the bone. He clenched his fists until his knuckles glowed white. Just because it was the third rejection didn’t mean his career was over, he assured himself. William furiously tore out several pages of his notebook and let them flutter into the street. He trudged bitterly down the road in sodden shoes, livid with anger– yet his lip trembled from the reverberating feeling of rejection. No matter! If the job required working alone, he would do so. He didn’t give a tinkers damn if a pipe-smoking, bacon-brained old Professor was hovering over his shoulder and snapping at him when he did something right or wrong. After an unbearable minute he stopped at a street corner and yanked off his shoes, tipping out the grey water. He needed money for new scalpels, not new socks. Once the second shoe was shaken out he returned it to his foot before too much attention was drawn.
“Oi! Mister Williams Sir, it is?” A dishevelled man guffawed in a heavy accent and sauntered over as he picked out dirt from his nail beds. William barely glanced up. “Go away.” He muttered.
“But wait, sir, you’re a medical student, ey? Says it right ‘ere, yes siree. I can read y’know.”
William looked up at the man within ames-ace, who waved the pages from his notebook as a toothy grin stretched across his face.
“Yes, what of it? It’s not like you would understand.” William smirked, sounding smug as he reached out for the pages. He ripped them away and took a wide step back away from the stranger. He clutched the pages and edged off a little more, desperate to leave the district at that moment. He had work to do. Arrangements to make– but the slow top wasn’t finished.
“I know folks like you need things you can’t get.” The grin remained as he lowered his voice, “Y’know bodies. The dead that you turn inside out and what not. You need one of ‘em?”
He was prepared to just ignore him and walk away, but there was no other way he would acquire a cadaver for his project. This was exactly the offer he needed. William hesitated and pretended to look at his watch again.
“You can… get me one? From the grave yard?” He glanced up, speaking in a hushed tone.
“I can sir, I can. Fresh as a daisy. By tonight. As long as I’m gettin’ paid.”
“Okay, of course. Let’s make it a deal. I’ll pay you 3 shillings for a fresh one.” He smoothed out the paper in his hand and scribbled down an address, “Bring it here and make sure it’s covered. If you do happen to be caught by someone… give them a fake name… like, I don’t know, Thomas Elliot. ” William shrugged, then quickly wrote the name and passed the page over.
“Ha! No need, I won’t be caught, I’m good. I know what I’m doin’ more than you, sir.” He nodded and folded the paper in his grimy hands.
William wiped his hand with a handkerchief and silently approved with a nod as the man departed. Why should he have to get his hands dirty if he had people below to work for him? His precise skills were for the main event, not shoveling up graves. William glanced as the front page of his notebook and wrote Professor above his name. It felt right. He partially smiled and turned on his heel in the direction of the warehouse.
The night was young, and folks had begun to light their lanterns and candles behind the soot-stained glass windows. Some sat down for supper, some didn’t. William needed no candles that night, for he had a soft halo of moonlight drifting through the broken windows of the gloomy warehouse. Before him were a table, chair, and a selection of neatly placed tools and knives.
A sharp knock broke the peaceful silence and William immediately answered the door. Hesitantly, he peeked out into the night where the face of the body snatcher grinned back at him with the same crooked smile.
“Good grief sir, you took your time. Come in.”
William held the door open for the body snatcher and the hessian bag he carried in his arms. Beneath his proficient façade William wanted to wretch and splash his face with cold water. The smell of blood was unbearable. He swallowed nervously and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, “I have three shillings for you, as promised. Please, be careful–”
“This what yous is after sir?” His eyes glimmered as he clumsily dumped the bag and its contents on the table. William hurried over to carefully turn the deceased person onto their back. The hessian material parted away to show the pale face of a middle-aged man. He looked worn out and tired, as if her were only resting. William kept his eyes on the cadava as he located three coins in his pocket and passed them over.
“Yes, now cut my peace no more, I have work to do.” William slipped and apron over his head and rolled up his sleeves, then flipped through his notebook to a blank page. The pen paused on the paper, “But one moment, what was his name? And date of death? You read the gravestone didn’t you?”
“I did, I did, not sure if I recall- I have to work fast you see, and I only got one lantern, only one! I didn’t have time to read it, no I didn’t.” He covered his mouth to cough. A slight odour of whiskey and smoke drifted from the man.
William frowned sternly and put his notebook down. “Enough of this havey-cavey business. I want the truth. Did you read the gravestone or not?”
“Said John somfin, that’s it. He looks 45 yeah? No need to raise a breeze,” He lazily elbowed the deceased person, “You got what you got, I’m a busy fellow.”
“Alright, Alright. You’ve done your job. Thankyou.” William’s assured expression returned and the fear in his eyes melted away. He had everything he needed at his fingertips. Tonight was the twilight of his anatomical breakthrough. Soon the world would know of his glorious achievements. Funny how his hands trembled, he thought.
“You can leave now.” He glared at the man who staggered through the warehouse and turned back to his work he had yet to begin. With a tip of his cap the ruffian exited the warehouse and disappeared into the night, “Good Evenin’ Sir.” He slurred from a distance.
William returned his attention to the notebook, a loyal source of knowledge he had acquired in the past year. On the first page, in neat cursive letters, was the title The Human Soul. He flipped between the notes and diagrams he’d copied from textbooks… on occasion he glanced back to the cold, lifeless cadaver. It became a struggle to ignore his distressed stomach. He would show them. All of them. He was more than a student.
With a sigh, his gaze narrowed back to the pages, but something else caught his eye. His shoes. They were still caked in damp mud from the weeks of rain that had drenched Birmingham until the city became a swamp. William more closely examined the layer of soil. If the city had been flooded with rain, then so would the countryside, and the roads, and the gardens, and the graves. Not a speck of mud or dirt, however, was visible on the middle-aged mans face. Had it been cleaned off? He reached for the hessian material and tugged it away to reveal his casual clothing. Work clothes, in fact, and definitely not suitable for a formal burial. His heart struck against his ribs and panic disturbed his senses as the notebook slipped from his hands. A shadow shifted silently in the corner of his eye. He darted around to see the body snatcher grinning madly with a metal pipe raised. William choked on his own terror– and struck before he could cry for help. Lifelessly, he toppled to the floor.
“Almost worked it out, didn’t you? That was quite close.” The man sneered. The pipe clattered to the ground as he stepped over to where the book had fallen and picked it up. A year’s worth of research now in his hands.
“The Human Soul? Well, this will be an interesting read… another for the collection. Thankyou.” He snapped the book closed, and promptly departed into the night.