Pathology 101

Ishbel Hunter (good name, no?) isn’t exactly early and I’m not exactly late for our three o’clock meeting at The Globe this afternoon. But the differences in temporal placement is large enough to allow Ishbel to buy herself a pint of Guinness before I get there, but not drink any. Damn. The write-ist buys his source the first drink, this is the rule.

Aberdeen is like an oven this afternoon, the air filled with the promise of thunder and rain heavy enough to make the granite buildings weep. But it never comes to anything. Instead it’s armpits and smalls of backs that do the weeping all over the city. I’m here to get the low-down on what it’s like to be an Anatomical Pathology Technician from someone who really knows her stuff. Ishbel Hunter is the chief APT at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary’s Morgue, it’s her job to take people’s insides outside and put them back in again. I successfully conned her into helping me on the first book and somehow managed not to piss her off with the printed article enough to get her to agree to do the same for book 2 (which may actually have a name now, but I’m not counting my finger bones yet).

Ishbel has a curly head of red hair – a bit like a grown up Crystal Tips only without the dog sidekick – and eyes that do not suffer bullshit. As we talk about post mortems and ‘Lividity’ versus ‘Hyper Stasis’ a lot of really, really disturbing stuff comes out. The kind of stuff that’d have the other patrons of the bar hammering 999 into their mobile phones to report the two weirdoes talking about dead bodies, if Ishbel wasn’t talking in hushed, nearly whispered, tones. Bone saws; spinal cords; how to suspend a human brain in a bucket of formalin; what the small intestine looks like when you take it out, anchored to its rah-rah skirt of fatty, yellow mesentery – Ishbel is a fountain of information.

We play word association games to try and describe the smell of formalin (the fixative they use for dead tissue) while her second pint of Guinness settles. Then do the same to visualise the four different blocks of internal organs that get removed during a post mortem. I mention that this is probably the most bizarre conversation I’ve ever had in a pub and Ishbel just smiles. Unlike me, this isn’t her first time. At parties people either want to know all about her job, or smile nervously and take a sudden interest in the cheese platter. And she’s completely professional while we’re talking – no anecdotes or funny post mortem stories here, and I can understand why. On one level her job is like any other – she goes to work, she does what she does, she goes home – but on a larger scale what she does, daily, is become more intimate with a human being than anyone ever could have while they were alive. And she’s careful to preserve that dissector/client confidentiality. But she’s quite prepared to take the piss out of junior doctors. The only anecdotes she admits to involve her time in Bosnia: working for the United Nations, performing post mortems on the bodies recovered from mass graves. X-raying the body-bags to make sure the archaeologists haven’t accidentally dug up a grenade along with the corpse. Tracking the path of a bullet through a body by following the green, verdigris trail left behind. I ask her how on earth she managed to face that kind of horror for three weeks, up to her elbows in people who’ve been murdered en masse, and she shrugs. It’s what she does. Somehow I get the feeling she’s a lot braver than I would have been… Ah, bollocks to that: booby trapped bodies with multiple gunshot wounds, or being dug up with the ligatures still round their throats – I’d have been back in the hotel bar in two minutes flat. Screw macho bravado.

I get a lot of good info from Ishbel, and a couple of old brochures as well – gonna order me up an oscillating bone saw soon as ma check comes in – and a MUCH better idea of what goes on during a post mortem. So I hope to God I NEVER have to have one. The only fly in our ointment comes when Ishbel’s better half calls to ‘remind’ her that dinner was meant to be on the table fifteen minutes ago (He’s the one who cooks, so he’s none too happy that she’s still in the pub with some bearded writer bloke – and I can’t blame him. It probably doesn’t help that I’m such a funky sex-god.) Our long afternoon of death an dissection are at an end.

In the end I know that a lot of what Ishbel has told me today won’t appear in any book, but it will influence the writing and what happens when. Hopefully, someday, I’ll put together a book where the APT is the main character, rather than the glory-grabbing pathologist you always see on the telly. Tell it like it really is… Amanda Burton has a lot to answer for.