Sometimes odd things happen in the day-to-day life of a ballet company, and some of it you just couldn't make up... Read on for Aled's tale from the dark side; not for the faint of heart...
“Could I speak to Robert Cordingley, please,” asked the cut, educated voice.
“Can I ask who’s … who’s calling, please?” the mechanism of my Receptionist’s response jarred slightly. We don’t get many calls for the Caretaker’s office.
“It’s Sarah,” she said, “from the British Museum,” then, to clarify, “regarding the disposal of human remains.”
Robert Cordingley is our Senior Caretaker. He is a much loved figure at Northern Ballet. Everybody knows him as Bob and he is generally considered to be indispensible to the life of the building. Had Bob, I wondered, given in to his lesser instincts and offed somebody during his morning rounds? Or had somebody else in the building committed a rancid crime and Bob, forever the first to be called, been asked to deal with it?
I put the call through. “Robert Cordingley,” he answered. This was not how he usually answered his phone.
“Sarah from the British Museum,” I said.
“Regarding the disposal of human remains.”
“Yup.” I released the call and watched until the little telephone icon by Bob’s name on my switchboard went green. As soon as he finished his call I rang him back.
“I’ll come out,” he said.
Bob appeared in the foyer, humping a battered six-foot travelling case. His face was russet and globules of sweat gathered on his cropped pate as he thumped the old trunk down at reception.
“Have a look in there,” he said, breathless.
“Why?” My mouth was dry.
“Just have a look.” Tentatively I unhooked the latch on the trunk and inched it open with less-than-manful abandon.
The first thing was the smell. Something like our bathroom at university – a dense, damp musk. It took me a moment to assemble what I was seeing. It was human bones, definitely human bones, but I couldn’t find which way was up.
I looked at Bob, who looked back at me. “What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked.
I shrugged and Bob shrugged back. “What is it?” I asked.
“Skeleton,” he huffed. I looked back at the mess of bones.
“Where’s the head?”
“Who kept it?”
“Him that gave it.”
In time the providence of the mouldy headless skeleton in the trunk became apparent. It had been generously donated to the Academy by someone who thought it would be useful in the teaching of anatomy and dance. The giver had kept the skull because, quite simply, he liked the skull.
Unfortunately, as is always the danger with gifts, the Academy already have a skeleton. A pair actually, both with heads. So the poor old erstwhile human was trundled, trunk and all, up to the Academy office and left there.
But, whilst the Academy office is usually very busy - colonnades of paper work shroud the ladies hermetically working at ordering the ever-burgeoning ranks of Academy enrolees - there are brief moments of quiet. There are moments in the small of the evening when the clock ticks and the gloaming laps at the window, stretching its chill fingers into the tenderest parts of the room. There are these moments and it was in one them that Faye’s attention was drawn from the fluttering piles of ballet aspirants to the great, moulding, lumbering case in the corner. And it’s contents.
“Bob!” she called, “Bob!” cutting the air as she did, cleaving enrolment forms with the kraken hoar of her terror. “Bob!” She’d had enough of the skeleton.
So Bob came, as Bob does, and Bob took care of it. He brought the ghoulish crate downstairs in the goods lift and secreted it in the bowels of Northern Ballet. Then he called Leeds General Infirmary, then Leeds Museum, then the British Museum. Then they all called him back. He needed, it seemed, to find someone with a human tissue license.
“Can’t you just throw it in the skip?” I suggested. I tried quickly to turn my suggestion, which had been serious, into a joke as the host of appalled eyeballs of my colleagues turned towards me, mouths agape.
Take heed: you can’t put bones in a skip. If you do, they’ll be found. The police will be called. The trail will lead back to Northern Ballet and it will be thought that, in the face of funding cuts, we’d turned to particularly drastic measures to supply props for our upcoming production of Hamlet.
No. We couldn’t put it in the skip. Instead we needed someone with a human tissue licence. A strange quiet descended at the Reception desk as we pretended to think so no one would realise that none of us knew what a human tissue license was or who on earth would have one. Well, almost none of us.
“Leave it with me,” said Bob, bending his knees and keeping his back straight in an orthodox lift of this unorthodox box, and lugged it away.
It was a wet Friday afternoon as Bob pulled up to the purple, glass-fronted building he’d been told to look for. It was Bob’s day-off. The rain lashed the windscreen opaque and Bob could barely see. The back window was covered by black bin liners, taped around the shape of the headless skeleton.
He called the number he’d been given and finally got through to the woman who’s name he’d forgotten in the department he couldn’t remember. Something microbiological, researchy and diseasey.
He was in the wrong place. An hour later, and another nervy journey around the ringroad with the skeleton in the back, and Bob arrived underneath another purple building. The right one this time.
The woman he’d spoken to on the phone was there, wet up to the knees where her child’s umbrella hadn’t protected her. She excitedly waved him into a shallow underpass on her left.
He drove into the unlit tunnel, his car’s undercarriage scratching through last year’s leaves, and arrived at an emergency-lit dock where the woman with the wet knees met him. Bob offered her a knife to cut away the bin liners, but she ripped open the bags before he’d finished asking. Dispensing with it like wrapping paper, she gazed at the skeletal spoils and took a deep intake of breath. The musk was like manna to her.
She picked up a tibia lovingly and said, “yes, we’ll have some fun with this.”
Long before Bob found a home for our skeletal friend, it had inevitably earned a place in our hearts here. Its name, of course, was Yorick. We didn’t know him well, we knew barely anything about him and some of us even suggested just throwing him in the bin.
But it’s been grand to know that not everyone is as callous as me. I like the idea that for every Hamlet, who sees his own memento mori in the skull of another, there’s a lady somewhere in the loading dock of a university department that would have loved Yorick’s skull. Snatched it from the Gravedigger’s hands. Someone who sees bones as teeming with life and potential, not with death. While the Early Modern Gravedigger of Shakespeare’s play was a callous, ghoulish fool, I like that in our tale Bob is a kind man who will spend his day-off driving through the rain to take an unloved skeleton, with no head, to a place where someone will love it.
But if he were digging now, the truth is Shakespeare’s Gravedigger would probably have been as hindered as Bob by legislation about human remains and human tissue disposal. Hamlet would have had to have booked a viewing in advance of Yorick’s skull, signed and counter-signed by the University of Wittenberg, and worn protective clothing to avoid cross-contamination of vital bacteria. By then, he may have lost the impetus to opine about the death of a clown and just got on with killing his uncle. And everyone else. We live in a different age. Worse for musing, perhaps, but better for skeletons.
If you want to see Hamlet get round to killing his uncle, and everyone else, without doing any musing at all, come and see Northern Ballet’s Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.