Heads I lost

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The Independent Culture
ODD, what you notice or don't notice or can't quite put your finger on. When I was a lad, we used to cut up dead bodies, not just for a joke or a hobby, like fretwork, but because we were made to do it. Straight after breakfast I'd trudge blearily off to the Anatomy School, all the bodies half-dismantled in various shades of ham, like a sepia photograph in the pallid, submarine light.

One day, a couple of weeks into our first term, there was a frisson. Even the anatomy gnomes, the Grey Men, keen types destined to become surgeons and drink themselves to death, hovered uneasily in the doorway. Something different. Couldn't put our finger on it. Had they redecorated? Changed the light bulbs? Reorganised the enormous room with its rows of death- tables? Something different, anyway. Something ... and then we got it.

The heads had gone.

In the night, someone had come in and removed all the heads. The heads had to go, of course; you didn't do the head until your second year, and there were second year anatomists upstairs, in the Cutting Up Heads Room, yearning for heads. Fair dos. But it was eerie to imagine Ron the Dissecting Room Man and his team working through the night, the sounds of heavy breathing and muttered curses, the occasional thud and that familiar sound of the dissecting room, a faint tearing like someone skinning an orange.

Who were they? Did Ron hire them in, for the big day, Operation Heads Off? Casual anatomists, paid by the hour, shuffling outside at dusk in their knee-tied moleskins and big Anatomy Boots, thumbing their knife- blades hopefully? Was there rejoicing in outlying cottages, dank among the Fens, thin wives and ragged children crying with happiness as Papa stumbled home at dawn, head-stained and foot-sore but his rough canvas pockets clinking with change?

- How do, children. Papa's rich. Today, we eat.

- Tha smells o drink.

- Just a wet on tway hoame. Tis dryin work, tekkin off eads.

(And special dispensations in the pubs: 6am opening for the Heads Off workers, and a few effete revellers and early-risers trying to pass themselves off.)

Anyway, as the Casual Anatomists slept, we awoke to an inexplicably - and unnoticeably - headless world. You'd think you'd notice at once, the moment you stepped in the doorway, shrieking. "My God. The heads. All the heads. They've ... they've gone!" And then the slap around the face, the cold flannel, the tranquillisers, the interview: Medicine is a grisly trade and demands a strong stomach, lad. Happen tis not for thee. And then the ignominy, the packing of the bags, the lifetime of regrets.

But we didn't. Instead we thought they'd redecorated, changed the bulbs, moved the furniture. And so life protects us from itself, spares us the horrors until it's too late. And goes on doing so.

It happened again the other day. I noticed a shop Closing Down. (There are lots of shops Closing Down, but nobody believes it. Shops that really close down are just gone one morning, empty, with notices in the window saying "Temporarily Closed for Refurbishment" and that's that.) And then I got it. It had been my personal Hope Emporium, offering not only a selection of alternative futures, but a rewritten past: Bill Lewington London's Famous Musical Instrument Store.

For years, I had walked past it late at night on my way home, the garden of forking paths, choosing a new me. I would take up the saxophone, the pounds 3,000 white one, and play like an angel in a dirty mackintosh; no more typing but a life of smoky clubs, recording studios and friends with beards. I would buy some bagpipes and become a fierce solitary figure, the last man in Britain to play the thing pure, and the laments that came off the end of my pipes would reduce strong men to tears and inspire the weak to fight like demons. No! I would buy drums, have always been a drummer, the drummer that Steve Gadd and Russ Kunkel both said was the drummer they would have liked to have been, the only drummer ever invited on stage to sit in with the Buddy Rich Band. But wait ... no; I wouldn't be a drummer, but an oboist, that oboe, the expensive one ... an ascetic smile, rimless spectacles, lean and silent and austere but when I came on to play the Richard Strauss concerto the hall would fall silent and ...

... and it's gone. How come it took me so long to notice that now there were no more musical futures or alternative pasts, just Closing Down? It's eerie. It's awful. It's like ... having your head off.