From the Wrong Side of the Tracks...CHAPTER 10 – Corpses
One Sunday morning, whilst on patrol duties, I received a call on the police radio to attend to what was most probably a suicide. When I heard the name and street address, I immediately recognised it. It was the home of one of the Englishmen from my old neighbourhood. He was one of the older group of guys, against whom we, as youngsters, played rugby and cricket. Without fail, these games always ended up in brawls.
When I got there and entered the yard, I was met by one of the Englishman’s friends. He recognised me and told me he had been knocking on the house’s doors for a while and received no response. He said he then peeped through a window and saw a pair of feet sticking out next to his friend’s bed. He also said that his friend’s parents were on holiday and that his friend was home alone.
He pointed to a window. I looked in and saw a pair of feet sticking out next to the bed. After looking around the outside of the house for any sign of forced entry and finding none, I broke the bedroom window and entered. The Englishman lay stretched out on his back on the floor. A vast pool of blood surrounded his head. The carpet was soaked. Upon closer examination, I saw he had a big wound to his head. Beside him was a .38 Special calibre revolver. It seemed he had shot himself. From the condition of his body, I deduced it had occurred the previous night. He was my age. Only eighteen years old.
This time period was the beginning of many other incidents where I would have to deal with the dead. Later on, they established the Englishman committed suicide because he took his father’s car for a joy ride to a shop. He did not have a driver’s license. The right-side door of the vehicle was damaged. From evidence gathered, another vehicle allegedly bumped into it whilst it was parked at the shop. He could not face his dad. Instead, he shot himself. The damage to the car was negligible.
The new house my mum had bought after my Dad passed was very close to a well-known hotel, which was frequented by bikers. Many of my old school friends that I grew up with were bikers. At this stage of my life, I drank very little, as I was still involved with boxing. I had also played rugby for the police. However, I visited the hotel sometimes during my days that I did not work, playing snooker and meeting up with my biker friends.
Often, the bikers had a few too many to drink, and they were speeding or racing each other when they left the hotel. I attended nine fatal motorbike accidents during my two years as a uniformed policeman. The accidents were horrific. Many times, the bodies were in pieces. I knew most of the victims and I knew their families. It was also my duty to inform the families of the passing of their loved ones after I attended these accidents. They were the people from my old neighbourhood. The ones from the wrong side of the railway tracks.
Another incident that will stay with me until the day I die was a drowning. I was alone on patrol and I received a call from the police radio control, informing me of a body floating in a tidal pool at a beach a few kilometres from East London. If you were the patrol van driver on your shift, you were also automatically the driver for the mortuary vehicle during your shift. If during your shift a body needed transportation to the mortuary at the Cambridge police station, you were required to change from your patrol vehicle to the mortuary vehicle, and take the body to the mortuary.
I parked the patrol van at the police station and jumped into the mortuary van and proceeded to the tidal pool. It was located on a farm bordering the ocean. The farmer met me and took me to a cliff. He pointed the body out and I could see it floating down below in a pool between the rocks. I climbed down the steep rocks and, with the help of one of the farm workers, I loaded the body onto the ‘pan’ as we called the stretcher. The body had already been in the water for a few days and it was still clothed in a pair of blue jeans. Crabs and who knows what else had consumed the face and torso. The head was still attached to the spine, but only just. The ribcage was completely visible. And the stench was overwhelmingly unbearable.
With the body loaded, my next stop was the hospital where a doctor had to issue a death certificate stating ‘dead-on-arrival’. Only then could I take it to the mortuary. Strange as it may sound, but that was the governing law. On arrival at the hospital, the doctor only peeped into the van and issued the certificate. And then I was on my way to the mortuary with the body. Here my problems started. I had no help to off load the body as it was a weekend and the charge office was very busy. I had to get this body into the mortuary all by myself. The smell was becoming more revolting. I spotted a civilian walking past the police station and called the guy. ‘Help me carry him,’ I asked the poor guy. He was quite willing. But that was only before I opened the door and the disgusting smell and the sight of the disfigured corpse met him. He turned and ran, and he was most probably still running. More time passed and there were no more volunteers about. I eventually persuaded a visiting detective at the station to assist me with the gruelling task. As we lifted the ‘pan’ to fit into the fridge door in the mortuary, sea water from the body splashed onto my face and all over my winter uniform. I was drenched and the dreadful smell clung to me, invading every pore of my body. I ran to the police single quarters, which were luckily only a couple of meters from the station. I jumped into the shower and stood for at least thirty minutes under the shower, fully clothed.
There was another accident I had to attend to as a young constable, which played on my mind for many years. It was a rainy evening when I was called out to a motor accident that took place on a very busy highway on the outskirts of East London. A passenger bus had broken down on the highway and a motor vehicle drove smack bang into the back of the stationary bus. Arriving at the scene, I noticed that the motor vehicle was underneath the back of the bus and it completely sheared the roof off. Behind the steering wheel sat the headless body of a female. She had been decapitated. On a closer inspection of the inside of the vehicle, I found the body of a five-year-old girl. She wore a pink nylon jersey. The jersey had somehow cut into the little body. She was also deceased. Afterwards, I woke many a night with this scene replaying it in my head.
During the time I worked at the Cambridge Police station, with the mortuary, then behind the charge office, I was the unlucky one to be picked time and time again by the Warrant officer in charge of the mortuary to fetch bodies. The warrant officer did the post-mortems together with the District Surgeon. Because of my height, when a body was placed in the highest fridges in the mortuary, he would come looking for me in the charge office to help get the bodies down. The Warrant officer had worn a certain cologne that nauseated me. I could smell his approach long before I saw him. He was a friendly man and had a job to do, but I hated helping him. If you have the length to reach where other people cannot, it is not always a blessing. I suppose if you work with corpses daily, the scent sticks on you and any strong cologne help hide the particular aroma of the deceased. To this day, when I walk in a mall and I smell the cologne the warrant officer used to wear from a passing shopper, I associate the smell with that of corpses.
During my life, I have had a few altercations outside the boxing ring. Okay, let us call it what it was. Brawls. On an occasion or two, I had the shit kicked out of me. But the hardest someone had ever smacked me was a woman. I won’t be calling her a lady. Anyway, it happened one night while I was on duty and attending a domestic incident. The area was a very low-class white suburb also known as ‘Gun Town’ in East London. Friday and Saturday nights were always rough in that suburb. On this occasion, the complainant was an elderly physically disabled man that needed police intervention with his neighbour. The neighbour was a woman that used to sell alcohol illegally and she consumed most of it herself. I cannot recall what the real complaint was all about, but I approached her front door and knocked. My colleague that attended the complaint with me stood at the front gate. The door swung open and in front of me stood the ugliest looking woman I had ever seen and she stunk like a brewery.
In those days, the uniform police had to wear their police cap whenever they were in public and with me adhering to the standing orders, I stood in front of her door with my cap on my head. Before I could say anything, she slapped me on the ear with a flat hand.
My cap went flying, and I had this ringing sensation in my ear, and yes, I was stunned. I could not believe what had just happened. I grabbed her by her hair and started dragging her to the patrol vehicle. She kicked, screamed and swore all the way. My colleague offered no help. He was laughing so hard he had to hold on to the patrol vehicle’s door. I threw her into the back, shut the door, and went back to look for my cap. The complainant witnessed everything and said to me, ‘I told you she is mental, sir’. My colleague carried on laughing all the way back to the charge office. I was furious. My ear still burnt and was ringing. After I explained to the Sergeant what had just happened, he insisted I must charge her with assault on a police officer. I point blank refused, thinking of the joke I will become. I ended up only charging her for a drunken disorder and kept her in a police cell overnight. They released her the next morning after spending eight hours in the police cells.
In the following number of days after, I was mercilessly teased as my colleague told and retold the story until everybody knew about it. A few months after the incident, I heard a minibus taxi killed the woman when she crossed the busy main road close to her house.
And NO. I did not send any condolences or flowers.