The dead body problem
You often don’t get the lie-in you hoped for in life. That switched off alarm means nothing when a neighbour calls round early with the news that the island is at war, that the Daleks are invading or that Ed Milliband’s face has appeared on his toast. In fact sometimes it seems I’m getting woken up at 6.30 EVERY morning for some crazy reason or other. But I remember clearly remember the day a few years ago I was woken at 6.15 by Alun, in what can only be described as an agitated state.
“What is it this time?” I shouted down the stairs.
“There’s a dead body, Jed.”
“A dead body?” I replied, "Are you sure? It seemed unlikely. Alun and myself are the only residents of Happy Island and our bodies were both accounted for.
“It’s true Jed. The body of a man has been washed ashore on West Bay. I discovered it while I was walking down to meet the boatman.”
We walked down to meet the boatman, who’s advice on these matters is always valuable, and he followed us down to West Bay, where, sure enough, was the body of a middle-aged man, completely naked, without any form of identification, not so much as an unusual tattoo. Alun confirmed the man’s death, and the boatman helped us carry the body to the empty house, where it would be protected from the elements and any passing vultures.
We waited for several hours for the mainland to open for business, at which time Alun phoned the mainland council. “There’s a dead body on our beach,” he said.
The council seemed doubtful, Alun tends to call the council most days with some complaint or other and sometimes he does exaggerate very slightly. The 2,000 troops NATO sent in response to a particularly vicious wasp that Alun was being bothered by is just one example of how he can get carried away.
“I’m a doctor,” he said, “I know a dead body when I see one. And the boatman’s confirmed it.”
“Ah. The official relaxed at the mention of the boatman’s confirmation. “If you could send me a photograph of the body I’ll circulate it to police forces and they’ll organise for the dead man’s family to confirm his identity.
“I was rather hoping you’d just come and take it away. I wasn’t planning to turn the island into a dead body visitors centre.”
“Of course I understand your concern Mr Davies. But until the body is identified, responsibility for its removal can’t be taken forward."
So that’s why I went down to the empty house with my camera and took a series of photos of the dead body: dead body on the floor, close up of the deathly face, dead body on a chair, dead body playing snooker.
With the council unwilling to accept responsibility before it could be identified we had no choice but to turn the empty house into a temporary morgue in order to store the corpse, while we waited for the man’s family to arrive.
The next morning a middle-aged woman arrived on the early boat. “I’m here to see the body,” she said. “My husband went missing a few days ago.”
Alun and I led her down to the empty house. She shook her head when we showed her the body. “No,” she said, “it’s not him.”
“That’s good then,” I said, trying to cheer her up.
“I suppose,” she said. “I guess he’s just had a mid-life crisis and walked out on me. He’s probably hooked up with a younger woman.”
I led the woman back to await the lunchtime boat, which arrived with another three women, all middle-aged, all checking whether the dead body was that of their missing husbands (it wasn’t).
“What sort of life do they lead on the mainland?” I asked Alun, “All everyone ever seems to do is fake their death and run away from their responsibilities.”
Over the next few days no less than fifty people visited the island looking for missing loved ones, together with the head of the Search For Lord Lucan Foundation and the CEO of the Have You Seen Shergar? Campaign.
Most of them were wives seeking missing husbands, however there were parents seeking missing children, people seeking elderly relatives who had wandered off, several policemen seeking missing criminals and a young child looking for his lost rabbit. I gave him a baby geep as replacement.
“This is ridiculous, Jed,” Alun said. “The council must have sent out the message about the dead body without including the photo. The family of every missing person and rabbit on the mainland is coming over here.”
“Maybe they thought a picture of a corpse playing snooker was a bit tasteless. I said we should have sent one of the other photos.”
“Don’t be a fool Jed, we could hardly have sent that one of him lying on the floor, that’s disrespectful. At least the picture of him playing snooker looks like he’s having fun.”
Fed up with the island being treated as a lost property office for missing people, I phoned the council to ask why they weren’t making more effort to take the investigation more seriously and why they hadn’t circulated the photo.
“We are taking it seriously Mr Wood,” the council official said, “why a memo’s gone round the entire council. I have a copy here.” There was a pause. When the council official spoke again it was in a different tone. “Good lord!”
“What is it?”
“The memo’s only been signed in duplicate. How on earth did this get sent round without the third signature? I have to go – this is a crisis.”
“A crisis? But a man is dead. Surely that’s more important that a missing signature on a memo.”
“With the greatest respect Mr Wood, people die every day. What doesn’t happen every day, indeed what has never happened before, is a memo being sent round with just two signatures. This is a major breakdown in council etiquette. It could signal the start of the end of the world.”
He hung up.
I was, as you might predict, somewhat annoyed at the official’s behaviour. However, I was most surprised a short while later when the official called me back.
“I’m so sorry if I was brusque with you Mr Wood, it must have come across as ever so unprofessional.”
“I was surprised. I mean, we were discussing a dead man.”
“We are. We are discussing a dead man. I wonder if you could send me a picture of the man. So that I can re-circulate it amongst mainland authorities.”
“I’ve already sent you the photo. You said you were ‘actioning’ it.”
“Yes, yes. I seem to have temporarily deleted it from my inbox. If you could do that now.”
“Immediately, yes, if you’d be so good.”
“Okay, I’ll just go to the computer.”
I felt suspicious leaving the phone on the one occasion in history when a council official was being helpful, however I couldn’t afford to miss this opportunity, so I ran to my computer, located the email I’d sent and re-sent it.”
“Thank you Mr Wood. Your email’s just coming through now. Oh, dear. I knew it!"
“What is it? What’s the bad news?”
“I recognise the picture, Mr Wood. I’m sorry to say it’s a member of council staff. A very sad day for all of us.”
“The third signatory?”
“That’s right. I never knew his name, but I’ve seen his signature a hundred thousand times (it was hard to read – I think it started with a ‘W’). He leaves us in a very difficult situation.”
“So if you recognise the picture now, why didn’t you recognise it when I sent it to you a week ago? Hello. Hello! Anybody there?”
The council official arrived on the next boat to collect the body, along with a team of medics to confirm the death, three police officers to investigate the death and a team of pall-bearers to carry away the corpse.
The autopsy discovered that the man died from a rare poison, caused by over-exposure to red ink. Quite how his body ended up naked on our island remains a mystery, though as Alun said, it’s typical that even in death council officials manage to make our lives more difficult.
The council learnt from the short-term shortage in signatories: they hired three people to replace the one dead man, putting up council tax by a total of seventeen mainland pence per person in order to do so. Alun was so angry at the tax rise he even wrote a letter to the council.
But that, dear reader, is another story.