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Unthinkable

Crime writers deal in dead bodies.  It comes with the territory.  In the course of conceiving sixteen crime novels I’ve had to imagine men, women and children shot, strangled, run over, asphyxiated, poisoned, disembowled, beheaded, tied to a railway line and cut in two, and burned to death.  But – outside a post-mortem – I’ve never seen a dead body in situ.  Until last month.

 

An overcast day, the wind from the north, cold.  My son and I were setting off in pursuit of mackerel and sea bass from the dock here in Exmouth.  As we slipped away from the pontoon, a couple looking down from the walkway indicated something odd-looking below them.  It hung in the water between a couple of moored boats.  Might we take a look?

 

We inched across.  It looked, at first, like a mop.  Then the mop grew a neck, a leather jacket, and deeper in the water what looked like a pair of jeans.  By now, we were nudging the mop.  I was in the bow, peering down.  The guy’s face beneath the curly black hair was clearly visible.  Rigor mortis had frozen his body in the foetal position.  He looked young.  His hands were clenched.  His knees were drawn up.  He looked reflective, thoughtful.  He looked as if he might have been praying.

 

We signalled to the couple above to call the police.  They were there within ten minutes.  What followed was a live performance of the minutely-choreographed piece of theatre I must have written a thousand times.  The scene cleared and sealed.  Inner cordon.  Outer cordon (with a pause to find more tape).  Then a discussion on how to recover the body, and a call to the Coastguard.  

 

The town’s inshore lifeboat appeared.  The guy was lifted from the water and zipped into a body bag.  Then he was gone, leaving the uniforms to await arrival the arrival of CID.  I knew what lay down the investigative path.  I knew about CCTV, about door-to-door inquiries around the properties overlooking the marina, about the need to give this man a name and a back story.  I knew about the importance to establishing a timeline and some indication of the circumstances of his death. I could, if I’d chosen, imagine the pathologist bent over the naked body at the post-mortem, looking for any indications of violence.

 

But I didn’t.  Because I couldn’t stop thinking about his body in the water.  How still he was.  And how oddly at peace.  My son, as it happens, was ten days away from  the arrival of his second child.  I’d seen the ultrasound scans.  The young foetus hung in the sac of amniotic fluid, knees drawn up, tiny hands bunched. 

 

We end the way we arrive.  In mute expectation of what may happen next.