I’d never really seen a dead body before, and to be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect. You get used to seeing them in films, but it’s very different when you come face to face with one in the flesh, so to speak.
I was being tutored, having been in the force for a whole six months, most of which I’d spent at Ashford, at the Centrex training college. I was still young enough in service to believe that I was going to save lives, right wrongs and do so with a minimum of paperwork. A real ‘old-style’ copper.
So here I was in a quiet street in Coldean at the back of Brighton, my yellow jacket so bright that no one needed to see how nervous I was to know that I was new.
My tutor, Lee, had been in the job for over ten years and was solid and dependable, with a streak of wry humour that had him grinning at my nerves as we approached the front door.
He quickly hid the grin as the neighbours began to appear, all eager to tell us how lovely our poor Henry had been as a paramedic opened the door for us.
Suffice to say that I was still preparing myself when the paramedic stepped out of the way to show 86 year old Henry lying in a pool of his own vomit just inside the front door.
He stepped over the body and walked back into the house, leaving me standing there wondering what to do.
“Have you got the form?” Lee asked, referring to the G5 form that gives sudden deaths their name in Sussex.
I nodded and pulled the crumpled form from my pocket, having removed the ‘Probie pouch’ from my belt as soon as I’d entered the Nick for the first time. None of the more experienced officers carried them, I’d noticed, and I was desperate to fit in.
(I eventually discovered that none of the experienced officers wore them because they let the probationers do all the writing, and the probationers needed them to carry all the extra bits).
I couldn’t help but look at Henry, lying there with a slightly surprised look on his face as if to say “Oh bugger, it’s time”.
His skin was beginning to purple at the bottom and go pale at the top, which I now know is what happens when the heart stops and the blood pools in the lower side of the body.
“Uh, who do I talk to?” I asked Lee, waving the form at him in the hope that he’d take it and fill it out. I’ve always learned better by watching than being told, but Lee was determined to throw me in at the deep end.
I’d heard at Ashford that there are two things that your tutor will try and do as quickly as possible when they get their hands on you. The first is get you into a fight, to see how you handle yourself and if you’ve got the confrontational spirit they’re looking for. I was well prepared for that, with a few years of Kungfu under my belt, as well as several years working as a bouncer in Brighton.
The second was to take you to a recently dead body (or not so recently), and see how you reacted.
The worst thing for me was the smell. It was a warm day at the end of May, and already Henry was starting to swell, and as I watched a fly settled on him and began to rub its legs together right next to his nose.
Horrified, I waved it away. Seeing him lying there like that was a firm reminder of my own mortality, and the last thing I wanted to see was a bluebottle wriggling up his nose.
Our main job was to take as many details as we could, check the body for suspicious marks (hardly likely) and to search the house for valuables or cash that had been squirreled away, to keep it safe for when the will was enacted.
Putting off the whole mark checking thing, I decided to search the house first as the coroner hadn’t yet arrived, and Lee let me take the lead.
Ten minutes later we’d found a couple of old watches and a room full of material and a sewing machine. Not exactly the haul of the century.
It turned out that Henry was still working as a tailor, spending his days working in the back room of his house despite his advanced age.
A friend of his had come over to drop some patterns off, and when he’d answered the door and seen his friend there, Henry had said, “oh, I feel a bit queer”, and fallen over to die in his friend’s arms.
I can think of worse ways to go.
Once that was all done, we filled out the form as best we could (as I’m sure you know, the police force thrives on paperwork), and got to the rolling the body to look for marks part.
You may laugh at me, but every time I walked near the body I talked to him, out of a sense of respect for his feelings despite the fact that he was dead.
I had the funny feeling that he was still watching me, and I thought it only polite to let him know why I was traipsing all over his house.
Once we’d rolled him and made sure that there were no gaping wounds, we left the coroner to do his job and took a bus back to the Nick.
Brighton and Hove buses had just made a deal with the police and we could now travel free on our warrant cards in or out of uniform, so we sat there, Lee staring into space and me feeling everyone watching us.
This was about the time that ASBO’s were getting an awful lot of media attention, and the first one had just been awarded by Brighton Magistrate’s court to one Ricky Webber, to prevent him from travelling on Brighton buses due to his antisocial behaviour.
It was all over the front page of the local newspaper, the Argus, with a picture of him splashed across it for all to see, so imagine my surprise when he got on the bus on Lewes Road, several of the papers clutched to his chest.
He looked at us nervously but didn’t say anything, instead disappearing upstairs, so I nudged Lee and said, “That’s Ricky Webber. He’s breaching his ASBO. We’ve got him bang to rights; he’s holding copies of the paper saying he’s not allowed on the buses. Should we nick him?”
Lee sighed and looked at his watch, prompting me to do the same. It was almost four, which was when we were supposed to book off.
“We could”, he said slowly, “or we could go back to the Nick, finish our paperwork and get off almost on time”.
I looked at him in surprise, disappointed that he wanted to let a criminal go so easily.
“Uh, okay, if that’s what you think”, I said, unwilling to act too keen and make him think I was a jobsworth.
“If you really want to nick him, we’ll nick him”, he replied, “but one thing you’ll learn is that the criminals always come round again, but time with your family doesn’t”.
Not having a wife or kids, I could appreciate what he meant without understanding it, but it was one of my first proper lessons in policing.
Firstly, if you want to do the right thing all the time you’ll never have a life to call your own.
Secondly, he was right, people like Webber always come round again.