The Tramp’s leg
If someone dies in a public place, it is the responsibility of the Ambulance Service to remove the body. That is unless there are signs of foul play, crime of any kind, or a suicide note. In these cases, it becomes the job of the Police, and the Coroner. To some extent, this becomes a kind of game, between the LAS crews, and the Police in attendance. Both sides want to absolve themselves of responsibility for this onerous task, with the attendant unpleasantness, and necessary paperwork. Please bear this in mind, when contemplating this next tale.
The area between Paddington, and Notting Hill Gate, was not always one of gentrification, and desirable properties. Many of the once former residences of quality, had been long ago converted into multiple-occupancy dwellings, of small flats and studio apartments. The basement areas housed small cupboards, tunneled under the pavements beyond, that had once served as coal bunkers, in the days before central heating. They had become used for storage, and in particular, for dustbin stores, often for up to four or five flats in the house above. We were called to one such storage area, on a very hot and sunny day, in mid-summer. A resident, about to add rubbish to his bin, could see some feet protruding from the area, and after calling out numerous times, had got no response. The Police had also been called, in the event that the feet were suspicious. The small area was dark, and very deep. There were four dustbins in there, and an indescribable, noxious odour, emanated from the place. The Policeman flashed his torch inside, highlighting the soles of some shoes, and told me that he believed the person inside to be dead. He based this on the smell, and the large amount of buzzing flies, and bluebottles that could be seen swarming around the opening. Perhaps it was his satisfied grin, or his comment of, ‘one for you boys’, that steeled my mind to the outcome, or maybe I just didn’t fancy the job. Either way, I resolved to ‘bump it’ into the hands of the Police.
As it turned out, I didn’t need a lot of help. I lit up my own torch, and crawled into the small, airless space, fighting to draw breath over the stench. I could see the legs and feet protruding from behind the bins. I could just make out the condition of the shoes and trousers, concluding that this was the garb of a tramp, or street-person. He had probably crawled in there for shelter some time before, then died of causes yet unknown. His proximity to dustbins had been the perfect environment for flies and maggots to do their work, and the air was fetid, and difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced it. The Policeman was sure that he had seen the man move. I advised him that this was simply the movement of a multitude of maggots inside the body, and that there was little chance of any recovery. However, he was unconvinced, and suggested that we should at least get a look at the body. I knew that I could argue the point no further, and seized one of the outstretched feet, to pull the body into the daylight.
The sound that followed can best be described as a squelch. After an additional tug, I found myself holding a worn-out shoe, with around 12 inches of rotten leg attached. It was so decomposed, it had slipped of the bone, still in the shoe, flopping onto the concrete like an obscene wet glove. The Police Officer fought off a gag, and said that we would have to remove the body, and take it to the nearest Coroner’s Office. As you may by now well imagine, this was a sickening prospect. The torso was undulating with maggots, and a ‘clean’ removal was unimaginable. I asked the Officer if he was sure that the man had not died as a result of murder, as we could hardly ascertain injury, or cause of death, in these circumstances. For all we knew, he may have been strangled, suffocated, or stabbed, prior to being secreted in this secluded area.
As the downcast PC reached for his radio, I knew that we had ‘won’. I had sown the seed in his mind, and he just couldn’t take the chance. The scene would have to be sealed and secured, CID informed, and the body searched, as well as examined for marks, and possible injuries. We would be relegated to the role of witnesses, and would willingly give statements, at a later date. We would attend Coroner’s Court, if deemed necessary, and co-operate fully.
We would not be crawling into that hole to remove the body though. Not that day.