One of these days, I’ll finish my novel. It will be about the experiences of my mother, who was the first woman detective sergeant in the Berkshire Constabulary during the 1950s. I’ve got a lot more chapters to write, but this is just a taster of my fiction writing.
“Got a good one for you here, PC Crockford” chuckled Sergeant Lamb, from behind the front desk. Gwen looked up from her typing, took a last puff on her Kensita and stubbed it out in the ashtray. “Bunch of kids came in saying they’ve found a skeleton in High Copse Farm. Probably mucking about as some of them were giggling and nudging each other, but the eldest looked a bit scared.”
‘Where are the kids now?” Asked Gwen.
“I told them to sling their hook – it’s probably someone’s dog or something, but they did say it was about 200 yards off the gravel path into High Copse woods behind the grain silos”.
Gwen suddenly had a strange feeling about this one – they often had kids coming into the station saying they’d found bones or bits of clothing, or that their dad had given them a good hiding, or they’d found some dirty magazines in the bushes. Sergeant Lamb usually sent them away with a flea in their ear, but not before he had confiscated the magazines. The fact he’d bothered to listen to any detail made her think there may actually be something in this.
“We probably ought to take a look, Sarge. We haven’t had ‘the skeleton in the woods’ story for a while. Remember Mrs Watkins reported her St Bernard missing a few months back? Perhaps it’s old Timmy, wandered off into the woods and died.”
“Take the panda and go and have a look, then, PC Crockford. But don’t go on your own – PC Morgan’s due in any minute – take her. And if you find anything, bring it in.”
The late afternoon sun was sinking behind the treeline as Gwen and Glynis pulled up behind the twin grain silos at High Copse Farm. It was blowy, leaves coming off the trees with each gust. The autumn air smelled ‘back-to-school-y’: cool, damp and slightly mildewy, with a tinge of bonfire smoke. Gwen shivered slightly in her thin barathea tunic.
“Brrr” said Glynis. “Let’s get this over with, then maybe we can go and tell Mrs Watkins we’ve found Timmy. She’s been upset all summer”. “At least she’ll be able to bury him in her own garden.”
The two policewomen set off down the short gravel path into the woods, sturdy shoes clumping just out of unison.
“Where did Lamby say this skeleton was, Gwen?” asked Glynis.
“About 200 yards off the gravel path into the woods” replied Gwen.
“He didn’t say. Sarge doesn’t have much patience with kids so he doesn’t really listen or take notes, especially when they’re nervous or giggly. You know what he’s like – wasting police time and all that.”
“We’ll have to do a 200-yard sweep on both sides, then, unless you can see some trampled greenery where the kids went under the barbed wire in and out of the woods – there were a few of them, so there should be some signs. Damn – wish we could have spoken to them.”
“Looks like a track over there, Glyn, to your left.”
Gwen and Glynis stopped by the double barbed wire fence. Clearly something had been able to squeeze under the wire, flattening the ground elder as it went. Slender as Gwen and Glynis were, after fourteen years of food rationing, they couldn’t get under the wire, and they had police issue woollen tights and uniform dry cleaning to consider, too. The barbed wire went on, unbroken, all around the wood, making climbing over it the only option.
Gwen went first, balancing precariously on the first spiky row, rolling her tight uniform skirt up to mid-thigh to get her foot and then leg over the top of the fence and onto the spiky row on the other side. With a gymnastic scissor action, Gwen swung her other leg deftly over the barbs and stepped down into the leaves.
Glynis went for the skirt roll right up over her woollen tights before she tackled the fence.
“Bleedin’ ‘ell, I look like I’m importuning in the woods, rather than a serious police officer attending a serious incident” laughed Glynis. “Glad it’s just me and you, Gwenny, rather than one of those lechy PCs who would love to see a bit of leg.”
“Those lechy PCs would probably make you wait in the Panda car, though, Glyn, and then just stick their hand on your knee instead of the gearstick.”
Glynis followed Gwen’s fence-crossing technique, but as she swung her second leg over, caught her thigh on the upper barbs, scratching herself deeply and ripping her tights.
“Ow – sodding hell – this is my last pair of reggy tights”
“Never mind your tights, Glyn, you’re bleeding all over the place – here – have my hanky”.
Glynis stemmed the blood with Gwen’s hanky, tucking it into her tights as a makeshift bandage.
“You need to get some Savlon on that when we get back” said Gwen.
Skirts rolled back down, the two officers stumbled off into the coppiced hazel woods, crunching through the leaves and twigs. The light was fading now, giving the woods a suffocating, grey atmosphere. Blackbirds, disturbed from settling down to roost for the night chi-iked a warning, and a nearby pheasant suddenly creaked out its strident call, making both women jump.
“Oh Jesus” cried Glynis, startled, “Why do they have to do that? If they kept quiet, we wouldn’t know they were there.”
Gwen and Glynis continued circling the wood, following what they believed to be the childrens’ tracks. The air grew damper, boskier, with a musty sweetish smell. Gwen took out her torch as visibility was beginning to go now.
“I’m not sure we’re going to find anything now, it’s too dark” she said.
Glynis, however, was standing stock still, with a hand raised in the air.
“Gwen, Gwen! Shine that torch over here.”
Gwen directed the torch beam across the woodland floor, towards the base of a beech tree. The light picked up what looked like a tatty old boot thrown on the ground, then another close by. Some dark cotton material somehow connected the boots to a leafy heap further up. As Gwen gingerly shone the torchlight upwards, both women gasped and recoiled as it illuminated a slack-jawed skeletal face, its sunken, dead eyeholes glaring from the tree trunk. Strands of dishevelled white hair sprouted from chunks of desiccated skin remaining on the scalp, giving it the appearance of some nightmarish ceremonial shrunken head howling in indignation at being disturbed.
“That’s not a fucking St Bernard” blurted Glynis.
No, this skeleton was definitely human, probably male judging by the boot size, and clear that it had been in the woods for a few months. August and September had been warm and dry, perfect for rapidly decomposing soft tissue and desiccating skin. The woodland creatures had nibbled at this unfortunate too – he was missing both hands and his arms looked as though something carnivorous had gnawed on the bones.
“What are we going to do with him, Gwen?”, asked Glynis, “He’s been here for a while, can’t see the harm in leaving him for another night, can you?”
“Sarge asked us to bring whatever we find in. Now the kids know where he is, don’t you think they’re going to get all their pals to come and have a good look too? Maybe poke him with sticks and scare each other? Whoever he is, and why he’s here, he deserves a bit of dignity, not another night alone in the woods.”
“How are we going to get him out, Gwen? I don’t fancy giving him a piggy back.”
“He’s not going to be heavy, that’s for sure. I think I saw a bit of corrugated iron a bit further back. Let’s get that and see if we can carry him out on that.
Gwen and Glynis pulled the sheet of rusted corrugated iron sheet out of the leaf mould. It was longer than they thought, but less wide. It was going to be a challenge keeping the body on the sheet.
Laying the sheet down beside the skeleton, Gwen and Glynis tried to work out how best to lift him, and lie him on the sheet, as he was sitting up at a ninety-degree angle. However they laid him down, his bottom, head and feet would hang over the sides of the sheet. Would it be better to carry him aloft in a sitting position, like some macabre sedan chair at a Mexican Day of the Dead procession?
Agreeing this was probably the way to go, Glynis began tugging at the skeleton’s trouser legs while Gwen pulled his shoulders away from the tree trunk. Trying to ignore the exodus of scuttling beetles and larvae from under his tattered, mildewed shirt and the slugs in his nasal cavity, Gwen and Glynis shuffled the skeleton onto the corrugated iron sheet, where he sat bolt upright and still open-jawed like one of the undead newly emerged from the grave, howling at the indignity of it all.
Gwen shone the torch around the surrounding scene to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. They picked up his boots, with his feet still inside, but by now not attached to his legs, what looked like an arm bone, a glass pill bottle with no lid and a faded label, and a clear glass flask with some purplish liquid in the bottom – artefacts from the final scene of one life, and carefully placed them next to the body.
Just as his uniformed bearers were lifting the sheet off the ground, there was a soft cracking pop and the skeleton’s top half fell backwards onto the sheet. Foul-smelling liquid leaked out and pooled in the ruts of the corrugated iron.
“I think we broke him in half, Glyn” said Gwen.
“Yeah – where’s rigor mortis when we need it?”
“He’s gone well beyond that now – we’ll be lucky to get him back in two pieces, and at least he’s laying down properly now”.
The two police women set off back up to the path, finding out the hard way that they had to keep the corrugated iron completely level to stop the skeleton’s rancid ooze running off the end and onto their skirts or shoes. When they reached the barbed-wire fence, their feet were mercifully dry – amazing how the fear of being soaked in post mortem juices concentrated the mind.
The next problem was how to get the skeleton over the fence. Neither police woman wanted to touch him again; if one climbed over it would be impossible to lift the sheet from the other side, and climbing a barbed wire fence while carrying a skeleton on an iron sheet was unthinkable. The only way to do was by lifting the sheet lengthways onto the fence then lowering it down gently before both climbing over.
Gwen and Glynis balanced the sheet on the top of the wire. As they leaned over to lower it, both shouted in pain as the barbed wire dug into their upper arms and legs. Glynis, by the legs, could hold the sheet no more and dropped her end, catapulting the skeleton’s head through the air and onto the path where it rolled for a few yards before settling, facing upwards, by some hobnailed boots. Mr Downer, the farmer had heard the rumours, seen the Panda car and was coming by to investigate. He stepped back in horror, hand over his mouth to stop himself vomiting. His sheepdog, Moss, sniffed and snarled at the macabre object, unsure whether to treat it as a bone or a human, cringing away from the two dishevelled, bleeding women tumbling over the barbed wire after the decapitated corpse.
“ Well, that’s not a bloody St Bernard, is it?”