John opened his eyes and raised his head from the back of the chair at the light tap on the door, and saw a well-built young man standing in the doorway. He had tousled, brown hair and was still in the clothes of the night patrol.
“Will. Come in. What brings you here?”
Will took a step forward, a little tentatively, his hands clasped together in front of him. “Sorry Mr Hinkley, but there’s been a body found, in a ditch up on the edge of the common.”
Will was John’s First Boatman. He was 21. He shared a cottage with another young Boatman, Henry Bates, two doors down the whitewashed row.
John leaned forward in his chair and furrowed his brow. “What do you mean, a body? What sort of body?”
“I don’t know, we haven’t been up there yet.”
“Who told you about it, then?”
“There was a note, left in the guardroom.” Will took a piece of paper from his pocket and held it out. It was a scruffy, rough piece of yellowish paper, folded in half. John opened it out and held it at arm’s length. He squinted for better focus. Mary had been on at him to get some reading glasses. The writing was crude, in pencil, and with poor spelling. It was also brief.
“Thers a ded body in ditch by the common 300 yards west of gaite”.
John stared at it for a moment, then folded it back. He looked up at Will. “Who left this?”
“Sorry, Mr Hinkley, I don’t know. It was left in the guardroom. It must have been when we were out on patrol last night. Henry found it after we had got back and seen to the boat.”
John put his hand to his beard. “A matter for the Constable, I would have thought Will, don’t you?”
“Yes, Mr Hinkley. Should I tell Nelson?” John looked up sharply and Will corrected himself. “I mean the Lieutenant.”
“Let’s see what it’s all about first.” He shrugged. “It might be a dog or some beast for all we know. How are you and Henry fixed for a couple of hours? You’ve been out all night.” Will said they’d be fine. “Meet me in the guardroom in fifteen minutes then Will, and bring Henry with you.”
Will turned to go. “Oh and Will, you’d better bring a barrow.” He saw Will hesitate at the door. “Just in case.”
Will nodded. “Aye,” he said, and left. John pushed himself up to his feet as Mary put her head around the door. “Was that Will?” she said. “What’s the matter?”
“Yes. He says there’s a body up near the common.”
Mary stepped up to him. “A body? Good gracious.”
“It might be nothing but I ought to go and see who it is at least. See if it’s anyone we know. The mackerel will have to wait. Sorry.”
John collected his socks from the range where he had left them. “For heaven’s sake, John” Mary said. “I’ll get you a fresh pair,” and she went off upstairs to get them.
John took a black, wool jacket from a hook near the door. There was no need for the red of his uniform. A dead body? There were many ways a fellow might meet his demise these days – a fight gone too far, a mishap offshore, even the new farm machinery had caught several unawares – but in a ditch? The Lieutenant ought to be told, he thought to himself, although he would say “You see to it, John,” as he always did.
The three men walked up the track from the gate onto the common in single file, Will leading the way, then Henry with a single-wheeled barrow, and John Hinkley at the rear. The sun had burned off the dampness of the night and the air was warm. The long, dry grasses at the sides of the path clutched at their boots. After ten minutes Will stopped. “Here Mr Hinkley.”
The three men stood and bent towards the figure in the ditch, half submerged in the water. For a moment they simply stood and looked down on it. John looked about him, at the trampled grasses, the disturbed ground, and he saw the footprints in the earth. Then he said “Let’s get him out then.”
Will and Henry got down to the edge of the ditch and managed to get a hand hold on the body. They hauled it out of the water onto the path, rather roughly for the decency of it John thought, where it lay, stiff, face up. It was a young man, the eyes wide open, fixed and staring. The paleness of the face was startling. The mouth gaped open as if in a shout. It laid on the sodden coat, and smelled of brandy. John regarded it and saw no hat, clothing in place, no sign of injury from where he stood. He looked into the unseeing eyes but they told him nothing other than the cold, rude countenance of death.
“Anyone know him?” The two men shook their heads.
“Not from round here, I shouldn’t say,” said Will. “Not one of the fisherman. Not from the High Village either.”
John crouched down near the head and gently turned it to one side, feeling the resistance of some hours of death. He put his forefinger and thumb into the mouth. “What you doing, Mr Hinkley?” said Henry.
“Turn him on his front will you, lads,” John said, standing back, and Will and Henry got their hands below the back and rolled it onto its front. “Here!” said Henry holding up a bottle. It was brandy, and less than a quarter full. “This just came out of the coat,” he said. “You can smell it all over him. He’s fallen in dead drunk, I would say.” Will nodded sagely.
John stood next to the figure, and then put one boot onto its back. Then he leaned forward so that he gave his full weight onto the body. Will frowned as he watched. Frothy bubbles formed at the mouth and nostrils. John released his weight and stood back, then he crouched down at the head and felt around the neck and the base of the skull. He took the head in both hands and gently turned it one way then the other. Then he stood back. “All right, lads, let’s get it back down to the guardroom. Gently with it, mind.”
And so, they retraced their steps back down the track and past the gate, this time with a dead body slumped in the barrow and its sodden coat hanging limply from the sides.