In the late 1980s I applied to half a dozen universities to study English. In the end, the only place that made me an offer was Exeter, primarily because I’d applied to study English and Drama combined. Even though I’d given yet another shaky interview, my audition for the drama department had gone well, and it was this, coupled with the fact I was in my twenties, and the admissions department were on a drive to recruit mature students, that swung it for me. Plus my girlfriend Stella was already there. So all in all, I scraped a place.
One weekend in February my old friend Simon came down to stay for a while. To clear our heads that Sunday morning, Simon, Stella and I had a late fry-up in town and then headed out to walk it off in the country. It was a stropped razor of a day; the world hard and blue around us. But it was good to walk; our lives felt as increasingly clear and outwardly bound as the empty road.
We headed North. The road gradually lost its suburban character, rising steadily out of town through open fields and woods, until about an hour later, on a whim, we took a track through an old stand of trees, and found ourselves stumbling up an overgrown track to an abandoned farmhouse.
‘Look at this.’
Stella struck a terrified pose beside a roughly nailed sign in red paint: Keep Out.
Beyond it, angled like so many cartoon warnings: Private Property. You have been warned. Trespassers will be.
‘Trespassers will be what?’
‘He was so furious when he painted that one he bit it in half.’
‘What a psycho.’
But the house was definitively empty. All the panes in the windows were smashed. The front door hung inwards off the top hinge, revealing a dark and destructed interior.
‘I’m not going in there,’ said Simon. ‘Fuck that.’
‘Come on. Let’s carry on round.’
Stella led the way, ducking through a broken up post and stile fence, the timber of which was green with a dusty kind of mould.
As soon as we were through to the field beyond the farmhouse, Simon started. He dropped his face into a Karloff-style deadpan.
‘I’m afraid you’ve treth-pathed on my land and I am going to have to kill you.’
Stella ran with her arms straight up in the air, screaming. She pretended to trip and stretched herself out in the grass. I picked up a stick and machine-gunned Simon as he zombied towards her; he jerked with each bullet but wouldn’t go down. Finally he turned to me, snapped the machine gun in half, grabbed me by the neck and hurled me aside.
I lay still in the grass for a second or two, then sat up, laughing.
I heard Stella say: ‘What’s this?’ in her normal voice. When I looked over, I saw them both standing together, Simon holding out a black dinner jacket at arm’s length.
I went over to have a look.
‘That’s quite smart.’
‘It’s soaking wet.’
‘Check the pockets.’
‘You check the pockets.’
I pulled each one open and looked inside first, then carefully pulled out the contents by fingertip.
‘Any bullet holes?’ said Simon. ‘Any blood?’
‘It’s that crazy farmer,’ said Stella. ‘This is all that’s left of the last guy who trespassed.’
I pulled out a wallet, a pencil, a cotton handkerchief and a ball of rubber bands. The wallet had an out of date bus pass, a library card and a dry cleaning receipt. The bus pass carried the blurry photo of a smart elderly man, peering up into the camera on a photo booth chair he hadn’t been able to wind higher. The cotton handkerchief was stiff with spots of dark matter.
‘Well that certainly looks like blood to me.’
‘And look over there.’
Stella took a few steps on, bent down and picked up a shoe. And then seeing something else, hurried over, and slowly lifted up a pair of black trousers.
We stood there for a minute or two. Stella and Simon were casting nervous glances back at the farmhouse, but my attention had been caught by something else.
‘Over by the fence.’
‘Oh my god. It’s jacket guy.’
‘I think you might be right.’
I walked over, leaving Stella and Simon behind.
‘Be careful,’ she called out.
I smiled back at her, then directed all my attention to the figure.
He was lying on his right side with his back to me, wearing only a white shirt. His legs were obscured by the dip in the ground between the field and the fence; his shoulders looked folded in, like someone so deeply asleep they had moulded themselves to the terrain.
I took a few more steps forward. If it wasn’t for the freezing weather and the fact the man only had on a shirt, it would’ve looked like the most natural thing in the world to be taking a nap on his side in a field like this. But the warm glow from the walk and all our messing about had faded quickly, and even in my fleece I could feel the advancing chill of the afternoon.
Then I noticed something. Bird droppings on his hair. How long had he been there?
‘Hello? Are you all right?’
I reached over and tapped him on the shoulder. It was like rapping on a dense papier mache figure. I pulled him gently towards me, and as he collapsed back further into the dip I saw his decomposed face, spotted and dark, folded in on itself like a rotten apple.
‘He’s dead,’ I called back to the others.
‘We’ve got to call the police.’
Simon pointed out a little cluster of cottages the far side of the field, behind a tall hedge.
‘They’ll have a phone.’
It took us five minutes to reach them. We didn’t say much as we trudged across the grass. Now and again, we’d look back towards the farmhouse, half expecting to see a crazed figure with a shotgun making up the distance between us.
When we reached the hedge, Simon climbed up onto a tree stump and looked over. We peered through beneath him.
An elderly woman was on her knees just the other side, weeding.
‘Hello?’ Simon said. The woman stopped weeding and looked around. ‘Hello! Up here! The hedge. That’s it. Hi. We wondered if you could help us? We came out for a walk and we found a body – a dead one – lying in the field behind me. I wonder if you could do us a favour and call the police?’
The woman stood up, kept hold of her trowel and backed away into the house.
After a while with nothing happening, Simon said: ‘Is she going to phone or what?’
Just then an elderly man came out.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘Ah. Hello. We just wondered – could you call the police for us? Only we came out for a walk and we found a dead body.’
‘I certainly will call the police,’ the man said, frowning.
Simon jumped down.
We all went back through the grounds of the old farmhouse to flag the police down on the road. We stood there, stamping our feet and blowing on our fingers. I looked around to see if there was a warning sign we’d missed: Caution, corpse in field.
Three patrol cars turned up, and about a hundred officers got out. One of them was so tall, watching him get out of the car was like watching a magician pull a ladder out of a hat. When he was finally unfolded in front of us, he stretched about six feet six, his uniform pressed and perfect, silver on his epaulettes, a medal strip across his breast. He paused to put on his cap, adjusting it to the absolute angle, then stepped briskly over to us.
‘Are you the people who found a body?’ he said, chinning the air. ‘Could you take us to it, please?’
We turned and led them all past the warning signs and over to the post and stile fence. I waited for the Chief Inspector to say something about all the signs and why we’d chosen to ignore them, but he seemed content for us simply to retrace our steps and take us straight to the body. Simon and Stella ducked through the gap in the fence, I stood aside for the Chief Inspector to follow.
‘Thank you,’ he said. As he went through, he scraped his back on the panel, leaving a hideous green trail across his uniform. I fully expected to get in trouble for that, too. I followed after, the rest of the posse on my tail.
‘We found his jacket first,’ I said, as we came to the first spot. ‘Then his shoes, then his trousers.’
‘I assume they’re his trousers.’
‘Is the body naked below the waist then?’
I thought about what I’d seen, how it was lying.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘You’re not sure?’
We arrived at the fence, and hung back like naughty kids whilst the Chief Inspector and a couple of his colleagues walked over and prodded about for a moment. After a little while he gave some instructions, then came back.
‘You’ll need to come with us to the station to make a statement,’ he said, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his hands. ‘Separate cars. Purely routine.’
‘So you decided to go for a walk in the country?’ said the policeman in charge of interviewing me.
‘Spur of the moment thing, really. To clear our heads.’
‘Why were your heads not clear?’
‘Ah. You know. Late night. Cheap beer. You know.’
He made a note of it, then clicked his pen and settled back into his chair to review what he had so far. The interview room, a functional box with a high window and a security door, felt super-heated after the frigid winter afternoon. I took off my fleece and slung it over the back of my chair. The policeman looked at me.
‘Seasoned walker, are you?’
‘Didn’t think so. I couldn’t help noticing your gear. Or lack of it. Your shoes, for example. Not what you’d call walking boots.’
I looked down at my trainers, then tucked my feet under the chair.
‘They’re all I have,’ I said, pathetically.
‘And you didn’t take a packed lunch?’
‘No. Like I said. Spur of the moment. We’d only just had breakfast.’
‘No maps or any way of telling where you were or where you were going?’
‘Protective clothing, it being mid-winter and all?’
‘No. Travelling light.’
The more we went over it, the more ridiculous it sounded.
The policeman screwed up his eyes and was quiet again, clicking his pen. Finally he said: ‘Why did you decide to walk in that particular field? The field where the body was?’
‘Why? No reason.’
‘Bit of a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Yes. Yes - I suppose it was.’
‘It’s the middle of winter and you decide to take a walk, even though you don’t normally do that kind of thing and don’t have any equipment. You go randomly into any old field. And lo and behold there’s a dead body in it.’
He clicked his pen again and leaned forward, ready to write.
‘Okay. I think we’d better get this all down so you can sign it.’
I was there two hours. Stella and Simon had been dealt with in half the time. They were sitting on their hands in the waiting room, blowing their cheeks out with boredom.
‘Finally,’ they said as I was let through the security door.
‘I’m going down,’ I said.
Weeks later, I was called down to the phone by my flat mate. The coroner’s office. A pleasant, administrative voice. The inquest had been held – all pretty straightforward, no need to have dragged me away from my studies to give evidence. The victim had been an in-patient of a unit for the elderly and mentally infirm. He had absconded one night before Christmas and disappeared. Who knows why he made his way out to that field? Probably succumbed to hypothermia, which would account for the shedding of the clothes. He had hurt his hand on barbed wire or something. His decay had been arrested by the cold weather. Very distressing, etcetera, and so on.
I thanked her for letting me know, put the phone down, stayed sitting on the bottom step for a while. I pictured the three of us, our walk out of town, the farmhouse, throwing ourselves down in the field; the Chief Inspector, catching his uniform on the fence; the old man, stumbling through the freezing dark, tearing off his black suit, ripping his hand, laying by the fence. I reached out to touch his shoulder.
I picked up the phone again.