'She lay naked on her front, underneath a heavy half-pulled-back quilt...' - Out in the Cold, by Stuart Johnstone, Part 3

The two heavy-set undertakers were impressively dressed in black suits and equally sombre ties – impressive given that it was four in the morning and nobody would have blamed them for turning up in jeans.

By Aidan Martin - Abridged by Liam Rudden
Thursday, 26th November 2020, 7:00 am
Former police officer, crime writer and dog shop owner Stuart Johnstone
Former police officer, crime writer and dog shop owner Stuart Johnstone

They hadn’t brought a torch, clearly unaccustomed to having to do their job in a house without light bulbs. The torch the joiner had was no better than ours. Still, between us we managed to manoeuvre a stretcher into the bedroom.

She lay naked on her front, underneath a heavy half-pulled-back quilt. She was, mercifully, facing away from me. Her arms were up above her head and must have been hugging the pillow her head had been resting on before John had removed it. John double-checked the body with the aid of the extra torches. I looked away as he checked for sexual injury. I was still getting used to bodies and John hadn’t yet put me in a lead position for this type of call. I knew I would be able to deal with it when I had to, but while I didn’t have to, I took advantage.

Carly’s mum was a large woman, twenty-eight according to her driving licence, though you’d have guessed older. The roots of her brilliant-blonde hair showed that she shared her daughter’s natural colour and she sported an array of, frankly, grotesque tattoos: Tweety-Bird looking like he had walked into a hall of mirrors on one shoulder, ‘Carly’ written in a swirly font on a forearm, and ‘Ewan’ etched across a garish pink heart on her shoulder. The girl’s dad perhaps; and where the hell was he?

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Out in the Cold

The smell in the room was a concentrated version of the rest of the house. Massive piles of dirty clothing lay against one wall like a fabric snowdrift. Used dishes were stacked beside the bed, and coffee cups acting as Petri dishes lay mingled between empty vodka bottles and glasses. There was a smell coming from the body too. Not of decomposing flesh, not yet, more like a smell from a butcher’s shop. No longer a human odour, just meat.

The smell didn’t seem to bother anyone else. They simply set about their tasks as if this was the most natural, pedestrian thing in the world. Perhaps, for them, it was. I began noting down the long names on the labels of the pill bottles before bagging them. John assisted the undertakers in wrapping Carly’s mum in the sheet she lay on. Clever, I thought, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. It meant they could lift her easily while I slid the open body bag underneath and not have to touch her too much.

It was decided that the stretcher would only make things more difficult in the tight turns of the flat. The undertakers lifted her shoulders while I took hold of her feet and led the way, with John making a path with the torch.

My stomach lurched as we left the room. It took me by surprise. As much as the smell was unpleasant, it was unusual for it to induce a gag reflex. I hid it, or did my best to, and the others didn’t seem to notice. If they had I would certainly have been subjected to well-meaning, but nevertheless tiresome, ridicule.

The joiner was finishing replacing the lock and drilling screws into the edge of the door frame to undo the damage I had done to it as we passed him.

‘Always the top floor eh,’ he said to John, as we started down the stairs.

‘Three certainties in life . . .’ I could hear John beginning.

We waited in the car for the joiner to finish. We would meet the others at the hospital morgue to book the body through once we had finished at the scene. It was agreed I would write the report, or rather John told me I would. I was trying to recall all the information needed to complete it, hoping I wouldn’t have to ask him later.

A vague pain was niggling at my lower stomach, either from the earlier lurch or from nightshifts generally, I thought. They played havoc with my system. Some of my colleagues, John included, could consume an entire evening meal at three or four in the morning, unthinkable to me. A tap at the window startled me. The joiner passed in

two sets of keys and John gave him a piece of paper with the incident number and we said our farewells.

John wound his seat back to as horizontal a position as it would allow. He would get 20 minutes’ sleep as I drove to the hospital, again something some of the team could do, but I could not. I unhooked the keys from the antenna of my radio and immediately dropped them as my stomach twisted into spasm...

Tomorrow: Instinct and discovery

Out in the Cold, by Stuart Johnstone, is published by Allison and Busby

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