The house is a bungalow, but has been extended with a large conservatory: I’d guess the couple have lived there for some years, having retired with reasonable pensions and grown-up children who work. In the conservatory, beside two dog beds and a plush sofa, is the old lady I have come to see. She’s in an armchair, supported by five cushions, TV controller in hand. One of the dogs is lying at her feet, whimpering. It’s a scene of idyllic middle class lifestyle: well-off, comfortable old age. There’s a big garden, beautifully-tended. I think there might be herbs.
The only thing amiss is that the old lady isn’t just sitting there waiting for This Morning to start; she’s dead. Her husband tells me that he got up to make her a cup of tea and when he came back with it she’d died.
The family arrive and sob as I fill out the paperwork. I am not sure whether to refer to the dead body as "your wife" or "your late wife".
Another morning, another sudden death: this time an old man. He went out for his daily stroll; forty minutes later his wife looked outside and saw him lying sprawled across the garden fence, still warm but absolutely gone. Children in the neighbouring garden are jumping on a trampoline, their faces flashing in and out of view as they peer at what we are doing. Because he’s in public, and has fallen oddly, the inspector wants to send detectives, spotlights, and a tent. I’m the senior PC on scene, and on arriving I made the decision there hadn’t been foul play. I don’t tell the inspector, but I’ve already had the body moved inside where his wife wanted to sit with him alone until the undertakers come. She couldn’t bear him lying out in the cold, with kids and strangers staring at him. In something of a panic, I persuade the inspector we don’t need to send detectives and he gives in. The post mortem proves me right – luckily.
Again, a death. A young man, in a multi-occupancy room, asleep in bed with two other people present who claim not to have noticed him die. The first young body I’ve seen, it looks too young to be dead and I keep thinking he’ll get up every time I turn my back. I imagine reentering the room to find the sheets pulled back and the bed empty. We secure the house and wait for scenes of crime and the police doctor. The doctor thinks he’s overdosed, so we let the other occupants go.
The next one, a woman with MS, whose health has deteriorated for twenty years. Her husband tells me she had gone blind that week and had been in severe pain all day. The family don’t want a post mortem done, they don’t want the police there at all. They just want the body blessed by their priest. Paramedics think she might have been dead for a while before they were called. I glance at the mug containing the dregs of her final dose of medication. Perhaps it contains an overdose. Perhaps her husband helped her die, hence why they won’t cooperate. Perhaps he’s just grief-stricken. If we create a crime scene, and we’re wrong, what damage will be done? I speak to the inspector. We quietly seize the bedclothes, and the mug, and tell the family this is normal. It isn’t normal, but telling them we’re suspicious could be catastrophic. The post mortem shows the lady died naturally of heart failure.
A toddler, killed in a freak accident by a piece of furniture. I don't have to see the body, but I see the faces of officers who have. We're told to arrest one parent for murder, but later, they're released without charges.
A fire, a child trapped. Charred bodies and wails coming from the street. Fire investigators, CID, chief inspectors. I’m not needed, and I leave.
The people I met at these incidents won’t remember my name, or face. But they’ll remember every word I said and every action I took.
Is it policing, if there’s no way to measure it? Is it policing if there is?-------------------------------------------------------------------------
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.