I hadn't expected to find an old pair of shoes out there, by
the side of the footpath. Perhaps one shoe, the forgotten remnant of
some steamy adventure. But not a pair. The sight arrested me. I had
often walked along this path, but had never before found something so
out of place. They were women's shoes, conker-brown, with a low heel
and a decorative, if useless, silver buckle on the front.
The shoes were next to the path, in the long grass beside the fence. I bent down to look at them, and caught the scent of bluebells from the spinney on the other side of the barbed wire. It was because of the bluebells that I was there. I am by profession a photographer, and I had woken that morning to another glorious spring day, a watery yellow sun in a misty sky of white and pale blue. I had decided to take a walk along the path between Dereham and Southey Woods, a favourite haunt of mine, and photograph the bluebells that were then in bloom. There were bright patches of them, in the spinneys and copses beside the path, their blue and purple flowers bold against the yellow and white anemones, archangels and primulas.
Locals call this footpath Up the Leg and Down the Stocking. It must once have been well-known – back in the days when somebody used to name these things – as some kind of lover's lane. Perhaps it still is. As I looked at the shoes, I found myself imagining night-time trysts and passionate lovemaking, right where I stood. Yet what fit of passion could so enrapture the wearer that she would forget her shoes? Especially when the path back to the road was chalky, and full of flints. Surely, as she made her way along the path, she would have noticed the sharp stones in the soles of her feet and, laughing, returned for the shoes?
It was a warm day that had unstopped the scent of pines and the newly-blossomed bluebells, another in a series of long, sunny spring days, the kind that can inspire languorous sexual desires. Perhaps they - whoever they had been - had come here, to this quiet path, passion fuelled by the sultry warmth, and then … up the leg and down the stocking. Yet, though I imagined passion, it seemed that, for the woman at least, there was some sense of calm, some order. The shoes had not been flung about in orgiastic abandon, one hither, one yon. They had been neatly laid out, side by side, as if they had been keeping each other warm throughout the night, or as if they had been beside a bed, waiting for their waking wearer to slip them back on.
I found a stick and began to poke around the long grass and weeds, first at the edge of the path, and then, after climbing over the barbed wire fence, in the spinney. For who knows what other treasures I might have found - a lost ring, perhaps? A wallet, an expensive necklace? Or I might have found other clues to this night of passion - discarded knickers, empty wine bottles, a belt wrapped around the barbed wire fence. I thought I might find something to photograph, something from which I could make a project, an art-work. I specialise in nature photography, but endeavour to introduce into my photos something unusual, like a sink in a pond, or a bike up a tree. If I could find something else to go with the shoes, I could perhaps create an intriguing photograph. I was a magpie, my beak the dry and broken stick, poking and jabbing into the understorey, searching for something shiny on which to train my lens.
Yet, when I did find something, I wished that I hadn't. I wished that I hadn't found the shoes, that I hadn't been so inquisitive, that I had just walked on, Up the Leg and Down the Stocking towards Southey Woods.
The naked body, a rope around its neck, slowly twisted in the gentle breeze, a pale pendulum beneath the thick bough of a field maple. How long it had been hanging there, I couldn't tell. I am not squeamish; my gorge didn't rise. My body quickly buzzed with adrenaline, however, and I wanted to run. But I knew I couldn't. I knew what I had to do. I squatted down on my haunches, still watching the naked body and its slow, hypnotic swing, took my mobile from my pocket, and phoned the police.
While I waited, birds sang in the trees and, occasionally, a stronger gust of wind would rattle the leaves and restart the pendulum. The figure swinging before me was young, flesh as yet uncreased by age. Handsome, I suppose, rather than pretty. Long legs, but not quite long enough to reach the ground, unfortunately. An artist notices these things.
The irresistible urge of my profession began to nag at me: the need to see this body through one eye, to make a neat oblong from this now ragged world, to constrain potential chaos within a delimiting frame. I resisted at first, not because I was fastidious or prudish, but because it seemed ghoulish. I was already framing scenes in my mind, however, so it seemed futile to resist. I snapped one picture, then another, then another. Adrenaline sent me crashing clumsily through the grasses and shrubs, breaking the stalks of bluebells, crushing the petals beneath my feet, smearing blues across the greens. A pleasant floral perfume followed me around the spinney. I framed and clicked, squatted and clicked, moved and clicked, recorded the fall of light on skin that was maculate with dappled leaf-shadow.
The wail of a police siren heading along Old Oak Lane cut across the bird song. The police would soon be here; Up the Leg and Down the Stocking exited into the lane only a hundred yards upslope from me. I suddenly realised what I was doing, and how it might look to somebody else. I switched off my camera, replaced the lens cap, and climbed over the fence, out from the trees and back onto the path. I could see the blue uniforms of two policemen who were jogging down the hill. I signalled to them. They were soon with me, and I took them into the spinney. We were silent for a moment, as they took in the scene. The policemen eyed me suspiciously. I can't say I blamed them; my scruffiness belied the amount of money I actually made from my photography. Then the questions started.
When had I found the body? When had I arrived? Had I seen anybody else, on the path, in the fields, anybody at the edge of town who might have been walking back from the path? Anything at all unusual? I answered all their questions as best I could, and then led them to the shoes. One of the officers, the younger of the two, noticed my camera.
'Is that your camera, sir?' he asked.
I wondered who else he thought it might belong to; but I later realised that, of course, he thought I might have found it at the same time as I had found the shoes, and decided to keep it for myself, that I could have been taking away material evidence. I explained that I was a professional photographer, that I had come here this morning to photograph the bluebells.
'Got a bit more than you bargained for, sir,' the older of the two policemen said. I noticed the stripes of a sergeant on his arm. Then he asked, 'A professional, eh? Did you take any photographs of the body?'
I admitted that I had. The policemen didn't seem surprised; they had undoubtedly come across many photographers in their work.
'We'll be needing your camera, sir,' the sergeant said, almost apologetically.
I should have expected that. Still, I complained; the Canon cost about three grand. It was my best camera. I asked why I couldn't copy the photographs to disc, and then give them the disc.
'And let you delete anything you wouldn't want us to see? Or do a bit of… what do you call it?'
'Photoshopping?' suggested the younger policeman.
'Yes, that's it. Photoshopping. I should think you'd be quite an expert at that,' the sergeant said. 'Come on. It's not as if you could sell the pictures to a local newspaper, anyway.'
That was true. The photos were, I knew, a bit too … stark. And I did, of course, have other cameras at home. The younger officer was on his radio, reporting back to the station what he'd seen. The sergeant asked me to come to his car with him. We left his junior to watch over the spinney.
'Are you feeling all right, sir?' the officer asked. 'It must have been a shock to find a body like that."
'It was,' I said. 'But before I became an arty photographer, I was a news photographer. I've seen worse.'
I handed over my camera. The officer then had me go through my story again, writing it all down in his notebook. When I finished, I asked if I could go, but the officer suggested I wait until the detectives from CID arrived. This green and blue country idyll would soon, I realised, turn into a working environment – another day at the office for SOCO and Forensics and the pathologist and grumpy men in trenchcoats. All would soon descend on the scene to do their jobs. A few minutes later I heard more sirens. Constables arrived and talked to the sergeant. One began to unfurl blue and white tape across the entrance to Up the Leg and Down the Stocking, while a WPC went down the path with another roll of tape. More sirens, more white and orange cars; then the white vans of SOCO and the unmarked cars of CID arrived.
I found myself in another car, talking to a curt CID officer, where I went through my story again, watching as he wrote, noting that this policeman knew shorthand. He also asked about the camera, and I told him that I'd left it with the sergeant. At last, the detective said I could go. Just as I was about to open the car door, he said, 'You're not intending to go anywhere in the next week or so, are you?'
'My intention is to remain where I am currently domiciled,' I said, realising that I could have simply said 'No'.
'I take it that means you will be continuing your status as a resident of Dereham, that you will be undertaking no foreign excursions, that you do not intend to be en vacance,' he said, and afforded me a sarcastic grimace that I probably deserved. There's a word-devil inside of me. I smiled at him, said goodbye, and shut the door of the Mondeo.
I turned to look along Up the Leg and Down the Stocking. I knew I would not be allowed down there. I walked down Old Oak Lane, fifty or so yards, to another path, Tickle Belly Lane. There was no doubt that the slopes leading up to Southey Woods had once been the centre of local sin.
I was, of course, called in to see CID again. I was inevitably
a suspect. I had been at the spinney, had taken photographs of the
body; and, because of the way I dressed, always looked suspicious to
police officers. It was annoying, tedious, to be asked the same
questions over and over. But they knew, from the pictures on the
camera's memory card, that I had, as I had said, been taking
photographs of bluebells. They could also see, from the data on the
digital camera, that the photos had been taken at least twelve hours
after what was, by then, known to be the probable time of death. None
of this exonerated me completely, of course. I could have done the
deed, and then perversely returned later to photograph the result of my
crime. The police had nothing else that linked me to body, however, and
so, after a while, their visits and questions ceased. My camera was
returned to me – its memory card wiped – and I carried on creating my
highly priced photos.
During my involuntary visits to Dereham police station, I came to realise that the detectives were perplexed by some aspects of the crime. Nobody fitting the description of the victim had ever been reported missing. I also knew that, surprisingly, apart from the shoes, no clothes were ever found. The fingerprints matched no other prints on the police database, and no matching dental records were discovered. The identity remained a complete mystery. The coroner had recorded an open verdict.
Two years have gone by since I found those shoes. I had been
the only person ever questioned by the police about the death, as I had
been the only person they could link to the body. There was no other
evidence, there were no further clues. The police still keep the file
open. If it wasn't for the missing clothes, I think the police would
have put the death down to suicide. I know that some believe it to be a
suicide, that the clothes had been taken by a vagrant. There is one
more thing that has never made sense, though, then or subsequently; and
I know I'm not the only one who is puzzled.
Why women's shoes, yet a man's body?