the strange case of the branch loppers

There’s a meeting place over the woods. A hexagon of rough benches, each one a stack of four cut timbers capped with a plank and then wired together. I’ve never seen anyone sitting on them, let alone a fire in the middle – which they must light sometimes, as the centre is blackened with a scattering of cold embers. It must be nice to sit there chatting about this and that with the fire burning and the light playing over the perimeter of trees and undergrowth. Like old times.

Yesterday when my dog walk with Lola took us through the woods past the meeting place, I thought I’d stop for a while, sit down on one of the benches and imagine what it must be like. As soon as I sat down, the plank wobbled alarmingly and I got up again to see what the problem was.

A long-handled branch lopper. I could see what had happened. One of the volunteers who work in the woods must have left it out. And then someone else found it, and hid it under the plank to keep it safe until it was found again. The volunteers have a tin shack nearby with all their tools locked away. The bench was as good a spot as any – or was it? The meeting place is pretty open. I figured it might be better to take the branch lopper and hide it round the side of the shack.

So that’s what I did. There was some timber to the right and I hid it under that. I was a little anxious someone might see me and wonder what I was doing. It looked suspicious, rootling around like that. But if they came close enough I’d explain, and we’d all have a good laugh about it.

When I was happy the branch lopper was well hidden, I set off again with Lola, aiming for the meeting place again. This time I didn’t stop, but walked right through. And it was just when I’d left the hexagon on the north side that I saw them – another pair of branch loppers, lying in the grass.

It was all so unlikely. What was this? Some kind of sign? How many times would I have to repeat the same thing before I realised what was happening?

I picked up the branch loppers and headed back to the shack. Lola took a while to come back – as if even she was uneasy about the way the walk was going. But I dealt with it quickly. I was an old hand already with the whole lost branch lopper thing. I knew exactly where to put it.

As I made my way back to the shack I started to think of a story that might account for this scattering of branch loppers, and what I might find next. And it was then that I remembered years back when I was out walking with a friend and we found a body.

We’d been trespassing on private land. We knew it was private because there were all these crazy signs, red paint on warped boards, saying KEEP OUT and TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. By the look of the place no-one had been around for years, so we thought it was a fair chance we’d be okay. We carried on past the ruined farmhouse and into the overgrown fields beyond, making up a cliché horror story about the guy who lived here and all the people he’d killed. It was only when I pretended to get shot and did a spectacular cartwheel death fall that I noticed the jacket

It was dropped in the long grass just exactly as if someone had taken it off and carried on walking. There were odd things in the pocket – a bus pass, a ball of string, a blood-stained handkerchief.

‘Shit!’ said Rich, glancing back in the direction of the farmhouse.
We started looking around. We came across other things: a shoe, a pair of trousers. And then we saw the body, lying on its right side over by the barbed wire fence at the nearest edge of the field. We both ran over, but as I’d done a first aid course by that time, I went first.
‘Are you all right?’ I said, leaning over and tentatively touching the body on its shoulder. But the face was all rotten and fallen in, and when I jerked back I remembered the trousers we’d found, and realised that the legs were uncovered and blackened. It was winter, though, and there was no smell. I remember a blackbird perched on a post just a little way away, bobbing up and down, chip-chip-chipping in alarm.
‘We’d better call the police’ I said.
‘Has he been shot?’ said Rich. ‘Turn him over and look.’
But I didn’t really want to do that and in the end neither did Rich.
‘We’d better call the police.’

This was before mobile phones. We could see the roof of a cottage over a nearby hedge, some smoke rising. We walked over there. I climbed on a stump and peered over. There was an elderly woman gently prodding around in a flower bed with an immaculate trowel.
‘Excuse me’ I said
She straightened, and looked about, the trowel held out to one side.
‘Over here,’ I said. ‘The other side of the hedge.’
‘What do you want?’ she said. ‘I’m not alone.’
‘No. It’s okay. Only – we found a body and we wondered if you’d call the police.’
‘I will call the police!’ she said.
‘Great. Thanks. We’ll wait on the road by the abandoned farmhouse.’
‘I’m going to call them right now!’
‘Thank you very much’ I said, jumping back down.

There was a long wait, but eventually they came. Two patrol cars, blue lights flashing, no sirens. We took them to the spot, and then whilst one of them made calls on his radio, another drove us back to the police station to take statements. It was only months later I got a call to let me know what happened. An elderly man had absconded from a home for people with dementia. He’d become lost and confused, and the weather was bad, and the likely cause of death was hypothermia.
‘Why’d he take his clothes off like that?’
‘It’s called paradoxical undressing. People do that when they’re very cold. Apparently,’ said the officer on the phone. He sounded like he was in a rush and didn’t want to be drawn into anything. I thanked him for the update.
And that was that.branch loppers

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