‘Slow down sarge.’ A slight pause, then, louder, ‘Sarge, slow down. Oh for f-‘s sake.’
We watched in frustration as the bow wave of the police launch pushed the body out of our reach for the second times in as many minutes.
‘Can we take it a little slower next time, sarge?’
It was, perhaps, not the most diplomatic way of telling the sergeant that he’d made a complete hash of things. His mood, already foul, got worse as he took the boat round in another high speed turn and prepared to approach the body for the third time. It should have been a routine job. Thames officers based at Waterloo Pier were regularly called upon to deal with similar cases and mishaps were, fortunately, rare. But this was one of them.
At shortly after ten o’clock one summer morning, the police radio crackled into life with our call sign and information concerning a body in the water, below London Bridge. We were about ten minutes away but took the call anyway, despite some grumbling from the sergeant who was anxious to get back for his breakfast.
Arriving off Hays Wharf, we began the search, knowing that a floating dead body is difficult to see. Usually, only the hump of its back is visible above the surface while the head, arms and legs hang vertically downwards. So it was that it took a further ten minutes to find it. All we then had to do was come alongside (taking care to ensure that the bow wave didn’t push the body away), slip a line under its armpits and secure it to one of the forward cleats. In the early ’60s there was never any question of bringing the body in-board and still less of placing it in a floating coffin. Instead it would be towed through the water, back to Waterloo Pier, with only a canvas sheet draped over it.
But not this time. This time we could have fried an egg on the bald head of our fractious sergeant – no, I never did discover the cause – as he rammed the throttle to full-ahead.
‘Sarge, please sarge. Oh, never mind.’
With the hump in the water almost upon us, the hundred horsepower Perkins Diesel engine was thrown into reverse and the two of us in the stern had to hang on for dear life as the body again began to bob away. Determined to catch it, my colleague came perilously close to stabbing it with the pointed end of the boat hook before finally hitching onto some clothing and bringing it alongside.
‘You got it, yet?’ yelled the sergeant, his face redder than I remembered it from the moment before.
‘Give us a minute, sarge.’
The line was passed under the body and made fast. We now had to get to the bows of the launch and secure the body to a cleat. That, anyway, was the plan.
The roar of the engine caught us unawares and before we could react, fifty yards of line had paid out astern, a dead body at its far end. We just had time to tie off the last few inches round one of the stern cleats and shout a warning to the sergeant. Clearly he didn’t hear us. At least, not immediately. We were now going flat out for home. Fifty yards astern of us, the body was planing along, its head and shoulders clear of the water as we passed under a succession of bridges, watched by bemused members of the public.
It was a chastened and very quiet sergeant who finally got to his breakfast later that morning.
The Rising Tide by Patrick Easter is published by Quercus