A Good Place by Graham Buchan
This is the thing. I don’t want you to think I’m weird or anything. I’m a pretty normal bloke. I’ve got a wife, a dog, two lads growing up. The older one, Sean, got into a bit of trouble. He was found smoking marijuana at school. He received a very stern reprimand, which was only right. The police were called but he was let off with a warning. But he’s a pretty good lad. So is the younger one, Lionel. He’s the quiet one. But they’re both good lads.
Anyway, I think I’m pretty normal. But here’s the thing. When I’m walking along, say in a rural area – well, obviously I live in London, so rural areas aren’t exactly what we have, but, as an example, quite close to us is what they call a city farm. It’s not a proper farm; it doesn’t have combine harvesters or receive European subsidies, but it is a farm in the sense that it has farm animals – there’s cows, sheep, some goats, some chickens. It’s run by a sort of committee: local people who managed to take over the land and run it. I suppose its main benefit is educational: it lets the city kids get an idea of nature and stuff. Anyway, it’s spread over quite a large area, several acres I expect, so there’s bits of field, meadows, wooded bits, all sorts, all within the city. It’s brilliant when you think about it. Anyway it’s completely open to the public, so you get people strolling around and enjoying it. So here’s the thing. I’ve been walking around there on occasions, sometimes with the dog, sometimes not, and I have thought, occasionally, looking at a dense area of trees and shrubbery and so on, I’ve sometimes thought to myself, that’s probably a good place to hide a body. I’ve just thought it to myself: put a body deep in there somewhere, and it probably wouldn’t be found. Not for a while anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a murderer or anything. Nothing peculiar. I’m not planning to bump somebody off. But that’s what I’ve thought sometimes: that that would be a good place.
Also, sometimes in the car. Like sometimes you leave a motorway and the slip road curls right round and you go back under the road you left, and for the whole junction there’s four of these slip roads, so that from above you would see four of these loops. They call them cloverleaf junctions. Well, each of those loops basically encloses wasteland, and it’s usually untended, so it’s just very long grasses and shrubs. I’ve thought that could also be a good place to hide a body. Because you’re not going to get any ramblers exploring the inside of a motorway junction. No-one ever goes there, except occasionally I suppose, someone is sent to cut the grass back, but not often. Of course to dump a body there would be difficult. You’d have to stop the car for at least a few minutes, and that would be dangerous. No-one would stop a car there unless they had broken down. You’d have to do it at the dead of night and hope no-one else came by. No patrols or anything. And you’d have to be pretty quick, so you couldn’t be too fussy about where you left it, the body. And of course there’s the possibility of cameras. I mean it’s amazing how many there are, everywhere. I’m not sure if every motorway junction has cameras but obviously a lot of them do. You’d have to do a proper recce.
I’ll tell you. I got a parking ticket once which was really unjust. I was five minutes over. I even saw the traffic warden further down the street and I went after him to remonstrate. I explained I had been visiting Mary in hospital, my wife was in hospital, but of course they are trained not to enter into any kind of reasoning with you. They’re like nasty fascist automatons. It was really annoying. Being a city hospital, there was obviously no hospital car park, or just a tiny one which charged exorbitantly, so I had found a pay-and-display place and put in an hour and a half’s worth of money which should have been plenty. But the doctor looking after Mary collared me just as I was preparing to go, and – he was very well-meaning, very attentive, and explained her condition and everything – but he went on a bit, so that when I finally got away I knew I was a bit iffy on the time, but I thought I’d still be alright, but no, there was the bloody ticket, and I wouldn’t mind betting that the wardens even wait around for your time to run out, after all they are on bonuses, and of course the councils just want to soak up whatever they can out of you. So I was really upset. I appealed against the ticket, thinking - I suppose naïvely – that someone would have a bit of compassion, a bit of common sense, but no, I didn’t win the appeal, and that was eighty quid down the drain.
I was so angry I thought I’ll go back and bugger up the pay-and-display machine – not wreck it or anything, but just make it inoperable. So I went back after I lost the appeal with a chisel and a hammer and thought I’d just bend the coin slot or something, something I could do in twenty seconds, just stop the bloody thing fleecing other people for a few days. But of course when I looked around carefully – there were hardly any people – but there was of course a sodding camera. Right up on the lamppost. So of course I didn’t do anything to the machine, and after that I became very conscious of how many cameras there are. All over the place. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, knowing that no matter where you are, some jerk is spending his entire working life looking at ordinary people, going about their ordinary business, and being so bored that he hopes he’ll catch someone doing something wrong, just to brighten up his day. That’s what it’s come to.
Anyway, rest assured, I’m not actually planning on disposing of a body. But if anyone was, the presence of cameras would certainly be something they’d have to check out.
I also thought, if someone was disposing of a body then in all probability they’ve murdered someone. So they don’t just want the body to remain concealed for as long as possible, they want it to be hard to identify when it is found. I mean, if it’s not found for a period of weeks or months, then sure, there will be deterioration, it will decay. And you’d probably be hoping that wildlife - foxes or whatever - would play their part, chew away significant features and so on. But it’s amazing – we know this –how good forensic science is. Nowadays they analyze fibres, they profile DNA, I mean they’re digging up people from years ago and finding stuff out. Of course the first thing is the teeth. The teeth remain the same, they don’t deteriorate. So if they have a suspicion of who it is and match the dental records, bingo! So I’ve sometimes asked myself, if I was in that position.... if I’d actually murdered someone and was going to get rid of the body, could I actually bring myself to do something about the teeth? I mean it’s pretty grizzly. Could I actually pull the teeth out of a dead person? I’m almost sure I couldn’t. The least thing you’d need would be a pair of pliers. I couldn’t do it, I’m sure. To hold a dead person’s head, which of course would be cold and clammy, and yank their teeth out with a pair of pliers, I couldn’t do that. I’m way too squeamish. And I’m sure it’s pretty hard to do anyway. For instance two years ago I needed a couple of extractions. Within a few months I needed two taken out, fairly big ones. Not the ones right at the back but along the side, molars I guess. My dentist, she’s a very good dentist, an Indian lady, she assured me they had to come out but she was really good, she knows I’m a bit of a coward so she made sure the anaesthetic had taken properly, and on each occasion it was virtually pain-free, but it’s still horrible when you feel them coming out, it’s like a momentary violation, and you hear it, and it’s almost like a little amputation. Anyway, on each occasion she put the extracted tooth on the little tray with her implements and she asked me, each time, did I want to see it? And of course I couldn’t talk because I was totally numb and there were instruments still in my mouth, so I just gestured ‘no’ with my hand, I kind of waved the idea away, and she thought it was funny. But I know what a whole tooth looks like, with the long roots and so on, and I knew they were covered with blood, and no way did I want to see them. But even with proper tools it’s quite a thing to pull teeth out.
So I suppose that if you had murdered someone, and you didn’t want there to be teeth which would help identify them, the only option left is to actually sever the head. And get rid of it somewhere else. But that’s hardly for the squeamish either. What I think I’ve read is that there isn’t that much blood. Once the body has gone cold, if you start cutting it up, there’s not as much blood as you might expect. It’s not as if there’s a heart still blasting away and sending a crimson fountain all over your walls. I think I remember reading about one of the famous serial killers and him saying it was relatively mess-free, to cut up a body. Not that I could ever do anything like that. I mean those guys are just, well, it’s unbelievable. How could you do that? But I have thought, if I had to remove a head, how would I do it? I suppose most people would use an axe and try and do it with one blow. I don’t have an axe in the house so it wouldn’t be an option, but even if I did, I’m not sure it’s the best way. Presumably you would have to arrange the body over a piece of wood or something such that the axe didn’t damage your floor or anything. But to me it seems too brutal, too clumsy. What if you didn’t get through on the first blow? Would you have to keep chopping away? It might send incriminating particles all around the room. How could you be sure you had properly cleaned up? Gruesome though it sounds, I think a really sharp knife would be better. Like a long kitchen knife. I’m pretty sure that would get through the soft tissues. The muscles, the windpipe etcetera. Of course the difficult part would be the spine. I suppose you would have to, as it were, get the blade to find the gap between two vertebrae, and then press down very firmly, but I’ve no idea if that’s easy or difficult, to find the gap. Difficult I expect. And way too horrible. You’d have to be a complete psycho, or incredibly cold-blooded. No way could I do that. But of course some people do. Some people do awful things.
Anyway, I’ve also come to think, could I ever be in a position, myself, where I had murdered someone and had to get rid of a body? I mean I’m pretty mild-mannered, I get on with people. The only thing I can think of is if I’d surprised a burglar. Everyone gets burgled at some time. We’ve been burgled. And it’s horrible. Not just losing stuff, but the feeling of invasion. That someone’s been in your house. That’s the worst thing. But fortunately burglary mostly happens when people are away, so although it’s horrible, you don’t actually confront the perpetrator. But what if you did come across a burglar in your house? There isn’t going to be any dialogue is there? You’re not going to sit down and talk things through? Discuss social inequality or anything. And you can’t call the police while a burglary’s going on. If he turned and did a runner, that would be bad enough. But what if he confronted you? Threatened you with violence? I mean that’s when I get angry. I’m not going to take any shit. I’ve thought this through a few times because these are real considerations. I have a heavy crow bar under our bed. I bloody well would use it. And next to the front door is our little utility room, with the bikes and the lawnmower. It’s in there I keep my tools. It would be pretty easy for me to grab a chisel, or a screwdriver, and then, a quick stab thorough the heart. That would stop a burglar. Stop him in his tracks.
Then of course you would call the police. “I’ve got a dead burglar in my front hall.” Except that, nowadays, killing a burglar isn’t always seen as the right thing to do. People have gone to jail. There was that Norfolk bloke. Two or three years in jail he got, for defending his house. And even if what you did was justified, even if a jury finds in your favour, there’s the length of time it takes to come to court, there’s all the interrogation you have to go through, and all the publicity, and newspapers would be forever on your back, and probing into your life, and your family’s life, and some people would never believe you were innocent, because some people are like that, they always believe the worst, and your life would be hell.
So you’ve got a dead burglar, and you know you were in the right, and you’re a normal person who wants to get on with his life, so what do you do? You get rid of the body. Simple. And you put his phone on silent and drop it in a litter bin on an inter-city train and it gives out lots of spurious locations. Sorted.
This evening I decided on a nice long walk with Beth. Sean was out with his friends, Lionel locked in his room with his computer. Mary was a little drowsy with her medication and preferred to watch Strictly Come Dancing. But as soon as I grabbed her lead Beth was totally up for it. So we drove out of town to the little car park next to Bebbington Woods. The sun was going down but it was still pretty light. A lovely sharp hint of autumn in the air. You can go on a big walk in a rough circle. In some places the land slopes away sharply in mini ravines, and there’s a series of connected ponds. I love the old trees, particularly the oaks with their gnarled bark. Most of the leaves were starting to turn, a lovely sight. I let Beth off her lead and she bounded energetically here and there, disappearing under the dense ferns, snuffling around, and then running back again. Family life is good but sometimes you need a bit of solitude, a rest from everyday worries and the chance to let your mind roam free. I loved the scrunch of the twigs and acorns under my feet. After a while Beth ran off to the side, down a sort of gully. She went quite far, yelping away happily. I could just glimpse her tail wagging furiously above the ferns. I called to her, Beth, Beth! She was very interested in something. Beth! For a moment she looked up at me. Come on Beth! But she was too busy. She was a good hundred metres distant and I certainly couldn’t be bothered to slide down the slope and wade through the undergrowth to see what she was up to. She seemed to be tugging at something. Come on Beth! I would do the walking away trick. Come on Beth! I shouted, and continued along the path. I swished her lead against the low shrubs. She always came back after a while. However this time was the first time ever that I actually went far enough not to see her any more. Come on Beth! I kept shouting. I must have gone another three or four hundred metres. I could double back if necessary, but then I heard her, bounding along with her familiar yelp. I would give her a good cuddle. But she stopped on the track, about fifty metres from my position. She had something in her mouth. In the gathering gloom it was hard to make out what it was. Dark and floppy. Her tail wasn’t wagging. She had an uncertain look on her face, as if asking what she should do. Come on Beth! I shouted. Good girl! She lolloped forward and dropped it at my feet. It was like a woollen hat, but filthy. Actually more like a balaclava. I found a long stick and prodded it, and saw that on the inside it was teeming with maggots. Yuk! I gingerly raised it with the stick, carefully keeping it at arms length. I walked forward about twenty metres to one of the ponds, and sort of cast it into the water. Beth made as if she wanted to swim after it, but I said No, this way! Come on Beth! We continued round the woods and eventually got back to the car. Good girl! I said as I lifted her in.
We drove home contentedly in the dark.
© Graham Buchan 2103
Graham Buchan has had two stories read at Liars’ League, London. He has published two books and a pamphlet of poetry (the tall lighthouse), travel writing, several short stories and dozens of film and art reviews. Professionally he makes factual film, TV and video, and spent a substantial period as a freelance editor for ABC News, (and was once kissed on the cheek by Barbara Walters). He brought his poetry to New York in 2006 and 2009.
A Good Place was read by Andrew Lloyd-Jones for the Murder & Mayhem Show on 2nd October 2013