I’m ‘Home Alone’ with Ollie this week, and woke up with a start this morning. Something was in my head, and even though it is not Sunday, I thought it was worth a ‘thinking aloud’, despite being a rather unpleasant subject.
Working in emergency ambulances, you get used to dealing with all sorts of things. But there are some things that nobody can ever get used to, and that will always stay in the minds of those who dealt with them. It is a sad fact that many people die alone, and unnoticed. I don’t mean people who die when there are none of their loved ones around at the time, or those who pass quietly during the night, in their own beds, or in hospitals. I am talking about the thousands who literally have nobody. No friends, family, work colleagues, or concerned neighbours. Often, their bodies will remain undiscovered for days, months, even years.They might be sitting on an armchair, slumped over a dining table, or perched precariously on a toilet seat. Sometimes, they are tucked up in bed, or perhaps lying on the floor in a hallway, or living room.
Modern life brought with it a lot of social changes. Doorstep delivery of milk went into decline, and less people took daily newspapers too. Neighbours became less involved in the lives of those nearby, and many single people, or widows and widowers, withdrew into a solitary lifestyle, having little contact with the world outside of their home. Companies stopped collecting rents and other payments door-to-door, and save for some enthusiastic Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or charity collectors, you could easily spend many years with not so much as a ring on your bell, or a knock on the door.
Eventually, signs appear that something is not right. Post piling up, and sticking out of the letter box. Perhaps a bad smell, annoying the neighbours. Overgrown grass in a front garden, or unpaid bills resulting in the attendance of a debt collector. Sooner or later, someone suspects something is amiss, and rings 999. They send an ambulance, in case the person is ill, and the police too, to gain lawful entry by force. Once you have attended such calls a few times, the clues shout at at you. In the summer, the insides of the windows will be covered by fat bluebottles. Hundreds of them. When it is colder, just lifting the letter-box will reveal an unmistakable smell. A smell you will remember all your life, even though you don’t want to. If there is a frosted glass panel in the door, common in social housing in London, you will see a veritable mountain of junk mail and unopened post piled behind it.
Once entry has been gained, at least one of us has to go in, to accompany the police officer, and confirm ‘life extinct’. The police officer’s job is worse, as he will later have to examine the corpse for signs of obvious foul play, before handing over to the funeral company nominated by the Coroner. In we go, dreading the scene we know will await us. Sometimes, it is bearable, once you have covered your nose and mouth with a mask, or your arm at least. A body slumped on a floor, or still in bed. I didn’t have to even touch most of them, as death was blindingly obvious. On occasion, I was presented with the grim spectacle of a maggot-filled body, one that appeared to still be moving as a result of their activity. Occasionally, what I found was barely still resembling a human being, more like a misshapen, liquid-filled sack. And they were almost always men. It seems, at least from my experience, that single females and widows are more sociable, so easily missed. Men on their own in old age easily slip into reclusive ways, and seem content to rarely venture out.
At the time, I thought that strange. But now I am officially a man in his old age, I understand that completely.
In some of those properties, we also found the remains of a dead cat or dog. Unable to get out once their owner died, they were doomed to starve to death, or die of thirst. I always wondered why nobody ever reported hearing them bark, whine, or meow. People in London are used to noise though, and used to tolerating it. I always felt so sorry for any pets I saw like that. At least the person must have died quickly, or they would have undoubtedly summoned help, had they felt in pain, or been ill. But the poor animal had to linger, wondering why nobody came to feed it, or refill its water.
Those jobs rarely if ever involved younger people, such as drug users, or alcoholics. Their choice of lifestyle dictates that they have a group of acquaintances, albeit others looking to share their drugs or drink. People in that underclass of society tend to be discovered earlier, if only as a result of an anonymous phone call.
After handing over to the police officer, we are free to leave, and go on to the next call awaiting us. Unless the dead person was the victim of a crime that contributed to their death, we are unlikely to ever find out any more about them, or how they died. Because they are not in what is designated as a ‘Public place’, we are spared the very unpleasant job of taking the body to the local mortuary. That will be done by the on-call undertaker, using a metal box or basic transit coffin.
The reason all this came flooding back today is that I woke up wondering what would have happened had I died alone in the house during the night. Julie is not back until Friday, and our neighbours are unlikely to pry. They are used to seeing a car on the driveway, and seeing me out and about with Ollie in the afternoon. But if that car was missing, and I wasn’t out with Ollie, they might reasonably assume that I had gone off somewhere with him, perhaps to visit a relative. So it would have been Friday at the earliest, and I would have been undiscovered for four days. I like to think Ollie’s eventual barking might alert someone, but a lot of dogs bark all the time around here, and we don’t check to see if their owners have died.
Maybe we should?