I was standing dejectedly under the bridge, dressed in my diving suite and up to my ankles in slushy mud and snow. Although under the rubber suit I was wearing woollen socks, woollen long-johns and a thick submarine sweater I was still chilled to the bone, trying to shelter from the snow and sleet while we waited for instructions for the dive and my companion Knobby Hall wasn’t helping by constantly moaning in my ear.
“I wish some bugger would get organised so that we can either dive or bugger off to get warm, I don’t want to bugger around here all bloody day.” Knobby was a good diver but had a limited vocabulary, “what are we here for any bloody way, no bugger will tell us, what did that copper say to you just now?” I shrugged my shoulders, “he wouldn’t say anything except that we have to wait for some police detective who’s going to brief us on what we are supposed to be doing here, but I reckon the Appy Chappy knows why we’re here but he’s staying very quiet for a change.” Knobby gritted his teeth and spat in the direction of the Diving Officer, “yeah that bugger won’t tell us bugger all, if he did then we would know as much as him and he couldn’t have that could he.” Knobby didn’t like the Diving Officer, nick-named the Appy Chappy on account of his inability to smile laugh or see the funny side of any situation and the feeling was more than mutual because the Diving Officer really hated Knobby.
“Hello! Who’s this coming down the bank? It must be the detective chap we’ve been waiting for, now perhaps we can get on with things instead of just freezing to death standing here.” A tall grey-haired man in a duffle coat and Wellington boots came down the bank and as the Diving Officer joined us introduced himself. “Right lads sorry to keep you waiting especially in these weather conditions and for such an unpleasant job as this.” I was about to ask “how unpleasant a job” when the detective continued, “In the early hours of the morning a milk tanker driver, saw a man dumping something off the bridge. As he passed he was so concerned that he kept watching in his rearview mirror and formed the opinion that what was dumped could have been a human body. Now that in itself doesn’t mean much, you’d be surprised what gets dumped off that bridge some nights, but we also had a frantic mother whose daughter didn’t come home last night. Now I have a gut feeling that what the delivery driver thought he saw, was the body of the missing daughter being dumped, so the police are treating this as a murder, so you will be looking for a young woman’s body.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I got the horrible feeling that comes with the prospect of seeing death at close quarters, but the detective continued, “Now if you find her I want you to note everything, before you move her, come up and talk to me there may be aspects I want you to look at in more detail before she’s disturbed and do try to be careful to protect anything that could be evidence. Now, I must just mention that last week in that Christmas Eve storm a lorry crossing the bridge lost his full load of 1200 sheets of roofing iron and they ended up in the water right where you are going to search, what sort of difficulty that poses for you I don’t know but just remember one sheet of iron could easily hide a body.
We turned to enter the water, but the policeman put up his hand. “Before you go in, there are a couple of important points. If this is murder then the person who dumped the body may have made a couple of crucial mistakes. First, he dumped her from this span of the bridge, and as you know, the main tidal flow is right over on the other side, and the water this side is much shallower. Also at the time the tanker driver claims she was dumped was low tide slack water, so anything dropped into the water at that time is more likely to have just sunk in the still water and settled on the bottom just downstream, rather than be swept out to sea as he no doubt intended. Do your best lads good luck.”
Abruptly the Appy Chappy took over, “right the water is only shallow but you will be on lifelines so that I can get your attendants to direct you where I want you to search, I don’t want you wasting time searching in the wrong area, is that fully understood Hall?” Knobby said smartly, “yes Sir absolutely Sir.” The Diving Officer scowled, “right, any questions?” But before anyone had time to ask any, he barked, “well get on with it then.” However Knobby wasn’t going to let him get away with his rudeness without retaliating. “Oh! Sir” he said in a rather too loud voice. The Appy Chappy turned around obviously annoyed, “what is it Hall” he snapped.
Knobby paused for effect and smiled just a bit, “Well Sir, as we haven’t seen you since Christmas I’d just like to take the opportunity to wish you and yours the compliments of the season, Sir.” The Appy Chappy was stunned into confused silence and was reduced to grinding his teeth, while Knobby, now smiling broadly at his little victory pulled on his facemask and waddled into the icy water, while I followed laughing inwardly.
The water was very painful on my face and especially on my exposed hands. In those days, before neoprene was available in the UK no self-respecting naval diver would consider wearing gloves underwater. Consequently, within minutes of entering the water, my hands were so numb that they were virtually useless. The water was full of mud and as the policeman had warned the bottom was littered with sheets of new galvanized roofing iron. Some were single sheets that were easy to move while others were in thick stacks partly embedded in the bud and impossible to move but all had sharp edges, so I soon acquired a few cuts from the iron but because of the numbing cold, I felt no pain.
I looked and felt in every hiding place, hoping, yet not wanting to, reach in and find a body. My breathing came in short painful gasps because of the bitter cold and I had difficulty concentrating on what was required to search effectively.
As I came to the limit of the first leg of my search where the current was stronger, the water was a lot cleaner and I could see for much further, but just then my attendant signalled on my lifeline to reverse my direction of search and move downstream about the length of a sheet of iron. On first entering the water I had been apprehensive about encountering a body and recovering it without messing up any police evidence, but after twenty minutes the cold had so numbed my brain that all I could think of was finding her quickly and getting out of the water.
Just then my attendant signalled me to come up and I surfaced, hanging on to my lifeline against the slight current. I was told that Knobby had either found something or his lifeline had become snagged on something and I was to assist him. I swam over and joined Knobby underwater and found him struggling to lift a heavy stack of iron. I saw right away that his lifeline had become stuck under the iron. Knobby seemed unduly agitated by such a minor setback and kept pointing to where his stuck line went under the iron, but I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. As far as I could see the solution was quite simple, cut the line where it went under the stack and retie it on Knobby’s shoulder strap, then untie or cut the short end that was holding Knobby down, and then continue the search.
With hands that were beyond feeling I drew my heavy diving knife and made to cut the line, but Knobby stopped me with a wave of his hand and a shake of his head. Then taking my knife he cut the line close to his shoulder strap, then, leaving the lifeline snagged on the iron we surfaced and swam to shallower water where we could stand up, spit out our mouthpieces and talk.
“Did you see her? I left my lifeline snagged to mark the spot, she’s under that stack of iron, completely covered.” I was stunned, with the intense cold I wasn’t thinking clearly and in the confusion of Knobby being snagged and cutting him free, I had almost forgotten the real purpose of the dive. Now he was telling me the young woman’s body was under the stack of iron and I hadn’t even seen it.
As we got ashore the policeman and the Appy Chappy came forward to hear what Knobby had to say. “She is right in under a big stack of iron, must have gone in feet first because all I could see was the top of her head and one hand. By the way, she’s blond and engaged to be married, right?” The Detective looked a little started, “yes as far as we know she’s blond and she was supposed to have met her fiancé last night so that makes her engaged, but how did you work that out, Mr Sherlock Holmes?” Knobby smiled, “well the only part of her showing is her left hand and she’s wearing an engagement ring,” then added with a smile, “ Elementry my dear Watson.” I was impressed with Knobby’s logic, the Appy Chappy looked sour, but the policeman smiled and said, “When you leave the navy, you must come and see us at the CID, we might just have a job for you.” Knobby grinned, ignoring the Appy Chappy, and turning sideways so as to more or less exclude him from the conversation, spoke directly to the policeman, “I think the best way to get her out would be to tie a line around her wrists and gently pull her out in the reverse of what she went in, because we aren’t going to move that stack of iron without a crane.” The Policeman nodded, “I’ll have to rely on your judgement for that, but here, take my gloves and if you can put them on her to retain any evidence and secure that ring, it’ll be very important to the relations, also as she comes out I want her put into our basket stretcher and look in the hole for any other evidence, OK?”
Just then the Appy Chappy barged his way forward, “I think you two have done enough, there will be more divers arriving shortly, you just brief them on what needs doing.” Knobby bristled with indignation and turned to confront the Appy Chappy, “Excuse me Sir if you don’t mind, I think we are the best team to finish this task, we have enough air left and we know exactly what is required,” then turning to the policeman he said, “What do you think Inspector?” The Inspector, realising there was a battle of wills going on smothered a smile and said “well we are going to need all the divers we can get to manhandle the stretcher ashore, and it would save time, remember, there is a family and a fiancé waiting to know the outcome of our endeavours here this morning, we don’t want to keep them waiting.” Knobby, straight-faced, turned to the Appy Chappy and said “Right that settles it then we’ll get on with the job.”
Realising he’d lost another argument with Knobby Hall, the Appy Chappy, stood grinding his teeth before turning away abruptly to shout at the two new divers that were coming down the bank. Cold beyond feeling we followed Knobby’s snagged lifeline back to where the young woman’s body lay. Knobby carefully fitted the detective’s gloves to the delicate hands then untied my lifeline and tied it very gently around the wrists. With the help of the other two divers the body was eased out of its hidey-hole and placed carefully into the police metal basket stretcher, although I assisted, I made a point of not looking at the girls face.
Once the job was done and I had spent a painful half an hour in the shower trying in vain to get warm, both Knobby and I felt dispirited and empty, although we had successfully recovered the young woman’s body it certainly didn’t feel like a good outcome. Even later, when we got a message from the police to say ‘a man was in custody and helping them with their enquiries,’ there seemed no reason to feel happy, so for a while we sat in a quiet corner of the pub and drank in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.
As the evening wore on and we got a bit drunk we did talk a bit about the dive and the terrible cold and about the Appy Chappy, which brought a smile to Knobby’s face, but when he next spoke, his words completely surprised me. “Do you believe in ghosts mate?” For a moment I couldn’t get my head around the question, “what do you mean Knobby, white ladies in castles or headless horsemen riding through the night, that sort of ghost?” Knobby looked pained at my reply “no I don’t mean that sort of ghost, I mean.” He paused for a moment as if to get the words right, Knobby was not known for his deep thinking, or for any interest or knowledge of the occult. He was usually a man of few words a down to earth sort of chap with a good sense of humour, but not given to talking about his inner thoughts, emotions or certainly not ghosts. It seemed Knobby was having trouble formulating what it was he was trying to say, finally, he said, “Do you believe that we all have souls or spirits and that when we die, our spirit goes to heaven?”
I was more than a little taken aback by his words but not wishing to belittle the subject or stop Knobby’s chain of thought, I replied, “Yeh, I believe that that’s what I was brought up to believe, were you thinking about the girl this morning?” Knobby ignored my question, “So answer me this if someone was murdered do you think their spirit could remain here on earth long enough to assist living people to find their body.” He leant forward talking earnestly, “now this is just between me and you, OK? I don’t want it going any further you understand? Something funny happened down there this morning, something I don’t understand and can’t explain.”
Knobby looked me in the eye, “well this morning I’m sure I looked under that stack of iron and there was nothing there so I moved on, but when I tried to signal my attendant on my lifeline to take in some slack, he actually pulled me back to the same place, where my lifeline went under the stack and jammed. Just then the water cleared for a minute and I saw her hand.” He looked a bit embarrassed, but carried on, “her left hand was sticking out at the top end of the stack and flopping back and forth, well at first I thought it was flopping to and fro, then I realised that it was actually beckoning to me, actually signalling me to return.” Knobby paused and looked extremely embarrassed while I tried to formulate a suitable reply about the extreme cold affecting our brains and allowing us to see things that weren’t there, but before I could think of the words, he spoke again. “Don’t laugh mate but I got the distinct impression that she was talking to me, she was saying, ‘over here Knobby you dozy blighter, can’t you see me, I’m holding on to your lifeline until you come and get me.’ I mean it wasn’t my imagination, I actually heard her voice.”
Knobby fell silent, but the hairs on the back of my neck had risen and a shiver ran down my spine. He was obviously relieved that he had shared his weird secret, but I was at a loss on what to say so there was a long silence broken by Knobby asking “you want another pint mate?” I was about to make a suitable reply when Knobby cut me short, “ you know what, I’ve been thinking about that iron mate, we should go down there one dark night and I’ll get my mate that’s got a small crane and we could lift a load of those iron sheets, we could make a fortune. Then, when we’ve sold it all we could tell the Appy Chappy what we’d done and how much we’d made, and thank him for putting us on to it in the first place, he would be furious, I’d love that.”
I had to smile at Knobby’s sudden reversal to the rogue I knew and liked, I said “Yeh! That’s a great idea Knobby count me in for some iron stealing, I could do with the money and it would be good to get one over on the Appy Chappy.” But, secretly I was thinking, ‘after what you just told me about the girls spirit remaining earthbound, you, Knobby Hall, won’t be getting me down there any dark night soon, in fact, wild horses wouldn’t drag me down there any dark night or sunlit summer day, so just forget it.’
FOOTNOTE. That same winter while diving in Poole Harbour, I had my own ‘funny’ underwater experience which was undoubtedly caused by the intense cold. I was swimming along the sea bottom with a companion who suddenly noticed I was acting odd. I was swimming on my back, vigorously bumping or banging my head against the sea bottom. My companion managed to haul me to the surface, half unconscious and get me to shore where I eventually came to my senses. I explained to my confused companions that while I was underwater I was convinced I should surface and made every effort to do so, except in my confused state I was actually swimming upside down and trying to surface downwards into the sea bottom. It was later considered that because of the effect of the intense cold water on my brain I had suffered a Vertigo episode, something we had never heard of before then.
There were no ongoing ill effects and I put it down to experience and something to watch out for in the future. However, the thought did cross my mind that Knobby Hall could have been suffering from Vertigo when he heard the dead girls voice, but then I realised that he could not have been, because he was so logical and rational right afterwards, unlike myself who had trouble talking making sense and even standing up straight for a while, and oh! yes, I was persuaded by Knobby to go back down some dark nights and a few sunny days to recover quite a lot of iron and sell it at a considerable profit. I moved on shortly after, so whether Knobby thanked the Appy chappy for putting us on to it I never heard but my guess is he did.