Football scarf wrapped around my face looking like an Italian Ultra, rummaging in the shed for gardening gloves, a spade and green plastic sacks. Stopping off in the kitchen for a penknife and duct tape. I could already see the newspaper headlines.
We first noticed the smell on Wednesday evening. Hard to describe, a sweet gassy odour like stagnant water or a blocked drain, but not quite. The Victorian terrace house has thin walls, cooking smells can permeate through from the neighbours, over-boiled cabbage and re-used cooking oil are the usual treats, this was different.
Friday, I received a text: Mummy thinks that something has died in the loft.
In London it seems to be the trend to have your loft converted into a bedroom with a en-suite shower-room. The most we’ve had done is to have a loft hatch with a pull-down ladder installed. So Saturday morning finds me gingerly opening the hatch and pulling down the ladder, nothing lifeless falls onto my head. I climb the ladder to the gaping hole in the ceiling. Head and shoulders through the hatch was all that I needed to confirm where the treacly smell was coming from.
The attic is dark and dusty, cold in the winter, hot in the summer. It was summer. Filled with boxes and old suitcases, there is a disused water tank to the left, empty, not the source of the odour. Armed with a torch, balancing on the beams, I started to search the perimeter where the light from the bare bulbs doesn’t penetrate. I began at the front of the house, in the South-East corner, working clockwise. South, South-West, behind the boxes. Nothing. A couple of portfolios from my art school days are on the West wall. Nothing.
North-West corner was clear, nothing hiding behind the dining room chairs. Maybe the smell wasn’t from our loft after all, but from next door, the walls are pretty thin. To the North the junction of roof and wall is in shadow, cast from the water tank. I was now almost back to where I started, when I illuminated a cat, a very large grey/brown cat. I needed some fresh air.
At this point my wife popped her head through the hatch and announced that she was off to the hairdressers. Where Grissom gets back-up, I was on my own.
With a neighbour’s suggestion and enough CSIs under my belt, I took pictures before I started. The body was in deep shadow, invisible to the naked eye, only revealed by the beam of the torch and the flash of the camera; the images revealed that the creature was laying head Northwards with one paw stretched out to the sky, one eye open. I would have to crawl behind the tank into the pitch darkness, and as we’ve not even had the attic boarded I would be crawling on the rafters, trying to avoid putting my knee through the bedroom ceiling. The cat was on a piece of discarded roofing felt, which in turn was resting on a piece of old red underlay. I could reach the material without going to far into the darkness, with a torch in one hand; I gripped and pulled. It started to slide, almost. There was a distinct possibility that the top half was going stay where it was, as the rest came towards me.
Another suggestion was that I put up a note in the local pet shop. “Is this your cat? – please collect from… No reward necessary”.
I had to crawl further into the depths to get within reach of the roofing felt; I was now closer than I wanted to be, my hand brushing the tail, which didn’t look as if it was attached. This time when I pulled, the roofing felt shifted and the body slid towards me, I pulled until I could get it nearer to the open hatch and into a spacious area. With the faux Nazi salute, the cat was longer than the garden sack, standing on the ladder with my top half in the loft space it was a struggle to slide the body into the bag, even with gardening gloves on handling a large very dead animal is unpleasant. And the smell. Duct tape wrapped around the top of the bag to seal it, another sack, this time top to bottom. Duct tape, another sack, bottom to top. Duct tape. Lastly a black rubbish bag. Done.
How do murderers such as Dennis Nilsen or Jeffery Dahmer get away with hiding bodies for so long? The smell. It lingers. It’s still with me, walking down the street, passing a hedgerow, a bin outside a kebab shop. The smell of death.
Later I wrapped and rewrapped with four or five more bags and metres of duct tape and put it the whole grim package inside the dustbin hoping to contain the smell. Monday I opened the bin.