Where the bodies are buried

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The Independent Online
A YARN in the book Tails and the Unexpected brought back some gory memories for me. The story concerns two Lapp fishermen whose brother died in the winter. It was impossible to reach the nearest town, so they buried him in the ice and dug him up when spring came.

The well-preserved body was driven by sled across the tundra to the local railway station. The only train to stop that day was a passenger train, so they took their brother as a fare-paying passenger, dressed him in his best suit and propped him between them in the carriage. If the ticket collector came, they planned to pass him off as drunk or asleep.

The carriage was empty and stayed so for most of the journey, so the brothers decided to go to the buffet car for a drink, forgetting that there was one more stop to their destination. Unfortunately, a passenger boarded at that station and entered their compartment with a heavy suitcase.

He tried to lift it on to the rack above the sleeping man, but the train started with a jolt and the suitcase thumped down upon the corpse, which slid off the seat. The poor man, failing to detect any sign of life and fearing he had killed his fellow ''passenger'', acted at once before his crime could be discovered. He opened the compartment door and threw the body out.

When the two Lapps returned from their drink, they were astonished to find their dead brother missing. "Where's our brother?" they asked the man in the compartment.

"Oh, he got off at the last stop," he told them.

He was baffled when the brothers burst into laughter. Under pressure, he confessed. But there was a happy ending: the body was recovered and given a ceremonious burial.

Good story, huh? I can't quite match that one, but I have encountered three corpses while fishing. This is not altogether surprising. A recent Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents survey estimates that 40 anglers a year have drowned over the past decade. The Royal Life-Saving Society is actually preparing a programme to cut these numbers. It believes that fishermen should have basic lifesaving skills in order to rescue someone in difficulties.

Although I have these skills, I've never had the chance to rescue anybody except my brother (who wasn't really drowning) and an old lady who fell off Bournemouth Pier while I was fishing there. Even that was scarcely heroic. As she washed under the pier I caught her by the arms and held her until others helped me to lift her out.

Fortunately she lived to tell the tale, but many who fall in are not so lucky. Twice on the Thames I have seen bodies float past. In each case the person concerned turned out to be an angler who could not swim.

I never saw the third body, thank goodness. It spent several weeks on the bottom of the river at Maidenhead and had come to rest in a deep spot close to the lock. Having fished there as kids almost daily all summer, we were baffled when we started losing hooks in an unknown snag. Even the heavy tackle we used then could not shift it.

When you're young, the loss of a hook is a serious matter. Many's the time I had to pack up because I lost one. We talked about getting a rope and trying to pull out the mysterious thief; we even considered diving down and trying to see what "it" was. Never happened, of course. We were great on ideas, short on action and anyway the Thames was always too cold.

Weeks later, when we were back at school, the Maidenhead Advertiser revealed the culprit. A boater who got his anchor stuck had hauled the grisly remains to the surface.

I never got round to asking for my hooks back.

Tails and the Unexpected, edited by Billee Chapman Pincher, Swan Hill Press, pounds 16.95.

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