YOUR HOLIDAY DISASTER

A surreal tale of the body on the beach and the pedallo hearse. By Aimee Chalmers

Late on the first afternoon after we arrived in Skiathos in Greece, we went down to the beach for a swim, then queued for the shower.

Then, with the sand washed out of our hair and from between our toes, we dressed for the evening and gathered on the terrace. Martha, first on the scene, thought there was something "funny" happening on the beach.

People were still sunbathing; leaning against the wall, lying on towels or straw mats, or on deck chairs, alone, in families or in groups of friends. But one group didn't look quite normal. A man lay asleep, apparently dead to the world, quite near the water's edge. A small group of people were standing round him.

We picked up our books to read. Martha was still watching the beach. 'He's very still,' she said. 'Oh my God! He's dead!'.

The corpse, in swimming trunks, was left lying on the beach for the next three hours. It looked as if it was being allowed to soak up the rays of the late afternoon sun, in case they might warm it back to life.

Two policemen arrived from the town. To take charge? To arrest the body? To look? They didn't actually seem to do anything, and made no attempt to cover or move him.

Then one policeman stayed behind to guard the body. If we hadn't seen him arrive we wouldn't have known what he was doing. Embarrassed, he strolled up and down the beach as if trying to ignore the corpse, which was now looking stiff and unnatural. The circle of curious onlookers gradually thinned out and moved away.

The heat went from the sun. The holidaymakers left, and the corpse was left lying alone. Just before sunset the reason became clear. Because the death had occurred on the beach, it was the responsibility of the coastguard, not the police. The nearest available coastguard was at Volos: even with their high-powered motor launch it had taken them three hours to arrive at the scene.

When we saw the launch pull into the bay we breathed a sigh of relief. But the worst was still to come.

Because the bay was so shallow the launch could not get in close enough to the shore to pick up the corpse. There were all sorts of manoeuvres, to no avail. The policeman requisitioned two pedallos and headed out to the launch, his long legs rhythmically turning the pedals of one as he towed the other - not without a certain dignity. He manoeuvred the second one alongside the launch. A coastguard, slumping visibly from the shame, transferred from the launch into the pedallo, and the pair headed for the shore.

The corpse was loaded with the legs sticking out over the back of the pedallo. The trip back out was completed at a stately, ceremonial pace, with the pedallos in tandem formation, presumably in case of slippage. We couldn't see, but we imagine the body was transferred with due honours. The coastguards swept off into the sunset, and the policeman pedalled back to shore.

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