He phoned the night before we were to meet.
'I've forgotten the time we arranged,' he said, explaining his call. 'I've got an appointment at the bank at 9am and they said it would take about 45 minutes.'
'We were scheduled to meet at 2pm,' I reminded him, 'but I can be free earlier – shall we make it 12.30, at your house?'
'That's fine,' he replied, and rang off. It was a completely normal conversation.
I had never met him. But, in my job as a funeral celebrant, I had been asked to take his mother's funeral service later in the week. As he was her next of kin, I was expecting him to be able to tell me her life story for the tribute I would give on the family's behalf, and to talk about what other elements he wanted included in the service.
At 12.20pm I arrived in the small village. Although I have lived in the area for almost 12 years, I had never been to this small village. It is a dead end, a no-through road. You only go there for the express purpose of visiting the village and, until that day, I had had no cause to do so. At 12.30pm I was at his door. I rang the bell, but couldn't hear a sound from inside. So, for good measure, I knocked on the door, which was slightly ajar. There was no reply. I knocked more firmly and peered round the open door, noticing a closed internal door. Still nothing.
I returned to my car and phoned the house number. It rang – and then went to answerphone. I left a message. I rang the funeral director and asked for his mobile number. I rang it – it went to voicemail, so I left another message and sent a text, telling him I had arrived. I stayed in the car, waiting for a reply. While I was waiting I did the (easy) crossword in the Times. At 1.10pm I sent another text, asking him to get in touch and pointing out that I had been waiting more than 40 minutes. Nothing.
At 1.20pm I decided to knock again. The front door was in-between two windows. In one window I could see condolence cards on the sill. The curtains were closed at the other window. I assumed this was a bedroom. Might he be asleep? Or ill? There was no reply to my knock, by now very insistent. I opened the door again. This time, I decided to try the internal door. It opened. The hallway was in front of me. There was no sign of life. I called his name, once, twice, with increasing urgency. Silence. Then I turned round, and I noticed the house keys were in the lock of the front door. In that instant I knew that he was in the house, and that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Some instinct – probably fear – prevented me from stepping over the threshold and into the house. I went back to my car and called the funeral director to tell her of my misgivings. She advised me to call the police or ask a neighbour to go in with me. I decided not to call the police. There might, I reasoned, be a perfectly innocent explanation for this.
I had seen a neighbour return with some shopping so I went to his house. A joiner was working outside and I asked him to call the neighbour. He did so. I explained the situation. 'Will you come with me?' I asked. He did, as did the joiner and we went back to the house. They were ahead of me and went inside. I stayed on the doorstep.
The neighbour stopped in his tracks as he turned off the hallway. 'He's hung himself,' he said. 'I think he's dead.' We stumbled out and back into the neighbour's house, him to call the police, me to call the funeral director. Then he started to worry – 'should I have taken his pulse? What if he is still alive? Should I cut him down?' He was transferred to an ambulance call centre and they told him to go back in and cut the man down. He asked the joiner – 'do you have any tools we could use?' The joiner got something from his toolbox and we all went back to the house. I was very shaky by this time; the neighbour was shocked but resolute. Thankfully, by the time we reached the house, the first of three police cars had arrived and the matter was taken out of our hands. We had no more decisions to make.
I was interviewed by a police officer in her car. The neighbour was escorted back to his house, to be interviewed separately. I didn't speak to him again. At the end of my interview the officer asked me to sign the statement, as a true record of what I had said. I signed it – without reading it or having the offer of it being read to me. I could have been signing anything. I was not in a sufficiently robust state to object.
'I've never experienced anything like this before,' I told her. 'We see it all the time,' she countered. I felt like saying: but you're the professional, you get training for such horrendous eventualities as this. She seemed so dismissive of the anguish I was feeling, so cavalier about my obvious distress. It felt as though, for her, it really was just another job.
I was allowed to leave and, as I returned to my car, she gave me her first name. No surname, no telephone number. She said if I thought of anything else that might be of use I was to call her. Later that evening she rang me, although I didn't pick up the phone at the time. I had left my notebook in her car and was to call to arrange to collect it. I rang the number displayed on my phone. It did not connect. I was barred from ringing it.
I looked up the number for the police station where she was based. It gave a number which, it transpired, was being answered in Glasgow, where this officer was not known. When the operator called the local police station there was no reply. 'There is no one there,' she told me, as though there was nothing at all unusual about unanswered calls at a police station at 6pm.
The funeral director phoned me. She had asked the police if they could tell her the name and number of the next of kin for the man who had died. Was she to cancel his mother's funeral? 'We are at the very early stages of our enquiries,' she was informed. When she remonstrated, she was told to ring back later. 'But I'll be off duty,' the officer added, 'you can ring the duty officer.'
A former very senior social worker has explained that this man's act was an 'aggressive suicide'. The man knew that I was to visit him and he had left his door open so that I would find his body. There was no note pinned to the door advising me not to enter but to phone the police. He was prepared to let me find his tortured body and deal with the consequences.
But I forgive him. Although I am feeling shocked and sad, and although I am still replaying the entire scenario in my head, I do forgive him. He was clearly deeply troubled, heartbroken, distressed beyond reason. Whatever impact his death might have on me had probably not crossed his mind. He simply wanted to be free of the pain.
I can't yet bring myself to delete the texts I sent him when I was waiting for him to open the door. I went back to thank the neighbour a day later – and discovered flowers and a candle on the dead man's doorstep. The villagers are planning a wake following his mother's funeral. They would have supported him, I am sure. If only he had known.