Picture credit –  Hannah Tobin.

Part 14 – Death of a friend

The courtroom was quiet, not silent but everyone spoke only when the felt they had to and then is was in quiet, sibilant whispers. It was like being in a church just before the priest walked in to start the service. The coroner walked in and sat in his seat that was installed higher than the floor of the court so that he was above everyone else, physically and metaphorically, it’s position displayed his status to all present. It was a magnificent chair carved from beech with a coat of arms resplendently picked out in red and gold above his head.

‘My name is Algernon Fussdacre QC. I am the coroner. We are here today to inquire into the death of Benjamin Kingsley Smith because there was no recent history of Ben having had a life threatening illness and he was not presently under the care of a GP so there was no obvious cause of death. We will call witnesses before this court and ask them to provide any information that is relevant to the cause of death. This is not a criminal court so there is no intention to attribute blame to anyone, we are just here to find out why Ben was taken from us and to recommend, where relevant, any changes required to any actions that the cause of death to which Ben’s can be attributed.

I do understand that there are Ben’s friends and family present and they may find some of the evidence distressing but I can assure you that we examine these details purely to discover the cause of Ben’s death and it is, unfortunately, necessary to look at all aspects, however distressing they may be. I will however tell you when we have some examine some potentially distressing evidence so that you may leave if you do not want to hear it.’

The first witness was called. He was the pathologist who had carried out the mandatory autopsy. It was mandatory because there was no obvious medical cause of death – apart from possible drowning as he was found in the river, he was not under any medical treatment, it was necessary to preserve the legal rights of Ben’s family, there may have been unknown circumstances that led to his death and it may be necessary to explore those and prevent a similar occurrence in the future and the cause of death would be explored to see if there was any possible advance in medical knowledge to be obtained. This was Doctor Henry Stamshaw.

He reeled off his medical qualifications in answer to the coroner’s questions and then he was asked the key question, ‘What was the cause of Ben’s death?’

Henry answered carefully. ‘As he was found in the river and his lungs were full of river water, I have to assume that he drowned.’

‘Was there any other evidence that confirmed this?’ asked Quentin Fussking Q.C., the coroner.

‘Yes, as you will no doubt be aware, there are four types of drowning. These are:

1 – Wet drowning

2 – Dry drowning

3 – Secondary drowning

4 – Immersion syndrome.

I was able to ascertain by inspection of the heart and analysis of the blood that this was a case of wet drowning and had other evidence of drowning in fresh or brackish water.’

‘And what was this evidence, Doctor?’

‘The heart was hypoxic and over filled – not oxygenated –  the blood was very low in sodium, in deficit in fact, and high in potassium thus causing cardiac overburdening and pulmonary oedema This was almost certainly caused by haemodilution from the river water. I compared the water in the lungs with a sample of river water near to where the body was found. They were identical chemically and biologically.’

‘So we can be sure that Ben downed in the River Trent but we do not yet know why he was in the river. Do you have any other evidence from the autopsy to offer us Doctor?’

‘ I was asked by the family to look for any other evidence that would explain why a fit and healthy man should fall into the river so I carried out various other tests.’

‘And did you find anything of significance?’

‘Yes.’

‘I think we will now break for lunch and resume here at 1400 to hear your additional evidence then’

The coroner disappeared through the mahogany door behind his chair. The courtroom slowly emptied. The family was escorted to a private waiting room by one of the Coroner’s Officers where they found tea, coffee and sandwiches waiting for them.

Jack accompanied them, representing all Ben’s friends. The others from the Strangled Ferret decamped to the pub across the road where they complained about the beer on offer – ‘not a patch on ours back home in Ferret-on-Trent,’ was their considered opinion.

*****

‘Please continue with your evidence Dr Stamshaw,’ said the Coroner, looking rather well fed after the recess.

I carried out a full toxicology examination of a blood sample. It had been thinned by haemodilution as I have already explained due to the inhaled river water. This is normally found in victims of wet drowning so was to be expected. What was not expected was the finding of a complex chemical in the blood stream. This was a very high level of what I first thought was lysergic acid diethylamide – commonly known as LSD or ‘acid.’ I then placed a sample in the gas chromatograph for a full analysis. It turned out that the compound was not LSD but was a chiral form of fructose. This is a fruit sugar and would be expected to be found in both its chiral forms in citrus fruits, especially lemons. The left handed chiral form is known to be dangerous but only when inhaled in large quantities.’

Are you trying to tell me Dr that Mr Smith died from lemon juice poisoning? With all due respect to your scientific knowledge, that is ridiculous,’ said the coroner, his face changing to a sneer as if he had just sucked a lemon.

Ben’s brother stood up. ‘I would like to make a statement to the court.’

‘Sit down,’ said the coroner, impatiently. ‘We’ll carry on with this inquest. Continue please Dr but don’t expect us to believe any more rubbish about poison lemons.’

‘I must protest,’ said Bill. ‘I think you should be barred from hearing this inquest.’

‘Oh really? And why would you think that? Careful what you say and remember that I have the power to send you to prison for contempt of court. Who are you anyway?’

‘My name is William Kingsley Smith and the person we are talking about was my younger brother. I think you should recuse yourself from this inquest because you are also the President of the LAOMB, the Lemon and Orange Marketing Board so you should have declared your interest and withdrawn from this case before it started.’

‘Very well. This court is in recess while arrangements are made to replace me,’ said the Coroner, with a fierce glare at Bill before stomping out through his private door.

© Richard Kefford                                                                                                        Eorðdraca

*****

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