On Saturday, 7 November 2015, in Hereford, UK, an ambulance was called to pick up a man lying face down at the bus parking lot near Credenhill. A passerby had noticed the old man, probably in his seventies. He was conscious but dazed when delivered to the local hospital. The hospital conducted all required tests, and realized the man was afflicted with dementia. He couldn’t even tell his name. They looked in his pockets for an ID. Surprisingly, his pockets were absolutely empty. He had no wallet, no money, no ID, not even a train ticket. Someone must have robbed the poor man, thought the nurse.
British hospitals clearly can’t deal with patients with no names and no IDs. The nearest police, West Mercia police, were contacted. Sarah Bennett, the middle aged, smart lady Sergeant, took charge of the case. She visited the hospital to talk to the man. The old man looked calm. A white man, tall and slim, grey hair, blue eyes and grey stubble- she noted on the form. Probably was a handsome man in his youth, she thought.
‘What’s your name, Sir?’ she asked. He talked but what he said was not connected to Sarah’s question. What immediately caught Sarah’s attention was his speech. The man spoke with an American accent. They conversed for some time, if it could be called conversation.
Sergeant Sarah then made an inventory of his clothes. The old man wore the hospital clothes, but as per Sarah’s instructions over the phone, the staff had carefully kept all his clothes in a bag. Though his accent was American, the clothes were all English, very English. The man probably came from the USA as a young man, made UK his home, and had lost his way because of dementia. She followed the standard procedures. Photos and fingerprints were taken. Within two hours, they became part of the national database. Posters with his photo, and a big MISSING were plastered in a radius of ten miles from where he was found. Most missing people are traced within hours, no reason why this man should be an exception. However, when she left the hospital, Sarah was uneasy. She had a feeling something was odd, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
Four days passed without any response. Meanwhile, the nameless man was moved to a nursing home. Except for his dementia, he was fine. Smiling and talking, eating breakfast. Sarah visited him in the nursing home, and once again couldn’t get his name or nationality. But this time she grasped the oddity about his clothes. They were brand new. Not only his shirt, sweater, socks and shoes but also his underwear. She asked for the clothes bag again. She was right. None of the clothes had ever been washed; you could still see the ironing crease and smell their newness.
She remembered the Hound of the Baskervilles, and how Sherlock Holmes explained the significance of the return of the stolen new shoes of Sir Henry. That had to do with training the hound with an established smell. What was the significance here?
The West Mercia police became super-active. All CCTV recordings from the area were retrieved and scrutinized. The American embassy (and for good measure the Canadian embassy) was contacted. Generally you have the details and you look for a man. This was a novel manhunt. You had a man, and you needed to hunt his identity. Interpol was persuaded to upload his photo, his current whereabouts, and the American (or Canadian) accent.
Three months passed, and the case had not moved an inch forward. The media in the UK, USA and Canada had broadcast his videos, but nobody had come forward to claim him or to say who he was.
Amanda Bow was the manager of the untraceable man’s nursing home. Among other things, she asked the old man his name three or four times a day. Sergeant Sarah met her at the clinic. Amanda said he was content but lost in his own world. He enjoyed chocolate muffins and the odd sherry at night. A gentleman he was, kind and sweet.
Name? I’m not sure, she said. Once he said ‘Roger Curry.’ But only once.
‘Roger Curry?’ Asked Sarah.
‘Yes, but he has dementia. Who knows he could have been asking for curry, he has started eating well. We call him Roger, though. He is a blank canvas. But we love him, we have adopted him.’
Sarah went back and ordered the renewal of the campaign. This time the name “Roger Curry” was added to the databases. BBC took an active interest and started a facebook page to find out who Roger Curry was. It was a long shot. But Sarah knew that an American with dementia is unlikely to ask for curry as a food item. Curry, coming from the subcontinent, is more of a British expression.
In early November, 2015, on another continent, in a place called Whittier, close to LA; Kevin, 36, and his mother Mary Jo, 71, were packing their bags to leave for Europe.
“Mom, what’re you worried about? My plan is super, awesome.”
“I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do.’
‘Mom, listen, you’re in no great shape. But your brain works well, just as it worked 20–30 years ago. Dad is a goner. Look, he’s sitting there in the corner, we talk about him and he understands nothing. You know, his brain is dead, but he may live for another 25 years. Who’s going to spend on him? You? Not me for sure. You know how expensive this trip is? But I’m doing it, once and for all — I want to get rid of the old man. And I want no comebacks.’
Kevin’s father, Roger Curry, sat in the corner of the same room, could neither understand nor react to the talk between his wife and son.
Kevin Curry and his two parents landed at Gatwick airport. If his father looked a bit weird, the immigration officer didn’t comment on it. Since the old man was travelling with his wife and son, he was safe.
Gatwick to Credenhill is about 160 miles. On the way, the rented car stopped at Swindon. Swindon has a massive hypermarket called TESCO extra. It has a large clothes section. Kevin bought clothes for his father, not expensive, but brand new. He removed all the price tags. In the large bathroom, he helped his dad change into the new clothes.
The old American man wearing new British clothes returned to the car. The car drove ahead to a bus parking lot. Kevin had stopped dad’s medicines for the past 48 hours. That way he would be unwell enough to be hospitalized. Though it took longer than expected, a passerby saw his father lying next to the bus stop and called for an ambulance. As they lifted him, Kevin, through his dark glasses, saw the man with dementia for the last time. The pockets of the new shirt and trousers were empty. No comebacks.
The same day, Kevin and his mother Mary Jo, proceeded by Eurostar to Belgium for a vacation, to celebrate the feeling of relief, to enjoy their newly found freedom.
But Roger Curry, through his dementia, mentioned his name once. Debbie Cocker, a web research enthusiast found he could have been a student in Edmonds high school in 1958. BBC sponsored a trip of its investigative journalist Darragh Maclntyre who managed to meet Roger’s classmates. Roger Curry, before his dementia diagnosed ten years ago, had worked as a nurse. He had served in the air force during the Vietnam War. Maclntyre then traced Roger’s home in Whitter. He confronted Kevin who repeatedly avoided him.
Roger was sent back to Los Angeles on 14 July, 2016. He is now placed in the care of Kaiser Permanente, a care centre. At the end of the documentary shown this week, the BBC journalist regrets he found Roger’s roots. He was taken much better care of in the UK than in the USA. And probably more loved.
The papers filed in the court claim: “In late 2015 Mr Curry was taken surreptitiously to England by his wife Mary and his son Kevin Curry and abandoned there.”
Post-script: Ubasute is a Japanese custom where poor Japanese left their senile elders on the mountaintop. Japan is currently reviving this tradition. 27% of Japan’s population is elderly. Adult diapers far outsell baby diapers. Unlike in the past, you can now drop your elders at charity homes or give them for adoption. There is a service called the senior citizen postboxes, which transfers abandoned parents to a local retirement home.
Thalaikoothal is a traditional practice of getting rid of burdensome parents In India’s southern state of Tamilnadu. The old parent is given a ceremonial oil bath in the morning. He is then coaxed into drinking plenty of coconut water, so much that his kidneys fail. Alternatively, a cold water massage to the head can cause a heart failure. In milk therapy, cow’s milk is poured into the nose of the elderly until the nose stops breathing.
Ubasute or Thalaikoothal usually produce death in two or three days. The equivalent expression in America is “Granny dumping.” Because of the exorbitant cost of medical care in the USA, elderly people are sometimes abandoned at hospitals.
In all the Granny Dumping cases, the case of Roger Curry must hold a record for the distance travelled by a son to dump his unwanted father.
PS 2: To see the characters from this story, you may want to watch the 28 minute documentary called The Mystery of the Unknown Man, presented by BBC Panorama on 30 January.