Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 5th December

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Sunday, 5th December

Westowe Castle was one of those series of redoubts — forts, martello towers and cylindrical islands of concrete — erected over the centuries to defend the south coast of England against invaders: Philip II, Napoleon, Hitler. It was built in 1544 to guard against the threat from Spain and rebuilt a century later when Westowe sheltered Royalist frigates. In 1645 the garrison held out against the Parliamentarians for four months. To close the harbour, a chain was piled into dinghies and rowed out to stretch a cables-length across the throat of the estuary. Two heavy links, each a yard long, lie now locked in rusted embrace on the floor of the Westowe Arts & Crafts Co-operative. The block which secured the chain on the rocks on the eastern shore has long since disintegrated, but opposite, the remains of an iron hasp remain imbedded into the foundations of the castle just above mean high water level.

After the Duke of Cornwall’s militia were slaughtered, the modest two-storeyed fort became a store for fishermen’s nets, lobster pots and buoys. By the time the 20th century began it was unsuitable even for that, and the locals left it to crumble into the sea. In my youth some stout walls remained, with gaping windows, crenellated turrets and stone stairs stepping into empty space. It was a place for a windy picnic or to clamber around the rock pools with a net, or sit and watch the sun slip over the headland on a warm evening.

Angie had persuaded Bartholomew to buy the castle and convert it into a studio. There was a large central room with a double-glazed picture window facing directly south to the Black Rock bell buoy marking the western tip of the skerries off The Elbow and, on the skyline beyond, the stepped profile of Grise Head. Nooks and stairwells confined a simple kitchen and a monastic sleeping cell, and some narrow crannies faced with doors were cupboards where Bartholomew had stored his paintings.

A few metres away was the restored blockhouse. It had been used as a munitions store and had no exterior openings. You could enter it only through a long stone passage which led off the kitchen and ended at a massive door braced with iron straps. The door was locked. Charlie Segui, who acted as Angie’s letting agent, said he thought it was a wine cellar maybe, but he had no key.

There was no central heating in the castle, just a couple of electric fires, and usually it was as cold as a fishing boat’s hold, unless you kept a blaze going in the corner hearth for at least twenty-four hours to warm up the stone walls. Then it was snug as kittens, even with a south-westerly gale slapping the spume of the waves horizontally against the plate glass.

The day Angie came to tea a raw wind blew all day from Scandinavia across the North Sea and down the English Channel. Though I built a fire when I got up, at four o’clock, as the sun dropped behind Grise Head, the air in the castle was chill. We sat facing each other across the fireplace on the matching armchairs covered in striped fabric in bright summer colours blotted with wine stains. We kept our sweaters on, warming our hands on our tea mugs.

One summer, when she was thirteen or fourteen, Angie suddenly sprouted into a big girl with the powerful shoulders of a champion swimmer. She grew as tall as I and, whatever clothes she wore, the body beneath shaped my fantasies, and Spider’s, and those of every other boy in Westowe. She revealed little of her figure now. The hips were wider than I remembered, the heavy shoulders slumped a bit, the ankles were thicker. She wore a long grey skirt, a loose bulky jumper of muted country colours and a scarlet headband. Her knitted socks were scarlet, too. She’d left her shoes beside the door. Like my wife Maire, she hated wearing shoes. I had forgotten that.

Young Angie was chatty and frisky, a sailing dinghy dancing with the breeze. Now she glided on a measured course. Her dark hair was cropped, and, as if to say I know I’m almost fifty and to hell with it, her lips were smeared bright scarlet, like the headband and socks. They clashed with the bouquet of pink roses that I handed to her.

“A thank-you for letting me have the castle.”

“I’m glad you can use it. There have been some vandals prowling about recently. But I didn’t want — .” Angie paused and wrinkled the corners of her mouth in the old way, “— just tenants here.”

“I’ll keep it just as it is.”

“Thank you for writing about Bartholomew.”

“I thought it might help to hear from someone who understands what it’s like to lose someone.”

“It’s losing a part of yourself.”

“It’s losing your history. What do you do with all the photographs?”

“Life is a staircase of little bereavements. I’ve just arrived at a landing.”

“It’s a one-way staircase.”

Her eyes met mine briefly. “Everything is irreversible. You can’t unmake a jam sandwich. Entropy, I suppose. Or is it the uncertainty principle?” There was the old generous smile again, with merry eyes.

“People make new starts.”

“Is that why you came back?”

“Remember what you used to say — life is a three-legged stool? We need three supports — a career, a home and a love life. We’ve got to keep them in balance, otherwise we fall over.”

“Did I say that?”

“I’ve been quoting it in lounge bars for twenty-seven years.”

“Most of us balance on one or two legs most of the time.”

“I lost my job and my home and my wife. I fell on the floor.”

“Bartholomew needed only one prop — his painting. When that failed him nothing else mattered.”

“When was his London show? Early seventies?”

“Did you come?”

“I couldn’t face seeing you. Or Bartholomew. He was on the crest of the wave.”

“The tide was ebbing, only we didn’t know it then. Op art was already going out. People like Bridget Riley and Vasarely were able to move on to other things. But Bartholomew just seized up creatively. Except for . . .”

“What?”

“He tried a new style recently.” Whatever it was she didn’t want to go into it. She took a sip of her tea. “What was your wife’s name?” This seems to be important to women. They can’t comprehend facts until they personalise them.

“Maire.”

“You must have been shattered when you heard.”

“I was with her.”

“Oh.”

“It was a weekend in Wales.”

“I thought you’d separated.”

“A reconciliation. Only it wasn’t going well. Ghastly, in fact. It was a perfectly ordinary path. But muddy, along a nasty drop. There was fog. We had argued at the top and we were late coming down. I’d said something — I don’t want to remember what it was — but it was unforgivable. In a failed relationship you get to the point where the words come straight out of your stomach, dripping in bile.”

“I remember.”

Was it Bartholomew’s words she remembered? Or mine? I ploughed on. “We just walked along in silence. Suddenly the fog was a lot thicker. She was a little behind me. She called out, ‘Please wait, Ted’ and I kept walking because I was aggrieved. There was a tiny rattle of scree. I turned round and said, ‘Maybe we should hold hands.’ I was smiling. Relenting. But there was no one there. Nothing but space filled with damp cotton wool. Soundless, except for a distant short cry like a startled bird. We didn’t find her until the next morning, wedged between some boulders down in the ravine. Her eyes were open, staring up to where I had been standing, asking her to hold my hand.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It gets worse. She had some money, and she hadn’t changed her will. She left it all to me. I was interrogated. The DPP decided there wasn’t a case to answer. But my former business partner was also her fancy man. He’s persuaded her people I pushed her. They’re threatening a civil action.”

“Stop feeling guilty.”

“I am guilty. You see, just then, while I was leading the way down the path, I wished she were dead.”

A harsh glare stabbed through the window. It was dusk and the leading light on The Elbow had switched on. Angie got up and went to look at the sea. She still had that long, young stride that swirled her full skirts. I refilled her mug and mine.

She drew the curtains. “I thought sometimes about pushing Bartholomew over a cliff.”

“I can’t imagine he was the ideal husband.”

“Were you surprised when I married him?” I looked into my tea mug for an answer. “Everybody here was,” she continued. “I was too.”

I found my answer. “I thought you deserved the best of everything. I wasn’t sure he was it.”

“Sometimes when we went on walks — not talking, perhaps, like you and Maire — I thought how easy it would be. Somewhere along The Devil’s Frying-pan, maybe. A step, a nudge, then blue space, rocks and white water.” She put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry, I’d forgotten about your parents.”

My mum and dad had drowned in The Devil’s Frying-pan. I couldn’t think of anything to say about that now, so I said “I thought you and Bartholomew were happy.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Spider said . . .” I couldn’t remember exactly what it was that Spider had said, only that it had pained me.

“Spider Meersman likes tidy solutions. When you spend your life planing pieces of hardwood to make everything fit snug you think life is linear. You can’t accept the messy, random way most people behave. Every action has got to fit into its box. Like those fitted cabinets in his workshop with all the little compartments for the different types of screws. I was devoted to Bartholomew. And he to me, deep down. But that doesn’t make you happy.” She switched to a major key. “What are your plans?”

I took a sip of my tea. It was cold and stewed. I got to my feet. “Tea time’s over, thank Christ. Fancy a drink?” She shook her head. I got up and poured myself the first whisky of the day. A stiff one. Finally I thought what to say. “It’s funny. Most of your life you can’t do what you want because you don’t have enough money. Then when the door to the vault opens, you have to work out what it is that you want.”

“Westowe’s not the place for you. It never was. You were right to leave. You’re not like us hicks. You were summer people. Until your parents died and Mam Meersman took you under her wing. People like you, who need to do something, they don’t stay in Westowe.”

“What about you? You could have done anything you wanted. With your looks, brains, personality.”

“You forget, I was a girl. In the 1960s. In darkest Devon. I could be a teacher, a nurse, or a housewife. Or take a secretarial job in Plymouth or Exeter. But that would have been too racy for a bank manager’s daughter. My father told me so.”

“But you did leave once.”

“Who told you that?” Her voice had a hard edge.

“Spider.”

“Nobody forgets the past in Westowe, Spider least of all. I did leave briefly. For teacher training college. But I dropped out.”

“Quitting was never your style.”

“I found something I valued more.”

“Spider said you do — counselling?”

“He paints me as a Lady Bountiful. I just like to help people, that’s all. People are all that matters. We’ve got to help each other.” She fixed her serious, wide-eyed gaze on me. “Are you still an agnostic?” I nodded. “Then you must understand that,” she concluded.

“Spider said you go to church now.”

“I find it a comfort to be with people there.”

“You could do the same at the bingo hall.”

“We hold that at the church, too.” Angie grinned. “I’m afraid that, thirty years on, you’re still the only person in Westowe who doesn’t believe in God.”

“I still can’t get past the logic. If there is a universal creator, he must have created evil. Unless I also have to believe in Satan. He offers us religion as a palliative. Belief in himself. He’s like the door-to-door Hoover salesman who dumps the ashes from the coal fire all over your carpet so he can sell you a machine to clean it up with.”

“So, do we create our own evil? Have you ever met a really evil person?”

“I am tempted to nominate Donald Penny.” She looked puzzled. “My former partner and Maire’s fancy man. He’s launched a personal vendetta against me. But I’m not sure people are evil by nature. I think they are overcome by selfish needs. And trample on other people who get in the way. And then go home and love their kids. It’s mischance, more than deliberate evil.”

“Have you ever done something truly evil?”

I poured some more whisky into my glass, which was still half full. “Yes,” I admitted finally. “It was evil of me to leave you like that.”

What an amazing woman. She laughed. “You were right to go. You had to go.” I’d forgotten her big, coarse laugh. I had hated it because it was vulgar, and loved it because it was genuine, and because it was hers.

“It hurt you.”

“Yes, it hurt. Very deeply. For a while.” She put a warm hand over mine, flesh touching flesh. “But it would have hurt me more to watch you rotting in this forlorn harbour without ever setting out to see the world.”

“It was foul the way I did it. Out of the blue.”

“You were trapped. You jumped. It was ungenerous. But not evil.”

I covered her warm hand with my other hand. She withdrew hers. It was an awkward moment. To recover the mood I continued, “When I wished Maire were dead. I felt evil then.”

“We all think evil. But you didn’t do evil.” She looked at me with that open childlike gaze I had never been able to lie to. “Did you?”

“No. I did not push her.”

“So you’ve not been evil.”

“There was another time. When I was very young.”

“Did I know about it?”

“No. Before I knew you.”

“Do you want to tell me?”

“No. I’ve never told anyone.”

“Can an innocent child be evil? I don’t know.”

“Have you been evil?”

“Yes.”

“Did I know about it?”

“It was after you left.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. I shall never tell anyone about it.”

Much later her secret came out. Mine never has. To break the pause that followed I got up and poked the fire, which didn’t need it, and made for safer ground, “So the creator made us evil so we can make each other suffer.”

“You can’t live without suffering. But it’s a way to redemption. It makes us wiser, stronger, nobler. Whoever made us suffers too. It perfects her own existence.”

“So he — she — it — really meant it when they said ‘suffer the little children to come unto me.’ I never liked that bit, particularly as a little child.”

Angie laughed. “I think that means something else entirely.” Then, serious again, she laid her hand on my arm. “You really must believe in something, Ted.”

“You sound like Maire telling me I really should have a hobby. What do you believe in?”

“Other people.”

“As the man said, ‘Hell is other people.’”

“Maybe. But so is heaven.”

“I believe in chance.”

“You might as well believe in the weather forecast,” she said.

I scratched my head. “I think maybe we’ve had this conversation before.”

Angie laughed again. “It’s great fun settling all the big issues with you again. Like we used to do crosswords together.” She shifted into counselor mode. Her scarlet lips parted and smiled brightly and she patted the back of my hand. “Now, tell me how you set the world on fire.”

I gave her the potted biography, ending with Donald Penny diddling me when we sold our venture capital company. And diddling my estranged wife as well. “Whatever it was I thought I had to do, it hardly seems worth leaving Westowe for now,” I finished.

“Mid-life crisis. Next thing you’ll be buying a boat.”

My glass halted in mid-rise. Our eyes met over the rim and I had to smile.

“Gotcha!” She jabbed the air and exploded into raw laughter again.

“Just looking. There’s a trim little yawl for sale up on the hard at Mud Cove. The Amaryllis.”

“You men are all bonkers. There must be five hundred yachts growing seaweed on the waterline here all summer. And skippers pleading for crew. Why do you have to own one?”

“Unlike women, we are romantics. And romantics are not promiscuous,” I pontificated. Angie snorted. And then the truth came out of my mouth. “What else am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?”

Her face softened. “That makes two of us.” For a few seconds we looked at each other as we used to years ago. “I think I will have a drink after all. Just a small one,” she said.

I poured her a small one and she poured half of it back into my glass before sipping it. “So you’ll spend a couple of seasons fitting her out and then sail off to the South Seas. Australia, maybe.”

“Well, it’s a life,” I said. “What are your plans?”

“My life is completely shattered.”

I thought I saw a long-ago look in her eyes. “Can I help you pick up the pieces?”

She ignored that. “Things have a way of healing if you just wait.”

“For what?”

“To see what happens.”

“Spider asked me to help Charlie Segui sort out the insurance.”

“God love him. When is Spider going to realise I’m a grown-up girl?”

“If the insurers are being difficult — “

“We don’t know that Bartholomew is dead.”

“But he’s been missing for months, and Spider found no trace.”

“So he says.”

“What does that mean?”

“Mateship. Men cover up for each other.” She smiled. Then it vanished. “Bartholomew had a crew, you know.”

“Spider told me.”

“I liked her at first. Bartholomew liked her a whole lot more. It always ends in tears. Because they always want babies. And then he comes home to me.”

“That’s what you’re waiting for? You think he’s still alive?”

“As the insurers so prudently enquire, where is the body?”

Angie stood up and pulled on her shoes. She brushed both my cheeks with her red lips before leaving me alone with the traces of her scent. I put Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata on the tape player and another log on the grate and had a few more drinks, gazing into the harmonies of the flames — not, like Dickens’s virtuous Lizzie Hexham, to foretell the future, but as a sinner rewriting the past.