Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Friday, 28th January

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Friday, 28th January

He was not, as it turned out, a pear-shaped old boy with watery eyes the colour of gin-and-tonic and a face veined like a road map. Colonel Lawrence Meeker of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire was a tidy, fit little man in his sixties with a white face as sharp as a ferret’s and a catatonic stare. He dressed like an extraterrestrial impersonating an outdoorsman: a spanking new navy blue Guernsey jumper, a paisley silk scarf knotted around his neck, beige cavalry twill trousers, the green rubber boots that farmers wear and a designer’s skiing cap with a natty little brim.

For some reason Charlie Segui had decided to provide high tea at lunchtime. We sat in the draughty function room of the Sailing Club around a low table bearing a tier of scones and a bowl of stiff Devon cream from Mary’s Normandy Quay Tea Room. Mary hadn’t caught up with the 1977 Jubilee name change yet. Charlie had warmed the scones himself in the microwave. I’d already had two or three and was about to reach for another when Charlie sent me on to the pitch. “Ted is keen that we should try to reach a compromise.”

The little man glared at me. “Are you a solicitor?”

“I would rather earn my living selling kidnapped babies to trolls.”

“I’ve come without legal representation.” A picture leapt into my mind of us touching knees around the low table with a hit squad from Nailit, Stretchit and Plummet. They’d make short work of the scones. I smiled. “I don’t see that there’s anything comical about the situation,” he added.

“That was a smile,” I said. I saw Charlie smirking and pointed at him. “And that is a smirk.”

“What’s all this about the Caribbean?” resumed the colonel.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You said the cruise was cancelled because the royal yacht was in the Caribbean.”

“San Serife,” Charlie put in.

“Never heard of it,” said the colonel.

I tried smiling again. “Just north of Ampersand.” The colonel stared at me without laughing, smiling or smirking.

Charlie cleared his throat and addressed the colonel’s blank gaze. “What about some compensation?”

I stared at Charlie. “Hang on, isn’t he supposed to say that?”

“What about some compensation?” repeated the colonel.

I looked from Charlie to the colonel. “That’s amazing, I could have sworn Mr Segui’s lips never moved.”

The colonel wasn’t listening. “Five thousand pounds,” he said.

I looked at Charlie, expecting to share a laugh with him. Instead, he stroked his chin for a few seconds. “We’ll have to take advice on that,” he said finally.

I looked at the little colonel. “Were you kidnapped? “

“Five thousand pounds.”

“Were you hit on the head?”

“Five thousand pounds.”

“Did somebody rape you?”

“Five thousand pounds.”

I looked at Charlie. “What can he sue for?”

Charlie seemed unconcerned. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind the back of his head. “Trade Descriptions Act. Expenses. Personal insult. Loss of dignity.”

“Loss of dignity,” repeated the dummy.

“Do you want to go sit on his lap?” I asked the colonel.

The man’s mind was closed so tight it was impossible to slide an insult into it. “Five thousand pounds,” he said, without rancour.

“Five hundred,” I said.

The colonel looked at me curiously, then he looked at Charlie, who hunched forward. He was taking more of an interest now. And about time. It was his bloody club.

“I require five thousand pounds for personal insult and loss of dignity,” said the colonel.

“You lost all the dignity you ever had when you made that daft complaint,” I said.

Charlie leaned back in his chair again. Now he was smiling. “No need to let Mr Rude in, Ted.”

“Not to worry. The colonel is deaf.”

I had gone too far. Suddenly the colonel began to shake. He sat rigid in his chair, while little rigors trembled up his body. In a moment he would reach into his kit bag for his ceremonial sabre and run me through. Instead, he looked at Charlie and murmured “I’m not feeling very well.”

Charlie leapt to his feet. “Please don’t take offence, Colonel. I am sure we can settle this amicably.”

Not if you bring me in on it, I thought to myself. And then I thought again — why had he brought me in on it?

“May I go now?” The colonel sounded like a schoolboy.

“Can we ask you to review your position first?” At last Charlie was beginning to sound like a negotiator. But it had an opposite effect. The colonel stiffened.

“Five thousand pounds,” he said.

“Two thousand five hundred,” I said. The colonel and Charlie swivelled their heads to me in a synchronised movement. Both had their mouths open. They said nothing. “Hell’s bells, all right then. Five thousand.” I drew my chequebook and a pen out of my inside jacket pocket.

Charlie was aghast. “You can’t do that.”

I ignored him. “All right with you, Major?”

“Colonel,” said Charlie.

I glared at Charlie. “For five thousand pounds I can call him what I like.”

“He’s only joking,” Charlie said to the colonel. The colonel looked dazed.

“I am not joking,” I said. “A man’s dignity is priceless.”

The colonel stood up. “I don’t want your money,” he said. “I am a very wealthy man.”

“I’m sure you are,” I said. “That’s how you grabbed all that dignity.”

“I want satisfaction from the club. Five thousand pounds.”

“He wants five thousand pounds from the club,” Charlie said hastily.

I looked at him. “Now you are repeating him. Why haven’t I been given a copy of the script?”

Charlie went over to the colonel. “Let’s talk again tomorrow, Colonel.”

“Tomorrow?”

“You’ll have to catch the tide if you’re going fishing this afternoon.”

I was looking in the pot, but there was no more tea. “Fishing?” I asked.

Charlie turned to me. “The colonel wants to hire a skiff. Can you take him down to Pogie’s?”

Before he left, the colonel went to the loo. I grabbed Charlie’s elbow. “What is he on?”

“He’s upset, clearly.”

“Did you put something in the tea, and if yes, where’s my snort?”

“You weren’t going to lash out five thousand pounds.”

“He didn’t know that. But he didn’t want it.”

“You wouldn’t have,” said Charlie.

“I know that and you know — ” I stopped. “Maybe you didn’t know that.”

Charlie was looking out the window. “You were taking the mick,” he said over his shoulder.

The colonel came out of the loo. “Your flies are open, Captain,” I said. And they were. We left the mad hatter’s tea party. Looking back through the window I saw Charlie shovelling the remaining scones into his briefcase.

We walked down the hill. Clouds stretched across the sky like a ragged blanket, bright shafts of sunlight poking through the holes, but when one flared down on to the wet pavements of Fore Street it brought no warmth. A fitful westerly hammered dimples into the shining copper of the estuary. Beyond the bar white horses were gathering. I’m not a fisherman, but it didn’t seem a great idea to be sitting in an open boat baiting hooks with wet hands in the fading light.

“Where are you going?” I asked. I was just trying to be pleasant. But the colonel gave a little jerk like a soldier trying to get in step and darted his staring eyes at me. He said nothing. I tried another tack. “What kind of fish are you after?”

He relaxed. “Anything. Mullet, maybe.”

You can see grey mullet down at the marina, grazing on the weed which grows on the waterlines of the floating gin palaces which never leave the pontoon. I wondered just how much the colonel knew about fishing. “You don’t have to go out of the estuary to find mullet,” I said. “Just drop a line off any boat in the marina.”

He halted and pointed to the staircase of Grise Head, silhouetted against the declining sun, its bottom step boiling in froth. “Do you have to drive around that to get to Fairfoul Bay?” The way he said it made me think he wanted to be talked out of going. If he had been a nicer person I might have tried. Instead I said, “Fairfoul Bay is inside the head. Steer for Sentinel Bluff.” I pointed out the white house with the red roof marking the line of the slope just inside the staircase profile.

“How rough is it out there?”

“The bay’s all right today. It’s in the lee of the wind. You know where to cross the bar?”

“When you get past the castle you aim for the red and white beacons, Mr Segui said.”

“That would bring you back into my sitting room for tea. What you do is line the beacons up astern. After you get past them.” Colonel Meeker grunted, in that military way in which officers begrudge the superior wisdom of enlisted men. “I’ll set out an extra cup, just in case you forget,” I said.

As we turned down Little Lane the glitter on the estuary switched off and it began to drizzle. Pogie was out on his pontoon where his open boats rocked and chafed against their warps. He lumbered up to us like a baby elephant, the wooden platform swaying under his weight. I wanted to see if Pogie had any second-hand winches for the Amaryllis, so I hung around while he put oars into a broad-bottomed green-painted aluminium dinghy and fixed a Seagull outboard onto the transom, filled it with petrol mix and stowed the spare can under the bow thwart.

The colonel, meanwhile, pulled a big plastic bag decorated with a badly drawn mermaid out of his holdall. It was from Cap’n Curtis’s’ Locker, once the no-nonsense Fore Street Chandlers, now a nautical boutique with an apostrophe problem. He pulled out a set of gleaming top-of-the-range white oilskins, fully lined, with a blue fleece collar.

“White oilskins?” I asked.

The colonel was struggling into them. “Why not?”

“You’ll see why after they’ve been in Pogie’s dinghy half an hour.”

“Excellent visibility at sea.”

“Fred Curtis saw you coming. He’s been trying to off-load those for a couple of seasons.”

The white oilies were several sizes too big for the little colonel. He stuffed the drooping legs into his heavy green farmer’s boots, pulled the hood up against the rain, took up his hold-all and marched after Pogie into his shed like a technician from the Ministry of Agriculture on the track of a mad cow. Pogie poked through his hanging rack until he found a life jacket for the colonel which was smeared with black tar stains. The colonel put it under his arm. “Do you take credit cards?”

“You can pay me when you get back,” said Pogie.

“I’d rather settle it now.”

“Cards I like, it’s the credit bit I don’t fancy,” said Pogie, which passes for wit in the West Country. Pogie laughed, I smiled but the colonel simply looked grim. He reached into the inside pocket of his oilies. His hand came out with a wallet and a dog-eared white business envelope. He held the envelope close to his chest and stared at it for a few seconds as if wondering how it had got into his pocket. “You don’t have a stamp, do you?” he asked Pogie.

Pogie keeps stamps in his cash register, but he had decided he didn’t like the colonel much. “Post office be up on Fore Street,” he said. He pulled up the sleeve of his fisherman’s smock and held out his watch to the colonel, pointing at its face with a finger blacked with grease. “Closed for lunch.”

“Post offices don’t close for lunch,” said the colonel.

“Millie does,” said Pogie. “And Fridays she’s got to pick her grand-daughter up from school, so she won’t be back ‘til gone three.”

“It’s a sub-post office,” I said. “Pre-Thatcher.” I got a 20p stamp from my wallet and offered it to the colonel.

“That’s second class,” he said.

“We’re all a bit down-market, here,” I said, and although he didn’t smile I dug in my wallet again. I found a 36p commemorative stamp with a picture of a Lucie Rie pot on it. I had bought it that weekend in Wales with Maire, because she liked pots and I thought I would send her a card after the weekend. To thank her, or whatever. Depending on how it turned out. In the event I never needed it.

Colonel Meeker took the stamp and turned his back to us to fix it on the envelope. I held out my hand. “I can drop it in the post for you.”

Instead of saying thanks, or no thanks, the colonel put the envelope back into the inside pocket of his new white oilies, now streaked with tar from the life jacket stuffed under his arm. “How much do I owe you?” he asked me.

Why do we have to go through life not being able to say what we really want to say to people? I wanted to say “That will be five thousand pounds, Colonel Meeker.” So I did.

He looked hurt and held out a five pound note.

“Save it for the RNLI,” I said, looking out of the door of Pogie’s shed. “It’s kicking up out there.”

Half-an-hour later, standing by my fireside at the window of the castle sipping hot coffee, I thought of his reply. The cloud cover was thickening behind the westward retreat of the sun. The white horses had trooped back to their stables. Now a long, shallow swell rumpled the surface of the sea. In the dull light a green pod bobbed over the bar, a single white pea wobbling about in it. It was about an hour before low tide, but there should be enough water for the colonel to clear the bar. I watched the pea-green skiff pop up and down in the dark waves until it disappeared into Fairfoul Bay between Sentinel Point, briefly illuminated by the sun, and the dark notched shape of Grise Head.

“I can handle myself in a boat,” the colonel had said to me.

But it turned out he couldn’t.