Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Monday, 7th February

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Monday, 7th February

Beyond Sentinel Point, on a ledge that juts off the coastal path, stands a small stone hut with a stout slate-tiled roof, and where it faces the sea, an open rectangle where there should be a window. It had been built in the early part of the 19th century. Until the 1920s a rota of men was stationed in the hut each year from July to Christmas to watch for the pilchards which would come up round the south-west corner of Britain in purple shoals stretching as far as the eye could see, eastward-bound whatever the flow of the tide. For a few years just after it was built sentinels shivered there day and night in all seasons, but never spied the sails of Napoleon’s fleet cresting the horizon. During the Second World War other soldiers took up the watch, scanning the skies. Now, all the enemies were gone, and so were the pilchards. The huer’s hut remained on its perch as a daymark to the estuary entrance.

Sheltering from the onshore wind in the lee of the huer’s hut, a figure hunched in the drizzle like a question mark, looking through binoculars. These were aimed not out to sea, but up the hill, towards the gardens of Lord Farthing-Tattersall’s 18th century manor house with the great damp patches spreading across its grey Portland stone walls. I reckoned it was a bird-watcher. Until I came closer and saw it was a bird.

In most seaside resorts, when your landlady locks you out of the house you can go to the cinema. There is no cinema in Westowe, so I had gone for a walk. Two hundred metres below the path a gale whipped the white horses, lashing spray vertically up the cliff into my face. I had to pull my woollen cap down over my ears.

The Rabbit had come to the door with the note. Through the fog of a crashing hangover I heard a knocking which seemed too far away to be inside my head. I tottered across the cold flags in my bare feet like a clown on an ice rink, struggling into the dressing gown Maire had given me for a long forgotten birthday. As I drew the latch, the wind seized the flapping right sleeve of my robe. I had thrust my arm through the rent in the armpit. Rabbit’s bright pink cheeks poked out of her anorak like a bon-bon. Her hair was strawberry-coloured today and she had drawn it back in a bun. Her art nouveau spectacles were level with my bare thorax where the draught wrapped the dangling sleeve.

“I’ve woken you,” she said.

“No, I was just going swimming.” She glanced at the grey waves rushing into the estuary and decided to smile.

“Angie wanted to be sure you got this early.” Rabbit handed me a small, white envelope. It smelled clean, like the back of a young girl’s neck.

“I’d ask you in for tea —”

“Only you can’t find the kettle?”

“Only I can’t find my head. Another time.”

“Promise ?” Her eyes twinkled. I nodded and she retreated back up the path, bending into the wind whirling the pleats of her skirt. She had well-made legs.

Angie had written to ask me if I could remove myself from the castle that afternoon. There were some things she would like to sort out here alone. Before I left I sprinkled a handful of flour on the floor of the dark passage leading to the locked door to the blockhouse and stretched a black thread taut from a door hinge to the jamb. To conceal my inquisitiveness I replaced the 60-watt hall light with the dinky 40-watt bulb from over the cooker. I stuffed my binoculars into the pocket of my oilies and walked a few hundred metres up the path towards Grise Head. After I had left Westowe a wooden bench had been installed at this point. It bore a plaque to the memory of Thomas Goodfellow, Superbloke’s father, who, according to the plaque, was drowned at sea near this ledge, where he had been fond of sitting to watch the sunset. More likely it was a favourite trysting place. The plaque did not record the local gossip: that he had probably jumped, when, after years of enduring her husband’s posturing and philandering, his wife sensibly left him for the local butcher. To the south-west there was the splendid view of Grise Head which the old goat carried with him spiralling into eternity. Northwards this spot overlooked the castle. I sat on the memorial bench and waited. After a quarter of an hour, two people turned down the path to the castle. Angie wore a scarlet cloak. The other figure, in one of those forest-green woollen overcoats with sloping shoulders that businessmen wear on the Continent, was the son of the man whose bench I was sitting on. She unlocked the door, Superbloke followed her in, and I regretted I had not stretched a thread between the bedposts. I trudged on up the hill, bowing into the wind.

The girl at the huer’s hut wore an army surplus camouflage jacket. It was no good in the rain; damp epaulettes spread over her shoulders. She was in her twenties, tall, with long straw-coloured hair that glittered in a sudden shaft of sunlight that swept across the heather. There was a puckish tilt to her nose. She brought down the binoculars and flashed me a smile.

“The birds will be keeping their heads down today,” I said.

“Are you local?” Wherever her accent came from, you could see the horizon all around you.

“That’s probably the central question of my life.”

She looked at me as if I were some kind of nutter. “You’re not some kind of nutter?”

“The jury’s still out on that.”

She shifted the binoculars between her hands. “Do you know that house?”

I couldn’t resist playing the yokel. “That there be Tattersall Hall.”

“Is it occupied?”

“When Lord Nick be about.”

“Do you know him?”

“Ain’t seen him in near on thirty year.”

“Did you know Bartholomew Streb?”

I twigged, and dropped the cod accent. “You’re a journalist.”

She laughed. “You don’t like journalists.”

“I rate them one notch above solicitors. Why not go up and knock on the door?”

“I tried that.”

“Nick divides his time between the Caribbean and the slammer,” I said. She slipped the binoculars back into their case. I gestured westwards. “Want to walk?”

“I’ve got an appointment. Some other time?”

“Where will I find you?”

She laughed. “I’m hard to miss.”

“Another time.”

“Promise?” She grinned and then she started down the path towards the village. She didn’t look back.

I went on around Fairfoul Bay and across The Neck, which connects Grise Head to the seething white amphitheatre just beyond. They call it The Devil’s Frying-pan, of course. A cupboardful of satanic kitchen equipment litters the coastline of the British Isles, gigantic basins created by domes that have been hollowed out by the waves and collapsed into the sea. But this one is rather special. To the south-east it is embraced by The Devil’s Coat-tails, a shoal of flat rock extending three cables out to sea from Grise Head and blocking passage towards the estuary from the west. On an eastward tide the current veers into the bowl of this trap at a rate of four knots at springs, churning over The Giant’s Playthings, tumbled slabs that rise up out of the sea only at low water. Sunlight never touches the depths of The Devil’s Frying-pan, and even on calm days it rumbles with the wrath of Neptune. Today the tide was high and the waves roared in the pit like caged beasts. Over the centuries they have seized a number of craft. I tried to picture a small sailing boat being sucked into that dark maelstrom. When I was seven, for reasons no one could explain, on a black night my father sailed his thirty-footer into this cauldron on the back of a heavy south-westerly swell. I wouldn’t have minded so much, except he had my mother on board with him at the time. She hated sailing.

I walked down the westward slope and another mile-and-a-half up the long skyward profile towards Grise Heel lighthouse. About halfway between the Head and the Heel a giant mewstone squats just a few metres off shore. If you line that up with the Harestone buoy off Grise Head on an eastward heading you’ll sail well clear of where The Coat-tails flick. My father had taught me that. From shore the mewstone appears almost perfectly conical but the hidden seaward side is rent by a great vertical fissure. On the charts the mewstone has no name, but we kids called it The Toilet, and as a dare, we would scramble out there to drop our trousers and crap into the shaft from a great height. You can cross over to the mewstone only at extreme low spring tides, and even then you only have an hour. If you use The Toilet at high tide you enjoy a free douche, because the swell shoots a column of spray out of the fissure every now and then. For that pleasure you have to arrive by dinghy, but there is only one landing place and it can be managed only when the sea is peaceful. I watched for a while, but The Toilet wasn’t flushing today. I felt cheated. In Westowe even nature wasn’t the same as it had been. Beyond the mewstone the glint of the sun on the water was absorbed by a black cloud. It began to rain cold, slanting stair rods, and I turned back.

The lights were on inside the castle and so I knocked at the door. Angie opened it, but Superbloke was not there, unless she had stowed him in the blockhouse. A fire was laid and on the coffee table in front of it there was a bottle of single malt with a red ribbon tied round the neck and a small card dangling from it. It read, in her handwriting, ‘You’re an absolute brick — The Landlady.’ There was a time in our teens when we affected to speak like P.G. Wodehouse characters. ‘You’re an absolute brick’ was a catch line. Sometimes we pronounced the b in brick like a p. In either case, the response was always ‘Beazer for ballast.’ Self-deprecating, because it’s the only nautical use you could imagine for a brick.

“Beazer for ballast,” I said.

She smiled. “Sorry to turn you out into the storm.”

I poured two drinks and set about lighting the fire. “Are you going to sell the castle?” I asked.

“I can’t. Not until I’m absolutely sure Bartholomew is dead.”

“Is that why you needed to come here today?”

Angie ignored my question. “If my plans change I’ll give you plenty of notice.”

“Was it to do with what’s in the blockhouse?”

“Why do you ask?”

I told her about my tête-à-tête with Pixie and Poxy. “If they’re Customs & Excise looking for drug-runners, they may be staking out the harbour entrance and just want to come in out of the rain and drink my Scotch. If they’re with some other crowd investigating Bartholomew’s disappearance they may want to search his effects.”

“Who could they be?”

“The CID, maybe. Insurance investigators — .” As I spoke it occurred to me that maybe it was not Bartholomew they were interested in, but me. Because of my involvement with the departed Colonel Meeker. Or because Donald Penny had opened a can of worms about Maire’s legacy.

“Wouldn’t they need a court order?”

“To obtain it they would need to show sufficient grounds. Which means showing their hand. They’re trying the back door first.” I poured myself another Scotch. Angie had not touched hers. “Do you keep anything valuable in there?”

“Where?”

She did not want to talk about the blockhouse. “Charlie didn’t have a key to it. Memorabilia, perhaps, I thought.”

“That’s a Superbloke word.” She laughed. “It’s more of a junk shop actually.” She crossed to the window, the way people do on stage when they want to change the subject.

I obliged. “What happened to his later paintings?”

I thought I had changed the subject, but she turned around to stare at me and said, “There are no — pictures of his in the blockhouse.” Angie never lied. But she could be evasive. Why did she hesitate before the word ‘pictures’? There was something else of his in the blockhouse. Something she could show to Superbloke, but not to me. Why trust him and not me?

“But he did go on painting, after you were married?”

“He was happy. He didn’t seem to need to paint anymore. Except – more recently.”

“What happened to those?”

“They weren’t very good, I’m afraid.” She took a turn around the room. “When I stand here, it’s not possible that he’s gone.”

“Did you still love him?”

“We had a bond. The residue after love evaporates. It’s sticky.”

“I feel his presence here.”

“That’s why I wanted you to be here. Someone who would respect that it was his place. Our place.”

“I can’t believe he’s gone, either, Angie. But if he is, I hope you can stop grieving some day.”

“Every day, as soon as I wake, the clouds press me down to the ground. How long does it take?”

I took a slug of whisky. “Depends if it’s grief or guilt.”

“Why?”

“Grief fades. Mellows into some kind of bittersweet memory, they say. Guilt stays sharp forever. Like vinegar.”

She looked at me as though I’d solved a puzzle for her. “That’s it. I’m not grieving for him. It’s my guilt.”

“At least I can share that feeling with you.”

She reached out and took my hand. “I told you, you’re not guilty.”

I reached out and held her hand. “I’d like to be forgiven.”

She looked at me, puzzled, then smiled and squeezed my hand. “I meant when Maire died.”

“I meant for leaving you.”

“I didn’t know what grief was then. What bothered me most was that you didn’t talk it through with me. Why you were leaving. I think I would have understood. I would have given you my blessing.”

I had a lump in my throat. Guilty. Once again, not for what I did, but what I failed to do. Angie continued, “I was downcast. But I was young enough to climb out of that pit. With a little help.”

I was disappointed. “Spider?”

Her eyes widened. “Spider?”

“I thought, after I left . . .”

“What put that into your head?”

Out with it, I thought. “Did you have a child?”

She turned away. “Is that what Spider says?”

“Just that you went away for a while.”

“He can’t know. Mam would never tell. I went up to London. The Christmas decorations were up already in Oxford Street and I was utterly miserable. It was a horrid little room, with goddamn teddy bears printed on the nylon curtains. It was just before Christmas and I was utterly miserable. I could see the tops of the bare trees in the park. You lived only a couple of tube stops away. I thought about wrapping the foetus up and bringing it to you. But they put them in the incinerator.”

Suddenly I remembered what it was like to be in love; there was a pain beneath my upper ribs.

“I could have been a father.”

“You were.”

“How did you know it wasn’t Spider’s?”

Angie slapped me across the face so hard my ears rang and tears came to my eyes. “I loved you,” she said. “Whatever that means at that age.”

I put my arms around her then. For a moment she was tense and pulled back, but then she folded in against me like a child. She was crying now. I patted her head with my hand, but she wasn’t a child. I felt her breasts warm against me and moved my hand down to round her hip. It wasn’t too wide. It felt just right. She must have felt me stiffen against her belly, but she didn’t pull away. Instead she reached her mouth up to mine and we kissed. She opened her mouth first. Mother Superior was experienced, warm and confident, a mature woman. I was twenty again, and raging to have her.

She pulled back a little. “It’s been a long time for me. We didn’t make love very often.”

“You and me?”

She smiled and leaned in against me. “We made love whenever we could find a place to lie down. I mean Bartholomew.”

I stroked her hair. “Crazy, crazy man.”

“Yes he was. Is.”

“You’ve waited long enough.”

“Do you still find me attractive.”

I knew now I would have her. Soon. In minutes. Heaven was opening its legs, and it made me glib and reckless.

“You’re the most attractive woman I’ve met in — oh over an hour or so.”

She whispered in my ear. “You’ve not been haring after a rabbit, have you?”

“A Nosy Parker in a camouflage jacket up by Nick’s place. She wanted to know where he was.”

She pulled away. “A local?”

I had broken the mood. “Not with that accent.”

“You found her attractive?”

“She had an appealing personality.” The truncheon in my trousers began to sag.

Angie put distance between us. “What did she say to you?”

“She asked if I knew Bartholomew.” Angie turned away and groped for her coat. I took her arm. “She’s just some nosy journalist.” Without looking at me, Angie removed my hand and went to the door.

I trailed after her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to press you. I’m still very fond of you.”

Angie turned to face me. “We’ll always be good friends.”

“That’s a bit trite.”

Her mouth twitched in that vulnerable way I had always loved. “It’s what you said to me the night you left Westowe.”

She didn’t bother to close the door, and I watched her go up the path with her long stride under the sweeping grey skirt and disappear around the rhododendron twisting in the wind.

My rude beast had curled into a limp escargot. I kicked the door closed and took another warm-up from the bottle. But it was Angie I wanted to keep me warm. Or even the Rabbit. Or the Sheila at the lookout. I wondered what her body looked like once you peeled off the rucksack.

Whisky glass in hand, I checked the passage to the blockhouse. There were footprints in the flour all the way to the door, but it had not been opened. The black thread was still intact. I walked back into the front room and put a log on the fire. The bed could tell me nothing. Why make a special appointment with Superbloke to go and stand by a door without opening it? Had she forgotten the key? Not like Angie. The passage was lit only by the dim 40-watt bulb in the ceiling fixture at the kitchen end, so I took my torch and walked down it again. On the door I saw something I had not noticed before, because of all the iron fretwork. At eye-level a small wooden panel was fixed between two horizontal metal guide-rails. A spy hole. You could slide the panel aside, except it was retained by a second latch with another keyhole and that was locked. On the wall by the door there was an electric switch which hadn’t controlled anything when I tried it before. I clicked it now, then went back and switched off the ceiling fixture. A glimmer of light now seeped out on to the floor from beneath the locked door. What did she keep in there? Gold ingots? A roomful of Bartholomew’s paintings? His Australian bint hanging in rags chained to the wall? I hammered on the door. “Are you in there what’s-your-name? Maggie? Maisie? You idle bint?” There was no answer.