Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Tuesday, 8th February

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Tuesday, 8th February

She smoked roll-ups. She talked too loud. She wore no make-up. Her breasts made only small bumps in the thin blue woolly with the damp stains on the shoulders. She was quick and apprehensive and when she wasn’t the centre of attention she nibbled at her nails. She was sitting on a bar stool. Charlie Segui and Spider were standing. When I went up to them she was laughing and her hand was on Spider’s upper arm, but Spider wasn’t smiling. She thrust her hand out to me like a man. “We met in a gale on the cliff,” she said. “Very romantic.” The last word was spoken in pure Australian.

“I’m Ted Golden.”

“I know.” The way she said it made me think she knew more than a newcomer to Westowe should. And then I heard why.

“Matty’s come back to Westowe to claim her fortune.” Irony usually passed Charlie by, so it was hard to tell if his intention was sarcastic or simply narrative. But Matty twitched and swung her legs from the knee.

“Bad penny,” she said.

“What happened to Bartholomew?” I thought this would get a rise out of her, but she laughed. “I’ve already told the police. And everyone in the pub. Maybe I should give an interview to the Westowe Weekly Herald.”

“She says she jumped ship in France,” said Spider.

The grin left her face. She looked at Spider and then back at me. “I didn’t know he was missing,” she said quietly.

“When did you last see him?” I asked.

“A few days after we left Westowe. We just crossed the Channel to Lézardrieu. And we had a row.”

“The way skippers and crew do when they’re sharing the same narrow bunk,” said Spider.

“I loved him,” she said.

“What did you row about?” asked Spider.

“Nothing. Everything.” She stared at her knuckles, joined on the bar. Then she looked straight up at him. “The way lovers do.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I left. I went ashore and stayed in a pension. The next day I went back, but Swan Song was gone.”

Spider formed his words slowly. “I went to Lézardrieu. I spoke to the harbourmaster. I asked all around. Swan Song never went there.”

“We anchored off the estuary.”

“Where the tides run at six knots at springs.” Spider’s voice held no trace of irony.

She turned to Spider, angry now. “You don’t want to believe me.”

Spider beamed at me. “She says I don’t believe her.”

“I loved Bartholomew.” Her hair was the colour of wet hay, unclean and unkempt. She brushed it away from her forehead. Her nails had been chewed to little pink discs embedded in flesh.

“She says she loved Bartholomew,” Spider intoned.

“We all loved him in a way,” I said.

Spider grunted. “Not her way.”

“Did you really think you’d make it to Australia?” I asked.

She had drawn one knee up and was studying her foot. She was wearing dayglo-lime-and-purple trainers and they were soaked through. They laced well above her ankles, topped by a roll of orange socks, and above that her legs were sun-brown. “Bartholomew was a very good sailor,” she said.

“It was a very small boat,” put in Spider.

Charlie took over the interrogation. “Did you go back to Australia, after you left him?”

“I was tied to him with an elastic band. I could only go so far. Anyway, I didn’t have any money.”

“Where did you go?”

“I did odd jobs. I speak French.”

“Do you have any idea where he was going?” I asked.

“Back here, I reckoned.”

“And so you expected to see him?”

“I knew he’d run back home to Mummy.”

Spider had been smiling gently at her. Now a cloud passed over his features. He saw me watching him. “She means Angie.”

I continued the interrogation. “What brought you back here?”

“I don’t know. I thought I’d probably got over him. Anyway, I have some unfinished business here.”

Spider looked at the ceiling. “Not that crap about Nickers Farting-Isthatall.”

She eyed him calmly. “It’s not crap.”

Spider looked at me. “She thinks Nickers is her old man.”

I shrugged. “Would he know?”

“I’m going to sue him.” She looked at Charlie. “Aren’t we, Charlie?”

Charlie looked uncomfortable. “There are some preliminaries to go through first.”

I nudged Spider. “Translating as the firm is not yet in funds?”

Spider grunted. “You’d better get a move on, Mats. Before he stuffs all your inheritance up his nose.”

“It’s not about money. It’s about establishing the truth.”

Spider spoke to Charlie. “I bet you wish you had a half-crown for every litigant that said that to you.”

Matty held her arms straight down by her sides, clenching and unclenching her fists. “I am damn well going to prove it.”

“How?” I asked.

“A DNA test.”

Charlie put in his tuppence. “Bodily fluid samples have to be given voluntarily.”

Matty grinned. “Sod’s law, ain’t it? Most blokes a girl meets are spraying them voluntarily all over the place.”

“Will he consent?” I asked.

“Not unless I force his head under water.”

A couple of locals who had moved up closer to hear what was going on looked up at that, and so did Eddy Starr who was standing behind them.

“Not the most tasteful remark to make in Westowe today,” I said.

“It’s all right. I’m Australian.”

We had all almost finished our drinks. Spider went out to the toilet and Charlie knocked back the dregs of his pint and hurried off, as it was his round next. Matty tipped back on her stool and eyed me squarely for the first time. “You live in the castle now, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“I’d like to see it again.”

Ahead of me lay a cold afternoon cramped on my knees in the bilges of the Amaryllis, scraping rust off the iron floor braces. “Come and have some lunch,” I said.

Her face brightened. The skies were clearing too. The rain had stopped. We were outside and walking towards the Jubilee Quay when there was a shout behind us.

“Matty!” We turned. Spider was standing in the doorway of the pub. “Where are you off to?”

“My place,” I said.

Matty took my arm. “Only because I don’t have one,” she said.

“Fast worker,” said Spider.

“Just lucky,” I said.

“Not you. Delilah, there. Don’t let her cut your hair.” Spider turned and went back into the pub.

It was low tide and so I had tied up my tender at Pogie’s pontoon instead of the Jubilee Quay. We had to push past a few dinghies before I could lower the outboard into the water. One of them was green and had a large dent in the bow. I had to step into it with the painter and perch on the stern thwart to manoeuvre my dinghy past it. I thought of the last man who had sat here.

“This was the dinghy he went out in,” I said.

“The man who’s missing?”

“Aye. Colonel Meeker.”

When I clambered back into my dinghy she said, “We’re both in the same boat.” Her laugh was explosive and I thought for the first time that the reason people found her interesting might be that she was out of her head. “They say you were the last person to see him alive,” she added. I nodded. “And that’s what they say about me and Bartholomew.”

Matty posed in the bow with her head up, sniffing the wind like a long-haired golden retriever all the way to the castle. I opened a packet of biscuits, mixed up a tin of tuna fish, capers, chopped gherkins and chives with some mayonnaise, ground some coffee beans and filled the percolator. Matty braced herself at the window as if she were piloting the castle through the seas outside. Then she started prowling about like a cat, touching the walls and shelves, picking things up and setting them down again. Once she went down the corridor and I heard the little metallic rattle of the lid on the locked Judas window in the blockhouse door. She came up next to me at the counter that separated the galley kitchen from the rest of the studio.

“Jeez. Where are all his pictures?”

“There was nothing here but the furniture.”

“There were canvases. Dozens of them.” She walked to the window and looked out at the mouth of the estuary where golden arrows slashed through the blanket of low grey clouds. “She threw them away.”

I gave her a mug of coffee. “Angie was always a tidy-minded sort of person.”

She turned towards me, warming her hands around the blue-and-white Cornish Ware striped mug. “She hates me.”

“I reckon. I’m counting on Spider not telling her I’ve invited you here to lunch.” We sat at the kitchen counter and ate the tuna fish and biscuits.

“Spider and I used to be good friends,” she said. She looked up at me. “Just friends, I mean. But good friends.”

“He’s a good friend to have.”

“Why doesn’t he believe me about Bartholomew? Does he think I scuppered Swan Song? I was in love with the crazy loon.”

“When did you find out that Bartholomew was missing?”

“Not until I got here.”

“Who told you?”

“Wasn’t it you?”

“Me?”

“Yesterday. On Sentinel Point?”

“I didn’t even know who you were.”

“It must have been someone else then. Old Mrs Dolally at the guest house. Does it matter?”

“Just that you didn’t look like a woman who’d just found out her lover was missing and presumed dead.”

“How did I look?”

I searched for the right word and found it. “Radiant.”

She smiled and then started moving around to touch the furniture again. “Maybe she told me later. No, I remember. She told me as soon as I walked in the door. That’s why I needed to walk on the cliffs. To take it in. And when I got to the hut, standing there leaning against the wind over the sea, I knew it was all over. I felt released.” Matty stopped by the short passage to the locked munitions room. “I bet she put them in there.”

“What?”

“His paintings.”

“What were they?”

“Portraits of me, mostly. And some murky squiggles. What he called his rock pool images. Sometimes you couldn’t tell one from the other. They were very disturbing. But nothing was ever finished.” She walked down the passage and tugged on the latch of the barred door. “That’s where she put them.”

“It’s locked. I haven’t got a key.”

She walked back into the room. “That room was their little secret, him and her. We used to row about it.”

“What’s in there?” I asked.

“He wouldn’t tell me. Like Bluebeard and his bride. Just some old junk, he said, but he was lying.”

“How do you know?”

“I nicked his key once and tried to open it. But it takes two keys. And his wife had the other one.”

“I reckon she’s got them both now.”

“That’s where his paintings are then. She’s saving them for a rainy day.”

“She says not.”

“She’s lying.”

“Angie doesn’t lie.”

“Just because you’ve got the hots for her.”

“How would you know?”

“It’s all over the village. People are making book on when you will screw Mother Superior.” I must have winced. “You haven’t yet.”

“How would you know?”

“I can tell when a man’s been well fucked.”

“Why did you come back to Westowe?”

She leaned on the counter, hunched her shoulders forward and laid her hands flat on the table. She saw me looking at her gnawed fingers and balled them into fists. “I have to know who I am.”

I reached out and put my hand over hers. She looked down at it. “I need a place to stay.” My hand took itself away. She reached across and took it back into hers. “I wouldn’t be any trouble. I could sleep on the floor. No hanky-panky. Scouts honour. I’m an expert cook and bottle-washer.”

A shy smile flicked across her brown face like the sun shimmering through a summer squall. Her irises were a warm deep brown and regarded me friendly and steady, like a dog its master. As a woman she was totally unsuitable. And dead sexy.

I shrugged my shoulders and splayed out my hands. “The landlady’s a bit strict.”

“You’re a grown man.”

“It’s her property.”

“It’s his place. His and mine.”

I shook my head. She stood up and got her camouflage jacket. I helped her on with it, feeling her warm shoulders under the thin woollen jumper. I reached for the jacket of my oilies.

“I’ll walk you back to the village.”

“Thanks,” she said. “but I need a walk on my own.” She offered me her hand in that masculine way of hers.

“See you,” I said and opened the door to a blast of wind. The tide was full and in the little cove behind the castle the Amaryllis was rocking gently against its pilings.

Matty pulled the hood of her jacket over her head, then clapped her hands and shouted. “Jeez. You’ve got a boat.”

“The Amaryllis.”

“She’s lovely.”

“She will be. Once she’s fitted out.”

She grasped my elbow and leaned against me in the rain. “Let me stay on her. I’ll help you.”

“You’d freeze to death.”

“We’re very hardy, us Sheilas.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think about it. Feel about it.” She pressed her warm lips against my cheek and turned and started up the path in the rain. Skipping, for Christ’s sake. Then she stopped, looked back and waved, “See you soon.”

I poured a large glass of Angie’s single malt and put Ravel’s Bolero on the tape player and felt about it until dusk.

There was a knock on the door. I walked to it, wondering if I would have the resolve to throw her out again. Angie was standing in the steady rain. In the glare of the external light over the door her face was white under her hood. She wore no make-up. For the first time I thought of her as a middle-aged woman. She brushed past me, walked to the centre of the room, spun about and stood there dripping water on to the throw rug, glaring. “What did she say about Bartholomew?”

“She says she left him after a couple of days in Lézardrieu. Says she doesn’t know where he is now. Spider will have told you all about it.”

“I haven’t seen Spider today.”

“Who blew the whistle on me then?”

She ignored that. “You see. I was right. If she’s alive, then so is he.”

“He hasn’t come home to Mum, yet.”

“Is that how you see me? Mumsy?”

“Those were your words.”

“And you find her attractive?”

“I find you attractive.” Given the way she looked at the moment, that came out a little unconvincing. So I added, “You know that.”

“I don’t want that girl to set foot in here again. I’ll get Charlie to put it in the lease.”

“We don’t have a lease. And it’s not necessary. I’ll do anything you say.”

“It’s a promise then?”

I held up my fingers and smiled. “Scout’s honour. Let me make you a cup of tea.”

She brushed past me and into the night. The lights were on in Glochamorra cottage, and I saw a curtain sway.