Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Friday, 18th February

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Friday, 18th February

By the day of the inquest into Colonel Meeker’s disappearance Matty had been working with me for more than a week. She knew about boats and she was good with her hands. One morning she had turned up on my doorstep in the drizzle with a carry-all. Her canvas camouflage jacket was soaked through and her psychedelic plimsolls squelched as she shuffled on the doorstep. “I think you need an au pair for the Amaryllis.” I stood blocking the doorway, not inviting her in. “I’ll live on board,” she sighed.

“Your blood would turn to slush.”

“I can’t afford to stay on at Mavis Colostomy’s Buena Vista home for wayward girls, even at off-season rates. Charlie Segui is bleeding me dry.”

I agreed to pay her wages to help me on the boat. I threw in lunch and tea. The rules were no smoking on board, and she could only enter the castle if she were invited, which she wouldn’t be, and I promised not to fuck her.

“Unless I specifically invite you,” she added.

“How will I know it’s not date rape?”

“You’re not that clumsy. You like people to think you’re dumb. But I’m smart enough to know how smart you are.”

“I’ll let you know when I figure that out,” I said.

The first afternoon we cleared most of the gear out of the cabin and up on to the deck where we rigged up a tarpaulin to keep out the rain. We got the little stove in the heads working and hauled a supply of coal aboard. I pulled out an old orange oilskin jacket I had found in the castle. You could just make out the name written in felt tip pen on the cloth tag inside the collar: B. Streb. The oilskin wrapped around her almost twice, and after I gave it to her I wished I had ripped the name tag out first. I never saw her wear the camouflage jacket again. Over the next few days I made sure that Matty spent most of her time below decks, re-fitting, scraping and painting, while I stayed topside, ripping off the fibreglass that some vandal had sheathed the teak-laid decks with, then repairing, sanding and re-caulking them. When my hands grew too numb I would break for a cup of tea or coffee. Matty had hers in the galley, but I always stayed outdoors, whatever the temperature, in the open cockpit under the tarpaulin. Matty thought I was barmy not to come inside, until she teased out why: Rabbit had a clear view of the Amaryllis from the picture window of her bungalow up the hill. After that Matty never stopped taking the mickey.

“Where are you from in Australia?” I asked her once, as we huddled over mugs of hot soup in the cockpit. Rain drummed on the tarpaulin and fat drops splashed on to the mahogany seats.

“Promise not to laugh.”

“Don’t be so defensive.”

“Nowheresville. A farming community in South Australia. It’s called Mingo Junction.”

I laughed. “What brought you to Westowe in the first place?”

“The Farting-Ass-in-Tatters family hang out here.” Matty ripped open the Velcro strips on Bartholomew’s oilskin jacket and reached into the neck of her jumper. She pulled out a thin gold chain. A locket dangled from it. “Open it,” she said. As I reached for it, it slipped or she let it slip. The shallow vale between her breasts warmed the back of my hand. Fixed inside the locket was an old copper farthing.

“My parents adopted me when I was a baby. This came with me.”

“Do the Australians allow you to trace your parents?”

She nodded. “There’s a new law. But I was left in the ladies convenience at Adelaide airport.”

“In a handbag?”

“A Harrod’s shopping bag. I’ve got the newspaper cuttings to prove it.” I was still warming the back of my hand against the worn, balled wool of her jumper. “Don’t you get it? It’s a farthing. Farthing-Tattersall.”

“It could be just a good luck piece. A lot of people kept these. I had one myself as a kid.” She slipped the locket out of my fingers and popped it down her neck hole. “There’s something else.” She dove down the hatchway into the cabin and came back with her ditty bag. “My mother treated my father like a doormat. One day we had a screaming match, and she told me I was adopted. So I ran away from home. I hooked up with a bunch of guys on a sailing yacht. I got as far as Auckland. They thought I was eighteen.”

“How old were you?”

“Thirteen-and-a-half. Almost. I was tall for my age. And no tits at all. Maybe they thought I was a fella. Anyway, I was still a virgin when I came back, so they didn’t prosecute the guys. And I was on TV. Which is how it came about.”

She paused while I puzzled how common it was for Australian girls to lose their virginity on TV. Her hand held something out. “I don’t show this to everyone, Skipper.” It was a tattered postcard.

The view was familiar. You could still buy the same postcard from the rack in Millie’s sub-post office: a garish four-colour photograph of a dark stone 18th century manor house captioned, ‘Tattersall Hall, Westowe, Devon.’ The card was addressed to Miss Mathilda Ferguson, care of the Adelaide Advertiser. The Australian stamp had been cancelled in Sydney fourteen years ago. In the message space a feminine hand had written in large, looping letters: ‘Be a good girl and stay home ‘til you’re 21. Then go find your Dad. Forgive me.’ It was signed ‘Mum’.

“I had to wait a bit longer,” said Matty.

“Did you find your Mum?”

“Never. I reckoned she might have been a servant.”

“That’s the noble tradition. On the other hand, Nick travels widely. And loosely.”

On the day of the inquest I declared a half-holiday and we made our way towards the village hall. Clumps of snowdrops shivered in the gusts whistling through the cramped gardens of the stone houses. As we turned down Little Lane, bending into the wind that flew up at us from the estuary, Matty linked elbows with me. Rabbit was advancing up the alley. I said hello and she looked through us as if we were columns of swirling leaves. Matty stepped aside to let her pass, pulling me against the wall. She leaned her head on my shoulder like an affectionate lion cub, and flashed a radiant smile at the plump lady, grey-haired today, who passed by trailing her wobbly two-wheeled shopping cart over the cobblestones. Her mouth was set in concrete.

It began to hail. Matty grabbed my hand and tugged me, running, down the hill. By the time we scuttled into the village hall the snowdrops were being hammered back into the ground in a deluge of sleet. The hall was chill and smelled of damp tweed. All the chairs were filled and people stood around the wall, foul-weather gear cradled in their arms or heaped at their feet or spread with hope on the massive, lukewarm radiators. Apart from the lame, the halt and their carers — a considerable number — and those who had steady jobs — a fragment — most of the winter population of Westowe was there. A bald, rosy-cheeked septuagenarian wearing a black pre-war suit with chalk stains on the sleeves sat behind a deal table in the centre of the small dais at the end of the hall. He looked like the Father Christmas who had camped there aeons ago on a gold-painted papier-maché throne, beaming while a troop of elves and fairies, myself included, tiptoed around him in a Christmas pantomime. In the shadow at the side of the stage, a gaunt, chinless woman swathed in brown sat motionless at a folding card table, pen poised over a yellow pad, gazing at him through huge, round spectacles — a large, patient stick insect. The ripe ladies in the fur coats and Liberty scarves seated in the front row were Colonel Meeker’s wife and friends who had been denied their outing on the royal yacht Britannia.

By this time, thanks to the Sunday papers, we all knew a lot more about Colonel Meeker. He was a colonel only in the Territorial Army, at whose parades he had failed to muster for some years. He was also a crook. He led a syndicate at Lloyds Insurance which had off-loaded all the dicey risks — asbestos, hurricanes, maritime oil spills — on to naïve new investors, while ring-fencing the investments of himself and his cronies. The sun had set on these risks; under black clouds the chickens were flocking back to the roost, and hundreds of small investors, saddled with unlimited liability, were facing ruin. Some had committed suicide. Others had herded together to take legal action against him.

Father Christmas was today masquerading as a Deputy Coroner of the County of Devon, a medical doctor called Rose. He opened the proceedings by reading from a document, and then looked up over his half-moons. “We do not know what has become of Colonel Lawrence Meeker. Only that he has gone missing. That may be a tragedy or an inconvenience, but it is not in itself a crime. However, the circumstances are such that the Coroner’s Office has reported to the Secretary of State, as it is obliged to do by statute, that there is reason to believe that a death from an unknown cause may have occurred in this district. The Secretary of State has the discretion to direct the Coroner’s Office to conduct an inquest, and he has done so. Our purpose is to establish, so far as we are able, whether Colonel Meeker has died, and if so, how, when and where he came by his death. Witnesses are reminded that they are under oath, and while our procedures will be generally familiar to those of you who watch television drama series regularly . . .” The Deputy Coroner paused and smiled at us, and a few members of the audience rewarded him with encouraging chuckles.

“There are some important differences,” he continued. “No one is permitted to address the coroner, so, no speeches, please. You may only respond to my interrogation. Witnesses are reminded that they are examined under oath. However, our procedures today are more relaxed than in a courtroom. We shall be permitted to hear matters which would not strictly be admissible in evidence at a criminal trial. Matters which have not been established as fact.” He peered at us again over his half-moons. “However, please don’t take this as a licence to invoke rumour, gossip and tattle-tale.” The laughter spread more freely, and a low expectant hum of conversation rose from the floor. Father Christmas had charmed his audience.

Eddy Starr wore his uniform for the occasion and told us what we all already knew. He had no new information. “But, I have a theory,” he said, leaning forward in his chair after Doctor Rose had thanked and excused him.

“I do not wish to hear it,” said the Deputy Coroner. Eddy’s mouth hung open. Doctor Rose waved his hand and Eddy stepped down from the dais, eyes fastened on the floor.

Even without her fur, the colonel’s wife was dressed as richly as a bishop, and with the same concern for concealment, perhaps because she was as round as a washtub. By her account, the colonel was chimeric: an astute financial wizard and a loving, caring husband. It would have been just like him to plan a surprise outing on the Britannia, but she had been unaware of it. When it proved to be a hoax it would not have been in his nature to accept having been deceived. Before his recent visit, neither of them had been to Westowe before. Her manner suggested it was unlikely she would visit again. No, her husband was not a fishing enthusiast, although he relished a physical challenge. Which, I thought, must have been what kept them together.

Charlie Segui had to read aloud exhibit C-1, the letter he had received from the colonel’s solicitors. There were a few titters in the audience and someone laughed outright. The Deputy Coroner silenced them with a reproachful glance. Then Charlie read out exhibit C-2, the response I had written for him, and the audience broke up completely.

Doctor Rose called on his clerk to restore order, and when that spare lady rose from her chair like a carving freed from a tombstone, the laughter spluttered to a halt. Charlie thrust his lower lip out and said “I authorised it but I didn’t write it.”

A final coda of laughter erupted. When it died down the Deputy Coroner asked, “Who did write it?”

“The man who signed it,” said Charlie. “Ted Golden.” His eyes, glaring, sought me in the crowd.

As I got up to testify Matty squeezed my hand. I walked to the chair at the front of the room feeling like a schoolboy who had been caught stealing girls’ knickers from a clothesline. The ladies in furs were sniffling into lace handkerchiefs.

Courts invariably assume that human behaviour, in all its random absurdity, is the inevitable result of premeditated plotting with malicious intent. In this spirit, Doctor Rose asked me about the tone of the letter I wrote. “I was trying to defuse the situation,” I lied.

He stared at me over the rim of his spectacles for several seconds, and then grunted. “To unfortunate effect, it appears.”

I squirmed. Retold in my words before a Deputy Coroner who looked like a headmaster at a seedy church school and the ancient clerk who looked like the recording angel, my tale of the jolly japes at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party played like a Leni Riefenstahl film at Golders Green Cinema. By the time I had explained how I had recovered Pogie’s skiff, it seemed patent that everyone in the hall believed that whatever had happened to Colonel Meeker, for whatever dark reason, Ted Golden was at the centre of the spider’s web.

But officially, there was insufficient evidence. All the inquest could do was to declare an open verdict. Which meant what we already knew. The colonel was missing. Just like Bartholomew, as Pixie said. And, as Spider said, once again there was no body.