Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Saturday, 19th February

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Saturday, 19th February

Except there was a body. That night, while I was looking out of the castle window watching the daylight drain from the sky it was bumping over the bar in the grip of the tide into the estuary. It surfaced at slack water off the Long Beach holiday flats, where the gulls feed when the sewage outlet discharges at four o’clock each afternoon. Dinny Dinsmore was curious because a flock of gulls was wheeling and mewing in the air there shortly after dawn. I saw him, erect and important in his navy pea jacket and disreputable white cap, as he passed below the castle while I was brewing my morning pot of tea. He looked like a Mr Man toy figure in a bathtub boat towing an inflated orange rubber duck. I focused my binoculars on this object. Then I pulled on my clothes, scalded my mouth with a few gulps of tea, and hurried down to the Jubilee Quay with most of the rest of the village.

Dinny was just coming in. Hands reached out for his warps. A swollen bag of orange oilskins bobbed off the stern of his launch. It was about three times the size the colonel had been when I saw him last. Dinny stepped out vacant-eyed. “I’ve got to wash me hands,” he said, holding them out in front of him like a surgeon who has just put his rubber gloves on. Had Dinny ever washed his hands? They were grimy with diesel oil and dirt. He headed towards the public toilets on the quay. His bucket came in handy. He took only a few steps before he had to put his head down and use it. Everyone shuffled past him to stare at the thing. The crowd parted for Spider, and I moved in behind him. He snagged the line with a boathook and pulled the mess closer. Two puffy sleeves floated free from the mass, the cuffs hanging empty like a teeny-bopper wearing an oversize jumper. The sweet odour of putrefaction went straight to my stomach, and pushed the crowd back like an unseen giant hand. Spider shielded his nose with the back of his hand and reached down to lift the hood of the oilies. There was no head, only a white and pink stump with fleshy tendrils trailing out of it, like a gutted fish. Spider vomited his fried breakfast where the corpse’s face should have been, people in the crowd gasped and turned their backs, and I rushed into the toilets gagging. Dinny was rinsing the recent contents of his stomach out of his chocolate-coloured bucket. He turned his innocent eyes on me. “Did you mark the writing inside the hood?”

“There was no head,” I blurted. My large intestine was coiling up into my throat.

“Nor hands neither,” said Dinny. “But his name was stencilled inside the collar.”

“Colonel Meeker?”

“B. Streb.”

I started retching into the basin but nothing would come up but a little spit. When I went back on the quay the body was laid out in the car park. Eddy Starr had positioned his patrol car across the gangway to the quay and stood against it, arms folded, like a bearded patriarch. Spider stood next to him and as I came up I heard him say, “Who’s going to tell Angie?”

Behind me a woman shrieked and pushed past. I grabbed her elbow and shouted, “Don’t look, Angie.” The woman stared at me open-eyed. It was Matty. She fought through the crowd and past Eddy Starr’s outstretched arm to the bloated object in the orange oilskins. She hovered over it, then she met the stench, rocked on her heels and tottered backwards, flinging her hand across her mouth. Spider caught her. She was sobbing and wheezing like a steam engine. He enveloped her in his arms and our eyes met over her shoulder. I turned away and pushed into Mary’s Normandy Quay Tea Room to have a proper cup of tea and hear exactly where everyone in the village had been when the body had been discovered, and how close they had got to it. Everyone knew it was Bartholomew.

Spider came in alone and we ordered a pot of tea. “We’ve got to tell Angie,” he said.

I nodded. “She must be the only one in the village who’s not here. Where’s Matty?”

“I took her up to the surgery and they knocked her out with something.”

“I thought she’d got over Bartholomew.”

“I’d keep your voice down if I was you. Those guys will have their notebooks and stubby pencils out in a minute.” He looked over my shoulder. I followed his eyes. Pixie and Poxy were sitting at a table, wearing their wading uniforms. Pixie waved in our direction. Poxy looked over too, but probably couldn’t see us through his shades. Spider nodded back, narrowing his eyes and not smiling. It was the look he reserves for tourists.

“Who are those pimps?” I asked.

“Guys who like to ask questions,” said Spider.

“They leaned on me a couple of weeks ago. They wanted to get into the castle. And they asked a lot of questions about you. And Corsica.”

Spider leaned towards me over his mug of tea. “They was asking me about you last week. And your love life.”

“Angie’s got something hidden in that munitions room. Do you know what it is?”

Spider shook his head. “They was telling me they can leave you without a pot to piss in.”

“I’ll piss in their police-issue shoes.”

Spider shot a warning glance over my shoulder. I smelled leather and sweat. Pixie and Poxy were standing just behind me. They ignored me.

“What do you make of it, Mr Meersman?” asked Pixie.

“He’s been in the water a while,” Spider replied.

“Not six months,” said Poxy.

Pixie pressed his hand on my shoulder. “You never got back to us, Ted. We’ve got bad news for you, I’m afraid.”

“You’re coming to dinner,” I guessed.

Poxy butted in. “You’re cupboard’s fucking bare, mate.”

Pixie continued. “Your lawyers will be writing to you. The court has granted an injunction against your wife’s probate.”

“Enjoy,” said Poxy, and they left.

“Better let me pay for the tea,” Spider commiserated.

We went out on the quay, and cut through Love Lane by Charlie Segui’s office. As we turned the corner towards the church we collided with him. His face was white and rumpled like a flapping sail. He grabbed Spider by the arm.

“They’ve found a body?” Spider nodded. “It can’t be,” gasped Charlie.

“Aye. With its head and hands missing.”

“Oh, my God.” Charlie’s eyes widened and he stumbled. I put out a hand to steady him. “How do they know it’s him?”

“His name’s in the collar of his oilies.”

Charlie looked dazed. “But he just bought them. He didn’t have time — .” He lifted a hand to his face, doubled over and vomited against the wall of his practice. Funny that. It was not as if he’d smelled the stench.

I put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not Colonel Meeker.”

Charlie stood up and seized my arms with both hands. The vomit was on his breath but the colour flooded back into his face like a sunrise and he was smiling through the dribble. “Not Colonel Meeker? Are you sure.”

“It’s Bartholomew.”

“Bartholomew?” Charlie lurched back a step, and his face drained white again. “That’s impossible.”

“We’re just up to tell Angie. Do you want to come along?” Behind Charlie’s shoulder Spider shook his head at me.

“Sorry. I’d like to help. I’ve got to get to the office,” said Charlie, who rarely found legal matters pressing. He backed off like a boat drifting with no one at the helm. “It’s not possible.” Then he turned and disappeared around the corner.

“He’s in a right state,” said Spider.

“He seemed almost relieved it was Bartholomew instead of Colonel Meeker.”

Spider spat. “Aye, lawyers. Still — .” He broke off as we walked up Bonfire Hill.

“Still what?”

“Funny word he used.”

“What?”

“’Impossible’. He said it twice. I mean, it wasn’t as if we weren’t expecting it, was it?”

Angie used the same word, but she seemed a good deal less upset than Charlie or Matty or almost anyone else I met that day. Bartholomew’s big, sprawling stone house, with its French doors opening on to a wide veranda, perched high up on the hill above the centre of the village. It offered an imperial view of Jubilee Quay and everything that was going on in the centre of the harbour. So, I think Angie already knew what we had come to tell her when she opened the door.

“Bad news, Angie,” said Spider.

“Bartholomew?”

“Dinny found him in the estuary. What’s left of him.”

Her eyes left Spider’s and looked at me for the first time. “Come in,” she said and led the way through the wide corridor to the sitting room. It was the kind of house that let in the weather, whatever it was, and on this grey February day with a sky heavy with swollen clouds, it was dark and clammy. The front hall was lined with the same, heavy Victorian chairs and side-tables and coat rack I had seen there a quarter of a century ago. Within Angie’s serene, clothed figure, gliding across the polished wooden floor in a long black flannel skirt and a roomy pepper-and-salt sweater, was the ghost of her youth, the powerful swimmer’s shoulders now slightly hunched. The hips I had placed my hands on as we danced in the club those years ago I knew now would feel wider apart, her breasts heavier. Why are new widows so sexy?

It was brighter in the lounge. There was an old wing-back armchair facing the window, and I started to turn it towards the table. Angie laid a hand on my arm.

“That’s Bartholomew’s chair. He used to say when he grew infirm he would still be able to enjoy life if I would sit him there each day so he could watch the changing sky and the sea, and the traffic in the harbour. I sat there this morning and watched Dinny towing something in behind his boat.”

I took another chair and we told her what we knew. Afterwards she said, “It’s impossible.”

“It will take time to get used to it,” I said.

She looked at me, dry-eyed with a level glance. “It can’t be Bartholomew. I don’t believe it.”

I started to say something, but Spider broke in. “They will want you to identify him.”

“From your description, that will be difficult,” she said. When there was nothing more to say she made us some tea and then we left. At the door she kissed Spider good-bye and then me. She brushed her lips against me on both cheeks, the way women do when they want to show there is no passion, only pain and, if you’re a good boy, perhaps forgiveness.