Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Tuesday, 1st March

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Tuesday, 1st March

I sipped my coffee and watched the image of the two-masted square-rigger grow from the size of a gnat to a white-winged butterfly fluttering against the centre of the picture window, its topsail glowing rosy in the sunrise. It was the brigantine Tradescant, swooping in under full sail on its annual sail training visit. A sure sign that spring was on its way. A single scarlet flower decorated the camellia bush, crocuses were blooming like a trail of bright coloured sweeties along the path under the rhododendron, daffs were pushing up tight yellow buds through the grass around the castle, and a cherry tree had appeared up the hill in Rabbit’s garden. I stepped outside to watch the Tradescant glide by like a swan, a swarm of lads hauling on halyards to furl its wings. They shook out a hint of the warm southerly airs that brought her up from her winter berth in the Med.

My tongue tasted of drip mats and my head was full of wet sand. Matty had not turned up for work on the Amaryllis the day after Bartholomew’s remains floated into the estuary. I called at the cottage hospital and found she’d gone back to Mavis Connolly’s Buena Vista lodgings. I waited a week before I climbed the three flights of stairs up to her room and knocked on her door. She wouldn’t open it, so I left my gifts on the landing, a bottle of scotch and the bunch of tumescent daffodil buds I had plucked from the foot of Rabbit’s garden. Outside, as I stood wondering whether it was too early to pop into Formerly Cromarty’s, I heard her call my name and when I looked up, a straggle-haired wraith was standing at her window wearing an outsize orange oily over a flesh-coloured night-dress. Or maybe it was her flesh. She blew me a kiss and I gave her a thumbs-up sign and turned up Cobbler’s Lane towards the inn.

The next morning, when I opened the door of the castle into bright sunlight, smoke was rising from the deck chimney of the coal stove on the Amaryllis. I waded out through the mud and climbed up the ladder. Matty was as chirpy as a sandboy. She handed me a mug of hot tea and I saw that her kit-bag was stowed on the shelf above her bunk.

She gave me a big hug. She smelled of sunlight, salt water and diesel oil. Then she kissed me full on the lips. She put her finger where my lips had just been. “Sorry, I forgot. No hanky panky.” She jumped up on the stern and semaphored in the direction of Rabbit’s bungalow. She knew her semaphore. Just two short words. Seven letters, and three of them Fs.

“You’re in a frisky mood,” I said.

She bounced up and down, spreading her arms to embrace the world. “The new me. I’ve decided to recreate myself. Like it?”

I realised she wasn’t wearing Bartholomew’s old oilies; they had been replaced by a threadbare old grey Guernsey jumper of mine. “I think I feel a migraine coming on,” I said.

She pouted. “Don’t be a party pooper. There is going to be a new me. I gave my blood sample to Charlie yesterday for the DNA test.”

“What about Nickers?”

“Charlie thinks he can talk him around.” I snorted. She reddened. “Charlie says he can lean on him.”

“If you lean on Nick he’ll fall over.” She stuck her tongue out at me and I thought how nice it would be to taste it.

The sun warmed our backs as we worked. Matty begged me to let her work outdoors, so I released her from below decks and turned her loose on the brightwork. It was the kind of job she liked, scraping away with intense concentration, her long spare body folded like a locust into the cramped spaces of deck between the gunwales and the cabin of the Amaryllis. After an hour I got into the dinghy to go and pick up some gear in the village. She beckoned to me, her face glowing with a wrap-around smile, and pointed at a six-inch patch of gunwale she had scraped down to the original mahogany grain, soft brown in the sunlight like her own eyes.

“Feel it,” she said. I leaned over her to touch it, and it was as smooth as the thigh of her worn jeans pressing my other hand against the toe rail. I surveyed the rest of the brightwork — the peeling, scarred gunwales which swept from stem to stern, the cabin sides, its slatted roof, the cockpit sides and seats and tiller — and was about to say that at that rate we’d miss this season and the next one before it was finished. Instead, I gave her a thumbs-up sign and yanked the cord of the outboard. She blew me a kiss.

An hour later, repulsed by England’s frowning skies, spring had fled back to the Med. A blanket of low cloud drew over the sun as I set out from Jubilee Quay. As I came round the Tradescant at the white visitor’s mooring buoy in the channel, I could see the Amaryllis in the little cove by the castle. Half her length was obscured by a businesslike inflatable tied alongside. On the Amaryllis the tarpaulin had been rolled back from the stern along the boom and in the cockpit Matty was having a drinks party.

Pixie and Poxy were wearing their usual storm-trooper uniforms. They swivelled their shades onto me as I cut the engine to glide alongside. She was sitting between them in a corner of the cockpit with her knees drawn up, giggling. Poxy leaned forward, crowding against her on the seat. She pushed him aside to jump up and take my painter.

“You’ve made some new friends,” I said.

“Your friends, they say. I don’t know their names.”

“Pixie and Poxy. I’ll let you work out which is which.” Poxy’s fingers flew up to his face, and then he flexed his barbed wire eyebrows at me.

“They brought their own beer.”

“Duty-free, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Have one,” said Pixie.

“Not while you’re on duty.” I waggled a finger at him.

The sun glinted briefly off the water and Poxy screwed his eyes into it, looking at Matty. “He likes to take the mick, your old man. You’ve got to mind your tongue with him.”

Matty stopped smiling. “He’s not my old man.”

“But do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Mind your tongue with him? Know what I mean?” The pink edge of his tongue slid out of his mouth and he laid a paw on her thigh, near where my hand had rested in the sun an hour ago. He nodded at two pairs of pointed black shoes lying on the cockpit seat. “She’s a good little girl. She made us take our shoes off.”

“Fuzz,” I said to Matty. “You can tell by the way the shape of their shoes match their heads.” They didn’t shift to make room for me in the cockpit, so I picked one pair of shoes off the seat and tossed them at Poxy. He had to take his hand off Matty’s thigh to catch them, and one shoe fell on the floor of the cockpit. As he bent over I threw the other pair over his head and over the side.

Poxy reached out to grab me. Pixie caught his arm saying, “Your shoes landed in the rubber boat.”

Poxy subsided. “Good thing you didn’t miss, sailor.”

From where I sat I could see the black shoes absorbing the puddle of water on the floor of the inflatable. “I made sure of it,” I said to him. Then I looked at Pixie. “Does your jurisdiction extend this far from the sewer outlet?”

“We just dropped by to spin a few yarns,” he answered.

“Like the last cruise of the Swan Song,” said Poxy.

“Has she been found?”

He ignored me and talked to Matty. “So, you reckon he’s dead?”

Hope flickered in her voice. “Isn’t he?”

“His widow doesn’t think so.”

Her voice went flat. “She can’t let him go, even now.”

Pixie took a sip from his beer can. “Where did you go when you left him?”

“I speak French. I stayed there and did odd jobs.”

“Ever been to Corsica?”

“That’s Italian, isn’t it?”

“She didn’t answer the question,” said Poxy.

“What’s all this about Corsica?” I asked.

Pixie gave me an oily smile. “The old chat-up line. Bloke says, ‘Ever been to Corsica?’ Girl says ‘No’. Bloke says ‘Neither have I. Let’s fuck.’“

Matty laughed. “In that case, I have been to Corsica.”

“Too many people have. Line doesn’t work anymore. Bleeding package holidays.”

“Corsica’s a long way from Lézardrieu,” I put in.

Poxy thrust his jaw out. “It’s on the way to Australia, innit?”

“So is Timbuktu.”

“That’s not in France.”

“You’ve been studying the charts.”

Matty laughed and wagged a finger at him. Poxy caught her arm, pushed up the sleeve of her jumper and examined the inside of her elbow.

“I’m not into drugs,” she said.

“I was just wondering if you had your blood test yet,” he answered.

Pixie laid a hand on Poxy’s shoulder and he released Matty’s arm. “How’s your old man?” asked Pixie. “The other one.” Matty looked down at her hands clasped in her lap.

“Lord Tatters-Howsyourfather has got cooler things to do with needles than give blood,” said Poxy.

“We might be able to help persuade him to co-operate with you,” said Pixie.

Matty lifted her head. “How?”

“More to the point, why?” I said.

Pixie ignored me. “A little quid pro quo. We’ll be in touch,” he said to Matty.

Poxy frowned at me. “You heard from your lawyers yet? About that injunction against your wife’s divvy-up?”

I had. Pixie held out a can of beer. “It’s never too late to kiss and make up.”

I ignored him, and he put the can back on the floor of the cockpit. “I’ve got a few questions,” I said.

“Like?” said Poxy.

“Like whose your tailor? Some little man in the Ann Summers shop in Soho? And does he pack you into that gear with goose-grease in October and unzip you in May?”

Poxy raised up on his tail and inflated a little in size, like a male kangaroo facing down a rival. But it was Matty who alarmed me. Her pupils flicked in her eyes like a frightened animal and her fingers flew up to her mouth. Pixie lowered his eyes, trying to look hard. “It’s our job to ask the questions.”

“What is your job? Customs and Excise? CID? Fisheries Patrol? VAT inspectors?”

Pixie smiled. “You left out the Child Support Agency.”

“I’ll fill you in later,” said Poxy. He didn’t smile.

“Unless you show me some identification, you can get off this vessel.”

Poxy snorted. “Captain fuckin’ Courageous.”

“If you’re not going to drink with us, I suppose we’ll have to move along,” said Pixie.

“I’m not going to drink with you.”

They got up. “By the way,” said Pixie, “I hear your suit against Donald Penny has run into the sand.”

“You hear more than my lawyers do.”

Poxy laughed. “That’s because you don’t keep them in fucking funds.” He aimed his forefinger and thumb at Matty like a gun. “See you, darling.” He placed his big hand on my shoulder and squeezed the flesh hard against the bone. “Mind how you go, sailor.”

While they clambered into their government issue inflatable I reached into the toolbox under the cockpit seat and grasped the screwdriver I had sharpened into an ice-pick. As I pushed them off I pressed it through the rubber fabric. There was a satisfying hiss just before Pixie started the motor and they roared off back up the estuary. The wake rocked the Amaryllis on her pilings.

I showed the ice-pick to Matty as we watched the inflatable disappear around the edge of the cove. “Pity they’re not heading out to sea,” she laughed.

“What were you so afraid of just then?”

“I didn’t want them to hurt you.”

“Is that all?”

She laid a hand on my arm. “I’m fond of you.”

A pleasant glow rose from somewhere near my groin. To conceal it I growled, “Bastards. Crowding you about Bartholomew.”

“I’ve worked that out now. He was a father figure. And he’s gone. I’m more interested in my real father now.”

“You better not fall in love with him.”

“Jealous?”

“Concerned. What was all that about Nick and needles?”

“They know I gave some blood for a DNA test.”

“And they reckon they can get Nick to co-operate. What do they want from you?”

“We didn’t get to that part of the sales pitch.”

“Poxy was getting a bit cosy with you.”

“I was terrified.”

“You didn’t look it.”

“How did I look?”

“Vampish.”

“I think you’re jealous of everyone. Bartholomew. Spider. Those two leather scumbags.” She was right and so instead of answering I opened one of the cans of beer they had left behind. “They said you murdered your wife,” she added.

I took my first drink of the day. “What do you think?”

“I think you’d better avoid them.”

“That’s like trying to avoid dogshit.”

“Would you murder me?”

“Only if you try to flush your Tampax down the heads in the Amaryllis.”

“I just love it when you Englishmen talk romantic.” Then she lowered her voice. “Right now that’s not a problem.”

“Is that ‘strine for ‘my place or yours?’”

“Yours is out-of-bounds.”

A cold, fat drop of water splashed on my head. She put her hand out and hailstones bounced off her palm. An immense purple cloud squatted over the rotten mast of the Amaryllis. “Come in for a cup of coffee.” She turned and dipped down the gangway. The curtains were closed on Rabbit’s bungalow. I reached into the lazarette and twisted open the knob of the gas canister and followed Matty down. She filled the kettle from the water pump while I lit the cooker. She spooned instant coffee into two mugs and set the kettle on the gas ring. The flame was feeble — the canister was low. Apart from the flickering blue light and the heavens hammering on the coach roof it was dark and quiet in the cabin. Hailstones were bouncing down the gangway so I reached up and pulled the sliding hatch shut and closed the louvered doors.

When I turned around she looked at me and said, “What shall we do while we’re waiting?”

“A watched kettle never boils.”

“Can you teach an old dog new tricks?”

“You should know.”

“That was rude.”

“I’m sorry.”

She took my hand. “Jeez, do I have to say I love you?”

“Keep talking.”

“It must be the generation gap.” She put her arms around my neck and her mouth on mine. Our necks and shoulders were bent up against the coachroof and the back of my head banged on a crossbeam. We fell down on the starboard bunk and her tongue was inside, questing all around my teeth and gums, sliding, reaming, lubricating.

I slipped her musty oily jacket from her shoulders and dropped it on the floor with mine. Without seeing, we took off each other’s outer jumpers. I laid her back on the bunk and kissed her neck and buried my face in the thin knotty fabric of my own grey Guernsey. She smelled of honey and diesel oil. I slipped my hand under her jumper. She wore no bra and her pale little breasts were tipped with fresh raspberries. Her left breast was a little larger and less round. I put my mouth to it and my hand to the other. Then she had rolled my shirt up and her head was down doing the same to my hairy breasts. That was a new trick for the old dog.

I had to use both hands to undo the belt of her jeans. It was a heavy silver buckle and it was shaped in the head of a wolf.

“It bites,” she warned.

She said it without smiling, her eyes half-closed, and it made me pause. What terrible delight lay between her legs? When we were about seven we took Charlie Segui and one of his younger sisters into the woods. Was it Rabbit? When we made her bend over and pull up her sundress she started to cry. I was disappointed. Her child’s bottom didn’t look any different from any boy’s bottom. Matty could not have anything different from any other woman down her trousers. But I was wrong.

Her pubic hair was soft and long and trailed down her mound in wisps between her legs. From the edge of this forest a wolf glared at me, the colour of veins, with bared teeth and red eyes. I raised my head. “If he growls at you, just give him a kiss,” she breathed.

“Ahoy, Amaryllis.”

A boat was knocking against the starboard hull a few inches from my right ear. I jumped up and fetched a stunning crack on the head from a beam over the bunk. The snarling tattooed wolf slunk out of view beneath Matty’s jeans. I grabbed my Guernsey, opened the louvered hatch doors and crawled out into the cockpit rubbing the crown of my head.

Eddy Starr was six-foot-two, but the man with the close-cropped sandy hair who sat beside him in the dinghy was a head taller. In his yellow oilskins he looked the size of a small tugboat. The hail had stopped and the black cloud was now hanging over the distant moors to the north. Sunlight sparkled through the raindrops spattering the water. I closed the hatch doors behind me and the two men came on board. The giant’s rugged face looked like it had been formed from ruddy marble, creased with fine white lines where the sun had not penetrated. Shaking hands with him was like slipping a paw into a man-trap.

“My name is Lothar Volkmann. Not rude.” He laughed. “Like Volkboat.”

“Sehr angenehm.”

He frowned. “I’m Danish.” He switched on a grin like a lighthouse beam. “Just a bit German maybe. I come from a village near Schleswig-Holstein. Sometimes the Germans hop over the fences. You’d have to ask my mother.”

It was a German joke, certainly.

“Lothar just came in on the Tradescant,” said Eddy.

“Their navigator was taken ill. So they gave me a lift.”

“How was the passage?” I asked.

“Slamming into headwinds all the way until it shifted south early this morning. With a green crew, it took us two days from Cork.”

“He’s doing some research,” said Eddy.

The giant swivelled his grin on me. “I’m a reporter.”

“The village has been heaving with them. But they call themselves journalists.”

“I’m just a free-lancer. I write about yachting for a Danish magazine.” He laughed. “Only about eight million people in the world can read what I write, even if they want to.”

“I was filling him in on some of the local colour,” said Eddy.

“These disappearances. I would like to write about them from the viewpoints of yachting and art.”

“Bartholomew’s inquest is tomorrow,” said Eddy. He was looking forward to his next performance.

I made a wisecrack that turned out to have more truth than I realised. “We don’t have a cinema in Westowe; we have inquests instead.”

Lothar looked puzzled. “You mean making a movie about it?” He seemed pleased with the thought.

“Not yet,” said Eddy. But he liked the idea, too.

We heard the high whistle of the boiling kettle.

“Cup of coffee?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Eddy.

“I’d like a proper English tea,” said Lothar.

I slid back the hatch cover and opened the doors and went down into the cabin and turned off the gas under the steaming kettle. The cabin was empty. The green door to the heads and forepeak was closed.

I made the hot drinks and brought them out into the cockpit.

“Matty not on board?” asked Eddy.

Lothar smiled at me. “Is that your wife?”

“Just a friend who’s helping me out.”

“She’s the one I told you about,” said Eddy to Lothar. “Bar­tholomew’s lover.” To me he said, “Lothar would like to interview her.”

“She’s taking a break.”

“I admire Bartholomew Streb’s art,” said the giant.

“You know his work?”

“Not recently. But from the sixties. Op art. Those big circles sitting — on little circles.”

“I’m surprised he’s known in Denmark.”

“Denmark, maybe not so much. I travel all over Europe.” He grinned like a travelling salesman, but it was hard not to like him, particularly after he looked around and said, “She’s a beautiful old boat.”

“Thanks.”

“When we came up it looked like she lists to port.”

“It’s a bugger. I’ve shifted some ballast to starboard, but it hasn’t helped.”

He put his big hand up to his chin. “It could be the placement of the engine.”

“I took it out. No difference.”

“Or something structural.”

“That would be bad news,” I said.

“I could have a look at it. I know something about boats.”

Indeed he did. I had the original plans of the Amaryllis in a locker at the castle, and we went ashore in Eddy’s launch. Lothar jabbed his finger at the compartment between the cabin and forepeak. “What is in here?”

Matty, I thought. But what I said was “The heads.”

“Port or starboard?”

“Port side.”

“That could contribute. And the water tanks. But I’d like to inspect her hull when she’s out of the water.”

They dropped me off on the Amaryllis on their way back to the village. I knocked on the green door to the heads, but there was no answer. Matty had disappeared. There was a folded note on the bunk where she slept. It was not addressed and there was no signature, just nine words crammed onto a piece of card torn from a pocket tide table: “I don’t want to fall in love with you.” The kit-bag she usually left on board was gone, and so was my tender. Night would fall before the tide would sink low enough for me to wade back to shore. While I waited a guillemot swooped down to settle on the bowsprit and stretched its wings to dry, fixing me with its glittering eye like an avenging spirit.