Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Monday, 25th April

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Monday, 25th April

“Ahoy, Amaryllis.”

A bright spear of sunshine pierced the glass prism set into the deck and deflected into my eyes. My breath hung in the air like a cloud of smoke and the deck beam a few inches above my nose was coated with a melting sheet of ice. A fat drop fell on to my forehead and there was a line of damp blotches on my sleeping bag.

Something was scraping along the waterline a few inches from my left ear. It couldn’t be a dinghy. I was in the Mud Cove boat park. On the previous high water, Dinny had towed the Amaryllis in with his launch to the quayside where Jack the Rigger was waiting with his mobile crane to step the new mast. The Amaryllis was the last swallow of spring, and flying in a contrary direction. On the 1st of May, the boat park would convert into a car park annex for the invading grockle hordes. Jack the Rigger was busy plopping boats back into the water. By the time he lifted us out and Lothar and I got her sorted and we had a celebratory tot or three of whisky, it had seemed too late for me to walk back to the castle, even if I could find it. The cabin was full of bits, so I dossed down in the forepeak after Lothar went back to his digs.

Still in my sleeping bag, I slid down the slope of the forepeak cushions, stood up in the heads, unhooked the hatch cover and poked my head through the opening. The air was crisp but there was warmth in the sun on my face. A round head perched on the gunwale. It was very red and softly contoured, like the face of an ageing cherub with deep sagging pockets of flesh under the eyes. Perched over eyebrows like black struts was a peaked woolly Tibetan hat with ear flaps. The head’s lips twisted into a sly amused grin, the angelic face disappeared and I saw the wicked little boy who sat with me in the sand in the shade of the overturned dinghy telling filthy jokes. “Have you heard the one about Johnny Fuckfaster?” The head belonged to Nick Farthing-Tattersall. A hand appeared by the head, so I reckoned the rest of him was standing on one of the oil drums by the side of the boat. He was the first of several visitors I was to have on my first day in the car park.

“Lovely day,” said the head.

The sky was blue and clear. “Looks like the high is sitting right on top of Formerly Cromarty’s,” I agreed.

“Wind’s come round to the west. I’m going down to fetch Charlie’s boat up from the Helford and I need a first mate. Charlie said you might be interested in a sail.”

“I thought Simon had signed up for that.”

Nickers frowned. “I think he’s a plant. To see if I make a score in a lobster pot somewhere. Charlie suggested you.”

That was the second time he’d mentioned Charlie. “When are you off?” I asked.

“Tomorrow. Come on. We’ll go down by rail, have a good dinner and a few jars, and a great sail back the next day.”

I was tempted. Jack the Rigger could step the mast while I was gone and I could still launch the boat by the end of the week. “Let me think about it a bit,” I said.

“I’ll be back around eleven to drive Lothar to Kings Ferry station. He’s off to Plymouth.” A sly look twitched on Nick’s face. “You got that girl down there?”

“What girl?”

“That Sheila that thinks I’m her father.”

I lifted up the hem of my sleeping bag and peered inside. “You in there, Sheila?” I looked back at the head. “She’s not in.”

“She’s not staying here?”

“She stays with Spider. When she’s not out stalking your place.”

The head looked uncertain. “She didn’t leave anything here for me, did she?”

I shook the sleeping bag. “Not a sausage.”

“If you see her, tell her I can give her what she wants.”

“I reckon lots of fellas tell her that.”

“The blood test. I can give her the blood test this afternoon,” said the head. And then it disappeared over the side.

I was brewing up for elevenses when Lothar clambered up the ladder. His eyes were sad as he closed my hand in his giant grip. “Sorry to leave you in the lurgy.”

“You’ve done a great job. I’d still be bailing out every high tide if you hadn’t dropped in from the sky.”

“Have you seen Nick?”

“He came round this morning. He was trying to sign me up to help him bring Charlie’s boat back up from Helford on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Lothar shook his big head like a sad old lion. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you, old mate.”

“What’s wrong with Wednesday?”

“It’s Nick. He is not responsible. Don’t do it.”

“You’re serious.”

Lothar looked me straight in the eye and nodded. Then he ran his hand over the hull of the boat, now sound and freshly painted. “She’s looking good,” he said. “I’m looking forward to see how she sails.”

Lothar was negotiating the purchase of Nick’s boat, the Snow Queen, on behalf of a charter group in the Caribbean, and Nick had employed him to oversee her final fitting out. “Will you be coming back to Westowe?” I asked.

“Those bastards in the Plymouth yard are thieving Lord Nick blind. I’ve got to stay down there and keep watch.”

“I hope the money’s better than I pay.”

Lothar spread his wide smile. “A few pints every day and a few laughs. What more do you want out of life?”

“When do you sail for the Caribbean?”

He shrugged. “When are you out of the car park? It all depends on weather.”

Snow Queen is in a covered shed. What’s the weather got to do with it?”

He spoke into the back of his hand. “Whether Nick is able to pay off the yard’s bill.” He threw back his big head and laughed, his close-cropped blonde hair glowing like a halo in the spring sunshine. Lothar loved the word play of the English language, even though he played with a sprung racket.

“Don’t sail off without coming round to say good-bye,” I said.

“I’ve made a lot of friends in Westowe. Which reminds me.” He reached into his sea-bag and pulled out a small square parcel wrapped in brown paper. On it he had written in thick black pencil, “For Mady.” I laughed.

His face fell. “Is it just one D? I wasn’t sure.”

“I think you got her just about right. What is it?”

“A farewell present. For standing me up one night. She wouldn’t give me the day time, that girl. You know, I think she really loves you. Give this to her. It’s a reason to talk to her.”

A horn tooted over in the car park. It was Lord Nick‘s ancient MG with the hood down. Lothar squinted at the sky. “Looks like good weather for varnishing this week.” Then he gave me his serious look again. “I’ll tell Nick you’re not sailing with him.” Before I could say I hadn’t made up my mind yet he was on the ground and hoisting his sea-bag. It contained everything he needed to travel the world, winter and summer. He threw it over his shoulder like it was filled with goose down and called up to me. “You sail with me to the Caribbean instead. I’m coming back to sign you on as first mate.” He stuck his bonecrusher over the gunwales and we shook hands for the last time. In the car park he tossed his bag into the space behind the front seats and waved as Nick gunned his roadster back towards the village in a noisy hail of gravel. The image of a couple of overgrown schoolboys setting off on a lark swims into my mind whenever I think of Nick or Lothar, and it always brings an aching pain to the knuckles of my right hand.

It was a perfect day for varnishing. There was no wind and the sun grew hot while I worked with an electric blower and triangular scraper peeling the brightwork down to bare wood. I wasted half-an-hour searching for the screwdriver I had sharpened into an ice-pick; it was perfect for gouging hard bits of old varnish out of tiny crevices. But it had gone walkabout. In the Mud Cove car park boat-bashing fraternity an open tool box was considered communal property. Meanwhile the day grew warmer. So I was in a foul mood as I pulled my head out of my outer jumper layer and confronted my third visitor of the morning.

“Howdy, stranger,” said Matty. One large faded purple bruise remained under her left eye. She was wearing Spider’s cast-off red oilies and she was as bright as the morning.

“Look what the tide brought in,” I said. “Is it flotsam or jetsam?”

“What’s the difference?”

“One gets thrown overboard. The other just sort of floats around.”

“Be nice. I came to tell you I may not always be around.”

“I noticed that.”

“You didn’t declare your undying love for me, so I left.” She traced a heart on the upturned lid of my varnish tin with her finger, and then drew an X through it. She wiped her finger on my smock.

“Who beat you up that night?”

Her eyes darted to the corners of her eyes. “I fell. Out of a bad dream.”

“How’s your new fella?”

“Spider? He’s a mate. He looks after me.”

I looked up at the sun. “He’ll be cutting himself out of his Long Johns soon.”

“Spider’s not that way inclined.”

“He’s not bent.”

“Spider’s not into sex. He’s like your prime ministers. Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major. Another gender.”

“Spiders wait for their prey.”

“Not me. He’s been waiting for her all his life.”

“Who?

“The lady who won’t let me come in to play with you.”

“He doesn’t have to wait now. She’s a widow.”

“She wants the lot. You, Spider, even the dead.”

“And they all fancy you. Even the departed.”

“Who?”

“Lothar. The Danish ‘Playboy of the Western World’.”

“He’s gone?”

“To Plymouth to try to keep Lord Nick afloat on a sea of creditors.” I opened the starboard locker in the cockpit and gave her the brown parcel. “He said it was for the girl who stood him up one night.” She turned it over in her hands and stuffed it into the pocket of her oilskin.

“I only spoke to him once.”

“Nickers came by, too. He said he’d give you that blood test.”

“Charlie told me. Great news, isn’t it? We’re having a joint stick-in at the surgery today.”

“Nickers shouldn’t need any help jabbing a needle into his veins.”

“You need a proper job. Chain of custody, they call it. From the jab to the lab. You want to come and watch me get pricked?”

“I’m not into porn movies.”

She stuck her pink tongue out at me, blew me a kiss and walked off slowly. She could feel my gaze on her back, because halfway across the car park she turned and shouted, “I’m not sleeping with him.”

A middle-aged couple who had just got out of their car stared at her.

I shouted back. “Who?”

“Spider, you bastard. Or Lothar. Or my father. I’m saving myself for you.” She trilled the last syllable like the old British Telecom commercial. Then she turned and walked past the grey-haired couple. “G’day,” I heard her say. They didn’t say anything at all.

Just as I was thinking of taking a break to massage my innards with a pint of gassy lemonade and a pie at Formerly Cromarty’s, Angie pulled up in her battered old Morris Minor. I had not seen her since the sailing club AGM last week. She stroked the smooth rubbed brightwork of the toe-rail, just that bit which Matty had caressed all those weeks ago.

“The Amaryllis and I must be about the same age — and she’s looking a lot better.”

“She gets a lot of rubbing down,” I ventured.

“You must be using Oil of Ulay.”

John Thomas stirred in my groin. I changed the subject. “What did you make of Spider’s posthumous power of attorney?”

“It’s as I told you. Bartholomew is alive.”

Was alive last September at any rate. Spider must have found him.”

“That’s why I wanted you to keep an eye on him.” She pushed up the sleeves of her jumper as if she were getting down to work. “I came to invite you to supper tonight.”

I plucked at my knobbly paint-spattered jumper and my jeans with the holes in the knees. “I haven’t a thing to wear.”

“Since when did anyone in Westowe dress for supper?”

Superbloke did. When Angie led me into the kitchen he was already seated at the head of the refectory table wearing his professional country land-owner uniform: suit, shirt and tie in dizzy overlays of muted brown checks. He had a large glass of red wine in his fist. The sight of it made my head throb, and I passed when Angie offered me the bottle. She ladled a thick pea soup into brightly coloured bowls. We ate it with some home-baked bread and some cheese that had been produced not very long ago by the goat straining at the end of her tether in the back garden.

I tried to draw Superbloke out about the denouement of the AGM, but he had regained his aplomb, and parried my remarks with his cutlery while demolishing the unripe cheese. The matter had been postponed while Charlie sought legal advice. Doubtless Spider would be helping the police with their enquiries. Charlie had already informed Eddy Starr that Spider claimed to have dealt with Bartholomew after he had gone missing. An Extraordinary General Meeting would be called after counsel’s opinion had been published to members.

Angie wanted to hear what had happened at the castle the night Matty was beaten up. The bush telegraph doesn’t give in-depth stories. I told her what I knew.

“Who beat her up?”

“She won’t say.”

“What about the fingerprints on the whisky glasses?”

“According to Eddy, they were clean. So was the bottle. All we’ve got is a urine specimen.”

“You’re besieged with ill luck,” said Angie.

“Just as well I live in a castle.”

Her eyes fastened on her hand swilling the bright, red wine round in her glass. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I can explain.” Superbloke and I spoke at once, and we said the same words, which confused both of us. Superbloke recovered first.

“Angie is planning an exhibition of Bartholomew’s work.”

“It’s a chance to revive his reputation,” said Angie.

“I’m glad you changed your mind,” I said. “Even if you think his later stuff was junk. What matters to the art world isn’t the substance, but the signature. And, when an artist dies and it can’t do him any good anymore, everyone takes more interest.”

“Precisely what I’ve been telling Angie,” enthused Superbloke. “My idea is to present the exhibition as a documentation of his life, with lots of smashing photographs. I’ve already started some hares in London. There’s a lot of interest in art circles.” This excitement must have stirred his bowels, because he left the table to visit the heads.

“It costs rather a lot of money,” confided Angie. “Malcolm is putting it all together for me.”

“What does he know about modern art?”

“He thinks Jackson Pollack is a species of fish. But he came up with the money.”

When he returned I confronted Superbloke. “Who’s paying?”

“Christeby’s are promoting it. The market for modern art is pretty flat. They hope this might stir it up.”

“The castle is the obvious venue,” said Angie.

It was typical Superbloke wheeze. Boosting his status with his precious London chums while bankrupting Angie and putting me out on the street. Any objection of mine to this absurd proposal would be graceless, and so I had to say, “Splendid idea. When?”

Angie’s fingers revolved her wine glass on the surface of the table. “The art world goes to sleep in the summer, so I’m afraid there’s not a great deal of time.”

Superbloke looked at Angie. “I think we’ve settled now on the second week of June.”

“When do you want me to move out?”

“I could let you have a room here, but . . . you know what people are like.”

Superbloke couldn’t resist the opening. “What about your old room at Spider’s?”

“That might be a bit crowded,” I answered. I looked at Angie. “I thought Bartholomew hadn’t left any paintings.”

“Nothing saleable is what I meant.”

“The exhibition will change that,” said Superbloke. “The press will eat it up, what with . . . all the current excitement.”

“I’m afraid there’s a great deal to do in a rather short period of time,” said Angie.

I agreed to move out by the end of the week. I already knew where I was going to live. The court order had slammed down on my future like a prison gate and my savings were slipping through my fingers like sprats in a rockpool. It was time to batten down the hatches.