Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Wednesday, 27th April

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Wednesday, 27th April

Spider’s faded red oily was draped over the bar stool between them. She was wearing her going-to-Fore-Street outfit — a pair of jeans and the blue nubby wool jumper and her high-laced clown boots. Giggling at some shared joke she put her brown hand on Spider’s arm and bent her head into his shoulder. He frowned and brushed her long sun-streaked hair away from his face.

She looked up at me and grinned. “Here comes my ex-skipper.”

“Hello, skivvy,” I said. It was only seven p.m. but Spider’s eyes were unfocused. He was still brushing his forehead. “Dinny said you were looking for me.” I nodded towards Dinny who was sitting across the room in his usual corner with his bucket by his boots.

“Who me?” Matty pointed her index finger between the small soft twin drumlins in her skimpy sweater. Then she pressed them against me like a warm, friendly cat. “Just hoping you might invite me out for a sail in the car park some day.” But I was looking at Spider.

He gave a vague smile and waved his empty glass. “Can’t remember what it was now. The trouble is, Dinny never forgets. It could have been something I asked him to do last week. Or last month.” He rubbed his head with his free hand. “I’ll remember in a minute.” He beamed at me. “I can’t think with a dry mouth.”

“Mine’s a half,” added Matty.

“How long have you two been doing the cabaret here?” I asked.

“I just got here. He sent me a Dinnygram, too. Message in a bucket.” Matty covered the side of her mouth with one hand, pointed a finger at Spider and spoke loudly. “I think he came in yesterday.”

I bought us two-and-a-half pints of Bass from the wood. Spider took a sip and made a grumpy face at Matty. “I hear you’ve been giving blood.”

Matty’s face was tense and pale. “You don’t look like you’ve got much to spare,” I said to her.

“It was just a little prick, you could say.”

Spider coughed into his beer. “That sounds like Charlie Segui all right.” Part of Spider’s brain seemed to be resistant to alcohol. While wiping the foam from his mouth he threw Matty a sudden sharp glance. “Why did Nickers suddenly agree to a DNA test?”

I thought about my visitors yesterday. First Nickers, extending a tardy sailing invitation, but really looking for Matty — or something she might have left for him. Then Lothar, with a package for Matty. Why not give it to her himself? Then Matty, collecting Lothar’s gift and trotting off happily to compare her genes to Nickers’. Now what enticement you could wrap within a small parcel would induce the resolute Lord Nick to reverse course?

“Who knows?” Matty responded.

Fogged as he was, Spider read my mind. He tapped the side of his nose. “The nose knows.”

My mind was rummaging through the implications. Was Lothar setting up Nickers for a drug bust? As he’d done with Simon? Is that why he didn’t want me on voyage? Was he really a narc?

Matty improvised. “Maybe he’s got religion or something. The bastard even gave me a paternal hug.”

“You mean the bastard’s father,” I couldn’t resist observing.

She looked at her glass. It was two-thirds full. “For that you can buy me another half,” she said, and emptied it over my head. My hood was still up, and the beer ran just ran down the slick surface of the oilies and dripped on to the floor in a circle around my feet. Spider spluttered, adding to the puddle, so I asked the sour landlord from Liverpool for three more halves. He pushed a bar towel across the counter to me and I had to mop up the spill before he gave us more beer. Spider and Matty watched with great amusement.

Spider didn’t bother to empty his fresh half into his pint glass. He stood holding a glass in each hand. “Angie’s brought her sample in, too,” he said. “Some little bit of Bartholomew to prove it’s not his corpse that drifted in.”

“So much for client confidentiality in Westowe,” I said.

Spider returned his gaze to his pint. “Charlie’s not to blame, it’s just that his desk is a little untidy.” Spider dropped in to chat to Charlie or Rabbit most days, and from the time we were kids I had been impressed with his ability to read things upside-down.

“I wonder where Angie got the sample?”

He squinted and extended the little finger of one fist. “Aye, there’s the rubbish. It don’t mean nothing. In the eyes of the law.”

“Why not?”

“You need a proper job. Train of custom they call it.” Spider started to raise both glasses to his mouth, then made a choice and sipped from the pint glass. He appealed to Matty. “Have I got that right?“

Matty laughed. “Not even in ‘strine. Chain of custody. It’s got to be vouched for. From the jab to the lab.”

He spoke again, closing his eyes and sounding each syllable, a man feeling his way blindfold on a verbal tightrope. “Chain of custody.” He opened his eyes and took another sip of beer. “And Angie won’t say where she got the sample. Which to my way of thinking is good news.”

“Why’s that?”

Spider peered at me over the tip of his extended finger and winked. “Insurance. It won’t prove nothing.”

“She’s a woman in denial,” I said. “She doesn’t really want to hear that Bartholomew’s dead.”

Matty’s hand flew up to cover her mouth. “I don’t want to hear about it either.” She walked away to stare out through the bullseye windows at the rain hammering down on the Jubilee Quay.

Spider, encumbered with two glasses of beer, pointed at me with a free little finger. “Or maybe she doesn’t want to hear he’s not dead. So she can start rehabil — rehabitating you.”

“You found him. You got his signature on that golden share a month after he disappeared. So maybe he is alive.”

“Maybe I’m a lying sod.”

“You’re not.”

Spider replied with the conclusive rebuttal. “If that corpse ain’t him, who is it?”

Matty came back from the window and tapped me on the shoulder. “Did you get my note?”

“Which note?”

“I left it on the marital bed.”

“I got it.” I remembered the nine words penned on a pocket tide table: ‘I don’t want to fall in love with you.’

“Tear it up. I’ve changed my mind.” She linked her elbow through mine and hugged it against her side.

Spider smacked his forehead with his hand and then thrust it up into the blue smoke curling between the rafters over his head. “Now I remember why I called this meeting.” His pale blue eyes smiled at us. “I wanted to know if you two have been screwing each other.”

Matty grinned. “Ted wouldn’t even ask me in for coffee.”

I looked at Spider. “Funny, I was going to ask you the same question.”

Matty laughed and put her other arm through Spider’s elbow so that she was linked to both of us. “What more could a girl want? A couple of grey stallions pawing the floor of the public bar.”

“When you two were down on your knees all day in that little craft of yours, I thought you might have become better acquainted,” said Spider.

“It’s that scraper sticking out of her bum pocket that puts me off,” I said.

Spider lurched a little as his elbow groped for the counter. “So, what you’re trying to tell me is you’re sort of a dry-dock skipper?”

“What I’m trying to tell you is I’ve got a little respect for her.”

Matty giggled. “Which translates as: his landlady doesn’t allow girls in the room.”

I looked at her. “And respect for Angie, too.”

She laughed. “You ought to mount her in the bow as a figurehead. Or maybe just mount her.”

“You always had good taste in women,” said Spider.

“So did you,” I said. “The same taste, actually.”

Matty slipped her arms out of ours and folded them across her small breasts. “Now you’re butting heads over that sanctimonious cow.”

Spider leaned his head towards mine, but spoke loud enough for Matty to hear. “Anyway, I wouldn’t screw her if I was you. She’s screwed up enough as it is.” I saw Matty’s fist clench and unclench and then it struck him hard across the face. Spider saw it coming and leaned backwards, turning his face with the blow, but his elbow slipped off the counter and he slid down the front of the bar until he was sitting on the floor. “Pissed,” he said to our knees. His fists opened, both glasses toppled into his lap and a black stain spread across the crotch of his blue jeans. He looked down. “And I pissed myself.” He threw his head back, knocking it against the bar, and roared with laughter.

Matty had to laugh. “Piss artist,” she said, and draped the bar towel over his head. ‘Genius’, it read, in white script on a green background — an advert for Guinness by a dyslexic copywriter. The towel stayed on his head as he weaved out the back door. Matty was touching the dull purple bruise under her eye. “Christ, it hurts me to laugh.”

“Who beat you up?”

“I can’t remember.”

“A lot of people think it was me.”

“I’d remember that.”

“Why did you go up to the castle that night?”

“To see if you could come out to play. Or stay in to play.”

“Who let you in to the castle?”

“The castle is off-bounds for me.”

“You were seen going in.”

“Rabbits are near-sighted.”

“Somebody peed in my bottle of whisky.”

“Difficult for a woman.”

“Why have you got so many secrets?”

“Why don’t we make love?”

“I’ve been banished from the castle.”

“The Amaryllis was cosy.”

To hell with Angie. She was chucking me out anyway. “The castle is warmer. I haven’t moved out just yet.” I drew the keys to the castle out of the pocket of my oilies and held them out to her.

She looked down at her day-glo trainers, scuffed one foot against the other like a frisky foal, and then brought her eyes up to mine again. “It’s not exactly a Valentine’s card, but coming from you, that will do.”

“I’d better steer Spider home.”

“I’ll get you another bottle of whisky.” She leaned up and breathed in my ear. She slipped the keys from my hand, pocketed them and kissed my cheek. “Tell Spider not to wait up for me.” She made a little skip as she went out of the door into Fore Street.

I went out the back door and across the flagstoned courtyard into the stench of the gents’ toilets. Spider wavered over the porcelain trough, propping himself up against the wall with one hand. I joined him.

He beamed up at me. “So you haven’t screwed her?”

“Not yet.”

“But you wouldn’t kick her out of the bunk?”

“I’m not getting a lot of choice these days.”

“You fancy her?”

“Mother wouldn’t like her.” That’s what we used to say about girls like Matty. Girls down for their holidays who talked dirty. Girls we fancied.

“You’re right there, mate. Mother doesn’t like her. Father likes her, though. Too damned much.” We finished and he went to the basin, weaving on his feet. I rinsed the hood and shoulders of my oily jacket under the cold water tap.

“You mean Nickers?”

There was no plug in his basin and Spider had to keep one hand pressing down the tap while he splashed cold water into his face with the other. He came up for air and poked me in the chest again. “You’re missing the point, matey. The real question is — .” He blurted a heavy blast of beery breath. The recoil rocked him back on his heels and he had to start again. “The real question is, who’s the mother?”

Spider could be comical, but he never looked foolish. Any action he took seemed to have a practical purpose. That was why I had envied him as a kid. And why the people of Westowe were proud to have him as the coxswain of the lifeboat. He finished splashing water in the basin, reached up and removed the ‘Genius’ bar towel from his head, dried his face with it, squinted at the backwards writing in the mirror, and jammed it into his back pocket where it hung out like a tail.

“Genius. Some mother-fucking genius, that’s me.” He pressed closer, pushing me up against the wall. “She reckons her mother is some wench who worked up at the manor. And her father is Nickers Farting-Isthatall. But I got fucking news for her. I mean fucking news.” He grabbed my arm with one fist and brought up the index finger of the other hand to lay it alongside his nose, but missed by a couple of inches. My own drinks were rising to my head now and the thick finger waving in front of my eyes made me dizzy.

Spider brought his face right up to my ear. “I reckon she’s Angie’s daughter.” He pushed me away and watched for my reaction.

“Angie and Lord Nick?”

“No, mother-fucker. Angie went up to London all of a sudden after you left.”

“Angie told me she had an abortion.”

“Oh aye? And what if she didn’t?”

“Who says so?”

“Only my old Mam, when she’s rambling. Of course nobody pays her no mind these days. But, then if anyone should know . . .” Spider laid his finger alongside his nose again, to remind me that when we were lads Mam Meersman was the only midwife in Westowe.

I said it again to make it true. “Angie told me she had an abortion.”

“Maybe. But if she didn’t, Matty’s the right age. So, what does that make you?” He prodded my chest with his thumb and brought his face so close it blurred. “Motherfucker.”

Suddenly he was out the door. I followed him, he turned round in the doorway and we bumped heads. He put both of my hands on the neck of my Guernsey, squinted his eyes and hauled my face into another beery blast. “Don’t you tell no one. It’s our little secret. Just you and me.” He turned away unsteadily. This time I didn’t follow because I thought he would turn back again. And he did. His finger rose up in front of my eyes, and I stepped back. “You and me and Mam. You tell anyone and I’ll feed you to the crabs.”

The malt in my stomach surged to my head. I grabbed Spider with both hands by the front of his jacket. “You’re poking Matty. And you poked Angie.” And then he poked me. I never saw his fist. I was sitting in the urinal, my head dazed and my hand covering my mouth. It came away covered in blood. It wasn’t easy to get out of the urinal, and something inside me didn’t want to hurry. When I got to the door of the toilets Spider was already scraping along the walls of the passage on the side of the pub leading to Fore Street.

“Daughterfucker,” I shouted after him. I washed my face, squared my shoulders and marched back into the bar of Formerly Cromarty’s. It was empty apart from the barman who was mopping up the spilled beer on the floor. “Your mate spills more than he drinks,” he growled — a remark I reflected on only later. I decided not to ask him for another drink.

Fore Street was deserted, swept clean by a dry wind. When I saw the lights of The Sailor’s Return I turned in the door. Spider wasn’t there, so I had a few shorts by myself. I was still there at closing time. I remember walking up the path to the castle on automatic pilot. It was low water springs and slices of moon floated in the ink sluicing out between the low humps of the mud banks. Further out, a dark shape moved down the estuary. A small boat chugging out to sea with an erect figure at the tiller. It was Dinny in his ferry, with a heap of nets in the bow.

I stepped into a pool of black where trees crowded in over the path. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Someone was standing there. I stopped and waited in the dark.

“Is that you, Ted?” Charlie Segui’s face appeared. “You didn’t half give me a fright.” He came close enough to smell my breath. “Good session?”

“Can’t remember,” I said. Which was pretty nearly the truth.

“Spider there?”

“Pissed as a newt.”

“Sorry I missed it.” He gestured up the hill. “I was having dinner with Ronny.” Then he walked into the blackness, down the way I had come. Although the sky was sprinkled with stars, he was wearing yellow welly boots. From where I stood I could see the lights were on in the castle. Someone was waiting for me, and I remembered then who it was. My fucking daughter. I turned and followed Charlie, but I must have passed him, because I looked back once and spied the yellow boots walking back up the hill. I don’t remember passing through the village to the boat park. I do remember the moonlight glinting off the spare key to the Amaryllis as I slid it out from under the keel.