Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 19th June

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Sunday, 19th June

Off Sheepshead Point the wind failed completely. We had no wake. The sails hung like flags of surrender, flapping only with the listless roll of an oiled swell. Over the past hour a high, thin scrim of haze had drawn across the cloudless sky, and the sun grew larger behind it, radiating large white circles, like one of Bartholomew’s op art paintings. The smooth mahogany of the cockpit of the Amaryllis was warm to the touch. I took my arm off the tiller and it didn’t wobble. I secured it with a couple of pegs either side, pulled off my T-shirt and set the brim of my hat lower against the glare. Seaward, there was nothing in view except the wavering ghost of a coaster’s superstructure suspended on the horizon. Landward, a couple of miles away, the shoreline crept westwards at less than a knot. I judged there was current enough to keep us from drifting in towards the dark spine of rocks slithering out from the headland like a sea-going serpent, The Devil’s Coat-tails.

“We’re not going to get home before dark,” I said. Midnight was more likely, but I thought I would break it to her gently.

Angie swung her legs down from the coachroof, where she had been lying in the sun. “There’s no one waiting up for me at home,” she said, and then she took off her eyeshade, fluffed her dark hair with her hands, and slipped her T-shirt over her head. She was wearing nothing now but a pair of long yellow shorts which reached halfway down her brown thighs. Her breasts were heavier than I remembered and pale where they had been kept from the sun. “Fancy a drink?” she asked.

“What’s on offer?”

“Tea? A beer?”

I stared at her breasts. “Which is which?”

Angie did something I hadn’t seen her do in a quarter of a century — she stuck her tongue out at me. “What is it about women’s breasts that turns men into schoolboys?”

“Perhaps because we spent most of our schooldays thinking about them.”

She cupped a hand under each breast and inspected them, and then, without removing her hands gazed up at me. She looked like a statue of a Roman priestess. “Today, you’ll just have to get used to them.”

“I’d like that.”

She went down into the galley. I sat in the sun and thought about her and her body the way I had for long hours on endless summer days in the past. She came up through the hatchway, carrying a tray of tea and biscuits, her breasts nodding above them, a warming visual pleasure. I was getting used to them. She sat down against the cabin bulkhead with her back to the sun and stretched out her legs on the seat. They were not white and veined like Rabbit’s, but firm and smooth, the colour of the tea we sipped from the Cornish Ware mugs.

She closed her eyes and said, “Why do the English drink hot tea on a day like this?”

“Because there’s never any ice.”

“These days there is. I’ve even got an ice-maker.”

“In your heart?”

She opened her eyes and smiled at me. “In my fridge.” She closed her eyes again and we both listened to the gentle slap of the water against the hull.

I spoke first. “Your exhibition has turned Westowe into a boom town.”

“It’s a mixed blessing.”

“Not when you consider the alternative. Why do you suppose Superbloke was keen to arrange that loan on the castle for you?”

“You oughtn’t to call him that.”

“Superbloke? We all call him that.”

“Not since we’ve grown up, if you’ve noticed. He hates you for it.”

“He controls Crowview Limited, that company that advanced you the loan. He and Lord Nick together. Did you know that?”

“I knew Malcolm wasn’t being charitable. But Nick? He spoke out so strongly in favour of saving the club.”

“I think Nickers was genuinely conflicted.”

“Poor Nick. He always aimed to do right, but never quite managed it when the chips were down.”

“He was burning the family furniture to keep warm. So he put in with Superbloke, who wanted to get his paws on the castle. He knew if the exhibition lost money, you’d have to default on the loan. He wanted it to fail.”

“No one thought it would be successful. You didn’t. Be honest.”

“I hoped it would be. But like everyone I expected to see just pictures. I didn’t know about the Madonna.”

“If you had, you would have thought I was bonkers.”

“Probably.”

“That’s what Malcolm thought. Of course, he said it was magnificent. He went right over the top. That’s how I knew he thought otherwise.”

“You were very brave.”

“No, I thought it probably was bonkers, too.”

“But you put the castle at risk, your entire future security. If the exhibition failed, Superbloke would have foreclosed. With the castle in his pocket he could have cut a sweetheart deal with Gladwell, the property developers who wanted to buy the club. He must have promised it to them, because without the castle waterfront property the club is worth very little. With it, it’s a bonanza.”

“I didn’t like putting the club at risk.”

“You knew about Superbloke’s agenda, then?”

“Spider suspected he was up to something. We didn’t know what. But I told Spider I had to go ahead with it. He was very disappointed in me.”

“Why did the exhibition matter so much to you?”

“Call it loyalty. Our life together was often hell, but — .” Angie looked out to sea then leaned back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes. She seemed to go into a trance. “But I was always loyal to the concepts that held us together so long. The belief that life is tragic, that a man’s spiritual reward is the keeping of his faith, that we shouldn’t hurt each other.”

“You’ve memorised that.”

“It’s a quote. Zelda wrote that to Scott Fitzgerald. It’s like that loving an artist.”

She had been married to him for a quarter of a century, but somehow I had never taken her relationship with Bartholomew seriously. I had not confronted the depth of her passion. I felt unreasoned anger towards her, the way I used to feel about Maire. I said nothing. I fixed my eyes on the horizon and returned my hand to the tiller, which required no control. That was enough for her to sense my anger. She was a woman.

“That love is gone,” she said. “But the Madonna has a deeper meaning for both of us. Something which still binds us together.”

She did not go on. “What meaning?” I had to ask.

“I can’t tell you.”

“You mean you can’t explain it?”

“No. I mean I can’t tell you.”

“So, exhibiting the Madonna was a last throw of the dice. If Bartholomew’s alive, what better way to lure him back? Turn him into an icon.”

“You’re angry with me. There’s no reason to be.”

“It makes you a kind of parasite.”

Angie smiled. “Epiphyte,” she corrected.

“Hmm?”

“You see them in the tropics. Some orchids, for example. It’s an air plant which grows on trees. It depends on them for physical support, and the odd pocket of moisture it finds in its branches, but it makes its own food. Parasites feed on their hosts.” She opened one eye at me. “Like your penfriend, Matty.”

“Got it. You’re an orchid. Matty’s a cuckoo.”

“I believe you’ll find some epiphytes in the Tresco gardens in the Scillies.”

I flinched. “You saw her postcard.”

Angie quoted from it: “’Marooned on a grockle-covered island while the engine’s repaired.’”

“Nickers must have been feeding it recreational substances.”

“And then, ‘The Great Dane sulks. Wish you were here.’”

“‘Sucks. ‘The Great Dane sucks.’ If you must read other people’s mail, at least do it properly.”

“You planned for me to see it.”

“It was pinned to the bulkhead. You couldn’t read it without taking it down.”

“Irresistible to an intuitive woman.” The boat’s heading had wavered and the sun was in her eyes. She shifted to the starboard side of the cockpit and sat with her toes brushing against my bare leg. She closed her eyes again. “Parasites often have a variety of hosts, moving from one to another. And the host gets nothing out of the relationship.”

“Meaning Bartholomew. Me. Spider. The Great Dane.”

“And she’s not thirty yet.”

The swell had fallen. The sea was a taut mirror reflecting the whiteness of the sky. I took up the binoculars and scanned a 360-degree circle. The freighter had disappeared up-Channel, and two tiny diamonds of sail notched the horizon where it had been. A moving dot glinted far in the distance off the port quarter, probably a powerboat. Miles above it, something nebulous was reaching for the stratosphere, a streak of heavy white impasto applied with a scraper that had been used for a sea colour and not cleaned properly.

Again I spoke first. “What will you do if Bartholomew never reappears?”

She did not open her eyes. “What will I do if he does?”

“You don’t know?”

“We’re not like you men, you know. We don’t need to have a plan. We react. We trust our instincts.”

“That can lead you into a lot of trouble.”

“If you’re a man. Male instincts are different.”

“So you reckon that’s why men have got to plan.”

“Of course. You need to build a structure. A bridge. A cathedral. A business. A club. Hierarchies and rituals to keep you pegged down. Otherwise you lurch about like loose cannon, following your erections. I wouldn’t trust your instincts for a minute if I were you.”

“I’m beginning to learn not to do everything John Thomas tells me.”

She reached for a bright red seat cushion which had been lying in the sun. It was scorching and she paddled it between her hands like a hot pancake before placing it against the bulkhead and leaning her shoulders back against it. Throughout this performance her boobs swung and rocked like grapefruit in a breeze.

She closed her eyes again. Trusting me not to come over and taste the fruit. Or inviting me to. “It’s not just what one does,” she added. “It’s what one fails to do. What Mam Meersman calls ‘sins of omission.’”

John Thomas stirred, but so did painful memories. “When we broke up I omitted to tell you I was leaving Westowe.”

Without opening her eyes, Angie replied, “I told you, I’ve forgotten that.”

“I also omitted something about Maire,” I said.

Angie’s eyes opened now. In alarm. She would never be able to suppress the thought that I might have killed my wife. Or was it just concern for me her eyes reflected?

“I don’t mean I pushed her,” I said. “But I could have prevented it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Camus wrote a whole book about it. ‘The Fall.’ A man walks past a woman standing on a bridge. He hears a splash. He knows she has jumped. But he does nothing to save her. It is his fall as well as hers.”

“You don’t think she committed suicide?”

“No, I think I did. I was angry with her because I knew — I had this belief — she had betrayed me. And feeling sorry for myself. I marched on ahead of her. Not waiting. Not looking back. And she called out to me. She said ‘Wait’. Perhaps she was tired, or had stumbled, or couldn’t see properly. I didn’t turn round. I kept on going. She would have been hurrying after me when she slipped. In that moment I wished her dead.”

Angie crossed her arms as if she were chilled. After a moment she said. “That was unkind, and thoughtless. Childish. But it wasn’t manslaughter.”

I had a great lump in my throat. I was as near to crying as I had been since the last time I had been punched in the playground. “It was my fault.”

Angie came over to me. I pushed the tiller over and made room for her in the corner of the cockpit. My hand was on the tiller and she put her hand over it. “Possibly. Maybe it would have happened anyway. But the only thing you’re guilty of is being uncharitable.”

I had defeated the tear ducts, but the soreness was still in my throat, making it hard to speak. “That’s your great strength,” I managed. “Being charitable.”

Angie frowned, as she always did when she was thinking hard. “I think that’s what being human is all about. As Zelda says, we shouldn’t hurt each other. Otherwise, nothing works. But you’ve got to be charitable to yourself as well. If you’ve done something wrong — or failed to do something right — you’ve got to forgive yourself, too.”

“You speak as though there are no evil people in the world.”

“There has never been an evil infant. It’s not in our nature, but in our circumstances.”

She reached over to fetch the scarlet cushion, her heavy boobs dangling, plumped it behind her and leaned against me. I smelled her fragrance, a summery breath of clean soap, flowers and sun tan cream. I bent my face into the paler cushion of her bosom, and, with reverence, kissed her right nipple. She did not resist. As I moved to the next Angie sat up, and shaded her eyes with her hand. “We’ve got company,” she said and stood up.

Fifty metres off the starboard bow a huge white plastic spaceship hovered on the surface of the water, its bridge towering half the height of our mast, the two great coal-black cojones hanging off its stern throbbing idly in the sea. The figure on the bridge in white shorts and polo shirt and gold-braided officer’s cap was Malcolm Goodfellow, incarnated as Superbloke. In the vast cockpit were a young couple, a number of children and a yapping dog, all admiring Angie’s pale tits.

“Ahoy, Amaryllis.” Superbloke was in sea captain mode.

“Ahoy Thunderbucket,” I hollered back, for that was the name of the vessel.

“You’ll be hours getting in. Do you want a tow?”

“No thanks. The current’s starting to rise now.”

“Squalls imminent according to the forecast. There’s something building up over there.” Superbloke pointed towards the opaque smudge on the horizon. It was bigger now.

Superbloke was showing off for his crew of holiday-makers. “That’s why we’ve got sails,” I shouted.

“I suppose you can always radio the harbourmaster if you change your mind.”

“Haven’t got a radio. Only for listening to ‘The Archers’.”

“Right.” Superbloke’s face darkened for a moment, then he smiled, waved and blew a kiss to Angie. “Toodle-oo then.” The engines gargled, he spun the hundred-and-fifty-thousand pound plastic bucket on its axis and roared off in the direction of Westowe. The passengers gripped the handrails and waved at us with their free hands, except for the dog which fell over into the cockpit howling.

Sails shuddering, the Amaryllis rocked in the wake. I felt some tension on the tiller, the genoa snapped full and the mainsail stopped luffing. Ripples appeared in the sea and a foam path began to form astern. By the time Superbloke’s power boat had dwindled to the size of a waterbug, the Amaryllis was gliding forward smartly, sails bending into a gentle breeze from the port quarter.

“I didn’t know Superbloke had that kind of cash,” I said.

“He doesn’t. He’s selling yachts for the boatyard on commission,” says Angie. The teacups were sliding about the cockpit. She stowed her boobs within her T-shirt and cleared the tea mugs away below decks.

We should have accepted Superbloke’s tow. After an hour the wind dropped again and we drifted until dusk. We watched the lights of Westowe wink on as the current swept us past the harbour entrance two or three miles offshore. I was ready to take a tow from anyone now, but the sea was empty. A vast tower of greying cloud rose from the horizon.

We added layers of clothing as darkness fell, and after I lit the kerosene running lamps, I went below to make some hot soup. As we drank it, the temperature suddenly dropped. The sun had long since disappeared beneath the horizon but in the fading light we saw it redden the lofty tip of a streak of pasty white gouache that descended through dirty shades of grey to black where it touched the sea. A massive cumulonimbus cloud had marched in from the south-west. A roar of thunder rolled beneath it and set the sea trembling. We put on our oilies and linked up the safety harnesses. The no. 1 genoa jibsail was still up and Angie took the tiller while I went forward to change it. I reached down through the forward hatch and grabbed the smaller no. 2 jibsail off its hook. The boat heaved just then. I squinted at the sky and it was full of fast-moving black clouds. I dropped the no. 2 jibsail back through the hatch and grabbed the tiny storm jib instead. I closed the hatch and locked it and scrambled up to the bow. And then the squall hit.

The first blast of wind knocked the Amaryllis flat on her side. I heard a cry from the cockpit as I was flung against the rails of the pulpit. Sea water slapped into my face and poured down my neck. The Amaryllis rose again and I got to my knees, grabbed the foot of the flapping genoa and raised it over my head. Seawater was rushing over the gunwales, but through sheets of rain Angie gave me a thumbs-up from the cockpit. She turned the boat into the wind, and let go the halyard. I collapsed the jenny, fought it flapping to the deck by falling on it, and somehow bent the storm jib on to the forestay. Angie raised the halyard, snugged it and sheeted in tight and we bore off the wind, heeling at a crazy angle.

I threw both arms around the mainmast and hauled myself up on the pitching coachroof to reef the mainsail. It was completely dark now, and I relied on blind motor memory. I looped the lanyard of my safety harness around the mast, clipped it and braced myself against the upwind side of the boom. I released my grip on the mast, found the winch handle in its shoe, worked it on to the roller reefing gear and, with my other hand, freed and took a purchase on the main halyard. Just then the Amaryllis lurched violently and pitched me on my back on to the deck. I managed to hold on to the halyard and pulled myself on to my knees. A beam of light focused on me and then moved to the reefing winch. Angie had found the torch. The winch handle was still in place.

“About,” I shouted to her and she pointed the helm again. The Amaryllis came around slowly into the wind, the violent sideways pitching stopped and she started to yaw, forward and back. Both sails were cracking like artillery fire now, but the mainsail was slack and I was able to roll it one, two, two-and-a half turns around the boom, leaving the winch at each half-turn to move sternwards to furl the sail, holding on with the halyard turned around a mast cleat in one hand and my other arm circled round the boom. The flapping faltered; the great white bird was tethered. I tied off the halyard and without waiting for my signal Angie put her helm up and the boat came off the wind. My feet got caught up in the no. 1 genoa, thrashing about on the deck. I lashed it any-old-how onto the guardrail and dropped back into the cockpit. The Amaryllis was steady now and running on a beam reach into pitch darkness, broken only by the green and red glass rods of rain flickering around the running lights.

I couldn’t see Angie’s face, but I put my arm around her and hugged her. “Great job, sailor.”

Angie shouted in my ear. “Where are we?”

“On the wrong tack. The wind came up from the south-west. We must be running straight into shore. And we don’t know where.”

“We’d better put in a tack.”

“Aye.” I looked behind. The seas were very short. Going into the wind could be dangerous. “You know how to release the life raft?” Angie nodded. “And the flares are in the lazarette, in a plastic con­tainer.”

“A flare went up while you were up forward.”

“Where?

“East.”

“Good. The lifeboat will be out,” I shouted. “We may need it.”

We braced ourselves for the tack. The Amaryllis was hurtling ahead like a galloping bronco. We were in a cross-sea with waves colliding from all directions. We would have to rein her in and career off 180 degrees without shipping water over the stern.

“Ready about,” I said. And then I saw a steady pinpoint of light. It vanished as the prow of the Amaryllis smashed through a big wave. But when she crested the next, the light returned. And there was a second one above it. “Christ. We’re lucky. There’s the leading lights.”

“Where?”

The lights kept coming and going, obscured by the waves, the running gear or the headsail, but growing steadily larger and more constant as we crashed towards them. All we had to do to guide us safely home was to keep one positioned atop the other.

“Is that my imagination or is the wind slackening?” asked Angie.

“She’s steadier now. I can hold course better. We’re dead on transit now.” But something was strange. I had that awful feeling that nags you at sea that you are actually making a huge mistake. Like having read the compass heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

“The lights seem awfully close,” said Angie.

“Good thing. I could use a drink.”

“Shouldn’t we see the lights of the village by now?”

That was it. There should be a sprinkling of other lights on the hills. Something was obscuring them. The heavy rain?

“What’s that?” The light beam of Angie’s torch was playing on the tossing waters off the starboard quarter. I caught a flash of a dark, humped shape. I shot a glance up forward. The leading lights were still perfectly aligned.

“We’re spot in the channel. It must be something floating,” I shouted.

Angie’s torch caught it again. “I can read some letters. H —A — something.” She looked at me, very scared. “It’s the Harestone buoy.”

The Harestone buoy marked the end of The Devil’s Coat-tails. If the object on our starboard side were the Harestone Buoy, we were on the wrong side of it, careering straight into The Devil’s Frying-pan.

I screamed at Angie. “It can’t be the fucking Harestone Buoy.” I pointed forward at the leading lights winking in the distance. They seemed very close now. “We’re right on transit.”

We were abreast of the object now, and the word HARE appeared in white letters in the beam of the torch.

Angie grabbed my elbow and screamed, “Put in a tack.”

I shook my head. “The buoy must have broken loose.” Even as I said it I knew how unlikely that was. I pointed up at the leading lights to reassure myself. And then the upper one on High Tor disappeared.