Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 24th July: 3

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Sunday, 24th July: 3

In the summer months the average water temperature around the south of England is fourteen degrees centigrade. You can survive for up to twenty-four hours before hypothermia will kill you. But you’ll be jolly uncomfortable. You can drown a long time before that. Just from the waves splashing over your head. You feel nothing when you hit the water, and it’s a few minutes before the cold starts to set into your bones. I fell on top of Spider and when I came to the surface his face was in the water. I forced his head and arms through the life buoy, but he kept dragging down, as if a sea monster had him by the toes. I reached down to feel along the length of his body and lift his legs. He was still wearing his seaboots and they were heavy with water. I deflated my life jacket, ducked under the surface, and after a struggle, sent them to the sea bed. Spider’s head rode higher off the waves now. With the little puff I had left it took me a while to reinflate my life jacket. In the glow of the little red lights on our life jackets, I could see the whites of his eyes. His pupils had rolled back into his head. But he was making gurgling noises. Reaching under his life jacket I found the safety clip that had bound us together, passed it round the life ring and back on to my clip. Now we were both secured to the buoy. I put my arms around him and pressed my face against his to shelter us both from the spray.

Then I began to feel the cold. I closed my eyes and hugged Spider’s limp body. Time stopped and the world shrank. It had been bounded by the black waves and the curling white fog. Now the world was internal. It was the cramp in my arm, jammed under Spider’s chin to keep his face out of the water, the salt water which forced up my nose and down my throat, the pain which throbbed behind my eyes and began to make a noise inside my head. It sounded just like the thump of a diesel engine.

“Ahoy.” A bright light shone on the waves.

I raised my head. The prow of a yacht probed through the glare. Something fell down from the fog. A life buoy bobbed in the waves just a few yards away. I flailed my arms, but Spider was a millstone linked to my neck. My hands were frozen lumps of meat; I used them to pry open the clip that bound us and pull it through his life jacket. I found the line attached to his life buoy and gripped it with my teeth. Now I could swim with both arms. I looked again for the life buoy thrown from the yacht. It was gone, and so was the yacht.

“Ahoy.”

I twisted my head. The glare came from behind. Again the life buoy splashed down from the fog and drifted towards me. I grabbed it and seconds later my hand was on a boarding ladder. I looked up into the brightness of the decklight and saw the face of God, white-bearded, with deep shadows for eyes. He was wearing an old-fashioned fisherman’s yellow slicker and he reached down and pulled me up by the collar. There was a great pain in my jaw. I still had Spider’s lifeline in my mouth and now it was taut with his weight. The old boatman in yellow seized it from my mouth and I flopped on the deck, retching sea water. I sat up. Spider’s body was bumping against the side of the boat. His eyes were open without seeing. The man in the yellow slicker clipped a halyard on to his life jacket. He turned the halyard on a winch and I got hold of an arm, but we couldn’t lift Spider’s dead weight further out of the waves than his armpits. His head lolled and banged against the side of the yacht. The skipper stepped over me and moved quickly to the bow of the boat. He came back with the clew of the foresail in his hand, crouched over the side and wrapped the end of the sail around Spider. He tugged the halyard to the clew, fastened it, and put his shoulders to the winch again. Spider rose from the sea in the cradle of the sail like a salmon in a flood of seawater. The skipper rolled him over on the deck and slapped his face.

Spider spoke. “Fuck off, idjit.” Then his head slumped down on his chest.

“Christ, it’s Spider,” said the man in yellow. The voice was familiar and when he turned to look at me he said, “I know you.” It was Bartholomew.

I don’t know how I got into the cabin. A great shiver ran up my back and rattled my teeth. A hot mug was put into my hands and I took a sip. It was coffee with lots of sugar. It ran down my chin. Another spasm chased down my spine and down my arms and shook the mug warming my hands. I took a second sip. I swallowed some coffee this time, and a wave of heat began to spread out from my chest. I put a hand to my face and my hand was cold as death. Spider was lying face down next to me on the cushioned seat, his eyes closed, breathing heavily. I put my hand to his forehead. There was no difference in temperature. We were both naked and stuffed into sleeping bags with a silver reflective blanket wrapped around us. The boat was a sleek Moody 37, about five years old. A diesel fuel heater was going full blast in the cabin and both cooking burners were flaring. Bartholomew crouched over Spider. His thumb rolled back an eyelid and I could see the white of Spider’s eye. Bartholomew probed Spider’s head gently with his fingers. He slapped his face. Spider winced and grunted. Bartholomew sat down on the bunk opposite and looked at me. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ll be all right. How’s Spider?”

“No abrasions. Let’s hope for the best.”

“Your wife’s on the mewstone,” I said. And I began to tell him what had happened. I spoke in garbled chunks, and he put the story together. After a while I found I could form syllables without slurring, but talking made me tired. I had to pause from time to time to find the words and put them on my tongue.

Bartholomew had turned off the decklight, and the yacht had no running lights either. There was a dim glow from a ceiling bulb. Outside, through the hatchway, the fog was as thick as snow. A white cornice hung over the cockpit cowling and veiled the steering wheel aft. The wind had dropped to a light breeze and the crash of the sea to a gentle slapping on the sides of the yacht. We were hove to, foresail backed to windward, the mainsail eased so the sails worked against each other and the helm lashed a little to leeward to keep them balanced. Reading off the depth gauge, Bartholomew reckoned we were a mile off the coast, just abreast the mewstone and drifting away from it at about one knot on a slackening current to the west. That’s where the wind was coming from, so if the fog lifted we’d have an easy reach back up to the mewstone at slack water, or later, on an easterly current. But then Bartholomew’s boat had an engine. Shouldn’t we put it on and nose into the mewstone now? My brain found it hard to think. I would leave it to Bartholomew.

He answered my thought. “There’s no point going in blind.”

“Even when you’re there you don’t know where you are,” I said. “Until you get above the fog.”

“And you two are not going to be any help.”

“I’ll be all right in a while.” I said. We both looked at Spider.

“He’ll come around, too,” said Bartholomew. “He’s got a pulse.”

“Unless he’s concussed.” I remembered then how the wee doctor had tested Matty. I pinched his finger hard. Spider grunted.

“I can’t use the radio,” said Bartholomew. “Officially I’m dead.” He paused, then he said. “You said Angie had flares.”

“I think she took them with her. There’s some in the life raft anyway.”

“She may have set one off.”

“Have you seen one?”

He shook his head. “You wouldn’t see much in this soup.”

I thought about that. “This fog bank is only about fifty metres thick. She could have set off an orange parachute flare. It would be visible ashore.”

“How come she got in the life raft and not you and Spider?”

I had got the sequence of events wrong. So I told him again. He got up to feel Spider’s head and hands again. “So you reckon she might be on the mewstone.”

“She would have heard the gun go off. There’s a paddle in the life raft. And a torch. It’s not very manoeuvrable, but we were anchored only yards away. With a bit of luck she could have found the landing ledge.”

“If she got there she wouldn’t have to send up a flare. She’s safe enough if that fellow’s hands are tied.” Bartholomew sat down and stared into his coffee cup. “Why did Angie come with you?”

“In her heart she always knew you were alive. And she thought Spider was going to meet you on the mewstone. I thought she was bonkers. But she was right.”

“She can be a very stubborn woman.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Have you two got a thing going?”

Having a close brush with death is a wonderful truth serum. “I have. She hasn’t.” He nodded. “Use the radio,” I said.

He raised his eyes to me and shook his head “If the fog lifts while it’s still dark we’ll have a go. Otherwise, we’ll just have to sit tight and hope for the best.” He brushed something out of his eye, maybe a tear, maybe just old man’s rheum. “You didn’t actually see this chap kill anyone?”

“No, but I did see two people cross over from the mainland. And Spider says he was landed by Dinny’s launch. Which figures. So somebody’s missing. Mind you, Lothar says Spider’s involved with drug smugglers.” Spider gave a great shiver. I realised my own spasms had subsided. “And I suppose he could be a serial murderer too. If anyone at all has been murdered. I was hoping you could tell me that.”

“Hark.” I hadn’t heard that word in years. Bartholomew put his forefinger to his lips. Above the slap of the waves and creak of the rigging as the boat lumbered through the swell, there was a dull drone. Bartholomew climbed out into the cockpit. Before he came back the drone had faded away.

“There’s someone under power out there,” he said. “A ship out in the Channel or a yacht somewhere nearby. Can’t tell which direction.”

“Can you see the Grise Heel light?”

“I couldn’t see my dick if I was taking a pee over the side.”

I held out my empty mug. “Not so much sugar this time. What brought you back to Westowe?”

“What brought you?”

“You tell me first. Maybe you can convince me it’s not a good idea to use the radio.” My oily jacket was part of the heap Bartholomew had pushed into a hanging cupboard amidships. If the Velcro had held, the gun was probably still in the pocket. “I know Spider found you and Matty in Corsica.”

A light came into Bartholomew’s eyes. “Have you seen Matty? Do you know where she is?” He was handing me the fresh mug of hot coffee, and his hand trembled. The blue veins stood out proud on the back of it and it was sprinkled with spots like tobacco stains. His voice was too eager. He was like a man who had been locked in solitary, and wanted to talk about what he had been thinking. Matty was the key to unlock Bartholomew. So I shook my head, which was a truthful answer to his second question, at least.

“Tell me about her. From the beginning,” I said. The beginning was a lot earlier than I’d expected.

“You left Westowe when — twenty-five years ago?” asked Bartholomew.

“Twenty-eight.”

“The night of Nick Farthing-Tattersall’s twenty-first.”

“And mine. How do you remember that?”

“That was the night I first made love to Angie. In the garden under the magnolia tree.” My hands clenched in the sleeping bag, and I sat up a little straighter. Bartholomew took his eyes from my face to gaze at the floorboards.

“I suppose I owe you an apology.” He looked back up at me. “Well, not you, maybe. But someone.”

“Angie, maybe.”

“Angie, certainly. She’d had too much to drink. She was emotionally distressed. And she was just twenty. I was about to become forty, drunk and emotionally distressed, too. I was living with somebody and it wasn’t working out.”

“The Figurehead.”

“Gwendolyn.”

“You painted her nude. You used to let us watch.”

“We were at each other’s throats all the time. She was in and out of my life like the tide.”

“So you started up with Angie.”

“No. The next morning she came up and thanked me. For looking after her that night. She’d had a blackout. Couldn’t remember a thing. But after that we were close. She was a woman masquerading as a twenty-year-old. And little by little I began to feel — comfortable with her. But I didn’t make love to her again. Not until after she had her baby.”

“She had an abortion.”

God knew better. He shook his silvery head. “She concealed her pregnancy. Nobody knew. Not even me. She went up to see you in London. As far as she knew, she hadn’t slept with anyone except you.”

“She told me she had abortion.”

“Did you see her then?”

“I never knew she came up.”

Bartholomew shook his head again. “She lost her nerve. Or changed her mind. She stayed up there with friends until she was almost full term. Then she came back home and went straight to Mam Meersman. Mam delivered it.”

I remembered Angie’s yarn about the hospital with the teddy bear curtains. The lady had a vivid imagination. “Whose baby was it?”

He fixed me with tired eyes. “Biologically, it could have been yours or mine. Spiritually, I accepted the responsibility.”

“A girl?”

“Yes. Still-born.”

“You sure?”

“I held it in my hand. Like a little dead rabbit.”

“What happened to Gwendolyn?”

“I’d thrown her out. But she hung around. Screwing half the plough boys in the county. She got herself pregnant, too. When she was well past it. Just to prove she could do it, I suppose. Mocking me. Left town soon after with the child.”

“A girl?”

“Yes.”

“Yours?”

“Impossible. I hadn’t slept with her for months before I kicked her out.”

“So you made an honest woman of Angie.”

“I worshipped her.”

“I’ve seen the ‘Angel Child’.”

Bartholomew smashed a clenched fist into his hand. “She broke her promise.”

“I reckon you’ve broken a few.”

“No one was supposed to see that until I was dead.”

“You are dead.”

“You said she doesn’t believe that. I didn’t think that body would fool her.”

“You did that?” Even now, I couldn’t believe that Bartholomew — that anyone I knew — could kill a man. “Whose body was it?”

“What do you think of it?”

Was he mad? “What — the body in your oilies?”

I had forgotten that Bartholomew had the ego of an artist. He had focused on a greater issue. “’Angel Child’.”

“I think it shows you were very much in love with her.”

Bartholomew shook his head and stared at the floorboards a little while before he answered. “It’s full of guilt. The rape of the innocent. As a work of art there was too much of me in it. And her. We worked on it together. We were both a little crazy. And the guilt and the craziness turned into respect and something warm. Love, maybe. And I married her.”

“’Angel Child’ has revived your reputation.”

“We made a pact not to show it. Until one of us died.” He turned his eyes up at me. They were bloodshot. “Why did she break her word?”

Another voice answered. “She wanted you back, you great toad. You got some hot coffee?” Spider sat up and gave a great shiver. “Who turned the fucking air conditioning on?”

Bartholomew made a cup of coffee for Spider and some hot soup for him and me. He gave me some dry clothes to get into while Spider shivered in his sleeping bag. Bartholomew gave him the hot mug. Spider’s teeth clacked on it, and he drew in a sip. “Your wife’s on the mewstone with a murderer,” he said to Bartholomew.

“Maybe,” I said.

Spider took a draught of his hot drink, and nodded at me. “What’s he been telling you?”

“He reckons you’ve been smuggling drugs and pushing your chums off cliffs.”

“Funny,” said Spider to Bartholomew. “That’s what I reckoned you were up to. So I clocked you one. Only you turned out to be Lothar.”

“Who?” asked Bartholomew.

“The bloke on the mewstone,” I answered. “A customs agent, he says.”

Spider gave another answer. “A serial murderer, says I.”

“He’s pretty thick with Pixie and Poxy,” I said. “And Eddy Starr.”

“Eddy’s pretty thick all by himself,” said Spider. He looked at me. “You still got that gun you keep missing me with?” Without glancing at the cupboard where my oily jacket was stowed I nodded. “I reckon that puts you in charge,” said Spider. “So why don’t you ask Bartholomew to tell us what he’s been up to since I seen him last, or you’ll shoot him in his painting wrist.”

Once Bartholomew would have sent Spider up the mast to clean the masthead light lens for that kind of insolence. But we were all grown men now. Or acting like it. It was now too warm in the cabin. The fog hovered outside the hatchway, a nest of vaporous tendrils writhing in the cockpit. Bartholomew turned off the flames on the gas cooker, and stripped off his outer jumper. With it went his bulk. Bartholomew was almost thin. His face was drawn and the wisps on his head were white like the fog. He was an old man.

He set three plastic tumblers on the table and pulled the cork out of a bottle of brandy. “Your tongue’s recovered, at least,” he said to Spider. “A tot wouldn’t kill you now.” He poured each of the tumblers one-quarter full. As he handed Spider his glass he said, “You were right about Matty.” I shot Spider a warning glance. His eyes were dull and I couldn’t tell if he’d taken my signal on board. Bartholomew continued with a shake of his white head, “She ran off again with Wolfgang.”

“Wolfgang?”

“That sailing bum in Corsica.”

Spider shrugged, “I never met him. His boat was laid up in Bonifacio when Matty came back to you. Did he surface again?”

Bartholomew slumped on his seat. “I never saw him again. But he must have kept in touch afterwards — followed her somehow.”

Spider changed the subject. “So what did you do when Charlie told you that the insurance claim was dodgy and we couldn’t find any of your paintings?”

Bartholomew grimaced. “That bitch destroyed them.”

“Who?” I asked.

Bartholomew growled at me. “My widow. How can anyone destroy art?”

I’d never heard anyone call Angie a bitch before. I was shocked, but too curious to complain. “How did you two keep in touch?” I asked.

“Charlie did all that,” said Spider. “By E-mail. Bartholomew’s drinking chums in the local taverna are heavily into technology.”

“His overseas property deal,” I remembered. “Charlie told Rabbit he was working on a big deal in the Med.”

Spider looked at Bartholomew. “Tell us about the deal you and Charlie were working on.”

Bartholomew raised an eyebrow. He looked very tired. “You know about that?”

Spider heaved a sigh. “I went to see Charlie in his office the other day. He had a proper crisis. A very worried budgie. He broke down and told me the whole story. That’s why he and I were expecting to see you here tonight.”

“No one knew I would be here tonight.”

“Tell us about it.” Spider’s voice was hard.

Bartholomew started to pour himself another brandy, but saw he hadn’t touched what was already in his plastic tumbler. He started to talk in a toneless monotone which was sometimes hard to hear against the creak of the rigging and the water gurgling past the hull just a few inches away.