Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Early August

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Early August

“You say you’re Ted Golden?”

“Yes, Mam.”

“Come a little closer.” I nudged my chair forward and leaned over the bed. She looked like a bird of prey. A few wisps of grey hair sprouted from the bare pink dome of her head and fanned in a ruff on her pillow. Blue-veined talons without flesh plucked at the frayed silk hem of her blanket. In the sunken hollows on either side of her great beaked nose, bright pebbles glinted in milky pools. A claw rose and grazed my cheek. It smelled of sour milk. It thrust up into my hair. I felt like a child who had stumbled into a sinister fairy tale. A whispered croak emerged from her throat.

“What’s that, Mam?”

“I said you’re losing your hair.” The talon flopped back on her chest. “And you don’t hear so well either.”

“I’m glad you’re speaking to me now, Mam.”

“Some things need saying. I was born in this bed, but I’ll not wake up in it tomorrow.”

“You’re not leaving us,” said Angie. “Who would look after Spider?”

“He should be looking after you. If you let him.”

“He does, Mam. Your son looks after everybody.” Angie took one of Mam’s claws in her hand.

“I’m glad you’re wearing dresses now,” said Mam. “It suits you.”

Angie looked up at me with a question in her eyes. “The recent lodger,” I said to her.

Mam’s eyes were still fixed on Angie. “Spider wants to marry you.”

Angie smiled. “I’m married already, Mam.”

“I heard he was dead.”

“Bartholomew’s alive, Mam. We saw him last week.”

“Divorce him then. You can do that these days and nobody bats an eye.” The bright pebbles fastened on me. “You’re another one.” My head bowed as it used to when Mam scolded. “Womaniser. Hang your head in shame.”

Angie leaned forward and took the talon in her smooth brown hands. “Don’t excite yourself, Mam. That’s all over. Ted’s quite a nice chap now.”

Mam’s eyes snapped at me again. “Are you going to marry her?”

I looked up at Angie. “Unless Spider gets there first,” I said. Angie smiled, but her eyes evaded mine.

“Have you told him? About the babies?” The old bird was looking at Angie.

“Babies?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter now, Mam,” said Angie.

Mam turned her head to face me now, two lasers aimed along the line of her beak. “You should have married her. We changed the babies.” She lifted a hand towards Angie. “You tell him. I’m tired now.” Her head relaxed into the pillow and her eyelids closed, the membrane so thin that she seemed to be still looking at us.

“Go to sleep, Mam.”

“Tell him. And mind you get it right. I’m listening.” Her breath exhaled in a little whistle that became a gentle snore.

Angie stood up and went to the window and looked out at the dusk settling over the estuary.

“You had twins?” I guessed.

Angie shook her head and spoke to the window. “Just one tiny baby girl. Three weeks before term. At twenty weeks I went up to London.”

“For the abortion?”

She nodded. “But I couldn’t do it. I stayed with my cousin Jane. I was doing a training course. I wasn’t very big and she never noticed.”

“You should have called me.”

“I did once. But when you answered, I couldn’t speak for crying. I just rang off.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You wouldn’t. You sounded annoyed. Just another wrong number in your life.”

“That night at the castle, you told me you had an abortion.”

She looked at me. “I suppose I wanted to hurt you. To see if you can feel grief.”

“I feel it.”

“It doesn’t show.”

“You had the baby?”

“I started having contractions on the bus down from London. I couldn’t face my parents. And when the bus got to Westowe that night it was blowing a gale. Snowing. I went straight to Mam. Spider was at Naval College then. And she delivered my baby in his bedroom. She let me hold it. Then she asked if I really wanted to have it. She was very angry with you.”

“I didn’t even know.”

Angie turned to face me. The colours were fading from the counterpane covering the frail body, gently snoring. “You were starting your career. You didn’t need a pregnant ex-girl friend. Mam told me how difficult things would be as a single mother. After all those months of keeping everything hidden, I wanted a way out. So I agreed.”

“To what?”

“Another woman was in labour that night. In the cottage hospital. Gwendolyn Smythe.”

“The Figurehead. His mistress.”

“Ex-mistress by that time. The doctor couldn’t get through. The road were blocked and the electricity was off for hours. There was only a junior nurse on duty, and Mam sent her off to find Bartholomew. Gwendolyn’s baby was still-born. A girl. Mam said Gwendolyn wanted her baby very much. And she wouldn’t have another chance. And I didn’t want mine. So Mam brought Gwendolyn’s dead baby down and gave it to me. And she took our baby and gave it to Gwendolyn. When the nurse got back with Bartholomew, Gwendolyn wouldn’t let him see the baby. That didn’t seem to bother him.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t his.”

“He’d been living with her up to six months before,” Angie stated with the assurance of someone who doesn’t play around. “Mam asked him to come and see me. He held the dead baby in his big hands and cried. He lay down on the bed next to me, and we just cried ourselves to sleep.”

“What happened to the baby?”

“Mam put it in the fish freezer.”

Mam spoke then. “You should have given it a Christian burial.” Her eyelids opened and her claws twitched at the bedspread.

Angie smoothed Mam’s brow with her hand, but she was looking at me. “Gwendolyn took our baby away with her.”

“Where?”

Angie shook her head. “No one ever heard from her again.”

Mam spoke without opening her eyes. “Tell my son I want a Christian burial.”

Spider came into the room then. I moved over and gave him my place at the bedside. He caressed her cheek. “What’s for supper, Mam?”

She smiled at her son. “Angie’s come to visit. Have we got some fresh pilchards?”

“I can get some.”

“Ted’s come back, too. Angie says he’s a nice chap now. I’ll make us a starry-eyed pie. You boys love that.” I could see the circle of accusing eyes of the fish heads popping out of the crust. Spider and I used eat the potato and slip the fish to the cat when Mam left the table.

“That’ll be fine, Mam,” said Spider. “The four of us round the table together, just like old times.”

Mam turned her head to the pillow. “I’ll get it started in a minute. I just want to rest a bit now.”

Spider’s head was bent over his mother. His eyes were wet, and so were mine and Angie’s. We left mother and son then.

Mam Meersman was buried in the new field above the church. As her casket was lowered the rain stopped and the sun sparkled on the estuary. She would have a fine view down over the village to the sea. Mam had delivered just about everyone living in Westowe who was between twenty and sixty-five years old. Most of them crowded into Spider’s house that morning. Old dears gathered in the front room to drink tea and nibble crab and cucumber sandwiches and kiss Spider and smile at each other through rheumy eyes, wondering who would be next to be laid beside Mam Meersman on that windswept hill above the church. There was a rugby scrum in the kitchen where the lifeboat crew was dispensing malt whisky. The party spilled out into the front garden, where a melancholy undertone stirred into talk of fish and football, chatter and laughter. The holidaymakers passing by the gate slowed and cast wistful glances at the jolly party they hadn’t been invited to.

Eddy Starr was standing just outside the circle of lifeboat blokes in the kitchen, nursing a glass of tap water. He pulled me to one side. “How did you get on with Detective Superintendent Radcliffe?”

“Has he spoken to you yet?”

Before speaking Eddy looked around as if he were standing in the lounge bar of The Blind Beggar in London’s villainous East End instead of Mam Meersman’s kitchen. “I’ve been on holiday. I’m seeing him tomorrow.”

“We discussed your theories about people disappearing themselves.”

Eddy beamed. “You mentioned my name?”

“He mentioned it before I did. He was taken with your interest in the case. And your methodical approach.” Eddy’s smile broadened. “But he thinks you’re on the wrong trail. He reckons it’s a serial murderer.”

Eddy pondered. “That’s what they’re into, the SCB. And I can tell you something about them.”

“You’re going to tell me that Pixie and Poxy are not Customs & Excise officers.” Eddy was hanging on my words now. “Detective Superintendent Radcliffe reckons the murderer is a hedonistic sociopath.” Eddy took his notebook out of his pocket. I had to spell hedonistic for him. “Radcliffe sketched out a kind of psychological photofit,” I continued. “The trouble is, it fits me like a thumbprint.” Eddy looked at me with new respect. “I thought that would please you,” I said. “After all, I was your first suspect.” Eddy’s thumb was quivering over his notebook. “Unfortunately, I am innocent. But let me tell you what the Detective Superintendent is particularly interested in talking to you about.” I reminded Eddy of our balloon trip and the naked couple we’d swept over, thrashing in the grass the evening that Superbloke and Angus Fergusson stepped into eternity. Eddy’s hands flew through the pages of his notebook. His face fell. He had made no record of the incident. “Find a blank space,” I said, “and write it in.” Eddy frowned. “And then tell the Detective Superintendent why you thought it was important.”

“Why?” asked Eddy.

“Because, how else would you get somebody to take off their clothes before you pushed them over a cliff?”

In the sitting room I bumped into Rabbit, her body wedged drum-tight into a black suit that looked like genuine shot silk. “Is Eddy still in there?” she asked. I nodded. She took my arm and led me into the back garden. “He’s been following me all day.”

“You must be a suspect.”

“It’s his birthday soon. Every year, just around his birthday, he asks me to marry him.”

“I’m sorry about Charlie,” I said.

“Don’t waste your tears. Charlie’s all right.”

“You know what’s happened to him?”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

“He could be dead,” I said.

“He’s just run away. Like all the others.”

“You’ve been talking to Eddy,” I said.

“All I ever say to Eddy is ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go’.”

Behind her, I saw Eddy making his way down the back steps towards us. She followed my eyes and turned. As Eddy came up she touched him on the arm and said to both of us, “Sorry, I’ve got to go.”

Eddy’s eyes followed her with the gaze of a new-born calf. “She’s very upset about her brother’s disappearance,” I explained, and he nodded.

The kitchen table had been brought into the front room and covered with Mam’s best Irish linen tablecloth, which was only used for Sundays and holidays. And funerals. An old dear was stuffing Dinny’s pocket with packets of quiche and pork rolls wrapped in paper napkins. “It’s a pity you didn’t bring your bucket, Dinny,” she said.

“I don’t need to carry it no more,” he answered.

I caught his eye. “Did you carry it because of Malcolm’s dad?” I asked.

“He tells me to stop. And I says no, I’ll never stop.” Dinny laughed. “That’s why he jumped.”

“What about Malcolm?”

“I carries it for him, too. So now he’s jumped.” He looked up at me and explained, “So I don’t have to carry it no more.”

Dinny unfastened his double-breasted blazer to stuff some celery into his inside pocket. The matron who was victualling him held her fingers to her nose. “My dear, you pong. You come down to the club tomorrow and have your annual scrub. Just look at the state of you.” Dinny, the most damaged of my childhood chums, and the least hurt, nodded absently, while the bossy boots zipped up his flies.

Two old gaffers were snoring in the parlour. I helped Spider get them to their feet. We found their canes and helped them down the steps to the gate. They hobbled off together across the long shadows into the golden afternoon.

“What a life,” said Spider. “Even if you survive, you end up looking like a turtle.”

“I’m sorry about Mam.”

“I’m sorry for you,” said Spider. “You’ve lost two mums now.”

“She was everybody’s mum by proxy.”

“Well, she never turned no one down. I’m just ashamed I was such a disappointment to her.”

“You? You’re the uncrowned king of Westowe.”

“Which says a lot about Westowe.” He probed a finger into my chest. “All Mam ever wanted was a son with a good steady job, a good wife and good prospects, who went to Mass every Sunday. That’s not much to ask. And look what she got.”

“She wanted you to marry Angie.”

Spider aimed his finger at me again. “She wanted one of us to marry Angie.”

“Angie can’t hang on to the past forever.”

“You’re more her sort. You’ve got money, you listen to long-haired music, you’ve been to restaurants that don’t serve curry, and you read books without pictures.” Spider looked at the glass of whisky in his fist, and drained it. “I’ve been drinking this all afternoon and I’m as sober as Eddy Starr.”

“I wouldn’t skipper the lifeboat tonight, just the same.”

Spider grinned. “Not tonight. But I had you well fooled that night in the pub, when Matty was trying to get into your sleeping bag. Which reminds me. You can have your old room back now. Until you sort yourself out.”

“Thanks. The Buena Vista’s a bit pricey this time of year.”

“I could use the company.”

“I won’t bring anyone home you wouldn’t like.”

“If you’re thinking about Angie, I’ve got one big advantage over you.”

“You wash your dick with holy water?”

“No, matey. When it comes to Matty and Angie, I know which one I want.”

I missed some other people who should have been at the funeral. Bartholomew, who held Angie’s child in his hands in this little two-storey pebbledash house that snowy night. Lord Nick. Superbloke. Charlie. Matty, the last fallen bird Mam had taken under her wing. Even Lothar. With his insatiable curiosity about English manners, we would have had a lot to talk over afterwards. But after I said good-bye to Spider I went down the steps by myself.

“I want to show you something.” Angie took my arm at the front gate. She had caged her dark hair in a black cloche hat. A few wisps escaped around her ears. She wore a black suit with a jacket that flared about her hips. Why are grieving women dressed in black so sexy? At the corner she stopped and leaned on my elbow, lifting stockinged calves to remove her high heeled shoes and replace them with a flat pair she carried in her large black shoulder bag. She led us up Fore Street.

“It wasn’t Mam’s fault. I poured out my heart to her. She knew it would ruin me. Unmarried girls didn’t have babies in those days. It would have destroyed my mother. Given all her smart friends licence to pity her. My father would have taken what little spirit he had left into his garden shed and buried it there. They would have sent me away somewhere. There was no one I could turn to except Mam Meersman.”

We were passing the sailing club. Were we going to Lord Nick’s mansion? Shuttered now and empty. Or for a blowy walk on the coastal path? Or to the castle? The exhibition would be closed at this hour. At the rhododendron bushes she turned down the path to the castle. Above, sunlight flashed off the picture window of the Glochamorra bungalow and I wondered if our images were fixed in the circles of Rabbit’s binoculars.

“I was more worried about my reputation than about our baby. So I gave it away. I never saw it again. Gwendolyn left almost immediately. We heard she’d gone to Australia.”

Angie used her key to open the door of the castle. When we were inside she put the key ring back into her black shoulder bag and unpinned her hat and fluffed her dark hair, grown longer now. She handed me the hat and I turned around to put it on the counter which had been erected near the door. When I turned back she was drawing a gold chain over her head. On it was a glittering mortise key.

“Doesn’t that make your neck green?” I asked

“The key is 18-carat gold. Bartholomew had it made. He treated me like a queen. And he was happy to be my slave. It was all to rebuild my self-esteem. He knew I had reached the floor of myself. He recreated me. As his own personal goddess.”

“And nobody else knew you’d had a child?”

“They kept it all quiet. He and Mam. He called me ‘Virgin Child’. And the dead baby ‘Angel Child’.”

“You gave Mam an ethical dilemma. It’s against the law to fail to register a stillbirth.”

“Mam had no problem with it. She was a deeply religious woman, but she lived by a higher ethic. She had a saying for it.”

I remembered. “Church is for Sundays, law is for weekdays. On a Saturday night, just do what’s right.”

Angie smiled. “That’s Spider’s way, too.”

“Bartholomew knew about the swap?”

Angie’s jaw set hard. “Never. We never told him, Mam and I. He thought our baby had been born dead. And that his child — his and Gwendolyn’s — had been born live. But he was completely irresponsible about that. The nurse had to drag him from the pub to go and see her, and when Gwendolyn refused to let him in, that was just dandy with him. He never even saw the baby that was his. But he venerated the dead infant, the baby he thought was mine — yours and mine — as if it were his own.”

“Perhaps he thought it was.”

Her dark eyes flashed again. “We weren’t lovers then. Not until long afterwards.”

So he had never told her what happened on the grass under the magnolia tree. It was far too late to tell her now that she was mistaken. “Displacement,” I said.

“That’s what I reckon. He felt guilty about Gwendolyn, but he couldn’t bring himself to accept that responsibility. So he poured all that guilt out on me.”

“Still-born babies are a lot easier to accept. They never become adolescents.”

“He swept me along with him. On a torrent of guilt. We became conspirators. And the artist in him transmuted it into love. He adored the dead child. And he adored the woman he thought was its mother.” She took my hand and led me down the short passage to the munitions room. “This was our shrine.” She flicked the switch on the wall, inserted the gold key into the lock and opened the door. Then she stood aside.

The artist had designed the tableau as a mystery glimpsed in chiaroscuro through a restricted peep-hole. In panoramic view the light was harsh and arbitrary. Only the portrait of Angie as Madonna retained its dark intrigue. The plaster limbs splayed beneath were chipped, the newspaper cuttings, which through the spy-hole seemed almost to flutter, were stiff with yellowed coats of shellac, the mournful stuffed owl was dull-eyed and moth-eaten, paint peeled off the airborne pink pig. It was a seaside fairground stored under a tarpaulin for many seasons, smelling of dust and damp.

Angie stood aside. “Go in.”

Stepping stones set amongst the pebbles led to the Madonna. I hesitated and my eye caught the glint of the key in Angie’s hand. A sad smile crossed her face. “You’re spooked. Are you afraid I’m going to lock you in here?”

“I used to imagine you had Matty chained to the wall in here.”

Her smile faded to a frown. “I thought Matty was my daughter. Our daughter. Gwendolyn took her to Australia. Matty came from Australia. She was the right age. She had a connection with Westowe. And there was something — familiar about her.”

“You thought Matty was my daughter? And you didn’t tell me?”

“I got Spider to warn you. But I was wrong. The tests proved she’s Lord Nick’s daughter.”

“Who’s the mother?”

Angie shrugged, “Who knows?”

“Least of all Nickers. It was the 60s.”

“I missed all that. I’ve only made love to two men. I’m still the good little girl my parents wanted me to be.”

“Which is why he called this ‘Angel Child’.” I stepped into the artwork. Angie stayed behind.

“Look at the child,” said her voice from behind me.

It was leathery, like a lizard with its eyes squinted shut against the sun which had never shone here. Its little wrinkled face was tense.

“The Madonna is marvellous,” I said. “And the infant is incredibly real. You almost expect it to cry.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“You stuffed a baby?”

“Dinny did. He was apprenticed in his dad’s funeral home. He did the owl, too.”

“Bartholomew had this dead baby, his own daughter, embalmed and hung as a piece of art?”

“It wasn’t embalmed. It was desiccated.”

“And stuffed like an animal?”

“We had to do something with it. It seemed more dignified than burying it in the rubbish tip or burning it in an oil drum.”

“What were you thinking of?”

“Maybe we’re too afraid of thinking about death. Other people in other places have different ways of commemorating life. ‘Angel Child’ is a visual memory of a bitter, very human experience. A key to the past.”

“Your absolutely sure it wasn’t your baby? Mam Meersman could have lied to you. Bartholomew could have.”

“I did worry about that. Especially recently. So I took the opportunity to check.”

“How?”

“That’s where I got the DNA sample to test against the body that floated in. Cody’s body. From Gwendolyn’s baby. When there was no match, I knew it couldn’t be Bartholomew.”

“You cut a piece off that dead infant?”

“Just a tiny biopsy.”

“How could you do it?”

“It was just like a lab experiment.” She turned her head and looked at me with a smile. “You didn’t do biology, did you? I also gave a sample of my own DNA to test against the baby. Just in case. That was negative, too.”

“Why are you showing this to me?”

“Maybe I want you to forgive me.”

“What did you feel at the time? When Bartholomew was building this thing?”

“I helped him. We used to go out to the beaches and the rock pools together and gather pebbles, and shells and seaweed. It was a time of great happiness. I felt like a child. Loved. Guided. Embraced. Free from responsibility. My own feelings were numbed. Atrophied. Anything Bartholomew said, anything he did was right. It wasn’t my baby, after all.”

“And Bartholomew never knew it was his baby — his and Gwen­dolyn’s — not yours.”

She smiled at me. “Ours. Yours and mine.” She paused and I imagined she, like I, was thinking about where our twenty-eight-year-old daughter was, and what she was like. “No, I couldn’t tell him. He worked on ‘Angel Child’ for years on and off. He put all his passion into it. A shrine to me, a memorial to his guilt.”

“Do you really think it was Gwendolyn he felt so guilty about? Whom he kicked aside so easily?”

She turned her face to me in the dusk. “Who else?” It was far too late to tell Angie that Bartholomew’s guilt was because he thought he might have conceived the infant with her. Why ruin her illusions? After a while she continued, “But I did tell him, finally, that horrible night on the boat — that the dead baby wasn’t mine, but his and Gwendolyn’s.”

I remembered her whispering to him and the way his face collapsed when he heard it. “You thought it would bring him back to you?”

“It was the only way to reach him. His soul is in that work. I thought — I don’t know what I thought. Except I knew it would unbalance him. Whatever way he was thinking. Just the last desperate shot of an abandoned woman.”

“How do you feel about him now?”

“I could call him a bastard. A monster. But that’s not true enough. Bartholomew is larger than life.”

“Larger than death, too, it would seem.”

“It’s why he does what he does that matters. He does what he feels. His ego is enormous. But it’s generous. He wants to include the whole world.”

“The female population, anyway.”

“Women are attracted to generosity of spirit,” said Angela. “It’s how they see themselves.”

Anything is a legitimate theme for the imagination of the artist — including everything that society calls perverse. But Bartholomew had blurred the line between life and art. He had animated his fantasies — to make his life a work of art. And Angie had been his muse and apprentice.