Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Friday-Sunday, 16th-18th September

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Friday-Sunday, 16th-18th September

Someone had contrived to solve the problem that Superbloke had never mastered: how to hang framed pictures on the stone walls of the castle. An oil painting of a standing woman wearing jeans had been added to the collection of Blu-tacked photographs. It was lit by a spotlight. At first you saw a random kaleidoscope, and then a female figure swam into view, emerging from a dank rock pool, a bright seascape shimmering beyond, sky glowing gold above her head. From the long hair and the angled uncertain way she stood, and the slender thighs not meeting at all, but running all the way up to make a perfect inverted u-turn at her crotch, the woman was recognisable. But, the face formed by a chaos of coloured chips had the same calm stare as the realistic portrait in the locked room next door.

“It’s the only one I kept,” said Angie.

“Who do you think it is?” I asked.

“Matty, of course. Can’t you tell?”

“Yes. I didn’t know if you could.”

“I don’t hate her now. Since that night on the mewstone. Now I think her portrait belongs in the exhibition. What do you think of it?”

“It’s very striking.”

“It’s haunting. I couldn’t bear to look at it, but somehow I just couldn’t throw it away with all the others. I don’t know why.”

“I can tell you. If you really want to know.”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“I have to tell you anyway.”

“Go on.”

“It’s because she looks like you. Just as you do in ‘Angel Child’.”

“It’s the eyes.” Angie turned from the painting and looked at me. “Has this got something to do with what you wanted to say to me?”

I nodded. I explained what I’d learned from Rabbit. The documents I’d seen at Donovan & Donovan had confirmed it all. Half of the genetic information in Matty’s sample matched Angie’s. The mitochondrial DNA, passed only from mother to child in the cytoplasm, was identical. Angie sat down on the floor against the wall while I talked. I sat down next to her. When I had finished she sat like Matty used to, in the foetal position, her knees pulled up and her head resting on clenched fists, staring down at the gloom rising from the flagstones. The light outside the window had faded and we had not put on the lights. I thought she hadn’t understood. “Matty is your daughter.”

Angie looked dazed. “She’s Australian.”

“You said Gwendolyn Smythe wanted her baby. But she wasn’t the maternal sort.” Angie nodded. “She’d had a relationship with Lord Nick,” I continued.

“People talked about her — after she’d left Bartholomew.”

“She must have seen Nick as a meal ticket. He told me he had once been to Australia. She must have followed him. And that’s where Matty was found. In a handbag at Adelaide airport.”

A tear trickled down Angie’s face, but her voice was calm. “Deep down inside I feared that. She was like the other half of myself. The naughty spirit. It made me hate her even more when Bartholomew . . .”

“It gets worse.”

She put her hands to her face and turned a ghostly white image to me. “My God. You were lovers.”

“We never quite made it. But she’s not my daughter.”

“Of course she is. You’re wrong about Spider. I never made love to him or anyone else. Just you and, afterwards, Bartholomew. You must believe that.”

“Your DNA checks out. Mine doesn’t.”

Angie balled her fists and tucked them under her chin. It was the kind of gesture Matty made. “Then it’s wrong. Somebody’s switched them again.”

I caught her arms and enfolded her and pulled her close against me. My cheeks were wet with the tears flowing from her eyes. I held her tight, so she could not move, and very softly, very slowly, I told her what Bartholomew had told me that night before we went back to the mewstone. How he had made love to her in the garden under the magnolia tree the night of Nick Farthing-Tattersall’s twenty-first. In the early hours of the day I left Westowe.

When I had finished, she rested her head on my shoulder for a long time. Her body trembled with muffled sobs. Finally she said, “I must have known that too, somehow. Drifting dream images. A soft night. Huge, sad, white magnolia blossoms.”

A pain swelled beneath my ribs. It was an old memory, the sting of jealousy stirring into anger. “I wonder what your daughter dreams of,” my voice said.

“Oh, God. I was just thinking of myself.” The tears flowed freely now. I gave her the red handkerchief which was knotted around my neck. “Bartholomew doesn’t know.”

“Do you think he should?”

The face she turned towards me was sick with loathing. “Of course.”

I nodded. “I’ve already told him.”

“How?”

“I got that original E-mail address he used. From Charlie’s papers.”

“Did he answer?”

“No. E-mail is like sending a note in a bottle.”

I should have walked her home that night, and perhaps held her in my arms without trying to make love to her. As I walked down alone to Spider’s house the sky darkened. Across the mud flats, in the dying light, a fist of wind shook and bent the trees.

The cannon went off about two in the morning. At first I thought it was the wind shaking the loose sashes. That had been going on all night. Then I heard the second cannon report. I got to the bottom of the stairs in time to see Spider rush out the door struggling into his red oily jacket. “The castle’s on fire,” he shouted. I heard his motorbike start up as I pulled on my clothes.

I ran all the way. From halfway up the hill to the clubhouse I could see the glow in the sky. The fire appliance was parked by the rhododendrons. The volunteer firemen in yellow slickers pushed and shouted along the path to the castle. They were coupling lengths of hose. On the point it was Bonfire Night. The flames clawed at the driving rain. Black figures moved across them like an audience against a cinema screen. Another glare came from the deck lights of the lifeboat, rocking in a short sea just offshore. Men braced against the crash of the waves, aiming a hose at the blaze. But the lifeboat was not a fireboat. The only hose they had was the one they used to swab down the decks, and its thin stream dribbled into the night sky. Rabbit’s face appeared in front of me, wild-eyed. “She’s in there.”

I pushed forward and got as far as the forward team of firemen before a wall of heat forced my arms up over my face.

“She’s a goner,” one of the firemen shouted to his mate.

“You reckon she’s in there?” asked the other one.

“I’ve smelled burning flesh before.”

I fell back coughing, and rubbing my eyes. I heard shouts around me. Somebody pointed down to the shore. A bedraggled gnome appeared out of the sea wearing a cloak and carrying a sack on his shoulder. It was a man bent double. People ran forward and took the sack off his shoulder and pulled a steaming blanket off the man. It was Spider. The sack was another blanket and rolled up inside it was Angie. A fireman in a yellow slicker put an oxygen mask over her face. Two more came up with a stretcher and carried her up the path. I hurried after them, while the wail of an ambulance siren came up from the village to meet us. At the road they put the stretcher on the ground. One of the men knelt and took off the oxygen mask. I knelt next to him.

“Is she all right?”

“She’s breathing.” He looked up at me, blinking against the onslaught of the rain in the headlights of the fire appliance.

“Are you her husband?”

The siren snatched my reply into the wind. The rhododendrons, the faces of the men, and the gate to Rabbit’s bungalow flashed blue in the revolving light. The stretcher was loaded, one of the ambulance men jumped in, the doors were latched, and the blue light and the siren descended into the blackness.

Spider was sitting up, a fresh blanket around his shoulders. Eddy Starr gave him a drink from a thermos. I crouched down in front of him. “She’s breathing,” I said.

Spider took the thermos from his mouth. “She’s not burned. It was the artwork that caught fire. I found her lying in the front room.”

“How did you get out?”

“There was no going back through that door. We went through the window, into the water.”

In my schoolboy days, before I started getting hard-ons, I day-dreamed about rescuing various maidens, including Angie, from their burning bedrooms. Spider would be a hard act to follow.

Eddy Starr was holding the flap of his oilies over his notebook and struggling to write with one of the late Mr Harris’s combination pen torches. He turned away from us to put his back to the wind. Spider beckoned. I leaned forward and he pulled my head down and spoke into my ear. “Get rid of it, Matey. Behind me.” He got to his feet and went up to Eddy, put his arm around him and started coughing. I found a carryall behind a bush. It wasn’t heavy. I held it to my stomach and walked into the shadows and then away from the fire and the crowd to the other side of the point. Behind a tree, I opened the bag to the light from the fire. Inside, wrapped in hessian, was the framed rock pool painting of Matty/Angie, and a red petrol can, empty. I removed the picture and the hessian, loaded the carryall with rocks, waded out a few feet into the surging black water and sank it with the petrol can.

“There’s somebody else in there,” said one of the fireman, as I passed back into the crowd.

“Naw,” said his mate. The roof of the castle had fallen in. It was a ruin once more, silhouetted against sputtering orange embers and curling smoke.

“I tell you, I smelled burning flesh.”

The skies were dark all that day. Force ten winds tore off roofs all along the south-west coast, and coastal roads were flooded. Two people were swept off the front in seaside resorts and drowned. The next day, Sunday, the barometer revived and people reappeared in the village streets. I went up to the clubhouse. Bright rifts shone in leaden clouds.

It was just before noon that the cannon went off again. The lifeboat sped down the channel, passed behind the blackened skeleton of the castle, and slowed to meet the great storm swell that rolled in over the bar. It was mid-water on a rising tide, but the 27-tonne craft bobbed like a plastic duck in a paddling pool. When she was clear of the bar, she picked up speed and disappeared south-west around Grise Head.

When she returned, slowly labouring into view, the tide was full and Spider was able to bring her right up the channel, where half the village stood in a light drizzle on the Jubilee Quay and along the front of the car park. The lifeboat didn’t come alongside the quay and as it passed we could see why. She was towing a capsized boat, a modern sailing hull with its red fin keel jutting from the water like a submarine conning tower. It had no rudder. A broken mast trailed behind in a tangle of sail and rigging.

They towed the wreck to the deep-water channel of Buckler’s yard on Sharp Point. Some people got into dinghies and started up outboards. Others drove in cars. Most of us walked the mile around the inlet. When we got there the yard workers were just hauling the big iron hook on the end of the sling up to the crane. The crane tightened the cables and the hull tilted. The crane operator waited while water rushed out, then raised the hull a few inches. There was another great gush of water. Little by little, the upside down shape of a sleek Moody 37 rose from the depths. Upside down on her transom were the words L’Aventure Doux. She broke free of the water and rose swiftly above our heads, her red and white hull spinning slowly against the grey sky. As the broken stump of the mast was sucked from the sea, there was a great gasp from the crowd. Lashed to the mast, his head hanging down towards ours was the body of a man in yellow oilies. He had a grey beard and wide open eyes. This time there was no mistake. Bartholomew had come home again.

The water ran from his grey beard and splashed in fat drops on the hard. Because Goody Two-Shoes had sent him an E-mail. Why hadn’t I just let him go on fucking the woman he didn’t know was his daughter? Because I was jealous? Now there was nothing more he could ever do, right or wrong.

Spider came ashore from the lifeboat while they cut Bartholomew down. He hoisted himself up into the hatchway and disappeared inside the cabin. After a few minutes he dropped down again and came over to me. “The rudder snapped off. He had lashed a couple of oars together and fixed them over the stern and had a storm sail rigged, but he probably couldn’t maintain steerage way.”

“Was he alone?”

“There’s nobody in the cabin now.” Spider stamped his feet against the cold. “Why did the idjit decide to come home in a storm like this?”

“It came up pretty sudden.”

“He could have chosen a better forecast.”

“The castle burning down? Maybe that’s why she did it. To bring him back.”

“That was probably the last thing he saw. The home fires burning.”

“Who’s going to tell Angie?” I asked.

“You,” said Spider. “I’ll think up a story to tell Sherlock Radcliffe.”

Angie was in the cottage hospital, traumatised but unharmed. She turned her head to the pillow while I spoke, but afterwards her eyes were dry.

“I can’t cry. I’ve already conducted the last rites.”

“The fire?”

She nodded. “There’s no pain left to give.”

“Nobody expected a force ten, but the forecast wasn’t good. Why did he come back just then?”

“A message in a bottle?”

“I had to tell him. You agreed. I didn’t think . . .”

“You know why I set fire to it, don’t you?”

“People who love as hard as you do don’t commit suicide.”

“I wonder. I meant to get out the door. The smoke got to me first. But I wonder if I really cared. I wonder if Bartholomew cared when he set out into storm warnings.”

“Why did you do it?”

“To burn my bridges. The past is cinders now.”

“I’ve saved the picture. The one you put in the carryall.”

“Was Matty with him?”

“No sign of her.”

Tears welled in Angie’s eyes. “I don’t want her to die, too.”

“He wouldn’t have taken her with him,” I said. “He knew he had no future.”

She turned her head to aside on her pillow and spoke to the wall. “Do I?”

I nodded, smiled and reached out and took her hand. “I’d like you to include me in it.”

She looked back at me and smiled. “Give me time.” She took my face in her hands, pulled me down to her and kissed me lightly on the lips.

I smoothed her brow with my hand. “I love you,” I said, and I thought about growing old with Angie in Bartholomew’s big old house. But cinders have a way of flaring up.