Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 20th November

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Sunday, 20th November

Everything would have been all right if the rest of the bodies had not begun to surface. The night before that happened, Angie and I sat out on East Ferry Quay and for the second time in my life I asked her to marry me. Out in the Irish Sea a big depression was building up, but in Westowe the weather was holding its breath. As the sun slipped into the hills the clouds withdrew from a mauve sky and the air grew as still and warm as a fine evening in August. We took off our fleece jackets and sat on them. Skeins of black water sat in the greasy channels carved in the mud flats, where small boats lay tilted like a child’s toys abandoned at the end of the day. A sweet scent softened the raw whiff of the shoreline. It came from the cylinders of cut straw in the fields, dipped in gold by the last rays of sun. A family of herons flapped in the tallest tree in the dark fringe where the slope met the slack water. We sat talking long after they settled down, after the gulls stopped crying, until the white boards of the dock grew ghostly and I could not see her face any longer, until across the estuary the village lay dark and still and the tide began to flood in again.

I remembered the last time we had been here together. We had sailed over to East Ferry Quay in my little yawl, and sat dangling our bare feet in the water watching the green fold of the hills gobble up the sun. If it sank behind the moors before the mauve strip of cloud fell across it, I decided, I will ask Angie to marry me. The sun outraced the cloud, and I did, and she said yes. We didn’t know any better. We were only just twenty.

Now we were almost fifty and we sat on a pontoon moored to East Ferry Quay and rimmed with yachts cocooned for the winter. We were waiting for Dinny to come across on his last trip of the day. Angie had voiced what was in both our minds. “Is it all over, do you think?”

There had been another inquest. While I had visited Angie in the cottage hospital, Spider had a free hand to sort things out. Eddy Starr had other things to do on weekends now, such as drive his wife to the Devonian Shopping Experience. So, by the time the Serious Crime Bureau had arrived at Buckler’s boatyard, L’Aventure Doux had been propped upright on the hard and Spider had searched the interior. Chart no. 2649, ‘English Channel, Western Portion’, with the names of the twelve mythical French yachts was still in the drawer of the chart table, together with Bartholomew’s Irish passport in the name of Blake. The life buoy from Goose Girl was still in the rope locker.

From these discoveries and the provenance of the yacht, which was traced to the other William Blake, one of the aliases of a drug baron recently arrested in Paris, Detective Superintendent Radcliffe was able to conclude that Bartholomew had been involved in drug running, though the evidence was all circumstantial and it was acknowledged that Bartholomew might well have been a dupe. Spider did not distract the Detective Superintendent with news of the pair of ladies’ black knickers he had found in the cabin and destroyed, together with the postcards and trinkets and the logbook, which listed Matty as a member of the crew on many of its pages. Much of it was written in her hand, the last entry being in Lézardrieu on Friday, 15th September, the day before the storm and soon after I had sent Bartholomew the E-mail advising him that his mistress was his own daughter. The inquest confirmed the identities of both Bartholomew and Samuel Cody, the newspapers recycled the mysteries of the ‘West Country Triangle’, as the area was now called, but the Serious Crime Bureau seemed content with Eddy Starr’s theory about the other disappearances. Investigations were being conducted with the help of the Spanish authorities.

So my answer to Angie’s question was, “Pixie and Poxy will be walking the beaches of the Costa del Sol in shorts, shades and black leather shoes keeping an eye peeled for well-tanned middle-aged gents lurking behind copies of the Daily Telegraph. The Customs and Excise have covered themselves in rhinestones by smashing an international drug ring. The only loose ends are Lothar and Matty. And Lothar won’t talk.”

“Do you think she’s all right?”

“If she was on board L’Aventure Doux that night she’s dead. But I don’t think she was.”

“Nor do I. Bartholomew had no more options. He was coming home.”

“He must have told her the truth about why he had to leave her this time. Otherwise, she would have come with him.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“He’d have to tell her. Bartholomew was led by his appetites, but he had integrity.”

“Why ruin her life?”

“But if he hadn’t told her, and just left her again, she’d have turned up back here by now.”

“That night at the mewstone, why did he take her with him?”

“He was in a state. We were all in a state. Tired and confused. She just suddenly jumped on board. She’s like that. The things we think about and decide not to do, she does by impulse. That kind of wilfulness impresses men like Bartholomew.” And me, I could have added.

Angie looked down at the water sliding in past the quay and shook her head at the same slow pace. “He wanted her. And he didn’t want me.” She tossed her hair and looked out at the sunset again. “That must have hurt you as much as it did me.”

I didn’t answer right away. Matty was like a virus which kept flaring up to cause sudden pain in odd places in my body. “She gnaws at me a little. Like a cinder in my stomach.”

She gave me a wan smile. “Have you tried Rennies?”

“It’s something physical, not conscious.”

Angie nodded. “I have the same feeling.”

“About Bartholomew?”

“About my daughter.”

“It will go away. Like that sun disappearing behind the cloud.”

She smiled at me. “That’s Ted. How you used to talk when we were kids.”

“How do you feel about him?”

She frowned and her legs swung from the knee back and forth over the water like a schoolgirl’s. “Artists are not like you and me. They have different values. He could have been a serial murderer. He would not flinch at anything, if he felt it was what he must do.”

“I knew another man like that. A splendid, generous chap. He was no artist. But just as driven. Lothar, aka Wolfgang.”

“He was an amoral beast.”

“Depends on your environment. Lothar would have been a local hero in Ghengis Khan’s community or Al Capone’s. Or in Chechnya or Northern Ireland, or some parts of Plymouth on a Saturday night.”

“He treated people like matchsticks. Used them and broke them.”

“We all do that. Same game, different rules. We use footballs; where Lothar’s genes came from they kick skulls around the pitch. He would have been a top scorer in the City.”

“He had no mercy in his soul.”

“I think he did. If there was gain for him. That man on the fishing caique who told the crew to let Bartholomew and Matty go. The one they never saw. I reckon that was Lothar. It’s life that has no mercy. If Lothar hadn’t saved them then, fewer of our friends would have died later.”

That led me to the Great God Random. He squats on his stone throne whittling. He hammers one stone against another, making nothing in particular. The shards fall where they may. They shower down upon us as aimless happenings, chance encounters, unplanned actions, unbidden thoughts, accidents, and storms. We sift through this debris for patterns and — swayed by emotion, superstition, anxieties, dreams, portents, hunches, omens and compulsions — we find them. Feckless gamblers, we search for system in the movement of the planets, lucky numbers, or magnetic forces. Seeking a system, we share unreasoned hope and the intense conviction that the vast, winking void of the universe revolves around our individual destiny.

Which brings us to the meaning of life: you’re born — a lucky chance in itself considering the gallons of spermatozoa squandered every day by the three billion men inhabiting this planet — you grow old, and then you die. In between you have some more good luck and some bad luck, though rarely will you know which was which. When things go wrong it’s not the wheel in your belly throwing a wobble, as the devotees of Falun Gong believe, nor your benevolent Father in heaven turning his back on you, as do Christians. It’s just another flying frag­ment from the heedless hammer of the Great God Random. Try not to feel guilty about it.

That’s the gist of what I said to Angie that night we sat out on East Ferry Quay, just before I asked her to marry me. She was quiet for a while and then she said, “You said all that before. Years ago. The first time you asked me to marry you.” No wonder I had to wait so long for an answer the second time.

Angie had shivered, but it wasn’t cold. I put my arm around her. Tentatively, the way I did the first time I took her to the pictures in Kings Ferry. And, like then, she leaned a little closer. Angie didn’t smell of Woolworth’s sweets counter, like Rabbit, or Pridmore’s Garage like Matty. Her presence was warmth as much as scent. Just then the rosy shreds of cloud drifted apart and gilt rimmed the hayricks on the hill across the estuary. The sun slipped from the sky, flaring fire on the distant purple moor.

I spoke to Angie without looking at her. “I’ve had some good news. That legal action against me has collapsed. The injunction against my estate has been withdrawn. And eventually I stand to get back a large part of what Donald Penny owes me. It’s enough to start a new life. But I don’t know how to do it by myself.” I looked at her now. She was hunched forward with her lips pressed against her clenched hands, studying the drift of the tide. “Angie, if you can ever release Bartholomew, and if you can forgive what I did to you in the past, I’d like us to try again.”

“I need to think about it.”

“I think you and I were probably meant to be married.”

“You said that the first time, too.”

“Okay. Let’s be practical. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone. You’ve got a warm heart, a cool mind and a great body. I’ve finally got some money together. We could be happy. Even now. Especially now.”

“Maybe if we just lived together . . .”

“We could have a lot of fun,” I said. “Now that we’re grown-up.”

“What about Matty? She is my daughter.”

“She’s a grown woman. Look on the bright side. She’d have been a handful as a teenager.”

“As her mother, I’d like to know she’s all right.” The picture of Matty which Angie had rescued from the fire now hung on the wall in her sitting room, looking out south over the ruin on Castle Point. “But I can’t be her rival.”

“You mean me and her?”

The shadows had reached out to us across the harbour. The wind rattled the halyards of the small boats lying on the mud and the temperature dropped. I put my palm out and felt a few drops of rain. We pulled on our fleece jackets. Stars had appeared in the sky and a veil was drawing across them. The estuary had been swallowed up by the dark and out of it three lights came towards us, red to starboard and green to port and above and between them the white steaming light on Dinny’s little cabin. There was a rumble of thunder directly overhead. In November. A gust of wind blew in from the Channel and brought a lashing of rain with it. We only had one oily and I held it over both of us.

“Do you love her?” asked Angie.

“I love you.”

“I can’t give you back your youth, as she can.”

“You will always want to know if she’s alive.”

“So will you.”

“So you think I should go look for her?”

Angie turned her face toward me, but I could no longer see it. Her voice spoke out of the gloom, “I don’t want you to go. I want you here with me. But if you do find her, be careful what you say.”

“How do you mean?”

“Bartholomew may not have told her that he was her father.”

There came a sudden chill, a single icy gasp breathed a long way off. We chugged back across the estuary in Dinny’s ferry, a solitary arrow cleaving the sleeping waters of the harbour, and went to our separate beds. Later the barometer dropped like a lead sinker, and the thermometer remembered it was November. A storm swept in from the south-west. It blew raw and wet and cold for twenty-four hours. And early the next morning, as the continents of cloud split asunder, the bodies began to belly up.

The North Atlantic Oscillation shifted that autumn. For the past eight years it had been stuck in a weak, meandering hemispheric pattern that produced high pressure over Iceland or Scandinavia, pulling cold Arctic air down into Europe and funnelling mild air up towards Greenland. There was good snow cover in the Alps those winters and it was bloody cold in eastern Europe. Now, the great god Random threw a switch and the system lurched into reverse, maintaining deep depressions near Iceland coupled with high pressure around the Azores. Strong westerly winds pushed mild air across Europe and into Russia, while pulling cold air southwards, creating extremely severe conditions over western Greenland. A series of turbulent storms swirled up the English Channel.

The second gale of the season blew all night, tore the slates off the church roof, and left winter in its wake. It seemed that everyone in the village looked out of the window at the same time just after sunrise and spied the bloated figure in the dull red oilskins sitting up on the mud against Buckler’s float where the yachties deposit their rubbish in the summer. The mud is too soft to walk out there and the body looked too decomposed to withstand a helicopter winch. We had to wait for the turning tide before it could be collected. As the water level rose, people puttered out in their dinghies to get a closer eyeful and take snapshots. Voyeurs drove in from as far away as Exeter and Plymouth, and Jubilee Quay and the car park heaved with grockles all day. It was like August Bank Holiday, but with television cameras thrown in. The pubs ignored closing time and did a roaring trade until the water was high enough for the lifeboat crew to reach the rusted Michelin Man with a boathook and tow it in behind a dinghy. It was Lord Nick. He was born the same week I was, and now I was standing looking at his skull covered in green kelp.

Spider had a busy day. Before the day-trippers went home, leaving a handful of happy shopkeepers and a great many more moaning because they had long ago closed their doors for the season, the lifeboat crew had recovered three more bodies. They had risen from their niche under The Toilet and breasted The Devil’s Coat-tails on an easterly current and the rising tide. Detective Superintendent Radcliffe’s Serious Crime Bureau set up shop in McGinty’s sail loft. I went back to Spider’s house and poured myself a glass of single malt in his kitchen. He came in just after dark. He didn’t take off his oilies but stood dripping water on the lino. Mam would never have let him do that.

“Dunkirk must have been like that,” he said. I poured him a large glass of malt. “The storm shifted the wreck on the mewstone.” He counted them off on his fingers. “Lothar, Nick. Malcolm. Charlie. All bobbing around like bloaters belly-up between here and Sheepshead Point. All we had to do was follow the gulls.”

“Not Meeker?”

He shook his head. “Nor Matty neither.”

“I was thinking of going to have a look for her.”

Spider gave a short laugh. “It’s your turn. I done my share.” He fixed me with his level, blue stare. “Have you made up your mind yet?”

“What about?’

“Don’t pull my willie. Between her and Angie.”

I told him why Bartholomew had come back to Westowe, and why Angie wanted me to make sure Matty was all right.

Spider shrugged. “I think I mentioned to you once upon a time that Angie had a baby.”

“You did. Just before you knocked me into the urinal.”

“Mam used to mumble on about it. And there was some gossip. But it was Angie herself put me up to hinting you might be Matty’s father. To put you off the bint.” He looked up suddenly, fixing me with his eye. “I reckon Angie’s still kind of sweet on you.”

“I’ve asked her to marry me.”

Spider looked out the window of his kitchen. If it weren’t dark he could have been examining the pebbledash wall of the house next door. “What did she say?”

“She may give me another chance.”

“Are you sleeping with her?”

“No. And I probably won’t be invited. Not until after we’re married.”

Spider turned to me and smiled. “That’s what Mam used to tell you. If you’d done that the first time, none of this would have happened.”

“I wonder what would have happened.”

Spider slapped me on the back. “Something equally ‘orrible.” Spider refilled both our glasses. “At least Matty’s all right then.”

“Why do you think so?”

“He wouldn’t have taken her along for the ride, would he? He’s packed up her up somewhere. A convent would be the best place.”

“Brittany, maybe.”

“She was headed for Australia, wasn’t she?”

“Their playmates were in Corsica.”

“The fuzz will be booking their holidays in Corsica. If they’ve traced L’Aventure Doux or Blake back to there.”

“Where else would she go on her own?”

“Wherever the next guy she meets is going. I’d get going, too, if I was you.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere outside the twelve-mile limit. Sherlock Radcliffe will be having your guts for garters after that sea story you spun him.”

“What about your yarns?”

“The rest of us was just being neighbourly about the truth, in the time-honoured Westowe fashion. I never lied about the mewstone because he never asked me. You actually told him a fairy story. That’s a habit you pick up in the City, I suppose.”

I stood up and put my oilskin jacket on. I stopped on the threshold. “I never thanked you for pulling me out of the Frying-pan.”

“I saved Angie. She happened to be holding your hand.”

“You pulled her out of the fire, as well as the Frying-pan.”

“I rather fancy the lady.”

“So do I.”

“So why are you chasing after her daughter?”

“I wonder if somehow I saw young Angie in her.”

“The technical term, they tell me, is mother-fucker.”

“I’ve not managed that with either of them.”

Spider snorted. “Not from want of trying.” He knocked back his drink, smacking his lips. “Nor I. Not interested in the strumpet. And Angie’s never asked me yet. I told her I’d need three weeks’ written notice and an electric fire.”

It was my turn to look out the kitchen window at nothing. “I need some time to see my way clear.”

“That’s what comes from looking at the world through your prick. You have no depth perception because it’s only got one eye.”

I yanked Spider’s cap down over his eyes. “Whereas love is blind.” Rain was hammering on the grey slate roofs of Westowe. I pulled the hood of my oilskins over my head. Spider put his hand out to me. “And thanks for saving my life.”

I had not shaken hands with Spider for a long time. His hand was like a wedge of weathered wood that you bung in over posts to prop a boat up on shore. “I was saving the rope,” I said. “You just happened to be holding it.”

Spider hooted and slapped the heels of his hands together with a loud crack. “It wasn’t that funny,” I said.

“I was just thinking. If you play your cards wrong, I could end up as your father-in-law.”

I wasn’t able to see Angie again before I left. So I had to ring her from the ferry dock in Portsmouth. “I love you,” I told her. “And I want to marry you.”

“I’ll put you down for the next dance,” she said over the phone and there was a happy, throaty lilt in her voice, the way she spoke when we did go to dances together.