Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Late January

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Late January

To get from Calancone to Punta Palazzo out-of-season you walk or you swim. The tourist boats weren’t running, the fishing boats were at sea, and there is no road. The sun shone all through a windless day. The footpath led along an ancient canal, then criss-crossed a dry stream bed to the foot of a ridge. It climbed under red cliffs in a series of zig-zags to a wood of ilex, and emerged on a ridge 800 metres above sea level. The gulf of Calancone stretched blue and empty behind me. Ahead a cape of red volcanic rock sprawled like the out-thrust limb of a reptile. A dense maquis of gorse and myrtle and scrub alder tumbled down its slopes. I clambered down its spine, my boots crushing the scent of thyme, rosemary and faded lavender on the hot rocks. It was too early for flowers, apart from the strident yellow broom and a few early purple crocuses peeping out of crevices. I met no one, except for a gaunt cow earning a European Union subsidy for its owner by learning to browse on arbutus and cystus. A sapphire cove rimmed by cliffs came into view and a bright fragment appeared like a shell caught in the lizard’s claw. As I descended it grew into a strip of sandy beach shielded by a bony finger. A dozen or so stone houses encrusted its knuckles, and on its tip was a russet Venetian ruin.

I had arrived at Calancone by way of Provence, Thailand, South Australia and Brittany. The Capitaine de Port at Lézardrieu had spoken excellent English. He had been interviewed many times about L’Aventure Doux, by the Department de Sécurité and by French and English journalists. Bartholomew had been alone, he told me. One of the workers at the marina thought there had been a woman with him. His colleague disagreed. That, he maintained, had been an earlier visit. As far as I could make out. So, I started with the pension nearest the marina, and the third door I knocked on was the right one. Madame spoke broken English and she remembered the young lady well. Because she did not come by car, but just walked in off the street with a small bag. And she had been “trés distraite.” Of course it was because of a man, but there had been no man with her. The name on Madame’s register was Mathilda Ferguson. She stayed only one night, the 15th of September. The next morning Madame had called her a taxi to take her to Paimpol where she could catch the train to Paris. Her eyes were red and she looked as though she had not slept all night. Madame was sorry for her and asked if she could help. Matty had replied that she had been travelling too long and now she was going home. Madame had approved of this decision. On the night of the day she left there had been a grand storm. Yes, the local police had spoken to Madame, but they had been asking about a man — that artist who drowned at sea. Madame crossed herself.

I spent two days where Matty had grown up in Australia, and I was not surprised that she became a bit of a tear-away. Two straight, endless dusty roads dotted with the brown rumps of dead ‘roos intersected at a scatter of wooden buildings. There was a Ladies’ Bowling Club, which I did not visit, and the Mingo Junction Club, which was a pub where I had a vile meal and drank too many cold, fizzy beers. When Bruce Ferguson and his young wife had settled there to grow grapes on a land grant scheme for Second World War veterans, everyone lived in tents. The Fergusons appeared in several of the black-and-white group photographs at fêtes and agricultural fairs that were displayed in the tiny museum in the dining room of the Mingo Junction Guest House. I saw their tombstones in the brown grass of the unshaded cemetery. Everyone knew about Matty. I was shown a copy of a newspaper cutting about her teenage joy-ride to Auckland. But no one had heard of her in years. On the way back I spent a couple of weeks on the beach in Thailand, and almost stayed there forever. But paradise is no place to live on your own, and the kind of people you meet there you wouldn’t invite to your funeral. In the end I flew back to reality. At every immigration desk I expected to be ushered into a windowless room to meet Detective Superintendent Radcliffe. The apprehension increased the closer I drew to England. I spent two days in Nice and three times noticed a plump, baby-faced middle-aged man, a fallen dark-haired cherub who reminded me of someone — the louche comedian, Benny Hill. Each time he was wearing something different — a baseball cap, a tweed jacket with cuffs that hung over his knuckles, a pristine white Bienvenu à Nice sweatshirt. Paranoic, the third time I saw him — at a pavement table across from my hotel — on impulse I stepped into a nearby travel agent and bought an air ticket to London for the following day. That evening I left the hotel by the rear exit and caught the ferry to Corsica.

The houses in Punta Palazzo were shuttered. I passed an old woman dressed in black. Another crone peered from a back garden. They were probably my age, but had worked a bit harder. Neither of them answered when I said “Bonjour, Madame,” but both turned to look after me. The door of the café hotel on the beach was unlocked. I went into the bar and called, but no one answered. An office cubicle next to the bar was locked. From the window on the terrace I could see it held a desk with a telephone and the computer which Bartholomew and Wolfgang/Lothar, and probably the drug baron, Blake, had used as a post-box. I sat on the little quay and watched the sun move towards the red cliffs across the cove. The Venetian castle was glowing pink when I heard the drone of an outboard motor. A dinghy appeared around the point and came up to the quay. The man was about my age, with sad eyes and a black bristle moustache. In Calancone they had said Claude looked like Charlie Chaplin. There was a plastic crate in the bottom of his dinghy with three tiny fish in it. No better than Colonel Meeker’s catch. I picked up the crate while he gathered up his gear, and he unlocked the café.

Claude’s wife and children were visiting her parents inland in Vizzavona, a journey of a few kilometres which involved extensive travel arrangements. He shared his three fish with me and a couple of bottles of earthy red wine. I insisted on buying his best bottles, and he insisted on offering me an off-season price. He had never met Bartholomew or Matty or Wolfgang, he said. But he was keen to know what had happened to them. So I talked. And he listened. And when I had told him enough he went behind the bar and fetched a bottle of grappa and poured two glasses. And he started to talk, and I listened. When the phone rang and he unlocked the little office to take a call from his wife and another time when he got up to take a pee, I poured my grappa into his glass.

He would not talk about Blake, the man who had lent Bartholomew his boat. Perhaps he was in Paris. Perhaps not. Probably he was wealthy enough not to remember where he kept all his boats. I put two thousand francs on the table and he did not look at them. It was only when I told him that E-mail messages could be traced that he took an interest. He said he had been told this was impossible.

“Every message remains in the system memory,” I said. “Anyone can access it. All you need is the access code. If you don’t remove the messages it could lead the police here.”

Claude shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know any code. Nobody knows it.”

“They can find out. By using a device which constantly dials new combinations of numbers.”

Claude shifted in his seat, then poured himself another grappa. “They won’t have that in Corse.”

“They could do it from Nice. Or Paris.” His eyes showed what he was thinking: while we sat at this table in the gathering dusk over the remains of the simple meal that he had caught and the rough country grappa, an infernal machine in the dungeons below the Quai d’Orsay was juddering away, shuffling numbers at a speed the eye could not arrest. It was only a question of time before a patrol boat burst round the point.

Claude looked out into the dark. He said that even if that were true and someone had used his computer as a message centre, he would not know what the password was to open the system. I said I knew the password and I could remove the messages. Claude grunted and stood up. He unlocked the door of the small office and switched on the computer. I sat down in the threadbare swivel chair and when the computer asked for the password I keyed in ‘chopper’ and it let me in to the E-mail cache. Claude set two refilled glasses of grappa on the corner of the desk. He put the wad of bank notes between them and leaned over my shoulder.

Only two messages remained in the in-tray. One was from me, telling Bartholomew that he was Matty’s father. That had been opened. The second message had not been read. It was dated 18 September at 13.40, when Bartholomew had been hanging upside down in Buckler’s boatyard. It said ‘Arrived safely at Tac-HQ. All well here. Will wait for you like a good girl.’

“Where is Tac-HQ?” I asked Claude. He shrugged. “Tactical Headquarters,” I said. He reached for the grappa, then changed his mind and looked at the money on the table. “I could send a message to Tac-HQ,” I said, “and hang around for an answer. Or I could wipe the messages and go away and forget all this, if you tell me where it is.”

Claude reached over me and took a notepad from the desk. He wrote on it and handed it to me. I would not have to get on an aeroplane. The address was in Ota, in the mountains above the river Porto. Claude, easy now in the familiar role of a minor co-conspirator, was genial. “I’ll take you around the punta in the morning. To a place where you can walk up to the road. The bus comes by at ten.”

“Can I walk the whole way instead?”

“Sure. The way Napoleon’s mother brought him down to the sea on a mule when the flics were after his papa. But it will take you two days.”

I walked. There was no sign of Benny Hill, nor of anyone who did not belong to the landscape. I found the stone villa in the heights above Ota village. It had a grand view to the west of the trio of bare peaks rearing above the little port of Porto; to the east was the dark rift of the Spelunca gorge. I crunched up the drive, disencumbered my pack and knocked on the iron-bound door. The sun was climbing in the sky and the day was still and warm, but a cool draught came out of the dark stone passageway when the woman appeared. “You’re early,” she said, and then her hand flew to her mouth and she gave a little cry. She wore a loose, flowing dress of pale earth colours. Her hair was cut in a short bob and she must have been colouring it before; now it was salt-and-pepper. “We were expecting someone else,” said Angie. After an awkward pause she hugged me and put her cheek next to mine. It smelled of the maquis.

She led me through into a room with white stuccoed walls and simple furniture made of dark wood and covered in muted fabrics. We stepped through open French windows and my eyes squinted against the brightness. The man sitting in the garden chair, with knobby knees protruding from long khaki shorts looked like the local colonial administrator. Although it was Wednesday, he was reading the Sunday Telegraph. When he lowered it I saw that it was Colonel Meeker, with a nut-coloured face. Beyond him the figure of a woman reclined in a hammock against the raw light and the scent of spring rising from the brown hillside. With her bare brown arms in a white sleeveless dress, and wearing a large straw hat with an orange flower in it, she was very pretty.


Matty took off her broad-brimmed straw hat with the orange flower on it and rose up on her elbows and looked at me with a dazed smile, as if she were trying to remember where she had seen me before. Her face was plump and glowing. She raised a hand to brush her long hair out of her eyes and the fingernails had white rims. She had stopped biting them. Angie went over and helped her down from the hammock. Matty moved to a wicker chair with that lumbering you-can’t-touch-me-now walk, sat down and crossed her hands under the bold bulge of her belly. Somebody was growing inside her.

I crossed over and kissed her forehead. There was no odour of diesel; she smelled clean and herbal. “Congratulations,” I said.

Matty shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted up at me with her crooked smile. “Nothing to it.”

“You’re very beautiful.” I looked up at Angie. She was standing behind Matty with her hand on her shoulder. “Even Mam Meersman never got her into a dress.”

“I missed that,” said Matty. “Being a girl.” She covered Angie’s hand with hers and smiled up at her. Matty didn’t need older men any longer. She’d found an older woman. In the light filtering through the vine trellis, mother and daughter looked like a Pond’s Moisturising Cream advert.

“When?” I asked.

“Nine more weeks,” said Matty, radiant, as if she were expecting the arrival of the Messiah.

Angie said what expectant grannies have said since our species first learned to speak, “Thank goodness you won’t be carrying in the terrible summer heat.”

I wasn’t going to let them get away with it. “Lothar’s?”

“Possibly,” said Matty. Her pupils flicked to the corners of her eyes in the old hunted way.

“Or Bartholomew’s?”

“Possibly,” said Angie. Behind Matty, she raised a finger briefly across her lips and fixed her eyes on mine.

Colonel Meeker stood up. “I’ll put the kettle on,” he said and went into the house. He brushed the hanging edge of the colourful cloth on the dining room table. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man was kneeling on the floor inspecting the legs of the antique table. It was Superbloke. He looked round and winked at me.

Matty smiled. “That’s what we’re hoping. To keep Bartholomew’s genes alive. He was a great artist.”

“Did you find out who your real mother was?”

Matty wasn’t used to wearing dresses yet. She plucked at the soft fabric as she talked. “Didn’t you know? Gwendolyn Smythe. She took up with Lord Nick, and when she had me, chased after him to Australia. But he kept one jump ahead. And then, I suppose she must have met someone else. Or got into other things. And I was an encumbrance. I can understand that.”

I looked at Angie. “How did you find her?”

“She rang and asked me to come.”

“Simple as that. While I’ve been eating bad meat pies in Mingo Junction.” Matty raised her eyes. “I saw your adoptive-parents’ gravestones,” I said.

She put her knuckles to her mouth, then jerked her hand back to her lap. “I didn’t know they were dead.”

“You should keep in touch.” I looked at Angie. “And Meeker?”

“He’s a kind man. And he’s desperate for company.”

“Pixie and Poxy would be happy to drop in, I’m sure.”

Meeker emerged from the house carrying a tea tray. His khaki shirt matched the colour of his face, and it had epaulettes. He looked like a waiter in a smart African hotel, but he thought he was still in Hertfordshire. His only concession to his surroundings was the tray, which was made of olive wood. The tea cosy was in the shape of a thatched cottage, the cups were Wedgwood, the tea was Earl Grey and there was a plate of little cakes that looked like scones. Colonel Meeker offered the plate of cakes round with a bowl of a smelly dairy product. “Cusgiulelle. They’re made of chestnut flour, brandy, white wine and holy water for all I know. Try them with the brocciu. It’s a kind of soft cheese.” Charlie Segui looked down over the colonel’s shoulder. He took a handful of the little cakes and stuffed them into his pocket. Seeing me watching him, he put a finger to his lips and stepped back into the shadow of the vines.

Colonel Meeker gave me a friendly smile and asked, as if I had driven over from Basingstoke, “Did you have trouble finding us?”

“Through the Internet.”

“Bother. Does that mean I’m going to have to move house again?”

“I wiped all the messages. Only that fellow in the tavern knows you’re here. Claude.”

Colonel Meeker chuckled and beamed at his guests. “Claude’s as solid as English oak. He gets a nice little annuity as long as I’m around.” I didn’t tell Colonel Meeker that I had bought his address for the price of a tourist class flight to London.

Angie frowned. “Could anyone have followed you?”

“If they did they’ve had a nice holiday at the taxpayers’ expense. I’ve walked the last few days. On the ridges I could look back into yesterday and see no one.”

“You can thank Spider for that,” said Angie. “You’re off the hook.”

“He’s flushed Detective Superintendent Radcliffe down The Toilet?”

Angie’s eyes twinkled for the first time. “He let the dead men tell the tale, with a few helpful nudges through Eddy Starr, who got hold of Charlie’s files. Radcliffe worked out everything that happened on the mewstone. Except Spider and you and I were never there. So it must have been Bartholomew who figured out what Lothar was doing, fought with him and rescued Matty. I’m happier with that story. I’d rather Westowe remembered Bartholomew as a romantic rather than a drug runner.”

“And Radcliffe believed him?”

“He believed Dinny. Who swore he was checking his lobster pots in the fog that night. And said exactly what Spider told him to say.”

“That doesn’t actually put me in the clear.”

“Spider’s sorted that, too. You and Lothar were great mates, and he was a true sailor.”

“True enough.”

“So he was just helping you with the Amaryllis. You had nothing else to do with him. And the rest happened just as you said. It was an accident. Except Lothar and Matty got the Amaryllis to the mewstone. Where Bartholomew found them. There was a struggle, and Lothar lost.”

“So I can start looking where I’m going now, instead of over my shoulder. If they believe that yarn in Bramshill?”

“What else have they got to believe? And after the baby’s born, when Matty comes home, she’ll confirm it.”

Matty beamed at me. “I won’t let the bad guys get you, Blue.”

I looked at her. “You’re going back to Westowe?”

“Where else?” There was surprise in her voice. She did not mean that Westowe was as good a place as any, as no place held any meaning now for her, the way I had felt in Thailand. She meant that Westowe was her home. And it was true. Matty had been born in Westowe. In Spider’s house. Like most villagers, she had been delivered by Mam Meersman. And she would live in Bartholomew and Angie’s house. She belonged to Westowe. I did not. Lord Nick sat on the floor by her chair, rolling a joint. He had all his hair and he was twenty-one. He held the reefer out to me with a grin.

Matty looked at me now with that straight gaze I had first seen through the mizzle of a blowy day on Grise Head. “What next for you?” As if I were a concert pianist confronting a worldwide string of engagements.

“Tea.”

“I mean afterwards.”

“I haven’t thought about afterwards.”

“Why did you come here?”

“Looking for you.” My eye caught Colonel Meeker. He hunched forward in his chair, observing our confrontation like a man watching a match at the centre court at Wimbledon.

“Why?”

“To make sure you were alive.”

“Would it matter?”

“Angie sent me.”

Angie moved past me. “You were chasing her.” She sat on a low wall.

“Do you remember that night on East Ferry Quay? Before the storm?”

She avoided my gaze. “I don’t think we deserve second chances.”

The only way I could catch her eye was to squat down in front of her. I kept my voice low. “I believe I could make you happy. I know how now. I’ve been chasing after it long enough.”

Angie put her hands together as if she were praying and rested her chin on the tips of her fingers. “I don’t think you can pursue happiness. I think it’s something that ensues. You stumble across it by dedicating yourself to a cause greater than you are. Or by surrendering yourself to someone else.”

“Does Matty know about ‘Angel Child’?” I murmured.

Angie’s eyes were wary. “She knows our baby died. Yours and mine. And that Bartholomew thought it was his.” Her eyes pleaded now. Beyond, Matty smiled the faint contented smile of the pregnant woman. “That was his tragedy,” Angie went on. “He thought he was the father of our dead daughter. He created his masterpiece for her.”

“And your tragedy,” I said, “is that you thought he was doing it for you. But it wasn’t love that drove him, it was guilt.” I looked straight into her eyes. “I know a thing or two about that.” We used to play a game when we were kids, Angie and I, trying to stare each other down. I could never win. But this time it was Angie who turned away. She moved to Matty’s side and looked down at her round bulge. My eyes went there, too.

I spoke up. “You’re still waiting for Bartholomew. His apotheosis.”

“It doesn’t matter whose child it is,” said Angie.

“A Hobson’s choice,” I answered.

Matty spoke with a flicker of her old defiance, “It is Bartholomew’s.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

She spread her hands over her belly. “A woman knows.”

I said, “When did you start reading women’s magazines?” Matty grinned like an elf and stuck her tongue out at me.

Angie rested her hand on Matty’s head. “Whatever, we will love it. And look after it.”

“And who will look after you? Meeker?”

“That doesn’t matter either.”

“I was in love with you,” I said to Angie. Then I looked at Matty. “Both of you. And probably Bartholomew and Spider as well. However, I draw the line at colonel Meeker.”

“Crompton,” said the colonel. “And I’ve dropped the ‘Colonel’. Call me Archie.” He extended his hand. He was right. He wasn’t Colonel Meeker any longer. He was Archie Crompton. I shook his hand. I told him where I’d been, which gave Archie Crompton the opportunity to relate a few pointless anecdotes about his time in the Far East. While he talked Matty closed her eyes and Angie wore the grim half-smile of a patient wife who has heard it all many times before. When the sun left the terrace Archie got to his feet and said, “Time for a sundowner. You must stay for dinner. Stay for the party tomorrow. The more the merrier.” Angie and Matty exchanged glances.

“Spider will be in the other spare room,” Angie said to him.

Colonel Meeker chuckled. “I thought he’d be bunking with you.”

Angie looked straight at me and said, “Not until we’re married.”

Archie swivelled his chuckle at me and poked my shoulder. “That’s what I like. An old-fashioned girl.”

I nodded at Matty. “Well, there’s another one.”

Archie surveyed Matty with a beady eye. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about it, old boy,” he said under his breath before taking the olive wood tea tray into the house.

I looked at Angie. “Engagement party?”

“It’s Spider’s fiftieth.”

“Too early for mine. The magnolias are not in bloom yet.”

“We’ll all be fifty soon.”

“Why Spider?”

“Spider is steady.”

“That’s no reason to fall in love.”

“We don’t need romance. We need a steady man now.”

I looked at Matty’s swelling belly. “All three of you.”

“He’d like to see you,” said Angie.

I shook my head. “What Spider and I have to say to each other, we’ve said it all before. And not in front of the frailer sex.” I laughed but tears came into my eyes, and so I turned my chair away from her to look at the sunset. Lothar came round the corner of the house, grinning, his sailbag slung over his shoulder. He beckoned to me. I bent my head into my hands. The two women came up behind me, both carrying the fragrance of the maquis, but Angie’s hand, on my left shoulder, had a firmer grip than Matty’s.

Archie was back, wheeling a drinks trolley. “Chin-chin, old boy. Worse things happen at sea.”

“I know,” I said. I picked up my pack and walked past him. Archie was unhappy to see me go. “There’s so much to talk about,” he argued as he followed me through the room. On the wall opposite was the painting Angie had saved when she set fire to the castle: Bartholomew’s rock pool portrait of Matty/Angie. Bartholomew, in his faded blue fisherman’s smock spattered with paint, stood eyeing it over his upheld thumbnail. He didn’t look up at me as I passed, tears standing in my eyes.

On the road beyond the path a man was paying off a taxi driver. On his shoulder was a sailor’s bag just like Lothar’s. This apparition was Spider. I flinched when he ran up the gravel, and it was not until I felt his stubbled cheek against mine that I was sure he was real.

“Leaving already, Matey?” Spider only says ‘Matey’ to people he’s not mates with. I had become a non-person.

“Got to catch the tide, Matey.”

Spider dropped his embrace. “You’ve heard then?”

“Congratulations.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Where the tide’s going, I reckon.”

He clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Sorry, Matey.”

“Best man won. The whole pot. Three generations. With any luck you’ll have three women to boss you around.”

Spider’s laugh had changed. It had no sardonic edge now. Spider was at ease with himself and the whole wide world. He stuck out his hand. “Better wish me luck then.” We shook hands and he grinned at me. “Shall I give Detective Superintendent Radcliffe your forwarding address?”

Something was very strange about Spider’s visit here and that remark reminded me why. “What about the police?”

“I’ve spun them a good yarn. You’ll be all right.”

“Angie told me. But what if they followed you here? You and Angie.”

“No fear. We make sure to come the scenic route.”

We shook hands again.

“Good luck,” I said.

“Good luck,” said he.

My luck was turning. The taxi was parked nearby, saving me a long hike to the nearest hotel. When I had paid him off he called after me.

Monsieur.” He was holding out an envelope. “You have left it behind.” He pointed towards the back seat.

“Nought to do with me,” I said.

The driver shrugged. “Peut-être autre Monsieur have left it behind?”

It was a white A5 envelope. On it was a cancelled British stamp, my name and Spider’s address. It was written in ink in a familiar feminine hand. Some old girl friend? A Christmas card from the Inland Revenue?

It was not until I had broached a bottle of pastis in my hotel room and opened the envelope that I realised why I had been lucky enough to find the taxi waiting for me. The driver looked a lot like Benny Hill.

The envelope contained an invitation card:


A Major Retrospective

The later works of Bartholomew Streb,
never before on public view

“Rockpool Reflections”

An exhibition jointly hosted by the twin towns of
Westowe, South Devon, England
and St Malo, Brittany, France

Hotel de Ville, St Malo
Wednesday 25th — Sunday 29th April
9.00am to 6.00pm

Admission £3


The same information, in French, appeared on the reverse. I began to appreciate that Angie had a talent for deception. She had not brought herself to fling Bartholomew’s later paintings into The Devil’s Frying-pan. A bigger shock was the message penned at the bottom of the card. “See you there? — Me.” It was the same familiar feminine hand, that of my dead wife, Maire. Who always signed herself ‘Me’. “The rest is so much air,” she used to say. Maire was a crossword addict.

Another wave from the grave. In the bathroom the green plastic shroud in the shower cubicle is pulled across. If I open it will she be standing there?