Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 21st November

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Sunday, 21st November

“Swan Song,” he called her. And he was bound for Australia.”

“In a 26-footer? Single-handed?”

“Who said he was single-handed?” The middle-aged man with the grooved cheeks and the grizzle of beard smiled his lop-sided grin. And that picture now clicked into my brain, replacing the default image I held in my memory — the blurry snapshot of a wild, ginger-haired lad. This man was Spider, grown-up. The proof was the orange woolly cap with the short visor that lay next to him on the bench. A black plastic tarantula was pinned on the top of it. Spider never went out on the water without it.

“That’s what the papers said,” I replied.

“That’s what we wanted the papers to say.”

“Who wanted?”

“Me. Angie. Charlie. The club. Everybody.”

“So he had a crew.”

“She was about twenty-six, too.”

“Oh, Christ.”

“Australian. He was giving her a lift home.”

“Bloody Bartholomew.”

Spider heaved his short muscular body up and went out the back to the gents. A wintry draught stole in and felt my ankles. I shifted our pints over to a table by the log fire crackling in the blackened fireplace. The beer was Bass from the wood, drawn by gravity from the casks which still sat on the low shelf behind the bar. On the stone walls were the same sepia views showing the estuary crowded with the rigging of tall ships. As ever, a couple of locals sat rooted in the public bar of The Jubilee Inn (Formerly Cromarty’s), smoking and talking of weather, wearing the benches smooth with their bottoms. I tried to nudge the deal table closer to the fire, then remembered the tables were screwed to the floorboards. Spider and I had sat at the same table almost three decades ago. The night I told him I was leaving Westowe. Maybe forever. I sat down and sipped my beer and looked into the fire.

Burning tobacco sweetened the air. “Y’awright?” It was what people in Westowe said these days when they passed each other in the street. An old man stood over me, staring with rheumy eyes. He wore a shabby black double-breasted blazer and a dirty white nautical cap with a shiny, bent brim. In his hand was a chocolate-brown plastic bucket. He jabbed the stem of a yellowed pipe at me. “You’re Ted Golden. Spider’s mate.” I was looking at someone I thought had died years ago.

“You’re Dinny’s dad,” I said.

“I’m Dinny. You and me went to school back then.”

Dinny Dinsmore and I were born in the same year. His Dad ran Dinsmore Family Funerals. On his fifteenth birthday Dinny left school to apprentice in the family funeral business, acquiring the necessary skills in time to deal with his father, who had fallen drunk out of his fishing dinghy and drowned.

“It’s good to see you, Dinny.”

“You been up London.”

“Almost thirty years.”

“I been up the motor show one year. Didn’t like it much. You be up the castle now.”

“For a while.”

“Bartholomew’s dead.”

“Missing, I hope.”

“He be dead, Spider says so. That were a lovely craft, his Swan Song. Spider fixed it up for he. All panelled inside, with proper oil lamps and sliding drawers. Neat as a nun’s knickers.”

“You still putting folk in the ground, Dinny?”

He squared his shoulders and drew himself up to his full five-and-a-half feet. “Ferryman, that’s I.” He felt the pockets of his blazer and then found his pipe in his mouth. “Does his widow know about you?”

“Spider’s widow?”

Dinny cackled. “Spider’s never married. Bartholomew’s got hisself a widow. She know you be up the castle?”

“I’m renting it from her.”

Dinny’s yellowing eyes bulged. “You was to marry her.”

“Dinny, have a drink.”

“I had my half. After I come off work. They don’t let me drink more’n a half.”

“What’s in the bucket, Dinny? Porgies for supper?”

Dinny glanced at the battered brown plastic bucket as if he were surprised to find it in his hand. It was empty. He put both hands on the table to steady himself and leaned his face into mine. It was smudged and shadowed in blue like an ink stain. “Georgie Porgy, that’s you. You kissed Angie behind the bike shed and made her a kiddie. I seen you.”

Spider appeared behind. Dinny turned his sagging face to him. “He left his kiddie, didn’t he, Spider?”

“Eight bells, Dinny. End of your watch.”

Dinny flicked two fingers to his cap. “Aye, aye, Coxswain.” He looked at me. Within the dark sockets a gleam flickered like a distant light rising above the swell. “I don’t drink with no murderers,” he said and shambled out of the door.

Spider sat down next to me. “So who did you strangle while I was in the heads?”

“What happened to Dinny?”

“He fell off the quay one night when the tide was out, loaded to the gunwales, onto a concrete block. They put a plate in his head. But he skippers the ferry launch like it was the QE 2.”

“What’s the bucket for?”

“He started carrying it around after that. You never see him without it.”

“Sort of a fisherman’s handbag?”

Spider shook his head. “There’s never nothing in it. Except sometimes the grockles get the wrong idea and throw change into it. So in summer it’s sort of a community income support program for Dinny.” He grinned. “Maybe I ought to get me a bucket.”

“So Angie had a kid?”

“Who says?”

“Dinny.”

Spider’s face set in stone. “You don’t want to get your news from Dinny. His antennae are a bit fouled.” He looked up at me. “Have you got kids?”

“We decided not to.”

“She and Bartholomew never had kids neither.”

“I thought she would marry you,” I said.

“You left the field clear, sure enough. You said you wouldn’t mind.”

“We shook hands on it. At this table.”

“Trouble is, neither of us consulted the lady.” Spider laughed. “She went away for a while. When she did come back, she was different. A lot older.”

“Not old enough for Bartholomew. He must be what, late sixties?”

“If he’s alive.”

“So, maybe forty when they married. He had twenty years on her.”

“Plus he was living with another woman at the time.”

“The one who used to model for him?”

“Aye. Not that you could ever recognise her in the paintings.”

“Arty type. Very nervy. Forty plus. She used to stand on the bow of Bartholomew’s sloop with her knockers waving in the breeze. ‘The Figurehead’, we used to call her.”

“Aye. I remember us fighting for the binoculars. Gwendolyn Smythe was her name. Anyway, he must have got tired of painting her knockers. He just put her chattels out on the doorstep one day and rang for a taxi.”

“You don’t need a model for his kind of painting. Just a drawing compass.”

“A few months later he married Angie.”

“Happy end.”

“Bartholomew was happy as a sandboy. Showing her off everywhere. He couldn’t believe his luck.”

“And Angie?”

“Sort of distant. Like she was really somewhere else.”

“Doesn’t sound like Angie.”

“I told you she changed. But she gradually came round to really loving the big noise. The way she used to look at him, even when he was being a prat.”

“Did he do any more painting?”

“He would lock himself away in the castle for a few days now and then. But whether he was painting a masterpiece or whitewashing the walls — who knows. Leastwise he never produced anything to make a fuss about. Not like before when he was — what was it — the West Country’s biggest crap artist?”

“Op-artist.”

“Whatever. He was having too much fun messing about in boats, I reckon. And there was Angie. They were always hand-in-hand in those days.”

“You never got married?”

“Almost, once or twice. It’s all right until I invite them home for a cup of coffee and they see I keep Mam in the front room and live bait in the bath.”

“How is Mam?”

“Still keeping everyone in line. You ought to come round.”

“I will.”

“Don’t blame you for putting it off. You’ll get an earful about running off to London and leaving Angie.”

“That was more than a quarter-of-a-century ago, for Christ’s sake.”

“Mam’s got a long memory for sinners. And for Christ’s sake don’t say ‘for Christ’s sake’ in front of her.”

My hand went up to my cheek. “I can still feel the sting.”

Spider’s face softened. “She’s not so fast on the draw now, with the arthritis and all.” He sipped some froth off his beer. My pint was half-empty. “Have you seen Angie, yet?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Charlie Segui says she’s almost a recluse.”

“I thought as you’re renting the castle — .”

“Charlie and the estate agent handled all that. Is she cut up about it?”

“She needs the money.”

“I mean about Bartholomew.”

“She was grieving about Bartholomew long before he weighed anchor.”

“Who was the bimbo?”

Spider sighed. “Matty was her name. Matty Ferguson. Turned up at Easter to work at the marina. A lively bit of crumpet. She came straight at you. Thought like a man. Bartholomew took one look at her and he was overboard. By the time the season started you couldn’t pry them apart with an oyster knife.”

“How did Angie take it?”

“You know how Bartholomew is. Was. Leader of the pack, even as an OAP. Matty was a bloody good sailor. Game for anything. He pretended she was just one of the guys. Except he always had his arm around her. Angie ignored it. She was civil to the bint. Seemed to like her even. We all did.”

“Sounds a cracker.”

“Cracked. Crazy as patchwork.”

“How so?”

“She had grand ideas. Delusions.”

“What kind of delusions?”

“For one thing, she started a rhubarb with Nickers.”

Those of us who grew up with him, learning about drink, sex and drugs from him, called him Nickers. The rest of Westowe called him Lord Nick. That pleased them because they found Lord Farthing-Tattersall an uncomfortable mouthful, and it pleased Nickers even more because it implied he was the younger son of a Duke. So everybody won.

“Nickers?” I said. “Did he survive the seventies?”

“In a haze. Anyway, Matty reckoned Nick was her old man.”

“Nickers married her?”

“No, she claimed he was her dad. We were sitting around this table here. And Bartholomew starts reading out this bit in the paper — about some bloke somewheres who claims he’s the son of some Lord or other who put his mother up the spout when she was a serving girl, and suddenly she comes out with it. Nickers got into her mum’s knickers when she was a skivvy up at the big house.”

“Would he have remembered that particular conquest?”

“Not likely. He’s spaced out most of the time. Usually couldn’t give a gnat’s fart what anyone says about him. But when this rumour goes round the village he gets the hump. Of course Bartholomew goes in to bat for her, and gets right up Nick’s nose.”

“Very painful in his case.”

“She gets Charlie Segui to file a paternity suit, Nickers threatens a libel action, solicitors start rolling in from Plymouth and Exeter in charabancs, and Charlie starts pricing new yachts.”

“And Bartholomew’s wallowing in it like a pig in shit.”

Spider nodded. “We all reckon he’s funding her legal action. At the club AGM he and Nickers have a right old barney. Bartholomew’s had a few jars, naturally, and steps into the crease to defend the woman he loves. Angie reckons this is a bit rich and throws him out of the house. So he goes down to sulk at the castle. With the bint in his sleeping bag. And the members of the Women’s Institute are crossing over the road when the two of them waltz down Fore Street. Meanwhile, I’ve been fitting out his little sloop all year, and suddenly he starts talking about sailing to Australia. And one fine morning, they slip mooring and swan off on the back of a fresh north-easterly.”

“When was that?”

“The day after the regatta, when everyone was in bed with a hangover.”

“And you never heard from him?”

“I helped him work out his passage. Sworn to secrecy. He said he’d phone in regular. And he asked me to look after Angie for a while.”

“What on earth did he think he was doing?”

“I reckon we won’t work that out until we’re his age. I was expecting a call from Brest asking me to come out and crew the boat back because the topsy had run off with an Apache dancer.”

“But he didn’t call.”

“Not from Brest. Not from La Coruña. Not from Gibraltar, Majorca, Marseilles. All the places we’d agreed.”

“So you went looking for him?”

“I only had the two weeks. So I flew. And took trains. And taxis. And donkeys. He never called in to any of those harbours.”

“That was good of you, Spider.”

“Hell, what are old mates for but to go chasing after you with a butterfly net when you make your break for freedom?”

“You reckon he foundered?”

“There were a couple of big storms in the Med in early September. It was a tiny 26-footer with a narrow beam. And an 18-inch freeboard.”

“Self-bailing cockpit?”

“Not enough freeboard. He had McGinty make him a storm tarpaulin to fit over the cockpit. He had an extension to the tiller so he could work it from inside the doghouse in heavy weather.”

I thought about that. “You wouldn’t even need a storm. One big, lump of a following wave would rip off the tarp. The second one would swamp the cockpit.”

Spider wiped something away from beneath his eye. His fingers were thick and scarred, with dirty broken nails. They came away wet. “He was too big for this mean life anyway, the bugger.” He drained his pint in a sudden gulp. “You’re some kind of financial adviser, right?”

“I was in venture capital.”

“That kind of thing. You still working for them?”

“They showed me the door. We were taken over.”

“Still, you know the ropes.”

“Some of them.”

“Good enough. Your job is to help sort out Bartholomew’s insurance.”

“Not really my line. But what’s the problem?”

Spider’s face creased into a smile. “No body. They’re being a wee bit sticky about that.”

“It means applying to the courts.”

“Angie needs looking after. The bugger’s left a dog’s mess behind him.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“See Charlie Segui. He’s got all the papers.” Spider stood up. “You better see Angie soon as well.” His mild blue eyes held mine for a moment. I looked away first. He shrugged. “Fancy a pastie?”

Spider took our empty glasses up to the bar. I looked at the photographs on the walls. Bartholomew in his studio at the castle, surrounded by wacky geometric paintings. Spider in his oilies, lifejacket and tarantula, posing as Captain Courageous at the helm of the lifeboat. In another, Bartholomew was cutting the ribbon at the opening of the sailing clubhouse. The young ginger-haired Spider grinned out from the crowd of forgotten faces. I searched for my own image. There was a fringe of dark hair which might be Angie. I was with her that day.

Spider set down the pints. “Angie told me your wife died.”

“We were estranged. And then she had this accident.”

“Motorcar?”

“She fell. Off a cliff.” It was the sounds that stayed in my mind: the steady crunch of Maire’s footsteps behind me, the rhythmic soughing of the wind through the brambles, the rain spattering on my anorak. The last few words she called after my retreating back. And then the rattle of the scree dislodged and the short astonished cry, like a bird startled.

“Sorry.”

“Saves on the maintenance, as her fancy man said to me.”

“Tough.” Spider peered into his beer for a while before asking what had been on his mind all the time. “So, why have you come back to Westowe?”

I had an answer prepared. “I’m thinking about what to do next. Maybe find a crazy twenty-something chick and sail to Australia like that poor sad bastard.”

Spider laughed. “We’re still learning from him.” He stuck his hand out. “Welcome home.” We shook hands.

“You can’t kid an old mate, Spider. You worshipped her.”

“Matty? A nice bit of crackling, but —”

“You know who I mean.”

“Angie? So did you.”

“Once upon a time.”

We were both silent, inspecting our drinks, for a little while before I said what had been on my mind all the time. “If Bartholomew’s dead, you’ll have another chance with Angie.”

Spider grinned. “I expect you was wondering why I wasn’t at the railway station with a brass band when you came back.”

“Did she stick with the teacher training?”

Spider waved his hand aloft. “Oh, she lives on a higher spiritual plane now. Sort of our unofficial Mother Superior. Goes around caring for people and such. She takes my Mam to church every Sunday.”

“Angie’s got religion?”

Spider frowned. “No, she’s more into mortification.”

The new landlord had brought his manners with him down from Liverpool. He dropped two plates on the table and demanded some money. The few people I had recognised in the street in Westowe had got fatter since I’d seen them last, which was curious because the pasties had shrunk. Mine was burnt on top and cold and soggy underneath. Spider poked his finger into his, then tore it into two halves. It was stuffed with potato and a few bits of what looked like charred string.

“What’s do you stuff these with, bar towels?” he bawled.

The landlord thrust his jaw up and moved away to mop the next table. “They were in the freezer. Part of the stock we took over.”

Spider’s syntax drifted westwards. “Them be summer pasties. Grockle fodder. You tell Gertie at the bakery you wants winter pasties now.” He held the plates out to the landlord.

“You’ve put your paws into them.”

Spider scratched his head. “I’m thinking maybe you’d like to donate them to the RNLI. Other road, you could take your chances and use them as a sea anchor next time you’re out fishing and your dinghy drifts onto the rocks.”

As he’d been in Westowe more than a few hours, the landlord would have known that Spider was coxswain of the lifeboat. He took the plates away and said no more, but made sure he pushed us out into the cold ten minutes after closing. It was howling a gale and the moon hung in the sky shining bright as a lantern on the tumble of slate roofs. I stumbled up the path, wading through inky pools to the edge of the bluff below the darkened sailing club. Pale clouds hurtled across the sky behind the miniature black turrets of the castle on its spit of rock. This is where I lived now and it looked like the very end of the earth.