Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Monday, 22nd November

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Monday, 22ndNovember

Of course the key to the mystery lay in that letter Charlie Segui showed me the day after I returned to Westowe.


The Club Secretary
Westowe Sailing Club
Westowe, Devon


Dear Sir or Madam,

We have been retained by our client, Colonel Lawrence Meeker of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire in the matter of your publishing a technical libel relating to a cruise of HMS Britannia, the Royal Yacht, in contravention of the Public Misinformation Act 1927, Section VII.

Colonel Meeker assembled four friends to buy tickets for this cruise to which they were all looking forward, and he suffered considerable embarrassment on discovering that it was a hoax. Two of the ladies holidaying with him purchased hats specially, and one went to the expense of equipping herself with a skirt in the event that trouser suits were deemed unsuitable.

He has asked us to pursue the matter further, and unless you are able to furnish him with an apology and a contribution towards the expense and suffering caused to him and his party, we have been instructed to institute legal proceedings. We look forward to hearing from yourselves or your solicitors within the next 14 days.


Yours faithfully,
Deborah Gaynor, Litigation Partner


In one sense — the visual — everything had changed in Westowe. The Fore Cafe was now a pizza parlour, Buckler’s boatyard on Sharp Point had transformed into a smart marina, the run-down warehouse where I used to overwinter my sailing yawl was an arts and crafts co-operative with a coffee bar serving worthy wholemeal biscuits and lentil bakes, and the Long Beach Hotel had been converted into luxury waterfront flats. There was a car park at Normandy Quay where the fishermen used to hang their nets, and according to the parking notices, it was now known as Jubilee Quay.

Cromarty’s pub was still lodged in its quiet time warp up Cobbler’s Lane, but the sign on its fascia now read ‘The Jubilee Inn (formerly Cromarty’s)’, in signwriter’s faux-Dickensian script. The public bar where I drank with Spider last night was unchanged, but where the lounge bar had been was a room crowded with tables covered with pink tablecloths and upended bentwood chairs. The restaurant was closed for the winter, but through the window you could see a big blackboard inscribed in different coloured chalks with a long menu of foods, most of which, when I grew up in Westowe, were untasted or unknown. Coloured chalk was a novelty then.

The Sailor’s Return down at the bottom of Fore Street had gone the whole hog, ripping out its bar billiards table, wooden casks and fireplace, and replacing them with micro-waved snacks, neon signs and chilled cabinets stuffed with imported bottled beers. On this autumnal day its bar was empty. TheRed Lion up the hill was now a restaurant. Tarnished brass framed a menu written in English, French and German. The establishment was closed for the season, according to a notice, but it had the sad look of an enterprise that would never open again. On sunny days in springtime, people from the Midlands and London bring their small business dreams to Westowe, but when a meagre, wet summer precedes winter’s deep slumber, in the following spring ‘For Sale’ signs sprout along Fore Street like crocuses.

Yet the sun still sank in the west at the crest of the hill while dusk rose up in rags up the estuary. And in the other four senses nothing whatsoever had changed in Westowe. A brisk south-westerly scrubbed my face with the taste of salt and the sour smell of the tidal flats. The wind carried the dull iron knell of the Black Rock buoy. The Union Jack was fairly cracking on its flagpole, the leaves of the copper beeches rustled on the worn stone steps of the sailing club, and there was wood-smoke in the air. Inside, the homey aroma of yesterday’s fried pork platter mingled with the institutional odour of disinfectant.

Charlie had put on a lot of weight and his face had crumpled too. He was a swollen caricature of the skinny sniffling kid we used to allow to hang around with the gang because his sister would let you do things to her. We always called him ‘Proper Charlie’. He led the way into the cluttered cupboard which he called the Club Secretary’s office.

“How’s your sister, Rabbit?” I asked.

“I’ve got three sisters. None of them is called Rabbit.”

“We used to call her Rabbit. The one with the — .” My mouth stayed open and my hands circled in the air, groping for the memory.

“Big tits?” scowled Charlie.

I lied. “Boy friend called Terry, I was going to say.”

“You mean Veronica.”

Then I remembered. We never called her Rabbit when Proper Charlie was around. He sighed. “All of my sisters had big tits. Now the other bits have grown out to meet them.”

Charlie was the solicitor acting for Bartholomew and, it appeared, for just about everyone else in Westowe. I offered to help out with the life insurance claim. He dismissed that at once. “Can’t talk about that without Angie. Client confidentiality. If she agrees, I’ll set up a meeting. Meanwhile, here’s something you can help me with.”

He handed me the letter. It was on the letterhead of the legal partnership of Naylor, Strickman and Plummer, of the Aldwych, London. “It was just a bit of fun,” said Charlie. He wrinkled his nose as if he were smelling the stale onions for the first time.

I read the letter. “Your Colonel Meeker’s too grand to use a local solicitor?”

“He’s not local. Besides, he could hardly use me to sue myself.”

“Still making excuses for the gentry, Charlie? Did he buy a ticket for the cruise?”

“There were no tickets. No cruise. It was our entry in the Spot-the-Spoof competition for Regatta Week.” He handed me a flyer printed on club stationery.


The Westowe Sailing Club presents
Day Cruising
aboard
The Royal Yacht Britannia
in Westowe
for Regatta Week Only
*
£65 inc. Tea & Cucumber Sandwiches
*
Gentlemen required to wear tie
*
Ladies required to wear hats

Britannia will leave her mooring in the Westowe Estuary at 10.30 hrs. sharp and plans to return each day at 17.00 hrs. Launches from the shore will leave at 9.30am.
Tickets are only available from the office.
Numbers are strictly limited so please arrive early.


“Where was it published?”

“On the club notice board. In shop windows around town. And in the Weekly Herald with all the other spoof notices. It was just a giggle.”

“I bet you’re still slipping dead moggies into lobster pots, too.”

Proper Charlie put up his right hand, palm outwards, a sure sign that he was about to lie. “It was Spider’s idea, mostly.”

“With a little help from his friends, I reckon.”

“Should we instruct solicitors?”

“You are a solicitor.”

“I’d have to bring a Kings Ferry firm in.”

“Is the club using gold ingots for ballast in the bilges?”

“Pardon?”

“Are you awash with cash you want to disburse to your professional colleagues?”

“We’re skint, as ever.” His face darkened. “Everyone’s skint in Westowe.”

“Then I suggest you tell Major Meeker to go piss in his hat. Better yet, his ladies’ hats.”

“Colonel Meeker.”

“Even colonels have to pee sometimes.”

“I thought, to avoid unpleasantness, we ought to meet them half-way.”

“That would be in a Little Chef somewhere on the Salisbury ring road. About as unpleasant as you can get.”

“Why don’t we invite him here to the club? He’s unlikely to come, but it keeps the dialogue open.”

“Another deception?”

“A tactic,” said Charlie, the downward cast of his mouth twisting suddenly into a smug smile, like the prime minister when he feels he’s scored off the opposition at question time. “Would you write to them?”

“Why me?”

“It’s less official if the invitation comes from an ordinary club member, rather than me, as Club Secretary. Doesn’t commit us.”

Sometimes it’s hard to get through to Proper Charlie. So I repeated, “Why me?”

“I just thought, now that you’re back, you’d like to get involved in things again.”

I should have thought more carefully about that answer. Instead I sat down and drafted a letter for Charlie on his steam-driven office typewriter.


To Naylor, Strickman and Plummer


Dear Messrs or Mistresses,

The Club deeply regrets any inconvenience which your client may have experienced through his misunderstanding of the Club’s entry into the well-publicised annual Westowe ‘Spot-the-Spoof’ competition. The Club would be delighted to entertain Colonel Meeker to High Tea at the Club premises to discuss the matter. Regrettably the Royal Family will not be present as the yacht Britannia is currently cruising off San Serife.


Yours, etc.
Ted Golden (Club Member)


Charlie took the letter and before he even read it said, “I reckon you’ve earned a drink.” He frowned at the letter as he led the way to the bar on automatic pilot along the threadbare grooves in the carpet. He unlocked the glass doors, liberating the before-opening-time brewery smell. The same photographs were on the walls: glorious monochrome images of heeling 10-metre racing yachts from the pre-war days when only the gentry could afford to sail. The same musty damp of the ancient yachting monthlies mingled with the sweet-and-sour whiff of the worn soft furnishings. The magazine on top of the pile was three years old. Somewhere beneath, probably, was an issue I was scanning in that chair almost twenty-eight years ago.

Charlie went behind the bar and started to look around. He obviously wasn’t the regular barman anymore. “I‘m trying to remember the last time I saw you,” he said. “Was it the year of the Fastnet disaster?”

“Ten years before that.”

“It’s not been thirty years?”

“Over twenty-seven. You were standing behind the bar pulling me a pint of Bass from the wood.”

“I don’t remember. What’ll you have?”

“The usual.” He just stared at me. So I added, “In a straight glass.”

“Oh,” he said finally and reached up and fetched a straight glass from the rack over his head and started to pull me a pint of Bass from the wood.

“It was the night of Nickers’ twenty-first. And mine. The next morning I was nursing a crashing hangover on the train up to London.”

“I don’t remember that.” He pushed the pint over the bar to me and constructed a G-and-T for himself. While he sipped it he took another look at the letter I had typed. He didn’t smile. “Where’s San Serife?” he asked.

“That April Fool spoof by The Guardian. Years ago.”

“Really?”

“Not really. That’s the point.”

Charlie came out from behind the bar. Holding my letter with both hands clasped behind his back, he took a turn around an imaginary boardroom table and ended up standing at the bay window, staring out at the leading light which was just starting to blink in the dusk gathering over the spit of The Elbow in the south-east. When he turned to face me his face was flushed with anger. “You’re up to your old tricks. You’re trying to make me look foolish.”

His petulance astonished me. Until I remembered a puny kid in short trousers with tears streaming down his face because of some trick we’d pulled on him. Something to do with soiled underpants. I resolved to be kind to Proper Charlie this time around. “No, old son. I’m trying to make them look foolish. They started this situation comedy dialogue. We respond in kind, then you leak the correspondence to the local media. The nationals or Private Eye will pick up on it and Messrs Nailem, Strychnine and Plunder, the harpy Gainmore, Colonel Meeker and his ladies of doubtful taste, in their flowered hats and their pantaloons, will all be laughed out of the kingdom. Just like the Windsors.”

“I don’t remember them. Summer people, were they?”

I burped. “No jury would convict you. And if they did, you’d go to an open prison.” In spite of my resolution of a few seconds ago, I couldn’t resist adding, “Where they could cure your Alzheimer’s.”

Charlie’s mouth opened, probably to say he didn’t remember owning any Alzheimers, when Superbloke burst through the swinging doors. His name was Malcolm Goodfellow, but it was his misfortune to have been in a peer group wearing short trousers around the time that Harold Macmillan became known as ‘Supermac’. He was as big as a house, and seemed to have added an extra balcony since I’d last seen him.

“Ted, I heard you were back. You don’t look a day older.” His lie, betrayed by the wonder in his face, boomed across the room. I was trapped deep in the collapsed upholstery of one of the chintz-covered armchairs and he advanced on me like an antique furniture dealer, or a Tory candidate canvassing in a nursing home. Both impressions were correct. In a posh R.P. accent acquired since we had last met, he let it slip that not only was he the county representative for Christeby’s auction house, but he was also a local Tory councillor. In this part of the world voters confuse bulk with gravitas.

Superbloke and I wandered down Memory Lane for a few drinks. Charlie, who had to serve as our barman until the staff showed up, was still worrying the letter. “It may be a giggle to you, Ted, but the club couldn’t survive a legal judgement,” he complained.

“Finance was never a problem for Bartholomew,” I reminded him. “He’d just double the members’ subs and have the coxswain of the lifeboat stand up at the AGM wearing his RNLI cap to remind everyone to have their liferafts serviced regularly because it was surprising how often they could fail to inflate on a dark and stormy night.”

“Where the hell is that bloody barman?” whined Charlie, and went off to look for him.

Superbloke slapped his big knee and chortled. “That’s just what Spider did. He stood up at the meeting to remind them. ‘Never leave port unless your signal flares are up-to-date. And your subscriptions as well,’ is what he said.”

When it came to body language, Superbloke was a knee man. He used it as a solid prop for his elbow and his sales pitch, leaning forwards to involve me as a fellow conspirator. Just as he had when he was standing for Skipper of the Youth Flotilla against Spider and offered to let me watch Rabbit jerk him off up in the club sail loft if I would vote for him. I pledged him my vote because Spider always won everything anyway. In those days Charlie used to dream up capers to ingratiate himself with the crowd. When I told him about Superbloke’s proposal he came up with a typical wheeze. Charlie hid up in the loft in place of me, while a mob of us waited outside. When Rabbit started cranking Superbloke, Charlie tipped us the wink through the window. We all piled in downstairs and started throwing a Frisbee about. Charlie stood up in the loft and shouted “Give me a toss.” My line was “What about Superbloke?” And then Charlie looked down at the clinching couple and shouted, “No, he’s already had one,” and nipped smartly down the ladder. Because even in those days Malcolm Goodfellow was a large and earnest lad.

He put on that solemn face now. “You’re still a club member, aren’t you? Even though you haven’t been down to Westowe for a while.” In the geological pace of Westowe time twenty-seven years is a while.

I don’t like to encourage sentiment in people who have been drinking, so I said nothing. Superbloke forged ahead on tramlines laid by a gang of social workers: “It’s a way of paying something back, isn’t it? The club taught us more than sailing, it taught us a value system. Values that we can pass on to others. City kids who’ve never seen a rollock, and the visually impaired.”

“Who can’t see it,” I couldn’t resist saying.

“Exactly,” Superbloke nodded, now putting his hand on my knee. “But the kids are different now.” Superbloke dipped his head and eyes sideways. A sulky pony-tailed youth had emerged from behind the bar. Superbloke waved and bellowed, “Simon, we’re a bit thirsty over here when you’ve got a mo.” To me, he lowered his voice and said, “They’re not grateful, they vandalise the boats, they’re more interested in smoking pot and poking each other than sailing.”

The youthful Simon sloped over and took our orders. His face was spotty, his hair was lank, he mumbled and no one had ever taught him how to smile. In Superbloke’s scenario of modern youth he could well be cast as an ingrate, a vandal or a dope fiend, but if Simon’s presentation style was pulling the birds I had been born thirty years too soon.

Superbloke droned on. “The club is in financial straits and not everybody is pulling on his oar the way we used to do.” I thought of the delicious bosomy Rabbit pulling on his oar and coughed into my beer. “Times are changing, and maybe it’s time we started thinking of ourselves instead of what the club used to be.”

“I just signed the direct debit. I don’t think about it.” As I closed my mouth I felt a sharp pang of guilt, like indigestion, and I knew I was shading the truth. The Westowe Sailing Club was the shrine of my childhood, and for some reason I had returned to revisit it.

Superbloke leaned into my ear, and borne on a whiff of alcohol and halitosis, I heard, “Whatever you do, keep your membership up. It could be worth a lot more than you think.”

It was not until Charlie came back that I worked out what Superbloke was on about. “Our finances are up the spout,” said Charlie, not for the first time that night. “And a property developer has been negotiating to buy the site.”

“Could be a lot of money in it for the shareholding members,” put in Superbloke.

“The site’s too small,” I said. “What could you build here? A half-pint block of holiday homes. And there’s no access to the shore.” The Westowe Sailing Club was land-locked. The club lawn sloped down to the bluff, where a steep path led around the tiny cove to the castle on its promontory. But the club property ended where the path began. A little white shed on an observation platform at the edge of the lawn marked the starting line for races, but the sailboats had to be stowed in a yard just by Normandy (now Jubilee) Quay, rented from the Council for a peppercorn.

Superbloke nodded. “And the building regulations won’t permit any structure higher than the church tower. Still, speculators are interested, and some of the club members are Lloyds names. They’ve been badly bruised by the Lloyds insurance debacle.”

Charlie, who had a knack of uttering clichés as if he’d just invented them, pronounced “You can’t measure the value of the club in pounds, shillings and pence.”

Superbloke nodded. “That’s just what I told them at the last meeting, Charlie.”

“The Board was unanimously opposed to selling,” said Charlie, “but the membership split right down the middle. It requires three-quarters of the membership to approve a change in the Mem and Arts. Well, you read about it in the last newsletter.”

I’d had so many different addresses and so many late nights in the past year that the hounds of the Inland Revenue couldn’t have caught up with me, to say nothing of the erratically published Westowe Sailing Club newsletter. Just like Superbloke to give me a confidential tip that had been published in a newsletter six months ago, I thought. If members’ shares had been transferable, I’m sure he would have offered to buy mine before giving me the news. “You wouldn’t sell out?” I asked, looking from one to the other.

Superbloke shook his head while he drained his glass. Charlie gritted his teeth and thrust his chin up in a tipsy imitation of Sylvester Stallone. “Over my dead body,” he said. I had a vision of Charlie lying lifeless in the doorway of the club as the honourable members trampled in to grab their cheques, and I laughed. Charlie put on his aggrieved voice. “I hope we can count on you.”

“So what was the result of the club meeting?” I asked.

Charlie’s eyes were searching the room for spies concealed behind the furniture, so it was Superbloke who confided, “They passed a resolution to enter into negotiations without commitment.”

“Spider would have keel-hauled them,” I said.

Charlie returned to the conversation. “Spider wasn’t here. He was away in the Med.”

“Looking for Bartholomew,” said Superbloke.

“Bartholomew controls a golden share,” blurted Charlie. “We can’t sell without it.”

Superbloke added, “It’s been three months. Spider went to Gibraltar, Spain, Majorca, Marseilles, everywhere. No record of Bartholomew calling in anywhere.”

“Does the golden share go to his estate?” I asked. Charlie shook his head. “Then it stays with the office of Commodore,” I guessed.

Charlie shook his head a second time. “It was personal to Bartholom­ew. Non-transferrable. If he dies it reverts to the club.”

Superbloke added, “But he’s not legally dead. So, if he doesn’t surface and we’re still deadlocked, the club will go bust and the property will be auctioned off by the Official Receiver.” He collected our glasses and strode off to the bar.

“Is that why you came back?” asked Charlie. “Because of Bartholomew?”

“Why would that bring me back?”

“You’re renting the castle from Angie.”

“A career change. And my wife died in an accident.”

That might have caused a more sensitive man to break his stride. Proper Charlie continued his interrogation without a beat. “Have you seen Spider?”

“Last night.”

“What about Angie?”

“What about her?” My voice sounded like a twelve-year-old’s.

“She’s a widow now.”

Superbloke was back with the drinks. “She doesn’t think she’s a widow.”

“How is she taking it?” I asked.

“Haven’t you seen her?” asked Superbloke.

I looked at the leading light blinking on the Elbow. Night had descended on the estuary like a stage curtain. “Not yet. We corresponded, and spoke on the phone.”

“She’s in denial. She took it worse when he left,” said Superbloke.

Charlie grinned and poked me in the shoulder. “She took it worse when you left.”

I swivelled my glance from Charlie to Superbloke. “What’s Charlie put into his G-and-T? He’s starting to remember things.”

Charlie frowned. Superbloke chuckled without enthusiasm, “Still the card, aren’t you, Ted?”

We all went quiet. Remembering things. Charlie broke the silence. “Now you’re back, you and Spider ought to kiss and make up.”

“And Angie and all.” I could have sworn that Malcolm Goodfellow, aka Superbloke, winked at me, a lascivious theatrical slump of the left eyelid, as he raised his glass.