Where the Bodies Are Buried

Bodies The West Country Existential Thriller

Chuck Anderson. 400 pages

When a man has nowhere left to go, he goes home. Ted Golden returns to the West Country harbour he left almost thirty years ago to restore an old yacht and set sail to – wherever. He owes his new lease on life to his wife's accidental death – and some people say he murdered her.

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where the bodies are buried




by the same author

 

The Big Lie: the Truth about Advertising

Save the Jubilee Hall! (with Ray Green)



where the bodies are buried

 


the west country existential thriller

 



Chuck Anderson

 


Random Thoughts Limited

London

 


Anderson, Chuck

where the bodies are buried

the west country existential thriller

 

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

 

ISBN-13: 978-0951357347 (Random Thoughts Limited)

ISBN-10: 0951357344

 

Copyright © Chuck Anderson, 2003

 

Chuck Anderson is hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with Section 77 of the copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

 

Published in Great Britain 2003

Reprinted 2011

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without either prior permission in writing or a licence permitting restricted copying.

 

Published by

Random Thoughts Limited

Garden Floor

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London NW8 9QG

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Website: www.randomthoughtslimited.co.uk

 

Designed by

Jon Anderson

 

Photographs

Front cover by Judith Harvey

Back cover by Chuck Anderson

Author’s photograph by Stewart Hutton


“Everything happens through the agency of chance and necessity.”

 

Democritus of Abdera


europe

detail

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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.


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.


Sunday, 5th December

Westowe Castle was one of those series of redoubts — forts, martello towers and cylindrical islands of concrete — erected over the centuries to defend the south coast of England against invaders: Philip II, Napoleon, Hitler. It was built in 1544 to guard against the threat from Spain and rebuilt a century later when Westowe sheltered Royalist frigates. In 1645 the garrison held out against the Parliamentarians for four months. To close the harbour, a chain was piled into dinghies and rowed out to stretch a cables-length across the throat of the estuary. Two heavy links, each a yard long, lie now locked in rusted embrace on the floor of the Westowe Arts & Crafts Co-operative. The block which secured the chain on the rocks on the eastern shore has long since disintegrated, but opposite, the remains of an iron hasp remain imbedded into the foundations of the castle just above mean high water level.

After the Duke of Cornwall’s militia were slaughtered, the modest two-storeyed fort became a store for fishermen’s nets, lobster pots and buoys. By the time the 20th century began it was unsuitable even for that, and the locals left it to crumble into the sea. In my youth some stout walls remained, with gaping windows, crenellated turrets and stone stairs stepping into empty space. It was a place for a windy picnic or to clamber around the rock pools with a net, or sit and watch the sun slip over the headland on a warm evening.

Angie had persuaded Bartholomew to buy the castle and convert it into a studio. There was a large central room with a double-glazed picture window facing directly south to the Black Rock bell buoy marking the western tip of the skerries off The Elbow and, on the skyline beyond, the stepped profile of Grise Head. Nooks and stairwells confined a simple kitchen and a monastic sleeping cell, and some narrow crannies faced with doors were cupboards where Bartholomew had stored his paintings.

A few metres away was the restored blockhouse. It had been used as a munitions store and had no exterior openings. You could enter it only through a long stone passage which led off the kitchen and ended at a massive door braced with iron straps. The door was locked. Charlie Segui, who acted as Angie’s letting agent, said he thought it was a wine cellar maybe, but he had no key.

There was no central heating in the castle, just a couple of electric fires, and usually it was as cold as a fishing boat’s hold, unless you kept a blaze going in the corner hearth for at least twenty-four hours to warm up the stone walls. Then it was snug as kittens, even with a south-westerly gale slapping the spume of the waves horizontally against the plate glass.

The day Angie came to tea a raw wind blew all day from Scandinavia across the North Sea and down the English Channel. Though I built a fire when I got up, at four o’clock, as the sun dropped behind Grise Head, the air in the castle was chill. We sat facing each other across the fireplace on the matching armchairs covered in striped fabric in bright summer colours blotted with wine stains. We kept our sweaters on, warming our hands on our tea mugs.

One summer, when she was thirteen or fourteen, Angie suddenly sprouted into a big girl with the powerful shoulders of a champion swimmer. She grew as tall as I and, whatever clothes she wore, the body beneath shaped my fantasies, and Spider’s, and those of every other boy in Westowe. She revealed little of her figure now. The hips were wider than I remembered, the heavy shoulders slumped a bit, the ankles were thicker. She wore a long grey skirt, a loose bulky jumper of muted country colours and a scarlet headband. Her knitted socks were scarlet, too. She’d left her shoes beside the door. Like my wife Maire, she hated wearing shoes. I had forgotten that.

Young Angie was chatty and frisky, a sailing dinghy dancing with the breeze. Now she glided on a measured course. Her dark hair was cropped, and, as if to say I know I’m almost fifty and to hell with it, her lips were smeared bright scarlet, like the headband and socks. They clashed with the bouquet of pink roses that I handed to her.

“A thank-you for letting me have the castle.”

“I’m glad you can use it. There have been some vandals prowling about recently. But I didn’t want — .” Angie paused and wrinkled the corners of her mouth in the old way, “— just tenants here.”

“I’ll keep it just as it is.”

“Thank you for writing about Bartholomew.”

“I thought it might help to hear from someone who understands what it’s like to lose someone.”

“It’s losing a part of yourself.”

“It’s losing your history. What do you do with all the photographs?”

“Life is a staircase of little bereavements. I’ve just arrived at a landing.”

“It’s a one-way staircase.”

Her eyes met mine briefly. “Everything is irreversible. You can’t unmake a jam sandwich. Entropy, I suppose. Or is it the uncertainty principle?” There was the old generous smile again, with merry eyes.

“People make new starts.”

“Is that why you came back?”

“Remember what you used to say — life is a three-legged stool? We need three supports — a career, a home and a love life. We’ve got to keep them in balance, otherwise we fall over.”

“Did I say that?”

“I’ve been quoting it in lounge bars for twenty-seven years.”

“Most of us balance on one or two legs most of the time.”

“I lost my job and my home and my wife. I fell on the floor.”

“Bartholomew needed only one prop — his painting. When that failed him nothing else mattered.”

“When was his London show? Early seventies?”

“Did you come?”

“I couldn’t face seeing you. Or Bartholomew. He was on the crest of the wave.”

“The tide was ebbing, only we didn’t know it then. Op art was already going out. People like Bridget Riley and Vasarely were able to move on to other things. But Bartholomew just seized up creatively. Except for . . .”

“What?”

“He tried a new style recently.” Whatever it was she didn’t want to go into it. She took a sip of her tea. “What was your wife’s name?” This seems to be important to women. They can’t comprehend facts until they personalise them.

“Maire.”

“You must have been shattered when you heard.”

“I was with her.”

“Oh.”

“It was a weekend in Wales.”

“I thought you’d separated.”

“A reconciliation. Only it wasn’t going well. Ghastly, in fact. It was a perfectly ordinary path. But muddy, along a nasty drop. There was fog. We had argued at the top and we were late coming down. I’d said something — I don’t want to remember what it was — but it was unforgivable. In a failed relationship you get to the point where the words come straight out of your stomach, dripping in bile.”

“I remember.”

Was it Bartholomew’s words she remembered? Or mine? I ploughed on. “We just walked along in silence. Suddenly the fog was a lot thicker. She was a little behind me. She called out, ‘Please wait, Ted’ and I kept walking because I was aggrieved. There was a tiny rattle of scree. I turned round and said, ‘Maybe we should hold hands.’ I was smiling. Relenting. But there was no one there. Nothing but space filled with damp cotton wool. Soundless, except for a distant short cry like a startled bird. We didn’t find her until the next morning, wedged between some boulders down in the ravine. Her eyes were open, staring up to where I had been standing, asking her to hold my hand.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It gets worse. She had some money, and she hadn’t changed her will. She left it all to me. I was interrogated. The DPP decided there wasn’t a case to answer. But my former business partner was also her fancy man. He’s persuaded her people I pushed her. They’re threatening a civil action.”

“Stop feeling guilty.”

“I am guilty. You see, just then, while I was leading the way down the path, I wished she were dead.”

A harsh glare stabbed through the window. It was dusk and the leading light on The Elbow had switched on. Angie got up and went to look at the sea. She still had that long, young stride that swirled her full skirts. I refilled her mug and mine.

She drew the curtains. “I thought sometimes about pushing Bartholomew over a cliff.”

“I can’t imagine he was the ideal husband.”

“Were you surprised when I married him?” I looked into my tea mug for an answer. “Everybody here was,” she continued. “I was too.”

I found my answer. “I thought you deserved the best of everything. I wasn’t sure he was it.”

“Sometimes when we went on walks — not talking, perhaps, like you and Maire — I thought how easy it would be. Somewhere along The Devil’s Frying-pan, maybe. A step, a nudge, then blue space, rocks and white water.” She put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry, I’d forgotten about your parents.”

My mum and dad had drowned in The Devil’s Frying-pan. I couldn’t think of anything to say about that now, so I said “I thought you and Bartholomew were happy.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Spider said . . .” I couldn’t remember exactly what it was that Spider had said, only that it had pained me.

“Spider Meersman likes tidy solutions. When you spend your life planing pieces of hardwood to make everything fit snug you think life is linear. You can’t accept the messy, random way most people behave. Every action has got to fit into its box. Like those fitted cabinets in his workshop with all the little compartments for the different types of screws. I was devoted to Bartholomew. And he to me, deep down. But that doesn’t make you happy.” She switched to a major key. “What are your plans?”

I took a sip of my tea. It was cold and stewed. I got to my feet. “Tea time’s over, thank Christ. Fancy a drink?” She shook her head. I got up and poured myself the first whisky of the day. A stiff one. Finally I thought what to say. “It’s funny. Most of your life you can’t do what you want because you don’t have enough money. Then when the door to the vault opens, you have to work out what it is that you want.”

“Westowe’s not the place for you. It never was. You were right to leave. You’re not like us hicks. You were summer people. Until your parents died and Mam Meersman took you under her wing. People like you, who need to do something, they don’t stay in Westowe.”

“What about you? You could have done anything you wanted. With your looks, brains, personality.”

“You forget, I was a girl. In the 1960s. In darkest Devon. I could be a teacher, a nurse, or a housewife. Or take a secretarial job in Plymouth or Exeter. But that would have been too racy for a bank manager’s daughter. My father told me so.”

“But you did leave once.”

“Who told you that?” Her voice had a hard edge.

“Spider.”

“Nobody forgets the past in Westowe, Spider least of all. I did leave briefly. For teacher training college. But I dropped out.”

“Quitting was never your style.”

“I found something I valued more.”

“Spider said you do — counselling?”

“He paints me as a Lady Bountiful. I just like to help people, that’s all. People are all that matters. We’ve got to help each other.” She fixed her serious, wide-eyed gaze on me. “Are you still an agnostic?” I nodded. “Then you must understand that,” she concluded.

“Spider said you go to church now.”

“I find it a comfort to be with people there.”

“You could do the same at the bingo hall.”

“We hold that at the church, too.” Angie grinned. “I’m afraid that, thirty years on, you’re still the only person in Westowe who doesn’t believe in God.”

“I still can’t get past the logic. If there is a universal creator, he must have created evil. Unless I also have to believe in Satan. He offers us religion as a palliative. Belief in himself. He’s like the door-to-door Hoover salesman who dumps the ashes from the coal fire all over your carpet so he can sell you a machine to clean it up with.”

“So, do we create our own evil? Have you ever met a really evil person?”

“I am tempted to nominate Donald Penny.” She looked puzzled. “My former partner and Maire’s fancy man. He’s launched a personal vendetta against me. But I’m not sure people are evil by nature. I think they are overcome by selfish needs. And trample on other people who get in the way. And then go home and love their kids. It’s mischance, more than deliberate evil.”

“Have you ever done something truly evil?”

I poured some more whisky into my glass, which was still half full. “Yes,” I admitted finally. “It was evil of me to leave you like that.”

What an amazing woman. She laughed. “You were right to go. You had to go.” I’d forgotten her big, coarse laugh. I had hated it because it was vulgar, and loved it because it was genuine, and because it was hers.

“It hurt you.”

“Yes, it hurt. Very deeply. For a while.” She put a warm hand over mine, flesh touching flesh. “But it would have hurt me more to watch you rotting in this forlorn harbour without ever setting out to see the world.”

“It was foul the way I did it. Out of the blue.”

“You were trapped. You jumped. It was ungenerous. But not evil.”

I covered her warm hand with my other hand. She withdrew hers. It was an awkward moment. To recover the mood I continued, “When I wished Maire were dead. I felt evil then.”

“We all think evil. But you didn’t do evil.” She looked at me with that open childlike gaze I had never been able to lie to. “Did you?”

“No. I did not push her.”

“So you’ve not been evil.”

“There was another time. When I was very young.”

“Did I know about it?”

“No. Before I knew you.”

“Do you want to tell me?”

“No. I’ve never told anyone.”

“Can an innocent child be evil? I don’t know.”

“Have you been evil?”

“Yes.”

“Did I know about it?”

“It was after you left.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. I shall never tell anyone about it.”

Much later her secret came out. Mine never has. To break the pause that followed I got up and poked the fire, which didn’t need it, and made for safer ground, “So the creator made us evil so we can make each other suffer.”

“You can’t live without suffering. But it’s a way to redemption. It makes us wiser, stronger, nobler. Whoever made us suffers too. It perfects her own existence.”

“So he — she — it — really meant it when they said ‘suffer the little children to come unto me.’ I never liked that bit, particularly as a little child.”

Angie laughed. “I think that means something else entirely.” Then, serious again, she laid her hand on my arm. “You really must believe in something, Ted.”

“You sound like Maire telling me I really should have a hobby. What do you believe in?”

“Other people.”

“As the man said, ‘Hell is other people.’”

“Maybe. But so is heaven.”

“I believe in chance.”

“You might as well believe in the weather forecast,” she said.

I scratched my head. “I think maybe we’ve had this conversation before.”

Angie laughed again. “It’s great fun settling all the big issues with you again. Like we used to do crosswords together.” She shifted into counselor mode. Her scarlet lips parted and smiled brightly and she patted the back of my hand. “Now, tell me how you set the world on fire.”

I gave her the potted biography, ending with Donald Penny diddling me when we sold our venture capital company. And diddling my estranged wife as well. “Whatever it was I thought I had to do, it hardly seems worth leaving Westowe for now,” I finished.

“Mid-life crisis. Next thing you’ll be buying a boat.”

My glass halted in mid-rise. Our eyes met over the rim and I had to smile.

“Gotcha!” She jabbed the air and exploded into raw laughter again.

“Just looking. There’s a trim little yawl for sale up on the hard at Mud Cove. The Amaryllis.”

“You men are all bonkers. There must be five hundred yachts growing seaweed on the waterline here all summer. And skippers pleading for crew. Why do you have to own one?”

“Unlike women, we are romantics. And romantics are not promiscuous,” I pontificated. Angie snorted. And then the truth came out of my mouth. “What else am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?”

Her face softened. “That makes two of us.” For a few seconds we looked at each other as we used to years ago. “I think I will have a drink after all. Just a small one,” she said.

I poured her a small one and she poured half of it back into my glass before sipping it. “So you’ll spend a couple of seasons fitting her out and then sail off to the South Seas. Australia, maybe.”

“Well, it’s a life,” I said. “What are your plans?”

“My life is completely shattered.”

I thought I saw a long-ago look in her eyes. “Can I help you pick up the pieces?”

She ignored that. “Things have a way of healing if you just wait.”

“For what?”

“To see what happens.”

“Spider asked me to help Charlie Segui sort out the insurance.”

“God love him. When is Spider going to realise I’m a grown-up girl?”

“If the insurers are being difficult — “

“We don’t know that Bartholomew is dead.”

“But he’s been missing for months, and Spider found no trace.”

“So he says.”

“What does that mean?”

“Mateship. Men cover up for each other.” She smiled. Then it vanished. “Bartholomew had a crew, you know.”

“Spider told me.”

“I liked her at first. Bartholomew liked her a whole lot more. It always ends in tears. Because they always want babies. And then he comes home to me.”

“That’s what you’re waiting for? You think he’s still alive?”

“As the insurers so prudently enquire, where is the body?”

Angie stood up and pulled on her shoes. She brushed both my cheeks with her red lips before leaving me alone with the traces of her scent. I put Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata on the tape player and another log on the grate and had a few more drinks, gazing into the harmonies of the flames — not, like Dickens’s virtuous Lizzie Hexham, to foretell the future, but as a sinner rewriting the past.


Friday, 21st January

A yellowing business envelope lay on the grey flagstone in the bright splash of sun just beneath the letter slot. Judging by the typography it could have been posted a century ago. It was from Segui & Cooper, the legal practice Charlie had inherited from his father. Cooper had slipped his moorings about the time the letterhead was designed, and Charlie was probably too mean to have had it changed.

He was also too mean to put a stamp on it. Someone had pushed it through the door. Charlie wanted to see me the next day at his office. I didn’t have a phone in the castle, so I didn’t bother to reply. He knew I would come. Firstly because I had nothing else to do and secondly because Angie would be there.

At the bottom of Fore Street where it runs into Sharp Creek two fishermen’s cottages had been knocked into one and painted robin’s egg blue. An aluminium shopfront had been installed in one corner. Above it a sign read ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’. In the shop window, together with a few dog-eared cardboard advertising signs bleached by sunlight was Charlie’s spoof flyer announcing the privatisation of the Royal Yacht Britannia. On the window ledge the stalks of last year’s geraniums bristled in a clay pot. Apart from that the cupboard was bare. Adjoining the shop window was a door painted in smart navy blue enamel with a bright brass knocker and a small brass plate engraved ‘Segui & Cooper’. A plump, grey-haired matron wearing pink and gold spectacles that might have been designed by Salvador Dali giggled “Hello” and bustled me into the ground floor back, Charlie’s meeting room. A huge partner’s desk and a tall filing cupboard took up half the space. Some straight-backed wooden chairs and an oval Formica table scarred with the burns of resting fag ends filled most of the rest. On the wall opposite the door was an ornate red safe with brass fittings. Above it hung a tall stained mirror in a mahogany frame which had a keyhole in it, the door of a Victorian wardrobe. It had probably been hung there to make the room look bigger, but our three reflections crowded it like the snug bar of The Sailor’s Return on August Bank Holiday. Charlie had to move a chair away from the door to let me sit next to Angie. Behind her was another door in the wall that partitioned off the reception area. On it was a blue-and-white ceramic sign with the image of a horse’s head and the word ‘Stallions’. Angie smiled, and I was pleased that her lips were not scarlet today.

“Thank you for coming,” she said.

There was a knock on the door I had entered. I had to get up and hold the chair over my head to permit it to open. With the solemn dignity of a pharaonic libation bearer, Charlie’s matronly secretary carried in a tray with a cargo of thick mugs bearing the Westowe Sailing Club coat of arms. She set it down on the red safe under the mirror. As her hips squeezed past again she fluttered a little smile at me on a wave of cheap scent. I repositioned the chair in front of the door and sat down again. Charlie began to summarise Angie’s financial position. It was bleak. He had applied for a court order to enable Angie to take over Bartholomew’s assets, but there was no cash. “I’ve asked Ted to check into the insurance situation,” he concluded.

I had done my homework huddling in the phone kiosk on the rainswept Jubilee (formerly Normandy) Quay, conveniently close to The Jubilee Inn (formerly Cromarty’s). I took my cue. “Insurers need death certificates. They could insist on waiting seven years until Bartholomew could be declared legally dead.”

Charlie interrupted. “You apply through a court order known as a deed of representation to have him officially sworn dead, and appoint trustees who can deal with his financial affairs as if he were dead.”

“Give a lawyer seven years and he’ll stretch it to fourteen,” I said. “And if it were a large estate the insurers would stick to the letter of the law. But I still have some friends in the City. I’m sure if I put a word in the right ear they’d loosen up.”

Charlie cleared his throat. “What Ted is trying to say — .”

“I thought I had said it.”

Angie smiled at me, “Thank you, Ted.”

Charlie glared at me. “Even so, it’s not enough to see her through comfortably.”

“What about the castle?” I asked.

“I was getting to that,” said Charlie without looking in my direction. “That’s your nest egg, Angie. A prime piece of shorefront property. It could fetch a pretty price.”

“I’m not selling it. You’ll have to find another way.” Charlie smiled at me sadly, and now I thought I knew why I’d been invited to this meeting. “I’ll sell the house first,” said Angie.

“Angie, it’s a big old Victorian house with an even bigger outstanding mortgage,” argued Charlie.

“With a spectacular view,” I put in.

Charlie frowned at me. “Even with the view, she wouldn’t clear more than twenty-five thousand out of it.”

“Let it out and move into the castle.” I smiled at Angie. “I’ll move out, of course.”

Charlie drummed his fingers on the table. “Eight weeks summer let. Ten thousand pounds. If you’re lucky.”

I was still musing on the idea of living with Angie. “Or I could move into the munitions blockhouse off the kitchen,” I added to make her smile. It had the opposite effect; a cloud passed briefly across her face.

Charlie suddenly changed tack. “What about his paintings? They’re bound to rise in value now.”

Angie bent her head and aimed her voice at the surface of the table. “He’s not painted seriously for twenty years.”

“You sure there’s nothing he put away . . . somewhere?”

“Nothing serious.”

“Why not let the art world make that judgement?” I put in.

Angie’s eyes flashed. “I know about art. And more about Bartholomew’s art than anyone. What he’s done recently is junk. There’s nothing else. Just a portrait of me. I couldn’t sell it. Anyway, it’s not his usual style, it wouldn’t fetch much.”

“Look, Angie,” I said, “this really isn’t my business, but just a thought. Charlie’s right. That shoreline property must be worth a bundle. You could build some holiday cottages on it — a small hotel even, or convert the castle into a smart restaurant. Or whatever.”

“Historic building. Planning permission.” Charlie was talking in document headings.

“What have we got Superbloke on the Town Council for?”

Charlie snapped at me. “That kind of thing takes a lot of investment.”

I bridled. “I’ve got a few bob coming to me. We might go into it together.”

This time Charlie positively barked. “And it takes good professional management.”

“And what the hell do you think I’ve been doing the last quarter-of-a-century while you’ve been sitting down here drinking instant tea out of chipped mugs?”

Charlie stared at the wall over my head. “I thought you were sacked,” he said.

“Downsized, Charlie. In a merger. You’re out of touch.”

“You must tell me the difference sometime.”

“About a quarter of a million pounds. And if I’m such a proper Charlie why did you ask me to this meeting?”

“I didn’t,” said Proper Charlie. “Angie wanted you here.” To Angie he said, “I’ve got some papers for you to sign in the other room.” He got out of his chair. I stood up to make way, but he waved me down again. There was another route out of this cubicle. Charlie sidled along the wall behind the table and slid open the door labelled ‘Stallions’. He stepped over a tiny marine toilet, slid open another door exactly opposite and disappeared through it.

“Take your time about it,” I said to Angie. “And if you decide to sell, I’ll clear out of the studio.”

“No. I want you there.”

“To keep the shrine dusted?”

The grey cloud passed over her face again. “What do you mean?”

“Keeping his memory alive. I’m sorry. That was ungracious.”

Angie’s face cleared. “How are you and Spider getting on?”

“Like two kids on one skateboard.”

“You used to be inseparable.”

“Until you started wearing bras.”

“Ted, all that means as much as — .” Her hand fluttered along the table and found Charlie’s ashtray. She picked up a handful of ashes and opening her fingers, let them spill over the table. She wiped her hands together, and then put them, gritty with ash and warm, on mine. “Do you think you and Spider can be good mates again?”

“We’ve just been rubbing antlers.”

“You were like twins. You both used to know just what the other one was thinking. Can you get back on his wave length?”

“You want me to pump Spider?”

“You’re shocked.”

“No. I’m never shocked at how women can shock you. I just wonder why.”

“Because Spider fitted out Bart’s boat for him. Spider helped him plan the trip. Bart was going to call him. Call him. Not me, his wife. But Spider. And when he went missing Spider went looking for him.”

“Some people would thank him for that.”

“I am grateful. But I don’t know what to think.” I had not been in an office in months, so when I got up that morning I had put on a jacket and trousers with a clean handkerchief in the pocket. I gave it to her and she blew her nose in it and then looked up at me. “Will you help me to think?”

“I’ll try.”

“I know when Spider’s being evasive. Find out what he’s up to.”

The sliding door was not sound-proof. “You’re not the only one who wants to know that,” said Charlie as he came out of the loo. He squeezed back to his place at the table and started to gather up his documents without noticing he was sooting them with the ash Angie had strewn. “You heard about that drug shipment they found near Fowey a few months ago?”

The story had been in the nationals and I remembered. “In the lobster pots.”

Charlie nodded and laid his finger against his nose. “A Customs and Excise officer came to see me yesterday. He asked a lot of questions about Spider.”

“What did you tell him?”

“He wanted to know where Spider had been when he was looking for Bartholomew.” Charlie chewed on the end of his pencil and then said what we all used to say as kids when we didn’t know what to do next. “We’d better talk to Spider.”

“Spider wouldn’t have anything to do with drugs,” Angie said.

“I haven’t got round to asking him if he’s a drug pusher yet,” said Charlie. He looked at his watch and then at me. “You can ask him, Ted. I’m meeting him at Formerly Cromarty’s.”

Angie had to sign some papers, so I went into the front room, where the dumpy, grey-haired secretary was pecking at a typewriter. On the sliding door behind her, the second one that Charlie had stepped through, was a pink-and-white ceramic sign bearing a picture of a horse wearing a bonnet, and captioned ‘Fillies’. She blinked her eyes, huge in the surrealistic spectacles. “You don’t remember me,” she scolded.

Somebody’s mother, I thought.

“I’m Veronica.”

I gaped. “Charlie’s sister. Rab — Ronny.”

Her lips pinched. “Mrs Harris to you, Teddy boy.”

“It’s been a long time.”

“I dropped Charlie’s note through your letterbox. I’m your next door neighbour, just up the hill.”

“The Harris place?”

“Johnny made his transition three years ago. It’s mine now.” The others came through just in time to prevent my accepting an invitation to tea at a pebbledash bungalow called Glochamorra. Before leaving us, Angie rewarded Charlie and me with one peck each on the cheek.

“There’s a woman who knows her mind,” I said.

“I wish I knew what was in it,” sighed Charlie.

We bundled out through the narrow door into the gathering mist. Mrs Harris stood by the filing cabinet, one hip dipped, and fluttered her fingers at me. At Formerly Cromarty’s Charlie bought the first round, but kept talking about World Cup Rugby until Spider joined us. Charlie told Spider about his interview with the Customs & Excise. “They wanted to know whether you went abroad much,” he said.

Spider gave a pained grin. “I used up all my holiday savings last year.”

“They seemed to be telling me to keep an eye on you,” Charlie told Spider. I didn’t tell him Angie had asked me to do the same.

“Customs and Excise don’t bother me,” said Spider. “I ain’t VAT-registered.” Charlie went to the gents. Spider winked at me. “He got the first round in, right?” I nodded. “’Cause there were only two of you. Now he’s gone off to avoid buying me one.” He signalled to the barman. “I reckon Charlie owes me a couple of hundred pints over the years.”

“Is he so skint?”

“We’re all skint down here. It’s government policy. We’re so far west of Whitehall, they think we’re part of Ireland. But Charlie is skint by nature.”

I told Spider that Charlie was pressing Angie to sell the castle. “I imagine he reckons that if the club bought it, his shares would be worth a few bob.”

Spider gave me a shrewd glance. “I’ve seen that move coming. And I’ve got it covered.”

“You mean the golden share?”

“Who’s been bending your ear?”

“Superbloke.”

“Mr Goodfellow doesn’t like being called that.”

“He used to love it.”

“His wife thinks it’s disrespectful for a man in his position. You know what his game is, don’t you?”

“He said he represents one of the big London auction houses.”

“Oh, aye, he does that. Pop into the kitchen to make him a cup of tea and he’ll have your Welsh dresser on the back of a lorry before the water’s boiled. And he’s a councillor and all. But his real calling is property maggot.”

“He says he spoke out against selling the club land.”

“Oh, aye. He’s got the courage of my convictions. But I bet you he’s got a JCB revving up in the garage just the same.”

“According to Charlie, if Bartholomew’s dead that golden share reverts to the club. So, there’s nothing to stop them selling out if the founder members vote it through.”

“I’ve got a fallback there nobody knows about.” His eyes twinkled, then the lids rose and dipped again to warn me Charlie was in the offing as he changed the subject. “Did you ever hear back from that squire who objected to Charlie’s Britannia hoax?”

Charlie picked up his fresh pint and glared at Spider. “That was your idea.”

Spider mumbled into foam. “Nothing to do with me.”

Charlie eyed me. “Which reminds me. You’re invited to tea at the club next Friday.”

“Can’t make it. Spider and I are fixing to run a drug shipment up to Normandy Quay.”

“You’ll have to put it off. This is a command performance.”

“HRH is coming to the club?”

“No. Colonel Meeker is.”

“You must be joking.”


Friday, 28th January

He was not, as it turned out, a pear-shaped old boy with watery eyes the colour of gin-and-tonic and a face veined like a road map. Colonel Lawrence Meeker of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire was a tidy, fit little man in his sixties with a white face as sharp as a ferret’s and a catatonic stare. He dressed like an extraterrestrial impersonating an outdoorsman: a spanking new navy blue Guernsey jumper, a paisley silk scarf knotted around his neck, beige cavalry twill trousers, the green rubber boots that farmers wear and a designer’s skiing cap with a natty little brim.

For some reason Charlie Segui had decided to provide high tea at lunchtime. We sat in the draughty function room of the Sailing Club around a low table bearing a tier of scones and a bowl of stiff Devon cream from Mary’s Normandy Quay Tea Room. Mary hadn’t caught up with the 1977 Jubilee name change yet. Charlie had warmed the scones himself in the microwave. I’d already had two or three and was about to reach for another when Charlie sent me on to the pitch. “Ted is keen that we should try to reach a compromise.”

The little man glared at me. “Are you a solicitor?”

“I would rather earn my living selling kidnapped babies to trolls.”

“I’ve come without legal representation.” A picture leapt into my mind of us touching knees around the low table with a hit squad from Nailit, Stretchit and Plummet. They’d make short work of the scones. I smiled. “I don’t see that there’s anything comical about the situation,” he added.

“That was a smile,” I said. I saw Charlie smirking and pointed at him. “And that is a smirk.”

“What’s all this about the Caribbean?” resumed the colonel.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You said the cruise was cancelled because the royal yacht was in the Caribbean.”

“San Serife,” Charlie put in.

“Never heard of it,” said the colonel.

I tried smiling again. “Just north of Ampersand.” The colonel stared at me without laughing, smiling or smirking.

Charlie cleared his throat and addressed the colonel’s blank gaze. “What about some compensation?”

I stared at Charlie. “Hang on, isn’t he supposed to say that?”

“What about some compensation?” repeated the colonel.

I looked from Charlie to the colonel. “That’s amazing, I could have sworn Mr Segui’s lips never moved.”

The colonel wasn’t listening. “Five thousand pounds,” he said.

I looked at Charlie, expecting to share a laugh with him. Instead, he stroked his chin for a few seconds. “We’ll have to take advice on that,” he said finally.

I looked at the little colonel. “Were you kidnapped? “

“Five thousand pounds.”

“Were you hit on the head?”

“Five thousand pounds.”

“Did somebody rape you?”

“Five thousand pounds.”

I looked at Charlie. “What can he sue for?”

Charlie seemed unconcerned. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind the back of his head. “Trade Descriptions Act. Expenses. Personal insult. Loss of dignity.”

“Loss of dignity,” repeated the dummy.

“Do you want to go sit on his lap?” I asked the colonel.

The man’s mind was closed so tight it was impossible to slide an insult into it. “Five thousand pounds,” he said, without rancour.

“Five hundred,” I said.

The colonel looked at me curiously, then he looked at Charlie, who hunched forward. He was taking more of an interest now. And about time. It was his bloody club.

“I require five thousand pounds for personal insult and loss of dignity,” said the colonel.

“You lost all the dignity you ever had when you made that daft complaint,” I said.

Charlie leaned back in his chair again. Now he was smiling. “No need to let Mr Rude in, Ted.”

“Not to worry. The colonel is deaf.”

I had gone too far. Suddenly the colonel began to shake. He sat rigid in his chair, while little rigors trembled up his body. In a moment he would reach into his kit bag for his ceremonial sabre and run me through. Instead, he looked at Charlie and murmured “I’m not feeling very well.”

Charlie leapt to his feet. “Please don’t take offence, Colonel. I am sure we can settle this amicably.”

Not if you bring me in on it, I thought to myself. And then I thought again — why had he brought me in on it?

“May I go now?” The colonel sounded like a schoolboy.

“Can we ask you to review your position first?” At last Charlie was beginning to sound like a negotiator. But it had an opposite effect. The colonel stiffened.

“Five thousand pounds,” he said.

“Two thousand five hundred,” I said. The colonel and Charlie swivelled their heads to me in a synchronised movement. Both had their mouths open. They said nothing. “Hell’s bells, all right then. Five thousand.” I drew my chequebook and a pen out of my inside jacket pocket.

Charlie was aghast. “You can’t do that.”

I ignored him. “All right with you, Major?”

“Colonel,” said Charlie.

I glared at Charlie. “For five thousand pounds I can call him what I like.”

“He’s only joking,” Charlie said to the colonel. The colonel looked dazed.

“I am not joking,” I said. “A man’s dignity is priceless.”

The colonel stood up. “I don’t want your money,” he said. “I am a very wealthy man.”

“I’m sure you are,” I said. “That’s how you grabbed all that dignity.”

“I want satisfaction from the club. Five thousand pounds.”

“He wants five thousand pounds from the club,” Charlie said hastily.

I looked at him. “Now you are repeating him. Why haven’t I been given a copy of the script?”

Charlie went over to the colonel. “Let’s talk again tomorrow, Colonel.”

“Tomorrow?”

“You’ll have to catch the tide if you’re going fishing this afternoon.”

I was looking in the pot, but there was no more tea. “Fishing?” I asked.

Charlie turned to me. “The colonel wants to hire a skiff. Can you take him down to Pogie’s?”

Before he left, the colonel went to the loo. I grabbed Charlie’s elbow. “What is he on?”

“He’s upset, clearly.”

“Did you put something in the tea, and if yes, where’s my snort?”

“You weren’t going to lash out five thousand pounds.”

“He didn’t know that. But he didn’t want it.”

“You wouldn’t have,” said Charlie.

“I know that and you know — ” I stopped. “Maybe you didn’t know that.”

Charlie was looking out the window. “You were taking the mick,” he said over his shoulder.

The colonel came out of the loo. “Your flies are open, Captain,” I said. And they were. We left the mad hatter’s tea party. Looking back through the window I saw Charlie shovelling the remaining scones into his briefcase.

We walked down the hill. Clouds stretched across the sky like a ragged blanket, bright shafts of sunlight poking through the holes, but when one flared down on to the wet pavements of Fore Street it brought no warmth. A fitful westerly hammered dimples into the shining copper of the estuary. Beyond the bar white horses were gathering. I’m not a fisherman, but it didn’t seem a great idea to be sitting in an open boat baiting hooks with wet hands in the fading light.

“Where are you going?” I asked. I was just trying to be pleasant. But the colonel gave a little jerk like a soldier trying to get in step and darted his staring eyes at me. He said nothing. I tried another tack. “What kind of fish are you after?”

He relaxed. “Anything. Mullet, maybe.”

You can see grey mullet down at the marina, grazing on the weed which grows on the waterlines of the floating gin palaces which never leave the pontoon. I wondered just how much the colonel knew about fishing. “You don’t have to go out of the estuary to find mullet,” I said. “Just drop a line off any boat in the marina.”

He halted and pointed to the staircase of Grise Head, silhouetted against the declining sun, its bottom step boiling in froth. “Do you have to drive around that to get to Fairfoul Bay?” The way he said it made me think he wanted to be talked out of going. If he had been a nicer person I might have tried. Instead I said, “Fairfoul Bay is inside the head. Steer for Sentinel Bluff.” I pointed out the white house with the red roof marking the line of the slope just inside the staircase profile.

“How rough is it out there?”

“The bay’s all right today. It’s in the lee of the wind. You know where to cross the bar?”

“When you get past the castle you aim for the red and white beacons, Mr Segui said.”

“That would bring you back into my sitting room for tea. What you do is line the beacons up astern. After you get past them.” Colonel Meeker grunted, in that military way in which officers begrudge the superior wisdom of enlisted men. “I’ll set out an extra cup, just in case you forget,” I said.

As we turned down Little Lane the glitter on the estuary switched off and it began to drizzle. Pogie was out on his pontoon where his open boats rocked and chafed against their warps. He lumbered up to us like a baby elephant, the wooden platform swaying under his weight. I wanted to see if Pogie had any second-hand winches for the Amaryllis, so I hung around while he put oars into a broad-bottomed green-painted aluminium dinghy and fixed a Seagull outboard onto the transom, filled it with petrol mix and stowed the spare can under the bow thwart.

The colonel, meanwhile, pulled a big plastic bag decorated with a badly drawn mermaid out of his holdall. It was from Cap’n Curtis’s’ Locker, once the no-nonsense Fore Street Chandlers, now a nautical boutique with an apostrophe problem. He pulled out a set of gleaming top-of-the-range white oilskins, fully lined, with a blue fleece collar.

“White oilskins?” I asked.

The colonel was struggling into them. “Why not?”

“You’ll see why after they’ve been in Pogie’s dinghy half an hour.”

“Excellent visibility at sea.”

“Fred Curtis saw you coming. He’s been trying to off-load those for a couple of seasons.”

The white oilies were several sizes too big for the little colonel. He stuffed the drooping legs into his heavy green farmer’s boots, pulled the hood up against the rain, took up his hold-all and marched after Pogie into his shed like a technician from the Ministry of Agriculture on the track of a mad cow. Pogie poked through his hanging rack until he found a life jacket for the colonel which was smeared with black tar stains. The colonel put it under his arm. “Do you take credit cards?”

“You can pay me when you get back,” said Pogie.

“I’d rather settle it now.”

“Cards I like, it’s the credit bit I don’t fancy,” said Pogie, which passes for wit in the West Country. Pogie laughed, I smiled but the colonel simply looked grim. He reached into the inside pocket of his oilies. His hand came out with a wallet and a dog-eared white business envelope. He held the envelope close to his chest and stared at it for a few seconds as if wondering how it had got into his pocket. “You don’t have a stamp, do you?” he asked Pogie.

Pogie keeps stamps in his cash register, but he had decided he didn’t like the colonel much. “Post office be up on Fore Street,” he said. He pulled up the sleeve of his fisherman’s smock and held out his watch to the colonel, pointing at its face with a finger blacked with grease. “Closed for lunch.”

“Post offices don’t close for lunch,” said the colonel.

“Millie does,” said Pogie. “And Fridays she’s got to pick her grand-daughter up from school, so she won’t be back ‘til gone three.”

“It’s a sub-post office,” I said. “Pre-Thatcher.” I got a 20p stamp from my wallet and offered it to the colonel.

“That’s second class,” he said.

“We’re all a bit down-market, here,” I said, and although he didn’t smile I dug in my wallet again. I found a 36p commemorative stamp with a picture of a Lucie Rie pot on it. I had bought it that weekend in Wales with Maire, because she liked pots and I thought I would send her a card after the weekend. To thank her, or whatever. Depending on how it turned out. In the event I never needed it.

Colonel Meeker took the stamp and turned his back to us to fix it on the envelope. I held out my hand. “I can drop it in the post for you.”

Instead of saying thanks, or no thanks, the colonel put the envelope back into the inside pocket of his new white oilies, now streaked with tar from the life jacket stuffed under his arm. “How much do I owe you?” he asked me.

Why do we have to go through life not being able to say what we really want to say to people? I wanted to say “That will be five thousand pounds, Colonel Meeker.” So I did.

He looked hurt and held out a five pound note.

“Save it for the RNLI,” I said, looking out of the door of Pogie’s shed. “It’s kicking up out there.”

Half-an-hour later, standing by my fireside at the window of the castle sipping hot coffee, I thought of his reply. The cloud cover was thickening behind the westward retreat of the sun. The white horses had trooped back to their stables. Now a long, shallow swell rumpled the surface of the sea. In the dull light a green pod bobbed over the bar, a single white pea wobbling about in it. It was about an hour before low tide, but there should be enough water for the colonel to clear the bar. I watched the pea-green skiff pop up and down in the dark waves until it disappeared into Fairfoul Bay between Sentinel Point, briefly illuminated by the sun, and the dark notched shape of Grise Head.

“I can handle myself in a boat,” the colonel had said to me.

But it turned out he couldn’t.


Saturday, 29th January

The next time I saw Pogie’s dinghy was just after the early shipping forecast the following morning. A deep low, 984, arriving Fastnet by noon. Force nine gale imminent in sea areas Portland and Plymouth. When I stepped outside to empty the tea leaves into the camellia bush, dark clouds were piling up in the west and a swell was building in the estuary. I heard the dinghy before I saw it, a hollow metallic thump. It was banging against the rocks, its nylon painter trailing out over the bow. I waded out and grabbed the painter and pulled the skiff in to shore. Its hull was dented and bright metal showed through where the green paint had been scraped away. The oars were shipped neatly inboard. The grease-smeared orange lifejacket was floating in six inches of water along with two dead mackerel. The red petrol can was still lodged under the bow thwart, but the anchor and its warp were missing and so were Colonel Meeker and his kit bag.

I rowed the boat around to the little cove on the harbour side of the castle and tied it next to my inflatable. Then I went up the path and around the patch of rhododendron to my nearest neighbour.

Rabbit had just come out of the bath. Her face was flushed and she was wearing a padded pink dressing gown with white frills on the hems. Her hair straggled down her shoulders like greying seaweed. When she saw me her mouth dropped open. She looked like a plump goldfish gasping for air. I asked to use her telephone and she led me into a room copied from a colour spread in a 1950s edition of Home & Garden magazine. Her perfume hovered about while I dialled Charlie Segui. He told me he thought the colonel was staying at Toby’s Shangri-la Guest House. When I rang him, Toby said the colonel hadn’t come back last night. Toby said he would ring Eddy Starr, Westowe’s solitary policeman. I called HM Coast Guard.

A worried Rabbit fussed about with a pot of tea and some home-made scones. We heard the two dull thuds of the cannon summoning the lifeboat crew. These days they all carry bleeps, but they let the cannon off anyway. Spider says it’s to let the wives know the crew might not be home for dinner, but it may have more to do with Spider’s respect for tradition. The first cannon boom drops like a lead weight into the life of the village. Every eye turns towards the harbour and every mind to the seas tossing out beyond Grise Head. No one speaks until the second thud drops.

I drained the flowered teacup and stood up to leave. On the doorstep Rabbit took my arm. “You didn’t do anything to him, did you?”

“Why me?”

“You know how people talk.”

“Let me guess. ‘Now that he’s got away with pushing his wife off a cliff, he’s taken to knocking off the grockles’.”

“It’s just that Charlie said you had your knife into him yesterday.”

“I tried to puncture his ego, but it broke my blade.”

She smiled, but her eyes were troubled. “Always the card, Teddy. Why are you frightened of feeling?”

She pressed against me and breathed a kiss on my cheek. It smelled like the sweets counter at Woolworth’s. The bilge water slopping in Pogie’s dented aluminium dinghy had a sharper odour. The colonel might still be alive, but his two mackerel were very dead. I tossed them to the gulls and lifted the dinghy on its side to drain out the water slopping in the bottom. I unscrewed the petrol cap of the Seagull. It was empty. The spare petrol can was still full. I filled the tank and motored around towards Pogie’s pontoon. The new double-glazed picture windows of the luxury flats in what had been the old Long Beach Hotel were flashing the sun straight back into my eyes, so I heard the rumble of the lifeboat’s engine before it appeared out of the glare like a gaudy orange-and-purple spaceship. Spider was at the helm, and as it surged past, he looked at me through the starboard window. I waved, but he was facing forward again. Before I reached the ferry landing the lifeboat had disappeared around Castle Point, and as I came up to Pogie’s pontoon and cut the engine the Coast Guard chopper roared across the sky following its wake. Charlie Segui and Eddy Starr were standing with Pogie on the pontoon. Eddy was wearing his policeman’s uniform. As I nosed in to the dock Pogie grabbed the painter and started creating about the state of his dinghy until Eddy placed a hand on his shoulder.

“The man is missing, maybe drowned, Pogie. You may have been the last person to see him alive.”

“No,” I said. “That’s was probably me. I saw him cross the bar around two-thirty.”

“Where was he headed?”

“Fairfoul Bay. Fishing for mullet, he said.”

“A little late starting out, wasn’t he?”

“He said he’d be back before dark,” said Charlie.

“He would have had to walk across the bar,” I said.

“It’s neaps,” said Charlie. He had a point. Neap tides are less severe than springs. There would be a few feet of water over the bar at low tide.

“Even so,” I said. “There was a swell.”

Charlie didn’t reply. Eddy took out his little notebook and biro. Pogie clambered into the skiff. “The bleeding anchor’s gone. Warp and all.”

“Could the warp have parted?” asked Eddy.

“Brand new nylon,” said Pogie.

“Something else is missing,” I said.

“The colonel,” said Charlie, quick on the uptake for once.

“A gallon of petrol. The tank was bone dry.”

“It was full when he left here,” said Pogie. “You want to know what I reckon?” Nobody ever wanted to know what Pogie reckoned, but we also knew there was no way to stop him, so we all looked at him. “I reckon he started up the engine and then realised the anchor was snagged. He untied the warp and then fell out somehow.” He looked down at the life-jacket he held in his other hand. “He was wearing this when he left here. Nowise I’d have let him go otherwise.”

“Could he swim?” asked Eddy. We looked at each other. None of us knew.

Pogie looped an imaginary rope around his leg. “Maybe the anchor warp caught around his leg and dragged him over.” He joined his hands together in a diving motion. “And then the dinghy just put-putted around until it ran dry.” Pogie spun one hand around with a downward-pointing index finger.

We all thought about that for a while. I had a vision of the colonel in his smart white oilies, arms hoisted over his head, his hood floating off his forehead, suspended by his ankle on Pogie’s new nylon anchor warp, rocking with the tide a few fathoms below the surface of the choppy waters in Fairfoul Bay.

And then Pogie said, “’Cept, of course, it’s a Seagull.” We all knew old Seagull outboards have no clutches. That meant you couldn’t start the engine and leave it idling in neutral while you hauled up the anchor. The boat would pull the anchor warp taut as soon as the engine caught.

“So?” said Charlie, playing advocate again.

I answered for the rest of us. “So you have to haul in the anchor before you start the engine.”

“Maybe he thought it would help free the anchor,” said Charlie.

“He was an odd cove,” said Pogie, who said that about anyone who wasn’t born within the sound of the bell on Black Rock buoy. “He could likely do anything.”

Eddy stopped writing in his notebook, swept his eyes across us and then out to Grise Head. “You don’t suppose he topped himself, do you?”

“Not until after he provided for his supper,” I said. They all looked at me. “I found two mackerel in the bilge.”

“Where are they?” asked Eddy.

“I threw them overboard.” Eddy frowned. He was about to say something like the hard cops say on ‘NYPD Blue’ about assholes destroying evidence. “I wasn’t hungry,” I added. And then I remembered why I threw them overboard. Because they stank. I was about to tell Eddy, but he wasn’t listening anymore. The radio was squawking in his patrol car parked in the lane. We all followed him. It was Spider on the lifeboat radio. They had found nothing. Eddy suggested they have a careful sweep in Fairfoul Bay and then turned back to us.

“Who is this colonel, anyway?”

“A flaming nuisance,” I said.

They all looked at me. “Don’t speak ill of the dead,” said Charlie.

“I don’t think the condition will improve his disposition,” I said. “Anyway, how do you know he’s dead?” Now everybody looked at Charlie.

Charlie thrust his lower lip forward and hooked his thumbs in the armholes of his padded gilet as if it were a barrister’s gown. “Pending further evidence, it seems a reasonable assumption.”

Eddy got into his patrol car to go to Jubilee Quay and meet the lifeboat. We walked over and, because he had to drive all around the village one-way system, by the time he arrived we had already joined the small cluster of locals looking south-west into the wind, the rainwater dripping from the brims of our hoods into our faces. The lifeboat cruised in on the long swell, its bow settling into the water as it throttled back to pick up its mooring. When its big inflatable tender growled up to the pontoon with the crew, there was no corpse in it. Spider clambered up the gangway carrying a kedge anchor and showed it to Eddy Starr. The new nylon warp was still attached. It would float.

“We found it close in, near the five metre depth line,” said Spider.

Disaster was good for business at Mary’s Normandy Quay Tea Room. Most of the lifeboat crew piled in there before going on to start their day’s work and the locals trooped in after them for the news. Superbloke was already there when Charlie and I went in, and we joined him at a small table. I remembered I hadn’t eaten yet, and ordered the full breakfast of bacon and eggs, sausages, tomatoes, beans and fried bread. We all had thick mugs of scalding coffee. After he talked to Eddy, Spider crowded in with us and had a cooked breakfast too.

“Eddy’s miffed because the lifeboat left without him,” said Spider. “He reckons if he’d been the Sparks on duty we’d have found him.” Otherwise, he had nothing to report. “Seven times out of ten we go out there and there’s nothing but gulls. Today was one of the seven.”

I told them about finding the skiff. They all listened carefully, even Charlie who had heard it all before.

“It sounds as though you didn’t like him much,” said Superbloke.

“Did you meet him?” I asked.

“No.”

I looked at Spider. “Did you?”

“No.”

“Well, take it from me, he was an awkward little cuss.”

Charlie went judicial, putting his elbows on the table and twining his fingers together under his chin. “He was pleasant enough, on balance, considering the situation.”

“Charlie,” I said, “he was totally unbalanced. That meeting was Alice-in-Wonderland. He was mad as a hatter. And mean as a dormouse.”

Charlie filched one of my sausages. “You could be the prime suspect. Last one to see him. Finding the dinghy. Bearing grudges.”

“You have a better motive.”

He spluttered through a mouthful of sausage. “What do you mean?”

“The club will do well out of it.”

Charlie stiffened in his chair and craned his neck as though his collar had just started to choke him or he was about to say something important. But all he could manage was, “How’s that?”

“No law suit.”

Charlie relaxed. “Oh, yes. Of course.”

“I don’t think that was really a serious complaint,” Superbloke put in.

“You should have been there yesterday,” I said. “Charlie was squirming like Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg trials.”

We all left then. I started up the hill to the castle but then remembered I needed some new leather diaphragms for the brass fresh water pumps on the Amaryllis. I thought the shoemaker might be able to make some up for me and so I cut back through Little Lane and came out on Fore Street just behind Spider. He was dropping a creased white business envelope into the pillar box outside the post office. I recognised the yellow commemorative 36p stamp with the Lucie Rie pot. The Post Office must have stopped selling those months ago. And not even in his most profligate moments would Spider waste a 36p stamp when 26p was all that was required to deliver first class mail.


Wednesday, 2nd February

I had a small screwdriver with a shaft I had filed down to a needle-sharp point, like an ice-pick. I pushed it gently with the heel of my hand and it slid in up to the hilt, as easily as puncturing a roast turkey. The mast would have to be replaced.

The Amaryllis was a decade older than I. She was a 33-foot Bermuda-rigged yawl, larch on oak, built in the thirties to a classic turn-of-the-century design by Joshua Soper. She had a deep keel, drawing five foot, but was as slim as an arrow — a seven-foot-six-inch beam at the widest point. Like Bartholomew’s sloop she had a low freeboard, just eighteen inches from the surface of the water to the gunwales, too low for a self-bailing cockpit. So any water that spilled in stayed in. Her log showed that the Amaryllis had been built by Bertie Wilby, a retired boatyard worker, in Ramsgate. One three-day cruise stood out: June 2nd to 4th, 1940. Bertie had sailed to Dunkerque single-handed and returned with twenty-five passengers. They must have been stacked on the coachroof like haddocks. Beneath decks the Amaryllis had only a two-berth cabin where no one over five foot tall could stand erect, a claustrophobic forepeak where two very friendly people could lay with their skulls against the anchor chain compartment and their noses six inches beneath the underside of the foredeck, and in-between, a tiny cubicle harbouring a small coal stove that vented through the deck and a marine toilet suitable for a contortionist. You could stand up there, if you opened the hatch over your head.

The foremast was towering, and I reckoned she carried too much mainsail. In spite of her trim figure she would probably wallow in anything over a force five. The mizzen was largely decorative, a small handkerchief to balance the tiller. Since Bertie Wilby’s day various DIY vandals had mucked about with her. The bowsprit had been knocked off, and fittings on the aft deck showed there had once been a bumpkin, too. The auxiliary petrol engine was a relic from an industrial museum. She wasn’t built to take an engine and so the transom had been hacked about to admit the prop shaft. The interior was cluttered with flimsy plywood partitions and the fine teak decks were sealed in fibreglass. But her hull was sound, most of the brass fittings were original and she was a very pretty sight lying in the water. At low tide, sitting on the black mud, leaning against the pilings in the little cove behind the castle, her yellowing paint cracked and peeling, she was like an aging ballerina squatting on the toilet before putting on her face.

“Ahoy, Skipper.” It was a London accent, glottal-stopped in heavy irony. Two young men stood on the foreshore. The big one wore shades and had gathered his hair into a pigtail; his mate was just a scrap, but he had the same hairdresser. They wore identical uniforms: skimpy black leather jackets and blue jeans, black shoes instead of wellies. The little one was smoking a Gitane. I could smell it from the foredeck.

I cupped my ear. “What’s that?”

“Hello, sailor.” It was the shrimp with the snout.

I shrugged and cupped both ears.

“Are you fucking deaf?” The big guy had the same accent. I went through the deaf pantomime again and beckoned them forward. The big guy stepped forward and sank both feet into the mud over his ankles.

“Fuck me,” he shouted.

“Hello, sailor,” I shouted.

“Can you row in or something?” The weedy one was minding his manners now, but he had only a sketchy grasp of physics. I pointed to the inflatable tender tied astern, sitting on the mud. “As soon as the tide comes in.”

They took off their police-issue black street shoes and their socks and rolled up their trouser legs and waded out through the mud, teetering like school girls. As they came up to the ladder I had set up by the bow, I drew it up on board.

“That’s not friendly,” said the titch.

“This fucking mud is fucking cold,” said his companion. His face was so pockmarked his scowl looked like a disfigurement.

“No leather shoes on deck,” I said. “First rule of the sea.”

“We ain’t wearing no fucking shoes,” roared Poxy.

“No mud, either,” I improvised. “Second rule.”

“Fuck your fucking rules. Do you live here?”

“Fuck me, live on a fucking boat in the fucking freezing winter? I should fuck,” I said.

“In that fucking ruin.” Poxy pointed at the castle.

I pulled the ice-pick out of the mast and started cleaning my nails with it. “If you say fuck to me once more,” I said, “I’m not going to fuck with you.”

“Shit,” said Poxy, drawing out the vowel into three syllables like a Harlem black.

“That’s better.”

“You Ted Golden?” asked the little one who didn’t say fuck all the time. I decided his name was Pixie.

“Depends who’s asking.” I was trying out a clotted cream accent, like Spider when he’s taking the mick out of tourists, but it came out sounding like John Wayne defending the Alamo. Pixie and Poxy didn’t seem to notice.

“You know Spider Meersman?” asked Pixie.

“Reckon everybody knows Spider.” My accent hopped back across the Atlantic. Now I sounded like Dinny Dinsmore after an elocution lesson. The trick was to use short words but slide as many syllables as you could into them.

“Spider said we should come and talk to you.” That was about as likely as finding a lobster in a chamber pot. Spider wasn’t into referrals. Pixie manufactured a smile. “You can put your nail file away. We’re not gonna kill you.”

Poxy was shivering now and taking only a marginal interest in the conversation. “Shit, man, I could kill for a cup of coffee.”

Pixie stopped smiling. “We’ve got some news for you from the Crown Prosecution Service, Mr Golden. About your former wife.”

I stopped smiling, too. I slid the ladder down and lowered a bucket of dishwater on a line. “Wash your feet before you come up,” I said, and went down into the cabin to make three cups of instant coffee. We sat in the cockpit drinking it while a squall moved across the horizon and the light began to drain from the sky.

“So who are you?”

“You can call us Smith and Jones.” said Pixie. He didn’t offer any identification.

“I’ve already decided what to call you.”

“Suit yourself.”

“So what about my ex-wife?”

“She left you a lot of money.”

“Some money. Not a lot.”

“Enough to buy a boat.”

Poxy spoke. “Some people get away with murder.”

“So what’s it to you?”

Pixie lit up another Gitane. “Some people are a bit upset. Donald Penny, for one. Your ex-partner.”

Poxy leered. “The bloke who was bonking your other ex-partner.”

“The Crown decided there was no case.”

“Penny reckons there’s grounds for a civil suit,” said Pixie. “You only have to prove a balance of probability in the civil courts.”

“You could lose your boat and your poxy castle,” put in Poxy.

Pixie turned his collar up against the wind. “Of course, he could just be trying to pressure you. Because of that legal action you’ve taken against him.”

“We sold the company. He’s blocked the payment of my share.”

Pixie clucked his tongue. “Musta costa-lotta in refreshers for my learned friends.”

“Ted’s rolling in it,” said Poxy. “His dead wife’s money. Like a pig in shit.”

Pixie cocked his head like a robin listening for worms. “That’s what worries me. The injunction.”

A chill swept up my spine, and it wasn’t from the wind. “What injunction?”

“The injunction the court would place on the distribution of your wife’s estate if Donald Penny launched a civil suit.” Pixie sounded sympathetic. “Which is why we’ve been asked to check you out.”

“By whom?”

“By our superiors. How well did you know Colonel Meeker?”

“I met him the day he died.”

“What makes you think he’s dead?”

“Isn’t he?”

“That’s up to the coroner.”

“Departed, then.”

Poxy leaned over me. “Unless you know something we don’t know.”

“Probably. I passed my O-levels.”

Pixie looked up from his coffee. “Colonel Meeker was a loads-a-money. Did you ever run into him in the City?”

I shook my head.

“Never saw his snout next to yours in the trough?” put in Poxy.

“I didn’t know him.”

“What brought you down to the West Country?” asked Pixie.

“I grew up here.”

“So you know Spider Meersman pretty well.”

“Everybody knows Spider.”

“Local fucking hero,” said Poxy.

“Spider went abroad for a couple of weeks last autumn,” said Pixie.

“He’s got a passport, I reckon.”

“He doesn’t look the package holiday type. Do you know where he went?”

“I was up in London then.”

Poxy grinned. “In chambers, explaining how your wife didn’t have a head for heights.”

I decided against sliding the ice-pick into his throat on the grounds that it would increase the odds on my spending the rest of my days slopping out instead of sailing.

Pixie spread his hands out in apology. “That’s right, we checked.”

“Why don’t you ask Spider?”

“We checked him out. He went to France and Spain. A number of different ports.”

“So why are you asking me.”

“More checking. What do you think he was doing?”

“Check with him.”

“We heard he was looking for the guy who went missing at sea. Whatsisname.” He snapped his fingers twice.

“Bartholomew Streb,” Poxy responded. “Some kind of fucking painter.”

“That’s what he told me,” I answered.

Poxy grinned. “Another chum of yours missing, presumed dead. Just like Colonel Meeker.”

“Did Spider tell you he went to Corsica?” Pixie asked.

“No.”

“Why would he go to Corsica?” Pixie pondered.

“Maybe he’s got friends there,” put in Poxy.

“Have you been to Corsica?” Pixie went on.

“Once.”

“When?”

“Years ago.”

“Why?”

“Benidorm was full of guys like you.”

Poxy leaned forward and breathed a stomach problem over me. “You got any friends there?”

I ignored him and looked at Pixie. “What’s all this got to do with Donald Penny and my wife?”

Pixie drew on his Gitane. “Not a lot. But if you scratch our backs — ”

I held up the ice-pick. “Can I choose my own weapon?”

Pixie looked at the horizon for the first time. “It’s very peaceful here, innit? That’s why people come here, innit? For peace and quiet.” He flicked his cigarette butt down into the puddling mud. “Penny needs the consent of the DPP to launch a private prosecution. If you’re friendly, we can maybe get him off your case.”

“The fuzz make a fuck of a lot of mess when they tramp about on your poop deck in their fucking size twelves,” Poxy elaborated.

“So what do you want?”

“You’ve got a good spot here. You can see everything that’s coming in and out of the harbour. We’d like to borrow the view once in a while.”

“The view’s free. Help yourself.”

“From inside your nest.” Pixie nodded in the direction of the castle.

“You scratch our backs,” said Poxy, “and we tell Donald Penny’s lawyers we don’t think he’s got a case.”

“What’s all this got to do with Spider?”

“We’d also like you to keep an eye on him, in case he does anything out of order.”

“He’s a friend of mine.”

Pixie lowered his shoulders and shook his head. “You should choose friends who’ve got some clout with the DPP.”

“What do you expect to see through my window?”

“Let’s just say unusual activity.”

“Now that you mention it, I saw something funny today.” A notebook and ballpoint appeared in Pixie’s hands. I waited for him to take the cap off the pen. “Two London geezers wading in the mud in their bare feet.”

Poxy scowled and pointed at my feet. “You’re wearing fucking boots. You could have fucking walked in to shore.”

Pixie slipped his pen and notebook back into his jacket pocket. “We’d just like to come and visit now and then. We’d rather knock first.”

“And we’ll take our fucking shoes off,” added Poxy.

“What do you say?” asked Pixie.

I looked at Poxy. “Would you take a bath first?”

“Fuck off,” said Poxy.

I nodded at him. “That’s just what I’d say, if I had the gift of gab.”

“He wants to do it the hard way,” said Poxy. He wrapped one large fist with the other.

Pixie sighed and stood up. “It may take us a couple of days to get around to informing the DPP of our views. If you change your mind in the meanwhile give Eddy Starr a ring.”

“If you’re Customs and Excise, why don’t you show me some identification?”

“Just contact the local plod, you know what I’m saying?”

They clambered down the ladder in the dusk carrying their shoes. The tide was beginning to flow in over the mud. There was a gust of wind and some raindrops splashed in my face. Before the two figures picked their way back to the shoreline I lost them against the dark line of the trees.

There was a splash. “Oh, fucking fuck it,” I heard carried on the wind.


Monday, 7th February

Beyond Sentinel Point, on a ledge that juts off the coastal path, stands a small stone hut with a stout slate-tiled roof, and where it faces the sea, an open rectangle where there should be a window. It had been built in the early part of the 19th century. Until the 1920s a rota of men was stationed in the hut each year from July to Christmas to watch for the pilchards which would come up round the south-west corner of Britain in purple shoals stretching as far as the eye could see, eastward-bound whatever the flow of the tide. For a few years just after it was built sentinels shivered there day and night in all seasons, but never spied the sails of Napoleon’s fleet cresting the horizon. During the Second World War other soldiers took up the watch, scanning the skies. Now, all the enemies were gone, and so were the pilchards. The huer’s hut remained on its perch as a daymark to the estuary entrance.

Sheltering from the onshore wind in the lee of the huer’s hut, a figure hunched in the drizzle like a question mark, looking through binoculars. These were aimed not out to sea, but up the hill, towards the gardens of Lord Farthing-Tattersall’s 18th century manor house with the great damp patches spreading across its grey Portland stone walls. I reckoned it was a bird-watcher. Until I came closer and saw it was a bird.

In most seaside resorts, when your landlady locks you out of the house you can go to the cinema. There is no cinema in Westowe, so I had gone for a walk. Two hundred metres below the path a gale whipped the white horses, lashing spray vertically up the cliff into my face. I had to pull my woollen cap down over my ears.

The Rabbit had come to the door with the note. Through the fog of a crashing hangover I heard a knocking which seemed too far away to be inside my head. I tottered across the cold flags in my bare feet like a clown on an ice rink, struggling into the dressing gown Maire had given me for a long forgotten birthday. As I drew the latch, the wind seized the flapping right sleeve of my robe. I had thrust my arm through the rent in the armpit. Rabbit’s bright pink cheeks poked out of her anorak like a bon-bon. Her hair was strawberry-coloured today and she had drawn it back in a bun. Her art nouveau spectacles were level with my bare thorax where the draught wrapped the dangling sleeve.

“I’ve woken you,” she said.

“No, I was just going swimming.” She glanced at the grey waves rushing into the estuary and decided to smile.

“Angie wanted to be sure you got this early.” Rabbit handed me a small, white envelope. It smelled clean, like the back of a young girl’s neck.

“I’d ask you in for tea —”

“Only you can’t find the kettle?”

“Only I can’t find my head. Another time.”

“Promise ?” Her eyes twinkled. I nodded and she retreated back up the path, bending into the wind whirling the pleats of her skirt. She had well-made legs.

Angie had written to ask me if I could remove myself from the castle that afternoon. There were some things she would like to sort out here alone. Before I left I sprinkled a handful of flour on the floor of the dark passage leading to the locked door to the blockhouse and stretched a black thread taut from a door hinge to the jamb. To conceal my inquisitiveness I replaced the 60-watt hall light with the dinky 40-watt bulb from over the cooker. I stuffed my binoculars into the pocket of my oilies and walked a few hundred metres up the path towards Grise Head. After I had left Westowe a wooden bench had been installed at this point. It bore a plaque to the memory of Thomas Goodfellow, Superbloke’s father, who, according to the plaque, was drowned at sea near this ledge, where he had been fond of sitting to watch the sunset. More likely it was a favourite trysting place. The plaque did not record the local gossip: that he had probably jumped, when, after years of enduring her husband’s posturing and philandering, his wife sensibly left him for the local butcher. To the south-west there was the splendid view of Grise Head which the old goat carried with him spiralling into eternity. Northwards this spot overlooked the castle. I sat on the memorial bench and waited. After a quarter of an hour, two people turned down the path to the castle. Angie wore a scarlet cloak. The other figure, in one of those forest-green woollen overcoats with sloping shoulders that businessmen wear on the Continent, was the son of the man whose bench I was sitting on. She unlocked the door, Superbloke followed her in, and I regretted I had not stretched a thread between the bedposts. I trudged on up the hill, bowing into the wind.

The girl at the huer’s hut wore an army surplus camouflage jacket. It was no good in the rain; damp epaulettes spread over her shoulders. She was in her twenties, tall, with long straw-coloured hair that glittered in a sudden shaft of sunlight that swept across the heather. There was a puckish tilt to her nose. She brought down the binoculars and flashed me a smile.

“The birds will be keeping their heads down today,” I said.

“Are you local?” Wherever her accent came from, you could see the horizon all around you.

“That’s probably the central question of my life.”

She looked at me as if I were some kind of nutter. “You’re not some kind of nutter?”

“The jury’s still out on that.”

She shifted the binoculars between her hands. “Do you know that house?”

I couldn’t resist playing the yokel. “That there be Tattersall Hall.”

“Is it occupied?”

“When Lord Nick be about.”

“Do you know him?”

“Ain’t seen him in near on thirty year.”

“Did you know Bartholomew Streb?”

I twigged, and dropped the cod accent. “You’re a journalist.”

She laughed. “You don’t like journalists.”

“I rate them one notch above solicitors. Why not go up and knock on the door?”

“I tried that.”

“Nick divides his time between the Caribbean and the slammer,” I said. She slipped the binoculars back into their case. I gestured westwards. “Want to walk?”

“I’ve got an appointment. Some other time?”

“Where will I find you?”

She laughed. “I’m hard to miss.”

“Another time.”

“Promise?” She grinned and then she started down the path towards the village. She didn’t look back.

I went on around Fairfoul Bay and across The Neck, which connects Grise Head to the seething white amphitheatre just beyond. They call it The Devil’s Frying-pan, of course. A cupboardful of satanic kitchen equipment litters the coastline of the British Isles, gigantic basins created by domes that have been hollowed out by the waves and collapsed into the sea. But this one is rather special. To the south-east it is embraced by The Devil’s Coat-tails, a shoal of flat rock extending three cables out to sea from Grise Head and blocking passage towards the estuary from the west. On an eastward tide the current veers into the bowl of this trap at a rate of four knots at springs, churning over The Giant’s Playthings, tumbled slabs that rise up out of the sea only at low water. Sunlight never touches the depths of The Devil’s Frying-pan, and even on calm days it rumbles with the wrath of Neptune. Today the tide was high and the waves roared in the pit like caged beasts. Over the centuries they have seized a number of craft. I tried to picture a small sailing boat being sucked into that dark maelstrom. When I was seven, for reasons no one could explain, on a black night my father sailed his thirty-footer into this cauldron on the back of a heavy south-westerly swell. I wouldn’t have minded so much, except he had my mother on board with him at the time. She hated sailing.

I walked down the westward slope and another mile-and-a-half up the long skyward profile towards Grise Heel lighthouse. About halfway between the Head and the Heel a giant mewstone squats just a few metres off shore. If you line that up with the Harestone buoy off Grise Head on an eastward heading you’ll sail well clear of where The Coat-tails flick. My father had taught me that. From shore the mewstone appears almost perfectly conical but the hidden seaward side is rent by a great vertical fissure. On the charts the mewstone has no name, but we kids called it The Toilet, and as a dare, we would scramble out there to drop our trousers and crap into the shaft from a great height. You can cross over to the mewstone only at extreme low spring tides, and even then you only have an hour. If you use The Toilet at high tide you enjoy a free douche, because the swell shoots a column of spray out of the fissure every now and then. For that pleasure you have to arrive by dinghy, but there is only one landing place and it can be managed only when the sea is peaceful. I watched for a while, but The Toilet wasn’t flushing today. I felt cheated. In Westowe even nature wasn’t the same as it had been. Beyond the mewstone the glint of the sun on the water was absorbed by a black cloud. It began to rain cold, slanting stair rods, and I turned back.

The lights were on inside the castle and so I knocked at the door. Angie opened it, but Superbloke was not there, unless she had stowed him in the blockhouse. A fire was laid and on the coffee table in front of it there was a bottle of single malt with a red ribbon tied round the neck and a small card dangling from it. It read, in her handwriting, ‘You’re an absolute brick — The Landlady.’ There was a time in our teens when we affected to speak like P.G. Wodehouse characters. ‘You’re an absolute brick’ was a catch line. Sometimes we pronounced the b in brick like a p. In either case, the response was always ‘Beazer for ballast.’ Self-deprecating, because it’s the only nautical use you could imagine for a brick.

“Beazer for ballast,” I said.

She smiled. “Sorry to turn you out into the storm.”

I poured two drinks and set about lighting the fire. “Are you going to sell the castle?” I asked.

“I can’t. Not until I’m absolutely sure Bartholomew is dead.”

“Is that why you needed to come here today?”

Angie ignored my question. “If my plans change I’ll give you plenty of notice.”

“Was it to do with what’s in the blockhouse?”

“Why do you ask?”

I told her about my tête-à-tête with Pixie and Poxy. “If they’re Customs & Excise looking for drug-runners, they may be staking out the harbour entrance and just want to come in out of the rain and drink my Scotch. If they’re with some other crowd investigating Bartholomew’s disappearance they may want to search his effects.”

“Who could they be?”

“The CID, maybe. Insurance investigators — .” As I spoke it occurred to me that maybe it was not Bartholomew they were interested in, but me. Because of my involvement with the departed Colonel Meeker. Or because Donald Penny had opened a can of worms about Maire’s legacy.

“Wouldn’t they need a court order?”

“To obtain it they would need to show sufficient grounds. Which means showing their hand. They’re trying the back door first.” I poured myself another Scotch. Angie had not touched hers. “Do you keep anything valuable in there?”

“Where?”

She did not want to talk about the blockhouse. “Charlie didn’t have a key to it. Memorabilia, perhaps, I thought.”

“That’s a Superbloke word.” She laughed. “It’s more of a junk shop actually.” She crossed to the window, the way people do on stage when they want to change the subject.

I obliged. “What happened to his later paintings?”

I thought I had changed the subject, but she turned around to stare at me and said, “There are no — pictures of his in the blockhouse.” Angie never lied. But she could be evasive. Why did she hesitate before the word ‘pictures’? There was something else of his in the blockhouse. Something she could show to Superbloke, but not to me. Why trust him and not me?

“But he did go on painting, after you were married?”

“He was happy. He didn’t seem to need to paint anymore. Except – more recently.”

“What happened to those?”

“They weren’t very good, I’m afraid.” She took a turn around the room. “When I stand here, it’s not possible that he’s gone.”

“Did you still love him?”

“We had a bond. The residue after love evaporates. It’s sticky.”

“I feel his presence here.”

“That’s why I wanted you to be here. Someone who would respect that it was his place. Our place.”

“I can’t believe he’s gone, either, Angie. But if he is, I hope you can stop grieving some day.”

“Every day, as soon as I wake, the clouds press me down to the ground. How long does it take?”

I took a slug of whisky. “Depends if it’s grief or guilt.”

“Why?”

“Grief fades. Mellows into some kind of bittersweet memory, they say. Guilt stays sharp forever. Like vinegar.”

She looked at me as though I’d solved a puzzle for her. “That’s it. I’m not grieving for him. It’s my guilt.”

“At least I can share that feeling with you.”

She reached out and took my hand. “I told you, you’re not guilty.”

I reached out and held her hand. “I’d like to be forgiven.”

She looked at me, puzzled, then smiled and squeezed my hand. “I meant when Maire died.”

“I meant for leaving you.”

“I didn’t know what grief was then. What bothered me most was that you didn’t talk it through with me. Why you were leaving. I think I would have understood. I would have given you my blessing.”

I had a lump in my throat. Guilty. Once again, not for what I did, but what I failed to do. Angie continued, “I was downcast. But I was young enough to climb out of that pit. With a little help.”

I was disappointed. “Spider?”

Her eyes widened. “Spider?”

“I thought, after I left . . .”

“What put that into your head?”

Out with it, I thought. “Did you have a child?”

She turned away. “Is that what Spider says?”

“Just that you went away for a while.”

“He can’t know. Mam would never tell. I went up to London. The Christmas decorations were up already in Oxford Street and I was utterly miserable. It was a horrid little room, with goddamn teddy bears printed on the nylon curtains. It was just before Christmas and I was utterly miserable. I could see the tops of the bare trees in the park. You lived only a couple of tube stops away. I thought about wrapping the foetus up and bringing it to you. But they put them in the incinerator.”

Suddenly I remembered what it was like to be in love; there was a pain beneath my upper ribs.

“I could have been a father.”

“You were.”

“How did you know it wasn’t Spider’s?”

Angie slapped me across the face so hard my ears rang and tears came to my eyes. “I loved you,” she said. “Whatever that means at that age.”

I put my arms around her then. For a moment she was tense and pulled back, but then she folded in against me like a child. She was crying now. I patted her head with my hand, but she wasn’t a child. I felt her breasts warm against me and moved my hand down to round her hip. It wasn’t too wide. It felt just right. She must have felt me stiffen against her belly, but she didn’t pull away. Instead she reached her mouth up to mine and we kissed. She opened her mouth first. Mother Superior was experienced, warm and confident, a mature woman. I was twenty again, and raging to have her.

She pulled back a little. “It’s been a long time for me. We didn’t make love very often.”

“You and me?”

She smiled and leaned in against me. “We made love whenever we could find a place to lie down. I mean Bartholomew.”

I stroked her hair. “Crazy, crazy man.”

“Yes he was. Is.”

“You’ve waited long enough.”

“Do you still find me attractive.”

I knew now I would have her. Soon. In minutes. Heaven was opening its legs, and it made me glib and reckless.

“You’re the most attractive woman I’ve met in — oh over an hour or so.”

She whispered in my ear. “You’ve not been haring after a rabbit, have you?”

“A Nosy Parker in a camouflage jacket up by Nick’s place. She wanted to know where he was.”

She pulled away. “A local?”

I had broken the mood. “Not with that accent.”

“You found her attractive?”

“She had an appealing personality.” The truncheon in my trousers began to sag.

Angie put distance between us. “What did she say to you?”

“She asked if I knew Bartholomew.” Angie turned away and groped for her coat. I took her arm. “She’s just some nosy journalist.” Without looking at me, Angie removed my hand and went to the door.

I trailed after her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to press you. I’m still very fond of you.”

Angie turned to face me. “We’ll always be good friends.”

“That’s a bit trite.”

Her mouth twitched in that vulnerable way I had always loved. “It’s what you said to me the night you left Westowe.”

She didn’t bother to close the door, and I watched her go up the path with her long stride under the sweeping grey skirt and disappear around the rhododendron twisting in the wind.

My rude beast had curled into a limp escargot. I kicked the door closed and took another warm-up from the bottle. But it was Angie I wanted to keep me warm. Or even the Rabbit. Or the Sheila at the lookout. I wondered what her body looked like once you peeled off the rucksack.

Whisky glass in hand, I checked the passage to the blockhouse. There were footprints in the flour all the way to the door, but it had not been opened. The black thread was still intact. I walked back into the front room and put a log on the fire. The bed could tell me nothing. Why make a special appointment with Superbloke to go and stand by a door without opening it? Had she forgotten the key? Not like Angie. The passage was lit only by the dim 40-watt bulb in the ceiling fixture at the kitchen end, so I took my torch and walked down it again. On the door I saw something I had not noticed before, because of all the iron fretwork. At eye-level a small wooden panel was fixed between two horizontal metal guide-rails. A spy hole. You could slide the panel aside, except it was retained by a second latch with another keyhole and that was locked. On the wall by the door there was an electric switch which hadn’t controlled anything when I tried it before. I clicked it now, then went back and switched off the ceiling fixture. A glimmer of light now seeped out on to the floor from beneath the locked door. What did she keep in there? Gold ingots? A roomful of Bartholomew’s paintings? His Australian bint hanging in rags chained to the wall? I hammered on the door. “Are you in there what’s-your-name? Maggie? Maisie? You idle bint?” There was no answer.


Tuesday, 8th February

She smoked roll-ups. She talked too loud. She wore no make-up. Her breasts made only small bumps in the thin blue woolly with the damp stains on the shoulders. She was quick and apprehensive and when she wasn’t the centre of attention she nibbled at her nails. She was sitting on a bar stool. Charlie Segui and Spider were standing. When I went up to them she was laughing and her hand was on Spider’s upper arm, but Spider wasn’t smiling. She thrust her hand out to me like a man. “We met in a gale on the cliff,” she said. “Very romantic.” The last word was spoken in pure Australian.

“I’m Ted Golden.”

“I know.” The way she said it made me think she knew more than a newcomer to Westowe should. And then I heard why.

“Matty’s come back to Westowe to claim her fortune.” Irony usually passed Charlie by, so it was hard to tell if his intention was sarcastic or simply narrative. But Matty twitched and swung her legs from the knee.

“Bad penny,” she said.

“What happened to Bartholomew?” I thought this would get a rise out of her, but she laughed. “I’ve already told the police. And everyone in the pub. Maybe I should give an interview to the Westowe Weekly Herald.”

“She says she jumped ship in France,” said Spider.

The grin left her face. She looked at Spider and then back at me. “I didn’t know he was missing,” she said quietly.

“When did you last see him?” I asked.

“A few days after we left Westowe. We just crossed the Channel to Lézardrieu. And we had a row.”

“The way skippers and crew do when they’re sharing the same narrow bunk,” said Spider.

“I loved him,” she said.

“What did you row about?” asked Spider.

“Nothing. Everything.” She stared at her knuckles, joined on the bar. Then she looked straight up at him. “The way lovers do.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I left. I went ashore and stayed in a pension. The next day I went back, but Swan Song was gone.”

Spider formed his words slowly. “I went to Lézardrieu. I spoke to the harbourmaster. I asked all around. Swan Song never went there.”

“We anchored off the estuary.”

“Where the tides run at six knots at springs.” Spider’s voice held no trace of irony.

She turned to Spider, angry now. “You don’t want to believe me.”

Spider beamed at me. “She says I don’t believe her.”

“I loved Bartholomew.” Her hair was the colour of wet hay, unclean and unkempt. She brushed it away from her forehead. Her nails had been chewed to little pink discs embedded in flesh.

“She says she loved Bartholomew,” Spider intoned.

“We all loved him in a way,” I said.

Spider grunted. “Not her way.”

“Did you really think you’d make it to Australia?” I asked.

She had drawn one knee up and was studying her foot. She was wearing dayglo-lime-and-purple trainers and they were soaked through. They laced well above her ankles, topped by a roll of orange socks, and above that her legs were sun-brown. “Bartholomew was a very good sailor,” she said.

“It was a very small boat,” put in Spider.

Charlie took over the interrogation. “Did you go back to Australia, after you left him?”

“I was tied to him with an elastic band. I could only go so far. Anyway, I didn’t have any money.”

“Where did you go?”

“I did odd jobs. I speak French.”

“Do you have any idea where he was going?” I asked.

“Back here, I reckoned.”

“And so you expected to see him?”

“I knew he’d run back home to Mummy.”

Spider had been smiling gently at her. Now a cloud passed over his features. He saw me watching him. “She means Angie.”

I continued the interrogation. “What brought you back here?”

“I don’t know. I thought I’d probably got over him. Anyway, I have some unfinished business here.”

Spider looked at the ceiling. “Not that crap about Nickers Farting-Isthatall.”

She eyed him calmly. “It’s not crap.”

Spider looked at me. “She thinks Nickers is her old man.”

I shrugged. “Would he know?”

“I’m going to sue him.” She looked at Charlie. “Aren’t we, Charlie?”

Charlie looked uncomfortable. “There are some preliminaries to go through first.”

I nudged Spider. “Translating as the firm is not yet in funds?”

Spider grunted. “You’d better get a move on, Mats. Before he stuffs all your inheritance up his nose.”

“It’s not about money. It’s about establishing the truth.”

Spider spoke to Charlie. “I bet you wish you had a half-crown for every litigant that said that to you.”

Matty held her arms straight down by her sides, clenching and unclenching her fists. “I am damn well going to prove it.”

“How?” I asked.

“A DNA test.”

Charlie put in his tuppence. “Bodily fluid samples have to be given voluntarily.”

Matty grinned. “Sod’s law, ain’t it? Most blokes a girl meets are spraying them voluntarily all over the place.”

“Will he consent?” I asked.

“Not unless I force his head under water.”

A couple of locals who had moved up closer to hear what was going on looked up at that, and so did Eddy Starr who was standing behind them.

“Not the most tasteful remark to make in Westowe today,” I said.

“It’s all right. I’m Australian.”

We had all almost finished our drinks. Spider went out to the toilet and Charlie knocked back the dregs of his pint and hurried off, as it was his round next. Matty tipped back on her stool and eyed me squarely for the first time. “You live in the castle now, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“I’d like to see it again.”

Ahead of me lay a cold afternoon cramped on my knees in the bilges of the Amaryllis, scraping rust off the iron floor braces. “Come and have some lunch,” I said.

Her face brightened. The skies were clearing too. The rain had stopped. We were outside and walking towards the Jubilee Quay when there was a shout behind us.

“Matty!” We turned. Spider was standing in the doorway of the pub. “Where are you off to?”

“My place,” I said.

Matty took my arm. “Only because I don’t have one,” she said.

“Fast worker,” said Spider.

“Just lucky,” I said.

“Not you. Delilah, there. Don’t let her cut your hair.” Spider turned and went back into the pub.

It was low tide and so I had tied up my tender at Pogie’s pontoon instead of the Jubilee Quay. We had to push past a few dinghies before I could lower the outboard into the water. One of them was green and had a large dent in the bow. I had to step into it with the painter and perch on the stern thwart to manoeuvre my dinghy past it. I thought of the last man who had sat here.

“This was the dinghy he went out in,” I said.

“The man who’s missing?”

“Aye. Colonel Meeker.”

When I clambered back into my dinghy she said, “We’re both in the same boat.” Her laugh was explosive and I thought for the first time that the reason people found her interesting might be that she was out of her head. “They say you were the last person to see him alive,” she added. I nodded. “And that’s what they say about me and Bartholomew.”

Matty posed in the bow with her head up, sniffing the wind like a long-haired golden retriever all the way to the castle. I opened a packet of biscuits, mixed up a tin of tuna fish, capers, chopped gherkins and chives with some mayonnaise, ground some coffee beans and filled the percolator. Matty braced herself at the window as if she were piloting the castle through the seas outside. Then she started prowling about like a cat, touching the walls and shelves, picking things up and setting them down again. Once she went down the corridor and I heard the little metallic rattle of the lid on the locked Judas window in the blockhouse door. She came up next to me at the counter that separated the galley kitchen from the rest of the studio.

“Jeez. Where are all his pictures?”

“There was nothing here but the furniture.”

“There were canvases. Dozens of them.” She walked to the window and looked out at the mouth of the estuary where golden arrows slashed through the blanket of low grey clouds. “She threw them away.”

I gave her a mug of coffee. “Angie was always a tidy-minded sort of person.”

She turned towards me, warming her hands around the blue-and-white Cornish Ware striped mug. “She hates me.”

“I reckon. I’m counting on Spider not telling her I’ve invited you here to lunch.” We sat at the kitchen counter and ate the tuna fish and biscuits.

“Spider and I used to be good friends,” she said. She looked up at me. “Just friends, I mean. But good friends.”

“He’s a good friend to have.”

“Why doesn’t he believe me about Bartholomew? Does he think I scuppered Swan Song? I was in love with the crazy loon.”

“When did you find out that Bartholomew was missing?”

“Not until I got here.”

“Who told you?”

“Wasn’t it you?”

“Me?”

“Yesterday. On Sentinel Point?”

“I didn’t even know who you were.”

“It must have been someone else then. Old Mrs Dolally at the guest house. Does it matter?”

“Just that you didn’t look like a woman who’d just found out her lover was missing and presumed dead.”

“How did I look?”

I searched for the right word and found it. “Radiant.”

She smiled and then started moving around to touch the furniture again. “Maybe she told me later. No, I remember. She told me as soon as I walked in the door. That’s why I needed to walk on the cliffs. To take it in. And when I got to the hut, standing there leaning against the wind over the sea, I knew it was all over. I felt released.” Matty stopped by the short passage to the locked munitions room. “I bet she put them in there.”

“What?”

“His paintings.”

“What were they?”

“Portraits of me, mostly. And some murky squiggles. What he called his rock pool images. Sometimes you couldn’t tell one from the other. They were very disturbing. But nothing was ever finished.” She walked down the passage and tugged on the latch of the barred door. “That’s where she put them.”

“It’s locked. I haven’t got a key.”

She walked back into the room. “That room was their little secret, him and her. We used to row about it.”

“What’s in there?” I asked.

“He wouldn’t tell me. Like Bluebeard and his bride. Just some old junk, he said, but he was lying.”

“How do you know?”

“I nicked his key once and tried to open it. But it takes two keys. And his wife had the other one.”

“I reckon she’s got them both now.”

“That’s where his paintings are then. She’s saving them for a rainy day.”

“She says not.”

“She’s lying.”

“Angie doesn’t lie.”

“Just because you’ve got the hots for her.”

“How would you know?”

“It’s all over the village. People are making book on when you will screw Mother Superior.” I must have winced. “You haven’t yet.”

“How would you know?”

“I can tell when a man’s been well fucked.”

“Why did you come back to Westowe?”

She leaned on the counter, hunched her shoulders forward and laid her hands flat on the table. She saw me looking at her gnawed fingers and balled them into fists. “I have to know who I am.”

I reached out and put my hand over hers. She looked down at it. “I need a place to stay.” My hand took itself away. She reached across and took it back into hers. “I wouldn’t be any trouble. I could sleep on the floor. No hanky-panky. Scouts honour. I’m an expert cook and bottle-washer.”

A shy smile flicked across her brown face like the sun shimmering through a summer squall. Her irises were a warm deep brown and regarded me friendly and steady, like a dog its master. As a woman she was totally unsuitable. And dead sexy.

I shrugged my shoulders and splayed out my hands. “The landlady’s a bit strict.”

“You’re a grown man.”

“It’s her property.”

“It’s his place. His and mine.”

I shook my head. She stood up and got her camouflage jacket. I helped her on with it, feeling her warm shoulders under the thin woollen jumper. I reached for the jacket of my oilies.

“I’ll walk you back to the village.”

“Thanks,” she said. “but I need a walk on my own.” She offered me her hand in that masculine way of hers.

“See you,” I said and opened the door to a blast of wind. The tide was full and in the little cove behind the castle the Amaryllis was rocking gently against its pilings.

Matty pulled the hood of her jacket over her head, then clapped her hands and shouted. “Jeez. You’ve got a boat.”

“The Amaryllis.”

“She’s lovely.”

“She will be. Once she’s fitted out.”

She grasped my elbow and leaned against me in the rain. “Let me stay on her. I’ll help you.”

“You’d freeze to death.”

“We’re very hardy, us Sheilas.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think about it. Feel about it.” She pressed her warm lips against my cheek and turned and started up the path in the rain. Skipping, for Christ’s sake. Then she stopped, looked back and waved, “See you soon.”

I poured a large glass of Angie’s single malt and put Ravel’s Bolero on the tape player and felt about it until dusk.

There was a knock on the door. I walked to it, wondering if I would have the resolve to throw her out again. Angie was standing in the steady rain. In the glare of the external light over the door her face was white under her hood. She wore no make-up. For the first time I thought of her as a middle-aged woman. She brushed past me, walked to the centre of the room, spun about and stood there dripping water on to the throw rug, glaring. “What did she say about Bartholomew?”

“She says she left him after a couple of days in Lézardrieu. Says she doesn’t know where he is now. Spider will have told you all about it.”

“I haven’t seen Spider today.”

“Who blew the whistle on me then?”

She ignored that. “You see. I was right. If she’s alive, then so is he.”

“He hasn’t come home to Mum, yet.”

“Is that how you see me? Mumsy?”

“Those were your words.”

“And you find her attractive?”

“I find you attractive.” Given the way she looked at the moment, that came out a little unconvincing. So I added, “You know that.”

“I don’t want that girl to set foot in here again. I’ll get Charlie to put it in the lease.”

“We don’t have a lease. And it’s not necessary. I’ll do anything you say.”

“It’s a promise then?”

I held up my fingers and smiled. “Scout’s honour. Let me make you a cup of tea.”

She brushed past me and into the night. The lights were on in Glochamorra cottage, and I saw a curtain sway.


Friday, 18th February

By the day of the inquest into Colonel Meeker’s disappearance Matty had been working with me for more than a week. She knew about boats and she was good with her hands. One morning she had turned up on my doorstep in the drizzle with a carry-all. Her canvas camouflage jacket was soaked through and her psychedelic plimsolls squelched as she shuffled on the doorstep. “I think you need an au pair for the Amaryllis.” I stood blocking the doorway, not inviting her in. “I’ll live on board,” she sighed.

“Your blood would turn to slush.”

“I can’t afford to stay on at Mavis Colostomy’s Buena Vista home for wayward girls, even at off-season rates. Charlie Segui is bleeding me dry.”

I agreed to pay her wages to help me on the boat. I threw in lunch and tea. The rules were no smoking on board, and she could only enter the castle if she were invited, which she wouldn’t be, and I promised not to fuck her.

“Unless I specifically invite you,” she added.

“How will I know it’s not date rape?”

“You’re not that clumsy. You like people to think you’re dumb. But I’m smart enough to know how smart you are.”

“I’ll let you know when I figure that out,” I said.

The first afternoon we cleared most of the gear out of the cabin and up on to the deck where we rigged up a tarpaulin to keep out the rain. We got the little stove in the heads working and hauled a supply of coal aboard. I pulled out an old orange oilskin jacket I had found in the castle. You could just make out the name written in felt tip pen on the cloth tag inside the collar: B. Streb. The oilskin wrapped around her almost twice, and after I gave it to her I wished I had ripped the name tag out first. I never saw her wear the camouflage jacket again. Over the next few days I made sure that Matty spent most of her time below decks, re-fitting, scraping and painting, while I stayed topside, ripping off the fibreglass that some vandal had sheathed the teak-laid decks with, then repairing, sanding and re-caulking them. When my hands grew too numb I would break for a cup of tea or coffee. Matty had hers in the galley, but I always stayed outdoors, whatever the temperature, in the open cockpit under the tarpaulin. Matty thought I was barmy not to come inside, until she teased out why: Rabbit had a clear view of the Amaryllis from the picture window of her bungalow up the hill. After that Matty never stopped taking the mickey.

“Where are you from in Australia?” I asked her once, as we huddled over mugs of hot soup in the cockpit. Rain drummed on the tarpaulin and fat drops splashed on to the mahogany seats.

“Promise not to laugh.”

“Don’t be so defensive.”

“Nowheresville. A farming community in South Australia. It’s called Mingo Junction.”

I laughed. “What brought you to Westowe in the first place?”

“The Farting-Ass-in-Tatters family hang out here.” Matty ripped open the Velcro strips on Bartholomew’s oilskin jacket and reached into the neck of her jumper. She pulled out a thin gold chain. A locket dangled from it. “Open it,” she said. As I reached for it, it slipped or she let it slip. The shallow vale between her breasts warmed the back of my hand. Fixed inside the locket was an old copper farthing.

“My parents adopted me when I was a baby. This came with me.”

“Do the Australians allow you to trace your parents?”

She nodded. “There’s a new law. But I was left in the ladies convenience at Adelaide airport.”

“In a handbag?”

“A Harrod’s shopping bag. I’ve got the newspaper cuttings to prove it.” I was still warming the back of my hand against the worn, balled wool of her jumper. “Don’t you get it? It’s a farthing. Farthing-Tattersall.”

“It could be just a good luck piece. A lot of people kept these. I had one myself as a kid.” She slipped the locket out of my fingers and popped it down her neck hole. “There’s something else.” She dove down the hatchway into the cabin and came back with her ditty bag. “My mother treated my father like a doormat. One day we had a screaming match, and she told me I was adopted. So I ran away from home. I hooked up with a bunch of guys on a sailing yacht. I got as far as Auckland. They thought I was eighteen.”

“How old were you?”

“Thirteen-and-a-half. Almost. I was tall for my age. And no tits at all. Maybe they thought I was a fella. Anyway, I was still a virgin when I came back, so they didn’t prosecute the guys. And I was on TV. Which is how it came about.”

She paused while I puzzled how common it was for Australian girls to lose their virginity on TV. Her hand held something out. “I don’t show this to everyone, Skipper.” It was a tattered postcard.

The view was familiar. You could still buy the same postcard from the rack in Millie’s sub-post office: a garish four-colour photograph of a dark stone 18th century manor house captioned, ‘Tattersall Hall, Westowe, Devon.’ The card was addressed to Miss Mathilda Ferguson, care of the Adelaide Advertiser. The Australian stamp had been cancelled in Sydney fourteen years ago. In the message space a feminine hand had written in large, looping letters: ‘Be a good girl and stay home ‘til you’re 21. Then go find your Dad. Forgive me.’ It was signed ‘Mum’.

“I had to wait a bit longer,” said Matty.

“Did you find your Mum?”

“Never. I reckoned she might have been a servant.”

“That’s the noble tradition. On the other hand, Nick travels widely. And loosely.”

On the day of the inquest I declared a half-holiday and we made our way towards the village hall. Clumps of snowdrops shivered in the gusts whistling through the cramped gardens of the stone houses. As we turned down Little Lane, bending into the wind that flew up at us from the estuary, Matty linked elbows with me. Rabbit was advancing up the alley. I said hello and she looked through us as if we were columns of swirling leaves. Matty stepped aside to let her pass, pulling me against the wall. She leaned her head on my shoulder like an affectionate lion cub, and flashed a radiant smile at the plump lady, grey-haired today, who passed by trailing her wobbly two-wheeled shopping cart over the cobblestones. Her mouth was set in concrete.

It began to hail. Matty grabbed my hand and tugged me, running, down the hill. By the time we scuttled into the village hall the snowdrops were being hammered back into the ground in a deluge of sleet. The hall was chill and smelled of damp tweed. All the chairs were filled and people stood around the wall, foul-weather gear cradled in their arms or heaped at their feet or spread with hope on the massive, lukewarm radiators. Apart from the lame, the halt and their carers — a considerable number — and those who had steady jobs — a fragment — most of the winter population of Westowe was there. A bald, rosy-cheeked septuagenarian wearing a black pre-war suit with chalk stains on the sleeves sat behind a deal table in the centre of the small dais at the end of the hall. He looked like the Father Christmas who had camped there aeons ago on a gold-painted papier-maché throne, beaming while a troop of elves and fairies, myself included, tiptoed around him in a Christmas pantomime. In the shadow at the side of the stage, a gaunt, chinless woman swathed in brown sat motionless at a folding card table, pen poised over a yellow pad, gazing at him through huge, round spectacles — a large, patient stick insect. The ripe ladies in the fur coats and Liberty scarves seated in the front row were Colonel Meeker’s wife and friends who had been denied their outing on the royal yacht Britannia.

By this time, thanks to the Sunday papers, we all knew a lot more about Colonel Meeker. He was a colonel only in the Territorial Army, at whose parades he had failed to muster for some years. He was also a crook. He led a syndicate at Lloyds Insurance which had off-loaded all the dicey risks — asbestos, hurricanes, maritime oil spills — on to naïve new investors, while ring-fencing the investments of himself and his cronies. The sun had set on these risks; under black clouds the chickens were flocking back to the roost, and hundreds of small investors, saddled with unlimited liability, were facing ruin. Some had committed suicide. Others had herded together to take legal action against him.

Father Christmas was today masquerading as a Deputy Coroner of the County of Devon, a medical doctor called Rose. He opened the proceedings by reading from a document, and then looked up over his half-moons. “We do not know what has become of Colonel Lawrence Meeker. Only that he has gone missing. That may be a tragedy or an inconvenience, but it is not in itself a crime. However, the circumstances are such that the Coroner’s Office has reported to the Secretary of State, as it is obliged to do by statute, that there is reason to believe that a death from an unknown cause may have occurred in this district. The Secretary of State has the discretion to direct the Coroner’s Office to conduct an inquest, and he has done so. Our purpose is to establish, so far as we are able, whether Colonel Meeker has died, and if so, how, when and where he came by his death. Witnesses are reminded that they are under oath, and while our procedures will be generally familiar to those of you who watch television drama series regularly . . .” The Deputy Coroner paused and smiled at us, and a few members of the audience rewarded him with encouraging chuckles.

“There are some important differences,” he continued. “No one is permitted to address the coroner, so, no speeches, please. You may only respond to my interrogation. Witnesses are reminded that they are examined under oath. However, our procedures today are more relaxed than in a courtroom. We shall be permitted to hear matters which would not strictly be admissible in evidence at a criminal trial. Matters which have not been established as fact.” He peered at us again over his half-moons. “However, please don’t take this as a licence to invoke rumour, gossip and tattle-tale.” The laughter spread more freely, and a low expectant hum of conversation rose from the floor. Father Christmas had charmed his audience.

Eddy Starr wore his uniform for the occasion and told us what we all already knew. He had no new information. “But, I have a theory,” he said, leaning forward in his chair after Doctor Rose had thanked and excused him.

“I do not wish to hear it,” said the Deputy Coroner. Eddy’s mouth hung open. Doctor Rose waved his hand and Eddy stepped down from the dais, eyes fastened on the floor.

Even without her fur, the colonel’s wife was dressed as richly as a bishop, and with the same concern for concealment, perhaps because she was as round as a washtub. By her account, the colonel was chimeric: an astute financial wizard and a loving, caring husband. It would have been just like him to plan a surprise outing on the Britannia, but she had been unaware of it. When it proved to be a hoax it would not have been in his nature to accept having been deceived. Before his recent visit, neither of them had been to Westowe before. Her manner suggested it was unlikely she would visit again. No, her husband was not a fishing enthusiast, although he relished a physical challenge. Which, I thought, must have been what kept them together.

Charlie Segui had to read aloud exhibit C-1, the letter he had received from the colonel’s solicitors. There were a few titters in the audience and someone laughed outright. The Deputy Coroner silenced them with a reproachful glance. Then Charlie read out exhibit C-2, the response I had written for him, and the audience broke up completely.

Doctor Rose called on his clerk to restore order, and when that spare lady rose from her chair like a carving freed from a tombstone, the laughter spluttered to a halt. Charlie thrust his lower lip out and said “I authorised it but I didn’t write it.”

A final coda of laughter erupted. When it died down the Deputy Coroner asked, “Who did write it?”

“The man who signed it,” said Charlie. “Ted Golden.” His eyes, glaring, sought me in the crowd.

As I got up to testify Matty squeezed my hand. I walked to the chair at the front of the room feeling like a schoolboy who had been caught stealing girls’ knickers from a clothesline. The ladies in furs were sniffling into lace handkerchiefs.

Courts invariably assume that human behaviour, in all its random absurdity, is the inevitable result of premeditated plotting with malicious intent. In this spirit, Doctor Rose asked me about the tone of the letter I wrote. “I was trying to defuse the situation,” I lied.

He stared at me over the rim of his spectacles for several seconds, and then grunted. “To unfortunate effect, it appears.”

I squirmed. Retold in my words before a Deputy Coroner who looked like a headmaster at a seedy church school and the ancient clerk who looked like the recording angel, my tale of the jolly japes at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party played like a Leni Riefenstahl film at Golders Green Cinema. By the time I had explained how I had recovered Pogie’s skiff, it seemed patent that everyone in the hall believed that whatever had happened to Colonel Meeker, for whatever dark reason, Ted Golden was at the centre of the spider’s web.

But officially, there was insufficient evidence. All the inquest could do was to declare an open verdict. Which meant what we already knew. The colonel was missing. Just like Bartholomew, as Pixie said. And, as Spider said, once again there was no body.


Saturday, 19th February

Except there was a body. That night, while I was looking out of the castle window watching the daylight drain from the sky it was bumping over the bar in the grip of the tide into the estuary. It surfaced at slack water off the Long Beach holiday flats, where the gulls feed when the sewage outlet discharges at four o’clock each afternoon. Dinny Dinsmore was curious because a flock of gulls was wheeling and mewing in the air there shortly after dawn. I saw him, erect and important in his navy pea jacket and disreputable white cap, as he passed below the castle while I was brewing my morning pot of tea. He looked like a Mr Man toy figure in a bathtub boat towing an inflated orange rubber duck. I focused my binoculars on this object. Then I pulled on my clothes, scalded my mouth with a few gulps of tea, and hurried down to the Jubilee Quay with most of the rest of the village.

Dinny was just coming in. Hands reached out for his warps. A swollen bag of orange oilskins bobbed off the stern of his launch. It was about three times the size the colonel had been when I saw him last. Dinny stepped out vacant-eyed. “I’ve got to wash me hands,” he said, holding them out in front of him like a surgeon who has just put his rubber gloves on. Had Dinny ever washed his hands? They were grimy with diesel oil and dirt. He headed towards the public toilets on the quay. His bucket came in handy. He took only a few steps before he had to put his head down and use it. Everyone shuffled past him to stare at the thing. The crowd parted for Spider, and I moved in behind him. He snagged the line with a boathook and pulled the mess closer. Two puffy sleeves floated free from the mass, the cuffs hanging empty like a teeny-bopper wearing an oversize jumper. The sweet odour of putrefaction went straight to my stomach, and pushed the crowd back like an unseen giant hand. Spider shielded his nose with the back of his hand and reached down to lift the hood of the oilies. There was no head, only a white and pink stump with fleshy tendrils trailing out of it, like a gutted fish. Spider vomited his fried breakfast where the corpse’s face should have been, people in the crowd gasped and turned their backs, and I rushed into the toilets gagging. Dinny was rinsing the recent contents of his stomach out of his chocolate-coloured bucket. He turned his innocent eyes on me. “Did you mark the writing inside the hood?”

“There was no head,” I blurted. My large intestine was coiling up into my throat.

“Nor hands neither,” said Dinny. “But his name was stencilled inside the collar.”

“Colonel Meeker?”

“B. Streb.”

I started retching into the basin but nothing would come up but a little spit. When I went back on the quay the body was laid out in the car park. Eddy Starr had positioned his patrol car across the gangway to the quay and stood against it, arms folded, like a bearded patriarch. Spider stood next to him and as I came up I heard him say, “Who’s going to tell Angie?”

Behind me a woman shrieked and pushed past. I grabbed her elbow and shouted, “Don’t look, Angie.” The woman stared at me open-eyed. It was Matty. She fought through the crowd and past Eddy Starr’s outstretched arm to the bloated object in the orange oilskins. She hovered over it, then she met the stench, rocked on her heels and tottered backwards, flinging her hand across her mouth. Spider caught her. She was sobbing and wheezing like a steam engine. He enveloped her in his arms and our eyes met over her shoulder. I turned away and pushed into Mary’s Normandy Quay Tea Room to have a proper cup of tea and hear exactly where everyone in the village had been when the body had been discovered, and how close they had got to it. Everyone knew it was Bartholomew.

Spider came in alone and we ordered a pot of tea. “We’ve got to tell Angie,” he said.

I nodded. “She must be the only one in the village who’s not here. Where’s Matty?”

“I took her up to the surgery and they knocked her out with something.”

“I thought she’d got over Bartholomew.”

“I’d keep your voice down if I was you. Those guys will have their notebooks and stubby pencils out in a minute.” He looked over my shoulder. I followed his eyes. Pixie and Poxy were sitting at a table, wearing their wading uniforms. Pixie waved in our direction. Poxy looked over too, but probably couldn’t see us through his shades. Spider nodded back, narrowing his eyes and not smiling. It was the look he reserves for tourists.

“Who are those pimps?” I asked.

“Guys who like to ask questions,” said Spider.

“They leaned on me a couple of weeks ago. They wanted to get into the castle. And they asked a lot of questions about you. And Corsica.”

Spider leaned towards me over his mug of tea. “They was asking me about you last week. And your love life.”

“Angie’s got something hidden in that munitions room. Do you know what it is?”

Spider shook his head. “They was telling me they can leave you without a pot to piss in.”

“I’ll piss in their police-issue shoes.”

Spider shot a warning glance over my shoulder. I smelled leather and sweat. Pixie and Poxy were standing just behind me. They ignored me.

“What do you make of it, Mr Meersman?” asked Pixie.

“He’s been in the water a while,” Spider replied.

“Not six months,” said Poxy.

Pixie pressed his hand on my shoulder. “You never got back to us, Ted. We’ve got bad news for you, I’m afraid.”

“You’re coming to dinner,” I guessed.

Poxy butted in. “You’re cupboard’s fucking bare, mate.”

Pixie continued. “Your lawyers will be writing to you. The court has granted an injunction against your wife’s probate.”

“Enjoy,” said Poxy, and they left.

“Better let me pay for the tea,” Spider commiserated.

We went out on the quay, and cut through Love Lane by Charlie Segui’s office. As we turned the corner towards the church we collided with him. His face was white and rumpled like a flapping sail. He grabbed Spider by the arm.

“They’ve found a body?” Spider nodded. “It can’t be,” gasped Charlie.

“Aye. With its head and hands missing.”

“Oh, my God.” Charlie’s eyes widened and he stumbled. I put out a hand to steady him. “How do they know it’s him?”

“His name’s in the collar of his oilies.”

Charlie looked dazed. “But he just bought them. He didn’t have time — .” He lifted a hand to his face, doubled over and vomited against the wall of his practice. Funny that. It was not as if he’d smelled the stench.

I put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not Colonel Meeker.”

Charlie stood up and seized my arms with both hands. The vomit was on his breath but the colour flooded back into his face like a sunrise and he was smiling through the dribble. “Not Colonel Meeker? Are you sure.”

“It’s Bartholomew.”

“Bartholomew?” Charlie lurched back a step, and his face drained white again. “That’s impossible.”

“We’re just up to tell Angie. Do you want to come along?” Behind Charlie’s shoulder Spider shook his head at me.

“Sorry. I’d like to help. I’ve got to get to the office,” said Charlie, who rarely found legal matters pressing. He backed off like a boat drifting with no one at the helm. “It’s not possible.” Then he turned and disappeared around the corner.

“He’s in a right state,” said Spider.

“He seemed almost relieved it was Bartholomew instead of Colonel Meeker.”

Spider spat. “Aye, lawyers. Still — .” He broke off as we walked up Bonfire Hill.

“Still what?”

“Funny word he used.”

“What?”

“’Impossible’. He said it twice. I mean, it wasn’t as if we weren’t expecting it, was it?”

Angie used the same word, but she seemed a good deal less upset than Charlie or Matty or almost anyone else I met that day. Bartholomew’s big, sprawling stone house, with its French doors opening on to a wide veranda, perched high up on the hill above the centre of the village. It offered an imperial view of Jubilee Quay and everything that was going on in the centre of the harbour. So, I think Angie already knew what we had come to tell her when she opened the door.

“Bad news, Angie,” said Spider.

“Bartholomew?”

“Dinny found him in the estuary. What’s left of him.”

Her eyes left Spider’s and looked at me for the first time. “Come in,” she said and led the way through the wide corridor to the sitting room. It was the kind of house that let in the weather, whatever it was, and on this grey February day with a sky heavy with swollen clouds, it was dark and clammy. The front hall was lined with the same, heavy Victorian chairs and side-tables and coat rack I had seen there a quarter of a century ago. Within Angie’s serene, clothed figure, gliding across the polished wooden floor in a long black flannel skirt and a roomy pepper-and-salt sweater, was the ghost of her youth, the powerful swimmer’s shoulders now slightly hunched. The hips I had placed my hands on as we danced in the club those years ago I knew now would feel wider apart, her breasts heavier. Why are new widows so sexy?

It was brighter in the lounge. There was an old wing-back armchair facing the window, and I started to turn it towards the table. Angie laid a hand on my arm.

“That’s Bartholomew’s chair. He used to say when he grew infirm he would still be able to enjoy life if I would sit him there each day so he could watch the changing sky and the sea, and the traffic in the harbour. I sat there this morning and watched Dinny towing something in behind his boat.”

I took another chair and we told her what we knew. Afterwards she said, “It’s impossible.”

“It will take time to get used to it,” I said.

She looked at me, dry-eyed with a level glance. “It can’t be Bartholomew. I don’t believe it.”

I started to say something, but Spider broke in. “They will want you to identify him.”

“From your description, that will be difficult,” she said. When there was nothing more to say she made us some tea and then we left. At the door she kissed Spider good-bye and then me. She brushed her lips against me on both cheeks, the way women do when they want to show there is no passion, only pain and, if you’re a good boy, perhaps forgiveness.


Tuesday, 1st March

I sipped my coffee and watched the image of the two-masted square-rigger grow from the size of a gnat to a white-winged butterfly fluttering against the centre of the picture window, its topsail glowing rosy in the sunrise. It was the brigantine Tradescant, swooping in under full sail on its annual sail training visit. A sure sign that spring was on its way. A single scarlet flower decorated the camellia bush, crocuses were blooming like a trail of bright coloured sweeties along the path under the rhododendron, daffs were pushing up tight yellow buds through the grass around the castle, and a cherry tree had appeared up the hill in Rabbit’s garden. I stepped outside to watch the Tradescant glide by like a swan, a swarm of lads hauling on halyards to furl its wings. They shook out a hint of the warm southerly airs that brought her up from her winter berth in the Med.

My tongue tasted of drip mats and my head was full of wet sand. Matty had not turned up for work on the Amaryllis the day after Bartholomew’s remains floated into the estuary. I called at the cottage hospital and found she’d gone back to Mavis Connolly’s Buena Vista lodgings. I waited a week before I climbed the three flights of stairs up to her room and knocked on her door. She wouldn’t open it, so I left my gifts on the landing, a bottle of scotch and the bunch of tumescent daffodil buds I had plucked from the foot of Rabbit’s garden. Outside, as I stood wondering whether it was too early to pop into Formerly Cromarty’s, I heard her call my name and when I looked up, a straggle-haired wraith was standing at her window wearing an outsize orange oily over a flesh-coloured night-dress. Or maybe it was her flesh. She blew me a kiss and I gave her a thumbs-up sign and turned up Cobbler’s Lane towards the inn.

The next morning, when I opened the door of the castle into bright sunlight, smoke was rising from the deck chimney of the coal stove on the Amaryllis. I waded out through the mud and climbed up the ladder. Matty was as chirpy as a sandboy. She handed me a mug of hot tea and I saw that her kit-bag was stowed on the shelf above her bunk.

She gave me a big hug. She smelled of sunlight, salt water and diesel oil. Then she kissed me full on the lips. She put her finger where my lips had just been. “Sorry, I forgot. No hanky panky.” She jumped up on the stern and semaphored in the direction of Rabbit’s bungalow. She knew her semaphore. Just two short words. Seven letters, and three of them Fs.

“You’re in a frisky mood,” I said.

She bounced up and down, spreading her arms to embrace the world. “The new me. I’ve decided to recreate myself. Like it?”

I realised she wasn’t wearing Bartholomew’s old oilies; they had been replaced by a threadbare old grey Guernsey jumper of mine. “I think I feel a migraine coming on,” I said.

She pouted. “Don’t be a party pooper. There is going to be a new me. I gave my blood sample to Charlie yesterday for the DNA test.”

“What about Nickers?”

“Charlie thinks he can talk him around.” I snorted. She reddened. “Charlie says he can lean on him.”

“If you lean on Nick he’ll fall over.” She stuck her tongue out at me and I thought how nice it would be to taste it.

The sun warmed our backs as we worked. Matty begged me to let her work outdoors, so I released her from below decks and turned her loose on the brightwork. It was the kind of job she liked, scraping away with intense concentration, her long spare body folded like a locust into the cramped spaces of deck between the gunwales and the cabin of the Amaryllis. After an hour I got into the dinghy to go and pick up some gear in the village. She beckoned to me, her face glowing with a wrap-around smile, and pointed at a six-inch patch of gunwale she had scraped down to the original mahogany grain, soft brown in the sunlight like her own eyes.

“Feel it,” she said. I leaned over her to touch it, and it was as smooth as the thigh of her worn jeans pressing my other hand against the toe rail. I surveyed the rest of the brightwork — the peeling, scarred gunwales which swept from stem to stern, the cabin sides, its slatted roof, the cockpit sides and seats and tiller — and was about to say that at that rate we’d miss this season and the next one before it was finished. Instead, I gave her a thumbs-up sign and yanked the cord of the outboard. She blew me a kiss.

An hour later, repulsed by England’s frowning skies, spring had fled back to the Med. A blanket of low cloud drew over the sun as I set out from Jubilee Quay. As I came round the Tradescant at the white visitor’s mooring buoy in the channel, I could see the Amaryllis in the little cove by the castle. Half her length was obscured by a businesslike inflatable tied alongside. On the Amaryllis the tarpaulin had been rolled back from the stern along the boom and in the cockpit Matty was having a drinks party.

Pixie and Poxy were wearing their usual storm-trooper uniforms. They swivelled their shades onto me as I cut the engine to glide alongside. She was sitting between them in a corner of the cockpit with her knees drawn up, giggling. Poxy leaned forward, crowding against her on the seat. She pushed him aside to jump up and take my painter.

“You’ve made some new friends,” I said.

“Your friends, they say. I don’t know their names.”

“Pixie and Poxy. I’ll let you work out which is which.” Poxy’s fingers flew up to his face, and then he flexed his barbed wire eyebrows at me.

“They brought their own beer.”

“Duty-free, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Have one,” said Pixie.

“Not while you’re on duty.” I waggled a finger at him.

The sun glinted briefly off the water and Poxy screwed his eyes into it, looking at Matty. “He likes to take the mick, your old man. You’ve got to mind your tongue with him.”

Matty stopped smiling. “He’s not my old man.”

“But do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Mind your tongue with him? Know what I mean?” The pink edge of his tongue slid out of his mouth and he laid a paw on her thigh, near where my hand had rested in the sun an hour ago. He nodded at two pairs of pointed black shoes lying on the cockpit seat. “She’s a good little girl. She made us take our shoes off.”

“Fuzz,” I said to Matty. “You can tell by the way the shape of their shoes match their heads.” They didn’t shift to make room for me in the cockpit, so I picked one pair of shoes off the seat and tossed them at Poxy. He had to take his hand off Matty’s thigh to catch them, and one shoe fell on the floor of the cockpit. As he bent over I threw the other pair over his head and over the side.

Poxy reached out to grab me. Pixie caught his arm saying, “Your shoes landed in the rubber boat.”

Poxy subsided. “Good thing you didn’t miss, sailor.”

From where I sat I could see the black shoes absorbing the puddle of water on the floor of the inflatable. “I made sure of it,” I said to him. Then I looked at Pixie. “Does your jurisdiction extend this far from the sewer outlet?”

“We just dropped by to spin a few yarns,” he answered.

“Like the last cruise of the Swan Song,” said Poxy.

“Has she been found?”

He ignored me and talked to Matty. “So, you reckon he’s dead?”

Hope flickered in her voice. “Isn’t he?”

“His widow doesn’t think so.”

Her voice went flat. “She can’t let him go, even now.”

Pixie took a sip from his beer can. “Where did you go when you left him?”

“I speak French. I stayed there and did odd jobs.”

“Ever been to Corsica?”

“That’s Italian, isn’t it?”

“She didn’t answer the question,” said Poxy.

“What’s all this about Corsica?” I asked.

Pixie gave me an oily smile. “The old chat-up line. Bloke says, ‘Ever been to Corsica?’ Girl says ‘No’. Bloke says ‘Neither have I. Let’s fuck.’“

Matty laughed. “In that case, I have been to Corsica.”

“Too many people have. Line doesn’t work anymore. Bleeding package holidays.”

“Corsica’s a long way from Lézardrieu,” I put in.

Poxy thrust his jaw out. “It’s on the way to Australia, innit?”

“So is Timbuktu.”

“That’s not in France.”

“You’ve been studying the charts.”

Matty laughed and wagged a finger at him. Poxy caught her arm, pushed up the sleeve of her jumper and examined the inside of her elbow.

“I’m not into drugs,” she said.

“I was just wondering if you had your blood test yet,” he answered.

Pixie laid a hand on Poxy’s shoulder and he released Matty’s arm. “How’s your old man?” asked Pixie. “The other one.” Matty looked down at her hands clasped in her lap.

“Lord Tatters-Howsyourfather has got cooler things to do with needles than give blood,” said Poxy.

“We might be able to help persuade him to co-operate with you,” said Pixie.

Matty lifted her head. “How?”

“More to the point, why?” I said.

Pixie ignored me. “A little quid pro quo. We’ll be in touch,” he said to Matty.

Poxy frowned at me. “You heard from your lawyers yet? About that injunction against your wife’s divvy-up?”

I had. Pixie held out a can of beer. “It’s never too late to kiss and make up.”

I ignored him, and he put the can back on the floor of the cockpit. “I’ve got a few questions,” I said.

“Like?” said Poxy.

“Like whose your tailor? Some little man in the Ann Summers shop in Soho? And does he pack you into that gear with goose-grease in October and unzip you in May?”

Poxy raised up on his tail and inflated a little in size, like a male kangaroo facing down a rival. But it was Matty who alarmed me. Her pupils flicked in her eyes like a frightened animal and her fingers flew up to her mouth. Pixie lowered his eyes, trying to look hard. “It’s our job to ask the questions.”

“What is your job? Customs and Excise? CID? Fisheries Patrol? VAT inspectors?”

Pixie smiled. “You left out the Child Support Agency.”

“I’ll fill you in later,” said Poxy. He didn’t smile.

“Unless you show me some identification, you can get off this vessel.”

Poxy snorted. “Captain fuckin’ Courageous.”

“If you’re not going to drink with us, I suppose we’ll have to move along,” said Pixie.

“I’m not going to drink with you.”

They got up. “By the way,” said Pixie, “I hear your suit against Donald Penny has run into the sand.”

“You hear more than my lawyers do.”

Poxy laughed. “That’s because you don’t keep them in fucking funds.” He aimed his forefinger and thumb at Matty like a gun. “See you, darling.” He placed his big hand on my shoulder and squeezed the flesh hard against the bone. “Mind how you go, sailor.”

While they clambered into their government issue inflatable I reached into the toolbox under the cockpit seat and grasped the screwdriver I had sharpened into an ice-pick. As I pushed them off I pressed it through the rubber fabric. There was a satisfying hiss just before Pixie started the motor and they roared off back up the estuary. The wake rocked the Amaryllis on her pilings.

I showed the ice-pick to Matty as we watched the inflatable disappear around the edge of the cove. “Pity they’re not heading out to sea,” she laughed.

“What were you so afraid of just then?”

“I didn’t want them to hurt you.”

“Is that all?”

She laid a hand on my arm. “I’m fond of you.”

A pleasant glow rose from somewhere near my groin. To conceal it I growled, “Bastards. Crowding you about Bartholomew.”

“I’ve worked that out now. He was a father figure. And he’s gone. I’m more interested in my real father now.”

“You better not fall in love with him.”

“Jealous?”

“Concerned. What was all that about Nick and needles?”

“They know I gave some blood for a DNA test.”

“And they reckon they can get Nick to co-operate. What do they want from you?”

“We didn’t get to that part of the sales pitch.”

“Poxy was getting a bit cosy with you.”

“I was terrified.”

“You didn’t look it.”

“How did I look?”

“Vampish.”

“I think you’re jealous of everyone. Bartholomew. Spider. Those two leather scumbags.” She was right and so instead of answering I opened one of the cans of beer they had left behind. “They said you murdered your wife,” she added.

I took my first drink of the day. “What do you think?”

“I think you’d better avoid them.”

“That’s like trying to avoid dogshit.”

“Would you murder me?”

“Only if you try to flush your Tampax down the heads in the Amaryllis.”

“I just love it when you Englishmen talk romantic.” Then she lowered her voice. “Right now that’s not a problem.”

“Is that ‘strine for ‘my place or yours?’”

“Yours is out-of-bounds.”

A cold, fat drop of water splashed on my head. She put her hand out and hailstones bounced off her palm. An immense purple cloud squatted over the rotten mast of the Amaryllis. “Come in for a cup of coffee.” She turned and dipped down the gangway. The curtains were closed on Rabbit’s bungalow. I reached into the lazarette and twisted open the knob of the gas canister and followed Matty down. She filled the kettle from the water pump while I lit the cooker. She spooned instant coffee into two mugs and set the kettle on the gas ring. The flame was feeble — the canister was low. Apart from the flickering blue light and the heavens hammering on the coach roof it was dark and quiet in the cabin. Hailstones were bouncing down the gangway so I reached up and pulled the sliding hatch shut and closed the louvered doors.

When I turned around she looked at me and said, “What shall we do while we’re waiting?”

“A watched kettle never boils.”

“Can you teach an old dog new tricks?”

“You should know.”

“That was rude.”

“I’m sorry.”

She took my hand. “Jeez, do I have to say I love you?”

“Keep talking.”

“It must be the generation gap.” She put her arms around my neck and her mouth on mine. Our necks and shoulders were bent up against the coachroof and the back of my head banged on a crossbeam. We fell down on the starboard bunk and her tongue was inside, questing all around my teeth and gums, sliding, reaming, lubricating.

I slipped her musty oily jacket from her shoulders and dropped it on the floor with mine. Without seeing, we took off each other’s outer jumpers. I laid her back on the bunk and kissed her neck and buried my face in the thin knotty fabric of my own grey Guernsey. She smelled of honey and diesel oil. I slipped my hand under her jumper. She wore no bra and her pale little breasts were tipped with fresh raspberries. Her left breast was a little larger and less round. I put my mouth to it and my hand to the other. Then she had rolled my shirt up and her head was down doing the same to my hairy breasts. That was a new trick for the old dog.

I had to use both hands to undo the belt of her jeans. It was a heavy silver buckle and it was shaped in the head of a wolf.

“It bites,” she warned.

She said it without smiling, her eyes half-closed, and it made me pause. What terrible delight lay between her legs? When we were about seven we took Charlie Segui and one of his younger sisters into the woods. Was it Rabbit? When we made her bend over and pull up her sundress she started to cry. I was disappointed. Her child’s bottom didn’t look any different from any boy’s bottom. Matty could not have anything different from any other woman down her trousers. But I was wrong.

Her pubic hair was soft and long and trailed down her mound in wisps between her legs. From the edge of this forest a wolf glared at me, the colour of veins, with bared teeth and red eyes. I raised my head. “If he growls at you, just give him a kiss,” she breathed.

“Ahoy, Amaryllis.”

A boat was knocking against the starboard hull a few inches from my right ear. I jumped up and fetched a stunning crack on the head from a beam over the bunk. The snarling tattooed wolf slunk out of view beneath Matty’s jeans. I grabbed my Guernsey, opened the louvered hatch doors and crawled out into the cockpit rubbing the crown of my head.

Eddy Starr was six-foot-two, but the man with the close-cropped sandy hair who sat beside him in the dinghy was a head taller. In his yellow oilskins he looked the size of a small tugboat. The hail had stopped and the black cloud was now hanging over the distant moors to the north. Sunlight sparkled through the raindrops spattering the water. I closed the hatch doors behind me and the two men came on board. The giant’s rugged face looked like it had been formed from ruddy marble, creased with fine white lines where the sun had not penetrated. Shaking hands with him was like slipping a paw into a man-trap.

“My name is Lothar Volkmann. Not rude.” He laughed. “Like Volkboat.”

“Sehr angenehm.”

He frowned. “I’m Danish.” He switched on a grin like a lighthouse beam. “Just a bit German maybe. I come from a village near Schleswig-Holstein. Sometimes the Germans hop over the fences. You’d have to ask my mother.”

It was a German joke, certainly.

“Lothar just came in on the Tradescant,” said Eddy.

“Their navigator was taken ill. So they gave me a lift.”

“How was the passage?” I asked.

“Slamming into headwinds all the way until it shifted south early this morning. With a green crew, it took us two days from Cork.”

“He’s doing some research,” said Eddy.

The giant swivelled his grin on me. “I’m a reporter.”

“The village has been heaving with them. But they call themselves journalists.”

“I’m just a free-lancer. I write about yachting for a Danish magazine.” He laughed. “Only about eight million people in the world can read what I write, even if they want to.”

“I was filling him in on some of the local colour,” said Eddy.

“These disappearances. I would like to write about them from the viewpoints of yachting and art.”

“Bartholomew’s inquest is tomorrow,” said Eddy. He was looking forward to his next performance.

I made a wisecrack that turned out to have more truth than I realised. “We don’t have a cinema in Westowe; we have inquests instead.”

Lothar looked puzzled. “You mean making a movie about it?” He seemed pleased with the thought.

“Not yet,” said Eddy. But he liked the idea, too.

We heard the high whistle of the boiling kettle.

“Cup of coffee?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Eddy.

“I’d like a proper English tea,” said Lothar.

I slid back the hatch cover and opened the doors and went down into the cabin and turned off the gas under the steaming kettle. The cabin was empty. The green door to the heads and forepeak was closed.

I made the hot drinks and brought them out into the cockpit.

“Matty not on board?” asked Eddy.

Lothar smiled at me. “Is that your wife?”

“Just a friend who’s helping me out.”

“She’s the one I told you about,” said Eddy to Lothar. “Bar­tholomew’s lover.” To me he said, “Lothar would like to interview her.”

“She’s taking a break.”

“I admire Bartholomew Streb’s art,” said the giant.

“You know his work?”

“Not recently. But from the sixties. Op art. Those big circles sitting — on little circles.”

“I’m surprised he’s known in Denmark.”

“Denmark, maybe not so much. I travel all over Europe.” He grinned like a travelling salesman, but it was hard not to like him, particularly after he looked around and said, “She’s a beautiful old boat.”

“Thanks.”

“When we came up it looked like she lists to port.”

“It’s a bugger. I’ve shifted some ballast to starboard, but it hasn’t helped.”

He put his big hand up to his chin. “It could be the placement of the engine.”

“I took it out. No difference.”

“Or something structural.”

“That would be bad news,” I said.

“I could have a look at it. I know something about boats.”

Indeed he did. I had the original plans of the Amaryllis in a locker at the castle, and we went ashore in Eddy’s launch. Lothar jabbed his finger at the compartment between the cabin and forepeak. “What is in here?”

Matty, I thought. But what I said was “The heads.”

“Port or starboard?”

“Port side.”

“That could contribute. And the water tanks. But I’d like to inspect her hull when she’s out of the water.”

They dropped me off on the Amaryllis on their way back to the village. I knocked on the green door to the heads, but there was no answer. Matty had disappeared. There was a folded note on the bunk where she slept. It was not addressed and there was no signature, just nine words crammed onto a piece of card torn from a pocket tide table: “I don’t want to fall in love with you.” The kit-bag she usually left on board was gone, and so was my tender. Night would fall before the tide would sink low enough for me to wade back to shore. While I waited a guillemot swooped down to settle on the bowsprit and stretched its wings to dry, fixing me with its glittering eye like an avenging spirit.


Thursday, 3 rd March

“I know he’s alive,” said Angie.

We three men looked at each other and agreed that Charlie was in the chair. He was a different man from the wretch I had last seen stumbling down Love Lane on the day the body was discovered. In his tiny office, with the rows of thick dusty books on its shelves and Rabbit bustling in and out with coffee and digestive biscuits, he was as assured as any man can be who is wearing a shirt with cuffs spliced together with paper clips. “Why are you so certain?” he asked.

“He’s not finished yet.”

“Finished what?”

Spider had invited me to a meeting of the Sailing Club Executive Committee. Charlie was just finishing a consultation with Angie and she had asked us to both to join them.

Angie widened her eyes and regarded us — Charlie, Spider and me — as if we were a kindergarten class. “Finished life. What he came here to do.” I wondered what she thought that was, apart from messing about in boats with topsies young enough to be his daughter.

“In a way it’s a blessing,” said Charlie. “As Ted here knows only too well, there was always going to be a big la-dee-dah with the insurers as long as — I mean until — .”

Angie finished it for him. “His body surfaced.”

“Exactly. Now we can finally straighten out your affairs.”

Angie was gnawing her knuckles, and I remembered another time she had done that when she was upset. I had seen it by the light of a full moon filtering through a magnolia tree and she was filling a sleek blue-green dress with a long slit up the side of the skirt. Not her sort of thing, really; she was trying to look seductive. It was the night before I left Westowe for good.

She fastened her eyes on me. “I don’t think it’s Bartholomew. The coroner didn’t say so yesterday.”

“Angie, the coroner had no choice.” To display his exasperation Charlie stood up and began to pace, as hip lawyers do in television dramas, except he could only take half a step in each direction before coming to a wall. “There was no evidence. And the police are investigating. He could only adjourn the hearing.”

Deputy Coroner Rose had returned to Westowe village hall yesterday, less than a fortnight since his last visit. Even more people turned up than before, not all of them locals. They went away disappointed. The inquest lasted less than ten minutes. The post-mortem had concluded that the body had been in the water only a few days — certainly less than a week. Drowning was not the cause of death, as water had not been found in the lungs. There were severe burns on the arms and torso, but also evidence of a massive haemorrhage. The head had been severed, along with the hands, coincident with death, or very shortly thereafter. Apart from the name tag in the collar of the oilskin jacket, there was no evidence of the identity of the corpse.

“So what happens next?” I asked.

Charlie shrugged. “The county police will advise the Missing Persons Bureau at New Scotland Yard. See if they’ve got a match on the Police National Computer. And . . . generally carry on with their investigation.”

“Plod on,” I said.

“And when they’ve got something to report, there’ll be a full hearing.” Charlie put his hand on Angie’s shoulder. “You could short-circuit all this by identifying his body.”

“It’s just an obscene mound of flesh. How could anyone identify it?”

“Just look at it once. And say you think it’s your husband. Nobody would contradict you. It would carry weight with the insurers.”

“You mean lie?”

Charlie held up both hands, palms outward. “Of course not. It’s just sometimes you have to take a short-cut to the truth.”

Angie sighed. “Some day you’re going to cut one corner too many, Charlie.”

Charlie looked hurt. “Angie, I just want to help you so you can get on with your life.”

Spider stirred himself. I thought he was going to put the boot into Charlie, too, but he said “The body was the right age. The right height and weight.”

“With or without the head?” With Angie a cold cynicism came just before the storm flags unfurled.

“Approximately,” Spider retreated.

Charlie took up the baton. “He was wearing Bartholomew’s oilies.”

“Why did he have no head?” Angie asked.

“His chest was burned. Consistent with an explosion,” said Charlie.

Angie was steadfast. “And no hands?”

“Same thing. He must have been handling it.”

“Handling what?” Angie’s question hung in the air.

Spider broke the silence. “Always turn the gas off at the canister source, in case the galley stove is faulty. We were all taught that.”

“It was Bartholomew who taught us,” I said.

“Where’s the wreck?” asked Angie.

Spider spoke. “The Coast Guard reported a yacht missing south-west of Ile d’Ouessant a week ago. No trace of it. But it wasn’t the Swan Song.”

“That’s too far away,” said Charlie.

“If she exploded, there would have been some wreckage,” said Angie. Spider nodded.

“I’m only trying to help you, Angie,” Charlie said again.

We sat in silence for a little while. It was getting dark outside. Angie turned to Charlie. “What about a DNA test?” Charlie sighed. I thought of Matty’s obsession. A glimpse of the future opened up to me. Some day we will all have prophylactic DNA typing, so that we can find out who we ought to be.

“You’d need to match it to something,” I said.

“A blood sample, or hair,” said Charlie. “Have you got something like that?”

“I wasn’t in the habit of saving his toenail clippings.”

“A hairbrush? A toothbrush?” Charlie suggested.

“I threw it all out when he left.”

“You could match to someone else,” I put in.

“What do you mean?” Angie seemed defensive.

“His parents, siblings?”

The frown faded from her face. “His parents died in South Africa. There was no one else.”

Outside the window a streetlight turned on and at the same time the church bell began to toll the three-quarter hour. When it had finished Angie looked at me. “How old can it be?”

“What?”

“How — fresh does the DNA sample have to be?”

“They analyse insects trapped in amber forty thousand years old, don’t they?”

She swivelled her guns on to the other target. “Charlie, I want a DNA test.”

Charlie threw up his hands. “What’s the point? The insurers will probably pay up now. Why try to prove it’s not Bartholomew?”

“It’s the truth I want, Charlie. Not the money.”

Charlie wriggled. “I’m not sure it’s something I should be doing.”

“I understand it’s not the first time you’ve been asked to do this.”

Holed at the waterline, Charlie sank into his chair. “The body is a police matter. The Home Office Forensic Laboratory would have to do it.”

“The request of a grieving widow must carry some weight.”

“Your sample will have to be authenticated.”

“By the grieving widow.”

“I’ll make enquiries,” said Charlie.

Angie got up to leave. We all stood up, as cowed as Maggie Thatcher’s cabinet, as she glided past. With the chairs pushed back there was total gridlock and Charlie had to step in to the toilet to clear a passage. Angie was very close to me. I shrunk back. If Rabbit was keeping her abreast of my love life I was in for a touch of frost. Instead she gave me her mournful Lady of the Lake smile. “Ted, do you mind if I pop up to the castle now? I want to take some measurements.”

“No worries.”

Then she leaned close and whispered in my ear, unheedful of what emotions her warm breath stirred. “Thank you for keeping that slut out of there.”

I had found my tender at the Jubilee Quay yesterday morning, but Matty hadn’t turned up for work. Nor had she been at the inquest. “The slut has gone walkabout,” I whispered back into her spring-scented ear, not heedful either.

At the front door Angie’s progress was hindered by the bulk of Superbloke, who was filling up the ante-room and had to step back out into the lane to permit her exit. The four of us — Charlie, Spider, Superbloke and I — sat down, knocking knees under the scarred oval Formica table again and Rabbit refilled our cups from a pot. It was instant coffee, brewed in the cupboard kitchen under the stairs, and when she lent over my shoulder to pour, its thin aroma was overpowered by the faded pot-pourri of her lingerie drawer.

Charlie snorted. “She was more upset with the way Bartholomew went off than the way he came back.”

“If the body’s not his, whose is it?” Superbloke wondered. He got no answer.

Charlie announced that as Club Secretary he was bringing the meeting of the Westowe Sailing Club Executive Committee to order. He was also Acting Commodore in Bartholomew’s absence, Superbloke was Club Treasurer and Spider was in charge of Operations. Charlie introduced me to the others as if I had never met them before and he seemed to have forgotten everyone’s usual name.

“Mr Meersman has suggested that Mr Golden be co-opted as financial advisor. I am sure the Committee will benefit from his wide experience of high finance,” he said, looking down at the papers in front of him.

“Ted eats cut-purses like you for breakfast,” responded Spider.

The club had failed to keep pace with cultural change. The older members now spent little time on the water; they viewed the club as a cheap social environment, resisted any increase in subscriptions, and cavilled at a hike in the price of a gin-and-tonic. They balked at investment, too, so the club’s sailing fleet, like its members, was increasingly decrepit. Its core was still the traditional wooden Westowe smack, a design evolved by local fishermen two centuries ago; the flotilla of lightweight Lasers introduced in the seventies was now battered and out-of-date and the youthful craze for wind surfing was barely tolerated. The offspring of the generation which had founded the Westowe Sailing Club enjoyed things their parents never had as children: cars, computers, university and foreign holidays. They could keep a surfboard at home and they preferred to drink down in the noisy chaos of The Sailor’s Return on a disco night than in the sepulchral club bar under the reproachful, envying eyes of their parents.

The club was operating in the red, and it was solvent only because of the figure placed in the books for the valuation of the property and the tolerance of the local bank manager, who was a founder member of the club. However, the bank had now withdrawn authority for large business loans and overdrafts from the local branch to its south-west regional centre.

“They’ve given us three months to come up with a viable business plan or they’ll withdraw the overdraft facility and foreclose the loan,” said Superbloke.

“How much is the loan?” I asked.

Charlie examined his fingernails splayed on the surface of the table. “Ninety thousand.”

“Backed by a mortgage on the club premises?”

“Bartholomew wouldn’t hear of it,” said Charlie. “He said it was mortgaging the future of our youth.”

“Bloody right, too,” said Spider.

“Not personal guarantees?” I asked. They hung their heads like schoolboys.

Superbloke shifted his hams on his chair. “Joint and several. Bartholomew, Spider, Charlie and myself.”

“It’s not a lot of money,” I said.

“Pity you weren’t here, Mr Soros,” said Spider. “We’d have had you in and all.”

Superbloke sat up in his chair. “It’s a trifling sum as these things go. But at the moment it would inconvenience me.”

“Four thousand, five hundred pounds of crab meat,” said Spider. He sold plastic bags of white or brown meat from the crabs he caught at five pounds a pound.

“Twenty-two thousand, five-hundred pounds each,” Charlie explained.

“I can do the arithmetic,” I said.

“Or ninety thousand from any one of us, if the others belly-up,” Charlie went on.

“An unfortunate metaphor,” I said.

“Yes — well, the guarantee falls to his estate now. So you can see my concern about Angie.”

“How many club members are there?” I asked.

“Four hundred or so.”

“Two-hundred and twenty-five pounds each,” I said.

“Just try to winkle it out of them,” said Superbloke.

“Nobody’s going to pour money down a drain,” I agreed.

Charlie cleared his throat. “Maybe — it just might be that we might have to consider the inconceivable.” Superbloke raised his head from the legal pad he was doodling on. It could have been a nod.

“I’ll ignore that remark,” said Spider, “if you say five Hail Marys and make an Act of Contrition.”

“There is another way,” I said. “What you need is a sensible business plan to revive the club. One you can sell to the bank.”

Spider and I had rehearsed this. Spider had a plan to revive interest amongst the younger membership and he went through it, counting the ideas off bent fingers, as if he were just thinking them up on the spot. A new section of advanced racing dinghies for the youngsters, while resurrecting the moribund cruising yacht section to re-interest older members. Support could be generated from local businesses, from grant-making institutions, even the European Community. Yachts gathering seaweed in the marina could be loaned to the club in exchange for proper maintenance. I added a few thoughts: interest-free loans from affluent members, adventure-training sponsorship from major national companies. At the end of an hour, Charlie was scribbling notes furiously and even Superbloke was looking more cheerful.

Spider finished. “We’ve got six weeks to pull it all together before the AGM.”

“It’s a bit desperate. And definitely the last chance,” said Superbloke. “If the members don’t buy the plan, we’ll have to sell the premises.”

“That should concentrate their minds,” said Spider.

“You have left it a bit late,” I agreed.

“We left all that sort of thing to Bartholomew,” said Charlie.

“Suppose they vote to sell up?” I asked. “Can you block it with the golden share?”

“No,” said Charlie. “It’s personal to Bartholomew.”

“And with his death?”

“It reverts to the membership. So it’s not a stopper anymore.”

“Unless Angie’s right.”

“How do you mean?”

“That he isn’t dead.”

“Then he could block it.”

“So it’s in the interests of the club if that body is not identified as Bartholomew.”

Charlie stuck out his lower lip. “He’d still have to be around to vote.”

Spider took an interest. “What about a power of attorney?”

Charlie frowned. “The golden share was personal to Bartholomew. I doubt if it’s transferable.”

“That’s bloody silly,” said Spider, “it should go with the office.”

“I’d have to take advice,” said Charlie. Which meant he didn’t have a clue.

“That’s the way Bartholomew wanted it, if you remember. Personal to him. And we all agreed with him,” said Superbloke.

“Why?” I asked.

“Basically, we didn’t trust the membership. There was a lot of property speculation back then. People were talking telephone numbers and we thought members could be persuaded to sell out.”

“Everyone’s got his price,” said Spider. After a little silence he spoke again. “People will probably expect me to stand for Commodore at the AGM.”

We all looked at him. “Of course,” said Charlie. “It’s your turn again. Everybody wants you to be Commodore.”

“But I think the golden share should be transferable from Commodore to Commodore,” said Spider.

“It hardly matters now,” said Superbloke. “Bartholomew’s dead. He can’t pass it on retrospectively.”

“Still, it makes sense for the future,” said Spider.

“If there is a future,” said Superbloke.

“Put up a motion at the AGM,” said Charlie. “If the membership approve your plan, they ought to approve that, too.”

Spider fixed his gaze on Charlie. “Our plan.”

It was Superbloke who answered. “Of course, Spider. We’re right behind you on this.”

Charlie fussed with his papers and looked at his watch without really seeing it, like the white rabbit. “There’s a great deal of work to do,” he said, springing to his feet.

I was impressed. “Where are we going?”

Charlie blinked at me. “I’m going to lunch.”

As we trooped through the anteroom the pink Rabbit was putting on her coat. She gave Spider a friendly wave. I earned a tight-lipped smile. Outside, a brisk south-westerly was churning up the estuary. We left Charlie to lock up. He took the conventional Westowe security precaution of sliding the key under the clay flower pot on the window ledge.

Spider and I turned up the lane. Spider breathed in deeply. “It’s nice to have a breath of fresh air after all that crap.”

“How do you mean?”

“Can’t you see their game?”

“Tell me, while I take a pound of white crab meat off you. That will leave you just four thousand, four hundred and ninety-nine to sell to clear your debt.”

Spider still lived in his mother’s two-storey semi-detached pebble-dash house overlooking the Mud Creek fish quay and we walked down there.

“They’re going to sell us out,” he said.

“For twenty grand?”

“Charlie’s living on beans. He’s a Lloyds name. And if he goes bankrupt he can’t practice.”

“We’re a long way from that yet.”

“Maybe. But Malcolm’s the man to watch. He’s got a grand lifestyle, a pushy wife and a lot of nobby friends.”

“So, he’s not living on beans.”

“No. Credit. Another numbwit who got himself stitched up proper by those footpads from Lloyds.”

“They’ve only got two votes between them.”

“That’s why I wonder what they’re up to behind the scenes.”

“Your plan is good. We can sell it.”’

“Are you on board?”

“Beazer for ballast,” I said.

Spider grinned and put out his hand and I shook it. At the corner of his road a red post-box was set into the stone wall and I remembered the white business envelope in Spider’s hand with the yellow Lucie Rie commemorative stamp on it.

“That day Colonel Meeker disappeared, he had a letter to post,” I said.

“Who to?”

“I didn’t see.”

“Pity. That might have been interesting.”

“He didn’t ask you to post it?”

Spider gave me a long, hard look. “I never met the man.” The door to his shed was open. Live crabs were crawling in shallow water in an old cast-iron bathtub. Spider fished a bag of white crab meat out of the old fridge next to it. I put a fiver in his hand. He held it, turning his hands over to look at his nails.

“Angie’s got a point,” he said. “If you bumped someone off and wanted to conceal the identity what would you do?”

“Destroy the dental evidence,” I said. “Off with his head.”

“And the fingerprints. Cut off his hands.”

“If he’d ever been fingerprinted,” I said. “Otherwise they couldn’t tell anything.”

“Bartholomew’s hands, they could,” said Spider and he spread out the fingers of both his hands in front of me.

Looking at his hard, knurled knuckles, at first I thought he meant that artists’ hands were different somehow, and then I remembered. Bartholomew was a man of the sixties. On a drunken spree somewhere he had gone into a tattoo parlour and had LOVE inked into the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the other.

I stuffed the plastic bag of crab meat into the pocket of my oilies. “By the way have you seen Matty recently?”

“Aye.”

“When?”

“Just before I left for the meeting.”

“Where was she?”

Spider jerked his head upwards. “Upstairs. She was being interviewed by Mam.”

“What about?”

Spider looked me straight in the eye. “She wants to stay here for a while.”

“Mam will have her wearing dresses.”

Spider took me by the elbow. “Come on, it’s time you two kissed and made up.” I thought about Matty’s sweet tongue probing around my gums as we went up the stairs into the kitchen. But it was Mam he wanted me to kiss.

A wraith the shape of a Cornish pasty wrapped in a magenta dressing gown leaned over the sink washing out a teapot. A nimbus of wispy white hair stood out around her pink skull. Her legs had no ankles. She stood on elephant feet wrapped in yellowed gauze and stuffed into carpet slippers. It was the woman who had replaced my mother when I was seven years old and cared for me for the next fourteen. Not as a mother, exactly — more like a warden. Everything about her had shrunk except her great hooked nose and the fierce coals either side of it.

“Look who’s come to visit,” said Spider.

The moulting eagle gave me a sideways glance. “Another stray? We can’t put him up too.”

“It’s Ted, Mam.”

“That’s not Ted,” she said. She came forward and inspected me. “Ted has blonde hair. His is brown. What there is of it.”

“I came to say I’m sorry,” I said.

“What are you sorry for?”

“I’m sorry we had a row. I’m sorry I stayed away so long. I’m sorry I never wrote. I’m sorry I don’t have blonde hair any more.”

Mam came closer and sniffed at me like a spaniel. “He sounds like Ted.” She shuffled back to the washing up. “He was always saying he was sorry for something or other.”

Spider took the dish cloth from her hands. “I’ll do that, Mam.”

She raised her head and her voice. “If Ted Golden walks in this house, I’ll throw him down the stairs.”

Spider grinned at me. “Is that what you did with Matty, Mam?”

“Who?”

“The young lady who wants to stay.”

Mam smiled and touched Spider’s arm. “She’s a nice Catholic girl. She’s going to take me to Mass on Sunday. Like Angie used to.” Mam came back to me. “I put her in your room,” she said. “So there’s no place for you. Even if you are Ted.”

“I am Ted, Mam. Say you forgive me.”

Her face hardened. “Only God can forgive what you did to Angie.” She touched my face with her hand. It was like a dry leaf. “How many times did I tell you to wait until you were married, Ted?” Her eyes were runny and so were mine, but not for the same reason.

Spider came up and put his arm around her. “It’s all right now, Mam. Everything’s turned out all right.” He led her down the hall to the parlour door. She kept hold of my arm, so I went along with them. Her brass bed filled the parlour now. The room smelled of damp bedding and furniture polish. She stopped us, opened the top drawer of the chest, and pulled out a purse. She unfolded a five pound note and put it in Spider’s hand.

“What’s that for, Mam?”

“I want you to go in to Hamble’s in Kings Ferry and buy her a dress. For Sunday Mass. You and Ted can keep the change for the pictures.”

On the way home I realised everyone had more or less forgotten about Colonel Meeker. His body remained wherever it was. When I got to the castle the black thread across the door to the blockhouse was broken. Angie had called with her tape measure. Or whatever.


Mid-March

Lothar craned his neck back and squinted at the sky in the fading light. “How tall is that mast?”

“I’m not sure.”

“It’s too tall. You want to chop about two metres off it.”

“I have to replace it anyway.”

“Can you find a wooden mast?”

“Not these days. Not in time for this sailing season anyway. It will have to be aluminium.”

“It’s an old rig. With all that height it will push you over sideways. You want a smaller mainsail, and then a great big no. 1 genoa coming back to about here.” He was standing almost amidships. “And your no. 2 about here,” he said, pointing to the railing just aft of the shrouds. “What’s your water-line length?”

“Twenty-eight feet.”

“We could get almost seven knots out of her.”

“Really?”

“One-and-a-quarter times the square root of the waterline equals maximum speed. That’s why big guys always win. I promise you, it will go like a train.”

“I was hoping it might go like a boat.”

He laughed. “Like a boat on British Railways.”

Afterwards, in the castle, over a couple of mugs of hot coffee, Lothar sketched out the new rig for me. His eyes lit with enthusiasm. “It’s a question of balance. You want the boat to pivot here.” It made a lot of sense.

“I’ll get on the phone to the mast people tomorrow,” I said.

“Would you like me to talk with them?”

“That would be great.”

The weather was clearing. We stood at the window watching the yellow glow fading from a mackerel sky.

“Where is your companion?” he asked.

“Done a bunk.”

He turned his open-eyed look on me. “Sleeping?”

“Scarpered.” His heavy blonde eyebrows shot up, forming a question. “Went to stay with my old mate, Spider,” I explained.

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.”

“That’s too bad. Still, women come and go.”

“But a good apprentice is hard to find. And I’ve got to get motoring.”

“Your boat doesn’t have a motor.”

“Figure of speech. I’ve got to get her shipshape.”

“Why don’t you have an engine?”

“She didn’t have an engine when she was built.”

“I agree. We are both traditionalists. Boats are for sailing. But you can’t always wait for the tide.”

“I’ll have nothing but time. Once I get fitted out.”

“Would you like some help?”

“Where are you staying?”

“The Ocean View Guest House.” He smiled. “Behind the gas cylinder.”

Lothar had the natural authority of a skipper. The first thing next morning he insisted on a minute inspection of the hull. Crouching in the mud while the tide oozed out around our rubber boots, he probed carefully with a scraper. He stood up with a frown.

“Has she been taking up water?”

“I have to pump her out now and then.”

“When she starts working under sail your balls are going to get wet. The hull is basically sound, but the garboard is a problem.” He showed me where the caulking had crumbled around the first plank above the keel.

“She had a motor when you bought her?”

“A clapped out old petrol engine. I had the yard lift it out.”

“It was bolted here? And here?” He pointed at two circular plugs aft on the garboard.

“I suppose.”

“Damn crazy fool.” Lothar stood up, angry. I stumbled back, slipped, and sat down hard in the mud. Lothar laughed and gave me a hand up. “Not you. Those damn mechanics who installed that engine. They bolted right through the skin, and the engine has been shaking her apart.”

“Looks like a job for the shipyard.” That was the end of my dream. Donald Penny’s lawyers had dug themselves in around the capital of our former business like the defenders of Moscow. And Maire’s family had succeeded in securing an injunction against probate of her estate. My cash flow was at mean low water.

“Oh, no, we do this ourselves. And we’ll sort out that list to port as well.”

And we did. There was a patch of hard-standing on the shore that the Council used as a dinghy launch in season. It was rising spring tides, and the next day we towed the Amaryllis up on to the hard at high water and set down her legs. We ordered four long lengths of larch planking from a Plymouth yard and on the day they arrived Lothar built a fire in an oil drum, set another drum half-full of water on it and we steamed the planks into shape. By the end of the week the Amaryllis had a bright new garboard plank fixed either side of the keel and we started stripping down the rest of the hull to bare wood.

Lothar bought all the national newspapers every morning. He had to order The Guardian and The Independent specially in this part of the world. He cut out the articles about Westowe and pasted them in a ruled notebook just like Eddy Starr’s. It held earlier cuttings, too, dating back to Colonel Meeker’s disappearance:


‘Westowe Waits for Missing Financier to Surface’

‘Did the Colonel Do a Stonehouse?’

‘Missing Financier Swindle’

‘Bartholomew Streb: Blighted Promise of the 60s’

‘Wrong Body Surfaces in Devon Beauty Spot’

‘Fear Stalks West Country Haven’

‘Famous Artist Found Decapitated’

‘Murky Waters Mask Meeker’s Missing Millions ‘

‘Exclusive: Missing Financier Led a Double Life’

‘Soho Sex Club Link to Meeker Scandal?’


According to the press, as well as misleading Lloyds investors, Colonel Meeker had defrauded a number of people who were attempting to defraud Her Majesty’s Government, switching their offshore funds into more traditional investments: a country estate, a fleet of expensive motor cars and West End hookers. Otherwise, there was no new information in any of these speculative pieces. Lothar had submitted his own copy to a European magazine. He was that rare thing, a journalist without an ego. He laughed when he said, “Those editors are serial murderers. They decapitate my headline, cut my body copy into little pieces and bury it in the back pages.”

Over the next fortnight we worked a little longer every day as the sun inched up from the equator. When it rained we sawed, hammered and scraped in the cabin. Every lunchtime we had a couple of pints and a pie or pastie in Formerly Cromarty’s. Lothar was keen to meet all the locals and wherever he went he carried a second spiral bound notebook to jot things down in. When it got dark, most nights we would have a few more pints and a hot meal in one of the pubs before I stumbled home bone-tired to bed.

Lothar spoke every language in Europe, fragments of them anyway, sometimes in the same sentence, often with American syntax and, sometimes, accent. He had an open manner and a broad smile for everyone he met, from Superbloke to Dinny. Eddy Starr was a particular admirer, maybe because now there was someone taller he could look up to in Westowe, and so he usually joined us for our night-time sessions. Which could have been a trial, because Eddy was addicted to Diet Pepsi, and during lulls in the conversation would mouth an imitation of a German marching band. Lothar, from his alien perspective, treated Eddy as if he were quite normal, or maybe that’s how people behave around the Stammtisch in the Kneipen of Schleswig-Holstein.

“You could stand for mayor of Westowe and win,” I said to Lothar one night when the three of us were sitting in our usual corner at Formerly Cromarty’s.

Eddy scowled. “Except he wasn’t born in Westowe.” Eddy had been born in a village five miles north of Kings Ferry, at the top of the estuary, and although he’d lived and worked in Westowe for ten years, and was its only standing representative of the judicial system, he was still classed as an outsider. Like me.

“You’re right,” I said. “We’re all disqualified because we weren’t delivered by Mam Meersman.”

“I’m sorry for you,” said Lothar. “You are Englishmen, and so the other English know who you are. Where you were born. How you speak. The English are very, very timid. If you are just a little bit different, you are a threat and they put you in a place.” He pressed a big thumb down on a dripmat. It was soggy and he dented it. He beamed a smile at us. “I am very different. So I go anywhere and threaten nobody.”

“You like being an outsider?” I asked.

He laughed. “That is my profession. Everywhere I am an outsider.”

“What about when you go home to Denmark?” asked Eddy.

A shadow fell over Lothar’s face. “I don’t go home. Not since I was seventeen.” He poked me with a massive fist. “Like you, Ted. I done a bunker.”

“Runner,” I said.

“Bunkrunner?”

“Sounds like fun.”

Lothar gave me a hard stare. “It was no picnic. My father was a yo-yo. One week home, next week gone. When he was gone my mother was a whore. And when he came back it was one day ice cream, next day the belt off his trousers.”

“The fun I meant was running between bunks,” I said. “Bed-jumping.”

Lothar relaxed. “I learned that too. One day when my father stood up to take off his belt, I was looking down at the top of his head. So I thrashed him with his own belt. Then I go to Copenhagen. I got a job as a bouncer at a bordello. I had all the qualifications.”

“What qualifications?”

“Big and strong and stupid. And used to being bossed around by a madame.”

Eddy persisted. “What about your fellow journalists. Don’t you feel a part of that community?”

Lothar turned both thumbs towards the table. “Freelance, outsider is best. A community is a place to leave.” Then he leaned forward, arms on the table, piling his fists into one big mound. “But I tell you what I like. When I’m working hard with some good guys. That’s how I got into sailing. As a pimp I know nothing about boats. But I was big and strong and stupid. So they take me on as winch fodder. And I sailed everywhere. The Admiral’s Cup. The Melbourne Cup. Three times round the world. And those guys are the best guys in the world. I would die for them.”

“You’re a team player,” Eddy approved.

Lothar nodded. Then he put his arm around my shoulder. “This fortnight Ted and I are a team. Working on the Amaryllis.” He put his other arm around Eddy. “Tonight we three are a damn good drinking team.” He locked us together in a bear hug, and then let us go. “But I don’t play for society’s team. For society I don’t give a fug.”

“A fig,” I corrected.

Lothar laughed. “A fucking fig.” His pint was half-full. He gulped down the beer and slammed the glass on the table. The soggy dripmat stopped it from shattering in his hand. “But you know something? Those guys I would die for? I don’t know where they are now. I don’t remember their names.”

“Real men don’t write postcards,” I said.

“How did you get to be a journalist?” Eddy sounded like he was thinking of a new career.

Lothar grinned. “Same way you got to be a fuzz. Big and strong and stupid. And I was there.”

Eddy shook his head. “I don’t know. I think it’s important to feel part of society. With people who think the way you do. Share the same values.”

I said, “You’ll have to marry a nice Westowe girl, Eddy. Then your children will be natives.”

Eddy looked at me. “I’m working on that. But she’s playing hard to get.”

“Who’s the lucky girl?”

“Mrs Harris.”

“Who?”

“Veronica. Charlie Segui’s sister. She works in his office.”

Eddy didn’t notice me choke on my beer. His attention was on Lothar, who had his notebook out. “Charlie Segui was at the inquest. Bartholomew’s barrister.”

“Lawyer,” Eddy corrected.

Lothar thumbed through the pages of his notebook. I sneaked a look, but it was written in Scandihooligan. Or Serbo-Croat for all I knew. “You had a theory about the disappearances,” Lothar said. “The coroner wouldn’t let you speak.”

“Nothing official,” said Eddy. “And you can’t attribute it to me.”

“No problem,” said Lothar.

Eddy pulled out his identical notebook, shuffled the pages and leaned forward. “January 28th,” he read out. “The night Colonel Meeker disappeared. Two days past full moon. Moon rises at 2017. And stays up all night. High water at 0031 GMT. So you’ve water enough and visibility enough.”

“For what?” I asked.

“To take a small boat straight across The Devil’s Coat-tails.”

I snorted. “Into the Frying-pan?”

“No. He was meeting them further out.”

“Who?”

Eddy whispered. “The drug-runners.”

I leaned back and snorted again. Lothar leaned forward and whispered, “How do you know that?”

Eddy sat back in his chair. “I don’t really.”

“But you suspect something,” said Lothar. “What they wouldn’t let you say in court.”

“I made a mistake there. I can’t say anything until I have some evidence.”

“But you’ve got something to go on,” said Lothar. He looked up at me. “Maybe we can help.”

“It’s probably just a coincidence.”

I was interested now. “You never can tell, Eddy.”

Eddy looked over his shoulder to see if the drug-runners were at the next table. It was empty. “I was on duty as sparks in the lifeboat watch­room that night. There was a call from a boat on channel 80 asking for a berth. A French yacht.”

“What was the name of the yacht?” asked Lothar.

“You’ve hit it,” said Eddy. “It was called — wait a minute.” He consulted his notebook, then sounded out an approximation of the syllables, “Brise du Janvier.”

“So what?” I asked.

“So,” Eddy said, “Janvier means January in French. And it was the last week of January.”

“So what?” I asked again. Lothar was more sympathetic. “They were calling the marina?”

“No. The sailing club. It runs a few visitors’ moorings just off the fairway.”

“And Brise du Janvier never arrived?” asked Lothar.

“You got it. I asked Charlie the next day. He said they radioed again later to cancel.”

“Charlie Segui?” Lothar asked.

“He’s secretary of the sailing club,” I told him.

“Because he’s Bartholomew’s lawyer?”

“No. That’s just a coincidence. It’s a small village. Everybody wears two hats.”

Lothar frowned, then brightened. “I know. Because they’ve got two faces?” He smiled — we all did — while he jotted that information down in his notebook.

“I checked with HM Coast Guard and they confirmed both messages,” Eddy added.

This was news to me. “The Coast Guard keeps a record of routine channel 80 messages?”

“I can’t say anymore.” Then he said more. “But I’ve got my reasons for believing the name of the boat is important. Coincidences don’t just happen.”

“I thought that was the definition of coincidence,” I said.

Eddy snapped his notebook shut and patted it like a fat wallet. “Like the fact you were the last one to see Colonel Meeker and the first one to find his dinghy. I put them all in here. My little book of coincidences.” He looked up at Lothar, “Has anybody got round to asking you where you were on the night of January 28th?” His question sounded as casual as a summons. None of us had to consult a notebook to recall that was the night Colonel Meeker had sailed into the sunset in his pea-green skiff.

Lothar must have had his collar fingered quite a lot in his time, because he didn’t miss a beat. “I’ve got a copper-bottomed alibi.”

“I have to check out everybody,” Eddy apologised.

Lothar grinned. “Give Police Sergeant Murray a tickle.”

“Tinkle,” I interpreted.

“Never heard of him,” said Eddy.

Lothar looked pained. “Your colleague. Devon and Cornwall Constabulary.”

“Where’s he stationed?”

“St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly. We played gin rummy most of the night, January 28th.”

“What were you doing in the Scilly Islands?”

“Waiting for the Tradescant.”

“I thought you came up from the Med with her.”

Lothar shook his head. “I was booked on as navigator for the last leg: Scillies-Cork-Bristol-Westowe.”

“How’d you get to the Scillies?”

“A boat delivery.”

Eddy referred to his notebook. “Would Police Sergeant Murray remember all this?”

“He can look it up in his book.”

“You were booked?”

“Drunk and disorderly. But it was a send-up.”

“A fit-up?” I guessed.

Lothar nodded. “I wasn’t drunk. Just disorderly.”

“You’re sure that was the 28th of January?” asked Eddy.

Lothar laughed. “You don’t forget where you spent your fiftieth birthday. Another coincidence.” He tapped Eddy’s notebook. “One for the book.” Even Eddy had to laugh.


Saturday, 26th March

One rainy day outside the chandler’s I ran into two figures in red oilies with the hoods pulled around their faces. Spider wore the newer one. Inside the faded one was Matty. The sleeves covered her fingertips. Her arm was linked into Spider’s. I wondered what she’d done with Bartholomew’s orange oilies.

“You didn’t leave a forwarding address,” I said.

“I’m staying with Spider.”

“Mind the crabs. In the bath.”

Another day I was coming down the outside wooden steps from the loft of Jack the Rigger. A large figure in yellow oilskins leaned against a pebbledash cottage like a builder’s flying buttress. Matty was looking up at him, shading her eyes against the sun. Lothar was big enough to make his own introductions, I thought.

She turned quickly and hurried up the road towards Spider’s house, head down, almost running. Lothar turned round and saw me watching him. I managed a quizzical smile and a thumbs-up sign. He gave me a thumbs-down and a laugh.

Spider was usually in the sailing club on Saturday nights, so after an early supper at the pub I went over there with Lothar. It was already crowded, but Spider and Matty weren’t there. Charlie Segui was alone behind the bar wearing an apron and a scowl. I ordered two pints of Bass from the wood.

“Where’s your likely lad, whatsisname?” I asked.

“Simon’s been arrested.”

“Hand in the till?”

“Up his nose, more likely. He was dealing in drugs.”

“Not in the club?”

“Your pals in the leather gear took him away.” Charlie looked up at Lothar before going to serve the other end of the bar. “Ask your mate, he fingered him.”

We went and sat in the overstuffed chairs at one of the little round tables. “What’s this all about then?”

Lothar sipped his bitter and made a face. “He was just small-time.”

I remembered that it was Eddy Starr who had introduced me to Lothar. The same day that Pixie and Poxy had been messing around in boats. “Are you with the drug squad?”

Lothar laughed. “With my accent and all the stamps in my passport?”

“Charlie says you fingered Simon.”

Lothar frowned. “Isn’t that what you do to a woman?”

“You told someone Simon was dealing.”

“I told Eddy. I don’t fancy drug dealers.”

“How did you know?”

“From the crew on the Tradescant. Did you read about that drug gang the French caught off Ile d’Ouessant? About six weeks ago?”

“That French fishing boat?”

“They were making drops along the south coast. Simon was an agent. Small fries. Even some of the kids on the Tradescant knew about it. And there are kids in this club. So as soon as I got on shore I asked where I could find a policeman.”

“And they nicked him, just like that?”

“We set a trap. And they took him away.”

“They ought to give you a medal.”

“Your friend, the Club Secretary, doesn’t think so.”

“Charlie’s narked because he can’t get anyone to work the bar off-season.”

“You English don’t like a foreigner to sort you out. I get funny looks instead of a medal.”

“They may be a little afraid of you.”

“I’ve seen too many young people kill themselves.”

“We shall order a medal to be struck immediately.” Superbloke was standing over us with a gin-and-tonic in his hand. But he hadn’t spoken. Next to him a man bulged out of a padded yellow skiing anorak, the sort that had been briefly fashionable a decade or two ago. He had an even larger girth than Superbloke but was a head shorter. The face was a pudgy blur, with no hair at all, except for enormous black eyebrows poised like shags about to flap away from his nose. “You’re Lothar Volkmann aren’t you?”

Lothar nodded. The man didn’t put out his hand to be shaken but just flapped it in the air. A wise procedure with Lothar. “On behalf of the club I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done.” Lothar beamed. “We’ve got to keep the little buggers from driving up the street price of a decent snort. Let me buy you a drink.” Then he looked at me. “You, too, Ted.” I recognised the little smirk. The last time I had seen this man his waist could have fit into one of the legs of the trousers he was now wearing and his sleek black hair had been as thick as his eyebrows. It was Lord Nicholas Farthing-Tattersall.

It turned out Nickers had a yacht for sale, a forty-five foot sloop lying in Plymouth. Lothar volunteered that he had some contacts in the Caribbean who might be interested. “Why don’t we go up to my place and talk about it?” Nickers included all of us in his gesture, but Superbloke had just come down from Tattersall Hall and cried off. I had a vision of the baronial fireside flickering through a large glass of coppery malt whisky, and tomorrow was Sunday — lie-in day on the Amaryllis — so I went along.

On the way out I glanced at the club notice board and saw a typed note signed by the Club Secretary. Charlie Segui had sailed his thirty-five foot catamaran, Grace of God down to the Helford River in the autumn, and by the grace of God had not been able to bring her back alone against the wind and weather. She was lying, expensively, at the boatyard in Gweek where the Helford River springs from a muddy patch of meadow. Charlie needed crew to bring her back, and was offering free transportation and victualling to anyone prepared to join him. I pointed the notice out to Lothar.

He grinned, “He’s a bit tight-handed, your Club Secretary.”

“Short-handed,” I corrected. Lothar shook his head and made one of his hands into a huge fist. Travelling at speed it could drive your nose through your cheekbone.

“Oh, right,” I twigged. “Tight-fisted.”

Only one potential crew member had signed beneath Charlie’s appeal. It was Simon, and under ‘Availability’ he had written: ‘Whenever’.

Lothar laughed. “Whenever he gets out of the jammer.”

“Slammer,” I corrected.

Tattersall Hall was dark and shrouded with shrubbery that had overgrown its tall windows. The iron-studded double doors weren’t locked. Nick pushed them open and Lothar and I followed him through into the flagstoned hall with its dark ancestral portraits and smell of linseed oil. Nick and I were born within a week of each other. So he had shared his 21st party with me, and we called it our 42nd, an age then impossible to conceive. I wove down through couples embracing on the staircase. Joss-sticks and joints and Eric Clapton mingled on the warm spring air. Angie and I had walked round and round the bare rose garden talking into the early morning. At the top of the garden, where you could see the beacon on The Elbow, magnolia blossoms drifted down onto her hair. And then she was gone. I wove down the stairs holding a bottle of champers. The double doors were open. Angie ran out through them, crying. She was wearing a tight-fitting sheath dress of bright peacock blue and green and silver in a Chinese pattern. With long slits which exposed her thighs. Outside, Spider wrapped his arms around Angie, and she put her head on his shoulder. They turned and he led her down the gravel drive. I wouldn’t see her again until a generation had passed by.

A bright glare clamped my eyelids together. It came from a trouble light, a bare bulb mounted in a holder with a protective grill and clipped to the top of a ladder. A black flex led up to the ceiling fixture where the chandelier had been. The ladder stood in the centre of the great entrance hall of Lord Farthing-Tattersall’s manor house. There was nothing else in the room except a battered leather suitcase lying open on the first step of the staircase where the pale track of an absent carpet runner curved up into the gloom. Where the framed portraits of Lord Nick’s ancestors had once stared down at interlopers a series of dim panels mounted the wall above the stairs. Our footsteps echoed across the bare floor to the oak panelled sitting room, where a couple of bare bulbs blazed from dangling wall fittings. A plump yellow leather sofa faced the fireplace. It was soiled and the arms had been clawed into strips by animals — or perhaps ladies with long fingernails. A battered black lacquered coffee table with a mirrored glass top stood in front of it. There was no other furniture in the room except a large television set in the corner with a pile of magazines on it. Nothing burned in the fireplace and the air in the big room was chill. Only the whisky Nick poured for us fulfilled the vision I had of his fireside.

“You doing a bunk, Nick?” I asked.

Lothar looked at me with a question. “A bunkrunner?”

“My dear fellow, I just blew in from Bequia. On a clear day you can see Mustique lying on the horizon.”

“Where’s the furniture?”

Nickers looked around the room as though seeing it for the first time. “I’ve had to part company with some of my ancestors. And their goods and chattels.”

“In hock?”

“In Christeby’s. This is terminal. Malcolm swooped in today for a house clearance. They leave it broom-clean, as they say. Except for the sofa and the coffee table, upon which I was reclining at the time, and he let me keep the telly for my dotage.”

“So that’s what tempted you back to Westowe.”

“Hastened by the baying of my creditors, and also let it be said to fulfil my obligations to the club at the AGM.”

“They’ll need all the help they can get to fend off that grasping property speculator.”

Nick snapped his heels together and brought his right hand up smartly to quiver over his eye. “I have heard the call.” He let his shoulders slump again and turned to Lothar. “That’s why the Snow Queen is for sale. Submerging in a sea of creditors.”

We sat down and he lit up a reefer. He offered it to me. I shook my head, “Lothar’s got a thing about drugs, remember?”

“My dear fellow, I am sorry,” said Nick, and held out the joint to Lothar. I expected the giant to pick him up by the scruff of the neck and cart him off to the slammer. Or the jammer. Instead, he just smiled and raised up both hands palm outwards. Nickers laughed. “Not while you’re on duty?”

“What kind of shape is she in?” asked Lothar.

“The Snow Queen? Completely refitted. Ready to sail, except for the small matter of a shipyard lien.”

Lothar reckoned she might be ideal for the charter business in the Caribbean, if the price were right. They talked figures for a while and Lothar agreed to take a look at her.

“Ted’s got a fine boat,” said Lothar. “The Amaryllis.”

“I hear it comes with hot and cold running crumpet,” said Nickers.

“Crumpet?” Lothar was the right generation, but his English-language was more American than British.

Nickers wasn’t helpful. “That bint who thinks I’m her old man. Bartholomew’s piece of fluff. Ted’s got her lying in irons in his foc’sle.”

Somehow understanding beamed on Lothar’s face. “Ted says she’s done a bunk.”

“She’s bunking with Spider now,” I said.

“Really? She seems to be a serial middle-aged man molester. I suppose as her reputed father I’m the only one who’s safe,” said Nickers. “Why is she picking on me, Ted?”

“Nothing personal,” I said. “It’s just that you’ve got the nicest house in town.”

“Wish I could afford it.” He drained his first glass and picked up the second one. “Charlie Segui is hassling me for a blood test.”

“Why not just give him one?”

“If I gave blood to every child who claimed I was its father I’d be lying on a slab now.” He leaned back on the chartreuse sofa and closed his eyes. The muscles in his pale face slackened. He looked like a corpse.

“How do you spell Segui?” Lothar had his notebook in his hand.

“C-R-E-E-P” said the corpse.

Lothar was looking bewildered again. “Why is he helping Maddy?”

“That’s good,” said the corpse. “Maddy. Mad as a hadder.”

Something narked me. Lothar spoke our foreign tongue with only a trace of accent and Nickers, who ignored the existence of any language but his own, was taking the mick. Or was it the interest Lothar was taking in Matty that annoyed me?

“Charlie Segui is acting for Matty,” I told Lothar. “Another hat he wears.”

“A bad hat,” said the corpse. “Raising his pikestaff against the noble house of Farthing-Tattersall to put Bartholomew’s bint on the escutcheon.” He raised his glass in the air. “A pair of legs rampant. Uncrossed.” Lord Nick rested his glass on his forehead and closed his eyes again.

“Charlie Segui was a good friend of Bartholomew’s?” asked Lothar.

“They ran the sailing club together.”

The corpse spoke again. “Charlie, Spider, Superbloke — all members of the Ancient Order of the Toilet.”

Lothar looked up puzzled. “Pardon?”

“The Toilet Club. I’m a member.” Without opening his eyes, Nick pointed a finger in my direction. “He’s a member.”

I explained. “There’s a spouthole in a mewstone just off shore before Grise Heel. At high spring tides, if there’s a strong swell, you can squat over it and it will wet your backside. But somebody has to hold your hands. It was a kid’s dare.”

Lothar grinned and wrote that down. “You have to trust your friends.”

Nickers recharged my whisky glass, but Lothar shook his head and got up to go.

Nick looked at his watch. “It’s not nine yet.”

“Day off tomorrow,” I reminded Lothar.

Lothar tapped his notebook. “A deadline to meet.” He always shook hands when he said hello or good-bye and I had to put my fingers into the vice again.

“Why don’t you build a fire, Ted, while I see Lothar out?,” said Nick. “It’s fucking freezing in here.”

“What do you use for wood?”

“Only the Victorian stuff.”

I wandered through the empty downstairs rooms. Apart from the wainscoting I saw no wood until I came across some empty tea chests and odd bits of shelving in a cupboard. Through the window I could see Nickers and Lothar talking in the driveway. I had the fire blazing before Nickers came back into the room.

“Splendid chap,” he said.

“Do you think he’s a narc?”

“Would I be smoking pot in front of a narc? Give us a break.” He opened a little silver box, and carefully laid a line of cocaine with a razor on the glass table. He held the box out to me, but not very far.

“I’ll pass. He turned in Simon.”

Nick sniffed up the line of white powder through the paper tube, tidied up the little silver box and flopped back on the sofa with a sigh. “You fail to see the complexities. You always were an innocent lad. Playing jacks with Angie while the rest of us were out shagging grockles in the meadow. Why don’t you two get together again?”

“She reckons Bartholomew’s still alive.”

“So she won’t let you into her knickers? Can’t say I blame her. What with you knocking off my daughter on your boat.”

“I’ve got a little problem there, too.”

“That’s no way for a daughter of mine to behave. Send her up here and I’ll sort her out for you.” He fixed me from his couch with one open eye. “Who do you suppose bagged that Meeker, then? I know grockles can be a bit of a nuisance, but after all they are out of season.”

“Who says he was killed?”

“Some people say you topped him.”

“Which people?”

“The entire local establishment, old man.” He ticked off his fingers. “Dinny, Millie the sub-postmistress, the bar staff at The Sailor’s Return, the checkout girl with the nice tits at Featherstone’s supermercado — .”

“You left out Eddy Starr.”

“Really? The Westowe constabulary is on your trail? Then you are in big trouble. Plod has revoked mooring permits for lesser offences. Still, you don’t look like a serial murderer to me.”

“What do they look like?”

“More like your chum, Wolfman, wouldn’t you say? Nice smile, but cold, hard, staring eyes.”

“Wolfman?”

“Hans, Ludwig, whatsisname — the Danish pastry.”

“Volkmann. Lothar. I thought you two hit it off.”

Nick laid a finger alongside his nose. “It always pays to be nice to the press, even if they look like serial murderers. We had a nice chat while you were breaking up my furniture.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Just local colour.”

“Like how I’m the number one suspect?”

“My dear fellow, I exonerate you completely. As any reader of P.D. James could tell you, you must have the three Ms. Motive, Method and . . .” I poured myself another glass of whisky and waited. “I can’t think of the other one.”

“Opportunity?”

“That’s it. Mother-fucking ‘Opportunity’. The ‘Method’ seems pretty simple. You push someone off a cliff, or out of a boat when he’s looking the other way.”

“Or cut off his hands and head.”

“Artistic embellishments. And ‘Opportunity’ comes to all of us by-and-by.”

“I have developed a habit of being in the right place at the wrong time.”

“So you’ve heard the gossip?”

“Everybody knows I found the colonel’s dinghy and wrote the letter that brought him here.”

“The gossip is about your wife.” Nickers held up three fingers and ticked them off with his other hand. “’Opportunity’, ‘Method’ — right on. And as you were married, ‘Motivation’ may be taken as read.”

“Guilty until proven innocent.”

“Very likely. But my point was you don’t look like a serial murderer. Where’s the ‘Motivation’? Why would you want to dispose of this eccentric colonel, not to say Bartholomew?”

“Why would anyone?”

“Anyone?” He spread out the fingers of one hand again, and ticked them off. “Charlie Segui might. Malcolm might. Spider might.”

“Why Spider?”

“Quiet. I haven’t finished.” He ticked his fourth finger. “And I might.”

“What’s the ‘Motivation’?”

“Money. It’s always money. Except when it’s women. And then it’s usually mixed up with money.”

“Superbloke lives off the fat of the land.”

“His wife is the fat of the land. And she’s divorcing him.”

“Charlie Segui’s got his practice.”

“Poor as a parson. And avaricious as a bishop.”

“If Spider came across any money, he’d put it in the poor box.”

“A shrewd investment, if that’s what you believe in. But Spider would do anything to save his precious club from bankruptcy. Or for Angie.”

“Kill Bartholomew?”

“Ah, but Angie reckons it wasn’t Bartholomew.”

“Where does the money come in?”

“The colonel was something in the City, wasn’t he? I imagine one would find his estate is worth a few bob.”

“He’s not likely to name Spider as beneficiary. Or Charlie Segui. Or Superbloke.”

“That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet.”

He was right. Everyone in Westowe was skint. According to Spider, Charlie and Superbloke were being hounded by Lloyds. Moreover, Superbloke, Charlie, Spider and Bartholomew had jointly and severally guaranteed the sailing club’s credit line, which meant that each of them was in the frame for up to £90,000 of debt if the club foundered. Was that enough to kill for — jointly or severally?

“And your ‘Motivation’?”

“Don’t be misled by cheap pop song sentiment.” Lord Nick tapped his little silver box. “Once you’re addicted to something, money can buy happiness.”

Into the further reaches of the night he told me about places he had been and women he had known in the 60s and 70s, when the world was young. As a point of principle, he claimed, he had kept his hands off the female servants, at least from the age of ten. He had, at one time, been in Australia, he believed, if that’s the next stop after Bangkok. So, depending on what the female population of the Antipodes is, there is a chance that he could, indeed, be Matty’s father. The 80s, he said, had passed in a blur, as did the rest of the evening. I remember stumbling down the hill homewards by the light of a waxed moon. When I rounded the rhododendrons leading to the castle I heard a familiar sound — like loose scree dislodged on a mountainside by a slipping foot — but before I could turn around the stony path rose up and hit me like a ground-shot camera zoom.


Sunday, 27th March

The rapping continued. I ignored it and it stopped. A cold draught swept over my shoulders and a bright light flashed across my eyelids. I was lying in the chilled food cabinet at Featherstone’s Supermart. I reached for the blankets but couldn’t find them, so I crossed my hands over my shoulders and burrowed face-down into the pillows. I was being dragged up to the surface and I didn’t want to go. I smelled honeysuckle, but it was too early for honeysuckle. I opened my eyes to pain and Rabbit’s looming, worried face.

“Are you all right?”

“I think I committed suicide.”

Her mouth tightened. “It sounded like murder to me. Have you seen your face?”

“Why? Is it lost?”

“It looks like you’ve had a face-lift.” I touched my forehead. It was sore and there was dried blood on my fingers. “I’ll make some tea,” said Rabbit. I was lying on the settee, wearing all my clothes, including my boots and oilies. I stumbled into the bathroom for some urgent maintenance. When I came out, Rabbit was settling a tray of tea and toast on to the small table by the settee. She held Angie’s bottle of single malt up to me at arms length, wrinkling her nose. It was half-empty.

“This stuff smells terrible.”

“Just like my tongue.” But I couldn’t remember drinking anything from that bottle last night. I couldn’t remember crossing the threshold. She thrust down the corners of her mouth and walked to the end of the room and set the bottle on the window ledge.

I lowered myself on to the settee and Rabbit poured me a steaming mug of hot tea. I held it in both hands and inhaled it slowly. Through the haze, smiling at me, she looked like a vision of a middle-aged Florence Nightingale and I began to emerge from the valley of death.

“Why were you sleeping on the settee?” Matron demanded.

I looked at the undisturbed bed. “I suppose I couldn’t find the bed.”

“I was surprised to find you alone.”

“That surprises me every morning, too.” Her face softened. “How did you get in?” I asked.

“The door was open. I came down to see if you were all right. Because of all the goings-on last night.”

The back of my head began to throb. “I wasn’t here.”

“Did you fall down?”

“I don’t know. I passed out.”

“You’re touching the back of your head.” She came over and pressed her body against me, enveloping me in her scent, while she probed my skull with her fingers. It hurt. “No blood. But you’ve got a whopper.” While I was thinking exactly how to reply to that she pressed a cold, wet tea towel over the bump. “It’s not so easy to fall down and hit yourself on the back of the head.”

“It takes talent,” I said. “I heard something in the rhododendrons.”

“Did she hit you?”

“Who?”

“Who do you think?”

“Angie?”

“No, your constant companion.”

“Matty? She jumped ship weeks ago.”

“You let her in last night.”

“When was that?”

“Just before I turned on News at Ten.”

“I was up with Lord Nick. It must have been hours later that I left.”

“You don’t wear a watch.” She said it as if it were clear evidence of moral turpitude. “Lord Nick could tell you when you left.”

“He was dead to the world.” Rabbit’s eyes opened a little wider. “Metaphorically,” I added.

“Well, somebody let her in. Which was a bit odd.”

“Why?”

“Because there were no lights on. Before or after she went in the castle.” Ronny gave me a knowing look. “So I thought it was you, obviously.”

“It’s not obvious to me.”

“Angie would throw you out if she knew you had that tramp in here.”

“Where did you say you found my keys?”

“The door was open.” I felt in the pocket of my oil slicker and found the keys. “You didn’t give Matty a key?” she asked.

“Only to the Amaryllis.” Still holding the cold compress to my scalp, I went to the door and opened it. A northerly gale was streaming down the estuary. The tide was up and white horses were loose in the harbour. The Amaryllis stood wind-whipped on the hard. The tarpaulin over the cockpit had come loose and was cracking in the breeze.

On the table in the cabin of the Amaryllis we found two empty containers. One was a half-bottle of bourbon. The other was a packet of anti-seasickness tablets from the first aid kit. We found Matty in the forepeak, huddled up against the anchor chain. She was wearing Spider’s faded red oilies. Both her eyes were blacked and where you could see between the great purple patches on her face, it was streaked with the tracks of dried tears. I folded her into my arms. She was limp, but warm and breathing, and smelled of damp. I moved her neck gently, then ran my fingers over her limbs. She shuddered a couple of times, but nothing seemed to be broken. I had to drag her by her shoulders, heavy as a corpse, through the cabin and up the hatchway. Rabbit braced the ladder from beneath and I took her down in a fireman’s carry.

We laid her on my bed in the castle. Her hands were freezing to the touch. Rabbit tucked the blankets over her and wet some more tea towels, and applied them to Matty’s purple face while I lit the fire. There was a streak of mud on the throw rug in front of the fireplace and two smeared glasses on the floor. I sniffed them. They smelled of good whisky to me. Rabbit came over and said, “I’ll phone the surgery.”

“Make it a 999 call.”

She looked at me with scared eyes. “I should probably phone Eddy Starr, too.”

I went up to her and put both of my hands on her shoulders. “I didn’t do this.”

“I believe you.”

“There’s something else I want you to know about Matty.”

“Yes?”

“I have never made love to Matty. Or anyone else for that matter, since I’ve come to Westowe.”

Rabbit’s eyes crinkled. “Scout’s honour?”

“I haven’t tried the local troop yet.”

She covered my hands with hers. “I’ll go and phone Spider. He’ll know what to do.”

She hurried out the door. Matty moaned, but she was unconscious. Her swollen face was relaxed now, her hair spread out on my pillow, a battered, shop-worn, snub-nosed princess. I picked up the whisky glasses with another tea towel and put them on the kitchen counter. Down at the end of the hall the black thread I had re-rigged at the door of the blockhouse was still in place.

They all arrived in Eddy’s patrol car with its blue light flashing: Eddy, Spider, and an adolescent called Brenda with granny glasses and a crew-cut. She was the trainee at the surgery. She lifted Matty’s wrist and felt her pulse, then gently explored her face and the back of her skull as I had done. She spread Matty’s eyes open with her thumb and forefinger and shone the light of an ophthalmoscope into each in turn. She took her blood pressure. Then she pinched Matty’s finger hard. Matty stirred like someone having a bad dream. Brenda checked all four limbs, tapping the knees and elbows, and scraping the soles of her feet with a biro. Matty’s arm jerked when the doctor jabbed her with a needle. She squeezed a drop of blood on to a plastic stick with a strip of coloured rectangles on it.

“How is she?” I asked.

The juvenile doctor spoke in a schoolgirl’s lisping voice, but with the compassion of a Regimental Sergeant Major. “I’ll tell you in a minute.” She waited a minute, then wiped the blood off the stick with a tissue. Then she waited another minute. The rectangles on the strip had turned the colour of a pale morning sky. She compared the strip to a colour chart on the cylinder that held her supply of plastic sticks. Then she bent down and smelled Matty’s breath.

“She’s not a diabetic is she?”

“No,” I said.

“She’s hypoglycaemic. Too much booze. No lesions in the skull. No raised intracranial pressure. Concussed but nothing broken, I should imagine. She’s been beaten up by an expert. A rubber hose job.”

She started packing her bag. Eddy stopped writing in his notebook and regarded Brenda with professional respect. “She been doing drugs?”

“No opiate overdose reaction. No needle marks. She’s taken something. But not opiates. Tranquillisers, maybe.”

I showed her the empty packet of anti-seasickness tablets.

“Cinnarizine. That would do it,” she said. “How many were in there?”

“I don’t know. It came with the boat.”

“What’s happened to your face?” she asked.

“I fell down.”

Brenda sat me on the sofa, shone the ophthalmoscope into my eyes and examined the back of my head. “You were sandbagged,” she said. “But you don’t need sutures.”

“I gave him a cold compress,” said Rabbit.

“That should keep you alive for a while yet,” the little doctor said to me. “If you lay off the booze.”

“You can see that in my eyes?”

“You smell like Newham Hospital A and E on a Saturday night.”

Eddy turned to me. “So, what was the argument about?”

“Eddy, I haven’t seen her in weeks.”

“She was in your forepeak.”

“She still had a key.”

Eddy turned to Rabbit. “Did you see anything last night, Mrs Harris?”

“Somebody let her into the castle while Ted was out.”

“How do you know it wasn’t Ted?”

Rabbit darted a wary glance at me. “I was up at Lord Nick’s,” I said.

Eddy did not approve of Lord Nick. “I don’t suppose he was in a condition to vouch for that?”

“Certainly not,” I said.

“Who else has a key to the castle?”

“Nobody, except Angie.”

Spider spoke for the first time. “I can’t see Angie inviting Matty around for supper.”

“Brodericks,” put in Rabbit.

“The estate agents?” asked Eddy.

“They have a key,” said Rabbit. “But you couldn’t get Brodericks to do anything on a weekend.”

I pointed at the two glasses on the tea towel. “I found those on the floor. They’ve been used.”

“I’ll send them in for prints,” Eddy said.

“There are, of course, the usual suspects,” I said.

“Who’s that?”

“Pixie and Poxy?”

“Come again?”

“Those two villains from central casting — in the tight jeans and leather jackets.”

“What about them?”

“They were flexing their moustaches out in the cockpit the day you brought Lothar out here.” I found myself looking at Eddy’s moustache and dropped my eyes to his police-issue black shoes. Suddenly the two halves of my brain merged. What I’d heard in the bushes was a leather shoe slipping on gravel. “I bet it was that bastard Poxy who clouted me.”

Eddy smiled, which I thought was unkind. “You see anything?”

“No chance.”

“No case then.”

“Who are those spivs anyway? Mates of yours, they said.”

“Spivs. There’s a nice old-fashioned word,” said Eddy.

“Special branch? Anti-terrorist?”

“You know I won’t answer that.”

“Official, though?”

Eddy didn’t answer. A blue light was flashing through the window by the door. The ambulance men came in with a stretcher and were gone again within a minute. The precocious playschool doctor went with them.

Spider’s face was grim. His only words to me were “Not a pretty sight,” which he said as he left.

Eddy turned to me at the threshold, “You’d better be pretty sure you didn’t do this.” To Rabbit he said, “Mrs Harris, I may have to ask you to make a statement.”

Rabbit fumed. “So it’s Mrs Harris now, is it? Whatever happened to ‘Petal’?”

Eddy squirmed. “This is police business, Veronica.”

“I’m prepared to swear to what I saw,” she said. “Not what I think.” His ears glowing, Eddy got into the patrol car with Spider and drove off.

I put my arm around Rabbit. “Thanks. You’re a good egg.”

“Just a bit scrambled, that’s all.” She gave me a moist peck on the cheek. “If you want to talk about anything, come up for a cup of tea anytime you like,” she said before gathering her anorak around her and hurrying up the path.

The black thread was still in place across the door to the munitions room. So what did they want here? An observation post? The bottle of single malt stood on the window ledge and I realised I should have given it to Eddy. I held it by the neck with my last clean tea towel. Against the light of the sky the colour looked off-yellow. I unscrewed the cap, sniffed the bottle and gagged. My uninvited guests were ecologically correct; what they had drunk they had processed and replaced. There was no need to send the sample out for urine analysis; that was Poxy marking his territory.


Tuesday, 19th April

I had elevenses in the cockpit of the beached Amaryllis with Charlie Segui. He stopped by on the way from the bakery and to save him the trouble of carrying his doughnuts home I made us some coffee. He was still looking for crew to help him get the Grace of God back from the Helford River.

“Lord Nick’s willing to go Wednesday week,” said Charlie.

“It would be a beat up into the wind all the way this time of year. Still I suppose he needs to clear his head.”

“It could change. There’s a high up around Iceland.”

“There you are then. The two of you will have a nice ride.”

“Except this is another damned week I can’t make it.”

“Why don’t you go some other time?”

“It’s rising springs on Wednesday. We’ll need a lot of water to get her downriver.”

“Crap. I’ve been up to Gweek in neaps.”

“The channel’s silted up a lot since your day.”

“Your boat’s a cat, for God’s sake. You could sail it on a puddle.”

Charlie didn’t answer that. Instead he said, “Why don’t you go? You enjoy Nick’s company.” I reckoned I enjoyed Nick’s booze more than his sociability, but I hadn’t had a decent sail in years, and if the wind changed, Charlie’s catamaran would fly up the coast. I said I’d think about it and sent him off with one doughnut left in the box. But what happened at the AGM that night put the idea right out of my mind.

Spider was elected Commodore by acclaim. After the applause died down the murmur of voices quickly soared to the decibel level of the public bar in Formerly Cromarty’s on a summer Sunday lunchtime. The Executive Committee sat at two card tables butted together on the raised dais at one end of the ballroom and covered in green baize, which muffled the sound of the gavel when Charlie Segui banged it on the table against the wall of noise. He laid down his gavel, bowed his head, and, pressing both hands to his temples, brushed his fingertips back through the grey hair curling over his ears. His right hand discovered a pencil behind his right ear. Charlie brought it in front of his eyes, then laid it down carefully on the notepad before him. Then he pulled a large white handkerchief out of his sleeve with a flourish. The chatter in the packed ballroom began to fall away as the audience, watching this performance, wondered what he was going to produce next. My eyes searched the room again for Matty, but she wasn’t there. She was out of hospital and back at Spider’s now. He said she couldn’t remember anything about the attack.

Silence descended from the ceiling, blanketing a few coughs. Charlie was surprised in the act of polishing his spectacles. He put them on at a skewed angle and began to speak. Right away he put his foot into a bucket.

“The first order of new business is whether the club should accept the offer of the Gladwell Development Consortium for the club freehold,” he announced. Rabbit, who was sitting behind him and to one side nudged his elbow and pointed to the papers which lay before him.

“It’s not the first item,” she said in a stage whisper.

“Yes it is.”

“Have a look.”

The audience laughed. Everyone in the hall had a copy of the agenda. Charlie looked down at his copy, and then at the other members of the Executive Committee sitting at the table, Spider and Superbloke. Spider spoke. “That’s down to me. I asked Ronny to change it. Sorry, Charlie.”

Spider never apologises. He’s up to something, I thought. Charlie’s pitch rose to a whining bluster. “The future of the club depends on whether we accept this offer.”

“There might not be no future,” said Spider. “That’s why I thought we ought to hear what Angie has to say first.”

“Oh,” said Charlie. This time he read out the first line of the agenda. “One. A special tribute to our former Commodore, by Mrs Bartholomew Streb.” Now it was Charlie’s turn to apologise. “Sorry,” he mumbled to Spider.

“Give over,” shouted a voice from the back of the room. “You’re not Commodore no more.” There was a ripple of laughter, but mine was one of the few heads which had to turn to see who it was. The others knew it was Dinny.

Charlie said “Sorry” again and handed the gavel to Spider. He introduced Angie. She was dressed for the graveyard in a loose light grey woolly and a full charcoal skirt. She wore no make-up. The only bright note was the pair of mauve earrings that dangled below the dark hair, now grey-streaked and chopped back hard. Angie’s tone was brave and sad, not like a woman who really believed her husband was alive and lurking somewhere over the water. She spoke without notes about her husband’s love for the club, why he had founded it and some of the worries and triumphs of its early days. “I think we all owe it to his memory to keep that flame alive,” she concluded.

Spider started to clap and then stood up. About half of the people in the hall stood up applauding immediately, and the rest were shamed into following. Behind the Executive Committee table Rabbit rose clapping, too. Only Charlie and Superbloke remained sitting on their dignity.

“Be upstanding.” That was Dinny again, and Charlie and Superbloke lurched out of their chairs and joined in the applause. Angie smiled and raised her hand, and the crowd took seats.

“There’s just one thing more. I want you all to know that I am planning a fitting artistic memorial to Bartholomew. I can’t say anything about it now, except that I owe it all to Malcolm Goodfellow, who is providing very generous financial support to make it possible. I would like to thank him, and thank you all for your good wishes.” Superbloke nodded to the audience like the Queen being driven past in her Bentley.

Angie returned down the centre aisle with her long stride, steady and square-shouldered, but the applause had ebbed before she reached her seat. The good burghers of Westowe were more impressed by Bartholomew’s nautical interests than his artistic achievements.

Spider rose again. The next item on the agenda was his proposal about the blocking share. “In a few minutes we’re going to be talking about selling this clubhouse,” he said. “It was just this kind of get-rich-quick, bugger-my-neighbour speculation that the golden share was designed to prevent. Only Bartholomew made the mistake of putting it in his own name. I suppose he didn’t trust anyone else. And looking around at some of the people who are here tonight — people I haven’t seen at an AGM or a club evening in ten years — maybe he was right. But he’s gone and if we’re going to keep the flame alive, like Angie says, we’re going to have to trust someone. That’s why I’m moving that the golden share should be vested in the office of the Commodore.”

A buzzing arose in the hall like someone had poked the point of a boathook into a hornet’s nest. Charlie Segui looked up from his papers grim-faced, and turned and spoke to Spider. Spider gave him the floor, but stayed on his feet.

“Commodore, this point really should come later, as on the original agenda, after we’ve voted on the proposal from the Gladwell consortium.”

“Why is that?” asked Spider.

Charlie’s face reddened and he tugged at his tie. “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? If the Commodore’s got a golden share, the vote is a pointless exercise.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the Commodore would veto the sale.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But what makes you think the membership will vote to sell?”

Charlie fidgeted with his papers. “I am not going to pre-empt their vote. And neither should you. It should be a free vote.”

“That’s not the way we set it up. That’s why we have a golden share.”

“Well, we don’t now. With Bartholomew’s death it reverts to the membership.”

Spider had been squinting out over the audience, his eyes focused somewhere beyond the clubhouse walls out over the estuary. Now he looked directly at Charlie and with a faint smile asked, “Do you think we should sell the clubhouse?”

Now Superbloke was upright. He seized attention by raising both his hands above shoulder height. “This is just a procedural argument, because it amounts to the same thing. What Spider says is only right and proper. And I will second his proposal. But in casting your vote, you must all understand what it means. You’re voting for or against a veto on the sale of the club.”

He paused to let this point sink in. Spider filled the empty space. “The Commodore will vote the golden share in the best interests of the club.”

Superbloke beamed at him. “We all know that, Commodore.” When he turned back to face the audience the smile had vanished. “I just want to make it absolutely clear to everyone that if they approve your proposal it will give one man the absolute power of veto on the sale of the club, should he choose — and to his successors, for all time.”

Spider wasn’t smiling any longer either. “That’s exactly what Bartholomew intended when he set it up. But before we vote we ought to consider what the future holds for the club.” He then launched into the presentation he and I had prepared about the new plan for the club. This item was further down the agenda, but people were used to letting Spider have his way, and no one objected. The ideas for the racing dinghy section, leasing two cruising yachts, and the other new initiatives created a stir of enthusiasm. This was quickly dissipated by Charlie who presented a glum summary of the financial implications. The bottom line was that each member would have to sink another two hundred pounds into the club immediately to give our ideas a trial. Just before he came to this figure Charlie managed to knock the easel and his big charts off the dais. It didn’t look deliberate, but it provided a vivid symbol for the future of the club.

Superbloke praised Spider’s plan. Then he said, “Still, if what we’re really voting on is the membership’s right to sell the club, it’s only fair that we hear first what the consortium has to offer.” He introduced a colourless man in a grey pin-striped suit who came up and stood on the edge of the dais. In a toneless voice like a rasp he read for twenty minutes from a document without once looking up at his audience. They weren’t looking at him either, but leafing through the copies of the document which were handed out while he talked. Within a few minutes even Dinny would have discovered the bottom line: after the club’s bank loans had been paid off, ordinary membership was worth over a thousand pounds; founder members stood to gain a lot more. The document did not mention it, but an extra attraction for Charlie, Superbloke, Spider and Angie’s estate, of course, was that they would be relieved of their personal guarantees of the club’s debts. A noisy undertone grew as people in the audience began to talk to each other again, including those at the table covered in green baize. When the man from the property company stopped talking he stood there for almost a minute before anyone realised he had finished. The first few questions were directed at him, but as he deferred them all to Superbloke or Charlie Segui, he was generally ignored in the debate that followed, and when eventually he sat down again on a seat in the first row and disappeared from view, nobody took any notice.

The first question from the floor was aggressive: “Who are the founder members and how much do they stand to gain?”

Charlie Segui was brusque. “The names of the founder members are printed in the annual report. And they’re on the wall behind you.”

Although they’d seen it hundreds of times before, everyone twisted about to look at the mahogany panel with the gilt letters. My name was there, and everyone seated on the dais except Rabbit, plus half a dozen members of the audience, including Lord Nicholas Farthing-Tattersall, who sat, arms folded, directly beneath the panel glaring at the faces turned towards him.

Superbloke answered the second part of the question. “Over the years some of the charter members and others kept the club going by subscribing to extra share-holdings. So, we have to declare an interest.” Charlie read out some names. This time my name wasn’t on the list, but all the members of the Executive Committee and a few others were in the frame for several thousand pounds. This prompted another rumble of discontent in the audience which was silenced when Lord Nick drew himself to his feet. He stood like a lighthouse in a stormy sea, swivelling to fix all parts of the audience with an angry eye.

“My name is not on the list for that honeypot. And you know why? Because whenever the club was about to go on the rocks, and the plea went out for support, most of the time I wasn’t here. Or I didn’t read the letters. Or I read them and thought, well Bartholomew and Spider and Charlie and Malcolm and them, they’ll sort it out. I behaved no differently from all the rest of you. You could have qualified for an extra divvy. Every time they passed the hat around. But you sat on your bottoms, like I did, which meant you couldn’t get your hands in your pockets. But those people who did, who saved the club time and again, I say good luck to them.”

In Britain, somebody always objects. They would object if you were giving out a free fuck. A man who looked like he had been dressed by Hollywood for the role of a country squire got to his feet. “That’s an investment return of more than fourteen hundred percent. I’ve worked it out.” He waved a calculator at us.

Nick answered him back. “God bless Thatcherism.”

The man aimed his calculator at the table on the dais at the front of the room. “It’s all right for the locals. What about those of us who weren’t here when these goodies were given out?”

“God bless feudalism,” Nick bellowed.

I stuck up my hand. Spider nodded at me and I stood up. “I’d like to ask a question of Mr Gladwell.”

The drab man little man in the front row who had read out the document popped up again, blinking. “My name is Pemberton.”

“You’re not Mr Gladwell?”

“That’s the name of the consortium.”

“So, it’s not your money you’re spending.”

He gave a thin smile. “I’m a solicitor. We represent the Gladwell consortium.”

“So whose money is it?”

“The backers and the banks which support them.”

“So who’s behind it?”

“The company’s interests are registered in the name of my firm.”

“I know that. I’ve checked. What I’m asking is what is the name of the speculator who stands to benefit from this purchase?”

“I’m not privileged to disclose that information. It would put the firm at a serious commercial disadvantage.”

“Are any of them in this room?”

Mr Pemberton’s eyes darted briefly behind me and then up at the dais. Charlie barked, “You don’t have to answer that.”

Superbloke stood up. “I can tell you that. I have contacted some people of substance to form the Gladwell consortium. No one in this room tonight is a member of it.” He paused to let that sink in. “Given the severe financial position of the club, I have, with the very greatest regret, come to the conclusion that this is the only realistic option. It will rescue the club from insolvency, your investment will be repaid and in fact you will make a tidy profit on it. If any of you want to invest those gains in the Gladwell consortium you will be welcomed with open arms. But believe you me, there will be no guarantee like the one you’re being offered tonight. Property development is a highly risky venture.”

There was silence after he sat down. Spider stood up and I expected to hear him invoke the wrath of Jesus against moneychangers in the temple. Instead, he simply read out his motion: that the golden share which had been held personally by Bartholomew should now revert to the office of Commodore. Instead of the usual show of hands ballots were filled in by all the members and there was a recess for tea while they were counted.

It was a close run. Spider’s proposal was defeated by twelve votes. He showed no emotion, and the rest of the meeting ticked away quietly, a clock winding down. The motion to sell the club attracted no further debate, and was carried by a majority of thirty of the people in the hall. Not enough. But when Charlie announced the results of the postal ballot, the decision to accept the offer of the Gladwell consortium was endorsed by more than the required three-quarters of the membership.

Nobody applauded. People sat in embarrassed silence, as if waiting for something to happen. Spider rapped the gavel. “On to any other business,” he said. “There’s just one item. Under the terms of the club constitution, I hereby overrule this vote, using the golden share under the power of attorney which has been granted to me by Bartholomew Streb.”

Superbloke stood up shouting, “What power of attorney?”

Spider handed a paper to Charlie Segui, who looked at it, then held it away from him as if wondering how to dispose of it. “It’s just a photocopy,” said Spider.

Superbloke looked at Charlie. “Is this legal?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll have to take advice.”

“The man is dead,” said Superbloke.

“Maybe,” said Spider. “But he wasn’t when he signed that.”

Superbloke was pale and trembling, like a giant blancmange. “It’s not possible.” He snatched the paper from Charlie’s hands. “Look at that date — September. Bartholomew went missing the day after the August Regatta.”

“His body didn’t surface until February,” said Spider.

Superbloke stood up and marched behind Charlie’s chair to stand over Spider. “You forged it.” He said it without conviction. Nobody who had grown up with Spider would believe that. Which meant that Spider must have been in contact with Bartholomew after he went missing. I stole a glance at Angie. She sat as composed as a carved angel on a tombstone, only the faintest trace of an enigmatic smile on her lips.

Superbloke held the paper out in front of him with both hands. They were shaking as if he were about to tear it up. Spider looked up at him and said again, “It’s only a copy.”

Superbloke’s mouth opened like a gaffed fish and he shouted at Charlie, but whatever he said was drowned by the uproar from the audience.


Monday, 25th April

“Ahoy, Amaryllis.”

A bright spear of sunshine pierced the glass prism set into the deck and deflected into my eyes. My breath hung in the air like a cloud of smoke and the deck beam a few inches above my nose was coated with a melting sheet of ice. A fat drop fell on to my forehead and there was a line of damp blotches on my sleeping bag.

Something was scraping along the waterline a few inches from my left ear. It couldn’t be a dinghy. I was in the Mud Cove boat park. On the previous high water, Dinny had towed the Amaryllis in with his launch to the quayside where Jack the Rigger was waiting with his mobile crane to step the new mast. The Amaryllis was the last swallow of spring, and flying in a contrary direction. On the 1st of May, the boat park would convert into a car park annex for the invading grockle hordes. Jack the Rigger was busy plopping boats back into the water. By the time he lifted us out and Lothar and I got her sorted and we had a celebratory tot or three of whisky, it had seemed too late for me to walk back to the castle, even if I could find it. The cabin was full of bits, so I dossed down in the forepeak after Lothar went back to his digs.

Still in my sleeping bag, I slid down the slope of the forepeak cushions, stood up in the heads, unhooked the hatch cover and poked my head through the opening. The air was crisp but there was warmth in the sun on my face. A round head perched on the gunwale. It was very red and softly contoured, like the face of an ageing cherub with deep sagging pockets of flesh under the eyes. Perched over eyebrows like black struts was a peaked woolly Tibetan hat with ear flaps. The head’s lips twisted into a sly amused grin, the angelic face disappeared and I saw the wicked little boy who sat with me in the sand in the shade of the overturned dinghy telling filthy jokes. “Have you heard the one about Johnny Fuckfaster?” The head belonged to Nick Farthing-Tattersall. A hand appeared by the head, so I reckoned the rest of him was standing on one of the oil drums by the side of the boat. He was the first of several visitors I was to have on my first day in the car park.

“Lovely day,” said the head.

The sky was blue and clear. “Looks like the high is sitting right on top of Formerly Cromarty’s,” I agreed.

“Wind’s come round to the west. I’m going down to fetch Charlie’s boat up from the Helford and I need a first mate. Charlie said you might be interested in a sail.”

“I thought Simon had signed up for that.”

Nickers frowned. “I think he’s a plant. To see if I make a score in a lobster pot somewhere. Charlie suggested you.”

That was the second time he’d mentioned Charlie. “When are you off?” I asked.

“Tomorrow. Come on. We’ll go down by rail, have a good dinner and a few jars, and a great sail back the next day.”

I was tempted. Jack the Rigger could step the mast while I was gone and I could still launch the boat by the end of the week. “Let me think about it a bit,” I said.

“I’ll be back around eleven to drive Lothar to Kings Ferry station. He’s off to Plymouth.” A sly look twitched on Nick’s face. “You got that girl down there?”

“What girl?”

“That Sheila that thinks I’m her father.”

I lifted up the hem of my sleeping bag and peered inside. “You in there, Sheila?” I looked back at the head. “She’s not in.”

“She’s not staying here?”

“She stays with Spider. When she’s not out stalking your place.”

The head looked uncertain. “She didn’t leave anything here for me, did she?”

I shook the sleeping bag. “Not a sausage.”

“If you see her, tell her I can give her what she wants.”

“I reckon lots of fellas tell her that.”

“The blood test. I can give her the blood test this afternoon,” said the head. And then it disappeared over the side.

I was brewing up for elevenses when Lothar clambered up the ladder. His eyes were sad as he closed my hand in his giant grip. “Sorry to leave you in the lurgy.”

“You’ve done a great job. I’d still be bailing out every high tide if you hadn’t dropped in from the sky.”

“Have you seen Nick?”

“He came round this morning. He was trying to sign me up to help him bring Charlie’s boat back up from Helford on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Lothar shook his big head like a sad old lion. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you, old mate.”

“What’s wrong with Wednesday?”

“It’s Nick. He is not responsible. Don’t do it.”

“You’re serious.”

Lothar looked me straight in the eye and nodded. Then he ran his hand over the hull of the boat, now sound and freshly painted. “She’s looking good,” he said. “I’m looking forward to see how she sails.”

Lothar was negotiating the purchase of Nick’s boat, the Snow Queen, on behalf of a charter group in the Caribbean, and Nick had employed him to oversee her final fitting out. “Will you be coming back to Westowe?” I asked.

“Those bastards in the Plymouth yard are thieving Lord Nick blind. I’ve got to stay down there and keep watch.”

“I hope the money’s better than I pay.”

Lothar spread his wide smile. “A few pints every day and a few laughs. What more do you want out of life?”

“When do you sail for the Caribbean?”

He shrugged. “When are you out of the car park? It all depends on weather.”

Snow Queen is in a covered shed. What’s the weather got to do with it?”

He spoke into the back of his hand. “Whether Nick is able to pay off the yard’s bill.” He threw back his big head and laughed, his close-cropped blonde hair glowing like a halo in the spring sunshine. Lothar loved the word play of the English language, even though he played with a sprung racket.

“Don’t sail off without coming round to say good-bye,” I said.

“I’ve made a lot of friends in Westowe. Which reminds me.” He reached into his sea-bag and pulled out a small square parcel wrapped in brown paper. On it he had written in thick black pencil, “For Mady.” I laughed.

His face fell. “Is it just one D? I wasn’t sure.”

“I think you got her just about right. What is it?”

“A farewell present. For standing me up one night. She wouldn’t give me the day time, that girl. You know, I think she really loves you. Give this to her. It’s a reason to talk to her.”

A horn tooted over in the car park. It was Lord Nick‘s ancient MG with the hood down. Lothar squinted at the sky. “Looks like good weather for varnishing this week.” Then he gave me his serious look again. “I’ll tell Nick you’re not sailing with him.” Before I could say I hadn’t made up my mind yet he was on the ground and hoisting his sea-bag. It contained everything he needed to travel the world, winter and summer. He threw it over his shoulder like it was filled with goose down and called up to me. “You sail with me to the Caribbean instead. I’m coming back to sign you on as first mate.” He stuck his bonecrusher over the gunwales and we shook hands for the last time. In the car park he tossed his bag into the space behind the front seats and waved as Nick gunned his roadster back towards the village in a noisy hail of gravel. The image of a couple of overgrown schoolboys setting off on a lark swims into my mind whenever I think of Nick or Lothar, and it always brings an aching pain to the knuckles of my right hand.

It was a perfect day for varnishing. There was no wind and the sun grew hot while I worked with an electric blower and triangular scraper peeling the brightwork down to bare wood. I wasted half-an-hour searching for the screwdriver I had sharpened into an ice-pick; it was perfect for gouging hard bits of old varnish out of tiny crevices. But it had gone walkabout. In the Mud Cove car park boat-bashing fraternity an open tool box was considered communal property. Meanwhile the day grew warmer. So I was in a foul mood as I pulled my head out of my outer jumper layer and confronted my third visitor of the morning.

“Howdy, stranger,” said Matty. One large faded purple bruise remained under her left eye. She was wearing Spider’s cast-off red oilies and she was as bright as the morning.

“Look what the tide brought in,” I said. “Is it flotsam or jetsam?”

“What’s the difference?”

“One gets thrown overboard. The other just sort of floats around.”

“Be nice. I came to tell you I may not always be around.”

“I noticed that.”

“You didn’t declare your undying love for me, so I left.” She traced a heart on the upturned lid of my varnish tin with her finger, and then drew an X through it. She wiped her finger on my smock.

“Who beat you up that night?”

Her eyes darted to the corners of her eyes. “I fell. Out of a bad dream.”

“How’s your new fella?”

“Spider? He’s a mate. He looks after me.”

I looked up at the sun. “He’ll be cutting himself out of his Long Johns soon.”

“Spider’s not that way inclined.”

“He’s not bent.”

“Spider’s not into sex. He’s like your prime ministers. Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major. Another gender.”

“Spiders wait for their prey.”

“Not me. He’s been waiting for her all his life.”

“Who?

“The lady who won’t let me come in to play with you.”

“He doesn’t have to wait now. She’s a widow.”

“She wants the lot. You, Spider, even the dead.”

“And they all fancy you. Even the departed.”

“Who?”

“Lothar. The Danish ‘Playboy of the Western World’.”

“He’s gone?”

“To Plymouth to try to keep Lord Nick afloat on a sea of creditors.” I opened the starboard locker in the cockpit and gave her the brown parcel. “He said it was for the girl who stood him up one night.” She turned it over in her hands and stuffed it into the pocket of her oilskin.

“I only spoke to him once.”

“Nickers came by, too. He said he’d give you that blood test.”

“Charlie told me. Great news, isn’t it? We’re having a joint stick-in at the surgery today.”

“Nickers shouldn’t need any help jabbing a needle into his veins.”

“You need a proper job. Chain of custody, they call it. From the jab to the lab. You want to come and watch me get pricked?”

“I’m not into porn movies.”

She stuck her pink tongue out at me, blew me a kiss and walked off slowly. She could feel my gaze on her back, because halfway across the car park she turned and shouted, “I’m not sleeping with him.”

A middle-aged couple who had just got out of their car stared at her.

I shouted back. “Who?”

“Spider, you bastard. Or Lothar. Or my father. I’m saving myself for you.” She trilled the last syllable like the old British Telecom commercial. Then she turned and walked past the grey-haired couple. “G’day,” I heard her say. They didn’t say anything at all.

Just as I was thinking of taking a break to massage my innards with a pint of gassy lemonade and a pie at Formerly Cromarty’s, Angie pulled up in her battered old Morris Minor. I had not seen her since the sailing club AGM last week. She stroked the smooth rubbed brightwork of the toe-rail, just that bit which Matty had caressed all those weeks ago.

“The Amaryllis and I must be about the same age — and she’s looking a lot better.”

“She gets a lot of rubbing down,” I ventured.

“You must be using Oil of Ulay.”

John Thomas stirred in my groin. I changed the subject. “What did you make of Spider’s posthumous power of attorney?”

“It’s as I told you. Bartholomew is alive.”

Was alive last September at any rate. Spider must have found him.”

“That’s why I wanted you to keep an eye on him.” She pushed up the sleeves of her jumper as if she were getting down to work. “I came to invite you to supper tonight.”

I plucked at my knobbly paint-spattered jumper and my jeans with the holes in the knees. “I haven’t a thing to wear.”

“Since when did anyone in Westowe dress for supper?”

Superbloke did. When Angie led me into the kitchen he was already seated at the head of the refectory table wearing his professional country land-owner uniform: suit, shirt and tie in dizzy overlays of muted brown checks. He had a large glass of red wine in his fist. The sight of it made my head throb, and I passed when Angie offered me the bottle. She ladled a thick pea soup into brightly coloured bowls. We ate it with some home-baked bread and some cheese that had been produced not very long ago by the goat straining at the end of her tether in the back garden.

I tried to draw Superbloke out about the denouement of the AGM, but he had regained his aplomb, and parried my remarks with his cutlery while demolishing the unripe cheese. The matter had been postponed while Charlie sought legal advice. Doubtless Spider would be helping the police with their enquiries. Charlie had already informed Eddy Starr that Spider claimed to have dealt with Bartholomew after he had gone missing. An Extraordinary General Meeting would be called after counsel’s opinion had been published to members.

Angie wanted to hear what had happened at the castle the night Matty was beaten up. The bush telegraph doesn’t give in-depth stories. I told her what I knew.

“Who beat her up?”

“She won’t say.”

“What about the fingerprints on the whisky glasses?”

“According to Eddy, they were clean. So was the bottle. All we’ve got is a urine specimen.”

“You’re besieged with ill luck,” said Angie.

“Just as well I live in a castle.”

Her eyes fastened on her hand swilling the bright, red wine round in her glass. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“I can explain.” Superbloke and I spoke at once, and we said the same words, which confused both of us. Superbloke recovered first.

“Angie is planning an exhibition of Bartholomew’s work.”

“It’s a chance to revive his reputation,” said Angie.

“I’m glad you changed your mind,” I said. “Even if you think his later stuff was junk. What matters to the art world isn’t the substance, but the signature. And, when an artist dies and it can’t do him any good anymore, everyone takes more interest.”

“Precisely what I’ve been telling Angie,” enthused Superbloke. “My idea is to present the exhibition as a documentation of his life, with lots of smashing photographs. I’ve already started some hares in London. There’s a lot of interest in art circles.” This excitement must have stirred his bowels, because he left the table to visit the heads.

“It costs rather a lot of money,” confided Angie. “Malcolm is putting it all together for me.”

“What does he know about modern art?”

“He thinks Jackson Pollack is a species of fish. But he came up with the money.”

When he returned I confronted Superbloke. “Who’s paying?”

“Christeby’s are promoting it. The market for modern art is pretty flat. They hope this might stir it up.”

“The castle is the obvious venue,” said Angie.

It was typical Superbloke wheeze. Boosting his status with his precious London chums while bankrupting Angie and putting me out on the street. Any objection of mine to this absurd proposal would be graceless, and so I had to say, “Splendid idea. When?”

Angie’s fingers revolved her wine glass on the surface of the table. “The art world goes to sleep in the summer, so I’m afraid there’s not a great deal of time.”

Superbloke looked at Angie. “I think we’ve settled now on the second week of June.”

“When do you want me to move out?”

“I could let you have a room here, but . . . you know what people are like.”

Superbloke couldn’t resist the opening. “What about your old room at Spider’s?”

“That might be a bit crowded,” I answered. I looked at Angie. “I thought Bartholomew hadn’t left any paintings.”

“Nothing saleable is what I meant.”

“The exhibition will change that,” said Superbloke. “The press will eat it up, what with . . . all the current excitement.”

“I’m afraid there’s a great deal to do in a rather short period of time,” said Angie.

I agreed to move out by the end of the week. I already knew where I was going to live. The court order had slammed down on my future like a prison gate and my savings were slipping through my fingers like sprats in a rockpool. It was time to batten down the hatches.


Wednesday, 27th April

Spider’s faded red oily was draped over the bar stool between them. She was wearing her going-to-Fore-Street outfit — a pair of jeans and the blue nubby wool jumper and her high-laced clown boots. Giggling at some shared joke she put her brown hand on Spider’s arm and bent her head into his shoulder. He frowned and brushed her long sun-streaked hair away from his face.

She looked up at me and grinned. “Here comes my ex-skipper.”

“Hello, skivvy,” I said. It was only seven p.m. but Spider’s eyes were unfocused. He was still brushing his forehead. “Dinny said you were looking for me.” I nodded towards Dinny who was sitting across the room in his usual corner with his bucket by his boots.

“Who me?” Matty pointed her index finger between the small soft twin drumlins in her skimpy sweater. Then she pressed them against me like a warm, friendly cat. “Just hoping you might invite me out for a sail in the car park some day.” But I was looking at Spider.

He gave a vague smile and waved his empty glass. “Can’t remember what it was now. The trouble is, Dinny never forgets. It could have been something I asked him to do last week. Or last month.” He rubbed his head with his free hand. “I’ll remember in a minute.” He beamed at me. “I can’t think with a dry mouth.”

“Mine’s a half,” added Matty.

“How long have you two been doing the cabaret here?” I asked.

“I just got here. He sent me a Dinnygram, too. Message in a bucket.” Matty covered the side of her mouth with one hand, pointed a finger at Spider and spoke loudly. “I think he came in yesterday.”

I bought us two-and-a-half pints of Bass from the wood. Spider took a sip and made a grumpy face at Matty. “I hear you’ve been giving blood.”

Matty’s face was tense and pale. “You don’t look like you’ve got much to spare,” I said to her.

“It was just a little prick, you could say.”

Spider coughed into his beer. “That sounds like Charlie Segui all right.” Part of Spider’s brain seemed to be resistant to alcohol. While wiping the foam from his mouth he threw Matty a sudden sharp glance. “Why did Nickers suddenly agree to a DNA test?”

I thought about my visitors yesterday. First Nickers, extending a tardy sailing invitation, but really looking for Matty — or something she might have left for him. Then Lothar, with a package for Matty. Why not give it to her himself? Then Matty, collecting Lothar’s gift and trotting off happily to compare her genes to Nickers’. Now what enticement you could wrap within a small parcel would induce the resolute Lord Nick to reverse course?

“Who knows?” Matty responded.

Fogged as he was, Spider read my mind. He tapped the side of his nose. “The nose knows.”

My mind was rummaging through the implications. Was Lothar setting up Nickers for a drug bust? As he’d done with Simon? Is that why he didn’t want me on voyage? Was he really a narc?

Matty improvised. “Maybe he’s got religion or something. The bastard even gave me a paternal hug.”

“You mean the bastard’s father,” I couldn’t resist observing.

She looked at her glass. It was two-thirds full. “For that you can buy me another half,” she said, and emptied it over my head. My hood was still up, and the beer ran just ran down the slick surface of the oilies and dripped on to the floor in a circle around my feet. Spider spluttered, adding to the puddle, so I asked the sour landlord from Liverpool for three more halves. He pushed a bar towel across the counter to me and I had to mop up the spill before he gave us more beer. Spider and Matty watched with great amusement.

Spider didn’t bother to empty his fresh half into his pint glass. He stood holding a glass in each hand. “Angie’s brought her sample in, too,” he said. “Some little bit of Bartholomew to prove it’s not his corpse that drifted in.”

“So much for client confidentiality in Westowe,” I said.

Spider returned his gaze to his pint. “Charlie’s not to blame, it’s just that his desk is a little untidy.” Spider dropped in to chat to Charlie or Rabbit most days, and from the time we were kids I had been impressed with his ability to read things upside-down.

“I wonder where Angie got the sample?”

He squinted and extended the little finger of one fist. “Aye, there’s the rubbish. It don’t mean nothing. In the eyes of the law.”

“Why not?”

“You need a proper job. Train of custom they call it.” Spider started to raise both glasses to his mouth, then made a choice and sipped from the pint glass. He appealed to Matty. “Have I got that right?“

Matty laughed. “Not even in ‘strine. Chain of custody. It’s got to be vouched for. From the jab to the lab.”

He spoke again, closing his eyes and sounding each syllable, a man feeling his way blindfold on a verbal tightrope. “Chain of custody.” He opened his eyes and took another sip of beer. “And Angie won’t say where she got the sample. Which to my way of thinking is good news.”

“Why’s that?”

Spider peered at me over the tip of his extended finger and winked. “Insurance. It won’t prove nothing.”

“She’s a woman in denial,” I said. “She doesn’t really want to hear that Bartholomew’s dead.”

Matty’s hand flew up to cover her mouth. “I don’t want to hear about it either.” She walked away to stare out through the bullseye windows at the rain hammering down on the Jubilee Quay.

Spider, encumbered with two glasses of beer, pointed at me with a free little finger. “Or maybe she doesn’t want to hear he’s not dead. So she can start rehabil — rehabitating you.”

“You found him. You got his signature on that golden share a month after he disappeared. So maybe he is alive.”

“Maybe I’m a lying sod.”

“You’re not.”

Spider replied with the conclusive rebuttal. “If that corpse ain’t him, who is it?”

Matty came back from the window and tapped me on the shoulder. “Did you get my note?”

“Which note?”

“I left it on the marital bed.”

“I got it.” I remembered the nine words penned on a pocket tide table: ‘I don’t want to fall in love with you.’

“Tear it up. I’ve changed my mind.” She linked her elbow through mine and hugged it against her side.

Spider smacked his forehead with his hand and then thrust it up into the blue smoke curling between the rafters over his head. “Now I remember why I called this meeting.” His pale blue eyes smiled at us. “I wanted to know if you two have been screwing each other.”

Matty grinned. “Ted wouldn’t even ask me in for coffee.”

I looked at Spider. “Funny, I was going to ask you the same question.”

Matty laughed and put her other arm through Spider’s elbow so that she was linked to both of us. “What more could a girl want? A couple of grey stallions pawing the floor of the public bar.”

“When you two were down on your knees all day in that little craft of yours, I thought you might have become better acquainted,” said Spider.

“It’s that scraper sticking out of her bum pocket that puts me off,” I said.

Spider lurched a little as his elbow groped for the counter. “So, what you’re trying to tell me is you’re sort of a dry-dock skipper?”

“What I’m trying to tell you is I’ve got a little respect for her.”

Matty giggled. “Which translates as: his landlady doesn’t allow girls in the room.”

I looked at her. “And respect for Angie, too.”

She laughed. “You ought to mount her in the bow as a figurehead. Or maybe just mount her.”

“You always had good taste in women,” said Spider.

“So did you,” I said. “The same taste, actually.”

Matty slipped her arms out of ours and folded them across her small breasts. “Now you’re butting heads over that sanctimonious cow.”

Spider leaned his head towards mine, but spoke loud enough for Matty to hear. “Anyway, I wouldn’t screw her if I was you. She’s screwed up enough as it is.” I saw Matty’s fist clench and unclench and then it struck him hard across the face. Spider saw it coming and leaned backwards, turning his face with the blow, but his elbow slipped off the counter and he slid down the front of the bar until he was sitting on the floor. “Pissed,” he said to our knees. His fists opened, both glasses toppled into his lap and a black stain spread across the crotch of his blue jeans. He looked down. “And I pissed myself.” He threw his head back, knocking it against the bar, and roared with laughter.

Matty had to laugh. “Piss artist,” she said, and draped the bar towel over his head. ‘Genius’, it read, in white script on a green background — an advert for Guinness by a dyslexic copywriter. The towel stayed on his head as he weaved out the back door. Matty was touching the dull purple bruise under her eye. “Christ, it hurts me to laugh.”

“Who beat you up?”

“I can’t remember.”

“A lot of people think it was me.”

“I’d remember that.”

“Why did you go up to the castle that night?”

“To see if you could come out to play. Or stay in to play.”

“Who let you in to the castle?”

“The castle is off-bounds for me.”

“You were seen going in.”

“Rabbits are near-sighted.”

“Somebody peed in my bottle of whisky.”

“Difficult for a woman.”

“Why have you got so many secrets?”

“Why don’t we make love?”

“I’ve been banished from the castle.”

“The Amaryllis was cosy.”

To hell with Angie. She was chucking me out anyway. “The castle is warmer. I haven’t moved out just yet.” I drew the keys to the castle out of the pocket of my oilies and held them out to her.

She looked down at her day-glo trainers, scuffed one foot against the other like a frisky foal, and then brought her eyes up to mine again. “It’s not exactly a Valentine’s card, but coming from you, that will do.”

“I’d better steer Spider home.”

“I’ll get you another bottle of whisky.” She leaned up and breathed in my ear. She slipped the keys from my hand, pocketed them and kissed my cheek. “Tell Spider not to wait up for me.” She made a little skip as she went out of the door into Fore Street.

I went out the back door and across the flagstoned courtyard into the stench of the gents’ toilets. Spider wavered over the porcelain trough, propping himself up against the wall with one hand. I joined him.

He beamed up at me. “So you haven’t screwed her?”

“Not yet.”

“But you wouldn’t kick her out of the bunk?”

“I’m not getting a lot of choice these days.”

“You fancy her?”

“Mother wouldn’t like her.” That’s what we used to say about girls like Matty. Girls down for their holidays who talked dirty. Girls we fancied.

“You’re right there, mate. Mother doesn’t like her. Father likes her, though. Too damned much.” We finished and he went to the basin, weaving on his feet. I rinsed the hood and shoulders of my oily jacket under the cold water tap.

“You mean Nickers?”

There was no plug in his basin and Spider had to keep one hand pressing down the tap while he splashed cold water into his face with the other. He came up for air and poked me in the chest again. “You’re missing the point, matey. The real question is — .” He blurted a heavy blast of beery breath. The recoil rocked him back on his heels and he had to start again. “The real question is, who’s the mother?”

Spider could be comical, but he never looked foolish. Any action he took seemed to have a practical purpose. That was why I had envied him as a kid. And why the people of Westowe were proud to have him as the coxswain of the lifeboat. He finished splashing water in the basin, reached up and removed the ‘Genius’ bar towel from his head, dried his face with it, squinted at the backwards writing in the mirror, and jammed it into his back pocket where it hung out like a tail.

“Genius. Some mother-fucking genius, that’s me.” He pressed closer, pushing me up against the wall. “She reckons her mother is some wench who worked up at the manor. And her father is Nickers Farting-Isthatall. But I got fucking news for her. I mean fucking news.” He grabbed my arm with one fist and brought up the index finger of the other hand to lay it alongside his nose, but missed by a couple of inches. My own drinks were rising to my head now and the thick finger waving in front of my eyes made me dizzy.

Spider brought his face right up to my ear. “I reckon she’s Angie’s daughter.” He pushed me away and watched for my reaction.

“Angie and Lord Nick?”

“No, mother-fucker. Angie went up to London all of a sudden after you left.”

“Angie told me she had an abortion.”

“Oh aye? And what if she didn’t?”

“Who says so?”

“Only my old Mam, when she’s rambling. Of course nobody pays her no mind these days. But, then if anyone should know . . .” Spider laid his finger alongside his nose again, to remind me that when we were lads Mam Meersman was the only midwife in Westowe.

I said it again to make it true. “Angie told me she had an abortion.”

“Maybe. But if she didn’t, Matty’s the right age. So, what does that make you?” He prodded my chest with his thumb and brought his face so close it blurred. “Motherfucker.”

Suddenly he was out the door. I followed him, he turned round in the doorway and we bumped heads. He put both of my hands on the neck of my Guernsey, squinted his eyes and hauled my face into another beery blast. “Don’t you tell no one. It’s our little secret. Just you and me.” He turned away unsteadily. This time I didn’t follow because I thought he would turn back again. And he did. His finger rose up in front of my eyes, and I stepped back. “You and me and Mam. You tell anyone and I’ll feed you to the crabs.”

The malt in my stomach surged to my head. I grabbed Spider with both hands by the front of his jacket. “You’re poking Matty. And you poked Angie.” And then he poked me. I never saw his fist. I was sitting in the urinal, my head dazed and my hand covering my mouth. It came away covered in blood. It wasn’t easy to get out of the urinal, and something inside me didn’t want to hurry. When I got to the door of the toilets Spider was already scraping along the walls of the passage on the side of the pub leading to Fore Street.

“Daughterfucker,” I shouted after him. I washed my face, squared my shoulders and marched back into the bar of Formerly Cromarty’s. It was empty apart from the barman who was mopping up the spilled beer on the floor. “Your mate spills more than he drinks,” he growled — a remark I reflected on only later. I decided not to ask him for another drink.

Fore Street was deserted, swept clean by a dry wind. When I saw the lights of The Sailor’s Return I turned in the door. Spider wasn’t there, so I had a few shorts by myself. I was still there at closing time. I remember walking up the path to the castle on automatic pilot. It was low water springs and slices of moon floated in the ink sluicing out between the low humps of the mud banks. Further out, a dark shape moved down the estuary. A small boat chugging out to sea with an erect figure at the tiller. It was Dinny in his ferry, with a heap of nets in the bow.

I stepped into a pool of black where trees crowded in over the path. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Someone was standing there. I stopped and waited in the dark.

“Is that you, Ted?” Charlie Segui’s face appeared. “You didn’t half give me a fright.” He came close enough to smell my breath. “Good session?”

“Can’t remember,” I said. Which was pretty nearly the truth.

“Spider there?”

“Pissed as a newt.”

“Sorry I missed it.” He gestured up the hill. “I was having dinner with Ronny.” Then he walked into the blackness, down the way I had come. Although the sky was sprinkled with stars, he was wearing yellow welly boots. From where I stood I could see the lights were on in the castle. Someone was waiting for me, and I remembered then who it was. My fucking daughter. I turned and followed Charlie, but I must have passed him, because I looked back once and spied the yellow boots walking back up the hill. I don’t remember passing through the village to the boat park. I do remember the moonlight glinting off the spare key to the Amaryllis as I slid it out from under the keel.


Thursday, 28th April

I didn’t hear the cannon go off that night. I was brain-dead until I smelled the coffee. The berserk chatter of the shrouds rattling on the masts in the car park scattered the anxious fragments of my dream, so I knew it was still blowing hard outside my snuggery. Then I heard the voice. “Morning.” It was Eddy Starr, and he was holding a steaming mug in front of my eyes. It was ringed with three equal blue stripes, with two broader equal white strips separating them and it had a white handle. A popular nautical design. Just like the Cornish Ware mugs I had on the Amaryllis. And it had a chip on the rim opposite the handle. Just like the one Matty had set out on the counter while we wrestled in the bunk waiting for the kettle to boil that day a long time ago. I pushed myself up on my elbows and cracked my head on a beam. I was on the Amaryllis, but the pain was in my head before it connected with the wood.

“Rough night?” Eddy was dressed in a baggy pair of blue jeans and a faded paint-spattered fisherman’s smock that had once been navy blue, just like every other man in Westowe that morning. But because he wasn’t wearing his uniform didn’t mean he wasn’t working. Eddy worked all the time, because by his reckoning everybody was guilty of something, and he had been put on the planet to find out what.

“I had a few.” Now I knew why I’d been shivering most of the night. I was under the sleeping bag, not in it, and I was lying in the wrong bunk, the one under the leaks in the planking. Rain was drumming on the deck. I brought my body carefully to a sitting position, trying to keep my head as level as possible. I found the first aid kit and popped a couple of paracetamol into my mouth. The coffee was scalding and had a strange sickly taste. I spat it out.

“Poisoning is a criminal offence,” I said.

Eddy raised his eyebrows. “You don’t take sugar?”

I gagged, and a pain shot up the back of my neck. Eddy took the cup back and looked around for the sink. “There isn’t one,” I said. He heaved himself up the steps into the cockpit, pushed open the tarpaulin and emptied the cup over the side. It was only when I heard the splash on the pavement that I realised why the boat wasn’t rocking. The Amaryllis was in the boat park. I could see a slice of the estuary under the tarpaulin. It was a nippy day, blowing a wet force four or five in the bay and the tide was running out. Eddy put another spoonful of instant coffee into the mug, emptied the remains of the hot water into it and stirred in some milk powder. I tried another mouthful and managed to hold it down.

“Mid-tide,” I reckoned. “I think I might live till the pubs open.”

“When are you hoping to get her back in the water?”

“Soon. Soon as I figure out whether it’s spring or autumn.”

“Summer parking regulations go into force next week.”

“Have you come here at the crack of dawn to arrest me for a parking offence?”

“It’s almost ten. Why are you sleeping on the boat?”

“Is this a social call or a police matter?”

“Social, mostly.”

“You’ve got your notebook out.”

Eddy seemed surprised to find it in his hands. “Force of habit. I’d heard that you were celebrating in Cromarty’s last night, and I wondered if you were all right.”

“That explains your change of uniform.” Eddy looked at me blankly. “You’re working for the Samaritans now.”

He grinned. “Well, the other part is police business. I came to ask you whether you’d seen anything out of the ordinary last night. But that would seem to be a fruitless line of enquiry, as they say.” He laughed, but I only chuckled because I was afraid my skull would separate into two halves, front and back.

I managed to speak. “Do you still think I roughed up Matty?”

“No.”

“Then you know who did?”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“She won’t say.”

“Then you’ve got to ask yourself why she doesn’t say.”

“It was those urban sailors, Pixie and Poxy.”

Eddy raised his eyes to the ceiling of the cabin, which wasn’t very far, so he looked back at me. “Have you got anything to soak up this coffee?” I found some biscuits which were only slightly damp. The throbbing in my head was duller now. “Still, I’m not surprised they’ve taken an interest in you,” he added.

“Who?”

He looked into his coffee mug. “Officialdom,” he said finally. I didn’t answer, so he continued. “There we were, having our usual quiet Westowe winter. Then you turn up suddenly, after all these years, and things start to happen.” He started to count on his fingers, “First Colonel Meeker disappears without a trace. A couple of weeks later, Bartholomew Streb floats in, six months overdue.”

“Some people say it’s not Bartholomew.”

“Do they? Who?”

“The local peasants. Angie. Spider, maybe.”

Eddy frowned. “Well, if they’re right then we don’t know who it is. A stranger.” He made a note in his little book, and then unbent another finger. “Then this crazy Sheila turns up and slaps a paternity suit on Lord Nick and now . . .”

The sentence hung unfinished, a white breath in the clammy air of the cabin. I looked up at him. “What’s happened?”

He inspected the roof of the cabin again before meeting my eyes. “The girl was beaten up and found in there.” He pointed to the forepeak.

“While I was being punched out in the rhododendrons.”

“Maybe you just fell down.”

“And somebody put me to bed.”

Eddy tapped his head with his biro. “Drink robs the memory banks.”

“Did you make that up?”

His biro tapped the notebook. “It’s all written down here.”

“I mean about robbing memory banks. Listening to you sometimes is like reading T-shirts.”

Eddy looked baffled, then let it pass. “Anyway, you’re sort of a focal point. You were Bartholomew’s protégé, you might say. You had a close relationship with his missus once upon a time.”

“We were school kids.”

Eddy rubbed his nose with the butt of the biro. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate. You’re renting her property. And you’re pretty thick with this girl, Matty, who ran away with Angie’s husband. Matty works on the boat with you, doesn’t she?”

“She’s switched to a Youth Training Scheme in Spider’s workshop.”

Eddy jabbed the biro at me. “How long did you know Colonel Meeker?”

“Don’t change the subject so fast. It makes my head spin.”

“Sorry. They teach you that at plod school.”

“About three hours.”

Eddy’s biro traversed his right eyebrow. “You wrote him a letter.”

“Charlie asked me to.”

“That’s not what Charlie said at the inquest.”

I touched the sore spot on the crown of my head. “I was just trying to help him out. I’ve never seen Colonel Meeker before or since.”

Eddy’s biro jabbed. “You met him the day he came to Westowe.”

“Charlie asked me to.”

The biro jabbed again. “You took him down to Pogie’s boat hire.”

“Charlie asked me to.”

Again the point of the biro aimed at me. “And you were the last person to see him, that we know of.”

“I can’t blame that on Charlie. I just happened to look out the window at the right time. And saw his skiff slapping into the swell on the bar, heading for Fairfoul Bay. It was low water.”

“Why do you mention that?”

“Because the swell is like the stock market. It goes down as well as up. Half an hour later and he couldn’t have got across.”

Eddy’s biro was grooming his moustache. “Which meant he’d have to stay out there at least three hours. He’d be coming back in the dark.”

“I warned him about that.”

“What did he say?”

“Didn’t take any notice. He was a colonel, after all.”

“Was?”

“Was. Is. God knows.”

“And he ain’t telling,” mused Eddy. “Not yet anyway.”

“What do you reckon?”

“I’m the police officer. What do you reckon?”

“I reckon he topped himself.”

“Why?”

“Money,” I replied. “Most people do it because of money problems.”

“That’s only a symptom.”

“How do you mean?”

“In my experience people kill themselves for only one reason. Loss of self-respect.”

“We’d all be topping ourselves then, sooner or later.”

They must have had an hour or two of ‘Psychology for Dummies’ in plod school. Eddy chewed on a stale digestive biscuit before commenting. “True. Maybe we do, little by little. But it must depend how distorted the image is you have of yourself. If it’s really out of whack and one day something forces you to see yourself for what you really are. If you measure yourself by money, and then it goes . . .” He opened his palm and spread his fingers.

A vision of Colonel Meeker’s envelope with the Lucie Rie postage stamp in Spider’s hands leapt into my head. “Was there a suicide note?”

Eddy eyed me. “You brought the dinghy in. There was nothing in it. Not even the dead fish you said were in it.”

“He wouldn’t have put a suicide note inside a mackerel.” I looked up at Eddy as if I had just thought of it. “He could have sent a letter.”

Eddy smiled. “Interesting that you should mention a letter.”

“Was there one?”

“I can’t tell you anything official.”

“So tell me unofficial.”

“There’d be a postmark on a letter. It would tell you where it was sent from and when.”

“If you read it, it might tell you if you had a suicide or a murder on your hands.”

“Or an accident. I was sorry to hear about your wife,” he added.

“Is that your West Country way of telling me I’m under suspicion?”

“Just being neighbourly, Ted. Nothing official.”

“A court of law threw out the case. You can tell your chums, Pixie and Poxy to keep their slimy noses out of my past life. And if I’m mixed up with Bartholomew and Angie and Matty and Colonel Meeker, so is half of Westowe. Spider, for example.”

“Spider?”

“Why not Spider? Or Charlie Segui? Or Superbloke, even?”

“Who?”

“Goodfellow.”

Eddy thought it was worth writing ‘Superbloke’ down in his book. “Funny you should mention Spider,” he said.

“Why?”

“He has a notarised document in his possession signed by Bartholomew more than a month after he disappeared.”

“What does the Missing Persons Bureau make of that?” I asked.

“I’m keeping it in my file just now. Another piece of the jigsaw.” Eddy is the only person I’ve ever seen lick a biro. He put his tongue on it now before drawing a bullet point in his notebook. Until he could get it all on flip charts, Eddy was suppressing police evidence. “Another thing,” he resumed. “I’m sure Spider told me he never met Colonel Meeker. Do you know any different?”

I riffled through the cluttered pigeonholes of my memory banks. There was only that snapshot of Spider posting a letter with my stamp on it in a red pillar box. “No,” I said after a while, “I don’t know any different.”

“Well, I think I’ll be going before you offer me another stale biscuit.” Eddy put his notebook away and climbed up the gangway. I heard his voice say, “Bracing morning up here out of the fug.” Then his legs reappeared and he sat down on the lip of the doghouse. “We’ve been having such a good chat I almost forgot what I came for.” He pulled out his notebook again. “What time did you say you got here last night?”

“I don’t know. But the pubs had closed.”

“Eleven-thirty or so?”

“Around then.”

“See anyone on your way?”

“Charlie Segui. Up by the castle.”

“Where was he going?”

Had I really seen the yellow wellies going back up the path? “I’m not sure. He’d been to up to his sister’s for dinner.”

Eddy turned back a page in his notebook. “You never told me why you slept here last night.”

“I wanted to get an early start this morning.”

“Looks like you missed it.” He trawled his wet biro through his moustache, leaving a smear of blue ink under his left nostril. “So you walked down with Charlie.”

“No. I was on my way up to the castle.” Eddy raised his eyebrows. The first thing I thought of was the mug in my hand. “To fetch some tea for the morning.”

Eddy looked at the galley shelves. There wasn’t any tea. “If I’d known you had some I would have made that instead of coffee.”

“I couldn’t find any at the castle. By the time I came back down the path, Charlie was gone.”

“See anyone else?”

“Not until your early morning call.” My head was starting to hurt again, from the pain of thinking.

“So, as far as you and the world knows, from around eleven-thirty last night until about ten this morning you were lying out cold. Non compos mentis.”

“The perfect alibi.”

Eddy eyes opened slightly. “So you heard about it?”

“About what?” Eddy didn’t answer. “I was joking, Eddy.”

Eddy frowned. “Sometimes you joke too much.”

“Eddy, why did you come down here?”

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“You’re the police officer. You haven’t told me a damn thing.”

“We’ve had another disappearance.”

A slipknot tightened in my stomach. “Matty?”

Eddy lifted an ink-stained eyebrow. “Why Matty?”

“I worry about her, that’s all.”

Eddy’s biro leafed to a page in his notebook headed ‘Mathilda Ferguson’. “Spider said she went out last night and didn’t come home.”

“She does that all the time. She could be sleeping under a juniper bush somewhere.”

“I found her walking down from the castle when I went to look for you.”

My voice came out high-pitched. “Who’s missing? Not Angie?”

“You’re worried about her, too,” he said. “No. It’s Lord Nick. Seems he fell overboard.”

“From the Snow Queen?”

“No, Charlie’s boat.” Eddy put his hands together in prayer. “There but for the Grace of God.” That was the name of Charlie’s boat, but Eddy wasn’t kidding. Amongst his other hobbies — lifeboat radio operator, scuba diver, balloonist, sleuth and teetotaller — Eddy was a born-again Christian.

I remembered then. “He was bringing her up from the Helford. I was supposed to go with him.”

“He had someone with him.”

“Lothar?”

“No. That kid who works at the club. Simon. He’s all right, but he’s had a narrow escape.”

“From jail?”

“From the cabin. It’s a good thing he sleeps in his lifejacket.”

“What happened?”

Eddy eased himself up the gangway. “Come and have a look.”

We clambered up on deck. At the edge of the car park a gaggle of locals surrounded a long twin fuselage of torn blue-and-white fibreglass. It looked like two giant toothpaste tubes attached in the middle by the remains of some shrink-wrapped cardboard. The entire cabin had been ripped off; there was no trace of a mast or rudder. Spider was inspecting the red nylon netting behind the catamaran cockpit which still hung between the hulls.

“She pitchpoled over the bar,” said Eddy. “Around one a.m.”

“Low water wasn’t until around two a.m. With her draft she should have cleared easy.”

“Aye, but there was a big swell. And she was well out of the channel.”

“Where’s her life raft?”

“On Elbow Sands. Still secured to the cabin. No sign of the tender yet.”

I saw Spider holding up the red nylon netting. There was a great rent through the middle of it. Spider was looking grim, but not like a man nursing a hangover. “Who skippered the lifeboat?” I asked.

Eddy was surprised. “Spider, like always. Why?”

“He was a bit under the weather last time I saw him. Under the table, in fact.”

“You’re not the first one that’s told me that. Two blasts of the cannon must be a good pick-me-up.”

“He must have been sleeping on it,” I said. Eddy swung his legs over the gunwales and on to the ladder. He squinted up at the sky. “So why did you come looking for me?” I asked.

“Well, your boat is right here.”

“Hardly the scene of the crime.”

“It’s just another one of those coincidences.”

“I’m in the shit again?”

“You know there was a note posted on the club notice board about this cruise?”

“Eddy, it’s exceedingly tedious to go around asking people questions you already know the answer to.”

“Then you know only two people signed on for it.”

“I only saw Simon’s name, but that was weeks ago.”

“And just below it was your name.”

“I didn’t put it there.”

“No, someone else did.”

“Why?”

“You didn’t tell Charlie you were going?”

“He suggested it, but I never followed it up. He shouldn’t have put my name down.”

“He didn’t. Charlie says the handwriting is Lord Nick’s.”


Friday, 29th April

A cluster of strangers stood, backs to the wind, on the stone viewing platform below the sailing club. One figure detached from the group and wheeled slowly about in a tight circle. There was a black object on his shoulder. It blinked a flash of reflected sunlight at me. A camera crew. I gave the distant lens the traditional two-fingered salute of the English archer and started down the path. When I came up to the camera team they were manoeuvring a stiff figure in an off-white peaked officer’s cap and navy pea-jacket into position against the backdrop of the churning grey-green estuary and its low slate ceiling of bruised clouds. A girl wearing a multi-coloured skiing anorak tried to take Dinny’s brown bucket away from him, but he brushed her hand away. I joined two women who had arrested their shopping carts to gawk.

“This is a very close-knit community, isn’t it?” A blonde girl in a black trench coat pushed the microphone under Dinny’s beard.

“Some’s no better than they should be.”

“What would you say the prevailing mood is today? Have people got the wind up?”

“Generally east or north this time of year.”

“I mean, what’s the feeling now that this small fishing village has been devastated by the third seafaring tragedy in recent months?”

“There’s not fishing here like there was.”

“I understand it was you who recovered the body of the artist Bartholomew Streb.”

“They still not found the grockle.”

“Was that the boat he was sailing round the world?”

Dinny spat. “That were no more’n a dinghy.”

“He’d been missing some time, hadn’t he? How long could anyone last in those seas on a day like today?”

“About six months.”

“Six months?”

“Bartholomew cast off last August. I found him in February.”

“How did you come to discover the body?”

“The gulls told me.”

“Which girls?”

“They’s only come to the sewage outlet at tea time.”

“The body was in a sewer?”

“It was dawn.”

“Down the sewer?”

“Up over it.”

The interviewer checked her notes and tried again. “A mysterious chain of three disappearances. Are they connected somehow?”

“Oh aye.”

“What’s the connecting link?”

“They all fell into the water.”

“I mean, how would you explain this mysterious chain of disappearances?”

“It’s because these days they makes the yachts out of plastic and tinfoil,” Dinny explained.

The interviewer turned away and went into a huddle with the cameraman. The girl in the harlequin anorak bit her lip. She was holding a clipboard. “It not making a lot of sense to me,” she said into the wind.

Just over Dinny’s shoulder a plume of spray flew up from Black Rock and I remembered its silhouette rising behind him as he stood in the stern of his launch ferrying the tangle of warps and fishnets down the estuary like Charon in the moonlight. I had a question for Dinny: why was he heading out to sea rising midnight night before last? With a cargo of nets?

Dinny saw me studying him and scowled. “Spider wants to see you, teatime.”

The interviewer and her cameraman were shouting at each other now, but the harlequin girl heard and looked up from her clipboard. “You mean those girls at teatime, Mr Dinsmore?”

Dinny looked at her. “You’re not invited. Ted Golden is. It’s him you ought to be talking to.”

“Who’s Ted Golden?”

“It all started just after he come back to the village.”

I was off, trotting down towards the Jubilee Quay. A crowd of gawkers wearing mackintoshes and anoraks over track suits and trainers was drifting around Fore Street, button-holing each other to mutter questions. I didn’t see anyone I knew. The grockles streamed like iron filings in a magnetic arc stretching between the quayside and the entrance to The Jubilee Inn (formerly Cromarty’s). I carried on down to the boat park where Jack the Rigger was starting up his crane. He stepped the mast of the Amaryllis and we tightened the stays. I was sheltering from the dripping mizzle under the bow, nursing a cup of coffee and waiting for the tide to rise, when Matty appeared at my shoulder. Spider’s faded red oily jacket was double-wrapped across her thin chest.

“Spider wants to know, are you coming to tea.” I peered at her face. I could not see any resemblance to me or to Spider or to Nick.

“When were you born?” I asked.

“Not yesterday.”

“I’m serious.”

“In the summer. They didn’t know what day.”

“I mean, what year?”

“I’m twenty-seven.”

“But you were born in the summer.”

She nodded. “That’s what they told me. You never told me your star sign. When’s your birthday?”

“Today. I left Westowe the day after my twenty-first birthday, twenty-eight years ago tomorrow.”

“Shit, I haven’t got you a present.”

“I reckon you just gave me one.” She was the right age, but if she’d been born in the summer Angie was not her mother and I couldn’t be her father.

“I’ll get a cake for tea.”

“Why does Spider want to see me?”

“He needs a witness, he says.”

“Why not you?”

“Maybe he doesn’t trust me.”

“When?”

“Teatime. You know, after it gets too dark to work, but before it’s time to go to the pub and fall down drunk.” I nodded. She didn’t say good-bye, but just turned and walked away. With her shoulders squared, her sleeves jammed in her pockets and her head bowed, thinking, she could have been Angie striding across the car park. Except that she stamped her wellies in the puddles.

We dropped the Amaryllis into the water on the rising tide and towed her out to the deep-water pontoon, where I had rented ten linear metres of floating wood at an exorbitant rate from Buckler’s boatyard. I raised the floorboards to see if she was taking on water. During the first hour I sponged a bucketful out of her bilges, but the new garboards swelled and by teatime only a few drops were squeezing in. It was getting dark by the time I got to Spider’s place.

“Come into the parlour,” said Spider. His little joke which years of use had rubbed smooth of meaning. The parlour smelled of wet dog, or maybe it was Matty’s hair. She smiled at me over a glass of whisky. Charlie Segui was sipping from one of Spider’s mam’s teacups and helping himself to a plate of Eccles cakes from the bakery. I was tired and my joints were stiff, so I was glad to settle into one of the old sprung armchairs. Spider held out a teapot in one hand and a bottle of single malt in the other. “Earl Grey or Captain’s Courageous?” I nodded at his left hand and he poured me a generous glass of whisky. On the table was a document headed ‘Power of Attorney’.”

“Don’t put your glass down on it,” said Spider. “That’s the original.” I picked it up. It was dated October 25th of last year. Bartholomew’s signature was notarised by the British Consul in Corte, Corsica.

“Is it legal?” I asked.

Charlie looked tired, too. “It would cost a lot of money to contest it, and Spider would probably qualify for legal aid.”

Spider was topping up Charlie’s teacup. “You don’t expect a straight answer from a lawyer, do you?”

“You found Bartholomew in Corsica,” I said.

Spider nodded at Matty. “Both of them.”

I looked from her to Spider. “So that first day I met you with Spider in Cromarty’s — that story about leaving Bartholomew in Lézardrieu — total crap?”

Spider shrugged. “We had a little rehearsal.”

“We did have a row in Lézardrieu. And I did leave him,” she said. “But he came after me. And we sailed to Brest and La Coruña and then on to Majorca.”

“Have a nice sail?”

“Except for the rows. Then we set out for Corsica.”

Spider spoke. “He was holed up in a little village halfway down the west coast called Punta Palazzo. Just a beach tavern and a few houses. You can’t even get there by road. There was only one boat in the harbour, tied up at a little quay outside the tavern.”

Swan Song.”

“No. It was a 37-foot Moody. L’Aventure Doux she was called, and Bartholomew was sitting in the cockpit with an empty canvas on an easel and a half-empty bottle of mother’s ruin.”

“Where was Swan Song?”

Matty looked up at me. “On the bottom. About twenty miles west of Corsica.”

“A storm?”

“Pirates.”

“You’re joking.”

“Three evil-looking bastards in a fishing caique. They had a Kalashnikov. And handguns and machetes. We were drifting in light winds and they just roared up alongside. Bartholomew told me to go below and slip his wallet with our passports into the cockpit chart case. They boarded us as I came up again. He tried to argue with them, they knocked him down and took what they could find — money, credit cards, the booze, food, the liferaft, some navigational equipment.”

“Were you all right?”

“They felt me up a little, but mostly they just leered. Either they didn’t like the size of my tits or they were too stoned to get it up. Then they sank her. Just opened the watercock and down she went.”

“What about you?”

“They were going to kill us, I’m sure. But there was another guy shouting from inside their cabin. I couldn’t see him, but he probably saved our lives, because after a lot of arguing back and forth, they finally pushed us into the rubber dinghy.”

“With an outboard?”

“They held that out to me and dropped it in the sea. Big laughs all around. But they let me grab the oars and a bottle of water. They laughed again when I reached for the cockpit chart case, and just waved the Kalashnikov towards the east. But they let me take the chart case. Bartholomew was crying as the Swan Song went down. The last thing we saw was the Westowe Club burgee slipping beneath the waves.”

“Did you get picked up?”

She shook her head. “We could rig a little sail on the dinghy. It took us all night to find Corsica, and we stood off until we could see a landfall at dawn.” She gave a short laugh. “Trust Bartholomew to fly on a pig and land in shit. The guy who found us owned the local taverna.”

“What did the police say?”

“There are no police in Punta Palazzo. So we had a drink in the taverna. And a few more drinks. And met this dodgy pom called Blake who owned the Moody. William Blake, would you believe? He was chasing some woman in Paris and needed someone to look after the boat for a while. Or so he said. He’d even pay us. The catch was, if we took it on we couldn’t go to the police, because they’d take an interest in Blake. Who had an ongoing disagreement with the tax authorities. Or so he said. With all the shenanigans in Westowe, Bartholomew had let the insurance on Swan Song lapse, so there wasn’t really much reason to go the police. Blake left all the ship’s papers and when Bartholomew was going through them he found Blake had another passport. An Irish one. That’s when Bartholomew had his big idea.”

“Which was?”

“To disappear himself.”

“The last of the great romantics,” said Spider.

“So we stayed there. And met some more of Claude’s dodgy friends.”

“Claude?”

“The bloke who owned the taverna.”

“With Claude’s contacts, it was no problem to alter the Irish passport. So now he was two people. Bartholomew Streb when he drew on his Swiss bank account. William Blake to anyone else.”

“He finally made a name for himself,” I said.

“Yes, he fancied being William Blake. And after a while he got in touch with Spider,” said Matty.

“How?”

“He sent him a letter.”

Spider shuffled his feet. “He asked me to help.”

“So you came out and found them?”

Spider looked at Matty. “She wasn’t there.”

Matty looked at the floor. “Another row. The last one.”

“Where were you?” I asked, but she just bit her lips.

Spider answered. “She had taken off with a round-the-world sailor on a 50-footer. Bound for the Caribbean, according to Bartholomew. I blew my stack at him. He just hung his head and said he was sorry, but he couldn’t help himself. And kept pouring me drinks. We talked for a couple of days on and off. His ship was in irons. He couldn’t live with Matty and he couldn’t live without her. He missed Angie but he couldn’t face coming back to her. He had something inside his head that he wanted to paint but he couldn’t get it out. So he didn’t lift a brush. He was a man of thirty trapped inside a seventy-year-old body. And every day that passed he had more aches, a few less neurones and a little less money.”

“So?”

“So, I keelhauled him. It wasn’t just Angie. It was me he was letting down. And the club. And all of Westowe.” Spider tasted his tea, frowned and poured the tea back into the teapot. He refilled his cup from the whisky bottle and took a gulp. “He cried.”

“Bartholomew cried?”

“He blubbered.” Spider grimaced with distaste. He nodded at Matty. “And then one fine day herself turns up again. The 50-footer was laid up in Bonifacio. And they kissed and made up.”

“And lived happily ever after.”

“And so I was shifted out of my bunk to the taverna on the beach. And the next day we worked out a deal. Bartholomew would give me power of attorney for the golden share. I wouldn’t tell anyone I’d found him. We signed the papers at the British Consulate. Bartholomew was going to do a deal with Blake when he resurfaced and carry on for Australia. Or wherever.”

“What about money?”

“He reckoned when he was declared dead his insurance money would look after Angie. The two properties would go to her, too. And the value of his paintings would soar. He told me his latest work was stored in the castle. And he turned that over to a trust. Thirty per cent of it would go to the sailing club and the rest would be routed back to him. Charlie set it all up.”

“Through an offshore company,” said Charlie.

“Dodgy,” I said.

“Spider didn’t tell us about the power of attorney,” Charlie whined.

“Who’s us?”

“Me and Malcolm Goodfellow.”

“Christ, is Superbloke in on it, too?”

“We asked Malcolm to get Angie to agree to sell the paintings,” Spider explained. “But we didn’t tell him Bartholomew is alive.”

“Need-to-know basis,” Charlie added.

My voice was angry. “And Angie? Didn’t she need to know?”

“That’s how Bartholomew wanted it,” said Spider.

“She wouldn’t have got the insurance,” said Charlie.

I turned to Matty. “So, what happened in Punta whatsit — Romantica?”

She sniffed. “Broken record. We had a row. And this time I left for good.” She pulled a large red and white spotted handkerchief out of her pocket. It was one of Spider’s. “I didn’t see him again, until his body — .” Matty’s shoulders heaved and she began to sob.

“What about Colonel Meeker and Lord Nick?” I asked.

“That’s what we was wondering,” said Spider.

“So why are you telling me all this?”

Now it was Spider who looked tired. He looked at Charlie, who kept his head bent low over his teacup. “I reckon we’ve all got to the point where we don’t trust each other no more.”

“What did the police say?”

“Police?”

“Haven’t they interviewed you about this?”

“Only Eddy Starr.”

“What did you tell him about the power of attorney dated last October?”

“I told him it came in the post.”

I looked at Charlie. “Is that legal?” He nodded.

“Have you told Angie her husband’s alive?” I asked them.

Spider and Charlie looked at each other like naughty schoolboys. “Not yet,” said Spider.

Was alive,” said Matty.

“That body might not have been Bartholomew,” said Spider.

“Then who is it?” Charlie put in.

There was a sharp rap on the wall. Spider stood up and opened the door to the adjoining room and stuck his head in. “Yes Mam?”

Mam’s weak voice drifted in. “There’s the clubhouse on telly.”

“We’ll watch it out here,” said Spider.

“Is Ted out there?”

“Do you want to see him, Mam?”

“Tell him I never want to see him again as long as I live.”

“Okay, Mam. We’ll watch the telly out here.” He closed the door.

“How is she?” I asked.

Spider went to the telly. “Fading.”

“I should speak to her again.”

Spider’s back was to me. He shook his head slowly and clicked on the television set. “It would only upset her.”

A seascape appeared on screen and then a slow pan to the right showed a figure coming down a path beneath towering clouds. “The tragedy has aroused considerably hostility within this close-knit community,” said a woman’s voice-over. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of me raising two fingers to the camera.

Matty laughed. “The PR spokesman for the Westowe Tourist Board.”

Dinny came on screen then, and the interview had been spliced together in a way that almost made sense. Then they cut to Dinny standing at the helm of his launch.

“It was a full moon last night,” said the interviewer.

Dinny looked at the camera and said, “Near enough. Two days past full.”

The camera swivelled back to the interviewer. “And it was a full moon at the time of the last disappearance just eight weeks ago.”

The camera cut back to Dinny who said “Aye. Two days past full.”

The interviewer reappeared. “Do you think there’s a connection?”

Dinny’s face returned on screen. “Aye.” This time the camera stayed focused on him while the interviewer spoke voice-over: “And what might that be?”

“The tides. They bring it back every four weeks.”

The woman reappeared. “This is Kirsty Whelan, West Country Television in Westowe, South Devon, where the tides have once again brought the full moon, and a third tragedy in its wake.”

Spider stared back at her. “I always thought it was the curse that brought back the full moon, Kirsty.”

Ms Whelan squinted at us in a silent solemn coda before the studio cut away to some people throwing rocks at policemen, not in Westowe. The shot was held long enough for me to notice that on the seat behind the jumble of ropes and tarpaulins in Dinny’s launch was a black plastic tarantula perched on an orange woolly cap. Spider switched off the TV.

I broke the little silence that followed. “You’ve got to tell Angie.”


Saturday, 30th April

Before going to the castle we took a long walk as far as The Devil’s Coat-tails. A light breeze swept away the last strands of my headache and combed the surface of the sea below the cliffs into shallow furrows. The sun was fitful and when it shone there was no warmth. Walking back, we came to the gate leading into the gardens behind Tattersall Hall. Apart from the wing which Lord Nick had infrequently inhabited, the estate was a National Trust property. It had not opened for the season yet, but the gate was unlocked. We trod on mossy bricks along the rectangles of the formal gardens, where green shoots shivered on the rose bushes. Some shrubs were still wrapped in hessian, like tombstones. Silver light drained from the clouded sky.

“I never had a child,” she said. “I told you that.”

“You’re sure?”

“You remember those things.”

“I mean — .”

“You mean, am I lying to you?”

“You could be leading me up a garden path.” I pointed up the brick walk and she smiled. “One isn’t obliged to answer intrusive questions truthfully.”

“How very perceptive — for a man.” Angie slipped her arm through mine and we went on walking.

We came to a small wooden bench with a brass plaque: ‘Dedicated to the memory of Frederick Dinsmore, lost at sea, November, 1963.’ “Spider reckons you had a daughter and that I’m the father,” I said.

She sat down on the bench and I sat next to her. When she turned her face to me, it glowed pale in the gloom and her eyes were wide and puzzled. “What is he thinking of?”

“That’s not the half of it. He reckons her name is Matty, and I’m a child abuser.”

“You let her into the castle the night she was beaten up.”

“No. Ronny and I found her in the Amaryllis. She was freaked out. Cold as death.”

“Did you beat her up?”

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Who did?”

“Somebody was in the castle that night. They let her in.”

“I heard she was hospitalised.”

“Her face was like chopped liver. But nothing broken.”

“She won’t say who did it?”

“She says she doesn’t remember being attacked. She had a booze-and-Stugeron cocktail hour.”

“A suicide attempt?”

“Just puts you to sleep. She probably knew that.”

“Poor girl.”

“You sound as though you mean that.”

“I do. I think she’s been treated horribly. By Bartholomew, and whoever else.”

“The doctor said it was done by experts.”

“More than one?”

“I reckon it was Pixie and Poxy.”

Angie’s eyes smiled in the gloom. “Who?”

“A couple of Hell’s Angels rejects.”

“In the leather jackets? I thought they were policemen. They came round with Eddy Starr.”

“What did they want,” I asked.

“They asked questions about you.” She averted her eyes. “About your wife.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing about that.”

“They’re keeping an eye on Spider, too.”

“I asked them to.”

“Why?”

“The same reason I asked you to. He’s hiding something about Bartholomew. I can read it in his face every time he looks at me.”

“Pixie and Poxy wanted to use the castle as a lookout. I refused, so they came uninvited.”

“How would they get in?”

“The door wasn’t forced. You didn’t give them a key?”

“No.”

“So who else has keys?”

“I gave Charlie a set.”

“Charlie? What about Broderick’s?”

“The same set. He holds them, or they do.”

“Typical. An estate agent and a solicitor at the bottom of it. I suppose it was an adman lurking in the bushes that did for me.”

“What happened?”

“I fell unconscious. Attacked or self-inflicted. I don’t remember. Like Matty. Maybe we both just got in the way of something that night.”

Angie was looking at the tips of her sensible brown walking shoes which were making little arcs in the pebbles. “Veronica Harris says Matty was also there on Wednesday. The night Nick disappeared.”

“I slept on the Amaryllis that night. Ask Eddy.”

“But you let her in to the castle.”

“I gave her the key.”

“Why?”

I couldn’t think of any other reason. “We were going to make love.” Angie’s sensible shoe kicked up a spray of pebbles. “But I changed my mind.”

“Why?

“That’s when Spider put his spoke in.”

She clasped her hands in her lap and looked down at them. “Are you and she lovers?”

“Not yet.”

“It does seem inappropriate, in view of your suspicions.”

“I can’t be her father. She’s twenty-seven and she was born in the summer.”

“So?”

“I left Westowe a year ago today. You said your baby was due some time in the winter.”

“End of January.”

“So it couldn’t be Matty.”

“That’s summer in Australia.”

My heart sank into my groin. Angie stood up and we walked in silence until we came to the magnificent magnolia tree on the small lawn at the top of the grounds, where there was a view across the bar. Sullen waves rippled where the Grace of God had pitchpoled three nights ago. Beyond, the leading light on The Elbow pierced the smudge of purple wash on the skyline. The magnolia blossoms shimmered above and lay scattered on the ground, white as rolled-up paper. There was a chill blast of wind, and a blossom fell into her hair.

I put my arm around her. She leaned against me for a moment and I bent my head to kiss her, but she shivered and pulled away.

“You’re cold.”

She plucked the magnolia blossom from her hair and shook her head. “It’s spooky here. I’ve never liked it.” She walked on, shredding the blossom in her path. I followed.

“So, it could be true, what Spider says?”

“Do you want to believe it?”

“It’s just that — .” My hand gestured because my tongue wouldn’t work. She finished the thought for me.

“It’s just that Spider is always right about things. We all know that.”

“You said you had an abortion.”

“I could have said that just to hurt you.”

“She’s Australian.”

“I could have gone to Australia. I could have had a baby.”

“You should have told me you were pregnant.”

“You wouldn’t have wanted to know.”

“Was it a girl?”

“I didn’t ask. I would have called her Devon.”

“Devon?”

“If I had gone to Australia. To remind me of home. But if I gave her up for adoption, they would have used another name, of course.” She took my arm again. “But, I’ve never been to Australia.”

“She’s come here looking for her father.”

Angie flexed her dimples, a sure sign she was on the tease. “So, if I give him a divorce, Bartholomew may have to ask you for her hand in marriage.”

“Will you divorce him?”

“And if Matty were our daughter, would that make Bartholomew my son-in-law?” We had taken several turns around the rectangle of the rose garden. I stopped and seized her shoulders and pulled her towards me and kissed her full on the lips. They failed to yield.

“It’s growing dark,” I said. “We ought to be getting on to the castle.”

Angie laughed. “Is that what this meeting is for? For Spider to tell me that Matty is our daughter?”

“He didn’t want me to tell you anything about that.”

“I don’t mind what he thinks. But I’d rather not have it aired at a public meeting.”

“It’s not public. Just Spider, Charlie and Matty.”

“Do I have to see her?”

“Yes, she’s part of it.”

“Malcolm is at the castle. Preparing for the exhibition.”

“He’s involved, too.”

The grey granite bulk of the building where Nick Farthing-Tattersall had lived was merging into the dark patch of trees that enclosed it. We set off down the gravel drive towards the lane that led down to the castle.

“They want to talk about Bartholomew,” I told her.

“I know he is alive.”

“Whose body was it, then?”

“Who knows? But it’s not Bartholomew. Charlie’s ordered a DNA profile.”

“You found some tissue to match to?” She nodded. “What does Charlie think?”

“He’s been very supportive. I think he secretly agrees with me.”

“I hope you’re right, Angie. But then, where is Bartholomew?”

“Wherever little boys go when they run away from home. He’ll come home when he’s thoroughly shamed.”

“Is that why you’re putting this exhibition on?”

“How do you mean?”

“To lure him back?”

She stopped and took me by the arm. “You’re not to suggest that to anyone.”

“Spider?”

“No. And particularly not Malcolm.”

“What’s his game, Angie?”

She laughed. “You’re not jealous of Malcolm, too?”

“I’m jealous of your bath towel. But he’s finding the money for this exhibition, isn’t he?”

“Not a great deal. But it’s more than I have.”

“So what’s in it for him?”

“If some money comes in, he gets paid back three per cent above bank rate.”

“That’s very generous of him. Too generous for a man who doesn’t have much money himself.”

“I’m sure it’s not his money. It never has been, has it?”

“So, what’s the catch?”

“I suppose the catch, if the exhibition should fail, is the mortgage lien on the property.”

I stopped, caught her by the shoulders and turned her to face me. “Angie, you haven’t. Why didn’t you come to me?”

“You’ve got financial problems of your own.”

“I’m sure I could have got you a deal without any strings attached.”

“What strings?”

“Who holds the mortgage?”

“A shelf company called Crowview.”

“Who’s behind it?”

“I didn’t ask. Does it matter?”

“It matters if it’s Superbloke. He’ll have his own agenda.”

Angie halted us. “I may have been a naive young girl when you last knew me, Ted. But I have lived a life since. I know what I’m doing.”

“If this thing doesn’t work, Superbloke gets the castle, and probably the club as well.”

“If this thing doesn’t work, that doesn’t matter. Not to me.” I could just make out her smile in the dusk. “So, let’s keep him motivated, shall we?”

There is, after all, no healthier appreciation of the value of a modern artist’s work than the assurance he will never be able to perpetrate another. “Matty said he did several portraits of her. Have you got them?”

“That girl is a pathological liar.”

“The early seminal work would probably fetch more.”

We were in the black pool under the rhododendrons by the castle now. She stopped again and took both of my hands in hers. Her face was a pale shimmer, like an electric bulb that had just been extinguished. “Yes, that’s it,” she said. “The seminal work.” And she chuckled without mirth. I did not understand the joke.

The castle was blazing with light. The room was empty of furniture and looked larger because the old stone walls had been whitewashed. They held a display of large black-and-white photographs mounted on white card. Bartholomew sailing and working and laughing. In one of the pictures Bartholomew was sketching at an easel while Angie posed nude in the background. But no paintings had been hung as yet and there was precious little room left for them on the walls. Matty was by the window. Her clenched left fist was at her mouth. She dropped it and grinned like a naughty child. I had never seen Angie and Matty together before. They were unused to it as well, because they avoided looking at each other. Spider and Charlie stood in the centre of the room watching Superbloke attempting to hang a framed Admiralty chart of the Westowe estuary on a spike he had jammed into a crevice.

“Spider’s got something to tell you,” I said to Angie. “You’d better sit down.” There were no chairs, so we all remained standing.

Mam had ensured that Spider knew about Confession. He took off his orange woolly cap, held it in both hands, and cast a sidelong glance at Angie. “I spun you a yarn. I found Bartholomew in Corsica. He was alive last October.” Then he told her the whole story. Charlie and Matty filled in details. Superbloke stood like a stranded whale that had been propped against the wall, his mouth agape, his shoulders drooping, holding the framed chart and the hammer.

“I knew it,” Angie said afterwards. She clenched both her fists and the knuckles whitened. “That sounds exactly right. Just how the pack of you would behave.”

“So, he was alive, at least until October,” I said.

Angie just smiled. “He’s alive now. We’ve checked his DNA against the body that floated in, haven’t we, Charlie?”

“That’s right,” said Charlie.

“Was it him?” Superbloke and Spider asked the question at the same time.

Charlie took his glasses off and started polishing them as if he were about to read out a Last Will and Testament. He unbuckled the old leather satchel that his father had also used as a briefcase. As one of the straps was fastened with string, this took a little time. Finally he drew out a document and spoke. “The sample which Angie provided me with did not match the corpse.”

Spider turned on him. “You didn’t tell me.”

Charlie thrust out his jaw. “You didn’t tell me about the power of attorney.”

There was a heavy thud and the sound of breaking glass. The frame of the Admiralty chart lay smashed on the floor. Superbloke stared at us, his big paws clutching the air. “I’m sorry, Angie. It was the shock.”

Spider shot a sharp glance at him. “The power of attorney?”

“That means Bartholomew’s alive,” Superbloke stammered.

“That’s supposed to be good news,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” said the big man. He looked at Angie. “I’m very happy for you.” Then he spoke to the ceiling. “It’s still quite a shock.”

Charlie was polishing his glasses again. “It doesn’t prove anything at all. Because the sample Angie gave me wasn’t certified in any way. We don’t know where it came from.”

“I know where. And that’s enough for me,” said Angie.

“It’s just as well,” said Charlie. “Or it would put paid to the insurance claim.”

I aimed a finger at him. “You mean it would be a lot tidier all around if Bartholomew is dead.”

Charlie looked at Angie. “Will you go looking for him?”

“We already did that.” She glanced at Spider. “He’ll come home when it’s supper time.”

Superbloke came over and joined us where we stood in the middle of the room. He had emerged from his daze. “Perhaps it’s best if we do nothing whatsoever. If that body that floated in is Bartholomew’s, as I believe it must be, then nothing has changed.”

“And if it isn’t?” asked Spider.

“If it isn’t, he’s been declared dead anyway. If Bartholomew doesn’t turn up the insurance company will pay up eventually. Everything can go ahead as planned.”

“What’s planned?” I asked.

“I mean as Spider planned. Supporting Angie through this tragedy.”

“And stopping the sale of the club property?”

The colour rose in Superbloke’s face and so did the pitch of his voice. “That’s a legal question. Charlie’s taking advice.”

“And what if Bartholomew swans in here some fine day?”

“That will be a bit messy. Still, legally, I can’t see that we’ve done anything wrong.”

Charlie, quivering like a beagle, pointed his nose at Spider. “Except Spider. He withheld information from the inquest.”

Spider smiled. “I wasn’t asked.”

“I don’t see what there is to gain by telling the world and his brother about this,” said Superbloke. “Think how it will stir the press up.”

He had a point. “It’s what Angie wants that matters,” I said.

“I don’t care what you do,” she said. “He’s alive , and if he comes back, I’ll take it from there.”

Everyone looked at Spider. He looked at me. “What do you think, Ted?”

This was a surprise. I was used to Spider taking decisions. We all were. So I thought carefully before I answered. “I agree with Angie. If Bartholomew’s alive, it’s his move.” If I had said something else instead — if we had talked to the police then — perhaps all of the people in that room would have lived to collect their old age pensions. Should I blame myself? Or was it just an unlucky bounce on the rugby pitch?

“We’re agreed then,” said Superbloke. “What’s been said here goes no further than this room.”

Everyone nodded, except Angie, who was sweeping up the broken glass, and Matty, who was still by the window gnawing her knuckles. Superbloke turned his head towards her. “Matty?”

She crossed to Charlie. “What about my DNA test?”

“The report is promised for next week.”

Superbloke took a step towards her. “Blabbing about this won’t help anyone.”

She backed away from him. “So long as I get my report.”

“That’s settled then,” said Superbloke, looking around him like a statesman who had just signed the Armistice.

Then Angie surprised us all. She went to Matty and said, “You’ve had a rough time, too. I want us to be friends.” Matty just leaned forward and hugged her. I could see she had tears in her eyes.

Charlie started to buckle his satchel. “Better make sure you don’t mix them up,” said Spider.

Charlie’s mouth dropped open. “Mix up what?”

“You don’t want to get that DNA mixed up in your briefcase with your egg sandwiches and all.”

Charlie replied with heat. “There’s no possibility of error in Matty’s case. There’s a certified chain of custody all the way to the lab and back. Matty’s blood sample was taken at the clinic at the same time as Nick’s.”

“Which will come in useful if another headless body washes in,” said Spider.


Monday, 16th May

There had not been so many outsiders gathered in Westowe on a cold early-season Monday since the week before D-Day. They were journalists, thrill-seekers, retired people who had moved to the south-west away from their friends and family and had nothing else to do — so many that the inquest on Lord Nick had to be held in McGinty’s sail loft. Cars overflowed the Jubilee Quay and crowded every lane. The car parking machine had run out of change and Dinny Dinsmore, in one of his part-time responsibilities, was busy sticking tickets under the windscreen wipers of every unfamiliar piece of metal that wasn’t moving.

A flotilla of dinghies chafed in the choppy water alongside the Jubilee Quay, and I had to manhandle the tender amongst them, clambering over five boats before I could reach a cleat on the quay with my painter. One was a new inflatable, bright orange and neatly stencilled T/T Snow Queen. Lord Nick’s gleaming fifty-footer had come in sometime last night. On the way in from my pontoon I had pulled up alongside her on the visitors’ moorings and gave a shout, but there was no one aboard.

On the quay I had to wait in a queue before I got into one of the telephone boxes and put my call through to London. I still had a few favours outstanding and one of my chums had agreed to look into both the Gladwell consortium and Crowview Ltd. for me. When I got through his protective phalanx of secretaries the names he gave me for the people behind Gladwell were all strangers, but Crowview was a shelf company wholly controlled by Malcolm Goodfellow and Lord Farthing-Tattersall.

Back out in Fore Street two streams of people conjoined, one flowing across the bridge from the boat park and another down from the summer overflow car park on Signal Hill. The two figures in red oilies coming down the hill, one bright, one faded, were Spider and Matty. She was talking and laughing, and pulling him along the way she used to do me. He looked uncomfortable, the way I used to feel. I waited for them and when they came up she smiled and took my elbow with her other arm.

“Hello, sailor.”

“You’re bright as a button, considering.”

“Considering?”

“It’s your Dad’s inquest.”

Spider snorted. Matty’s mouth drew down at the corners. In Spider’s oversize oilies she looked like an apprentice clown.

“It hurts, somehow. Even though I hardly knew him.” The crush of the crowd at the door to the sail loft brought us to a halt. I felt her breath on my ear. “I want to see you.” Her face was still sad. As I thought what to say, the crowd started to surge forward and so I just nodded. By the windows that overlooked the creek a craggy blonde profile rose above a sea of shoulders. It was Lothar, and he beckoned towards us. I waved but when I turned to Spider and Matty they had already pushed off down the other side of the room, so I went over and took a seat next to Lothar. I avoided shaking hands and punched him in the arm instead. That was a mistake, because he punched me back. My left shoulder ached throughout most of the proceedings.

“I might need an interpreter,” he grinned.

“You’re not testifying?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Of course. Suspect number one as usual.”

Lothar laughed, and then leaned closer and said, under his breath. “They want to know how I got the boat.”

“I was wondering that myself.”

Lothar tried to look pained, which he did badly, because I don’t think he knew the feeling. “I bought it. With OAP’s money.”

“You robbed a pension fund?”

“Other People’s Money. Isn’t that what you say?”

“If they put you in the box today, just don’t say O.J.”

His grin stretched even broader. “Should I take the Fifth Commandment?”

“Wrong country.”

A battery of hired paraffin heaters failed to keep breath from misting in the far corners of the room, and people in the back rows turned around and scowled whenever a latecomer came through the big barn doors behind. This time the coroner was a stout middle-aged lady with improbable silver blue hair, wearing a bright yellow floral dress suitable for a Royal Garden Party. Over that, to keep warm, she had thrown an acid green cardigan with orange flecks. The corners of her mouth, plunging straight towards her pearl necklace, suggested she did not suffer humour gladly.

The witnesses who took their turn at the deal table beneath her gaze were suitably subdued. Spider gave a matter-of-fact report. On the night that I lay cold-cocked in the Amaryllis, a signal from a satellite alert beacon, automatically activated when it’s immersed in salt water, had been picked up by the crew of a BA flight to New York, who alerted HM Coast Guard at 02:13 am. The position was off the harbour entrance. The Westowe lifeboat slipped its moorings seventeen minutes later and found the wreckage of the catamaran just inside the bar at 02.47. A flashing red light in the water led them to a ship’s life buoy and the only survivor, Simon Tate, who was hauled on board at 02.55. He had been in the water for two hours. He told them that the only other crew member, Lord Nicholas Farthing-Tattersall, had been at the helm. After continuing to search for three-quarters of an hour without success the lifeboat delivered Simon Tate to an ambulance waiting at Jubilee Quay, and then returned to assist the Air-Sea Rescue helicopter in a thorough exploration of the harbour approaches until after dawn. No trace of Lord Farthing-Tattersall had been found. The liferaft was still secured to the cabin debris. A fishing boat had retrieved the deflated rubber tender off The Devil’s Coat-tails the next day.

“In your opinion, Coxswain, what was the cause of the sinking?”

“There was a strong south-westerly swell with a moderate breeze, force three or four, right behind. We don’t know whether the boat was under power or not, but it slammed straight into the bar and pitchpoled.”

“Pitchpoled?”

Spider rolled his hands over each other. “Leading edge of the keel bites into the sand and the following sea takes it right over on its mast, ass over tit.” Spider didn’t see the coroner frown, but sensed the sudden silence in the audience. “A somersault,” he corrected.

“What do you think happened to Lord Farthing-Tattersall?”

“The webbing aft of the cockpit was torn. That would only happen if a weight had fallen through it. I think he had to take a — went to relieve himself off the stern. So he jammed the tiller and stepped out on the webbing. It may have been weak and given way.”

“In your experience have you ever known that to happen?”

“No, ma’am. But, in my experience, anything can happen at sea.”

“On land, equally, in my experience.”

“You don’t get many second chances at sea.” A murmur of approval rumbled through the audience.

“Could he have given an alarm?”

“They had a fresh wind on the beam, they’d be making maybe five knots. According to Simon, Nickers — Lord Nick — probably wasn’t wearing a life jacket. By the time he plunged down through the water and surfaced again, the boat would be forty, fifty yards away. And the lad was asleep down below.”

“Would it be normal procedure to wear a life jacket in those circumstances?”

“Alone on the helm at night? Absolutely. And a safety harness, too.”

“A safety harness?”

“A web harness which you wear with a line attached to a steel cable with a quick release clip. So, even if you fell in you’d be hanging off the boat.”

“Was Lord Farthing-Whittingstall an experienced sailor?”

“Yes ma’am. A good sailor.”

“Would you expect that he would follow the usual safety precautions?”

“That depends.”

“On what, Mr Meersman?”

“On how he was feeling. He had his moods.” And that was all the coroner could get out of him on that subject.

Charlie Segui explained that Nickers had agreed to help him fetch his yacht, Grace of God, from the Helford River where it had over-wintered. Charlie himself had withdrawn from the cruise at the last minute because of important business in Bristol. Simon Tate, who worked at the club, had taken his place. When he had finished and the coroner excused him, Charlie put up his hand the way we used to in primary school.

“I just want to add one thing. We agreed that Nick would call in to the marina in Plymouth. I was going to join him for the last leg on the Wednesday night.”

“So, you met him at the marina?”

“No, he never came in. I was a couple of hours late getting there, because of roadworks on the M5, so when Nick contacted the marina and found I wasn’t there, he left a message saying they were going straight on. So I drove on home.”

“Is that important?”

Charlie pushed out his lower lip. “Well, it was important to me that I wasn’t on the boat.”

The audience ventured its first timid laugh of the morning.

“I mean, if I had been there I could have done something.”

“Indeed,” said the coroner. “You may step down. “

Charlie scowled and spoke to the floor as he stepped off the dais, “I just wanted to put that on the record, that’s all.”

When Simon Tate rose to take the witness chair, I saw that Pixie and Poxy were sitting right behind him. He had gone off watch at ten o’clock. Nick was going to rouse him when they reached the harbour entrance. An alarm clock woke him, which Nick must have set for him, and he started getting his gear together. Suddenly he fell to the ceiling. The gangway was suspended over his head, and then he was slammed down on to it. By the time he got topside, the boat had cracked open like an eggshell and he was in the waves. The distress signal went off automatically as the yacht disintegrated. Nothing came out about Simon’s drug connections, and he stepped down to sit with his minders.

My time sitting on the hard wooden chair at the deal table was short. Charlie Segui had already testified that he was surprised to meet me in the village on the night Lord Nick had disappeared because he had thought I was crewing on Grace of God.

“Why did you change your mind about taking part in this voyage, Mr. Golden?”

“I never told Nick I would go.”

“He had written your name on the crew list on the club notice board.”

“He was taking liberties. He invited me, but I had other things to do.”

“What did you do that evening?”

“I had a few pints and went to bed. Same as every evening.”

“Mr Starr testified that you were not at home when he called early the next morning.”

“He found me on my boat next morning.”

“Had you been out sailing that night?”

“Only between pubs. My boat was in the car park.” I was rewarded with a titter from the audience.

“While you were making your — usual rounds — did you see anything unusual?”

Two visions came into my mind: Dinny standing upright at the tiller of his launch piled high with nets with the moonlight glancing off the rim of his nautical cap, and the television picture the next day, showing the orange woolly hat with the big plastic spider on it, lying on the thwarts beside the nets. Unusual? Certainly. But snitchworthy? And then I thought of a better target. “Yes, when I saw Charlie Segui he was wearing wellies.”

“Don’t people often wear wellingtons in Westowe?” There was an appreciative laugh from the audience. The coroner was winning the joke contest.

“When they’re getting on or off a boat. Or if it’s raining. It was a dry night and he’d been out to dinner.”

The coroner peered at me through her pince-nez as if I were a laboratory specimen beneath a microscope. “Do you attach any significance to Mr Segui’s choice of footwear on that evening in the light of Lord Farthing-Tattersall’s disappearance?”

The audience laughed again.

“No. It was unusual, that’s all.”

“Thank you, Mr Golden.”

Lothar strode to the stand with the grace of a blonde lion. The coroner sat up a little straighter and adjusted her cardigan.

“I understand you’re a visitor from Denmark, Mr Volkmann. Will you be able to take part in the proceedings in English?”

Lothar knew that the English like foreigners who know their place, so he used the line he’d charmed me with: “If you speak only Danish, there’s only about eight million people in the world who will understand you.” This brought a chuckle from the audience and the first smile of the day from the coroner. Her questions flowed in a sweeter tone. Lothar explained that he had completed the purchase of the Snow Queen on behalf of a Caribbean-based charter company just two days before Lord Nick disappeared. Nick had stopped off at the Plymouth marina to sign the papers and pick up a banker’s draft. He ordered a taxi to take him to a bank before taking the train down to Helford.

“Did you get on well together?”

“Oh, yes.” He held up two fingers. “Lord Nick and I are just like that. Thick as two short planks.”

“Thick as thieves, you mean.”

“No. But, I think he was a druggist.”

“A chemist?”

Lothar was patient, and leaned forward to explain to the coroner. “His sailing companion is a drug dealer. With those two sitting behind him.” The audience craned their necks to look at Pixie and Poxy. “They are as thick as thieves.” He put two fingers up to the coroner. The locals already knew Simon Tate was into drugs and that Pixie and Poxy were no better than they should be. The great buzz of noise came from the outsiders. A camera flashed in the back. Pixie and Poxy stood up, shielding their faces with raised arms, and hurried Simon down the central aisle and out the door. When the clerk restored order in the Coroner’s Court, the coroner dismissed Lothar with an admonition about British court procedures.

When he came back to sit beside me, I asked, “Why did you drop them in it?”

“They’re using him by feeding him drugs.”

“Show me that thick-as-thieves sign.”

He spread his fingers into the reversed V-signal again. “No. Like this.” I said, and pressed them together. It was like holding two sausages. “Do you realise you were telling the lady coroner to go fuck herself?”

Lothar groaned. “Such a sophisticated language.”

The coroner asked Eddy Starr when and where the body might surface. “The body decomposes, fills with gas and almost always comes to the surface,” he said. “It generally takes about six weeks. The tides could sweep it anywhere along the south coast.”

This time, Eddy Starr was supported by his colleagues. The Kings Ferry constabulary had begun to take an interest in events in Westowe and at the request of the police, the inquest was adjourned so that they could continue their investigations. Outside, rain drummed on the slate roofs and puddled the cobblestones. Matty was standing in a doorway across the alley. We pulled up our hoods and crossed over. Lothar shook her hand and spoke to us as if we were a couple. “Do you two fancy a trip to the Caribbean? I’m looking for crew.”

Why not, I thought, and then I knew why not. It had to do with Matty and Angie and Bartholomew, too. Too many questions that needed answers. I shook my head. “Maybe next year.”

Lothar sighed and clapped a heavy arm on my back. “You can’t postpone your life.” He turned his wide smile on Matty. “Isn’t that right, Matty?”

“I’ll consult my horoscope,” she said.

A pack of journalists surrounded us, rattling questions at Lothar. “Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you everything I know,” he said to them. “Come along, Ted.”

I shook my head and shot him a warning glance. He leaned his head over and rasped in my ear, “I propose to talk in Danish.” He looked at Matty. “Want to get your picture in the papers?”

She put her arm in mine and pulled me back into the doorway. “I don’t have the right figure for those papers. And I’ve got a date.” To me, she whispered, “Relax, I’m not going to rape you.”

Lothar waved and strode off towards The Sailor’s Return like a stag surrounded by yapping hounds. All the pubs and tea rooms would be heaving by now, so Matty took me to Spider’s. Mam was asleep in her room. We went into the kitchen and Matty made us some coffee. She was shivering.

“You’re cold,” I said.

She moved forward, hesitant, half a step. “Just hold me.” I placed my hands on her hips and she pressed forward. Her hands were freezing. Her long hair tickled my nose and I brushed it away. She pulled back. “You’re holding me like a boat hook.” She took her mug in both hands and sipped from it. “What went wrong between us?”

“I’m very fond of you, Matty.”

“Shit.” She turned and looked out the window at the view of the stone wall of the cottage one metre across the passageway. “It’s Angie, isn’t it? You’re goddamned in love with her, aren’t you?” She wheeled to face me again. “I just wanted you to know that I might not be here much longer.”

“Back to Bartholomew?”

“Bartholomew is goddamned dead. But I’ve got to go.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere.”

I was feeling sorry for myself, so I said, “You could always take a holiday with Lothar in the Caribbean.”

Her mouth twitched. “If I do, it won’t be for his company. Remember that.”

“I hope you don’t leave.”

“After tomorrow, there’s nothing to keep me here.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Charlie’s getting the results of the DNA test by registered post.”

A ghost stirred at the edge of my vision. “Hello, Mam,” I said.

“Who are you?”

“It’s Ted, Mam.” I went up and gave her a hug. She smelled of sour milk and damp towels.

She pushed past me. “I want my tea.” She leaned on the sink and looked back at me. “Ted Golden?”

“That’s right, Mam.”

The mist in her eyes lifted. She raised the ham of her arm to shake a bony finger at me. “Are you going to marry that girl?”

“Which girl, Mam?”

She pointed at Matty. “This girl here. Angie.”

“I can’t, Mam.”

She teetered forward. “You’ll ruin her life.” She swayed.

Matty stepped out and caught her. “Get back to bed Mam, I’ll get your tea.”

“I only wanted my tea,” said Mam and she hobbled past me without another look.

Matty put her hand out to me. “Good-bye, Ted.”

I put my arms around her but it was like embracing a refrigerator. An image of her haunted brown eyes stayed with me after I left Spider’s house, which was just as well, because I didn’t see the originals again for a long time after that. Two days later I was having a sundowner with Charlie and Spider on the club veranda, when we saw SnowQueen motoring down channel into a stiff breeze. The figure in yellow oilies at the helm looked out of scale for the cockpit. It was Lothar.

I spotted the yacht first. “Where’s he headed at this hour?”

“Caribbean,” said Spider.

“You’re joking.”

“Via Plymouth and then the Scillies.”

I stood up and went to the rail. “The bugger. He didn’t say good-bye.”

The mainsail was up to steady the craft and a slighter figure in yellow oilies was on the foredeck taking the ties off the jib. In the cockpit Lothar heaved on the halyard and the foresail raced up flapping to the top of the mast. He snugged it in hard to the breeze and the figure on the foredeck stood up. It was Matty. I went to the telescope on the veranda which was used to observe the dinghy races in the estuary. I found Black Rock first, and then Matty’s face swam into view. She was waving to us and looked, as she would say, as happy as a sandboy. She blew a kiss into the lens, and then the boat tacked and when I got the Snow Queen in focus again I could see both yellow figures looking aft and waving as the black profile of Sentinel Point slipped across the circle and erased them from view.

“Matty’s with him,” I said.

“There’s nothing to hold her here now, that’s what she told me,” said Charlie. “I told her she didn’t have a prayer of getting anything out of Nick’s estate.”

“You gave her the DNA results?”

“Yes.”

“No surprises there?”

“It’s client privilege, of course.”

“Well, she told me,” said Spider. “And said I could print it in the Weekly Herald if I liked.”

“How did she take it? It was an unhealthy obsession.”

“‘Happy as a sandboy’, is what she said.”

I nodded. “Relieved, I suppose to have to face the truth.”

I was looking through the telescope again because the Snow Queen would reappear in a few seconds as it tacked east to pass the outliers off Grise Head. Spider came up and put his hand on my shoulder.

“I had it wrong, matey. The truth is, Nick is her father.”

I jerked my head, jabbing my eyeball on the metal rim of the eyepiece. I pressed my hand against my eyelid to dampen the pain and, aiming my undamaged eye at Charlie, pointed my finger at Spider.

“He’s not serious?”

“It’s true,” said Charlie. “The samples match. But damned if I know why. She’s absolutely vindicated. Except it’s a little too late. Old Nickers left nothing but debts and confusion.”

I put my left eye to the eyepiece. Snow Queen swept around Grise Head into the full force of the westerly breeze, bent her sails almost flat to the water, quivered, then rising, swung round to a north-westerly heading. The setting sun outlined the tiny pale triangle of her sails with fire. The dotted line of rocks in the foreground crept slowly across her hull until she passed from view, carrying the woman who was no longer my daughter. And Lothar. She had said “It won’t be for his company. Remember that.”


Sunday, 29th May

She had been in the bath a long time. Under the circumstances. Or so it seemed. I haven’t worn a watch since I left London, and so I have developed a good sense of how much time has passed. It goes more slowly when you’re anticipating something. And it speeds by when you’re thinking hard. I had been lying in this soft bed, my organs waiting while my mind flew over mountains and valleys. So I had no idea how long she had been in the bathroom, trilling in her high-pitched voice. There was a hopeful pause. Then another soprano aria began. From Lakmé? It would be some time yet.

On the face of it, there had been three accidental deaths in Westowe in the past three months. Bartholomew. Colonel Meeker, whose only connection with Westowe was his complaint about the Britannia hoax. Which had been engineered by Spider — according to Charlie. Or by Charlie — according to Spider. Now Nickers.

Bartholomew had deliberately chosen to disappear. But then his body had surfaced. Or the body of someone remarkably like him. Dressed in his oilies. Similar enough to convince everyone. Except his widow. Who then proved, to herself if no one else, that it wasn’t his corpse, by coming forward with a tissue sample for a DNA comparison. Of unknown origin.

I had done some research into this, through a chum in London. Matty’s comparison with Lord Nick was presumably Standard DNA Profiling. It is highly accurate and requires a sample of blood, muscle tissue or bone marrow. It was unlikely that Bartholomew had left any of these bits lying around in the marital bathroom cupboard. So the comparison between the body thought to be Bartholomew’s and the sample provided by Angie — whatever it was — had probably relied on a new technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction analysis, which can work with almost any human tissue — a single hair or a fingernail clipping, even. But it’s less reliable.

Bartholomew — or virtual Bartholomew — had been the victim of an accidental death. Or murder. Or whatever. How?

The colonel was another enigma. He had been alone in Pogie’s dinghy. Although someone could have met him. Why?

If Lord Nick had been murdered, Simon Tate had the opportunity, but his cover-up strategy, if that’s what it was, was suicidal. And who would benefit from Nick’s death? According to Charlie, his estate was submerged in negative cash flow. But if there were something else — insurance maybe — Matty was his surviving heir. But she didn’t know that for certain at the time he disappeared. At least, she had not then yet proved it.

Colonel Meeker’s body was long overdue, and neither had Nick’s corpse surfaced yet. Bartholomew had staged his own disappearance. Perhaps Nickers and Meeker had done the same. But Bartholomew had Spider to help him. Who also involved Charlie. Nickers and Meeker would have needed help, too. Spider had mailed a letter that Colonel Meeker still had in his pocket when I left him on Pogie’s pontoon. But Spider could not have helped Lord Nick disappear, because he was dead drunk at the time. Yet sober enough a few hours later to helm a 26.5-tonne lifeboat cruising at eighteen knots.

What about Lothar? A relentless crusader against drugs. Who must have given a packet of coke to Matty to trade for Lord Nick’s blood test. Fulfilling the offer Pixie made to Matty that day when he and Poxy boarded the Amaryllis? Which would indicate that Lothar was in league with them. He had already helped them entrap Simon Tate. But if so, Lothar blew these confederates out of the water at the inquest. A conflicted character.

My brain was steaming. I refilled the saucer-sized hollow-stemmed glass, one of a pair which probably came packaged in a gift box with the sweetish, nose-tickling Spanish bubbly I was drinking. The gold foil on the neck of the bottle mirrored the gilt tracery on the white Louis-XIV-style bedside cabinet. Also non-vintage and available in pre-packs. The tiny bubbles numbed my tongue and a winey vapour seeped into my cranium.

There was a common thread. Bartholomew was exhausting his financial resources by trying to play games both home and away. Colonel Meeker had been exposed as a swindler and was facing retribution. Lord Nick, self-evidently, was skint. What was it Eddy had said? The usual cause was financial worries. But he had been talking about suicide. That was another possibility. But not Bartholomew, surely, with his raging lust for life. Nor Nick. He belonged to the Micawber school of enterprise — something would always turn up. Colonel Meeker, however, was clearly a man on the edge; his letter could have been a suicide note. His whole scenario was fishy. Which led me to a series of questions:

If Bartholomew were alive, who was the unfortunate dressed in his oilskins?

Why did Colonel Meeker go out fishing and catch two mackerel?

How did Spider get hold of the colonel’s letter, if he had never met him? Why would he lie about posting it? To whom was the letter sent and what was in it?

Why did Pixie and Poxy want me to keep an eye on Spider? Why did they want to gain access to the castle?

As I had not cooperated with them, wasn’t it about time that the Crown Prosecution Service turned up on my doorstep with leg irons?

And why isn’t Simon Tate in the slammer, instead of taking boat rides?

Who beat up Matty?

Why wouldn’t she tell?

Was it the same person who decked me that night? Or did I just fall down drunk?

Was it the same animal who pissed in that fine bottle of single malt which dear Angie gave me?

Did Angie really have an abortion? The first day I returned to Westowe that strangely reliable source, Dinny, said she had my child. Spider thought so, too. If so, what became of it?

What did she keep hidden in the munitions room at the castle?

If Matty’s father was Lord Nick, who was her mother?

Why did Lothar warn me off sailing into oblivion with Lord Nick? Was he setting up another drug bust?

Why did Matty push off in my dinghy that day Eddy and Lothar interrupted our pre-coital games?

What’s a nice girl like that doing with a wolf’s head tattooed on her pudenda?

Why did she go off with Lothar, if not for his company?

Was Lothar taming the wolf at this very moment?

“I don’t like anal sex.” I was engulfed by a flood of lavender, talc and, I found out later, patchouli and ylang ylang. It reeked of the front room of Dinsmore’s Funeral Home, crowded with white lilies, where two mahogany coffins with burnished brass handles lay side by side, probably closer than my parents had lain in a long time. The trilling had stopped. Rabbit stood by the side of the bed wearing a red kimono. She was pink-faced and her eyes glittered, her auburn hair had been shocked into a shimmering aureole. Was it a wig? Is that why she’d locked the door to the ensuite bathroom?

I propped myself up on an elbow. If she didn’t like anal sex, she must have tried it. Everything else she hadn’t mentioned she must like. Her flank loomed vast in close-up. I touched it. The scarlet kimono fell open and I saw the white bulk of her body, the large drooping breasts and mounded belly and the folds leading from her swollen thighs into the thicket between them. This was not auburn. A firm hand on the back of my head guided me into this soft grey pasture. It smelled of woodland in flower, like the path down from the Farthing-Tattersall estate, where I had walked with Angie amongst the bluebells, wild garlic and moist leaf rot.

Rabbit climbed into bed and took charge of my erection. Flesh heaved and the mauve sheets wrinkled with caresses and probings, perfumes, odours, grunts, exclamations and whispers, trickles of sweat, the flat slap of bellies, wet tongues and dripping hair and then, too soon, it was over. She moved up and over to suffocate me with her slippery thighs. I eased her off me and rolled over and reached for my glass of wine. It was flat and my elbows were sore. Rabbit seemed content. She lay back with her great breasts splayed on her chest like loose fried eggs. She turned her head and smiled at me, and put her fingers to her lips, kissed them, placed them on mine and asked the unanswerable question.

I replied, “It was worth waiting for.”

“When was the last time for you?”

I had not had a woman for more than a year, but I wasn’t going to spoil her illusions. “I meant waiting through the preliminaries.”

“Oh.” She leaned over and kissed me. “I won’t make you wait so long next time. But I like it to be clean, don’t you?” I had been instructed to shower in the guest bathroom and when I had wandered back into her bedroom I had found her dead husband’s white towelling dressing gown laid out over a small upholstered chair, next to the bottle of sparkling wine and two glasses on a tray on a bedside table. And heard the first aria emerging from the ensuite bathroom.

The fingers now coiling the hairs on my chest were soft and plump and clean. Her nails were perfect ovals, polished pink, with even white rims at the top. Matty’s hands were grimy, her nails were tiny slivers set deep in gnawed fingertips, she whiffed of garage grease and, if she had washed her hair that week, vinegar. And in the secret pit which the wolf guarded, there would be the salty tang of the sea bed. Where the bodies must lie.

“A penny for them.” Her hand moved down my body towards His Royal Limpness. I arrested her hand with my own. She pressed close against me.

“I was thinking about the sea.”

“What about it?”

“It keeps its secrets. The mackerel, for instance.”

“What mackerel?”

“After Colonel Meeker disappeared, there were two mackerel in Pogie’s dinghy.”

“Nobody mentioned that.”

“They were stinking. I threw them over the side.”

“I did wonder why he had bought mackerel, and then went out fishing.”

“He bought mackerel?” I sat up. That was a mistake. She burrowed her head into my lap. I set her upright again.

“Two mackerel. The day he disappeared. He was just in front of me at the fishmonger’s. He put them into a canvas holdall. I remember thinking that was daft.”

“Why?”

“Right in with his clothes?”

“You know why he bought those fish?” I mused. Her hand was probing and I entwined her fingers with mine. “To prove that he had gone fishing.”

“So?”

“To give him a reason for going out in the boat. So it wouldn’t look like suicide.” I had her interest now. Rabbit sat up, found her red kimono and pulled it around her shoulders while I continued to ruminate. “If he wasn’t fishing, and not committing suicide, why did he go out in the boat?”

Rabbit touched me — for a change not on my private parts. “Maybe to stage his own disappearance. That could tie in with the letter. He spent a couple of hours with Charlie that morning writing a letter. It was addressed to the colonel’s solicitors.”

“Did you type it?”

“Charlie wouldn’t let me. I had to fetch some paper in for him. And an envelope. I remember it because we didn’t have any stamps. Charlie got very cross, even though it was his fault because he’d cancelled the postage meter without telling me. I said I’d run up to the post office, but Colonel Meeker said not to worry, he’d post it himself.”

“What do you suppose was in the letter?”

She widened her eyes at me like a stage actress. “Do you think I’m some kind of bimbo? That’s a client confidence, young man.”

“I don’t think you’re a bimbo. And I’m not a young man.”

She ran her hand down my leg again. “You just proved how young you are.” She pulled her head back a little and looked me in the eye. “I don’t want you to think I’m just a good screw.”

“I think there’s a lot more to you than meets the eye.”

She took that as permission to cup The Limpness in her hand. “Or the penis?”

“I think you’re on to something.”

She gave it a squeeze. “I was on it. But I don’t recognise it now.”

“I mean Colonel Meeker. That’s the first hard evidence of what he was getting up to.”

“How can we make this hard? And get it up to something?”

“If you want an action replay, you’ll have to press the right button.”

She giggled. “I like playing with you.” She had HRL between her fingers now. I sent my fingers in search of her left nipple, found it drifting on her chest, and teased it. She responded. “It was the Last Will and Testament forms Charlie asked me to bring in.”

“Did you see the letter again? Think carefully.”

“No. The colonel took it with him.”

Rabbit released me suddenly and sat up. Her open kimono flapped across my face as she reached over to the bedside table. Beneath her armpit it smelled like the ground floor of Selfridges. When she put her spectacles on she looked like old Miss Lamb, who taught us both in infants school. She had probably been younger than Rabbit was now.

“I’m worried about Charlie,” she said. I sat up, too, and pulled Mr Harris’s James Bond-style dressing gown around my shoulders. Our reflections regarded us from the large gilt framed mirror above the white and gilt dressing table set against the white wall opposite the foot of the bed. “He’s not been himself since.”

“Since when?”

“Since Bartholomew went off. Or a little later. Around that time.”

“What’s the problem?”

““He’s jumpy. Like he was always looking over his shoulder. And moody. The day they found Bartholomew’s body he freaked out.”

“I remember that. Spider and I met him in the street. We were all upset, but he was taking it very hard, I thought. And the next time I saw him, he was joking about it.”

“I can tell you exactly when that mood changed.” I caught her eyes in the mirror. “But I probably shouldn’t.”

“Don’t we know each other well enough?”

“We’re getting to know each other.” Our mirror images together in the big bed acknowledged the truth of that. “It was when he checked his E-mail one morning. I thought he was going to jump up in the air and click his heels.”

“Charlie’s into E-mail? Is this the same geezer that uses thirty-year-old stationery with his Dad’s dead partner’s name on it?”

“That’s just for personal notes. Why throw good paper away? He got into E-mail about six months ago.”

“Who was the E-mail from?”

“He’s got some big property deal going overseas. Project Blue Horizon, he calls it. It’s his retirement plan, he says. Very hush-hush. I never use the computer. He’s got his own password.”

“Has Charlie got money worries?”

“That’s another thing. Mr Harris was well insured. And I got a good price for his stationery business. So he left me a nice little nest egg. Charlie wanted a loan to pay off some debts and to invest in his scheme. But he wouldn’t tell me anything about it. I had to take it on trust. He’s in difficulties since his trouble, so — .”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I really shouldn’t tell you this.” I said nothing. She was in full flow gossip mode now. She rewarded my silence by whispering in my ear, “Lloyds,” then filling it with her wet tongue, before she continued. “He was caught in that Lloyds disaster. He owes them ever so much money. And every time he pays, they come back with another demand. I gave him a little, but it’s a bottomless pit, really. Not a patch on what he wanted. He was very cross. We hardly speak outside the office anymore. And not much inside it.”

“If you give him the sort of dinner you made for me tonight, he’ll come round soon enough.”

She snuggled against me. “You can come again. But I haven’t had Charlie to dinner for months.”

“Wasn’t he here for dinner the night Lord Nick disappeared?”

“If he was, he flew down the chimney and raided the fridge. That was my bridge night and I was in Kings Ferry. Is that what he told you?”

“I must have misheard.”

“Do you play bridge?”

“I wasn’t in a proper state that night.”

She waggled a finger at me. “You know you drink too much. I’m going to have to ration you. The way I did poor Mr Harris.”

“Anyway, Charlie wouldn’t wear wellies to dinner, would he?” I mused.

She put her lips against my ear and her hand seized HRL again. “You’re too young to get Brewer’s Droop.”

“Charlie’s a puzzle.”

“Do you know what he’s on about now?”

“Tell me.”

“I tell you too much.”

“We’re pals.”

She poked me in the ribs, then leaned over and pressed her face against mine. “Lovers.”

“Lovers.”

She gave me some air. “You know Angie gave him that DNA sample to test against Bartholomew’s body?”

“It didn’t match.”

“You know that?”

“She told me. All of us. At the castle the other night.”

“Well, Charlie’s desperate to find out where she got that sample.”

“Desperate?”

“Not actually tearing his hair out. Puzzled, really. And Angie won’t say. I bet she’d tell you.”

“Why me?”

“You’re close.”

“Not like we were.”

Something fell on my face and scratched it. In the mirror I saw the auburn nimbus that surrounded her head was on my shoulder. “I’m glad of that,” she said.

“If he’s really puzzled that her sample didn’t match, it might mean he’s got some reason for believing the body really is Bartholomew,” I speculated.

“Who else could it be?”

“Spider’s not so sure about it.”

“Spider’s got his own web to weave.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know he’s always sniffing around Angie.”

“You mean after I left Westowe?”

She snorted into my shoulder. “Even the night you left Westowe. But it’s not for me to tell tales.”

“You’re doing pretty well so far.”

She rose up and tried to slap me. I grasped both her wrists but the steel wool she dragged across my face with her head did a lot of damage. She stopped struggling and stuck her tongue out at me. Then her lips pouted and she moved its pink tip in little circles between them. Her hand was around my tackle again, and it stirred.

“Not before you tell me about Spider,” I said.

“Him and Angie? That’s just ancient gossip. But he’s involved in all this somehow.”

“What makes you think so?”

“It’s obvious. What does Spider live for, apart from hoping that Angie will fall into his web some day?”

“The lifeboat.”

“That, too. Even more, the Westowe Sailing Club. And it was under threat from both of the people who have disappeared.”

“Colonel Meeker? That wasn’t serious.”

“Charlie seemed to think it was.”

“Lord Nick was supporting Spider.”

“Publicly. But behind the scenes they were lobbying club members to sell.”

“Who was?”

“Lord Nick, Charlie and Malcolm Goodfellow. Only Bartholomew’s golden share could have stopped it.”

“Spider’s got a power of attorney.”

“Charlie’s taken counsel’s advice. He thinks, under the circumstances, it could be challenged. So Spider needs Bartholomew to be alive.”

“Spider may have to resurrect him.”

“I could teach him how.” With her other hand she took off her spectacles and gave them to me and then slid the wire brush of her hair down over my stomach. “I’m sure I can breathe some life into little Lazarus.”

While she anointed me, and later when I awoke in the night and for the first time in a long time heard someone breathing next to me and put out my hand and felt her warm body, I thought that this could be a kind of life. To be clasped to the bosom of a middle-aged housewife and push a shopping cart around Tesco’s with her of a Saturday morning. It was, after all, the way most men of my age lived in Britain. The next morning she gave me a cooked breakfast. She found only three small eggs in her larder, so she scrambled them together. Standing at the cooker in her frilly apron with the ‘Rules of the House’ printed on it, she smiled up at me over her pink fairy-winged spectacles. “I’ll have to start buying them by the dozen at Tesco’s,” she said.


Sunday, 12th June

It took up a full page in the heaviest of the Sunday newspapers. The headline ran: ‘Through the Keyhole: an Eternal Vision,’ and a colour photograph framed by a keyhole shape filled the top half of the broadsheet. In a corner of the black frame around the keyhole appeared a monochrome photograph of Bartholomew taken twenty years ago at the tiller of a Westowe smack. The same photograph hung at this moment just above my head on the wall of the sailing club. The by-line was that of the formidable Jennifer Lillicrap, the doyenne of London’s art critics.


Bartholomew Streb sailed out to sea one balmy August morning and was not heard from again for a lengthy interval. Then one day a few weeks ago in the West Country village where he was born his body surfaced. In the way of the world, his posthumous re­appearance has provoked paeans of praise for Westowe’s prodigal son.

A similar narrative would describe the corpus of his work. He was a gadfly who buzzed about on the fringes of every new art movement since the Second World War, from hard-edged abstract to op art to pop. Two decades ago, after his first and only London exhibition, a teasing fractious visual charivari which was generally rejected (though not by this critic) as lightweight and derivative, he quietly spun off the scene. His brief popularity and his prices had been buoyed up by the post-Warhol tide of enthusiasm for novelty, and when market demand ebbed for large paintings by the camp-followers of post-war Modern British Art, his reputation submerged gently into obscurity. According to his artistic executor, Malcolm Goodfellow, who is Christeby’s West Country representative, Bartholomew Streb in his mid-forties simply seemed to run out of ideas. The view from London was that, harking to the Zeitgeist, he stopped the world and got off. In fact, far from drifting in conceptual doldrums, he had embarked on a lonely, obsessive journey that lasted the rest of his life. It must now be acknowledged, on the basis of the posthumous unveiling yesterday of a single great work, that Bartholomew Streb was one of this century’s greatest conceptual innovators. The artistic tragedy is that, apart from this masterpiece, which will never be exhibited outside of Westowe, his other paintings of the past twenty years (and we are told there were many experimental forays), like the artist himself, no longer exist. Only this remains: it is his highly personal vanishing point.

Embittered by the critical reception of his London exhibition he told no one of the secret of his last work, except his widow, his dark muse Angela, who tends his flame in the sprawling Victorian house which broods over Westowe harbour, and also in the work itself. For she is its central conception, an eternal vision of the Madonna and Child, in a metaphysical world, glimpsed from our terrestrial plane — through a keyhole.

The work resonates with the fabulous keyhole construction of Marcel Duchamp’s old age, ‘Given 1) The Waterfall, 2) The Illuminating Gas’ and Schreilter’s ‘Merzbau’ series, those tedious environmental constructions of three-dimensional walk-in closets, but, anachronistically, it anticipates them both. Whereas Duchamp’s inner glimpse seems haphazard and quaintly decorative, and Schreilter’s rustic conceptions are bleak, anonymous cupboards into which you are meant to project your own meaning, Bartholomew Streb commands your eye to see his world as he does.

It is an intensely personal experience, because his creation is strictly one-to-one. It can be viewed by only one person at a time, through a peephole in an old wooden door. An environmental installation fills a stone dungeon in an 18th century fort hewn out of the rock hovering on the very lip of the Westowe estuary. It is so realistic it makes you gasp. The centre is commanded by a life-size plaster cast of a naked woman, covered in iridescent sequins like fish scales, legs immodestly arranged to draw the eye to her genitalia, which are fringed with seaweed. She reclines on a bed of polished pebbles against a tromp-l’oeil seascape of grim cliffs, threatening wind-whipped waves of white spume and clouds bruised purple by a throbbing red and yellow-streaked sunset descending into a swirling collage of dead leaves, which the eye eventually deciphers as news-cuttings and photographic images of the past quarter-century.

According to Mr Goodfellow, the nude’s lower body is almost certainly that of his frequent model and former mistress, Gwendolyn Smythe, but above the waist, the bared flesh of breasts and shoulders, shimmering through the gloom in eerie green chatoyance, is that of his widow, Angela. She sits in the traditional melancholic attitude of ‘The Pieta’, both arms hanging down at the same angle as the dangling hair. Yet the body she holds is not her grown son. The tragedy is pre-figured. She is suckling a sickly child whose skin is fashioned from parchment. We catch only a glimpse of its face, and it wears the hideously realistic shrivelled old man’s look of the just-born infant, but — and here’s the twist — a strategically placed wisp of seaweed signals that this Jesu is female. In dismay a fat pink cherubim with a pig’s flat snout and pointed ears flaps in the wrong direction, away from the Madonna, casting an appalled glance over his shoulder. In Bartholomew Streb’s world pigs do fly, but this plaster heavyweight, laden with shame, will surely soon crash to earth. The stuffed owl perched on Madonna’s shoulder is more steadfast. It is real, as is the large stuffed hound, traditional symbol of cuckoldry, which sits baying at the Virgin’s feet. The child cradled in her elbow is echoed above by the rising full moon caught in an arm of driftwood above Madonna’s head. It surmounts her like a halo and her face is the inevitable, final focus of the work — because it alone is not three-dimensional. Mounted on those bare alabaster shoulders in an ornate oval gilt frame, is a breathtakingly rendered conventional oil portrait of a dark-haired woman. She looks straight at you (don’t forget you and she are alone here) serene and confident, out of that terrible chaos, and her clear-eyed gaze is spell-binding. But she is reassuringly ordinary; you could meet her on Saturday in any Sainsbury’s, and this calms you.

This is Angela. You have seen her already. A stately, almost mystic presence presiding at the private view exhibition in her long black dress, she is extremely reluctant to speak about her late husband’s work, and it seemed unkind to press her. However, the prospectus says that Bartholomew Streb created ‘Angel Child’, as he named this work, over a period of many years. Though he experimented with many other styles, he threw all his later pictures away (into the sea conveniently nearby) but would return to this work again and again, fussing with it endlessly. Angela helped him gather the pebbles and bits of fish-net, shells and rust-encrusted old iron which adorn it, from the rock pools and beaches of Westowe.

Even today’s viewers subdued to nonchalance by the sight of various cuts of animals’ bodies preserved in formaldehyde and plastic will be shocked by ‘Angel Child,’ surely the weirdest work of art on display anywhere west of Boundary Road, St John’s Wood. And of all places it is permanently enshrined in Westowe, South Devon. Indelible, enigmatic, at once obscene and ennobling, this hagioscopic invention is Bartholomew Streb’s last laugh at the art world, and his triumph. When the new wave of post-Impressionism swept aside the realistic, controlled draughtsmanship of Augustus John in the wake of the 1910 London show, (and Duchamp’s manufactured works of the same period, where beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, so long as he’s wearing M. Duchamp’s spectacles) John made a flippant prediction about artistic tastes degenerating some day to the approbation (and deconstruction — he anticipated that, too) of a “gilded turd in a glass case.” Conceptual art has made this absurdity manifest, often discarding the gilt. Bartholomew Streb, like Augustus John in his day a leader of the avant-garde, found himself overtaken by the barbarians he had aroused. John’s post-Impressionists were Streb’s postmod­ernists. John fathered uncounted children, Streb none but ‘Angel Child’. Conceived (in an almost literal sense) a quarter-century before art school students started reading auguries from the arrangement of their stools or queuing at the local butcher’s or morgue for inspiration, this agonising work anticipates their anx­ieties, and moreover resolves them with a concept the conceptualists have forgotten: The Meaning of Artistic Passion.


A related feature occupied the bottom half of the broadsheet. ‘Call of the Sea: The Anguished Artist, the Cashiered Colonel and the Lascivious Lord set out for Davy Jones Locker.’ It was illustrated by a large photograph of a woman with good legs peering over the brink of The Devil’s Frying-pan and a smaller reproduction of the pub sign which hangs outside The Sailor’s Return — an anxious, buxom wench pushing a moustachioed gent in his shirt-tails into a cupboard as her honest sailor man strides up the garden path with his sailbag on his shoulder and a twinkle in his eye. There was also a photograph of the reporter, a sulky teenager called Dee Dee Twist. She had been given the computer password to the cuttings library and ransacked it. The narrative was padded out with a garbled version of recent local events and larded with misconstrued nautical expressions. It added little to the history except that the colonel had left behind an angry pack of swindled investors, that Lord Nick, also heavily indebted, in his youth had been arraigned on drug charges in Australia, and the observation that Bartholomew’s impoverished widow now stood to reap riches from the stunning success of her late husband’s posthumous exhibition.

There was nothing else to read in the paper except fevered musings about politicians and knickers-and-nappies-wringing accounts of the personal lives of female columnists. Apart from the piece on Bartholomew it could have been the same issue I had read the last time I opened this Sunday newspaper, on the train down to Westowe seven months ago. This morning I had showered in the club and I sat now in one of the worn armchairs in the clubhouse bar. A draft stole around the windows and the wooden sash frames rattled from time to time. Outdoors the sky wept into the estuary. Grey clouds sweeping in from the sea had lowered the ceiling over Westowe, lopping off Grise Head and obliterating the horizon beyond. At the estuary moorings, which had been empty all winter, boats now rocked side-by-side in trots of three and four. Rain slanted through the green leaves and rippled in floods down the grey slate tiles of the houses. It was gone twelve but the grille over the club bar was still locked. The housekeeper, Mrs Dolally-Whatsit, had opened the club, but only Charlie and his employees could unlock the bar. I hadn’t seen a soul that morning except for the white-haired old dear who worked in the newsagent on Sunday mornings. She might have been the same one who was there when I was a boy. People lived a long time in Westowe. Apart from the ones who disappeared. Perhaps. I reached down into my kit bag, pulled out my blue Guernsey and wrestled it over my head.

“Where is he?” Through the weave of the Guernsey against the ceiling light I saw an inflated yellow Mr Blobby. When I pulled the jumper down under my chin I saw it was Superbloke in his yellow oilies. His boots were yellow, too, streaked with engine grease and he was puddling the carpet.

“Congratulations,” I said. He looked at me as if I were mad. I pointed at the newspaper. “Your exhibition.”

“Wouldn’t you know?”

“Wouldn’t I know what?”

He gave a mad stare that reminded me of someone. Colonel Meeker. “Some people always seem to win out.”

“You mean Angie?”

“Angie. Bartholomew.”

“Angie deserves a break. Bartholomew may be dead.”

“Dead or not, they just always win out in the end. Luck of the draw. People like you.”

“What have I got to do with it?”

He heaved his shoulders in a kind of bitter laugh, like Ted Heath suppressing an orgasm. “You and Angie can start your little bistro in the castle now. Where’s Charlie?”

“Disappeared into a black hole, I reckon.” Superbloke looked shocked. I babbled on. “Entropy, I put it down to. There was a time this bar would have been heaving at five past twelve on a Sunday afternoon. Now, they haven’t even set the twiglets and cheese cubes out yet. It’s all going to hell in a handbasket. So I reckon Charlie’s gone with it.”

While I was saying this Superbloke looked about, not listening. “I want a word with him.”

“You could always send him an E-mail.” Superbloke looked puzzled so I went fishing. “That’s how he conducts his property business, isn’t it? By E-mail.”

Superbloke surprised me. He sat down in one of the chairs and laid his chin on his fist and muttered, “Of course. E-mail. That’s the answer.”

As head of the Housekeeping Committee, Superbloke had introduced the one pound fine for wearing oilies in the carpeted rooms. “You won’t fetch a decent price for the club if the chairs are damp,” I said.

“The club’s not going to be sold,” he said.

“The EGM is next week. And I heard Spider’s power of attorney is pretty dubious.”

He looked at me for the first time. “Where did you hear that?”

“Charlie, I suppose,” I lied.

“Charlie talks too much. Anyway, you can scrub the EGM. The Gladwell consortium won’t be interested now.”

The use of the future tense was interesting, I thought. Or was it the future conditional? “Why not?”

“They aren’t, that’s all.”

“How do you know?”

Now Superbloke noticed the puddle at his feet for the first time. “I shouldn’t be wearing these in here.” He started taking his boots off.

I cast another line. “Is it because Nickers was backing Crowview?” Superbloke dropped his boot on the floor. His jaw followed it part way. “I’ve checked up on Crowview,” I said. “Two directors. You and Nickers. Of course his finances were not very liquid. But he was comfortable with money. That buys a lot of credit in the City.”

“Did Charlie tell you that, too?” Superbloke hopped on one foot, struggling out of his oilies. He didn’t see Charlie was standing in the doorway behind him, along with a sulky kid who looked like Simon with a bigger set of ears and a bad case of acne.

“Did I tell him what?” asked Charlie.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” I said. “I’m sure it was you.”

Superbloke stepped up to Charlie with his oilies gathered in his arms. “I’d like a word with you.”

“This is Paul,” said Charlie. “Simon’s kid brother. He’s going to take over for Simon.”

“Hi, Paul,” I said. “Got a joint?

“That’s not funny,” said Charlie. But the kid smirked.

“Where is everybody today?” I asked Charlie.

“Everybody in the village is busy trying to open a wine bar in their lounge or a car park in their front garden. With all this publicity about Angie’s exhibition, the grockles will be swarming here rain or shine.”

“So, let’s open the membership rolls,” I said. “And the bar.”

“I’d like a word with you now, Charlie.” Superbloke was still holding his wet oilies like an offering.

Charlie nodded. He fumbled with his keys and dropped them twice on the floor before the bar grille raised with a cheering clatter. He and Superbloke went out to the club office while I taught Paul how to pull beer.

I went for a pee and strolled past the closed office door. On my first pass I heard Charlie’s raised voice: “So that’s what you’re up to, you son of a bitch.”

On my second slow trawl a few minutes later I heard Superbloke bellow: “So that’s what you’re up to, you bastard.” Match drawn. They lowered their voices.

People started to drift into the bar and soon it was busy. Charlie didn’t resurface, so I gave Paul a hand behind the bar. He was grateful. “If you want to score,” he said, “stay away from my brother.”

“I’m not likely to go visit him in the slammer.”

Paul laughed at me. “He’s not going to the slammer.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a grass, innhee.”

Later Spider pitched up. I had had a few by that time, so in a corner isolated by the wall of noise around us I told him about my recurrent dream. I am scuba-diving in The Devil’s Frying-pan. A shimmer of white light leaks down from the surface, as through a cathedral window. And the bodies start to float up: Meekers, Bartholomew, Nickers, Maire and various other people, including my father. He grasps my hand and drags me down into the mouth of an undersea cave.

Spider snorted. “And then you woke up, and it was Rabbit pulling you down under the bedclothes.”

“What do you know about Rabbit?”

“All the village knows. Except Eddy Starr. And he’s the one you don’t want to know. He’s sort of sweet on her. Asks her to marry him at least once a year.”

“Is that why Eddy’s been on my case?”

“Apart from the odd outboard motor theft we don’t get a lot of crime down here. Eddy’s got too much time to think.” Spider yawned and rubbed his eyes. “I read somewhere that the key to interpreting a dream is how you felt emotionally about what was happening.”

“I felt very alone. Wanting to help, but unable to. Things were just happening and there was nothing I could do to change them. But I felt it was my fault.”

Spider grimaced. “That’s no dream. That’s life.”

“So what do you make of it?”

“I think it’s a pretty good theory.”

“What theory?”

“About where the bodies are.”

“You think Colonel Meeker and Nickers are dead?”

“Neither of them has sent me a postcard.”

“There’s a couple of things I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

The untroubled blue eyes looked straight at me over his pint. “Try me.”

“Why were Pixie and Poxy so interested in you?”

“Who?”

“Those two black hats.”

“Mutt and Jeff with the ponytails?”

“They wanted me to keep an eye on you.”

“I reckon they’re Customs & Excise. They’ve been on my back ever since I went to Corsica. Of course I couldn’t tell them why I went there.”

“I had a watching brief from Angie as well.”

Spider cast his eyes down, then looked up with a wry smile. “Angie always likes to know what her menfolk are up to. Haven’t you noticed?”

“Her menfolk?”

“You. Me. All the fellas who sit around under her skirts.”

“Haven’t seen you there lately.”

“Nor I you. Still, she knows we’ll come when she whistles.”

“Remember what you told me the night Nickers went missing?”

“I don’t remember much about that night. Until the Coast Guard bleep went off.”

“You seemed to have recovered quickly.”

“Was that your question?”

“You told me Matty was Angie’s daughter. And I was the father.”

“Could have been,” Spider answered.

“Well I’m not.”

“Apparently not,” said Spider.

“Only I found out too late. Did Angie put you up to that? To steer me off Matty?”

Spider grinned. “Life’s not fair, is it? Still, maybe it was for the best for you, Matty going off like that.”

“With that male sex object?”

“Lothar? I hadn’t noticed,” said Spider. “But even if you’re not her father, there’s nothing to prove she wasn’t Angie’s daughter. You don’t want to go soiling her doorstep, do you?”

“Angie never had a child.”

“I have me sources, I do.” said Spider. When Spider slipped into simple fisher-folk mode it was like a dogfish blowing up and erecting its spines. It drew my blood.

“What about the letter then?”

“What letter?”

“The one I saw you drop in the letter box the day Colonel Meeker went missing.”

“Mam’s allowed me to post letters by myself for a long time now.”

“I didn’t know folk who spoke like you could write.”

Spider’s eyes flashed and he stopped rolling his Rs. “So what’s so important about this bloody letter?”

“It was his Last Will and Testament.”

Spider frowned. “Thick business letter with a yellow stamp on it. Picture of a jug?”

“That’s it.”

“I picked it up from Charlie’s office. I stop by there generally when I’m going by. Rabbit sometimes asks me to pop something in the post.”

“So she gave it to you?”

“No. Charlie did. It was addressed to a firm somewhere in the Home Counties.”

“A legal firm? Nailem, Stickit and Whatsit? Something like that?”

“Who?”

I pulled out my pocket diary and checked. “Naylor, Strickman and Plummer.”

“Could be.”

“Colonel Meeker’s solicitors. They sent the letter of complaint about your Britannia nonsense.”

“Right. That came out in the enquiry.”

“You knew before that.”

“Never.”

“Didn’t Charlie show you their letter?”

“Charlie likes to play things pretty close to his chest.” Spider squinted at me. “So, do I pass the inquisition?”

“I’d still like to know how you can be drunk as a skunk before nine p.m. and playing action man hero a couple of hours later.”

“Two glasses of water and fall straight into bed. Wake up clear as a bell every time.”

“So you didn’t go for a cruise with Dinny after you left the pub that night?”

“Dinny tell you that?”

“You know Dinny always says exactly what you tell him to say.”

“Well I didn’t tell him to say that.”

“I saw him going out that night, heading west towards The Devil’s Frying-pan.”

“Well, you didn’t see me with him.”

“No, I didn’t know you were on board until the next day.”

Spider shot me a probing look and then smiled. “You’re fishing. Still it ties in with your theory.”

“How do you figure that? Lord Nick and Colonel Meeker were both lost east of the Devil’s Coat-tails. They wouldn’t likely wash into the Frying-pan, unless there was a strong westerly spring tide. And wind behind it.”

“It was top of the springs when they both disappeared,” said Spider.

“Westerly tides?”

“No, going east. And the wind was out of the west when Colonel Meeker disappeared, southerly when Grace of God ran into the bar.”

“You made a point of checking all that out?”

“It’s my job to know these things.”

“It’s impossible then.”

“Aye. Exactly what somebody would want you to think. So you’d never look there.”

“You think they were killed?”

Spider pulled on his beard. “I’m thinking consciously what your brain has been teasing subconsciously. Namely, it’s damned strange their bodies haven’t turned up.”

“And what about Bartholomew’s body?”

“Aye. There’s a thing.”

“You don’t believe it was Bartholomew?”

“Bartholomew’s the cipher.”

“Even if it wasn’t his corpse, he could still be dead.”

Spider looked me straight in the eye. “Maybe we’d find out if we took a dip in the Frying-pan.”

“You can’t dive in the Frying-pan.”

“Aye. At slack water. If there’s not too much swell.”

“You’ve done it?”

“Just the once. And you’re right about one thing. There is a cave down there. Down deep. If you weighted a body, when it inflated and rose it would just bump against the ceiling.” Spider drained his pint.

“Fancy another?” I asked.

“Fancy a dive some dark night? That is, if you trust me as your buddy.” He gave me a crooked smile and held out his empty glass.


Sunday, 19th June

Off Sheepshead Point the wind failed completely. We had no wake. The sails hung like flags of surrender, flapping only with the listless roll of an oiled swell. Over the past hour a high, thin scrim of haze had drawn across the cloudless sky, and the sun grew larger behind it, radiating large white circles, like one of Bartholomew’s op art paintings. The smooth mahogany of the cockpit of the Amaryllis was warm to the touch. I took my arm off the tiller and it didn’t wobble. I secured it with a couple of pegs either side, pulled off my T-shirt and set the brim of my hat lower against the glare. Seaward, there was nothing in view except the wavering ghost of a coaster’s superstructure suspended on the horizon. Landward, a couple of miles away, the shoreline crept westwards at less than a knot. I judged there was current enough to keep us from drifting in towards the dark spine of rocks slithering out from the headland like a sea-going serpent, The Devil’s Coat-tails.

“We’re not going to get home before dark,” I said. Midnight was more likely, but I thought I would break it to her gently.

Angie swung her legs down from the coachroof, where she had been lying in the sun. “There’s no one waiting up for me at home,” she said, and then she took off her eyeshade, fluffed her dark hair with her hands, and slipped her T-shirt over her head. She was wearing nothing now but a pair of long yellow shorts which reached halfway down her brown thighs. Her breasts were heavier than I remembered and pale where they had been kept from the sun. “Fancy a drink?” she asked.

“What’s on offer?”

“Tea? A beer?”

I stared at her breasts. “Which is which?”

Angie did something I hadn’t seen her do in a quarter of a century — she stuck her tongue out at me. “What is it about women’s breasts that turns men into schoolboys?”

“Perhaps because we spent most of our schooldays thinking about them.”

She cupped a hand under each breast and inspected them, and then, without removing her hands gazed up at me. She looked like a statue of a Roman priestess. “Today, you’ll just have to get used to them.”

“I’d like that.”

She went down into the galley. I sat in the sun and thought about her and her body the way I had for long hours on endless summer days in the past. She came up through the hatchway, carrying a tray of tea and biscuits, her breasts nodding above them, a warming visual pleasure. I was getting used to them. She sat down against the cabin bulkhead with her back to the sun and stretched out her legs on the seat. They were not white and veined like Rabbit’s, but firm and smooth, the colour of the tea we sipped from the Cornish Ware mugs.

She closed her eyes and said, “Why do the English drink hot tea on a day like this?”

“Because there’s never any ice.”

“These days there is. I’ve even got an ice-maker.”

“In your heart?”

She opened her eyes and smiled at me. “In my fridge.” She closed her eyes again and we both listened to the gentle slap of the water against the hull.

I spoke first. “Your exhibition has turned Westowe into a boom town.”

“It’s a mixed blessing.”

“Not when you consider the alternative. Why do you suppose Superbloke was keen to arrange that loan on the castle for you?”

“You oughtn’t to call him that.”

“Superbloke? We all call him that.”

“Not since we’ve grown up, if you’ve noticed. He hates you for it.”

“He controls Crowview Limited, that company that advanced you the loan. He and Lord Nick together. Did you know that?”

“I knew Malcolm wasn’t being charitable. But Nick? He spoke out so strongly in favour of saving the club.”

“I think Nickers was genuinely conflicted.”

“Poor Nick. He always aimed to do right, but never quite managed it when the chips were down.”

“He was burning the family furniture to keep warm. So he put in with Superbloke, who wanted to get his paws on the castle. He knew if the exhibition lost money, you’d have to default on the loan. He wanted it to fail.”

“No one thought it would be successful. You didn’t. Be honest.”

“I hoped it would be. But like everyone I expected to see just pictures. I didn’t know about the Madonna.”

“If you had, you would have thought I was bonkers.”

“Probably.”

“That’s what Malcolm thought. Of course, he said it was magnificent. He went right over the top. That’s how I knew he thought otherwise.”

“You were very brave.”

“No, I thought it probably was bonkers, too.”

“But you put the castle at risk, your entire future security. If the exhibition failed, Superbloke would have foreclosed. With the castle in his pocket he could have cut a sweetheart deal with Gladwell, the property developers who wanted to buy the club. He must have promised it to them, because without the castle waterfront property the club is worth very little. With it, it’s a bonanza.”

“I didn’t like putting the club at risk.”

“You knew about Superbloke’s agenda, then?”

“Spider suspected he was up to something. We didn’t know what. But I told Spider I had to go ahead with it. He was very disappointed in me.”

“Why did the exhibition matter so much to you?”

“Call it loyalty. Our life together was often hell, but — .” Angie looked out to sea then leaned back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes. She seemed to go into a trance. “But I was always loyal to the concepts that held us together so long. The belief that life is tragic, that a man’s spiritual reward is the keeping of his faith, that we shouldn’t hurt each other.”

“You’ve memorised that.”

“It’s a quote. Zelda wrote that to Scott Fitzgerald. It’s like that loving an artist.”

She had been married to him for a quarter of a century, but somehow I had never taken her relationship with Bartholomew seriously. I had not confronted the depth of her passion. I felt unreasoned anger towards her, the way I used to feel about Maire. I said nothing. I fixed my eyes on the horizon and returned my hand to the tiller, which required no control. That was enough for her to sense my anger. She was a woman.

“That love is gone,” she said. “But the Madonna has a deeper meaning for both of us. Something which still binds us together.”

She did not go on. “What meaning?” I had to ask.

“I can’t tell you.”

“You mean you can’t explain it?”

“No. I mean I can’t tell you.”

“So, exhibiting the Madonna was a last throw of the dice. If Bartholomew’s alive, what better way to lure him back? Turn him into an icon.”

“You’re angry with me. There’s no reason to be.”

“It makes you a kind of parasite.”

Angie smiled. “Epiphyte,” she corrected.

“Hmm?”

“You see them in the tropics. Some orchids, for example. It’s an air plant which grows on trees. It depends on them for physical support, and the odd pocket of moisture it finds in its branches, but it makes its own food. Parasites feed on their hosts.” She opened one eye at me. “Like your penfriend, Matty.”

“Got it. You’re an orchid. Matty’s a cuckoo.”

“I believe you’ll find some epiphytes in the Tresco gardens in the Scillies.”

I flinched. “You saw her postcard.”

Angie quoted from it: “’Marooned on a grockle-covered island while the engine’s repaired.’”

“Nickers must have been feeding it recreational substances.”

“And then, ‘The Great Dane sulks. Wish you were here.’”

“‘Sucks. ‘The Great Dane sucks.’ If you must read other people’s mail, at least do it properly.”

“You planned for me to see it.”

“It was pinned to the bulkhead. You couldn’t read it without taking it down.”

“Irresistible to an intuitive woman.” The boat’s heading had wavered and the sun was in her eyes. She shifted to the starboard side of the cockpit and sat with her toes brushing against my bare leg. She closed her eyes again. “Parasites often have a variety of hosts, moving from one to another. And the host gets nothing out of the relationship.”

“Meaning Bartholomew. Me. Spider. The Great Dane.”

“And she’s not thirty yet.”

The swell had fallen. The sea was a taut mirror reflecting the whiteness of the sky. I took up the binoculars and scanned a 360-degree circle. The freighter had disappeared up-Channel, and two tiny diamonds of sail notched the horizon where it had been. A moving dot glinted far in the distance off the port quarter, probably a powerboat. Miles above it, something nebulous was reaching for the stratosphere, a streak of heavy white impasto applied with a scraper that had been used for a sea colour and not cleaned properly.

Again I spoke first. “What will you do if Bartholomew never reappears?”

She did not open her eyes. “What will I do if he does?”

“You don’t know?”

“We’re not like you men, you know. We don’t need to have a plan. We react. We trust our instincts.”

“That can lead you into a lot of trouble.”

“If you’re a man. Male instincts are different.”

“So you reckon that’s why men have got to plan.”

“Of course. You need to build a structure. A bridge. A cathedral. A business. A club. Hierarchies and rituals to keep you pegged down. Otherwise you lurch about like loose cannon, following your erections. I wouldn’t trust your instincts for a minute if I were you.”

“I’m beginning to learn not to do everything John Thomas tells me.”

She reached for a bright red seat cushion which had been lying in the sun. It was scorching and she paddled it between her hands like a hot pancake before placing it against the bulkhead and leaning her shoulders back against it. Throughout this performance her boobs swung and rocked like grapefruit in a breeze.

She closed her eyes again. Trusting me not to come over and taste the fruit. Or inviting me to. “It’s not just what one does,” she added. “It’s what one fails to do. What Mam Meersman calls ‘sins of omission.’”

John Thomas stirred, but so did painful memories. “When we broke up I omitted to tell you I was leaving Westowe.”

Without opening her eyes, Angie replied, “I told you, I’ve forgotten that.”

“I also omitted something about Maire,” I said.

Angie’s eyes opened now. In alarm. She would never be able to suppress the thought that I might have killed my wife. Or was it just concern for me her eyes reflected?

“I don’t mean I pushed her,” I said. “But I could have prevented it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Camus wrote a whole book about it. ‘The Fall.’ A man walks past a woman standing on a bridge. He hears a splash. He knows she has jumped. But he does nothing to save her. It is his fall as well as hers.”

“You don’t think she committed suicide?”

“No, I think I did. I was angry with her because I knew — I had this belief — she had betrayed me. And feeling sorry for myself. I marched on ahead of her. Not waiting. Not looking back. And she called out to me. She said ‘Wait’. Perhaps she was tired, or had stumbled, or couldn’t see properly. I didn’t turn round. I kept on going. She would have been hurrying after me when she slipped. In that moment I wished her dead.”

Angie crossed her arms as if she were chilled. After a moment she said. “That was unkind, and thoughtless. Childish. But it wasn’t manslaughter.”

I had a great lump in my throat. I was as near to crying as I had been since the last time I had been punched in the playground. “It was my fault.”

Angie came over to me. I pushed the tiller over and made room for her in the corner of the cockpit. My hand was on the tiller and she put her hand over it. “Possibly. Maybe it would have happened anyway. But the only thing you’re guilty of is being uncharitable.”

I had defeated the tear ducts, but the soreness was still in my throat, making it hard to speak. “That’s your great strength,” I managed. “Being charitable.”

Angie frowned, as she always did when she was thinking hard. “I think that’s what being human is all about. As Zelda says, we shouldn’t hurt each other. Otherwise, nothing works. But you’ve got to be charitable to yourself as well. If you’ve done something wrong — or failed to do something right — you’ve got to forgive yourself, too.”

“You speak as though there are no evil people in the world.”

“There has never been an evil infant. It’s not in our nature, but in our circumstances.”

She reached over to fetch the scarlet cushion, her heavy boobs dangling, plumped it behind her and leaned against me. I smelled her fragrance, a summery breath of clean soap, flowers and sun tan cream. I bent my face into the paler cushion of her bosom, and, with reverence, kissed her right nipple. She did not resist. As I moved to the next Angie sat up, and shaded her eyes with her hand. “We’ve got company,” she said and stood up.

Fifty metres off the starboard bow a huge white plastic spaceship hovered on the surface of the water, its bridge towering half the height of our mast, the two great coal-black cojones hanging off its stern throbbing idly in the sea. The figure on the bridge in white shorts and polo shirt and gold-braided officer’s cap was Malcolm Goodfellow, incarnated as Superbloke. In the vast cockpit were a young couple, a number of children and a yapping dog, all admiring Angie’s pale tits.

“Ahoy, Amaryllis.” Superbloke was in sea captain mode.

“Ahoy Thunderbucket,” I hollered back, for that was the name of the vessel.

“You’ll be hours getting in. Do you want a tow?”

“No thanks. The current’s starting to rise now.”

“Squalls imminent according to the forecast. There’s something building up over there.” Superbloke pointed towards the opaque smudge on the horizon. It was bigger now.

Superbloke was showing off for his crew of holiday-makers. “That’s why we’ve got sails,” I shouted.

“I suppose you can always radio the harbourmaster if you change your mind.”

“Haven’t got a radio. Only for listening to ‘The Archers’.”

“Right.” Superbloke’s face darkened for a moment, then he smiled, waved and blew a kiss to Angie. “Toodle-oo then.” The engines gargled, he spun the hundred-and-fifty-thousand pound plastic bucket on its axis and roared off in the direction of Westowe. The passengers gripped the handrails and waved at us with their free hands, except for the dog which fell over into the cockpit howling.

Sails shuddering, the Amaryllis rocked in the wake. I felt some tension on the tiller, the genoa snapped full and the mainsail stopped luffing. Ripples appeared in the sea and a foam path began to form astern. By the time Superbloke’s power boat had dwindled to the size of a waterbug, the Amaryllis was gliding forward smartly, sails bending into a gentle breeze from the port quarter.

“I didn’t know Superbloke had that kind of cash,” I said.

“He doesn’t. He’s selling yachts for the boatyard on commission,” says Angie. The teacups were sliding about the cockpit. She stowed her boobs within her T-shirt and cleared the tea mugs away below decks.

We should have accepted Superbloke’s tow. After an hour the wind dropped again and we drifted until dusk. We watched the lights of Westowe wink on as the current swept us past the harbour entrance two or three miles offshore. I was ready to take a tow from anyone now, but the sea was empty. A vast tower of greying cloud rose from the horizon.

We added layers of clothing as darkness fell, and after I lit the kerosene running lamps, I went below to make some hot soup. As we drank it, the temperature suddenly dropped. The sun had long since disappeared beneath the horizon but in the fading light we saw it redden the lofty tip of a streak of pasty white gouache that descended through dirty shades of grey to black where it touched the sea. A massive cumulonimbus cloud had marched in from the south-west. A roar of thunder rolled beneath it and set the sea trembling. We put on our oilies and linked up the safety harnesses. The no. 1 genoa jibsail was still up and Angie took the tiller while I went forward to change it. I reached down through the forward hatch and grabbed the smaller no. 2 jibsail off its hook. The boat heaved just then. I squinted at the sky and it was full of fast-moving black clouds. I dropped the no. 2 jibsail back through the hatch and grabbed the tiny storm jib instead. I closed the hatch and locked it and scrambled up to the bow. And then the squall hit.

The first blast of wind knocked the Amaryllis flat on her side. I heard a cry from the cockpit as I was flung against the rails of the pulpit. Sea water slapped into my face and poured down my neck. The Amaryllis rose again and I got to my knees, grabbed the foot of the flapping genoa and raised it over my head. Seawater was rushing over the gunwales, but through sheets of rain Angie gave me a thumbs-up from the cockpit. She turned the boat into the wind, and let go the halyard. I collapsed the jenny, fought it flapping to the deck by falling on it, and somehow bent the storm jib on to the forestay. Angie raised the halyard, snugged it and sheeted in tight and we bore off the wind, heeling at a crazy angle.

I threw both arms around the mainmast and hauled myself up on the pitching coachroof to reef the mainsail. It was completely dark now, and I relied on blind motor memory. I looped the lanyard of my safety harness around the mast, clipped it and braced myself against the upwind side of the boom. I released my grip on the mast, found the winch handle in its shoe, worked it on to the roller reefing gear and, with my other hand, freed and took a purchase on the main halyard. Just then the Amaryllis lurched violently and pitched me on my back on to the deck. I managed to hold on to the halyard and pulled myself on to my knees. A beam of light focused on me and then moved to the reefing winch. Angie had found the torch. The winch handle was still in place.

“About,” I shouted to her and she pointed the helm again. The Amaryllis came around slowly into the wind, the violent sideways pitching stopped and she started to yaw, forward and back. Both sails were cracking like artillery fire now, but the mainsail was slack and I was able to roll it one, two, two-and-a half turns around the boom, leaving the winch at each half-turn to move sternwards to furl the sail, holding on with the halyard turned around a mast cleat in one hand and my other arm circled round the boom. The flapping faltered; the great white bird was tethered. I tied off the halyard and without waiting for my signal Angie put her helm up and the boat came off the wind. My feet got caught up in the no. 1 genoa, thrashing about on the deck. I lashed it any-old-how onto the guardrail and dropped back into the cockpit. The Amaryllis was steady now and running on a beam reach into pitch darkness, broken only by the green and red glass rods of rain flickering around the running lights.

I couldn’t see Angie’s face, but I put my arm around her and hugged her. “Great job, sailor.”

Angie shouted in my ear. “Where are we?”

“On the wrong tack. The wind came up from the south-west. We must be running straight into shore. And we don’t know where.”

“We’d better put in a tack.”

“Aye.” I looked behind. The seas were very short. Going into the wind could be dangerous. “You know how to release the life raft?” Angie nodded. “And the flares are in the lazarette, in a plastic con­tainer.”

“A flare went up while you were up forward.”

“Where?

“East.”

“Good. The lifeboat will be out,” I shouted. “We may need it.”

We braced ourselves for the tack. The Amaryllis was hurtling ahead like a galloping bronco. We were in a cross-sea with waves colliding from all directions. We would have to rein her in and career off 180 degrees without shipping water over the stern.

“Ready about,” I said. And then I saw a steady pinpoint of light. It vanished as the prow of the Amaryllis smashed through a big wave. But when she crested the next, the light returned. And there was a second one above it. “Christ. We’re lucky. There’s the leading lights.”

“Where?”

The lights kept coming and going, obscured by the waves, the running gear or the headsail, but growing steadily larger and more constant as we crashed towards them. All we had to do to guide us safely home was to keep one positioned atop the other.

“Is that my imagination or is the wind slackening?” asked Angie.

“She’s steadier now. I can hold course better. We’re dead on transit now.” But something was strange. I had that awful feeling that nags you at sea that you are actually making a huge mistake. Like having read the compass heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

“The lights seem awfully close,” said Angie.

“Good thing. I could use a drink.”

“Shouldn’t we see the lights of the village by now?”

That was it. There should be a sprinkling of other lights on the hills. Something was obscuring them. The heavy rain?

“What’s that?” The light beam of Angie’s torch was playing on the tossing waters off the starboard quarter. I caught a flash of a dark, humped shape. I shot a glance up forward. The leading lights were still perfectly aligned.

“We’re spot in the channel. It must be something floating,” I shouted.

Angie’s torch caught it again. “I can read some letters. H —A — something.” She looked at me, very scared. “It’s the Harestone buoy.”

The Harestone buoy marked the end of The Devil’s Coat-tails. If the object on our starboard side were the Harestone Buoy, we were on the wrong side of it, careering straight into The Devil’s Frying-pan.

I screamed at Angie. “It can’t be the fucking Harestone Buoy.” I pointed forward at the leading lights winking in the distance. They seemed very close now. “We’re right on transit.”

We were abreast of the object now, and the word HARE appeared in white letters in the beam of the torch.

Angie grabbed my elbow and screamed, “Put in a tack.”

I shook my head. “The buoy must have broken loose.” Even as I said it I knew how unlikely that was. I pointed up at the leading lights to reassure myself. And then the upper one on High Tor disappeared.


The Most Interesting Day of My Summer Holidays by Ernest Golden

Ernest was wakened by a thought. It hung in the darkness over the foot of his bed, a fragment torn from the grey skirts of morning draped over the chest of drawers, his toy box and the open bedroom door. A horse clip-clopped down the hill and he heard the rag-and-bone man sing “Any-old-iron.” A tram clanged over on Donaldson Avenue. A motor car hummed past the window on rubber tyres and a yellow square departed from the window frame to shuttle about the room where the walls met the ceiling.

Then he remembered the thought. It wasn’t his birthday, but he had been very good lately. He jumped out of bed on the spur of the thought, quickly, before his courage withered. He did not stop to put on his slippers but passed through the door and down the long, black hall as swiftly and silently as an elf, into the sitting room. Darkness squatted in the corners and it was stiller than outdoors. If he turned on a light his parents might wake up. Ernest curled up in his armchair by the window, tucking his bare feet under him, and waited for the daylight.

Nothing happened for a long time. Then there was a thin noise scraping up the pavement. In the light of the street lamp Ernest saw a big boy in a worn blue leather jacket coming towards him, rattling a stick on the railings. The boy was coming from below Norman Street. Ernest could not cross Norman Street by himself. He could go left outside of his house as far as the avenue, or he could cross over to Muriel’s and Jack’s in the other direction, or up the hill as far as the park. He went there sometimes with Father to ride on the swings but he could not go inside the park by himself. Down the hill he could go only as far as the sweet shop on the corner where he got his football cards. Sometimes he had seen the big bad boys standing on the opposite corner. Twice he had seen them cross Norman Street and go into his sweet shop and he had gone back up his street where it was safer. Once he had seen them take a small boy’s football cards. They loved to make fun of small boys and they might even kill one if he didn’t keep out of their way.

Somewhere below Norman Street was where the Teddy Boys lived. Mother had told him about the Teddy Boys and Ernest had been on the lookout for them. He could close his eyes and see them coming out of their cave laughing and shoving and calling loudly to each other. Maybe they would carry clubs. Surely they would kill any small boy in their path. They were called Teddy Boys because they lived in caves like bears.

When his mother came into the living room she found Ernest on his hands and knees peering under the sofa, his bare soles sticking our from under his dressing gown with the pictures of Noddies on it. He was too ashamed to tell her what he had been waiting for. At the end of his radio programme, Uncle Mac always told kids where to find surprises under the furniture in the morning. He had never told Ernest where to look, but he looked almost every morning as soon as it was light enough. It would be a shame to leave a present lying under the sofa for days. But he had never found anything except some of his own marbles. Maybe the cleaning woman found them and took them.

Mother was happy today and they had breakfast together on the balcony. Ernest liked to eat there on summer mornings with the sun warming the table and making his eyes squint. Mother put on the white dress he liked best of all. She looked pretty with her bare brown arms, and she would wear her big straw hat with the flower on it. He knew it was going to be a wonderful day. And tomorrow his father was going to take him to watch the toy yachts race in the lake in the park.

Uncle Tom’s car was dark green and had an extra metal tyre on the boot. It was Ernest’s job to stand on the corner of Donaldson Avenue and Tudor Street and keep a lookout for it, while Mother window-shopped. But she never bought anything.

In the newspaper at the newsagents, there was a big picture of a man sitting in a car and in big black letters, ‘The Mad Axeman’. Mother said he was a bad man, and to go back to the corner and look for Uncle Tom’s car. It was dark green and had a metal tyre on the boot, but Mother always saw it first.

A new bucket and spade for Ernest were on the back seat of Uncle Tom’s car. Uncle Tom was nice because he always brought a present, but he was not nice because he did not talk much to Ernest. On the way to the beach, at a roundabout, they stopped next to a man in an old car. The man looked at him. It was the Mad Axeman. Ernest told Mother. The man saw him pointing. The man looked as though he were going to pick an axe off the seat of his car. But Mother just laughed, and Uncle Tom drove them safely away. Ernest kept a lookout at the back window all the way to the beach, but he didn’t see the car anymore. He saw four other cars with Teddy Boys in them. Was the Mad Axeman the leader of the Teddy Boys?

They walked about ten miles down the beach until the last umbrella was just an orange speck in the distance behind them. Ernest had to put his sandals on because the sand scorched his feet. This was the lonely part of the beach, but Ernest liked it best. If the Teddy Boys came you could see them a long way off, and you would have time to run and hide in the tall dune grass.

The water was further out than Ernest had ever seen it before. He took his new bucket and spade, and Mother told him to wear his shirt because he didn’t want to get sunburned again. Down where the pebbles ended he took off his sandals and walked across the hard-packed sand. It was cool between his toes. There were little squirts of water from animals buried in the sand. They lived in shells and had no claws, but you could not catch them no matter how fast you dug.

At the edge of the water Ernest sat down and began to build a sand castle with his new bucket and spade. This was a castle in which a beautiful princess was held captive. She wore a white dress and she was a sea shell. She had been locked up by a bad ogre twenty-five years ago. The walls of the castle had turrets which were guarded by the Teddy Boys. The Mad Axeman was the ogre. He lived with his moll in a little bungalow in front of the main gate where two dragons were kept chained in the yard.

The castle was surrounded by a moat full of little pieces of black shell which were poisonous cockroaches. On top of the castle was a blockhouse where the princess was kept chained up and a high tower where the Mad Axeman went up with a telescope to keep a lookout for his enemies coming across the plain. He kept a pile of seaweed on a ledge around the tower to throw down at his enemies. If it touched you it would turn you to salt. Ernest placed the seaweed carefully on the ledge with his spade without touching it with his fingers.

He was too hot in his shirt. He stood up. He could see the beach things way up on the sand near the dunes, but he could not see Mother and Uncle Tom. He decided it would be all right if he took off his shirt for a little while.

Ernest mounted his white horse and approached the castle along a ditch he had dug so that the ogre could not spot him from the tower. He parked his horse under a hill and burrowed up through the sand to spy. He could hear the princess singing. The ogre was dropping seaweed on some of his men who were asleep at their posts. A small wave lapped against the first outer wall on the seaward side of the castle.

Then the prince had a plan. He would call up a storm from the ocean to destroy the castle. Then, while the Mad Axeman and the Teddy Boys were trying to patch up the walls, he would throw his spade across the moat, and dash in and save the princess.

He dug a long trench out to where the water was and waited, squinting into the glare of the sun on the sea. Finally the waves began their slow attack. The outer walls were breached, one by one. The waves spilled into the moat. The cockroaches were trapped by cave-ins. Now the waves hammered at the main walls of the castle. A whole section of wall slid into the ocean. Around came a repair crew of Teddy Boys. Some of the Teddy Boys, who were mussel shells, were washed overboard. The Mad Axeman, a dead sand crab, came to investigate. The waters met around the castle and the Mad Axeman’s moll, a chunk of green bottle glass, was drowned in her cottage. The dragons, two charred bits of stick, were carried out to sea. The Teddy Boys retreated to the Mad Axeman’s lookout tower and began building new walls, leaving the princess alone in the crumbling blockhouse. Now was the time to strike. Ernest laid his spade across the moat.

The bottle cap that was the prince had disappeared. His horse, a bit of frayed white plastic, was gone, too. The hill and the ditch had been flattened by the tide. The blockhouse fell, and the princess with it. A giant wave broke over the castle, drenching Ernest. The Mad Axeman lay buried in the smooth ruins, one rigid claw beckoning from the sand.

Ernest stood up stiffly. The sun was too hot on his shoulders. Mother would be angry and he would have to sleep on his stomach tonight. He found his shirt and put it on even though it was wet and full of sand. He was hungry. It must be time for lunch. The hard sand he had walked across was pocked with shallow puddles. Beyond, waves rippled between Ernest and the beach. The dunes had moved about a mile up to the sea. The surf was now breaking above the pebbles, almost up to the striped beach towels. Mother and Uncle Tom were not there. The orange umbrella they had passed was gone. The beach was empty.

The sun had started downhill. It was way past lunchtime. You could not see the line where the sky met the sea. The miles of empty waves crowded in upon him, dying frothing at his feet. But a few yards on either side of him, they rolled on past to slap angrily at the dunes. He was marooned on a low, flat island of muddy sand. Its boundaries were shrinking as surely as the little castle had sunk into the ocean. The castle was now a memory, a smoothed mound revealed by each receding wave, but quickly drowned by the next.

Ernest called for his mother. He didn’t call for Uncle Tom. For one, it was an embarrassing thing to shout. For another, Uncle Tom would laugh and make fun of him as he came striding out through the water to pluck him from the waves. He really wasn’t very nice.

Ernest called five times for his mother. Then he began to walk across the flats, jumping over the little rivers of water where he could, splashing through the larger lakes. He was a giant in a flooded countryside. In one place the water came halfway to his knees.

Ernest stopped at the edge of the deep channel separating him from the beach. Here was a real moat. Sharp-fanged fish and poisonous reptiles might lurk beneath its choppy waters, and there was no drawbridge to span it. He called five more times, as loudly as he could. The birds on the flats heard him, and echoing his squeals, skimmed across the widening trench to strut and peck safely on the shore.

Then Ernest remembered his new bucket and spade. He looked behind him and saw only open sea. He ran back, splashing through knee-deep water, veering off in a new direction each time the bottom sloped downwards. He could not find the place he had come from. The new bucket and spade were lost.

Ernest hurried back towards the beach. The dented landscape the giant trod was now treacherously obscured. Twice the waves pushed him to his knees, soaking him. He could tell he had reached the edge of the moat only because that was where the white horses were rearing. He stopped and called five more times. The sea tugged at his knees.

No one came. Now the birds flew off, chattering without concern. He would have to cross the deep water by himself now or he would drown with the Mad Axeman and the others. He took one step forward, fearful for crabs underfoot and keeping a sharp lookout for fins breaking the surface of the tossing waters. The sea slapped at his chest.

Two more steps and a wave splashed over his shoulders. He hesitated, and his feet were grasped from behind and the green water seized him round the head, blinding his eyes with brine. The ocean floor came up to scrape his face and forearms, and the waves pressed him down, rolling him about, forcing deep swallows of salty water down his throat. Far above, through burning eyes, he glimpsed white breakers. Then somehow, he was up again, coughing, sputtering and running forward in slow motion.

The ground fell away and he shot straight down. The tides urged him back towards the deep caverns of the ocean while his lungs swelled with vast gulps of sea water. Things tangled round his ankles.

Then the sand came up beneath his feet again, his lungs sucked air, and his legs were pushing forward. The next wave failed to throw him down, and soon he was thrashing his knees through the shallows. Crying and heaving and retching, he halted and looked behind. There was no sign in the unbroken miles of waves to mark the island he had left. He wondered what Mother would say about losing the new bucket and spade on the very day he got it.

The beach towels were wet and one of Mother’s sandals was half-buried in the damp sand. Ernest pulled all the beach things up the beach where the waves could not get at them. Had Mother and Uncle Tom been captured by the Teddy Boys? He decided to go for help. He walked along the crest of the dunes with the heavy load of beach things, the sawgrass whipping his legs, his feet disappearing into the loose sand with each step.

He found them in a sandy bowl scooped out of the dunes. They were lying close together. Uncle Tom had his arm around Mother. Ernest skidded down the slope into the little hollow. His mother and Uncle Tom sat up quickly, saluting against the sun. Ernest decided not to tell his Mother how brave he had been. She should have been watching over him.

When they got out of the bath-house Mother did a very unusual thing. She gave Ernest money of his own and sent him into the white-boarded cafe by himself to buy whatever he wanted. He had a wimpy and a lemonade and an Eccles cake. He ate it all, chewing slowly but not really enjoying it, and still there were heavy coins in his pocket. He stood in front of the sweet counter for a while, but decided he should not waste any more of Mother’s money. Afterwards he sat in Uncle Tom’s car for a long time waiting for them to come out of the other restaurant.

They were all quiet on the drive home. Ernest looked for the Teddy Boys in the cars they passed, but he didn’t see any. Nobody said anything about the bucket and spade.

He was almost too tired to walk home. He wondered why Uncle Tom never drove them to the door. Ernest tried to remember if he had ever seen Uncle Tom in their flat.

Mother reminded him to tell his father, if he should ask, that Aunt Catherine had driven them to the beach, and not to say anything about seeing Uncle Tom. She always told him this just as they had turned the corner and could see the front door of their house. Father had never asked who had taken them to the beach. Aunt Catherine never took them. Wasn’t that a lie?

Mother stopped him with her hand on his shoulder and asked him if he had heard her. He did not say anything, looking past her at the lamp post. She made him look in her eyes. Her eyes looked hurt. Then she smiled. “How would you like to stay at the beach for the whole summer?”

Ernest opened his eyes wide. “Right on the beach?”

She laughed. “No. But right nearby. In Westowe.”

Ernest loved it when Mother laughed, but he stuck out his lower lip and scuffed his shoes on the pavement. They were almost new and she wouldn’t like that. “With Uncle Tom?”

“No, but he has a boy your age you could play with.”

Ernest looked down at the rough white scars on his shoes. His mother hadn’t noticed. “I don’t like Uncle Tom,” he said.

She stopped smiling. “Remember about Aunt Catherine,” she said, but he would not say anything. She took her hand from his shoulder and walked away up the street. Ernest was sorry then. He followed along behind her, balancing on the kerbstone.

Whenever Ernest had been bad his mother let him eat jam butties for supper, or bought him ice cream or comic books, and said, “This is for being bad.” It always made him feel sorry for being bad. So, when Mother said he didn’t have to eat in the kitchen, but could put his pyjamas on and sit at his little table in his bedroom, he knew he was being punished. She cooked him fish and chips even though she and Father were having something else for dinner. He chewed his food while the sun poured through the window on his plate bringing the sounds of the children still playing hard outdoors. Ernest listened to his radio programmes. His mother was angry at him for losing his new bucket and spade.

Ernest decided to be bad. Tomorrow he would cross Norman Street by himself. He would not give Mother the change from the wimpy and the drinks and the Eccles cake unless she asked for it. He would tell his father how he had been almost drowned in the ocean because she was not there. And that Uncle Tom was with her but did not help either. And how he learned to swim and save himself. That would hurt her and make his father proud of him.

Ernest was still awake when he heard his father at the front door. His shoulders burned and he had been lying on his stomach for a long time waiting for him. It was quite dark outside. The children had stopped playing and gone home. He got out of bed and went into the living room. He could not see his father’s face in the dark but his mother’s face was touched with the light from the hallway. Her eyes were hurt because he was out of bed, being naughty.

His father hoisted him up in the air and kissed him. Ernest struggled and turned his face away from the whiskers. His father had the strong smell, and he and mother would have a fight tonight.

“I want to tell you something,” said Ernest.

His mother said, “Your father won’t be able to take you to the park tomorrow. He has to go to work.”

Ernest whined. “You promised.” He did not like the sound of his own voice.

“We’ll go next weekend,” said his father. That is what he said when he didn’t want to do something with Ernest.

“The toy sailboat races on the pond are only tomorrow,” said Ernest.

“Then we can go play football,” his father said. Ernest did not like to play football, because his father got angry at him when the ball went between his legs. “What did you want to tell me?” his father asked.

Ernest looked at his mother. He did not feel like hurting her now. “I lost my new bucket and spade,” he said. But that wasn’t what he really wanted to tell him. It was a kind of lie, instead.

His father laughed. “That’s all right,” he said. “I’ll buy you another one.”

His father carried him back to bed and kissed him again with the strong smell. His mother came too and kissed him without saying anything and pulled the pink sheet up.

The strong smell woke Ernest. It was the same smell that came out of Cromarty’s in Westowe if you passed it and the doors were open. Someone was sitting on his bed. His father.

“I’m sorry about tomorrow,” he said. Then, “What was it you really wanted to tell me?” Ernest pretended he was asleep. He could not hate his mother now. If his father asked he would lie and say they had gone to the beach with Aunt Catherine. “Was it something about your mother?” Ernest squeezed his eyes tighter. His bed creaked and the mattress rose, his bedroom door opened and closed and the strong smell was gone. He could hear them shouting in the living room. He heard a loud slap. Then a crash. His mother screamed. His father was killing his mother. Ernest should go and stop him. But she had not come to save him at the beach. He did not move. He would try to see how long he could lie there without moving a muscle. Through the closed door he could her his mother sobbing.

Later, he smelled her perfume. Through the sobs her voice said, “You told him, didn’t you?” Ernest kept his eyes shut, so he could believe he was dreaming. His mother left without kissing him. The door opened and closed again and her fragrance was gone. The shouting began again.

The street outside was busy with traffic now. Ernest lay with his eyes open watching the yellow squares from the lights of the motor cars march around the corners of the room where the walls met the ceiling. He would not tell them how brave he had been. He decided he would not look for presents under the furniture anymore. Uncle Mac would never call his name. He would become bad. He would change his name to Teddy. If anybody ever left anything under the furniture for Ernest it would stay there forever and never be found, like his new bucket and spade.


Saturday, 25th June

The drowned river valley spread out below, the green folds of the hills rumpled like a counterpane. Behind lay its pillow, the moor, already shading into mauve in the distance. The River Dyn (Dinny’s surname, Dinsmore, is a corruption of Dynmoor; his ancestors have lived here for generations) rises near its centre from a peaty bog, the remains of aquatic plants which grew in the warm, moist climate of the vast swamps which covered Britain three hundred million years ago. When the tectonic plates which formed Europe grated together thirty million years ago, mountains thrust up here, carrying the swamp bed on their backs. The peat soaked up the deluge from the skies and from this height the water sought the level of the sea. Trickling down, it became a tumbling stream, then a river which chafed a gouge through the granite.

Later the land heaved again, the coastal areas submerged, and the sea flooded in to reclaim the estuary. Later still glaciers softened the mountains, grinding back and forth over the landscape four or five times over the next two million years. After the final retreat of the ice, about ten thousand years ago, the moor was covered in forest and the first nomadic people wandered here. The tiny stream of the Dyn supplied fresh water, the forest offered protection from the wind and provided firewood and branches to weave into hedges and fortifications. The wanderers pried the abundant stones out of the ground to build small domed huts and protective circles of walls. They learned to farm and so cut down the forests to plant grain and vegetables and pasture sheep and cattle. Today the moors are bare and windswept, and apart from a few remote villages the people are gone, their presence memorialised only by the irregular circles of stones sunk deep into the soft peat.

From our great height the water coursing down from the moors was milky white with sediment, spilling into murky blue like a spoilt water-colour where it met the wedge of cold salt water creeping up the river bed from the sea. Where the narrow strip of river broadened into the pool of the estuary it looked like a giant spermatozoan, its head outlined by a fringe of white beaches where tiny specks clustered. A phalanx of small bright diamonds, the Westowe Club fleet of competition sailing dinghies, crawled across the surface of the puddle. The toy village with its tiny church and quay clung to the west bank, and model cars inched along its roadways. I had seen this view before, but only in black-and-white, in the aerial photographs that hung in the club function room.

I pulled my woolly cap out of a pocket and put it on. The sun smiled down on this country, but up here, although the wind was slight, the air was chill. The coastline came into view, a replica of chart no. Y460, ‘Approaches to the River Dyn’. Our view was from near the centre of the chart, over Black Rock. The channel through the estuary was traced in deep blue. The tide was on the ebb and the bar, just a metre or so beneath the surface, showed as a white skein of wool stretching all the way across, shading into pale blue where the channel cut across it.

The white spot on Sentinel Point was the stone huer’s hut where I had first met Matty. The coastal path snaked past it, a ribbon of chalk stitching hills and valleys together into the blue distance. Sprinkled along it, a few tiny black dots were people walking around the perfect amphitheatre of Fairfoul Bay, where the anchor from Pogie’s dinghy was found after Colonel Meeker disappeared. At its south-western end Grise Head, yellow with gorse, jabbed the purple sea like a septic finger. Its nail was long and sharp, the foaming crescent of The Devil’s Coat-tails now emerging from the depths. The Devil’s Frying-pan came into view, a silver ring set with the opal stones of The Giant’s Playthings.

For a long time we were lost in wonder, hearing no sound but the squawk of the gulls, drifting up muted from below. A croak from Dinny broke into my thoughts: “You almost went down there like your Dad and Mum.” He pointed towards the Frying-pan, but he wouldn’t look. He was terrified.

“For the second time,” I said.

Eddy Starr spoke. “How’s that?”

“I was supposed to go sailing with my Mum and Dad that day. But I did something else instead.”

Dinny spluttered again. “Chasing after Angie.”

No. I didn’t talk to girls at that age. Something remarkable had happened that day. Snooty Malcolm Goodfellow — not yet christened Superbloke — who had always ignored me, had invited me round to play at his house that day. And because I hated sailing then Mum had let me go.

I took Eddy’s elbow with one hand and pointed with the other. “The false beacon must have been somewhere down there, by that sharp bend in the path. You can see how it would line up with the second beacon on High Tor if you were approaching from the west.” I’d already plotted that on a chart, but this view included the terror.

“We didn’t find anything,” said Eddy. “It would be pretty risky for someone to clamber down there on a dark and stormy night.”

“They could have done it by daylight. A kerosene lantern would do. Or a big battery-operated torch.”

Eddy nodded. “You wouldn’t notice it till it got dark. Or it could have been rigged with a clock timer.”

“High Tor disappeared suddenly. Just after we saw the Harestone.”

“You were so close in that the edge of the cliff blocked the beacon from view. You must have been right there.” Eddy took my arm and pointed it about a cable length off The Giant’s Playthings, which were seething with foam. “Somebody hung a brown bucket over the leading light on The Elbow. You’d never spot it in the daytime. If Spider and I had come back from our dive in the Frying-pan ten minutes sooner, we wouldn’t have noticed. But it was dusk. We saw the top leading light come on at High Tor, but not the bottom one on The Elbow.” It was Eddy who had cast us a line when the Westowe lifeboat suddenly roared up in a blaze of light abaft the Amaryllis, the most welcome sight I had seen in my life.

“Find anything on your dive?”

“A cave. Nothing in it.”

“Where did that orange flare go up?”

“The one that called the lifeboat out?” Eddy pointed eastwards across the estuary. “That was way over by Sheepshead Point.”

“We saw it.” I said. “Or at least, Angie did. But why did you come down this way?”

“Spider had scrambled the lifeboat before that flare went up. As soon as we got in we reported the inoperative beacon to the harbour­master. The Coast Guard put out a sécurité broadcast on channel 16.”

“And you came out on spec?”

“We knew you were here. The news about the inoperative beacon flashed round the village like wildfire, and a young couple with kids came looking for the harbourmaster. They said they’d seen a boat drifting off Sheepshead Point that afternoon without a motor or radio. They thought she might be in a spot of bother. They couldn’t remember the boat’s name. A flower, the lady thought.”

“Malcolm Goodfellow was trying to sell them a yacht.”

“Aye. He’d already driven off to Exeter, they said. You got a lot to thank that young couple for.”

“I probably put them off yachting forever. Malcolm won’t thank me.”

“Anyways, when we saw the first flare over Sheepshead Point it was off our stern. We were already halfway down the Coat-tails.”

“You could have turned around.”

“By the book, we should have. But Spider had calculated the tidal drift. He knew you’d be down here. And there had been no Mayday call. So we pressed on another five minutes. And when your flare went up we were right up your backside.”

“So what about the flare that went up off Sheepshead Point?”

“No trace of anything. No boat reported missing. It’s a mystery, except for one thing.”

“What?”

“The Coast Guard got lots of calls. All from folk living in Lower Sheepshead.”

“No call from a boat?”

“Nobody except you was daft enough to be out at sea that night. I reckon that flare was set off in the National Trust car park on Sheepshead Point. Some kids larking about, maybe.”

“Or somebody who wanted to make sure the lifeboat was three miles away when we fell into the Frying-pan.”

“There’s a lot of possibilities.”

“Are you working officially on this case?”

“Me? A country bumpkin from the Westowe sub-station of the Kings Ferry district of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary? They’d put Inspector Clouseau on it first.”

“So, who is?”

“No one. There is no case. Just three people gone missing at sea. One body recovered. Some loony put a bucket over a leading light. Random events.”

“Is that what you think?”

“I think it’s more than coincidence.”

“A conspiracy theory?”

“You can laugh.”

“I’m not in a position to laugh. I’m one of your suspects.”

“You’ve moved down the list a bit since somebody tried to kill you.”

“Or Angie.”

“Or you and Angie. That bucket over the Elbow beacon. It’s the first piece of hard evidence we’ve had.” He looked at Dinny. “Where’s your bucket, Dinny?”

Dinny looked away and mumbled, and Eddy had to repeat the question. “I been looking for it,” he answered.

“Where did you see it last?”

“I keeps it in the ferry nights.”

“You didn’t go out and hang it over the leading light, did you?”

Dinny’s face darkened with anger. “I never. But once upon a time I knows someone as did.”

“Who’s that, Dinny?”

Dinny stared out at the horizon. “That’s as why I always carries me bucket.” Then he turned his face away from us.

“If you go round the harbourmaster, he’ll let you have it,” Eddy said to his back. To me, he said, “Anybody could have pinched it. Most of us know he leaves it on the ferry at night.”

“If it wasn’t Dinny, it was someone who wanted to implicate him.”

“More than likely. There’s plenty of other buckets about Westowe. And Dinny’s an easy mark.”

I looked over to the oval sapphire of Fairfoul Bay, flecked with flashes of white foam. It was fringed with tumbling cliffs; a steep path spiralled through a gash to the top. “Let’s start with Colonel Meeker,” I said. “Suppose he wanted it to appear that he was lost at sea. He drops the anchor overboard, rows ashore, gets out, and lets the dinghy drift off. Then hopscotch off to London, or wherever.”

“A possibility. What’s the evidence?”

“Those fish I found in the dory? They were stinking. He’d bought them in the fishmonger’s before he went out.” Eddy had his notebook out, the wind whipped the pages like a rattle before he managed to fix them under his thumb. “Rabbit saw him buying them.”

Eddy stopped writing and gave me a hard stare. “Rabbit?”

I remembered too late about him and Rabbit. “Ronny.”

“Why do you call her Rabbit?”

“Slip of the tongue. I was watching the rabbits in that field down there.” I pointed at random. Perhaps there is a God after all, because, lo, there was a rabbit.

“Mrs Harris,” he said as he wrote it down in his notebook. The tip of his tongue appeared in the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on this task, which gave me the courage to change the subject. “What’s your theory?”

“I can tell you this,” said Eddy. “Meeker was in a lot of trouble financially. And heavily insured.”

“So who benefits?”

“I made some enquiries. He put a lot of his assets into overseas trusts. His creditors can’t touch them.”

“Was Charlie Segui involved?”

“No, a legal firm in the home counties. Why?” I told him about the Last Will and Testament that had been posted from Charlie’s office. Eddy wrote it down. I didn’t tell him how I knew. Nor that I had seen Colonel Meeker put it into the inside pocket of his oilies before he stepped into the dinghy. Nor that I had seen Spider post it the next day. Because Charlie Segui had asked him to.

“You know Meeker was under investigation for a City fraud?” asked Eddy.

“A good reason to disappear.”

“He probably had a few bob stashed in a Swiss bank.”

Due south a stately procession of sails were beating up towards the estuary. The smallest triangle at the back of the parade could be passing over the spot where Lord Nick had stepped through the rotten netting of his catamaran. “Nickers was in financial difficulties, too,” I said.

“More than that. Customs and Excise reckon he was smuggling drugs.”

“I heard Simon was a grass.”

“Aye. Customs & Excise planted him on board the Grace of God.”

“He’s not C&E?”

“Simon’s just a kid who got into a bit of trouble with drugs. They rumbled him and promised not to prosecute if he played along with them. They set him up in the club like a fish-head in a crab trap. To nobble the suppliers. Mind you, they didn’t bother to let the local plod know.”

“How did you find out?’

“Your chum, Lothar, hates druggies. Apparently it was common knowledge on the sail training ship that Simon was a dealer. So, when Lothar fetched up here, he bowled into me wanting to know what I was going to do about it, what with the young kids coming ashore. So we set Simon up. Lothar arranged to meet Simon in the club loo for a score. I was hiding in the toilet.” Eddy laughed. “What I didn’t know was that the C and E blokes were hiding in the next toilets.”

“Pixie and Poxy?”

“Who?”

“Those two leather fetishists. They are C and E then?”

“I reckon. My governor just said to look after them. It’s all very hush-hush and you’re dreaming all this.”

“Agreed.”

“Anyways, they burst out of the toilets and tried to collar Lothar. He thought they were Simon’s mates, and knocked them about a bit before I could sort it out. And then, of course, it comes out that Simon’s their undercover agent. So, red faces all around.”

“Those bastards have got a lot to answer for.”

“Such as?”

“Pissing in my single malt. Knocking me out. Beating up Matty.”

“I don’t think they beat up Matty.”

“They were at the castle that night?”

“They had a tip off about a drug drop and wanted to keep an eye on the channel. I got the keys through Charlie and let them in. And stood guard in case you turned up.”

There was more to it than that. Someone had made sure I was out of the way that night at Tattersall Hall. Lord Nick? Not a likely conspirator with the Drug Squad. But Lothar had been working with them.

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“False alarm. Except Matty came along.”

“Why?”

Eddy shrugged. “Looking for you, I reckon.”

I couldn’t credit that either. Matty had curled up at Spider’s hearth by then. I recollected that day on the Amaryllis, when Pixie had offered to help Matty persuade Lord Nick to consent to a DNA test.

Eddy carried on. “Any road, they had a little chat with her and drank some of your whisky. Before anybody pissed in it.” He paused long enough to make his next words sound evasive. “They were still there when I left.”

“Was she doing drugs?”

“Let’s say she had been found in a compromising situation.”

It all clicked into place. Pixie and Poxy had been putting the screws on Matty. Later, they must have provided the drugs, through Lothar, for Matty to bargain with Nickers. And then accused her of dealing. “They must have been pressuring her. To spy on Spider.”

“They were interested in his trip to the Med last summer.”

“And me.”

“And Lord Nick, too of course. Who was a drug user after all. It’s probably not a good idea to sail single-handed when you’re zonked.”

“That netting could have been cut.”

“Could be. Or maybe, like Colonel Meeker, he wanted it to appear he had been lost at sea.”

“Any evidence?”

“Not evidence, exactly. A contradiction.”

“I’m not with you.”

“At the inquest, Charlie Segui said he went to the Plymouth marina to meet the Grace of God and take over from Simon. But he was late, because of the roadworks on the M5. And so they went on without him.”

“So, a lucky escape for Charlie.”

“Charlie made his own luck. I did a little free-lance investigation. There were no roadworks on the M5 that night.”

“What does that mean?”

“Only that Charlie probably wants people to think he was in Bristol when he was somewhere else that evening.”

“What does Charlie say about it?”

“I haven’t asked him yet. But I’ve written it down in my book.”

“When I saw him later that night, he said he’d been to dinner with Ronny. But she said he hadn’t.”

Eddy gave me a smile that failed to reach his eyes. “You see a lot of Mrs Harris?”

Eddy didn’t smile often. He was unlikely to murder me in front of a witness. Would Dinny notice? Would he care? A thousand feet over the South Devon coast was no place to be forthright. “She’s my neighbour,” I said, and then hurried on. “Charlie was wearing wellies.”

“So?”

“To dinner?” Eddy looked blank. Maybe in his circle everyone wore wellies to dinner. “On a dry night?” I added.

“What time was that?”

“Late. I don’t wear a watch. The moon was up. It was full.” I remembered the silhouette of Dinny’s launch gliding on the silvery waters of the estuary. “I saw Charlie just after I saw Dinny heading out for the bar in his launch.”

Dinny tore his gaze from the rippling sea, now golden in the slanting rays of the sun. I didn’t think he’d been listening, but it’s always unwise to underestimate Dinny. “I was going out to check me lobster pots,” he said to Eddy.

“What time was that?” asked Eddy.

“After the pubs closed,” I answered.

While Eddy wrote that down Dinny looked at me and blurted, “There weren’t no one else with me.”

Eddy counted on his fingers. “That would be about two hours before the Grace of God hit the bar.”

“We was back well afore midnight. We didn’t see nothing.”

“Who’s we?” asked Eddy.

“Spider and me go out every full moon if the weather’s right.”

“Was he drunk?” I asked.

Dinny slapped his hands together and laughed. “He be tosticated.” He stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes and slumped his shoulders, doing a passable imitation of Spider sliding down the front of the bar at Formerly Cromarty’s.

“Spider’s party piece. His drunk-as-a-skunk routine,” said Eddy.

Dinny squared his shoulders and pointed eastwards. “We don’t go no further than the Coat-tails.” The entire coast was visible now, etched white with foam. We hung between Grise Head and Heel, poised almost exactly over the mewstone. The roiling waters ran white in the narrow channel separating it from the shoreline. The sinking sun caught the tip of the mewstone. I watched for several minutes but there was no spout of foam.

“Toilet’s not flushing today.” I said.

Dinny snorted. “Toilet don’t flush no more.”

“Not since the wreck,” said Eddy. “A coaster slammed into the cove and sank right by the mewstone about ten years ago. You can see the funnel at low water springs. The wreck has interfered with the plumbing.”

The late afternoon onshore breeze stirred on my face. Suspended between it and the thermal rising from the sunny pastures spread out baking beneath the moor, we were almost motionless. Eddy looked at his watch. “Time to head back.” He turned the burner on, a jet of hot air roared up, and the mewstone quickly dwindled beneath us. The balloon caught the onshore breeze and we flew back the way we had come, descending now on a steep downward slant. Soon we were low enough to pick out the white rumps of the rabbits pumping the air as they darted helter-skelter in and out of our great shadow sweeping over the pastures. Eddy gave the air bag another burst of heat from time to time and we notched a gradually descending graph across the sky.

I thought Dinny was pointing at a rabbit in the next field. But when we swooped across the hedge, I saw it was a couple rolling in the grass. They were both naked. The woman was on top, her white buttocks writhing under the wide blue gaze of God, and we three, as the shadow of the balloon swept swiftly past. There was an angry scar on her backside. I focused the binoculars on her cheeks. It was a red and blue tattoo: a circle with a diagonal slash through it. A no-entry sign. Matty? I’d never seen her backside. But this woman’s curves were rounder. And her hair was dark and short. We flew silently over them as she rose up on her hands and pushed her knees forward and started to pump on him, rising like the rabbits, and they never noticed us.


Sunday, 26th June

It was a grand day to be alive. A breeze freshened our faces and carved curling veins of ivory in the cobalt sea. The sun was warm and friendly, too. Only the rocks deep in the chasm of The Devil’s Frying-pan, never silvered by its fingers, reflected no joy. Clusters of people rimmed the amphitheatre, their cameras flashing feeble signals into the dark void and the great seascape beyond. A souvenir postcard view of that last vision his eyes took to eternity as he tumbled through space. Have these grave rocks absorbed the fear and the screams torn from the throats of the people who have died here? No. The true horror is that geology, like evolution, is indifferent to our tragedies.

Through the circles of the binoculars I caught glimpses of the naked body tumbling in the white froth, like greying knickers whirling in the window of a washing machine. A great orange predatory insect hovered over this rump of flesh, beating the air with its wings. A crewman hung suspended on its silken thread — a winch cable. He dropped into the waves to fasten the strop around the corpse, but it slipped away and he swanned up again. The body surfaced, again he dropped, disappeared beneath the froth and came up arms empty. The body appeared between two rocks. The crewman signalled the helicopter to swing him over it. A large wave crashed over the rocks, and then another. The corpse was still visible.

On the ebb the orange insect swooped down over its prey and the crewman braced against the emerging rocks. As the next swell hurtled in over The Giant’s Playthings, the cable lifted, yanking the crewman’s feet from the rock. The corpse bashed into the rock, but the strop was across its trunk, and it rose too, swivelling and gushing seawater from its dangling limbs like an old boot snagged on a fish-hook. The helicopter sought altitude while the cable shortened. The two human weights spun slowly around, and as they drew out of the cauldron I could see the crewman blinking the salt out of his eyes. The body was larger. Slung on its sky hook, the limp corpse hung glistening, a bloodless androgynous lump, its head a hunk of gristle streaked with dark hair. The devil had gnawed this piece of bait.

Rabbit would not look through the binoculars, but she gave a cry of disgust and buried her head in my shoulder. Her hands seized my arm like talons. Charlie lowered his binoculars and turned his face to me. It was the same drained colour as the flesh of the corpse. I had seen that unfocused look in his eyes before, the day he thought Colonel Meeker’s body had been found and had vomited on the pavement outside his office.

“It’s Malcolm,” he said. He bent over and vomited into the grass.

I put my arm around his shoulder. “It could be anyone.”

Charlie heaved again, then turned to me, wet threads hanging from his teeth. “It’s a big man,” he said. He pulled out his well-used handkerchief and put it to his mouth and gagged through it. “Christ, what happened to him?” He turned his face into my shoulder. Now I was hugging both brother and sister.

We had waited for Superbloke in Charlie’s office for half an hour before starting the Executive Committee Meeting without him. Charlie reported what we all already knew: the Extraordinary General Meeting had been cancelled as the Gladwell company had withdrawn its offer on the club property.

He straightened the papers which lay before him into a perfect rectangle while he looked first at Spider and then at me over the top of his glasses. “I think I know why Malcolm’s not here today,” Charlie had said. “He was in cahoots with them.”

Spider and I looked at each other.

“We know,” I said.

“You know?” Charlie was startled.

“We know,” said Spider.

Charlie squared the perfect rectangle of papers with his palms again before speaking. “He had an option on the castle property. If he got hold of that, he could have cut a sweet deal with Gladwell.”

“Except that Angie’s exhibition was a success,” I said. “Which he didn’t expect.”

“No one did,” said Charlie.

“How did you find out about his scheme?” asked Spider.

Charlie’s hands jerked, and the pile of papers went awry. “He told me.”

“Why would he confess to you?” I asked.

“He’s been very upset. He’s in a lot of financial difficulty. He came to me for help. I’m his lawyer after all.” Charlie craned his neck in his collar, took off his spectacles and began to rub the spotless lenses with a grubby handkerchief he found in his pocket.

“You and Malcolm and Nick were all planning to sell me down the river,” Spider grumbled.

“Who told you that?” Charlie stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket and put his spectacles on his nose. The right lens was smeared now. “I admit I did want to sell. There’s nothing wrong with that. I needed — I thought it was time to capitalise on my investment. But Malcolm had his own game. I knew nothing about that. He was cheating me. If he had got hold of the castle the club property would have been worth ten times what we were offered. Twenty times.”

“He was cheating everyone,” said Spider.

I fed Charlie some smelly bait. “What exactly were Superbloke’s financial difficulties? Was he a Lloyd’s investor, too?”

The only answer I got was a dirty look because that’s when Spider’s bleep went off. Three-quarters of an hour later Charlie and Rabbit and I were part of the small crowd gathering on the rim of The Devil’s Frying-pan, while Spider was a couple of hundred metres below us in the wheelhouse of the orange and blue lifeboat, hovering just outside the line of white waves breaking over The Giant’s Playthings. There was nothing the lifeboat crew could do but sit, like us, and watch the helicopter perform its dancing dips into the cauldron.

The chopper sped off with its cargo and the lifeboat bore off south-west, then turned east and disappeared around Grise Head. A thickening stream of the curious was hurrying up the path toward us. But there was nothing to look at now that we hadn’t seen a thousand times before. The onlookers drifted down to tell the latecomers what they had missed. As we turned to go, there was a shout. Behind a clump of gorse someone had found a neat pile of clothing.

A pair of gleaming white trainers sprouting thick padded tongues sat on a bright blue-and-lime-green windbreaker. Beneath that was a folded maroon track suit and some white underwear. Nearby a black-and-yellow baseball cap was upended like a bowl. On its brim, in scarlet script, were the words, ‘Style Master.’ Inside the cap was a pair of spectacles and inside one of the trainers was a thick brown wallet.

I thumped Charlie on the back. “Superbloke wouldn’t be seen dead in that rig.”

The colour came back into Charlie’s face. Charlie pushed past the middle-aged couple who had discovered the clothing and knelt beside it.

“Do you think he should touch that?” the man who had found the clothing asked me.

“It’s all right. He’s a lawyer,” I said.

Charlie picked up the white trainer which held the wallet. It was a Nike.

“Just do it,” I said.

He opened the wallet and pulled out a driver’s licence.

He read out loud. “Angus Fergusson. Double s.”

“I’ll take that if you don’t mind, sir.” The voice belonged to the sergeant, one of two uniformed constables who elbowed through the crowd. They were from Kings Ferry. Eddy Starr was out on the lifeboat and missing his moment of glory.

“It’s all right, he’s a lawyer,” I said, but it didn’t work this time. Charlie handed over the wallet and the trainer. The sergeant was interested only in talking to the couple who had discovered the clothing, and the young constable shooed the rest of us down the path.

The procession wended past a figure bending in the bracken. It was Dinny and when I said hello, he turned and faced us. He was holding something in his arms. Textiles. A pile of clothing. A worn navy blue suit with broad stripes and wide lapels that had been made in Savile Row twenty years ago. On top of it were white underclothes. And resting on those a pair of brown Chelsea boots well-rounded in the heel. The underpants were smeared with mud. No — they were skid marks. Superbloke’s togs, certainly.


Monday, 18th July

“Why didn’t you invite me?” Rabbit’s eyes were moist.

“You don’t like sailing.”

“I could drive down and meet you in Plymouth.”

“I’m not going to Plymouth.”

“Wherever.”

“I’ll sling a hook offshore, or follow the estuaries up as far as I can. It’s a pub crawl.”

“I could meet you in the pub.”

“You don’t like pubs.”

Rabbit’s eyes were streaming now. She stared straight ahead, avoiding my eyes in the mirror. “You’re going off with her, aren’t you? Like you did last time.”

It was another beautiful morning, but instead of rocking in the cockpit of the Amaryllis with a blue-and-white Cornish Ware mug of hot instant coffee and a plate of fried eggs and bacon and a slab of bread and butter, thinking of Angie, I was sitting up next to Rabbit in her soft scented bed with a dainty cup of tea and she was talking about Angie. Her tits hung loose and flaccid under her kimono. Like fried eggs.

“You wouldn’t have wanted to be there last time.”

Now the tears came. “I don’t like boats.” She sobbed into my shoulder for a while and when she turned her face up it was puffy and smeared with mascara. “I’m not that sort of woman. I can’t help that.”

I patted her hand. “It would ruin your fingernails.”

She plucked at the hairs on my chest. “I’m good at other things though, aren’t I?”

“Sometimes you’re very naughty.”

“Do you still like making love to me?”

“Wasn’t it good enough?”

“It’s not often enough.”

I was trying to remember what had led me up the primrose-banked path to Glochamorra last night. Eddy Starr had come alongside the Amaryllis around teatime to update me on his latest deductions.

“I reckon Goodfellow did a Stonehouse.”

“Stonehouse?”

“That Postmaster-General back in the 60s. He left his clothes and wallet in a pile and walked into the sea. And turned up in Australia.”

“You can’t walk into the Frying-pan.”

“I saw you up on the cliff with Mrs Harris.” Eddy had that glint in his eye again. “It looked to me like you were hugging her.”

“And her brother. You might have got a bit wet. He was vomiting downwind.” Eddy’s face relaxed, still I thought it best to keep the subject off Rabbit. “Superbloke could have left some spare clothing, then walked down to Fairfoul Bay and got into a boat.” As I said it, it occurred to me that Colonel Meeker could have walked the same path, in the opposite direction.

“No sign of a boat.”

“Or he could walk the other way, to Sandcliff Road and get a bus.”

“Only on Tuesdays.”

“Or a car.”

“Goodfellow’s car was in his garage.”

“What about Angus Fergusson?”

Eddy shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of his tea. In death as in life Angus Fergusson played second fiddle. Perhaps because he was not a Bohemian artist, a cashiered Colonel, a drug-crazed Lord or even a Christeby’s representative — just a man who had stepped out of his track suit and trainers. Or perhaps because there was no mystery about his suicide. Angus Fergusson’s body had been recovered before anyone noticed he was gone, and it was promptly identified. After dallying with the notion that he and Superbloke were star-crossed lovers — ‘Gay Suicide Pact in Latest Westowe Tragedy?’ — the truffle hunters shifted their focus to Malcolm Goodfellow’s family history, and elevated him to the eminence which had escaped him in life: ‘Did Westowe Art Toff Follow Father’s Footsteps Over the Cliff?’ The journalist’s snout had sniffed the decaying gossip that Thomas Goodfellow had not slipped, but jumped from the spot overlooking the castle where I had sat on his memorial bench to spy on his son and Angie.

I had missed the inquest. I had gone up to London to interrogate my solicitors, and returned poorer but no wiser. The inquest was adjourned after the body had been formally identified. Angus Fergusson, aged 49, was a partner in the Bristol office of a firm of management consultants. He had taken off his new day-glo leisure clothing, purchased that morning at the Fore Street Boatique, folded it around his clean undergarments and a wallet empty of cash but full of credit cards, placed the tidy pile under the gorse on the edge of The Devil’s Frying-pan, and stepped out into the space above that boiling cauldron. His choice of leisure wear could perhaps be explained as the judgement of a management consultant. Why he chose to take it off before diving was not apparent. Perhaps, following the Stonehouse example, he thought it was what one did at times like this. One usually only gets to do that sort of thing once, after all, and receives no training. Mr Fergusson left a current copy of Accountancy Age magazine in the front upstairs room of the Oceanview Guest House and, hanging in the cupboard, the pin-striped suit, the pin-striped shirt and diagonally striped tie he had worn when he had arrived in Westowe the previous evening. He had registered in his own name. He told Mrs Jenkins, the landlady, and Dale of Dale’s Taxis, who picked him up at Kings Ferry railway station, that he was on a short holiday to work on some papers, and these were found in his room. He had dinner in The Jubilee Inn, and the barman remembered him, too. He said he was going for a walk the next day and the barman told him how to get to the clifftop path. As far as anyone knew he had never been in Westowe before. He was married, without children, and had lived in a comfortable old stone house in a village outside of Bristol with his wife who, sensibly, refused to open the door for the television cameras.

“Angus Fergusson?” Eddy stroked his chin. “He’s the turd in the sleeping bag. But a connection will turn up, believe me.” It was always hard to believe Eddy, but he had a way of being right for the wrong reasons. He spoke again. “Charlie’s your man.”

“A serial murderer? Charlie?” I had a vision of a bull, crumpled to its knees, suspended between two trees by the rope around its neck. The farmer slit its throat with a knife. The bull jerked its head up and bleated while its eyes rolled and the blood poured on to the ground. Charlie was bent over, too, vomiting over the new plimsolls he had got for his birthday. They weren’t called trainers then.

“He’s at the heart of it,” Eddy went on. “He had that meeting with Colonel Meeker. You said he was wearing wellies the night Lord Nick disappeared and he wasn’t at Veroni — Mrs Harris’s place like he said he was. He was working with Malcolm Goodfellow to sell out the club property. He’s administering Bartholomew’s estate. Goodfellow’s too. And Nick Farthing-Tattersall’s. Come to think of it he’s just about everybody’s lawyer.”

“That alone is enough to put him inside for a good long time, I reckon.”

“Then there’s Spider.”

The farmer was tired. A dozen times he had lifted the sledgehammer and swung it with all his might in a high arc. Each time it landed on the bull’s skull with a the thud of a cannon. The bull still stood, dazed and stumbling. The farmer rested the head of the sledgehammer on the ground, took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. The farmer looked at me, the biggest of the kids surrounding him. He pivoted the handle of the heavy hammer in my direction. I took a step backwards. Spider brushed past me, pushed back his sleeves and spit on his hands. Charlie and I laughed because we didn’t know what else to do. Spider tested the weight of the hammer. Then he swung it, from the ground up and his heels left the ground. The sledge hit the bull’s head with a different sound, the sharp crack of splintered bone. The bull’s knees buckled and its eyes rolled like marbles.

“What about Spider?” I asked.

“Dinny told us he and Spider have been taking regular moonlight cruises.”

“You can’t trust what Dinny says.”

“You can always trust what Dinny says. The trouble is interpreting it.”

“He was scared to death.”

“It was the only way to get him to grass on Spider.”

“How did you get him to go up in the balloon with us?”

“I told him he could drive it and we wouldn’t go higher than the church tower.”

“You’re an evil bastard.”

“Cops get called lots of names.” Eddy found a page in his notebook and showed it to me. It had a number of dates on it. “There was a nearly full moon the night Colonel Meeker disappeared. And Lord Nick. And the night Goodfellow and Mr Fergusson left us.” Eddy closed the book and finished his tea. “There’s a full moon next weekend. And Mrs Harris tells me Charlie’s planning to take a few days off. She’s got to mind the office. At least that was her excuse.”

“Excuse for what?”

“For not going on the excursion to France next weekend. But I had the feeling she was maybe planning to go somewhere with you.” Eddy turned his head from me and spoke the next sentence over the side of the Amaryllis. “Some people say you’ve been seeing her.”

The truth was, I saw her as little as possible. And when I did I usually kept my eyes shut. Eddy had turned his eyes to me again. They were squinting into the sun and I couldn’t read his expression. So I told him I was going sailing. Everybody knew Rabbit wouldn’t go on a boat unless it was on a mooring. Eddy seemed satisfied. But I wanted to know more about Charlie’s plans for the weekend. That’s why I had knocked on the door of Glochamorra Cottage last night. So I asked her now.

“He’s not going anywhere,” she answered.

“So why don’t you go on the twin town outing to St Malo?”

“You’ve been talking to Eddy.”

“He’s very keen on you.”

“I’m very keen on you.”

“He’s not very keen on my being keen on you.”

“Are you?”

“I’m here aren’t I?”

“Sometimes I wonder. If you’re really here. When you’re here.”

I kissed her cheek. “What’s your scheming brother up to now?”

She turned her serious gaze on me. The one she learned from watching television soap operas, the freeze-frame at the end when the music thumps and the credits roll. “I’m worried about him.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s worried. Very, very worried.”

“He was close to Superbloke wasn’t he?”

“He hated Malcolm. It’s his overseas property deal he’s worried about. He put in several calls to France the other day. He doesn’t know I listen on the extension.”

“Who was he calling?”

“I just heard him speaking to someone in French. Well, Charlie’s version of French. Six calls in one day. He was having trouble getting through. And finally he did. And he was very, very worried afterwards. That’s when he rang Spider to ask him to come over.”

“What was it about?”

Tears welled up in the corner of Rabbit’s eyes. “I don’t speak French. I don’t sail and I don’t speak French. I bet Angie speaks French.”

I licked the corner of her mouth. It was salty. “Your French is fine.” This brought her tongue into my mouth and we wrestled together for a while. I rested my hand on her pudenda. “Go ahead,” I said.

“You go ahead,” she breathed.

“Did Spider come over?”

“You’re so romantic.”

“I want to hear the end of your story.”

“Charlie told me I could go home early. Which meant he was up to something. So when Spider came I pretended to go out the front door and tip-toed into the ladies. The partition is thin.”

“So is the one in the gents.”

“Charlie was crying.”

“You’re joking.”

“Charlie’s not a real man. Not like you.” Her hand reached for me.

“Later. Finish your story.”

“They spoke very quietly. Spider was very stern.”

“What did they say?”

“I couldn’t hear anything very clearly. The only thing I could swear to was what Spider said when he left.”

“What was that?’

“He said there’d be springs after the full moon next weekend and he was going to Texas on Sunday night.”

“Texas?”

“Houston.” She pronounced it the way the Americans do. Not Howston or Hooston, but Hewston. “Why do you suppose Spider is going to Texas?”

“Why do you suppose Charlie was crying?”

“Charlie doesn’t get enough pussy,” said Rabbit. She took both my ears in her hands and twisted them. I demurred. She said, “You don’t like me, do you.” It wasn’t a question.

“I like your body,” I said. Which wasn’t strictly true, but she was all I had.

“Get out,” she said.

That evening I went up to Angie’s for dinner. I told her that Spider was going to the mewstone on Sunday night and that I was going to happen to be out cruising, too. She told me to be careful and on the doorstep she yielded a little when I pressed her body to me and kissed her goodnight.


Sunday, 24th July: 1

Fog forms when warm moist air meets the cold surface of the sea. Droplets condense, the way water pools on the windowsills of a poorly ventilated room in winter, or windows steam up around a snogging couple in a closed car at night. So, sea fog is less frequent in the summer, when it appears mostly over the deeper, colder water well out to sea. Only rarely does it form close inshore on the warmer coastal shallows.

But, as we know, worse things happen at sea. The meadows of the south coast had baked in a heat wave all week. Then came a change of wind. It blew from the north-east, after a long track down the English Channel. That night the land cooled rapidly. The warm moist air from the east sank to the surface of the sea. Fog drifted in patches, thickening over the upwellings of cold water from the sea bottom, dispersing wherever the warm air sank to raise the surface temperature a fraction. The Amaryllis drifted in a fairy world, now swaddled in a close grey cocoon which chilled the skin, now gliding like a swan in bright moonlight on a black pool encircled by shifting white phantoms. It was an empty stage, a prologue without sound, except for the liquid moans of the sea.

On the ten-to-six inshore shipping forecast there had been no warnings of fog. The late afternoon sun streamed down on the holiday crowd on Jubilee Quay, amiable families strolling in shorts and T-shirts with plastic bags and buckets and sunburned toddlers in pushchairs licking ice cream cones from the Westowe Dairy, old couples wearing jackets and cardigans against the inevitable turn of the weather sitting on the hard benches staring out at the harbour with folded newspapers on their laps and thermoses at their feet, excited kids in swimsuits hanging their crab lines off the pontoon, knots of boisterous teenagers and a constant traffic of dinghies pushing on and off the quay. When I brought the Amaryllis alongside Angie was there. In spite of the heat, like the old folk, she was dressed for weather that would come, in jeans, trainers, and a white cable stitch jumper. She was carrying a small hold­all.

I tossed her the bow warp and we made the Amaryllis fast. I held her hand as she stepped down into the cockpit. She reached into the holdall and gave me a paper bag of ripe plums.

“Thanks.” I bit into one of the plums. I offered it to her and she took a bite. “How did you know I’d be here?”

“You’re never very far from Cromarty’s.”

“Seriously.”

“You’ve been up in London so long, you’ve forgotten that everybody knows everybody’s business in Westowe. You’re stopping by at Jackson’s to pick up a sail.”

“A new no. 1 genoa.” I had been making do with the old one, cut down for the new mast. It didn’t reach far enough aft, and it was white. The mainsail was maroon. With a white foresail the Amaryllis looked like a duck with a bandaged head. The new foresail was maroon. With her black hull the Amaryllis would be almost invisible, even in the moonlight.

Angie was inspecting the cockpit. “I thought you were going to put an engine in her. After what happened to us.”

“When my ship comes in. Anyway, it could be an advantage tonight not to make any noise.”

She took my hand in both of hers. “Be careful out there.”

“Forecast’s fine. Force two to three variable. No swell.”

“It’s not the weather. It’s whatever else is out there.”

“Spider?”

“Whoever.”

I followed her glance towards the sunny waters of the estuary, crowded with flitting white sails. The orange peels and ice cream wrappers hugging the waterline of the Amaryllis were drifting seawards; the tide was on the turn. I reached into the doghouse and picked up my wallet. “Walk me up to Jackson’s.”

She shook her head. “Sorry. I’ve got an appointment.” She brushed my cheek with her lips. She smelled of clean wind and heather. “I’ll be thinking of you.” She stepped out of the cockpit on to the pontoon. “Oh, damn, I forgot. Some post arrived for you at the castle. I meant to bring it.”

“Anything important?”

“Just a postcard. From Matty.”

“What did she say?”

She smiled. “You don’t suppose I’d read other people’s post? Rosie’s still there cleaning up. If you trot up there now she could let you have it.” She turned and strode up the wooden bridge, angling steeply now with the tide, and on to the quay and into the crowd.

The postcard was a picture of a puffin skimming the waves off the islet of Gugh in the Scilly Islands. It was addressed to ‘The Old Grouch in Westowe Castle or maybe the Mud Creek Car Park’. On it she had written. “Some day, when you least expect it, a bird may drop in to feather your nest again.” It did not have an Isles of Scilly postmark; it had been posted from Newlyn in Cornwall. She was back in Blighty. Or had been. The trouble with letters is that by the time you get them, the person who wrote it may have moved on. Or changed their mind. Or forgotten all about it.

I had put Matty’s card in the inside pocket of my oily jacket and I reached up now to feel that it was there. It was a message from another world, long ago and far away, where the sun shone and people walked and talked. Out here, in this solitary world, the fog crouched on the bow just beyond the mainmast. Astern, a white wall absorbed the ripples of the wake in the black water. A ceiling of damp wool hung in shreds just above the mizzen mast; the top of the main disappeared into it just above the spreader.

Someone coughed. Close enough to touch with a boathook. A chill that wasn’t fog ran up from the base of my spine and under my scalp. With a squeak like chalk on a blackboard the hatch cover slid back and a figure in oilies appeared in the gangway. It moved like a woman.

“I though you could use a mate,” said Angie.

A warm rush of blood flowed back from head to shoulders and down my spine. “You scared me half to death.”

“I felt like Ophelia in her coffin in the forepeak, with the water lapping around me.” She looked about her into the fog pressing around us. “It’s better up here.”

“It was getting a bit lonely.”

Angie put her arms around me and leaned her head on my shoulder. “Scared?”

“Yes.”

“So am I.”

“It’s better now you’re here,” I said.

We talked with lowered voices, as if we are at a funeral. She pressed her lips to my cheek just once, like a friend. They were warm. Our faces dripped with moisture.

“Where are we?”

“Drifting on a south-westerly current straight for the mewstone. It’s a spring tide so it’s running two to three knots.” She was blocking my view of the illuminated face of the depth gauge. “How much water is there?”

Angie took a look. “Nine metres.”

“It’s low water springs. So we’re right on the ridge. If it gets deeper we’re sliding off to port. If it gets shallow gradually, we’re drifting to starboard in towards the cliffs. If the sea floor rises suddenly, we’re coming up to the mewstone. At the five metre line you could almost reach out and touch it.”

“I’ll keep an eye on the gauge,” she said.

“I’ve set the depth alarm for seven metres.”

“What then?”

“Drop a hook. I’ll row the dinghy in. There’s that ledge we used to climb up.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No you won’t. It’s dangerous. Five people are dead or missing.”

“Accidents. Suicides.”

“Maybe.”

“Have you seen anything?”

“I thought I heard the thump of a diesel a little while ago, but in this stuff you don’t know what’s out there and what’s inside your head.”

“Eleven metres,” said Angie. Then, after a moment, “Twelve.”

“Damn, we’re slipping off it.” I put the helm over to port.

Angie kept her eyes on the green glow of the depth gauge. In the stillness we could hear the quiet whirr of the dial. “Ten,” she said. “Eight and a half. Eight.”

“We’re back on it.”

Angie pointed due west, just below the spreader. “There’s a light.” I looked and saw it too. A dull glow in the fog. It flashed three times. I shone a torch at the ship’s chronometer mounted just inside the hatch and counted off ten seconds. The light flashed three times again.

“Grise Heel,” said Angie.

“Take the tiller,” I said. Angie found my hand with hers and took the helm. I lifted the port seat, pulled out the chart in its plastic cover and shone the torch on it. I wiped the droplets of water off it with my hand and with my finger traced along the dotted line showing the northern edge of the visibility arc of the Grise Heel light until it intersected with the ten metre line on the underwater bank.

“What time is it?”

“Ten forty-five.”

“Dead low water in half an hour. So we’re right here.” I showed Angie the spot, about two cables east of the mewstone. “We’ll be there inside ten minutes.”

“Why the mewstone?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they land drugs there.”

“Not easy.”

“No, that ledge is only exposed at mean low water springs.” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it. It’s the only time you can land on the stone.”

“Yes,” said Angie. “And it’s the only time you can get there from the shore. Remember The Toilet?” We both remembered. And had to laugh.

I hugged Angie. “You didn’t come out here tonight just to keep an eye on me, did you?”

“No.”

“Spider?”

“No.”

“What then?”

“You might not like the answer.”

“Bartholomew?”

“Spider found Bartholomew in Corsica. Spider said he had fallen in with a shady crowd. That man, Blake, who lent him a boat. And you told me the Customs and Excise were very interested in Corsica.”

“Bartholomew and Spider running drugs? I can’t believe it.”

“You didn’t believe he was alive. But I know he is. And you know Spider would do anything for him. They could be involved in something.”

We were both quiet for a while, straining our eyes and ears. When the mewstone emerged from the fog it would come suddenly; the lap of waves might give us some warning.

Angie spoke again. “You know he’s always resented you.”

“Spider? Whatever for?”

“Your success.”

I snorted. “What success?”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “With me.” She bent her face over the dim greenish glow of the depth gauge, but I could not make out her expression. I reached out and squeezed her hand. It was clammy. She withdrew it. “And because you got out of Westowe. Because your horizons extend beyond Grise Head.”

“And I’ve always envied Spider. Because he always knows what to do and how to do it.”

Angie nodded. “And never has any doubts about it afterwards. That’s a gift from God.”

“How far are your horizons?”

She chuckled. “At the moment, just up to the bow of the boat.” After a pause she added, “Does it matter?”

“It matters if Spider is my rival.”

She shook her head. “I went away once. I’m content here now.”

“Content doesn’t mean happy.”

“Eight metres,” sang out Angie. Then she lowered her voice again. “What did Matty’s postcard have to say?”

“They’ve returned to Cornwall.”

“I thought they were on their way to the Caribbean.”

“Lothar could be setting up another drug bust.”

“Who is that man? What is he?”

“Nobody official, as far as anyone knows. Just a guy who dropped in off a boat.”

“Highly suspicious. He gives me the creeps.”

“He’s a splendid bloke, Lothar. Ever see his smile?”

“Yes, and there’s something dead about his eyes.” We were whispering. Angie raised her voice. “Seven-and-a-half metres.”

The depth gauge pinged. “Six metres,” said Angie. I let loose the jib sheet and it spilled the little pocket of air that had been driving us forward. “Six-and-a-half. Five-and-a-half. Six.” I clipped my safety harness on to the deck safety line and moved up forward into the fog, tugging the anchor from its fastenings and creeping up on my hands and knees to hang it over the bow. “Five metres,” said Angie. The anchor slipped into the blackness with a heavy splash. I watched six ghostly white flashes run out with the tumbling chain. Six fathoms. About seventeen metres. Enough to hold on a rising tide. Not enough to swing into the mewstone, I hoped. Angie let off the jib halyard and I hauled it down, and tied the jib loosely to the pulpit rail. I left the mainsail up, hauled tight amidships, ready for a quick getaway. Angie helped me slide the inflatable dinghy off the coachroof and over the railing and into the water.

“Look.” Angie pointed up at the mainmast. I thought she meant that we could see the top of it now. And then I looked higher. Silhouetted in the moonlight was the huge prow of a ship, bearing down on us out of the mist. My heart pounded, but the ship didn’t move. It was the mewstone; you could have hit it with a stone.

“I’m going with you,” said Angie.

“I need you here. If you need help, set off a flare.” We were whispering again.

“You take one, too.” She passed me the plastic container from the lazarette and I slipped a white hand flare into a jacket pocket. I rummaged in the tool box and put a marlin spike and a hammer into another pocket. I regretted that the ice-pick had gone walkabout. It would have made a useful weapon. I hung a jackknife and a small torch on lanyards around my neck. I took off my sailing glove to squeeze her hand. When I rowed off, the Amaryllis slipped away into the fog almost at once.

I spun the dinghy around so I could face in the direction I was going and push with the oars. At once I regretted it. I had no idea which way I was facing. There was no sign of the Grise Heel light. I had drifted north of its arc of visibility, towards the cliffs, or the thickening fog had snuffed it out. I pushed the oars slowly forward into the darkness. For minutes I heard nothing but the lapping surface of the sea and saw nothing but the tattered hem of fog drifting over it.

I felt the mewstone before I saw it. The dinghy dipped with a sudden wave and when it rose again I saw a smudge of white breakers. The starboard tube grated against rocks, the wave drew back and the next surge flung the dinghy into a wall on the port side, spilling me on to its heaving rubber floor. The rubber boat wouldn’t last long at this rate. As the wave withdrew I shipped the oars, lodging them tight in the crevices on both sides where the tubes met the floor, switched on the torch which hung from my neck and waved the beam about. I had not found the ledge. To port, jagged rocks protruded from the water like sharks’ teeth under a sheer cliff. To starboard a dripping seaweed-covered ridge led up into the fog. The angle might be climbable if I could find handholds and footholds in the slippery growth. The next wave slammed the dingy into a corner of the ridge. It hung there, wedged, long enough for me to secure a foothold over the side. I grabbed the end of the painter in one hand and scrambled up the slab of rock. I had to lie flat on my belly, searching for gaps with my fingers and the inside edge of my boots. The next wave covered me to the waist, but I was clear of the one after that, and then I found a level place where I could sit. I shone the torch down where I had come. Ten metres below, the dinghy was taking a battering in a dark pool. I took out the marlin spike and hammer from my jacket pocket and forced the spike into a crevice. I tied the painter around it and hauled the dinghy partly up the slope. It would be out of reach of the waves for an hour or so. I held the torch in one hand and crawled up the ridge the way the crabs do. The sharp points of the rocks pressed through my flesh to the bone. Without the gloves my hands would have streamed blood. I saw a pinpoint of light over my head. And then a sprinkle of stars glittering in dark gaps in a broken sky. The clouds entrapping the moon shimmered at the edges, and it was light enough to see shapes. I stood up and the fog fell back beneath my feet.

The Grise Heel light flashed one, two, three times. It reflected off the peak of the mewstone. I was in the wrong place. I was standing on the summit of a small outlier separated by a moat of swirling fog from the mewstone proper. And anyone looking east from it would see my torch. I crouched and flicked it off. And like a delayed time switch, seconds later a searchlight shone down from above. I could see the bloody skin in the gaps torn in the knees of my oilies. I looked up, expecting to hear the wail of a siren from the bridge of a warship or a loudhailer from a hovering helicopter. But the sky was silent. The full moon had floated free from the clouds, bathing the jagged seascape and the retreating blanket of fog in silver. It shone on the shredded umbilical cord of rock which tethered the mewstone to the shore. A dark figure appeared on it. I watched as it clambered across this rugged causeway and merged into the black shoulder of the mewstone. And as it did, a second figure detached itself from shadows on the shore. It was more athletic, moving swiftly and nimbly. Or perhaps this wasn’t the first time it had made the night-time passage.


Sunday, 24th July: 2

The last thing I saw before I submerged into the wet grey wool again was a white stick poking out through the roof of the fog bank like a ski pole in a snow field. It was either a tall tower a couple of hundred metres away or a short stick very close by. I blinked. It was the mast of the Amaryllis. It seemed to be moving, but it was only the wake of the fog drifting past. Angie was down there, enclosed in a dead white world with no sight of the moon nor of the seascape around her.

It was harder going down than climbing up. I sat down and my boots disappeared into the whiteness. I slipped into it and could see nothing at all. I turned and went down the way I had come up, slithering on my belly. Finally the sole of my boot hit something that yielded. It was the dinghy, hanging suspended, its stern invisible. The sea was a little higher and I was able to launch the dinghy and clamber inside without shipping much water. I knew where I was going now. Two strokes of the oars took me just beyond where the waves were breaking, and then I followed that line around, staying close to the rock for twelve more strokes. I turned ninety degrees to port, and four strokes brought the bow of the dinghy on to rock. I flashed the torch. It was the ledge, and it sloped up at a gentle angle. I found a crevice a few metres up and knocked the marlin spike into it with the hammer and secured the dinghy. The ringing of metal striking metal was flattened by the fog.

I kept the beam of the torch low to the ground and scrabbled up a cleft in the rock. When my head emerged from the fog into the starry sky I switched off the torch. The moon was a luminous glow behind thick cloud. Before me I could see only black shapes. I groped forward and suddenly the rock was illuminated. Once. Twice. Three times. Two metres in front of me the narrow ravine ended above the boiling sea. To my right was a shoulder of rock. I moved up it, counting slowly to myself, one-thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two. As I got to one-thousand-and-ten the light swept the mewstone again. In the third flash I saw a boulder on the skyline that was moving.

I clambered up in the dark for another ten seconds. In the next sweep of the light I saw two figures, head and shoulders silhouetted against the sky. They merged together and I heard a short piercing shriek. A human scream or perhaps a seagull. I moved up in the blackness. On the tenth second I bent to the ground. Now there was only one figure on the summit. I could see it from the knees up, shifting across the skyline in three jerky snapshots. In the blackness I crept forward again, sharp fragments of rock gouging my knees.

On the ninth second I stood up and drew the hammer out of my pocket. I could see a whole figure now. It was facing away from me. I gripped the hammer and started forward and as I moved a second shape grew from the ground behind the first. In the stroboscopic flash of the Grise Heel light I saw the first person whirl around. The figure which had risen from the ground raised its arms high. In the third flash only one figure was standing.

In the next ten seconds of darkness I covered the ground between us. As the next beam of the lighthouse swept over the mewstone, I saw a big man stretched face down on the rock. The other figure was standing over him, his back to me, holding a club. I put my elbow around his throat, jabbed my knee into his spine and forced him to the ground. I dropped the hammer, seized the arm that was holding the club and twisted it hard behind his back. He screamed and I twisted the club out of his hand. It was an old-fashioned belaying pin. I stood up and switched on my torch. It shone on red oilies. The man rolled over and sat up clutching his elbow. I put the torch on his face. Spider shielded his eyes with his good arm.

“Who’s that?”

“Ted.”

“Thank Christ it’s you. Get the gun.”

“What gun?”

“He had a gun in his hand.” I circled the torch beam on the rocks. No gun. Spider got to his knees. “Christ, you almost broke my arm.” He reached for the belaying pin with his good arm. “Give me that before he comes round.”

I held on to the belaying pin and moved back a couple of paces, still playing the beam on the ground. “Who is it?”

“Bartholomew.” Spider took a step forward. “Give me that belaying pin.”

“Not until I find out what’s going on.”

“Fuck you, then.” Spider turned and went over to the body on the ground. It was wearing yellow oilies. Spider reached into his own pocket. I shone the torch at his hands. He was holding a short length of rope. And near where it dangled an automatic pistol was lying on the rock. We both saw it at the same time. Spider reached for it. I swung the belaying pin and cracked it down on his arm. He howled and sat down hard clutching his other elbow. I picked up the gun.

“You’ve paralysed my other arm, you bastard.”

“Can you move your fingers?”

“Aye. No thanks to you.”

I picked up the length of rope he had dropped on the rock. “Tie his hands behind his back.”

“That’s what I was just about to do, you fucking idjit.”

Spider leaned over the figure in yellow oilies. He put one knee into the backbone, pulled the arms back and looped the wrists together. “Is he alive?” I asked.

“He’s breathing.” Spider stood up and started towards me.

“Stay just where you are. I’ve got the gun.”

“Ted, it’s me. Spider.”

“I saw you hit him.”

“Damned right I did. He killed him.”

“Angus Fergusson?”

“No, you fucking idjit. Charlie.”

“Charlie?”

“He killed him. Just now. He knocked Charlie into The Toilet.” Spider rubbed his arm and took a step forward.

“Take another step and I’ll kneecap you,” I said. I pushed what I hoped was the safety catch on the pistol.

“Don’t be an idjit.” He stepped forward.

I squeezed the trigger and the gun went off. It tore a splinter off the mewstone to the side of Spider’s boots. A chorus of maddened mewing rose off the cliffs. As the squawks of the gulls fell back into the darkness, there was a closer sound, a groan. I shone the torch on the yellow heap. It was stirring.

“Turn him over,” I said.

Spider grabbed the man’s shoulders and heaved him on to his back. I put the beam in his face. Bartholomew had shaved off his beard, I thought. And then he opened his eyes.

I looked at Spider. “You said it was Bartholomew.”

“I didn’t see his face.”

Lothar rolled forward on to his knees. He held his yellow sleeve up against the glare. “Who are you?” I held the torch under my chin. “You’re Ted. You wouldn’t hit me. It was that other bastard.”

I shone the beam on Spider. “That’s right, mate,” he said. “Just after you killed Charlie.”

“What did you see?” I asked Spider.

“I told you. I saw him knock Charlie into The Toilet.”

“What was Charlie doing here?” I asked.

“He had an appointment. With Bartholomew I reckoned.”

Lothar’s eyes were unfocused. He sat back and put one hand to his head. Spider took a step forward. “You killed Charlie, you bastard. You pushed him down the god-damned Toilet.”

“Did you see him do that?” I asked Spider.

“He’s not goddamn here is he?”

“I only saw two people cross to the mewstone.”

“One was Charlie. That bastard must have followed him from shore. I was expecting Bartholomew to come from the sea.”

“So how did you get here?”

“Dinny dropped me.”

“I didn’t see him,” I said.

Spider raised his arms in the air, and winced with the pain. “Ted, that fucker just threw Charlie Segui into The Toilet.” He had tears in his eyes.

Lothar groaned, holding his head with one hand and pointing with the other. “He came at me with a knife.”

“Who?”

Lothar was groggy. “It’s around here somewhere. I heard it fall on the rocks.”

“Let’s all go have a look,” I said. I waved the gun at Lothar and pointed the beam of my torch up towards the summit. “You first.” I prodded Spider with the belaying pin. “You next.” I played the light just in front of Lothar and we walked in single file. It was only a few metres. Three overlapping slabs of granite framed a triangular black hole. Lothar climbed up on to the higher level and turned. Spider stayed on the lowest level. I went up to the side where I could watch them both and flashed the torch about the rocks. There was no sign of a knife. The Toilet used to moan with the motion of the waves at the base of the moonstone, but there was no sound now. I aimed the shaft of light into the hole. It vanished into blackness.

I flicked the beam on to Lothar. He was sitting on the edge of the rock, his legs dangling over the crevice where we used to wedge ourselves to use The Toilet. “He’s making it up, Ted.”

“What are you doing here, Lothar?”

“I am working with the Customs and Excise. We’ve been tracking Spider for months. That’s why I came to Westowe.”

“And why did you leave?”

“To keep an eye out for his pals.”

“Where’s Matty?”

“She’s all right, Ted. I’ll take you to her.”

“Don’t listen to the bastard,” said Spider. “He’s a killer.”

“Why would he kill Charlie?”

“I don’t know.”

Lothar spoke again. “Have you got a dinghy, Ted?”

I spoke to Spider instead. “Is Dinny coming back to pick you up?

“At daylight.”

“Be careful, Ted,” said Lothar. “He tried to kill me.”

Was that the thump of Dinny’s diesel engine I heard an hour ago, or had it been the blood in my brain? I walked up past Lothar and shone the torch down into the passage between the mewstone and the shore. You could not clamber down into that chasm with your hands tied.

I turned to Lothar. “We’ll come back and collect you at dawn.”

“Ted, I’m your friend.”

“So is Spider, and I’ve known him a bit longer.”

Lothar leaned forward, beseeching. “Maybe he is a killer, Ted.”

“My tender’s on the ledge,” I said to Spider. “You’ll have to row.” I gestured with the gun in my right hand and the torch in my left. “My hands are full.” We started down the ridge towards the blanket of fog now moving up to meet us.

“Ted.” It was Lothar. I turned and saw him standing silhouetted against the stars. “Untie me. My hands are freezing.”

“Don’t be an idjit,” Spider growled.

“We’ll be back,” I said to Lothar.

Wind doesn’t always blow fog away. If the air remains warmer than the water, it just rumples it like a blanket. Short steep waves slapped against the wall of the mewstone and we took on a lot of water when we launched the dinghy. I sat on the port tube at the stern holding the gun and the torch while Spider rowed. A cross-sea broke over his shoulder.

“You’d better start bailing, Starsky,” he said.

I looked at the gun, put it in my pocket, and reached down and found the little plastic bucket that was secured to the dinghy by a lanyard. I started to bail. I knew when we cleared the outlier. The wind was fresher in my face, yet the waves were not so steep. I stopped bailing and shined the torch ahead in a 180 degree arc. I could see twenty metres of slapping waves, before the beam was absorbed by the wall of whiteness. I heard something above the whistle of the wind. The high-pitched metallic clanking of wind in rigging.

I held my hand up to Spider. “Ease off.”

He rested his oars and let the dinghy toss with the waves.

I shouted into the wind. “Angie.”

In the beam of the torch Spider’s face twisted in anger.

“You didn’t bring her out here?”

“Angie. Ahoy.”

“You stupid bastard.”

“Shut up and listen.”

We heard no answering voice, but above the whistle of the wind came the unmusical clank of the metal shrouds.

“It’s to port,” I said.

“Starboard,” said Spider.

In both directions water merged into fog like the inside of a clouded globe.

“Switch off the torch,” said Spider. “There, behind us.” He pointed just above my head. Spider spun the dinghy about and started rowing. And then I saw it. A dull green light flickered through the fog. Angie had lit the running lights.

“A bit to starboard,” I said. Spider put his back into it and in half a dozen strokes we came alongside the Amaryllis. The wind was stronger now and she was heaving on her anchor chain.

“Angie,” I called again. But there was no answer.

“Your anchor chain’s too short,” said Spider, and after he tied the dinghy on, he went up forward to let it out. I clambered down into the cabin and opened the forepeak. There was no one there. Spider rapped on the forward hatch. I unlatched it and his face leaned into the opening, tinged red in the light of the starboard lantern. “Didn’t you have a life raft?”

“It’s stowed on the coach roof. Right next to you.”

“Not now it isn’t. Where do you keep your flares?”

“Aft in the lazarette.”

When I got out into the cockpit Spider was digging into the lazarette. “Give me the torch,” he said. The plastic container of flares was missing.

“Some fucking sailor you are,” said Spider.

“She must have taken them.”

“Why did you bring her along?”

“She stowed away. She reckoned you were meeting Bartholomew out here.”

Spider looked back in the direction of the mewstone. “She’s gone there. Alone with that murderer.” He had to shout above the wind. It was shrieking through the shrouds now. The Amaryllis shuddered on her chain. “What genoa have you bent on?”

“Number one.”

He frowned. The wind drove thick shreds of fog down the length of the boat. We were at anchor, but the Amaryllis seemed to be moving through the water, pitching and yawing. “It’s gusting five, six maybe. A working jib would be better in close quarters. But let’s get going.”

We reefed the main, then Spider disappeared into the fog at the bow. A few seconds later he shouted “Haul away.” I pulled in the jib halyard and winched it up hard. Then I heard the heavy measured rattle of the anchor chain falling in lengths on the foredeck. Before Spider shouted “Anchor’s up,” the Amaryllis lunged her head away from the wind and the tiller bucked. I sheeted the port jib sheet in hard and we slid away like an express train into the woolly darkness on an easterly heading.

Spider clumped back into the cockpit. “You can put her about now.”

I held course.

“Put her about,” he commanded.

I slid my hand into my pocket of my oily jacket. “The gun is in my pocket. And it’s still pointed at your kneecaps.”

“I’ll point it up your ass if you don’t turn round for the mewstone.”

“I’ve only got your word about Lothar.”

“My word was always good enough for you.”

“That’s kid stuff.”

“So what are we, but a couple of grown-up kids?”

“Your trust account is empty.”

“You’re going to leave Angie out there with that killer?”

“I’ve got a choice of killers.”

“You don’t think I’d hurt Angie?”

“Somebody tried to hurt her. And me. In the Frying-pan.”

“I spotted that bucket on the leading light.”

“Funny that. Most people would never see it.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Get into Westowe and call out the lifeboat.”

“I’m the fucking coxswain, for fuck’s sake.”

“Puts you in a good position to know everything that’s going on.”

“Like what?”

“Like drugs and such.”

“Okay. You go get help. I’ll go back in the dinghy.” The dinghy was hauled up close on the stern. Spider reached for the painter.

I nudged him with the barrel of the gun which was in my pocket. “If you do that I’m going have to shoot you.”

“Okay, mate, but just in the foot please. A coxswain needs his kneecaps.” He stepped over me and took the painter in his hand. I took the gun out of my pocket, and aimed it at his legs. He looked at me over his shoulder and turned back to undo the painter. I pointed the gun up in the air and fired it. The sound echoed off the cliffs. I dropped the gun back into the pocket of my jacket and grabbed him around the throat with my free arm. Spider thrust his head back hard into my nose. The pain blinded me and I fell back on the cockpit floor. The tiller wrenched out of my hands, the Amaryllis swung up into the wind and shipped a huge following wave over the stern. She wallowed, sails flapping like gunfire. There was blood and sea water in my mouth. I struggled to my feet, pushed the helm up with one hand and reached for the jib sheet to surge it to free the sail. The Amaryllis lurched to starboard and I lost the tail of the sheet. The boat heeled hard to port and the gunwales streamed with sea water. The Amaryllis leapt forward, lying on her side. I felt for the winch. There were three turns on the drum and the bottom turn, the one leading from the sail to the drum, had been thrown up over the other two. A riding turn. The sheet was jammed solid and the big genoa, full of wind, was driving our nose into the sea. I let the main off, but the Amaryllis barely faltered. I was reaching for the jackknife swinging from my neck to cut the sheet rope when I heard Spider shout.

“Help! For Christ’s sake, help!”

The dinghy was gone. Spider was hanging off the stern, his arms wrapped around the guard rail stanchion. It was bending under his weight. It was probably the first time in his life Spider had asked anyone for help.

“Kick your seaboots off,” I shouted.

“I can’t.”

The safety line was rigged to an iron eye imbedded in a stern rib and rising up through the deck planking. It was fixed about a metre short of the transom where Spider hung. I pressed open the clip of my safety harness, freed it from the safety line and grabbing the line in my left hand leaned out over the guard rail with the clip in my right. I forced the clip and its trailing rope through the shoulder of Spider’s life jacket and tugged it back to fasten on to the safety line. It was inches short, so I clipped it around the mizzenmast instead. I stood up, grabbed the collar of Spider’s lifejacket with both hands and hauled. He got an elbow on the deck, and grabbed the top of the guard rail. A gust hit the Amaryllis just then, knocking her flat on her side. The guard rail snapped, and Spider pitched into the sea. I clung on to the mizzen. Spider was being dragged through the water face down, like a sea anchor. I took up some slack, undid the clip and it flew out and struck him in the face. But still his body came with us. The clip had wedged into his life jacket. The ring stitched to my life jacket was taking the full momentum of his weight trailing pell-mell through the sea behind the Amaryllis. With one arm wrapped around the mizzen I reached for the knife around my neck to cut him away. Then I thought again. What would Spider do in a case like this? A life buoy was mounted on the lazarette hatch at my feet. I yanked off my boots, clipped the line attached to the life buoy to my life belt, tossed the buoy over the stern, and let Spider’s weight drag both of us after it into the rushing wake.


Sunday, 24th July: 3

In the summer months the average water temperature around the south of England is fourteen degrees centigrade. You can survive for up to twenty-four hours before hypothermia will kill you. But you’ll be jolly uncomfortable. You can drown a long time before that. Just from the waves splashing over your head. You feel nothing when you hit the water, and it’s a few minutes before the cold starts to set into your bones. I fell on top of Spider and when I came to the surface his face was in the water. I forced his head and arms through the life buoy, but he kept dragging down, as if a sea monster had him by the toes. I reached down to feel along the length of his body and lift his legs. He was still wearing his seaboots and they were heavy with water. I deflated my life jacket, ducked under the surface, and after a struggle, sent them to the sea bed. Spider’s head rode higher off the waves now. With the little puff I had left it took me a while to reinflate my life jacket. In the glow of the little red lights on our life jackets, I could see the whites of his eyes. His pupils had rolled back into his head. But he was making gurgling noises. Reaching under his life jacket I found the safety clip that had bound us together, passed it round the life ring and back on to my clip. Now we were both secured to the buoy. I put my arms around him and pressed my face against his to shelter us both from the spray.

Then I began to feel the cold. I closed my eyes and hugged Spider’s limp body. Time stopped and the world shrank. It had been bounded by the black waves and the curling white fog. Now the world was internal. It was the cramp in my arm, jammed under Spider’s chin to keep his face out of the water, the salt water which forced up my nose and down my throat, the pain which throbbed behind my eyes and began to make a noise inside my head. It sounded just like the thump of a diesel engine.

“Ahoy.” A bright light shone on the waves.

I raised my head. The prow of a yacht probed through the glare. Something fell down from the fog. A life buoy bobbed in the waves just a few yards away. I flailed my arms, but Spider was a millstone linked to my neck. My hands were frozen lumps of meat; I used them to pry open the clip that bound us and pull it through his life jacket. I found the line attached to his life buoy and gripped it with my teeth. Now I could swim with both arms. I looked again for the life buoy thrown from the yacht. It was gone, and so was the yacht.

“Ahoy.”

I twisted my head. The glare came from behind. Again the life buoy splashed down from the fog and drifted towards me. I grabbed it and seconds later my hand was on a boarding ladder. I looked up into the brightness of the decklight and saw the face of God, white-bearded, with deep shadows for eyes. He was wearing an old-fashioned fisherman’s yellow slicker and he reached down and pulled me up by the collar. There was a great pain in my jaw. I still had Spider’s lifeline in my mouth and now it was taut with his weight. The old boatman in yellow seized it from my mouth and I flopped on the deck, retching sea water. I sat up. Spider’s body was bumping against the side of the boat. His eyes were open without seeing. The man in the yellow slicker clipped a halyard on to his life jacket. He turned the halyard on a winch and I got hold of an arm, but we couldn’t lift Spider’s dead weight further out of the waves than his armpits. His head lolled and banged against the side of the yacht. The skipper stepped over me and moved quickly to the bow of the boat. He came back with the clew of the foresail in his hand, crouched over the side and wrapped the end of the sail around Spider. He tugged the halyard to the clew, fastened it, and put his shoulders to the winch again. Spider rose from the sea in the cradle of the sail like a salmon in a flood of seawater. The skipper rolled him over on the deck and slapped his face.

Spider spoke. “Fuck off, idjit.” Then his head slumped down on his chest.

“Christ, it’s Spider,” said the man in yellow. The voice was familiar and when he turned to look at me he said, “I know you.” It was Bartholomew.

I don’t know how I got into the cabin. A great shiver ran up my back and rattled my teeth. A hot mug was put into my hands and I took a sip. It was coffee with lots of sugar. It ran down my chin. Another spasm chased down my spine and down my arms and shook the mug warming my hands. I took a second sip. I swallowed some coffee this time, and a wave of heat began to spread out from my chest. I put a hand to my face and my hand was cold as death. Spider was lying face down next to me on the cushioned seat, his eyes closed, breathing heavily. I put my hand to his forehead. There was no difference in temperature. We were both naked and stuffed into sleeping bags with a silver reflective blanket wrapped around us. The boat was a sleek Moody 37, about five years old. A diesel fuel heater was going full blast in the cabin and both cooking burners were flaring. Bartholomew crouched over Spider. His thumb rolled back an eyelid and I could see the white of Spider’s eye. Bartholomew probed Spider’s head gently with his fingers. He slapped his face. Spider winced and grunted. Bartholomew sat down on the bunk opposite and looked at me. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ll be all right. How’s Spider?”

“No abrasions. Let’s hope for the best.”

“Your wife’s on the mewstone,” I said. And I began to tell him what had happened. I spoke in garbled chunks, and he put the story together. After a while I found I could form syllables without slurring, but talking made me tired. I had to pause from time to time to find the words and put them on my tongue.

Bartholomew had turned off the decklight, and the yacht had no running lights either. There was a dim glow from a ceiling bulb. Outside, through the hatchway, the fog was as thick as snow. A white cornice hung over the cockpit cowling and veiled the steering wheel aft. The wind had dropped to a light breeze and the crash of the sea to a gentle slapping on the sides of the yacht. We were hove to, foresail backed to windward, the mainsail eased so the sails worked against each other and the helm lashed a little to leeward to keep them balanced. Reading off the depth gauge, Bartholomew reckoned we were a mile off the coast, just abreast the mewstone and drifting away from it at about one knot on a slackening current to the west. That’s where the wind was coming from, so if the fog lifted we’d have an easy reach back up to the mewstone at slack water, or later, on an easterly current. But then Bartholomew’s boat had an engine. Shouldn’t we put it on and nose into the mewstone now? My brain found it hard to think. I would leave it to Bartholomew.

He answered my thought. “There’s no point going in blind.”

“Even when you’re there you don’t know where you are,” I said. “Until you get above the fog.”

“And you two are not going to be any help.”

“I’ll be all right in a while.” I said. We both looked at Spider.

“He’ll come around, too,” said Bartholomew. “He’s got a pulse.”

“Unless he’s concussed.” I remembered then how the wee doctor had tested Matty. I pinched his finger hard. Spider grunted.

“I can’t use the radio,” said Bartholomew. “Officially I’m dead.” He paused, then he said. “You said Angie had flares.”

“I think she took them with her. There’s some in the life raft anyway.”

“She may have set one off.”

“Have you seen one?”

He shook his head. “You wouldn’t see much in this soup.”

I thought about that. “This fog bank is only about fifty metres thick. She could have set off an orange parachute flare. It would be visible ashore.”

“How come she got in the life raft and not you and Spider?”

I had got the sequence of events wrong. So I told him again. He got up to feel Spider’s head and hands again. “So you reckon she might be on the mewstone.”

“She would have heard the gun go off. There’s a paddle in the life raft. And a torch. It’s not very manoeuvrable, but we were anchored only yards away. With a bit of luck she could have found the landing ledge.”

“If she got there she wouldn’t have to send up a flare. She’s safe enough if that fellow’s hands are tied.” Bartholomew sat down and stared into his coffee cup. “Why did Angie come with you?”

“In her heart she always knew you were alive. And she thought Spider was going to meet you on the mewstone. I thought she was bonkers. But she was right.”

“She can be a very stubborn woman.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Have you two got a thing going?”

Having a close brush with death is a wonderful truth serum. “I have. She hasn’t.” He nodded. “Use the radio,” I said.

He raised his eyes to me and shook his head “If the fog lifts while it’s still dark we’ll have a go. Otherwise, we’ll just have to sit tight and hope for the best.” He brushed something out of his eye, maybe a tear, maybe just old man’s rheum. “You didn’t actually see this chap kill anyone?”

“No, but I did see two people cross over from the mainland. And Spider says he was landed by Dinny’s launch. Which figures. So somebody’s missing. Mind you, Lothar says Spider’s involved with drug smugglers.” Spider gave a great shiver. I realised my own spasms had subsided. “And I suppose he could be a serial murderer too. If anyone at all has been murdered. I was hoping you could tell me that.”

“Hark.” I hadn’t heard that word in years. Bartholomew put his forefinger to his lips. Above the slap of the waves and creak of the rigging as the boat lumbered through the swell, there was a dull drone. Bartholomew climbed out into the cockpit. Before he came back the drone had faded away.

“There’s someone under power out there,” he said. “A ship out in the Channel or a yacht somewhere nearby. Can’t tell which direction.”

“Can you see the Grise Heel light?”

“I couldn’t see my dick if I was taking a pee over the side.”

I held out my empty mug. “Not so much sugar this time. What brought you back to Westowe?”

“What brought you?”

“You tell me first. Maybe you can convince me it’s not a good idea to use the radio.” My oily jacket was part of the heap Bartholomew had pushed into a hanging cupboard amidships. If the Velcro had held, the gun was probably still in the pocket. “I know Spider found you and Matty in Corsica.”

A light came into Bartholomew’s eyes. “Have you seen Matty? Do you know where she is?” He was handing me the fresh mug of hot coffee, and his hand trembled. The blue veins stood out proud on the back of it and it was sprinkled with spots like tobacco stains. His voice was too eager. He was like a man who had been locked in solitary, and wanted to talk about what he had been thinking. Matty was the key to unlock Bartholomew. So I shook my head, which was a truthful answer to his second question, at least.

“Tell me about her. From the beginning,” I said. The beginning was a lot earlier than I’d expected.

“You left Westowe when — twenty-five years ago?” asked Bartholomew.

“Twenty-eight.”

“The night of Nick Farthing-Tattersall’s twenty-first.”

“And mine. How do you remember that?”

“That was the night I first made love to Angie. In the garden under the magnolia tree.” My hands clenched in the sleeping bag, and I sat up a little straighter. Bartholomew took his eyes from my face to gaze at the floorboards.

“I suppose I owe you an apology.” He looked back up at me. “Well, not you, maybe. But someone.”

“Angie, maybe.”

“Angie, certainly. She’d had too much to drink. She was emotionally distressed. And she was just twenty. I was about to become forty, drunk and emotionally distressed, too. I was living with somebody and it wasn’t working out.”

“The Figurehead.”

“Gwendolyn.”

“You painted her nude. You used to let us watch.”

“We were at each other’s throats all the time. She was in and out of my life like the tide.”

“So you started up with Angie.”

“No. The next morning she came up and thanked me. For looking after her that night. She’d had a blackout. Couldn’t remember a thing. But after that we were close. She was a woman masquerading as a twenty-year-old. And little by little I began to feel — comfortable with her. But I didn’t make love to her again. Not until after she had her baby.”

“She had an abortion.”

God knew better. He shook his silvery head. “She concealed her pregnancy. Nobody knew. Not even me. She went up to see you in London. As far as she knew, she hadn’t slept with anyone except you.”

“She told me she had abortion.”

“Did you see her then?”

“I never knew she came up.”

Bartholomew shook his head again. “She lost her nerve. Or changed her mind. She stayed up there with friends until she was almost full term. Then she came back home and went straight to Mam Meersman. Mam delivered it.”

I remembered Angie’s yarn about the hospital with the teddy bear curtains. The lady had a vivid imagination. “Whose baby was it?”

He fixed me with tired eyes. “Biologically, it could have been yours or mine. Spiritually, I accepted the responsibility.”

“A girl?”

“Yes. Still-born.”

“You sure?”

“I held it in my hand. Like a little dead rabbit.”

“What happened to Gwendolyn?”

“I’d thrown her out. But she hung around. Screwing half the plough boys in the county. She got herself pregnant, too. When she was well past it. Just to prove she could do it, I suppose. Mocking me. Left town soon after with the child.”

“A girl?”

“Yes.”

“Yours?”

“Impossible. I hadn’t slept with her for months before I kicked her out.”

“So you made an honest woman of Angie.”

“I worshipped her.”

“I’ve seen the ‘Angel Child’.”

Bartholomew smashed a clenched fist into his hand. “She broke her promise.”

“I reckon you’ve broken a few.”

“No one was supposed to see that until I was dead.”

“You are dead.”

“You said she doesn’t believe that. I didn’t think that body would fool her.”

“You did that?” Even now, I couldn’t believe that Bartholomew — that anyone I knew — could kill a man. “Whose body was it?”

“What do you think of it?”

Was he mad? “What — the body in your oilies?”

I had forgotten that Bartholomew had the ego of an artist. He had focused on a greater issue. “’Angel Child’.”

“I think it shows you were very much in love with her.”

Bartholomew shook his head and stared at the floorboards a little while before he answered. “It’s full of guilt. The rape of the innocent. As a work of art there was too much of me in it. And her. We worked on it together. We were both a little crazy. And the guilt and the craziness turned into respect and something warm. Love, maybe. And I married her.”

“’Angel Child’ has revived your reputation.”

“We made a pact not to show it. Until one of us died.” He turned his eyes up at me. They were bloodshot. “Why did she break her word?”

Another voice answered. “She wanted you back, you great toad. You got some hot coffee?” Spider sat up and gave a great shiver. “Who turned the fucking air conditioning on?”

Bartholomew made a cup of coffee for Spider and some hot soup for him and me. He gave me some dry clothes to get into while Spider shivered in his sleeping bag. Bartholomew gave him the hot mug. Spider’s teeth clacked on it, and he drew in a sip. “Your wife’s on the mewstone with a murderer,” he said to Bartholomew.

“Maybe,” I said.

Spider took a draught of his hot drink, and nodded at me. “What’s he been telling you?”

“He reckons you’ve been smuggling drugs and pushing your chums off cliffs.”

“Funny,” said Spider to Bartholomew. “That’s what I reckoned you were up to. So I clocked you one. Only you turned out to be Lothar.”

“Who?” asked Bartholomew.

“The bloke on the mewstone,” I answered. “A customs agent, he says.”

Spider gave another answer. “A serial murderer, says I.”

“He’s pretty thick with Pixie and Poxy,” I said. “And Eddy Starr.”

“Eddy’s pretty thick all by himself,” said Spider. He looked at me. “You still got that gun you keep missing me with?” Without glancing at the cupboard where my oily jacket was stowed I nodded. “I reckon that puts you in charge,” said Spider. “So why don’t you ask Bartholomew to tell us what he’s been up to since I seen him last, or you’ll shoot him in his painting wrist.”

Once Bartholomew would have sent Spider up the mast to clean the masthead light lens for that kind of insolence. But we were all grown men now. Or acting like it. It was now too warm in the cabin. The fog hovered outside the hatchway, a nest of vaporous tendrils writhing in the cockpit. Bartholomew turned off the flames on the gas cooker, and stripped off his outer jumper. With it went his bulk. Bartholomew was almost thin. His face was drawn and the wisps on his head were white like the fog. He was an old man.

He set three plastic tumblers on the table and pulled the cork out of a bottle of brandy. “Your tongue’s recovered, at least,” he said to Spider. “A tot wouldn’t kill you now.” He poured each of the tumblers one-quarter full. As he handed Spider his glass he said, “You were right about Matty.” I shot Spider a warning glance. His eyes were dull and I couldn’t tell if he’d taken my signal on board. Bartholomew continued with a shake of his white head, “She ran off again with Wolfgang.”

“Wolfgang?”

“That sailing bum in Corsica.”

Spider shrugged, “I never met him. His boat was laid up in Bonifacio when Matty came back to you. Did he surface again?”

Bartholomew slumped on his seat. “I never saw him again. But he must have kept in touch afterwards — followed her somehow.”

Spider changed the subject. “So what did you do when Charlie told you that the insurance claim was dodgy and we couldn’t find any of your paintings?”

Bartholomew grimaced. “That bitch destroyed them.”

“Who?” I asked.

Bartholomew growled at me. “My widow. How can anyone destroy art?”

I’d never heard anyone call Angie a bitch before. I was shocked, but too curious to complain. “How did you two keep in touch?” I asked.

“Charlie did all that,” said Spider. “By E-mail. Bartholomew’s drinking chums in the local taverna are heavily into technology.”

“His overseas property deal,” I remembered. “Charlie told Rabbit he was working on a big deal in the Med.”

Spider looked at Bartholomew. “Tell us about the deal you and Charlie were working on.”

Bartholomew raised an eyebrow. He looked very tired. “You know about that?”

Spider heaved a sigh. “I went to see Charlie in his office the other day. He had a proper crisis. A very worried budgie. He broke down and told me the whole story. That’s why he and I were expecting to see you here tonight.”

“No one knew I would be here tonight.”

“Tell us about it.” Spider’s voice was hard.

Bartholomew started to pour himself another brandy, but saw he hadn’t touched what was already in his plastic tumbler. He started to talk in a toneless monotone which was sometimes hard to hear against the creak of the rigging and the water gurgling past the hull just a few inches away.


Monday, 25th July: 1

“We needed money. To make a new life in Australia. Charlie was a mem­ber of Colonel Meeker’s Lloyds syndicate. He was being bankrupted. He had been hoping to cash in by selling the club property. But when Spider came back from Corsica and told him I was alive, the golden share put paid to that. He had sought Colonel Meeker’s advice in setting up my finances abroad. When I was reported missing, and then Charlie turned to him again about my insurance and so on, Meeker reckoned we had deliberately staged my demise. Charlie thought he was going to blow the whistle on us. But Meeker was in difficulties himself, and so he blackmailed us. He forced us to arrange his own disappearance in the same way. Charlie would make the financial arrangements again, I’d met some people in Corsica who could give him a new identity, and he’d cut us all in.

“I told Matty I had to go back to England to sort out financial affairs. But she insisted on coming with me. We sailed together as far as La Coruña. We had a row because she thought I was going back to Angie. In the end, at the spring tide, I just had to sail off. The weather was okay, so I confirmed the rendezvous with Charlie at spring low tide, when you could walk to the mewstone.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“A message to the sailing club on channel 80, asking for a berth, which was a coded signal meaning that I was on my way. Meeker left his dinghy in Fairfoul Bay, Charlie met him on shore to show him where he could walk across to the mewstone, I anchored off it and picked him up in my tender.

“So Colonel Meeker is alive?” I asked.

“He was a little green about the gills when I dropped him at the quayside in Brest, but he was ambulatory.”

“Where is he now?”

“Charlie set it up by E-mail with the crowd in Corsica. I didn’t want to know.” He took a sip of the brandy. “I called Matty from Brest and the landlord said she’d left. When I got back to La Coruña, I’d been away the best part of a week. It seems one day an American who’d been sailing a forty-five foot ketch around the world dropped anchor. He’d just buried his wife in Egypt and was at the bitter end of the anchor chain. A bloke in his sixties called Samuel Cody. He was on his way back home to Florida in his yacht. Matty signed on with him.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because she’d never been there, according to the guy who ran the local marina.”

“A good enough reason for Matty,” I said.

Bartholomew gave me a sharp glance. “You said you hadn’t met Matty.”

Spider and I exchanged glances. “I’ve heard a lot about her,” I told Bartholomew.

“There was another reason. Cody had taken on a deckhand in Bonifacio. Her chum, Wolfgang.” Bartholomew stood up and slid back the gangway hatch. A damp fold of fog crept into the hatchway, and he slid the roof shut and sat down again. “I had the name of Cody’s yacht, Goose Girl. He had filed a voyage plan with the Comandancia de Puerto. First stop, Isles of Scilly.”

“Where did he think Florida was? At the North Pole?” asked Spider.

“I went after them. I was beating into the wind twenty miles south of Bishop Rock, in the middle of the western approaches, when I saw a boat approaching under power from the north. It was that fishing caique.”

“The one that sank you off Corsica?” asked Spider.

Bartholomew nodded. “San Vicano, it was called. And when I put the binoculars on it, there was the same evil bastard in a red bandanna with his binoculars on me. Plus the other two. We were passing port to port, but they altered course towards me.” He pointed at the hanging locker. “There’s a rifle in there. I went below and got it and pinged three shots into their rigging from about two hundred metres. They jumped about like barefoot kids on hot sand, veered off and then a strange thing happened. I got a call on channel 16.”

“Do you have your call sign on the sails?” asked Spider.

“No. That’s the amazing thing. Somehow they knew it. And even stranger, the guy said, ‘Est-ce vous, Monsieur Blake?’”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“My name now. The name in the passport of the guy who owns this boat. Who asked me to look after her when he went off to Paris.”

“What’s happened to him?” I asked.

“I haven’t heard from him since. Mind you, I haven’t left a forwarding address.”

“So, they were pals of Blake’s,” Spider conjectured. “They knew the boat and were checking if he was on it. What happened next?”

“I went up on deck and slammed another couple of rounds into their rigging. They turned and chugged off to the south-west. On my heading, up north, where they had come from, was a smudge on the horizon. That’s where I met Mr Cody. I picked up some charred bits of wood, and this.” Bartholomew rose and lifted the lid of a locker. On top of a pile of ropes was a lifebuoy with the name Goose Girl.

Bartholomew drained his brandy glass, poured another and sat down again. “Then I found a floating body with no identification on it. I lashed it to the stern and searched the area for a couple of hours, but there was no sign of Matty or the German sailing bum. The smoke was still hanging over the scene when I got there, so if they’d been set adrift in the dinghy, I would have found them. I reckoned the pirates might have taken them on board. So I broadcast a Mayday on channel 16. I reckoned the caique would resume its southerly heading as soon as I was out of sight. I calculated where that would bring them and faked a message from Goose Girl reporting a collision with the San Vicano just north of the traffic separation zone off Ile d’Ouessant.”

“Which would bring the French Coast Guard down on top of them,” I put in.

Spider was thinking ahead of me. “And an unidentified body was just what you needed at the time — to validate your insurance claim.”

Bartholomew nodded. “Sam Cody was about my age and build. I recognised him from the description I had in La Coruña.”

“He had no head,” I said.

“He had no face. But he had a head. I had to hack it off. He was badly burned. They must have shot him in the head and then blown up the boat.” He spread his hands face down on the table, interlocking the fingers which read LOVE and HATE. Bartholomew had strong hands with stubby fingers. More like a butcher than an artist. He looked down at them. “The hands had to go, too. Then I stuffed what was left of Mr Cody into my oilies, towed him back up-Channel and dropped him off Westowe one night on a rising tide.”

“The French navy picked up the crew of the Vicano,” said Spider. “According to the newspapers, they were running drugs up from Morocco to the south coast. They’d buoy a package and sink it for pick-up by local contacts. If you knew just where and when to find it you’d need only a dinghy with an outboard.”

Bartholomew nodded. “I read about the capture of the San Vicano, but there was no mention of Matty and the sailing bum.”

Spider looked at me, and then back to Bartholomew. “What do you reckon happened to them?”

Bartholomew lowered his head into his hands. “That’s down to me. The Vicano crew probably had taken them on board. Then they may have heard my radio message. And killed the witnesses before they were tracked down.”

Spider hadn’t touched his brandy. Now he took a drink, coughed, wiped his mouth and leaned back against the cushions. “That was early February. What mischief have you been up to lately?”

“I’ve been in the Biscay ports. From Ile d’Ouessant to La Coruña. Looking for Matty. Reading the English papers. Trying to work out what to do next.”

“You didn’t go back to Corsica?”

“No.”

“What about the Scillies?”

“I didn’t want to risk going into an English port.”

“Or back to the mewstone?”

“Why would I go there?”

“Because Charlie’s been knocking out more customers for you on the full moon. Nickers. Malcolm Goodfellow.”

“And Fergusson?” I asked Spider.

“Charlie knew nothing about Fergusson.”

“Nothing to do with me,” said Bartholomew. “What’s Charlie been spinning you?”

“Maybe it’s your turn tell us a story,” I said to Spider.

Spider turned his pale blue eyes on me. “Would you believe a serial murderer?”

“Maybe. When you went in the water I went in after you.”

“You’ve always been a good-hearted sort of idjit,” said Spider. For the first time the three of us smiled. Spider drained his glass and I refilled all the tumblers. Spider shook his head at Bartholomew. “You were an idjit to let Charlie involve you with Colonel Meeker. And he was an idjit, too. That’s how I knew he was up to something.”

“What was his game?”

“There had to be a reason for Meeker to come to Westowe. And to distract any suspicion from himself, Charlie got you to write the letter.”

“Why me?”

“Because he hated you.” He said that without emphasis, as it if it were as obvious as Charlie being five-foot-eight-inches tall.

“Charlie hated me?”

“Didn’t you know?”

“What did I ever do to Charlie?”

Spider looked at me as if I were a child. “Because you always called him ‘Proper Charlie’. Because you were always playing jokes on him. Tricking him into showing us all his testicles.”

A vision flicked into my brain. A group of children standing in the woods. I told Charlie we were playing ‘Full Moon’. I got one of his sisters — Ronnie? — to bend over and drop her drawers. There was only her bottom to see. Then Charlie had to do it and we all saw his dangling bits. The girls all giggled. I saw Charlie pulling up his short trousers, glaring at me with hate through his tears.

Spider wasn’t finished yet. “But most of all because you used to let him copy your work in exams.”

“You’re joking.”

“Because you knew he was a cheat. So he always wanted to show he was smarter than you. That’s the way people are.” He sat back and talked to the roof of the cabin. “Charlie’s scam worked all right with Colonel Meeker. But when the body floated in, which everyone thought was Bartholomew, Charlie panicked.” Spider looked at me. “Do you remember how he reacted that day when we met him outside his office and told him about it.”

“He vomited,” I said.

“Charlie’s stomach was too weak for a proper villain. Bartholomew was supposed to have taken Meeker back to Corsica with him. Charlie kept E-mailing the address in Corsica, but got no reply. Finally, he got desperate enough to send a guarded fax. And then he got an E-mail back.”

“Not from me,” said Bartholomew. “I picked up three E-mails, but I reckoned he was just panicking.”

“Did you answer him?”

“No. And I don’t have a fax. I’d told him I wouldn’t be in communication any more. It might have been a trap. Someone could have found out.”

Spider looked at Bartholomew unblinking. “Anyways, the reply said everything had gone according to plan. Which calmed him down. And then, somehow, Lord Nick found about the Meeker scam. He told Charlie he wouldn’t half mind disappearing from his problems either, if some cash could be wrung out of it. So Charlie obliged with another financial deal. And, to ice the cake, it gave him the opportunity to collect insurance on that catamaran he couldn’t sell. He needed a stooge to crew for Nickers, to make it more credible, so naturally Charlie thought of you, Ted. When you turned him and Nick down, he set up Simon instead. Which was easy because Simon was being worked on a lead by the Customs, who always had a close eye on Nickers, the best-known druggie in the west country.”

“Charlie and Nick would have killed me?”

“They reckoned you could swim. I don’t know whether they bothered to ask Simon. Charlie had repeated the arrangements by E-mail for the next full moon spring tide. He borrowed a dinghy in Grise Heel Village for a bit of night fishing and kept a rendezvous with Nick’s yacht while Simon was off watch down below. Nick was decent enough to set an alarm for him. Then he pegged the helm, tore the cockpit netting and set out in the tender. Charlie ferried him back to Grise Heel village and they walked along the path to the mewstone for the pick-up just like before.”

“Which is why Charlie had wellies on when I saw him that night,” I said. “And why he had to say he’d been to Rabbit’s.” I looked at Spider. “That was the night you pretended to be pissed and went out in Dinny’s launch. What were you up to?”

Spider moved his tumbler in small circles on the table as he talked. “It all began the night Colonel Meeker disappeared,” said Spider. “Eddy Starr was the sparks on duty that night. He picked up a channel 80 radio message to the club. From a French boat called Brise du Janvier, asking for a berth and giving an ETA.”

“So?”

“You know Eddy. He knew the Customs boys were monitoring yacht channels, and he wanted to play games too. Nobody can turn a coincidence into a conspiracy quicker than Eddy.”

“What coincidence?”

“The vessel’s name was the name of the month. Janvier. And the ETA was twelve hours later, which seemed a long time in advance.”

Bartholomew spoke. “That was the code I agreed with Charlie. To tell him when I’d be at the mewstone. He had to deduct six hours from the ETA.”

Spider grinned. “Eddy thought it was just a little unusual. And he also discovered that the boat had radioed in again to cancel the berth about eight hours later. So, naturally he wrote it all down in his little book.”

“The second message was to confirm I’d made the pick-up,” said Bartholomew.

Spider looked at me. “Eddy also noticed one of his coincidences. It was around the time of a full moon. So he got your Pixie and Poxy worked up about the next full moon. March 26th.”

“Are they C and E?”

“Eddy thinks so. I’m not so sure. Any road, they all reckoned they’d use the castle as an observation post that night, so when you happened along they had to give you a little tap on the head.”

“Which one? The big slob?”

“No. Eddy volunteered for the job. He told me he thought they might hurt you too much.” Spider grinned. “On the other hand, maybe he thought you were becoming a little too neighbourly with Rabbit. Any road, that’s all that happened.”

Except, I thought, that Matty had turned up, perhaps by appointment, and someone had beaten her up. Spider went on. “And then, the night Lord Nick disappeared, the 27th of April, the lifeboat watchroom picked up a message from a French yacht wanting a berth. Le Diable d’Avril. With an ETA in ten hours. Two days after full moon. And this time Eddy was dead excited. Because in the meanwhile, the Coast Guard had circulated a list of French boats they wanted the lifeboats to keep a look out for. A list which included Brise du Janvier and Le Diable d’Avril. For some reason I don’t know, they set up an elaborate surveillance off Sheepshead Point.”

“That was the opposite direction from the mewstone,” I said.

Spider nodded. That’s why Dinny and I went out on a little private patrol. But only as far as The Devil’s Coat-tails.”

“Why?”

Diable d’AvrilApril Devil. I figured there was a connection.” He looked at Bartholomew. “I was wrong.”

“Half a tick,” said Bartholomew. He got up and pulled out a drawer under the plotting table. I moved past Spider to the cupboard and groped for my oily. The gun was still in the pocket. Do handguns work, I wondered, if they’ve been immersed in salt water? But when Bartholomew turned around, he had a chart in his hand. He spread it on the table in front of us. It was ‘Chart no. 2649, English Channel, Western Portion’. On the French side it covered most of Brittany and Normandy. It showed the English coast from the Isles of Scilly to the Isle of Wight. Along that coast a dozen positions were marked very close inshore. They were numbered 1 to 12. The precise longitude and latitude was written next to each one, down to the tenth of a minute. The locations were approximations only, they could only be plotted accurately on much larger scale charts.

“So, what’s all this?” I asked.

Bartholomew pointed into the empty sea area in the south-west corner of the chart. Someone had written a dozen names here in ink, and numbered them 1 to 12. The first one was Brise du Janvier. Its plot was off Mullion Cove, west of the Lizard. All the other months of the year were named, too. Number four was Le Diable d’Avril. That was plotted beyond Sheepshead Point, just three sea miles east-south-east of the castle.

“Where did you get this?” asked Spider.

“It was in the case with all the other charts. I thought of it when I had to dream up a code for the yacht name for Charlie. I used the first one on the list.”

Spider ran his finger down the names. “This is the same list we got from the Coast Guard. None of them are actual French-registered yachts. ‘L’esprit du Juin’. That was the message we heard the night Malcolm disappeared. Joie du Juillet. That must have been the one Charlie arranged for himself tonight.”

“Fergusson?” I asked.

Spider was tired. “Forget fucking Fergusson. Nobody knows nothing about Fergusson. Fergusson don’t fucking fit in, do he?”

Bartholomew spoke. “So who picked these people up?”

“You’ve got the list of code names,” said Spider.

“I picked up Meeker. No one else.”

“Whose E-mail address was it?” asked Spider.

“Mine. I set it up through the guy who owns the tavern on the beach at Punta Palazzo. He’s got a computer.”

“He could have been doing a bit of freelancing,” I said.

“He doesn’t know the password.”

“Who does?” asked Spider.

“Just me.” Bartholomew moved his tumbler around in little circles.

“And who else?” Spider pressed.

Bartholomew grunted. “Matty would have guessed it. It was sort of a pet name she had for me. She knew I used it for my bank accounts and such.”

“If you had this password you wouldn’t have to go to Corsica to access that E-mail address would you? You could do it from anywhere in the world,” said Spider.

“Sure. You have to reconfigure the link to your service provider. But you can do it. Whenever I got near a computer I checked. But after those three from Charlie, there were never any messages.”

Spider scratched his head. “One thing Charlie said. After the body washed in he was frantic to contact Bartholomew. When he finally got a response, it gave him a new E-mail address to use. For security, was the reason. Looks like somebody hijacked your scheme.”

“Somebody who had a copy of that list of boat names,” I said. I turned to Spider. “Was Superbloke involved in all this?”

“He knew nothing about it. It was plain to me that he and Charlie were colluding to get their hands on the club, like most of the rest of the members. But I knew Bartholomew’s golden share would stop them. So did Charlie, when I told him Bartholomew was alive. But Malcolm thought Bartholomew was dead. He was cheating on Charlie, with his deal on the side with Lord Nick to acquire the castle from Angie. It was a way to bail both of them out of their financial problems. When Nickers disappeared, Malcolm’s world started to collapse. And when Angie’s exhibition succeeded against all the odds, his game was up. Unless Angie failed to repay his loan.” Spider looked at me. “Malcolm was always an opportunist. And he saw an opportunity to tamper with the leading lights and lure you and Angie into the Frying-pan. At least that’s what Charlie figured.”

“And dropping me into the Frying-pan as well was just bye-the-bye?”

“Spider grinned. “That was just a bonus. What drove Malcolm was status. With Angie dead and Bartholomew presumed dead, he could exercise his option on the castle and maintain his position as a country gentleman.”

“I suppose he was a Lloyd’s name, and all.”

Spider nodded. “They was all greedy buggers, sucked in by Colonel Meeker. Anyways, after that game failed there was only one way out. He and Nick were pretty thick and Nick had dropped some hints about his plans. Malcolm put two and two together and threatened to expose Charlie unless he furnished him with the same escape route. Charlie was furious, but as usual, he saw a way to make some more money out of his chum’s predicament. So long as the financial dodges were in place, all it took was another E-mail.”

I remembered standing with Rabbit and Charlie on the clifftop watching the dripping body twisting in the air at the end of the helicopter line. “Charlie dropped his cookies again,” I said, “when he thought it was Malcolm they were hauling out of the Frying-pan.”

“That’s when he started to get worried again. He began to wonder if all these people really had been picked up safely. Or if Bartholomew had gone completely mad and was just doing away with them. They were all carrying large amounts of cash with them, as well as bank account documentation and all the rest. Things a clever Corsican could open lots of doors with. So Charlie pressed his panic button.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s what he called it. He had agreed a coded message with each of them before they left. A different code for each. Meaningless to anyone else. It was a signal to contact him immediately. He sent three messages — to Meeker, Lord Nick and Malcolm — to the usual E-mail address, with instructions to pass them on.”

“And?”

“Heard nothing.”

“Nothing from Meeker?” That was Bartholomew.

Spider gave him a steady glance. “Nothing from nobody.”

“And then?” I asked.

“Then he cracked. And cried on my shoulder. And told me everything. And that’s why we’re sitting in this fog tonight. I told him he had to set up one more delivery. Himself. And I’d be there to protect him. Only, like the guns at Singapore I was looking out to sea, waiting for a boat, and the bastard followed him in from the land.”

“Someone did come by boat,” I said. I looked at Bartholomew.

Bartholomew drained his tumbler of brandy before speaking. “I heard the channel 80 message from the Joie du Juillet. Which I recognised from the list of codes. And I heard the ETA. So I reckoned something was going on here again.”

“Why take the risk of coming back home?” asked Spider.

“Because it was a woman’s voice. And it sounded like Matty.”

We all heard the slow muffled thump of a distant diesel engine. Bartholomew poked his head out of the hatch. The muffled sound faded into silence and he sat down again.

Spider looked at me. “It’s too soon for Dinny. You reckon Matty’s in cahoots with Lothar?”

Hope raised Bartholomew’s head.

“Matty’s alive,” I told him.

The white beard on the lower half of God’s face split into a grin and his eyes widened. “You’ve seen her?”

Spider gave us his squinty-eyed look, which meant that he was about to say something shrewd. “This German she went off with. What’s he look like? This Wolfgang.”

Bartholomew grimaced. “Big, raw-boned blonde guy. Strong as an ox. You couldn’t mistake him. Not if you were a woman. He pulled down his trousers one night in the taverna and laid it on the table. It was a bet with a waiter about the size of their cocks. He won by a centimetre. It had a wolf tattooed on it.”

I sat up. “Is Matty tattooed?”

“Matty doesn’t have a cock.”

“Thank Christ for that,” said Spider.

“Does she have a tattoo anywhere on her body?” I asked.

“No. And I’ve seen it all,” said Bartholomew.

“She has now,” I said. Bartholomew stared hard at me.

Spider avoided mayhem. “I haven’t seen his cock, but your man on the mewstone — Lothar —is Wolfgang. She went off with him.”

Bartholomew shut his eyes tight as if he had a sharp headache. Then he opened them wide, stood up and slid open the hatch cover. He spoke out into the night. “We’d better have a go.”

The fog swam in and wrapped around his upper body like a loose cablestitch jumper. I ground my teeth. He would risk everything — not for Angie — but for Matty.


Monday 25th July: 2

Time and space, thought and perception, hung suspended in a white ball of wool. The only reality was the slow plod of the engine, the rise and fall of the deck I felt through my knees and the light slap of the sea yielding under the prow. There were no white curls on the waves now, and in the absence of wind the fog clung to the surface of the water like a damp sponge. I stood in the pulpit holding a boathook upright, the bedraggled ghost of a Norse invader, while Bartholomew nosed L’Aventure Doux eastwards at low revs. We were making just one knot through the water, but the current added another. Looking aft, Bar­tholomew appeared as a dark shape at the helm. Which meant I could see perhaps ten metres forward. So anything I saw we would probably hit.

The constant is things change. When change came it was a green light. It was off the port beam at about ten o’clock. And before the cry rose in my throat I saw a red light just to the right of it. The running lights of a boat heading straight at us. My arm shot out to point, as I wheeled to aim the shout that came out of my mouth aft. “Collision to port!”

Bartholomew gave the engine full throttle and swung the bow to starboard. I dropped the boathook on the deck, grabbed a halyard in each hand and braced for the impact. Then I thought of Spider lying in the bunk amidships. I grabbed at the forward hatch cover, but it was locked from the inside. We should have collided by now. A fog horn blasted. I looked up. The red and green lights were gone. Bartholomew had put the engine into neutral. I moved astern and climbed into the cockpit next to him. The foghorn was in his hand. He raised it and gave another prolonged blast. We listened, but there was no answering sound, only the sluggish tick of our idling engine.

“There was a boat,” I insisted.

“Did you see a steaming light?”

“No.”

“She must be riding at anchor.”

Bartholomew nudged the accelerator handle forward. The compass swung until we were heading back slightly north of west.

“There she is.” Bartholomew pointed. A dim red light hung in the air just off the bow. I ran forward and held a fender alongside as we glided up to a white-hulled sailing boat with a blue spray hood. Its sails were furled and on the blue sail cover its name was picked out in white: Snow Queen.

I jumped aboard and passed a warp around a cleat on the forward deck while Bartholomew tied on aft. The cabin was unlocked. I went below and flashed my torch about. No one was aboard. Stuffed into a cubby-hole was a pair of dayglo mauve and green trainers and some other familiar clothing. As I clambered back aboard L’Aventure Doux, Spider poked his head out of the hatchway.

I said, “I thought you said Lothar walked over from the shore.”

“You saw him yourself.” Spider wiped his brow with the back of his hand.

“I saw only two figures.”

“If he’d come by sea I would have heard him,” said Spider, emerging from the hatchway. He stumbled, although the two boats, linked together, were rocking only gently in the swell.

“Matty,” I said into the night. “The cabin’s full of her scent markings.”

Bartholomew swung an uplifted arm. I flinched, but he was pointing aft. The mist lifted like a curtain and there, a hundred metres away, was the mewstone, silhouetted like a cathedral against a starry sky and moon-rimmed cliffs, its base trimmed with white lace work.

“We’re lying just west of it,” said Spider.

“The ledge is under water now,” I said.

Bartholomew pointed “We go up the chain.” I took up the binoculars. What looked like a ragged constellation of fallen stars glinted in the moonlight on the abrupt west face of the mewstone. “The Coast Guard was planning to put a beacon there. The chain is slippery, but it’s got rungs.”

“So that’s how you got Meeker off,” I said.

“There’s something on the water’s edge,” said Spider. I lowered the binoculars and a hemisphere swam into view. It was the yellow dome of my life raft. And next to it was an inflatable dinghy. Then the mists descended and shut down the scene like the end of a slide show.

I grabbed the chain first. It wasn’t a proper ladder, just a series of links with iron bars welded athwart at intervals. It was fixed only at the top and bottom so we had to go up one at a time. The chain sprawled up a steep slope; it wasn’t a climb, but a slippery crawl. When I reached the topmost piton I stood up, and walked out of the fog like a swimmer coming out of the sea. The moon had sunk beyond the cliffs; the black stage above the clouds was lit only by starlight. And then the Grise Heel light fell upon it. In the juddering discotheque light I saw three monochrome snapshots. Two figures coming together. Clenching. Or fighting. A large one and a small one.

In the ten seconds of blackness I moved forward, following the yellow disc of my torch on the rock. Three more flashes. It was a man and a woman. They were embracing. They didn’t see me.

Then I slipped and fell and pain seared into my ankle. It was strained and I could not stand up. I crouched on two arms and one knee, the aching leg stretched out behind me. Grise Heel light blinked again. Now there was only one figure on the skyline moving jerkily in the stroboscopic flashes. It was the larger one.

I twisted round and shone my torch behind me. I flashed it twice. It caught a figure moving up the slope. Bartholomew. But he was a long way behind.

I looked forward again, and saw three freeze frames. The first two were in monochrome. Two figures meeting across a narrow strip of starry sky. The third frame was in colour. An orange burst of fire and smoke. A glimpse of a contorted face. A few lingering sparks of orange. And then, in the darkness, again the shriek of a tortured seagull. A torchlight rushed past me from behind. It was Spider. I got to my feet and found I could hobble. Just beyond the summit of the mewstone, two figures were wrestling. No. Embracing.

Matty was sitting on the ground, sobbing, with both hands feeling her neck. Angie’s arm was around her. Beyond them, Spider stood at the edge of The Toilet. It was belching orange smoke like a small volcano. Angie looked up at me and said, “Bartholomew’s down there.” Bartholomew pushed past me into the circle of torchlight. Angie’s face went slack, her knees buckled, and she fell. Bartholomew caught her.


We sat in the cabin of the Snow Queen because there was more room. Matty and Angie sat together on the port side, facing Spider and me. Bartholomew perched on the steps over the engine hatch, as far as possible from Angie. There were five tumblers on the table now, and the bottle contained malt whisky.

“Make sure nobody’s peed in it,” I said. Nobody laughed.

Angie took a large swallow and shuddered. She looked her age now. Even older. She put the tumbler back on the table and started to talk to it. “Matty untied his hands. He said, ‘Thank you, my sunshine’ and took her in his arms.”

“Schätzen,” said Matty. Angie kept looking at her glass. “He said ‘Thank you, mein Schätzen.”

Angie gazed up at Bartholomew, a sinner seeking forgiveness from God. “I thought it was you. He was embracing her. She was struggling.”

Matty choked back a sob. “He was holding me too hard.”

Angie continued. “When the light flashed again he had his hands around her throat.”

Matty, dull-eyed, massaged her throat with both hands. “Why would he want to kill me?”

“Jealousy,” said Bartholomew. “That’s why men kill women.” He looked like a man who knew what he was talking about.

“He had his hands around your throat,” Angie repeated.

“He was angry because I had followed him. He liked to be obeyed.”

“He beat you, didn’t he?” asked Angie.

Matty chewed at her fingers. “That’s different.”

Angie reached up and took one of Matty’s gnawed hands. “You don’t have to let them beat you, you know. Just because you love them.” She released Matty’s hand and gripped her own throat. “He had both hands round her neck.”

Spider spoke softly to Angie. “What did you do?”

Her voice was drained of emotion. “I ran up and put the parachute flare into his face and pulled the trigger. It went off. He put his hands to his face and stepped back. Instinctively, I put out my hand to save him. And then I drew it back. He took another step backwards and fell down into The Toilet. He screamed just once.”

Bartholomew raised his head out of his hands. “You pulled the trigger. You drew back your hand. Because you thought it was me.”

“He was killing her,” said his wife.

“Or embracing her,” said her husband.

“I pulled the trigger on a murderous beast,” said Angie. “You led me to believe it could be you. Is it?”

Bartholomew’s eyes were red-rimmed where he had sunk them into his fists. “Did you pull the trigger because the man you thought was me was threatening Matty, or because he was loving her?”

Angie stared into the glass which had been set before her. “I don’t know,” she said at length. “It was instinctual.”

Spider broke the silence that followed. “Before you ran up, Angie, did Lothar know you were on the mewstone?”

“No. I could see a figure sitting on the skyline. I didn’t know his hands were tied. In my heart I knew it was Bartholomew. But I wasn’t sure. I kept hidden in a crevice. I knew you’d be coming back. And then the Snow Queen chugged in, and Matty came up the chain ladder.”

Matty’s face was thinner than it had been and there were deep lines under her eyes. Her voice wrenched from her chest with sobs. “Maybe he thought I’d set him up. Maybe he was going to kill me.” She covered her face with her hands. Angie pulled her head gently to rest on her shoulder until the sobs subsided. Matty put her hand on Angie’s, lifted her head and smiled up at her. She rubbed her eyes and tossed her lank hair. I was close enough to smell the diesel oil. Now the words came out in short, jerky sentences, like logs tumbling down a flooding river. “I guessed Lothar would go here. We had anchored in the lee of Grise Heel. He said he’d be back in a couple of hours. I saw a torch going up the coastal path. Where else can you walk in an hour from Grise Heel? Walking in wellies?”

“Did you set him up?”

That was Spider’s voice. But when she answered she looked at me. “They forced me to go with him. Your mates.” There was a flicker of a smile. “Pinkie and Perky?”

“Pixie and Poxy.”

“They blackmailed me into it.” There was pain in her eyes again when she looked at me. “That’s why I left Westowe with him.”

“Why?” I asked.

“All I had to do was keep an eye on him. They said they’d get in touch with me.”

“Did they?” asked Spider.

“Not yet.”

“How did they blackmail you?” I asked.

“They knew I gave some shit to Lord Nick.” She gave a short laugh. “My esteemed late father. It was a trade. Coke for a blood test. Wolfgang gave it to me. Another set-up.” Another short laugh. “They thought they were smart. But Wolfgang was a lot smarter. He was using them. After beating me up didn’t work.”

“Why did he beat you up?” I asked.

“To get me back. Here.” She patted the bunk with the hand that wasn’t holding Angie’s. “But I wouldn’t play.”

“Why not?” I asked.

The vacant eyes looked up at me. “Because I was happy with you. Until he turned up that day.”

“When Eddy Starr brought him on board?”

“I was terrified. When I heard his voice, I slipped out the forepeak hatch and went off in your dinghy.” She said it as if it had happened in another life. It was dead issue of long ago. No one else bothered to look at me. It was as if Matty and I were alone in the cabin, and the others were just ghosts.

“I got your postcard,” I said to her. “I thought I could be your father.”

Matty gave an uncertain grin. “So it wasn’t my body odour that put you off.”

Bartholomew came to life. “What’s this all about?” He put his hand on Matty’s shoulder. “I thought you were dead.”

She looked him in the eye for the first time. “I thought you were dead.”

“I found Cody and the remains of Goose Girl,” said Bartholomew.

Matty gulped. “That was Sam Cody’s body that drifted in?”

Bartholomew touched her face. “Where were you? And Wolfgang?”

“I left him as soon as we got to the Scillies. He was . . . abusive.”

“The Goose Girl got to the Scillies?”

“She was at anchor off St Agnes the last I saw her. Wolfgang and I had a row in a pub in St Mary’s. The police took him into custody and I got on the next boat to Penzance.”

I remembered how Lothar had spent his last birthday. I said “And Lothar — Wolfgang — was detained in Her Majesty’s slammer in St Mary’s.”

Bartholomew said “I found the wreck of the Goose Girl twenty miles south of Bishop Rock.”

“Cody was talking about making for the Azores,” Matty confirmed.

Spider spoke. “If Wolfgang was working with those pirates, he could have arranged a rendezvous just off shore. That anchorage would be empty that time of year. But Cody must have got in the way.”

“It was February,” Bartholomew said. “On that chart I found, there’s a plot coded Fevrier. Just off St Agnes.”

I remembered how Lothar had arrived in Westowe. I looked to Spider. “Where was the Tradescant this winter?”

“She came up from the Med, as usual, via the Scillies.”

“She was lying in Bonifacio while we were in Corsica,” said Matty. “Wolfgang knew some of the crew.”

I looked at Matty. “He followed you here from the Scillies?”

She nodded. “I must have talked about Westowe too much.”

“Did he know about Charlie’s arrangement with Bartholomew? About disappearing Colonel Meeker?”

She looked at me open-eyed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then her eyes flicked to Bartholomew.

“That’s why I had to leave you in La Coruña,” he said to her.

Matty’s fingers flew to her mouth. “I thought you were going back to her.” She looked at the woman seated next to her.

Spider butted in. “What was the password to access Bartholomew’s E-mail?”

Matty glanced at Bartholomew. “Chopper,” she said. Nobody smiled.

“Did you tell Lothar? Wolfgang?”

She gnawed her nails. “It was a name I called Bartholomew. Wolfgang knew about it.”

“Pillow talk,” said Bartholomew. But there was no venom in his voice.

Spider spoke to Bartholomew. “You say you didn’t make any pick-ups except Colonel Meeker.”

“Don’t you believe me?”

“Suppose Lothar or his chums hacked into your E-mail address and found Charlie’s messages. And then set up shop with Charlie, changing the E-mail address. That’s another reason Lothar would have come to Westowe. To find out who Charlie was.”

“And Charlie thought he was dealing with me?”

“Aye.”

“Christ.” Bartholomew sunk his head between his hands. “Why?”

“There was money in it, wasn’t there? Off-shore arrangements?” Bartholomew nodded and Spider went on. “Plus what they were carrying. Credit cards, identification, bank drafts, the lot. A guy like Lothar knows how to turn those into cash.”

Somehow I felt I had to defend Lothar. “We only have Charlie’s word for that. He could simply have gone out to the mewstone with them, topped them, and poured all their assets into his piggy bank.”

“We know Charlie,” said Spider. “He’s not the type.” He looked at Matty. “Would Lothar do that?”

“He was a strange man,” she answered. “He didn’t use drugs and he hated people who did, but — .”

Angie broke in. “Which is why he wouldn’t mind selling them. A very logical man with his own sense of values. He wouldn’t mind killing strangers.”

Spider looked at Bartholomew. “He needed new employment. Because you busted their drug operation when you broadcast that SOS about Goose Girl.

Matty was taking an interest now. “We went back to the Scillies in this boat. He had ordered some engine spares, he said. But then we just hung around. I realised that the Customs people were probably right. I thought he was waiting for a drug drop.”

“Were you with him all the time?” Spider asked.

“He went off in the boat for a few days once. Put me up in a bed-and-breakfast.” She looked at Bartholomew. “Just like you did.”

Bartholomew held her gaze. “But you were there when he came back.”

Matty reached out to him, then dropped both hands in her lap. “The Customs could have sent me to gaol at any time.”

“Would that have been on the 25th of last month?“

Matty nodded. “Around the full moon. He joked about it. He said wolves turned into werewolves on the full moon.”

“It was dead simple,” said Spider. “He’d make all the arrangements with Charlie. Who would think he was dealing with the Skipper here.” The use of our adolescent title for Bartholomew was a sure sign that Spider had now mentally exonerated him. “Lothar could send the first radio message from anywhere to set up the rendezvous. Then turn up in his place, probably, in Grise Heel Village that night, follow the victim on to the mewstone. Mug him, rob him, and drop him in The Toilet. Then confirm by radio to Charlie that everything had all gone well.”

“Swimmingly,” I said. I was ignored and regretted my bad taste.

“Three full moons the bastard’s made the trip,” Spider carried on. “Nickers, Superbloke and now — .” I remembered the conversation Nick and I had had with Lothar. About growing up in Westowe. “I told him about that damned hole,” I added. But Lothar had spared me. He had made sure I did not sail with Nick.

Matty spoke again. “We were in St Malo for a while. Then, suddenly we set off for Grise Heel. When he asked me to send off that radio message, I thought it was the drop.”

“What message?” Spider asked.

“The one that brought me here,” said Bartholomew. “On channel 80. Reserving a berth at the club for Joie du Juillet. Those co-ordinates were up in Lyme Bay somewhere.”

Spider closed his hands into a fist. “And the Customs had a copy of them which the French found on the San Vicano. Lothar would have worked that out. And so he’d use the codes to divert attention. The Joie du Juillet code coordinates would have sent them haring up to Dorset, and leave the coast clear here. To make another killing.”

Angie looked up in shock. “Not another one?”

Spider covered her hand with his paw. “I’m sorry, you didn’t know. He pushed Charlie into The Toilet tonight.”

Angie’s face twisted in shock. “Charlie Segui?”

“I saw him.”

“So Lothar’s down there with him now,” she said. “I’m glad I did it.”

Matty’s eyes were wide. “Wolfgang killed all those missing people?”

“Not Meeker,” Spider answered. He frowned at Bartholomew. “According to our Skipper here.” He spread the fingers of his left hand and ticked them off with his right. “Charlie told me it was Lord Nick who approached him about arranging a disappearance. Blackmailed him into it. Nick heard about Meeker somehow. Lothar knew. He must have put the idea up to Nickers. Then, Malcolm. Now, Charlie. And he had a good try at me. And you.”

Angie looked up. “That man from Bristol. Angus Fergusson?”

Spider shook his head. “He’s not in The Toilet. He doesn’t compute.”

I saw a flash of light through the porthole. I put my head up through the hatchway. The fog had risen. It hovered at the height of the mast, and swirled in patches. Grise Heel light flickered through the rents. I went back inside. “Fog’s lifting.”

Bartholomew looked at his watch. “Sunrise in a couple of hours.”

“What next?” I asked.

Bartholomew cast his eyes around the cabin as if he were looking for an exit somewhere over our heads. “I’m a dead man. If I come back I could go to prison.”

“Your wife could go to prison for killing Lothar.” I said.

Matty lifted her eyes. “No she won’t. She saved my life. I’ll tell them everything.” She looked at Bartholomew. “Even if you go to prison.”

“Nobody has to go to no prison,” said Spider. “Angie saved Matty’s life and did the world a favour by getting rid of that psychopath. Nobody else in this cabin has hurt anybody. These people have just disappeared.”

“And when the bodies turn up?”

“They won’t. The reason The Toilet don’t flush anymore is that the passage has been blocked by that wreck. I’ve dived there a few times.”

Angie raised her head and I saw she was crying. She wiped her face with her sleeve. “You think we can all just sail away from this?”

Spider put his hand on her arm. “Anything we do is not going to do anybody any good. Not Nick or Malcolm or Charlie. Nor any of us in this cabin.”

“That’s irresponsible,” I said.

Spider glared at me, “Responsibility’s a privilege we can’t afford. The absolute truth neither. Because we don’t know what it is. So, let’s get one thing straight, Angie. If it ever comes to the witness box, you never stirred from your bed tonight. And neither did I.”

I had never heard Spider tell Angie what to do. Nor had she, apparently, as she shrank back a little. Angie nodded. Spider’s gaze fixed each of us in turn. “Are we all absolutely clear about that?” We each nodded.

The wife spoke to her husband now. We listened to their dialogue in embarrassed silence, a small audience in the front row of a very intimate theatre-in-the-round. “Do you want me to come with you?” she asked. Bartholomew shook his head like a small sorrowful boy. “I am your wife,” she insisted.

“Your husband is dead.” He pointed at Matty. “That is the woman I love.” He took Matty’s hand, as if he were going to slip a wedding ring on her finger. “Will you come back?” he asked her. Tears streamed down Matty’s face. She turned and wept into Angie’s shoulder. Bartholomew faced Angie. “What did you do with my paintings? The ones of her.”

“They’re in The Devil’s Frying-pan.”

“You tried to kill me before you pulled that trigger tonight. You destroy my paintings, you destroy me.”

“You destroyed me.”

“I fell in love with another woman.”

“She’s young enough to be my daughter. Ted’s and mine.”

Bartholomew spoke more gently. “Your daughter’s dead, Angie. I held her in my hand. We consecrated her together.”

Angie moved past us, crossed to where he sat in the hatchway and knelt before him. She took both his hands in hers and looked up into his face. “She consecrated our love.”

He touched her hair. “I remember. It was very strong. But it’s the past. It’s not wanted on voyage.”

She gazed at him for a moment. “Then there’s something I have to tell you.” She rose on her knees and took his head in both her hands and pulled it down to hers. She whispered in his ear. I could not see his eyes. But the lower half of his face sagged. When she stood up and he turned his face up to her, with deep shadows in the sockets of his eyes, it looked like a death mask.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.

“I didn’t want to lose your love.”

“Why tell me now?”

“The same reason I put ‘Angel Child’ on exhibit. I thought it might bring you back.”

“Oh, Christ!” Bartholomew sank his head in his hands.

“Does it matter?”

“Everything is meaningless.”

“Our love? Our life together?”

Bartholomew had one hand over his eyes. With the other, he reached out and took her hand.

“My life’s work. My art.”

Angie put her arms around him and held him against her stomach.

“Come back with me.”

They stood motionless for a moment, a heroic sculpture, two star-crossed lovers in lumpy jumpers and oilskin trousers. Then Bartholomew pulled away from her, and he was crying. He stood up and rubbed his eyes. “I have to think. Go away and think.”

“I know how to wait,” said Angie. She crossed back to her seat.

Embarrassed, Spider lapsed into West-Country-speak for a moment. “I don’t know nothing about them theatrics.” He swept us all with a glance. “The only thing I’m interested in is keeping Angie out of trouble. We can do that, if we all keep our lips zipped. There’s nothing that any of us have got to gain by talking.” The coxswain of the Westowe lifeboat rattled out our instructions. He gave Bartholomew a cold stare. “You clear out, wherever you’re going. I’ll look after Angie. Dinny will be round at daybreak. He can drop me and her off at Fairfoul Bay and we’ll sneak into the village. Ted, you sail Snow Queen back to her berth in Plymouth with Matty. We set Ted’s liferaft adrift to follow the Amaryllis. And if anyone asks where any of us were before that, we was all tucked up in bed. With whoever.”

I said, “They’ll ask Matty what happened to Lothar.”

“You’ll think of something,” said Spider. “The rest of us never saw him.”

Tired and confused, we all fell in with this wild scheme. Bartholom­ew got to his feet and climbed up the hatchway without saying good-bye. The engine of L’Aventure Doux started up. Spider and I went topside to cast him off. The fog was a hundred feet above our heads now, rising up the cliffs like steam. There was a faint glow in the east, and a breeze was stirring a choppy sea. I took the bow warp and Spider stood by to cast off astern.

Bartholomew stood at his tiller. “Stand by to cast off,” he said, in the old way. “Aye, aye, Skip,” said Spider.

“Bon voyage,” I shouted from the bow. And then, just before we cast off, Matty came out of the hatch and stepped across on to L’Aventure Doux. She didn’t glance at Bartholomew but went up to the bow and stood on the foredeck just a couple of metres away from me. She didn’t look at me either, but stared straight ahead as we cast the warps on to the French yacht. Bartholomew engaged gears and she was swallowed up by the darkness, with Matty pointing south like a figurehead. In my pocket my fingers closed around Lothar’s gun. I made to throw it after her, when Spider came up and held his hand out. “These things have a way of turning up in fishing nets,” he growled. “I’ll bury it in the council tip.”


Monday, 25th July: 3

His hand was soft. He wore a suit in a Norfolk cut, in drab olive herringbone with a thin dull red stripe woven through it. The suit was new. He must have bought it to come down to the West Country. He was a soft man, with smooth features in a round face, pale round spectacles and a pale bald dome with a wispy fringe of colourless hair. There was a resident twinkle in his eye, which told you he shared your view that what you were just about to say was trenchant and amusing. His lips seemed always on the crest of a smile, though the wave had not broken yet in this interview. This was a very dangerous man. He could send you innocent to the gallows and you wouldn’t hold it against him.

“You’ve been cautioned, Mr Golden. May I call you Ernest?”

“Everyone calls me Ted.”

“Ernest Edward Golden, it says here.”

“You wouldn’t want to be a six-year-old called Ernest in the neighbourhood where I grew up. So I decided to call myself Ted.”

“I had the notion somehow you grew up in Westowe.”

“It’s a long story.”

Detective Superintendent Radcliffe nodded. He reached into his briefcase, unzipped a pouch, extracted a meerschaum pipe and began to fill it with tobacco. I looked at the card he had given me. “I don’t suppose SCB stands for the Swiss Corporation of Banking?”

A bright gleam winked in his eye like a distant light at dusk. “Acronyms. What’s the gain? Do you know what they call British Gas now? B.G. Which everyone has to translate back into British Gas. SBC is the Swiss Bank Corporation. We’re the Serious Crimes Bureau.”

“Scotland Yard?”

“Sort of thing.” Detective Superintendent Radcliffe took the pipe out of his mouth. His smile twitched, but like the pipe, he was having trouble getting it lit. “We are a national unit. Set up to investigate unsolved crimes. Focused particularly on identifying serial killers. So, we’re interested in missing persons where there’s some suspicion of foul play. We’ve got a team of experts up at the National Crime Faculty in Bramshill — analysts, statisticians, psychologists, sexual offence wallahs. They apply the technology. I look after the south-west region. My job is to help local forces with their investigations and collect data to put into the Bramshill hopper — cause of death, injuries, victims’ backgrounds, DNA samples, suspects, location of attacks — to see if any common links surface.” He shone the smile on me like a double-glazing salesman handing me a pen and order form. “Excuse the commercial. Now, where were we?”

I tried my own 18-carat smile. “At the beginning of a long story.”

He raised the stem of his pipe in my direction. “Do you mind if we begin at the end, instead?” He pointed the pipe over his shoulder into the corner of the room. An unwinking red light on a remote-controlled TV camera looked back at me. “This is being recorded by the way. Technology.” He took a document out of his briefcase, and turned over the first page. “This morning, Monday, the 25th of July, you sailed a yacht called the Snow Queen into Plymouth harbour. Belonging to a company called Bequia Vagabonds, registered in the Cayman Islands. Were you alone?”

“Yes.”

“When the Snow Queen left Plymouth marina three days ago a Danish national called Lothar Volkmann and an Australian woman, Mathilda Ferguson, were on board. Friends of yours?”

“They were. You know about the SOS?”

“Would you mind telling me again?”

“I reported that a tow had broken loose on a vessel with two people on board. It had no power, no radio and was unsailable.”

“Couldn’t be sold?”

“Couldn’t be sailed.”

“Sorry, I’m pig ignorant about boats.”

“The jib sheets were jammed. So you couldn’t control the foresail. And the main halyard was stuck at the masthead somehow. So you couldn’t lower the main.”

“That was your boat?”

I nodded. “The Amaryllis.”

“Couldn’t anything be done to bring down the sails?”

“Not when it was blowing hard. I was alone. The boat was thrashing about in thick fog. Lothar and Matty picked me up and took me in tow. It was a great stroke of luck. I was shattered, so they took me on board the Snow Queen and boarded the Amaryllis to sort out the sails. And then the tow rope parted.”

“And you lost them?”

“In seconds. It was gusty at the time. The wind filled the sail and just blew them away into the fog. So I sent an SOS. And laid a course for Plymouth.”

“You didn’t wait to help the lifeboat?”

“The lifeboat has radar. There was nothing I could do in the fog. Conditions were rough and I was knackered. I was worried about getting back myself.”

“Couldn’t the lifeboat have helped you?

“I’d rather they found my friends.”

“How did you know where you were? In the fog?”

“No problem. The Snow Queen has SatNav.”

“Couldn’t you use that to find your boat — the Amaryllis?”

“Satellite navigation is not like radar. It just tells you where you are.”

“And the Amaryllis was found before you got in to harbour?”

“I got in late morning. The fog had lifted by then. She was reported drifting a couple of miles off Grise Heel. Full of water, with no one on board. She sank while they were towing her in.”

“So your friends are still missing.”

“Presumed dead.”

“I’m sorry.” Radcliffe had removed his spectacles, and was patting the pockets of his new green suit.

“Your spectacle case is in your briefcase.”

“Ah, so it is. Thank you.” He took a small yellow cloth out of the case and began to polish his specs.

“You embarked from Westowe in the Amaryllis?”

“Yesterday evening.” Less than 24 hours ago. Could that be? It seemed a lifetime ago.

“Were you sailing alone?”

“Yes.”

“Why were you sailing at night?”

“I was off on a little cruise. To the Helford river.”

“At night?”

“It was the right time to catch the tide.”

“How do you see where you’re going at night?”

“The compass is illuminated.”

“Sorry. That was rather stupid of me. But why go out in those conditions?”

“The forecast was unsettled, but not bad. What it can’t predict is local fog. And local gusts off the cliffs.”

“The lifeboat skipper didn’t go out with the boat, I hear.”

“Spider was devastated. Matty was a good friend of his, too. He always reckons things would have been different if he’d been there.”

“Isn’t it unusual for the lifeboat skipper not to go out on an emergency?”

“It’s a volunteer service. You go out if you’re there. I was told Spider was out doing a bit of dawn fishing with a mate of his.”

“Mr Dinsmore.”

“Spider isn’t that keen. It’s really just a treat for Dinny.”

“He’s a good friend of yours, isn’t he?”

“Dinny? He’s a bit simple now.”

“Spider, I meant.”

“We grew up together. I lived with him and his Mam after my parents died.”

“Mr Dinsmore wasn’t always simple, was he?”

“He was never going to compete on ‘Mastermind’. But apparently he fell off the quay on his head one night years ago.”

“He says Malcolm Goodfellow pushed him.”

“Superbloke? I never heard that.”

“Superbloke?”

“We used to call him that.”

“Mr Dinsmore said Mr Goodfellow was trying to kill him.”

“You can’t put much trust in what Dinny says.”

“Can you think of any reason why Mr Goodfellow would want to kill Dinny?”

“I wasn’t in Westowe then. I’ve been away for almost thirty years.”

“Mr Dinsmore said it had something to do with a bucket.”

“A bucket?”

“As you say, his thought processes are somewhat intricate. But have a look at this.” He pushed across a photocopy of a news cutting. It was from the Westowe Weekly Herald, and it was over forty years old. It reported the loss of the sailing yacht Easy Street and the death of Mr and Mrs Franklin Golden in The Devil’s Frying-pan on a squally night. My mum and dad.

“The sea has taken a lot from you.”

“What’s this got to do with a bucket?”

He pushed across a second photostat, from an issue of the same newspaper four weeks later. It was a letter to the editor from a cruising yachtsman complaining that the leading lights at Westowe were not working when he had visited the port in the previous month. Beneath it was a firm rebuttal from the Harbourmaster’s office, stating that this was impossible as a fault locator at the South Western Electricity Board would register any interruption in the electricity circuit, and none had occurred.

“What’s the connection with Dinny?”

“It happened when they were just lads. According to Mr Dinsmore — Dinny — Goodfellow attacked him because of what Dinny had been saying in the pub one night. That when he was a child he’d seen someone at the leading light early the morning after your parents died. And later he saw a brown plastic bucket that had melted like chocolate in the sun. Goodfellow senior was taking it out of his dinghy.”

“Thomas Goodfellow fell into the sea some years later. From a point where you can see that light on The Elbow.”

“Local rumour has it that was suicide.” Detective Superintendent Radcliffe reached for his pipe with one hand and his spectacle case with the other.

“Your tobacco pouch is in your briefcase,” I said.

He looked at the spectacle case, nodded and half-smiled, then replaced it with the tobacco pouch and began to push the leaves into his pipe. “Did you know Goodfellow senior and your mother were having an affair?”

A closed door creaked open in my mind. Uncle Tom? Thomas Goodfellow? I tried not to blink. “Local rumour again?”

“Yes, and more than forty years old I’m afraid.”

“I never heard it.”

“I don’t mean to distress you. I have to scoop everything up and stuff it in the databank. Rumours, lies, press cuttings. The dirt with the nuggets. Like an industrial Hoover.” We were both silent for a few seconds. I watched the TV camera watching me. “I’ve been given to understand that you and Mrs Streb are quite close.”

“We were childhood sweethearts.”

“And since you’ve been back?”

“Just good friends.”

“Now that her husband’s dead, you don’t suppose — .” His voice trailed off in a wave of the hand.

“She’s still in denial.”

“Of course. Malcolm Goodfellow was close to Mrs Streb too, wasn’t he?”

“He helped her arrange her exhibition.”

“Amazing success, that. Not my cup of tea, exactly. Still.” His pipe wandered in the air. “You don’t suppose he was jealous of you?”

“Bartholomew?”

That drew a sharp glance. “Surely you returned to Westowe well after Bartholomew Streb went missing?”

“I arrived in November. He left last August.”

“Yes.” He puffed on his pipe. “I was thinking of Goodfellow fils actually. If he were jealous of you and Mrs Streb, he might remember what his father had done and try it again.”

“I don’t think he felt about Angie in that way.”

“It’s a scenario.” He twinkled at me. “I really shouldn’t speculate, of course. My job is simply to Hoover, and feed all the grit into the great machine at Bramshill. Still, what do you think? Is he, was he, the kind of man who could do a thing like that?”

“I think anybody can wish somebody dead, if there’s no other way out of a problem. Very few people can actually do it. But any man can run.”

Radcliffe took his pipe out of his mouth and leaned forward. “That’s an interesting remark.” He laughed for the first time. “Mind telling me what it means?”

“You think you’re looking for a grotesque serial murderer. I think you’re looking for a bunch of men wearing false beards and looking over their shoulders on the Costa del Sol. Local rumour has it, as you probably know, that Goodfellow had serious financial problems. So did Lord Nick. So did Colonel Meeker.”

“What about Bartholomew?”

“He was blown up in his boat. Calor gas is heavier than air. If there’s a leak in the system, it builds up in the bilges. Strike a match to make a cup of tea, and — boom. The others — all four of them — I reckon they all did a Stonehouse.”

“Yes, I had heard that. Your local constable, Mr Starr, is quite keen on that theory.” He looked up with a full smile. “Did you say four of them?”

My mind froze, chilling my blood. Had I counted Charlie? I ticked them off slowly. “Colonel Meeker. Lord Nick. Malcolm Goodfellow.” I paused. “And that fellow from Bristol. Fergusson? Well, he must have been a suicide, I suppose.”

“Ah, Fergusson. With a double s. Yes, I was rather excluding him, because he wasn’t local. I thought perhaps you’d heard already.”

“Heard what?”

“Mr Segui, the Club Secretary, has been reported missing. By his sister.”

“Charlie? Any idea what’s happened to him?”

“None whatsoever. No abandoned dinghy, no split catamaran netting, no tidy pile of clothing on the cliff-top. He’s just vanished.”

“His sister will tell you Charlie was in a bit of cash squeeze, too. You’ll probably find him under the next but one beach umbrella to Superbloke.”

“It’s a wonder they didn’t charter a plane.” Radcliffe shot me a conspiratorial glance. “If your theory is correct, we’ll find them. But it does seem just a wee bit sinister, don’t you agree? Eight people have died or disappeared in this tiny village in the past year. Bartholomew Streb, Colonel Meeker, Lord Farthing-Tattersall, Goodfellow, Fergusson, and now — on the same night — Segui, the Danish fellow and the Australian girl.” He paused and jotted on a note-pad. “Ferguson with one s. Fergusson with two. Do you suppose that’s a coincidence?”

“Eddy Starr would have a theory for it.”

Detective Superintendent Radcliffe smiled. “Eleven people, if we go back a few decades and include your father and mother and Goodfellow père.”

“As they say, worse things happen at sea.”

“So, what’s the connection?”

“I knew them all. I suppose that’s why I’m here.”

“My dear fellow, you’re here because — .” He broke off. “You knew Angus Fergusson?”

“No. I forgot about him. That would have to be a suicide, wouldn’t it?”

“Any connection with Goodfellow?”

“Coincidence. All the publicity about the disappearances could have brought him to Westowe on the same day.”

“A copycat? It happens. And he’s the one that doesn’t fit the pattern.”

“What pattern?”

“All the other victims were local. There were money problems. Or romantic attachments.” He began to polish his spectacles again. “Bye the bye, man to man, I’d tread carefully with Mrs Harris.”

“Rab — Ronny?”

“Police Sergeant Starr seems to be very keen on her.”

“I wish them every happiness.”

“Good.”

“While we’re speaking man to man, there’s something I’d like to get off my chest.”

“Please do.”

“Pixie and Poxy.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Those two animals. Do you employ them?”

“I don’t believe there’s anyone of either name on our register.”

“Two thugs in blue jeans, leather jackets and police issue shoes. A big one wearing size twelves. And the other size six.”

“What about them?”

“I think they’re drug-pushers.”

“A serious charge.”

“Or if they’re Customs and Excise officers, they’re way out of order.”

“Do you wish to make a formal complaint?”

“No, I just want to pass on some local rumours. In case you haven’t hoovered under the carpets.”

“I’m listening.”

“Rumour one: said agents entrapped a local lad called Simon, and forced him to spy on Lord Nick, so he almost drowned with His Lordship. Rumour two: they broke into the castle, they assaulted me and may have beaten up Matty. They set up Matty, too. Framed her with drugs and blackmailed her into sailing off with Lothar. And they pissed in a bottle of Glenmorangie.”

Radcliffe took his pipe out of his mouth. “Was there whisky in it?”

“Two-thirds full.”

“Appalling. I’ll see to it right away.” He made a beckoning motion towards the glass partition to his right. The door opened and Pixie and Poxy stepped into the room. There were out of uniform, neatly dressed in ties and sports jackets, and unsmiling. Detective Superintendent Radcliffe gestured at two wooden chairs and Pixie and Poxy sat down, hands folded on their laps in identical, erect postures.

Radcliffe looked at me. “Detective Sergeants Smart and Noble.” He looked at them. “You know Mr Golden.”

“Yes, sir,” they chimed.

“You’ve heard his allegations?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It seems there may have been a misunderstanding. Perhaps you could clarify the situation for Mr Golden.”

Pixie spoke. The Thames estuary nasal-speak had been replaced by an Oxbridge accent. “Yes, sir. We were investigating Mr Golden in connection with the disappearance of Mr Bartholomew Streb and Colonel Lawrence Meeker.”

“What led you to Mr Golden?”

“You want me to reveal the source of our information, sir?” Radcliffe waved a hand. “We were acting upon information received from Mr Golden’s former partner, Mr Donald Penny. He had sponsored a civil suit against Mr Golden, accusing him of the death of his wife, Mrs Maire Golden. He informed us that Mr Golden had returned to Westowe to live in the home of his former lover, Mrs Bartholomew Streb, and that Mr Streb had gone missing.”

“Hearsay. Gossip. Surely insufficient grounds for interviewing Mr Golden?”

“Precisely, sir. We simply opened a file. But then, Colonel Lawrence Meeker also disappeared in Westowe. Because of the circumstances an inquest was held. Which revived our interest in Mr Golden.”

“What was the result of your interview with Mr Golden?”

Poxy shifted his large frame on the small wooden chair and shot a black scowl at me, but it was Pixie who continued to speak. He thumbed through the pages of a notebook.

“We spoke to Mr Golden on Wednesday, 2nd February. He was not living with Mrs Streb, but in property owned by her husband. There was no evidence that he and Mrs Streb were having an affair, nor that he was in any way involved in Mr Streb’s disappearance. However, the inquest placed him centrally in the matter of Colonel Meeker’s disappearance. It was established that Mr Golden was the last person to see Colonel Meeker, and he also recovered the dinghy he set out in.”

“Mr Golden has suggested that you compromised a young man called Simon.”

“Certainly not, sir. Although we are aware of a Customs and Excise operation in which he may have been involved. We are not at liberty to discuss that in front of Mr Golden.”

“And did you break into Mr Golden’s residence?”

“On the night of Saturday, 26th March, we investigated the Westowe Castle. We were given permission to do so by Mr Charles Segui, the solicitor acting for Mrs Streb in the rental of the property.”

“Did you talk to Miss Ferguson that night?”

“She arrived unexpectedly before we had completed our investigation of the premises. We took the opportunity to interview her. She volunteered certain information which we subsequently referred to Customs and Excise investigators.”

“Did you assault her, blackmail her or threaten her in any way?”

“Certainly not, sir.”

“She was badly beaten up that night. Do you know by whom?”

“There is circumstantial evidence suggesting it could have been her boy friend, Lothar Volkmann. Also known as Wolfgang Stederman. Both he and she are the focus of an ongoing Customs and Excise investigation.”

“Did you — ” Detective Superintendent Radcliffe swivelled his gaze to Poxy “ — either of you — assault Mr Golden that night?”

Poxy looked at me as he spoke. His accent remained true to form, though his vocabulary had increased. “I discovered Mr Golden lying prostrate on the ground outside the castle, and helped him to his bed. He’d been drinking.”

“Finally, did either of you relieve yourself in his bottle of Glenmorangie?”

Poxy answered. “I think the aperture would be a bit small, sir.”

Pixie added, glancing at me, “I can’t imagine a drinking man committing that offence, sir.” Of course — Eddy Starr. He doesn’t drink.

Radcliffe turned to me. “Are you satisfied, Mr Golden?”

I shrugged, and thought a promotion might go down well. “I am, if you are, Chief Inspector.”

“Detective Superintendent.” He failed to smile and struck a match to relight his pipe, while his two subordinates left the room. “Mind if I ask a few questions?”

“You’ve answered mine.”

“You moved to Westowe last November. Why was that?”

“I’d lived there as a child. My wife had died. I’d lost my job. I came back to think things over.”

“And you bought a boat. It’s a dream we all have. Casting off from routine. Most of us never get the opportunity.”

“I’d rather my wife were alive. And I’m too young to retire.”

“But you’re well fixed financially?” He said it as if he were ready to offer me a loan. “Your share of the business, and your wife left you some money.”

“My ex-partner is contesting the payout, and there’s a court injunction on the estate. Until that’s lifted I’m skint. You know all this, surely.”

“Donald Penny.”

“He was my wife’s lover as well.”

“After you left her?”

“Not before. As far as I know.”

“Your mother died suddenly when you were a child. As a young man you broke off your engagement, left home and didn’t come back for almost thirty years. Your wife left you for another man. Your name has been linked serially with three different women since you’ve returned to Westowe. Your former lover, Mrs Streb. Mrs Harris. And Miss Ferguson, whom you were the last one to see alive. Would it be fair to describe you as someone who has difficulty establishing lasting relationships with women?”

“Mam still loves me.”

“Mrs Meersman, who brought you up. What kind of a woman is she?”

“She was the local midwife. Knows everybody and everything. Or did until she started to forget.”

“A strong woman?”

“Her world is absolute. Old Testament.”

“Domineering, would you say?”

“She doesn’t suffer fools like me gladly. But then, as it turns out, she’s always right.”

‘ “Did you have any siblings?”

“Spider and I were like brothers. But I was an only child.”

“You left Westowe and made something of yourself. Are you really going to be content to drift through life now as a kind of sailing bum?”

“Just because I don’t wear a suit anymore doesn’t mean I’ve become a psychopath.”

Detective Superintendent Radcliffe rewarded me with another shy smile. He started fussing with his pipe again. “Ever read any John Wilson?” I shook my head. “Oxford philosopher. In the 1970s he invented a lot of neologisms. Words like phil, emp, gig and krat. These described various stages of a person’s moral awareness, starting at the bottom with those whose behaviour depended on what their mothers or teachers had told them, through the dogmas of various belief systems, to those who function according to their own rational convictions.”

“Are you going to tell me I’m a bit of a krat?”

“I can’t remember the various categories. But certainly you and I are morally autonomous. But some people go further along the spectrum. According to the texts we read at Bramshill a serial murderer may not be a psychopath, but he is, by definition a sociopath. Someone who is intellectually deviant.”

“In Russia they sent them to Siberia.”

“It’s relative in each society, of course. But the distinguishing characteristic of the true sociopath is that he has no sense of moral responsibility to anyone or anything in the society in which he functions.”

“The last Tory cabinet was full of them.”

Radcliffe surprised me by saying, “And they got away with murder.”

I had to smile. “Apart from cabinet members, how can you identify them?”

“There are various types. The one that might apply in this case is the hedonist. He kills simply to enhance the comforts of his life. We always keep our eyes open at the scene of the crime, because the hedonist will take a keen interest in the public coverage of his murders. He’ll often turn up around the investigation. Attend the inquest, say.”

“What about personal characteristics?”

“He is methodical. The temperament of an artisan rather than an artist. He often chooses to work at jobs which are below his skill level. He was probably the eldest child. Family discipline was inconsistent. He took most abuse from his father. There will be a background of a prior association with a domineering female.” Radcliffe pointed his pipe at me. “Sound like anyone you know.”

Lothar, I thought. But what I said was what I had said before: “Mam still loves me.”

“Would you say you had a happy childhood before your parents died?”

“I was happy when we were in Westowe.”

“Before that?”

“I don’t remember anything before I was six years old.” Except driving to the beach with Uncle Tom.

Radcliffe grunted and pushed a notebook across to me. “Have you seen this before?” It was one of Lothar’s. I opened it. It was the one in which he had kept the newspaper cuttings. He had updated it with the increasingly hysterical coverage given to the disappearances of Lord Nick, Superbloke, and Angus Fergusson.

“Eddy Starr has a notebook like that.”

“With newspaper cuttings?”

“Eddy doesn’t let anyone look into his notebook.”

“We found it on your boat.”

“The Amaryllis?”

“No, the one you sailed into Plymouth marina yesterday. Snow Queen.”

“Where?”

“In the chart folder.”

I hadn’t found anything incriminating in Lothar’s sea bag, so I’d left it. But I hadn’t looked in the chart folder. “So?” Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe was looking at me with a faint smile.

“So what?”

“Is it yours?”

I shook my head. He passed me a piece of paper on which four dates were written:


FRI 28 JANUARY
WED 27 APRIL
SAT 25 JUNE
SUN 24 JULY


“Do you see any significance in these dates?”

“The first three dates must be about when they disappeared. Meeker, Lord Nick, Goodfellow. The last one’s yesterday.”

“Charlie Segui.” Detective Superintendent Radcliffe pulled without success on his pipe. “Anything else in common?”

“Full moon, maybe. The moon yesterday was just past full.”

“Each date is two days after the full moon. Which apart from its association with werewolves and the menstrual cycle, affects the tide, doesn’t it?”

“Full moon and new moon bring the highest tides.”

“In European waters the peak of the spring tide comes two days after the full moon, isn’t that so?”

“You’ve been cramming Reed’s Nautical Almanac.”

“Can you see well enough to navigate by a full moon at sea?”

“Perfectly. Unless it’s overcast.”

“So on those nights the tide might be high enough so that a yacht might be able to reach a place which was normally inaccessible?”

“You’re thinking about a drug drop?”

“Just a scenario.”

“Am I in it?”

“Where were you on the night of Friday, 28th January?”

“If that’s when Meeker disappeared, I was in my bed in the castle.”

“Alone?”

“Regrettably.”

“But on the night of Wednesday, 27th April, according to Sergeant Starr, you were not at home.”

“The night Lord Nick disappeared? I was asleep on my boat in the Mud Creek car park. Alone again.”

“And when Malcolm Goodfellow disappeared and Angus Fergusson jumped or fell into the Devil’s Frying-pan — the night of Saturday, 25th of June?”

“On my boat again. On a mooring. Alone.”

“And last night, when Mr Segui disappeared, you were on your boat again. With two other people. Who have also disappeared.”

“I almost disappeared myself. My boat did disappear.”

“You see why we’re interested in you.”

“Why would I want to kill all those people?”

“Are they dead?”

“Aren’t they?”

“We can only be sure about Bartholomew Streb and Angus Fergusson.”

“I wasn’t in Westowe when Bartholomew left, and as far as Angus Fergusson is concerned — .” A picture flashed into my mind. A woman’s bottom pumping the air. And on it, tattooed, a no-entry sign.

“Yes?”

“He may have died happy.” I told him about the naked couple Eddy Starr and Dinny and I had seen in the gorse in the early evening of the 25th of June.

The cherubic face of Detective Superintendent Radcliffe frowned. He looked like a prune. “Starr didn’t mention that.”

“That’s why he’s not in the Serious Crime Bureau.”

Radcliffe put on his counselling face. “Why is it, do you think, that you have to make a joke of everything?”

I was accustomed to dealing with that charge. “A mask for basic insecurity. Surely they taught you that in ‘Psychology for Plods’. Or maybe I just find life before death is an absurd idea. Trench humour.”

“I don’t mean to be uncharitable.” He shook his head. “It’s just that I could never do that. People would never take me seriously.” With some effort, his smile returned, sun emerging from cloud. “Sorry about the Glenmorangie, by the way.” He puffed on his pipe, holding me with his eyes. “Still, you can afford it.”

“Now, you are being uncharitable.”

“Not at all. Have you talked to your lawyers recently?”

“They are, as the saying goes, not in funds.”

“Donald Penny is off your case. He’s been charged by the Serious Fraud Office. His action has lapsed. Your wife’s family never supported it. That court order on your assets has been withdrawn.”

“Am I free to go?”

“If you’re planning a holiday abroad I would ask you to defer it. I could need your help at short notice.”

Detective Superintendent Radcliffe stood up and led me to the door. There he stopped and took my elbow. “What about low tides?” he asked.

“Pardon?”

“Does the full moon affect the low tide too?”

“Springs are the most extreme tides. Both high and low.”

“So it means you might be able to walk or land somewhere you couldn’t normally.”

I hastened to steer him off that track. “Twice a year, at the equinox, they are particularly extreme. A hundred years ago they used to play cricket on the sand banks which rose off the Needles at equinox spring low tides.”

“You don’t say.”

“But you must know that, Chief Inspector.”

“Detective Superintendent.”

“Not for long, surely. Isn’t that a Royal Thames Yacht Club tie you’re wearing?”

He plucked at it and his face reddened. “Is it? How embarrassing. My wife picked it up at an Oxfam shop.”


Early August

“You say you’re Ted Golden?”

“Yes, Mam.”

“Come a little closer.” I nudged my chair forward and leaned over the bed. She looked like a bird of prey. A few wisps of grey hair sprouted from the bare pink dome of her head and fanned in a ruff on her pillow. Blue-veined talons without flesh plucked at the frayed silk hem of her blanket. In the sunken hollows on either side of her great beaked nose, bright pebbles glinted in milky pools. A claw rose and grazed my cheek. It smelled of sour milk. It thrust up into my hair. I felt like a child who had stumbled into a sinister fairy tale. A whispered croak emerged from her throat.

“What’s that, Mam?”

“I said you’re losing your hair.” The talon flopped back on her chest. “And you don’t hear so well either.”

“I’m glad you’re speaking to me now, Mam.”

“Some things need saying. I was born in this bed, but I’ll not wake up in it tomorrow.”

“You’re not leaving us,” said Angie. “Who would look after Spider?”

“He should be looking after you. If you let him.”

“He does, Mam. Your son looks after everybody.” Angie took one of Mam’s claws in her hand.

“I’m glad you’re wearing dresses now,” said Mam. “It suits you.”

Angie looked up at me with a question in her eyes. “The recent lodger,” I said to her.

Mam’s eyes were still fixed on Angie. “Spider wants to marry you.”

Angie smiled. “I’m married already, Mam.”

“I heard he was dead.”

“Bartholomew’s alive, Mam. We saw him last week.”

“Divorce him then. You can do that these days and nobody bats an eye.” The bright pebbles fastened on me. “You’re another one.” My head bowed as it used to when Mam scolded. “Womaniser. Hang your head in shame.”

Angie leaned forward and took the talon in her smooth brown hands. “Don’t excite yourself, Mam. That’s all over. Ted’s quite a nice chap now.”

Mam’s eyes snapped at me again. “Are you going to marry her?”

I looked up at Angie. “Unless Spider gets there first,” I said. Angie smiled, but her eyes evaded mine.

“Have you told him? About the babies?” The old bird was looking at Angie.

“Babies?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter now, Mam,” said Angie.

Mam turned her head to face me now, two lasers aimed along the line of her beak. “You should have married her. We changed the babies.” She lifted a hand towards Angie. “You tell him. I’m tired now.” Her head relaxed into the pillow and her eyelids closed, the membrane so thin that she seemed to be still looking at us.

“Go to sleep, Mam.”

“Tell him. And mind you get it right. I’m listening.” Her breath exhaled in a little whistle that became a gentle snore.

Angie stood up and went to the window and looked out at the dusk settling over the estuary.

“You had twins?” I guessed.

Angie shook her head and spoke to the window. “Just one tiny baby girl. Three weeks before term. At twenty weeks I went up to London.”

“For the abortion?”

She nodded. “But I couldn’t do it. I stayed with my cousin Jane. I was doing a training course. I wasn’t very big and she never noticed.”

“You should have called me.”

“I did once. But when you answered, I couldn’t speak for crying. I just rang off.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You wouldn’t. You sounded annoyed. Just another wrong number in your life.”

“That night at the castle, you told me you had an abortion.”

She looked at me. “I suppose I wanted to hurt you. To see if you can feel grief.”

“I feel it.”

“It doesn’t show.”

“You had the baby?”

“I started having contractions on the bus down from London. I couldn’t face my parents. And when the bus got to Westowe that night it was blowing a gale. Snowing. I went straight to Mam. Spider was at Naval College then. And she delivered my baby in his bedroom. She let me hold it. Then she asked if I really wanted to have it. She was very angry with you.”

“I didn’t even know.”

Angie turned to face me. The colours were fading from the counterpane covering the frail body, gently snoring. “You were starting your career. You didn’t need a pregnant ex-girl friend. Mam told me how difficult things would be as a single mother. After all those months of keeping everything hidden, I wanted a way out. So I agreed.”

“To what?”

“Another woman was in labour that night. In the cottage hospital. Gwendolyn Smythe.”

“The Figurehead. His mistress.”

“Ex-mistress by that time. The doctor couldn’t get through. The road were blocked and the electricity was off for hours. There was only a junior nurse on duty, and Mam sent her off to find Bartholomew. Gwendolyn’s baby was still-born. A girl. Mam said Gwendolyn wanted her baby very much. And she wouldn’t have another chance. And I didn’t want mine. So Mam brought Gwendolyn’s dead baby down and gave it to me. And she took our baby and gave it to Gwendolyn. When the nurse got back with Bartholomew, Gwendolyn wouldn’t let him see the baby. That didn’t seem to bother him.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t his.”

“He’d been living with her up to six months before,” Angie stated with the assurance of someone who doesn’t play around. “Mam asked him to come and see me. He held the dead baby in his big hands and cried. He lay down on the bed next to me, and we just cried ourselves to sleep.”

“What happened to the baby?”

“Mam put it in the fish freezer.”

Mam spoke then. “You should have given it a Christian burial.” Her eyelids opened and her claws twitched at the bedspread.

Angie smoothed Mam’s brow with her hand, but she was looking at me. “Gwendolyn took our baby away with her.”

“Where?”

Angie shook her head. “No one ever heard from her again.”

Mam spoke without opening her eyes. “Tell my son I want a Christian burial.”

Spider came into the room then. I moved over and gave him my place at the bedside. He caressed her cheek. “What’s for supper, Mam?”

She smiled at her son. “Angie’s come to visit. Have we got some fresh pilchards?”

“I can get some.”

“Ted’s come back, too. Angie says he’s a nice chap now. I’ll make us a starry-eyed pie. You boys love that.” I could see the circle of accusing eyes of the fish heads popping out of the crust. Spider and I used eat the potato and slip the fish to the cat when Mam left the table.

“That’ll be fine, Mam,” said Spider. “The four of us round the table together, just like old times.”

Mam turned her head to the pillow. “I’ll get it started in a minute. I just want to rest a bit now.”

Spider’s head was bent over his mother. His eyes were wet, and so were mine and Angie’s. We left mother and son then.

Mam Meersman was buried in the new field above the church. As her casket was lowered the rain stopped and the sun sparkled on the estuary. She would have a fine view down over the village to the sea. Mam had delivered just about everyone living in Westowe who was between twenty and sixty-five years old. Most of them crowded into Spider’s house that morning. Old dears gathered in the front room to drink tea and nibble crab and cucumber sandwiches and kiss Spider and smile at each other through rheumy eyes, wondering who would be next to be laid beside Mam Meersman on that windswept hill above the church. There was a rugby scrum in the kitchen where the lifeboat crew was dispensing malt whisky. The party spilled out into the front garden, where a melancholy undertone stirred into talk of fish and football, chatter and laughter. The holidaymakers passing by the gate slowed and cast wistful glances at the jolly party they hadn’t been invited to.

Eddy Starr was standing just outside the circle of lifeboat blokes in the kitchen, nursing a glass of tap water. He pulled me to one side. “How did you get on with Detective Superintendent Radcliffe?”

“Has he spoken to you yet?”

Before speaking Eddy looked around as if he were standing in the lounge bar of The Blind Beggar in London’s villainous East End instead of Mam Meersman’s kitchen. “I’ve been on holiday. I’m seeing him tomorrow.”

“We discussed your theories about people disappearing themselves.”

Eddy beamed. “You mentioned my name?”

“He mentioned it before I did. He was taken with your interest in the case. And your methodical approach.” Eddy’s smile broadened. “But he thinks you’re on the wrong trail. He reckons it’s a serial murderer.”

Eddy pondered. “That’s what they’re into, the SCB. And I can tell you something about them.”

“You’re going to tell me that Pixie and Poxy are not Customs & Excise officers.” Eddy was hanging on my words now. “Detective Superintendent Radcliffe reckons the murderer is a hedonistic sociopath.” Eddy took his notebook out of his pocket. I had to spell hedonistic for him. “Radcliffe sketched out a kind of psychological photofit,” I continued. “The trouble is, it fits me like a thumbprint.” Eddy looked at me with new respect. “I thought that would please you,” I said. “After all, I was your first suspect.” Eddy’s thumb was quivering over his notebook. “Unfortunately, I am innocent. But let me tell you what the Detective Superintendent is particularly interested in talking to you about.” I reminded Eddy of our balloon trip and the naked couple we’d swept over, thrashing in the grass the evening that Superbloke and Angus Fergusson stepped into eternity. Eddy’s hands flew through the pages of his notebook. His face fell. He had made no record of the incident. “Find a blank space,” I said, “and write it in.” Eddy frowned. “And then tell the Detective Superintendent why you thought it was important.”

“Why?” asked Eddy.

“Because, how else would you get somebody to take off their clothes before you pushed them over a cliff?”

In the sitting room I bumped into Rabbit, her body wedged drum-tight into a black suit that looked like genuine shot silk. “Is Eddy still in there?” she asked. I nodded. She took my arm and led me into the back garden. “He’s been following me all day.”

“You must be a suspect.”

“It’s his birthday soon. Every year, just around his birthday, he asks me to marry him.”

“I’m sorry about Charlie,” I said.

“Don’t waste your tears. Charlie’s all right.”

“You know what’s happened to him?”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

“He could be dead,” I said.

“He’s just run away. Like all the others.”

“You’ve been talking to Eddy,” I said.

“All I ever say to Eddy is ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go’.”

Behind her, I saw Eddy making his way down the back steps towards us. She followed my eyes and turned. As Eddy came up she touched him on the arm and said to both of us, “Sorry, I’ve got to go.”

Eddy’s eyes followed her with the gaze of a new-born calf. “She’s very upset about her brother’s disappearance,” I explained, and he nodded.

The kitchen table had been brought into the front room and covered with Mam’s best Irish linen tablecloth, which was only used for Sundays and holidays. And funerals. An old dear was stuffing Dinny’s pocket with packets of quiche and pork rolls wrapped in paper napkins. “It’s a pity you didn’t bring your bucket, Dinny,” she said.

“I don’t need to carry it no more,” he answered.

I caught his eye. “Did you carry it because of Malcolm’s dad?” I asked.

“He tells me to stop. And I says no, I’ll never stop.” Dinny laughed. “That’s why he jumped.”

“What about Malcolm?”

“I carries it for him, too. So now he’s jumped.” He looked up at me and explained, “So I don’t have to carry it no more.”

Dinny unfastened his double-breasted blazer to stuff some celery into his inside pocket. The matron who was victualling him held her fingers to her nose. “My dear, you pong. You come down to the club tomorrow and have your annual scrub. Just look at the state of you.” Dinny, the most damaged of my childhood chums, and the least hurt, nodded absently, while the bossy boots zipped up his flies.

Two old gaffers were snoring in the parlour. I helped Spider get them to their feet. We found their canes and helped them down the steps to the gate. They hobbled off together across the long shadows into the golden afternoon.

“What a life,” said Spider. “Even if you survive, you end up looking like a turtle.”

“I’m sorry about Mam.”

“I’m sorry for you,” said Spider. “You’ve lost two mums now.”

“She was everybody’s mum by proxy.”

“Well, she never turned no one down. I’m just ashamed I was such a disappointment to her.”

“You? You’re the uncrowned king of Westowe.”

“Which says a lot about Westowe.” He probed a finger into my chest. “All Mam ever wanted was a son with a good steady job, a good wife and good prospects, who went to Mass every Sunday. That’s not much to ask. And look what she got.”

“She wanted you to marry Angie.”

Spider aimed his finger at me again. “She wanted one of us to marry Angie.”

“Angie can’t hang on to the past forever.”

“You’re more her sort. You’ve got money, you listen to long-haired music, you’ve been to restaurants that don’t serve curry, and you read books without pictures.” Spider looked at the glass of whisky in his fist, and drained it. “I’ve been drinking this all afternoon and I’m as sober as Eddy Starr.”

“I wouldn’t skipper the lifeboat tonight, just the same.”

Spider grinned. “Not tonight. But I had you well fooled that night in the pub, when Matty was trying to get into your sleeping bag. Which reminds me. You can have your old room back now. Until you sort yourself out.”

“Thanks. The Buena Vista’s a bit pricey this time of year.”

“I could use the company.”

“I won’t bring anyone home you wouldn’t like.”

“If you’re thinking about Angie, I’ve got one big advantage over you.”

“You wash your dick with holy water?”

“No, matey. When it comes to Matty and Angie, I know which one I want.”

I missed some other people who should have been at the funeral. Bartholomew, who held Angie’s child in his hands in this little two-storey pebbledash house that snowy night. Lord Nick. Superbloke. Charlie. Matty, the last fallen bird Mam had taken under her wing. Even Lothar. With his insatiable curiosity about English manners, we would have had a lot to talk over afterwards. But after I said good-bye to Spider I went down the steps by myself.

“I want to show you something.” Angie took my arm at the front gate. She had caged her dark hair in a black cloche hat. A few wisps escaped around her ears. She wore a black suit with a jacket that flared about her hips. Why are grieving women dressed in black so sexy? At the corner she stopped and leaned on my elbow, lifting stockinged calves to remove her high heeled shoes and replace them with a flat pair she carried in her large black shoulder bag. She led us up Fore Street.

“It wasn’t Mam’s fault. I poured out my heart to her. She knew it would ruin me. Unmarried girls didn’t have babies in those days. It would have destroyed my mother. Given all her smart friends licence to pity her. My father would have taken what little spirit he had left into his garden shed and buried it there. They would have sent me away somewhere. There was no one I could turn to except Mam Meersman.”

We were passing the sailing club. Were we going to Lord Nick’s mansion? Shuttered now and empty. Or for a blowy walk on the coastal path? Or to the castle? The exhibition would be closed at this hour. At the rhododendron bushes she turned down the path to the castle. Above, sunlight flashed off the picture window of the Glochamorra bungalow and I wondered if our images were fixed in the circles of Rabbit’s binoculars.

“I was more worried about my reputation than about our baby. So I gave it away. I never saw it again. Gwendolyn left almost immediately. We heard she’d gone to Australia.”

Angie used her key to open the door of the castle. When we were inside she put the key ring back into her black shoulder bag and unpinned her hat and fluffed her dark hair, grown longer now. She handed me the hat and I turned around to put it on the counter which had been erected near the door. When I turned back she was drawing a gold chain over her head. On it was a glittering mortise key.

“Doesn’t that make your neck green?” I asked

“The key is 18-carat gold. Bartholomew had it made. He treated me like a queen. And he was happy to be my slave. It was all to rebuild my self-esteem. He knew I had reached the floor of myself. He recreated me. As his own personal goddess.”

“And nobody else knew you’d had a child?”

“They kept it all quiet. He and Mam. He called me ‘Virgin Child’. And the dead baby ‘Angel Child’.”

“You gave Mam an ethical dilemma. It’s against the law to fail to register a stillbirth.”

“Mam had no problem with it. She was a deeply religious woman, but she lived by a higher ethic. She had a saying for it.”

I remembered. “Church is for Sundays, law is for weekdays. On a Saturday night, just do what’s right.”

Angie smiled. “That’s Spider’s way, too.”

“Bartholomew knew about the swap?”

Angie’s jaw set hard. “Never. We never told him, Mam and I. He thought our baby had been born dead. And that his child — his and Gwendolyn’s — had been born live. But he was completely irresponsible about that. The nurse had to drag him from the pub to go and see her, and when Gwendolyn refused to let him in, that was just dandy with him. He never even saw the baby that was his. But he venerated the dead infant, the baby he thought was mine — yours and mine — as if it were his own.”

“Perhaps he thought it was.”

Her dark eyes flashed again. “We weren’t lovers then. Not until long afterwards.”

So he had never told her what happened on the grass under the magnolia tree. It was far too late to tell her now that she was mistaken. “Displacement,” I said.

“That’s what I reckon. He felt guilty about Gwendolyn, but he couldn’t bring himself to accept that responsibility. So he poured all that guilt out on me.”

“Still-born babies are a lot easier to accept. They never become adolescents.”

“He swept me along with him. On a torrent of guilt. We became conspirators. And the artist in him transmuted it into love. He adored the dead child. And he adored the woman he thought was its mother.” She took my hand and led me down the short passage to the munitions room. “This was our shrine.” She flicked the switch on the wall, inserted the gold key into the lock and opened the door. Then she stood aside.

The artist had designed the tableau as a mystery glimpsed in chiaroscuro through a restricted peep-hole. In panoramic view the light was harsh and arbitrary. Only the portrait of Angie as Madonna retained its dark intrigue. The plaster limbs splayed beneath were chipped, the newspaper cuttings, which through the spy-hole seemed almost to flutter, were stiff with yellowed coats of shellac, the mournful stuffed owl was dull-eyed and moth-eaten, paint peeled off the airborne pink pig. It was a seaside fairground stored under a tarpaulin for many seasons, smelling of dust and damp.

Angie stood aside. “Go in.”

Stepping stones set amongst the pebbles led to the Madonna. I hesitated and my eye caught the glint of the key in Angie’s hand. A sad smile crossed her face. “You’re spooked. Are you afraid I’m going to lock you in here?”

“I used to imagine you had Matty chained to the wall in here.”

Her smile faded to a frown. “I thought Matty was my daughter. Our daughter. Gwendolyn took her to Australia. Matty came from Australia. She was the right age. She had a connection with Westowe. And there was something — familiar about her.”

“You thought Matty was my daughter? And you didn’t tell me?”

“I got Spider to warn you. But I was wrong. The tests proved she’s Lord Nick’s daughter.”

“Who’s the mother?”

Angie shrugged, “Who knows?”

“Least of all Nickers. It was the 60s.”

“I missed all that. I’ve only made love to two men. I’m still the good little girl my parents wanted me to be.”

“Which is why he called this ‘Angel Child’.” I stepped into the artwork. Angie stayed behind.

“Look at the child,” said her voice from behind me.

It was leathery, like a lizard with its eyes squinted shut against the sun which had never shone here. Its little wrinkled face was tense.

“The Madonna is marvellous,” I said. “And the infant is incredibly real. You almost expect it to cry.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“You stuffed a baby?”

“Dinny did. He was apprenticed in his dad’s funeral home. He did the owl, too.”

“Bartholomew had this dead baby, his own daughter, embalmed and hung as a piece of art?”

“It wasn’t embalmed. It was desiccated.”

“And stuffed like an animal?”

“We had to do something with it. It seemed more dignified than burying it in the rubbish tip or burning it in an oil drum.”

“What were you thinking of?”

“Maybe we’re too afraid of thinking about death. Other people in other places have different ways of commemorating life. ‘Angel Child’ is a visual memory of a bitter, very human experience. A key to the past.”

“Your absolutely sure it wasn’t your baby? Mam Meersman could have lied to you. Bartholomew could have.”

“I did worry about that. Especially recently. So I took the opportunity to check.”

“How?”

“That’s where I got the DNA sample to test against the body that floated in. Cody’s body. From Gwendolyn’s baby. When there was no match, I knew it couldn’t be Bartholomew.”

“You cut a piece off that dead infant?”

“Just a tiny biopsy.”

“How could you do it?”

“It was just like a lab experiment.” She turned her head and looked at me with a smile. “You didn’t do biology, did you? I also gave a sample of my own DNA to test against the baby. Just in case. That was negative, too.”

“Why are you showing this to me?”

“Maybe I want you to forgive me.”

“What did you feel at the time? When Bartholomew was building this thing?”

“I helped him. We used to go out to the beaches and the rock pools together and gather pebbles, and shells and seaweed. It was a time of great happiness. I felt like a child. Loved. Guided. Embraced. Free from responsibility. My own feelings were numbed. Atrophied. Anything Bartholomew said, anything he did was right. It wasn’t my baby, after all.”

“And Bartholomew never knew it was his baby — his and Gwen­dolyn’s — not yours.”

She smiled at me. “Ours. Yours and mine.” She paused and I imagined she, like I, was thinking about where our twenty-eight-year-old daughter was, and what she was like. “No, I couldn’t tell him. He worked on ‘Angel Child’ for years on and off. He put all his passion into it. A shrine to me, a memorial to his guilt.”

“Do you really think it was Gwendolyn he felt so guilty about? Whom he kicked aside so easily?”

She turned her face to me in the dusk. “Who else?” It was far too late to tell Angie that Bartholomew’s guilt was because he thought he might have conceived the infant with her. Why ruin her illusions? After a while she continued, “But I did tell him, finally, that horrible night on the boat — that the dead baby wasn’t mine, but his and Gwendolyn’s.”

I remembered her whispering to him and the way his face collapsed when he heard it. “You thought it would bring him back to you?”

“It was the only way to reach him. His soul is in that work. I thought — I don’t know what I thought. Except I knew it would unbalance him. Whatever way he was thinking. Just the last desperate shot of an abandoned woman.”

“How do you feel about him now?”

“I could call him a bastard. A monster. But that’s not true enough. Bartholomew is larger than life.”

“Larger than death, too, it would seem.”

“It’s why he does what he does that matters. He does what he feels. His ego is enormous. But it’s generous. He wants to include the whole world.”

“The female population, anyway.”

“Women are attracted to generosity of spirit,” said Angela. “It’s how they see themselves.”

Anything is a legitimate theme for the imagination of the artist — including everything that society calls perverse. But Bartholomew had blurred the line between life and art. He had animated his fantasies — to make his life a work of art. And Angie had been his muse and apprentice.


Sunday, 4th September

The daily miracle occurred: waking up to start afresh again, curious to see what new entropy the day would bring. Rabbit had phoned last night, asking me to meet her at Charlie’s office. I stepped out into a flaught which lashed my face like a wet towel. I took the short-cut along the walled walk to Fore Street. The sky was black and no one was abroad in the lanes.

Rabbit was in no-nonsense mode. She had trapped her hair in a severe bun. Electronically, perhaps, as a pink glow tipped the wings of her spectacles. She wore a grey pin-striped suit and draped over her shoulders like a trailing parachute was an immense white silk scarf with the heads of horses and other equestrian symbols and the name of the manufacturer printed on it in gold and green. Rabbit had a good seat, but I’d never seen her on a horse. She led me into Charlie’s little office. I perched on the edge of the table. She closed the door as Charlie used to do when she sat in the next room and brushed her hips past my knees in a cloud of scent that reminded me of the night I had got out of bed to take a pee and put on her dressing gown by mistake. She settled in the rickety leather armchair behind Charlie’s desk and placed her hands palm down on the ink blotter.

“You’re not taking over the practice?” I asked.

“Be serious.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“You’re not funny, you know.”

“I’ll try harder, Miss.”

“Still playing the card, Teddy boy? Where has it got you?”

“The same place everybody in my generation has got to. Those who are still alive. We’ve all got to be almost fifty.”

The pin-striped shoulders slumped and the edge left her voice. “Why do you always have to spoil things?”

I cocked my wrist to look at a non-existent watch. “Crikey. The pubs aren’t open yet, and already I’ve spoiled something. What was it?”

She withdrew her right hand from the desk and left the other pointing towards the silver sailing trophy which Charlie had won when we were all twelve years old. Engraved on it was ‘Most Improved Sailor — Section B’. It was what they gave you when you didn’t win any races all year. Charlie had kept stubs of pencils in it. Now it was empty and tarnished. The blotter had been full of telephone numbers and doodles. That was empty, too.

“Notice anything?”

“You’ve changed the blotter.” She raised her hand, bent at the wrist, and held it under my nose. “You’re wearing a new scent?”

“The ring, you cretin.”

On her fourth finger was a small heap of sparkling shards a hermit crab could have moved into.

“You’ve been to Woolworth’s.”

Her fingers formed a fist and she dragged the crab’s house down my cheek. When we were kids she used to do that with hairpins. In bed, she drew blood with her fingernails. I winced.

“Real diamonds. How do they feel?”

“I’ve still got the weals on my back from the last time you did that.”

She fluttered the encrusted hand at me. “You’ve got to try to forget all that.”

“Not until I can wear a swimming costume again.”

“I’m engaged to be married.”

“Who’s the lucky guy?”

“Eddy, naturally. I finally gave in.” She took herself to the window to admire the ring in the light.

“Did he rob a bank?”

“I paid for it. But we picked it out together.”

“Congratulations.”

“I hadn’t heard from you. I never saw you. You were avoiding me, weren’t you?”

“I’ve been a bit busy.”

“Lovers come and go.” She took off her specs and looked at me with her out-of-focus eyes. “They come. Then they go.”

“You made a joke.”

“I’m not a Cindy doll, Ted.”

“You’re a sweetheart.”

Her eyes were saucers. “Is there any hope for us? I would give him back this ring if there was.”

“Even though you paid for it?”

“Why do you always have to make fun of everything?”

“People can hurt you while they’re smiling, but not if you make them laugh.”

She laid her hand on my arm. “Did you ever love me?”

“I like you one helluva lot.”

She took off her engagement ring and plopped it into Charlie’s silver cup. “Let’s do it just once more.”

There was no room to lie down in either office. I tried to guide her thighs on to the table, but she resisted. “The leg is held on with tape,” she said. My brain seized up for half a tick before I realised it was the table she meant. So I removed the ink blotter from the desk. My last impression of Rabbit was from the rear, sprawled chest down on the imitation leather panel set into the top of her brother’s reproduction partner’s desk, her tailored charcoal pinstripe skirt ruffed up over her pudgy bottom, thighs ringed with the marks of her tights, which were pushed down now around her knees with her pink knickers, while the windows darkened, the sky turned black and a squall hammered the rain down like rivets on the former fisherman’s cottage which housed the premises of Segui and Cooper, all partners now demised. Rabbit moaned and thrashed and her hair spun adrift while I pictured Angie spread-legged like this and Charlie’s silver ‘Most Improved Sailor’ trophy tinkled and tottered towards the edge of the desk. On the last stroke I thought, ‘And this one’s for you, Eddy Starr, for bonking me on the head.’ The silver trophy fell to the floor with a great, satisfying clang, the engagement ring which he had approved spilling out of its mouth.

She pulled up her tights with the knickers inside them, retrieved her ring from the floor and went into the tiny loo. When she came out her hair had been retamed and she looked like a schoolteacher again.

“I don’t want you to think that was why I asked you here today.”

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a lawyer’s office.”

“You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?” I didn’t know who she meant, so I kept quiet. She went to the filing cabinet and pulled out a thick file. She thumped it on the table. She took out two folders. One was labelled ‘DNA Comparison: Farthing-Tattersall v. Ferguson’. I stared at that for a moment before I remembered that Matty’s surname was Ferguson. The other folder was labelled ‘DNA Comparison: “B. Streb” v. Deceased’. There was a third folder in the file which she did not remove.

“You know the results of these tests?” she asked.

“Yes. Ferguson is Matty. That test proved Lord Nick was her father. The other one is the sample Angie submitted to compare with the body that washed in. That test was negative.”

“Do you know where her sample came from?”

“She said it was Bartholomew.”

“There was no proper chain of custody. That’s why Charlie had me write ‘B. Streb’ with inverted commas around it. Because it didn’t prove anything.”

“It satisfied her.”

Rabbit opened the top drawer of Charlie’s desk and pulled out a pad of pink adhesive post-it notes advertising ‘Eternity Funeral Services (Formerly Dinsmore’s)’. She tore off two slips and wrote on them with a souvenir of her former husband’s business, an outsize pen that was also a pocket torch and had a slogan printed on it: ‘Harris Stationery Supplies, all ways the write choice’. She kept a box full of them in her kitchen.

“This is what Charlie tested.” Rabbit placed a slip on each file folder. The slip she stuck on the folder labelled ‘DNA Comparison: Farthing-Tattersall v. Ferguson’ now read ‘Farthing-Tattersall v. “B. Streb”’. On the pink slip which she stuck on the other file, the one labelled ‘”B. Streb” v. Deceased’, she had written ‘Ferguson v. Deceased’.

“Charlie switched the samples?” She nodded. “How could he manage that?”

“He is a solicitor. Part of the certified chain of custody.”

“How did you find out?”

“I saw him do it. I always knew he was up to hanky-panky when he closed the door. So I’d step into the loo.” She slid the door which led to the inter-communicating toilet halfway open, reached inside and I heard a switch click. A point of light appeared where one of the screws should be in the ceramic plate that said ‘Stallions’. She pointed to the mirror on the opposite wall. “Even if he was playing with himself behind the desk I could see him.”

“Why would Charlie do a thing like that?”

She snorted. “Because of those magazines he kept in the safe.”

“I mean, why would he switch the samples?”

“There was something in it for him.”

“What?”

“When that corpse floated in, Charlie fell to pieces. He spent a lot of time in here on the computer, sending E-mail messages about Project Blue Horizon. That European property deal I told you about. Supposedly. He kept that file in his safe.” She nodded towards it. The door of the red safe under the mirror was ajar. “Then one day he came out of here grinning like he’d won the lottery. I knew he’d just checked his
E-mail. And after that he started saying that the body that had floated in probably wasn’t Bartholomew after all. Even though everyone thought it was.”

“Except Angie.”

“So when she came in with her sample, which she said was from Bartholomew, he didn’t think that test mattered one way or the other. Particularly since she wouldn’t tell him where she got the sample from. But he was worried about comparing Matty’s sample to Lord Nick’s, both of which were proper jobs.”

“I still don’t see what was in it for him.”

“Lord Nick had just appointed Charlie as his legal executor. He was in some financial scrape as usual and Charlie was going to sort it out for him. Everybody thought Matty was batty, but if she ever did turn out to be Nick’s daughter, she’d be an heir. And Charlie didn’t want any legal complications with Lord Nick’s estate. So, just to be on the safe side, he switched the samples.”

“And the sample that Angie gave Charlie turned out to be related to Lord Nick.”

“Father and daughter. Or brother and sister.”

My mind reeled. ‘Angel Child’, Gwendolyn’s baby, had been fathered by Lord Nick. “Which means Matty is not really Nick’s daughter,” I said almost to myself.

“But somebody else is related to him. Angie could tell you who.”

“And Matty’s sample, tested against the corpse that floated in was negative?”

“That’s right.” Of course. That was Sam Cody

My brain was aching. “It must have confused the hell out of Charlie.”

“He was flabbergasted when the certificates came back. Of course, he couldn’t switch them back again. He took to pacing around his office, bumping into the furniture, like a rabbit in a cage. Finally he started playing ‘what if’ games with me, so I knew exactly what was going through his mind.”

She took the third folder out of the file. This one read: ‘”B. Streb” v. A. Streb’. “Angie also wanted to compare her own sample against the one she gave us to check against the body. The one she said was from Bartholomew. Charlie said that was stupid, because you don’t inherit DNA by marriage. And that comparison was negative, like he said it would be.”

“So Angie is not related to the sample she gave, but Nickers was.”

She nodded. “I suggested to Charlie that he should make another test. Of course he thought it was his own idea.” She picked up the file marked ‘A. Streb’ and the other marked ‘Ferguson’ and held them both out to me. “To compare Angie’s DNA to Matty’s.”

“Why?”

“Out of curiosity. There was some talk in the village when Angie suddenly went up to London the winter after you left. Before she took up with Bartholomew.”

“And?”

“There was a positive match. Matty is Angie’s daughter.”

I picked up a file in each hand. “This is all bona-fide documentation?”

“That’s just the correspondence. One of Charlie’s little surprises before he cleared out was that he sold the practice to Donovan & Donovan without telling me. The official certificates are with them. It’s all straight. You can see them if you like.”

“I’ll have to.”

“You know what it means — about Matty’s father — don’t you?” I nodded, but she went on anyway. “It could be you.” She trilled the last word like the TV ads for the lottery. Then she walked to the red safe, stooped, and pulled the door open. Inside there was only a single file folder. She gave it to me. It was a fat blue folder and on the cover was Charlie’s doodle of a sun rising out of the sea and a label which read ‘Blue Horizon’.

“This was Charlie’s retirement plan. But there was no property deal. All those people are alive. Colonel Meeker and Lord Nick and Malcolm Goodfellow. Alive and well and living on the Costa del Sol. And Charlie’s with them. They were all in deep financial do-do. Charlie engineered a scam, putting all their assets offshore and leaving their debts behind.” I didn’t say anything. She paused and blinked at me. “Don’t you believe me?”

“Why do you say that?” I reached for the file. She let me take it.

“You don’t seem very surprised.”

I opened the file. Stapled top and bottom to the inside cover was a list of names and telephone numbers. I could not recognise any of them, but some were headed ‘Capri’. Charlie’s idea of secret codes was simple: think of another island starting with the same letter. Next to the word ‘Chopper’ was an E-mail address. The original had been crossed over and another substituted. I made an instant decision and memorised the original. Something had been slipped behind the page, held in place by a paper clip.

I answered Rabbit. “I was just wondering, why would he leave all this incriminating evidence behind?” Tucked in behind Charlie’s list was a small card: a pocket Westowe Sailing Club tide table. With blue highlighter on the dates of the full moon plus two days.

“Charlie would leave his head in his hat if I wasn’t around to sort him out.”

“What are you going to do with this?”

“I discovered another file in the safe. Charlie’s stolen all the investments I put through him. So I’m going to give this to my fiancée. It should get him a big promotion.” She held out her hands for the file.

“There’s one more thing I’d like you to do for me,” I said.

She looked at me from head to crotch and back again over the rim of her spectacles and shook her head. “You should have asked me before I put my ring back on.”

“Could you give me a photocopy of that page stapled into the cover?”

“Why?”

“For Angie. If Charlie was right and Bartholomew is still alive, those people can help us find him.”

As I followed her into the outer office I slipped the little card from under the paper clip and put it where pocket time tables belong. I gave Rabbit the file. She removed its contents and placed them on her desk and then took the folder to the photocopier. On a notice board on the wall above her desk were pinned a local bus timetable and a rail timetable for Kings Ferry services. While her back was turned I unpinned them and slipped them into the sheaf of papers. She handed me the photocopy of Charlie’s contacts and replaced all of the papers into the file without looking at them. Eddy would lay all this at the feet of Detective Superintendent Radcliffe. He was a clever man. He would know the significance of transport timetables for men on the run and perhaps lose his inconvenient interest in tides.

Rabbit was hugging the file to her bosom. “How long are you going to stay in Westowe?”

“There’s just one more question I’d like to ask,” I said.

Rabbit’s benevolent mood was souring. “What’s keeping you here? Your home’s been turned into a museum. Your topsy ran off with a sailor. Your boat’s sunk. Most of your playmates have left. And you never really belonged here anyway.”

“Do Donovan and Donovan have custody of all these samples now?”

She nodded. “It’s Angie, isn’t it? You used to follow her around like a puppy.”

“I’d like to arrange a test of my own DNA.”

“You don’t suppose you’re Lord Nick’s brother, do you?”

“I want to test it against Matty’s sample.”

Rabbit stroked my arm. “Poor Teddy. One has to be so careful whom one sleeps with these days.”

“You’re the only woman I’ve slept with since I’ve come to Westowe.”

Rabbit’s eyes softened. “Honest Injun?”

I passed my forefinger across my throat, the way we used to pledge when we were kids. “Cut my throat and hope to die.”

“Matty will have to sign a consent form,” she said.

“Oh, Christ.”

Rabbit was digging in the file drawer again. She extracted a sheet of paper. “Charlie always took a few precautions with wandering clients,” she said. It was a Segui & Cooper letterhead, blank except for Matty’s signature at the bottom. Rabbit fed it into her typewriter, and, fluffing out her skirts, sat down to copy out a consent form.

When she handed it to me she said, “This is for loving me just a little.”

“You’re a brick,” I said.

“Beazer for ballast.” Rabbit’s eyes were moist and so were mine. She grazed my cheek with her wire brush hair, the wing tips of her spectacles, and her lipsticked lips, in that order, before pushing me out the door into the drumming plash.


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.


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.


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?


Last week of April

It is possible to get from Lézardrieu to St. Malo. On the map behind the window of the Syndicat d’Initiative, closed at this hour, a black hatched line runs from Paimpol to a spidery network which connects with St Malo. Paimpol is six kilometers from Lézardrieu. I walk there. There is a gare. It is closed now. There are three trains on weekdays. The first departs at 1017 and arrives at Guingamp at 1102. I walk back to Lézardrieu. It rains.

In the morning the front door of the hotel is locked, as is the door into the bar. Try another door. A woman and a man look up from breakfast. Try a smile. Some gesturing with the room key. She disappears upstairs and returns with a bill for 70 francs. That leaves 340. “Taxi?” I ask. Emphatic nods. I go out with my heavy kit bag, my ditty bag and the sleeping bag and stand in the road.

A thick, chill sea fog fills the street. No yachts will slip their moorings in the Trieux until late morning. But then the tide doesn’t turn towards the sea anyway until 1209. There is an empty taxi in the hotel car park, covered with dew. A young man comes out of the hotel zipping up an anorak. He is the taxi driver and lodges in the hotel. He already knows the destination is Paimpol. Was it he who drove Matty to the rail station last November? If I could speak French better I could ask him.

From the suspension bridge there is a view of the river winding up-country into the mist. The tide is flooding. To slip into France without showing a passport I had hitched a berth as a spare crewman on a British yacht sailing from La Coruña. While we were coming upriver yesterday I read in Reed’s Almanac that at mean high water springs the bridge is 66 feet above the river.

We reach the gare with time in hand. The charge is 38 francs, plus tip, which makes 40. Which leaves 300. The ticketmaster says the price of a ticket to St Malo is 800 and something francs. I ask the ticket master to write it out. He writes 88. I ask again, with grunts and hands, where one has to change. This produces the following manuscript:


Paimpol

Guingamp

St Brieuc

Dinan

Dol

1017

1122

1242

1326

1600

Guingamp

St Brieuc

Dinan

Dol

St Malo

1102

1158

1320

1352

1617


Are these changes or stops? No matter. It is a meticulous guide and deserves a “Merci beaucoup.”

The train is already in the station. It has two carriages, with enormous panoramic windows at both ends. I sit in the first seat of the first carriage so I can see the names of the stations as they come into view. I would be very exposed in a head-on collision. What is the relative incidence of head-on v. rear-end rail collisions?

The train glides out of the station and draws the curving track beneath the panoramic window of the front carriage. It travels along the river. It stops at tiny stations where people get on or off; at other stations without people on the platform the train slows but does not stop. On the sharper bends it sways like a roller coaster.

I’m not surprised that Charlie Segui didn’t like me. I took the piss out of the little bugger since he was ten years old. But how could he hate me? I don’t hate him. Even though he schemed to implicate me in Colonel Meeker’s disappearance. He hated me so much he tried to kill me by getting me to sail with Lord Nick when he scuttled the Grace of God. I don’t hate him. Charlie was a weasel, but he was not evil. He was just frightened. And full of hateful envy. How can hate be so long-lasting? And so well concealed? Is there loathing behind every smile? Do they all really hate me?

The sun begins to warm through the fog. Now the train has parted from the river and clatters through fields carpeted in fresh green growth. Guingamp comes into view and when it is reached all of the passengers disembark. The station clock works and the train is precisely on time.

Timetables are posted in the station. The 1122 appears to go to Paris and not to St Brieuc. Another notice indicates that the next train to St Brieuc is not until 1420.

There is a long queue at the information window. By the station clock it is almost 1122. I thrust the timetable written by the Paimpol ticket master through the grate. “Est-ce okay?” The uniformed man in charge of information at the railway station in Guingamp frowns over it. But that is because the list begins with Paimpol, and not Guingamp, where we are. He reads each entry aloud, and ticks them with his pencil while a train pulls into the station. He is finished and says, “C’est okay.” I say “Merci beaucoup” to him, meaning it for his meticulous colleague in Paimpol and run for the train.

This is the mainline Paris express. More farm land slips past the windows.

Superbloke was a pompous ass, a confidence trickster who got on by cheating people. He tried to cheat Angie by mortgaging Westowe Castle to him in order to mount the exhibition. When that scheme backfired he concocted an opportunistic plot to drown Angie and me. It was not imaginative. It was just what he knew his father had done to my parents. It was the desperate instinct of a desperate man. Superbloke was not by nature evil; his entire raison d’etre — his ego — was at stake. If he’d not been scuppered by Colonel Meeker’s Lloyds syndicate, he would have invited us to a sherry party instead of luring us into The Devil’s Frying-pan.

At St Brieuc there is a large station bar-and-restaurant staffed by four stout bleached blondes who are no longer thirty-something. At the bar I ask for un verre de vin blanc. The response sounds like “Muscadet ou Loire?” But Muscadet is a Loire wine. Or is it not? “Muscadet” I say and receive a tiny measure of sour white liquid in a long-stemmed straight-sided little goblet. The tables are serviced by one of the blonde waitresses. I sit down anyway.

A tall, dark handsome woman strides by my table, crisp and tailored in a beige, belted trouser suit. She disappears upstairs to another, probably better, restaurant. But no one has come in yet who would appear to be a suitable luncheon companion for her, nor does anyone. I order another vin blanc, properly this time from the table waitress. Nevertheless, I am summoned to the counter to have my glass refilled by the bar lady.

Superbloke’s father, Thomas Goodfellow — ‘Uncle Tom’ — now surely there was an evil man. He fucked my mother. He killed her and my father as well, luring them into the death trap his son later set again for Angie and me. For what gain? None. A jealous, mindless rage probably. Not evil, but temporarily insane. Which he demonstrated later by tossing himself over a cliff.

Dinan is the crucial point of the schedule. Only six minutes are allowed to discover the connection to Dol (de Bretagne). The train is poky, without panoramic windows. It appears to terminate at Dinan. Outside, on the platform, there is some conversation about the connection to Dol. When I ask him, the man sitting opposite, who looks like a subnormal Jean-Paul Belmondo, makes sitting gestures. I get off anyway, when I notice that Dinan is marked on the windows of the carriage. Across the platform is another train with Dol written on the windows. I get on it. The station clock works and the train leaves five minutes late. On the reverse of the forward seat a sign reads Dossiers inclinables. The origin of doss house?

Was my mother evil for cheating on my father? Was my father evil for hitting her? Was it evil for my mother to teach me guilt by making me jam butties and buying me comic books when I had misbehaved? Or was that good training for life? I wish I ‘d had the chance to get to know them better.

The station at Dol opens on to a wide, dusty, empty street lined with plane trees sprouting green leaves. The first building on the right, seventy metres away, is the Grand Hotel Dol de Bretagne, signified in faded black letters on flaking whitewash over patches of red brick. A cluster of yellow metal chairs and tables stand on the pavement and on the verge of the road; the Grand Hotel Dol de Bretagne is open.

There is a woman behind the bar. Thirty-five, blonde, erect, warm and womanly. Her eyes are unblinking. She knows precisely what she wants when she goes to the butcher and scolds him until she gets it at the right price. Like the self-assured dark-haired girl who used to serve behind the counter at the French patisserie in the Moscow Road in London, but older. Of course, that was some years ago. She’d be about the same age now.

Lord Nick inherited the evil of privilege: his disdain for other people. He couldn’t care less if they lived or died, he would say. Yet, he did care enough for Simon’s wretched life to set an alarm clock when he scuppered the Grace of God. He demanded no more for himself from life than what any of us get at most: a sporting chance.

A glass of vin blanc is procured, an even smaller glass of the same odd straight-sided long-stemmed shape. “Manger?” “Oui.” “Menu?”

I settle my three sacks on the pavement outside. The angular metal chairs have yellow seats and backrests and black tubular frames. The scarred yellow surface of the table is hot from the sun. The patron, slim, dark and efficient, arrives with the menu. I choose from the cheaper 50 franc menu. But how does one pronounce the last syllable of flageolet? As in “lay,” as it turns out.

Lothar was a murderer. He killed Lord Nick, Superbloke and Charlie. Stalked them, took their money and their lives. Why can I not hate him? Because I cannot believe that a man so straightforward, so regular, so uncomplicated — a man who was so friendly to me — can be evil. If he walked down this dusty street right now I would leap up with a broad smile on my face to grasp his hand and clap him on the back — no matter that I would wince when he seized me in his bear grip.

The patron’s daughter, who is a plain, serious girl of about thirteen delivers six slices of bread from a French loaf in an oval ribbed aluminium tray, and foil-wrapped butter on a small white plate with a thin green circle inside the rim. A wasp arrives when the butter is opened.

A plain white plate arrives with a shallow soup bowl, also white, on top of it. Athwart that is a plain green pastel napkin. A knife and fork are placed either side of the plate.

A heap of moules is brought to the table in an aluminium bowl. The bowl is round with a thin outer rim which broadens at opposite sides to form rudimentary handles in the shape of softened diamonds or truncated fleur de lis. Two large serving spoons have been placed in the heap of moules.

Now there are three busy wasps.

What about the living? Many would say that Colonel Meeker is an evil man. He swindled hundreds out of their life savings and drove Charlie, Superbloke and Lord Nick to desperate acts, but these were not his intentions. He was a man driven by the most common motivator — a commanding desire for money — but the consequences of his deception were beyond his calculation. His victims were gullible and greedy. No con-man can succeed without the complicity of his victims. And perhaps a degree of self-deception. In his own bolthole, born-again Archie Crompton seems an agreeable chap who mixes a good G-and-T, generous enough to ignore my previous insulting behaviour to him. More than any of my old friends and lovers, he seemed to enjoy my company.

From time to time workmen go in or out of the bar. Inside, the patron and his blonde wife talk. Their voices are strident. Are they arguing? Yes. No, their daughter is laughing.

On the juke box a woman sings “Ring My Bell” in a dusky voice. A bus draws away from the front of the station. It has only two passengers. Perhaps it goes by road to St Malo, which is only 17 minutes away by rail. It might have been sensible to inquire about a connection.

No, it is better to stay in this quiet street for lunchtime. Or longer. One should stay for a few days and eat through the seven choices of the modest menu at the Grand Hotel de Dol de Bretagne. Another year, perhaps. With a companion, perhaps. A slight wind stirs the wasps away. Now a male voice sings chansons on the juke box.

The patron himself returns with two lamb cutlets on a white plate garnished with one lettuce leaf. He places this on top of another identical white plate. He also brings the flageolet in a small round aluminium bowl. A glass bowl containing lettuce is placed on a white side plate. The dressing glistens in the sunlight. On top of the salad there is a serving spoon facing up, and a fork embracing it face down. The lettuce is slightly brown around the edges, with just a memory of crispness. At home one would throw it away. Here on the flecked yellow metal table in the sunlight incipient decay enhances flavour.

There are six other tables on the pavement and in the margin of the road. Five of them, like this table, have three metal chairs around them. No one sits at any of the other tables.

Matty drives men mad: Bartholomew, Lothar and me, and doubtless others spread from here to the Antipodes whose names she has forgotten. She is careless of other women’s men. And drops them when she finds a new toy. Her fealty is to herself. But if self-centredness and promiscuity of affection were evil all of us would hang. And the Great God Random has dispensed even-handed justice: her serene Assumption into the sanctimony of Motherhood — in her belly a serial murderer’s child — or her father’s — which she bears unknowing.

When Madame arrives to clear away the dishes her blonde hair shows dark roots and silvery streaks. She drops the last remaining piece of bread, then a spoon. She chides herself. She wears dungarees of bright mauve corduroy and a pale mauve cotton T-shirt under the bib and shoulder straps. Her fingernails are red. There are high-heeled black sandals on her feet and her toenails are painted red, too. In the hot sun she leans over the table and she is lush and going off, like the lettuce.

The plane trees spring directly from the border of the roadbed out of groundstuff indeterminate between tarmac and earth. Motorbikes lean on their elbows beneath them.

Madame is generous. She returns with three cheeses on a white plate: a runny brie, a firm slice of St. Paulin and a fat disc of soft, sharp cheese. The butter packet is labelled ‘le beurre que j’adore’ and there is a tiny symbolic picture of two cows kissing. Madame and I smile together in the sunshine.

She also brings three more pieces of bread in the ribbed aluminium bowl. They are fresh to the touch. As she returns into the bar her bottom stretches the stuff of her soft mauve dungarees.

The brie is au point, like Madame.

Bartholomew, driven by the arrogance of the Artist, abandoned his patient, loyal wife in the feckless pursuit of his lost youth. He was immune to her pain and suffering. The Artist’s Defence — that his personality is absorbed and justified by his Art — is a manifestation of overweening ego. And Bartholomew was also absorbed in his pecker. Yet his great, flawed work, the contraption ‘Angel Child’, was a lifelong expression of atonement — because he thought the dead infant was the product of his violation of Angie’s innocence. Never mind that I had been there first. And its destruction brought him back to her, strapped to the broken stem of a mast, upside down and dripping. Ulysses had made good his escape from the sirens.

A small boy wearing a blonde Harpo Marx fright wig for hair comes from inside the bar to stand in the sunlight of the doorway. He is wearing a checked cotton T-shirt and tan shorts with braces. The shorts reach almost to his knees. A passable small clown. He mouths a harmonica, and when he goes back inside the musical noise continues for a while. Then it stops. An older girl in a pinafore makes an appearance, too. Madame’s ripe belly has given birth to three children. I think I am falling in love with her.

The round cheese is strong and has an almost liquid centre.

A church bell chimes: four double rings followed by three Morse dots. 1500. The train to St Malo departs at 1600. This place will be here tomorrow. But it will be different tomorrow.

The St Paulin is mild and greasy from the sun.

Not all of the metal yellow and black tables are square like this one. Three, those outer ones actually in the roadway, are round. And the chairs are not all identical either. One type has angular tubes bent into angles for arms; the other type has no arms.

Angie stands amongst the angels. Though her morality is as elusive as any of ours. She lied about her abortion. She scuppered my chances with Matty by leading me to believe I might be her father. She had an infant stuffed, for God’s sake. And she persisted in the lie that the dead infant was hers, which kept Bartholomew her liege, stewing in guilt. She killed a man. Not quite in self defence. To save Matty? To balance the scales of justice with the man she thought was Bartholomew? A woman scorned once too often? She collaborated without demur in the cover-up organised by Spider. She dropped me — but then she had a right to. It was not revenge; on her scales the needs of others weigh heavier — her daughter Matty, her unborn grandchild, who may be misconceived. She does not love Spider — even he must know that — but she has yielded to him. None of this is evil; it is charity perverted. She seeks redemption through suffering. She suffers as the artist’s selfless muse. Her compassion extends to the crises and pains of other people’s lives. Her reward is to suffer vicariously.

The entire family of the patron is in the bar now, with a young chef, who is having a drink at the bar. Madame gives me the bill, written clearly by hand and without abbreviation, and then the change. I gather up the coins, but the note on the plate is twenty francs. Too large for a tip. Yet the change, one franc coin and 70 centimes, is too small. I have no other change. And not enough French. So I leave the coins and turn for the door.

Au revoir, Monsieur” she says. Is there a mocking lilt in her voice? I pick up the three sacks and walk back up the road to the station. There is no solace for this sadness except to hope that Madame will forget me quickly.

The top floor of the station at Dol has four windows framed by white shutters, with lace curtains bowed at each side. A delicate iron grill-work about a foot high is fixed across the four sills.

Where did I go wrong? Returning to Westowe? Failing to seize the moment with Matty? Leaving Westowe in the first place? Not telling my father of my mother’s infidelity?

I carry a tattered magazine cutting in my wallet. It quotes from G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethixa: “No sufficient reason has ever been found for considering one action more right than another.” Such as the case of the doctor who successfully delivered a fourth child to a couple whose first three children had tragically perished — Klara and Alois Hitler. Life is not linear; it’s a kaleidoscope of unpredictability.

The train to St Malo is again a Paris express and it is full. In the compartment between two carriages there is a slim dark-haired woman who stares at the incomprehensible schematic map of the French railway system for a long time. I move to stand behind her, inhaling her fragrance. More carpets of green sprouts rush by the window.

I wish I had talked to Spider about the nature of evil. In all our years together, in boyhood, in middle age, it never came up. Spider always thinks straight and acts true. Is that because his aspirations are mean? No. He wanted the club to survive and he wanted Angie. To get what he wanted, he played the angles, like a good pool player, but he always played fair, if not exactly square. He did what must be done. He is not evil, but he would know what it is. And what I should do next.

She is petite. She wears black and her short hair is black, too. She has a good figure. Her waist is tiny. A broad tan belt divides her in two. If you picked her up by it she would fold. She turns and her face is pale and faintly freckled. It has a few lines. She has a fine nose and intelligent dark eyes. Her arms are white and freckled too. She goes into one of the carriages and does not return.

As the train approaches St. Malo an Englishman and three beautiful clear-eyed young children crowd into the compartment. The father is tall, with a rugged face and sandy hair. Like Bartholomew, he has caused the letters ‘L-O-V-E’ and ‘H-A-T-E’ to be tattooed on the backs of his fingers. He folds his hands. Love and hate, good and evil intertwine.


In the station at St. Malo there is a large board with a street map showing the location of hotels. The instructions appear to say that if, when a button is pressed, a green light appears beside a hotel, it either has vacancies or it is full up. When I press the button all of the green lights flash on.

A horn honks. A taxi has drawn up behind me. “Monsieur is looking for a hotel with comfort? Cheap price.” He looks like Gerard Depardieu hiding behind a moustache, not Benny Hill, so I permit him to load the heavy kit bag, the ditty bag and the sleeping bag into the boot of his car and transport me to the Auberge de l’Hermine, which according to the map in the station offers rooms for 68 francs and does not require meals. I recognise the winding cobbled streets of St Malo. I have been here before. With a woman. When? With whom? Why? Does she remember? Whoever she was? If neither of us remember, and no one else knows either, does it mean it might as well have never happened? Is it un-history? Perhaps it was Honfleur in any case.

Madame quotes 90 francs for a single room, or perhaps it is 150 because it is a double room. Madame demands dinner, which I presume means not that she is hungry, but that I have to eat there. I go up two flights of stairs to a tidy little room with a double bed, overlooking rooftops.

As the dull sun subsides into the pewter sea I find that there are direct ferries to Plymouth and also to Portsmouth, which take about nine hours. There are several ferries and hydrofoil services to Jersey, with the option of a connection to Guernsey. From either island one can fly to Southampton airport. Or one can stay in St Malo. Or take various side excursions to go and look at places. I wander through the marina looking for flying Union Jacks or yachts that I know. Unsuccessful. I post a note on the notice board in the St Malo Yacht Club. A positive action, at least, which avoids making a decision.


Experienced crew (male) available for Old Blighty this week.

Contact Ernest Golden at Auberge de l’Hermine. (99) 56.31.32.


The next morning my footsteps take me near the Hotel de Ville. The invitation to Bartholomew’s exhibition is in my pocket. It is a trap of some kind, but what is the point of trapping dead meat? I do not expect to see my dead wife there, but I do expect some kind of resolution. I half-expect to see the portrait of Angie/Matty which I last spied hanging on the wall of Colonel Meeker’s Corsican villa a quarter of a year ago. Or was it a quarter of a century?

I am disappointed. The only paintings are dismal swirls of turgid colours reflecting the slime-streaked mud, the swollen clouds and puddled cobblestones that await outside the door. Yet the gallery heaves with earnest tourists. It was not his talent, but the circumstances of his passing that have transformed Bartholomew into an icon. Before each painting I expect a discreet tap on the shoulder, but after half-an-hour I emerge untapped.

On the way back to the hotel I pass the three English children sitting with their father on the wall of the quay, eyes alight with smiles for the petite woman in black who kneels to snap their picture. I have in my mind a beautiful photograph of her taking the photograph, which no one else will ever see. And I know it is possible to get from Lézardrieu to St. Malo. My fiftieth birthday is on Sunday. Some things can’t be shared. No matter. Most things, comes to that.

When I come down to dinner in the dining room with the pink tablecloths and heavy red curtains framing the tall windows with a view of the sun sinking over the rooftops she is there. The petite dark woman with the pale face and the intelligent dark eyes with the little lines in the corners. She is alone at a table laid for one. She orders the seventy franc menu and I have it too, a crevette soufflé and a steak au poivre in tomato sauce avecpommes frites and a lettuce salad, not like the one at the Grand Hotel de Dol de Bretagne. but crisp and fresh, with a subtle dressing. We each have a half-bottle of wine and when I pass her table on the way out I see hers is the same, a Beaujolais-Village.

She does not come into the bar, so I go for a walk. When I come back I return to the bar. She is drinking a pastis. I order a Marc de Bourgogne.

“Good evening.”

“Good evening.”

“Where’s your family?”

“That’s an odd question?”

“Good looking man with sandy hair? Three beautiful blonde children?”

“Don’t I wish.” Then she laughed. She laid her hand briefly on my wrist. She was a toucher. “Oh. He just asked me to take their picture. He’s halfway across the Channel by now. Back home to the wiff.”

“Where are you on the way to?”

“I’m doing my gap year a little late in life. What about you?”

“I could say the same. Have you been to the exhibition?”

“Which exhibition?”

“Bartholomew Streb.”

She shook her head. “Should I have heard of him?” She sounded sorry to disappoint me.

“Modern artist. Lived in Westowe.”

She leaned forward, bright-eyed, anxious to please me. “I’ve heard it’s very pretty.”

“I grew up there.”

“Lucky you.”

“Sure. It’s twinned with St Malo.”

“Hence the exhibition.”

I nodded. She looked at me intently, the way she had looked at the map of the French railway system a few hours ago. “You’re Ernest Golden.”

Christ — a bloody journalist. “How do you know that?”

She moved her finger along a line in the air. “Experienced crew — male — available for Old Blighty anytime this week.”

“You’ve been watching me.”

“Watching me.” She sipped her drink.

“You’re allowed to flirt a little, aren’t you, on your gap year?”

She smiled and inclined a little further across the table. “Do you believe in fate?”

Not a journalist. A nutter. “I believe in coincidence.”

“What about faith?”

“I believe in what I can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. And the Great God Random.”

“Science is just another faith. A way of explaining existence.”

“What do you believe in?”

She looked at me over the rim of her glass. “Do you think I could believe in you?”

Her name was Cordelia Worth and we talked until Madame came into the bar and pointed at her watch. At her door Cordelia kissed both my cheeks and the next day we walked all around St Malo and had a wary lunch. She offered to pay and I let her. I put some coins on top of her credit card slip and passed the plate to the waiter. Her signature was a bold scrawl. Nothing like the handwriting on the invitation card. Nothing like Maire’s handwriting. I relaxed and ordered a couple of Calavados. I talked and she listened Afterwards we strolled around the damp town. I emptied my soul. To tell her the gist of my story took all of the long, wet afternoon and visits to two bars.

When I had finished, she levelled her eyes at me over her kir royale. “Does your room have a double bed?”

We had dinner first. “You’re blaming yourself for all this. You’re saying to yourself, ‘If I had married Angie when I was a kid, as I promised — if I’d been a good little boy none of this would have happened.”

“I did everything wrong.”

“Very few of the things we do, right or wrong, all through our lives, make any difference.” I told her then what I felt most guilty about, how I had been angry with Maire and had walked down the path in front of her, not talking.

Cordelia listened quietly, and then said, “Most married people have felt like that some time or other. I did.” She looked straight into my eyes and asked, “Did you push her?”

“What do you think?”

“I’ll never know, shall I? I’ll have to take you on trust.” She took my hand and kissed the back of it. “But whether you did or not, guilt is not a good basis for building new relationships.”

“I’m just confused.”

“No, you’re clinically depressed. I know something about that.”

“You’ve been through it?”

She shook her head. “I was a nurse.”

“What do you recommend?”

“Champagne. And moonlight.”

She turned out the light before she undressed. She drew the curtains and the moonlight showed the fine curves on her slight body. She stepped out of her flimsy underwear and got into bed. She was nimble and fuck-crazed and put every other woman in my life right out of my mind.

In the morning, as we lay in each others arms, she sprung her first surprise. I wouldn’t see her for a while. She was going to hire a car and visit a friend who lived just up the coast.

“Boy friend or girl friend?”

“Just a chum. Sex doesn’t come into it.”

With Cordelia, if it were a man, sex would come into it. This was her coy way of keeping me dangling. It was raining again. I would spend the day in cafés, deciding whether to return to Britain or join Cordelia on her grand tour of the double beds of the world.

“Is there a Mr Worth?”

“That’s my maiden name. I was married once. It’s you I want now,” she said, and she made me hard again without a touch. She lay back, closed her eyes and spread her legs wide and said “Take me.”

I rolled her over. She knew what I wanted and she got up on her knees. Mounting her rampant, I looked down upon a perfect ass, pale and round. Now here’s one for Eddy Starr’s little notebook of coincidences. Tattooed upon her rounded cheeks in red and blue was a no-entry sign. My rude beast faltered, then swooned beneath the forbidden moon like a failed firework.


Sunday, 29th April: 1

The gothic profile of the Benedictine abbey of Mont St-Michel hove into view on its rocky islet just offshore, where it has parted the incoming tide twice a day for a thousand years. The tide was in ebb now. The sea had relinquished the causeway and reflections of the sun glinted where the vast sand flats were emerging.

She kept on driving, right on past Mont St-Michel. She said one really should see it first from across the bay. She was that kind of woman. You had to experience things just so. At Genêts she parked the car by the shore and, without waiting for me, walked down onto the damp sand. I followed. It was bright and breezy. The sea was a silvery thread far away at the horizon. The abbey of Mont St-Michel was a tiny pyramid etched on the skyline, clinging like a limpet to the coast.

She clutched my wrist and smiled up at me. “Let’s walk.”

“You’re bonkers.”

“I know the way. I spent summer holidays here.”

“What about the car?”

She tugged at my arm, frisking like a puppy straining on a lead. “What about your mortgage and your pension?” She had the impudence of Matty, but with a steely challenge in the eye. A man came down the slope behind us walking an impatient Alsatian. To avoid answering Cordelia, I stood watching him with my hands in my pockets, feeling recalcitrant and foolish.

“Fuck the car,” she urged. “We’ll get a taxi after lunch.”

When the tide is out you can walk from Genêts to Mont-St-Michel across the bay. It is seven kilometres on a south-westerly heading. But you can’t go on a straight heading, because you have to thread your way around stretches of quicksand. Hundreds of pilgrims file across these sands every July. They go with a guide. Depending on the season and the state of the moon you have a time window of four or five hours. And you don’t want to be standing on this isolated below-sea-level plain when the salt water reclaims the bay. The tidal currents between Normandy and Brittany are amongst the most powerful in the world. Every fortnight, at spring tides, the sea rises twelve metres in six hours. It rushes in as fast as a man walks.

The man with the dog nodded as he came past us. He started east along the shoreline. I had seen him somewhere before. He looked a little like Gerald Depardieu. Small world. No, the taxi driver who led me to the Auberge de l’Hermine had a ‘tache. She was waiting. “Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?”

“You’re bonkers,” I said again.

“All right then, couch potato. I’ll see you at the restaurant.” She set off towards the gleaming sliver of sea. I watched her figure grow smaller until she turned, smiling, and thrust her arm up in the air. Something bright dangled from her hand. The car keys.

“Bitch!” I shouted, and trotted after her, wiping my eyes against the watery breeze like a fretful child. She laughed and ran on. When I caught up with her, grappling, she thrust her body against me, her tongue stabbed into my mouth and an expert hand unzipped my trouser flies. Her cold fingers encircled my stirring member.

“Not here,” she breathed in my ear. “There’s a man watching us.” It was the bloke with his dog on the shoreline. She withdrew her hand and we walked towards the rocky islet of Tombelan, now a low mound beached on the flats.

Why did I set out today across an empty, treacherous strand under vacant, windswept skies alone with a murderess? Because I don’t have much more to lose. Only my life, and that has been worn to a barren nub. As Maire used to observe, my trouble is that I don’t have a hobby. Also, the widow of the late Mr Fergusson is a natural temptress. As she trudges through the sand, even her loose anorak, baggy trousers and clumpy boots cannot conceal the bottom swivel in her walk. She turns and waits for me and takes my hand while we walk, then breathes a kiss in my ear. For convenience she has left my flies undone and she slides her hand, warm now, inside again to grasp me. Even at my age, fifty today, I am still being led around by my prick.

“I love your prick,” she said last night. She said it twice again today, the last time just before she left. “This is not personal. Please don’t take it personally. I love your prick. But I can’t spend my life in gaol. I can’t spend one day in gaol. It would drive me out of my mind.” She is, I think, already out of her mind. Because she is not evil. I’m sure of that. She makes love to her fellow man with joy and generosity. She swallows him whole, then craves a sweetie of another flavour. She is mad with a deadly life force.

She went back the way we had come. From where I lay, trussed up against the wreck of the boat, I could not follow her with my eyes, but I heard the crunch of her footsteps in the sand, still not dry from the last tide and now awaiting the next. And in my head I saw her buttocks swivel as she walked.

How did I let her loop that wire around my neck? Because I had no reason to suspect menace. I thought she might be falling in love with me. I had not told her that the first time I had seen her luscious tattooed bum was from above in a balloon while she was pumping upon the late Mr Fergusson. Someone else must have told her I had seen her. But who? Eddy? Dinny? How? She would have kept well away from Westowe thereafter.

So I was unguarded. When we sheltered from the wind in the lee of the hulk of the small boat with its faded harlequin colours and she said “I love your prick” and eased my trousers down and took it out — it rising reluctant to the challenge now in the brisk wind, and she sat on it, and then told me to sit up a little, against the boat, I was just hoping to be able to please her. And then the wire burned against my throat like a knife blade. I coughed and at each gasp it burned harder, choking, while she got up and pulled up her trousers, leaving me unzipped, brave Roger still nodding between my legs, a frog fornicating with its head cut off.

She backed well away from me, wary now. My fingers eased the double loop of wire a little and my coughing fit subsided. When she spoke to me for the last time — her “nothing personal” valediction — she did not look at me but at the horizon. Then she just left, walking fast because the tide was on the turn.

It is almost noon. High tide will be around five p.m. I shall lie twelve metres under the sea long before then. Six-fathom deep. I am privileged. Like someone on Death Row, I know almost precisely when I shall die. Except on Death Row, even the guilty sometimes get a reprieve.

Guilt. The heavens are heavy with it. The grey, swollen bellies of gloomy clouds press me down into the sand. I lie immobilised, Christ-like, waiting for death. Not uplifted on a crucifix. My arms are not spread in benediction, but elbowed above my shoulders, undignified, aching. The insides of my fingers are raw and bleeding from keeping tension against the steel wire twice looped around my throat. It is fastened through an iron eyebolt in the hulk of the wooden boat which, like me, has come to its last resting place. With some pain, by twisting my head round, out of the corner of my eye I can see the black combination lock at the end of the wire jammed against the eyebolt. If I could saw the wire through my chin and let it fall off I would be free in an instant.

That man, Christ, knew guilt, too. He died for other people’s sins. So guilt is universal. Even if you didn’t do it, you’re to blame. Because we’re in this scenario together. All part of the same human organism. Or maybe I did do it and I’m in denial. We live by illusions.

I wait for the tide to creep in. The sun glitters briefly through a silvery bank of cloud. A fresh April wind sweeps the shore. Mingled with the salty taste of the sea wrack it carries just the faintest sweetness of spring. I feel a familiar stab of hunger. I should be sitting comfortably at a snug table in Le Pré-Salé restaurant over a fine lunch of roast spring lamb and a fragrant bottle of Beaune. My stomach doesn’t yet know there is no need of further meals. The sound of the waves is closer. I start to shiver. A gull shrieks, wheels about the departing disc of sun and flies due north to England. If it keeps going it will soon gaze down upon the Westowe estuary. Long before then I shall be drowned.

It is damned uncomfortable and now I just want to get it over with. I have no home. My friends have abandoned me. Or are dead. They have taken my memories with them. It is time to take my bow. And to the question ‘what was it all about?’ there is no answer.

The Great God Random knows none of this. He whittles. His sharp stone chips rain down everywhere. Chance and coincidence conflict our lives. He has no purpose. It’s just a pastime. He fashions a stone sliver, and when he is tired of it he flings it down. Upon us. Because this event has a rough shape, it seems designed or ironically intended, and is known as shafting.

Prometheus is bound and there is no helpful Hercules waiting in the wings. Tomorrow, the gulls will peck at my liver. If there is a God, even an ancient Greek god, now’s the time for him to turn up.


Sunday, 29th April: 2

“Happy birthday, Mr Golden.”

The man’s voice comes from behind me. It is English. Someone I know. Then I smell the sweet pipe tobacco. So before he comes into view I know it is Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe. He stares at me. The cherubic face is set in stone. I am in for a hard time.

“Chief Inspector.”

He shakes his head. “Sadly, no.” He bends over me to take a close look at the lock, then steps back. “I was waiting for you on the Mont
St-Michel causeway. I thought I’d better come and find you.”

He looks at his watch, then at the sea, then pivots to view the flats stretching between us and the distant shore. He says nothing, so I have to come to the point. “I don’t suppose you could work out the combination to that lock?”

He shakes his head again and grunts. “All you need is a Swiss army knife or a pair of pincers.” He rummages in the pockets of his 1970s sheepskin coat but his hands come out empty. “You’d be out in a jiffy,” he concludes, and jams his pipe in his jaw.

“Have you got one?”

He shakes his head a third time and squats beside me. We both observe the white line of foam edging towards us. It seems to be about halfway in from the Tombelan rock.

“Can’t stay long,” he says.

“Neither can I. What do you want?”

“What does a policeman always want? The truth. The whole truth and nothing but, as the saying goes.”

“Is the study of clichés mandatory at Plod University?”

“Why do you go out of your way to alienate people, Ted? It will get you into trouble some day.”

The penny drops. “You set me up with her.”

He speaks in a reflective monotone. It sounds like something he has said many times to himself — a rehearsed speech to the Police Officers’ Association, or a passage from the memoirs he will write some day. “Mrs Fergusson represented the only conventional aspect of the Wes­towe murders. When a well-off person in the prime of life is killed under suspicious circumstances you look first at his nearest and dearest. There was only his wife. So we started with her. She had no alibi — and a certain colourful history — but we had only your sighting from the balloon to implicate a woman. No one else in Westowe remembered seeing her. Perhaps she wore a disguise. And you, naughty boy, had done a bunk. We knew where you would turn up, of course, when we followed your chums to Corsica.”

“So you know Meeker’s alive.”

“We cut a deal with him.”

“You wrote that message on the exhibition invitation.”

“Not personally. It was the fair hand of a WPC on my staff. Donald Penny was kind enough to lend us some of your late wife’s correspondence.” He whistles softly. “She was — how shall I put it — strongly attracted to him.”

“You reckoned that would draw me to the Bartholomew retrospective.”

“Curiosity killed the cat.”

“That show was a stroke of luck for you.”

“My dear fellow, we staged it. A complete bit of theatre. And the amazing thing is, it’s a staggering commercial success. I shall go down in police history as the only man ever to return a profit on an officially funded project.”

“So why didn’t you pick me up?”

“You wouldn’t have told us anything.”

“So you got her to interrogate me.” My mind races back to last night. Did they bug the hotel room? How much did I tell her? Only Spider’s version of the events on the mewstone, thank God.

“She has a romantic nature. My guess is she lured her husband to a rendezvous on the cliffs of Westowe on the pretext of some sort of sexual play-acting. If she killed him there, it was bound to be linked to the other disappearances.”

“How did you get her to come to St. Malo?”

“We simply let her discover the truth. That she had been observed by you with her husband on the edge of the cliff on the day he went missing. We made sure she heard about Bartholomew’s retrospective. And we arranged for one of our operatives to get to know her — shall we say, socially. That’s not difficult, as you know. Sergeant Noble. You know him.” Radcliffe pauses for effect and achieves it. Was it Pixie or Poxy that had been inside her before me? “He posed as an old friend of yours. And allowed her to ferret out the information that you would be bound to attend Bartholomew’s exhibition. He even let drop the name of your favourite hotel in St Malo.”

“You set me up to be murdered.”

“We just wanted to put you two together and hear what you talked about. I never thought you would be dense enough to take a stroll on these quicksands with a murderess.”

“How did you find your way past the quicksand?”

“It’s simple enough — if you’ve already covered the ground with a guide. I did that yesterday.”

“Why?”

“I was following Mrs F. She was with another guide. Rehearsing your outing today.”

“So, before I even met her, she planned to kill me. And she didn’t change her mind.”

“Evidently you failed to charm her sufficiently.”

“She said she was a nurse.”

Radcliffe grunted. “It’s getting so you can’t trust anybody. Don’t you worry about Mrs Fergusson. She’s being kept under observation. I had a man follow your car.”

“The bloke with the dog. How are you going to explain to him that you abandoned me here?”

“You know about the tides here. By the time I get to the mainland and locate a pair of pincers I shall have to return by boat. And that is what we shall do. You’re a goner. Though if you were prepared to co-operate . . .”

“You might find those pincers in your pocket,” I finish. He says nothing, so I have to carry the ball again. “What do you want to know?

“Who killed him.”

“Who killed who?”

“Lothar.”

“Lothar? What do you care about him?”

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe’s face darkens a shade as if a cloud has drawn over the sun. He resolves to ignore my question. “Of course, we know all about Charlie Segui’s little enterprise. Colonel Meeker told us how Charlie set up his disappearance. How he was picked up from the mewstone by Charlie’s Corsican contact, Bartholomew Streb. A lucrative financial transaction for the impoverished provincial solicitor and the renegade artist. But some of Charlie’s friends found out. Lord Farthing-Tattersall. And then Malcolm Goodfellow. They were in a similar fix, and blackmailed Charlie into providing the same service. With power of attorney he tied up their financial affairs in a way that he could exploit in the event of their death and led them to the mewstone where said event immediately took place.”

It was clearly time to set the great detective right. “The radio signals for the rendezvous kept coming through from the drug gang,” says I. “Avril, Juillet and all that.”

“Decoys from Customs and Excise. The French found a list of the coded messages when they picked up the smugglers from the San Vicano. C&E continued to send them as scheduled, and staked out the various rendezvous. Fruitless, of course, by then.”

“Makes no difference,” I says. “Lothar was part of the gang. He came up from Corsica. He knew the signals. He knew Charlie’s game. He just let Charlie carry on. And as the punters turned up he topped them.”

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe drops his jaw. “What on earth for?”

“They carried a lot of cash with them.”

He looks at me as if I am something nasty that has just crawled out from under the seaweed. “Lothar was Interpol.”

“You’re joking.”

“I don’t have a sense of humour.”

“Look what he did to Matty.”

“I didn’t say he was a saint. But he was a colleague. Lothar had infiltrated the Corsican gang. He navigated for them on their drops. Until his cover was blown in the Isles of Scilly.” So I was right. Lothar had been the unseen man in the cabin of the San Vicano who had persuaded the gang not to murder Bartholomew and Matty. “I believe you killed him,” Radcliffe concludes.

“Why? I liked the cove.”

“You just said why. Matty.”

My stomach turns over. Of course. It could have been Charlie all along. It fits. He went out to the mewstone with Lord Nick and Superbloke. And flushed them down The Toilet. The last time, when he was coerced by Spider into going by himself, he was followed by Lothar. That night at Lord Nick’s manor I had told Lothar about our childish pranks on the mewstone. He had jotted it down in his notebook. In the struggle by The Toilet in the snapshots of illumination from the lighthouse Spider could have been confused about who was attacking whom.

Radcliffe prods me. “I just want you confirm it. So I never have any doubts.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“Then who did?”

I have to invent now. He already knows that I was sailing in the vicinity of the mewstone that night. I’ve told him that I had been rescued by Lothar and Matty. I’ve told him I had last seen them careering off into the fog in the Amaryllis, with its sails full of wind and the sheets jammed. Yet, four months later Lothar’s body surfaced with the other victims from The Toilet. Matty never surfaced — until Radcliffe located her at Colonel Meeker’s villa. What yarn has she spun him? With the cold piercing my bones and the wire noose cutting into my neck it is hard to keep my mind straight. Radcliffe has no reason to suspect that Spider and Angie were on the mewstone. I can still keep them out of it. “They killed each other. Lothar had a club of some sort and Charlie had a flare gun.”

“You saw them?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Why did you sail to the mewstone?”

I don’t have time to concoct a new story. The best strategy is put myself into Spider’s boots that night. I tell him what Spider told me. “I worked out that Charlie was having these people picked up by Bartholomew at the mewstone. I told Charlie he had to make one more delivery — himself. I would go along to protect him.”

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe shakes his head. “If he was murdering these people it was you, not he, who would need protection.”

True enough. But neither Spider nor I knew that at the time. “I didn’t know that then, did I?”

“Why were you so keen to play detective?”

Why indeed? I try Spider’s seaboots on for size again. “I wanted to know if Bartholomew was really still alive.”

“Why?”

The answer to that came easy. It was as true of Spider as it was of myself. “Because I was keen on his missus.”

“What happened on the mewstone?”

“It was thick fog. I anchored the Amaryllis and came in by dinghy. When the tide reached low ebb Charlie came across from the shore as we’d agreed.”

“If he were the murderer it would have been a perfect opportunity for him to dispose of you.”

“I kept hidden. After a bit another dinghy came in on the other side of the mewstone. I thought it was Bartholomew. Charlie must have thought it was me. In fact it was Lothar. There was a struggle, up by The Toilet.”

“Who attacked whom?”

“I don’t know. You could only see when the Grise Heel light swept the mewstone every ten seconds. Otherwise it was pitch dark.”

“I wonder why Lothar didn’t just use his gun.”

“I don’t know about a gun.” I remember what Spider had said. “Lothar clubbed Charlie with something — a belaying pin, maybe.”

“So how did you realise it was Lothar and not Bartholomew?”

Good point. “When Charlie shot the flare gun into his face. I recognised him and he cried out something in German. And they both fell into The Toilet.”

“No sharp instruments were used?”

A warning clicks in my brain. Who was it that said he had heard a knife fall to the ground? We had never found it. “Not that I saw,” I say, my first truthful statement of this exchange.

“So how did you leave the mewstone?”

“When the fog cleared the Amaryllis was gone. She must have dragged anchor. But Snow Queen was moored just a few metres away.”

“With Miss Ferguson on board?”

I could keep Matty out of it, too. “No sign of her. She had sent me a postcard from Cornwall. I reckon she must have jumped ship there. Stable relationships were never her strong point.”

“She had a sprog the other week. Whose bastard? Yours?”

Tears well in my eyes. “None of your goddamn business, you pompous prig.”

“There you go, ruffling feathers again.”

“Is that a capital offence now?”

“You should be a bit humble to people who are in a position to help you. That’s how to get on in life.”

I wish Matty’s baby were mine. To leave behind me a memento that this humble clown had once been part of this circus. Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe picks up a pebble and launches it towards the advancing line of the sea. I hear it plop into water. “It won’t wash,” he says.

“How do you mean?”

“Charlie died at least three hours before Lothar.”

I snort. “Your pathology can’t be that good.”

“They both wore watches. Neither waterproof. So, I want you to think a little harder. If you didn’t kill him, who did?”

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe wanders down to the water’s edge and back. It doesn’t take him long. He squats down beside me and puts his face close to mine. His shaving lotion smells like the ground floor of Selfridges and the pipe tobacco like a Cairo souk. “Who else was on the mewstone with you?”

I don’t reckon I owe anything to Angie anymore. Nor to Spider. But I’ve caused her enough anguish for one lifetime. And Spider deserves her. As Angie said, it’s other people that matter. If I can do something for them it will help to balance my life’s account. In any case, if this sadist gives me my life back, what will I do with it? I resent being tortured by the British police. Which clicks a delayed switch in my brain. I say, “Shouldn’t you be taking notes? Or have a witness to all this? Or read me my rights?”

Detective Superintendent Radcliffe gets to his feet and disappears out of the corner of my vision. I hear him knock his pipe against the hulk before replying in a friendly tone. “Officially, all this is none of my business.”

I won’t move my head to look at him. It hurts too much. “You’re a police officer. An execution won’t look good on your record.”

He steps back into my field of vision, his coat collar pulled up, not looking at me. We are both looking seaward again. A white froth of waves is grinding against Tombelan now. “It’s not my show anymore,” he says.

“I thought you set up all this theatre.”

“I did. And then I was passed over for promotion. I took early retirement. But they appropriated my plan. I’m just here as a spectator. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

“So where are the good guys?”

“Don’t expect the British police to come riding out over the sands like the cavalry. Our methods are more civilised, particularly when we’re on assignment abroad. One of them took the opportunity to bring his wife and three kids along. I’ve been chatting to my former colleagues. They’re waiting for you now at that restaurant you booked for lunch. Your table is wired and they’re probably in the bar, knocking back some G-and-Ts on per diem.”

“And your man with the wolfhound?”

“An old acquaintance from the Sûreté. Now in the security business.” Radcliffe sighs and kicked a pebble. “I suppose that’s what lies ahead for me.”

“Believe me, I did not kill anybody.”

“I do not believe you. But if not, in any case you know who killed Lothar. And I’m not going to let you get the best of me intellectually.”

“Even if it kills me?”

“Then, at least, no one would ever know you had got the better of me.” He glances at his watch. “I reckon you’ve got about five minutes.”

I say nothing. Radcliffe squats again, near enough to be heard over the approaching surf, too far to be kicked. He punctuates his argument by drawing lines in the sand with the stem of his pipe. He’s been thinking about this for a long time. “Charlie died three hours before Lothar was murdered. It is conceivable that Charlie might have murdered both Lord Farthing-Tattersall and Malcolm Goodfellow, but I think not. More likely it was someone who learned about Charlie’s enterprise and decided to profit from it. When Bartholomew went walkabout and failed to respond to Charlie, this individual stepped in and contacted Charlie with a new E-mail address.”

“He would have to know the password.”

“Chopper.”

“Who told you?”

“Matty. I reckon she might have told anyone she was close to.”

“Why do you think Charlie was innocent?”

“Two reasons. Firstly, if he had been the murderer, no one could have persuaded him to go out on the mewstone the night he was killed. He would know that no one was coming to the rendezvous. So why put himself at risk? No, he came to the mewstone because he did not know what had befallen Lord Farthing-Tattersall and Malcolm Goodfellow. Maybe he was even worried about them.”

That could be true. Charlie was ill when he thought Colonel Meeker’s body had drifted in to Westowe. He sicked up again when he thought the body winching up from The Devil’s Frying-pan was Superbloke. Rabbit had told me how frantic he had been when there was a hiatus in the communications with Corsica. And Spider himself had said that it was because of anxiety that Charlie had finally cracked and told him all, and, indeed, allowed himself to be persuaded to go to the mewstone.

“What’s the second reason?” I say.

Radcliffe draws an X in the sand and shakes his head. “He’s not the type. Remember our conversation about our prototype serial murderer. The hedonist. He takes a keen interest in the progress of the investigation. He will attend the inquest.” He smiles up at me. “Playing detective. He is methodical. He has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist. He often chooses work beneath his skill level — scraping boats, say, instead of closing deals. He was probably the eldest child. Or an only child. There will be a domineering female in his past.” He wipes his pipe stem, sticks it in his jaw and aims it at me. “Sound like anyone you know?”

“I didn’t know my mum long enough to be dominated.”

“I was thinking of your foster mother, Mrs Meersman.”

“I didn’t do it. What would I have to gain?”

“A more comfortable life. You were in financial straits. You wanted to start a new life with Mrs Streb. You would need money to keep her in style.”

“I didn’t do it.”

Radcliffe gets to his feet and glances at his watch. “It had to be a local man, who knew the tides and the mewstone, who knew the personalities involved. The circumstantial evidence points to you. All I want is confirmation.”

“What evidence?”

He pulls a glistening object from the pocket of his sheepskin coat. An ice-pick. But it is not my ice-pick because it is not a sharpened screwdriver and it is brand new. “The original is being held as police evidence. We found it on the mewstone. My colleagues, Detective Sergeants Smart and Noble have identified it as yours. Apparently you threatened them with it on your boat one day.”

Pixie and Poxy. The ice-pick sliding into the rotted mainmast of the Amaryllis. “I lost it early that spring. Anyone could have taken it from my boat.”

“Or you could have used it yourself.”

“To do what?”

“To spear Charlie Segui in the throat. It had his blood on it. Because that is how he died. Not, as you just told me, from a blow with a club.” I had told him what Spider said he had seen. I remember now. It was Lothar who said he had heard a knife falling on the rocks. If Lothar had held it in his hand, would he have called it a knife? If he had just thrust it into Charlie’s throat, would he have called attention to it at all?

“Then of course, there’s this.” Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe prestidigitates a gun from his sheepskin cloak. It looks like Lothar’s automatic pistol. “A similar gun was turned in by Mr Dinsmore. He says he found it in the car park.”

The gun. What had happened to the gun? I had been about to throw it overboard. What was it Spider had said? ‘These things have a way of turning up in fishing nets. I’ll bury it in the council tip.’

Radcliffe almost smiles. “The original has your fingerprints on it.”

“You can shoot this goddamned lock off,” I say.

His mind is not entirely on our conversation. He shivers and casts a long glance at the shore behind him and then turns his face back to me. “Sorry, no bullets.” He consults his watch again. “Your time is nearly up.”

I close my eyes. A group of thirteen-year-old lads stands in awe as Spider Meersman spits on his hands and tests the weight of the sledgehammer. He swings it, from the ground up, and his heels leave the ground. The sledge hits the bull’s head and cracks it open. Spider shows no emotion.

Spider used to call into Charlie’s office regularly. When I confronted him about it, Spider had seemed far too incurious about the colonel’s letter he had posted, containing his last Will and Testament. Spider always had a great ability to read papers on a desk upside down. It would have been a doddle to glance over Charlie’s shoulder while he was turning the combination lock on his safe. And all of us knew that Charlie kept the spare key to his office under the flower pot. Spider would have known all about Charlie’s game early on. It’s the word ‘hedonist’ that is misleading. Spider is not into the soft life. But there is one comfort he has always craved: Angie. With Bartholomew presumed dead his chance had come. But he would need money to install Angie on the pedestal he had designed for her. And then I came along to foul up his rigging.

Lord Nick and Superbloke were a convenient means to his end. And because Charlie would blather, after he cracked he had to be eliminated. Yet, Spider saved my life. Was there more truth than jest in his remark, ‘I was saving Angie. You just happened to be attached to her.’? We were raised as brothers, yet I think he could have killed me, too. Only he wanted to win Angie fair and square. She had to choose him over me. But he littered Radcliffe’s investigation with enough scraps of circumstantial evidence to put me into the frame. Not enough to convict me, but enough to keep me on the run.

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe leaps to one side. A wave has splashed over his feet. He comes up to me, frowning as he wipes his wet shoe on the back of his trouser leg. The cherub has lost his innocence; his face is red and his eyes bulge. “I want you to know this is personal. I don’t like you. I don’t like people like you. You think you can get away with murder. I don’t have a case against you that the Crown Prosecution Service would accept. But I shall not allow you to go unpunished.”

I have discovered the fountainhead of evil. Any man who cannot suppress extreme desires may be driven by circumstance to do evil things — ‘Uncle Tom’ Goodfellow, his son Malcolm, Charlie, Spider — but evil is not his purpose. Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe is truly evil. Like a despot or a religious zealot, it is because of his beliefs that he chooses to do evil. He sacrifices free will; he wants to belong to a cause. He is incorrigible. He has surrendered his soul to a malignant force. This man will not thrust an ice-pick into my throat. But he will do nothing to save me. As the protagonist in Camus’ novel did nothing to avert the suicide, as I did nothing for Maire when she cried out to me.

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe prods me with the toe of his boot. “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” he says.

“You owe me,” I say. He looks at me, puzzled. “As a member of the human race. You can’t just leave me here.”

He spits white saliva on the sand. “You don’t deserve a place in my world. You don’t know your place. You don’t obey the rules.”

He is wearing his Royal Yacht Club tie. “I would never wear the tie of a club I don’t belong to,” I say.

He looks down and makes a gurgling sound. There is froth on his lips. “It got us a table at the Yacht Club tonight,” he replies. And he turns on his heel and strides behind me, out of my sight. His final words are torn by the wind. “You should be grateful. I got you a good last fuck.” When it comes to the crunch all men revert to the playground.

It is difficult to hold my head up against the hull of the boat. There is just enough slack in the double loop to permit me to lay my head on the damp sand. The gulls wheel in the sky and I can hear the sound of the surf now. How much should I believe Radcliffe? I think he is still back there behind the boat. Waiting. Testing me. And that he must have a Swiss Army knife in his pocket.

Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe has not yet discovered complexity. He thinks in straight lines. He is looking for an aberrant individual with murder in his heart. But there are so many of us. Thomas Goodfellow wished someone dead — my mother or father, or possibly both. And arranged it. His desperate son, Superbloke, tried the same trick on Angie and me. To the drug-runners who disposed of him, Sam Cody was just a professional obstacle. Maybe Charlie — more likely Spider — had killed Superbloke and Lord Nick for personal gain. Spider then eliminated Charlie. Angie killed Lothar in righteous — or unrighteous — outrage. Cordelia pushed her husband off a cliff. I wished my wife over one, and my E-mail drew Bartholomew to his death. Deputy Superintendent Radcliffe now ordains my deathday. And if I had spoken up about my mother’s affair with ‘Uncle Tom’ none of this would ever have happened. It would have happened some other way. We are all murderers.

It comes to me with chilling clarity that suffering does not lead to redemption as Angie believes. It creates evil. Which is why — in a sudden surge of suffering for Matty — you killed Lothar, Angie. Now I know why I want to go on living. I shout into the wind. “Radcliffe, you evil bastard. I will get out of here and I will kill you.”

My fingers can just clutch the combination lock. There is a button on the side which will release the wire when it is pressed. When it’s set to the right combination. There are three small knurled wheels on top. They will have settings numbered from 0 to 9. That’s only one thousand possible combinations. Or have I got that wrong? I start turning the outside wheel and pressing. It’s hard to know if I’m moving only one notch at a time. In her haste she may only have turned one of the wheels. In which case I’ll be free in about ten seconds. Or maybe she spun only two wheels. I’ll be on my feet in a couple of minutes. With a fighting chance of making it through the rushing tides and the quicksand. If she were careful, and spun all three wheels, it could take at most twenty minutes. Which is more time than I’ve got. In the wind I can taste the dank brine that mussels and limpets and crabs live in. The scaly things that feast on the drowned. I splutter. My head jerks forward. The steel wire tightens and I am coughing. An autonomous cycle of choking and coughing and trying to breathe. My socks are wet and so are my underpants. Not just damp, but wet. The sea has penetrated through my open flies. The wave recedes and I try to remember which way I should be turning the wheels of the lock. My destiny lies in the lap of the Great God Random.

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