Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Tuesday, 19th April

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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.

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