The Sailor

I didn’t appreciate being treated as a suspect even though I knew it was standard procedure.

‘So, it’s normal for him to disappear for three weeks without you knowing his precise whereabouts?’   The young policeman – he didn’t look much older than my son —clearly didn’t consider it in the least normal.

‘Yes, as I’ve already told you, we have an understanding.  It’s an amicable arrangement.  I hate sailing, he loves it so I go on holiday doing my own thing while he goes sailing doing his.  We go our separate ways for a few weeks every summer.  Been doing it for years.’

‘And on previous occasions he has always returned as planned, when he said he would?’

‘Yes, he’s a very organised man, a stickler for punctuality.  It’s completely out of character for Mark to be late back.’

‘Hmm,’ said the young man, looking doubtful, seemingly at a loss to know what to make of a married couple having separate holidays.  His companion, a young woman, chipped in, ‘Would you say your husband is trustworthy?’

‘That’s an odd question, what are you implying?  Anyway, the answer is yes, totally trustworthy.  We’ve been happily married for 32 years.’

Thankfully, after taking numerous details and a photograph I gave them of Mark on his sailing boat, they closed their notebooks and promised to keep me informed as their enquiries proceeded. 

‘You will of course let us know if your husband turns up or contacts you.’  I assured them I would.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I had called the police after Mark failed to return from his sailing trip as planned.  It wasn’t like him not to let me know if he was going to be late.  Initially I wasn’t concerned.  I just thought he’d been held up by bad weather, or even a traffic jam on the journey back from Portsmouth.  Anyway, I was busy opening up the house and unpacking after my trip to Pompei and Herculaneum.  

I tried Mark’s mobile a number of times and left messages on his voice mail.  The last time we’d spoken was when he phoned after his first week to say all was going well.  He had docked at a marina in Guernsey and was loading up with supplies.  He sounded perfectly happy, said the weather had been kind and that everything was going according to plan.  He was confident that, unless unexpectedly becalmed, he’d be safely back in Portsmouth in a couple of weeks’ time. 

Then nothing.  It was totally out of character.

After a sleepless night I started to ring round to see if Mark had been in touch with anyone else.  I phoned our son and daughter, both recently married and busy with their own lives, to see if their father had contacted them.  As I expected, neither had heard anything.  I phoned Mark’s office — he is a director at a large software house, here in Guildford — to see if his secretary had heard anything.  Nothing.  I phoned Mark’s best friend, the one he regularly plays golf with.  No, he’d had no contact with Mark since he left and was looking forward to the game they had arranged for Wednesday.  Geoff, bless him, phoned quite often, offering to come round.  I said no, best to keep clear, Mark could show up at any time.    

After a couple of days, increasingly convinced something was seriously amiss, I rang the police and reported Mark missing.

Five more days went by, slow days with me in limbo unable to settle into anything.  I gave myself projects to keep busy.  I spring cleaned the house, took some bin bags to the local dump, took books to the local Oxfam shop.  Neighbours popped in to ask if there was anything they could do to help.  My son offered to come and stay so that I had ‘a man in the house’.  Various friends rang to check I was OK and ask if I’d heard anything.  But, even though I appreciated everyone’s kindness, it all seemed quite futile.

Then the police rang to say there had been a development.  Could they come round?   It sounded ominous.  I asked them why they couldn’t tell me there and then on the phone, but they insisted it would be best if they told me in person. 

As before, two officers came, older and more senior than before.  We sat in the kitchen.  They looked rather solemn and, politely declining my offer of cups of tea, broke the news that Mark’s yacht had been found drifting a few miles off Falmouth. 

‘The vessel has been retrieved by the coastguard.  I’m sorry to tell you that they report it is partially submerged and severely damaged by fire.  The cabin is totally burnt out and there is no sign of life.’

They left, as before, assuring me they’d keep me fully informed of any developments.

A few days later Mark’s partially decomposed body was washed up on a Cornish beach ten miles west of Falmouth.  His identity had to be confirmed by dental records.  The police returned, looking business-like.  They expressed their condolences and, somewhat sheepishly, asked if I’d mind answering a few more questions. 

‘Do you know this woman?’  They produced a photograph of a dark-haired woman, middle-aged, smiling somewhat bashfully at the camera.

‘No, I don’t think so.  She doesn’t look familiar.  Who is she?’

‘You’re quite sure you have never seen her before?’

I put my spectacles on and examined the photograph more closely.  ‘I’m confident I don’t know her.  Is she a colleague of Mark’s?’

‘It appears that she was rather more than a colleague.  I’m sorry if this is upsetting news, but her badly burned body has been found washed up on the same stretch of shoreline as your late husband’s.  I’m afraid she was almost certainly on board your husband’s yacht.’

I was incredulous.  Upright, trustworthy Mark cheating on me?  I never suspected.  It didn’t seem possible.

That evening Geoff came round to comfort me.  He brought flowers and a bottle of wine.  He was wearing the sandals he’d bought in Naples.

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