It was a glorious spring day when I was in London in advance of my visit to Gower Street last Thursday. People were sitting or lying on the grass in the parks. The grounds of the British Museum were packed with museum staff, office workers and tourists, all getting their first proper burst of vitamin D from this year’s English sunshine. The mobile refreshments van parked just inside its wall was doing a roaring trade.
I didn’t need to take advantage of its services, because I had already visited one of my favourite London restaurants, an unassuming Spanish-owned eatery called El Parador. It is a brisk ten-minute walk from Euston station; the restaurant stands in the middle of the last parade of shops before Eversholt Street reaches Mornington Crescent (now there’s a name to conjure with!). On Thursday, I noticed for the first time that it is also immediately opposite the imposing edifice from which Levertons, London’s foremost undertaker, plies its sombre trade.
A family-owned restaurant, El Parador can lift your spirits with a burst of fine cooking on even the dreariest winter day. In the spring and summer, it is a festive place. Tables are laid in the garden. Both restaurant and garden are busy – there’s rarely a spare table after 1 p.m. – and the whole place buzzes with laughter, conversation and the tinkling of glasses. The staff – there are usually only two or three on duty – almost run between the tables, nimbly delivering a continuous stream of hot tapas dishes as they are ordered. Unequivocally, it serves the best tapas that I have ever eaten anywhere. My husband accompanied me there for the first time on Thursday and has already become an enthusiastic champion of the place.
I have another reason for liking it, though. The décor is plain, even homely. The tables are plain deal, the chairs of the simple round-backed wooden type still found in a few old-fashioned pubs. The walls are painted dark cream and, aside from a few small mirrors, there is little other decoration. Save for one thing: the bar, a glorious suggestion of a boat, is decorated with a flamboyant mosaic of pieces of tile, ceramics and mirror, all in shades of turquoise and black. It draws your eye as soon as you walk through the door. Pure 1960s, there is something lethal about its splendour. You feel as if a character played by one of the sex sirens of the ’60s – Jayne Mansfield, say, or Barbara Windsor – might come sashaying out from behind it and break off one of the pieces of mosaic to stab an errant lover through the heart.
I’ve written about this bar in Almost Love.
John Taylor, an undertaker, has been imprisoned for seventeen years for murdering his wife, even though the police have found no body; I suppose that an undertaker is in a uniquely convenient situation for disposing of a corpse without trace. When I read the story, it reminded me of the murder of Muriel McKay, whose body was also never found, though two men were convicted of killing her (police believed that her assassins mistook her for Rupert Murdoch’s then wife, Anna Murdoch, who is also a writer). Such murders stick in the mind because it is so rare for the body not to be discovered. Even where there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict without one and the murderer appears to have got away with it, bodies have an odd habit of turning up unexpectedly, sometimes many years later. I’m thinking now of the ‘lady in the lake’ murder of Carol Park, who disappeared in 1976, but whose body was not found until 1997, by which time her husband, Gordon, who was then convicted of her murder, had married twice again.
The new Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum shows us how durable human remains are – though these particular skeletons were preserved by unusual natural phenomena. Yet well-preserved ancient skeletons from the past are often found in ordinary graves – the recent discovery of Richard III’s almost intact bones offers a good example. Even unceremoniously-buried bones, such as those found in an old charnel pit discovered during this year’s Crossrail excavations and thought to date from the time of the Great Plague of 1665 show remarkable resistance to the passage of time. The supreme example, of course, of a body which has stood the test of time and miraculously appeared millennia after his demise is that of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ in the Ötztal Alps; ice is a great preserver.
You’d think it would be easy to conceal a body for ever, but clearly it isn’t. No doubt some murderers have managed to do it; some will even have committed the ‘perfect crime’ – i.e., one that has not been discovered. This is a macabre kind of virtuoso performance that can never be boasted about or celebrated, though no doubt some will have been unable to resist and fallen into the trap of talking about the deed, thus giving themselves away.
Bodies: the stuff of crime writing; tough and surprisingly persistent in making their appearance.