When I complained of having dined at a splendid table without hearing one sentence worthy to be remembered, he [Dr Johnson] said, 'There is seldom any such conversation'
(James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson)
in the small hours of Sunday, 12 July, Claire Osborne still lay still awake, wondering yet again about what exactly it was she wanted in life. It had been all right – it usually was 'all right'. Alan was reasonably competent, physically – and so loving. She liked him well enough, but she could never be in love with him. She had given him as much of herself as she could; but where, she asked herself, was the memorability of it all? Where the abiding joy in yet another of their brief, illicit, slightly disturbing encounters.
'To hell with this sex lark, Claire!' her best friend in Salisbury had said. 'Get a man who's interesting, that's what I say. Like Johnson! Now, he was interesting!'
'Doctor Johnson? He was a great-fat slob, always dribbling his soup down his waistcoat, and he was smelly, and never changed his underpants!'
'You know what I mean.'
'But everybody wanted to hear him talk, didn't they? That's what I'm saying.'
'Yeah. I know what you mean.'
And the two women had laughed together – if with little conviction.
Alan Hardinge had earlier said little about the terrible accident: a few stonily spoken details about the funeral; about the little service they were going to hold at the school; about the unexpected helpfulness of the police and the authorities and support groups and neighbours and relatives. But Claire had not questioned him about any aspect of his own grief. She would, she knew, be trespassing upon a territory that was not, and never could be, hers… It was 3.30 a.m. before she fell into a fitful slumber.
At the breakfast table the following morning she explained briefly that her husband had been called away and that there would just her: coffee and toast, please – nothing more. A dozen so newspapers, room-numbered in the top-right corner, lay in staggered pile on a table just inside the breakfast room – The Sunday Times not amongst them.
Jim O'Kane seldom paid too much attention to the front page of the 'Sundays'; but ten minutes before Claire had put in appearance, he'd spotted the photograph. Surely he'd seen that young girl before! He took The Sunday Times through to the kitchen where, under the various grills, his wife was watching the progress of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, and sausages. He pointed to the black and white photograph on the front page:
Anne O'Kane stared at the photograph for a few seconds, quizically turning her head one way, then the other, seeking to assess any potential likeness to anyone she'd ever met. 'Should I?'
'I think I do! You remember that young blonde girl who called – about a year ago – when we had a vacancy – one Sunday – and then she called again – later – when we hadn't?'
'Yes, I do remember,' Anne said slowly. 'I think I do.' She had been quickly reading the article beneath the photograph, and she now looked up at her husband as she turned over half a dozen rashers of bacon. 'You don't mean.…?'
But Jim O'Kane did mean.
Claire was on her last piece of toast when she found her hostess standing beside her with the newspaper. 'We pinched this for a minute – hope you didn't mind.'
'It's just that' – Anne pointed to the reproduction – 'well it looks a bit like a young girl who called here once. A young girl who disappeared about a year ago.'
'Long time, a year is.'
'Yes. But Jim – my husband – he doesn't often forget faces; and I think,' she added quietly, 'I think he's right.'
Claire glanced down at the photograph and the article, betraying (she trusted) not a hint of her excitement. 'You'd better tell them – the police, hadn't you?'
'I suppose we should. It's just that Jim met one of the men from CID recently at a charity-do, and this fellow said one of the biggest problems with murders is all the bogus confessions and hoax calls you always get.'
'But if you do recognize her-'
'Not one hundred per cent. Not really. What I do remember is that this girl I'm thinking of called and asked if we'd got a room and then when she knew what it would cost she just sort of… Well, I think she couldn't afford it. Then she called back later, this same girl…'
'And you were full?'
Anne O'Kane nodded sadly, and Claire finished a last mouthful of toast. 'Not always easy to know what to do for the best.'
'But if your husband knows this CID man he could always just, vou know, mention it unofficially, couldn't he?'
'Ye-es. Wouldn't do any harm. You're right. And he only lives just up the road. In one of the bachelor flats.'
'What's his name? Lord Peter Wimsey?'
'Morse. Chief Inspector Morse.'
Claire looked down at her empty plate, and folded her white -.linen table napkin.
'More toast?' asked Anne O'Kane.
Claire shook her head, her flawlessly painted lips showing [neither interest nor surprise.