The background reveals the true being of the man or thing. If I do not possess the background, I make the man transparent, the thing transparent
(Juan Jimenez, Selected Writings)
it was rather like trying to see the answer to a tricky crossword clue, Morse decided, as at 11 o'clock that same night he sat in his North Oxford lounge, topping up his earlier libations with a few fingers of Glenfiddich, and looking yet again at the photographs that Margaret Daley had given him. The closer he got to the clue – the closer he got to the photograph – the less in fact he saw. It was necessary to stand away, to see things in perspective, to look synoptically at the problem.
As he had just considered the photographs, it was the man himself, pictured in two of them, who had monopolized his interest: a small- to medium-sized man, in his late twenties perhaps, with longish fair hair; a man wearing a white T-shirt and faded-blue denims, with a sunburnt complexion and the suggestion of a day's growth of stubble around his jowls. But the detail was not of sufficient definition or fidelity for him to be wholly sure, as if the cameraman himself – or almost certainly the camerawoman – had scarcely the experience needed to cope with the problems of the bright sunlight that so obviously pervaded the garden in which the snaps had been taken. But although Morse knew little (well, anything) about photography, he was beginning to suspect that he might be slightly more competence in the arrangement of -ic subject' in relation to the 'background' than he'd originally I supposed.
The man had been photographed at an oblique angle across the I garden, with a house clearly shown to the left of the figure: a three-storey, rosy-bricked house, with a french window on the ground floor, slightly ajar, with another window immediately above it, and Be above that, all painted white, and with a black drain-pipe reaching down to ground level; and to the figure's right a smallish tree of some sort with large curly leaves, unidentifiable to Morse who knew little (well, nothing) of such things. But there was even more to learn. Clearly the photographer had been kneeling down, or sitting down, to take the shots, for the man's head showed some way above the line of the garden wall, which rose clearly behind the shrubs and foliage. Even more to learn though! – Morse decided, as he studied the background yet again. The roof-line of the house stretched away in a slightly convex curve (as it appeared) above the man's head, and then was cut off in the middle of the top of the photograph; but not before suggesting that the house could be one of a terrace, perhaps?
It was amazing, Morse told himself, how much he'd managed to miss when first he'd considered the photographs; and with the strange conviction that there would certainly be a final solution to the mystery if only he looked at it long enough, he stared and stared until he thought he could see two houses instead of one, although whether this was an advance in insight or in inebriation, he couldn't be sure. So what, though? So what if it were part of a terrace? The number of three-storeyed, red-bricked terraces in the UK was myriad; and just in Oxford alone it must be… Morse shook his head and shook his thoughts. No. It was going to be almost impossible to locate the house and the garden; so the only thing left was the young man's face, really.
Or was it…?
Suddenly an exciting thought occurred to him. A straight line could be seen as a curve, so he'd been supposing, either because the camera had looked at it in a particular way, or because in a larger view the line began to bend in a sort of rounded perspective. But such explanations were surely far less probable than the utterly obvious fact that was staring him, literally staring him, in the face; the fact that the roof-line of the terraced houses which formed the backdrop here might look as if it was curving in a convex fashion for one supremely simple and wholly adequate reason: it was curving!
Could it be…? Could it be…? Did Morse, even now, think he knew where it was? He felt the old familiar tingle across his shoulders, and the hairs at the nape of his neck were suddenly erect. He rose from his armchair and went over to his bookshelves, whence he extracted the thick Penguin Oxfordshire, in the 'Buildings of England' series; and his right hand shook slightly as he
traced Park Town' in the index – page 320. On which page he read:
Laid out in 1853-5. This was North Oxford's first development, built on land originally intended for a workhouse. The trust created for its developments promised elegant villas and [Morse's eyes snatched at the next word] terraces. What it became is this: two crescents [the blood tingled again] N and S of an elliptical central garden, with stone frontages in late-classical style, and bricked at the rear [!] with attractive french windows [!] leading on to small walled [!] gardens.
If he were so disposed (Morse knew) he could go and identify the house at that very moment! It must be in Crescent S – the sunshine would rule out Crescent N; and with that tree with its big, furry, splayed (beautiful!) leaves; and the drain-pipe, and the windows, and the wall, and the grass…
As he sat down again in the black leather settee, Morse's face was betraying a high degree of self-gratification – when the phone rang. It was now a quarter to midnight, and the voice was a woman's – husky, slightly timid, north-country.
She identified herself as Dr Laura Hobson, one of the new girls in the path labs; one of Max's protegees. She had been working late with Max – on Morse's bones – when just before 9 p.m. she'd found him lying there on the floor of the lab. Heart attack – severe heart attack. He'd been unconscious most of the time since they'd got him to hospital… but the sister had rung her (Dr Hobson) and the possibility was that he (Max) had been trying to ask for him (Morse) – if he (Morse) knew what she (Dr Hobson) was trying to say…
‘Which ward's he in?'
'Coronary Care Unit-'
'Yes! But where?’
'The JRa. But it's no good trying to see him now. Sister says – '
'You want to bloody bet?' snapped Morse.
'Please! There's something else, Inspector. He'd been working on the bones all day and-'
'Bugger the bones!'
'Look. I'm most grateful to you, Dr, er…'
'… but please forgive me if I hang up. You see,' suddenly Morse's voice was more controlled, more gentle, 'Max and I -well, we… let's say we don't either of us have too many friends and… I want to see the old sod again if he's going to die.'
But Morse had already put down the phone, and Dr Hobson heard nothing of the last five words. She too felt very sad. She had known Max for only six weeks. Yet there was something basically kindly about the man; and only a week before she'd had a mildly erotic dream about that ugly, brusque, and arrogant pathologist.
At least for the present, however, the pathologist appeared to have rallied quite remarkably, for he was talking to Nurse Shelick rationally, albeit slowly and quietly, when he learned of his visitor; and threatened to strike the houseman off the medical register unless Morse (for such it was) were admitted forthwith.
But one patient newly admitted to the JR2 had not rallied that night. Marion Bridewell, an eight-year-old little West Indian girl, had been knocked down by a stolen car on the Broadmoor Lea estate at seven o'clock that evening. She had been terribly badly injured.
She died just after midnight.