Have you noticed that life, real honest-to-goodness life, with murders and catastrophes and fabulous inheritances, happens almost exclusively in the newspapers?
(Jean Anouilh, The Rehearsal)
morse found his instructions fairly easy to follow. Driving from the small car park at the eastern end of Marine Parade, then turning right, then left just before the traffic lights, he had immediately spotted the large shed-like building on his left in the narrow one-way Coombe Street; 'Private Garage for Residents of The Bay Hotel'. Herein, as Morse saw after propping open the two high wooden gates, were eighteen parking spaces, marked out in diagonal white lines, nine on each side of a central keep clear corridor. By reason of incipient spondylosis, he was not nowadays particularly skilled at reversing into such things as slanting parking bays; and since the garage was already almost full, it took him rather longer than it should have done to back the Jaguar into a happily angled position, with the sides of his car equidistant from a J-reg Mercedes and a Y-reg Vauxhall. It was out of habit as before that he scanned the number plates of the cars there; but when about a quarter of an hour earlier he'd glanced through the hotel register, at least something had clicked in his mind.
Now though? Nothing. Nothing at all.
There was no real need for Morse immediately to explore the facilities of Room 27, and the drinks-bar faced him as he turned into the hotel. So he ordered a pint of Best Bitter, and sat down in the wall-seat, just by the entrance, and almost exactly on the same square footage of green leather that had been vacated ten minutes earlier by one of the two scheduled occupants of Room 14.
He should have been feeling reasonably satisfied with life, surely? But he wasn't. Not really. At that particular moment he longed for both the things he had that very morning solemnly avowed to eschew for the remaining days of his leave: cigarettes and newspapers. Cigarettes he had given up so often in the past that he found such a feat comparatively simple; never previously however had he decided that it would be of some genuine benefit to his peace of mind to be wholly free for a week or so from the regular diet of disasters served up by the quality dailies. Perhaps that was a silly idea too, though.
His right hand was feeling instinctively for the reassuring square packet in his jacket pocket, when the maitresse d'hotel appeared, wished him a warm welcome, and gave him the menu. It may nave been a matter of something slightly more than coincidence that Morse had no hesitation in choosing the Seafood Soup and the Guinea Fowl. Perhaps not, though – and the point is of little importance.
'Something to drink with your meal, sir?' She was a pleasantly convivial woman, in her late forties, and Morse glanced appreciatively at the d'ecolletage of her black dress as she bent forward with the wine list.
'What do you recommend?'
'Half a bottle of Medoc? Splendid vintage! You won't do much better than that.'
'A bottle might be better,' suggested Morse.
'A bottle it shall be, sir!'- the agreement signed with mutual smiles.
'Could you open it now – and leave it on the table?'
'We always do it that way here.'
'I, er, I didn't know.'
‘It likes to breathe a little, doesn't it?'
'Like all of us,' muttered Morse; but to himself, for she was gone.
He realized that he was feeling hungry. He didn't often feel hungry usually he took most of his calories in liquid form; usually, when invited to a College gaudy, he could manage only a couple of the courses ordained; usually he would willingly exchange an ent'ee or a dessert for an extra ration of alcohol. But this evening he was feeling hungry, quite definitely; and just after finishing his second pint of beer (still no cigarette!) he was glad to be informed his meal was ready. Already, several times, he
had looked through the glass doors to his left, through to the dining room, where many now sat eating at their tables, white tablecloths overlaid with coverings of deep maroon, beneath the subdued lighting of crystal chandeliers. It looked inviting. Romantic, almost.
As he stood by the dining-room door for a moment, the maitresse was quickly at his side, expressing the hope that he wouldn't mind, for this evening, sharing a table? They had quite a few nonresidents in for dinner…
Morse bade the good lady lose no sleep over such a trivial matter, and followed her to one of the farthest tables, where an empty place was laid opposite a woman, herself seated half-facing the wall, reading a copy of The Times, an emptied bowl of Seafood Soup in front of her. She lowered the newspaper, smiled in a genteel sort of way, as though it had taken her some effort to stretch her painted lips into a perfunctory salutation, before reverting her attention to something clearly more interesting than her table companion.
The room was almost completely full, and it was soon obvious to Morse that he was going to be the very last to get served. The sweet-trolley was being pushed round, and he heard the elderly couple to his right ordering some caramelized peaches with nuts and cream; but – strangely for him! – he felt no surge of impatience. In any case, the soup was very soon with him, and the wine had been there already; and all around him was goodwill and enjoyment, with a low, steady buzz of conversation, and occasionally some muted laughter. But the newspaper opposite him, for the present, remained firmly in place.
It was over the main course – his only slightly after hers – that Morse ventured his first, not exactly original, gambit:
'Been here long?'
She shook her head.
'Nor me. Only just arrived, in fact.'
'And me.' (She could speak!)
‘I'm only here for a few days…’
'Me, too. I'm leaving on Sunday.'
It was the longest passage of speech Morse was likely to get, he knew, for the eyes had drifted down again to the Guinea Fowl. Stayed on the Guinea Fowl.
Bugger you! thought Morse. Yet his interest, in spite of himself, was beginning to be engaged. Her lower teeth – a little too long maybe? – were set closely together and slightly stained with nicotine; yet her gums were fresh and pink, her full mouth undoubtedly attractive. But he noticed something else as well: her mottled, tortoise-shell eyes, though camouflaged around with artificial shadow, seemed somehow darkened by a sadder, more durable shadow; and he could see an intricate little criss-cross of red lines at the outer side of either eye. She might have a slight cold, of course.
Or she might earlier have been weeping a little…
When the sweet-trolley came, Morse was glad that he was only halfway down the Medoc, for some cheese would go nicely with it 'Cheddar… Gouda… Stilton…' the waitress recited; and he ordered Stilton, just as the woman opposite had done.
Gambit Number Two appeared in order.
'We seem to have similar tastes,' he ventured.
'Identical, it seems.'
'Except for the wine.'
'Would you, er, like a glass of wine? Rather good! It'll go nicely with the Stilton.'
This time she merely shook her head, disdaining to add any verbal gloss.
Bugger you! thought Morse, as she picked up The Times once more, unfolded the whole broadsheet in front of her, and hid herself away completely – together with her troubles.
The fingers holding the paper, Morse noticed, were quite slim and sinuous, like those of an executant violinist, with the unpainted nails immaculately manicured, the half-moons arching whitely:-over the well-tended cuticles. On the third finger of her left hand was a narrow-banded gold wedding ring, and above it an engagement ring with four large diamonds, set in an unusual twist, which might have sparkled in any room more brightly lit than this.'
On the left of the opened double-page spread (as Morse viewed things) her right hand held the newspaper just above the crossword, and he noticed that only two clues remained to be solved. A few years earlier his eyes would have had little trouble; but now, inspite of a sequence of squints, he could still not quite read the elusive wording of the first clue, which looked like a quotation. Better luck with the other half of the paper though, held rather nearer to him – especially with the article, the quite extraordinary article, that suddenly caught and held and dominated his attention.
At the foot of the page was the headline: 'Police pass sinister verses to Times' man', and Morse had almost made out the whole of the first paragraph -
THE LITERARY correspondent of The Times, Mr Howard Phillip-son, has been called upon by the Oxfordshire police to help solve a complex riddle-me-ree, the answer to which is believed to pinpoint the spot where a young woman's body
– when the waitress returned to the table.
'In the bar – or in the lounge?'
'In the bar, I think.'
'No. No, thank you.'
Before leaving, the waitress poured the last of the Medoc into Morse's glass; and on the other side of the table the newspaper was folded away. To all intents and purposes the meal was over. Curiously, however, neither seemed over-anxious to leave immediately, and for several moments they sat silently together, the last pair but one in the dining room: he, longing for a cigarette and eager to read what looked like a most interesting article; wondering, too, whether he should make one last foray into enemy territory – since, on reflection, she really did look rather attractive.
'Would you mind if I smoked?' he ventured, half-reaching for the tempting packet.
'It doesn't matter to me.' She rose abruptly, gathering up handbag and newspaper. 'But I don't think the management will be quite so accommodating.' She spoke without hostility – even worse, without interest, it seemed – as she pointed briefly to a notice beside the door:
IN THE INTERESTS OF PUBLIC HEALTH, WE RESPECTFULLY REQUEST YOU REFRAIN FROM SMOKING IN THE DINING AREA
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CO-OPERATION.
Bugger you! Thought Morse
He'd not been very sensible though, he realized that. All he'd had to do was ask to borrow the newspaper for a couple of minutes. He could still ask her, of course. But he wasn't going to – oh no! She could stick her bloody paper down the loo for all he cared. It didn't matter. Almost every newsagent in Lyme Regis would have a few unsold copies of yesterday's newspapers, all ready to be -packaged off mid-morning to the wholesale distributors. He'd seen such things a thousand times.
She'd go to the bar, she'd said. All right, he would go to the lounge… where very soon he was sitting back in a deep armchair enjoying another pint of bitter and a large malt. And just to finish the evening, he told himself, he'd have a cigarette, just one – well two at the very outside.
It was growing dark now – but the evening air was very mild; and as he sat by the semi-opened window he listened again to the grating roar of the pebbles dragged down by the receding tide, and his mind went to a line from 'Dover Beach':
But now I only hear its melancholy, long withdrawing roar.
Much-underrated poet, Matthew Arnold, he'd always thought.
In the bar, Mrs Hardinge was drinking her coffee, sipping a Cointreau – and, if truth be told, thinking for just a little while of keen blue eyes of the man who had been sitting opposite her dinner.
IN THE INTERESTS OF PUBLIC HEALTH, WE RESPECTFULLY
REQUEST YOU TO REFRAIN FROM SMOKING IN THE DINING AREA.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CO-OPERATION.