This is a short story by Colin Dexter that appeared in three parts in the British newspaper, Daily Mail. I’m sure many of Dexter’s fans will have read this but for those who haven’t I thought they would find it interesting. It was published in 2008. All copyright is of course with Colin Dexter. Enjoy.
MORSE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE DRUNKEN DRIVER.
In summer 2008 I returned to the UK after teaching for many years in the USA, having now been appointed Ancient History tutor at Lonsdale College, Oxford.
Only then did I learn, with sadness, of the death, several years earlier, of the man with whom in 1968 I had spent one year in undergraduate digs in North Oxford – a man who remains a legend in the Thames Valley Police Force: Chief Inspector E. Morse.
The Bursar of Lonsdale had decided to collect, in book form, a series of articles and anecdotes about the great man, and he invited me to contribute my own chief memory of him. For obvious reasons, I have changed the names of those principally concerned (except for myself and Morse) together with the house and the road of which I shall write.
My memory of the incident that occurred there is still very vivid, and I have tried, for example, to recapture the spirit of the original dialogue by frequent use of direct quotation marks, although such a practice can only afford approximate, not verbatim, records of the conversations reported.
We had first met, both aged 18, in November 1967 when sitting the Oxford Entrance examinations. Physically, Morse was of medium height, with a palish, slightly dolichocephalic face, and full light-brown hair, with the merest hint of ginger.
Mentally, as I realised from the beginning, he had an extraordinarily gifted and subtle brain.
We spoke together after leaving a three-hour English essay stint in the examination room. The paper we had tackled had given us all a wide range of topics, arranged in vaguely alphabetical order: Assyrian Archaeology; Buddhist Beliefs; County Boundaries; and so on.
‘Ye gods!’ I said. ‘I couldn’t write more than a couple of relevant sentences on any of them. Could you?’
‘One or two of them, I suppose.’ ‘Which one did you choose?’ ‘County Boundaries.’ ‘Honestly? What do you know about them?’
‘Nothing. I wrote about cricket.’ ‘You must know a lot about cricket!’ ‘Very, very little,’ Morse said, with a grin.
I knew at that point that some of us have been given a fifth gear in life, and that some others of us haven’t. And it was no surprise to me to learn later on that Morse had been awarded a Major Scholarship in Classics at Lonsdale College – where we met each other again at the Michaelmas Term Freshers’ party in October 1968, discovering that we had been allocated digs together in leafy North Oxford.
The childless Mr & Mrs Lloyd, with whom Morse and I spent our first year, lived at The Firs, a largish detached house in Daventry Road, off the Banbury Road, and just below the A40 Ring Road.
Truth to tell, the property seemed not so well furbished and furnished as most of its neighbours, but it had plenty of space both inside and out; and Pagan and I each had a fair-sized bed-sit at the rear of the house, with a shared loo-cum-bathroom.
Why ‘Pagan’? Well, it was the soubriquet by which he was known to his fellow undergrads, since it had leaked out that in the ‘Religion?’ section of his University Application form he had written ‘High-church atheist’.
If we had rooms in College (which Morse, as an open scholar, would have for the next three years) we would have profited from the services of a ‘scout’; but things were quite satisfactory.
Mrs Lloyd did virtually everything herself – cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing – and although the loo was not exactly given regular five-star treatment, we agreed not to complain.
Mr Lloyd was a rather superior car salesman at a Banbury Road garage, but his real pride and joy were the lawns at the back and front of the house which he treated (well, so I thought) with rather more affection than he did his wife; and most weekends saw him marching up and down with the lawn-mower. How did we all get on together?
Pretty well, really. I took the majority of my lunches and dinners in the College Hall; Pagan, just dinners, preferring a liquid lunch in one of the city-centre hostelries. On Sundays, however, we had a regular lunch with the Lloyds, and one such occasion I recall with unusual clarity.
There were just the three of us, since Mr Lloyd was away in London at some jumbo second-hand car sale: just Pagan, myself, and Mrs Lloyd – she looking particularly attractive; and I swear I noticed Pagan glancing appreciatively more than once at the decolletage of her skimpy white blouse, its top button (by accident or design, I know not) left rather provocatively unfastened.
When after the main course she had returned to the kitchen, Pagan asked:
‘What’s your favourite present-participle in the English language, Philip?’
For once, I was ready for him: ‘I’d go for bird-hatching, I think. Remember when Tess sets off for the Vale of the Great Dairies? “On a thyme-scented, bird-hatching morning in May.” Lovely sentence.’
Morse nodded. ‘Chapter 16, isn’t it?’ But I was not prepared to congratulate my friend on his knowledge of Hardy’s novels. Instead, I asked him what his own choice would be.
‘I’ll go for “unbuttoning”,’ he said quietly, as Mrs Lloyd came in with the stewed plums and custard.
I mention this incident for a reason the reader may soon appreciate. Each week in term-time, either on the Monday or the Tuesday, Morse would receive a pale-blue envelope, its flap always firmly Sellotaped, from someone in Lincolnshire.
Morse never mentioned her – for of course it was a ‘her’! – not even her Christian name, although I did eventually learn it. Oh, yes!
During our first few weeks as co-lodgers, only one thing was a matter of initial discord. Morse had an ancient portable gramophone, on which continually, and sometimes continuously, he played highlights from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
I would myself have preferred The Beatles to Brunnhilde but after Morse had one day given me a tutorial on the story and structure of that extraordinary work, fairly soon I began to appreciate, and later to love it. As Morse had explained: Wagner’s music was never half as bad as it sounded.
We were both reading Classics, a four-year course, requiring success in two major public examinations: ‘Mods’ after two years; ‘Greats’ after a further two.
Mods involved, mainly, translation from Greek and Latin, and composition into those languages.
In these particular skills, Morse was paramount, having the facility to read each language with the fluency and speed of an average English ten-year-old following the fortunes of his favourite football team.
On the other hand, Greats was centred more generally upon the history and philosophy of Greece and Rome, neither of which areas kindled much interest in Morse’s mind. What fascinated him was the study of the manuscripts of the classical authors, frequently corrupted in their transmission to future generations.
He fervently believed that if he were only given the chance of considering many of the puzzling problems in these fields, he would usually make some better sense of virtually anything, like his great hero in life, A. E. Housman. It was so often a bit like making sense of a story where many of the key facts have been misreported and muddled up.
Like this one. I had not seen much of Morse during the Michaelmas Term of our second year in Oxford. Although I was myself still with the Lloyds, he now had rooms in College; and in any case his former accommodation was in the slow process of some refurbishment.
He had, I suspect, attended no more than two or three lectures in the latter half of that term; and although we occasionally sat together in Hall, we now appeared to be going very much our separate ways.
Yet we did meet one morning in mid-December at the Gardenia Cafe; in Cornmarket, quite unexpectedly, since coffee was hardly his favourite a.m. beverage. We chatted briefly, expressing mutual surprise that neither of us would be spending Christmas at home.
I explained that my parents were on a Saga cruise in the Med, and that in any case I really ought to catch up on some much needed study.
Morse had nodded. He had helped me considerably during our first year together, and was clearly aware of my limitations. ‘And you’re staying with Helen?’ he’d asked.
It seemed to me surprising that he’d referred to Mrs Lloyd by her first name – something I myself had never dared to do.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But I’m going to Coventry for a couple of days just before Christmas. What about you?’
He had ever been reticent about his home, his parents, his siblings (if any), although I knew his father was a taxi-driver. And now, too, he was as vague as usual:
‘Staying in college or burying my head in the Bodley,’ he said, tapping the two books beside his empty coffeecup: The Oxford Text of Homer, and Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary.
‘I thought the College was closed over Christmas.’
‘Only the 22nd to the 26th. I’ve booked in at The Randolph those nights.’
‘Well, well. Not many of us could afford that.’
He got to his feet and picked up his books.
‘Dad’s had a win on the gee-gees, Philip. And,’ he spoke very quietly, ‘if I can be of any help again. . .’
‘Thank you,’ I said, equally quietly, feeling strangely moved by his offer, perhaps because I’d noticed a certain sadness in his eyes as he turned to leave.
I’d noticed something else, too – no doubt about it! Acting presumably as a book-mark in the Oxford Text, there was an envelope, a pale-blue envelope. And I knew who that was from. Or, as he would have said, ‘from whom that was’.
I was to see no more of Morse until much nearer Christmas.
On December 22nd I left Oxford by rail for Coventry, where one of my best pals had arranged a party that evening – girls included, me included – and had invited me to stay overnight at his home. I was anticipating the outing with relish; but as I returned to Oxford early-ish the following morning, I was feeling sorely disappointed.
The girl I was looking forward to seeing again . . . Augh! Forget it! I could only recall Jane Austen’s observation that often it was the expectation of happiness which turned out to be better than the thing itself. Anyway, I’d soon be seeing Mrs Lloyd again, although my expectations in that quarter were sadly very low.
I took a taxi from the railway station, and as I stood outside The Firs taking out my wallet, I saw immediately that something was terribly wrong.
Twenty or so feet of the recently creosoted fence which ran along the front of the wide property were down, lying flat, smashed and splintered across the lawn. And clearly the stout left-hand gatepost had received a hefty bash from something, and was now leaning drunkenly a good many degrees from the vertical.
As for the precious front lawn itself? Oh dear! It was churned up with sundry indentations, and crisscrossed with tyre-marks, reminiscent of an aerial photograph of the railway tracks at Crewe station.
‘What on earth…?’ I began, turning to the driver.
‘Dunno, mate. Some drunken sod, I s’pose.’
‘You hadn’t noticed it before?’ ‘Wasn’t out yesterday, was I? Shoppin’ with the missus for Christmas.’
For a few seconds after he had gone I stood staring at the mutilated lawn, but noticed that Mrs Lloyd’s red Mini was standing in its usual place, apparently undamaged, in front of the equally undamaged doors of the double garage.
Of Mr Lloyd’s old Rolls-Royce, which was normally parked alongside, there was no sign. I slowly walked halfway up the drive, and stopped. Pretty obviously the intruder had driven in, managed to stop, and promptly reversed out again. QED. I turned back towards the house, and there, framed in the doorway, stood the slim figure of Mrs Lloyd.
Five minutes later, we were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, and as she passed over my coffee, for a few seconds her delicate fingers rested upon my wrist – magical moments! – before looking at me steadily with sad, sad eyes, and told me the story.
On the previous evening she had been alone in the house. Her husband Jeff had been picked up at about 7pm to go to a Christmas party in Linton Road. His own car was in for something to do with the gaskets, she thought – whatever they were.
She had been watching a sitcom on TV; and, yes, she had heard some sort of bang or crash at about 9.30pm. But it hadn’t worried her much – probably the temperamental central-heating, or a firework perhaps. Anyway, she’d kept watching the rather good programme until the news at 10pm.
Jeff had promised (almost!) to be home by just after 11pm., and she decided to go upstairs to bed. But before doing so, she’d put the light on in the front porch (for Jeff to find the keyhole!) and stepped outside to make sure she’d locked the Mini. ‘And you’ve seen, Philip, what’s happened! Some – drunken – irresponsible – vandal – has. . .’
Twin tears, like a pair of synchronised Olympic divers, were slowly sliding down her cheeks.
I reached forward and put my hand over her wrist – knowing immediately that I had overstepped the mark, for she withdrew her hand, got to her feet, dabbed her eyes, and blew her nose noisily as she reached for the kettle again.
‘Did you ring the police?’ I asked. She shook her head: ‘Not then, no. The duty bobbies would all be out breathalising the boozers.’
‘Let’s just hope they breathalised that wretched man – ‘
‘Or woman, perhaps.’ ‘I wish you had rung the police immediately, though,’ said a new voice – that of Jeff Lloyd, who now stood at the kitchen door, unshaven, with slightly bloodshot eyes, wearing a pair of grubby beige trousers, and a new-looking flat cap, appearing more like a council road-sweeper than his usual smart-suited self, and carrying a pair of gardening gloves.
He poured himself a coffee and came to stand behind his wife. ‘I mustn’t blame the old girl, though, and I don’t blame her. My fault, Philip,’ he said, ‘not Helen’s. It’s shock, you know, at the time. It disorientates you. If only I’d got in earlier . . .’
‘Anyway,’ Helen said as she turned round to look up at his tall figure, ‘we did ring this morning, didn’t we?’ Then she turned to me: ‘Said they’d be round ASAP.’
Jeff Lloyd grinned weakly: ‘ Probably early in the New Year!’ He swallowed his coffee quickly and kissed his wife on the top of her head. ‘I’m just going to nip down to the garage. Tom’s promised to try to fix the Rolls, bless him, so I’ll need your car, darling.’
Helen dipped into her handbag for the keys, and he was gone.
I wondered, yet again, what she saw in that man. I’d read recently that 75 per cent of American women would willingly marry just for money, and perhaps it was the same with English women.
And in this case, what if she had the money? That would make things even worse. But a few kindly words can go a long way; and a minute later he put his head round the door:
‘Hope you’ll still be joining us for Christmas dinner, Philip?’
I waited until I heard the front door slam, and the Mini spurt into life.
‘Won’t he be back to talk to the police?’ I asked.
‘They couldn’t say when they’d come, and in any case he couldn’t tell them anything. He wasn’t here. Forget it, Philip! But if he’s not here when the boys in blue decide to arrive, will you be prepared to stand by and give me a bit of moral support?’
I nodded happily. It was half an hour later when the boy (singular) in blue appeared on the semi-tidied gravel drive, and when Mrs Lloyd called me through to the lounge, where for a few moments we watched the single policeman, in a black-and-white chequered hat, standing importantly beside what had formally been a splendidly carved gate, writing something with a stubby pencil on a clip-boarded sheet of paper.
And a minute or so later, the three of us were standing on the front doorstep, where our investigating officer introduced himself as Constable Watson – not exactly the best of omens!
Perhaps subconsciously I had envisaged someone named ‘Holmes’, carrying a bucket full of plaster of Paris, duly to be poured into the (admittedly) adulterated indentations of the tyre-marks. But Watson had no bucket.
For myself, I could still imagine Holmes, after the merest glance, announcing to an astonished Watson the manufacturer of the tyres, their approximate mileage, and, in all likelihood, the make of the vehicle responsible. Fanciful foolishness, of course, because Constable Watson, after a cursory look at the lawn, seemed to have reached an investigative conclusion:
‘Made a bit of a mess of your lawn, hasn’t it, Mrs Lloyd?’
‘Not done much good to the fence, either!’
‘Hope you’re insured on that, madam?’
‘Yes.’ She proceeded to recount her story, and one or two notes were added on the clipboard.
‘Would the neighbours have seen or heard anything?’
Mrs Lloyd shrugged. ‘We’ve not asked, I’m afraid. You have to be in North Oxford for about ten years before you speak much to your neighbours.’
Watson had clearly finished with his clipboard, and now held it by his side in his right hand while he removed his cap and scratched his head with the other. ‘Look, I ought to come clean with you, madam, and tell you that I very much doubt we shall ever have the faintest idea who was responsible for all this.’
‘Really, Constable? But you’d be quite wrong, you know. You see, I know exactly who was responsible for this wanton vandalism.’
These were just about the most surprising words I’d ever expected to hear.
She re-opened the front door, reached behind the coat-stand, and picked up an object which she now held in front of her. ‘This, officer, is a whopping great clue for you. It’s the number-plate, without a shadow of a doubt, which was knocked off the front of the vehicle whose owner decided to visit me last night – and who had not called in for a pre-Christmas sherry!’
Watson at last found his voice. ‘Thank you very much, madam. That may well be of some considerable value in our enquiries.’ He reached forward, but Mrs Lloyd drew it back from his intended grasp.
‘No! My husband is in the car-business himself, and he’s advised me to keep it here. He knows a great deal about car accidents, and any physical evidence required by insurance companies.
‘Make a note of it by all means, of course, but I’m keeping it here, understood? I’m certain that you’ll have little difficulty in finding the matching miscreant – And a happy Christmas to you, officer!’
I confess to feeling sympathy with Constable Watson as for the last time he reached for his stubby pencil, and slowly and with great care transcribed the number on to his clip-boarded sheet: 54LLY D
Was it just a coincidence that the four letters on the plate virtually spelled out the surname of the troubled householders?
‘Well?’ said Mrs Lloyd after the door had closed on our detective.
‘Hardly the brightest wattage bulb in the Thames Valley Force – I just wish your pal, Pagan, was here – be good to have him around, and he’d probably invent some weird and wonderful tale for us. Perhaps I should ring him, Philip? He is in Oxford, you told me.’
‘Yep. Not in College, though – that’s virtually closed down completely from the 22nd to the 26th. Just a single porter in the Lodge, and I believe he’s booked in at The Randolph, is Pagan.’
‘Alongside booze and books in the bar, like as not!’
‘I suppose so.’ ‘Funny, isn’t it? Never seems to have much effect on him, booze. Not like me! Couple of glasses of red plonk, and I’m a tipsy little girl again. He once told me that too many double Scotches usually gave him single vision.’
I let it go. Truth to tell, I was a bit miffed she hadn’t told me earlier about the number-plate; and when she asked me if baked beans would be OK for a spot of lunch, I decided to leave her to it. But not before asking her one question:
‘Where did you find the numberplate?’
‘Just behind the gate-post, in the hydrangea patch. Jeff saw it when he started clearing up.’
At the door I hesitated: ‘Would you like me to ring Pagan and …’
‘Put him in the picture? I’d like that very much, yes.’
In the early afternoon I heard the phone ringing in the front lounge; and very soon Jeff Lloyd pushed his head round my door. ‘For you, Philip: Doctor Russell Hughes, he says. Not being rusticated, are we?’ He grinned, and I followed him up the passage.
Dr Hughes, the Mods tutor at Lonsdale, was supervising both Morse and myself, and I’d found him a kindly and learned soul. He was so sorry to disturb me during the vac, etc; he wasn’t sure if I could help, etc; but . . .
The burden of his call was as follows: Morse had a brilliant mind – probably the best he’d known in a decade; but the standard of some of his recent work, which he was at that very moment marking, was sadly far below expectations. Did I know any reason why this should be? Disappointments, illness, girlfriends, family, drugs, booze?
I had no cause to lie to Dr Hughes – not at that point anyway – and I told him that I hadn’t the faintest idea. He then told me what he saw as the stark truth of the matter: if Morse went on like this, he wouldn’t even finish up with a ‘pass’ degree, let alone a pedestrian third. And if I could in any way help, etc.
With almost complete honesty, I told him that I would try very hard to do so. He gave me his direct home telephone number, and rang off.
The only thing I had not referred to was Morse’s sympathy with the widespread disillusionment and dissent of so many of his University peers.
But although he attended a good many lengthy protest meetings, the only sign I witnessed of any active participation was in the Hilary Term when I observed him marching – silently – at the rear of a large and vociferous demonstration against the Vietnam War.
Perhaps, at heart, he was a crypto-pacificist. But that was a personal matter, and no concern of Dr Hughes.
During that telephone conversation I had been looking around the lounge again: furniture, photographs, bookshelves, pictures; and, on the lower surface of the coffee table, I spied two books a-top each other: the dark-blue hard-backed Oxford Text of Homer; and the paperbacked Homeric Dictionary.
Inside the former was a slim envelope, a pale-blue envelope, addressed, in handwriting I recognised only too readily, to E. Morse Esq.
How on earth did those books get…?
Jeff Lloyd, still in his gardening cap, was coming down the stairs as I made for my room.
‘Finished on the phone, Philip?’ ‘Yep – all yours.’ ‘Nothing er serious?’ ‘No. Just reminding me I’d promised him an essay on Virgil before Christmas,’ I lied.
‘Fancy a coffee?’ called Mrs Lloyd, as I walked past the kitchen, where she was making mince pies. I went into the kitchen, sat down, and put the two books on the table.
‘These are Pagan’s,’ I said simply. ‘Ah, yes, I remember. I found them in his room when the decorators came in. I keep trying to remember. . .’ she lied. ‘Anyway I’m going to have a bath and a liedown. Don’t you think I deserve it?’
That day, all roads, it seemed, were leading to Morse, and I went along with the traffic.
‘And don’t you bother your head – I’ll ring Pagan.’
‘Today, perhaps?’ she suggested quietly, as I took my coffee, took the two books, and walked back to an empty lounge.
When I rang the college to track down Morse, the solitary porter said that they wouldn’t be open again until the 27th. At least Morse had not lied there. ‘Oh dear! It’s Mr Morse I was hoping to . . .’
The porter interrupted me. ‘I think I may know where he is, sir.’
I, too, thought I knew where he was. And indeed, when I got down into Oxford, he was there, seated in the main bar of The Randolph, doing The Times crossword, with an almost empty glass of beer in front of him, alongside a completely empty tumbler of what (I didn’t doubt) had been a whisky chaser.
He looked up at me: ‘Philip!’ He pointed to the glasses: ‘You’re just in time to replenish things. Make the Glenfiddich a large one, please.’
With a half-pint of beer for myself, I sat opposite him at the round, glass-topped table, and told him simply and succinctly that Mrs Lloyd wanted to see him, adding only that there was no great rush because she was going to have a bath and a lie-down for a while.
Morse’s eyes gleamed as he took a swallow of Scotch: ‘Lovely stuff! On Olympus they used to call it nectar, you know.’
‘Really?’ ‘Lovely thought, too – Helen in bed! She once told me she always slept in the altogether.’
I could so easily have thrown my beer into his smiling face.
‘Do you know what she wants to see me about?’
So I told him all about the felony inflicted on The Firs, and about Helen’s imbecilic interrogation by our vacuous detective, Constable Watson. And (what a strange man Morse was) he interrupted only once, querying, with a grin, whether Watson had brought a tape-measure along with him.
As a climax to my tale, I took out a postcard on which I had written the details of the give-away number plate. But Morse seemed strangely unimpressed, merely echoing Watson’s words virtually verbatim: ‘Could well be of value to police inquiries.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Could equally well be stolen, though,’ continued Morse. ‘I just hope she had enough nous not to hand it over to your dumb detective.’
He handed back the postcard, and wrote in the final clue in the grid. ‘Good clue that! “It’s nice is scrambled eggs (7)”. Anagram of “it’s nice”.’
‘Thank you, Pagan! I just thought you’d be interested in knowing why Mrs Lloyd wanted. . .’
‘I am, Philip. And we’ll get a bus this very minute. Well,’ he hesitated. ‘Perhaps we don’t want to find her in the bath, do we?’ (Or do we, I wondered.) ‘Time for one for the bus route?’ ‘No!’ I said. After a visit to the gents, we walked down the broad front steps of the hotel, where Morse was stopped by the senior concierge, Roy, and was handed the two items he’d inadvertently left on the small table: The Times, and A.E. Housman: Collected Poems.
The bus service up and down the Banbury Road must be the best of any road in any city in the UK; and barely a quarter of an hour later the pair of us stood in front of The Firs.
There, by the light of an adjoining street-lamp, Morse bent down briefly to examine the damaged gate-post, a white chip of bare wood showing through the creosote, before turning, in the ever-darkening dusk, to survey the indentations on the lawn.
‘Should have brought that tape measure – and a torch,’ he said.
I possessed one of these items, anyway. And when I got back from my room with it, I stood around, feeling vaguely helpless, as Morse flashed my torch’s beam randomly hither and thither, on the lawn, on the drive, on the Mini.
‘Someone washed Helen’s car recently,’ he said quietly. I shrugged. ‘Must have been Jeff Lloyd, I should think.’
‘Where’s his car?’ he asked, peering through the garage windows.
‘Convalescing down at the garage – blown a couple of gaskets.’
‘I wonder what they are,’ mumbled Morse, as he turned to me.
‘Any thoughts about things yet, Pagan?’
‘Certainly! The car that came through the fence, you mean? The tyres were Michelins, comparatively new, and done about 8,000 miles, no more; driven by a left-handed lady who rides the clutch a little too much; and purchased in Reading about two years ago. That puts your PC to shame, agreed?’
‘Don’t take any notice of him, Philip!’ Mrs Lloyd stood at the front door, a winter coat covering her bathrobe; and Morse walked up to her and put his arms around her in a bear-hug; and she, in turn, put her arms around him tightly. Fortunately, the scene was fairly short-lived.
‘Come in, both of you! And stop your teasing, Pagan!’ She turned to me.
‘He’s no genius, Philip! He’s just noticed the make of my tyres, looked at my mileometer, remembered I’m left-handed, saw which year the car reg letter is, as well as the Reading garage sticker on the rear-window. QED. Forget it all, Philip – he was just trying to tease you. We know whose car it was – and you’ve told Pagan all about that, I’m sure.’ I felt very silly about it all. ‘Shan’t be long,’ I said, as I left them in the lounge and got back to my room. I was missing something, lots of things, here. For example, why had Morse spoken so flippantly, as I now realised, about Mrs Lloyd’s car?
What, above all, had Morse’s classics volumes been doing in her lounge, since I was absolutely certain that Morse had been studying those same two books a week earlier? Yet Mrs Lloyd said she’d had them the whole term!
I shook my head. You lied to me, Mrs Lloyd! There was just the one thing that I knew, and that Morse didn’t know (or did he, perhaps?): that I had found the letter. Not that I felt anything but guilt about it ever since Dr Hughes’s telephone call.
But, yes, I still knew something about that secretive soul, Pagan, that he had never mentioned to anyone else in the world (or had he perhaps?). The books were now safely installed with me, and I took the letter out and read it yet again.
Sally Downes 12.xii.69
Read those first two words again – for you will ever be my dearest. We both knew that I would soon have to make the biggest decision of my life – between you and mother, and it’s with despairing sadness I write to tell you that it must be mother.
She is now so terribly handicapped with this devastating MS, so fragile, so vulnerable, that had you seen the joy that leapt into her old eyes when I told her she would always – always – have me with her, you would have begun to understand.
Our days together this Christmas in Oxford would have been the happiest of my life, and of yours, I know that, my darling. Please don’t write to me or ring me – that would be too much for me to bear. Just remember the Kipling lines you taught me: ‘Thou wast allus my lad – my very own lad, and no one else.’ – S.
And then, suddenly and almost miraculously, the light dawned on my bemused and second-class brain. I looked a last time at the name that headed the letter, before refolding it and replacing the envelope in the Oxford Text. It explained a lot – not everything, of course, but such an awful lot.
I had been sitting staring into space for several minutes when I heard a soft knock at my door. I knew who it was. ‘Can I come in?’ said Morse quietly, holding the Collected Poems in his hand. I gestured towards the other chair and he sat down, placing Housman on top of Homer: ‘I get pretty careless, don’t I, about leaving books around.’
There was a minute or so of silence between us before he came out with it: ‘I know you’ve read the letter.’ I nodded: ‘Lots of times, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry, Pagan. It’s like breaking a trust and . . .’
‘I’d have done the same myself, Philip. Sally might have blamed you, but I don’t.’
‘There’s something else, though,’ I said, as I took the white card from my pocket. But he waved it away.
‘I guessed you’d twigged, Philip, because I’ve got a higher opinion of your intelligence than you have.’
‘Doesn’t explain all that much, though.’
‘No, it doesn’t – do you want me to tell you what happened?’
Of course I did. And he told me.
What did Morse and Mrs Lloyd really get up to on the night of the crash?
His father had been in the car business, and he’d seen in one of the auto mags a list of personalised number-plates, among which was one that quite clearly would have been of considerable interest and pride to Sally Downes.
And Morse had gone for it, clearing his worries about a Christmas present, and simultaneously clearing his own bank balance. He had planned to give it to her on Christmas morning in their room at The Randolph.
On the night of the ‘incident’, he had received a telephone call at The Randolph from Helen telling him, quite truthfully, that Jeff was out at a staff party at The Linton Lodge Hotel and wouldn’t be back till, well, ‘pretty late’ – thankfully to return, as he’d gone, in a taxi, because the Rolls was undergoing some minor mechanical operation. So! So she wondered why she shouldn’t have an enjoyable evening, too. She was game, if he (Morse) was.
He was. She’d parked momentarily outside The Randolph, poked her head inside the bar, seen him sitting there reading his Homer, and off they drove. Where to? The Trout Inn out at Wolvercote – no more than two or three miles away.
Super time together! He, having drunk perhaps a little too much earlier, had resolutely stuck to beer; she, a little irresolutely, perhaps, had been rather more liberal; and each had taken a goodly share of complimentary counter-top canapés.
In short, they’d been mellowing gently and sentimentally; and, yes, he’d told Helen about the ‘Dear John’ letter, and about the intended Christmas present for his beloved.
Indeed, he had shown her the letter safely ensconced in the Oxford Text, which for once he’d remembered to pick up when Helen had called for him, but which later that same evening he’d forgotten to retrieve from the back of the Mini.
Just after 10pm they had agreed they should be getting away. But Helen had declared herself, she thought, incapable of driving back safely the short distance to The Firs.
‘So,’ finished Morse, ‘I drove back here, p****d as the proverbial Triturus Vulgaris.
And – I don’t think you’ll need me to continue, except to say that I wasn’t really teasing you, was I, Philip? Helen was quite adamant about not ringing the police that night.
They’d be sure to breathalise the driver – me. And that would hardly be good news, would it? Driving without a licence, drunk driving, dangerous driving – all three, like as not. Anyway, that’s all there is to say.’
‘No, it isn’t. You’ve not told me about the next bit.’
Morse frowned. ‘Ah, yes. You mean the number plate business. It would have been bloody stupid not to have thought of that. And Helen agreed. We’d both sobered up a lot by then, and it was Helen now who reversed the Mini over the lawn – twice! – to make a real muck-up of things.
Then straight down to The Randolph again, where I took the lift up to my room, put the number plate into an Elliston’s bag, got back into the car. So quick it all was, Philip!
‘Helen parked the Mini in its usual spot, got a couple of buckets of water and washed down the front of it in case there were traces of creosote, while I sluiced down the mud from the tyres.
Helen wasn’t worried at all about any dent in the front: said she’d acquired enough of those already! Then I walked up to the Banbury Road bus stop and – voila! You now know as much about things as I do.’
Even more keenly than earlier, I sensed that he was lying to me. It might all add up in a fairly logical way but …
So I put my thoughts into words: ‘Why didn’t you leave everything just as it was? You tell me you’d both already decided not to ring the police until today? When you’d be back in The Randolph, and when Mrs Lloyd would be back to her customary sober self – unlike you!’
Morse was pained by my outburst.
‘You don’t understand, do you? It’s one helluva shock – shock – when you do something like that. It’s dark and you’re jolted and frightened and panicky, and all you’re thinking about is how . . .’
Before he could finish, the door had opened and Mrs Lloyd walked in, sparkling and sweetly scented.
‘What cock-and-bull story has he been telling you now, Philip?’
‘Just about, er, you know, how.’ ‘Did you believe him?’ I said it quietly but firmly: ‘No!’
She smiled at me. ‘Don’t be cross with him! I think I know exactly the line he’s taken, the lies he’s been telling you. But please understand why he did it. He did it to paint me as a completely blameless person in all this. But I’m not blameless, Philip, far from it. You want to know who was driving the Mini? It was me.’
The news sank in. Was it so much of a surprise? ‘But why all this rather silly subterfuge? I was just asking Pagan the same thing when you came in.’ ‘Let me tell you. In six weeks’ time I’ve agreed to stand as a Conservative councillor for the Wolvercote ward. If any rumours – or facts! – get out about this, it will be curtains for my chances, my licence will be endorsed, and I can see the article in The Oxford Mail: “Mrs Helen Lloyd, unsuccessful aspirant to municipal honours.”
‘So I shall be eternally grateful to Pagan here for what he did. But it’s no great shakes, Philip: no one’s been injured; the Mini got off lightly; no one’s suffered, not even the insurance company, because Jeff, bless him, has refused point blank to put in any claim; and he tells me he’s going to dig up the lawn and re-seed it.’
She said all this so genuinely and quietly that I knew I would probably be on her side whatever she did.
‘There’s one thing, Mrs Lloyd. If it’s any consolation, I’d vote for you – if I had a vote, of course.’
‘I wouldn’t, Helen,’ broke in Morse. ‘But if you’ve got a glass of anything going? Glenfiddich, say, or . . .’
Mrs Lloyd turned to me and placed her hand on my shoulder: ‘Would you like a glass of something, Philip?’
Jeff was in the lounge just finishing a phone call to a fencing firm as the three of us trooped in. ‘No, only about four, five yards – fine! Second week in Jan, then. Fine! Thanks, Jim, bye.’
‘Is that our punctured palisade?’ his wife asked.
Jeff smiled and took her hand. ‘Yep. Soon be all tickety-boo again.’
‘Has Tom fixed the Rolls yet? I’m out all day on the 28th, you know.’
‘All in hand, darling.’ He turned to Morse and me. ‘Wonderful mechanic, Tom is. One of the old school. Pride in his work and all that.
‘His missus hates going on holiday with him, because whenever he sees some poor sod parked in a lay-by with his head stuck under the bonnet, he just has to stop. Can’t help it!’
Morse looked down with displeasure into his glass (‘So sorry we’ve no Scotch, Pagan’) as we sampled the red plonk, and said he must soon be going. But before he left, Jeff Lloyd had asked him a question.
‘What’s the etymology of ” ticketyboo”?’
‘Dunno. But you can spell it with either one “t” or two in the middle.’
‘How on earth do you .. .?’ ‘Crosswords,’ said Morse as he left. ‘Been wasting my time with ’em since I was 11.’
And, yes, I knew all about that. At college, his fellow undergrads would always go to him when any cryptic clue defeated them. Some of the dons, too. . .
That night of the 23rd I slept badly, falling into the arms of Morpheus [the Greek god of dreams], as Homer would say, about 5am, and only waking well after eight o’clock.
The room seemed very cold to me, and I stayed a-bed reading for more than an hour before getting up and dressing.
The whole house was as cold as hotel toast, and empty, with the only sign of activity the flat-capped owner still raking the disfigured hash-marks on the lawn, and clearly, earlier, having stacked the pieces of cracked fence neatly.
It was almost 11am when I finally ventured out that bright and blustery Christmas Eve morning, where I saw that the concreted area in front of the double-garage was empty.
‘No cars?’ I said. ‘No. Helen’s at the Tory Club. And perhaps I’ll get mine back today. Not that worried, though – time I bought a cheaper chariot. High time!’
‘Gaskets, you said.’ ‘And pistons and – you name it.’ I left him still energetically pulling the rake back and forth, and knowing, doubtless, that he’d need some automobile if he was to continue surfing the locality for bargains he could snap up for Grove Street Garage to sell at a decent profit.
I walked slowly down the Banbury Road, calling in at the Summertown Newsagents for The Times. Both Morse and I had been sorry when the Lloyds cancelled the paper-boy delivery; especially Morse.
He could sometimes complete the cryptic crossword before the timer pinged for his boiled egg.
I walked on to The Dewdrop, had a pint of Courage beer, and then another with a baked potato; and thought of my father’s life-long interest in classic cars – just wondering perhaps whether he might be interested in a shaky but shiny old Rolls.
On my way back I would be passing Grove Street Garage; and I decided to call in and see if Mr Lloyd had been lucky yet.
But very few cars were in the large, open space where all repairs were carried out; and very few signs of life either. I walked up to a young lad changing a tyre.
‘Mr Lloyd around?’ ‘No.’ ‘Tom?’ ‘Got the flu, aint ‘e – back next week ‘e ‘opes.’
The Rolls was there, though, and I sauntered across to it: classy lines still, and clearly in the past the recipient of much TLC.
My head was whirling as I began to retrace my steps to Daventry Road. Something, somewhere, was terribly wrong.
It was on the morning of the 27th, Christmas now over, that from a public phone box in Summertown I rang Lonsdale College.
‘Back in business?’ I ventured. ‘Certainly, sir. Can I help you?’
‘Just wondering if Mr Morse is back with you.’
‘Half an hour ago. I’ll put you through to his rooms. Who shall I say’s calling?’
I put the phone down guiltily and walked to the bus-stop, almost immediately lucky.
‘City centre, please.’ Lucky again at The Randolph, where, at the Porters’ Lodge on the right, Roy emerged from some inner sanctum and, without any apparent suspicion, answered my carefully rehearsed questions about ‘Mr Morse’ and his recent nocturnal attendances there.
‘Yes, sir, I know him well,’ he grinned.
‘Keeps your bar girls up latish, he tells me.’
‘Ailish – she’s our bar boss – she’s always had a soft spot for him.’
‘Not Christmas Day, surely?’ ‘Nor Christmas Eve, I don’t think. I was off both days. But he was definitely around the two previous evenings.’
‘Monday the 22nd?’ ‘Yes, I remember that evening well. He did go out, but that was late-ish.’
‘Ah, that’s just what I thought. Oh dear! We’d arranged to meet here at about, oh, about, er…’
‘It was about ten-ish, sir. But he came back about 11, I think. Can’t really be sure I’m afraid. But I do remember he left a Christmas card for Ailish,’ he reached into a pigeon hole behind him, ‘and I put it… here it is.’
He showed me a sealed envelope addressed to AILISH, dated 22.xii.69.
So! My old buddy Pagan had been lying to me consistently.
What it all amounted to, I wasn’t at all sure, but I was getting a somewhat clearer picture of things as I began to walk back up to North Oxford.
And just before I reached Summertown, my vision crystallised quite beautifully.
Unlike Morse, who boasted that he never took any physical exercise ‘on principle’, I had put on some surplus avoirdupois over my four terms in Oxford, and on several occasions on my long walk I resisted the temptation offered at the regular bus-stops.
Most definitely my mind was profiting, as I gradually reached what, for me, was a strange and wholly original conclusion, with the focus of my thoughts now centred quite firmly on – yes, the Lloyds.
What was it that had struck me so suddenly and so forcefully concerning the Lloyd household?
It would have struck even a dullard within a few weeks: no gardener; no cleaning lady; no laundry collection; no coffee mornings; no dinner parties; no drinks cabinet; no paper-boy; little heating; one telephone; one TV set; two undergrads; and the likely sale of a vintage Rolls.
In short, and quite unexpectedly, I knew, almost for certain that the Lloyds were pretty hard-up.
There were one or two things I needed to check up on, if that were possible; but to be honest I felt rather proud of my own belated brilliance.
Quickly, as yet another bus passed me, I looked in at the garage workshop where the greasy youth was seated on an outsize tyre eating a cheese sandwich. No one else.
Head in the clouds, I had almost reached the turning into Daventry Road when I heard a voice behind me: ‘Philip?’ I should have known!
Morse was seated on a public bench with Housman on his lap. ‘Come and join me,’ he said. I stood my ground.
‘What for?’ He hesitated momentarily. ‘I know you want to get on, but – well, I just don’t want you to make a fool of yourself, that’s all. You’ve been a good pal to me, and I want …’
Slowly I sat down beside him: ‘Please explain yourself, Pagan.’
He nodded. ‘The College porter told me he had a call from someone for me, and I guessed it was you when you wouldn’t give your name.
‘Then Roy at The Randolph has just told me that someone had called in and asked some strange questions about me. And again I knew it was you.
‘I know something else too, Philip. You thought I’d done something dishonest and dishonourable, and perhaps you were right, of course. Want to talk to me about it?’
‘Not really, no.’ ‘Do you want me to tell you what it is?’
‘Not really, no.’ So he told me then and there. ‘It’s probably occurred to you, a bit late in the day, what the situation is between Jeff and Helen – not just maritally but financially.’
Well, he was half-right, wasn’t he? I don’t know how he knew, but he always tended to know things before anyone else. So I surrendered and told him (though not everything) and gave him my reasons.
‘In short, Pagan, I think the Lloyds are seriously short of cash, and that this perhaps explains one or two things – things that so far seem pretty inexplicable.’
‘You’re right,’ said Morse. ‘So short of cash they’ll not be able to catch up on their mortgage payments until my old room is ready again.’
‘Won’t he get quite a bit for the Rolls?’
‘What makes you think that he’ll ever sell that?’
‘Well, he sort of suggested…’ ‘Would you believe him or me?’ ‘Neither of you.’ ‘Wrong answer, Philip. Jeff Lloyd is a very fine fellow, please believe me.’
‘If you say so,’ I said, nonchalantly enough, but Morse’s confident assertion was troubling me slightly.
‘Tell me, come on! Who’s your source of information for all this stuff?’
‘Helen. You know that.’ ‘And I suppose you’ll be asking dear Helen if you can have your old room back when …’
‘Wrong again!’ snapped Morse. ‘She did ask me if I’d like to come back, but I told her I had to be in College – if that’s OK with you!’
It was the only touch of genuine anger I’d ever seen in his face.
And it was my turn now to show my own exasperation and, yes, a fair measure of anger, too.
‘Doesn’t worry me either way, Pagan. What does worry me, and disappoints me such a lot, is that you lied to me about the 22nd.
‘You were never at The Trout! You were in The Randolph till about ten o’clock that night, when you went off with Mrs Lloyd. Or am I wrong yet again?’
‘Carry on, Sherlock!’ ‘Two possibilities, Pagan. First, Mrs Lloyd had been out earlier that evening, to a party perhaps, where she had too much gin or whatever, drove herself home, and into her home – with consequences that are getting too tedious to repeat.
‘She couldn’t have been all that tipsy because she knew she had someone who could be absolutely guaranteed to help her. You!
‘She picked you up, drove back here, where you sorted things out for her, and still sober enough to have the bright idea of your number plate. That was your plan, and you both stuck to it. Yes?’
‘Is it my turn to speak now?’ asked Morse quietly. ‘You said there were two possibilities.’
‘Yes, there are,’ I blurted out, ‘and I’m perfectly sure you know what the other one is: Mrs Lloyd had never been out drinking at all that night.’
‘Well, well.’ A sudden squall of rain swept sideways across the street. We got to our feet, and quickly walked down to
The Firs, where the lawn was looking pretty neat, with parallel rake-marks across the now-levelled churn-up.
Mrs Lloyd’s voice rang down the passage as we entered the rear door: ‘That you, Philip?’
‘Only me, yeah.’ Morse and I sat opposite each other in my room, our rain-sodden coats hanging behind the door.
‘Carry on, Sherlock!’ Morse repeated. So I told Morse of my two discoveries. First, that Jeff Lloyd had lied to me about Tom What’s-his-name already sorting out the blown gaskets at the garage, because Tom What’s-his-name had been in bed with flu all over Christmas, and there was no other competent mechanic in the workshop.
Second, that there was (is!) a dent on the passenger-side bumper of the Rolls, and the front grill was (is!) still showing signs of being in contact with something recently creosoted.
For about 30 seconds Morse sat staring at the patch of carpet beneath his wet shoes. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ he asked finally.
‘I just don’t know, Pagan. Nothing, I suppose. What I do know is that I deserve better than being lied to by you, by Mrs Lloyd, and by Jeff Lloyd.’
‘So you think, Philip,’ said Morse slowly, ‘that it was Jeff who drove the Rolls through the fence. Right?’
‘Yes, and I know it was, because it explains everything, which is far more than do your own puerile and futile fabrications. Mrs Lloyd heard the crash – of course she did! – and found her husband, a bit dazed and shaken, sitting in the driving seat.
‘He didn’t know what to do, and she didn’t know what to do – except to go to you, Pagan. Which she did. And remember one key fact: she was completely sober.
‘What was absolutely vital was that the police should not be informed straightaway about what had happened. Why? Because he had everything to lose that night.
‘Had he been breathalysed then, he would at the very least have had his licence endorsed, and much more likely lost his licence completely. And certainly so if he had a previous endorsement. Lost his job and…’
But Morse had got to his feet and stood by the door. ‘He does have an endorsement, Philip. Say no more.’
Then he stepped into the passage and shouted: ‘Jeff? Jeff? Come down to Philip’s room, will you?’ Sometimes I used to be amazed that Morse was only six months older than I was.
At Morse’s behest, Mrs Lloyd had already joined us, taking one of the seats, while I sat on the floor. Almost immediately Morse had taken the main chair, both literally and metaphorically. Mr Lloyd was with us, but only for a minute or so: ‘Can’t stay, just had a call from Tom. The old girl’s ready to come home, he says.’
He was his usually snappy, well-groomed self once more, blue-suited, with highly polished shoes, and the flat cap incongruously perched on his head. Had he observed my curious glances? Must have done, for he tapped the cap and smiled.
‘It’s OK, Philip – on Helen’s strict instructions. She says she’s not going to see me forget her latest present. It’ll be off as soon as I get out of the house, though.’
Neither Morse nor I had said a single word to compromise the apparently promising prospect of the day before him.
Mrs Lloyd explained to us: ‘Prematurely-opened Christmas present! Now that Jeff’s gone,’ she turned specifically to me, ‘Pagan says I ought to fill in the few things you don’t know, Philip. I won’t bore you with all the details, because you already know them. It’s just what happened immediately after my tiny universe was shaken by the Big Bang. All right?’
She proceeded to tell me how she remembered every small detail of the Rolls and of finding him, still silently stonkered behind the steering wheel, safety-belt still round him, with a nasty-looking cut at the top of his forehead just below the hairline.
Concussed at the time, that was for sure, but thank heavens he’d managed to jam on the brakes and bring the car to a standstill. She’d switched off the head-lights, brought him a mug of black coffee, and sat beside him in the passenger seat, dabbing his forehead with a flannel.
Not half as bad as it looked, really; and gradually he’d become slightly coherent and stupidly apologetic. And stinking of whisky.
After a second mug of black coffee, he was sobering up considerably; and after a few minutes he was able to get out of the car and to stagger along, with her support, to the front lounge, where she put an old sheet over the settee, gave him two codeine tablets and told him to lie back, and to close his eyes.
And (Helen finished) very soon he had fallen into a deep, drunken slumber, with an absurd, strangely contented smile around his mouth.
I had been listening attentively, and could not really expect much more, except to ask what had happened to the Rolls.
Helen gestured to Morse, and it was he who finished the story.
‘Well, after all the – you’re right, Philip! – the rather childish machinations which you know all about, I got into the Rolls and, with considerable diffidence and difficulty – it’s one of those double-de-clutch cars – managed to back it out and drive it to the Grove Street Garage. Helen had the keys and followed me in the Mini…’
‘Cleverly going backwards and forwards a couple of times over the lawn first,’ interrupted Helen.
‘… and Bob’s your avunculus!’ concluded Morse.
Helen got to her feet. ‘I must be off. Awful lot of ironing to do. And there’s nothing more to say, Philip, except to thank you all over again. But you will promise, please, please, never to say a word to anyone about all this while Jeff and I are still around.’
She placed a kiss on the top of my head, and at that moment she could have asked anything of me and fain would I have obeyed.
‘Promise, promise!’ I echoed gladly.
‘Fancy a quiet glass down at The Dewdrop?’ asked Morse after she had gone.
I declined. ‘I’ve not finished my Virgilian masterpiece yet.’
‘You satisfied with things now?’ asked Morse, rather hesitantly I thought.
I mused a while: ‘I’m just glad I didn’t ask Mr Lloyd to take that wretched cap off!’
‘Hmmm!’ Again Morse seemed strangely hesitant. Then what he said surprised me completely.
‘Can you keep a big secret, Philip? Can you? After what you just said to Helen, I…’
‘Course I can! What?’ ‘I’m afraid it wouldn’t have been very enlightening for you to have a look at Jeff’s forehead.’
‘I… I don’t think I understand.’
‘There isn’t any cut on Jeff Lloyd’s forehead.’
‘You can’t mean?’ ‘You gave me a splendid rundown on the Lloyds’ economy drive, didn’t you? Do you honestly think that Jeff would have ordered a taxi there and back to that party of his on the 22nd at the Linton Lodge, only a 25-minute walk away?
‘If a taxi had brought him back late that night – about half-past eleven, Helen tells me – there would have been some immediate and almighty kerfuffle – etymology again uncertain, Philip! – from the taxi-driver, and like as not…’
‘You mean?’ ‘I mean Jeff walked home late that night, to save his money, and to sober up a bit, or to sober up a lot.’
I was utterly stunned. ‘You mean it wasn’t Jeff Lloyd who was driving the Rolls?’
Morse nodded. ‘I mean just that, Philip.’
Once more Morse had been six furlongs ahead of the field, and quite assuredly – unlike on several future occasions – running on the correct racecourse. I felt compelled to find an answer to that final question.
‘I’m quite sure you know what I’m going to ask you now, Pagan.’
‘You’d be right for a change, Philip.’
Nevertheless, I asked: ‘Who was it then who was driving the Rolls?’
‘You know perfectly well yourself. Christmas is the occasion for the giving and receiving of presents, is it not? The Magi started all that stuff, although there’s considerable doubt in higher theological circles whether there ever were any Wise Men.
‘But even I was willing to join in all that goodwill. I’d bought my Christmas present for Sally, remember?
‘And somebody else had decided to deliver his Christmas present personally to his pal, Jeff Lloyd – somebody who was quite incapable of passing anyone he found fiddling underneath the bonnet of a broken-down car without stopping to sort out the trouble.
‘Someone who, like Jeff himself, probably couldn’t keep his job if he got run in by the rozzers for drunk-driving – an offence of which he was most undoubtedly and totally guilty. And he’d been at the Garage party.’
It was my turn now to nod as Morse continued: ‘Helen drove him home to Kidlington that night. He’s a wonderful chap and she was glad to be able to help him.’
‘You sound as if you know him.’ ‘Not really. But I did go to see him yesterday. In fact, he didn’t seem to recognise me from the night before. Huh! He’s fully recovered from his fictional flu, though, and he tells me he’ll be back at work tomorrow, with a plaster across his forehead.
‘He’s going to say that his missus had hit him across the head with a roasting tin. She’s a lovely woman, by the way. Wouldn’t hurt a hair on his head.’
‘And you mean Jeff Lloyd agreed to all this just to save Tom What’s-his-name his job, his reputation and all that?’
‘Don’t you remember me telling you what a good fellow Jeff was, too?’
Yes, I did remember.
Morse was right. And very soon he was gone, and I sat alone in my room for ten minutes or so, taking in everything, and deciding to go out for a stroll to clear my head.
Helen Lloyd was prodding a garden-fork into the hydrangea patch as I walked out. ‘Can I ask you a question, Mrs Lloyd?’
‘Try me!’ ‘Why was Pagan so anxious to keep the number plate?’
‘Perhaps there’s a chance that Sally will write to him again? A chance her mother may die soon, perhaps?’
‘Don’t know,’ I muttered. She smiled openly: ‘I suppose there’s a much more obvious reason, though. It had cost him an awful lot of money, and he said he’d probably try to sell it back to the dealer.’
She looked up at me, still smiling. ‘Always a bit on the tight side where money’s concerned, isn’t he?’
I turned to leave, but had one last question: ‘Why was it you turned to Pagan first of all when you needed help? Why him?’
‘That’s the easiest question I’ve been asked this whole wretched holiday, Philip. You see, I fell in love with him.’
‘And did he… does he…?’ ‘Reciprocate?’ Her smile had suddenly saddened, and slowly she shook her head.
Morse completed Mods (second-year exams) with, it was rumoured, the second highest marks of the year, but decided thereafter to discontinue his Classics degree with Greats.
He spent two years at the Patent Office in London, before joining the Thames Valley Police. The rest is history.
The ‘Lloyds’ emigrated to Canada in 1978, but there has been no news of them since.
Grove Street Garage is now a block of flats, but of the Rolls I have discovered nothing.
For nostalgic reasons I walked along Daventry Road a week after my return to Oxford, and (mirabile dictu) watched awhile as the current owner of ‘The Firs’ was creosoting a sturdy-looking garden-fence.
Should any reader reprimand me gently for forgetting my promise to ‘the Lloyds’, it should be noted that they are no longer ‘still around’ – and, in fact, seem wholly forgotten.
But no, not wholly, since not infrequently there drift back into my mind some memories of one of them.
When I returned to College after the Christmas vac of the year in which Morse had left Lonsdale, awaiting me in the Porters’ Lodge was a brown-papered parcel containing a Christmas present.
It was the rather tattered paperback Homeric Dictionary, inscribed in which I found the words: ‘Hunc librum Philippo, amico suo fideli, dedit Paganus’.
It is the most precious book in my whole library.
Philip Day (Lonsdale College, Oxford) 2008