Friday 25th November

Enthusiastic wolf ravaged his avian prey (8)

Hello, Earth! If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  If I publish a daily blog and no one reads it, have I made any sort of splash?  If I compiled a secret diary in a Bohairic dialect and concealed it in the most inaccessible of cubby-holes (like the stone pot of Finest Astrakhan Caviar that was finally fished out of Felix Yusupov’s Univ rooms in 1940, according to Ozzie), it would be no more unread than this. My blog is just a click or two away for every internet user on the planet and yet, to all intents and purposes, invisible (however many tags and links I diligently add), hidden in plain sight. So be it. If it is to be my solitary meditation in my last days … well, world, you had your chance!

Hello, Earth! Today sees the release, at long last, of Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn, her triple live CD. The centrepiece is The Ninth Wave (from Hounds of Love), a beautiful and haunting 7-track song-cycle meditating on drowning. This prog rock classic is based on the 1850 painting of the same name by Ivan Aivazovsky, often reckoned to be the most beautiful artwork in St Petersburg. As our Kate says: it is “about a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.”  In the accompanying video to the ‘Hello, Earth’ section, we see her deep under water, one hand reaching up and out towards a lightning-scarred sky.  I am reaching out too …

 

Around 6.30 in the evening, I am settling down to a good healthy plateful of pie and stodge when there is a knock on the front door. Dad’s forgotten his key again, I think, but the rat-a-tat seems a little too decisive for Dad. So I park my plate on a pile of half-read Guardians and answer the door. A tall, lupine man in a sheepskin coat confronts me.

“Detective Inspector Hunt, Metropolitan Police.” He flashes a laminated card at me. “Would you be Mr Alan Alexander Hogg?”

A thousand thoughts clatter across my synapses. That bastard Lebedev has told the police that I have ‘confessed’ to drink-driving – how dare he? But how would they even know about my accident? Surely the AA were under no obligation to tell them?

I confirm that I am A.A. Hogg and usher DI Hunt into the back room. My extensive collection of home-made CDs is right in his eyeline.

“That’s a lot of music you have there, Mr Hogg,” he says, perhaps to unbreak the ice. “You do realize that it is illegal to make copies of CDs you do not own?”

“I … I …”

“However, I have not come to talk to you about that. I’d like to ask you a few questions about a lady called Mrs Harriet Sherborne.”

“Ah, Hattie, yes!” This comes as something of a relief in the circumstances, but only momentarily.

“Hattie? Was that some kind of nickname?”

“No, just the name that all her friends know her by. Is there any news?”

“No news at all, Mr Hogg. That is why I have come to Oxford. It seemed possible that her husband – ex-husband, whatever he is – could offer us a few leads.”

“And did he?”

DI Hunt sighs disdainfully.

“To be frank, I’m not sure Dr Sherborne is taking it at all seriously. ‘Hattie’s just gone walkabout,’ he says. ‘She’ll be back in a day or two.’ That was the gist of his response. Gave me your name, actually. And your address …”

Well, thanks for that, Phil. You’re a pal.

“… so, since I was in Oxford anyway, I just thought I’d pay you a visit and see if you could shed any light on the matter.

“I … I don’t think I can, officer.”

Officer! I’ve clearly been watching far too much American 60s TV.

“When did you last see Mrs Sherborne, sir?”

“Ah, let me see … I think it must have been round about last Easter. Ages ago.”

“And how did she seem on that occasion?”

“She was … fine.”

“Fine? Perhaps you could elaborate?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Look, she’d been through a pretty hard time. I think she was finally coming to terms with the fact that her marriage was over. But with no money, no job …”

“Would you say that she was in good health?”

“She was a lot thinner than she once was. It crossed my mind that she was not eating properly.”

“How thin? Anorexic?”

“No, no, she was still …”

“Still what, sir?”

“Well, an attractive young woman. In perfectly good health, I’d say.”

“And how would you describe your own relationship with Mrs Sherborne?”

“She was – is – just a friend. Phil Sherborne and I are very close and she is or was his wife. I always got on well with Hattie.”

“And you know nothing about her disappearance? Why did you see her last Easter? She and Dr Sherborne were long since separated, I believe. Was he aware of your meeting?”

“I don’t recall. Perhaps he wasn’t. I was in London and I had a few hours to spare after visiting some friends, so I called by on the off-chance. She just happened to be in.”

There is a short pause while Inspector Bucket writes all this down.

“Did you stay at her house while you were in London?”

“I think I may have stopped over, yes. Look, I’m not sure what you’re trying to insinuate …”

“I’m just trying to put together some sort of picture, Mr Hogg. Just doing my job. I somehow get the feeling that you are not telling me the full story. Have you had any contact with Mrs Sherborne or her family over the last few weeks?”

“I … I did have a chat with her sister last Saturday.”

“You gave her a call?”

“I went to see her. And the children. Look, I’m very concerned. All her friends are.”

“As are we, Mr Hogg. As are we …”

 

Bucket of the Yard leaves and I consume the rest of my pie’n’stodge in silence. The interview has left me a little disoriented. I make a mental note to house my CD collection in a slightly more discreet fashion. How does he know I haven’t made copies of CDs that I already own anyway?

It seems clear that the Met are treating Hattie’s disappearance as a possible murder case. They have evidently been watching too much American TV themselves. To me it is inconceivable that anyone could have wanted to harm Hattie. I don’t think she had an enemy in all the world. Not enough friends when she needed them, perhaps, but no enemies.

So, what did go on last Easter, you ask? It was quite an emotional weekend, in fact. I was just coming out of a relationship with a very strange girl called Alice (aren’t all Alices strange?) and Hattie was still at a pretty low ebb. We’d had a chicken-and-egg curry at the Star of India round the corner from Hattie’s flat and I’d insisted on singing ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ most of the way back, until a modicum of physical violence persuaded me that enough was enough.

The children had been parked at her sister’s place for the night and we just carried on chatting, as you do. There wasn’t much booze in the house and after finishing up what was left of the John Smith’s, we got on to a bottle of Madeira that she and Phil had brought back from a holiday on the island. Neither of us had ever tasted Madeira, so we decided to test it out and the sweet, syrupy stuff really hit the mark after a heavy Indian.

I did most of the drinking and Hattie did most of the talking. Not just about Phil and her broken marriage, but also about her parents whom I hadn’t seen since her wedding day. They run a chain of coffee-houses in Sydney and are way too busy even to chat on Skype, Hattie grumbled. But she got plenty of moral and practical support from her sister, I suggested? Hattie just looked at me darkly, as if I would never quite understand.

Hattie’s musical tastes have always been pretty limited but we played Adèle, the Eagles, Mumford and Sons, even some Carpenters. I knew I’d had a few too many because I found myself singing along even less tunelessly to the dangerously prescient lyrics of ‘A Song for You’:

And when my life is over, remember when we were together,
We were alone and I was singing this song for you.

It’s never easy to get that last line to fit the tune, is it? (The air-sax solo that follows is rather easier.) We were sat on the floor, swigging directly from this bottle of Madeira and somehow we got to holding hands and I think Hattie put her head on my shoulder. I have a vague memory that at some point, we turned to each other and kind of deliquesced together. For a moment she was the most beautiful woman in the whole world and it seemed somehow ridiculous that I should be inhabiting the same floorspace as her. And then she was kissing me, or I was kissing her, I’m not quite sure which. And then … and then?

I honestly have no idea. The next thing I remember is waking with a throbbing head and being conscious of the confined space in which I was lying, Hattie’s single bed hardly being big enough to contain the two of us. That moment of recognition, that anagnorisis, will be with me for ever. After so many years of vague wondering, there I was, pressed against Hattie’s naked back. A quick audit of the numerous points of physical contact suggested that both of us were indeed naked. I remember edging an inch or two back lest my morning glory should arouse Hattie prematurely from her slumbers. My mouth was as dry as the Atacama Desert and the rhythm section in my skull seemed to have been taking lessons from John Bonham. If only I’d had JB’s drinking capacity too, I might not have felt half so bad. I remembered the empty bottle of Madeira and it crossed my mind that it might have been drugged, that my memory failure was Rohypnol-related. But the truth was surely more mundane – I had simply drunk too much.

I listened to Hattie’s slightly jittery breathing for twenty minutes before my need for a pee became overwhelming. I extracted myself from the crook of Hattie’s legs as delicately as I could, pulled on my trousers (from the suspiciously neat pile of my clothes) and stumbled off to the communal bathroom on the first floor landing. I sluiced some approximation of life back into my tongue and throat and tiptoed back to Hattie’s bedroom.

I found Hattie awake, sitting up in bed, her hair glistening slightly in the shards of light that criss-crossed the room from the tatty ill-hung curtains. She drew the bedclothes tight across her chest and gazed at me with what felt like unspoken, unfathomable reproach.

“I’m sorry, I …” I started, trying to cover all possibilities.

Hattie patted the space on the bed next to her and I sat down obediently next to her.

“It’s OK, Alex. It’s really OK.”

“I think we may have had a little too much Madeira,” I suggested after an uneasy pause.

You did, you mean!”

“OK, I had too much Madeira. I can only apologise for whatever may or may not have occurred.”

“You don’t remember?”

“No, I … God, is that the time?”

I looked in alarm at my wrist-watch which seemed to have survived whatever disrobings and fumblings took place in the early hours of the morning.

“It’s half-past seven,” Hattie observed helpfully.

“Yes, I know. It’s just that I’m due to give some kid an A-level tutorial at nine-thirty. In Oxford.”

Hattie digested this information for a moment or two.

“And you couldn’t just ring up and cancel it?”

“I don’t think I have a number with me.”

“I see. Very well, you must go.”

 

Remembering this, a few months on, it all seems spineless and feeble. I did what Hattie said, putting the rest of my clothes on in front of her, stuffing my pants into my trouser pockets as I went. Hattie watched my performance from the sanctuary of her bed and I swear I saw the hint of a tear in her left eye.

“I think we should forget this ever happened, Alex.”

“I seem to have forgotten most of it already!”

This was meant as a joke but I’m not sure it came across that way. As I tied my shoelaces, I couldn’t help but notice that the duvet had slipped slightly and a greater expanse of milky-white skin was exposed. Was that the hint of an areola? It was hard to be sure in that dawn-light.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“Please stop apologising, Alex!”

 

And those may have been the last words spoken between us. Perhaps I said something about being in touch, I’m not sure. But to my shame I left her there and ran off to some paltry cramming exercise with the dim-witted son of a hedge fund manager. Bizarrely, having apologised for my late arrival, I had to give the dullard back a practice essay on John Donne’s poetry in which he had attempted to disentangle the sublime imagery of ‘The Sunne Rising’ – go chide late schoolteachers, indeed!

I did not get in touch that day, or the next. Perhaps I took Hattie’s request to forget the whole thing too seriously or perhaps I lacked the confidence to pick up the ball and run with it. Hattie was still technically married to Phil, after all (the divorce had not quite gone through), and there were two small children to consider. Hattie had sworn that she would never set foot in Oxford again for fear of running into her feckless husband (whom she still loved desperately, I am sure) and I was no fan of London or the journey to and fro.

I meant to give her a call but as the days turned into weeks, it became too embarrassing to do so. So I never got to find out what happened that night. I imagine that I fell into some sort of alcoholic stupor at some point and Hattie had somehow managed to pull off my clothes and put me to bed. But that is not the only thing I imagine …

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