Publisher’s flourishes put down (10)
The M40 is quiet at first light, my new Yaris purrs along happily and I have ample opportunity to brood. In my sheltered life, I have had few encounters with mortality. It is some time since the last of my grandparents died and since then I have had few causes to visit the Headington Crematorium. Like most of my generation, I know no one of my own age who has expired, still less in circumstances like this. I don’t know what I am supposed to feel. Perhaps I am still in shock?
If it proves to be Hattie on the mortuary slab, how will I respond? What explanation could there be? Did she have some kind of crazy boating accident in the Serpentine? This seems impossible. But the thought that Hattie might have drowned herself is equally ludicrous. Could she really have walked out into the lake and taken her own life, like Ophelia or Virginia Woolf? I’m the one who’s supposed to be drowning but I have no intention of doing so deliberately. Has Hattie, in some weird way, taken my place? Or was I simply misled about the precise date in December 2016 and the identity of the drownee?
The only thing I know about the Serpentine is that it is in Hyde Park and one of the few things I know about Hyde Park is that it was the venue for the extraordinary free concert in 1969 that the Strolling Clones (if such we be) are now trying to emulate. Another odd coincidence? And Felix Yusupov had rooms overlooking Hyde Park in his days of masquerading as an Oxford undergraduate. Irrelevant of course.
My mind is full of absurd literary parallels. What if Hattie has been murdered, like Rebecca at Manderley? But who could want to kill Hattie? She had few friends but few enemies either. I catch myself slipping into the past tense – Hattie is still alive, I tell myself, and this is all some kind of bad dream.
But if she is dead, if she has killed herself, who is to blame? I think back to our last, strange, brief encounter around Easter. Should I have tried harder to make something happen then? But surely Hattie was still besotted with Phil? I was just some kind of ersatz-Phil, some temporary solace. It was maudlin, madeira-fuelled madness, and we both knew it. But that image of Hattie waiting for me in bed, her goose-pimpled flesh only partially covered by her flowery duvet, calling me back with her big, reproachful eyes, now seems seared onto my cerebral cortex.
What a toe-rag I was that day. Did I reject and hurt her because she had once unwittingly done likewise to me? When I first knew her, Hattie was already Phil’s girlfriend and, even if she hadn’t been, she was way out of my league. The only difference now is that she has two children in tow, no money, and a broken marriage behind her. That’s the reason men are no longer queuing round the block, the reason why I found excuses for failing to call her back. She’s still the most beautiful girl I have ever met. But beauty is no insurance against depression. I should have been there when she needed a friend, when she needed a … a lover.
In my time of dying, I do not need this on my conscience.
My eyes well up slightly at the thought of what might have been and I almost miss the White City exit. I will know the truth soon enough now.
Disappointingly, Detective Inspector Hunt has better things to do than turn up at the mortuary himself. Surely a good sleuth should be there to study my reactions at the critical moment, the drawing back of the veil, that macabre anagnorisis? Is he in bed, reading the Sunday Mirror?
Instead, a mortuary jobsworth leads me down a couple of corridors. My jelly-legs do not give way beneath me. We arrive in a cold, bare room and some kind of trolley-like contraption is wheeled out, as if bearing a giant Christmas turkey. A simple blue sheet covers the body that I must scrutinise. I make the necessary sign to indicate that I am ready and without fuss the attendant peels back the sheet …
It is not Hattie. It is nothing like Hattie. This poor woman’s bloated flesh looks barely human at all, but the long nose and the relatively square jaw bear no resemblance to Hattie’s features. I shake my head and turn away.
“Thank God,” I whisper.
“Not yours, then?” the man asks, his pen poised above his clipboard.
“Not mine,” I say. “Not mine at all …”
I emerge from the sarcophagus and the daylight mocks me with its careless brio. On a whim, I leave the Yaris in the mortuary car park and take a trip on the Piccadilly Line to Hyde Park Corner. Inside forty minutes I am being coughed out of the wheezing tube onto the most distinguished of London’s eight royal parks, an oasis of calm in the midst of the bustling city.
I stroll through the Queen Elizabeth Gates and on to a tree-lined avenue. There is a rose garden on my left. The whole experience seems weirdly familiar, as if I have been here before, sauntering down this very avenue. But I know I have not. When you are brought up in the northern wilds (whence a trip to Newcastle is an exotic treat), London seems like another country. There were no Hoggish day trips to Hyde Park, the British Museum, Bloomsbury or Madame Tussaud’s. I am quite certain I have never been to Hyde Park before.
I pass a row of trees on my right, admiring the green-and-yellow plumage of the ring-necked parakeets, and somehow I know there is a bandstand behind. My expectations are immediately confirmed. I think of Phil Connors in his Punxsutawney hotel:
Although I cannot quite see it, I sense that the Serpentine is almost upon us. Sure enough, my gravel pathway and a number of others converge at the corner of a spectacular expanse of water. There is hardly a ripple on its glassy surface. The very idea of someone drowning here seems an affront to the natural order. Alone, I palely loiter, while parakeets squawk.
I wonder where they fished that poor woman out of the pond? A couple of small boys are playing with some tiny motorised boats, propelling them hither and thither with their hand-held consoles, under the supervision of their Sunday father. The water is so still, it does not seem much of a challenge. Why, even a paper boat might float serenely across this placid sea. I feel an atavistic urge to find a flat stone and skim it across the lake, but there are no appropriate stones to hand and it might be a little undignified in any case. I am oddly convinced that I have thrown pebbles at this very spot before.
And what of those other Stones? Where did they sing for their supper? The bandstand looks a little too modest to have accommodated Mick’s ego, not to mention Keith, Charlie, Bill Perks and a golden-haired young guitarist with the no-nonsense name of Mick Taylor, nervously playing his very first gig as a replacement for Brian Jones who had drowned in his own swimming pool just two days previously. And yet here his bandmates all were, in front of this vast lake, trusting to luck that none of the half a million revellers, most of them high as kites, would somehow, accidentally or otherwise, emulate his hero and sink like a Stone….