Yonder, lightening other loads,
The seasons range the country roads,
But here in London streets I ken
No such helpmates, only men
(A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad)
morse's day was satisfactory – but little more.
He had arrived a quarter of an hour late, with the diesel limping the last two miles into Paddington at walking-pace, for reasons (Morse suspected) not wholly known even to the engine-driver. But he still arrived in good time at the Swedish Embassy in Montague Place for his meeting with Ingmar Engstrom, a slim, blond fellow in his forties, who seemed to Morse to exude a sort, of antiseptic cleanliness, yet who proved competent and helpful, and willing to instigate immediate enquiries into the matter which Morse (with the greatest care) explained to him.
Lunch was brought into Engstrom's office, and Morse looked down unenthusiastically at the thin, pale slice of white-pastried quiche, the half jacket potato, and the large separate bowl of undressed salad.
‘Very good for the waist-line,' commented the good-humoured Swede. 'And no sugar in this either. Guaranteed genuine!' he added, pouring two glasses of chilled orange juice.
Morse escaped from Montague Place as soon as good manners allowed, professing profuse gratitude but refusing further offers of cottage-cheese, low-fat yoghurt, or fresh fruit, and was quite soon to be heard complimenting the landlord of a Holborn pub on keeping his Ruddles County Bitter in such good nick.
Seldom had tea as a meal, never had tea as a beverage, assumed any great importance in Morse's life. Although relieved therefore not to be faced with the choice of China or Indian, he could well have done without the large plastic cup of weak-looking luke-warm tea which he poured for himself from the communal urn in the virtually deserted canteen of the YWCA premises. For a while they chatted amiably, if aimlessly: Morse discovering that Mrs Audrey Morris had married a Welshman, was still married to the same Welshman, had no children, just the one sister – the one in Oxford – and, well, that was that. She'd been trained as a social worker in the East End, and taken the job of superintendent of the YWCA four years since. She enjoyed the job well enough, but the situation in London was getting desperate. All right, the hostel might be two rungs up from the cardboard-box brigade, but all the old categories were gradually merging now into a sort of communal misery: women whose homes had been repossessed; wives who had been battered; youngish girls who were unemployed or improvident or penniless – or usually all three; birds of passage; and druggies, and potential suicides, and of course quite frequently foreign students who'd miscalculated their monies – students like Miss Karin Eriksson.
Morse went through the main points of the statement she had made the previous summer, but there was, it seemed, nothing further she could add. Like her younger sister she was considerably overweight, with a plump, attractive face in which her smile, as she spoke, appeared guileless and co-operative. So Morse decided he was wasting his time, and sought answers to some other questions: questions about what Karin was like, how she behaved, how she'd got on with the others there.
Was it that Morse had expected a litany of seductive charms -the charms of a young lady with full breasts ever bouncing beneath her low-cut blouse, with an almost indecently short skirt tight-fitting over her bottom, and her long, bronzed legs crossed provocatively as she sat sipping a Diet Coke… or a Cognac? Only half expected though, for his knowledge of Karin Eriksson was slowly growing all the time; was growing now as Mrs Morris rather gently recalled a girl who was always going to catch men's eyes, who was certainly aware of her attraction, and who clearly enjoyed the attention which it always brought. But whether she was the sort of young woman whose legs would swiftly – or even slowly -ease apart upon the application of a little pressure, well, Audrey Morris was much more doubtful. She'd given the impression of being able to keep herself, and others, pretty much under control. Oh yes!
'But she – she might lead men on a bit, perhaps?' asked Morse.
'But maybe' – Morse was having some difficulty – 'not go much further?'
'Much further than what?'
'What I'm saying is, well, we used to have a word for girls like that – when I was at school, I mean.'
' "Prick-teaser"? Is that the word you're looking for?'
'Something like that,' said Morse, smiling in some embarrassment as he stood up and prepared to leave; just as Karin Eriksson must have stood up to take her leave from these very premises, with ten pounds in her purse and the firm resolve (if Mrs Morris could be believed) of hitch-hiking her way not only to Oxford, but very much further out along the A40 – to Llandovery, the home of the red kite.
Audrey Morris saw him out, watching his back as he walked briskly towards the underground station at King's Cross, before returning to her office and phoning her sister in Oxford.
‘I’ve just had your inspector here!'
'No problems, I hope?'
'No! Quite dishy though, isn't he?'
'Come off it! You said he was.'
'Did you give him a glass of that malt?'
'You didn't give him a drink?'
'It's only just gone four now.'
'How was I to know?'
'Didn't you smell his breath?'
'Wasn't near enough, was I?'
'You didn't manage things at all well, did you, sis!'
'Don't laugh but – I gave him a cup of tea.'
In spite of the injunction, the senior partner of Elite Booking Services laughed long and loud at the other end of the line.