The telephone rang around eleven, sometime after he had drifted back to sleep; Cheryl had brought him coffee before she went to work but there was no particular reason to get up. It was a frightening noise; he didn’t like it this close to his head. He sat up, groped the air and finally got the receiver.
‘You bastard!’ a woman’s voice said.
He knew that voice; he hadn’t heard it for nine months but before that there had been many intense late-night phone conversations. And although she had taken the break-up very badly he’d had every reason to think she would leave him alone. Sighing inwardly he asked, ‘What is it, Ursula? What have I done?’
‘You know what you’ve done!’
‘But I’ve no idea. What’s it about?’
She bit back a sob. It would have distressed him so much a year ago.
‘This is what happened. I took Anthony to playgroup, came home - Southern Lights was in the post - ’.
He couldn’t keep the eagerness from his voice. This was such a big breakthrough; all sorts of people who wouldn’t normally read his work were going to see it in this glossy brand new magazine.
‘Oh, yes, it’s out. And there’s a full page about you. Says you’re the most brilliant young poet in the region. And they’ve actually printed that poem - I couldn’t believe it - “Walking through the Royal Pavilion Gardens” - ’.
‘But you loved that poem! You said you’d never been so moved, having something so beautiful dedicated to you!’
‘That’s just it, you fool! My name is there - at the top - for everyone to see!’
‘But there are an awful lot of women called Ursula!’
‘There aren’t a lot of women called Ursula Wynford who have a child called Anthony and live in Brighton. You put in all the details - remember? - his name and age, and how we walked through the gardens with him in a pushchair, and how I was trapped in this hideous marriage. As soon as Martin reads it he’ll know exactly what’s been going on - and I’m terrified - ’.
‘But you told me he never read any poetry!’
‘Not normally. But he does read Southern Lights, and when he gets to your page he’ll think, “Oh, there’s a poem by Rod”, and then -’.
‘Then hide your copy!’
‘I told you, he always reads it. So do about fifty thousand other people; it’s in bookshops and libraries all over the south-east. Everyone we know is going to read it, Martin’s students, the people in my writing class - ’.
He reached for the mug of coffee; it was cold.
Her voice again.
‘Rod, I just don’t understand why you couldn’t have kept that poem private between us. I did say it meant a lot to me - that was true - but did you have to publish it - ?’
‘Of course I did! It’s the best poem I’ve ever written!’
‘But you didn’t have to name me!’
A glum silence.
‘Ursula, I sent it to the magazine months ago - it takes a long time to work through the system - and at the time it looked as if you might, well, leave Martin - ’.
‘You swine. What about this collection they say is going to be published by Faber? I suppose it’s in there too?’
‘Yes, but I’ll take out your name -’.
‘It doesn’t matter. Nobody reads modern poetry - well, no one I know - but everyone reads Southern Lights. You’ve ruined my life, Rod. All through these last horrible months I’ve had just one thing to hang on to, that Martin didn’t know. I really thought we were getting on a little better, and now you’ve publicly humiliated him - if I didn’t know he was at work I’d expect him to be breaking down the door at this moment -’.
‘For God’s sake! You only have to say that it didn’t mean anything!’
‘Well, it never did, I suppose. Not to you. Now I know about your string of other women I can see how naïve I was. I still can’t believe it, Rod. Anyone reading your work would think you were such a sensitive romantic person, but all you actually wanted was to get a few good poems out of me and then move on. Somebody’s going to kill you some day!’
She slammed down the phone. He got up.
The post had come, and as he’d hoped, Southern Lights was there. He read it avidly; there was no doubt that the editor, who was an old friend, had done him proud. A full page with photograph, mini-biography, praise for his ‘haunting poems set in Brighton’. And his masterpiece, ‘Walking through the Royal Pavilion Gardens, for Ursula Wynford’. He shook his head; he really shouldn’t have done that.
But he’d got into the habit of dedicating his poems to women; it helped him to chart the various stages in his development and might be helpful to a biographer one day. He thought, as he brewed more coffee, - his head was splitting - that it had been a great mistake to get mixed up with a married woman and he wouldn’t do it again. Yet, to be honest, hadn’t that been part of the attraction? Walking round the town centre with Ursula, occasionally seeing eyes flick towards and away from them and wondering how many people suspected. Wheeling that little boy through the pavilion gardens and pretending to be his father. There was never any danger of bumping into her husband, who was out of town all day, but perhaps it had been the sense of danger, the feasting on forbidden fruit, which gave an extra edge to their affair. Writing those intense love poems, knowing they were the best he’d ever done, and knowing too, just below the level of consciousness, that he’d be out of this one day. After all, he wasn’t always going to live in Brighton. An older woman, with a small child who would be around for years. And his own need to travel light, to experience more things and write even better poems along the way.
That had been a nasty dig, that no one would buy his book. Well, obviously not a lot of people read poetry, but the people who mattered were saying all the right things about him. And having that page in Southern Lights could only do him good. He checked the rest of his mail; confirmation that he’d be performing with the Poet Laureate at the South Bank Festival. Then he cursed; an obscure little magazine had kept his poems for six months and then said no. Well, damn them. He would make fresh copies and send them out again. He looked through the window. It was raining hard; people across the street were taking their Christmas lights down.
‘It’s a mystery’, said the Detective Sergeant.
The man facing him nodded.
‘At first we thought it was an ordinary hit and run case. People do drive too fast on these winter evenings; it was the rush hour and slippery. He lived in one of these quiet streets with a lot of Edwardian houses turned into flats and he must have been crossing the road in a hurry to catch the last post. The envelope was addressed to the Times Literary Supplement and contained some poems. Unfortunately only one person saw it happen and, as it was dark, she can’t tell us anything about the car’.
‘Go on’, his superior officer said.
‘But then all these phone calls started coming in. Various people who’d read Southern Lights and knew about the affair with Mrs Wynford, and a lady who’d known him years ago and said she wasn’t at all surprised’.
‘What kind of magazine is Southern Lights?’
‘Classy. Film reviews, interviews with prominent people’.
‘Very embarrassing, then, for Mr Martin Wynford?’
‘Quite. He works in Sevenoaks. It was tea break when somebody said, “Look, Martin, isn’t this your wife’s name?” She insists she’d only glanced at the poem and didn’t know it was dynamite. Mr Wynford said, “Yes, I know Rod; Ursula goes to his writing class”, and then he read it, and all the eleven other people in the room heard him say that he was going to kill them both’.
‘He rushed out and tried to phone his wife, but couldn’t reach her. We know that call was definitely made. He then drove out of the college grounds heading for home, but says he was so upset he took the wrong route and ended up on a country road where he just sat for a while, trying to calm down. He also got caught up in the rush-hour traffic. When he got home it was about six, he says, and his wife wasn’t in. She turned up a few minutes later and they had a huge row’.
‘I’m sure they did. What’s her story?’
‘That she heard the phone ringing, knew it was her husband but didn’t dare pick it up. Then she took her child to a neighbour, who confirms that she seemed upset. Then she got in her own car and drove about aimlessly - she says this relaxes her - and had the car washed, which she’d been meaning to do for weeks. Then she realised that she couldn’t keep running for ever and went home’.
‘Have you checked both cars?’
‘Yes, and they’re clean’.
‘But neither of them can prove what they were doing around a quarter to six?’
‘No. And from what I’m hearing about young Mr Harvey, there could have been other people who had a grudge against him’.
‘Does Mrs Wynford admit to having a grudge?’
‘No. She acknowledges the affair, but says it didn’t mean anything and Rod was always writing emotional stuff about women’.
The Inspector sighed.
‘Well, we’ll go on digging, but I’ve a nasty feeling that this is going to be one of those cases where we can’t prove anything. As you said, it could have been an ordinary hit and run’.
The Poet Laureate sat at his PC and groped for the right words.
‘This is a tragedy for all concerned’, he wrote and then erased. Time enough for that if anyone was actually charged with causing death by dangerous driving, which he hoped would not happen. He had always wanted to get poetry into the news, but not like this. He continued,
‘Rod was involved in a series of intense relationships which undoubtedly caused pain to himself and others, yet his extraordinary love poetry might never have taken fire had he led a more conventional life. It is in the great tradition of Marvell, Byron, Auden and Donne. In the poetry world, where he was a rising star, he will be greatly missed’.
Though not, he feared, by everyone.
Cheryl finished reading a message of sympathy.
She’d had quite a few since the memorial reading, where she had appeared in black as the chief mourner. All the speakers had said some kind words about her, and she hoped that Ursula had heard them, but, having no idea what Ursula looked like, was unsure.
It wasn’t her fault. She had had a very stressful day, with her so-called friend at work teasing her about Rod having written a poem to some other woman. A much better and more passionate poem, she couldn’t help noticing, than any of the few he had written to her. And it would have been typical of him to sneak off during the day and spend time with a married woman. Especially since he’d been talking lately about moving to London, and how it wasn’t good for him to be tied down.
But it was not her fault. Yes, she’d been driving home through the rainy dark in a foul temper, and yes, she had meant to have it out with him, but when she saw him step off the pavement with the envelope in his hand she had intended only to give him a fright. Make the bastard jump, those had been the words going round her head. But the road had been slippery.
And then of course she’d driven off frantically, knowing that if Rod had seen her face he would never forgive her, and after a while she thought it would be sensible to wash the car. And then, seeing the awful damage, she’d abandoned it on the edge of town in a place where it was sure to be vandalised. She didn’t think anyone would trace it to her, or not yet; it belonged to her sister who had left it when she went abroad because it was nearly falling apart even then. Walking home in the rain had given her time to calm herself, and when she arrived, it had been quite easy to break down in tears all over again. It was not acting.
But it wouldn’t have happened, she thought sourly, if he hadn’t been so eager to get his wretched poems into print.
All Rights. Merryn Williams.
Merryn Williams lives in Oxford. During COVID she collected the best poems on offer and published them in an anthology : POEMS FOR THE YEAR 2O20 : EIGHTY POETS ON THE PANDEMIC.