It was a completely unexplained killing. There was absolutely no reason why Sarah Parks should have been so brutally battered. The police were baffled.
At first it had been assumed that she had wandered on to the tracks and then been struck by an oncoming train, but the coroner’s report had already ruled that out. When I visited the station to collect the CCTV footage, I asked to see the platform where Sarah was last seen. As soon as I saw the safety barrier at the end of the platform, I was convinced that she’d been pushed. I kept my thoughts to myself for a couple of days, but Boyle brought a few pictures to show me over dinner at my flat.
“She had cotton fibre under her fingernails that didn’t match anything she was wearing. Where would that have come from?”
“You could be breaking a hundred different rules by just asking me that question; in fact, I’m sure of it. I can’t interfere or even offer an opinion on a case unless requested to do so by a senior officer.”
Boyle pretended to be indignant. “I am a senior officer,” he said. “Besides, we gather our facts from several different sources as a matter of routine.”
“But you now have to report all your sources to your reporting officer before engaging them in your investigation. Failure to do so could result in severe disciplinary action. And you know what that means.”
“Yeah, she’s going to roast my meatballs on a spit and have them with spaghetti.” Boyle drained the last of his wine. “Remember when I said we were like two sides of the same coin? We look at a situation from different sides, but we invariably see the same thing. What are you seeing here?”
I stared into my glass and swirled the remaining rioja slowly. “I see Sarah being pushed over the barrier by someone wearing clothing of cotton fibre who then followed her on to the tracks to finish her off.”
“Then we agree. But by whom?”
I had no answer. I could only confirm what the station staff had told me. Sarah was alive and visible on the security screens at 10.35 on that Monday night. She turned around and appeared to speak to someone out of view of the camera. The next train to stop at that station was the 10.50 to Hertford and that was when the alarm was raised.
“That’s a pretty tight window,” I commented. “Fifteen minutes to kill someone; it’s pretty brief.”
“But still perfectly possible.” Boyle gathered the notes scattered across my dining table. “The coroner suggested that the killer felt extreme rage; at least half a dozen of the blows were inflicted post mortem.”
I held up my hand and averted my gaze from the sheath of photographs. “Please don’t give me any further details. I’ll go back to the train company in the morning and check the footage again. What about her husband? Aren’t they usually first suspect?”
“Not this guy,” said Boyle. “His alibi is solid. I spoke to him myself yesterday. The poor man’s in bits.”
I gathered together the dirty dishes and wine glasses. “Coffee?”
“Please.” Boyle looked thoughtful for a moment. “Liz, when would you leave your handbag unattended?” He held up a picture.
I ignored it on my way to the kitchen. “Well, these days, I’d like to say never, but there must be times when I do.” I had already noticed what had caught his eye. When Sarah had turned to talk to the invisible fellow passenger, she had left her handbag on the platform bench. I scooped coffee into a cafetiere and closed my eyes as I inhaled the aroma. It failed to calm my nerves.
“You know what this suggests, don’t you?” Boyle came in holding the photograph and leaned against my counter top to look at me.
I nodded reluctantly. “We’re looking for someone she knew and trusted.”
Boyle’s phone jangled and he pulled a face as he looked at the display. I knew it was his boss and couldn’t resist a smile.
“Does your mother know you’re here?” Even having dinner together was now a reportable event.
“I’m going to speak to Sarah’s employer tomorrow,” said Boyle, when he ended the call. “And my boss was wondering if you’d like to join us?”
“Good God! As assistance or a suspect?”
Boyle laughed. “I think she just wants to see you for herself. She wants to know what you think.”
“I’d better iron a blouse, then.”
The following morning I took a copy of one of Boyle’s photographs back to the train station and spoke to the bored young man behind the glass whose shirt tag said his name was Justin. He wasn’t on duty at the time of the incident and was relieved about that.
“They didn’t let old Jim go until nearly midnight,” he said. “I’d have buggered off regardless. Would have been on my sixth pint by eleven.”
I showed him the photograph of Sarah moving back towards the entrance of the platform with her handbag behind her on the bench. “Who else would have been here at 10.35?” I asked.
“Well, Pat does the earlier shift,” he said scratching at the stubble under his chin. “Jim gets in before the 18.12. There would only have been a handful of passengers about at that time of night, plus a few stragglers from 22.11.”
I pointed to the time stamp on the picture. “It says 10.35, here. But the next train was at 10.50, not twenty to eleven.”
Justin laughed and handed over a timetable. He tapped the surface of his digital watch and then pointed to my traditional looking timepiece. “Things have moved on a bit since then,” he chuckled. It’s 22.11.” he separated the two numbers between his hands as if weighing grapefruit. “As in twenty-two hours and eleven minutes. Any passengers hanging around at the time you’re talking about had probably missed their train. There’s a phone number on there, too.”
I thanked Justin and called Boyle as I left.
“Gloria and I questioned the staff. They all say that Sarah was popular and hard working. Everyone was shocked when they heard the news.”
“What time do you want me there?”
“We’re questioning her closer colleagues after lunch. You better get here by 1 o’clock. “
I loved the way he said that.
“Ms Philips, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” DCI Gloria Hancock extended her hand and shook mine in grip that was assertive and kind in equal measure. Gloria was dressed like a business woman for whom the eighties had ended too soon. Her formal, padded jacket and tailored skirt gave her a stern and authoritative air. “We now know that Sarah Parks worked for Ray Seymour as a junior secretary for the last six months having been promoted from another department. Mr Seymour’s wife confirms he was at home with her from 9.30 onwards; he often works a later shift.”
“Here he comes now,” said Boyle. “And he has company.”
Ray Seymour walked into his office with a young lady of about Sarah’s age. “This is Kate; she’s my PA. I thought you might like to start with her.”
“Actually, Mr Seymour,” I interrupted, “I’d like to start with you.” Ray was in his early forties and carried with him an arrogance that he seemed to assume as part of his job description. “Your wife says you were at home with her by 9.30 on the night Sarah died.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So what time did you leave here? I’m told you often work late.”
Ray glanced at his PA. “Well I guess it was probably between 8.45 and 9pm. It usually takes between 30 and 45 minutes to get home from here.”
“Probably? You can’t be more sure than that?”
Ray frowned impatiently. “No, the traffic on the main road out of town often gets blocked even at night. The time can vary.”
“Of course it can,” I agreed, trying to sound reassuring. “But if you are claiming alternative or extra hours at work, you’d need to know what time you left to be sure you got paid the shift rate. Even senior managers have to report their hours. Don’t they?”
“It was 9pm,” stated Kate, confidently. “We were both working on the same project and left about the same time.”
“What project is that?” asked Boyle.
Ray reached over to his desk and handed Boyle a file. “This one; the whole team is involved. It’s for the American market so we’re keeping to US time.”
“And what was your opinion of Sarah?” asked Gloria.
“I liked her,” responded Kate. “She was smart, too. Really nice.”
I turned to Gloria as soon as they had left. “Apart from the fact that they’re hiding an affair, do you believe what they’re saying?”
Gloria hooked a finger over her chin as she stared after them. “Not a single word of it.”
I turned to Boyle. “What’s in the file?”
“It looks like a protective IT back up system. Hmm, that’s interesting. The original notes were compiled by Mrs Seymour.”
“Ray’s wife? Did she work here?”
Gloria answered my question. “Yes, she was Ray’s PA a few years ago. He divorced his first wife to marry her.”
“Is she your next port of call?” I asked hopefully.
“Boyle, you go. We better make it official. The team and I can continue here.”
I smiled my thanks at Gloria as we left.
“I like your boss,” I said to Boyle on our way out.
“She likes you too,” he replied. “Look, I’m still breathing.”
Kathy Seymour was a lot younger than I expected. She was pretty, in her early thirties, I guessed.
“I really don’t have the time for this,” she complained. “I have a nail appointment in less than an hour.”
“I understand that you used to work with your husband before you were married.” I said. “When did you leave?”
“I gave up working after we married two years ago. Ray was doing well and I wanted to start a family.”
“But you compiled the notes for the new system they’re working on.”
Kathy shrugged. “Many projects can take years to get made. And I had previous experience in IT systems. I’m sure that most of the secretaries there now think that IT was what their grandmas used to have at four o’clock.”
“Ray was working late again that night,” said Boyle. “What time did he get back home?”
“By nine thirty. We’ve been over this before and I’ve already made my statement.”
“But that’s not right, is it? End of business in the US would be about 10pm here. Something else happened that night. What was it, Kathy?”
Kathy pressed her lips together and looked at her shoes. “He called me Kate,” she said. “He tried to cover up, but it was just something that slipped out. And that’s when I knew. It was happening again.”
“Ray cheated on his first wife with you,” I prompted. “Is that how it started?”
Kathy nodded, but couldn’t meet my eyes. “I knew another secretary had been promoted and figured that must be her.”
“What did you do?” asked Boyle.
“I knew she took the train home, so when Ray called and told me he was staying late again, I drove to the station.”
“What time was this?”
“And then nothing. She wasn’t there. I asked the guy behind the desk what time the train was due and I’d missed it.”
“Which train was that?”
“Eleven after ten. The next train was at ten to eleven.”
Boyle and I sat in my car, just a few doors away from Kathy Seymour’s house. I closed my eyes and let out a breath. “All of this time comparison is making my head spin.”
Boyle frowned as a thought seemed to come to him. “Do you have a timetable?” I handed it over.
“Look; all the times listed are in 24 hour clock. I’m willing to bet that if you call the helpline number, the voice tells you the time of the next train in 24 hour clock too. Gloria had Sarah’s phone inspected. She called the helpline at 9.40 that evening. That means that she must have left the office between 9.40 and 10pm. She must have thought that she had plenty of time to get to the station, not realising that she’d missed her train.”
“But even in 24 hour clock, Kathy’s timeline doesn’t match with Sarah’s. Sarah would have had to walk to the train station and Kathy took her car. She had probably already been and gone by the time Sarah got there and we know Sarah must have arrived after 10.15.”
Boyle nodded. “Kathy spoke to a member of the station staff. They’ll verify what time she was there. So we know she didn’t do it.”
“What about Kate? She says that she and Ray left the office about the same time; 9pm. She would have been too early to meet Sarah at the station.”
“Unless she didn’t leave,” suggested Boyle. “She may have stayed until 10pm with Ray and no one would have thought that was unusual or strange. And if Sarah made her call when we think she did, she was probably still at the office.”
I looked up to see Kathy hurrying down her driveway to her sporty looking car. “That looks new,” I commented. “This lady really does like the good things in life, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, none of which come cheap. Where do you think she’s going?”
I started the engine and got ready to follow. “I don’t know, but it won’t be the nail salon.”
I kept a safe distance from Kathy and obeyed Boyle’s instructions. She led us back to the office, but this time parked in a residential road nearby.
“She’s going back to straighten out her story with her husband.”
Boyle pointed to another car on the opposite side of the road. “You’re not the only person who thinks so.”
DCI Hancock waited for Kathy to turn towards the office building before getting out of her car. If she was surprised to see us there, she didn’t show it.
Boyle marched towards Ray’s office and demanded he remain seated, but Gloria and I met outside the ladies room. Kathy and Kate’s voices screamed from within.
Gloria pushed the door and jerked her head back towards the office. “I think it’s time we had another little chat.”
Back in Ray’s office I saw the colour drain from his face as soon as Kathy walked in.
“Oh, man up, Ray,” she sneered. “You’re a lousy liar. I was there the first time, remember?”
Gloria fixed Kathy with a stern stare. “You lied yourself when you said Ray had come home at 9.30.”
Kathy glared at her husband. “It was 10.30. Why did you follow Sarah to the station, Ray? Were you sleeping with her too?”
“I wasn’t sleeping with her.” Ray nodded towards Kate. “She said Sarah knew something. I had to find out what. I only wanted to talk to her.”
Boyle snorted. “I’ve heard that one before.”
“But I didn’t!” Kate’s voice was shaking and so were her hands.
“You did. You said she knew all about us and what we did here. I overheard you talking to the others in the office.”
Kate pointed a trembling finger towards Kathy. “I was talking about her. She was the one who had initiated the current project.”
Kathy suddenly threw her head back and laughed. “So she’s the one you’ve been screwing behind my back.”
“But you’d always said you’d divorce me if I had an affair.”
“I was going to divorce you anyway, you twat! Do I look like a stay at home mother to you? You pushed Sarah over for nothing!”
Ray rose from his seat and marched towards his wife, his face in a contorted snarl. “Don’t you get it? I pushed her over for us. You spend money like running water. Sarah went over the spreadsheets and found your overspending in the new software. I couldn’t afford the Americans finding out and I can’t afford another divorce! Why do you think I had to take the American contracts in the first place?”
Gloria stepped in between the two and held up a hand. She pinched the bridge of her nose and looked like she was getting a headache. “All three of you were at the train station that night and all three of you played a part in Sarah’s death.”
“That’s ridiculous,” retorted Kathy. “I didn’t even see her.”
“That’s just the point,” I said. “What would you have done if you did? Push her over yourself? You could have gone looking for your husband.”
“But I was here,” said Ray, panicking. “Ask Kate.”
We all turned our attention to the quietest person in the room who was also the closest to the door.
“He asked where Sarah was,” she said. “I told him that she had already left to catch her train.”
“You made the same mistake as Sarah.” Gloria walked towards Ray forcing him to move backwards towards his chair. “You heard that the train was at 22:11 and assumed that meant twenty minutes before eleven o’clock.”
Ray bounced into his seat. “But she was alive when I left her, I swear it.” He swallowed, looking from Gloria to Boyle and back again. “You have to believe me.”
“I do believe you,” said Boyle. “That’s what makes this so inexcusable. Sarah had a sprained ankle. She couldn’t get up. If you had helped her and made good on your actions, she’d still be alive.”
I looked back at Kate, who was pulling on a pair of soft gloves. “But someone else was there, someone who realised what the mistake with the time really was. Someone who saw what happened and then climbed down onto the track. Who told you that the next train was at 22:11, Ray?”
The office was suddenly very quiet. Kate stared at Ray with hateful eyes. “We all know how you can’t resist a new face.”
“But I wasn’t sleeping with her!”
“That’s what she said.”
Gloria put a hand to her chest. “Oh dear God. She must have thought you were going to rescue her. And instead you gripped her coat and smashed her head against the rail again and again and again.”
Kate simply moved her eyes from Ray to Gloria. “I want a solicitor.”
When I shook Gloria’s hand later, I knew I had made a new friend. “You’re very perceptive, Ms Philips,” she said. “You’d have made a good police officer.”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “You’d have me suspended in a week.” Gloria smiled but didn’t disagree.
“Do you think she’s forgiven me yet for almost turning you to the dark side?” I asked as I drove back.
Boyle laughed. “Sure. It’s me she’s watching like a hawk.” He looked at his watch. “Do you fancy getting a takeaway tonight? Chinese?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “Guess my two favourite numbers.”
In the beginning, there was Catholic school and apart from the incident at the dinner party, Father Ben could remember very little about his early life. This was a blessing for which he remembered to thank God every morning. Each day the padded kneeler in front of Ben’s window seemed to shrink further away and on especially cold days, its distance seemed obvious enough to mock him. Ben gripped the window sill with both hands and tried to brace himself for the pain and embarrassment of his creaking knees. This morning’s ritual had a new dedication.
He was twelve when he experienced the classroom incident and that was how Ben had come to view the majority of his life; as a series of incidents. At St. Ignatius boarding school, Easter was the biggest of all festivals and in the preceding weeks, Lent was the most strictly observed of penitent periods.
It was during the last week of Lent that Simon Dorsey taught Ben to smoke. He and a few other second year lifers, as they called themselves, had gathered in the caretaker’s garage at the back of the sports field to sample the delights of the confiscated stock locker. The locker was kept closely guarded in the headmaster’s study, but at the end of first term, the caretaker was awarded special permission to enter the headmaster’s rooms for Spring Cleaning. This was a wonderful event in the school calendar because it meant the clearing of the confiscated items. All the sins of the outside world were waiting to be discovered, like a Pandora’s Box of Catholic misdemeanours.
Beer, unfortunately, was dispatched to the kitchen to be poured immediately down the sink. Cake, sweets and other edible treats were only permitted weekly after tea on Saturdays and any tardy parent whose dispatch had missed that deadline had their gift immediately confiscated. The boy they were meant for might get his toffees eventually, but the cake and chocolate were invariably never to be seen again.
But it was the forbidden contraband that the boys lusted after most; cassettes of rock music, creased and suspiciously sticky copies of Playboy and cigarettes. This was the evil stock that Mr Hammond was instructed to dispose of forthwith. Apparently, he only kept these items in his garage so that the boys wouldn’t be able to steal them back from the rubbish, but nobody dared to question why the headmaster would keep such things locked in his study in the first place.
Clarke and Adams bagged the porn as soon as it was found. It didn’t really matter how old the copies were or if they’d already been seen. It was the social standing that came with ownership that was important. In the land of the permanently penitent, the boy with porn was king.
“I’ve already seen that lot,” said Dorsey. “That was the bunch of mags that was confiscated from Harris before Christmas.”
“It’s only Playboys here,” said Adams. “Harris had Penthouse and Hustler, too. His older brother smuggles them in.”
“Don’t matter anyway,” said Clarke, shoving one copy up inside his jumper and one down the front of his trousers. “They’re mine now.”
“I’m having this one,” said Adams, loosening his belt. “This copy’s got that actress in it. I don’t mind removing a few staples.”
Clarke glanced over his shoulder. “Best get a move on. Hammond will be back soon.” He and Adams jogged back towards the main building to stash their hoard safely.
Dorsey and Ben were still rummaging in the box, but in Ben’s opinion, all the good rock music seemed to have been taken. “Why bother confiscating this lot? There’s nothing here worth listening to anyway. It’s all Abba and love song duets.”
“Got ‘em.” Dorsey held up his prize triumphantly. “B and H. Good ones. I can’t stand those cheap ones my mum has.” He pulled one from the pack and handed the rest to Ben. “There are matches in here somewhere.”
Ben held the pack back out to Dorsey. “Don’t smoke,” he said. “Never learned.”
Dorsey laughed, his cigarette jiggling between his teeth. “Time you tried, then sonny. Here, I’ll show you.” He shook a match box and lit his cigarette. He squinted a little, as if the strength of the smoke was almost too much, but he kept his cool and handed the cigarette to Ben.
Ben wasn’t too sure about this. He knew he wasn’t as cool or smart as Dorsey, but he’d give it his best shot. The pain of the cough, though, was enough to wind him and Dorsey bent over double as he laughed. Ben was just bent over double.
“Oi! Wot you kids up to now?”
Dorsey shot Ben a startled glance. “Leg it! Hammond’s back.”
They both ran for the door but Hammond was waiting for them outside. “Wot you thieving little tykes got this time. More of my stuff have ya?” He had Ben by the arm, but only managed to grab at Dorsey’s collar. His straggly moustache whistled like reeds in the wind as he puffed his red cheeks out to catch his breath.
“Nah, Mr Hammond,” said Ben, desperate for an excuse to present itself. “We were only looking for stuff for a school project.”
“Oh, yeah? And does that school project require a wank and a fag?”
Dorsey looked like he could wriggle free, but he didn’t bother trying. He and Ben were mates, after all.
Hammond frogmarched the boys back through the school yard and directly past the teacher’s common room. It was just their luck that old Evans saw them. He stood in the doorway to the school hall, waiting, with his hands behind his back, gently tipping backwards and forwards on his heels.
“Thank you, Mr Hammond,” he said, as the boys were presented back to him. “And what is the excuse this time?”
“Looking for stuff for a school project, Mr Evans.”
Evans eyed the boys before him and Ben was sure he could see the faint beginnings of a smile on his smug face. This was going to result in punishment and it was going to be painful.
“Looking for stuff for a school project.” Evans pronounced each word carefully and individually.
“Thank you Mr Hammond. I think I can take things from here.”
Yes. Very painful.
“Well, come on then. Let’s see what discoveries you’ve made that would result in a school project.”
Dorsey and Ben looked at each other. The jig was up. They were going to have to empty their pockets.
“Cassette tapes and cigarettes.” Evans pretended to look confused. “Forgive me,” he said as if the clarity of the situation escaped him. “But this looks a lot like the confiscated items from Mr
“Are you sure it’s not yours, sir?” Dorsey dared to stare straight back. “You can have it back if you want. There were some mags in there ‘an all.”
Evans’ cheeks shone pink and Ben had to bite the inside of his mouth to prevent a smirk.
Evans’ eyes were cold and when he spoke his voice was barely a whisper. “I shall join you in class momentarily.”
Ben and Dorsey walked back to their form room in silence. Of all the form masters they could have had, Evans had to be the meanest, most miserable and downright wacky son of a bitch there ever was. Most of the masters told the boys that they were dirty, un-saveable souls, destined for hell. Most of the masters would indeed have punished the raiding of the confiscated locker items and most of the masters would have sent the boys to the headmasters study for an ear-bashing and a stiffly-worded letter sent home in that afternoon’s post. It was only Evans, the boys learned, who seemed to take a perverse kind of pleasure in ensuring that the boys knew they were un-saveable and destined for hell, in seeing them punished for almost any misdemeanour and in posting the letters home himself.
Ben and Dorsey had only just taken their seats when Evans quietly entered the room. He closed the door gently behind him and stood in front of his desk at the top of the class as he waited for the boys to stop their chattering and stand to attention. No boy in the room could have failed to notice what Evans had brought in with him. It was the longer of the two canes that hung above the mantle in the staff room. Ben also noticed that the punishments book, in which all crimes deserving of a caning were written, was conspicuous by its absence. Usual house rules stated that a caning could only be administered by a teacher if the headmaster was unavoidably absent. Ben wondered where Father Graves was now. He had only had cause to stand in front of Graves once before and had been surprised at the leniency shown to him. Vomiting over a classmate’s shoes at evensong was surely worthy of a stern admonishment, as was the drinking that had preceded it, but Graves had clearly known, correctly as it turned out, that the ensuing hangover would be sufficient.
“Be seated,” said Evans. “Dorsey and Jones, stand here.”
Ben and Dorsey made their way to the front of the class to stand by their teacher. “These two,” said Evans, flicking a wavering finger towards the boys, “broke into the garage at the back of the lower school sports field with the intent to steal the confiscated items held there, presumably for personal use, but also perhaps for redistribution. This action was a deliberate attempt to flout school rules. Their theft and willingness to share the spoils have not only demonstrated their own guilty desires, but also a blatant disregard for you.”
“It wasn’t an attempt,” said Dorsey, moving only his eyes to glance up at Evans. “It was a successful mission.”
“Shut it, Dorsey,” hissed Ben. “You’re making it worse.”
“Ain’t gonna get no worse, mate,” he replied. “Put the kettle on, Grandma. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Evans beckoned his finger at Dorsey. “You first. Assume the position.”
Dorsey stepped forward and the class started to snigger as he undid his trousers and let them fall to his knees. He stood with his back to the class and leaned forward with both hands on the front of the teacher’s desk. His dark blue pants stared back at the class and Adams softly wolf whistled.
“And the underpants.”
The class stopped sniggering. Dorsey had been on the receiving end of his fair share of punishments, some legitimate, some not, but this was a first. “Sir?”
“The underpants,” repeated Evans. “Those, too.”
“But Sir,” protested Ben. “That’s not right.”
“Silence!” commanded Evans. “Underpants. Down.”
Dorsey looked nervous, and seemingly unsure of this new instruction, his hands began to shake. With a red face and deepening embarrassment, he did as he was told. Cowering low, and with his lily-white arse for all the class to see he gripped the desk with renewed fear to await the impending assault.
Evans assumed a stance of his own. He stood by the side of Dorsey, facing the class with his feet squarely apart and tilted from one foot to the other to align his balance. Raising the cane in his right hand high above his head, he arched his left arm up to pinch the tip between thumb and forefinger.
The cane bowed in a tight arch before Evans released the tip and sent it whizzing down to connect with Dorsey’s quivering rear.
Dorsey screamed in pain and collapsed to his knees, his hands still clinging to the desk.
“Sir,” he gasped, “please, sir. No. No more.”
“On your feet, boy,” demanded Evans. “You have four more.”
“No, he ain’t,” whispered Ben. He’d seen enough.
Evans resumed his stance and readied the cane for another swing.
Almost unaware of what he was doing, Ben stepped forward, reached up and gripped Evans’ wrist.
“What on earth are you doing, boy?” shouted Evans. “Let go at once.” But Ben couldn’t hear. Already he had started chanting. His Latin master said he had a gift.
“I beg the Lord to forgive you your sins and cleanse your soul. Obsecro ut obliviscaris sceleres peccata et emundet animam tuam Dominos. I beg the Lord forgive the harm inflicted on the innocent. Ignosce quaeso Domine innocerti nocumenti.”
“Jones,” hissed Clarke. “You’re going to give him a heart attack.”
Evans’ face had already developed an unhealthy purple hue, his anger gathering in tiny droplets of barely contained spittle at the corners of his mouth.
“How dare you! How dare you! Let go this instant.”
Dorsey took a deep breath and turned his face, blotchy and wet, towards his unlikely hero. Evans’ left hand still gripped the tip of the curved cane. Ben lifted his other hand to his chest and felt his heart beating. He gripped Evans’ wrist even tighter as he begged for the forgiveness of sins with all the fervour of a sideshow preacher casting out a demon.
Evans released the tip of the cane and delivered a sudden backhanded swipe to Ben’s cheek, sending him into a spin and crashing into a chair. Ben hit the floor with a dull thud and then there was a second of shocked silence. No one saw Clarke slip from the room.
“Is he all right?”
“Of course he ain’t. Look at him.”
“What’s happening? I can’t see.”
Dorsey hurriedly hoisted his trousers over his hips and limped over to kneel beside his friend. “Jones? Say something, mate.”
Dorsey rolled Ben over and an already ugly looking lump, the size of a duck egg, was forming over Ben’s left eye.
Evans staggered backwards and almost collapsed against his desk. The cane clattered onto the wood and Evans seemed surprised at the sound; too loud in a silent classroom. He pointed a finger at Ben.
“He was being disobedient and unreasonable,” he stated. Dorsey said nothing, but his face was wishing a curse. Evans swung his finger out over the rest of the class. “You all saw it. You saw what he did. He behaved possessed!”
No one said anything. No one dared, but they didn’t look away.
All eyes then swung to the door as Graves entered, followed by Brooks, the Latin master and Clarke.
“You’re a dirty grass, Clarke,” whispered Adams.
“Shut yer face,” spat back Clarke. “This ain’t happening again.”
The boys stood as they were expected to, but Graves waved them back down to their seats. “I shall be taking your class today, boys. Mr Evans, please accompany Mr Brooks back to my study.”
Brooks bent down and heaved Ben up into a fireman’s lift. Ben groaned. “I feel sick.”
“Do me a favour and wait till you’re in Matron’s room, ok? Dorsey, you’re coming, too.”
The unhappy little procession made its way back down the corridor, and in the classes where the door had been left open, curious faces peeped out at what was to be Evans’ last parade.
The boys were dropped at Matron’s office without explanation and Dorsey faced embarrassment for a second time that day as ointment and dressings were applied to his broken skin.
Not too many boys came forward to speak to Graves, despite his assurances that that there would be no further punishments, but times were changing. It was 1975 and Graves’ promise came a little too late. In the end it was Matron’s log book that provided all the shocking details. The words ‘delivered from Mr Evans’ class’ appeared too frequently to be ignored.
Ben and Dorsey remained friends until Dorsey moved to Australia. He became a paramedic there and remembered to send the occasional Christmas card. Ben turned over the letter in his hands and read again the kind and gentle words that told him his dear friend had died. He succumbed to a stroke last week. His wife said that he’d been swimming in the sea with the grandkids only the day before.
Clarke became a lawyer and Adams became a politician. Ben never saw Clarke again, but Adams brings an expensive bottle of something over at New Year.
Ben lifted his head and spoke his “amen” to the sky. “I’ll see you again someday, mate.”
He lifted his hands onto the window sill and assumed the position. It wasn’t just his knees that dictated how he said his prayers, but the memory of a schoolboy hero.
I pulled back the curtains expecting to see a new world, but it all looked reassuringly the same. Would it for much longer? In dawn’s dim light I could see the Bennetts’ ageing ginger cat sitting on their front step, now too old to bother to hunt or roam. The milk bottles, newly delivered, stood with pure white innocence and optimism. Today, there was nothing different in the way this long London street opened its sleepy eyes.
Bill was still snoring, oblivious to my wakefulness. I walked down the wooden stairs, careful to avoid the steps I knew would let out a painful cry, filled the kettle and set it on the range. I opened the back door and Fred, our mongrel dog, ran in. Always seeming to smile and dance, we named him Fred Astaire. He yawned and looked as if to say: “why so early?” I stoked the fire and cleaned out the ash. While it grew hotter I collected the milk and noticed that, yet again, the milkman’s horse had left a mess just outside our gate. I closed the door and saw Bill creeping downstairs, he too avoiding the creaky boards so as not to wake baby Lizzie who could be disturbed by the drop of a feather.
“Bit sodding early for a Sunday,” he said.
“Well I’m frightened and we all know it’s going to happen today.”
“Yeah,” he said, “probably will.”
“Aren’t you scared about what it’ll mean for us?” I asked angrily.
“Not much I can do to stop it is there?” was his sanguine reply.
I made a pot of tea and sat at the kitchen table. I thought of how the cloth needed a wash, how the kennel could do with a brush, I thought of chores, things to do, anything that would distract me. Through the window I could see Mary in her kitchen, now so solitary since Hazel died. We never knew whether or not they had lived as a married couple but they had worked together as teachers and lived side-by-side for over thirty years. Rarely venturing out beyond our street and seemingly without friends or family, she delighted in being asked to babysit. Mary wasn’t usually up so early either - surely she too felt this dread.
“Might go and see if Tom’s up yet,” Bill said as he drained his cup and placed it in the sink.
His younger brother and wife lived five minutes’ walk away. Maggie, so timid and frail, was expecting their first child. I had been worried about how she would cope with an uncertain future but as time went on she surprised me with her tenacious spirit, courage and unfailing loyalty to the family.
“If Maggie’s up tell her to come over,” I said.
I could hear Lizzie chattering away to herself in her cot. Not quite a year old, she started each day sitting up and talking to the rag-doll my mother had made. I put some milk into her bottle and placed it in a jug of hot water. Bringing her downstairs, I sat Lizzie in her high chair and mashed some of the milk into a rusk. Over her shoulder I could see the street beginning to stir. No longer half-light, the day was now bright and sunny, the air sultry after last night’s storm. As Bill left the house I went upstairs, washed and dressed and put on my lipstick while Lizzie watched. I heard the front door opening and Mum calling up. She visited most mornings at about 11 o’clock but over the past few days it had been earlier. As I carried Lizzie downstairs I could see Mum’s face etched with worry.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she said. “You had anything to eat?”
“Not yet, Mum,” I answered. “It’s still only eight o’clock!”
“Sorry, didn’t realise it was so early. I haven’t slept much.”
We sat at the table sipping tea, nibbling half-heartedly on toast while we watched Lizzie pulling herself up to standing and trying to take a step.
“Won’t be long before she’s up those stairs,” Mum said, as if it hadn’t occurred to me.
Through the window I could see Bill walking back home with Tom and Maggie.
“I’ll put the kettle back on,” said Mum, grateful to be doing something useful.
We chatted and drank tea, ate toast and cake and felt each others' nerves. Maggie and I put Lizzie in her pram and took her for a walk. The day was as bright and beautiful as any I could remember. We stopped to chat to neighbours, to return balls to children playing in the street and to stroke dogs let out to wander for the day. When we returned the kitchen was silent and the family had been joined by Mary and two other women I recognised but did not know well. The radio was on and we knew what we were about to hear. Mr Chamberlain began his broadcast and soon we were weeping, each of us alone with our fear. Some of us in the room were too young to remember the Great War but for those who could, the pain and terror of another outbreak was unbearable.
Her name was Doris.
Not fuchsia, or petunia, like the pretty flowers. It was as if the gods walking by decided that the other plants and flowers in the great garden were to be given beautiful names, but by the time they reached her they had run out of good ideas. So having exhausted their supply of floral and faunae related names, they assigned the plant the only name left: Doris.
Doris was unhappy but didn’t know why. She wasn’t like the other flowers and plants. The pansies bloomed, the tulips blossomed, the grass grew in withery shoots that whispered gossip, while the roses huffed in their fragrant beauty and ignored her altogether.
Doris felt all alone. She was not a mean plant, far from it. She just hadn’t blossomed or bloomed into anything yet. Day after day she sat planted in the midst of the other flowers in the flower beds, waiting for something that never seemed to happen. All the other flowers bloomed. Why not her?
She wondered, was she in the wrong place? The gardeners had their reasons for putting her into the garden. She knew better than to question. She had felt the earth tremble and shake, and had heard what happened to unruly plants that grew too much or in the wrong place.
They were damned as weeds. Any disliked or unnecessary flower, herb, vegetable, or fruit was pulled from the earth. It was a grim culling, and it happened regularly. Doris hated it. She learned that the roses and flowering plants were safe, for they were beautiful.
She was not.
Doris grew wary when the gardeners approached. She knew they were either on the lookout for weeds or new ground to plant more flowers. She withdrew when they came near, ducking her head and hiding her hideous bulbous spikes.
She bowed her head behind her leaves.
Nothing had actually touched her, yet she felt pain. She had not felt the growing shadow of the giant shape steal over her like an angry raincloud, but she felt hurt, with no fresh rainbows to cheer her.
She sensed the towering presence of the gardeners. Her leaves trembled in the morning sun.
“Come on, don’t be a dull Doris. Perk up and open your leaves,” the gardener said.
Dull Doris, Dull Doris… The other flowers whispered with glee, hiding their mirth behind delicately curled flower petals.
Dull Doris, Dull Doris. Don’t be a Dull Doris...They chanted.
Stop it! She cried, feeling bruised and hurt.
Their laughs and snickers abused her like angry insects, battering her senses with phantom pains.
She would have welcomed the angry clouds at that point. At least then a good storm would frighten and silence the other flowers.
She soaked up the sun as best she could, nestled in the afternoon shade, and yet something was wrong. Something not quite right. She felt slightly weak and fidgety.
Then her spiky bulbous leaves opened.
“Oh look at that!” one of the gardeners said.
She could sense them towering over her. Watching, waiting.
“Look at the colour. It’s like a dusky rose pink. How pretty.”
Pretty? Were they really talking about her?
The other flowers were noticeably silent. Then a fly came and ruined everything. It buzzed by, annoyingly, beating its fragile transparent wings, coming to land on her newly opened leaf.
Its tiny feet stamped and tracked dirt all over her new pink pillowy flower, staining her beauty.
The other flowers laughed and snickered, the grass whispered, Dull Doris. Dull Doris.
Doris grew angry. She wasn’t going to let some stupid fly ruin everything. Her spiky green clawed leaves began slowly to close.
The fly grew wary and tried to buzz away, but it couldn’t move. Her pillowy pink flower grew ever so slightly sticky on the surface, encasing the fly’s intruding feet.
It watched in fright as her clawed leaves rose and curled over it, trapping it within a smooth green clawed cage. It was hers now.
What to do with it?
She felt a part of herself reach out and envelope the fly. It beat a protest with its tiny wings, but its chances of escape were as great as a fresh pickle surviving a summer luncheon.
She felt the fly’s body crush in her embrace and sensed its heart stop. The eyes popped, the wings flattened and tore, and she tasted its bodily juices, running down its small pitiful black body. She swallowed it whole and drank the juices, feeling at all once surprised. Was she meant to do that?
If she’d had lips she would have licked them. It had tasted meaty and exciting and she had found it surprisingly satisfying.
The gardeners were still there. “Look at that. It’s gone. The flower ate it. It ate the entire fly.”
Incredible? The grass whispered.
Doris opened her leaves again, leaving no trace of the intruder. Only a pretty dusky pink pillow.
She welcomed intruders now. She had a purpose. She wasn’t just another pretty flower or fruit.
She was beautiful and deadly. Flies, bees, spiders, mites, she didn’t care. She would welcome them all.
She was hungry.
The gardeners left to observe other plants. She felt the familiar tremble as the earth shook, releasing more weeds into the hands of the gardeners.
The pansies snickered and the roses sniffed. Dull Doris. They spoke. Their favourite new slang word.
Doris turned and said, I may be Doris, but I am not dull.
She gnashed her spiked clawed jaws. And if you ever call me that again, I’ll eat you. Down to the very last leaf.
There was a stunned silence.
Incredible, the grass whispered. Incredible Doris.
Incredible? She asked. Me?
Incredible, the grass agreed.
He did not despise the lights and trees that began appearing in gardens and houses in late November, but the display of Christmas gewgaws in shops since summer had made him immune to their charms.
Down the road he heard an electric pump breathing life into a vast snowman. Reindeer hauled a sleigh along the edge of a roof, Santa looked furtively over his shoulder as he climbed a ladder up the wall, and blue and white icicles hung flashing from the bay window. Tacky, perhaps, but not without humour, and what struck him was the effort and expense that had gone into their purchase, deployment, and the electricity to power them. A few more houses like that and the council could switch off the streetlights until New Year. He might suggest it if he saw his councillor in the pub.
The night had come early, as they did this time of year. Lights draped over a hedge not only flashed on and off in what seemed a random sequence but also danced around in the cold wind. The natural world was co-operating with human efforts to brighten the dark season.
As, day by day, one house after another acknowledged the coming of Christmas he began to wonder if people noticed and judged his own home’s lack of adornment. Was he being marked out as a miserable old git? Well, if people looked carefully, they would see his Christmas cactus carefully tended and in full bloom, even if the daft thing did insist on coming out when the Americans give thanks for the good harvest they enjoyed in 1621. With any luck it would still be flowering at Christmas.
He would bring in the fir tree which had been growing in a pot in the garden for the past few years, but not yet. As the years went by it seemed increasingly perfunctory. He remembered housefuls of people, laughter, excitement. That was how it should be. Now it was fragmented. They would all come, but at different times, on tight schedules.
Perhaps the keen decorators truly believed in what they were doing, that Father Christmas really would be more likely to call at a house where a sign read, “Santa, please call here”. Maybe they just wanted to create some magic for their children, magic they remembered from their own childhood. No doubt they would eat the carrots and mince pies, drink the sherry they encouraged their children to leave by the fireplace. What about those with underfloor heating? What story did they make up for the appearance of presents on Christmas morning?
On the bus people took up more room than usual, their bags stuffed with stuff. One man brought on a Christmas tree, squeezed into stockinette. Now, he thought, that would hold a lot of presents if you tied up the end. A group of teenagers sat at the back, faces all a-glow from their phones, scowling under their Santa’s hats. Must remember to block up the chimney, he thought.
He arrived at work for the late-evening shift and made his way up the back stairs to the staff room, where he changed into his uniform. That it should come to this, he thought. Words from the Scottish play came to mind, “that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.” He would not utter them, even here, but they steeled him for the fray, grounded him in the art of performance.
He tightened his belt, rouged his cheeks, applied and checked his beard, pulled on his boots and arranged his hood around his yellowy white curls. Assuming a benevolent expression, he made his way into the grotto, his sonorous, “Ho, ho, ho!” evoking gasps from small children queuing for their turn to tell him what they hoped he would bring them in a week’s time.
Old hands had told him of the days when children came in on their own and took possession of Santa, climbed all over you. No physical contact now, even after a Disclosure and Barring Service check, and parents kept up running commentaries, making sure child and Santa knew what to say and how to behave.
Deep breath. Now for it.
Christmas starting in September?!
There was a time that I remember
When December was early enough to see
Lights in Oxford Street; Trafalgar Square the tree
Am I growing grumpy? Is it me? ****
**** It seems to me, (I could be wrong)
The summer’s hardly been and gone
Before the shops drag out their sign
Telling us it’ll be soon be time
To post our cards to foreign climes.
Bah ! Humbug
The television’s just as bad
And makes me feel a little sad
To be told I know I really oughtta
Order now that brand new sofa
For festive visitors to sit and lofa. ****
****Supermarkets say it’s not too early
To sell us cakes with icing swirly
It’s enough to make you wheeze and cough
Cooking programmes? I’ve had enough
So they can go and just Bake-Off.
Bah ! Humbug
Posting signs for poor old Santa
To stop here, is the latest mantra
Competing neighbours lights outbid
Pushing demand on the National Grid
Enough’s enough ! It must be said ! ****
**** Getting gifts is just too trying
In the shops or on-line buying
Keep the receipt; just to be sure
In case it’s returned back through the door
Where you queued hours days before.
Bah ! Humbug
Check names to send cards from last year
Cross out the ones no longer here
Buy the stamp and write the card
It really shouldn’t be that hard
No sonnets - you are not the Bard ****
**** Boxes make it easier to wrap
Those awkward gifts so if you lack
The expertise to be a winner
And your wrapping resembles a dog’s dinner
Disguise with ribbons, tags and shimmer.
Bah ! Humbug
Homemade presents can be more unusual
And can save hours of perusal
But did Granny think her jumper chunky
(Albeit it quite unique and funky)
Needed sleeves to fit a monkey? ****
**** From the kitchen mother’s shouts
Alert us to impending sprouts
As saucepans jostle to form a queue
There really is too much to do
So many owed by all too few.
Extra chairs for extra bums
In-laws, family, neighbours, chums
Dad and brothers disappear
To the pub for Christmas cheer
Just returning when all’s clear. ****
**** Mum’s specs are steaming in the kitchen
While guests are drinking and just sittin’
In the lounge their chatter louder
Children squealing getting hyper
Running, squabbling; what a caper!
Bah ! Humbug
Dad’s now been called to carve the turkey
It’s tradition; not malarkey
Plates piled high with veg and stuffing
Chairs squeezed round with huffing and puffing
Crackers ready now for pulling. ****
**** Children prised away from toys
That flash and whizz for girls and boys
Makes them scream and sometimes cry
I really wonder why oh why
I can’t wait to say “Goodbye.”
Bah ! Humbug
In a flash the dinner’s gone
It’s time for pud with brandy on
Custard, cream or brandy sauce
Cholesterol nightmare which will force
Your heart to falter on its course. ****
**** And not to mention all the calories
You’re chewing on those poor old cavities
All washed down with loads of booze
You seem unable to now choose
But tightening waistbands should be clues.
Bah ! Humbug
It seems the kitchen is a TARDIS
Refilling plates, replenish! Replenish!
There seem no end to all this gluttony
The constant noise of clattering cutlery
Swamps the speech made by the Monarchy ****
**** At last the feasting now subsides
With plates pushed back with gasps and sighs
The cook is thanked for all her work
From washing-up they cannot shirk
From piles of grease out in the murk.
Bah ! Humbug
The tables cleared; chairs put away
Belts are loosened; I’d love to say
That I’d really enjoyed this but
Rather than lie or sit and tut
I’ll refrain; just keep my mouth shut.****
**** Remembering those missed around this table
Who I’d recall if I were able
Finally, I really do digest
The warmth and love of every guest
I realise I am truly blessed
Perhaps I AM - BAH ! HUMBUG
So, CHEERS EVERYONE AND MERRY CHRISTMAS
The new UKNOW party swept to a surprise victory today and is poised to implement its controversial CANCEL CHRISTMAS policy. When challenged by Christmas supporters, the Prime Minister said “Bah Humbug” and set fire to his Santa hat. A gaggle of turkeys on the Minister's farm were reported to be heard gobbling appreciatively apparently wishing each other a “Happy Unchristmas”.
The implications of UKNOW's policy soon came into play… with no play, just work, at Xmas:
No Xmas parties for office hearties
Or drinking to excess
No boss to impress
No Xmas stress
No Xmas crackers with funny jokes in
No pubs with drunken blokes in
No Xmas sweaters of wrong sizes
No stockings filled with surprises
No Xmas bonus
Now the onus
Is on us
to work not play
for there is no Xmas day
No Xmas nativity play
where fond parents say
How Johnny pleased us
When he played baby Jesus
No carols on Xmas eve from King’s
No more of that song of Bing's
No Xmas cards, mince pies or sherry
Nothing that will make us merry
No bells that jingle
No chestnuts roasting in the fire
No Xmas pudding all alight
Not even a Silent Night
No red nosed reindeer
Just no Xmas pain dear
All is not well
When there is No Noel
Xmas cancelled just like by Cromwell
No Xmas carol with old Scrooge
No peace on earth and lots of goodwill
Now all has changed for our own good
When challenged by the Xmas Resistance, the Prime Minister responded with “Bah Humbug – uknow it’s all for a better UK
that we have cancelled Xmas day.
Bah Humbug rules ...OK.”
7.30am. 25th July. Christmas Day. God I hate Christmas.
9.15am. Arrive at the house. One of those big white town houses you get in west London.
The interiors stylist, Polly, is already here. In fact, she tells me from her step ladder as she fixes an oversize star to the top of an oversize tree, she has been here since 5.30 this morning.
OK, she has transformed the house. Fake frost icing the windows. Fairy lights round every doorway, bowls of chestnuts and mandarins, artfully scattered snowflake patterned cushions.
The lounge is a triumph. It’s totally Scandi – grey walls, white fluffy rugs and pale leather sofas. Polly has amassed a forest of white candles in glass holders along the marble mantelpiece while the huge mirror reflects tinsel and garlands everywhere in shades of orange.
“It’s this year’s colour!” she snaps. “Who’s the featured celeb?”
It’s Carly Pinkerton, I say. Have you brought baking stuff? We want her making her famous mint choc-chip Christmas pudding.
“Yeah yeah,” says Polly. “I’ll get the kitchen set up.”
11am. Carly Pinkerton is an hour late.
Leon, the photographer, has set up the X-box in the lounge and is playing Zombie Apocalypse with Gary, the hair and make-up guy.
Polly is drenching packs of economy apple pies in icing sugar to make them look like mince pies.
Carly Pinkerton is our December issue cover. Celebrity homebody, winner of ‘I’m a Master Pastry Chef Get Me Out Of Here’. Glamorous mother of four and designer of the Belle Maman range of adorable tableware.
11.40am. A taxi pulls up. Out steps Carly Pinkerton.
I say steps. Falls would be a better word.
She totters into the kitchen on five inch heels. Glassy eyed, lank haired. “Better get to work Gary,” I say.
Carly is followed by her publicist, a hawklike woman in black leather trousers. It’s 28 degrees today - she must be roasting.
12.05. I ring my features editor. “She’s here but nobody else is”.
“Is there a problem?” says the eavesdropping leather-trousered publicist.
Well actually yes. This is supposed to be Carly Pinkerton at home with her charming family. Where’s the family? Husband, kids, sister, kids. We were promised.
“Of course her sister isn’t here,” says the publicist. “They haven’t spoken for five years, they just troll each other on Twitter.”
Features editor says Jonno, the husband, is on his way with the four kids.
But that’s only six – we’ve got a groaning dinner table laid for 12! We need extended family.
I’ll get you people, features editor promises.
1.30pm. Gary is trowelling another layer of make-up on to Carly. The sun is beating down outside and Polly has lit a blazing fire. The publicist arranges Belle Maman plates on the dining table and sniffs the glasses of red wine.
“Is this real?” she demands. “Are you mad? You want red food colouring in water. Now.”
1.40pm. Carly staggers into the dining room. She is not happy about her dress (white cashmere with reindeers). “I’m too hot. Oh God it’s even hotter in here!”
She picks up a wine glass and downs the red liquid in one. Her face screws up in disgust.
Jonno arrives. “Hello Dumpling!” he yells. “Brought the sprogs. God it’s hot in here!” He picks up a wine glass and downs the red liquid in one. His face screws up in disgust.
2.30pm. I round up the kids. The four year old and six year old are playing Call of Duty Black Ops on the X-box. I find the older ones down the bottom of the garden, smoking dope. I order them inside.
3.40pm. Features editor rings to say supplementary family are on their way.
The publicist says let’s do the interview while we wait. She starts dictating.
4.10pm. Six people turn up, a nice looking man and woman and four children ranging from eight to 13. They look remarkably like Carly, except that they are smiling.
I wonder if they’re a real family.
“No way,” says the man. Ben. (Quite hot).
5.45pm. Leon is finally happy with the Christmas dinner shots. Next we do the lounge, unwrapping presents under the tree.
Carly is completely plastered. The publicist missed the bottle of vodka in her handbag.
The kids are gone. I find them all down the garden, the older ones giving the younger ones a smoke for one pound a puff. I shriek at them.
Children dash into the kitchen and scoff the economy pies.
5.50pm. Everyone in place. Jonno and older kids in comedy Christmas jumpers, Ben and fake family smiling, little kids clutching presents.
Little kids clutching stomachs. Smallest one looks green. Where the hell is Carly?
Carly lurches in, publicist yelling “Do you want to sell your pointless plates or not?” The combination of marijuana and cheap pastry proves too much and the smallest child is horribly sick. Carly slips on the puke in her Manolos, grabs the orange tinsel on the mantlepiece and brings down 20 candles in glass holders. The white fluffy rug goes up in flames.
9.30pm. The last fire engine leaves. I reach for a glass of red wine…no…!!
On the up side, I did exchange phone numbers with Ben. And Gary exchanged numbers with Jonno.
11.30 am. 30th July.
Editorial meeting to choose the pics.
Carly looks gorgeous in them, radiating Christmas joy in her perfect home, at the head of a table of mouthwatering food, her adoring husband, children, sister, sister’s handsome husband and sister’s children at her side.
The features editor reads Carly’s interview: “I love Christmas. It is absolutely my favourite time of year. I go overboard with the tree and decorations and presents. We always sit round and sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ before anyone is allowed to open the first parcel.
“My house is always packed at Christmas. You never know who’s going to turn up! It’s all quite mad but it works! I don’t know how - that’s the magic of Christmas.”
Our best ever says the features editor.
Christmas. Thank God it’s over for another year.
There’s an alien in my fridge. I saw him there in the wee hours of yesterday morning.
I came downstairs for some water, opened the fridge door for a bottle, and there he was. He was sitting on the second shelf, using an ice cream spoon to work his way through my crème caramels. He was small, like a child’s toy, with smooth green skin and huge bat ears. He was so engrossed in his task, he didn’t look up. I closed the fridge door, shocked at what I’d seen. I paused for a moment, and then quickly opened the door again and the alien had disappeared. Only the debris of his feast remained.
I was the first awake as usual and was washing up the alien’s pots and spoon when my husband and Davey came down to breakfast. Simon reached into the fridge for the milk and his face changed. He didn’t say anything, but I caught his expression and could guess what he was thinking.
“OK,” he said, perhaps a little too brightly. “Who’s for cornflakes?”
“It’s Becky,” he said to the voice console. “I’m going to have to take a personal day. Yes, I know. And I’m sorry about that, but I’ll make it up with overtime when she’s better.”
“No,” I said. “Definitely not. You tricked me into going the last time, and that won’t happen again. I’m not going.” Hum-bug.
“Becks,” he stroked my shoulder. That’s what he does when he wants me to be reasonable. I shook him off. I didn’t think it was very reasonable to be told I was going shopping. I didn’t think it was very reasonable to be confronted with a teenager telling me that I needed a new prescription.
“He had spots and was wearing jeans,” I complained.
“He was bearded, in his fifties and wearing the same slacks my dad wears,” said Simon. “What are you seeing?”
“I’m not seeing anything.” Hum-bug.
Simon ran his hand through his hair. “Becks, I know what’s happening. What are you seeing?”
“You keep saying ‘humbug’.”
“Oh, that’s not me, that’s the spacecraft. What you can hear is the motor; it whirrs and pops, like hummm bug.”
He’d tricked me. Simon’s clever like that. “So the aliens are back?” He sighed as if all the cares of the world were on his shoulders.
“It’s not like they’re expecting anything of you,” I pointed out. “They’re only curious about us and after the journey they’ve had, it’s only natural that they’d be hungry.”
“So, where are they?”
“One is standing right behind you,” I said, pointing.
This one was a lot larger than the one in the fridge. He was completely naked apart from a brightly coloured headdress, and he must have eaten the majority of our food, because he was carrying an empty food bowl.
Simon reached out and took the bowl and yanked the headdress away. “That’s not where underwear goes,” he said. “Go and put them on properly, Davey. That’s not nice.”
Simon thinks I’m mad. He thinks that sometimes I’ll raid the fridge at night. He thinks I’ll leave windows open and doors unlocked and set fire to the kitchen, but that only happened once and it wasn’t my fault; Davey’s evil teddy bear did that.
“Where’s the spacecraft?”
I pointed to the top of the fridge.
“That’s the rice cooker I bought you last year. That’s what this is,” he said, lifting it down. “Stress is always the trigger. Now that the run up to Christmas has begun, you’ve stressed yourself again.” He shook the spacecraft. “See, it’s only a rice cooker.”
“You mustn’t do that!” I took the craft from him carefully and put it back. “You’ll hurt the occupants.”
“It’s a rice cooker! Look, there’s the plug.”
“That’s their recharging unit.”
“Ugh! God, I hate this time of year! I hate the expense, I hate the stress, and I hate what it does to people. I hate the pressure. I hate seeing you like this.”
Simon took my hand. “Come with me.” He led me back upstairs and sat me on the side of the bed. He picked up the aliens control box and slid out the motherboard. “One, two, three... God, Becks! You’re five pills up!”
“They don’t like me touching their control box,” I whispered. “It makes them nervous.”
“Why are you whispering?”
The big naked alien had followed us upstairs and was standing in the doorway of our bedroom, this time with his headdress somewhere around his middle.
“Go back downstairs, Davey,” said Simon. “It’s ok. Here, Becks. I want you to take this.” He broke a piece off the motherboard and gave it to me.
“Take it where?”
“You need to swallow it, Becks.”
“But you’ve damaged their control system and if I swallow that, they’ll track me. I don’t want them to track me.”
“They won’t track you. You have to swallow it.” Simon’s voice was becoming impatient.
“But I don’t want to.”
Just then the big alien came into the room and picked up the water bottle that was still sitting on the bedside table. He picked up the component and put it in my mouth, and then handed me the bottle.
I looked at my husband. “He wants me to swallow it,” I said with a component in my mouth.
“Yes, Becks. He wants you to swallow it.”
So I did. When I woke up the aliens had gone and my son and I were curled up on the bed like spoons in a tray.
On Simon’s bedside table was an early Christmas present from his colleagues; a jar of black and white sweets cuddled by a small green toy, with giant ears. Davey saw me looking at it.
“Humbug,” he said.
Ebenezer Scrooge is misunderstood. His name has been traduced. He has been blackened by a political polemicist. History, it has been said, is written by the victors. More than that: it is given very existence by the publicists. If people only know of one version, how are they to understand what else can be said? - perhaps to the contrary? Guard yourselves:
Skulduggery walks the land.
Dickens was a publicist, he had views and he had borrowed money; what struggling artist, novelist, poet or painter has not? In one of his early days, having scratched with his quill, all day, and to great effect; having produced soaring prose that could not fail to move his readers to a wonderful generosity of spirit; he had visited his pantry.
Time for his reward.
He had swung open the door, as one might, swing open the door on to the bounties of state. He had reached into the shelves for his supper. Merely a moment’s scratching, this time of the wooden boards and with a fevered fork, found him: nothing.
The writer’s week had ended and so had his cheese.
Dickens was a clever man: a modicum of thought, and he had an answer: he had a friend: A friend along the road, around the corner, down the hill and off an alley way. A money lender, a small banker, a man with a little shop, that had a dusty counter behind grimy little window panes. A man who had no wife, no friends, a menagerie of mangy cats who thought only of themselves, and who kept a clerk - who made mistakes; an old man, bent, constantly harangued by the impecunious, the promisers, the foolish and sometimes, just sometimes those who made good and repaid the loan with that margin of interest that kept him, the cats and his clerk. This man was Ebenezer, Ebenezer Scrooge, a man of uncertain origin and uncertain permanence. Ebenezer was old, ailing and unhappy. He made trade by providing for his fellow man, as had his father before him. Alas, they resented their need and therefore: him. Perforce, he dealt in a commodity that he could take with him if he had to go, if he had to leave in a hurry, if: life in the soot of London with no one but fair-weather-friends, did in fact break his windows and turn him out. Dickens stroked these thoughts, like fleas in his beard; he could borrow from this man. The man would be glad of his business; he would be his grateful friend.
Money lenders are always your friend.
Consider a hypothesis: supposing this man, this generous, this indulgent lender had, in the warmth of his heart, advanced a substantial sum to Charles Dickens, impecunious writer, What then? Now you know that Charles eventually became famous. Ebenezer could not know that, not at that stage. At that stage the young, as yet unacclaimed, Charles was just another attic scrivener – much like his own helpless, hopeless, clerk. What were the prospects for getting his money back, let alone his interest, - the pence he would need for his own sliver of cheese?
Would there be cheese?
Do writers garner gold from their labours? No, I hear your thoughts. No, writing is work, work that oft goes unappreciated and usually unrewarded. No. A pittance might come to some perhaps, and much later.
You begin to see, think.
Ebenezer explained that risk to the aspiring Charles, and that he must charge a rate of interest that balanced it.
What would you have done?
There are those who say that fixed interest is usurious, that the lender should instead share in the risks of the enterprise. Perhaps Ebenezer should have demanded to stand by Dickens’s desk, prompting and advising him. Charles might have welcomed that, or, then again, he might not.
What would you have done?
Charles, having been made to feel grateful, embarrassingly, grateful, accepted the terms, wrote his name and took the money. Now think on this: something had reversed, something had changed; the moral landscape had had a tectonic shift. Before, Charles had no money, now he had some money. Whereas the lender previously and much money now, well, he still had some money, if not quite so much. To fill the difference he also had a piece of paper that, when one comes down to brass tacks, was intrinsically worth nothing. By contrast, the chinking of silver in Dickens’ hand was a solid substance. Pride swelled the waistcoat once more and prompted a thought:
He could reverse his embarrassment.
What if the honour gradient were to be reversed? What if the lender were be denounced as a fraud and usurer? Who in the world would come to his defence? Who of the skulking friends, who had borrowed money, would support him? Better, they would say, that he should go, leave, depart, or, or, disappear under a carpet of disapprobation.
Who would have the money then?
Come Christmas Eve, and Ebenezer, sitting by the two coals in his grate, whose flame did little more than throw light on his clerk’s empty stool, wanted to eat. His stomach ached but he had only a crust of rye bread, long gone stale. He could not stumble his way to the baker’s shop, the baker did not loan bread. He could not stumble to the vegetable stall, that man would not lend carrots, or potatoes or, anything. Their money had to be paid on the spot, but he had none. The loan he had made to that bumptious writer had not been repaid. It was overdue. What was this Spirit of Christmas?
Bah ! Humbug.
He called it from the door way and he called it from the window. Folk looked askance and veered away from him. What did they know? At last a saddened man reached for his crust, crumbled it and swallowed it with water, cold water.
The stale wheat had festered ergot.
Ergo, when his eyes closed on his bed, as dark descended, he dreamed. His mind was griped by a delirium that was a visitation of horrors. By morning he had woken three times with burning in his limbs. By morning he was convulsed and confused; his mind was like a pot of maggots.
How would you have fared?
Ebenezer leaned far out of the window, escaping, in his hallucination, the dread rattling of prison chains. . . . .
A splat of cold woke him - the butcher’s boy had seen his distress and thoughtfully lobbed a snow ball that had caught his cheek. Realizing the danger he had been in and that he had not been able to give his clerk the usual Christmas hamper, he called to the boy. “Take that big bird to Thomas Cratchit.”
Would you have done that?
Later that day Ebenezer walked the slippery pavements to the tall narrow house occupied by the young Charles Dickens. Ebenezer asked for his money, so he could buy a little Christmas cheer. Charles Dickens was embarrassed, cross, haughty, rude, unkind, and ruthless. He had spent the money – on drink. He was flying; he did not care. He would nullify the debt with his own slicing word skills; history is written by the victor. He would be revered long after the poor, shambling, old man had gone to his quickened end. He told him that a great and glorious story would appear in the newspaper denouncing Ebenezer for literary ever:
Ebenezer returned to his bare office and lay upon the wooden floor, in the cold. His good works would be forgotten; his staff would despise him; his foolish kindness would be slapped back at him. He would be remembered only as a miserable miser.
Poor, poor Scrooge.