A Christmas Story by MJ Lewis

Bit of serious one, this post. I’ve been busy bothering friends and family for adjectives to describe this story. Dark seems to feature quite often, along with unnerving, intriguing and moving. But my favourite so far is definitely ‘irksome.’ If that sounds like your cup of tea, read on…. 

A Christmas StoryOne could almost have felt sorry for him. He was after all very ill now, almost certainly dying.

It was the usual time in the morning for Liza’s visit. She carried a metal tray, holding two cups of tea. As she approached the swing doors of the dining room she calmed herself by concentrating on small details, noting the asymmetric loops of coloured Christmas chains that decorated the doorway, carefully remembering which of the two teas contained sugar. She pushed open one of the swing doors with her elbow and turned her head slowly to look across the room to the far corner, where the old man sat with his head bowed, the only occupant amongst the regular lines of Formica-topped tables and plastic chairs. There he was, a crumpled grey figure blending into the corner of the beige room. He wore a jacket and tie as usual – worn, old-fashioned clothes, but clean with a kind of shabby neatness. He could have been meeting Liza outside, in a normal cafe somewhere, not here in the canteen.

‘Good morning, Mr Pickard. How are you today? I’ve been allowed to bring the tea myself today. Two sugars, isn’t it?’ `

Liza realised she was talking too quickly. She sat down, arranged the cups and told herself to relax, to focus. This was what – her fourth or fifth visit? Security, she’d been told, was straight-forward in an open-prison. Nevertheless it had unnerved her at first, as if she were guilty of something herself, suspect in some way by association. But today the prison officer had been more than polite, friendly even, and what was even more pleasing (if that was the right word) was that she had been told there were some signs of progress. The old man had apparently opened and actually looked through the cardboard box only that morning, as if in anticipation of her visit.

She placed the cup in front of him.

‘Thanks,’ muttered the old man.

‘I see you’ve found something in the box.’ She tried to sound neutral; interested but not insistent was her intention.

They both stared at the three photographs arranged face down on the table, a neat line of white oblongs, rather like three playing cards waiting to be revealed to gathered onlookers. In slow motion he lifted an arm to the table and, with stick-thin, slightly shaking fingers, he carefully turned each one over, revealing the faces of three young girls. With an effort of will Liza suppressed a shudder. A face smiled from each photograph, each girl about ten or eleven in age. She knew the three faces well but they looked different in this setting, more exposed, more vulnerable. Why had had she given them to this man? What had she been thinking?

She wanted to scoop these girls off the table, take them back, protect them. Instead they both stared down in silence.

After hours of tedious inconsequential chat, with mostly monosyllabic answers, this was different. But she had not waited for this, worked hard for it, to lose her composure now. Smoothing down the skirt of her neat suit beneath the table to stop her hands shaking, she collected her thoughts. Come on, she told herself, you can do this.

‘Which girl is your daughter?’ she asked. ‘Do you remember?’

He looked up briefly. Liza thought she saw something that replaced his usual blank expression, but he lowered his eyes almost immediately. He kept his hand on the table, the claw-like fingers resting next to the three photographs. Liza repeated her question, using exactly the same measured tone of voice.

They sat for a long time until Liza realised he had shut his eyes. She thought of her own father’s fake old man’s doze. She knew he used it to shut out any hint of confrontation, any unpleasantness he would have called it. Well this was not exactly pleasant. But she had been warned of this man’s quite genuine tiredness.

‘Do you remember, Mr Pickard?’ she repeated quietly. ‘Your daughter, Kelly. Which photo is she in?’

She waited again; Liza was good at waiting. But even she realised that was probably it for today. She stood up and quietly placed the cups back on the metal tray.

Without changing his position he half opened small watery eyes to watch her cross the room and push open the swing door. Then one by one he carefully turned the photographs back over, hiding the smiling faces; he gently tapped them into a neat pile and placed them back in the small cardboard box on his lap for safe keeping.

*****************************************************************************************

On Friday afternoon Kim Elliot sat in her armchair in the corner of her darkening sitting room. It was only three o’clock, but already the room filled with soft shadows. Kim hated Fridays. It was her day off, the day for housework and shopping; only there was not much of either for a middle-age divorced woman in a one-bedroom flat. The small area of carpet was hoovered and every surface and photograph frame polished. Kim glanced at the piano, nowadays only a place for photographs, not music. There was her daughter Josie, aged eight, clutching her piano music and smiling nervously, frozen in time on the day of her first music exam. There she was with her Dad on her eleventh birthday. Next to her stood pictures of her two cousins, Kim’s nephew and niece. On the piano they kept Josie company as their younger selves. Kim kept up-to-date pictures of them elsewhere. They were both adults now, getting on with their lives. No babies yet. That would be hard, but welcome too. Life goes on; it has to.

Kim held a notepad and pencil. She had intended starting her Christmas list, keeping busy. Josie had always loved Christmas shopping, lists of secrets, parcels hidden on the tops of wardrobes. Kim shut her eyes to help herself think and as she relaxed she began to recall the details of another list, a list she had made to a policewoman in another sitting room, before another Christmas almost fifteen years ago. A long remembered list: blue cord trousers, brand new black leather boots (size 5, with tassel-pulls on the zips), and a navy coat with velvet collar.

A strange tingling numbness spread from Kim’s chest and along her arms. She felt her forehead relax and her limbs begin to grow heavy. It was a familiar sensation, not unpleasant. How pleasant indeed it would be to let it flow into her entire body, to let it drip slowly, tepidly into her mind. To let the painful memories wash away the tedium of the present.

Kim opened her eyes and stood up abruptly. She crossed the small room to flick on the light switch; she tapped the television remote and a spread of glossy festive food filled the screen.

*********************************************************************************************

There was a message when Liza arrived at the prison the next day. She could not see Ron Pickard in the canteen as he was too ill to walk there. Instead she was shown to his room in the hospital wing by a uniformed young man she hadn’t seen before.

‘Here’s Dr Carter to see you, Mr Pickard.’

Liza had wanted to be well out of the way before it came to this, before the inevitable decline. He was at least sitting up, in an armchair next to the neatly made bed. She noticed the bare walls, the chest of drawers, a greyish flannel and a well-used toothbrush next to the stainless steel basin.  She registered then ignored a new set of smells. She had so far only associated him with the lingering smell of fried breakfasts and over-cooked vegetables in the canteen. Today he wore a dressing gown in place of a jacket and tie. His thin arms and legs stuck out of checked pyjamas. On his knees was the unopened box that contained the photographs.

‘I understand you’re not so good today, Mr Pickard.’

He lifted his chin from his chest and nodded towards a wooden chair.

‘Not long now,’ he said quietly.

She was taken aback briefly. This was probably the most definite statement he had ever made to her. So he knew that much then. Liza had some things to add to the box, some newspaper cuttings.

‘I was going to leave these for you to look at.’ She pressed ahead, slowly, carefully. ‘But perhaps we could both look now.’

Not long now. She wondered if his words had meant something, if now they could finally begin the process of unravelling the past, untangling the knot, whatever it consisted of. Lies and justifications or genuine confusion and memory loss? An outright admission of guilt? But surly that was too much to expect.

She was not there to cause harm, to punish. That had been done, accounted for. She was there because of her interest and skill associated with transitions, doors that led from one place to another. Or rather as she visualised the process, corridors that represented painful journeys from one state to another, from sickness and denial for instance, to self-knowledge and peace of mind. The dark murky spaces between these states interested her; shadow spaces between the old and the new. Well that was the theory anyway.

Ten years ago she had studied a group of self-harming children, some of them so young it had at first been assumed this was abuse within the family. During the first months when she lay in bed at night, willing herself to relax, her head would fill with children’s faces, each face associated with a catalogue of old scars and recent injuries- burns, cuts, bruises, fractures even. She had seen the x-rays, counted and logged the stitches. She would sleep eventually but wake exhausted, saturated with thoughts as raw as when she had climbed into bed. Gradually, by force of will, she had learned to switch off from work. She would list the ordinary elements of her life to help herself sleep, mentally walk around her tiny garden logging the plants she had carefully nurtured in her spare time, the seeds and bulbs yet to bloom. Until more often than not, whatever the day had revealed, she could sleep and wake refreshed and ready for her day.

And the work had gone well. She had found that she had succeeded in some cases where others had failed, mainly due to her persistence and patience, long hours of talk or silences. Whichever was needed. One child in particular, a ten-year-old girl, had finally talked to Liza, had co-operated where previously she had been silently defiant. And they had together finally moved forward to a place where the girl could begin to cope and even to eventually leave the past behind and flourish. It had been a turning point for Liza herself too. She had begun to ignore the objections of her family and finally take her work and herself seriously. Liza recalled a chance encounter in the foyer of a cinema.  A happy girl called out to Liza, waved and smiled; a girl barely recognisable as the damaged child she had first met.

So here she was, with her first murderer. A different set of scars. A different set of entries in the ledger of harm and self-harm.

Liza opened her case and took out a plastic file of folded newspaper cuttings. She slid out the first cutting, placed it on the low table next to his armchair and carefully, deliberately unfolded it, turning it to face the old man as she did so.

There was a noise in the corridor and Liza stopped. She felt herself suddenly guiltily aware of the suppressed impatience behind her self-control. Her heart hammered uncomfortably in her chest. She needed to steady herself, remember her plan.

Her idea had been to slowly present this man with evidence of his past, with its reality, its consequences, but to let him take it all in in his own time, rather than to bombard him with allegations. The flow of information to the box was controlled by her but he had to look at it himself. She had imagined a kind of deal, a pact, where his need for some sort of accommodation with the past before he died would make him either unwittingly reveal his secrets or even finally willingly co-operate. In order to move forward, to move from the shadows to the here and now, the old man would quite literally have to go back and unpack this box of painful memories. It had all sounded so plausible a few weeks ago when she had been given the police file and spoken to her Inspector and the team she was presently seconded to.

She had planned, she realised, that this old man, who had never previously admitted his guilt, would talk to her. And so finally, she would be the one to find Josie Elliot, to bring her home.

A face appeared round the door.

‘Everything all right?’

Liza and Mr Pickard nodded. The door shut. She went ahead, placing a second cutting on the table next to the first. Her folder was full of these things – dates, pictures, headlines, an arrest, a trial followed by the long trail of miserable consequences – lost jobs, broken marriages, blighted lives- that illustrated the aftermath. But she needed to go slowly.

‘This is a newspaper cutting concerning one of the girls. It’s a picture of Eileen Watts with her mother in 1994. She was the girl with Down’s syndrome.’ A smiling girl of ten, but with the  moist lop-sided grin of a much younger child, hugged her Mum in the photo. ‘It says, Eileen safe after her ordeal.’

Liza was aware that she talked to him as if he were a child himself.

‘And this,’ she continued in the same tone, ‘is a picture of Josie Elliot from December 1998. It says, Please help find our daughter.’

He stared blankly as usual, in the direction of the low table but giving nothing away. They sat in silence.

Liza thought of the appalling pictures she had seen in the course of her work, compared to these old cuttings with their deliberately coded language. She wanted more than this. And she had been the one who had tutted over the interview transcripts in the file, the leading questions this man had been asked at the time and the clumsy prodding and bullying that had more than likely frightened away the fragile truth. She was the one who prided herself on her patience and her objectivity, yet here and now she wanted an image to shock him out of his complacency. And she wanted to watch his face as she placed it before him, rather than hiding it in that ridiculous box of hers. She wanted to shake him by his skinny shoulders until his remaining teeth rattled inside his skull. Metaphorically of course, although literally might be a relief.

‘Do you remember this girl, Eileen Watts?’ was all she said.

He sat motionless, staring at the cutting or staring at nothing. Was there a difference anymore?

She was about to stand up when he said, ‘Her Mum wouldn’t let me see her.’ He kept his eyes on the picture of Eileen and her mother. ‘My Kelly always loved her Dad.’

‘That’s Eileen Watts, not Kelly,’ she said. ‘It’s the girl you tried to abduct not your own daughter. The girl with Down’s syndrome.’

‘My Kelly. Where’s my Kelly? Is there a paper for her?’

He tailed off, exhausted and confused. Or deliberately stubborn? She realised she really had no idea which.

‘That’s Eileen in that newspaper and Josie Elliot in the other one Mr Pickard. Kelly was never in the newspaper. She never needed to be. I need to go now,’ she added. ‘I’ll leave you to read these.’

That’s enough, more than enough for now thought Liza.

As she left the room hurriedly he slowly began to put away the picture of Eileen, to fold it carefully along its original fold-lines.

**************************************************************************

The click-clack of heels accompanied Kelly Locke’s entrance into the interview room. Liza noted her immaculate nails, the perfectly straightened curtain of blond hair, the leather jacket –strikingly red, but definitely not faux.  In contrast Liza felt dowdy and insignificant in her black suit. Country mouse and town mouse. But then that was the point of a suit wasn’t it: to blend in, pass unnoticed. It was a pity about the sulky husband. Surly Kelly Locke could have escaped him for this visit. She didn’t look the type to be intimidated. But then maybe her outfit was also armour but of a different sort.

‘He was always a good Dad to me, Dr Carter.’

Seated beside her, Kelly’s husband swung gently back and forth on his chair. It was Mr Locke who had refused to let Liza visit them at home.

‘He never raised his voice even, at least not to me.’ Kelly’s own voice was steady and unemotional, as if reciting a story told many times. She stared hard at Liza, daring her to contradict this version of events with the central character of the good father. ‘It wasn’t great for Mum though,’ she added. ‘He was a lot older than her, quite old when they married. I remember arguments, shouting, but nothing worse than that, you know.’

‘So did you keep in contact with him after you and your mother left?’ asked Liza.

‘For a while, but I was eleven and growing up, going to a new school and all that. And he hardly made an effort.’ Kelly shrugged. ‘It was a relief really, not to see him.’

Liza noted the contradictions in Kelly’s words, but that was hardly surprising was it.

‘Look, Kelly’s said all this before. Why don’t you just look this all up in some file somewhere before you go stirring things up?’

‘Mark, we agreed,’ said Kelly.

‘It’s all right, Mrs Locke,’ said Liza.

At least this was easier than silences.

‘I can appreciate that this is upsetting, dragging up the past. There is only one specific detail I need to ask you, if that’s alright.’ Liza picked her words carefully, trying to remember how she was supposed to phrase this when everyone really knew Kelly’s father was guilty of abducting Eileen, but she had to pretend he might not be. ‘It’s about something that was said by the girl your father was alleged to have abducted, Eileen Watts.

‘In all the confusion, the one fact she stuck to was that he promised to take her to pick bluebells in the woods. Did your mother ever speak of it before she died?’

‘Yeah, bluebells. In December wasn’t it?’ Mr Locke gave a short laugh. ‘He should have been locked up then. They all knew it was him that took that girl. Pity he picked on someone with half a brain. ‘

‘Mark, please,’ said Kelly.

‘Say what you need to say, Kelly. I’ll wait outside.’

He scraped his chair back under the table and left the room.

‘Sorry. He doesn’t like me talking about any of this.’ Kelly hooked her blond hair behind one ear. ‘Anyway I’d better be quick. I wish I could help you, help Josie’s Mum. They said it might be important back then, when they knew it was him but he wouldn’t say where she was. Well Mum and me never talked about any of it – course we didn’t. She had her new life, not that that was perfect.

‘So no bluebells, nothing I’m afraid.’

‘I’m sorry. There was just a chance.’ said Liza.

They both stood up.  But Kelly wanted to say more.

‘We’d just started going out, Mark and me. It was in all the papers for a while that Christmas, Josie’s face. Mum and my new Dad had kept it all secret from me about that poor little girl, Eileen. And they couldn’t prove anything. But it was everywhere when it was, you know, different with Josie. Mark could have walked then, but he didn’t. We’re just waiting to hear Dad’s finally gone. It’ll be a relief.’

Liza wondered wearily why Kelly had offered to talk. She had come all this way for nothing. She had nothing to say, nothing new. As Liza reached for the door handle Kelly turned to face Liza one last time.

‘I hope you find Josie, Dr Carter. But what I wondered is, well if he says anything. You know, at the end.’

Liza nodded wearily.

‘So will you tell me if he does? Anything for me …’

*************************************************************

Ron Pickard sat in his armchair in his sparse bedroom, the three photographs of smiling girls spread out on his knees. His lips moved as he looked at each picture in turn. He had been doing this unnoticed, unattended all afternoon. Finally, with painfully slow effort, he returned two of the pictures on the table, placing them on top of the discarded newspaper cuttings. He held the old picture of his daughter Kelly directly in front of his weary face and scanned his eyes to and fro over every tiny detail.

He shut his eyes and, still clutching the picture, let his hand drop back. In his mind he saw three people walking along a path in a wood. The path led upwards between tree trunks. Gentle sunlight fell through pale green leaves. A shimmer of delicate blue spread in all directions under the trees. A little girl, barely a toddler, was being helped to climb the hill, holding hands with her mother and father. One, two, three, swing! She laughed as her tiny legs flew into the air, then turned her head and smiled up into her father’s face.

‘Your Kelly was never in the newspaper,’ he heard Dr Carter say. ‘She never needed to be.’

He closed his eyes then, one remembered face in his head, one only, his mind at rest. They said she would help, that Dr Carter, and she had. He’d been sceptical at first. I mean she looked like she was doing nothing. But his Kelly was safe. He’d never even touched her. All that stuff in his head – the muddle, the vile pictures, the guilt that he’d taken his very own daughter by mistake – well it was all untrue. Yes, she really had helped.

And so finally the hand gripping Kelly’s photograph could at last relax.

*********************************************************

Liza sat at the computer in the corner of the tiny office. She was writing her report, or trying to. Instead she stared out of the window to the street below. She could not see Ron Pickard again; he was too ill. And it was unlikely she would see him at all, the doctor had said on the phone. So it had probably all been too late anyway.

‘What’s up with you then? Missing your murderer, or thinking what you’ll be getting me for Christmas?’

Liza jumped. It was the Sergeant she shared the cramped office with, or rather who shared his office with her, since he used to have it to himself.

‘Trying to write up my report. My murderer, as you call him is all but dead himself now.’

‘So how did it all go then, in the end?’ he asked.

‘Well you could say I got nowhere and stirred up lots of false hopes and bad memories. But how do you write that up exactly?’

‘I thought you had a real problem for a moment there!’ he joked.

Liza laughed despite herself. She didn’t like asking for help, but it couldn’t make her failure any worse could it.

‘I could do with some real advice actually,’ she said. ‘You’ve written more of these than me.’

‘Well, you explain the techniques you used and why you used them, so that next time your unique talents are recognised and you get put on a proper case.’

‘So it’s all about my career, is it?’

He always seemed such a joker. She was never sure when he was being serious.

‘And what’s wrong with that? We all need to put food on the table.’

‘I just thought I might be helpful.’ She tried to sound unconcerned, but in truth she felt worn out. ‘And what techniques anyway? I really have no idea if he, my murderer, was faking it, a bit confused or completely senile.’

‘Well don’t write that will you, or I might get my office back!’

Liza felt embarrassed at all the ridiculous hopes she had had. ‘When I started out I thought I could do it. I actually thought I could find Josie Elliot,’ she said quietly. ‘I thought I’d be ringing Mrs Elliot, going round to collect her, you know.’

He perched himself on her desk.

‘You wanted the lights and the white overalls, the crowd of local weirdoes gathering outside the red tape. We all want that. It’s all part of getting involved. But it was never likely was it? Just be grateful we convicted him in the first place. Anything else is extra.’

Liza sighed but smiled despite herself. He was right. It had never been likely to succeed.

‘So now I’ve really cheered you up!’ he said. ‘Anyway are you coming across the road later with the rest of us?’

‘I’m supposed to be starting my Christmas shopping, but putting it off sounds like a good idea.’

She was still unsure. Was it really only about doing a good job, or did knowing matter? Was that it, case over, Josie gone forever? Forget it, get on with the next thing. An unimportant case.

She would have to keep all that upset and uncertainty to herself, file it away inside. She turned her chair to face the screen and began to type.

********************************************************************************

And so it is Thursday evening, three weeks before Christmas, 1998. A slow drizzle is sending shoppers home early. But the shop windows and the municipal lights are convincing enough and the lone Rotary club member rattles his tin loudly to accompany a medley of carols. In Thorntons chocolate shop a girl of about ten or eleven, not quite a child but not yet a young woman, stands diffidently in the queue clutching her bags and list. The manageress will remember her later, her shy smile and politeness. Outside she looks at her watch and decides to catch the next bus home. She can walk up the lane and surprise her Mum by being home a bit earlier than expected. Many people will come forward to say they remember her getting on the bus in her navy coat. The one with the velvet collar. A couple of people will even notice the detail of her new boots with zips and tassels.

That’s it then and that Christmas it will be Josie’s face smiling from the newspaper.

Or can we stop her there, outside the shop and have someone call to her from across the road? Perhaps a school friend and her father, that would work. They could offer to drop Josie home, help her with her bags. It happens all the time, lucky meetings, ordinary unimportant events. And if that, why not let snow replace the drizzle, the first flakes softly brushing smiling young faces. Laughter, snow, Christmas lights and Josie seen safely home. Or is that too much to ask?

And at the same time could a lonely confused man who is driving the streets slowly, just in case simply head home to toast his absent daughter, to drink himself into a harmless stupor in his damp basement flat? But remember he has already gone beyond private despair before. Think of poor Eileen, a child this man cannot even be bothered to remember properly. So perhaps he could drive out alone to the woods, park his car where it cannot be seen from the road and take some things from the junk he has put in the back, like a flashlight and maybe a blanket, because he has made sure to place these and other objects ready, just in case.

Then once in the woods he could push his way through the wet brambles to find the path that climbs upwards. And whether he finds the exact spot in the dark is not in the end important, because then he could simply lie down under the trees, watched only by the moon that now and again appears between the clouds. So if there are clouds and a moon, there could be that dusting of snow again and it could be the first really cold night in December. The man could lie under his thin woollen blanket as confusion, self-pity and anger slip from his mind, to be replaced by thoughts of happy times with his daughter. His own dear Kelly.

So now he lies beneath the trees where bluebells will bloom in the spring. His body feels warm and numb and he no longer has any idea where he is, or who he is. His breathing gets slower and slower and his mind floats somewhere between dreams and oblivion. A place between being and not being. A peaceful place.

A slither of moon through the clouds. Snow falling more and more thickly. And finally he becomes indistinguishable from other mounds beneath the trees. He is completely covered, as if by a clean white sheet, and whatever secrets he ever held are gone forever.

M J Lewis ©2014

Photo copyright Sophie Burgess (Click on her name for more photos)

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6 thoughts on “A Christmas Story by MJ Lewis

    • Thanks Sophie. Much appreciated.
      My intention was to write a story that followed some of the conventions of crime fiction but left out other parts. (No new clues, no resolution…) I suppose it’s a story about failure amongst other things which I think is much more common than success in the real world. It’s also about what is important and what is unimportant.
      Won’t suit everyone I know so glad it worked for you!

      Like

  1. Thanks for stopping by and reading this long story – quick stories seem more suited to the blog format so really appreciate the time/commitment to REAL reading! I worked long and hard on this. Glad it hit the spot.
    Well yes, a book would be great. One day…Meanwhile there’s the day job and I’m storing up ideas.
    Thanks,
    MJL

    Like

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