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Just on 11 p.m. and still another thirty minutes to go. Ian cursed his boss for keeping him at the office so late on Christmas Eve. The man was a bloody slave-driver. No wonder his wife and kids wanted nothing to do with him. Talk about Scrooge. He only wished he could summon up the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to pay him a late-night visit and scare the crap out of him. By the time Ian had left London, the snow had started to fall again. It was the worst snow in a decade according to the MET office, and progress along the M1 had been painfully slow. A combination of Christmas-bound motorists and regular commuters crawling along at a snail’s pace, and no doubt kicking themselves for leaving it this late. But without the excuse of a wife and children to go home to – and even that was touch and go as far as old Ebenezer’s stony heart was concerned – Ian hadn’t really had a choice.
He was headed for Hamsley, a small village up north near Lincoln. A three-hour drive on a good day, but the way things were looking it would be closer to four. His best friend from uni, Mike, and his wife, Jill, had recently moved to Hamsley, following the birth of their first child. Like Ian, Mike had worked as an accountant in the City, but since Isla came along, they’d wanted to be nearer to Jill’s parents, and so it made sense to swap the rat race for the country. Ian missed his best mate, and so he’d jumped at the chance to spend Christmas with him and Jill in their new home. Being an only child, and not close to his parents who’d long since settled in Spain, he usually looked upon this holiday period with an impending sense of dread, swiftly followed by a huge sigh of relief when it was all over. But this year he felt more upbeat. It would be good to get away from the hustle and bustle of London and switch off. The City could be so draining. Plus, he’d yet to see his best friends’ new pad: a charming, thatched cottage with oodles of outdoor space for Isla to run around in. And a world away from the pokey, stuffy flat in Kilburn they’d previously owned. More for your money. Space. That’s what quitting London got you. What’s more, Jill was a fantastic cook, and as he followed the detour recommended by his Sat Nav (apparently, something was blocking the main road ahead) onto a tortuously twisting country road, he couldn’t help but fantasise about the traditional culinary delights Jill had promised him tomorrow: smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on sourdough for breakfast, a juicy fat bird with all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding and hot brandy sauce for lunch, washed down, of course, by a few good bottles of red, a generous glass of port and a late afternoon cigar in the garden with Mike. Ian only hoped his goddaughter’s teething stage was well and truly over, as Mike had promised. As well as hearty nourishment, Ian craved sleep, but suspected this was fantasy with a ten-month-old baby living under the same roof. Of course, the crushing fatigue he was feeling right now wasn’t helped by the lingering effects of a stinking hangover he was suffering courtesy of last night’s office Christmas party. As usual, everything had been done on the cheap. The food appeared to have been resurrected from the 70s: quiche Lorraine, cold sausage rolls and cheese and pineapple on sticks, as had the naff, slightly creepy DJ playing equally naff Christmas songs; the evening rounded off with a spot of spontaneous ear-splitting karaoke from Greg in IT. Ian cringed inside thinking back to his own indiscretions. Snogging Susi from HR under the mistletoe. That punch had a lot to answer for. At his age, he should have known better, but feeling stressed and overworked, he’d got caught up in the moment, and thought what the heck. He knew she’d had her eye on him for some time now, and it was a boost to his ego. But this morning it was all he could do to keep his head down and hope she’d get the message that it was a one-off not to be repeated. Thankfully, most of his colleagues had left by lunchtime, so he hadn’t been forced to suffer their asinine comments for too long.
Driving down the same winding unlit road, the conditions increasingly bleak and inhospitable as the snow continued to slap his windscreen in vicious icy clumps, Ian found himself widening his eyes and smacking his face just to stay awake. It didn’t help that Last Christmas had just come on the radio. Not that he had anything against George Michael or his Yuletide classic. In fact, he secretly thought it was a great tune, but at that moment he needed something a bit livelier. Unfortunately, KISS FM was long out of range, but perhaps, Ian thought to himself, he might be able to find something similar. With one eye on the road, he fiddled with the stations, most of them playing the same cheesy festive tunes, eventually settling for a local hard rock station. Not exactly his thing, but there was certainly no danger of falling asleep with Alice Cooper screaming down his ear drum. A caffeine hit was also called for, even though Ian knew he might struggle to sleep once he reached Mike and Jill’s. He reached for the bottle of Coke lying on the passenger seat, but just as he did, he spotted something in the distance. Someone walking along the side of the road, a little further up on the left. There were no other cars about, which didn’t surprise him at this late hour the night before Christmas, and on such a minor, pitch-black road. Closer still and he realised it was a woman. She appeared to be wearing some kind of puffer jacket, accompanied by an equally puffy short skirt and ankle boots. Most odd. He wondered what she was doing walking alone at such an unsociable hour and on such a deserted road. Perhaps she’d broken down and had no choice but to walk to Hamsley which, according to Google Maps, wasn’t far off now. Perhaps her phone was low on battery, or the signal was bad and so she hadn’t been able to call for help? Ian remembered breaking down on a similarly desolate country road himself one time. Remembered how alarmed he’d felt despite being a strapping man of six foot two. Luckily, the RAC had turned up quick sharp to rescue him but since then, he’d always been sure to give his car a good once over before embarking on any long journeys.
Against his better judgment, perhaps, he slowed down to a crawl alongside the girl. Sensing she had company, the girl turned her head sharply, her eyes startled, like that of a deer caught in headlights, frightened and alert to impending danger. Ian didn’t blame her. For all she knew, he could be a rapist or an axe murderer. Or both. Although, to be fair, so could she, he thought. It would be rather un-PC of him not to consider that option. She had an honest-looking face, though, and seemed harmless enough; couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. Ian used the button to his right to open the passenger door window.
‘Hello, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to check you’re OK, whether I can be of any assistance? Has your car broken down or something?’
Having said that, he hadn’t spotted any stationary cars along the way.
The girl stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes still twinkling with suspicion as she turned to face him, before lowering her head so that their eyes met. Her hair was tied in a ponytail, decorated with sparkly reindeer hairgrips. Large gold hoops dangled from her ears. What with that and the ra-ra skirt, she looked like she’d stepped out of the 80s. Perhaps she’d been at some kind of Christmas fancy dress party, Ian thought to himself. But what alarmed him most were the red marks and bruising that tattooed her neck like a choker.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Just left my friend’s house.’ She looked back over her shoulder.’ It’s the other side of these woods. Easier to walk, and it meant I could have a drink.’ Until now, Ian hadn’t really paid much attention to the dense cluster of trees lining the side of the road. ‘She was having a bit of a Christmas do,’ the girl carried on, ‘and I hadn’t meant to stay this late, but you know how it is. One drink leads to another and before you know it, it’s nearly eleven.’
Ian knew very well; he’d been guilty of the same the previous night. On too many occasions, in fact. Still, he wondered why the girl hadn’t taken a cab or got a ride with a friend. He certainly wouldn’t want to be cutting through the woods this late at night.
Thinking she was either brave, or stupid, or both, to be doing such a thing, he hesitated a moment before asking, ‘Do you live in Hamsley, by any chance? I can give you a lift if you like. That’s where I’m headed.’
Another suspicious glance. Ian gave a half-smile. ‘It’s OK, I understand if you’d rather not. I’d be wary of some stranger offering to give me a ride in the dead of night. But the offer is there, anyway. In the spirit of Christmas cheer, goodwill to all men and all that.’
Jesus, that sounded tacky, Ian thought to himself. He’d never been comfortable around women without booze inside him, and often found himself rambling to fill awkward situations like these.
The girl smiled. He finally appeared to have broken the ice, and sensed she was warming to the idea. And why wouldn’t she? Even sitting in his car, with the window two thirds of the way down he could feel the icy wind cut through him. She’d catch her death out there if she didn’t watch out. Anyone would.
‘OK, if you’re sure, that’s very kind of you. As it happens, yes, I’m headed for Hamsley too.’
‘Great, hop in.’
Ian stopped the car to allow the girl, who introduced herself as Justine, to get in, and at that moment the first vehicle he’d seen in some time overtook them at breakneck speed accompanied by an angry honk of the horn. ‘What’s your problem?’ Ian muttered under his breath as Justine closed her door.
‘Probably over the limit,’ she commented. ‘You get a lot of that around here, especially at this time of the year. Out in the sticks, they think they can get away with murder. No CCTV, no police, nothing to stop the worst from happening.’ She glanced his way, gave him a devilish smile which momentarily set him on edge. ‘Take it you’re not from around these parts?’
‘That’s right,’ Ian nodded, pulling away. ‘I’m from London.’
‘Might have guessed.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The accent. Plus, you have that City look and manner about you.’
Ian gave his passenger an amused smile. ‘Really? I had no idea I gave off any kind of look or manner.’
Justine shrugged her shoulders, gave a heavy sigh. ‘It’s not a bad thing. I always wanted to move to London, I dunno, become a lawyer or something, but it never worked out. Got stuck here, and then it was too late.’
Ian chuckled. ‘You’re joking, right? I mean, what are you, twenty-five? You only get to talk like that when you’re pushing forty like me. Believe me, you have plenty of time.’
Justine sighed again, but said no more on the subject. It was awkward once more. The atmosphere tense, frosty, akin to the outside temperatures, causing a shiver to run up Ian’s spine. Clearly something was troubling her, and Ian again felt the urge to fill the gap with small talk.
‘Plans for Christmas?’
‘Just the usual. At my parents, who I still live with. Can’t afford my own place. My older brother will be there too, with his wife and their new baby.’
‘It’s bearable, I suppose. I plan on getting pissed on Malibu and Coke by 11 am. You?’
Malibu and Coke, Ian thought to himself. Christ, that was a blast from the past, made him feel really old. Ian hadn’t realised it was still popular amongst the younger generation today.
‘Staying with friends,’ Ian replied. ‘They recently moved here.’
‘No girlfriend?’ Justine enquired, staring into the distance as she did so. Ian had expected to see a cheeky smile fan across her face. But her expression remained solemn, sad, even. Ian wondered if boyfriend troubles lay at the heart of her sadness. He thought of the marks on her neck.
‘No, not had much luck on that score,’ Ian replied and left it at that. Finally, he saw lights up ahead, a sign warning him to slow down, that children might be crossing.
‘That’s Hamsley,’ Justine said. ‘You can me drop over there, just by the church.’
An array of lustrous lights were draped from lamppost to lamppost along the pavements either side of the main street, while a magnificent real Christmas tree stood in the church grounds, crowned by the brightest silver star Ian had ever seen.
‘Pretty village,’ Ian observed. ‘The decorations could give Regent’s Street a run for its money.’
There was a faint hint of a smile, but Justine still had the same faraway look in her eyes. As if she wasn’t quite with him. Ian did as she asked, pulling over just in front of the church.
‘Here? Are you sure?’
‘See that cottage just beyond the church on the right-hand side?’
Ian squinted and could just make out the building Justine was referring to. ‘Yes.’
‘That’s where I live. My dad’s the vicar here. I better get going. People will start arriving soon for Midnight Mass. I’m expected to go, and I need to brush my teeth before he smells my breath.’ For the first time, she grinned, and it brought back memories for Ian. Concealing his inebriation from his parents. Or rather, failing miserably to do so.
Ian couldn’t make out any lights on in the cottage, but they were some distance away, and the curtains were probably all drawn. It was a biting, glacial night after all.
Justine turned to face Ian. ‘Well, thanks again for your kindness. I would call you my Christmas angel, but I’m a bit cynical about all that religious stuff.’ She paused, grinned. ‘But don’t tell my dad that. Have a great Christmas, maybe see you around.’
Ian smiled. ‘You too, and it was my pleasure. Take care, Justine.’
He watched Justine get out of the car, then scurry across the church grounds in the direction of the cottage, before he saw the door open and she disappeared inside. He drove away. Felt a warm glow of satisfaction rise up in him, knowing he’d done a good deed on this day of all days. Life in the City often felt so shallow, so meaningless. Soulless. But out here, for the first time in a long while, he’d been offered the chance to something really good, help someone in need, and he suddenly felt more whole. Glancing at his Sat Nav, Ian saw that he was only a few minutes away from Mike and Jill’s. Thank God.
As he pulled up on their driveway, the cottage was a sight to behold. Lights covering the front façade glimmered like diamonds, while the heavy timber door was decorated with a traditional real holly wreath, adding to its homely feel. Ian got out of the car and stretched, his body stiff from the long journey. He grabbed his bag from the boot and lightly rapped on the door, conscious of the sleeping child inside. Within seconds it opened, and he and Mike shared a warm embrace.
‘Sorry it’s so late, mate,’ Ian apologised.
‘That’s OK, glad you made it safely.’
The smell of cinnamon and ginger filled his nostrils in the hallway, and before long Jill was there to welcome him, Isla asleep on her shoulder. ‘Bit unsettled,’ she whispered. They ushered him into the kitchen, so warm and welcoming, and swiftly rustled up a hot milky drink and mince pie. Ian lapped up both gratefully, at the same time dreaming of his bed and much needed shut-eye.
Just then, the clock on the wall chimed midnight. It reminded Ian of Justine. He hoped she’d managed to brush her teeth before her father caught her. Ian remembered Jill came from a Christian background and enquired whether she might be attending Midnight Mass too.
Jill lightly patted Isla’s back. ‘Ah, not this time round; not with this little one. Besides, it’s not a normal service this year according to the local paper.’
‘How do you mean?’ Ian asked, still chewing.
Jill got up and grabbed the paper from the side counter.
She placed it in front of Ian who nearly choked on the last of his pie.
There on the front page was a photo of a girl who looked the twin of Justine. Gawping at the headline and story below, Ian felt the entire contents of his mince pie slowly make its way back up his gullet.
35-year anniversary Midnight Mass memorial service to be held for murdered vicar’s daughter.
‘So sad,’ Jill shook her head forlornly. It was toasty inside the kitchen, but Ian felt like someone had walked over his grave. ‘Her body was found in some woods a mile or so from here. Strangled, stabbed, her throat slashed. She’d been at a friend’s party, but never made it home. They never found the killer, although the boyfriend was a suspect. Controlling, with a violent temper and prior record, apparently. But police found nothing concrete tying him to her murder. She’d been a bit of a wild child by all accounts, didn’t get on with her parents.’
‘So, I take it the parents aren’t living in the cottage by the church any more?’ Ian just about mumbled, trying not to vomit.
‘No. They say the place is haunted, that she walks the same path every night, turns up on the doorstep, lets herself in. The mother claimed to have seen her regularly in the first six months of her disappearance. Nearly drove her insane, so they moved away.’ Ian couldn’t speak or move for shock. ‘The place is empty now. I mean, it’s probably a load of tosh, but even so, if I was the vicar I wouldn’t want to live there, would you?’ A pause. ‘Ian, are you OK? You’ve gone as white as a ghost, are you not feeling well?’
Now it all made sense. The hair, the outfit, the Malibu and Cokes.
The marks on her neck.
Ian forgot his hangover and requested a double brandy. Suddenly, he missed London. Suddenly, his Scrooge of a boss didn’t seem so bad, and maybe, he contemplated, this was karma for having previously wished ill on him.
One thing he knew for sure, though. Tonight, he’d be sleeping with the light on.
Find out more about Alex Chaudhuri and her books here.