The Crime Readers' Association


A Crampton of the Chronicle Christmas short story by Peter Bartram  

“You don’t need to ask me what I want for Christmas,” said Frank Figgis.

He was holding the stub of Woodbine ostentatiously between his thumb and forefinger. He eased the dog-end between his lips and took a long drag. The ash dropped off and fluttered down his waistcoat like an early snow flurry.

“An ashtray?” I suggested.

Figgis harrumphed. He stubbed the dog-end out on the edge of his desk and tossed it into his waste bin.

Figgis was news editor of the Brighton Evening Chronicle. We were sitting in his office. It was the day before Christmas Eve.

“Never mind that,” he said, brushing the ash off his waistcoat. “What I want to know is what you’ve got planned for the Christmas Eve edition.”

It was a question I dreaded every year. Traditionally, tomorrow’s paper would be full of Christmas-themed stories.

It wasn’t hard to find a seasonal yarn if you were the paper’s business reporter. She’d be telling us that tills were ringing in the town’s shops that had had their best Christmas trading ever. Just as she had last year.

And simple if you were running the woman’s page. No doubt we’d be learning about another ten exciting things we could do with left-over turkey.

But not such a breeze if, like me, your byline read Colin Crampton, crime correspondent.

So I looked Figgis in the eye and said: “I’m working on something. I think it could be big.”

“And this,” he reached for another Woodbine, “is a Romeo y Julieta cigar.”


I stomped back to the newsroom feeling like the cracker that didn’t go bang.

I was angry with myself for not lining up a seasonal story for the Christmas Eve edition.

Sally Martin, who wrote for the women’s page, bumped into me as I barged through the newsroom’s swing doors.

“You look as though you’ve just swallowed the sixpence from the Christmas pud,” she said.

“Worse,” I said.

She arched an eyebrow. “Figgis’ Christmas story?”

I nodded.

“You haven’t got one?” she said.

I nodded again.

“You’ll have to pay the Figgis’ Yuletide fine?”

“Looks like I’ve no choice.”

It had been a tradition on the paper since before I joined that you either handed in a Christmas story on the twenty-fourth of December or paid Figgis a fine of one hundred Woodbines. But I was determined he wasn’t getting any free smokes from me.

Sally shrugged. “It’s happened to all of us. By the way, can you think of a tenth way to use left-over turkey? I’ve got nine already.”

“Only one,” I said. “And it involves Frank Figgis. But I’m not sure there’s a kitchen utensil for what I’ve got in mind.”


I crossed to my desk and slumped into my old captain’s chair.

I picked up the phone and dialled a number at Brighton police station.

The phone was answered after three rings. “Detective Inspector Ted Wilson.”

“What do you get if you cross Father Christmas with a detective?” I asked.

“Santa Clues,” he said. “We had those crackers at the CID’s Christmas bash last night. Presumably you’ve not just called to tell weak jokes?”

“When you weren’t carousing, did you happen to come across any festive crime? I’m looking for a story with a seasonal theme.”

A throaty chuckle came down the line. “Well, I’ve got good news for you. This is the quietest Christmas I’ve known since I joined this station. Looks like the criminal classes have taken on board that bit about peace and goodwill to all men.”

“Too bad,” I said. “Let me know if you hear of anything.”

“What did Cinderella say when the developers mislaid her photos?” he said.

“Someday my prints will come,” I said.

I replaced the receiver.


Twenty minutes later I was sitting on a bench in the Royal Pavilion gardens.

I needed time to think, away from the hurly-burly of the newsroom.

It was a crisp morning with December sun low in the sky. Frost glistened on the dome and minarets of the Royal Pavilion.

I could hear the Sally Army band in New Road playing carols. They were on In the Bleak Midwinter. Their choice matched my mood.

A young lad was kicking a football about on the grass. He dribbled past the flower bed and scored a goal between an oak tree and a sign reading “No ball games”.

I rummaged in my pocked, pulled out my notebook and flipped back through the pages. I was looking for something – anything – that I’d overlooked which I might turn into a Christmas story. There’d been no shortage of crime in Brighton in the past few weeks.

There was the capture of Big Bruce Dangerfield who’d shot a young police constable during a bank raid.

And not forgetting the Newhaven bonded warehouse heist, where thieves had made off with a haul of ten thousand Gauloises cigarettes.

All great stories, but nothing with the sparkle of Christmas tinsel…

Ooouf! A football cannoned into me and I dropped my notebook.

The young lad ran up. He was dressed in a brown jumper and short trousers. He looked about eight years old. His lips were pursed and his eyes were worried. He picked up the notebook and handed it to me.

“Sorry, mister,” he said.

I grinned. “Did I save a goal?”

“Didn’t mean to kick it this way. Can I have my ball back?”

I tossed the ball in the air and caught it.

“I’ll tell you a secret if you give it to me,” he said.

I handed him the football. “I like secrets,” I said.

“I’ve seen Father Christmas with his sack,” he said.

“Coming down the chimney, was he?”

“No. He was out the back of our house. By the garages. But he had the sack and a beard.”

“And a red coat?”

“I couldn’t see the colour. But it came right down to the ground. It was dark. I was looking out of my bedroom window. My mum says I should’ve been in bed.”

“Where is your mum?” I looked around.

A woman wearing an old grey coat and with a scarf tied over her head was hurrying across the grass.

“Billy, come here,” she called out. “I told you not to run off.”

She came up, panting slightly. She had a pinched face with thin lips. “Sorry if he’s been annoying you,” she said. The scowl on her face said she didn’t much care.

“Not at all,” I said. “He’s been telling me that he’s seen Father Christmas.”

She grabbed Billy’s hand and shook his arm roughly. “I’ve told you not to tell tales,” she said.

She turned to me. “Ignore him. He invents things.”

“But I did see Father Christmas. Three nights in row,” Billy protested.

“For the last time, you did not see Father Christmas.” There was a harsh rasp in her voice.

“This is the time of year to indulge children’s fantasies,” I said.

She faced me and the look on her thin face was pitched somewhere between defiant and evasive. “Not those kinds of fantasies,” she said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

She tugged Billy’s arm. “Come on, we’ve got to go and buy the turkey and Brussels sprouts.”

Billy grinned a kind of lopsided grin at me and followed his mum.

I sat there thinking about the encounter. A young lad who thought he’d seen Father Christmas. A mother who knew he hadn’t. I wouldn’t normally give it a second thought.

And yet… The lad had been so insistent and the mother so determined to deny his story. Her denials had verged on the hostile. They were certainly evasive. A mum under pressure in the build-up to Christmas? Possibly. But I sensed there might be more to it than that.

I stood up and hurried after them in the direction of North Street. I spotted them crossing the road towards Hannington’s.

I hung back among the crowd of shoppers and followed.

For a couple of hours, Billy’s mum trailed around the shops. A butcher’s, at least a dozen newsagents, some tobacconists, and a greengrocer. She didn’t have much shopping at the end of it all. A turkey and a string of chipolata sausages from the butcher. Some Brussels sprouts from the greengrocer. What she’d been buying in those other shops was anybody’s guess. But, then, she had one of those deep basket shopping bags and I couldn’t see everything she’d put in it.

After she’d finished shopping, she headed for a small terraced house in the West Hill part of town.

I watched her juggle her shopping as she fished in her handbag for a latchkey, unlock the door, and push inside. I leaned on a lamppost at the other end of the street wondering what the hell I was doing.

I’d just traipsed after a middle-aged woman halfway across Brighton on the strength of a hunch based on what? A feeling that I didn’t like the woman? No, there was more to it than that. The way she’d reacted to Billy’s Father Christmas story convinced me she was hiding something.

Billy mentioned that he’d seen Father Christmas near the garages at the back of the house.

An alley at the side of the terrace led to a courtyard with eight garages. There was a separate driveway in from the road which ran parallel with the back of the terrace. It was a miserable place, paved with oil-stained bricks and littered with rubbish.

I scanned the windows overlooking the courtyard. I took a moment to identify what must be Billy’s bedroom. There was no little face pressed to the window pane.

I had a quick shufty round the garages. They were all locked. There were no signs that Father Christmas had been here. No strands of fur from Santa’s robes. No skid marks from the sleigh. No reindeer droppings. Perhaps he was a phantom Father Christmas after all. A figment of Billy’s imagination. Maybe I was wasting my time.

I walked towards the driveway that led through to the road and then I saw it – half hidden by a pile of dirty newspapers. A sack. Billy had said that he’d seen Father Christmas with his sack. I moved the newspapers to one side. The sack was brown, made out of hessian. The sort a gardener might buy from a hardware store to hold new season potatoes. There were no spuds in this one. It was clean, neatly folded and unused. But it looked as though it may have been hidden for use later.

I thought about that for a moment, then replaced the old newspapers. Billy had said he’s seen Father Christmas when he should have been in bed. I reckoned a lad of that age would probably be tucked up by eight o’clock. My guess was that he climbed out after his mum had kissed him goodnight and spent a bit of time spying on the goings-on in the courtyard.

I decided that later in the evening I would join him.


It was ten past eight by the time I sneaked up the alley beside the terrace.

I’d headed back to the office after my earlier visit. I’d wanted to check on who occupied the house. That meant consulting the electoral register held in the Chronicle’s newsroom. I’d discovered there was only one resident of voting age in the house – a Victoria Ann Meacher. I’d looked up the name in the Chronicle’s morgue, where all the press cuttings were kept. But there was nothing filed under that name.

I stepped cautiously into the garage courtyard, looked around for a place to hunker down out of sight. There were three dustbins in the far corner and I squeezed behind them.

The courtyard was lit by a single lamp standard at the exit to the road. It threw a watery light across the bricked surface. The air was cold. I shivered.

I twisted round and looked up towards Billy’s bedroom. The light was on, but as I watched it was switched off. I guessed Mum had said goodnight and left her little darling to sleep.

I watched some more, expecting to see a pale face appear at the window or, at least, a twitch of the curtains. But Billy had either been ordered to stay in bed on pain of some terrible punishment or he was an expert in covert surveillance. Having seen the lad at close quarters, I suspected the latter.

Half an hour later, I was fast concluding I was wasting my time. Surely it would be easier to give Figgis his hundred fags? I decided to give it ten more minutes and head for the nearest pub.

Then headlights swung in from the road. A white Ford van turned a semi-circle through the courtyard and stopped outside the end garage in the block.

The driver’s door opened and a small man dressed in a long red cloak trimmed with white fur climbed out. The hood of his cloak covered his head so that I couldn’t see his face. But I could see that he had a long white beard.

So, Billy had seen Father Christmas.

The passenger door opened. A whippet-like man dressed in the red jerkin and green tights of an elf hurried round from the back. Santa’s Little Helper.

Father Christmas crossed the courtyard, collected the sack from under the pile of newspapers and walked over to the garage. He pulled a large bunch of keys out of his pocket. He spent a few moments rattling through them until he found the right one, then opened the garage door. He disappeared inside.

A minute later he was outside with the sack on his back. This time, it was loaded with something heavy. The elf opened the back doors of the van and Father Christmas swung the sack inside. He shoved the doors shut and looked around.

I crouched lower behind the dustbins.

“That’s the last of the French gaspers,” he said. “Queenie has lined up some more buyers today.”

“By royal appointment, then,” the elf said.

The pair laughed, Father Christmas with a fine tenor ho-ho-ho, the elf with a high-pitched snigger.

“Yeah, that’s the last of the English load,” said Father Christmas.

“English load!” The elf was sniggering so much he was straining his tights.

“We’ll drop these off, then head back to the flat for a bevvy,” Father Christmas said.

They climbed into the van. The engine fired and the headlights sparked into life. Before I could crawl out from behind the dustbins, the van had vanished down the driveway into the road.

I winced from the pain in my legs as the blood rushed back and stumbled against the dustbins. I thought about running after the van, but I’d never catch it. But I didn’t need to. I had plenty of questions, and the answers were closer to hand.


I hurried through the alleyway which led round to the front of Billy’s house.

I was thinking hard.

It was Father Christmas who’d jolted my brain into action as violently as if he’d just plummeted down the chimney.

“That’s the last of the English load,” he’d said to his Little Helper. And the pair had laughed themselves silly.

He didn’t mean English as in coming from England. He meant English as in belonging to Mr English.

I cursed myself for not remembering earlier. The police believed that Frank English had been the armed robber behind the Newhaven bonded warehouse heist. He was a pint-sized Mr Big in Brighton’s criminal underworld – with a vicious streak. Small and nasty, like a dung beetle.

I recalled covering a case at Lewes Assizes a couple of years earlier when English had been acquitted of armed robbery on dubious alibi evidence.

And now I knew just why Billy’s mum was so insistent that the lad hadn’t seen anything as he peered between his curtains searching for a glimpse of Father Christmas.

I reached the front of the house, stepped up to the door and knocked twice.

There was a moment’s silence, then a rattling sound as a chain was put on. The door opened a couple of inches and an anxious face appeared.

“Mrs Victoria Meacher?” I asked.

She glanced nervously behind me. Saw the street was empty.


“Mrs Meacher, formerly Miss Victoria English?”

“Who wants to know?”

I pulled out a card and handed it through the crack.

“Colin Crampton, Evening Chronicle.”

“We don’t want your type here.” She started to push the door closed. I shoved my foot in the gap. Winced as she tried to ram the door shut.

“You can talk to me or the police,” I said. “I can arrange them to be here in five minutes. What’s it to be?”

“Don’t bring the police here. Not with Billy in the house. Not just before Christmas.”

“We can talk about that. Inside.”

She thought about it for a moment, then rattled the chain out of its groove and opened the door.

She led me down a dimly lit narrow passage into the kitchen. There was a gas stove with some milk heating in a saucepan. She turned out the gas. Left the saucepan on the stove.

“For cocoa,” she said. “Helps me sleep. I’ll have it later.”

There was a small deal table at the side of the kitchen with a couple of upright chairs. She motioned me towards one and we sat.

“Is Mr Meacher at home?”

She snorted. “Huh! The bastard walked out on me with a barmaid half his age seven years ago. Divorced him five years ago this Christmas.”

“But you’ve kept your married name.”

“So what?”

“You’re Frank English’s sister,” I said. It was Victoria who’d given that perjured alibi evidence.

“Not a crime to be Frank’s sister,” she said.

“About the only thing in his life that hasn’t been. I can understand why you wanted to hang on to your married name.”

She snorted again.

“But you’ve been a very helpful little sister,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been storing the haul from the Newhaven bonded warehouse heist in your garage.”

“You think! There’s nothing there.”

“Not now, because over the last few nights Frank and his Little Helper have been moving it out.”

“Frank’s not been here. I don’t know where he is.”

“Perhaps not here. But I’ve just watched him take a sack of French cigarettes from the garage.”

“Don’t know anything about that.”

“He was dressed as Father Christmas. Now I know why you were so anxious to deny that Billy had seen Santa. No doubt it was a clever idea on Frank’s part to disguise himself. No one is going to stop Father Christmas delivering a sack of toys for the kiddies. Except they weren’t toys, were they?”

Victoria’s thin lips formed a petulant pout. “Even if they weren’t, I don’t know where Frank’s gone. I had nothing to do with it.”

“I think you did. Because Frank said something else while I was hiding in the courtyard watching him and his little helper. He said, ‘Queenie’s lined up some more buyers today.’ That’s you – Queenie, a pet name for Victoria.”

“I’m not the only Victoria in Brighton.”

“True, but you’re the only one who visited several newsagents and tobacconists today while you were doing your Christmas shopping. I know, because I was watching you.”

“Not a crime to go into a newsagent. Besides, where I go is none of your business.”

“I think it was Frank’s business. I think you were touring the shops touting for orders for under-the-counter ciggies.”

“Prove it.”

“I don’t have to. But I have made a note of the shops you called at. Wouldn’t be too difficult for me to call at those shops and ask them whether they’ve got any special offers. I’m sure at least one will be indiscreet. Shouldn’t be too difficult even for Brighton’s finest to put together a case for handling stolen goods.”

Victoria scowled at me. “Frank made me do it – just like he forced me to give that evidence. I didn’t want those damned cigarettes here. I told him.”

“But you didn’t have to help him sell the stuff.”

Victoria laughed mirthlessly. “You don’t argue with Frank. I found that out years ago.”

“I need to know where Frank’s hiding,” I said.

“And you think I’m going to tell you? In your dreams.”

“You fancy a spell inside yourself. They tell me prison can be a very lonely place at Christmas. Think you can handle it?”

“If I have to.”

But the look on her face told me she wasn’t sure.

A little voice said: “You’re not going to prison. You’re not, are you, Mum?”

We swung round. Billy was standing in the doorway. He was dressed in striped pyjamas. He had a dressing gown draped over his shoulders. He was clutching a stuffed panda.

And a single tear was rolling down his cheek.

Victoria’s face crumpled.

Her lips quivered. Her hands shook. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. Behind that defiant bluster was a worried mother. She started to mumble something, but I held up my hand to stop her.

I said: “Billy, your mum’s not going to prison. I’m going to help her – because she’s going to help me.”

I stared hard at her. “That is right, isn’t it?”

She held my look for what seemed like a minute. Then she gave one short, reluctant nod.

She crossed to Billy. Put her arms around him. Gave him a tight hug. “Mummy’s not going to prison, darling,” she said. “Now go back to bed. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. I’m taking you to see Father Christmas at Hannington’s.”

“The same Father Christmas I’ve seen out the back window?” Billy asked.

“No,” she said. “The real one.”


“It’s been a good many years since we’ve had such a strong front-page splash on Christmas Eve,” said Frank Figgis.

We were in his office. Figgis was lounging back in his chair with his feet on the desk. I could hear the faint strains of the Sally Army band outside the Chapel Royal. They were playing God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.

I picked up the final night edition of the paper and looked again at the headline:




“Clever ploy by English disguising himself as Santa,” said Figgis.

“It was the only way he could move around Brighton without being recognised,” I said. “He had to retrieve the fags he’d stolen and fence them before the police caught up with him.”

“What I can’t understand is how you discovered where he was hiding out.”

“I had a little help there,” I said.

“And it was a bit of luck that he was still wearing the Santa get-up when the police burst in.”

“Word has it he was too drunk to take it off,” I said.

Figgis heaved his feet off the desk and leaned forward. “Suppose you’ve delivered on the Christmas story,” he said grudgingly.

“Suppose I have.”

I stood up and moved towards the door.

“Still, not everyone in the newsroom managed it,” he said. He reached out and patted the large pile of cigarette packets on his desk. “No need to guess what I’m getting for Christmas.”

I turned at the door. “Smoker’s cough?” I said. “Merry Christmas.”




Read more about Peter here.

The Family Tree Mystery
, the latest book in Peter Bartram’s Crampton of the Chronicle series of crime mysteries has just been published. More information:


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