Sunday, 25 December 2016

Home for Christmas

The car took the corner far too fast for the ice-spotted road and the brake-lights glowed cherry-red in the deepening twilight as the driver stamped on the brakes and hauled on the steering wheel.  The wheels skidded sideways across the slick tarmac and the car's nose spun round until it was pointing back the way it was facing.  At the edge of the road the tarmac became frozen earth and crispy, frosted grass and the tyres grabbed a little traction at last.  The driver felt the change and switched pedals from the brake to the accelerator.  There was a screech of rubber, the car fish-tailed back and forth a little as it regained the road, and then it was off once more.  It carried on still too fast for the wintery conditions and nearly missed the turning half-way along the road, the brake-lights flaring again and the car riding up on the pavement and bouncing back down on to the road.  The turning led onto a long, wide road with large houses, and cars parked on both sides of the road.  The car barrelled down the white line in the middle of the road and executed a bootlegger's turn to pass between a black Bentley and a silver BMW and hurtle onto the gravel driveway that led to one of the houses.  The car decelerated smoothly, so much so that its gentle collision with the sea-green Ford Fiesta parked on one side of the drive was suspicious.  The Fiesta's alarm went off and the new car backed up a few centimetres: enough that the cars weren't touching, but not far enough for anyone driving the Fiesta to be able to extricate their car.  The driver killed the engine, and for a moment there was the crisp winter air, the start of a snowfall, and the insistent, repetitive blare of the Fiesta's alarm.  Then curtains twitched, lights went on, and people came out of the house.  Inspector Playfair sighed and opened his car door.  He was home for Christmas.
"You hit my car!"  Denise was Playfair's sister, a broad-shouldered woman with a classical beauty.  Dark, softly curling hair framed her face and her eyes smouldered with a mediterranean passion normally, but right now the fires had been stoked and they were blazing.  "You always hit my bloody car!  Why don't you look where you're going?"
"I didn't hit your car," said Playfair looking over the small group that had come outside.  There were more people clustered at the doorway.  "You say I hit your car every year, Denise.  It's like a tradition."
"It's not a bloody tradition!"  She was quivering with rage, full lips curled back in snarl, and her hand was jerking as though she wanted to slap Playfair but was restraining herself.  "Every year there's a new ding after I come here.  Every year!"
"You should drive more carefully," said Playfair with a broad smile.  He ignored Denise as she balled her hand up and punched her other palm forcefully and looked at the man stood next to her.  He came up to shoulder-height on Denise and had the wiry build of a long-distance runner.  His face wasn't quite handsome: it was too thin for that, and the bones jutted a little too angularly.  "Who are you?"
The man stuck his hand out and Playfair looked at it until the man retracted it.  "Steve," he said.  "I married Denise in June.  You were invited to the wedding, I think?"
"And you never came," said Denise nastily.  She punched her palm again.  "I had a special place set for you, and a parking space nowhere near my car.  I did everything."
"I was busy," said Playfair.  "I sent flowers didn't I?"
"A flower.  One flower!  You sent one bloody flower to your own sister's wedding!"
"Was it a nice one?"  Playfair opened the back door of his car, and picked up a leather animal carry case from the back seat.
"Shouldn't you know?" asked Steve, stepping in before Denise could start swinging.  "You sent it, after all."
"I asked around the office for someone who knew about weddings and got them to send something," said Playfair closing the car-door.  "I think it was one of the SOCOs.  Been married six times, so I figured he'd know what was right."  He set the carry-case down on the ground and looked for the zips that allowed it to open.  "He said he'd written a card to go with it."
"Best of luck next time! That's what it said!" Denise's scream turned into a howl.  "Steve's parents spent the next three weeks asking about it.  We played scrabble one evening and all the words they played were accusations!"
"I think you were reading too much into that."  Steve laid a hand on Denise's arm and she shrugged him off viciously.  He took a step back.  On the ground Playfair opened the carry-case door and a small dog, a Chihuahua the colour of a Doberman Pinscher, stepped out and yawned.
"Oh, you have a dog!"
There were muffled screams from the doorway and the people there disappeared inside.  The door slammed, and the sounds of it locking were audible.
"That's not Calamity," said Denise, her voice suddenly calm.
"Calamity's on duty," said Playfair.  "This is Ray."
"You have a dog called Calamity?"  Steve bent down to pat Ray, who growled without looking at him.  Steve hesitated.
"Calamity Jane," said Playfair.  "She's named for my favourite Crimean nurse."
Steve looked puzzled.  "But she wasn–"
"What's Ray short for?" asked Denise.
"Razor," said Playfair.
The family – the extended family, Playfair thought – were gathered in the drawing room.  Ray was lying in front of the fireplace, his paws extended and his belly exposed to the heat of the flames.  His eyes were half-closed; anyone coming near him or the fire started him growling, warning them that he wasn't going to tolerate being disturbed.  Playfair's mother's cat, a white-and-brown cushion-sized bundle of fluff was sitting on the window-ledge with ill-concealed hatred for the interloper.  She (her name was Suzie) licked her paws now and then but her eyes never left the chihuahua in front of the fire.
Further back in the room a tall Christmas tree, neatly decorated on one side (Playfair's mother never decorated the back of the tree, reasoning that no-one was going to see it), stood guard over brightly wrapped presents, and in front of it the adults sat at the dining table.  The children had been dispatched to the living room to watch Disney cartoons and eat tinned peaches from plastic dishes.  A scrabble board was laid out on the table, and the Dungeons and Dragons books were neatly stacked nearby, waiting for the evening adventure.
"Divorcee," said Playfair's mother, setting down all her tiles.
"Not you too!" yelled Denise.  Colour rose in her cheeks and she stood up.  Steve stood up immediately too, putting his arm around her shoulders.
"It's just a game," he said.  He leaned into her, nuzzling her shoulder as he couldn't reach her neck.  "Have... have a mince pie."
"Had to arrest a couple of bakers for poisoning mince pies this year," said Playfair.  He was sat in an armchair contemplating the crossword.  "They were putting mercury in them."
Denise looked at the plate of mince pies and paled.  She sat back down.
"Not those dear," said Playfair's mother.  "Cook makes them herself from an old recipe.  I think it was your great-grandmother's.  I'm not sure how long we'll be able to keep making them though, some of the ingredients aren't really produced any more."
"Toyboy," said Playfair's father, setting his tiles down.  "And I think that's all the Y's used up now."
"There's still a blank out there, dear," said his wife.  Denise stayed silent, though her knuckles whitened as she clenched her fists.  Steve put his arm around her shoulders and the plate of mince pies in front of her.  They were lightly dusted with icing sugar and were still warm.  The aroma of brandy, dried fruit, and shortcrust pastry tickled her nose and coerced a smile from her.
"Are you finished with the paper yet, Playfair?" said Aunt Brenda.  "I want to see how Spurs have done in the run up to Christmas."
"He hasn't touched the crossword!"  Aunt Tabitha leaned over and poked the paper with a bony finger: she was wearing her TA uniform and looked cross because she had training on the 26th.  "I thought you said you were going to solve it."
"I solved it –" Playfair checked the clock on the mantlepiece – "eight minutes ago, Tabby.  I'll write the answers in tomorrow in case any of you want to give it a go."
"Pass it over then, there's a love," said Brenda holding her hand out.  "Tabby's just jealous because learning to read is on next year's syllabus."
"Innocent," said Denise laying tiles on the scrabble board.
"Proper noun," said her father.  "Name of a Pope."
There was laughter around the table.  "Cuckold," said Steve, putting his tiles down.  "I'm so sorry, Denise, it's the letters I had."  There was the soft crumpled sound of a mince pie hitting a man squarely between the eyes and Denise stood up again and stalked out of the room.
"New record," said Playfair, checking the clock.  "Normally she only starts sulking after the first dragon eats her character."
"We've got a new dragon this year," said Brenda looking up from the paper.  "It'll be a shame if she misses it."
"You children are always squabbling," said Playfair's mother.  "I'll go and talk to her. Sit down Steve, there's a good chap.  This is a woman thing."
"Right."  Steve looked bemused.  "Do we carry on without her?"
"No," said Playfair's father.  "Game's over: Lindsey won, I came second and Denise beat you by 133 points.  You want to practice, son."
"Oh," said Steve.
"Why does everyone call you Playfair?" asked Steve.  "That's your surname.  Surely you have a first name?"
Ray growled like a motorbike revving before doing a wheelie.
"Breakfast is served at 5:30," said Playfair's mother.  "Cook will have been up all night and probably drinking heavily, so make sure you're at the table on time.  We will open presents at 6:15 and then apologise to each other at 6:30."
Steve looked around at the others; the wreckage of the Dungeons and Dragons game spilled off the table and onto the carpet and there were far more empty winebottles than he could remember drinking from.  The clock on the mantlepiece said it was 2:30 already, and he was sure he was drunk.
"Ap..apo...apologise?" he managed.
"Oh god yes," said Denise.  She slipped off her chair and giggled into the carpet.  "Oh god yes."

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