I publish a new short story in today’s Irish Times newspaper for Christmas, titled SANTA IN NEED OF A DRINK. You can read it in the newspaper, on their website or right here.
Santa in need of a drink
Agatha entered the hall 15 minutes before the talk was due to begin. At least 500 people were gathered and she glanced at her watch, cursing Monty for his lateness. The frustrating thing was that it was he who had introduced her to these books, the greatest ever written, and now he couldn’t even be bothered to accompany her to hear the author speak.
She felt self-conscious as she made her way down the central aisle, for the crowd was mostly made up of men, small parcels of last-minute Christmas shopping by their ankles. They talked loudly, as if the world demanded their opinions. They smoked. They draped themselves over their seats like discarded clothes at the end of an evening.
“Are you searching for a person or a chair?” asked a young man seated by an aisle, and she stared in surprise for he was wearing a pair of bright red trousers, a red jacket and a black belt. On his knees was a white beard with a string to attach around the head.
“A chair,” she replied, noticing the spare one next to him. “Is that one taken?”
“No. It’s yours if you want it. I came stag.”
“My brother has let me down,” said Agatha, sitting down.
“Jack Stapleton,” he said, inclining his head as if she was a member of the royal family.
“It’s awful being alone at things like this, isn’t it? One feels so awkward.”
Agatha smiled. “Busy time of year for you?” she said.
“Terribly. You’re an admirer then?” asked Jack. “Of Mr Conan Doyle?”
“Oh yes,” said Agatha, nodding quickly. “I’ve read every Sherlock Holmes story at least four times. My brother Monty gave me a copy of A Study In Scarlet for Christmas two years ago and I was hooked.’
“That’s the one with the Mormons, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“The moment when the murderer – what’s his name again?”
“Yes, when he comes upstairs to help old Sherlock with his bags and the detective leaps on top of him – quite startling, isn’t it?”
“That was when I fell in love with Mr Holmes,” said Agatha. “If one can fall in love with a fictional character, that is.”
“In my experience you can fall in love with pretty much anyone if you try hard enough. But look alive, there’s something happening.”
The chatter of the crowd grew more excited as a middle-aged man took to the stage, moved the chairs to a more acceptable angle, ensured that a glass of water was in place, before disappearing once again into the wings. From beyond the hall, the voices of carol singers could be heard, their song muffled.
“False alarm,” said Jack, reaching down for his bag and removing a notebook and pen and placing it on his lap.
“Might I pretend to be the great detective for a moment,” said Agatha, daring herself to sound flirtatious. “And make a few deductions of my own?”
Jack smiled, nodding his head. “You can try,” he said. “Let’s see how far you get.”
Agatha couldn’t quite believe her audaciousness at being so forward, but then why not, she decided. It was about time she found a young man. Everyone else had one. Even Monty. And that wasn’t even legal.
“Your name is Jack Stapleton,” she began.
“Now steady on, I’ve already told you that!”
“Yes, it’s just where I shall begin,” she said. “Your name is Jack Stapleton. You’re a clerk for a firm of solicitors. You’ve recently returned from France. You live near Highgate and enjoy early morning walks before work. You have aspirations to becoming a novelist. You receive a great deal of personal correspondence.”
She hesitated, her tongue emerging slightly from between her lips as she examined him more closely. “And finally, and I shall take a chance on this, I believe that of all his nephews and nieces, your late Uncle Edward favoured you the most.”
Jack stared at her, his eyes widening in surprise. “Good God,” he said. “Forgive me, Miss Miller, I’m just … Good God!” he repeated.
“Was I right then?” asked Agatha, smiling in delight.
“Not entirely, but on most things, yes. How did you – ?”
Before he could continue there was a burst of applause from the audience and they turned their heads to the dais, where two men were stepping out on to the stage, the taller of the two hesitating before a Christmas tree as he examined it for a moment.
“Gentlemen,” said the first man, his voice echoing around the room. “And, indeed, ladies. How very gratifying. You are all very welcome here on this Christmas Eve. And what a thrilling night we have in store for you. One of our greatest writers, the inimitable, that is inestimable, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has agreed to take time away from his desk to talk to us and to read a little from his work.”
The room burst into applause as the writer took to his feet. Agatha almost rose out of her seat in excitement as she craned her neck to get a better look at him, the twinkling lights from a stage illumination reflecting in his eyes. He leaned on the lectern, a well-built man in his early 50s with a neat appearance and a wax-tipped moustache. He seemed grateful for such an enthusiastic response.
“You’re all very kind,” he said, raising his hands to quieten the clamour. “I cannot tell you how encouraging it is for one who spends so much time alone in his study with nothing but his imagination and a dog for company to emerge into the light and realise that there are still, in these uncivil days, such civil things as readers. I thank you all for coming.”
He performed a small bow from the waist and Agatha leaned across to Jack. “Such a strong Scottish accent,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t have thought it.”
Jack glanced at her as if he had forgotten that she was even there before opening his notebook and directing his attention towards the stage. Agatha, feeling a little chastened, sat back in her seat and resolved not to speak again until the talk was at an end.
Over the next hour, Sir Arthur talked a little of his childhood and the interest he had developed in writing. He gave an account of the day when the detective, Sherlock Holmes, had first appeared in his imagination, before reading the short story, The Man With The Twisted Lip, in its entirety. Finally, having apparently run out of things to say, he smiled and opened his arms wide.
“Perhaps now,” he suggested, “interested members of the audience might like to ask questions. And may I preface this part of the evening by saying that I do not know where I get my ideas, I write between the hours of eight and two every day and, yes, I do hope to write some more adventures for Mr Holmes in the future. Having said all that, I open the floor to you.”
Agatha smiled. How frustrating it must be, she decided, for a writer to have to answer the same questions to audience after audience, all the time acting as if this was the first time. And true to form, each one seemed derivative and unoriginal, designed for the enquirer to hear his own voice carry through the room for a minute or two. The writer, for his part, took it all in his stride, answering elegantly and with some wit, charming his audience, encouraging his sales.
Finally, however, he glanced at his watch before looking out with a satisfied expression. “Well, if there’s nothing more,” he said, “I should like to thank you all for coming and – ”
“Please,” said Jack, standing up quickly. “One more question, Sir Arthur, if you don’t mind.”
The writer looked down and raised an eyebrow. Agatha felt herself blush as every eye turned in their direction and a burst of laughter filled the hall. “Mr Claus,” said Sir Arthur. “Do you wish to know whether or not I’ve been a good boy all year?”
“No,” said Jack, smiling. “I wondered whether you thought that so ingenious a murder could be committed that even the great Sherlock Holmes would find it impossible to solve.”
There was a buzz in the room; the audience liked this question.
“An interesting point,” conceded Sir Arthur. “It reminds me of the great paradox I heard often as a child. Can God do anything, asks the gentleman. Why, yes, of course, replies his companion. God is magnificent. If that is the case, says the gentleman, can God create a rock that is so heavy that he is unable to lift it?”
The audience murmured to themselves, uncertain whether or not this was a blasphemy. Was Sir Arthur comparing himself to God?
“But to your point, Santa,” he continued, clearing his throat. “Could there be so ingenious a murder that Holmes would find it beyond his capabilities? My answer to you is yes. My detective is a man of supreme ability but the criminal mind can be equally ingenious, and we do not know what degree of evil exists under the sun. There are murderers walking free on the streets of our cities today. I do not mean guilty men who have been tried and found innocent of their crimes. I refer to those who have committed their heinous acts and never been discovered. Why, one need only think of the infamous murders in Whitechapel to see that not all crimes can be solved. Or the case of Lady Merton, whose poisoning has so fascinated the popular press in recent months. Scotland Yard appears to be no nearer their man, do they? So yes, my answer to you is yes. Murderers, clever ones, get away with their crimes quite regularly, I suspect.”
Jack made some further notes in his book and the audience applauded the writer loudly as he left the stage.
“Wonderful, wasn’t he?” said Jack as the crowd began to depart.
“Marvellous,” agreed Agatha. “Inspirational, even. And lucky you, getting to speak to him! I would have been too frightened to dare ask a question.”
“You must tell me, Miss Miller,” he replied. “Those things you gleaned about my character earlier. You were like a female Holmes, if such a thing was possible. How did you do it?”
“I said you work as a clerk at a firm of solicitors,” said Agatha. “Was I right?”
“I’m a clerk, yes, but not at a legal firm.”
“Ah, well that was just a guess. But you have a noticeable indentation on the side of your right index finger where I imagine you hold a pen throughout the day, and there are ink blotches, quite apparent, on the cuff beneath your red jacket.”
“Very clever,” said Jack, smiling. “And I have indeed just returned from France. How did you know?”
“Your aftershave,” replied Agatha. “My late father favoured the same variety. We lived in France for a year as children and he grew fond of it there. He could only purchase it from a store just off the Champs Elysées in Paris, and he had it sent across to him every 12 months. He wore it till the day he died. I was a little overwhelmed when I first smelled it on you.”
“They say that smell is the most attuned of all the senses,” remarked Jack.
“And do you live in Highgate?”
“No, you got that wrong. But the early morning walks was spot-on. How did you know?”
“There are tiny blades of grass dried to the welts of your shoes. I assumed you walked fields while the dew was still fresh. I took a chance on Highgate Hill.”
“Very good. But the wrong part of London, I’m afraid. Shall we stand up?”
They rose and joined the crowd, slowly moving down the aisle towards the exit. Agatha looked ahead towards the doors. It would be another minute or two before they reached them. What would happen, she wondered, when they were on the street again? Would he invite her for a cup of tea perhaps?
“Of course it was easy to guess that you want to be a novelist,” she continued. “All that writing in your notebook, the question you asked. It’s clear that you hope to write mystery stories.”
“On that, my dear Miss Miller, you are entirely incorrect,” said Jack triumphantly. “I have neither the talent nor the inclination.”
“Oh,” said Agatha, disappointed by this reply. “I was so certain. Then might I ask why you were so intent on taking notes about criminal behaviour?”
“What most interests me is how you knew that my Uncle Edward liked me the most,” said Jack, ignoring her question. “I could have fallen off my seat when you said it. How could you possibly have known such a thing?”
“I was right then?”
“Well I must admit that it was an outrageous piece of guesswork. Your satchel, you see, is quite old. Probably something an older male relative has passed down to you. Could it have been your father’s? No, because your surname is Stapleton, while the initials branded into the lapel offer the letters EH. It’s possible that it belonged to your maternal grandfather, of course, but I decided that an uncle was more appropriate and it’s such a fine piece that it could only have been given to the child he loved the most. The “E” therefore was your uncle’s first name. The most common male name beginning with that letter is Edward. So there we are.”
Jack shook his head. “Ingenious, Miss Miller,” he said, the crowd from all sides descending on them as they got closer to the doors, pushing them against each other in a not entirely unpleasant way. “You could give Sir Arthur a run for his money should you set your mind to writing mysteries. I applaud you.’
“Thank you,” said Agatha, delighted by her triumph. “Oh, but there was one other thing I said. That you receive a lot of personal correspondence. Was I correct?”
“If I receive a letter a week I’m surprised,” said Jack. “I’m afraid you missed out on that one too.”
“Oh, how disappointing!”
“Why did you think so anyway?”
“When you opened your satchel,” explained Agatha, “I saw a long dagger-like implement in there. I assumed you receive a lot of mail and bring the letters with you to work, along with your letter opener, to answer them there.”
“Ah, I see,” said Jack, as they pressed through the doorway into the street beyond where the carol singers were shaking their donation jars as the first flakes of snow began to fall. “A nice guess, but no. That, in fact, was not a dagger-like implement, as you put it. It was an actual dagger.”
Agatha stared at him, worrying already whether they might be separated when they emerged on to the street, for it felt as if all 500 attendees at the lecture were either before them, alongside them or pushing them from behind.
“A dagger, Mr Stapleton?” she asked. “Why on earth would you be carrying a dagger?”
“Oh come now, Miss Miller,” he replied, leaning forward. “For such an avid reader of Sir Arthur’s, surely you know that Jack Stapleton is a character in The Hound of the Baskervilles? I thought it best that I withhold my real name. I wouldn’t want to put you to the trouble of pursuing me. And as for why I am carrying a dagger, the truth is I intend to murder my landlady tonight. It’s a private matter, the result of an indiscretion on my part, but I simply can’t be lumbered with a child. Not at my age. My father would hang me out to dry if he found out. He would certainly cut me off and I’m not built to survive on a clerk’s wages alone.
“Do you know what we poor fellows earn? Why do you think I have to moonlight as a Santa Claus? There’s good money in this, let me tell you. Although, of course, it’s seasonal. No, I shall murder her, then throw the dagger in the Thames, wake up to a bright Christmas morning and a new life ahead. Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet you. Wish me well, won’t you?” He shivered in the cold. “Christ, I need a drink,” he said.
Agatha stared at him, uncertain whether or not he was teasing her, but the expression on his face told her that he was in deadly earnest. She gasped, tried to speak, couldn’t, and Mr Stapleton simply winked at her as he turned away, pressing through the crowd to the left as an arm reached forward from her right and plucked her from the throng into a pocket of free space at the side of the building.
“There you are, old girl,” said Monty, raising two arms filled with wrapped gifts. “Presents for all! No one can call me selfish this year. Sorry I was so late. I hovered outside until it was all over. Any good, was he?”
Agatha barely glanced at him, feeling light-headed as she raised herself on her toes and looked over the heads of the people, but there were Santas everywhere, each one mingling with the crowd, and it was impossible to find her Santa, and anyway Monty was shouting something incoherent in her ear now and all that she could think was why was he always late? It had been his idea to come here; couldn’t he just be reliable for once in his life?
John Boynes’ most recent novel is The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket (Doubleday)