Excerpt for Christmas Spirit by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Christmas Spirit

By

Nell Peters





Mary stepped through the back door, grabbed the recycle bin and pulled it along the narrow alleyway at the side of the house, across the front garden and down to the pavement edge, from where it would be collected and emptied by noisy bin men at the crack of dawn. All the while, she wondered why she was bothering – apart from a few pieces of junk mail, there were just empty wine bottles in the bin; actually, she smiled, there were quite a few of those.

Watching her step over the uneven pathway as she struggled to manoeuvre the recalcitrant receptacle – any jerky movement causing the bottles to chink together in sharp cacophony and betray her guilty secret to nosy neighbours – she didn’t see a dark shape emerge from the darkness of the back garden and slip silently into the kitchen.

Back in the warm, she checked the time – really too early for alcohol, even though the sun would definitely be over the yardarm somewhere in the world. She boiled the kettle for another mug of tea and waited for the bag to infuse, before taking it through to the living room, where she turned on the TV. She flicked channels, avoiding news programmes that merely confirmed her suspicions that the whole world had been taken over by rampant extremists, who meant to indoctrinate every man, woman and child with their religious dogma and alien culture – by violent force, where necessary. And as for the political leaders charged with keeping the global population safe … well, she despaired – of that latest chap in the White House in particular. How could someone who was unable to control their own hair possibly be trusted to govern a whopping great country?

Unsurprisingly given the date, there were a lot of Christmas programmes being aired, interspersed with ads that had supposedly taken all year to plan at a cost of zillions. Most of the clients should have saved their money, she felt – she could have knocked up something much better for a fraction of the price using her Box Brownie. She gave up on TV and played a classical CD, while she read – a proper paperback, not one of those Kindle contraptions; although she could see they might be useful for taking a lot of books away on holiday, without having to pay for excess baggage.

But Mary never went on holiday – where would she go, and who with? Exactly, she agreed with herself. Mug drained, she fancied a glass of wine even more and felt she’d denied herself for long enough – there was a nice Pinot chilling in the fridge and she went to pour herself a generous glass. Undoubtedly the first of a few, she mused, before promising herself she wouldn’t count.

Three glasses later, she woke from a fitful doze and decided she may as well go to bed. She locked up and did all the usual checks, filled her fluffy rabbit hot water bottle and climbed under the duvet after she’d cleaned her teeth. It took several minutes to find her reading place, because the book had fallen to the floor as she slept downstairs. It was not proving to be a satisfying read – she’d been seduced by all the hype when the novel was launched, then when the inevitable film-of-the-book was released amid much fanfare, and so bought a copy when she saw it on BOGOF. But she couldn’t warm to any of the characters – they weren’t in any way what literary types would describe as ‘sympathetic’ and the woman protagonist was downright unpleasant. The sort who should have been drowned at birth Mary decided, in her self-appointed role as judge and jury. Plus, unless she was mistaken, which she seldom was, whodunit had been glaringly obvious from very early on in the rather far-fetched (if not completely ludicrous) plot. The denouement, when it came, was bound to be a huge disappointment – as was so often the case.

Just a few pages later and Mary was asleep, blissfully unaware that she had an uninvited houseguest.


She woke later than normal – not good, because she had work to do and a deadline to keep … a deadline that had already been extended, though not through any fault of hers, and now the pressure was on. Flustered and mumbling abuse at herself, she rushed through her shower and dressing routine and went downstairs to brew coffee, before hauling her body and mind into the day. The house felt cool, even though she knew the heating was on.

With the steaming mug of Columbian Rich on the table in front of her, she tried to organise her thoughts into some sort of logical order – a re-jigged timetable for the day was what she needed. Yes. In her head, concentration already straying, she pictured herself galumphing around, dancing a never-before-witnessed (at least outside the walls of a mental asylum) version of an Irish jig. Michael Flatfeet eat your heart out …

‘Good morning, Mary,’ said a male voice from the hallway, causing her to physically jump with surprise, mingled with fright.

She spun around, heart in her mouth, ‘Christ!’

‘No, I heard he was busy.’

‘Damned impertinence! Who … who are you?’ She clenched her fists so tightly her fingernails dug into her palms and made angry red marks. Knowing she was vulnerable and almost definitely in danger – make that very obviously in danger – thoughts of making her escape collided like bumper cars as they raced through her brain. She made to get up to head for the back door – though where she was going to run to, she had no idea. And because she was terminally unfit she wouldn’t get very far anyway, so she changed her mind and remained seated.

‘Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to hurt you – just the opposite, in fact. Can I sit down?’

‘Why? What do you want? I don’t keep any money in the house.’

‘I don’t need money; it’s you I’ve come to see.’

‘Why? What do you want?’ she repeated. He was well spoken and really didn’t look menacing, but looks could be so deceptive, as she knew only too well.

‘Aren’t you going to offer me a coffee?’

‘Infernal cheek! And no, why would I? I didn’t invite you here – how did you get in anyway, when all the doors are still locked?’

‘They aren’t, but I spent the night – your spare bed is very comfortable.’

She gasped, and banged the table so hard her mug rocked and coffee splashed, ‘How dare you! I should ring the police and have you locked up.’

He shrugged, ‘Pointless – but give it a go if you don’t mind looking like a daffy old bat who has lost most, if not all, her marbles.’

She did stand then, still unsure what to do. She studied her unwelcome visitor – he was probably mid-thirties, dark haired and not bad looking. If you could ignore the impudent expression, that is … and his hazel eyes sparkled, she noticed belatedly. Oh, and he had long eyelashes that curled like hers never had, no matter how many coats of mascara she applied … that was in those far-off days when she used to bother with makeup and her appearance.

As Mary sat back down, feeling rather like a confused yo-yo, she felt her pulse beating madly all over her body, ‘I think you owe me an explanation, young man.’ She hoped she’d appeared as calm and as in control of the situation as she’d intended.

‘You’re probably right, but calling me ‘young man’ makes you sound ancient.’

‘I am ancient – not that it’s any concern of yours.’

‘Of course it is. I want to know everything about you.’ He smiled disarmingly.

‘Young man …’ she checked herself, ‘whoever you are … well let’s start with you telling me your name.’ She couldn’t believe she’d just said that – she’d made the question sound too friendly and matter of fact … an everyday conversation in ordinary circumstances, when these circumstances were most certainly nowhere near ordinary. He might very easily get the mistaken impression that breaking in and staying overnight in a complete stranger’s home was somehow acceptable; which it most certainly was not – especially if the house in question was hers. ‘I’ll need to know your name for when I file a report at the police station.’

‘You won’t – file a report, that is.’

Mary blustered, ‘How very presumptuous of you!’

‘If you say so.’

He really was insufferable! ‘And if you’re looking for some sort of granny substitute, you’re out of luck – I don’t like children, and I like children’s children even less.’ Had that made sense, she wondered – this damned intruder had her so flustered and jittery she really couldn’t think logically.

He didn’t seem to be listening, ‘I brought in your recycling bin, by the way – noisy refuse collectors around here, aren’t they? In fact, being a main road it’s pretty noisy generally.’

‘Then you won’t want to hang around too long, will you? Off you go, and inflict your unsolicited company on someone who lives in nice a quiet cul-de-sac. Or better still, the Sahara – that should be nice and peaceful this time of year.’

He smiled again, and shook his head, ‘Now, now, Mary …’

‘I’ve got work to do – you need to leave.’

‘I fixed your deadline; there’s no rush now for that document you’re translating.’

Her mouth gaped, ‘Even if I believed you – which obviously I don’t – where do you get off interfering in my life? You’ve got a bloody cheek! And how would you know anything about what I do – that’s entirely my business. Can you leave now, please?’

‘I’m going to take you to lunch.’

‘You absolutely are not! The very idea is preposterous … quite unthinkable!’

‘No, it isn’t. You need to change – smart casual and we’ll take your car. It’s a bit of a drive to the place I have in mind.’

‘I’ve just told you there’s no way I’m going to lunch with you!’

‘Of course you are, and call me Jude.’

‘No!’


She indicated and turned as he instructed.

‘Good – it’s about half a mile down this lane. Are you hungry?’

‘No … well yes … oh I don’t know. As I told you, I should be working.’

‘And as I told you, that’s not a problem; everything is sorted. Do you think it’s going to snow later?’

She peered up at the sky, and then to the horizon, where she saw what looked like a two-storey barn-type structure breaking the monotony of flat hedgerows, all lit up with colourful Christmas lights. ‘Probably. Is that where we are going?’

‘Yup – you’ll like it.’

‘I’ll let you know.’

‘They said you were a cranky old bat.’

‘I’m sixty-four!’

‘Just like the Beatles’ song.’

‘You are much too young to remember that.’

‘I’m older than I look.’

‘And who are ‘they’ incidentally?’

‘We’ll discuss that later.’

‘You really are intolerable – I wish I hadn’t come.’

He grinned, ‘That’s just not true, is it? There’s plenty of parking over there,’ he added, waving an index finger to the right.

‘I can see that. What is this place?’

‘My favourite place to eat.’

As they hurried toward the huge double doors, snowflakes started to fall, getting more intense by the second, so that their shoulders were covered in a layer of white by the time they entered.

‘Good afternoon, sir – welcome back. Have you booked?’

‘Not this time – I wasn’t sure if my companion would be able to make it.’ He turned to smile and wink at Mary, making her blush brightest puce.

‘I see …’ the woman dressed all in black giggled like a schoolgirl – which Mary found slightly incongruous in someone who looked at though they should be sitting with their feet up in a retirement home. ‘You are such a naughty boy, Jude – what are we going to do with you?’

‘You’ll think of something, I’m sure. Is my usual table free, Magda?’

‘Of course, will you be having drinks at the bar beforehand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Perfect, then may I take your coats?’

After Magda had done the honours, he offered Mary his arm, ‘It’s this way.’

Reluctantly, she took it, ‘It’s not exactly heaving, is it?’

‘It’s early yet, only just past midday – and it’s a Thursday.’

‘You do have a talent for stating the blindingly obvious.’

Jude caught the bartender’s eye, ‘What would you like to drink?’ he asked.

Mary tossed her head, ‘I’m surprised you don’t know.’

‘A dry white wine for the lady – a Pinot, if you have it?’

The barman nodded, ‘We do – and for you, sir?’

‘A Chateau Neuf – both large, please.’

‘Of course.’

Mary tried and failed to hitch her buttocks elegantly onto the leather bar stool and so decided to nonchalantly remain half on, half off as if that’s what she’d intended all along. ‘I am driving,’ she said quietly, when a small bucket of wine was placed in front of her, along with a cut glass dish of cashew nuts.

‘You don’t need to worry about that,’ Jude assured her. He glanced toward a picture window, ‘It’s snowing heavily now, and settling – we might be snowed in.’

‘I’ll get home today if I have to kidnap a couple of pet poodles and use them as huskies to pull me along.’

‘Now that I’d pay to see.’

Mary sniffed, ‘Well cheers, I suppose – though I really don’t know what I’m doing here.’ She took a slug of her wine, ‘That’s very good.’

‘I don’t ply my clients with plonk – but we’ll talk more about that all in good time,’ he added mysteriously, his lips twitching into a half-smirk. ‘You don’t look too comfortable – would you prefer to sit at one of the tables?’

Peeved that she hadn’t managed to pull off nonchalance or indeed maintain any dignity whatsoever, she almost declined his offer, but relented in the interests of common sense in a nose/spite/face kind of way and followed, as he led the way past a huge Christmas tree with annoying flashing lights, to a small round table for two, near to the open log fire.

‘Lovely fire,’ she said, flopping into a padded carver.

‘I asked for it especially,’ he answered, ‘I knew you’d like it.’

‘Mm… But you didn’t book a table.’ Emboldened by too many gulps of wine drunk too quickly, that had gone to her head immediately via an empty stomach, she asked, ‘Are you going to tell me what all this is about … why I’m here?’

‘Not a very patient soul, are you? Shall I order another round?’

She shook her head, and placed a hand over her glass, ‘Not for me – as I said, I’m driving.’

‘That’s what did for me, driving under the influence – wrapped my Merc sports round a tree. I’ve always been a bit of a speed merchant, but the combination with booze is not to be recommended.’

‘So you lost your licence and that’s why we had to take my car?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Your parents must worry about you driving too fast.’

‘Nope.’

‘Oh?’

‘I don’t have any.’

‘Ah … neither do I. They’re pretty overrated generally.’

‘You don’t miss what you’ve never had. Now, I’m going to buy another round and I’ll grab a couple of menus.’

‘But I’ve just told you …’

Jude raised a hand, palm forward, ‘Mary – you know very well you’re going to have another and then probably another after that. Shall we drop the pretence? After all, it’s nearly Christmas. Think of it as Christmas spirit, if it makes you feel less guilty.’

‘Well really! You are so rude!’ She realised she’d raised her voice and attracted the attention of a young girl polishing glasses behind the bar. Flushing with embarrassment she continued in a softer voice, ‘As a matter of fact I dislike Christmas intensely – almost as much as I’m beginning to dislike you. Actually, there’s no ‘beginning’ about it.’

‘You’re wasting your breath – we both know you find me irresistible.’

Speaking as best she could through clenched teeth, she spat, ‘Go and get the bloody drinks.’

‘Since you ask so nicely …’


‘That was quite nice,’ said Mary, laying down her desert spoon on an empty dish.

Jude spluttered, ‘Don’t overdo the praise! What would you have had for lunch at home? Mouldy cheese and stale crackers? It certainly wouldn’t have been three good courses and four glasses of wine!’

‘How do you know?’ she sniffed, without realising she was patting her sated stomach.

He regarded her solemnly, ‘Oh you know, just a really wild guess. I bet that’s the best meal you’ve had in years?’

‘It was … very nice … thanks.’

‘There; that didn’t hurt too much, did it?’

‘Don’t be so cheeky, young man!’

‘Like I said before, less of the young man, Mary – or I may slip out without paying the bill.’ His eyes flashed, ‘Are you any good at washing up?’

‘You wouldn’t …’

‘I might. Are you willing to take that risk?’

She glared at him.

‘Forgive me for saying so, but that’s not a good look.’

‘Enough of this nonsense – isn’t it about time you explained to me what this is all about? I should get back to work.’

‘Don’t be stupid.’

She raised her voice, ‘How dare you call me stupid!’

‘Everyone’s looking at you,’ said Jude quietly.

‘Like I care! Anyway, they’re looking at you – and thinking what an arse you must be.’

‘If you say so …’

‘I do. Now get on with it!’

‘You’re such a grump – no wonder you don’t have any friends.’

Mary stuck her nose in the air, ‘That’s just where you’re wrong – I’m simply very selective in my associations.’

‘Pah! Pull the other one!’

‘You are so bloody rude. Rude Jude – that’s what I’m going to call you.’

Magda appeared, as if by magic, at Jude’s side, ‘Is everything alright? Can I get you anything else?’

He smiled, ‘A room, please.’

‘What? Who do you think …?’

‘Relax, I need the room for something – your reputation will remain intact, as always.’

‘Will that be your usual suite, sir?’ Magda asked, surreptitiously stepping out of the line of fire.’

He smiled apologetically, ‘Please.’

‘No problem at all. Would you like me to send up some brandy?’

‘That would be lovely, thanks. Say five minutes?’

‘Of course, Jude – it’s been far too long and we’ve missed you.’

‘Hah, away with you, Mags, I bet you say that to all the team.’

Magda blushed, ‘Oh, Jude – if only they were all as lovely as you.’

‘Team?’ interjected Mary, feeling very much like a spare part.

‘Later,’ Jude told her firmly. ‘Do you need anything out of the car?’

‘No – and don’t change the subject! Plus you’re assuming I’ll agree to go upstairs with you …’

Magda withdrew tactfully.

‘Of course you will – and I think you’ll be glad you did.’

‘Pah! I seriously doubt that.’

‘Suit yourself. Right, I’m going to finish my wine and then head for the lift – will you be coming with me?’

‘Like I have a choice?’

‘We always have a choice.’

The lift doors closed silently on the charged atmosphere within, and they both remained silent, avoiding eye contact for the few seconds it took to reach the next floor.

Jude pointed, ‘That’s us,’ and stepped forward to use his key card. He swung the door inward. ‘After you.’

Mary clutched her large handbag to her like an armoured breast plate and walked through. She looked around, impressed by the pink velvet sofas, Persian rugs in subtle pastel shades and the biggest bed she’d ever seen.

‘This do you?’ He asked.

‘For what?’

‘All will be revealed – very soon.’ He gestured toward a heavy coffee table where someone had placed a silver tray holding a crystal decanter and glasses, along with another dish of cashew nuts. ‘Shall we sit in front of the fire?’

‘Please yourself.’

‘I will – perhaps you’d be good enough to join me … if you’ve got nothing better to do, of course.’

She moved toward one of the plush chairs in front of the open grate, where logs burned in all shades of the red spectrum, ‘Sarcasm is very unbecoming – don’t you know it’s the lowest form of wit?’

Ignoring her, he poured two generous measures of the golden nectar, and handed one to Mary after she’d settled herself down. ‘Your name was pulled out of a hat and you won first prize.’

She took a sip, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I didn’t enter any competition, or raffle – whatever it is you are talking about.’

‘You were automatically entered.’

She cast him a pitying look, ‘Oh really? Pull the other one – what sort of scam is this?’

‘Seriously, Mary, it’s not a trick or a scam or anything else like that.’

‘OK, Rude Jude – what is my fantastic prize?’

‘The committee are granting you the chance to go back and put right one mistake you’ve made in your life, large or small.’

She spat a mouthful of brandy over the floor.


‘You can’t be serious!’ she screeched.

‘You sound like a poor man’s John McEnroe.’

‘Bloody rude! You honestly expect me to believe that crap?’

‘Your choice – but it’s an opportunity very, very few people are given.’

‘So who are you, then, assuming I’m going to play along with this nonsense until I get bored?’

‘I’m Jude, just Jude.’

‘How could this … this thing possibly happen?’

‘Stick with me kid.’

‘You really are the most obnoxious boy.’

‘I’m so not a boy!’

‘Whatever you are …’

‘Do you want to watch TV?’

‘Why?’

‘You may see something that interests you.’

‘Hah! I doubt that – and please don’t tell me we are going to watch that ghastly Christmas film, It’s A Wonderful Life, or whatever it’s called?’

‘Ah dear Clarence, I knew him well.’

‘What?’

‘Strange you should ask that, though.’

‘What?’

‘You’re becoming a little monosyllabic, Mary.’

‘Damned impertinence – just bloody get on with it!’

‘More brandy?’

‘I’ve drunk far too much already.’

‘As I hear it, that doesn’t usually bother you.’

‘Insufferable prat!’

He sighed deeply and paused before replying, ‘Listen Mary, could you do us all a favour and drop the incensed old lady act for a while – it’s wearing a bit thin. I’m here to offer you a brilliant option on a plate, the chance of a lifetime, and you don’t seem to appreciate how privileged you are.’

‘Well really! I’ve never …’

‘Sure you have.’ He handed her a refilled glass. ‘Now, let’s watch TV, shall we?’

Snatching her drink she scowled, but remained silent.

‘That’s better …’ He pointed the remote to the screen, ‘Time to sit back and enjoy.’

The title, Mary Alice Edwina Abbot, This Is Your Life, flashed up in bright red letters on a grey background.

‘What the …?’

Jude turned to her with his index finger pressed to his lips, ‘Shh!’

Mary obeyed, until a still shot of an infant appeared. She blurted, ‘That’s me! I’ve seen that photo so many times!’

‘That is rather the point, Mary – now just watch because you need to pay attention.’

She shot him another glare before looking back to the screen.

A male voiceover said, ‘You are about to see five significant episodes that have occurred during your lifetime so far – the decisions you made or the actions you took each time determined the path your life would take …’

‘Is this a wind-up?’ Mary scoffed, spraying slivers of cashew into her lap.

‘Listen! Or you may miss something – you’ll only see this once.’

‘As the actress said to the bishop?’

‘Behave – and watch.’

A frame appeared of Mary in her senior school uniform and the VO said, ‘At grammar school, you cheated in an important French exam …’

‘I didn’t!’ she protested.

‘But you did,’ contradicted Jude.

She thought for a moment and decided to come clean, ‘OK, you got me. So what?’

It was the VO who answered, ‘You were given a top prize that you didn’t deserve. Emma Curtis should have won and her alcoholic father beat her viciously because she came second. Emma could never hear properly again even after extensive surgery, and has suffered badly from migraines, epileptic fits and flawed vision ever since. Your selfish actions had a very negative effect upon her life.’

‘That wasn’t my fault!’

‘Your blatant dishonesty caused the situation,’ Jude told her, looking grave.

‘Still not my fault. And hardly earth-shattering stuff.’

‘It was for Emma – plus that award was the deciding factor to you gaining a prestigious university place, because your grades were borderline at best.’

‘What nonsense!’

Jude rolled his eyes and spoke to the screen, ‘Next.’

‘Very well,’ said VO. ‘Next up we have you in dorms at uni – your neighbour reached out for your friendship when her world was falling apart. You ignored her.’ A pretty young girl appeared on the screen.

‘Oh her – Lizzie something; a complete lightweight who just couldn’t cut it. She was way too needy and she bored me to tears.’

‘She was suicidal and your lack of compassion almost cost Lizzie her life,’ said VO.

‘Spare me the sordid details, please. I heard she did very well in the end.’

‘She did, once she’d received years of counselling and began to realise her self worth – in the nick of time, and no thanks to you. If you’d befriended her when she so desperately needed your support, she’d have been a loyal and grateful ally who would share her good fortune with you.’

‘Story of my life,’ Mary shrugged, ‘is this going to take much longer?’

‘Number three, please,’ said Jude, ‘this one is a flashback to your teaching days.’

‘God, I hated teaching! Unwashed little scumbags – and the parents were even worse.’

‘You didn’t want to make a difference?’ asked VO.

‘Get real! I just fancied the long paid holidays – the oiks I had to teach were a necessary inconvenience.’

Jude looked genuinely shocked, ‘What a dreadful cynic you are, Mary!’

She glared at him, ‘So …’ a new image on the screen caught her attention. ‘Oh god – not him! That so wasn’t my fault – everyone said I wasn’t to blame.’

VO tutted, ‘But you were, Mary. David Smith, aged only twelve, came to you at the end of lessons that Friday and told you he didn’t feel well – he was running a high temperature and could hardly stand, but when he asked you for a lift home you refused, even though it wasn’t out of your way.’

‘Of course I did – you have to be very careful in that sort of situation … you can leave yourself open to all sorts of accusations.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Yes, Rude Jude – seriously.’

‘He was twelve! And a very frail little boy at the best of times. Instead of using your commonsense, you let him stagger home in the cold to an empty house and by the time his mother came home, it was too late to save him – even though she called an ambulance straight away.’

‘Like I said, I’m not responsible. Anyway, I left teaching after that and became a self-employed translator working from home – that way I didn’t ever have to mix with people or awful kids ever again.’

‘How sad for you – and leading such an insular existence is quite possibly at least part of the cause of your problems.

‘Rubbish! And I don’t have any problems, thanks very much!’

‘If you say so, Mary – but that’s not what your file says. Incidentally, David would have grown up to be a surgeon, working in the Third World and doing a lot of good, saving countless lives.’

‘Well bully for David. I personally never trust anyone with philanthropic tendencies. And what file, exactly?’

‘That’s confidential. You really need to take this more seriously, Mary – it’s a vital decision and you only have two more options to view.’

‘Yeah, yeah – you’re wasting my time. Shall we move on?’

VO said, ‘You should listen to Jude – are you sure you’re ready for this?’

‘Of course I am; just get on with it.’

‘Very well.’

A faded photograph of a handsome man appeared – it had been torn into several pieces and stuck back together badly, so that various parts of his anatomy appeared to be missing.

Mary rose from her seat, her face contorted with rage, ‘What’s that bastard doing here? Get rid of him right now!’

‘Sorry, no can do – why don’t you sit back down and listen for once.’

‘Good idea,’ said VO.

Mary sat, with bad grace, ‘He’s a hateful man and I never wanted to see his awful face again.’

‘Bad luck,’ mumbled Jude.

‘What?’

He smiled, but not in a good way, ‘Nothing, nothing at all.’

VO interjected, ‘Kiddies, please. Now Mary, I believe you recognise John here – John Staples, a retired obstetrician.’

‘Of course I recognise him! He sexually assaulted me!’

‘That’s not true, is it?’

‘Well as good as.’

‘You destroyed the man’s reputation and life when you made up the story about inappropriate touching. His wife left him and he lost his job.’

‘Not my problem. He should have kept his hands to himself.’

‘But he did – his ‘assault’ on you was all in your head, a complete fantasy, but once you’d accused him, you wouldn’t back down and as a result of your lies John lost everything.’

‘Then how come the local health authority paid me compensation? A measly amount I agree, but they still paid up.’

‘To make you go away?’ asked Jude. ‘He’s dead now; he died a broken man.’

‘No sad loss to me,’ she scoffed.

VO said sharply, ‘I can’t help but wonder what the committee were thinking when they chose you …’

‘Like I’m bothered.’

‘Last option coming up.’

‘I wait with bated breath.’

‘Perhaps you should see someone about all these issues you have, Mary? You could make that your New Year resolution and do everyone a favour.’

‘When I want your advice or opinion I’ll ask for it, thanks.’

Addressing VO, Jude sighed, ‘Let’s get this over with, shall we? There are some people you just can’t help.’

‘Agreed – number five coming up; your fifth and final option, Mary. Look at the screen.’

‘Must I?’

Jude snapped - his face clouded with fury and he put down his drink as he slowly rose and approached Mary; ‘No, you don’t, you ungrateful bitch. I’ve had just about enough of you.’

He hit her very hard across the face and everything went black.

‘That’s torn it,’ said VO.


The door creaked open and a bright light shining on her eyelids roused her.

‘There you are, Mary! We’ve been looking for you for hours – you had us all really worried.’

‘What? Where am I?’ she asked, suppressing a yawn.

‘In the second floor laundry cupboard – what are you doing here?’

‘How do I know? Where’s Jude?’

‘Who?’

‘Jude! You know, the guy who …’ seeing the expressions on the faces of the orderly and the male nurse standing behind him, her voice trailed off. ‘Nothing – forget it.’

The male nurse stepped forward to offer her a hand up, ‘Shall we get you back to your room? You’re way behind with your meds, which is never good – the doctor won’t be too pleased with you, taking off like that.’ He looked to his colleague, ‘Best get on the blower to Magda, tell her we’ve found the escapee.’ The orderly nodded and took out his phone, turning away so that Mary couldn’t hear what he said.

As she struggled to her feet, Mary said, ‘But I went out for lunch with Jude, after he brought in the recycling bin … like I was trying to tell you – and he told me he’d fixed my deadline. And when we’d eaten he made me watch a mini rerun of my life. Complete rubbish … what doctor? And why is he …’ she pointed to the orderly, ‘… talking to the waitress?’

‘Whoa, Mary – have you been drinking the moonshine they brew over in Keller Ward? Time to get you sorted, pronto. Are you going to come quietly?’

‘I don’t know – where are we going?’

He grinned, ‘We have the penthouse suite specially prepared for you. Coming?’

‘Is the fire lit?’

‘Not unless you’ve added arson to your list of specialities.’ He took her firmly by the elbow, ‘Don’t give me any trouble now, it’s nearly the end of my shift.’

‘Shift?’

‘Parrot? I need to get you safely back to where you belong and dosed up before I leave.’

‘Where do I belong?’

‘In the maximum security wing, along with all your criminally insane lifer buddies.’

‘I’m not criminally insane! How dare you!’

‘Tell that to your victims, you mad bitch.’

‘That’s no way to talk to your clients, Nurse Thomas,’ boomed a voice from behind.

Thomas spun around, ‘Sorry, Doctor Staples,’ he said, insincerity dripping from his lips.

Mary also turned, ‘You! Jude said you were dead!’

‘Sorry to disappoint you, Mary – whoever this Jude is, he’s mistaken.’

‘I don’t understand …’

‘No need to worry, we’ll soon have you feeling like your old self. Thomas here is going to take you back to bed and give you something to make you comfortable. I’ll see you in the morning – it’s Christmas, so there will be carols around the tree in the atrium. Mince pies too, I understand.’

‘I don’t like mince pies.’

He smiled indulgently, ‘No matter. Now go with Nurse Thomas, there’s a good lass.’

As he went to gently touch her arm, Mary recoiled and started screaming at the top of her voice, ‘He’s assaulting me! The bastard is attacking me again! Someone please help me! Rape!’

Thomas was joined by the orderly and one either side, they bundled her off down the corridor, as the doctor watched them go, ‘You never learn, do you, Mary?’ said Thomas.

‘Time for the chemical cosh,’ said the orderly, ‘triple measure, I think – you’ve caused enough trouble for one day.’

Once in her room, they manhandled her onto the bed and the orderly held her down while Thomas administered the powerful drugs. Syringe empty of the overdose, he stepped back, ‘That should keep you quiet for a long while.’

‘No brandy? No cashew nuts?’ she slurred, as her eyes closed on her real world for the last time.














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