© Andrew Wrigley
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A Christmas Horror Story
The street is empty and no wonder.
Standing by the window, Inspector Larsson watches the rain-sodden sleet, driven by a black gale, rattling frames and panes. Orange street lamps hold their line, their bleak shadows blurring, then trickling away. The Inspector does not move, he has nowhere to go even if he wanted to.
Earlier, he made an appointment with Death. Her voice had bordered on sweet.
"Nine-thirty, tonight?" she said, the statement lilting up into a question. "But I could do it tomorrow?"
"No, today is fine."
"Even if it is Christmas?
The Inspector ignored the last question.
“Can’t you come sooner?” Nine-thirty seemed like ages. In frustration, Larsson cracked the knuckles of his hands. He was one of those cops who just looked like a cop: solid and not easily deflected; not given to small talk, unlike his knuckles. He hoped Death could hear them scrunching. If she did there was no indication.
“Would you prefer to come round here or do you want to do it at home? We do recommend...”
“Home,” Inspector Larsson snapped. “Definitely home.”
Death’s voice irritated him. It sounded indecisive and mousy, no authority to it.
“How would you like to pay?”
"OK," she said, in a whisper, barely a draft, a winter chill that seeped into the bones and settled down.
The Inspector broke out of his reverie, feeling sick. She was out there, stalking his street with her bag full of sleep, looking for his number on the doors. And when she found it, he would open the door and let her in. After all, she only came when invited.
For the time being, there was just the darkness, the sleet and the rain and the howling wind. Time's passage delayed for just a little while. A warm fire blazing in the stove, the dog snoring on the rug. If you didn't know, you would say there was nothing wrong.
The dog seemed unaware of him. Abbey's dog, not his, not the Inspector's. Just a dependable pug, the kind that Abbey loved. But Abbey was long gone now, dead and buried for ten years.
It was Christmas. The time when drunks beat their wives and wife beaters got drunk and beat their wives with more abandon; the time when he had to tell little Jimmy's mummy that she was a widow, the time when Abbey had died; the time when Inspector Larsson beat anyone who gave him the opportunity. The Season to be jolly? Not on Inspector Larsson’s beat. They didn’t call him Inspector Humbug for nothing. He hated Christmas, hated it.
This year, the superintendent ordered him to take time off, to sort himself out. So he stayed at home and, without all the dark December mayhem of the streets of Britain, he lost track of time.
Who cared about time anymore? Death was coming, and with every breath he took, she got closer, ever closer.
Let there be darkness, he thought. Turn the street lights off, make it difficult for her.
Give me just a little longer.
He shivered. The house felt damp and cold, despite the coal fire and the dog lying on his rug beside it.
Nine-thirty? Suddenly, nine-thirty seemed all too soon. Time did that to him lately, he couldn’t trust it anymore. He had no time for time, not any longer.
The clock in the hall seemed still, frozen solid, yet when you looked away the hands moved. He looked back and yes, they had closed in on nine-thirty like the carnifex’s hands around a vanquished throat. Tick-tock, tick-tock went the clock, mindless and metronomic yet with deadly intent. If it wasn’t for time, the house would be completely still. But that is time for you. Things don’t happen for a reason, they happen because something has to happen. If it didn’t, time would stop which wouldn’t do.
But then, at nine thirty, time would stop anyway, wouldn’t it? Death was coming and Death is just the absence of time. The clock in the hall might go on ticking, but it would no longer be the measure of anything meaningful.
The phone rang. He froze, but the dog didn’t stir, just a whisker twitching in the trance of a dream. Nothing else happened, just the phone ringing, the dog snoring and time ticking away on the clock.
Abbey’s dog just lying there, where he always had been. Unlike Abbey.
Darling Abbey. After their brief, defiant romance, Abbey had left him her dog, the puppy she had bought the day he fell in love with her. Now, the last thread of her existence lay sleeping by the fire. The dog was all he had left of a life that had never happened.
The phone was still ringing. He picked it up. He was a police inspector, he didn’t know how not to.
“Inspector, it’s Molly, from the station. How are you? We just wanted to wish you...”
He hung up, just like that.
The superintendent was right, he had issues. Where the superintendent was wrong was his presumption that Inspector Larsson had the slightest intention of dealing with his issues, not least his issues with Larry Goole. Just thinking about the dirty little punk brought his blood back to the boil.
“Cheer up, Inspector Humbug, it’s Christmas you miserable old git...” Larry had yelled at him the other night, from the far side of the street.
Larsson charged, sprinting through the cars crawling up High Street through the slush. Larry should’ve got away, what with him being thirty years younger. Instead, he stayed put, one arm wrapped round a lamp post, the middle finger of the other hand raised in drunken defiance.
“Fucking pig!” he shouted. Then: “I always wanted to do that,” he said, grinning at the gaggle of shoppers who had stopped to gawp. Playing to his audience, he let go of the lamp post and raised two fingers of his other hand. Inspector Larsson, closing in, bellowing.
“Oops, time to shhcarper,” said Larry. He turned to run. Problem was, he didn’t look, or think, where he was going. One step and he smacked straight into his erstwhile prop, the lamp post, with a loud clunk. Stunned, his momentum carried him tottering sideways into the street. The traffic stopped, and so did Larry, but not Inspector Larsson. He steadied Larry by the collar and clocked him a right hook to the jaw, propelling him straight back into the lamp post. For Larry, that was one lamp post too many and enough fun for one night: he slid down onto his backside and puked Mr Foo’s Xmas special from The Chinese Dragon takeaway, by all other names a double portion of curry and chips.
“Wear a bib, pimp!” yelled Larsson, the spittle frothing on his heaving breath.
The ubiquitous Mrs Dixon (every town has one, not just Dock Green), waving an umbrella and her sausage dog in tow, stepped into the fray.
“That poor boy was completely defenceless!” she squawked. “Someone call the police!”
“I am the fucking police!” snarled Inspector Larsson, sucking his knuckles. Half an hour later, he was back in the station.
“Inspector Larsson,” Superintendent Wilson said looking him in the eye, “we all find Christmas the most trying time of year, but you seem to take it worse than most. So I’m giving you time off, to deal with your issues.”
“Yes. And Larsson? By that I mean making an appointment, with the Force psychologist. You're grounded until I get her report.”
He made an appointment alright, but not with the psychologist.
Larsson shook his head, as if trying to loosen Memory's grip, but the talons had sunk too deep.
Abbey. The one woman who said she loved him, his one chance of salvation, redemption even, but then she died. No time for time to tell, just enough to pluck a perfect love in bloom. Time is a stingy bitch.
The clock hands had moved again. Death would soon be at the door, holding her little bag full of tubes and syringes and little glass vials full of a sleep so deep it can kill a grown man. And he would let her in.
Larsson walked towards his reflection in the window, pressed his face against it. Outside, the wind had dropped a stitch and there was no sleet, just sheets of rain hammering down on the pavement. Time, he needed a bit more time, just a little, just a couple more minutes, right now anything would do. Why, why do we always want exactly what we don’t have?
He glanced at the clock. Eight fifty-seven and ticking.
He walked into the kitchen. He was looking for something, anything, to pass the few remaining minutes. There was nothing there, nothing except the cheap furniture.
Quarter past nine, fifteen minutes to go.
Larsson sat down on of one of the kitchen chairs, cracked his knuckles yet again. Abbey’s chairs, another of her legacies, bought with her meagre savings to hold him up when she was gone. Like the dog.
“I’ve called him Boozer,” she had said to him, “to remind you to stop. Every time you say his name, remember me.”
"Boozer," he whispered, but if the dog heard him, it didn't stir. So he whispered her name, Abbey, but she didn't stir either. Just the howling memories, and wild as the wind outside.
Abbey, the whore who loved him. He had been thirty-two, she just twenty, barely more than a child. He had saved her from the gutter, and she had dislodged him from The Stuck Pig. Then she was diagnosed with AIDS, in the days before anyone knew what AIDS was, and she was dead before anyone knew what to do about it. It had all been so brief. He wished she had infected him, but he was the kind to always wear a raincoat, even on sunny days, just in case it rained. There was no chance of Abbey getting pregnant, let alone Larsson getting an embarrassing infection.
He stood up again and started pacing, up and down, up and down, then back into the hall, back to the window beside the door.
He had met Abbey a few weeks after being made an Inspector: it was one of those times in his life when everything felt possible. For once, he was right. He had caught Nick Goole, as in Larry’s dad, beating the daylights out of Abbey on the High Street. Nick hit her so hard that she was propelled backwards into a street lamp. Her left eye was swollen and her nose bleeding.
“You’re nicked,” Larsson told Nick, as he twisted his arm round his back.
“Aw, sod off, the bleedin’ bitch soddin’ tried to scratch me fuckin’ eyes out. It were nowt but self defence, for fock’s sake.”
Abbey and Larsson had never seen each other before, but under the spell of the lamp post on that dark winter’s night, they just stared into each other’s eyes, a scrawny young whore and a lonely copper.
“What you fuckin’ lookin’ at bitch? Get back to work,” sneered Nick at Abbey and Larsson took his truncheon out and wacked him as hard as could. For resisting arrest, said the statement. Nick got three months for assault, and Larsson got Abbey. As things turned out, it was one of his few triumphs against the Goole clan.
A knock at the door.
Larsson froze. It was only nine twenty five. It wasn’t time yet, there was still time on the clock.
Another knock, firmer and more demanding.
He opened the door.
He opens the door, of his own free will.
A young girl is standing there, dressed in hooded oilskins, the angry night in attendance, the black rain spilling off her, a knot of snakes alive with copper highlights, that slithered away to coil in dark corners. From the shadow of the hood, her eyes peered up at him.
"Inspector Larsson? You phoned me today?"
That little voice, its indecision lilting into questions. Wet, cold, pale and thin, like the bony hand that shakes his.
“Yes, yes,” he says, “please come in.”
She walks in and looks around her, then at him. His throat tightens and he can’t speak.
“Where...?” she asks, almost in a whisper.
Larsson nods towards the living room, towards the fire and the rug beside it. The old dog stops snoring and cocks his ears. Only his eyes move; he looks at her, or maybe he looks at Larsson. The dog starts panting, gulping for air.
"Heart failure is as lethal as any cancer," says Death looking at the dog. "Once it gets past a certain stage, that is."
Death walks over to Boozer and places her bag on the floor beside him. She looks back at Larsson, as if asking for permission. He nods, the tears streaming down his hard-lined face. He clenches his fists to stop his hands shaking, which just makes his shoulder’s shudder.
“Hello, nice dog,” says Death and kneels down beside him. Boozer’s tail thumps twice on the floor, but otherwise he doesn't move. He can't, not anymore.
She opens her bag, took out a stethoscope and listens to his heart.
“Oh, dear,” she says. “Do you want to say goodbye?”
Larsson says nothing. He walks over and also kneels down beside his dog. His dog now, not Abbey’s or anyone else’s. That much time has granted him.
And then, as all is quiet and nothing else happens, time stops and it is all over.