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Christmas Eve nightshift. The Graveyard Shift. The natural preserve of the childless, the lonely, the permanently single and the desperate. How many had he worked in a row now? Four? Five? The fact that he was losing count was almost certainly not a sign of success.
God, I hate Christmas, he thought. Fucking pantomime.
The locker room smelt musty. Hidden in the bowels below the building – somewhere between Hell and the gents’ toilets – the accumulated scent of dozens of pairs of boots and part-worn clothing seemed to have saturated the fabric of the place. But at least it was warm, he thought.
He dressed quickly, mechanically – his hands following the well-worn pattern without the need for conscious thought: Tee-shirt, body armour, epaulettes, radio, ear-piece, gas, Taser, reflective jacket, hat. Hat. Who the fuck ever wore their fucking hat anyway? He chuckled to himself mirthlessly.
Reflexively he checked his appearance in the mirror by the door, barely recognizing the hard-eyed, lean face staring back. If he was an animal, he thought, he’d be a wolf. Next to the mirror a yellowing sign was blu-tacked on the wall: ‘Officer Safety Starts Here.’ Right. He grinned a lupine grin, running his hand over the stubble of his cropped hair.
Mike was waiting for him in briefing. Marvellous. Tonight was shaping up to be a real humdinger.
“Hi Chris, you pulling nights on Christmas Eve again?” Mike asked.
“No, I came in for the fucking cabaret,” he said, instinctive sarcasm.
Mike smiled. Guess he was used to it.
“If you fancy staying on, be my guest,” Chris said, smiling to soften his words a little.
“Nah, I’ll pass. Me and Jo got plans…you know?”
That’d be my Jo, the one you ran off with seven years ago?
“Sure,” Chris said.
Plans. He used to have plans. Once upon a time.
“How many years you pulled this shift now? Six, seven?”
“Three,” he lied.
“Right,” Mike said, disbelief evident. “Anyway…there’s naff all to hand over. We had a couple of assaults earlier, but nothing to write home about. The sleet is making it slippery and there’ve been a shitload of RTC’s. All damage only so far. Nothing serious.”
RTC’s. Car crashes to anybody else. Thrilling. Laugh a minute this Christmas.
“It’s all yours buddy. You are ‘Lima X-ray Three.'”
Lima X-ray Three. Covering sergeant, Lambeth Borough. On this night of skeleton staff he was the main man for Clapham, Kennington and part of Brixton. Another guy in Streatham would pick up the rest. Who could want more?
“Thanks, Mike,” he said, taking the car keys from him. “You working tomorrow?”
“No…off now ’til New Year, you?”
Mike laughed, turning to go. He’d reached the top of the stairs before he stopped.
“Listen, Chris,” he said. “We’ve known each other a long time. Uh, we…Jo and I, that is, we…well we both hate to see you like this…you’ve not had anyone since…you know. When are you going to settle down, commit yourself to a relationship? You can’t keep everyone at bay forever.”
“Yeah thanks, Mike,” he said, dismissive. “What is this? Amateur psychology, now?”
“Hey…I’m just trying to help,” Mike said. “Look, all I’m saying is…you have to give people a chance. It’s okay to need someone, Chris.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Mike paused, staring at him for a long time. Eventually he shrugged, turned and trotted down the stairs. Watching him go, Chris felt strangely deflated.
The wipers of the car whirred hypnotically; intermittently sweeping the city into clear focus before the melting sleet once again blurred it into a smeared light show. It was a Sisyphean task: endless, perpetually incomplete. Pretty much like his life, he reflected bitterly.
Outside, the gravid sky was filled with snow, flakes twisting mindlessly in the lights of the car. As yet the road remained clear, but an occasional flake settling on the slick blacktop perhaps presaged more. On some elemental level it was beautiful, he supposed. How many homeless people would pay for that beauty with their lives tonight?
So far this Christmas Eve he had rousted three drunks, arrested a fourteen-year old boy for assaulting his mother and lost his wallet. He had had no Christmas kisses, though an old drunk had called him a ‘bastard’. Which almost counted as affection, he thought.
Not the best night, then. And it wasn’t even midnight. He laughed unhappily to himself. At least the radio was quiet.
As if on cue his radio brooch hummed to life.
“Lima X-ray Three, Lima X-ray.” Control room, calling him.
“X-ray Three, go on,” he said.
“Sarge, units are committed with that domestic. Can you take a noise nuisance for us?”
“Yeah. Pass details.”
“Thanks Sarge. Old woman on Cavendish Road says the house next door is having a party. It’s keeping her awake, can you take a look?”
“Yeah. Will do.”
He heard the house before he saw it, music from the tuneless end of the bland casino şirketleri spectrum announcing the occupant to be a ‘Bad Influence’. Deaf was probably more likely.
Crossing the street showed the night to have taken on a colder feel. The flakes a little less watery now, harder, settling. He winced against the blowing flakes and strolled across: terraced house, Christmas decorations, lights on, no sound of screaming or shouting above the music. Not a domestic in disguise, then.
There was no answer to the doorbell so he went with option two: banging loudly on the door with his fist. He had almost given up and gone for option three when the door sprang open, unleashing a gust of warm air.
“Merry Christmas!” She said, standing on the doorstep in basque, panties and stockings, her long blond hair tumbling over her shoulders and two champagne flutes held in her hand. Music hammered in the background.
She was stunning: all creamy flesh and blond curls, brown eyes — warm, welcoming — very white teeth. Skin slightly flushed — and getting worse.
For a long moment they stared at each other, neither seemingly able to comprehend what they were seeing.
Then the door closed with a bang.
For what felt like a long time, Chris stood in the swirling sleet, cold water soaking his hair and dripping down his face. Then the music disappeared and a few moments later the door re-opened. The same girl stood there in a pink dressing gown, her face a complimentary red shade.
“Uhhh…sorry about that, officer, I thought you were…uh…you know, my…uh…boyfriend.” If possible, she blushed even more at that.
“I figured something like that,” he said, smiling. “Can I come in a moment?”
“Yes,” she said, stepping back from the door. “Of course. Is there a problem? It’s not Drew is it? He’s okay, isn’t he?”
“No it’s not about Drew, it’s nothing serious,” he said. Drew is a very lucky man he thought. Standing in the hallway in his body armour, his equipment vest, his boots, he felt suddenly out of scale – like he was too big to fit into her normal life. “We’ve had some complaints about the noise is all.”
In the lounge beyond he could see the glitter, the red and gold of Christmas decorations, smell the resinous scent of a Christmas tree, the blinking illumination of Christmas lights. On the floor there was a thick rug.
“Sorry…it’s just that I was getting ready, you know? I wanted to surprise Drew when he got in.”
At this she blushed again. She was really pretty when she blushed, he thought.
“Yeah, I know. My girlfriend did the same for me one Christmas,” he said. A lifetime ago, he thought. Jo had met him in the hallway dressed just like that, right after the late shift. They hadn’t made it to the bedroom…
He shook himself: That was a long time ago. He had been young then, naive, silly – romantic. He shivered. Life wasn’t like that. He and life had reached an understanding — he didn’t expect much of it and it left him alone.
“Just keep it down, okay?”
“I will,” she opened the door. “Merry Christmas, officer.”
“Yeah,” he paused. “Drew’s a lucky guy…have a nice night.”
After the warmth of the house the outside seemed colder still. The wind carried a real chill, teasing at the gaps in his uniform. He felt himself shivering a little as he walked back to his car, a strange ache in his chest that he couldn’t place.
The roads were deserted – only a scattering of late running taxis and an occasional ambulance braving the cold, the wet and the season. For a while he almost felt like a ghost: drifting aimlessly, haunting the deserted city – around the common, up the Wandsworth Road, back down the High Street. Boo!
“Lima X-ray Three, Lima X-ray,” said the disembodied voice.
Here we go, here’s the ‘Big One’, he thought. Yeah, right.
“Three, go on.”
“Yeah, thanks Sarge. We’ve got another drunk for you.”
Cracking, perhaps he could try for another ‘bastard’.
“Noted. Go with location.”
“Uh…it’s given as Clapham Old Town, near the fire station. Routine response.”
“Yeah, en route. Any description?”
“Uh, Sarge…it’s Santa, over.” Laughter on the channel. Bloody marvellous, does it get any better than this?
With the radio silent once more, the hiss of the wheels and the mechanical clunk of the wipers were his only companions. He felt melancholy close about him like an old friend, perhaps his only real friend. Once you’d seen what he’d seen. Once you’d lived it, day in, day out — the pissheads, junkies, low-rent predators, the abusers, the lost and the damned — was there any way to avoid it?
Running on autopilot he turned into the Old Town, cruising slowly past the fire station. The pavements were still dotted with a scattering of revellers, those too determined to let the snow discourage them or too young to have families to see to in the morning. Even so, the numbers were thin. There was no sign of Santa. Or Rudolph, or Donder, or Blitzen, he thought.
He casino firmalari was just about to give up when he spied her, a small woman dressed in a tattered red Santa dress, sitting on the kerb at the top of Victoria Rise, just near the junction with the North Side of the common. He pulled over.
“Lima X-ray, X-ray Three…show me on scene.”
Once he left the warmth of the car the cold struck him with redoubled vigour, a galvanic impulse shuddering through his body. It took conscious effort to stop himself shaking with the cold. From the pavement he could hear ‘Santa’ snivelling miserably. She didn’t even look up as he walked over to her, just sat there in the freezing cold, in a pimp’s idea of a Santa costume, sobbing, the silent white flakes gently shrouding her.
“Hi, is everything okay?” He said, crouching down just beyond her reach. Couldn’t smell drink but, hey, officer safety starts here, right.
Beneath the dirty white fringe of her sodden hood, her dark hair was plastered to her head, her hands obscuring her face, her shoulders shaking gently. He could see that she was petite, her body slender in her tight costume. Unconsciously he noted her long legs, pale against her torn black tights – no, not tights, stockings, he corrected – seeing a flash of pale thigh just below the hem of her dress. Prostitute?
“Hey, you alright?” He asked, louder this time.
At the sound of his voice she looked up, a touch of fear on seeing the uniform. Even streaked with mascara from her tears he could see that she was young, no more than twenty, and pretty – really pretty. Her skin was pale, almost white in the cold, with just a dusting of freckles on her cheeks and arms. She had the most beautiful eyes – big and round and blue, a blue that sparkled and danced in the light. Dazzling. You could drown in those eyes, he thought.
With the heels of her hands she rubbed at them, smearing her make-up even more effectively and contributing to her ‘panda-eyed’ look. She had an old scar above her left eye, something like a fresh bruise under her right, small and dark. Her face was wet with tears and snot.
Shivering, still sobbing softly, she nodded gently. He handed her a tissue from his pocket.
“You live near here?”
She shook her head, shivering constantly.
“Okay. Look it’s freezing out here, you need to get inside…where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” she said, teeth chattering, her speech staccato with cold. Her accent was foreign: Eastern European, perhaps. “I was staying with friend but she needed space,” she shrugged unhappily. “I have nowhere.”
At this she started crying again.
“Hey, it’s okay,” an urge to put his arm around her passed over him like a spasm, died unborn.
“We’ll sort you out with something,” he paused, thinking for a second. “Look, get in the car, at least you’ll be warm, eh?”
For the briefest moment she hesitated – shivering, shaking – then she nodded gratefully. When she stood up he realised just how short her dress was, barely covering the cheeks of her ass, the top of her stockings clearly visible beneath. Her figure was curvier than he’d expected – the dress clinging enticingly to the curve of her hip, her small tits – but still very slender.
Once in the car it obvious that she was soaked through, freezing – her clothes sodden – and she was shivering uncontrollably. He turned the engine on, turning the heater up to full, feeling the warm air blast into the cabin.
She nodded, still shivering uncontrollably, rubbing her bare arms, trying to restore her circulation. Water from the melting snow ran from her hair, soaking her face, dripping from the end of her cold, red nose. He watched it drip and laughed gently to himself, real humour in the sound, something he hadn’t heard for a long time.
“You are laughing at me?” She seemed surprised, slightly affronted, her accent more pronounced.
“No, no…it’s just that you’re dressed like Santa, but you look more like Rudolph…you know. Your nose…”
“Oh,” she touched her nose gently. “You don’t like my nose?”
“No, no…not at all, it’s very nice,” he was babbling, stopped himself. “It’s just red, from the cold…like Rudolph, yes?”
“Okay.” She looked uncertain.
“Where are you from, anyway?”
“Russia, from Saint Petersburg.” Well that was a problem, he’d have to check immigration now.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Anna. Anna Sergeyovna,” she said, smiling shyly. She had a sexy smile, he thought. “My friends call me Anya.”
“What would you prefer?”
“You can call me Anya.” He thought he saw her blush a little at that.
“Okay, Anya,” he grabbed his spare fleece, handing it to her. “Here, put this on, then why don’t you tell me how you came to be sitting on the pavement in the snow and I’ll see if I can help.”
She nodded, pulling the fleece on. Men’s clothing suited her, he thought, adding to her vulnerability. Sexy. She zipped it up to the neck, hugging herself in güvenilir casino the outsized jacket, control slowly returning to her body as the warmth seeped in.
“Today has not been good day for me, you know,” she said, at last. “First, friend say she need space in her flat for boyfriend for Christmas, so I have to leave, you understand?”
“Yes, go on…”
“So I get dressed in costume, you know, sexy,” she gestured at herself, intimating its sexiness. Unconsciously, Chris found himself nodding in agreement before he realised what he was doing. He saw her smile coyly in response. “And I go to boyfriend’s flat to stay…he is in bed with other woman. He shouts angry, shouts at me, hits me – tells me to go away from him. He is bastard. I hate him.”
She started crying again, pawing at her face with hands hidden inside the sleeves of his jacket, drying her snot and tears in his cuffs. Somehow he couldn’t bring himself to mind. Her eyes were beguiling, depthless – like the waters of a mountain lake.
“So I get taxi, to go somewhere for night…hotel, you know?”
“But some men, they get in taxi with me. They take my bag, my money…then they push me out here, you understand?”
“Yes, I understand, Anya,” he said. Could have been punters, he supposed. Then a thought occurred to him. “How old are you?”
She paused for a moment. “Twenty one.”
He looked at her skeptically and she couldn’t meet his eye.
“Is that true?”
“Yes. I swear it’s truth…”
Looked about right, he thought.
“What are you doing in London?”
A telltale pause. “Student…I study English.” She smiled again and he found himself smiling with her.
Student. Yeah, sure.
“Okay. So let’s see about getting you somewhere to stay.”
“Alright,” she was still shivering. “Please, I don’t know your name?”
For a second he paused. Giving his name seemed like crossing a hidden boundary but, somehow, her vulnerability made keeping her at bay seem like an act of cruelty. And he wasn’t a cruel man. Not yet.
This time it was her turn to laugh gently. “Christmas?”
“What? No. Chris. Chris Thomas.” Somehow her laugh was infectious and he found himself chuckling with her. It felt good.
“Can you afford a hotel?” He asked.
“My money…the men took it. I have nothing.”
For a moment her eyes filled with tears again, two lines of water trickling gently along her pale cheeks.
Without thinking, without knowing why, he felt himself reach out to her, brushing her tears away with his thumb. She smiled shyly at him.
My God, what the fuck was he doing? She was pretty enough, but this was fucking dangerous. He could lose his job over this. Christ.
“Is everything okay, Chris?”
“Yes, yes…no problem.”
Okay. Her options were limited: she was too old for social services, she couldn’t afford a hotel and she had no friends. That left a police cell – courtesy of Immigration- the hospital or hanging around the front of the police station all night. Of course there was another option, but he wasn’t going there. Not with anyone – not even on Christmas.
He surprised himself.
“You can stay at my place if you like…until you get your stuff back, you know,” he said, waving his hands vaguely, suddenly shy. “It’s Christmas, after all.”
What the hell made him say that? Was he totally fucking insane? Had he had enough of his career – his life?
Even more bizarrely, having said it, he found he didn’t want to retract it.
She tilted her head to the side slightly and looked at him thoughtfully, an obvious fear poorly hidden in her eyes. She stared at him for a long while.
Finally she seemed to reach a resolution. “Thank you, Chris. I would like that very much.”
He was mad, that was it. Loneliness had finally driven him over the fucking edge.
“Uh…good. Okay then.”
He pressed the radio.
“Lima X-ray, Lima X-ray Three.”
“Three, go ahead,” said the disembodied voice.
“Uh…can you tell the boss I’m going off patch for a while: I’m taking ‘Santa’ home, then I’ll be having some food.”
“Yeah, noted. Boss says to take your time, it’s like a morgue out there.”
His place was a small one bedroom flat just over the border with Wandsworth, in Earlsfield. Anya sat quietly throughout the journey, staring out of the window at the now settling snow. It was going to be a white Christmas, he thought.
“Well, this is it,” he said, switching on the hall light to show the desert of magnolia and coordinating neutral tones that passed for style amongst the unattached. Like all London properties below a certain price bracket, it majored on small and had a supplementary in bijou. Anyone swinging a cat would have hit all four walls – and probably skinned their knuckles, too.
“It’s very nice,” she said, smiling warmly, if a little guardedly. “Thank you, Chris.”
“Look you’re soaked. Go in there,” he said, pointing to the bedroom. “Take off that wet outfit, dry yourself and…um…here, put this on.”
He handed her a fluffy towel and a thick pale blue shirt still warm from the radiator, which she took gratefully.
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