It was the sixth week of Christmas – less than three more to go until the big day – and all through the Royal Alfred Hotel was the noise of parties. Friday night was less than half an hour away from handing over to Saturday morning and while the guests seemed to have embraced the Season To Be Jolly concept, the principle of Good Will To All was in danger of collapse.
In the wood-panelled reception, which had once warmed Victorian high society on winter nights such as this, a screeching row between two drunken young women had suddenly escalated from expletive-laden insults and accusations to swinging fists and handfuls of hair. At the reception desk, a middle-aged couple just back from a nice meal out were staring in wide-eyed realisation that their quiet weekend away might not be all they hoped it would be, while the duty manager, suspended in the act of handing over their key, was plotting with horror the potential path of the squabbling females and the small baying crowd around them towards the large, glittering Christmas tree.
Along one of the corridors leading from the reception, the door to the gents’ toilet was pulled halfway open and then slid shut again, not because the person on the other side of it had changed his mind about leaving but because he had lost his grip on the handle. After taking a more calculated hold this time, he steadily pulled the door fully open and emerged unsteadily back on to the corridor, his distinct sway not helped by the chastising tap to the back of the shoulder the door gave him as it closed behind him.
In his creased dark blue suit with a crumpled white shirt open at the neck and stained grey tie, he would have looked less out of place in a skip than in a city centre four-star hotel which still, at most times of the year, clung on to pretensions of being reasonably posh. Though he had thankfully retained enough self-awareness to check his flies were done up, his shirt remained untucked on one side at the front and the bottom button of it was undone, allowing a small, unappealing roll of paunchy flesh to protrude, exposed, where it bulged above the belt line. His uncombed hair was retreating at the temples and was long overdue both a wash and a cut, while his sagging jowl and dark, careworn eyes made him look older than his thirty-seven years, confirming that here was a man whose neglected appearance could not be written off as the excesses of only one night.
Composing himself following the unanticipated contact with the door of the gents, he suppressed a belch and stopped in the middle of the corridor to make sure he was pointing in the right direction. A man in a dinner suit stepped past him with an ‘excuse me’, and opened the door to the Thornbridge Room on the opposite side of the corridor. His eyes followed the dinner-suited man through to the far end of the room, where entertainer Ronnie de Martino, all the way from Doncaster, was wrapping up his set for the annual golf club dinner dance. Dabbing the perspiration from his brow, the veteran crooner resurrected the last of his well-worn jokes of dubious taste while he cued up the backing track to his grand finale (“Here’s a little favourite of mine that was a big hit around the time of the World Cup Italia 90 for the one and only, the iconic Mr Luciano Pavarrrrrotti”).
With deliberate and reasonably assured steps, the dishevelled man walked on to the reception area, where the aftermath of the row was still being dealt with. The manager of the Teleshef call centre company had already delegated the task of keeping his two junior colleagues well apart and was now doing his best to placate the duty manager of the hotel, who was protesting about the damage caused to the reputation of the establishment by such outrageous behaviour and was threatening the ultimate sanction – pulling the plug on the disco in the Hopefield Suite and shutting the bar.
Five yards away, one of the chastened combatants, her make-up ruined beyond salvation and her new dress torn, was being consoled on the leather-effect Chesterfield sofa by two friends but was still defiantly vowing, between snivels, that she would get the bitch.
The Birley Suite was across the other side of reception and, largely oblivious to the drama he was leaving behind him, the dishevelled man pushed open the door to it. Inside, he paused again, adjusting his ears to the pounding beat and his eyes to the gloom which was being penetrated in time to the music by the flashing lights of the dance floor. The Ridings Building Society Christmas do was still going strong.
The paper decorations which had not been dragged from their sticky tape fixings to be wrapped around necks like feather boas were sagging in the stale heat. The remains of burst ‘Happy Xmas’ balloons, trodden into a mess of debris with party poppers and discarded paper hats, stuck to his shoes as he walked deeper into the room, past abandoned tables cluttered by empty glasses.
Young men in their best going-out shirts, their drinks cupped close to their chests for comfort and safety, gazed with predatory eyes from the edge of the dance floor at the girls in party frocks. Bolder work-mates were putting on their well-practiced moves in an attempt to lure a girl or two from a group that had, at its centre, in her sparkly black mid-thigh dress, Stella the savings accounts manager. Even when she was in her normal day-to-day work wear, all her male colleagues unanimously agreed she was really fit for her age and, emboldened by booze, their admiration was reaching deeper and more carnal levels. Only one middle-aged manager, however, his tie dragged loose and his pulling potential no longer regarded seriously by anyone other than himself, dared approach the lovely Stella for a brief hand-on-the-hip boogie and a swift twirl, unaware of jealous younger stares.
In the furthest corner of the room was the bar and the dishevelled man veered deliberately towards it. The stool he had vacated ten minutes earlier had not been taken by anyone else and so he sat back down, scooped a ten-pound note from his trouser pocket and gestured to the barman, who no longer needed confirmation of the order and poured another double rum and coke. As he settled to wait for the drink, he swivelled the stool so that he had his back to the centre of everyone else’s attention, rested his elbows on the bar and sighed.
The early part of his night has been spent picking over an unpalatable Christmas meal, in awkward isolation at the end seat of a table he shared with people he had no time for on any other day of the year, content to allow the conversations to swirl around him. That duty done, he decided he had earned the right to sit alone and drink for the rest of the night, his steady progress towards the familiar blurry numbness of intoxication interrupted only by the regular acid eruptions brought on by the food.
In the solitude of his quiet corner, he could drink unnoticed. Having a good time at these functions was practically compulsory but overstepping the mark was still tacitly discouraged and drinking to oblivion was definitely not the right example expected of a senior member of staff. He knew how to be discreet about it. Put your order in when no-one else is at the bar, or occasionally use one of the other bars in the building, if the option is there. Go for doubles, triples even, and always with a mixer so they don’t know how much is rum and how much is coke. Knock them back as quickly as you like. Nobody watches you closely enough to count how many you’ve had. Nobody really cares. As long as you stay upright, you can get away with anything.
Mornings were harder. It was difficult to hide a heavy night before from every other member of staff he would have to pass on his way to the sanctuary of his own small office but, once inside, it was possible to give the impression of being busy by taking the phone off the hook until the head cleared a bit. A livener from the bottle in the briefcase sometimes helped. Always handy to have a few cans of coke and a packet of mints in the drawers as well. Sometimes, he invented appointments at branch offices to give him extra recovery time at home.
Everybody knew anyway. The junior office staff had even invented a grading system for those hungover morning appearances; a scale of one to five ranging from ‘slightly’ to ‘completely’. Most of the more senior staff had been really good about it since he had returned to work there and were still prepared to make allowances. They knew what he had been through. Someone might occasionally chance a quiet ‘are you OK?’ but none of them really knew what to say and so thought it best to leave him alone.
Frankly, no one was paying the slightest attention to him tonight, especially those who had felt compelled to attempt small talk earlier by the unfortunate luck of the draw in the table plan. They were happy and probably quite relieved to attempt their shouted conversations elsewhere.
They would most likely have preferred it if he had not come at all. He knew it was a mistake too but he had succumbed to the immoderate pleading of Julie, whose job it was to be a helpful first point of contact for visitors to the High Street branch and whose self-appointed mission it was to achieve one hundred per cent attendance at another interminable annual works Christmas do. He had been Julie’s toughest challenge but she was one of those at the office whose sympathy had not yet been exhausted and she wasn’t about to take no for an answer. She probably thought she was being kind.
Much as he hated to admit it, he quite enjoyed the fact that someone actually went through the motions of making him feel like his presence at the do would be brilliant, even though the truth was nobody could care less whether he was there or not. So he had bought a ticket. That was in October. Only later did it strike him about the date.
Of all the days. One year on.
It would have been easier to just not turn up and then deal with the excuses on Monday, if anyone even noticed he wasn’t there. He would have lied. He wouldn’t have said anything about why this day, of all days, made him even less inclined to pretend to be sociable. That would have just made him sound as if he was milking it. Lies are easier.
In the end, he decided he would more than likely spend the night pouring the contents of a bottle of rum down his throat and so he might as well have it dispensed by the barman at the Royal Alfred as anywhere else. Perhaps there still was, deep within him, a part of his soul which craved an end to the self-exile he had imposed. Maybe. Anyway, he decided to go. Right now, though, he wished he had decided to pour his own rum at the flat.
One year. So much had gone wrong in that time that he could barely recall what his life had been like before then.
One year. His marriage, home, friends, future – all lost to him now and all because of one stupid decision on one night. Why the hell didn’t I...? Ah! Here we go again.
He drained his glass and, practically in a single motion, turned to order another from the barman. Half a minute later, another double rum and coke with two fresh cubes of ice was in his hand and his pocket was lighter by another £7.50.
On the dance floor, Robbie Williams fought to be heard above the tuneless accompaniment of personal banking analysts, mortgage consultants, financial planners and clerical staff who were linked, arms around shoulders and waists, to form a large swaying circle.
Before the noisy huddle could disperse, the next song was already playing. The first few notes were unmistakable and were greeted with whoops of joy from the dance floor. Others were soon on their way to join them. It was the song which has tortured the deepest consciousness of every bar worker, greetings card shop assistant and supermarket checkout person for long weeks of countless years around the same time of year.
The royalties pay-out every Christmas must be enormous. So here it is; another few pennies in Noddy Holder’s Pension Plan.
It was time to escape. He drained his glass again, gave an unacknowledged nod of thanks to the barman, who looked as if the end of his shift could not come quickly enough, and after peering around to remember where the exit was, he headed for it.
His lungs appreciated the cool, fresh air even if the rest of him didn’t. He shivered with only his flimsy suit jacket for warmth as he emerged into the city centre street, where people walked briskly on their way home or wandered, yawping ostentatiously, immune to the temperature and seemingly in no hurry to call time on their night out.
Christ, three more weeks of this. Bloody Christmas.
There were usually long queues at the taxi ranks at this time, so he turned against the flow and headed towards the back-street taxi company office that had been his last call on many a night spent alone trailing around the quieter pubs, away from the busy bars at the heart of the city centre.
A few minutes later, he walked through the door of the squat, dirty office of Zingy Cabs and was greeted with a world-weary glance from the hard-bitten woman in her fifties who seemed to sit permanently there behind the protective screen of the radio desk. She never offered more than a disdainful flicker of acknowledgement whenever anyone walked through the door. No doubt that is what too much exposure to too many people who have had too much to drink and are either irrationally aggressive or believe they are hilariously funny does to a person. Perhaps she was once as bright and pleasant as Julie the High Street customer representative. Perhaps not. With or without the protection of the screen, she did not look a woman to mess with. With the briefest exchange of eye contact and a discontented sigh, she picked up the radio mike.
‘Anybody on their way back to the office?’
‘Four-three, just dropped off and on my way back in, five minutes.’
‘Be with you in a few minutes, sir, if you would just take a seat,’ she said flatly and returned to pawing over a tatty trashy magazine.
He sat on one of a row of grimy plastic chairs and looked at the same old posters on the pin board opposite. Most of them were flyers for nearby takeaways but the largest, handwritten in marker pen on fluorescent yellow card, was an attempt to deter potential fare dodgers and included an unnecessary apostrophe in the word ‘cameras’.
Fixed to the wall above the pin board was a battered portable TV with the volume turned up too high. A square-jawed cop in plain clothes was in the process of taking on the whole of gangland armed only with a pistol that apparently never ran out of bullets. He was a very good shot. Just as the cop took out another three of the bad guys, the woman behind the protective screen, without looking up at the TV, reached up a flabby arm and changed channel with the remote control. She then put the remote back down on the counter and flicked over the page of her magazine.
On the TV now, two women, one with bottle-blonde hair and a huge surgically enhanced cleavage and the other darker, with a tattoo of three red roses down the length of one arm from the shoulder to the elbow, were sitting at a table. They were the type who became famous for appearing on reality TV shows and talking vacuous nonsense and were, at this very moment, talking vacuous nonsense on a reality TV show.
He watched them gesturing and preening, not really able and not especially attempting to pick up the thread of what they were talking about, until a car pulled up outside.
‘This one mine?’ he said. The response came with a single nod, no eye contact.
Out in the cold again, he dodged a rowdy group who were on their way to the pizza and kebab takeaway next door and climbed into the back of an ageing Toyota.
‘Bottom of School Lane, right?’ said the driver, who was plainly more familiar with the face in his rear-view mirror than his passenger was with the back of the head now in front of him. The driver also knew it was pointless trying to start conversation with this customer. It was a silent fifteen-minute drive.
As the car pulled away again, he took a few steps down the steep side road to the entrance to the flats where he lived, fumbling in his pocket for the key to the main door, when he froze, hearing a whispered voice from up ahead.
Looking up sharply, he squinted to see the figure of a man cloaked by darkness fifteen yards away on the other side of the street, though there was not enough light to distinguish a face.
‘Who is it?’
‘John, I need to talk to you.’
His heart was pounding. His brain attempted to work out whether, if he tried to make a run for it now, he could reach the secure main door of the flats and get through it before this man could cut him off. It would be close. Too close. Maybe that would only make him aggressive. Jesus, who is it? How does he know my name?
‘Come out into the open, where I can see you.’
‘Best not. Look, come over here. It’s all right, mate. I’m not a nutter or anything. Trust me.’
Trust me? Mate?
‘Look, who the hell are you? I’m not stupid. I’m not falling for this. There’s no way I’m going over there. How many of you are there? Leave me alone or I’ll shout for help.’
In the few moments of silence that followed, he felt as if he was going to be sick. Make a run for it. Now! Now, while you’ve got the chance! Then the figure spoke again.
‘It’s OK. I’m alone. It’s me, Stef.’
With that, the figure stepped out of the shadows into where the street light caught his face. He was in his mid-thirties, not especially tall and didn’t look especially threatening, with his thinning dark hair and dark-framed glasses. In fact, he looked more apprehensive than dangerous.
John’s blood ran cold. He knew that face but he hadn’t seen it for a while.
Not for a year. A year to the day, to be precise.