Santa in need of a drink
Anunexpected meeting proves intriguing in this new short story, written for Christmas Eve, writes JOHN BOYNE
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.”