“Why was Father Christmas upset when he got a sweater for Christmas?”
“Because he was hoping for a screamer or a moaner.”
Clive Clayhill laughs gutturally, then offers me a nasty grin – his rotten teeth are the same colour as Elaine’s gravy. I push my empty plate away and scuff my chair back on the faded linoleum, feeling strangely nauseated.
That’s what happens when you buy your Christmas crackers in the fucking Sex Shop…
It is Christmas day, and Clive is the only other guest staying at The Swanson. He is a spectacularly ugly man, even by local standards. His skull looks like a used roll-on deodorant – stray hairs plastered across the pale skin.
I spent last Christmas in prison, so this place is a genuine step up for me. No one got me a present this year, but when I checked in, I found two pairs of mouldy crotch-less panties stuffed behind the radiator and a tube of genital wart cream in the bathroom cabinet.
The Swanson used to be a hot-sheets hotel, and briefly functioned as a bail hostel for paroled sex offenders. Now it is supposedly under new management. Out of season, it is just a hotel with no guests.
Elaine, the landlady, has strung up a few threadbare strands of tinsel in the TV lounge, and there is an artificial sprig of mistletoe in the lobby. I’m not sure whether the mistletoe is intended as a challenge or a threat: Elaine is half my height and twice my weight.
I often hear Clive grunting like a hog through the paper-thin walls late at night. Sometimes he cries afterwards. I guess his willpower isn’t as strong as mine.
Clive smokes in silence as I finish my beer. There is no ashtray, so he drops his high-tar cigarette in an empty Skol can on the table. He lights a second, and passes me a black and white photograph. I vaguely recognise the suits and hairstyles from my childhood, but little else seems familiar.
He gestures towards the two men – a pair of cops called Benson and Hedges– with the glowing end of his cigarette. Then he tells me that they abducted his younger sister back in 1984.
I swallow his story and it sits heavier in my gut than Elaine’s roast dinner.
Clive tells me that they are planning to snatch another girl.
I start to feel sweaty. The gauzy dining room curtains twist lightly in the winter breeze.
I ask Clive how he knows.
He tells me he has been hired as their driver.
Clive told me that Benson and Hedges like to unwind at a place they call the Clubhouse. It’s an old portakabin that has been dumped in a field adjacent to the Ocean Spray Caravan Park.
I manage to find a taxi idling next to the public toilets. The driver adds on a £10 surcharge, but doesn’t question the well-worn pick-axe handle across my lap.
I trudge across the winter mud towards the ramshackle structure. The phrase ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ has been painted across an old floorboard and nailed to the wall. I hope it is an idle deterrent: I have already been shot once this year, and it wasn’t pretty.
Despite the icy temperature, the door is wide open. A portable heater pumps out stale heat. Benson and Hedges are sitting on a faded leatherette couch, ties loosened, their shirts yellowed with sweat. Hedges is the larger of the two – handsome in a big-boned way, with a thick swathe of white hair spilling over his collar. Benson is thin and corpse-coloured, with stringy hair.
The portakabin smells of burnt food and stale urine. A skeletal Christmas tree leans against the back wall, like an afterthought. The two men seem to be playing snap with a deck of pornographic playing cards.
I shake the slush off my boots and tap on the doorframe with my pickaxe handle.
“Planning a Christmas party, gentlemen?”
“Who the fuck are you?”
Hedges has a gap-toothed smile and a boil the size of a billiard ball on the side of his neck.
“I’m a friend of Clive Clayhill.”
“I wouldn’t admit that in public, pal. Clive Clayhill is a junkie cat burglar with a penchant for eight-year-olds.”
I relax my sweaty grip on the pickaxe handle.
A rotten chuckle bubbles up from Benson’s withered chest.
“Out is he?”
I’m not sure how to respond, so I grunt.
“We have long memories, son. We knew Clive when he was wanking off other junkies for spare change. He has spent the last decade in Channing’s Wood. We were the ones who banged him up.”
I grunt again.
“Clayhill is a conniving little fucker – if he wants you out of the way it is for a reason.”
I suddenly feel embarrassed and shuffle out of the portakabin.
Hedges claps Benson on the shoulder.
“Well, old friend, the plot fucking thickens…”
Their diseased-sounding laughter follows me across the dead field.
I head back to The Swanson. The street is empty except for two burned-out cars, and a 12-year-old, breathing glue out of a plastic bag. The B&B sits between two weed-choked vacant lots. Last year, the body of a missing psychiatric patient was found in the condemned hotel that used to sit next door. The case made the national press. The killer was known as the Ladyscraper. You can still see scraps of faded yellow crime scene tape in the weeds, but only if you look hard enough.
The TV lounge is empty, but the boxy television set crackles with canned laughter. Men who have been dead longer than I have been alive mug for the camera. The volume has been turned up loud enough to fucking wake the cadaverous bastards up again. I yank the power cord out the wall and the screen fades to black.
I take the stairs two at a time, and bang on Elaine’s door with my clenched fist. As she opens it, her leopard-print robe falls open. She is wearing low-heeled shoes and no underwear.
Behind her, the room is empty. The only sound I can hear is that of her vibrator, throbbing idly on the bedside table.
“Changed your mind about that Christmas kiss, darlin’?”
“Where’s Clive, Elaine?”
She knots the robe and pouts. She has a thick white scar down the side of her chubby, heart-shaped face. It clashes with the freshly applied cherry-red lipstick.
“How the fuck should I know? I’m his landlady, not his fucking parole officer.”
I stomp down the corridor. The lock on my door has been popped with a screwdriver. I don’t bother checking inside. I only have one item of value.
Further down the hallway, Clive’s own door is ajar.
He is laying on his bed, smoking. Naked. The ashtray is balanced on his sickly looking chest. In the wintry half-light his face looks raw and uneven, like a badly rendered wall.
On the threadbare carpet, at the end of the bed, lies a half-deflated rubber sex doll.
On top of Clive’s chest of drawers is my £5,000 retirement fund, still wrapped in the pillow case from my old rooming house.
I drag him off the bed by his wisps of greasy hair, and he lands on his bony knees with a crack.
He holds up his hands pleadingly. He tries to say something, but my pick-axe handle caves his teeth in before he has a chance.
I want to say something smart, something threatening, but I don’t have the energy.
I retrieve the pillowcase full of cash from the sideboard, and leave Clive drooling blood on the carpet. He tries to crawl after me, so I kick him in the gut – hard enough to rupture something.
Elaine is standing in the corridor, robe open once again. The vibrator buzzes helplessly in her hand.
She tries to peer round me, but I slam the flimsy door.
I dip into the pillowcase and retrieve a £50 note. I hand it to Elaine.
“Sorry about the mess…”
I hand her another banknote and keep on walking.Fuck it.
She shouts down the hallway at me: “Merry fucking Christmas to you too…”