AN ALEX DALE CHRISTMAS STORY

winters-sleep-3

Christmas Day, 2013

Oxfordshire

His hands desperately clawed at the rope that had been wrapped around his neck and was being pulled, hard. As he panicked and thrashed, the tiny slivers of white from the ends of his nails tore off and fluttered down into the snow.

While he struggled, resisting the deep desire to just give in, his little dog Bruce cocked his head to one side and whined. He was scared, and conflicted. Raised from a pup to be mild-mannered, bare no teeth, be a good boy.

Bruce was not used to being off the lead, and now his thick rope leash was wrapped around his master’s neck and there was nothing he could do about it. He stamped his paws in the snow, cried plaintively, and eventually sat down. Loyal but bewildered.

The man was fading, but as he thought of his wife back in their home, waiting for him and wondering where he was, he found a last burst of strength.

After the brief frenzy, the man’s eyes closed, his knees buckled and he crumpled into the snow. As he passed out, the last words she’d said to him tick-tocked through his brain. The memory of them cantering louder than his shallow breaths and drowning heart.

December 23, 2016

Somewhere south of London

Alex slid her hand over the top of her empty Champagne flute. A fluid movement, a shake of the head, practised so many times. “No, thank you,” she smiled. The waiter had already drifted away down the restaurant carriage. No explanations.

In the first awkward sober years, excuses had tumbled from her mouth. “I’m driving,” “I’m a little unwell,” “I’m doing Dry January… for charity.” The idea of not drinking had still seemed so alien that it had to be acknowledged. She’d since learned that other people could occupy a middle ground where she could pretend to sit.

Outside, the English countryside lay in the dark. The sky illuminated in pockets by the glow from little farm buildings, smatterings of street lamps and terraces carved out of the gloom like strings of fairy lights.

Inside the carriage, choral versions of Christmas carols tinkled quietly from the speakers. Alex wrapped her cardigan tighter around her belly, filled with turkey roulade, some kind of parsnip dauphinoise and lemon torte. Mince pie fatigue in full effect two days before Christmas Day.

The Dutch have an expression: “gezellig” which means somewhere around cosy, snug, relaxed, homely. The restaurant car aboard the Winter Sleeper train, with its twinkling Christmas lights, cut glass candlesticks and dark velvet chairs, was decidedly gezellig. Alex Dale should have relaxed into it and yet… Christmas brought with it an itch.

This time last year, the seasoned journalist had reluctantly given up on a story. A cold case that had gripped the nation in 2013. One so seemingly simple and straightforward that the answers must have been lying there, just below the snow. But no matter how hard she looked, how many angles she tried, the truth wriggled further from her fingertips. And the truth still lay out there, dormant, on ice. Alex worried it might haunt every Christmas for years to come, a low rent Jacob Marley.

She’d had thirty-five Christmases and counting. Each one a lacklustre reprint of the last. Every carol, every shop window, every Christmas film a copy of the ones that came before, with diminishing returns. But every year, this sense of ordinariness still came as a surprise. As much as the day itself was pleasant now, it was never as special as the adverts offered.

This year, as for the last four, Alex would wake up under piles of blankets in Rosie’s bed. In the next bedroom, Rosie and Lily would already be awake, tired from top and tailing in a too-small bed, drunk on anticipation, pawing through their stockings. The little cottage was always cold in the morning, so downstairs Bob would be grappling with the firelighters and Judy would be wearing her thick dressing gown and slippers to chop the vegetables and stuff the turkey, hours ahead of schedule. Gezellig.

But not yet. For now, Alex was snuggling into her solo seat, deep in the belly of the sturdy carriage as it wound through the hidden meadows of England’s garden, mute under a blanket of snow. Yawning, she eased out of the chair and weaved her way through the other tables towards the door.

“Good night,” she nodded to the serving staff, ignoring the quizzical looks of the other diners who wondered quite fairly why she hadn’t received a bill like they had, crisply folded on a silver plate and weighed down with two chocolate mints.

The thrill of the press trip. Everything gratis. Such offers for meals in new restaurants, nights away and — shudder — ‘experience days’ had trickled in slowly as Alex had re-emerged. She turned most of the offers down, especially in the early days when she didn’t trust herself with a free bar. But this overnight festive train ride from London to Penzance had captured her imagination. Besides, she was going to head this way anyway. Sort of.

“Cornwall’s next to Devon,” she’d said on the phone to Bob after agreeing to the trip. “So I just thought it would be a quick drive to yours.” She couldn’t finish the sentence without laughing a little and grimacing.

“Your geography’s lousy, girl,” Bob had chuckled. “It’s a good two and a half hours without the weather.”

“I know that now,” she’d groaned.

“Ah well, let me know what time you arrive and I’ll come and get you,” his bristly South East accent had been softened, shades of Devon lifting his sentences.

“God no, this is my fault. Anyway, I like a drive.”

“Hmn.” Bob hadn’t insisted, although a pause had grown where he might. At Alex’s end of the phone line, she’d laid on her bed overlooking her cottage garden and imagined Judy’s raised eyebrow the other side. The two women got along, but Bob and Judy’s life had been simpler without Alex in it. She was someone that connected Bob to an unknown past, had become a facsimile of a daughter Judy had never known. Bob’s wife shared her family Christmas generously, but there were limits.

Alex opened the thin, faux mahogany door to the “super single cabin” she’d been given. Underfoot, the train shook a little as it shh-shh shimmied through the darkness.

This time last year, she’d driven down to the village of Uffculme in a daze. She hadn’t slept properly for the previous week, and she’d known that come January, she was going to have to do something for the first time since getting sober: bail on a story.

Her sleeping cabin on the Winter Sleeper tonight was clean and snug. “Luxurious” the press release had puffed, which was overegging it. But the linen was crisp and inviting, the dark blue blanket folded neatly on top was soft to the touch and the warm tickle from the heating fan helped encourage her boots and socks off. Soon, her jeans, top and cardigan were discarded next to them.

As an afterthought, Alex locked the cabin door and tugged some pyjamas from her holdall, exposing the gifts she’d bought and had got sales staff to beautifully wrap for her. “London things!” the girls always called them, no matter where she’d sourced the presents. Alex lived in a small cottage in a village just outside Sevenoaks in Kent, but for the girls it was close enough.

She’d learned early on the importance of parity in gifting siblings. An only child herself, the ebb and flow of family dynamics were a mystery. Rosie and Lily were four and five when she met them. A unit of two that slotted together and then exploded to separate parts in quick succession, a pair crackling with the tension of close quarters and the exquisite excitement of private jokes and games.

The first Christmas that Alex had spent with Bob and his family, she’d watched aghast as a pleasant game with a toy kitchen had descended into violence. Before she could fetch Bob or Judy, worrying how many clumps of hair would be lost, the two girls were already over it and sliding into their dip on the sofa to watch The Snowman, oblivious to her panic.

But last Christmas, well, even the girls had noticed something was up with Alex. They’d had to ask her the same thing over and over. Had grown tired of her staring at her phone screen instead of watching the “Christmas Dance Show” they were making up on the spot. She was distracted, jumpy. Bob had taken her to one side on Boxing Day, asked her the obvious question outright.

“No,” she’d shaken her head and squeezed his hand. “I promise I’m not drinking again.” He’d waited for more, searched her face with his eyes, more lined each year.

“Honestly,” she’d said and sighed, leaning back against the cold, crumbly wall of their kitchen. “I didn’t want to bring it with me, this stuff in my head. I’ve not done a very good job of switching off but it’s this story I’m working on. I don’t know. I just can’t make it fit together. Something’s off.”

Relief had drawn a tight smile onto Bob’s face. They’d sat at the kitchen table, the Boxing Day leftovers under cling film like a still life centrepiece.

“Well then. I’m glad you’re not drinking but I don’t like the look on your face so let’s hear it.”

“What?”

“This story of yours.”

“You’ve probably heard it already,” she’d half-laughed. He looked confused. “And you’ve probably drawn your own conclusions already,” she added. “Like the rest of the country has.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“Remember Christmas 2013? Charlie Duck?” Alex said, deciding fuck it, might as well talk it all through.

Bob frowned, looked off into the distance for answers while she waited. “Charlie Duck… it might ring a bell,” he said but the look on his face told a different story.

“Really? You don’t remember Charlie Duck?” Alex asked.

“I, er,” he pulled a face, “I don’t…”

“It was all over the news,” she prompted, “but we didn’t see it until Boxing Day because Judy had-“

“Banned real life,” Bob interrupted, his voice animated. “Yeah. Only sappy Christmas films allowed.”

“And when we finally turned the news on, he was everywhere.”

“Charlie Duck.” Bob paused and then exclaimed: “Oh yeah! Poor sod.”

“Well, his wife,” Alex had stopped, put her hands on her hips as Bob rolled his eyes.

“See?” she said. “Told you you’d already made your mind up.”

Well…” Bob had dismissed her telling off.

“No ‘well’ about it, she had an alibi. She didn’t do it.”

“Wasn’t there a lover?” Bob puffed.

“Yeah, half the size of Charlie and nervous as a church mouse.”

Charlie Duck. Strangled and left for dead in a small wood near his house on Christmas Day. Found unconscious, blue tinged, his loyal dog suffering the same hypothermia as his master. They’d been gone from the house two hours.

“I wouldn’t normally have worried,” his wife Pippa had told police, “but it was Christmas and the dinner was ready.”

That lie, and others, stuffed the front pages well into January. Christmas Day horror is tabloid gold. Then throw in the only witness being a dog. Well. There’s not much British audiences revel in more than a Christmas atrocity, but a plucky canine comes a close second.

“I couldn’t be honest,” Pippa had said to Alex when they first spoke by phone, a slightly pleading in her voice. “I knew that if I said he’d stormed off after finding out I cheated, and then I bloody found him, that no one would believe I was innocent. wouldn’t have believed me, would you?” Alex had to concede that she wouldn’t, because she hadn’t. Not at the time. And yet Pippa had been cleared by police quickly, she had an alibi. She’d been on the phone at the time of the attack on Charlie, dialling out on her landline, with the records to prove it.

When she’d finally come to see Alex in her cottage, Pippa had seemed a lot smaller than she had on the television, in the magazines and the newspapers — including The Times, Alex’s paper. She’d worried at her wedding ring, tucked and retucked her hair behind her ear, fidgeted in her seat. She’d bought Bruce the dog with her, to Alex’s delight, but he was nervous and clung around Pippa’s legs.

“They were so close and Bruce was so loyal to him, poor old Bruce, but Charlie struggled to be with him at first and then I suppose he bonded with me a bit more while Charlie was getting better. And Charlie has been so busy since…” she’d trailed off. Alex had bent down to fuss Bruce’s scruffy muzzle and beard, his little brown eyes were alert but he’d shrunk away a little at her touch. “If only you could talk, eh?” she’d said softly to him. “If only,” Pippa had sighed. “It’s been nearly two years and it doesn’t matter what the police say, the world and his wife thinks I’m responsible.”

“Well, I know what that feels like,” Bob had said last year, as Alex’s frustration spilled recounting Pippa’s visit. Bob, whose own trial by media following the attack of his step-daughter had left him hollowed and in hiding for years.

“I didn’t want to tell you about this case,” Alex had said, guilt prickling her skin.

“It’s alright,” he’d said quietly. “So you believe her then? The wife?”

“I believe her, I believe the police who ruled her out, I believe the phone records I’ve seen and I believe that man that she was on the phone to.” Bob had raised his eyebrow involuntarily. “Not,” Alex continued, “that I got to speak to him or anything.”

“The lover?”

“The lover.”

Pippa Duck had been sleeping with her married co-worker, Jack. They were, Pippa and Jack had told each other in leaked text messages, IN LOVE (all caps). Both partners had suspected it. Jack’s wife had confronted him on Christmas morning and he’d cracked. The wife had then driven to the Ducks’ house in her nightie, hammered on the door to be let in. All the neighbours told the police, and several told the papers, within the earliest days of the investigation.

“I think Charlie knew really,” Pippa had told Alex, turning her mug around and around in her narrow hands while Bruce curled tighter to her ankles, “he just didn’t want to believe it.”

Jack became the obvious suspect in Charlie’s attack. A slim, fine-featured man a good six-inches shorter than Charlie, he’d been in the snug of a nearby pub at the time of the attack, talking to Pippa until his mobile battery died. Alibis.

“So they paid someone to top him then?” Bob had volunteered, lowering his voice so his girls in the next room wouldn’t hear.

“The police looked at everything. Emails, texts, internet searches, social media activity, phone calls, bank statements… nothing. And it’s not the eighteen hundreds, you know? If you don’t want to be together anymore, you get divorced, you leave your husband, you don’t need to kill anyone.” Alex had tried to shake thoughts of her ex-husband, Matt, the Christmas morning he’d have had with his little girl Ava and new baby son Billy. And their mother, his wife.

“Money?”

“There was none,” Alex shook her head. “House mortgaged to the hilt, credit card debt. Life insurance wasn’t even enough to pay all that off.”

Alex had sighed, reached for the kettle. “May I?” Bob had nodded, “you know you don’t need to ask.”

“Here’s what’s bothering me, Bob. Charlie had stormed out to take the dog for a walk and to get away from the upset at home, y’know, his devastation at his wife’s infidelity. No-one could have known he’d be going out into the woods right then. Charlie used to take Bruce for a walk at different times every day, whenever he could fit it in. Sometimes he didn’t even bother, just let him run around the garden. So there was no pattern for someone to plan around.

“But whoever tried to strangle Charlie must have been waiting for him in the wood.”

“Why?” Bob asked gruffly.

“Because Charlie was caught by surprise and strangled from behind. And whoever did it was either very lucky, or very shrewd to wear gloves as well, as there wasn’t anything useful on the rope.

“Besides, Charlie couldn’t remember much afterwards, but he definitely remembered being surprised from behind. He’d taken the dog’s lead off because Bruce couldn’t run far in the snow anyway, and Charlie had been holding it in his own hand. So someone had to sneak up on him, grab the lead and wrap it around his neck so quickly that Charlie didn’t have time to react. Who could do that?”

Alex took down three mugs, dropped a dusty teabag in each poured the water carefully.

“He’s a big bloke too, massive,” she continued as she poured. “If someone had approached him the wrong way, they’d have been taking quite a risk. But how could someone lay in wait, in the right spot, when no-one knew where he’d be? It’s just a patch of woods slightly off of the main footpath. Even Pippa was lucky to find him. She’d spotted his red coat from the footpath but only because she was looking for him. And the snow had come down so heavily in that time that even Charlie and the dog’s prints had disappeared, let alone the attacker’s.”

Alex stirred in the milk, passed a mug to Bob, left Judy’s to cool a little.

“What about a crime of passion, isn’t that what it’s called?” Bob had frowned, all the talk a little close for comfort. “Someone flipped, started a fight with Charlie, maybe their dogs got into it. Or maybe Charlie was spoiling for a fight on account of his missus being caught cheating?” Alex could tell that Bob was thinking of Judy, the very idea of losing her boiling his blood. She shook her head. “He didn’t have any other marks on him, no sign of a fight. He didn’t have any bruises, no blood or skin under his nails. Just the rope burn on his neck and scratches on his hands where he’d tried to stop it crushing his windpipe. It was Christmas Day, there was no-one about and everyone in the nearby houses were accounted for by friends or family. Christmas Day must be the one day that almost everyone has a bloody alibi!”

“I’m sorry, love,” Bob had frowned and patted her shoulder with his heavy hand. “I’m stumped too.”

“I know,” Alex had said, picking up her mug and Judy’s and heading for the living room. “I just don’t think I can solve it. I don’t think there’s a new angle here. Realistically, I think I’m going to have to call it quits but I really don’t want to let Pippa down. And I can’t even write a recap of the mystery of it all because Charlie doesn’t know his wife came to me. Their marriage just about survived the affair and the press intrusion, but she said unless I could give them a fresh start, she didn’t want him to know.”

The rest of her stay in Uffculme last Christmas, Alex had managed to hide her distraction a little better. Talking to Bob had helped her settle on a grim determination to drop it but before she quit for good, Alex had gone to visit the crime site. It was a few days after the second anniversary of the attack. No snow that time. Instead it had felt like Autumn, “unseasonably mild,” the weather reports said. It made it even harder to piece the snowy story together under balmy skies.

The scent of the soil had filled the air with rich, earthy menace that afternoon. Alex walked down the Oxfordshire lane that had lay unchanged for all that time. Years. The things that must have happened on these roads, she’d thought. The stories they held, the wheels they’d whisked away. But there wasn’t a trace of anything useful. There wasn’t in 2013 when it happened and there certainly wasn’t after two years had passed.

She’d called Pippa from her car. “I’m in the neighbourhood,” Alex had said, “can we meet somewhere?”

“I’ll try to get away,” Pippa’s hopeful voice had replied. “Do you have something?”

“I’m sorry,” Alex had said quietly, “I don’t.”

When Pippa met Alex in a supermarket café in the next town, the two women’s worried expressions mirrored each other.

“It’s okay,” Pippa started, before Alex had a chance, “I know it was wishful thinking.”

“I’m so sorry, I just can’t work it out. I don’t even know what I don’t know.”

“The police have given up you know,” Pippa said, fiddling with a sugar sachet. “Cos Charlie’s alright, isn’t he? He lived, he took me back. No-one else has been attacked… why would they bother, I guess?” Alex had nodded. Pippa was right.

“Charlie wants us to try for a baby,” Pippa had said suddenly. “And I just- I don’t want to. Not with this still hanging over me. But he doesn’t understand that.” She’d looked down at her own thin knees. “What can I do? He took me back when the whole country thought he should get shot of me. When Jack wouldn’t even take my calls, Charlie forgave me. I’ll give him a baby, of course I will, but I’d have just really preferred to do it without people everywhere thinking its mother is a monster.”

Charlie Duck was a national hero. The brave victim of a Christmas attack. A man humble enough to generously and publicly forgive his wife, who speaks eloquently about forgiveness on television and in magazine articles. Who had even written a book about his experience: “Don’t Look Back: The Charlie Duck Story”. Again, Pippa was right. She would be monstered.

Alex hadn’t said anything, not out loud. Every muscle in her body had twitched in agitation. You don’t have to give someone a baby as reparation. But Pippa was hardly the first guilty wife to feel that way, and she wouldn’t be the last.

“Congratulations, I guess,” was the phrase Alex finally settled on.

Nearly a year on from that stilted conversation, Alex angled the reading lamp in her sleeper cabin away from her book. She wasn’t taking in a word, just kept re-reading the same page over and over and still didn’t know who was who and what was what. She threw back the sheets and blanket, headed to the window and pulled up the little blind. At first, all she saw was her own pale face staring back.

She squinted, cupped her hands to her eyes like binoculars and peered out. The glass felt cold against her nose, and the little cloud of breath turned wet and trickled away.

Outside, the fields were giving way to houses and suddenly the train was ambling its way through an empty station. It was past midnight, the yellow digits of the station clock told her. If she had been at home, she might have been tempted to pull on her running things, grab her forehead flashlight and go for a run. She’d only done it a few times, sticking to the lit areas of the housing estate at the edge of the village she’d lived for three years. At night, Alex runs without music. Ghosts and adrenaline are enough to keep her legs moving. And afterwards, she showers then has a hot chocolate and falls into the kind of deep sleep about which poems are written. But for now, she was confined to quarters. Her running things were in her holdall. They always were, every year. It had become a joke. She’d announce her intention to run each day of the festive season. Instead her trainers would stay untroubled and she’d waddle around Uffculme with the rest of them, a full tummy and a few non-committal mumblings about New Years resolutions on her lips.

She’d been determined to make a mends for the limp company she’d been last year, and yet after months of not thinking about Charlie and Pippa Duck, she was falling into the same trap.

In a thin Marks and Spencer bag, a bottle of red wine ticked silently, snuggled amongst Percy Pigs for the girls and some chocolates for Judy. But it didn’t tempt her, not today. Instead, she reached for her phone to do a quick Google search, see if anyone else had come up with a half-decent theory, maybe one of those true crime nuts on Reddit. No reception. No 3G, no bars, the wifi not working.

She groaned and climbed back over to the little window, yawning as she saw the fields where maybe, by day, some countable sheep grazed. It was nearly one in the morning and the train would be pulling into Penzance in under seven hours. Breakfast in under six. In desperation, she set the white noise app off on her phone — falling asleep was certainly a lot easier when she drank — and eventually her brain stopped its feverish montage.

The knock on the door didn’t register at first, but the lolloping trundle of the wheels beneath her did. Alex sat up and thanked the guard for the wake up call she’d scheduled. The blind was still open from last night, and the frost of the ground amplified what little light there was from the sun, creating a stained glass effect on every wall.

Alex swung her legs out of the narrow bed, unlocked the door and paced down the hall to use the toilet and splash water on her face to wake up. She would shower at Penzance station after getting off, but back in her cabin, she dragged her jeans back on and a fresh top to join the other passengers for a “festive” breakfast.

“Happy Christmas Eve,” the waitress announced to her with a wide smile as she arrived in the dining car. “And to you,” Alex said, although she didn’t mean it because Christmas Eve isn’t on the list. Happy Christmas, Happy Birthday, Happy Christmas Eve? Nice try. She was twitchy and irascible from lack of sleep, slightly motion sick after eight or nine hours of travelling.

Alex slid into the same solo seat she’d occupied last night and fiddled with the salt and pepper pots.

“Coffee please,” she said quietly to the seasonably cheerful waitress. “And I’ll have the eggs benedict.”

Alex ignored the looks of other women in the carriage, presumably wondering who travels alone on a romantic Christmas themed train service. Last night’s mix of choral Christmas carols were playing again, louder in the daytime. With the patchy free wifi on her phone too slow to properly surf the internet, Alex stared out of the window. The last station they’d heaved into was Redruth, they were almost there.

The muffins were a little soggy and the egg whites too loose and jellied for her taste, but the coffee was good and strong. Outside, life and light were picking up speed. Children wrapped up like chocolates dotted hills, dragging plastic sleds on strings up the slopes or sitting gripped to them as they zigzagged down.

Very few people were waiting on the various station platforms, perhaps staying home or early morning panic-buying in nearby shops. A few dog walkers were braving the snow, marching across fields or along lanes that were there and gone in the blink of an eye, leaving flashes of memory: their dogs in tartan or check coats, owners in hats and scarves. So much knitwear.

Someone walking along the top of a small white hill had given up and was simply carrying their little dog. Alex smiled. She’d often pondered getting a dog of her own. She worked from home, she lived surrounded by nice places to walk and the company would be welcome too. But dogs — as with Oxfordshire, snow, woods and even, it seemed, Christmas — had been flavoured with the regret of the Duck case.

No signal yet. She hoped the car hire place she’d booked had the car ready. Normally she’d call to check, distrustful. Controlling, as had been suggested before by long gone friends.

She thought again about the little dog nestled under his or her owner’s arm, dangling there already a mile or two in the past. Wasn’t that against proud canine instinct? To allow oneself to be carried like a rolled up carpet? Or were their little paws just so cold they didn’t care. She thought again of Bruce. How his instinct had been so strong, even in the face of something so frightening. Loyal to the last, even risking hypothermia to stay by his master’s side.

There was something else though, something just out of Alex’s eyeline. His instinct. His cold paws. Something- oh god.

“Shall I take these?” the cheerful waitress asked but had already loaded her arm with the abandoned plate of eggs benedict, the side plate from the toast that had gone cold.

“We’re going to get in to Penzance any minute,” the waitress added, apologetically.

“Sure, yeah,” Alex said, waving her away, snatching up her phone and weaving out through the tables. She looked at the screen — signal! — no, it’d already gone. Fuck.

Alex stumbled with a lurch of the train, opened her cabin and shoved her pyjamas and bits and bobs back into her holdall.

No service.

She brushed her teeth over the tiny corner basin, cringing a bit as she rinsed with the undrinkable water.

No service.

The train drew to a stop. Alex was first to dismount from her section, nodding goodbye to the guard who opened up the door with a festive flourish.

As she headed out to find the hire car place, Alex stared at the phone screen and willed the bars to reappear. No service.

She braved the pee smell of the phone box, but there was a heart defibrillator inside instead of a handset.

The signal bars finally popped back up just as Alex reached the front of the queue in the small car hire office. She slid her phone into her back pocket and rattled through the paperwork for the car as fast as possible.

A cheerful Cornish woman led her out to inspect the Land Rover she’d booked for damage. Bob had found that a hoot. “It’s not the wilds of Africa, love,” he’d said, “I think you’ll be alright in a Ford Focus or something.”

“It’s perfect,” Alex said as she chucked her holdall and M&S bag in the boot and then bid the woman goodbye.

As she opened the driver’s door, Alex slid her phone back out of her pocket. No service.

“Jesus Christ!” she’d yelled at the screen, making the car hire woman jump as she reached the door of the office. Alex didn’t notice, she had already started the engine and headed for the exit. As she wound out of the car park and headed the way the A30 was signposted. She had considered stopping in St Ives on the way for a little sight seeing but now Alex was focused on finding somewhere to make a call and then getting to Bob’s.

Just as she was about to swing off the roundabout and on to the A30, her voicemail rang. Alex swerved back into the middle lane of the roundabout, shaking a couple of honks loose and no doubt some remarks about “bloody 4×4 drivers”. She pulled off the next the exit, pulled straight into a bus stop and took a deep breath. Four bars of signal.

Pippa answered after three rings.

“Hi, Alex?”

“Hi Pippa. Are you alone?”

“Well, yes, me and the baby, why?”

The baby. Alex swallowed hard. “I know what happened to Charlie.”

Alex pulled up slowly outside Bob’s cottage. The thick concrete wall that faced the road had been painted since she was last here, a pale lemon that would be back to grey after a few more winters.

The one window that faced out had two little faces in it and as Alex hopped out of the car, she’d waved cheerily. Even in her leather jacket and thick scarf it was bloody freezing. The ground slick and tough with frost.

“Hello, love,” Bob said as he appeared from the porch and came to open the gate for her. Her rubbed her arms and took her bags. “The girls are dying to see you,” he chuckled.

“I can tell,” she beamed. “I’m dying to see them too.”

Judy handed her a cup of tea as soon as her boots were off and placed alongside the family’s shoes that lined the wall.

“It’s so good to be here,” Alex smiled. Feeling more genuinely festive than she could ever remember. The fire was dancing, the TV was playing The Snowman and a bushy tree bent over slightly under the low cottage roof, heavily decorated with white lights and clashing tinsel. “Mum let us do the tree this year,” Rosie beamed.

“Wow,” said Alex, “it looks so good I thought you’d had professional decorators in.”

The girls had giggled.

“You seem a lot happier than last year,” Bob said that night as Judy was upstairs trying to strong arm the two very excited children into bed.

“I am. And I’m sorry,” Alex said. Bob looked confused. “About being so on edge last time. I shouldn’t have brought any of that to your home.”

“Ahh,” he said, waving the apology away and burrowing further into the sofa with his head, untouched mince pie in its foil on the arm.

Alex waited for questions but he didn’t ask any. She tried to watch Elf and chuckle along with Bob but she couldn’t help it. “I worked it out,” she said.

“What?”

“Charlie Duck,” she said, and let her smile drop. It wasn’t right to smile.

“Oh?” Bob’s mouth made a little “O” shape and he raised his eyebrows. “Go on.”

“Well, I’ll tell you but you mustn’t tell anyone else because I’m not putting it in the paper.”

Bob frowned, “okay,” he said, his forehead wrinkling deeper.

“Yeah. I promised Pippa. I agreed that I’d only publish if I found something out that would make things better.”

“But you solved it?”

“Yep. I solved it. But it certainly doesn’t make anything better. Not really, not for her and definitely not for him.”

Alex took a sip of her hot chocolate but it had cooled to a chalky gloop. She grimaced as she swallowed.

“They’ve just had a baby,” Alex said and then added “as you know, I’m sure, because it was all over the papers.”

“Yeah, good for them, eh?”

Alex didn’t answer, pressed on. “He forgave her so quickly, didn’t he? For her infidelity. Never doubted her, even when the whole country thought he should leave her. When everyone was convinced that she’d got someone to try to top him, no matter how strong the proof was. He believed her.”

“Yeah, he did. Won him a lot of fans too. Not sure I’d have forgiven any of that.”

“Me either. It was like he was gagging to forgive her. “

“I dunno about that,” Bob said.

“I do,” Alex said, “because he was. Gagging to forgive her, gagging for her gratitude, gagging to show himself to be the great man that everyone soon thought he was.”

“I don’t follow.”

There was no attacker,” Alex said in a hard whisper.

Bob sat back, rubbed his thick fingers over his unruly hair. “You what?”

“No attacker.” Alex shook her head. “There were no footprints because there was no-one else. Not because of an unlucky flurry of snow. There was no DNA on the lead because no-one else had touched it, not because he’d worn gloves. And the ‘attack’-“ she used air quotes, “didn’t kill him, because he pulled the lead around his own neck so tightly that he passed out. And then he just lay there and waited to be found.”

“But he was half-frozen to death?” Bob said.

“Was he? Or was he just very cold and very relieved that she found him in time, before he had to give up and try something else to make her stay with him instead of running off with Jack, the guy she’d fallen in love with?”

“So he did this to make her stay?”

“Yep, and it worked like a charm. No-one else would want her after she’d been outed as a cheat and accused of being a would-be murderer. She said it herself. And she’s still so grateful that he forgave her, that she gave him — gave him, mark you — a baby.”

“She seemed very happy about the baby, in the interviews.”

“I’m sure she is very happy about the baby, I’m sure she loves the baby very much as that’s what happens with most babies, no matter how ambivalent a parent might be before it arrives.”

“Have you told her?”

“Yeah, I told Pippa,” Alex said sadly, “I called her right before I came here. She believed me one hundred per cent.”

“So what’ll she do now?”

“Honestly?” Alex said, her eyes dropping to her hands in her lap. “Nothing. She’s had his baby. And she only wanted me involved to make things better. Charlie’s built a whole cottage industry on being a pillar of forgiveness. If it came out that he’d faked it, they’d lose everything and she’d be vilified just as much. Maybe more, because she’s already cast as the baddie so the accusation would be that she’d masterminded it. Besides, it would be very hard to prove and he’d never admit it.”

“If it’s so hard to prove, how can you be so sure? And how can she?”

“Bruce the dog.”

“Eh?” said Bob.

“Think about it, he’s so close to his master that he lay in the snow with him despite losing body temperature himself, despite having no idea how long he’d have to stay there. He’d not long been clipped, her didn’t have his coat on. He was found in worse shape than Charlie but he stayed.”

“Dogs are loyal,” Bob said, nodding.

“Yeah, they are. It’s their instinct. So you’ve got a dog with such strong instincts and such a close bond that he risked hypothermia. But before that he stood by and watched his master get attacked and didn’t do anything? He didn’t bite the attacker, didn’t claw at him, didn’t howl even for attention? The attacker didn’t have to distract him or kick him or strangle him? There was no sign that he’d been in any way affected, except how traumatised he was, how confused and clingy with Pippa afterwards. That’s because he’d watched Charlie Duck wrap the lead around his own neck and pull it as hard as he could with both hands until, well, you know the rest.”

Bob bit his lip. “You might have something there,” he said after a few moments.

“I know I have,” Alex said, “and Pippa knows I have. Because Charlie Duck got everything he wanted that Christmas.”

Bob exhaled and stood up with a groan.

“Well,” he said. “Bloody hell.”

“Yep, bloody hell,” Alex said. And as Judy made her way back down the narrow stairs and into the living room Alex added, “and now I’ve finally put that to bed, I can concentrate on spending Christmas with all my favourite people.”

“Amen to that,” Judy said. “Let’s open those chocolates you brought.”

Alex Dale first featured in Try Not to Breathe, available now.