“Of course, I didn’t realise I’d just seen a murder.”
They all stopped talking when I said that.
“You saw a what?” Thomas said, his mouth half full of the mince pie he’d shoved in moments before.
“A murder. I mean, when I saw them together, I thought they were just getting some air and he slipped. They said it was an accident. But now I look back, none of it made sense.”
“Anna, are you serious?” Vanessa was staring at me, leaning on the back of the sofa with a glass of sherry in her hand. It’s funny how all of my cousins had got to thirty and suddenly turned into our grandparents.
“Of course I’m serious. It was the view that made me remember.” I realised that my pause had lasted rather too long when I saw Daniel out of the corner of my eye, gesticulating with the remains of his mince pie. His sister Catherine was staring at me, looking rather pale.
“You know how we all joke that Gran and Gramps always put us in the same rooms as if we’re still nine instead of thirty-nine?”
“Speak for yourself,” Thomas replied. Was he still chewing the same mince pie, or had he crammed another one in?
“OK, thanks for the reminder. Anyway, I was looking out of the window in my room earlier and realised I was looking at the same view. The snow on the drive and top of the gateposts and the frosty trees beyond. It felt like I was a little girl again.”
“When was this?”
“Thirty years ago. Thomas, it was your first Christmas, so I must have been nine. Ness, you’d have been six, which means you two would probably have been too young to remember.
“But – who was m-m-murdered?” Catherine sounded terrified. There was a question. What was his name?
The Christmas routine in my grandparents’ house hadn’t changed since 1958, when they brought their first child, my Dad, home from the hospital. Christmas Eve was for church, Christmas Day for family, and Boxing Day brought their friends from the village for lunchtime cold cuts and pickled onions, followed by drinking and nibbles that could go on until the early hours. Each Christmas celebration blended into the next. The only difference was that one of Dad’s three siblings occasionally added a new cousin for me to play with. I tried to remember the man who died that day. He was a big man, tall with strong, broad shoulders and dark hair. Loud voice, too. I remember being three years old, mute and wide-eyed, when he’d burst into the room and shouted ho-ho-ho down at me. What was his name?
“Brendan. I think. Something like that. I’m sure he had an Irish accent.”
“Oh, him!” Vanessa exclaimed. “Yes, I remember him a bit. Absolutely massive and with a habit of pretending to be Father Christmas even though he never wore the suit.”
“I don’t remember anything happening to him.”
“Do you remember ever seeing him again?”
Vanessa frowned slightly, then shook her head. “Now you come to mention it, I thought – actually, I don’t know what I thought. I can’t say I missed him.”
“I don’t remember anyone mentioning him again.” Vanessa’s brow was still wrinkled. “Is that odd?”
“Of course not,” Daniel replied, “would you talk about it if someone had died in your house?”
“It wasn’t in the house, though. It was out there.” I waved my hand towards the bay window. The moonlight reflected off the snow, but I could only see the outline of the cars parked outside and the gateposts beyond.
It didn’t matter whether you were a baby or a teenager. In Gran and Gramps’ house, all the children went to bed at seven o’clock. By the time Vanessa and I were teenagers, our parents had learned to bring a stash of snacks and moved the TV from one of their rooms into one of ours. As long as we kept the volume low and our giggles muted, we could chat and watch cheesy Christmas shows until we were actually ready to go to sleep. At nine, I was old enough to feel slighted at being forced into a baby’s bedtime. I had hoped that Vanessa, only three years my junior, would have joined me in protest. However, our traditional post-lunch Boxing Day walk had worked its magic, and Vanessa had to be carried up to bed halfway through the teatime buffet.
I was left, grumpy in my nightdress, to amuse myself in a bedroom that smelt of fresh paint and musty curtain fabric. Mum had left me with a torch and a copy of ‘Matilda’ along with my bedtime milk, but I was still wide awake after I finished the last few chapters. I wriggled out of the tight layers of sheets and blankets and found an eiderdown in the blanket box at the bottom of the bed. If anyone caught me, I could say I’d been cold and needed an extra blanket. It was a complete lie, of course. Gran’s bedmaking resembled something from the ‘Princess and the Pea’, except most of the layers were on top instead of underneath.
I wrapped the eiderdown around me and shuffled to the window. My room was above the drawing room, which was Gramps’ way of describing a place with sofas but no TV. The party was rumbling on below me, with indistinct music and the occasional shriek of laughter. Light from the vast bay window illuminated the snow at the front of the house and turned the parked cars into dark shapes. I recognised the outline of Dad’s trusty Ford, although the snow that had settled on the roof since we arrived on Christmas Eve gave it an odd, lumpen look. The trees kept watch in the distance, reaching their branches towards the dark velvet sky.
I winced and shrunk back from the window as the lights blazed before me. Was there a car? The sudden flare reminded me of headlights, but I couldn’t hear an engine. As I edged back towards my vantage point, I realised that someone had turned the lamps on. They were never lit, and I’d always assumed they didn’t work, but there they were, halogen bulbs blazing and turning everything behind them white. The front door swung open below, and two men emerged. I recognised Brendan immediately. He was the biggest man at the party by half a foot and at least two stones. His companion was harder to identify, but he was obviously a member of the family. All of my male relatives have the same walk—a loping gait that looked like a shrug was travelling forward. At first, I thought it might be Dad. Then the other man turned, and I realised it was Uncle Arthur. My Dad’s youngest brother was the only one of the four who hadn’t contributed any grandchildren or even a significant other. He was the funniest man I knew, always ready with a joke. At Christmas, he’d pull chocolate coins from behind my ears as if by magic. But this wasn’t the Uncle Arthur I knew.
As he turned, I saw his face, screwed up in fury. I leaned closer to the glass but couldn’t make out what he was saying. Even so, I could tell he was shouting. His mouth moved quickly, releasing droplets of spit and foam. He finally paused, and I saw Brendan amble towards him, his arms moving slowly. It was the first time I’d seen that movement, and I didn’t understand what he was doing. Now I do. He was trying to calm things down. It didn’t work. Uncle Arthur started shouting again, except now he was crying too. Why didn’t anyone else come to stop them? Were they watching from the window, expecting it all to blow over? Uncle Arthur put his face in his hands, and Brendan moved to put his arm around him. Big mistake. My Uncle grabbed him and pushed him away. Brendan slid towards the gatepost and hit it head-first. At the time, I thought it was a horrible accident—an error in judgment. Now, I remember seeing Arthur grab Brendan and check the gatepost’s position before throwing him. I remember the expression he wore as he turned back towards the house after seeing his friend’s head split open on the corner of the post. He was happy. Smug, even. I watched as he deliberately rearranged his face and screamed in horror, calling the family to help him. As the others emerged, speaking of ambulances and doctors, I realised I’d been holding my breath. I sunk back through the curtain and buried myself back under the blankets.
“Oh my God.” Everyone was wide-eyed, and only Thomas spoke, “What happened then?”
“The police were there when I got up the following morning, but I was kept out of the way. I overheard someone saying it was an accident then clamming up as soon as they saw me. There was a weird atmosphere, too. No one seemed to want to talk to each other. We all stayed together until New Year’s Day, but it was as if Gran and Gramps, and our parents, had had all the fun sucked out of them. Then suddenly, Uncle Arthur was gone.”
“I don’t remember him,” Catherine said, “is that why?”
“Yes, I think so. A few months later, Dad told me he’d got a job in Australia. I thought that meant we might be able to go and stay with him, but we never did. He never came back to visit, either. I asked about the accident once, a few years later. I wondered whether he didn’t come back because he didn’t want to think about his friend. Everyone looked at me like you did just now. Later, Mum told me I must never mention it again.”
“So, did they just send him away? Did nobody think it might just have been an accident?” Daniel looked at each of us in turn. “Couldn’t they have tried to protect him?”
“I think that’s what they were doing. Sending him away so he’d never have to face suspicion.”
We all drained our sherries and drifted off to bed after that. The last ones to turn in, perhaps as a way to finally rebel against all those early bedtimes. We might never find out why Brendan died that night and why Uncle Arthur had to leave. Perhaps someone was protecting him from suspicion. Or maybe they knew he’d meant to do it. I couldn’t have been the only person looking out of the window that night.