If you’re an addict of detective fiction, you may have heard of me, Charles Mickledore. I say addict advisably; no occasional or highly discriminating reader of the genre is likely to ask for my latest offering at his public library. I’m no H. R. F. Keating, no Dick Francis, not even a P. D. James. But I do a workmanlike job on the old conventions, for those who like their murders cosy, and, although my amateur detective, the Hon. Martin Carstairs, has been described as a pallid copy of Peter Wimsey, at least I haven’t burdened him with a monocle, or with Harriet Vane for that matter. I make enough to augment a modest private income. Unmarried, solitary, unsociable; why should I expect my writing to be any more successful than my life?
Sometimes I’m even asked to do a radio chat show when one of the more distinguished practitioners of death isn’t available. I’ve got used to the old question: have you ever, Mr. Mickledore, had personal experience of murder? Invariably I lie. For one thing, interviewers never expect the truth; there isn’t time. And for another, they wouldn’t believe me. The murder I was involved with was as complicated, as bizarre as any fictional mayhem I’ve managed to concoct, even in my more inspired moments. If I were writing about it I’d call it “The Murder of Santa Claus.” And that, essentially, was what it was.
Appropriately enough, it took place in the heyday of the cosy “whodunnits,” the Christmas of 1939, the first Christmas of the war. I was sixteen, an awkward age at the best of times, and, as a sensitive and solitary only child, I was more awkward than most. My father was in the Colonial Service serving in Singapore, and I usually spent the winter holiday with my housemaster and his family. But this year my parents wrote that my father’s elder half-brother, Victor Mickledore, had invited me to his Cotswold manor house at Marston Turville. His instructions were precise. I was to arrive by the 4:15 train on Christmas Eve and would depart on the morning of Wednesday, December 27th. I would be met at Marston station by his housekeeper/secretary, Miss Makepiece. There would be four other guests: Major and Mrs. Turville, from whom he had bought the manor five years previously; his stepson, Henry Caldwell, the famous amateur flyer; and the actress Miss Gloria Belsize. I had, of course, heard of Caldwell and of Miss Belsize although I don’t suppose that even I, naive as I was, supposed it to be her real name.
My uncle—or should it be step-uncle?—apologised for the fact that there would be no other young guests to keep me company. That didn’t worry me. But the thought of the visit did. I had met my uncle only once, when I was ten. I had the idea, gleaned as children do from half-spoken sentences and overheard remarks, that my parents and he were on bad terms. I think he had once wanted to marry my mother. Perhaps this was an attempt at reconciliation now that war, with its uncertainties, had started. My father had made it plain in his letter that I was expected to accept the invitation and that he was relying on me to make a good impression. I put out of my mind the treacherous thought that my uncle was very rich and that he had no children.
Miss Makepiece was waiting for me at Marston station. She greeted me with no particular warmth, and as she led the way to the waiting Daimler, I was reminded of the school matron on one of her more repressive days. We drove through the village in silence. It lay sombre and deserted in its pre-Christmas calm. I can remember the church half-hidden behind the great yews and the silent school with the children’s Christmas chains of coloured paper gleaming dully against the windows.
Marston Turville is a small seventeenth-century manor house, its three wings built round a courtyard. I saw it first as a mass of grey stone, blacked out as was the whole village, under low broken clouds. My uncle greeted me before a log fire in the great hall. I came in, blinking, from the December dusk into a blaze of colour; candles sparkling on the huge Christmas tree, its tub piled with imitation snowballs of frosted cotton wool; the leaping fire; the gleam of firelight on silver. My fellow guests were taking tea and I see them as a tableau, cups halfway to their lips, predestined victims waiting for the tragedy to begin.
Memory, perverse and selective, has even clothed them appropriately. When I picture that Christmas Eve, I see Henry Caldwell, that doomed hero, in his RAF uniform with his medal ribbons on his breast. But he couldn’t have been wearing it. He was only then waiting to report for his RAF training. And I invariably picture Gloria Belsize in the slinky golden evening dress which she changed into for dinner, her nipples pointing the satin; I found it difficult to keep my eyes from them. I see the plain, intimidatingly efficient Miss Makepiece in her grey woollen dress severe as a uniform, the Turvilles in their shabby country tweeds, my uncle always in his immaculate dinner jacket.
He bent over me with his dark sardonic face. “So you’re Alison’s boy. I wondered how you’d turn out.”
I thought I knew what he was thinking: that the right father would have made all the difference. I was aware of my lack of height beside his six-foot two—only Henry could match him—and of my adolescent crop of pimples. He introduced me to my fellow guests. The Turvilles were a gentle-faced white-haired couple, older than I had expected and both rather deaf. I found Henry’s austere good looks rather formidable; shyness and hero-worship made me dumb. Miss Belsize’s face was known to me from the papers. Now I saw what tactful touching-up had concealed: the deepening lines under the eyes, the sagging jawline, the hectic flush under the remarkable eyes. Then I wondered why she should be so excited by Christmas. Now I realise that she was half-drunk for most of the day and that my uncle saw it, was amused by it, and made no attempt to curb her. We were an ill-assorted party. None of us was at ease, myself least of all. After that first greeting my uncle hardly spoke to me. But whenever we were together I was aware of his intense scrutiny, of being in some way under approval.
The first intimation of horror, the Christmas cracker with its message of menace, was delivered at seven o’clock. It was a long tradition at Marston Turville that carol singers from the village sang to their squire on Christmas Eve. They arrived promptly, sidling in under the blackout curtain one by one, as the lights in the great hall were lowered. There were ten of them, seven men and three women, cloaked against the cold of that frosty night, and each carrying a lantern which was lit as soon as the heavy door was closed. I stood, uneasy in my newly acquired dinner jacket, between Mrs. Turville and Henry to the right of the fire and listened to the old, innocently nostalgic carols resolutely sung in their hearty country voices. Afterwards the butler, Poole, and one of the maids brought in mince pies and hot punch. But there was an air of constraint. They should have been singing for the Turvilles. The manor was in alien hands. They ate and drank with almost unseemly haste. The lights were put out, the door opened, and my uncle with Miss Makepiece at his side thanked them and said goodnight. Miss Belsize fluttered round them as they left, almost as if she were chatelaine of the manor. The Turvilles had stood distanced at the far end of the room and, when the singing began, I saw her hand steal out to his.
We saw the cracker almost at once. It had been placed on a small table near the door. It was fashioned of red and yellow crêpe paper, overlarge, obviously an amateur effort but made with some skill. Miss Belsize seized it and read:
“Victor Mickledore! It’s got your name on it, darling. Someone’s left you a present. What fun! Do let’s pull it!”
He didn’t respond but drew on his cigarette and gazed at her contemptuously through the smoke. She flushed, then held the cracker out to me and we pulled together. The paper tore apart without a bang and a small object fell out and rolled over the carpet. I bent and picked it up. Wrapped neatly in an oblong of paper was a small metal charm in the shape of a skull attached to a keyring; I had seen similar ones in gift shops. I opened the paper folded round it and saw a verse hand-printed in capitals. Gloria cried:
“Read it out, darling!”
I glanced at my uncle’s impassive face and heard my nervous, overloud voice:
“Merry Christmas, Mickledore! Go to bed and sleep no more.
Take this charm and hold it fast;
This night’s sleep shall be your last. Christmas bells ring merrily;
Bells of hell shall ring for thee. Happy Christmas, Mickledore. Go to bed and sleep no more.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Henry said calmly, “One of your neighbours doesn’t like you, Victor. He’s wrong about the bells, though. No Christmas bells in wartime. The bells of hell are another matter. No doubt they aren’t subject to Defence Regulations.”
Gloria’s voice was piercing: “It’s a death threat! Someone wants to kill you. That woman was among the singers, wasn’t she? The one whose child you ran over and killed last Christmas Eve. The village schoolmistress. Saunders. That’s her name. Mrs. Saunders was here!”
There was a dreadful silence. My uncle spoke in a voice like a whiplash: “A witness saw a dark Daimler but it wasn’t mine. My Daimler never left the garage last Christmas Eve. Poole confirmed it.”
“I know, darling. I didn’t mean anything . . .” “You seldom do.” He turned to Poole:
“The best place for this is the kitchen grate.”
Then Henry spoke: “I shouldn’t destroy it, not for a time anyway. It’s harmless enough, but if you get another and the thing becomes a nuisance it might be as well to let the police see it.”
Miss Makepiece said in her cool voice, “I’ll put it in the study desk.”
She took it away and the rest of us followed her with our eyes. Gloria said, “But you’ll lock your door, darling. I think you ought to lock your bedroom door.”
Victor said, “I lock my door against no one in my house. If I have an enemy I meet him face to face. And now perhaps we could go in to dinner.”
It was an uncomfortable meal. Gloria’s loud, half-tipsy volubility served only to emphasise the general cheerlessness. And it was at dinner that she told me about another of my uncle’s traditions. Promptly at one o’clock, “to give us time to get to sleep or at least be in our proper beds, darling,” he would put on a Santa Claus costume and distribute gifts to each of his guests. We would find a stocking ready at the foot of each bed.
“See what I got last year,” she exulted, stretching out her arm to me across the table. The diamond bracelet sparkled in the candlelight. My uncle cracked a walnut in his palm like a pistol shot.
“You may do better this year if you’re a good girl.”
The words and the tone were an insult.
I remember the rest of the evening in a series of brightly lit cameos. Dancing after dinner; the Turvilles staidly circling, Gloria clinging amorously to Henry, Miss Makepiece watching with contemptuous eyes from her seat by the fire. Then the game of hunt the hare; according to Henry this was another of Victor’s Christmas traditions, one in which the whole household was required to take part. I was chosen as hare. A balloon was tied to my arm and I was given five minutes to hide anywhere in the house. The aim was to regain the front door before I was caught and the balloon punctured. For me it was the only jolly part of the evening. I remember giggling housemaids, Gloria chasing me round the kitchen table, making ineffectual lunges with a rolled magazine, my last mad rush to the door as Henry burst from the study and exploded the balloon with one swipe of a branch of holly. Later, I remember the dying firelight gleaming on crystal decanters as Poole brought in the drinks tray. The Turvilles went to bed first—she wanted to listen to the ten forty-five Epilogue in her own room—and were shortly followed by Gloria and Miss Makepiece. I said my goodnights at eleven forty-five, leaving my uncle alone with Henry, the drinks tray between them.
At my bedroom door I found Miss Makepiece waiting for me. She asked me to change rooms with Henry. He was in the red room with its curtained four-poster and, after his accident in June when he had been forced down in his flight to South America and had escaped in seconds from the blazing cockpit, she thought he might find the bed claustrophobic. She helped me move my few belongings into the new room on the back corridor and bade me goodnight. I can’t say I was sorry to be further from my uncle.
Christmas Eve was nearly over. I thought about my day as I undressed and made my way to the bathroom at the turn of the corridor. It hadn’t been too bad, after all. Henry had been remote but amiable. Miss Make-piece was intimidating, but she had left me alone. I was still terrified of Victor but Mrs. Turville had been a motherly and protective presence. Deaf and shabby, she yet had her own gentle authority. There was a small carved statue of the Virgin in a niche to the right of the fireplace. Before the game of hunt the hare, someone had tied a balloon to its neck. Quietly she had asked Poole to remove it and he had at once obeyed. Afterwards she had explained to me that the statue was called the Turville Grace and for three hundred years had protected the heir from harm. She told me that her only son was in a Guards regiment and asked about my own family. How glad I must be that they were in Singapore where the war could not touch them. Could not touch them! The irony stings even now.
The lined bed curtains and the canopy were of heavy crimson material, damask I suppose. Because of some defect in the rails they couldn’t be fully drawn back except at the foot and there was barely space for my bedside table. Lying on the high and surprisingly hard mattress I had the impression of being enveloped in flames of blood, and I could understand Miss Makepiece’s concern that Henry should sleep elsewhere. I don’t think I realised then, child that I was, that she was in love with him any more than I accepted what I surely must have known, that Gloria had been my uncle’s mistress.
I slept almost immediately, but that internal clock which regulates our waking made me stir after little more than two hours. I switched on my bedside lamp and looked at my watch. It was a minute to one o’clock. Santa Claus would be on his way. I put out the light and waited, feeling again some of the excitement I had felt as a young child on this most magical night of the year. He came promptly, gliding in soundlessly over the carpet. Curtained as I was I could hear nothing, not even the sound of his breathing. I half-covered my head with the sheet, feigned sleep, and watched with one narrowed eye. He was holding a torch and the pool of light shone momentarily on his fur-trimmed robe, the peaked hood drawn forward over his face. A white-gloved hand slipped a package into the stocking. And then he was gone as silently as he had come.
At sixteen, one has no patience. I waited until I was sure he had gone, then I crept down the bed. The present, wrapped in red striped paper, was slim. I untied the ribbon. Inside was a box containing a gold cigarette case carved with the initials H.R.C. How odd that I hadn’t remembered! This present was, of course, meant for Henry. I should have to wait for mine until morning. On impulse I opened the case. Inside was a typed message.
“Happy Christmas! No need to get it tested. It’s gold all right. And in case you’re beginning to hope, this is the only gold you’ll get from me.”
I wished I hadn’t opened it, hadn’t seen that offensive gibe.
I took some time replacing the wrapping and ribbon as neatly as I could, put the package back in the stocking, and settled myself to sleep.
I woke once again in the night. I needed to go to the lavatory. The corridor, like the whole house, was blacked out but a small oil lamp was kept burning on a table and I groped my sleepy way by its light. I had regained my room when I heard footsteps. I slipped back into the recess of the door and watched. Major and Mrs. Turville, dressing-gowned, came silently down the corridor and slipped into the bathroom, furtively as if gaining a refuge. He was carrying what looked like a rolled-up towel. I waited, curious. In a few seconds she put her head round the door, glanced down the passage, then withdrew. Three seconds later they came out together, he still carrying the rolled towel as if it were a baby. Afraid of being detected in my spying, I closed the door. It was a curious incident. But I soon forgot it in oblivion.
I had drawn back my curtain before sleeping and was woken by the first light of dawn. A tall figure was standing at the foot of the bed. It was Henry. He came up to me and handed me a gift-wrapped package saying:
“Sorry if I disturbed you. I was trying to exchange presents before you woke.”
He took his own but didn’t open it, and watched while I tore the paper off mine. My uncle had given me a gold watch wrapped in a ten-pound note. The richness of it left me speechless but I knew that I was pink with pleasure. He watched my face then said:
“I wonder what price he’ll exact for that. Don’t let him corrupt you. That’s what he uses his money for, playing with people. Your parents are overseas, aren’t they?”
“It might be sensible to write to them that you’d rather not holiday here. It’s your affair. I don’t want to interfere. But your uncle isn’t good for the young. He isn’t good for anyone.”
I don’t know what, if anything, I should have found to say. I recall my momentary resentment that he should have spoilt some of my pleasure in my present. But it was then that we heard the first scream.
From Sleep No More. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2017 by P.D. James.