(A Modern-day Christmas Carol)
You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m telling you why… Satan Claws is coming to town!
Acol’s Advertising Agency, Hove, November 2012
‘Gotta be in the boardroom at 8:00a.m. sharp Troy. New boss has called a meeting.’
‘Yeah, I heard,’ Troy drawled. ‘James messaged me last night.’
Dan clapped his hands annoyingly close to Troy’s hungover ears. ‘Come on then, get a move on! Don’t wanna be late! Heard she’s a stickler for time keeping.’
‘Yeah yeah – stickler for a lot of things I hear. Supposed to be a right bitch!’
‘True mate, but we mustn’t moan. At least it’s a chance to keep this place going. We came so close to going bust. I honestly thought I’d be out of a job by Christmas, so I don’t really care what she’s like as long as she keeps us afloat! The talk is that she saved her last place from going down the swanny, so in my opinion she’s worth a shot.’
‘S’ppose so,’ Troy agreed grudgingly. ‘Have to pay the rent don’t we? Though to be honest with you Dan, I’m already applying for jobs elsewhere. I mean, just ‘cos she saved one place from going bust, doesn’t necessarily mean she can do it again.’
‘Morning ladies and gentleman.’ Alison Jackman breezed confidently into the boardroom: figure-hugging Chanel skirt suit, tanned bare legs and killer heels. The greeting was amiable enough, though neither a hint of a smile nor a flicker of warmth accompanied the gesture. With eagle eyes she scanned the row of staff who had all stood to attention as she entered. An immaculately French-polished finger indicated that they could be seated, before she embarked on her inauguration speech.
‘Okay– I’m not going to beat about the bush. For those of you to whom I have not yet been introduced, my name is Alison Jackman. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not. I prefer to be honest with you all from day one; either you’re in this for the long-haul or you can leave right now.’
She paused, as if to provide a chance for those unconvinced to take their leave. When no-one moved she continued. ‘This business is on its knees. I won’t share the exact figures with you all here and now – I’ll reserve that little pleasure for the finance committee later, but believe me when I say that we’re in the red by a substantial amount and without drastic action you’ll all be out of work in the new year.’
She paused again and scanned the length of the boardroom only to be met with two rows of lowered eyes. ‘So, we all have to work hard and be prepared to make what some of you might consider pretty tough decisions if this place is to have any hope of rising from the proverbial ashes.’
She flashed a flicker of a tooth-whitened smirk in the direction of Rory McCinnes, financial director. ‘I’m sure that some of you will already have been informed that my methods can be pretty ruthless, but times are tough. As I’ve said, it’s fight or flight I’m afraid. If anyone feels inclined to hand in their resignation after reading the new job description, which has been prepared for each and every one of you, then please feel free to do so.’ Again she scanned the room, sizing up each and every one of them before continuing in an acidic tone, ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea as they say.’ This last sentence, delivered with a contemptuous sniff, caused Troy’s hackles to rise.
The room remained silent. All assembled fixed their gaze on any inanimate object which just so happened to be within their line of vision.
‘Fucking recession!’ Troy muttered to Dan under his breath, when he considered they were out of earshot of the boardroom. He pitied the members of the finance committee who remained seated in the throes of what could only be termed a dressing-down. Through the glass, he observed their pale faces. ‘They look as if they’ve shit themselves! Got us by the balls hasn’t she? Not that easy to find a job these days, especially if you’ve come from a failed business!’
During morning break, the staffroom was eerily empty. Many of the twenty seven employees were too afraid of getting pulled into a derogatory conversation about the new boss by a more rebellious member of staff and so had simply skipped break altogether. Other staff members had slipped away in search of a private space in which they could peruse the new job description which had been handed to them at the end of the meeting.
Help for the Homeless Shelter, Hove 8th December 2012
Joe Prenderson, manager of the charitable establishment, was aghast at the letter he had just received. ‘Why, the stingy low-down bastards!’ he muttered aloud, despite the fact that no-one else was present. Leaping from his seat, he went in search of Brenda Collins, his receptionist, cook and general life-saver, who was just about to pour a cup of tea in the tiny soup kitchen at the back of the building. She registered the look of shock on his face even before he spoke.
‘What’s the matter Joe? Sit down – you look as if you’re about to pass out!’
Beads of clammy sweat glistened on his top lip. Waving the sheet of white paper in front of her he ranted, ‘Of all the mean, low-down stunts to pull Brend, this one takes the biscuit!’ Slumping down unsteadily on the wobbly kitchen stool, he held his head in both hands.
‘What’s happened? For Christ’s sake, tell me!’
Joe stabbed at the sheet of paper with a fat, pink digit. ‘Fifteen years they’ve donated to the Christmas fund. Fifteen years without a miss and now they’ve pulled the rug from under our feet!’
‘What you talking about Joe? You’re not making any sense!’ Brenda was trembling, though she’d still made no sense of Joe’s news. She simply gleaned from the look on his face that it was not good.
Joe’s next words were accompanied by a sobbing sigh. ‘We’ve had a letter Brend – look.’ With a trembling hand, he passed over the offensive document. ‘It’s from Acol’s Agency. You know the grand they give us every year to fund the Christmas dinner? Well they’ve gone and pulled out on us two weeks before Christmas!’ He paused, watching her face turn ashen as she devoured the contents of the unsavoury letter. ‘You know, I thought it was fishy! We usually receive the cheque from them by the end of November at the latest, in plenty of time for us to do the order, but I didn’t like to give them a ring – seemed a bit cheeky like. I can’t believe they’ve left it so late to tell us. That’s gutless that is! We haven’t even got time to whip-up a fund-raise now!’ He emitted a desperate groan. ‘What we gonna do Brend?’
Brenda finished reading the letter and began to cry. ‘Oh my God Joe! What we gonna do? Without their donation there will be no Christmas dinner! They must know we count on it – I can’t believe they’ve done this!’ She plonked herself down on the stool opposite his before her legs gave way. ‘Surely they must realize how desperate this place is at Christmas! I mean we’ve always shown our gratitude haven’t we Joe?We’ve never taken it for granted! What the hell we gonna do?’
Canteen, Help for the Homeless – same day
Joe and Brenda fed the regulars as usual, attempting to put on a brave face as they did so. It was minus three outside and many of them had come in frozen to the bone. They couldn’t bear to give them the bad news – at least not until they’d been fed and watered. Many of the men and women now gathered in the little canteen had been coming to the shelter for several years. Others were more transient, but Joe and Brenda still recognised every face in front of them. Christmas was always the most difficult time of year and the regulars looked forward to the feast and entertainment provided by the shelter.
When they had finished eating, and were gathered in their usual little cliques, Joe spoke up. ‘Excuse me guys… I need a word.’ The room fell silent. He cleared his throat and began shakily. ‘I’m afraid we’ve had some bad news today.’ All eyes fixed on him. ‘Many of you know that our funding comes purely from charity. Well, the advertising agency down the road has always given us the money for the Christmas bash, but today I received a letter from their new Chief Executive, a certain Ms Alison Jackman, stating that they were pulling the funds this year.’ He resisted eye contact as he delivered the news.
For several moments the room was silent, then Charlie Waters, an old veteran of the establishment, piped up. ‘What you saying Joe? There’ll be no Christmas dinner this year?’
Joe visibly flinched. ‘Doesn’t look like it Charlie. Me and Brend are in shock. We can’t believe they’ve left it ‘til now to tell us. We only found out this morning and at the moment we’re stuck as to what to do!’
Now everyone spoke at the same time. The room erupted into a cacophony of dismay.
‘You got any paper I can borrow Joe?’ Charlie asked, when things had calmed down a bit. ‘I’m not gonna let them get away with this! The least I can do is write a letter explaining how we all feel. None of us want to beg; we all wish we didn’t have to rely on charity, but the mean sods shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this, especially as they’re so late in telling you.’
Charlie shuffled off behind Joe towards the office, to fetch pen and paper.
‘If you want any help with that letter Charlie let me know,’ Joe offered respectfully. Seeing the despondency in Charlie’s cataract-clouded eyes caused his heart to flip.
‘No thanks. I’ll write it meself if you don’t mind Joe. I’m not the best speller in the world, but I think I can make meself understood. This way I can say exactly what I think.’
‘Course Charlie; it might be better coming from you. After all, you’re the poor buggers whose Christmas will be ruined.’
Retreating to an empty corner of the canteen, Charlie sat down and began to pen the letter.
Christmas Eve 2012, Alison Jackman’s house, Brighton
At precisely 11:45p.m., Alison turned the key and entered the capacious hallway of her Victorian semi. Whisking the security chain across, she slipped out of her pale-grey MaxMara coat and slung it over the banister. Entering the living room, she flicked on the light, before kicking off her six inch high Louboutin’s and padding barefoot across the plush, cream carpet.
Her frown was a thunderstorm. ‘Who the fuck does he think he is!’ she muttered under her breath, still annoyed that the little tosser Dan had actually had the audacity to hit on her. Okay, so he had knocked back a good few drinks – that much was obvious – but that didn’t give him the right to lay a finger on her. How fucking dare he? She shuddered as she recalled the warmth of his fingers tracing the length of her spine. She had turned around abruptly only to come face to face with – him! A cloud of bourbon-laced breath had wafted at her as he’d slurred, ‘You gonna be lonely tonight darling?’
She had wanted to slap his face but knew it would only have caused a scene in the bar where they were all gathered for a few Christmas drinks. She understood only too well that several of those present would have thoroughly enjoyed witnessing her lashing out, but she wasn’t going to grant them that pleasure!
They’d worked until 7:00p.m., as usual. She’d had no intention of letting them out early just because it was bloody Christmas Eve – not with the place in the appalling mess it was. Why should she? No – they’d have to prove themselves worthy before she’d be prepared to slacken the reins. Too bloody soft the old boss had been – that was why the business was in the state it was.
Anyway, she’d grudgingly gone along to the bar, just to show her face, intending to be home by nine thirty, but one G&T had led to another and before she’d known it, it had gone eleven. Then that slime ball had actually touched her up and ruined her evening! ‘I’ll have him out by March!’ she promised herself through gritted teeth.
Alison slumped down on her beige, leather sofa for a few seconds then quickly shot up and stumbled to the bathroom. Her head spun. Was it simply because she had got up too quickly or was it the five G&T’s she had necked?
She quickly stripped, leaving her black dress strewn on the floor, and jumped into the shower, enjoying the flow of hot water caressing her body. Slipping into a pair of midnight-blue silk pyjamas, she padded barefoot back to the living room. Lighting some exotic candles on top of the mantelpiece, she poured herself another G&T and flopped back down on the sofa.
The room seemed eerily quiet so, locating the remote for the Bluetooth, she scrolled through her play list before selecting Amy Winehouse. No fucking Christmas music for her – what a load of trite nonsense that was!
Feet up, she tried to focus on the lyrics in an attempt to divert her thoughts. However, the task of having to visit her mother in the dementia home the following morning refused to shift. Could I get away with ringing instead, she wondered? Perhaps I could make an excuse and say I have flu. Grudgingly she admitted that she couldn’t very well do that as she’d arranged to go straight from there to her sister and brother in law’s for lunch. When they would visit Mum later the subject of her being at theirs would be bound to arise.
Perhaps I’ll cancel that as well she decided; after all, a traditional family Christmas lunch did little to motivate her. Truth be told she’d rather spend the day on her own, eating and drinking what she wanted and watching whatever she chose on t.v. than have to endure someone else’s inane choice – or worse still, some shitty party game! Perhaps she would cancel. She’d make her mind up in the morning.
Closing her eyes, she inhaled the subtle scent of midnight jasmine…
The chorus of Back to Black played soothingly, enchantingly. She sung along, glass in hand, slurring a little.
A rustle from the fireplace made her bolt upright.
Probably the wind loosening some soot. The track had switched to I’m No Good. Eyes closed, she grinned, revelling in the lyrics’ message, indulging herself for a few moments in the memory of Robin, the sycophantic leech who was now well and truly her ex.
Without warning, an intense heat suddenly engulfed her. She sensed the presence in the room even before she opened her eyes. It took less than half a second for her half-drunk brain to register the demonic, red-clad being looming over her.
It gazed at her greedily – a ruthless grin splitting its face from ear to ear – before its claws tore into her flesh.
No time to fight back! Her torso ripped from navel to breast bone in one fell swoop. Midnight silk instantly soaked crimson and dripped onto the beige leather. Not even time to scream…
Christmas Day, 4:00pm, 2012
After Alison had failed to turn up for lunch as arranged, and countless attempts to reach her mobile had gone unanswered, her sister had phoned the police. She met them at the front door but had no key – Alison never trusted anyone enough to leave a spare.
Having broken down the door, the two officers crossed the hall and entered the living room, from which the sickly- sweet smell of blood was faintly traceable to an accustomed nose. There, sprawled at a contorted angle on the sofa, lay Alison’s body – or at least what remained of it.
On exposed, pink ribs a bloody note lay patiently waiting…
Deeu Satan Claws,
I wood like to tell u wot has just append to owu xmas dinnur. This womun called Alissun Jackman who is the new boss of Acol Adverts in Hove has stopt the money they always send to owu homeless charity. This meens we wont av no xmas dinnur this year. We are gutted! We no you always elp uvers in need at xmas. Can you elp us Satan?
They never did find the culprit.