Monday, 21 December 2015
Are You Sitting Comfortably? (part 3)
Thirty years he’d been working that post, and not once had he been thanked. He wasn’t much surprised. He was like a PE teacher in the respect that nobody appreciated him, and that he didn’t do much. He’d been standing in the same pose for longer than his legs cared to remember. He opened the door for the prisoner, handed them a yellow band from the cabinet next to them, and then pointed them to their relatives. It was also his job to escort them out when their time had come. He’d done that plenty of times, and the looks he got from both the visitor and the prisoner was enough to make him give up the job. They’d always swear and curse, reminding him he was tearing apart families. He always told them that was as he was commanded by Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
“Alright, Alan.” Said a voice from the door behind him. Alan turned and nodded at the man behind the door. Jack had been locked up for a good six or seven years, on account of robbery. Alan knew he shouldn’t sympathise with him but he couldn’t help doing so. The poor chap hadn’t been around to witness his daughter being brought up. Poor chap. “Let us through will you?”
Alan pressed the green button to the side of the door and the electromagnetic clamp at the top let go. The door swung open and Jack stepped through. He accepted the yellow band with no reluctance at all.
“Booth 8.” Alan said.
“As always.” Jack replied. He stepped forwards and weaved his way through the tables, towards the table with a sign reading 8 above it. He pulled out a metal chair, cringing at the scraping sound, and sat down behind the table. He reached across and held his wife’s hands and smiled at his daughter. “Hello there, Hazel. You’ve grown loads!”
“It’s been a week since I saw you last!” Hazel cried, as cynical at age eight as any adult that Jack knew.
Jack grinned and turned to his wife, her mother, a younger woman whose name was Helen. “How are you, love?”
“No better than the last time we spoke, maybe even worse.”
“I got a letter from-“ she stopped as she noticed Hazel listening. She leaned in and put her mouth to Jack’s ear. “I got a letter from Sky. They’re revoking our Sky Box. And the land lord’s put the rent up. Wants double as much in half the time. It’s ludicrous, Jack!”
“It sounds it, love.” Jack said. “I’ll see if I can get someone to come round, have a talk with him.”
“Don’t do that, Jack. It’ll just get you added time. I’ll deal with it myself. Ken from the market said he’d come and have a look about the Sky Box, see if he could do anything about it.”
“I don’t trust Ken from the market.”
“Neither do I, but he might be able to do something this time. Call it a Christmas miracle.”
Jack turned back to Hazel. “Talking of Christmas miracles, have you heard aught from the man up North?”
At the mention of the man, Hazel’s face lit like a Christmas tree. It slowly deflated, however, as she remembered her granddad’s words from when she was just three. “Christmas’ cancelled, lass.” He’d said. “Santa’s missing, and so there’s no presents to be delivered.”
“Nothing.” Helen said. “I sent a letter from both of us to the North Pole this year but there’s been no reply. Not even one of those courtesy cards from the Elves like there was when it began.”
“I thought it was bleak enough in here.” Jack said. He turned to Hazel and smiled at her. “Even if Santa’s not coming this year, Hazel, you’ve got to remember that Christmas is what you made it. There were no Santa two thousand odd years ago when the baby Jesus were born, but everyone was still happy in that.”
“No they weren’t.” Hazel said. “We’re doing the Nativity at school, and Josh is playing King Herod and he’s furious.”
“Furious? King Herod’s a great role!”
“No, silly! King Herod is furious! Perhaps if Santa was there, he’d be happy. Perhaps if Santa was around nowadays, everyone would be happy?”
“You can be happy without him.” Jack said, smiling. “I know your family will, because you make them happy just by being there. You’re the best present of all.”
Hazel beamed, but then shook her head sadly. “I didn’t come wrapped up, though, under a Christmas tree. I’m not what was on my Christmas list.”
“I suppose not, but you’re still happy.” Jack smiled. “I love you.”
“Me too, Daddy.” She said, smiling back.
“Times up, Jack.” Alan said, strolling over. “Back to your cell, please.”
Jack kissed both of the women in his life and then stood and walked away, back to Prison Wing 42B.
“Ho, ho, hello there, Jack!” Cried Nick, the overweight bloke on the top bunk. “What’s the matter with you?”
Jack closed the cell door behind him and took a seat at the table opposite the bunk beds. His hand reached out to the picture of his wife and daughter he had pinned to the wall besides the table. He stroked his daughter’s face and then set about warming his hands on the candle in the centre of the table. “Oh, it’s nothing, Nick. Just our Hazel.”
“She not get the role she want in the Nativity?”
“No.” Jack said. “She just, oh, don’t mind me. I’m being silly.”
“A doting father caring for his daughter with whom he can’t be? Oh course you’re not being silly! Carry on, son!”
Jack smiled and turned to look at Nick. The portly gentleman was sat up on his top bunk, stroking a hand through his scruffy beard. “Well, it’s just, you know how Christmas has been cancelled these past five years?”
“Well, I think it’s really getting to her this year.” He stood and walked over to the bars in place of a window. He stared out at the small town; all the cramped terrace houses leading up a long hill to the old Factory, which had once brought people in from miles around to work and was now withering away unused. He looked towards the houses just in front of the factory, with their glittering fairy lights. “It’s alright for the rich kids. They write their Christmas lists then give them to their parents to post. The parents don’t post them, they just go buy everything. The kids go on none the wiser. Not for our Hazel.”
“I’m sorry,” Nick interrupted, “are you suggesting that parents are buying presents and pretending to be Father Christmas?”
“Ludicrous isn’t it?” Jack shrugged. “As I was saying, it’s alright for the rich kids, but not our Hazel. My Helen, she doesn’t even have the money to afford the telly, near mind oodles of presents. Hazel, she deserves to be spoilt this time of year. Instead, she’s going to get a satsuma. If she’s lucky!”
“It’s just wrong.” Nick said.
“It is. It’s completely ridiculous. Where is Father Christmas, anyway? I mean, a man like that, he’s unstoppable, surely? What in the name of Hell would be able to contain him enough to stop him from delivering those presents?”
Nick remained silent. Just lay back in his bed and thought.
Jack walked away from the barred window; it was Christmas Eve and the breeze was designed to kill, not console. He strolled over to the table and warmed his hands over the candle for a few seconds and then said, “Still, I suppose we’ve got Christmas lunch to look forwards to! The cooks always do a good job, and I heard this year Mickey from B Wing’s going to help them. He does roasties pretty well, in my opinion.”
“I hope you enjoy it.” Nick said. “And wish a Merry Christmas to the lads for me.”
“You sound like you’re not going to be there!” Jack laughed.
Nick didn’t laugh back.
Jack turned to face him. “Hang on, why aren’t you going to be there?”
“Five years ago today it was.”
“When I was arrested. Five years ago this very day.”
Jack climbed up the ladder and sat on the top bunk with Nick. “What were you arrested for? I’ve forgotten.”
“House burgling, or so they said. House burgling! Me! On Christmas Eve!”
“Wasn’t it a pretty open and shut case?”
“Well, they found me in the living room of a local house with a present in my hand. There’s nothing open and shut about that!”
Jack arched his eyebrows. “If you say so, Nick. I don’t see why you’re not going to be here tomorrow, though.”
Nick leapt off his top bunk and went over to the door. He pulled it open a crack and stared through, looking either way, ensuring there was nobody listening. When he was sure there wasn’t, he bolted the door and grabbed a bottle of Coke from the table. “Well, let’s just say, I’m getting out of this joint.”
“I’m breaking out. Been planning it for a year now! A year! This place is surprisingly well built, but I’ve found a way to escape, and for that I’m glad.”
“The roof. See, thing is, we’re good hundred foot off the ground here. Nobody’d ever think of getting off the roof, so it’s not at all guarded. That’s why it’ll be easy to get out that way.”
“You’re either a genius or a fool.” Jack said. “I’d be more likely to go for the second. What’re you going to do when you get to the roof? And don’t tell me you’re going to make a rope out of bed sheets to climb down!”
Nick laughed, a great raucous laugh where his stomach rumbled and his body seemed to move backwards. “Oh, no, no, no! Some of my friends are coming to pick me up!”
“Pilots are they?” Jack asked.
“You could say that!” Nick replied. He laughed again.
“Well, I think you’re mad. You’ll get caught!”
“We’ll see about that. The only thing that could possibly go wrong is that my arms aren’t long enough.”
“Well, there’s one point that requires two wardens to open it. I’ve got keys that fit the holes, but I don’t know whether I’ll be able to reach both holes at once. Still, I’m sure I’ll have to!”
Jack looked at Nick. “Why don’t you just get a second man to do it for you?”
“Where would I get a second man at this time of night?”
“You want to come?”
“I want to help you.” Jack said. “If this is how I can do that, then I’d be honoured. Lord knows you’ve helped me enough.”
Nick smiled. “Okay then. That’s a deal. I’ll wake you up when it’s time. Try to get some sleep now.”
Alan was on night shift that night. He finished doing his rounds, closing every open shutter he went by, and then finally got to the staff room. He pulled the lever by the staff room which turned off all the lights in the entire prison and then shouted at the top of his voice. “Lights out!” Then he opened the staff room door and went in for a nice night of mulled wine and mince pies.
Nick heard the cry of “Lights out!” and looked over the side of his bunk. He reached down and prodded Jack. “Now.” He whispered.
Jack rolled out of bed and pulled on his slippers. Nick climbed down his ladder, straightening his night cap, and then went over to the door. He drew something from his pocket and entered it into the door, twisting it and then pulled the door open.
“Where’d you get that key?” Jack whispered.
“I’ll tell you later.” Nick said. “Now, come on!”
They hurried out of the room and padded down the balcony as quietly as they could. In the huge central room that reminded Jack of the Shawshank Redemption, sounds had a tendency to echo, meaning one misplaced stamp would end the entire mission. With that in mind, the two gentlemen stayed as quiet as possible.
They reached the end of the balcony, at the door next to the staff room. Nick put his finger to his lips as they crowded around the lock. Again, Nick pulled the thing that might have been a key from his pocket and slid it into the lock. His shaking hands slipped and the key fell. It hit the floor and clattered, the metallic boom echoing through the grand hall. They heard a commotion in the staff room as the guards jumped up and Jack looked towards Nick with terror in his eyes. Nick put a finger to his lips and stood very, very still.
The door opened and Alan poked his tired, weathered face out. He looked up and down the hall and came face to face with Jack. Their eyes met and Jack’s begged him. Alan raised an eyebrow, asking whether what they doing was a good idea. Jack mouthed, “It’s Christmas.”
Keeping eye contact, Alan shouted back into the room. “Don’t worry, lads. Only one of the shutters dropping on one of the cells. Mustn’t have closed it right.”
He gave Jack a wink and then plodded off to close the ‘shutter.’
Nick grinned and picked up the thing that looked like a key. He slid it into the lock and undid the door, pushing it open. The two men scuttled through and then up and round a stairwell. They kept going and going until eventually they reached a doorway. Nick pushed it open and led them into a small room. There was a door on the other side which had the width of three normal doors put together. On either side, there was a keyhole.
“You take that side, I’ll take this side.” Nick said. He passed Jack something and then went to his keyhole.
Jack looked at the thing as he walked towards his. It was a small metallic rob, about the length of his little finger. He looked it over and then turned back to Nick. “I don’t think this is going to work. I can’ t pick locks.”
“Don’t worry.” Nick said. “It’ll do the picking for you. Slide it into the hole at the top of the lock.”
Jack, full of scepticism, did just that. He felt the rod glow very warm and then heard the door clicking. “Twist on three,” said Nick. “One, two, three!”
Jack twisted the rod in unison with Nick. The door clicked and ground and then began to swing open. Jack drew the rod and looked at it. It had melted into a key shape, but as he stared at it, it regained it’s shape. “Magic key.” He said under his breath.
He stepped out onto the roof of the prison and felt the cold, chilling winds of Christmas Eve grab him. He wrapped his arms around him to warm up, stuffing his fingers into his armpits, and looked out onto the town he’d been locked away from for so long. He could see his house, halfway up the hill, in the light of the moon which was half hidden behind the milky clouds. He turned back, ready to ask Nick where his mates were, when he saw the old man walking towards him.
Inside the prison, Nick was wearing a stripy uniform which looked like a pair of pyjamas, a dirty beard and a white cap, the bobble of which had fallen off and had left some threadbare sticking hanging down the back of his head. He was overweight and his cheeks were red with the effort of going up the steps.
As he stepped through those doors, and into the light of the moon, he changed. He was no longer fat, but instead cuddly. The red in his cheeks was not exertion but his inner warmth. He looked friendly, not at all the type of man you’d expect to be locked in a prison. His beard stopped being dirty, and turned a light, fluffy white. His cap grew a bobble and, just like his suit, turned bright red with white fur lining. He laughed his rolling, merry laugh once more. “Ho ho ho ho!”
“Nick?” Jack shouted, unsure whether to be inspired or terrified.
“Nick is short for St Nicholas. But you can call me Father Christmas.” He grinned.
“Bloody hell.” Jack said.
“Come on, my lad.” Nick said. “It’s almost Christmas Day! We don’t have time to waste!”
He walked over towards the ledge that looked over the side of the prison. Stepping up, he put out his hand towards Jack. “Come on!”
“I don’t want to fall!”
“In America, only a fall can lead to Christmas. Come on!”
Jack sighed and walked over, towards the ledge. He stepped up and stared out towards the old Factory in the distance. “Is this safe?” Jack asked.
“Of course it is.” Replied Nick. “Now jump!”
“What?” Jack demanded, but before he got an answer he felt Nick’s hand on his back, pushing him over. Together, the two of them fell, falling and falling until they hit something very comfortable and slightly velvety.
Jack opened his eyes, which had been screwed firmly shut. He looked about and said, his voice coming out as little clouds of Dragon’s breath, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He was sat in a sleigh, and in front of him were eight reindeer in two lines of four. In front of them was another one and coming from the front of it was a red glow.
“It’s Christmas!” Cried Santa Claus, doing a surprisingly good Noddy Holder impression, from where he was sat next to Jack. “Next stop, the North Pole! Then, quindruple the presents in half the time! Yehaa!” He whipped the reins and set the reindeers flying.
“Can you drop me at home?” Jack said. “I’d only get in your way if I was to go the full way around with you.”
“Drop you at home?” Santa asked. “I can’t do that! No, I’ve got to drop you off at another prison!”
“Why?” Jack cried, heartbroken. All he could think of was Hazel’s face if he returned. He couldn’t be imprisoned having imagined that.
“Because I’ve spent the last millennia depriving people based on their behaviour! It’d be a bit hypocritical if I was to let a criminal go!”
“You let yourself go!”
“I was delivering a present! It’s hardly breaking the law!” He sighed. “What did you even get locked up for, anyway?”
“I stole an ATM so I’d have enough money to buy a turkey for Christmas dinner.” Jack said, not at all proud.
“The man who was locked away for trying to make Christmas special, hm?” Said Father Christmas. “Well, I suppose, I mean it would be rather wrong if I were to punish you for doing such a thing again.” He grinned. “You saved Christmas, Jack. Let your reward be your freedom. But don’t think I’m taking you off the Naughty List!”
Jack grinned, like he’d never grinned before.
The sleigh hit the road in front of Helen and Hazel’s house with a surprising jolt. The reindeers neighed, annoyed by the disturbance. “Shut up! The lot of you!” Cried Santa. He turned to Jack. “Make sure you leave out something for them, will you? They like Jack Daniels, but I’d recommend some Coke. They do tend to get quite drunk, especially Rudolph! Why do you think he has a red nose?”
“Of course.” Jack said. “What would you like?”
“I’m quite fond of carrots.” Santa said, smiling. He reached into the back and drew a sack which he passed to Jack. “Use the contents wisely and be happy. Merry Christmas, Jack.”
“And a happy new year to you.”
Jack grinned and ran over to the door. He rang the door bell and then turned back to watch Santa flying off. The reindeers neighed and then clattered their hooves across the ground. “Ho ho ho!” Cried Father Christmas, and then the sleigh was up and away, into the cloud belt.
Jack turned just in time to see the door open and to smile at Helen’s shocked face.
“Merry Christmas.” He grinned.
“Jack! Jack! How can you be here?”He put down the bag of presents, five years worth, and hugged her. “Christmas Miracle.”