As a fairly key event in the DI Haven novel I’m working on ‘A Long December’ takes place on Christmas Eve, I thought I’d run it here (all comments are greatly appreciated if you take the time to read it).
A festive (sort of) excerpt from ‘A Long December’
Christmas had just been destroyed for thousands of children as they ate their breakfast cereal.
Innocent eyes stared in wonder and horror at the image before them.
Around the country they stared wide-eyed at the man, in the familiar red and white suit, hat and beard, hanging by his neck from a noose over a busy motorway.
Despite the television network’s quick decision to cut away from the image, it had been too late.
The final shot that the children would have seen was a close-up of Santa’s face, the gun-shot wound in his forehead, and the blood cascading down into his snowy white beard.
December 24th – 7.38am
Kent FM Radio Studio – Dartford.
Joe Thompson’s morning radio show had begun well.
Fathers’ rights to see their children was a subject dear to many of his callers’ hearts and the switchboard had remained fully lit from the moment the lines had been opened. It wasn’t just the time of year that made the subject so poignant on this particular morning – he had a graphic illustration of what lengths some fathers would go to unveiling itself whilst he was on air.
There was a Fathers for Justice campaigner, dressed as Santa Claus, sitting atop a bridge across the central two lanes of the M25 and, being Christmas Eve, everyone was tuning in to Joe’s breakfast show to find out the latest.
Joe had held the morning show slot on Kent FM for nearly two years, following his departure from a London based radio station where he had presented a similar show. His callers took a central role in his shows and he was renowned for being able to run a successful breakfast programme without the need for music or other distractions. His was purely a talk-show, only broken by the half hourly news bulletins and traffic reports.
He made much of his working class background, of the fact that his mother had worked her whole life, as had his father – now a retired Policeman – and often mentioned his own young family within his show. His success on the airwaves had led to him having a regular column in the local newspapers and, more recently, to having a book of his life story – complete with transcripts of his more controversial shows – published. This had meant that his face was also known now and that more and more people wanted to be a part of the Joe Thompson breakfast show, so ratings were up as his popularity was growing weekly.
Most mornings the calls he took would be roughly a 50/50 split between his regular callers and first time callers who had been galvanised into calling in by the subject matter being discussed that particular day.
On this particular morning, most of the calls were from new voices. Some of them were disgruntled motorists caught up in the drama and trapped in their cars as Police closed the section of motorway from the next junction back. The fear was that the occupant of the bridge could easily slip and fall into the oncoming traffic.
Other calls were in strong support of the man’s actions – Dads who were away from their children sympathised with his plight. But many callers stated that there must be a better way for the man to voice his frustration at the legal system that separated him from his child. Primarily, of course, these were calls from people who were more than a little pissed off at the motorway closure.
Joe had been taking calls on the subject for about forty minutes when the call that would later be called “the trigger” by the press came in to the switchboard.
“Okay”, began Joe. “We’ve got Peter on the line. He’s about four miles from the scene, caught in the growing tailback we’ve just been hearing more about in our travel bulletin. Peter, what do you have to say, my friend?”
Joe clicked the line-in switch on line 9 of the switchboard system and the tinny sound of a cheap mobile hands-free system could be heard filling the airwaves. He winced at the initial sound of feedback, knowing that he could give the caller a short while but, if the sound quality didn’t improve, he’d have to halt the call and take the next caller. Crappy phone signals didn’t make for good radio.
“Let’s sponsor him to jump!” came the cold response.
“I’ll pay. Let him do it for Childline or Children in Need, or something!”
Joe troubled by the caller’s words, tried to counter the comments quickly.
“Peter! Are you serious? You want this guy to kill himself?”
“Yeah, why not?” came the reply. “Get a bucket and run alongside all the cars in front of me. A quid from each driver – some kids’ charity would do really well, he can jump, and then we can all get on our way.”
The line was silent for a while.
Joe Thompson was, for a very rare moment, speechless and knew that he had to tread very carefully from this point on.
Looking up from his desk, he saw his producer through the studio glass in the next room, and she was slicing through the air with her hand, signalling for him to cut the conversation.
Joe took a breath.
“Well, that’s a rather extreme view from Peter on the M25. We’re going to take a break now for the news with Dave Webster. More on Santa, no doubt, when we come back.”
Switching off his microphone as the intro music for the news filled his ears, Joe removed his headphones and let them hang around his neck as he reached for his coffee.
As he sipped his drink, his eyes scanned the day sheet before him, looking at the other items that had been up for discussion that morning. The other topics had hardly been mentioned, however, by his listeners or by him.
Last minute Christmas gifts for the husband or wife, the best Christmas TV, the news that a convicted hit and run driver’s sentence had been drastically reduced – nobody seemed interested.
Everyone seemed pre-occupied with Santa Claus and his single-handed attempt to stop a large group of Londoners getting home for their Christmas holidays.
All eyes and ears seemed to be on old Saint Nick and his current position above the motorway.
Joe’s thoughts were suddenly shattered as his producer, Anna McIntyre, rushed through the door behind him.
“Joe” she raced “We’ve got him! Santa Claus on line 4!”
“He says he only wants to talk to you, and it has to be live on air. He’s been listening in on a mobile phone.”
Joe stared back at her and then through the glass partition at his sound engineer.
“Can we do this?” he asked. “Do the police know he’s about to talk live on air?”
Anna was already halfway out the door. “Well they soon will, Joe. We’re just coming out of the news, and I want you to take Santa as your next call”.
The door closed with a quiet click and Joe was alone again in the glass box.
“Okay” he began. “We’re back, and we’re back with an exclusive. All morning you’ve been hearing of, and voicing your opinions about, the latest ‘Fathers 4 Justice’ stunt. For those of you who have just tuned in – there’s a guy dressed as Santa Claus sitting atop a bridge across the M25, causing all sorts of Christmas travel chaos out there. Well, our next caller is Mr Claus himself! He’s been listening in to the show from his perch there, and felt he just had to call in and be a part of Kent’s best call-in radio show. So, Santa – how’re you doing up there, my friend?”
“Hello Joe” came the reply, accompanied by the sound of car horns in the background.
Joe visualised people sitting in their cars before the bridge, and listening on their car stereos, trying to determine the sound of their own car horn as they signalled their individual protests.
“Joe, I’d like to think that people were taking our message a lot more seriously than a lot of your callers seem to”.
“Well. Santa…can I call you by your real name, or does it have to be Santa Claus?”
“Doug. Doug Clements.” The caller identified himself.
“Okay, Doug.” Joe was pleased that he seemed to have broken some ice early one and at least had the man’s real name – he considered it a step in the right direction, a small one but a step nevertheless. I think it’s fair to say that a majority of our callers this morning have been supportive of your reasons for demonstrating. We’ve had lots of young Dads on the lines and some real emotional tales of how they miss their own kids. But, the bottom line is that you are causing so much disruption to traffic and to people going about their daily business, that sympathies are wearing thin right now.”
There was a pause before the caller replied.
“And now your callers want me to jump!” he stated.
Joe’s producer’s voice cut in across the silence in his headphones.
“Joe. The police have been in touch. It’s definitely him that you’re talking to and they ask that you keep the conversation going, but try to keep him as calm as possible – you may be the best hope to talk him down.”
Joe’s forehead and back blistered with sweat at the very thought of the pressure which was being laid on him.
“They don’t want you to jump.” He opened the conversation again. “Listen Doug, I’ve already said that people, me included, are totally behind you and understand how painful it must be to not be able to see your child. You know what it’s like when your train gets held up – a part of you wants to throttle any member of staff on the platform. These people who have been held up this morning by the motorway closure are sounding off for the same reasons”.
“Well, all I’m saying is… All I’m saying is, if they want me to jump. If that’s what I need to do to make my point, to make people realise how much I love my Kate and how much I miss her…then I will.”
“Now, Doug.” Joe’s mind was racing now. “Doug, I want you to stop right there and forget about what that last caller had to say. That was just one man and he certainly wasn’t expressing the views of our listeners on the whole, or those of the general public.”
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m ready. I’m very serious about this.” The voice replied.
Anna McIntyre’s voice cut in again into Joe’s headphones.
“Joe. We can’t stop now. You need to keep him talking. We’re getting a TV monitor sent up so you can see him on screen. Joe, the police say he’s just put a noose around his neck.”
Joe clutched at his forehead. He looked up at the clock on the wall. In half an hour he should be putting on his jacket and strolling down the road to the station and then on the train home for Christmas. It was becoming clear now that Christmas might be delayed this year by Santa Claus himself.
“Doug, I don’t want to hear talk like that, and neither do our listeners. You sit tight and stay on the line while I get our girls to patch through some people who I’m sure will share my sentiments. I’m sure we can convince you that the majority of people out you support your cause.”
Joe spun in his chair to face the glass screen of the control room and gave the thumbs up to his sound engineer, who put through a call through on line 1.
Joe connected the call, noting that Anna picked up the handset in the booth at the same time and realised she was about to pose as his next caller. Despite his apprehension that Doug Clements would see through the trick, he had little choice but to follow the charade through.
“Okay. Line one, what’s your name and where are you from?” Joe asked.
“Hi Joe.” Anna began, trying to sound like a nervous first time caller and succeeding magnificently. “I’m Anna, from Hertford, and I’m calling about the Dad on the bridge.”
“Okay, Anna. What have you got to say to our friend, Doug, on this chilly Christmas Eve?”
Anna gave him a quick thumbs up and continued.
“Well, firstly, I hope that his daughter…Kate?”
“Yes, I’m sure he said Kate.”
“Well, I hope she’s listening or that someone has alerted her to what her dad is doing right now to show the world how much he misses her.”
“I hope so too, Anna.”
“And secondly, I want to tell him to come down as safely and as quickly as possible. His daughter needs him to be around and in one piece when they can finally be together. If he wants to talk to someone, I’d be happy for him to call me on my mobile number if you want to take that now.”
Worried that his producer was overstepping the mark with the last part of her comments, Joe cut in quickly.
“Anna, thank you for your call and comments. I’m sure Doug appreciates the offer – but there are plenty of people who would be happy to sit and talk with him and see what can be worked out for him and his little girl.”
Joe watched as Anna put down the phone in the adjacent booth and then she took another call straight away on another line. He gauged from her expression that she had the Police on again. He returned to the job in hand.
“So, back to you, Doug. You heard what Anna had to say, and I’m sure she’s one of thousands who would like you to come down safely, so that you can look at other ways of getting some time with your daughter.”
The reply came quickly and harshly.
“The only way I’m coming down from here is if my Kate is at the bottom of the bridge to see me – then I’ll climb down. Until then, I’m staying put – unless everyone wants me down real quick and that’d spoil a few Christmases, seeing Santa hanging by his neck on Christmas Eve wouldn’t it!”
Joe knew that he had to fight to keep ahead of the conversation.
“Doug, Doug, Doug – listen, my friend – nobody wants you to jump, you understand that, right? How old is your Kate? Where’s she living?”
Joe breathed a sigh of relief when the voice responded to his questions once again.
“She’s twelve now, turned twelve last week. Her mother keeps her wherever she decides to stay – they’re always on the move. I think they’re in Cambridge now, at her aunt’s place.”
Joe was distracted as he sensed movement in the next room and turned to watch as a TV was wheeled in and positioned to face him. The picture suddenly appeared and he could see the man in the Santa suit, perched on the bridge, traffic sprawling for miles in front of the road closure. He could clearly see the phone in the man’s hand, the earpieces in his ears, and the rope around his neck. Joe tried not to be distracted now that he could see just how perilous the caller’s position was as he spoke with him.
“Doug, as you no doubt know if you listen to the show regularly, I’ve got two children myself. My little girl is nine – and, I would be torn apart if I couldn’t see her. I cannot begin to imagine how painful it must be for you to not be able to see you daughter, and at Christmas it must be the absolute worst. But, she wouldn’t want to see you get hurt. One day – and it may take a bit more waiting, and I know that must be so painful – but one day you will get to see her again. Mate, I’ll guarantee it – I’ll even make some calls on your behalf – whatever it takes. So, please, for Kate, and for all the other children who may have seen you on the TV news this morning, please come down and carefully.”
There was another pause.
Joe continued to watch the live pictures on News 24, seeing the man in the red and white suit surveying the traffic ahead of him and the congregated police presence at each side of the bridge.
“Can’t do it, Joe” he replied. “I said I’d stay here, and that’s what I’ll do. But, mark my words, if anyone tries to come up here and bring me down – I will jump.”
Anna’s voice came again into Joe’s headphones.
“Joe. Keep it going – you’re doing fine. Line 2 is a psychiatrist used by the police, so he may be a little more convincing than I was.”
Joe nodded quickly at his producer.
“Okay Doug, we’ve got another caller who wants to speak to me about your plight, and it’s just come up on my screen that he’s actually calling from within that queue of traffic in front of you. Good morning, Adam on the M25, welcome to the show – what would you like to say?”
The voice rang out with a metallic sound to distort its true tone.
“I’d like to tell your friend up there that if he’s thinking of jumping, he should have done so by now. Why’s he taking so much fuckin’ time? Let me help!”
The line went dead, just before Joe had the chance to cancel it after hearing the profanity go out live on air.
“Doug. Sit tight mate – that clearly was not the call we thought it was and I’ll be speaking to our girls about how…”
Joe stopped short as a deafening explosion rang in his ears. He yanked the headphones from his head, throwing them onto the desk.
He turned to look into the control room to see all of his colleagues staring in disbelief at the TV screen.
The image was still of the bridge, but Santa was no longer sitting astride the top railing.
His body was now swinging below the bridge from the rope tight around his throat.
The phone swung below him, the earpieces still in his ears.
Just before the screen image cut back to the newsroom studio, Joe saw the dark stream of blood that ran down Doug Clements’ face and neck from a large wound in his forehead.