This has been a tough year, but now that Christmas is nearly upon us, our brilliantly talented Crime Cymru authors have decided to bring us all some seasonal cheer with stories of murder, mayhem and heavenly choirs. So pull up a mince pie, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy the first of our stories. And in a year in which we all learnt some new words, most notably ‘lockdown’, what more fitting way to begin than Eamonn Griffin‘s tense story of an altogether different form of lockdown.
MATLOCK AND THE HERALD ANGELS
by Eamonn Griffin
December the 23rd, and Tommy Murphy was making streamers again. Well, still. He seemed to have been at it for weeks. Gummed strips of crepe paper looped together to make banner decorations. The standing joke in Lincoln nick was that Tommy was working on the world’s most useless escape rope.
Matlock watched as Tommy worked. Lick, loop, stick. Lick, loop, stick. Another link in the chain every second or so. Someone had fetched him a dustbin into which the decorations trailed. Every now and again Tommy would rearrange the heap that had built up beside him, letting them fall gentle into the bin so that they wouldn’t break, wouldn’t crush, didn’t snap.
He was singing. That new charity song. The one with all the pop stars on it. Tommy was doing the different voices like he was that Mike Yarwood off the telly. He was pretty good, Matlock supposed.
A screw – Heptonstall: tall, scrawny, drinker’s nose – walked by. Hovered behind Tommy Murphy’s chair. Leaned in. Another packet of streamers appeared. Banded in the middle like a bundle of cash.
‘Ta, Mister H.’
‘You’re alright, Tommy.’
Mr H carried on with his rounds. Not a bad sort, as arseholes went. Tommy went back to his production line. Matlock left him to it.
Halfway back to his cell, Matlock reacted. A clatter, a shout, a laugh, and a scuffle, overlapping. Matlock didn’t see it, but it was easy to work out what had happened. The bin was on its side, paper streamers spinning out like guts from roadkill.
Tommy, maybe five foot seven on a tall day, was trying to get to another man. The prison officer was between them, arms out, facing Tommy. Two other screws were running over. Matlock knew by the laughter coming from behind Mr H that the other man was Dennis Crew.
The arriving guards more or less picked Tommy up by the armpits, pulling him back and away, the lad’s legs kicking out. The screws retreated into Tommy’s work, trampling the coiled streamers.
By now Tommy was screaming, half at the screws, half at Dennis Crew. Mr H was telling Crew to shut the hell up, but that wasn’t stopping him.
‘Sorry, mate! Didn’t see the bin, there, did I? Should have had a Men At Work sign or something, yeah?’ Crew’s grin reconfirmed what Matlock already knew. That this hadn’t been any kind of accident.
Prison is like a greenhouse made with panes of magnifying glass on the best of days. Nothing to do except mark the routine of bad food, poor sleep, tedious work, the same conversations. Anything different is significant. Meaningful. Important. Men get stabbed for imagined slights. Kill themselves over what might have been nothing on the outside. In here, though, with the same grey walls, the same grey clothes, the same grey faces, the tiniest something was everything. For Tommy Murphy, making his rainbow Christmas decorations. For most of the rest of the inmates, trying to make the best of the time of year. And for lags like Dennis Crew, that meant there was opportunity for the shitty kinds of mischief that might kick something off.
Crew was all hands up: didn’t mean nothing by it, yeah?. That grin, though. He knew he’d got to Tommy.
Murphy had been sat down. A couple of the lifers were helping him salvage something from the torn-up streamers. Telling him that it wasn’t so bad, that they’d help out if there was time before lock-up, that he shouldn’t pay that arsehole Crew any mind.
Tommy’s face, though. Red around the eyes, like he’d been rubbing them in disbelief. Gasping like he’d just finished his first marathon.
Crew was a petty turd. Always needling, always gossiping. The snickering kid standing behind the playground bully. Kept himself to himself when he wasn’t stirring the shit. Or creeping round the guards, feeding them snippets, doing whatever he needed to keep in their good books. He had an office job. Not much more than making tea and pushing a broom round the administration areas. Plenty of time for sneaking, listening, thieving stationery if he could, though. Walking both sides of the line. Collaborating.
The guards took Crew off somewhere out of sight. Tommy was coming around a little. Wiping his eyes with a sweatshirt cuff, then finding a bit of toilet roll in a pocket. He blew his nose, smiled some gratitude at the lags who’d come over. The gist of it was this. That yeah, there were repairs to do, and more than a few of the links had boot marks on them, but it was salvageable.
Some of the onlookers went back to their business. Others hung back. They’d want to see what Crew was like when – if – he resurfaced. Maybe he’d been taken back to his cell, given a couple of thumps to the gut as an early Christmas present, and told not to be such a fucking dick in future. Leave the kid alone. Tommy wasn’t harming anything or anyone.
Matlock made his way back to his own cell. The paperback he was in the middle of was face-down on the pillow where he’d left it. He laid down, went back to reading. Found that he’d read the same paragraph three, maybe four times over. Some nonsense about murders in a country house. Posh nobs from before the War, treating life and death like it was a board game.
Matlock folded down the corner of his page and shut the book. He stared at the underside of the bunk above. It was two days to Christmas.
24th December, and Tommy’s streamers were going up. They didn’t look bad. One of the guards had pulled out a tree from somewhere. A tinsel and wire thing that looked both homemade and ancient.
‘Bill Logan made that.’ Mr H indicated the tree.
‘Hmm?’ Matlock sipped his brew.
‘William James Logan. “Billy The Butcher”, they called him.’ Mr H was a walking Encyclopaedia Britannica of inmates past and present.
It never hurt to humour the screws. ‘Why was that?’
‘He was a butcher. Sausages. That was his speciality. Won rosettes at the Lincolnshire Show, he did. Little shop at the bottom of Steep Hill. Best sausages in Lincoln, my old mother reckoned. Worked in the kitchens here, he did. After they caught him, like. Twenty years, maybe a touch more. He made that. Good with his hands, Billy was. Always crafting something. Scrounged the material from God knows where, and came out of his cell with it one Christmas Eve pleased as Punch with himself. There used to be a star on it, but that’s long gone. Anyway. He died in here, or as good as. Cancer for years, then a heart attack. They got him to the hospital, but he was gone in a day. Five years back. That was at Christmas too. I still think of his chipolatas.’
‘Cheers for that, Mr H.’
There was going to be a carol service later. Six-ish. Word was that telly would be on an hour longer tonight, but that was the same rumour that went around every year, as far as Matlock could make out.
There was no work till the day after Boxing Day, and there’d be a half-arsed attempt at a Christmas dinner at lunchtime tomorrow, but that was it. Christmas went slower than other times of year. Visits were scaled back, work and education wasn’t running as usual, and half the time there were issues with staffing. Even screws want to spend time with their families over the festive season. The inmates made the best of it, but they tended to do Christmas on the quiet for the most part. Not quite playing football with the screws in No Man’s Land, but not far off.
Almost time for the carols, and Billy was still fiddling with details. Adding in extra links here so that chains might hang more evenly, tutting about the ways the colours didn’t work right there. He was wearing a tinsel halo. A stiff little thing like Christmas crown.
Crew was there too. Hanging back, arms folded. Smirk on him like he’d just fucked your missus and then eaten the steak that was meant for your tea. Someone – Lee Someone, whose last name Matlock didn’t know – called crew an arsehole as he went past. Didn’t nudge him, shoulder-barge him, didn’t spit the word out. He let him know though. Crew laughed. ‘Merry Christmas, mate!’
That was as far as it got with excitement. Later, there’d be a shuffling of chairs and tables. They did the carol service in here. It was the little bit of community working that the vicar did that actually seemed to work. Yeah, there was a chapel and they drew a decent crowd. Maybe a tenth of the crowd was faithful, a tenth curious, and the bulk simply seeking something different to do on a Sunday. Someone to maybe talk to like they weren’t a potential threat or a list of previous. But carols were out in public, so there wasn’t any excuse to join in.
Plus, there’d be mince pies. Kitchen had been on them all day today and yesterday. Two or three each, they reckoned.
That was if there were any left for the inmates.
Mr H was in the screws’ office. Making himself a coffee. Two homemade-looking mince pies on a square of kitchen roll to hand.
‘Evening, Mister H.’
‘Matlock. Evening. You ready for a festive sing-song?’
‘Been on the Mentho-Lyptus all afternoon.’
‘You coming down, Mister H?’
‘Daresay I’ll wander by. Got this paperwork to finish off though first, I have. I’ll get there, though.’
Dennis Crew was coming up the stairs. Tommy Murphy was nowhere to be seen. Not with the two lags shuffling the now-arriving inmates into some kind of order. Not making finishing touches to his streamers. Not adjusting the branches on the tree.
The tree that didn’t look right. Spindly at the best of times, but the wire branches had been messed with. Someone had tried to make the tree look fuller than it was.
Matlock checked on Mr. H. Head down, Biro going. He’d already had one of the mince pies.
Crew was outside his cell. Hanging over, looking down. He was watching. Smirking at the lags coming together. At the vicar, doing his best to organise the group so he could get started. A tape recorder – one of the little cassette jobs with a carrying handle – nearby. One of the lifers was handing out photocopies. Two platters of mince pies under clingfilm.
No sign of Tommy Murphy.
Oh, there he was. Well, the tinsel crown, anyway. In the middle of the cluster of inmates.
Matlock didn’t look back at Mr H. Positioned himself so that he was blocking the line of sight as best he could.
The vicar pressed a button on his machine. An organ version of a carol. The prison choir started up: a throaty school assembly.
‘Hark, the herald angels sing-’
A left hand from behind over Dennis Crew’s mouth.
‘Glory to the new-born King-’
A right hand, low and fast. Something bright and thin.
‘Peace on Earth and mercy mild-’
One, two, three stabs. Right kidney. Crew’s knees went.
‘God and sinners reconciled-’
Tommy Murphy, checking for blood. Dennis Crew, slumped. What looked like a coat hanger wire sticking out of him.
There were other words being sung too, about nations rising and angelic hosts. It wasn’t until after they’d been through the chorus a second time that Matlock turned to the office.
‘Shush, Matlock. I was listening.’
By now, Tommy Murphy was making his way through the back of the singing crowd, had been passed his tinsel halo, and had a lyrics sheet in his hand.
‘Well, when you’re ready. You might need the accident book. And a mop.’
We hope you enjoy our festive tales. On behalf of all our authors, we’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and hope for a very much better new year.