A Christmas Story by Eamonn Griffin

This year, Santa’s little helpers have been more than generous and we’ve got a bumper crop of wonderful Christmas short stories for you – from the dark to the whimsical and all stops in between. So put your favourite Christmas jumper on, pour yourself a mulled wine, grab a mince pie and sit down for another great criminally festive read.

A Crime Cymru Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Matlock story by Eamonn Griffin. In our now traditional opener to the festive season, Matlock rediscovers forgotten talents in this surprisingly uplifting tale.

Matlock and the Stille Nacht by Eamonn Griffin

There was a piano in the prison chapel. Not that there was a stained glass window. Not that there was any kind of view other than another Victorian brick wall on the far side of the safety glass on this side of things and the mesh cage on the other.

No pews, neither. Chairs were the stackable kind. Plastic and tubular steel jobs that would link together if you connected them right.

No altar. A table that might have been used for meals in what some of the older lags still called the refectory.

No pulpit. There was a music stand instead of a lectern. A shelved trolley. King James Bibles. Hymns Ancient and Modern. Newer green hardbacks: ASB 1980s. The Alternative Service Book.

There were five, six hundred inmates in Lindum prison. It varied. Some in, some out. Maybe twenty turned out on typical Sundays, half of them out of absolutely nothing better in the universe to do.

Still, Christmas was coming, geese were getting their final meals, and in a couple of hours there’d be evensong. The cathedral sent someone over the weekend before the big day. Like as not it’d be treated as a wind-up for the new boy. Some trainee vicar six months out of university showing willing while the lifers kept their hands in their cassock pockets.   

Ah, good luck to him.

It wasn’t like churches were any different to schools, to factories, to prisons.

Matlock glanced at the breaking wave of dust that he’d swept. You’d have thought that a room that saw as little activity as the chapel did wouldn’t have the opportunity to get dirty. But the muck got in somehow. Maybe mess loved Jesus. There was little else in the prison that did.

This was a job given to him by Mr Bostock. One of the surlier screws. Big fella. A sergeant in his army days who couldn’t get past the rank of corporal in the Prison Service.

Bostock had put his head into Matlock’s cell about half an hour earlier. ‘Bit of work for you.’

‘On the Sabbath, Mr Bostock?’

Nothing in response.

Matlock folded down the corner of the page he was on, then got to his feet. The paperback – a pursuit thing about someone who might have been an agent sent to kill someone who might have been Hitler, and who was now on the run – was slim enough to fit into the back of his trousers.

‘Not leaving your bedtime story behind?’     

‘Best not, Mr Bostock. Place is full of thieves.’

He’d been followed down to the chapel like he was on report. The walk was one designed to start rumours. Let the others notice, then make up their own reasons why. Unlikely that they’d come up with anything as drab as being collared for cleaning duty.

Sweep the chapel through. Then go over the floor with the mop. You’ve got an hour.

Matlock was done with the sweeping in fifteen minutes, half of which was stacking the chairs left out from whenever so that he had a free run at the parquet.

In fairness to whoever built the prison, they’d spent a little extra money on the chapel floor. Some top-hatted local chipping in a bit more in case it made him good with God.

It needed a new coat of wax, but the floor was about the only decent thing about the room.   

But there was a piano. No stool, mind. You had to use one of the stacking chairs if you wanted a sit down at the keys. It was that or stand like you were Little Richard goading Whitey with rock n roll.

The upright was a Broadhead. A decent manufacturer.

Matlock had seen one before. When he was a kid he’d had lessons. He hadn’t wanted to go, but Mum hadn’t asked for his opinion on the matter, and his Dad wasn’t going to get in the way.

Saturday mornings, nine till ten. Miss Peart, her name was. She might have been a hundred years old.

The lessons had gone on for about two years. Then they stopped. By then Saturdays had their own rhythm: cooked breakfast – a weekend thing, and anticipated – then piano, then football. A game in the park, then commentary on the radio.

Matlock had kept the lessons to himself. Never mentioned it to schoolmates, never volunteered in music class that he could read music, or that he knew which keys did what.

It had been years until Matlock had found out that the Saturday morning piano hour had come to an end because Miss Peart had died. 

Mum had been funny about death. Especially her impending own.  

The knowledge faded, like the lessons.

Like his Mum when the cancer, already in her like a hungry cannibal baby, had done with hollowing her out.

There it was, though.

That tingle.

Mid thirties and in jail and not touched a keyboard for maybe two and a half decades.

It wouldn’t take ten minutes to run that mop over the floor.

There wasn’t anyone about.

Plenty of time.

He lifted the fallboard: the lid over the leys, and a word that hadn’t come to Matlock for a quarter of a century. Middle C. An exploratory touch. The piano was in tune. More or less.

Close enough for jazz.

Matlock picked out a melody. Index finger only first time through. Then he saw what he could still do. Might have been muscle memory. The fingers just knew. He didn’t have to think about it. A slip: a grimace. OK. Do it again. Better this time.

There it was.

He pulled one of the chairs off the nearest stack.

He let his left hand go to work. On the bass line, then around it. He dropped his right, focused on the left. This has been Miss Peart’s thing. The last five minutes of the hour, she liked to show off. Wanted to pass on a bit of showboating. Let ‘em leave with the sense that piano wasn’t a weekly chore, but was something that could be fun.

Her thing was syncopation: turning a nursery rhyme or a simple bit of something classical but plodding into music. Real music, she called it.

Matlock – eight, nine years old – learned the difference between barrelhouse and boogie-woogie, between stride piano, ragtime and blues. How to take the song, no matter its simplicity, and make it swing.

Her hands, as offwhite as the keys under them, as thin and bone-like as the ivory, took on life. Tendons under the skin active, the hand itself scarcely moving. ‘Good things are easy,’ she’d say. ‘If you make the easy things good.’

Matlock played the song the way he’d been shown. First the studio version, then the live one.     

The lessons soon got good. Miss Peart knew what she was doing: she must have had a hundred bored kids in the front room she kept for best and for lessons. She’d either learned how or simply had the knack of making the music real.

The left hand on its own now.

A simple, loping bass line. 

Matlock kept it rolling.

Now the right hand, the melody picked out in single finger dabs.

You start with one note, then you’ve got spaces to go. You can build and you can fade.

You can make it sound the same and different, different and the same.

That’s the thing. The variations are always the thing. You keep the rhythm going. And then you dance over the top.

But the bass is the beast.

As good as she was, nobody paid to see Fay Wray.

No. They came for Kong.

Matlock brought it back, best as he could. Got the tune under control. No sense in running before you learn to walk again.

Besides, he had to concentrate. And it was harder work than it looked. Already, Matlock’s left hand was aching.

Later, he supposed that was why he hadn’t heard Mr Bostock. A little lesson there about never, no matter what or why, let your attention slip when inside.

Ah, shit.

No. Bostock gestured, a rotation of the fingers.

Keep it going.

Matlock played on. Brought the song back around to its beginning.

He knew to keep what happened next to himself.

Bostock came forward. Not quite to the piano, but close enough. Maybe so that his voice wouldn’t carry. He’d turned, too, facing not to Matlock, but back towards the door.

 For a big lad, Bostock had a light touch with the vocals. ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,’ he sang. ‘Alles schläft; einsam wacht. Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar.’

Matlock joined in with the last two lines, but in English. ‘Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.’

Bostock carried on in German, while Matlock played. Where he could, he dropped in a bluesy flourish.

It wasn’t great, but it did the job.

Three verses, and out.

Matlock closed the fallboard.

There was a metal dustpan and an accompanying brush by a run of coat hooks thick with gloss near the chapel door. Matlock fetched them down and tidied away the muck on the parquet. There wasn’t a bin to empty the dust into.

You could see the cogs in Bostock’s head meshing.

‘Give us the pan,’ the screw said. ‘I’ll get shut of that while you wash the floor. Then put the chairs out. Thirty should be enough.’

Matlock nodded. 

‘And then you can get back to your story book.’

Okay.

‘Anything to add, Matlock?’

‘No, Mr Bostock. Nothing at all.’


We hope you enjoy our festive tales. On behalf of all our authors, we’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Read more about Eamonn Griffin on his website and Crime Cymru page.

You can find Eamonn’s books on his Amazon page.


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