Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying out something a bit different – a short-ish murder mystery. Look, I even spent four minutes making a shit ‘cover’ for it.
It has the super-camp name of Dead By Christmas and I’m just going to stick the first “chapter” of it online to gauge how decent or atrocious it is.
(Top photo: David DeHetre via Flickr)
Here we go then: part one.
The first time I met my five best friends, I was wearing a cut-up white T-shirt with obscenities scrawled across it in neon-coloured pens. I had silver glitter all over my face and I’d just seen off the best part of a 2-litre bottle of supermarket cider while howling along to an inoffensive pop song, on my own, in a box-sized bedroom.
I was 18 and it was Freshers’ Week. I’d arrived at my halls of residence one day earlier than anyone else because of a mandatory meet-and-greet session specific to the School of Literature, so by the time my flat had started filling up, I’d already got over the nerves of starting somewhere new and had the (alcohol-boosted) confidence of someone who knew the campus like the back of his hand.
I don’t think I made the strongest first impression: booze makes me much louder than I normally am, and while my five new flatmates were quietly and politely introducing themselves to one-another I was arrogantly barking on about my experience of being there for a whole 24 hours and insisting that they all joined me at that night’s fancy dress club night whether they were tearful over leaving home for the first time or not.
That was more than 14 years ago, and it’s baffling that I ended up becoming arguably the most sensible one of the group. In the weeks and months that followed, we all became incredibly close, and without hesitation moved in to a shared house for our second year, staying there right up to graduation. I suppose, from my perspective at least, we’ve remained best friends ever since, though it’s no understatement to say that some of their relationships with one-another have become more and more fraught.
That’s why I took it upon myself to bring us all back together, under one roof, at Christmastime, to rediscover our fondness for each other and take us back to that same place of love and trust and effortless comfort that we found so easy a decade ago.
That was the plan, anyway.
I knew everyone was sceptical about the trip’s chances of success but, in fairness, they all accepted the invite. I’d picked out a lovely cottage in Surrey, pitched it to the others as a chance to patch up our differences and have fun like we used to, and – albeit reluctantly – every single one of them agreed.
On December 19, I drove down from Nottingham, where I’ve lived and worked for the last four years, and picked up Bryony en route. Bryony is the one I’ve stayed closest to in the 11 years since we left university, even though she’s now based in Cambridge with her girlfriend Toni, a terrifying primary school teacher who I’m assured is much kinder than her evil glances and transparent subtweeting will have you believe.
When I first met Bryony she had a glorious mane of thick, tightly curled dark brown hair, which nowadays she tends to keep tied back in a stylishly loose bun. ‘Stylish’ is the word I’d probably use to sum her up best, actually, although she always laughs at me and says it just goes to show how little I know about ‘style’. She always looks incredible and I reckon the lion’s share of the hefty sum she earns from her managerial role in finance (something clever with numbers, I’m not sure what) goes towards clothes, make-up and accessories.
“You’re insane,” she told me the split second she hit the passenger’s seat.
“You don’t have to come.”
“That’s a lie,” she snorted. “As if you’d have let me get away with saying no.”
Carefully she placed her brand new, jet black, high-end, probably-worth-£1000 overnight bag on the back seat and waved enthusiastically back at Toni, whose ice cold stare jarred with the bright LED-infested Christmas jumper she was wearing.
We got halfway around the M25 before Bryony suggested we turn around and go back again.
“You can just stay with me and Toni for a few days,” she suggested.
“No!” I said. “Come on, the six of us haven’t been together since we left Bristol. How shit is that?”
“It’s going to be much shittier having us all under one roof, believe me.”
I groaned. “It won’t be anywhere near as bad as you think.”
“It’s going to be about fifty times worse than you think.”
I laughed and turned up the radio, shouting along to a cheap new cover of an old Christmas song. It’s true that a lot had happened between various members of the group in recent years, but I refused to believe that we couldn’t all get back to how we were.
Easy for me to say, though. I’d stayed clear of most of the drama. Apart from a brief fling with one of them, Helena, soon after we graduated, I’d stayed pretty much on good terms with the lot, even though I’d kept in touch with some more than others.
We arrived at our destination – a small village not far off the A3 – in pitch black at about 5:30pm. The cottage was at the end of a long, unlit narrow lane that probably looked beautiful in daylight but had a strange sense of countryside spookiness about it by night. Even in the early evening. We’d just heard the year’s diabolical Christmas Number One and after a couple of hours with her, Bryony’s pessimism about the trip’s chances of success had very slightly rubbed off on me.
A security light came on as I parked the car, illuminating the front of the cottage in a harsh glow of white and exposing the pretty brickwork I recognised from the website. The place had an attractive exterior; potted plants that showed no signs of suffering from the festive cold snap were peppered about the forecourt and nearby we could hear the gentle passing of the River Tillingbourne on the other side of some looming dark trees. Two other cars were already there.
Bryony removed her designer bag from the back seat like a mother collecting her baby and looked at the property with a grimace.
“Here we go then,” she huffed.
“I’m telling you, you’ll have a great time.”
Gary answered the door with a loud “WAHEY!” that sent a cluster of birds dashing from a nearby tree. Probably the biggest personality of the six of us, he had lost absolutely none of his defining traits since uni, except his once full, perfectly styled head of hair. Loud, brash, confident, some may say arrogant… but, I figured, the perfect person to break the ice on what could very well have been an awkward start to the weekend.
I’d barely managed to say “hi” before he grabbed me in a tight bear hug and continued loudly cheering, his former rugby player’s physique almost crushing every bone in my body. Bryony had always thought he was a little on the obnoxious side, and her face indicated that she hadn’t changed her mind, but she managed a semi-convincing smile when he turned his attentions to her; gingerly planting an unwanted kiss on her cheek before giving her one of his trademark embraces.
“How the fuck have you been?” he asked, slapping us both on the back as we stepped inside. “Come in, come in, it’s fucking freezing outside. It’s a great place, Eddie, top marks.”
He shut the door behind us as we took in our new digs; a place far, far nicer than the dingy student house we called home back in the day. It wasn’t particularly modern or spacious but it was certainly well kept: an assortment of carefully placed lamps gave it a classy, intimate feel, and the hardwood floors and sparse décor gave the inside a much more modern vibe than the rustic front had suggested. It looked like the owners had even laid on a massive Christmas tree with sophisticated giant silver baubles – a couple of which had fallen onto the floor.
“How long have you been here?” I asked, taking off my coat and scarf.
“Hour or so,” he replied, leading us through to the kitchen. “Hope you don’t mind, I’ve started dinner.”
“I was going to say, it smells amazing.”
“I thought we were getting a take-away?” said Bryony, trying not to sound too disappointed.
Gary collected a couple of wine glasses from a cupboard and poured us each a generous helping of red. “Well I figured I could give it a go, as a treat, while we were waiting for the rest of you!”
“Who else is here?” Bryony asked; and as if on cue, Helena entered the room.
Helena was the one I’d dated for a couple of months, soon after we left uni. She was beautiful then and even more so now. Her shoulder-length blonde hair down in a loose wave, she had a baggy white chunky-knit jumper on and tight, light blue jeans; perfecting, as she always did, the art of looking completely breath-taking without seeming like she’d made any extra effort.
“Hello you two,” she smiled.
“Helena! Hi,” I beamed, giving her a friendly hug. We broke up because we realised we were better off as friends, and although we hadn’t kept in touch as much as I’d have liked to, there was – as far as I knew, anyway – absolutely no bad blood over the way our ill-advised ‘romance’ played out. And even if there was, it felt like a lifetime ago.
“Hiya,” Bryony said with a polite wave.
“You got a drink, Helena?” Gary bellowed. He had his back to us, making a big show of stirring a pot on the stove. “Just checking the food is all right.”
“Yes, I have, thanks,” Helena replied, picking up a half-full glass from a nearby worktop.
“Well here we are, then,” I said, raising mine for a toast. “Happy Christmas to us!”
“Happy Christmas to us,” Helena repeated, and we each sipped. Out of the corner of my eye I think I saw Bryony swig back her entire glass.
The two of us took our bags upstairs and ran into Kate, who was dressed only in a towel and darting into one of the bedrooms for cover. I figured she must have got a lift with Helena.
“Kate?” I called.
“Hey!” she replied, blushing, poking her head out from behind the door. “Sorry, I’m… sorry! Oh God. Not dressed.”
Back in the early days, Kate – a Sports Science student from California – was the last member of our group to really get involved with us. I think at her High School she was friends exclusively with fellow sportsmen and women, so naturally it was her course-mates to whom she gravitated when she first started out at uni. But she came around: when her complete dick of a then-boyfriend flew over to see her just so he could announce he’d been cheating, she was devastated – and we were the ones who were there for her straight away; chasing him out of the flat by squirting ketchup at him and hurling all of his luggage out of her third-floor window.
She lives in London now, and she’s very successful. She started her own fitness centre just four years after graduation and now has a five-strong chain across the capital. By all accounts, she’s rolling in it.
I made a show of averting my eyes away from her, even though her entire body was covered by door. “It’s OK,” I said theatrically. “I’m not looking!”
“Didn’t realise you were here,” Bryony said flatly.
“I was about to say the same to you guys!” said Kate. “Honestly, the shower here is phenomenal. Wait until you try it.”
“Will do,” Bryony replied without a hint of enthusiasm. Kate shut the door and we found rooms that didn’t appear to have been bagged by anybody else.
I closed my door behind me and immediately sat on the mattress. Excellent quality. Out of the window and into the dark evening I could just about see the river flowing nearby but I could make out very little of the farmland beyond it.
I took out my phone. No signal. I had a message from Jacqui, my partner, asking if I’d arrived safely, but unable to pick up any network coverage I put the device back in my pocket.
I ditched the room’s main light in favour of a freestanding lamp and took my things out of my overnight bag, housing them in the chest of drawers beside the bed. I thought to myself that things seemed to have got off to a reasonably good start: Kate was in good spirits, there was very little sign of awkwardness with Helena, Gary was certainly making a big effort… Even Bryony hadn’t snapped at anybody yet, at least not overtly. So far, so good.
I sat back down on the bed and smiled as I heard the distant sound of Gary loudly singing in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches to his highly touted bolognaise. Bryony may have made a point of voicing her dread at the prospect of a big reunion weekend, but I wondered how many of the others actually felt the same as me: like the time we spent together at university was the happiest of my life, and nothing – not a decent job, not a decent house, not a decent existence with the love of my life – had come close to replicating it.
Jacqui and I had discovered three weeks earlier that our first child was on the way. I was jubilant, of course, and overwhelmed at the prospect of becoming a father; but the news did make me realise how this chapter of my life – this opening chunk in which my family bloodline stops with me – is about to come to an end. University was, if I’m being honest with myself, the best part of the chunk, and all I wanted was to relive that glorious period with everyone one more time; momentarily forgetting any problems we’d had with each-other and re-establishing our bond before parenthood made my chances of getting away for a pre-Christmas mini-break virtually impossible.
Gary presented the big serving bowl of bolognaise with the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat; so proud he was of his creation that it would have been borderline cruel to remind him that he cooked the sauce out of a jar and the hardest part of the whole process was probably boiling the spaghetti.
The five of us were sat around a huge oak table in the dining room, tucking into the food while it was hot even though we were still waiting for the sixth and final attendee to join us. Booze was flowing quite freely by this point: Gary and I were on what must have been our third glasses of red while Bryony had knocked back at least four and Kate had skipped straight on to the gin. Helena, citing a headache, had taken a break from alcohol in favour of water, and Gary was toasting both our weekend and my brilliant choice of cottage.
“Look at this,” he said. “All of us here. Cheers, Eddie.”
“Yeah, thanks Eddie,” Helena added.
“Thanks to all of you!” I said. “I knew we’d be back together in one piece, sooner or later.” I raised my eyebrows at Bryony and she stuck her tongue out.
Gary laughed. “You and me both, mate. Although, after the year I’ve had, I thought I’d be dead by Christmas.”
I winked. “It’s not too late!”
A loud knock at the front door pierced the room, and Gary’s face dropped. The women and I glanced at each-other with a flash of worry.
“Does someone want to get that?” Gary snapped. Helena obliged and Bryony shot me a look that said, ‘here we go’.
Moments later, Will entered. Dressed smartly in a full suit and with a white dusting on his sleek black hair that suggested snow outside, he waved a bottle of wine at us all and burst into a rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Feeling the force of her alcohol intake much more than the rest of us, Kate gleefully sang along, while I rose to greet him and Gary just sat in silence, picking at his food.
“Eddie!” Will cheered as I hugged him. “What a great place!”
“Nice of you to join us,” I replied, patting him on the back.
“Busy day at the office, mate.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Tell me about it.” He glanced at Bryony who blew him a kiss. “Bryony, love, how are you?”
“I’m good. Love,” she answered dryly.
“Is it snowing?” Kate asked, putting more gin in her glass even though it wasn’t empty.
“A bit, yeah. Tell you what, my cab driver couldn’t find this place for shit.” Will looked uneasily at Gary. “Hiya, Gary.”
Gary didn’t look up. “Will,” he grunted. Silence consumed the room for three seconds that felt like an eternity, before Helena rushed off to the kitchen to fetch an extra glass.
“Food looks great,” Will remarked, sitting down at the empty place.
“Gary here was our chef,” Kate gushed. He didn’t reply.
“I’ll get you a plate,” offered Bryony, perhaps realising Gary’s self-appointed hosting duties did not extend as far as Will. She left the room and I wavered at the thought of being alone with two archenemies and an increasingly intoxicated Kate. Still, at least she was too drunk to soak in the tension. I followed her lead and helped myself to a refill.
“So work’s busy is it?” I asked.
“Very,” said Will. “You remember what it’s like at this time of year, Gary?”
Gary slammed his fork down and Kate let out a startled yelp. He stared at his rival.
Will shrugged. “What did I say?”
Gary raised his eyebrows, turned red and for a moment I thought he was just going to get up and start a physical brawl.
“Now, now, boys,” Kate said, tutting. “It’s Christmas! Let’s let bygones be gyebons. Gyebons? Bygones. Is it bygones? Is that the word?” She took another sip.
Will and Gary held eye contact. “She’s right,” the former said. “It’s been a couple of years, Gaz. We should let it lie.”
Gary laughed and shook his head.
“What?” Will asked. “What are you laughing at?”
“What am I laughing at?” Gary repeated aggressively. “You’ve just swanned in here in your fucking fancy-arse suit, waving your expensive fucking wine in our faces, chatting shit about getting a taxi all the way from London…”
“I did get a taxi from London.”
“I’m not saying you’re lying, mate, I’m saying you’re a fucking dickhead.”
“Gary, you need to let this go.”
Kate, sat directly next to Gary, tapped him on the hand. “He’s right,” she said softly. He swiped her away with his forearm.
“Hey, come on,” I said, sensing the atmosphere worsening.
“Look, all right,” said Will grandly, holding his hands up as if at gunpoint. “Let’s just get this out of the way now, then, shall we? Just let me have it. Say whatever you want to say to me, whatever you’ve had building up inside you for the last couple of years…”
“Fuck off Will,” Gary retorted.
“Nah, go on. I mean it. Let’s get this stupid little grudge of yours sorted and then maybe we can all have a nice weekend.”
“Will,” Kate said sharply.
“You stole my fucking life,” Gary hissed, picking up his fork and pointing it at his enemy.
“I stole your life? Fuck off mate,” Will laughed mockingly. “You had a job, you fucked it up, they took the job away from you and they gave it to me.”
“It wasn’t like that!”
“Oh give me a fucking break, it was exactly like that.”
Helena returned with a glass. “Sorry, couldn’t find the right shelf,” she giggled. “What have I missed?”
“Just sorting out this boring old shit with Gary so we can all have a nice time,” Will told her.
“You left me with nothing,” Gary growled, a vein on his forehead so prominent I worried it might pop.
Will patted his jacket pockets. “Hang on, two secs, let me get out my tiny violin, where is it…”
Something in Gary snapped. He picked up his plate and hurled it at the wall behind Kate, leaving her screaming as pasta and fine china rained down on her. I leapt out of my chair as Gary bowled towards Will and physically lifted him up out of his seat, pinning him against the wall.
“Guys, stop it!” I shouted, as if either of them was listening. Will has always been handsome and in good shape but he looked like a twig next to Gary, and was no real match for him.
“You’re so fucking pleased with yourself, aren’t you,” Gary yelled, as Will struggled to break free. Helena comforted Kate.
“Gary! That’s enough,” I said angrily, but he wasn’t listening. He threw Will down on the floor and, ego bruised, Will bounced straight back; kicking off a physical fight that saw chairs upturned, glasses smashed and red wine trickling across spotless floorboards.
Running in at the sound of commotion, Bryony tried to wrench the two men apart. With Gary aiming a punch at Will, she stepped between them at just the wrong moment and felt the full power of the sportsman’s fist; falling back into Will’s arms as panic suddenly set in across Gary’s face and Kate screamed once again.
“Fuck!” he gasped.
Helena and I rushed to her side as Will sat her down on one of the few remaining upstanding chairs. “Bryony,” I said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fucking golden,” she snarled, holding her hands over the eye that bore the brunt of the attack.
Gary was panting and shaking but he wasn’t apologising. “Look what you’ve down now,” he barked at Will. I realised Will’s nose was bleeding.
Bryony very quickly got annoyed with everyone crowding around her and dragged Gary out of the room to calm him down and/or hit him right back. Helena and I set about cleaning up the remnants of food and plate that he had smashed, while Kate took Will upstairs to drop off his stuff and have a moment to breathe.
I got to work with a dustpan and brush while Helena wiped down the table.
“Didn’t take long, did it?” I said.
“You never know,” she smiled. “Now they’ve exploded at one-another, they might be able to chill out.”
“How’s your head?”
“Didn’t you have a headache?”
“Oh. Yeah, better, thanks. All that drama, I’d forgotten all about it.”
We’d just about made the place look respectable again. “That’ll do,” I shrugged. “More wine?”
Helena shook her head and laughed, but I wasn’t kidding.
We went through to the kitchen and found Gary ranting to Bryony about Will.
“I don’t care,” she was saying, cutting him off. “It wasn’t Will you smashed in the face.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“All good?” I asked.
Bryony filled her glass with water from the tap. “Incredible.”
I opened a new bottle as Will and Kate entered the room behind me.
“We’re back,” she declared.
I decided to take charge of the situation. “Right. This is what’s going to happen. We are all in the same place for the first time in over a decade. We’ve got a whole weekend together and I, for one, want it to be fun. Whatever issues we have -”
“You’re right,” Will interrupted. “We haven’t seen each-other properly in ages.”
Kate aimed a finger at Gary. “You two think you can play nicely?” Gary nodded silently and Will forced a smile. “Think we can not hit innocent bystanders in the face?”
Bryony raised her glass. “Here, here.”
I picked up the newly opened bottle beside me and collected another from nearby. “We need more alcohol and we need music.”
Helena led the way out of the kitchen towards the large sitting room. As we walked through, Bryony whispered sarcastically: “Yep. That’s what tonight needs. More alcohol.”
For some reason, my logic for the rest of the evening was that if I continued drinking and forcing fun onto everyone else, the weekend would be a resounding success. Not so.
Initially we just sat around and engaged in meaningless small talk, before I decided to up the volume of the background music and attempt to start some kind of dancefloor. Kate, who had been on the gin for most of the night, joined me; while everyone else tried their best to look like they were having a pleasant time and not counting down the hours until they could go home. Gary, who had been so upbeat and keen to have a good time when we arrived, threw in the towel first and headed up to bed.
With all due respect to him, I would have expected the atmosphere to lighten up when he left, but for some reason it didn’t. I just kept drinking, occasionally dancing, forcing my nostalgic memories on the others and thinking that the louder I became, the more likely everyone else was to suddenly start having fun.
I vaguely remember Will popping outside for a cigarette, purely because it was the moment at which I turned the speakers up once again and yelled “IT’S MY JAM!” about a song I’d probably never heard before; and I remember Helena joining him, saying her headache had returned and she needed some air.
Kate soon reached the stage where she couldn’t fathom having any more alcohol and needed a soft drink, leaving just me, Bryony and the loud wailing vocals of whichever indistinguishable singer was blasting out of the sound system. Bryony turned it off and I was conscious of the fact that I couldn’t really stand upright without holding on to something.
“You all right?” she asked, exhausted by the spectacle I had been making of myself.
“Fine,” I said, trying my best to act sober. I went to sit on the sofa but ended up losing my balance and collapsing onto it horizontally. “I’ll just take a… yep.”
“I’ll get you some water,” she said, and left me on my own. Feeling more than a little woozy, I dozed off before she came back.
I don’t know how long I was out for, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour. When I came around, the lamps were still on, tea lights that Helena had lit were still flickering and I didn’t feel like I’d sobered up at all.
My stomach was fragile and my head had started to pound, while in my pocket I felt my phone buzz as it received the onslaught of notifications it must have missed without signal. But it wasn’t any of those things that had violently woken me up. What woke me up was the sound of a sharp, high-pitched scream coming from another room.
I sat up and wondered if maybe I’d imagined it; if perhaps someone had shrieked in my dream and that had been my body’s way of jolting me awake and telling me to go upstairs to an actual bed. But after a few more seconds, I heard it again – and this time I clearly recognised it as coming from Kate.
“Help!” she howled, and upstairs I heard two sets of footsteps running towards her.
I forced myself to stand up and fought the urge to throw up, figuring I should probably go and see what the big drama was. I assumed Kate had found a giant spider on her pillow or something.
After clambering up the stairs, I headed towards her room but soon realised that that wasn’t where she was: she, and by this point Helena and Bryony too, were behind another door further down the landing.
Helena was standing in the doorway, blocking my view of whatever was happening inside. “What’s wrong?” I asked as I approached, still unable to walk in a straight line.
Nobody answered me or acknowledged my arrival. I stood behind Helena and looked over her shoulder into the room, seeing Kate, wearing only her underwear, cowering in the far corner with her hand over her mouth, tears streaming down her face. I followed her eye line down towards the floor, beside the bed, where Bryony was knelt beside Gary’s lifeless body, surrounded by a chilling pool of blood.
“He was just lying there,” Kate cried, her sobs becoming louder and louder.
Helena, who had been looking at the scene in shock, sprang into action.
“I’ll call an ambulance,” she said, and rushed down the landing to fetch her phone.
“He’s already dead,” Bryony said quietly, but Helena was gone. I was speechless.
Another door down the corridor opened and Will, wearing patterned pyjamas, emerged bleary-eyed.
“What’s all the noise?” he yawned, joining me in the doorway and taking in the gruesome spectacle. “Holy fucking shit.”
“What happened?” I asked, unable to take my eyes away from Gary.
“He’s been stabbed,” Bryony said, standing. “Someone’s stabbed him.”
“Who?” shouted Kate.
Helena returned, phone in hand. “Help’s on its way.”
We all looked at each-other, unable to comprehend what was going on.
I felt my breath quicken as a realisation hit me: unless someone had managed to break into the house, attack Gary and leave again without being detected, he must have been killed by one of us. By one of his friends.
Surely not. Surely none of us would do that. Could do that. I looked at Bryony, whose eyes met mine as if she was thinking the same thing. I looked at Kate, loudly crying in the corner with her head in her hands. I looked at Helena, clutching her phone so tightly her fingers were white, unable to bring herself to look directly at the horrific mess in front of her. And I looked at Will, crouched to the ground in disbelief, a look of sheer horror in his eyes.
I felt like my brain was moving at a million miles an hour: I was finally under the same roof as my five best friends in the world. Now one of them was dead, and someone had killed him. But who?