Because they reminded him that despite all the darkness out there, there is goodness too.
Jessica tore the wrapping paper off and peered at the gift inside. Intrigued, she pulled out the Peppa Pig Carousel and showed it to her parents, before returning her attention to the shiny silver paper. Helen suppressed a smile. Her experience of children was limited, but she knew that toddlers were always more interested in the boxes and paper that contained their presents than the gifts themselves.
‘Sorry, she will play with it, but needs to spend some quality time with the wrapping paper first,’ Charlie said, grimacing.
‘Don’t worry,’ Helen responded quickly, ‘I just like to see her enjoying the day.’
And it was true. At first, Helen had been unsure whether to accept Charlie’s offer to join them on Christmas Day. She didn’t want to be anyone’s charity case and, besides, she had her own little rituals at Christmas that had stood her in good stead thus far. However, the temptation to spend the big day with people who cared for her had proved too strong in the end – and Helen was glad to have exchanged her standard Murgh Zafrani with extra coriander for Steve’s roast turkey with all the trimmings.
She’d wondered if it would feel odd to spend Christmas with someone else’s family but actually she’d had a great time and she chided herself now for her unnecessary fears. The icing on the cake had been the news that Richard Ford had found a new post with a sister fire service in the States and was due there soon. One less thing on my conscience, Helen had thought when she received Gardam’s text. She was sure Adam Latham had swung this for his former colleague and, caught up in the Christmas spirit, Helen felt herself softening towards the man who’d tried to destroy her reputation. For all his faults, he was a leader who looked after his own. Just as she had done, Helen reflected, with Charlie.
Helen snapped out of her thoughts to find Steve and Charlie staring at her, amused expressions on their faces.
‘Sorry, miles away.’
‘This is for you,’ Charlie continued, handing Helen a present. ‘And before you open it, I’d just like to say thank you.’
‘For everything. I … well, we’ve all found it hard, me going back to work, and I think I’d have probably walked if it wasn’t for you.’
Helen accepted Charlie’s gratitude, playing down her role in her decision to stay – the latter was far stronger and more determined than she ever gave herself credit for. But, in order to fend off Charlie’s protestations to the contrary, Helen now opened the present and was surprised and pleased to find that it was a new scarf – a replica of the one she’d lost.
‘I heard you mislaid the last one, so here’s No. 2. Try not to lose it this time, eh?’
Helen smiled and uttered a brief thanks, suddenly choked with emotion by this thoughtful gift. Wrapping it around herself – much to Jessica’s amusement and delight – Helen vowed that she would take very good care of this one, because of what it meant to her.
For the first time in ages, Helen didn’t feel alone.
Christmas was over for another year. The turkey had been eaten and presents exchanged, and the clean-up operation was in full swing. Christmas Day in the Gardam household was always a big deal – Sarah taking it upon herself to up the ante each year to keep the horde of relatives, friends and plus ones entertained. She always complained about it, but Jonathan Gardam knew that secretly she loved it – the excitement, the preparation, and that contented feeling afterwards when you knew it had all gone well.
The TV was on, but nobody was really watching it. Sarah and the kids were playing a board game and his mother was slumbering quietly in the easy chair. Jonathan took this as his cue to slip away. He enjoyed Christmas as much as the next man, but the claustrophobia of it sometimes got to him and then he liked to escape to his office – or his sanctuary, as Sarah labelled it – at the top of the house.
Hovering in the office doorway, he listened for any signs of pursuit. But nobody seemed to have noticed his departure, judging by the raucous and good-humoured accusations of cheating among the board game participants, so he pushed the door to gently and turned the key in the lock. This was probably overkill and might arouse suspicion, but he didn’t want to be disturbed.
There had one been gift to himself that he’d been looking forward to all day. Something special, something secret that nobody but him would appreciate.
Seating himself at his desk, he switched on the light and opened the top drawer. It was stacked full of files as usual, but Gardam lifted these out now, placing them carefully on the nearby coffee table. Beneath them in the drawer was a small plastic bag and within that was his prize.
Gardam slipped his hand inside and was immediately excited by the feel of the material. It was a guilty pleasure for sure – a gift that he had stolen rather than been given – which made it all the more enjoyable. He smiled to himself now as he pulled Helen Grace’s scarf from the drawer.
He held it to his face, breathing in her scent, before gently brushing it against his cheek, revelling in its softness. He closed his eyes and for a moment was transported away from work and family, away from all the things that were as much a duty as a pleasure, to the real centre of his affections.
The enigmatic but compelling DI Helen Grace.
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First published 2015
Copyright © M. J. Arlidge, 2015
Cover Photo © Oleksiy Maksymenko Photography/Alamy
The moral right of the author has been asserted