Read by Clive Greenwood
In the side doorway to Louden’s warehouse, three prostitutes huddled. Two were festive with tinsel on their bleached heads. The third one, with darker hair, wore flashing reindeer horns.
Foster’s car was parked half a street away, and all he wanted was to get home to his wife and kids before they decamped to her mother’s. It wouldn’t be the first time. She’d had cause enough. He’d show her the bottle of expensive brandy Louden had given him. ‘Worth over £200,’ Louden crowed. ‘Forgotten by a client. Don’t set light to this on your Christmas pud. It’ll burn the bloody house down.’ Louden had winked at Foster, and touched the side of his nose. ‘Forgetful people are the best kind.’ He peeled off a hundred in notes to sweeten it.
The reindeer antler girl fiddled with a cheap lighter, flicking it over and over, but the flame stayed tiny, like a solitary LED.
She said ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ with an accent that was not from around here, not even from this country. He felt sorry for her, as a fellow addict, and brought out his Colibri and flicked a healthy flame in her direction. It was Christmas Eve, and frigging cold. A woman deserved a cig on Christmas Eve even if she was a hooker. The flame lit up her face beneath the plastic reindeer horns. She was older than he first thought, but she was small, no more than five one in bare feet, he guessed. Even in the six inch heels she wore, she looked like a child.
‘You a punter?’ she asked, eyeing him up and down.
The other girls looked at him, hopefully. It had clearly been an evening of slim pickings.
‘Sorry ladies, but I have a wife waiting for me at home.’
‘Lucky woman,’ Reindeer Girl said.
Foster couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. The other girls were shivering. One clutched a pink mobile phone to her ear, waiting for someone to pick up on the other end. She had no gloves. The red tinsel she wore on her head looked mean, like a halo of barbed wire.
At his scrutiny, Reindeer Girl said ‘You sure you got a wife?’
‘I left one at home this morning. She could have quit, I suppose.’
‘Stupid man. You got kids?’
Pink Phone girl wasn’t getting a reply. ‘I got a kid,’ she said. ‘Three, she is.’
He must have looked askance, for the third girl, one with sticky-looking lip gloss, said, ‘A woman’s got to work. Can’t bring the kids up on benefits.’
Foster thought of his wife in the kitchen, elbow deep in the turkey. She should surely have called by now, wondering where the hell her husband was. But she hadn’t phoned his office. He had checked his mobile. But there was no message, no missed call. Perhaps she really had gone to her mother’s. It wouldn’t take much for her to cut loose altogether.
‘I must get back,’ he said. ‘My kids’ll wonder where I am.’
‘Maybe your wife will too,’ Reindeer girl said. Her antlers flopped downwards over her face. She sucked the life out of her cigarette.
‘My wife knew I had to work late,’ he lied. He’d said he’d be home early to help with the last-minute shopping.
‘Working late means different things,’ she said. ‘Many men ‘work late’’. Their wives aren’t stupid. Don’t ever think your wife is stupid.’
‘My wife knows I bring home the bacon. They never go short.’
In the background came the sound of police sirens. Foster ducked under the doorway into the darkness with the women, not wanting to be picked up for procurement. He didn’t know if it was illegal any more, but he didn’t want questions, remembering the bottle of brandy, probably illegal, in the plastic bag under his arm.
Sticky Lips giggled, ‘You sure you’re not in the market for a Christmas cuddle?’ She mouthed kisses at him, her lips glinting the light. He could smell the women in the small space, smoke, sweat and perfume, garlic; the smell of damp coats and the gunk women spray on their hair. He imagined other smells; somehow he didn’t expect prostitutes to smell like other women.
‘Is that a present for your kids? The one with the phone asks, pointing at the carrier bag. The bottle dug like guilt into his ribs.
‘No, Father Christmas brings presents for the kids. This is a grown-up gift.’
‘Oooh!’ Sticky Lips said. ‘Naughty you!’
‘My kids don’t believe in Father Christmas.’ Reindeer Girl said.
‘Do they know what their mum does for a living?’ he asked, regretting his unkindness.
‘They know that they are going to get fed and that no nasty man will come and hurt them, or their mother. Or simply bugger off and leave them hungry.’
She looked at Foster as if he was a really bad person. Her antlers flashed an echo to the police car beacon.
‘I’m a good dad.’
‘In a doorway with three hookers, hiding from the cops.’
‘I’m not hiding from the cops.’
The siren noises became deafening in the small space as a police car passed on the nearby main road.
‘I bet that this is not the first time you are ‘working late.’ The LEDs on Reindeer Girl’s antlers jiggled in the dark like guilty secrets.
‘I’m going now.’ He hoped that the police had gone. But this part of dockland was often on their goodwill tours.
The kids would have been bathed and ready for bed, overexcited, expecting Father Christmas and, most of all, their dad. His wife would be fuming. Foster imagined her cursing him down the phone to her mother, and her mother’s I told you so… the catalyst for packing the kids off to her place.
He rang her mobile, but she didn’t pick up.
‘Maybe your wife has walked out after all,’ Reindeer Girl said, stamping the butt of her cigarette under her foot.
‘She’s probably busy. It’s Christmas Eve, for fuck’s sake.’
‘If I were your wife, I’d be suspicious. You out late talking to women like us. It’s surely not the first time…’
Sticky Lips pulled her coat over her glittery top, shivering. Foster saw a tattoo on her neck, or maybe it was a bruise.
‘I’m a responsible father.’
The police car swept past again, the sirens still going. They must have been looking for bigger prey than prostitutes.
‘We know about responsible fathers,’ said Pink Phone. ‘How do you think we got to be responsible mothers?’
‘I stood by my wife. We’ve got three kids.’
‘Maybe your house catches fire,’ said Reindeer Girl.
‘You’re a laugh a minute,’ Foster replied.
‘Ladybird, ladybird…’ Pink Phone girl sang, ‘Your house is on fire, and your children are gone.’
Foster reached into his coat and brought out his wallet. A picture of his wife and kids flashed in the streetlights. He covered it with his hand, and took out his bonus from Louden. Ill-gotten gains, without a doubt. His wife wouldn’t know. The whole hundred quid. He gave it to Reindeer Girl.
‘Buy your kids some presents. Go home for Christmas. For fuck’s sake, go home.’
The bottle of brandy dug into his side. He stepped from the doorway, and the hail fell like stones, hard enough to hurt.
(c) Elizabeth Stott, 2015
Elizabeth Stott started her career as a scientist in industry, before turning to writing in mid-life. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, and as a short story collection, Familiar Possessions. She is working on a further collection of stories and a novel.
Clive Greenwood recently toured in Up Pompeii, playing Frankie Howerd's role of Lurcio, and appears in two upcoming features, Mob Handed and Alice on Mars. He co-wrote Goodbye: The (after)life of Cook and Moore, which ran at the Gilded Balloon & Leicester Square Theatres and the Museum of Comedy. firstname.lastname@example.org / www.spotlight.com/9094-6721-0711