Authors: Simon Brett
In a sense, the murder let Carole Seddon off the hook.
All the social niceties she had been worrying about
throughout December seemed much less important
after someone had been killed.
For many years Carole had tried to ignore Christmas.
As a child, she had observed it with the tense
middle-class rigour that her parents had brought
to everything they did. In the early years of her
marriage to David the festival had been slightly less
fraught and when their son Stephen was small they
had gone through the required rituals with an attitude
which at times approached the relaxed.
But Carole’s painful divorce from David had put
an end to the idea of Christmas as a season of goodwill.
The adolescent Stephen had reacted – as he did
to most pressures – by burying himself in work, and
as soon as his age made it decent for him to do so,
had contrived to spend Christmas away from both of
But Stephen’s life had changed. He was now
married to Gaby. They had an adorable daughter Lily.
And for some months Stephen had been talking in
terms of ‘a proper family Christmas’. It was a prospect
that filled Carole Seddon with a sense of deep foreboding.
She wasn’t sure whether knowing that Jude would
also be around over this particular Christmas made
things better or worse. In previous years her neighbour
had been away for the duration ‘with friends’
(into details of whose identity Carole didn’t probe).
That was really all that was said about Christmas.
Carole would be staying in Fethering, Jude would be
away with friends. And by the time the New Year
started, the last thing anyone wanted to hear about
was the details of someone else’s Christmas. Which
suited Carole very well.
Jude was the closest the tightly buttoned Carole
had to a friend, and the knowledge that she would
be next door at Woodside Cottage throughout the holiday
should have been cheering. But Carole had never
been good at seeing the positive side of anything,
and Jude’s presence in Fethering over Christmas did
present her with a lot of challenging questions.
For a start, how did Jude celebrate Christmas, if
at all? Carole was properly wary of her neighbour’s
New Age tendencies. Would there be crystals and joss
sticks involved? And then again, how much of Carole
would Jude want to see over the Christmas period?
She was notoriously casual about social arrangements.
Already Carole had had a card through the
door of High Tor, inviting her to Woodside Cottage on
the Sunday before Christmas for an ‘Open House,
from twelve noon until the booze runs out’. This did
not accord with any of Carole Seddon’s rules for
entertaining. When was she meant to arrive (assuming,
that is, that she actually went)? And, even more
unsettling, when was the right time to leave? She
liked party hosts to be very specific about such
details. ‘Drinks 6.30 to 8.30’ – you knew where you
were with an invitation like that. Even better, ‘Drinks
and Canapés 6.30 to 8.30’ – then you knew you
wouldn’t be getting a full meal and could have a little
cottage cheese salad waiting in the fridge for when
you got home.
But open house . . . that could mean anything.
Was there food involved? Was there an actual sit-down
meal and, if so, at what point during the time
between twelve noon and the moment the booze ran
out would the guests be sitting down to it? The whole
thing made Carole Seddon very nervous. She couldn’t
imagine a less appealing concept than that of an
open house. Houses like High Tor should, in her
opinion be permanently closed, with invited guests
arriving by prearrangement only. If people started
coming to your house any time they felt like it, the
potential for embarrassment was unimaginable.
Amidst all her agonizing about the invitation,
Carole wouldn’t admit to herself what was really
worrying her. It was meeting Jude’s other friends.
Her neighbour was currently working as a healer (a
word from whose pronunciation Carole could never
exclude an edge of scepticism), but it was clear that,
before she moved to the middle-class gentility of
Fethering, Jude had had an extremely varied and
Carole had never quite got all the details of this
life, just hints from things mentioned in passing. This
was not because Jude was secretive – she was the
most open of women – but because Carole always felt
reticent about probing too overtly. This did not mean
that she was not intrigued by her friend’s past, and
she had pieced together quite a few gobbets of information
about it. At various stages of her life Jude had
been a model, an actress and a restaurateur. She
had been married at least twice, cohabited with other
men, and had a stream of lovers (more numerous
in Carole’s imagination than they ever could have
been in reality). But whenever Carole got to the point
of asking for more flesh to be put on this skeletal
history, the conversation seemed invariably to glide
on to other subjects. Jude was not being deliberately
evasive; she was just such an empathetic listener that
people – even self-contained people like Carole –
soon found themselves talking about their own lives
and problems rather than hers.
But the thought of Jude’s friends was worrying.
The thought of the other guests who might attend the
Christmas open house. It wasn’t that Carole had
never met any of Jude’s friends. The people who used
her healing services often became more than clients
and Carole had been introduced to some of them. She
had even met one of Jude’s lovers, Laurence Hawker,
who had lived out the last months of his life at Woodside
But Carole was worried about the ones she hadn’t
met. Worried about the kind of people they might be
– positive, relaxed people like Jude herself. People for
whom being alive seemed part of a natural process
rather than, as it often felt to Carole, a challenging
imposition. People who would think that Jude’s
neighbour was irredeemably dowdy, with her antiseptically
tidy house, her pension from the Home
Office, her Marks and Spencer’s clothes, her sensible
shoes, her straight-cut grey hair and rimless glasses
over pale blue eyes. Carole Seddon knew that she
could never compete with the faint aura of glamour
which always hung about Jude.
With that perverse vanity of the shy, she was
much more worried about what people might think
of her than she was inclined to show any interest in
The other thing that worried her was that one of
Jude’s friends at the open house might ask how she
usually spent Christmas. Or worse, might find out
how she actually had spent the past few Christmases.
In her bleakest moments Carole thought her ideal
would be never to prompt any emotion from anyone.
But now her granddaughter Lily was in her life, this
was becoming a difficult stance to maintain. There
was one emotion, however, which Carole Seddon
never wanted to prompt in anyone, and that was pity.
When she had moved permanently to Fethering,
raw from her divorce and smarting from her not-completely
voluntary early retirement from the
Home Office, she had known the risks of appearing
pitiable. A woman the wrong side of the menopause,
on her own in a seaside village . . . she was morbidly
afraid of slipping into the stereotype of the solitary
swaddled figure reading a magazine in a shelter by
It was to counter this danger that she had bought
a dog. Gulliver was a Labrador and his original purpose
had been to stop Carole from looking as if she
was alone when she went for walks on Fethering
Beach. She couldn’t be seen to be walking because
she had nothing else to do; she was walking to exercise
Gulliver. No one could pity her for that.
They could pity her, though, if they knew that she
had spent the last few Christmases completely on her
Not that it had been too bad, from her point of
view. Each year she had stocked up with nice food.
Not turkey and all the trimmings, but slightly more
lavish fare than what she usually ate. A bit of wine,
too – the amount she drank increased each year, a
direct result of her developing friendship with Jude.
That, together with a good book from the library and
the Christmas Eve
Jumbo Crossword, was all
she really needed. She didn’t watch much television,
though seeing the Queen’s Speech was an essential
ritual engrained from her childhood. Otherwise she
might track down an obscure documentary on some
minor channel, but would watch nothing that made
any acknowledgement of the season. Or she would
listen to the radio. She found radio mercifully less
Santa-obsessed than television.
The only moment when she made any reference
to Christmas was when she rang her son Stephen at
eleven o’clock sharp to wish him the compliments of
the season. Neither asked the other how they were
celebrating, both perhaps afraid of truthful answers,
but the required politesse – and even a degree of
cheeriness – was maintained.
Then Boxing Day dawned; the major stress was
over for another year. And on the few occasions when
she was asked about her Christmas, Carole could say
with complete veracity what so many people said:
‘Oh, you know, quiet.’
This year, however, things would be different. Not
only was there Jude’s open house to negotiate, but
also Stephen, Gaby and Lily were going to come to
High Tor for Christmas Day. Carole Seddon faced the
prospect with apprehension, leavened by occasional
flashes of excitement.
Stephen had rung on Thursday the eighteenth of
December, exactly a week before Christmas Day, to
confirm arrangements. Sometimes Carole found his
mannerisms distressingly like those of his father.
David, despite being a control freak in many ways,
had never been good at making arrangements. With
him each detail of a plan had to be tested from every
angle before he would commit himself to it. And in
that morning’s phone call Stephen behaved in exactly
the same way.
‘Mother, I thought I’d better just run through the
timetable for Christmas Day,’ he said, his voice echoing
David’s nervous pomposity. His calling her
‘Mother’ was a bad sign. When he was relaxed – which
he had been, increasingly, since marriage and fatherhood
– he called her ‘Mum’.
‘I thought we’d got it agreed,’ Carole responded.
‘I talked to Gaby about everything. Have any of the
‘No, not really, but obviously the whole schedule
is kind of predicated on when Lily sleeps.’ There were
office noises in the background. Phoning his mother
from work showed how much importance Stephen
attached to the call.
‘Yes, Gaby told me. She said Lily’s usual pattern
these days is having her morning sleep around half
past ten, so if you leave Fulham then she can sleep in
the car . . . Fulham to Fethering an hour and a half,
maybe two . . . you’ll be with me between twelve and
twelve-thirty, which will be perfect.’
‘Yes.’ Her son’s silence reminded Carole uncomfortably
of her ex-husband assessing a plan for flaws.
‘Did Gaby talk to you about food for Lily?’
‘Yes, she gave me a list. I’ve got lots of milk and
yoghurts, Ready Brek, Weetabix, sweetcorn, frozen
peas. I can assure you, Stephen, your daughter will
not starve during her stay at High Tor.’
‘No, no, I didn’t think she would.’ But Stephen still
sounded troubled. ‘Did you talk to Gaby about the