When Christmas Lights Are Blue

Rob and Karan are a great couple, but they’re tearing apart under the pressures of modern life. They both work as paramedics for the NHS, and just before Christmas, their plans for the future are in jeopardy.


Rob knows he’s on thin ice with the man he loves more than anyone else in the world, and he’s at a loss to fix it. The job is getting tougher, and Karan, who’s of Sikh descent, is facing violence on the streets in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Financial problems, hostile families on both sides... Their troubles seem insoluble.
 

An emergency callout stops them on the brink of a final and heartbreaking row. In a forest on the bleak northern hills, Rob loses control of the van in the snow. The only gleam of light comes from a strange, lonely house among the trees. Lost, cut off from the world they know, can they find their way back to one another? It’s the longest night of the year, and spirits are abroad among the pines...

Excerpt

An hour after dark on the longest night, Karanji turned to me and said, “I can’t do this anymore, Rob. I don’t even know how.”

 

And this was why Control seldom let couples out together on a shift. Tonight was a short-staffed emergency. I pressed my hands against the dashboard. “Karan, no. Don’t do this to me now.”

 

“We’ve been doing it to each other. We’ve got to stop.”

 

The minute hand of my watch jerked past the twelve. Karan and I were now technically free to have the miserable fight we’d been putting aside all day. Not a moment before: ambulance paramedics might horse around, make awful jokes and yell at backed-up traffic, but we never dropped the ball. Never let our personal crap get in the way of a callout. Everyone who needed us—from road-crash victims to old ladies mistaking indigestion for a heart attack—deserved better of us than that.

 

We were off-duty now. One minute past six. My watch had been a Christmas present from Karan the year before. I loved it because he’d ignored all the cheap alternatives I’d suggested and gone right to the jeweller’s for the one I liked best, and it was elegant without being fussy, and so far resistant to hard knocks, vomit and blood. He was wearing the handsome engagement ring I’d bought him, and I was wearing his. He was my Karan, good as gold. I’d found out during the first Diwali celebration I’d shared with his family that his brother called him Karanji, because he was as sweet as the cardamom and poppy pastries piled high on the table, and no-one could get enough of him. For once we’d managed to swing Christmas leave together, a whole blessed week. “Oh, God. Can’t we just go home?”

 

“You can. I’ve told Mackie I’ll work.”

 

I finished shutting the satnav down. The ambulance was parked by the dangerous roundabout where the main street of Hollyford met the bypass, a good strategic point for callouts to pub brawls after office parties. Drunken pile-ups, too, and we’d already dealt with two of those today. Karan had been keeping the windscreen clear with an occasional sweep of the blades. The street was deserted now, only the snowflakes disturbing the stillness, wind-blown wraiths. “All right,” I said bleakly—hopelessly, because he never said anything he didn’t mean. I unhooked the radio mic. “I’ll report us off-shift. I’ll get a cab home from the station.”

 

“No, I’ll drop you. It’s only a short detour. Mackie won’t mind.”

 

The mic beeped in my hand. I thumbed the button. “Eight-two.”

 

“Eight-two, three-four. My board shows you two lads still in Hollyford. Is that right?”

 

The staff shortage must have reached critical for Mackie to be handling dispatch himself. “Yep,” I said, squeezing a passably normal voice through the hot pain in my throat. “Just signing off. Gonna bring Karan back in.”

“Hold your horses. Got a 999 from up in Kielder.”

 

“Kielder Forest? That’s half an hour away from us, Mac.”

“I know, and it’s a wilderness, and it’s snowing. But all the local vans are working crashes on the A68, and you’re my last hope. It’s a bit of a weird one, too.”

 

“Oh, good.”

 

“Elderly lady, very distressed. Says something’s fallen on her house, and people are hurt.”

 

“Something’s fallen on... What, a meteorite or something? Doesn’t she need the fire brigade?”

 

“All out on the 68 with tin-openers, I’m afraid. It’s a house on its own, three miles northwest of Greystead. Come on, Robbie—I know you lovebirds need the money. Weddings don’t come cheap.”

 

“Yes, Mackie. We know.” I reached to flip an overhead switch, and the ambulance, newly kitted out with an on-board computer whose pronouncements and instructions I would never get used to, said 999 mode engaged. “Responding. Eight-two out.”

Karan had switched the satnav back on. “Three miles northwest of Greystead?” he echoed, panning back and forth across the undifferentiated green on the map. “There’s nothing there but pine trees.”

 

“Pine trees, and a mad old lady who’s been struck by a meteorite. Let’s swap drivers. You’d better grab a nap, if you’re pulling another shift.”

He gave me an odd look, as if he hadn’t expected kindness. What—do you think I’d stop caring , watching out for you, because we’re having a fight? Because we’re breaking up? But words would do more harm than good now. I’d crack into tears if I said them. We’d been set to get married in June.

 

I pushed my door wide and got out. Caution! Door is open, the computer said, as if I didn’t know. Karan scrambled out on the far side, and we crossed like ships in the night, the beginnings of a blizzard whipping through the headlights’ glare.

 

***

 

The road was long and empty. We’d left the northbound A68 to avoid the pileups, tracking across country on a route at least as old as the Roman Wall whose remains cut a haunting line between two ancient realms. Greystead had been closed up for the night, only a glimmer of coloured lights around the edge of tight-shut curtains. One little kid had peered from a bedroom window as we’d passed, maybe wondering if Santa had come early this year, and in a strange vehicle. Or perhaps he’d just wanted to see the ambulance go by, as I always had, because he wanted to be a paramedic.

As I always had. The village was the last outpost of civilisation before the forest. We’d left it more than three miles behind now, I was sure, although the satnav had lost signal and was keeping its own counsel as thoroughly as the white-coated hills I could see through gaps in the trees, pale crests by starlight. I thought Karan had fallen asleep, but he sat up as the wheels struck hard-packed snow on the verge and the ambulance juddered beneath us. “The plough hasn’t been through here,” he said. “No grit, either. Slow up.”

Anger was easier than pain. “We might’ve saved a whole lot of people on the bypass if I hadn’t slowed up then.”

 

“Don’t be daft. That was instant. They never stood a chance.”

 

“Why the bloody hell didn’t that coach driver let us pass him sooner?”

 

“I don’t think he knew we were there.”

 

“Blue lights, headlights, a siren like a banshee and paramedic written backwards in six-inch letters across the bonnet. How can you not see that? I swear to God, Kaz, I’ll never get my head around drivers who get in our way when we’re trying to...”

 

We jounced over a sudden crest. Ahead of us, as if conjured by my temper, a tractor was crawling in the single-track lane. His taillights filled my vision with red mist. “Rob,” Karan said warningly, and laid a hand on my wrist. “Slow the fuck down.”

 

I couldn’t. Half a hundred demons caught up with me at once. I didn’t care if the callout was a prank, if the old lady in the forest was a lunatic: I was going to get there in time, and in the process outrun my conviction that my beautiful boyfriend, the love of my life for the last six years, was about to break us up.

 

The tractor driver pulled over as far as he could. I squeezed the ambulance past, slewed back into the centre—swags and swathes of snow from the pine trees hitting the windscreen like a weird blessing—and laid my foot down.

The road ended. Nothing ahead but trees, a spectral barricade of them, rushing at the windshield out of nowhere. I trod on the brakes. Might as well have stamped the gas for all the effect I had: the tarmac was slick with ice beneath the fresh fall of snow. I threw out one arm across Karan’s chest. The van left the ground at sixty miles an hour and sailed high and wide into the dark.

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”