Author of Alex Rider, Foyle's War, Sherlock Holmes, TV and film writer, occasional journalist.

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Short Story: Christmas at Heathrow

Originally published by Country Life Magazine.

It was just her luck. All Deborah Watson wanted was to be at home in Suffolk, back in the rambling, slightly ramshackle manor house just outside Woodbridge. Her parents would be there, her brothers and sisters…all the family including cousins she hadn’t seen for a year. Deborah didn’t particularly like Christmas. She wasn’t religious. Who was, these days? And she had no children of her own to make the day special or even meaningful in any particular way. The truth was that all the detritus of Christmas – the cards, the tinsel, the endless carols – slightly bored her. But she enjoyed being looked after, drinking too much, not having to get out of her warm bed until eleven o’clock. Her mother would do the cooking: a free-range turkey with all the trimmings. There would be presents under the tree, a tradition that stretched all the way to childhood. In the afternoon they might go for a stroll and throw snowballs along the River Deben. All in all, it was something to look forward to.

But Deborah had drawn the short straw and this time round she was going to miss it. Who in their right mind would want to be stuck in Heathrow Airport on Christmas Eve? Quite soon the last flights would be on their way, the lights in the terminals would dim and Deborah would be on her own with Raj and Maria – her lovely, almost invisible support team. What did that leave her with? A Marks and Spencer sandwich in her office. A miniature whisky in her bottom drawer. More bloody carols on Radio 4. And the chocolate Santa she had been given a week before at the office party.

It had been an exceptionally busy day and, as always, Border Force was short-staffed. Aviation Security had gone home. Firearm Command had packed away their Glocks and Hecklers and followed. SO15 – or Counter Terrorism Command – was running a skeleton staff. And why not? Terror threat levels had dropped back from severe to substantial and although that still didn’t sound entirely healthy, it was a definite improvement on the past four months when ISIL and other assorted fanatics had been plastering themselves across the daily news. Up until the very last moment, Deborah had been hoping she might get away. But that had been before Flight El Al 376 had cruised into her life. She had known something was wrong as soon as she had seen the sniffer dogs being moved into position. There were eight police holding cells and two detention rooms in the Queen’s Building and it was Deborah’s job to make sure that they were ready for whoever was arrested.

The modern terrorist or drug smuggler would expect accommodation that was spotlessly clean, with blankets neatly folded on the bunk and a nicely puffed up pillow. More importantly, the holding cell had to be empty. Once, a hapless immigration officer had dropped a paperclip on the floor and it had remained unnoticed until the Border Force chief arrived. He had bitten Deborah’s head off as cleanly as if it had been on the chocolate Santa. This time she had made sure that all ten rooms were in order which was just as well. Not one but three arrests had been made. The whole terminal was in turmoil.

Usually, Deborah only heard things second hand. Sometimes she would only learn what had happened during the day when she turned on the evening news. This time it was different. With everyone trying to get away for Christmas, there was rather more co-operation with those who were left behind. Even before they had arrived, Deborah had been informed that the detainees would all be male and of eastern or Arabic extraction (she had been trained not to think of her guests in racial terms but it wasn’t easy when two of them were wearing dish-dashas and all three of them had hooked noses, black hair and very dark, sun-beaten skin). The curious thing was that although they had all been travelling on the same flight, they – or at least the crimes of which they were accused – were entirely different. They didn’t seem to be connected at all.

One had been spotted by a “selector”, a plain clothes officer whose job was to mingle with the passengers inside the terminal, listening out for any incriminatory scraps of conversation. He was believed to be carrying drugs, possibly crystal meth. The next was nothing more than a tourist who had attempted to go through security with liquid in his hand luggage, something which happened all the time. The difference here was that he had become aggressive and then violent when challenged and had been brought down to the cells to cool off. Unfortunately, this meant that he had missed his flight and now had nowhere to go. The last – and the oldest of the three – had been undone by the X-ray machines. From the way he had behaved, it seemed never to have occurred to him that someone might actually want to look inside his carry-on luggage; all the more surprising since he was attempting to smuggle goods worth £25,000 wrapped in a tea towel.

And now they were all going to spend the night in the cells with Deborah attending to their every need. Outside, it was snowing heavily. Flights had been delayed and there had been a bad accident on the M4. All the paperwork had jammed up. The local police were rushed off their feet with drunks, street fights, the usual Christmas crowd. That was another problem with the so-called festive season. For festive read aggressive. And why did everything – just about everything – have to grind to a complete halt? The duty solicitor wasn’t returning his calls. Nobody had been able to find an interpreter. Half the airport had shut down. In a word it was a mess and who knew what might have happened if someone somewhere hadn’t made the fairly sensible decision to put everything on hold until the light of day? Sadly, it had all been bundled into Deborah’s sizeable lap.

She had always been a big girl, growing up on her parents’ apple farm near the Suffolk coast. She liked her food and had thought that she would burn the calories off, picking the eight different varieties that they grew, rattling along in the tractor to the press, heaving the crates and the bottles. Somehow she never had. By the time she moved to London and joined the Border Force in Croydon she already stood out with tumbling blond hair, broad shoulders and breasts that were only made more prominent by the blue wicking jersey that she was forced to wear. But in a society where every woman was being pressured to be smaller, thinner, slighter, there was something reassuring about Deborah and she made friends easily. She wore little make-up, even out of work. She shared a two-bedroom flat (with a passenger service agent) and her philosophy seemed to be “take me as you find me”. More often than not she was happy with what she did.

She wasn’t smiling though as she trudged down the stairs, unlocking doors and locking them behind her with the keys attached on a long chain to her belt. In an hour or two, Raj and Maria would come up from the kitchen with the evening meals for the detainees but until then it was just them and her. “Ho, ho, ho,” she muttered as she made her way down.

She stopped at the first cell at the end of the long, white-tiled corridor. There was a clipboard hanging beside the door and she unhooked it, quickly reading its contents.

The man had refused to give his name…suspicious behaviour in itself. He had been classified as IC6, which was to say an Arabic, Egyptian or Maghreb person. Deborah had given all three of them nicknames – Tom, Dick and Harry, the only obvious trio that came to mind. This one was Tom. He was the suspected drug smuggler.

It didn’t help that the substance itself, several lumps of hard, yellowy-white resin, had yet to be analysed. It had been found in a plain cardboard box in the man’s main luggage as it was being loaded onto the plane. A German Shepherd called Jimmy had been responsible for the discovery and would definitely be getting extra turkey in his Christmas doggy dinner, Deborah thought. Crystal meth seemed the most likely explanation – that was certainly what it resembled - but it had taken for ever to get it across London in the snow and by the time it arrived, the police laboratory had closed and wouldn’t be open again until December 26th. So Tom was stuck here. If he had spoken a little more English or been a little more helpful, he could have saved everyone a great deal of aggravation.

Deborah looked through the peep-hole at the elderly man, sitting in the corner of the cell. He must be about sixty years old with gold-rimmed glasses and an untidy, grey beard. He certainly didn’t have the appearance of a user himself. His robes were a spotless white and looked splendid although the agal around his head was a touch askew. He reminded Deborah of a school teacher or perhaps a priest. After the panic of his arrest, he had retreated into dignified silence and barely looked up as she drew back the bolt and opened the observation hatch.

“Can I get you anything, sir?” she asked.

The man turned slowly to examine her. He had an extraordinary face, very narrow and crumpled. He looked as if he was close to exhaustion. He said nothing.

“I can make you a cup of tea if you like. Would you like something to read?” There were a few out-of-date magazines and a couple of Dan Browns in the staff room. But the man didn’t seem to understand what she had said. “All right. I’ll be back in an hour.”

Dick, in the cell next door, was more voluble – which was of course how he had got himself arrested in the first place. When Deborah put her eye to the peep-hole, he was pacing up and down, his hands rolled into fists, his eyes blazing. He was about ten years older than his neighbour, touching seventy, and he alone of the three was wearing western clothes, an old-fashioned suit complete with waistcoat in a not very enticing maroon and brown check. A fat tie and expensive cuff-links completed the picture. He looked like the sort of man who kept servants and who expected to be treated in a certain way. He was also IC6 – Egyptian aristocracy perhaps. It was the main complaint of the security staff at Heathrow. Not the people who were slow. Not the ones who were bad-tempered. No. It was the travellers who thought they were better than everyone else with their first class tickets, matching Louis Vuitton luggage and general disdain who were the real bugbears and this man was a prime example.

Even as Deborah opened the observation hatch he was rushing towards her with such violence that she stepped back, almost forgetting that there were six inches of solid steel between them.

“This is an outrage!” the man exclaimed. “How dare you keep me here! I demand to see my ambassador. Bring me a telephone at once.” He was round and fat with the sort of beard that would bristle even when he wasn’t angry. His skin was a dark olive made darker by his anger. It was difficult to make out what he was saying. He spoke excellent English but with an accent, and a velocity, that made the words almost indecipherable. “You cannot do this!” he concluded. “You have no right!”

“I’m afraid we have every right, sir,” Deborah replied. She wondered if she should quote Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act which allowed the police to hold passengers for up to nine hours without access to a lawyer and without phone calls. She decided against it. She didn’t want to get into an argument. She just wanted to check he was all right. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

“I do not want tea!” The man slammed his foot against the door. “I want a lawyer. I want to speak to the Prime Minister. I want to have my goods returned to me and to be allowed to continue my journey.”

“I’m very sorry, sir. You’ll have to wait until someone more senior comes to speak to you. But I’m here if you need me and we’ll bring you up some supper very soon.”

Deborah was glad to close the observation window and back away from the cell. Although she would never have said as much, it felt wrong to lock someone up – especially on Christmas Eve – simply because they had lost their temper. And it wasn’t as if the man had actually done anything terribly wrong. The large bottle of honey-coloured liquid that security had removed from his hand luggage had contained nothing more dangerous than bubble bath! Of course he couldn’t take it with him on the plane. It would be dumped in the large plastic bin behind the conveyor belt and eventually disposed of. All this had been explained to him. But for no obvious reason he had gone crazy, flailing out, trying to grab it back. Deborah had seen it before. People were easily upset when it came to Christmas presents, particularly if they had cost a bob or two. It was just unfortunate that Dick’s fist had caught one of the security officers on the chin. That was why he had ended up here.

Harry was the only obvious criminal spending the night in Deborah’s care and so he was the one with whom she had least sympathy.

His scam was based on the simple fact that goods traded between EU countries are not subject to VAT so that gold bullion bought in, say, Dubai and then sold in London could yield a tidy sum for the vendor. Harry wasn’t the first to try it and he wasn’t the first to end up here. It was odd that he had been caught travelling in the opposite direction but there could be no other explanation for the single block of commodity gold, forty troy ounces or 1.24 kilograms which had been found snuggled up inside his hold-all. Perhaps it was ultimately intended for India which gratefully received around thirty tonnes of the stuff every year from international smugglers. Deborah imagined the glimmering gold bar, all eleven inches of it, sitting in the evidence room right next to her office. There were two locks and an electronic alarm…but even so! If she could slip it out in her handbag, just think what she might do. A deposit on a decent flat. A new tractor for dad. A holiday!

Putting the thought out of her mind, she opened the observation hatch and looked into the cell. Harry was fast asleep, a little white bundle with his head turned away from the door and his knees drawn up to his chest. Despite everything, she suddenly felt sorry for him. He was an old man and as he had been brought in, his face had been completely dazed as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. She had never seen anyone who looked more harmless.

“Hello?” she called out.

There was no answer. Was he actually breathing? Should she call for the medical officer? No – the doctor wouldn’t thank her; not tonight of all nights. She would enter the cell when the evening meal was brought up and check that all was well then.

That was it. She had done her duty for the evening. She made a note on the clipboard outside the cell, checked her watch and added the time. Then she retraced her steps, unlocking and locking the doors and returned to her office.

Outside, the snow was falling heavier than ever, swirling around in an ink black sky. In the distance, she could see the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights close to the main runway. Suddenly she felt very alone. Bloody Christmas! In a way it was a festival designed to inflict misery on anyone who found themselves alone. Herself, in this dingy office. The police officers tramping along the perimeter fence. Raj and Maria who didn’t even share a common language and who would communicate in broken English. Half the people in London in their bedsits. The three losers locked up downstairs. She glanced at the half dozen cards scattered across the surface of her desk. Happy Christmas - from everyone in baggage handling. God bless you at this time of the year - from the airport chaplain. Hope YULE have a great time – from her boss, of course. He had sent exactly the same card the year before. Suddenly she lashed out, sweeping the whole lot of them onto the floor. Now, where was her Marks and Spencer sandwich?

Something caught her eye, on the other side of the window, high up in the sky. There must have been a break in the clouds. Perhaps the snow was falling less heavily at that moment. At first she thought it was a plane coming in to land but then she realized she was looking at a star, an unusually bright one. The North star? Her sense of geography told her that it was in the wrong position, directly above the end of the runway which stretched from west to east. Deborah looked at it and felt something within her stir, some childhood memory perhaps or just an instinctive sense that after all, everything would be all right. She drew the blind and turned on the radio just in time to hear a carol service began.

In the room next to her, the evidence room, all was silent. Three pieces of evidence sat side by side in the darkness: the block of gold, the bottle of myrrh and the resin that would soon be analyzed and which would be found to be frankincense.

Outside, unfollowed, the star glimmered on.