The lawyer looked very tired. It was a lacklustre room buried in the depths of London’s Middle Temple. It was not a particularly prestigious set of Chambers, but it was respectable. The room was a bit gloomy, and he shared it with another barrister. There were two desks. His absent colleague used the more traditional “captain’s” desk and leather padded chair. The lawyer’s own desk was modern, functional and plain, and the light came from a simple and functional IKEA desk lamp with a halogen bulb.
The lawyer was finishing typing the last piece of work for the year on his word processor. It concluded in formal style.
“For these reasons I conclude that the proposed claim has no, or very little, prospect of success. I apologise for my delay in responding to these instructions, which has been occasioned by pressure of work, and a short illness.
24th December 2012”
The lawyer printed out the text and checked and rechecked it for spelling and grammar and spelling mistakes, and made some adjustments of style and emphasis. That took an hour. At 3.00 pm on Christmas Eve, he pressed the send button on his computer. He tidied up his desk, and made a coffee in the Chambers galley kitchen, before washing up.
There was almost no one else around. Formally, Chambers had closed for the Christmas break at 12.00 pm. Only the senior clerk remained, finishing off some administration.
At about 4.30 pm the lawyer donned his heavy, dark blue overcoat and a burgundy scarf, and headed out. As he passed the clerks’ room the senior clerk called out.
“Good afternoon, Sir. Merry Christmas!”
“Goodnight, Frank. Merry Christmas,” Peter Fisher replied, not unkindly, but rather distantly. They chatted briefly, and then Peter Fisher headed out into the late afternoon. In the clerks’ room, the senior clerk sat and pondered, not altogether happily. He was worried about Peter Fisher. He was a talented man, he could tell that, but he seemed unhappy and very insular. He knew he had money worries. He worked too hard and charged too little. He was charming, even amusing at times, but a bit eccentric. And there was something unnerving about him at times.
The lawyer left. It was a filthy evening in central London, dark, wet and cold with endless driven rain. Peter Fisher took a route past Middle Temple Hall and through the ancient Fountain Court, where it is said the Houses of York and Lancaster chose their sigils for the forthcoming War of the Roses. He always remembered that. He crossed Middle Temple Lane and walked through the elegant Pump Court and into Church Court. He turned left and crossed the flagstones of Church Court. The Temple Church was in front of him.
The Temple Church was normally locked at this time. He went to the side door, and it was open, as he knew it would be. It was dark and cold in the Church. He pulled out a small torch from his pocket. The beam of the torch had been muffled with cling film coloured with a red highlighter, so that it was not very strong. When he entered the church he walked forward a few paces into the Chancel and then turned and turned left into the ancient Round Church, built by the Knights Templars in the later 1100’s. There were nine life sized stone effigies of knights. Peter Fisher surveyed the effigies with the weak beam of the torch. After a while he turned it off, and knelt, rather uncomfortably on one knee.
The stone floor was cold and hard, but Peter Fisher remained there for about half an hour, whether in contemplation or prayer. He then rose rather stiffly to his feet, turned and walked rather stiffly out of the Church.
He turned right onto Middle Temple Lane, and at the top he turned left along The Strand. He was a reasonably tall and well-built man, more than six feet in height, and even though nearing fifty he still maintained a reasonably athletic bearing. A considered bystander might have speculated that he had been in the army, perhaps. He had smartly cut, dark hair without any obvious hint of gray, and wore well polished black Oxford brogues.
He walked past the colossal and imposing Royal Courts of Justice on the opposite of the Road and made his way across Aldwich and way up towards Holborn tube station. There he turned left and made his way a short way along Holborn to a Starbucks cafe. He went in and ordered a cup of peppermint tea. He sat and lingered over that for some time, seemingly either watching the excited Christmas shopper, or intently studying his Blackberry mobile phone. He ordered another cup of tea, and continued to stare intently at his Blackberry.
At about half past six he left the café and walked a short way to the Princess Louise public house where amongst the jostling mob he ordered a large Irish whisky which he drank slowly in one of the newly refurbished Victorian snugs.
After a little while he finished his whisky and walked out the pub back towards Holborn tube station. There he descended into the Underground and took the Central Line to South Woodford. It looked bleak and dreary in the still teeming rain. He walked the short distance to the High Street, turning up the collar of his heavy coat against the elements. He bought a bottle of Bells whisky at the local Tesco Direct, and from there he walked on a few hundred yards to his rented flat on Wavertee Road
A little while later he was dried and changed. His suit and coat had been discarded and he was wearing scruffy trousers and a sweater that looked comfortable but had clearly seen better days.
The flat was not very edifying. It was a one bedroom affair. There were some unwashed dishes in the kitchen. The lawyer sat at the kitchen table, and looked at the bottle of whisky and the pile of packets of sleeping pills in front of him. And the pile of bills.
He reflected on life. He thought about M-. He had been just 17 years of age when he had gone to arrange a debate with the local girls’ school and had come face to face with his appointed contact, M-. With one startling smile from below the mass of flaming auburn curls he had been transported. They were to stay together for a year before separated by University and a stupid lover’s tiff, but she never left his heart. 18 years later she had casually telephoned him out of the blue. A week after they had met she left her millionaire City Trader and moved in with him.
For 18 months he had been blissfully happy. They had a shared love of the outdoors and used to spend their weekend afternoons walking, particularly in the “Surrey Hills” around Guildford.
Then the cancer came, and there seemed to be nothing that could be done. He suspended his practice to care for her. The doctors were superb, he knew that, but in desperation he paid for experts in the USA. It cost many thousands, but did no good, and she had died in his arms.
He had become quite insane with grief. He took some time off to travel, but dwindling resources forced him back to work. Recklessly he became a “bon viveur” partying the night away in a search for something to fill the void within his soul. It was thus that he had met the woman he had married, a smart but manipulative woman who took the remainder of his money, left him in debt and then discarded him.
The lawyer smiled wryly. He had been a fool, but he could at least understand how he had fallen into the trap. The house, the savings, were all gone.
He looked at the pile of bills also on the table. Most were unpaid. He sighed.
His thoughts turned to another woman, Florrie. Or to be more accurate, Florandrea Angelique D’Avranche-Beaumont. She was perhaps the most remarkable woman he had ever encountered. They had met at Cambridge all those years ago. Florrie was a striking young woman from a rather aristocratic Norman background with unruly blue-black hair and wide hazel eyes that gave her a rather owl-like look. She had been partly educated in England, but her English still carried a hint of French accent. As well as having won a place to read medicine at Cambridge in what was still very much her second language, she was possessed of a fierce energy that her Norman forefathers would have been proud off. She rode and danced for University teams. She was also a committed and skilled rower. She and her partner trained themselves to row at national elite level, despite lack of support from the men’s boat club. This had been how she had met Peter, who rowed well, and coached much better.
As he sat at his kitchen table, he recalled Florrie and her partner Melinda, all fury and determination in their coxless pair. Florrie had been a whippet of a girl.
They very nearly shared a birthday, which was odd. They were both Roman Catholic, though one would not have immediately associated the occasionally libertine young Peter Fisher with religious rigour. Florence was quite devout. And they had had some sort of very empathetic connection.
They were both a bit insular. For all the aristocratic heritage and sporting prowess, Florrie was at heart a quiet, very shy young woman. She had in fact been the outcast at school, the “French” girl in an English public school. And her parents did not approve of either her career or of an English university. Surely she would be better to go to a French university, be a proper lady, marry another French aristocrat and just have babies and dress well? Florence cared little for fine clothes and fashion. Peter was never at ease socially except around people whom he knew and trusted. Years later he worked with a psychiatrist in a case who had casually observed that he considered Peter had mild spectrum autism. He considered it very likely. It explained a lot.
As he reflected in his little kitchen he thought of the qualities he most admired about Florrie. Courage, spirit, integrity and kindness. They had never been romantically linked. But Peter, who was considered by some a cold and aloof man incapable of love, knew that he loved her dearly. He had always thought of her as the sister he had never had.
Peter Fisher took another sip of whisky. He checked his Blackberry and looked again at the texts he had been receiving that afternoon:
Incoming text: “No. They think we’re having chicken. But they love turkey…so I’m banning them from the kitchen and bringing it in on a platter…that’ll be the video cue…:- ))”
His reply: “Brilliant. That has made my Christmas! Wow! What a shock!”
Incoming text: “That and my little girl quite possibly exploding – when she sees the Hunger Games set…”
He smiled. Another exchange:
Incoming text: “She is a lot better. You and the others have helped more than you can realise”
His reply: “Thanks C. It is a horrid time of the year if you are on your own. Please send her my best”
He smiled again, a little wanly, and then returned to reflecting upon “his” Florrie. In fact, back in those days Florrie was dating an equally remarkable man, a brilliant and handsome Dutch scientist and soon to be research fellow called Fillipus. Florrie and Fillip, it was quite a joke. They were an extraordinary couple.
He had lost contact with Florrie after university. It was part of a desire to hide away from the world in one of what he now understood to be the depressive episodes that had marked and blighted his life. But now, 25 years later she had tracked him down via the internet. She had married Fillip. Fillip had spent some time at CERNE, but was now the head of scientific research at a major multinational. They were still married and now lived near Boston in the United States. As for Florrie, she was now a gifted paediatric surgeon. And they had four remarkable children of their own, two boys and two girls. The eldest girl was already at Harvard. He smiled again. They had been exchanging emails and he knew all about the children now.
He looked back again at the texts he had been receiving.
Incoming text: “This too shall pass. Attar of Nishapur”
His reply: It seems unlikely…”
He sighed, and looked at the pile of packets of sleeping pills and the bottle of whisky. It was 8.00 pm on Christmas Eve.
At about the same time, roughly 180 miles away in the little Yorkshire town of Allerby a single mother called Danni was thinking about many things but principally how to cook, when to cook, and how to hide the enormous turkey that was currently secreted in the locked down kitchen. With children aged 9, 12 and 15, locking down a kitchen was harder than policing the Mexican Border. Danni had fled the expatriate Gulf lifestyle and an abusive husband with a small amount of savings and the intention to reclaim her life, and had found herself by a curious series of coincides in the pleasant little town. As the benefits people told her, if she had been an asylum seeker, there would have been a full package automatically available. But because she was a British citizen, with limited national insurance, she was on her own. As a gifted teacher, in the future she would be alright, but the problem was in getting across the yawning chasm between the now and then.
By a remarkable series of coincidences, she had encountered Peter Fisher. Peter had no expertise in child law, and was not an expert on cross border custody battles. He did, however, know someone who was…
They kept in touch via Twitter and text messages. Fisher was an amicable and sometimes amusing Tweeter, using the sobriquet of “BaffledSquirrel”. He usually had an avatar of a puzzled, charming but comically endangered rodent.
In early December she had received a direct message.
“BaffledSquirrel: Are you OK for Christmas?
Danni: It will be tight, but I have told the children to be thankful.
BaffledSquirrel: I know. I am paying for the turkey.
Danni: I can’t let you!
BaffledSquirrel: Quite right. I have decided. So that is that! Delivery address please?!!!”
She had thought this would be a very frugal Christmas. But things had changed. The turkey was huge, a free range bird, 15lb in weight. He had arranged for her to collect it. It was now hidden. More, a box had arrived, full of chocolates, mints and someone’s redundant second-hand but brilliant DVD’s for the children had arrived. She particularly appreciated the Top Gear ones. The boys loved the programme. There was no card as such but a simple plain piece of piece of paper upon which was inscribed three words:
“Sigillum Militum Xpisti”.
Next a huge box of little chocolate cakes arrived, carefully packaged in a protective foam box wrapped in brown paper. They had been sourced as “seconds” from a cake factory at a cost of £10 plus a bit more for the posting. It was death by chocolate!
Finally, and possibly best, he had inquired about whether her 12-year-old girl had either seen, or read, “The Hunger Games”. What had he guessed? And how? No, her daughter had not seen the film, she preferred to read. And yes, the books were “on the list”. By “on the list” Peter rightly surmised that she meant on the “wish list”, but not affordable, and her daughter was desperate to have them.
Three days later the boxed set arrived via Amazon. She could not wait to see her daughter’s face on Christmas Day.
At about the same time a woman called Laura in small Surrey town was making her own preparations for Christmas. She had had a difficult time of it of late, especially after losing her job with a charity for no fault of her own. It seemed that for every job there were 20, 40, 100 candidates. It was tricky and depressing to traverse the weird world of benefits, and she had been going hungry. She was a slightly disorganised individual with some history of depression, but a good soul. A small group of people, some of whom she had never actually met had stood by her, providing moral support and more. A voucher from Julie to allow for a better weekend. Money from her kind friend Chris to help her get her heating sorted, and more. And a mysterious figure she knew only from Twitter as “BaffledSquirrel” had provided quite a lot of help. He had paid for an MOT to keep her car on the road so she could go to more job interviews, and provided regular food parcels which made life a little easier. He had also assisted her to upgrade her camera. She was a gifted photographer and this had helped her to get experience of press photography for a local paper.
A special Christmas delivery had arrived, with a crown of turkey, potatoes, goose fat, sprouts and mince pies. It contained a single card with the inscription
“Sigillum Militum Xpisti”
And also at about the same time, in his flat Peter Fisher was looking at some pictures sent to his Blackberry that evening very intently, and then at the boxes of sleeping pills. Then he cautiously opened one.
The next mornings at about 8.00 am on Christmas Day, in a little Yorkshire Town an excited 12-year-old girl stared wide-eyed at the gift wrapped box in front of her. She was more than old enough to understand her mother was broke, but miraculously there seemed to be an abundance of chocolate and gifts. She opened the package with a growing sense of excitement. Was it true? It was. The “Hunger Games” trilogy in a boxed set. She loved reading. She was ecstatic.
Her mother watched on and smiled. Her two boys spent the day raucously playing Top Gear DVDs with their combination of explosions, crashes and spectacular challenges, but of the girl there was little to be seen. She was in her bedroom, lost in her world of books. At about 5.00 pm, the children were herded to a dining table already piled high with delicious looking chocolate cakes, the great secret was revealed. The huge turkey was produced from the kitchen, to gasps of astonishment and applause.
In London, Peter Fisher’s flat was quiet and the grave.
At about 7.00 pm on Christmas Day in the small Surrey town Laura was relaxing with a cup of tea after what had been a remarkably peaceful and pleasant Christmas day. The day before she had taken a set of pictures from the top of Holmfellow Hill and at Newland’s corner in the Surrey Hills at the request of the mysterious “BaffledSquirrel” and e-mailed them to a Gmail account which incorporated that name. She assumed they must mean something to him.
In London, Peter Fisher’s flat was dark and still. There was no movement.
Also on Christmas Day, at about 3.00 pm local time a yellow taxi pulled up outside the imposing Brownstone House on the beautiful Commonwealth Avenue on a frosty Boston afternoon. A tall man with dark hair, rather formally dressed in a long overcoat, paid the driver, got out and the driver helped him take his wheelie case out of the boot. The cab pulled away and the man’s breath steamed in the freezing Boston air. He pulled his case behind him and lugged it up the stone steps to the ornate front door of the huge house. He could hear shouts and shrieks of happily warring teenagers. He paused, took a deep breath and rang the bell.
After a few moments there was the sound of footsteps and a young woman opened the door. She had very dark hair, and wide, very bright and intelligent eyes behind rimmed glasses. She looked about 21. The two appraised each other momentarily and rather cautiously.
“Hello, Flora” said the man.
“Hello” she said. She had an American accent. “I am so glad you have come. It’s this way”.
They shook hands, a little self-consciously. She led the man through the wide marbled hallway, to the drawing-room. The family had gone silent. A tall, distinguished looking man with yellow blond hair, two sturdy boys aged about 18 and 20, and a pretty blond girl of about 14. And a dark-haired woman with wide pale skin, a mass of uncombed blue-black hair and expressive brown yes.
Florandrea Angelique D’Avranche-Beaumont-Staam, also sometimes more simply known as Doctor Staam, and sometimes more formally as Madame la Comptess de Cotentin, hugged Peter Fisher as tightly as she could. “Welcome home, Peter,” she said.
Based on a true story.
Gildas the Monk