A seasonal short story…
When you’re as beloved a veteran soap star as Malcolm Howard, the run up to Christmas is usually a heady time of eager fans stopping him in supermarkets to get the inside scoop on the big festive storyline. His response is a tap on the nose and twinkle of the eye and a mock-pious assertion that he must keep schtum, and the reassuring feeling of having made someone’s day with his mere presence. It’s the most wonderful time of the year for Malcolm, where if he’s involved in the big storyline at all it’s only in a supporting capacity, meaning he has plenty of sporadic filming in the months running up to Christmas to while away the time on set attempting to do the Times’ crossword and flirting with the catering crew.
He enjoys his back-seat role, having had his own share of big stories in the early years of his time on the show; his lothario status has dwindled now to comic relief, and that’s a-okay with him after serving his time for almost 40 years. He’s had his recent favourites; the wedding a few years back of his on-screen daughter followed by the cold-blooded attempted murder of her new husband at the hands of his jealous twin brother was a particular highlight. The frozen turkey incident leading to a Christmas dinner with his next-door frenemy was another good one, earning him and his foil, Archie Mellows, a surprise best-double act win at the following year’s soap awards.
But this year is different. Very different. At the end of January the programme show-runner abruptly left in a hushed-up scandal involving the director general’s wife, a hand-towel, a bucket of ice and the misplacement of a hotel key. In his place came the formidable Arlene Highwater, who just happens to be Malcolm’s ex-wife. It’s ancient history; he’s been married now to Patricia for over 30 years, and they share a simply lovely newly married, freshly pregnant daughter of whom they’re very proud of, having followed her mother into the family business of orthopaedic surgery. That was how he and Patricia had met in fact – a nasty tumble on set during a rambunctious fight scene with his on-screen lover’s husband had resulted in a broken wrist. Patricia had been the surgeon on call, their eyes had met over his manly wails for pain medication and the rest was history. That he was in crisis talks with Arlene to save his first marriage after she got wind of his brief dalliance with an extra was notwithstanding – the heart wanted what the heart wanted and he dissolved the marriage, moved in with Patricia, knocked her up with Julia and set up house.
Naturally Arlene was furious, but being just a production assistant on the soap at that stage, she was the one who was forced to leave the job she had loved (and which she had gotten first, then having recommended her struggling actor husband for an audition). Her star subsequently rose at the new job she secured a few months later at the national broadcaster, leaving Malcolm of the view that he had really done her a huge favour. Everything tends to fall into place for Malcolm – the scar on his eyebrow received in a tennis accident when he was 19 (the racket was thrown at him by a disgruntled opponent who had (rightly) accused him of constantly cheating) offered him still an air of sexy danger. The actor who was initially cast in his role suddenly left before filming began to take part in a Hollywood movie that never saw the light of day. His scuffle on set had led him to the love of his life. Yes, Malcolm is a charming man who has lived a very charmed life, so it’s well past his due for something to mess it up completely.
It’s a few days before Christmas and Malcolm has been sent out by Patricia on his annual trip to the supermarket to pick up the provisions she knows he always enjoys getting at this time of year (and this time of year alone). Little does she know, having given up on pretending to watch the show years ago, preferring to hear Malcolm’s lively iterations of the day’s work on set instead, he can’t be his jolly self in his element among his fans, for his character Gerard Baker may soon be revealed as the Kilburn Street Killer. It would be the biggest upset in the soap’s history, at least since the great tram disaster of ’98 that killed off a much loved by fans, but increasingly ‘difficult to work with’ young actress, who then launched a singing career that petered out after her second single and is now ‘resting’ while her boyfriend brings home the bacon as a private security guard for one of her former co-stars.
The soap mags and entertainment sites have been speculating on who the serial killer could be for weeks now, and none of them have pointed the finger at Malcolm’s slightly snooty but ultimately lovable gentleman scholar character. But on Arlene’s devilish orders he and four other cast members have each filmed a big reveal scene, none of them being any the wiser as to who will be proven to be the murderer on Christmas Day. He should have known; Arlene came to the soap all guns blazing to pull off the most anticipated, exciting, shocking, ratings-boosting Christmas special ever, and since her return to the programme has been almost pathologically nice to her ex-husband. Well, now it turns out that Arlene is not as grateful for the opportunities indirectly afforded to her by him after the divorce, and has used her position of power to dangle his cosy, nice little job in front of him like a cat toying with a mouse. For where is a soap murderer to go after being found out, but to the maximum security prison far away and off-screen. What an end that would be to his illustrious career as good-natured Gerard Baker.
In order to avoid awkward encounters with his fans in Sainsbury’s, where he isn’t sure he’ll be capable of keeping up his bravado, he skirts into a high-end grocer where no one will be seen wanting to bother him (although of course they do; he can’t help but be pleased by the poor attempts to conceal surreptitious photos taken behind heaps of avocados). Returning home with gourmet versions of the ingredients Patricia has requested – “Why did you bring me vanilla beans Malcolm, I always use vanilla extract. Good God are these actual truffles? I only asked for mushrooms! Is this a Fortnum and Mason’s carry bag? You could at least have picked me up a tin of biscuits if you’re going to insist on shopping there”- he deflects her questions by announcing in only a slightly frenzied voice “Why not treat ourselves once in a while ha ha ha?” and spinning her in a waltz around the kitchen island before planting a big wet kiss on her cheek.
Patricia is surprised by Malcolm’s deviation from his Christmas shopping routine but doesn’t give it too much thought; thirty years with him have given her a nose for when to pry and when to let his unexpected eccentricities slide. She shoos him out of the kitchen so that she and her cook can get down to business preparing all that can be done in good time, so that on Christmas Day all she has to do is shove the turkey in the oven and reheat all the pre-prepared sides. If Malcolm isn’t going to pull his weight in the kitchen neither is she, respected physician and busy woman that she is.
Christmas Day arrives. Suspicions are beginning to be raised on Twitter by eagle-eyed fans, whether Gerard Baker may unbelievably be the Kilburn Road Killer. Could it really be? Malcolm watched the episode on his laptop in his den on the network’s playback feature in the depths of the night, brushing off a family viewing with the newly arrived Julia and her husband Pete as a waste of time when they could all catch up over champagne and that little tin of caviar he had picked up “especially for the occasion” in Fortnum’s. He was horrified to see that Arlene had instructed her editors to patch together a few scenes of him looking shifty, obviously captured when he had been darting around the set in search of his hidden, illicit (thanks to the diet Patricia has recently put him on) Terry’s Chocolate Orange. He hadn’t even noticed the cameras rolling! His character’s alibi was growing weaker by the second.
After the family returns from the Christmas church service, where Malcolm makes them intentionally late and then gets them to leave early in order to avoid the usual congregational pleasantries, Pete ushers him in in to the den and utters “I know.”. “You know what Peter old chap, that the turkey is going to be dry as usual, but not quite as bad as the dehydrated roasted vegetables ha ha ha”. Pete shifts on his feet. “I know that you, I mean Gerard Baker, is a suspect in all those murders, I’ve been getting messages from my mates all yesterday evening and this morning about it. Why haven’t you told us? Why the big secret? Are you, I mean, is Gerard Barker, the Kilburn Road Killer?”. Malcolm avoids his son-in-law’s gaze and sits down on the nearest seat. “It’s Arlene, my first wife. She’s getting off on seeing me squirm. Not one of the cast knows who the killer really is but all will be revealed tonight. It would be the story of the year if it turns out to be me, that is Gerard Baker. But I don’t want it to be! I couldn’t bear to be written out in such a way, after all these years. The shame! I’ll be forced to go on I’m a Celebrity to clear my name!”
Pete is aware that his father-in-law relishes his soap-star status and understands that his Gerard Baker character is as much a part of his perceived personality as his real life persona is. He figures that Malcolm believes that his adoring public cannot discern Gerard from Malcolm, and if he’s to be proven a serial killer his reputation may lay in tatters, and his enforced retirement will be marred by evil eyes cast in his direction and attacks by angry mobs. “But would it really be that bad?” Pete ventures. “Patricia is due to retire next May, wouldn’t it be ideal to settle into your twilight years together, go on cruises, visit places you’ve always wanted to go to, do things you’ve always wanted to do?” and almost adds “be there to mind the little one when he comes along so Julia and I can have some time to ourselves?” Malcolm mulls this over. He does quite fancy the idea of a Caribbean cruise, and he would like to visit Phnom Penh. He would have time to finally complete a crossword and he wouldn’t have to watch his waistline like he does now; he could eat Terry’s Chocolate Oranges to his heart’s content!
Patricia breaks his reverie by summoning them to the dining room for Christmas dinner. While he is chewing on his turkey and picking the burnt bits off his roast carrot he wonders if he should take a cookery class. When he pulls his cracker and receives the prize inside, a miniature tape measure, he thinks about what class of DIY he could perform in his den. He could go to the British War Museum on a weekday! He could write a memoir! He could grow a beard! Maybe Arlene’s plan to ruin him will backfire and his sacking from the soap will be the making of him, just as it was for her.
Dinner ends, the pudding is lit and devoured, the plates and cutlery are retired to the kitchen out of sight, out of mind and the family retires to the sitting room for their traditional viewing of the soap’s Christmas Special, an act echoed by countless other families the country over. For the first time in weeks Malcolm is feeling good about this. I actually hope I am the killer, he silently thinks to himself. Oh the things I could do!
The distinctive theme music begins after the continuity announcer gives nothing away as to the outcome of the big storyline. Malcolm turns to Pete and offers him a thumbs up. As the half hour ticks away, more sneaky glances are caught on camera, more little clues are dropped as to who the murderer may be, more merriment is being undercut by sinister figures lurking in the background, until the scene familiar to Malcolm as the one he and four others filmed begins.
A dark room is entered by plucky but very stupid Daisy Woodson. Without turning on the ceiling light, which is definitely in fine working order, she creeps over to the wardrobe, from where she has heard a noise but reckons it’s her cat, despite a manic murderer being on the prowl. She opens the wardrobe to expose, clutching a blood-encrusted dagger and with eyes burning with madness… Archie Mellows, the mild-mannered shop-keeper and cub scout leader.
“YEEEESSSSSSS!” Malcolm rises from his seat with the exuberance of a football fanatic celebrating a late-time goal. “YEEEEEESSSSSS!” he repeats, to the confused reaction of his wife, who is of the belief that the actor who plays Archie Mellows is a good friend and crossword buddy of Malcolm’s, and to Julia, who has never before seen her father react so enthusiastically to his own show, preferring as he does to bask in prior knowledge. Pete is glad for Malcolm, if not a bit put out at the loss of a babysitter. Malcolm is overjoyed. He can always go to Phnom Penh on his next scheduled break! DIY? He’d rather get a professional in. The War Museum is always more fun at the weekend, where he can catch the glances of fans and confirm to him with a wry smile that yes, it is really him. Beard? Who needs a beard!
“Well, that’s that for another year, how about we pop open another bottle of bubbly? None for you Julia, sorry, but don’t worry, it won’t go to waste ha ha ha!” Everyone is happy to acquiesce and get down to the business of continuing the Christmas celebrations. Buoyed by elation Malcolm doesn’t even mind when he receives a text message, something he’s usually firmly against receiving on Christmas Day, finding it spoils the insular, familial mood. It is, inevitably, from Arlene. “Merry Christmas Malcolm” it reads, “Until next year, eh”? He titters, and tosses his phone onto the heavily cushioned sofa without replying. When you’re as beloved a veteran soap star as Malcolm Howard, you find that everything manages to fall in to place.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on 20th December 2017.
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