Sheila had spotted him. It hadn’t taken her long. The nose shaped like a rugby ball; the brushy beard and thick moustache; the closely shaved head; the barrel-like body and the formally stiff and erect shoulders underneath a black North Face jacket were unmistakable. She had cheerily taken her seat at the back of the bus, sorted out her bags, and looked out of the window, humming a Christmas song to herself. Then she gazed down the bus, where her eyes eventually found the hideous frame of the debt collector. The repellent, miserable creature was sitting alone, as he always did, lit up by the harsh ceiling lights.
She froze. Today had been a good day so far; she had paid off a few bills, treated herself to a spot of lunch, bought a few groceries, and even had enough change to buy her two daughters a surprise present each for Christmas. She had been feeling chirpy. At last, it felt like Christmas and she felt as though she was getting on in life.
But now the lecherous debt collector was in her sights. The song in her head had been abruptly cut short, replaced by a funereal stillness. He was roaming around Bloom, seeking out his next prey, rupturing families, destroying hope. Was he coming for her?
The thought sent shivers down her spine. She owed a lot. She didn’t have the time to calculate it all in her head, but she knew it was enough to ruin her Christmas.
She wriggled in her seat, ducking from his view, making sure he wouldn’t see her. Her eyes were beginning to water, and she struggled for air. Not that he was looking, not that he was aware of her; as ever, he looked straight ahead of him, as though making absolutely sure that he didn’t miss his stop. He was calculated to the point of being obsessive, exact to the point of sadistic. There was no margin for error, no debtor was spared.
She looked down at the plastic bags around her feet that betrayed her greed. They were collected there like shitzu puppies. A surprise present for both of her daughters. Two bags full of groceries. She was a big spender, living beyond her means. She was embarrassed. She owed money, yet here she was, spending. He had every right to take it all away from her and treat himself to the potatoes, carrots and cheap meat. He could even take the gifts and give them to his nieces.
The bus charged through the estate. The grey clouds outside were already darkening; they were covering the sky quickly like spilled ink on white paper. It was nearly 4 o’clock and Sheila had a terrible sense of impending doom. The bus was nearing her stop, and still the debt collector hadn’t vacated. He was coming for her, she knew it. The odds were now stacked against her. The end of the road was merely 6 or 7 stops away.
She texted her friend. “Debt collector is on the bus with me. I’m freaking out xx.”
The presence of the debt collector did nothing for her anxiety, something she had suffered with since her boyfriend left her after the birth of her second child. Now thirty-five, she was finally on pills that were supposed to stabilise her. They didn’t always work; she was still prone to debilitating panic attacks, often in the presence of her daughters who didn’t understand. They tried to, but they were too young. Sometimes, they only exacerbated her condition. They argued, pinched each other, threw food across the table, and occasionally banged and screamed.
The bus plummeted choppily past another stop. The roads that served the estate were ragged. The next stop was hers. She was ready to pray to God to spare her, to have mercy on her soul. Christmas is a time for goodwill and peace to all men and women; didn’t she deserve some? Hadn’t she suffered enough misery and hardship this year already? She could feel her heart in her chest, rattling away in its cage.
Her eyes were fully focused on the debt collector. He was showing no signs of movement, no indication that he was about to get out of his seat. She pressed the bell, gathered her bags and rose.
The walk down the bus felt like a walk of shame, and she cowered as she passed the locals. She stumbled, was almost tossed into the air as the vehicle careered over a speed bump. All the passengers knew who the debt collector was, and they were all surely fearing the worst just like she was.
But perhaps not; perhaps they were all free of debt? Perhaps they had all lived within their means, sewn their cloth accordingly, made the right decisions, married the right people, got the right qualifications. Perhaps they were the righteous, the virtuous, and she was the swine, the plague. And he; he was the devil, the witch finder, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse who had come here to cleanse the town of all its badness, to restore its goodness. Just in time for Christmas.
There was a knock at the door. To any neutral observer, it was just a knock like any other knock: A polite, ringing intonation that inquired as to whether anyone was home. To Paul and Christine, it was a death knell; a summoning. It signalled doom and pronounced their fate. It was less of a knock and more of a hammering; it felt as though their door was about to cave in, unable to withstand the pressure.
They knew who it was; they had seen the debt collector storming up their garden path, pushed forward by the wind, taking measured, determined strides, looking every inch like an executioner. Now, his silhouette in the frosted circular door window cast a black shadow over their hallway.
The oppressive atmosphere inside the house was eerily juxtaposed with the Christmas music that was playing from their stereo in the kitchen. Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song was reaching its wholesome conclusion, playing out its last bars to a house that had become deathly.
Paul and his wife were positioned mid-crawl, Paul in the living room, Christine still in the hallway, frozen there like the figures condemned to a lifetime of exhibitionism in Pompeii. They dared not move, they dared not speak; their freedom had been paused momentarily.
There was another loud, booming knock at the door. Christine felt the floor beneath her shake. Sweat had started to pour from Paul’s head. He hadn’t expected this second toll of bells; part of him had expected the debt collector to just give up and go. He should have known better. The debt collector never gives up, he never goes away. He is the visions from a nightmare never forgotten.
The pregnant Christine felt her sides begin to ache and throb. Her arms were trembling; she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold this pose. The palms of her hands were beginning to burn against the carpet. Her arched back was sore. But any movement and they would be spotted, and she stoically stayed where she was. She was at the behest of their insane master. One movement and they would be spotted, caught. They were already trapped in a nefarious web, stricken and left out to dry. If they were careful enough, they could get through this. The debt collector, no matter how determined, would eventually give up.
Paul knew more than his wife that they couldn’t pay their debts. Not today. Not just before the holidays. He had lied to his wife about the size of the debt. It was manageable, he had said. It had been manageable the previous Christmas, when the debt collector took what little they had. Now, it had engulfed Paul. It wasn’t manageable; it was unbearable. The debt collector had come to take what was his by right, which was everything.
He continued to sweat. He had ordered his wife to crouch and to stay very still once he knew the debt collector was almost at their door. They couldn’t be seen, for God’s sake they couldn’t be seen.
Christine wanted to pant; she was thirsty, so thirsty. Seconds felt like minutes to her. Nat King Cole had already made way for Bing Crosby. The songs were playing to someone, the debt collector would know that. He was just waiting for that someone to finish off on the toilet, or get out of the shower. He wasn’t one for walking away empty handed. He wanted what was his by right. He knew they were home.
Just then, the silhouette vanished from the door and reappeared at the living room window. Paul could make out the debt collector cupping his hands to better look through the lace curtains that offered him a layer of protection. He gulped and wondered if the baying executioner could discern his crouched shape and form. He thanked God that it was nearing twenty-past four and the dark December night had already blanketed the prim golden sky. He looked straight ahead at the man who was peering right in. The television was on, Bing Crosby was still crooning. Somebody was home. This was all too much.
For over a minute the debt collector continued to prod at the window, prying, peering, straining himself to make out Paul’s shape. Then he tapped on the glass five times with what sounded like a metallic object, perhaps a set of keys. The noise tore through the house the way a scream rips up a ragged throat. It was shrill and deafening. It was a summoning. It couldn’t be ignored.
A key, thought Christine. It sounded like a key striking the glass. Not a skeleton key, please.
An onset of paranoia was taking over her. Had she locked the door? Wasn’t it a debt collector’s right to enter an unlocked house and then stay there indefinitely? It certainly was, she knew it was. He might even stay for Christmas, sitting in the corner like a tumour on the surface of her retina.
The black silhouetted returned to the window in the door. She couldn’t take it anymore. He was like a scab that keeps on returning, a cancer on the skin that won’t die. There was another knock, this time louder than last time, followed by yet another. Christine could bear it no more. Her husband knew they simply had to hold out for a few more minutes. He couldn’t pay. He couldn’t. The debt collector would go away soon, move onto another victim. There was no one home. It would soon become apparent. He wanted to reassure his wife of this. He was pleading with her in his mind not to succumb to any kind of temptation to give up, to not collapse onto the ground and expose their position.
Christine knew they couldn’t pay up. There were only just getting by, and by some stroke of sheer luck it was looking as though they would have a nice Christmas with a proper Christmas dinner. Times had been hard throughout the year, and there had been only a few snatches of optimism, hope and happiness. But things had been looking up in December. They were going to have family around for Christmas, they were going to cook a turkey. Paul was going to drive to Marks and Spencer’s tonight to pick it up. Cranberry sauce. Seven vegetables. Dessert. They deserved it. She was dreaming, and a smile appeared on her rosy lips.
The baby upstairs started to cry. It wanted feeding. It wailed relentlessly.
Sic transit gloria.
“We make a petition to the government,” volunteered Paul, “and we ask that the whole process is looked into.” He scribbled something down in his notepad.
There were subdued, unsure murmurings of discontent from the party at the table. Quiet but noticeable. Thirteen residents of Bloom had gathered tonight at The Blue Ox to discuss the debt collector, how he was responsible for the town’s misery, destitution and lack of goodwill this Christmas, and what action needed to be taken. He had brought the blighted town to its knees, condemning a clutch of the hardworking locals to another miserable holiday. He had robbed them of their basic necessities, poured poison on their Christmas spirit, switched off their power, and reminded them that aspiration comes with a price. He had claimed their dignity, subjected them to his baseless power, laughed at them, cursed them – murdered them.
“A petition is a bunch of crap,” said George dismissively, a portly gentleman wearing a flat cap.
There were sounds of agreement from all sides of the table. Eleven members voiced their agreement, with Paul and the timid Sheila the only exceptions.
“What we want is action; none of this flowery bullshit that claims to give you a sense of power but which is actually nothing more than a token bloody gesture.” George jabbed the table angrily with his finger tip.
There were further sounds of agreement. One member of the group clapped.
“I get what you’re saying but a petition is a good start, and it’s something that we are able to do. If we get enough signatures, it can inspire discussion in the House of Commons.”
“The bloody House of Commons, you’re like a bloody big kid,” bellowed George.
Paul sighed. The cheers from the locals seated around the table threatened to dethrone him. He had to take heed of them.
“Well, then, what are the suggestions of people here? What do you think we should do about the debt collector?”
The party looked at each other for answers. No one seemed willing or able to offer anything.
“We could get together and invite him to have a talk with us all. At the community hall perhaps,” suggested Dave, a shy bin man.
A few people shook their heads.
“Kill the bastard.”
The words, spoken by Billy, a gruff former miner, pierced the air like a gunshot. Some members of the group looked genuinely alarmed; others were less alarmed and looked nervously at others to see if anyone thought the idea had legs. They seemed unaffected by the bloodthirsty suggestion but knew it was morally reprehensible; they looked for mutual agreement before admitting that it appealed to them.
“Gallows humour,” said Paul, nodding.
“No,” retorted Billy. “I’m deadly serious. We kill him. He’s a bastard who tears people apart every Christmas.”
Paul gave extended airtime to the suggestion by offering a polite laugh.
“Any more ideas?” he asked.
“I like the sound of Billy’s,” said Estelle, a middle-aged till worker, assertively.
Others began to give their approval. Paul looked around him with disbelief. The idea to him was as wicked as it was preposterous.
“We cannot kill a man, so let’s please move on from such a silly suggestion. Billy isn’t being serious, and we’re running out of time.”
“Who are you to tell me when I’m not serious?”
“You cannot be serious, Billy.”
“I’m serious,” said Estelle. “If Billy is serious, I’m serious too.”
Billy nodded emphatically. “I’m dead serious. We kill him.”
“The man definitely deserves it after what he’s done to some of us,” offered Craig, a part-time gardener. “You can’t deny that, Paul.”
“I’m not entertaining such a ludicrous idea,” affirmed the group leader.
“You’ll have to entertain it if enough people agree with it. It deserves the vote. This is a democracy, isn’t?” asked Billy, looking around him. Everyone agreed with him.
Paul sighed heavily. He looked around him at the baying faces of the party. They were urging him to put the idea to a vote. They were willing him. They were telling him to do it.
“Surely at least a few of you disagree with this idea?” he asked. But as he looked around him, he found not a single ally. Even Sheila kept her head bowed, hiding her shame. The group unanimously agreed that the debt collector had to be murdered.
“I ask everyone here to search within yourselves and find your humanity,” begged Paul. “Please rediscover it. The debt collector has twisted our perception of right and wrong; his cruelty has brought out the beast within us, but we must calm the beast and lock it away. We cannot murder this man.”
“Put it to a vote,” demanded George. “Put it to a vote or abdicate.”
A pack of debt collectors stormed the town. They collected, pillaged, harassed and broke the residents of Bloom. Pockets were emptied, assets were seized, and money swam out of the town like blood down a river.
Police prowled the streets after 7PM, making sure that nobody was breaking the curfew. Anyone found to be on the streets was arrested and incarcerated indefinitely.
Everyone’s benefits were suspended for three months. Those who took part in the coup were more heavily sanctioned than those who did not, but there was no discrimination on the whole; everyone was punished in some way.
Some workers were sacked, others had their hours reduced to part-time, while some were expected to work the same amount of hours for less pay; some were made to work more hours for the same pay.
Paul’s wife Christine had a miscarriage; she blamed the stress of the planned coup and spiralled into depression.
Paul suffered more than most. He had resisted appeals for him to take part in the coup, and was consequently blacklisted by the whole town. He was shunned by the locals, accused of being in conspiracy with the debt collector, and eventually beaten by a gang of young thugs.
“When the good folk of Bloom have nothing left but the very, very bare minimum, then they won’t complain. Then they’ll do as they’re told,” said the debt collector proudly to his son.