"It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance…." Dickens, A Christmas Carol
If anyone had taken the time to notice, they would have seen a middle-aged man, of average weight and height, making his solitary way along the Embankment. They might have noted his thinning hair, grimly set mouth, and prematurely lined face. They might have observed that his movements were straight-backed, almost stiff, as he walked along, gloved hands curled into fists. They would have seen his breath form small clouds in the cold, dark night. But no one did notice. He had mastered the art of blending in, of disappearing into the background, crowd or not.
Harry often went to the Embankment to collect his thoughts. Despite the early hour, the night was still and empty. He imagined that most people were home with loved ones or celebrating with friends. It was Christmas again – his first since losing Ruth, this time for good. The season had crept up on him this year. The Grid had been busy the past few months, even more than usual it seemed. The first few weeks without her had been almost unbearable, but eventually he'd managed to lose himself in his work – thwarting terrorist plots, immobilizing anti-government movements, suppressing political scandals.
Sometimes he wondered how he'd ever become involved in this mess. There was never any respite. There were always new plots hatching, new conflicts developing, new terrorist groups forming. Even before he'd lost Ruth, he knew that his heart was no longer in it. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of so many years of betrayal and deceit, hurt and loss. Perhaps too many recent operations had been rooted in service to corporate greed, not Queen and country. Whatever the reason, he knew that his once unwavering dedication to the service had begun to wane. Yet it seemed, to his mind, that there was no way out. So he kept on working.
He thought of his team, still hard at work on the Grid. His connection with them, once so strong, seemed weakened somehow. Erin, his section head, was competent enough, but he often felt as though she were watching him, waiting for him to make a mistake. Unlike his past section leaders, he hadn't chosen her for the job – his superiors had placed her there. She was a bit too ambitious, that one. Harry suspected that her relationship with Dmitri, another of his officers, was just a tool she could use to further her designs on Harry's office.
That morning Erin had asked Harry for time off so that she could spend Christmas with her young daughter. Unfortunately there had been signs of activity from one of the troublesome groups they'd been watching. So Harry had denied her request, and had to put up with her sullen looks in addition to the other mayhem the day had brought. Dmitri, Calum and a couple of the new officers also seemed to be in poor spirits, barely grunting replies when he addressed them. It wasn't shaping up to be a good Christmas for any of them.
Harry paused and rested his arms on a railing. He stared at the lights glimmering on the cool, black surface of the Thames. He'd walked with Ruth in this very place. There were reminders of her wherever he was, wherever he looked. She was everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time. He suddenly felt cold and tired of being alone. He decided to go home, see to his dog, and then return to the Grid to check on the team's progress. He pulled out his mobile and jabbed at it with a gloved finger, calling his driver.
. . .
As he stepped from the car, Harry glanced quickly over his shoulder to ensure that no one had followed. He cautiously walked to his front door and unlocked it. He slowly eased the door open so that he wouldn't be caught off guard by any intruders. Once in the entranceway, he deactivated the security alarm and scanned the area to ensure nothing had been disturbed in his absence. It was a routine that his deservedly paranoid mind had developed over the years.
His dog scurried over, quiet except for the light clicking of her claws on the floor. "Hello, sweet pup", he greeted her, and bent over to give her an affectionate rub. She was utterly hopeless as a guard dog, but perfect for the companionship he so desperately needed. He went to the kitchen to check that she had sufficient food and opened the back door to let her out. The dog soon returned, and Harry slid his arms out of his coat and folded it over the back of a chair. He kicked off his shoes and headed straight for his whisky, the dog following closely at his heels. He hadn't heard anything from the team – work could wait for just another little while.
Harry heard the familiar clink of glass as he took the lid from the decanter and poured himself a generous helping. He flipped on his stereo. Good, Rodrigo was still on the turntable. He lifted the needle and placed it gently on the record. For a few moments he stood transfixed by the spinning of the disc. Then the chill in the air caught his attention. He lit the gas fireplace and settled himself onto the couch, his dog jumping up and lying next to him.
Harry sat and stared into his whisky. He took a sip and held the glass up to the light, as if making a toast. Crystal. He and Jane, long his ex, had received a set of these as a wedding gift. Strange that he should remember that. When they separated Harry had left everything with her. Months later she'd sent him a couple of boxes. They were mainly filled with clothing, but she'd added the glasses, too. She'd never been a drinker. Or perhaps it was a message. Only two of the glasses had survived his frequent moves and the general turbulence of his life. "Happy Christmas," he whispered as he moved the glass to his lips once more.
He thought about calling his daughter, but felt as though he had nothing to say. Perhaps he'd try tomorrow. He worried that she wouldn't really want to hear from him, that she only spoke to him out of pity. He couldn't blame her. He'd been a terrible father, virtually abandoning her when she was just a child. He'd often told himself that he'd left Jane and the children out of concern for their safety. Admittedly a career in espionage carried significant risks. But that was only part of it.
Harry cringed whenever he thought of the affairs. For someone so skilled in deception, he hadn't even bothered to try and hide them from his wife. It was as though he'd wanted her to find out. He still didn't understand why he'd done it. He just knew that the consequences had been severe. His daughter now spoke to him only occasionally. He hadn't had direct contact with his son, Graham, in years. What he'd heard of Graham hadn't been good – petty criminal activity driven by drug addiction. Self-destructive, just like his father.
Harry sighed. He hated thinking of the past, so filled with regret, so unchangeable. That was one of the good things about this job, he thought – its unrelenting focus on the present as it shifted him from one crisis to the next. He usually didn't have time to think of anything else. He glanced at his phone – still nothing from the Grid. He easily convinced himself to have another whisky. He got up from the couch, rubbed his stiff back, and walked over to the decanter. He grabbed it and sat down once more, pouring himself a healthy dose. He downed it quickly and stared blankly into the fire. He picked up a book from the table and looked at the cover – Raymond Chandler. He tried to read, but the drink, combined with the exhaustion of the past few days, made his eyes feel heavy. He could hear the dog breathing quietly next to him, and the lulling sound of guitar and strings in the background. He let himself drift into the welcome numbness of sleep.