Merry Christmas, Ms Culpepper (2010)
By DAVID BARNETT
“Humbug,” said Dorothy Culpepper.
“Humbug?” repeated Asif Baig.
“Humbug,” nodded Dorothy. “I presume that even you, with your sheltered, fundamentalist upbringing, have heard of Ebenezer Scrooge.”
Asif had. He was also well-used to Dorothy Culpepper’s casual jingoism, and knew that it was all an act. The section head of MI5’s Department of Extra-Usual Affairs – which comprised Ms Culpepper and himself, in a shabby office above a shop on the Horseferry Road – liked to put up an icy exterior backed up with an arsenal of tight one-liners, but Asif had managed to slowly chip away at her armour since arriving as a fresh-faced recruit. She would be aghast if he ever voiced the thought, but he considered her quite a warm human being, beneath it all.
Which was something of a surprise, given that she was dead. Asif had never been given the details, nor had he pressed further, but she had let slip that she had died sometime in the 1960s and somehow re-inhabited her body, which explained somewhat – but not totally – her affinity with all things occult and paranormal. In the months he had been with DfEUA, Asif had learned to accept much that he would previously have thought too fantastic to even consider.
Asif had asked Ms Culpepper what she was planning to do for Christmas, as he was offering to cover DfEAU’s duties for the festive period. Being Muslim he did not celebrate the season, of course, and thought he might bank up leave to take the following year.
“Aren’t you planning to spend it with that little fairy you knock about with?” she said, puffing hard on a Mayfair menthol cigarette and flicking the ash into the bent “No Smoking” sign which she had torn off the wall and mutilated with pliers seconds after the workmen had put it up.
“No, Daniel’s going home to see his parents,” said Asif morosely. His boyfriend’s family had accepted his sexuality, but it had been a long and painful process. Daniel had wanted to take Asif back to the family homestead, but Asif wasn’t sure they were ready for an Asian boyfriend so soon after having to come to terms with Daniel coming out of the closet.
“Won’t you want to see your family?” asked Dorothy, grimacing as she dragged the last of the cigarette down. She stubbed the butt, sticky with lipstick, in the makeshift ashtray and reached for her compact, dabbing powder on her face until she had re-instated her “look”, which Asif always thought was just like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, but had never dared say.
Asif had already telephoned his family in Bradford to say he would be working over Christmas.
“They make you work over Christmas just because you are Muslim?” asked his father. “That is prejudice. You should have them up for it. Besides, I had plans for you.”
Asif’s family lived above his father’s corner shop, and Mr Baig informed his son that they were planning to open around the clock over the Christmas break.
“They are always running out of stuffing and crackers and Quality Street. I have stocked up grandly.” Along the phone-line, Asif could almost sense his father tapping the side of his nose. “And I have boxes and boxes of Harvey’s Bristol Cream. They love their sherry at Christmas.”
“Dad,” cautioned Asif. “You don’t even have a drinks licence.”
“Oh, and what is the big civil servant going to do about that?” taunted his father. His family knew he worked for the Government, but not, of course, for MI5. “Are you going to dob me in to your friends?” He let loose a long, rumbling laugh. “Perhaps they will send the Spooks off the telly round to arrest me! Perhaps Harry Pearce himself will crash through my window! For a few bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream!”
So no, Asif was not going back to Bradford for Christmas, he told his boss. She pouted. “Well, I always work Christmas. So you’ll have to find something else to do.”
He raised an eyebrow. “But you could have the entire week off, boss. Go away, if you want. Relax.”
She looked at him as though he’d suggested she eat a raw snake. “Relax? Are you insane? Besides, who’d keep an eye on Satan?”
At the mention of his name, the flea-bitten hound of indeterminate breed that slouched around the DfEUA offices flapped an ear and cast a rheumy eye around the room. “Which reminds me,” she said. “He’s due for a crap. Be a darling and take him round the block, would you? Don’t forget the pooper-scooper.”
“I still don’t see why we both can’t work, then,” said Asif the day before Christmas Eve. “What if something big happens? What if a… a demon manifests on Oxford Street? Or there’s a possession, or a haunting, or a flying saucer flap?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Dorothy. “Nothing like that ever happens at Christmas.”
“Nothing paranormal happens at Christmas?”
Dorothy considered this as she let the smoke drift from beneath her harshly-painted thin lips. “Well, there was all that virgin birth business, I suppose, but your lot don’t have much truck with that, do they?”
Asif knew he was not going to win this one. “I’ll be in my flat,” he said. “If you need me.”
“I won’t,” she said, turning her attention back to the TV listings. “God. Why is there such utter crap on at Christmas?” She looked up. “Why don’t you go and spend Christmas day with Brenda? She’ll be having a proper pagan Christmas. You might cheer Marie up, stop her eating so much pudding.”
Marie Stokesley was an occasional operative of the Department for Extra-Usual Affairs, being gifted with mild psychic powers. And also an arse the size of Dewsbury, considered Asif, before mentally reprimanding himself for the unkind thought. Marie’s mother Brenda was a renowned local table-tapper who went under the name Madame Arcati, and who had no paranormal abilities whatsoever. She was constantly feeding anyone who passed through her doors. It was no surprise Marie was the size she was. If Asif spent just one day in their house over Christmas, Daniel would have him on the Atkin’s Diet come New Year.
“I’ll give it a miss,” he said.
“Wise,” nodded Dorothy. She looked at her watch. “Anyway, time for you to piss off. Have a merry Christmas and all that. See you next week.”
By the time the afternoon gave up the ghost and allowed the Christmas Eve darkness to fall with a relieved sigh, Asif was heartily sick of the festive season. He’d never really understood Christmas, if truth be told. A religious festival that had been subsumed by excess quite out of step with the original intentions. He wasn’t what anyone might call the most pious Muslim – his heartstrings pulled taut at the memory of his last night with Daniel before his lover had gone to visit his parents, at the lovemaking and even the glass of wine that would have had Asif’s parents collapsing in shock and shame – but he couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit of moral superiority as he was elbowed out of the way by frantic last-minute shoppers as he drifted along Oxford Street. At least “his lot”, as Ms Culpepper would have referred to them, managed to enjoy their spiritual celebrations mostly within the letter of their religion.
When he was little, Asif had thought Santa Claus was a prophet, just like Jesus. Father Christmas and Christ were inextricably linked to his childhood self, and he thought that just as the Christians worshipped Jesus as a divine entity, but Muslims knew he was a human prophet, then so must Santa Claus be. He’d once asked at the dinner table why Father Christmas never brought him presents.
“Does your father not provide for you?” his dad had asked angrily. “What do you need that this jolly ghost who does not exist must bring for you? Do you not have a roof over your head? Meals on the table? Shoes on your feet?”
“A radio controlled car,” Asif had mumbled.
Two days later it was Christmas Day. Wrapped in Spider-Man birthday paper, on the table, was a scale-model Jeep with big wheels, and piles of batteries.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
His father grunted. His mother hid a smile behind her hand.
Asif knew that his dad had bought the car. Despite the old man’s brusque denials that he knew of its provenance and feigned disinterest in Asif’s joy.
He also knew that Santa Claus had made him do it.
Asif’s feet took him down the Horseferry Road. He was bored, bored, bored. He wished that Daniel were with him, wished that he had the brass-neck and lack of haunting shame to go into a bar and order a glass of wine. Wished that Mrs Culpepper had allowed him to work, even if it was just re-organising her stubbornly 20th Century filing system.
He paused and stamped his freezing feet, and blew into his hands.
There was a light on in the Department for Extra-Usual Affairs office.
Asif brightened at once. He checked his phone; no messages or missed calls. But there was obviously something going on, for Ms Culpepper to be in the office so late on a Christmas Eve night. Happily, he fumbled in his pocket for his security pass and crossed the road.
That winter was when Asif’s older brother Riaz first started calling him a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside. By Boxing Day the radio controlled car was broken in a pile of plastic and gear cogs at the foot of the stairs. Asif couldn’t prove it, but he knew that Riaz and his wayward mates had driven it off the landing, laughing as it plummeted to the floorboards below. Riaz had denied all knowledge, but had laughed openly. “Guess your Santa Claus is full of shit, hey? Can’t think much of Muslim kids if he gives ‘em that crap.”
The rest of his family would never have used the base language Riaz employed, but there were raised eyebrows and clucking when he announced he had been accepted at Cambridge. Wasn’t Bradford University good enough for him, if he had to go to university at all? And a degree in international affairs? Would good would that be if he was going to take over the running of his father’s business – perhaps build it up to include two or three more shops – when Mr Baig was too old to run his affairs? No matter that Asif maintained the outward appearance of a good Muslim, going to prayers every Friday, observing the fasting scrupulously. Riaz was running with the bad boys by the time he was fourteen, drinking and trying to sleep with white girls off the estates, dabbling in drug dealing. But he never left Bradford, never went to work for the Government, never kept his work and his activities secret. Young men had to blow off steam, said Asif’s father. Riaz would settle down, make a good marriage with one of the young girls his mother was surveying from the local families. Asif… Asif was a loose cannon. No-one understood him. And it had all started with that radio controlled car and Santa Claus.
“What the reindeer crap are you doing here?” snapped Dorothy from within a fog of cigarette smoke as he let himself into the office.
“I was bored,” he said. “I went for a walk and I saw the light on…”
She raised one eyebrow into an angry arch. “I’m not your bloody mother, Asif. You can’t just come in because the light’s on and snuggle up, you know. Jesus.”
The image made him momentarily woozy and he was about to make his apologies and go when he noticed that there were two glasses, a bottle of sherry and two mince pies on the desk in front of her.
“Oh,” he said slowly. “You’re expecting company.”
It hadn’t occurred to him that Ms Culpepper might want him out of the way because she was meeting someone. He felt suddenly light-headed. Dorothy Culpepper, meeting someone? A man?
Dorothy looked at the sherry in front of her and pursed her lips. She glared at Asif with narrow eyes.
“I’ll go,” he said. “Sorry, boss, I—”
Dorothy sighed. “It’s too late. I suppose you’d better stay, now.”
Asif followed her gaze over his shoulder to the corner of the room and yelped. At first he thought it was a smouldering fire – one of Ms Culpepper’s carelessly abandoned cigarettes. But the way the white smoke billowed upwards and outwards, as though filling an invisible glass mould, gave him pause. This wasn’t a fire.
“It’s an incursion!” he yelled. “A demonic manifestation!” He looked wildly at Ms Culpepper. “What should we do? Can you banish it?”
The smoke was indeed filling out and thickening, becoming denser as it assumed a vaguely human, barrel-shaped form. It grew darker and began to deepen in colour.
“Have you got a Bible?” said Asif. “Where’s our Koran?”
“Asif,” said Dorothy mildly as she stubbed out her cigarette. “Do shut up.”
He backed towards her, coming up sharp against the corner of he desk with the back of his thigh. The figure had solidified, assuming the shape of… Asif blinked. A most un-demonic form. A rotund, wide-chested man, dressed in what looked like a green dressing gown trimmed with white fur, open to show a hairy chest down which a brown beard cascaded. The beard framed a beaming smile, and twinkling blue eyes were set under bushy eyebrows. A crown of holly and ivy sat on the figure’s head as it finally materialised, stretched, and boomed out what Asif took a second to realise was laughter.
No white beard, no red coat, no black boots, but Asif knew straight away who it was.
“San—” he began.
“No,” said Dorothy sharply. “No names. He’s on a break. We don’t want to draw attention to him.”
Asif looked at her, wide-eyed. “B-but…” He glanced down at the sherry and mince pies. “B-but…”
The man was standing there, smiling broadly. He smelled of cloves and spices. He nodded his broad head and said, “Dorothy. Lovely to see you again.”
“He knows you?” whispered Asif, aghast.
The man walked over and took a small leather satchel off his shoulder, placing it on the desk. “Aye,” he said. “Know her well. I’ve been coming here every Yule Eve since…” he looked at Dorothy. “When was it? I forget.”
“Nineteen Forty-Three,” said Dorothy. “Rudolf Hess and a bunch of Adolf’s occult numpties had accidentally managed to summon and imprison you.”
“That’s right,” nodded the man. “And on Christmas Eve as well. But for Dorothy’s intervention… well. It was tough enough for kiddies during those years. If I hadn’t been freed…”
“B-but…” said Asif.
The man turned his twinkling gaze upon him. Those blue eyes sparkled like light catching the baubles that always festooned the shop windows in the Bradford of his youth. There seemed to be the threat of snow hanging above him, a sweet frost that dusted his broad shoulders. He emanated heat, as though he’d been sitting by a log fire that made his cheeks rosy and his limbs heavy with a satisfying lethargy.
“Asif,” warned Ms Culpepper.
“And who is this?” asked the man. “You are normally alone, Dorothy.”
She sighed. “Asif Baig. He’s sort of my… houseboy.”
Asif recovered sufficiently to shoot her a look. She cackled with sudden good-nature. “My assistant. And rather a good operative to boot.”
The man inclined his head. “Best of the season to you, Asif Baig.”
Dorothy cracked the top on the sherry bottle. “Save your breath. He’s one of that lot.”
The man accepted the glass that Dorothy poured and held it up to the bare light-bulb. “I know no such boundaries, Dorothy. You are aware of that. I’m older than all of ‘em!”
As he roared with laughter Dorothy poured a second glass, cocked an eyebrow at Asif, and sighed. She poured another, generous measure into her cracked coffee cup and gave the glass to Asif.
“Fill your boots,” she murmured. “I won’t hear any arguments. It’s polite. This is a very powerful entity and certain procedures must be adhered to.”
Asif gulped and sipped at the sweet sherry. Dorothy split the mince pies three ways and Asif forced the dry pastry down, never taking his eyes of the big man in the green gown. Was it really possible? Dorothy’s longevity was a mystery but one he’d come to accept – if she’d been on a mission in ‘Forty-three then that was entirely possible. But… him? She’d rescued him from the Nazis? And he’d been visiting her on Christmas Eve ever since, to share sherry and a mince pie? What about Bah, Humbug?
A distant tinkling of bells shook Asif from his reverie. The man had finished his drink and was brushing crumbs from his brown beard. “I should be going,” he said, raising a bushy eyebrow at Asif. “Lot’s to get through tonight.”
Dorothy nodded. “Been lovely to see you again.”
“And you, my dear,” said the man, leaning forward to plant a kiss on her rouged cheek. Asif goggled.
He stood, and stretched, then reached for his leather satchel. “Oh. Almost forgot.” Dorothy rolled her eyes good-naturedly, a sign to Asif that they probably went through this pantomime every year.
He delved in with a meaty fist and withdrew a long box, wrapped in glittering red paper. Asif frowned; the box was longer than the satchel. Then he reached in again and brought out another, and placed them before her.
“Merry Christmas, Ms Culpepper,” said the man. “Thank you for sharing your repast.”
“And to you,” said Dorothy.
The tinkling of bells became more urgent. The man suddenly seemed less substantial. Then he held up his hand, pulled out a large box from his satchel, and thrust it at Asif. When Asif looked up again, the man was gone, only smoke and frost glistening in the light.
As Dorothy ripped open her packages, Asif said, “He really comes? Every year?”
“He really does,” said Dorothy. She held up her booty with triumph. “Two-hundred Mayfair menthol and a bottle of London’s gin. He knows me so well. What did you get?”
Asif gulped and stared at the box, tightly wrapped in golden paper. With trembling hands, he placed it on the table and plucked at the folds until the corners came away. Even as he pulled off the paper, he knew what it was.
“A radio controlled car,” he said in a small voice. He felt suddenly weak. It must have been the sherry.
It was exactly the one he’d had as a boy.
“Needless to say, we don’t tell a soul about this,” said Dorothy, ripping open the carton of cigarettes. She lit one up and said, “Now, you get home, eh? Play with your toy until your lover-boy comes back.” She cackled dirtily.
Still in a daze, Asif nodded and backed towards the door, the box under his arm. Yes. That’s would he would do. Go back to the flat and ponder, until Daniel came back from his parents’.
As he turned to leave, Dorothy called, “Oh, and Asif… remember to be good. He’s watching you, you know.”
Asif swallowed. Dorothy laughed. “You’re white as a sheet, which is good going for you. Go home, Asif. Merry bloody Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Ms Culpepper,” sighed Asif, and let himself out into a London that seemed suddenly more magical than it ever had before.
Dorothy Culpepper and Asif Baig’s adventures continue in The Janus House and Other Two-Faced Tales, published by Immanion Press.