A CHRISTMAS CAROL
BY TAMIM SADIKALI
“Excuse me.” She raises a hand, casually, to half-mast. A solitary finger rises from the ball of her fist. I bring crates-on-wheels to a halt, apply the brakes, and her single digit retracts.
“Yes, Madam.” She wears a fur hat, the fibres running light brown to blonde. And her coat, tapered at the waist, has a fur-lined bottom ending just above her knees. I should unpack my crates and replenish these shelves because, like Mr Trevor says, ‘…empty shelves have consequences.’ But I pause my business and give this lady a smile. She returns the gesture, if you could call it that, by relaxing facial muscles. Nonchalant, this feline.
“Where do you keep courgetti?”
Courgetti. Is that what you call a baby courgette? Or maybe it’s a cousin vegetable. Perhaps a special variety flown in from Kenya… I’m about to speak, ask a question to help-me-help-her but her eyes, distant and unsparing, stall me. Merry Xmas Everybody pours out of speakers, Noddy Holder flooding the store with festive vibes, but this feline’s face is dropping and unless I’m reading this all wrong, she is not feeling goodwill to all men. And here I was getting ready to dazzle. Maybe help her choose the right greens, know her curly kale from black kale. And then, why not!, talk through her options in onions, giving her the lowdown on rosannas and echalion shallots. But I swallow my question.
“Madam, we don’t stock that vegetable.”
Again, cold cat’s eyes hold me, pin me down with disdain. She doesn’t seem to care that today of all days I’m under extra pressure, that Mr Trevor has set steep targets – ones that I cannot fail to meet. And that despite everything I was willing to help her, give her my time, and that I too am a little crushed because we don’t stock courgettis.
“ ‘Courgetti’ – courgette spaghetti.”
The feline tends to her fur, content to wait as Noddy Holder gives way to George Michael and Last Christmas. Who does she think she is? Clearly too good for a Paki shelf-stacker.
“Spaghetti? But this here is Fruit & Veg…I’m on the Fruit & Veg team.” I half-turn and point at the writing on the back of my jacket. She remains unmoved, expressionless, holding a basket with just two items – a bunch of flowers and one courgette. Does she take me for a personal shopper? Her very own Paki lackey? I turn around and see Mr Trevor who sees me, my crates-on-wheels still stationary to one side. And with every tick the shelves diminish, me and this lady like islands in a stream. Pick, inspect, pick another, pick, pick, pickpickpickpick….
“Aisle 12, Madam…I think.”
She stands her ground. A snow queen with eyes so blue, and so charged with hate for me, I feel dizzy. Willing myself, I shake free of her stare and remove brakes from my crates.
“They make you wear that, do they?”
A single claw again unfurls from the ball of her free hand. I double-take…is she still talking to me?, before following her finger to my hat – my Santa hat. Reflexively I touch it – the thinnest of felt ending in a bobble.
“It’s Christmas, Madam. We want to…”
“Oh, do stop with the ‘Madam’.”
“I’m a mistress, not a madam.” She smirks, enjoying her own joke. “You were saying?”
But I’m lost in the exchange.
“…something about Christmas and your jolly Santa hat?”
Nothing clever comes to mind and I giggle with nerves.
“It’s OK. We’re all just fish in a current.”
“We say ‘Madam’ for etiquette; it’s in our training. If you didn’t like it, I apologise.”
She looks at my name badge and for a moment she’s unsure, before her composure returns.
“Is Christmas big where you’re from?”
“I’m from here. I was born three miles away.”
She raises eyebrows and tuts. “Ok, then. Is Christmas big where your parents come from?”
“Not like here. We have Christians, though. Quite a few in my home city. And they’ll go to church.”
“Well that’s not the spirit of Christmas.”
“Going to church.”
And she smiles again, warming to her condescension.
“So, what is…I mean, the ‘spirit of Christmas’?
“Finding a nice girl to kiss under the mistletoe.”
She sways a little, holding her basket in front with both hands. The solitary courgette rolls back, forth, then back again.
“Shall I get someone else to help…find your courgette spaghetti?”
I really need her to walk off; at least accept my offer to hand her over to a colleague. But her eyes are like the promise of Spring and at heart I’m a believer.
“Well I was thinking, perhaps you could show me? Would you mind?”
And if my skin was white it would now be red. Red from the cold December rain and red from this sudden heat: from this feline, all snug in her white skin and fur, and smug in her courgette spaghetti.
“Can I ask, I’ve never heard of ‘courgetti’. Is it traditional at this time of year?”
“I have it on Boxing Day. Two plates topped with a turkey Bolognese, grated pecorino and torn basil leaves.”
“Oh, I never just make one.” And she takes a small step towards me and holds out a hand. “So, will you take me?”
I reapply brakes to my crates-on-wheels and open my arm. She moves to my side, locks an arm inside mine and smiles assuredly. We walk to the end of Fruit & Veg and A Fairytale of New York plays as we walk down the corridor. We move at leisure, side-by-side, and all the shoppers and my friends, and even Mr Trevor, move to one side or other and clap and cheer as we walk towards aisle 12. I’m so grateful for everyone’s well wishes and return their gestures with equal warmth. She looks up at me, my snow queen, my feline, before resting her head upon my shoulder.
“By the way, what’s your name?” I ask, feeling drunk and other-worldly.
“Mr Trevor to you.”
I turn sharply and freeze.
“What on earth are you doing here, Ahmed? This is not your patch.” He grabs my arm and stands right up to me, his voice low because of passing customers.
“Erm…I was helping someone.”
“The lady after courgetti?”
“She’s just made a complaint about you…said you refused to leave Fruit & Veg to help her. You’ve been warned about that.”
“But I did help her.”
“No, you didn’t. She says you insulted her; that you pointed to the back of your jacket and then ignored her.”
Mr Trevor is steaming. His grip on my upper arm tightens as he leans in. A customer notices and he relaxes his hold and forces a smile.
“Ahmed, come with me, please.”
I follow him round the back and through to his office. He closes his door.
“Mr Trevor, I…”
“ ‘Everyone’s Welcome’, that’s what our adverts say. We’ve got to live and breathe that, even in Fruit & Veg.”
He looks genuinely hurt and I’ve no idea what went wrong.
“Give me your name badge…and your hat.”
I run my hand down to the bobble and tug, suddenly feeling cold. Given how thin it was, it did a great job of keeping me warm.
“Get out and don’t come back. You’ll be paid until the end of the week.”
o o o
Tamim Sadikali is a fiction writer and short story reviewer for Open Pen. He tweets from @TamimSadikali