In the Grotto


Well the world turns
And a hungry little boy with a runny nose
Plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto


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It was lunchtime in the Grotto, and Santa Claus and his helper elf were getting hungry.

"You could nip out to the canteen, Doyle," Bodie hopefully suggested, yanking in his big black Santa belt an inch and refastening the buckle in a pointedly starved sort of way. "Get us a bit of grub in."

Doyle looked at him, properly shocked. "If you mean the Food Hall...This is Harrods, Bodie," he pointed out. "Only commoners have canteens."

Bodie's eyes met his in a very level stare: "Well, I'm common as muck an' if I don't get so much as a mince pie in the next ten minutes I'm out of here."

Doyle perched on his toadstool and swung one leg back and forth. It was a slender, muscular leg indeed, but perhaps not entirely improved by the lime-green elven tights. Bodie frowned and pulled irritably at his long, curly white beard - it was intensely hot and itchy.

"Don't mess with that!" Doyle hissed. "There's kids passing all the time and looking in.. gonna destroy the mystery of Christmas once and for all, innit, if Santa's pulling off his beard and having a good old scratch?" It was true: even though the painted sign outside the Grotto had been turned to 'Santa's feeding his reindeer - No Peeking!' there was still a constant procession of little faces passing by, pressing to the bottle-pane cottage window, steaming up the glass with heavy-breathing excitement.

Bodie let it snap back guiltily, but he glared at his partner. "This better be worth it, Doyle. If the Little Princess doesn't show up and it turns out we did all this for nothing, Cowley's going to get a surprise on Christmas Night all right and he won't be writing a thank-you letter."

Well, it had been a long morning. And really, Bodie had been an excellent Santa - gruff of voice, twinkly of eye, coaxing wide-eyed children onto his knee and charming a little smile and a whispered wish from even the shyest and smallest. He deserved his mince pie.. he really did. Doyle got off the toadstool, hands running down his thighs to smooth out the wrinkled tights.

"You should have had kids, Bodie.. you'd make a wonderful dad."

"Did my best, didn't I?" Bodie said, affronted, adding: "Anyway for all I know there could be fifty mini-mes running around out there, all putting spiders in the teacher's desk, looking up little girls' skirts.."

"And savin' the universe," Doyle said, amused. "Don't forget that, Superman."

Bodie was leaning back in his rocking-chair now, spread fingers cupping his red-covered paunch. Doyle stared at it meaningfully. "Starvin', are you? Looking quite well-padded to me, sunshine."

"This isn't all me, I'll have you know!" Bodie said, aggrieved - then his sharp eyes dropped below Doyle's belt and wandered caressingly, sensuous, flirtatious. "On the other hand... I've been thinkin' ... that that looks like all you."

Doyle tugged at the rim of his elf's cape and arranged it primly like a pair of firmly-drawn curtains over the ballet-dancer's bulge at his groin. Then he turned to leave.

"Oi!" Bodie's voice floated after him as Doyle ducked through the fairylight entrance to the Grotto, "Where you off to?"

"The Sushi Bar," Doyle said without turning , "Decided you do deserve feeding, after all," and he laughed to himself as he heard Bodie's exaggerated Yuk! noises behind. Raw fish not much your thing, eh Bodie? And it's not like you need any help from oysters.

His smile soon faded as he passed the deserted till station by the grotto entrance, the lifesize reindeer staring at him with their glassy black eyes, and set off through Harrods' crowded Toy Department, for he realised within moments that he was causing something of a stir. Mothers were glancing his way in silent, well-bred surprise, Nannies had hands to their mouths and giggled, small children were standing stockstill and staring big-eyed. The elf outfit was not inconspicuous. Not only that, but there were small bells attached to the ankle of each petalled flower boot which tinkled every time he set foot to floor, making him walk in a sort of wincing, tiptoe prance which, he feared, rather enhanced the fey effect of his costume. Glowering inwardly, he kept his eyes firmly front - until he heard a repressed snort from his right and whipped his head round to see Murphy and Williams, much more in character as security guards in black by the lift door. Cowley had agents seeded throughout the store for this very important and rather dangerous visit, and every single one of them had been luckier than Doyle in the draw for their undercover disguise.

"One word about this tomorrow..." Doyle threatened fiercely sotto voce as he passed them, and it brought the sniggers to a halt, but did not stop a few innocently whistled bars of The Sugarplum Fairy following him across the shop-floor. The Nutcracker, eh Murph?.. don't put ideas in me head...

Being nearly Christmas the store was packed with shoppers, especially here in the Toy Department where more had come to gawp than buy, many of the toys being of a price-range for the nation's little lords and ladies rather than your average London urchin. There was, for example, a shild-size Aston Marton sports-car which Doyle paused to admire, both the man and the boy in him seduced by the gleaming chassis, the leather seats, the miniature, fully functional steering wheel and gears. It would be bought, no doubt, for some aristocrat's heir and driven round Daddy's acres once a month, possibly by daddy, for no child, even an aristocratic one, would get as much pleasure out of it as its five-zeros price tag warranted. Or maybe by some Eastern prince, rich on oil billions, for his little princeling - or princess.

A princess, maybe, like the very one whose proposed visit here today had prompted Cowley's over-enthusiastic security arrangements. Even little princesses needed and deserved some of the simple pleasures of childhood like visiting Santa's Grotto, though with two assassinated elder brothers in her heritage a whole nation's future rested on her small, unknowing shoulders. Doyle tore himself away from the car and tinkled past a display of battery-operated puppies tumbling and yapping on a table, small chidren jostling to operate the controls: "MY turn! Mum, Greggie snatched it offa me!" - past a puppet show with Mr Punch bashing Judy on the head with a hammer gripped in his cloth fists as ghoulishly entranced children's faces looked on, right to the lift door. When its archaic gates creaked open he saw to his dismay it was packed, and had to edge in and squash himself against other shoppers, feeling acutely every eye trained on him.

Slumped against the lift wall Doyle sighed. The things you do for love. And then bolted upright, glaring suspiciously around for the owner of the wandering hand which had, it seemed been unable to resist the temptations so snugly outlined in his tights. The closest suspect was a dear little old lady, smiling serenely into space. Surely not - ?

He was heartily glad when the lift door opened and spilled him and twenty other shoppers out onto the ground floor, and marched resolutely on, looking neither to right nor left as he followed signs to Harrods' Food Hall. A speedy recce, however, was enough to determine that not only did the upper classes play different, they ate different too: the exotic delights on offer would not be half so attractive to his ravenous partner as some pastry treat from a greasy spoon. And he happened to know of one, just up a little side street.

His mind recoiled in horror from the journey this would entail. There was no way Santa's Little Helper was going to prance along the Brompton Road en costume. Not. Even. For Bodie!

Minutes later, after the worst walk of his life, he was ducking back into Harrods with cold ears and a hot flush in his cheeks, clutching two warm paper bags. You definitely owe me for this, Bodie. But then again, set against the things Bodie would and had done for him... and he was already smiling inside to think of Bodie's delight.

A visit to the gentleman's facilities seemed a good idea for an elf a-skive from the Grotto, and he followed signs and finally came face to face with a large individual garbed in Harrods' uniform of green and gold, apparently guarding the door.

"Employee," Doyle snarled unwillingly, since some password seemed to be required, and the guard stepped aside to let him in, eyes raking Doyle from head to foot, clearly most entertained by the vision of a mean-eyed elf in lifesize, a stare Doyle returned full-on. "At least I get to take it off come Twelfth Night, mate. Bet you'll be zipped into the penguin suit for life, eh?" he commented, and tripped tinklingly into the huge, marbled room.

As he negotiated the very special difficulties of relieving himself via women's tights hooked over his underpanted manly tackle, the door swung open and a man entered, lined up next to Doyle, intent on the same purpose as himself. Doyle glowered straight ahead, only glancing down from time to time to check the tricky operation wasn't compromising the purity of the tights. I wonder how Superman manages. Never see him with sprinkles round the hosepipe region, do you?

He had laid his precious package down on the vanity shelf nearby. After a moment he became aware of a scrutiny from next door which raised all the hairs on the back of his neck. He finished the job in hand, tucked himself away, and whipped his head around, catching his companion's eye swiftly snapping back in front.

He was greatly relieved to get back to the safety of the Grotto, slamming the door behind him, thrusting the bags at Bodie, exhaling with an exaggerated 'phew!' of relief.

"You wouldn't believe what I 'ad to go through to get those.."

But he already had his reward in the way Bodie was eagerly tearing open the bag, and taking a huge bite out of the pastie, goggling at him questioningly with his mouth full.

"Had to run the gauntlet of every shopper in Knightsbridge in me elf-gear," Doyle said mournfully, judging his time right to add: "And I met someone in the gents who 'ad designs on me meat pie." Bodie choked on his mouthful but managed to swallow it anyway.

"Did you 'ave to pay?" Bodie said, somewhat muffled and losing crumbs.

"Everything in this world has a price, Bodie," Doyle intoned, in Shusai mode.

"Pay in the Gents. I 'ad this bird once," Bodie mumbled, "Brought her to Harrods shopping, and she went for a - comfort stop. Said they charged her a pound!"

"A pound! For a - Blimey, mate, when it costs a pound to spend a penny, that's inflation for you. Nope, all I paid was me dignity," he said, staring martyrishly into space.

"That's sexist, isn't it," Bodie marvelled. "It's a lot easier being a bloke, as she pointed out on more than one occasion, mostly when she had her legs up by her ears. Want a bite?"

"Think I've just lost me appetite," Doyle said waspishly, though actually it had made him shiver: Bodie's very male sexuality always such a turn-on, and he took what was left of the pastie which Bodie handed to him, bit into it and swallowed. Bodie got up to peer through the window and began on the mince pie from the other bag, demolishing it in two bites.

"You'd better hurry up, Doyle. How long does it take to Feed the Reindeer anyway? Santa's had time to peel a whole sack of carrots - in fact he's probably had time to cut 'em into flower shapes and hand-feed Rudolph one by one. I bet we'll be back in business any minute."

Doyle joined him at the window. The till was still empty and a queue had yet to form. However, they had spectators - a woman with a buggy and a small boy next to her were looking at the Grotto.

They were untypical Harrods shoppers, the woman dressed not in the latest Chloe but cotton leggings which did nothing to flatter her, and Doyle suspected another family member lurked beneath the baggy sweatshirt. Some animated conversation was going on between the small boy and his mum and Doyle pushed the door open a fraction to hear:

"No you bloody can't, Kyle. Look, it costs five bloody quid and I ain't got it. I said, didn't I, we was just comin' in to look? You promised you wouldn't start, so bloody don't, ok?"

She didn't even sound cross, just weary, tucking a straggling bit of fair hair escaped from her scraggy ponytail back behind her ears, pale face, overworked, hassled with too many kids and not enough money - just another member of Britain's invisible underclass come to gawp at pleasures the rich took for granted. A seedling of resentment took root in Doyle: it was so bloody unfair, really. For some, all Norland nannies, a nursery with rocking-horse and acres of daddy's land to roam; for others a life of making do with cheap and nasty crisps and plastic toys from Poundland which would break and three kids to a room. The divide was so huge, so seldom crossed. And this little lad didn't even know that yet: but he would, soon he would. This was just the first of many closed doors he would never get through...

"But mum," the boy pleaded, "I wanna see Santa."

"You can see him, look!" she gave him a none-too-gentle thump in the back, pointing through the window where Santa and his elf looked out.

"But I wanna go in. I wanna ask him summink," he whined.

Doyle's eye flicked sideways, saw that Bodie, too was taking all this in, seeing just as clearly as he did. He was right there with Bodie when his mate opened the door wider and beckoned the little boy in.

"It's all right," Doyle said to Mum, "Santa's fed the reindeer and he was feelin' a bit lonely," and his eyelid dropped in a wink.

On mothering-autopilot her hand came up to swat the little boy's hand away from Rudolph's bulbous red nose where it was determinedly twiddling, trying to see how it was fixed on. "Don't fiddle wiv that, Kyle! I told you not to touch nuffink, you'll get us froan out! You sure?" she said to Doyle, suspicious, almost hostile: " A fiver's a bit much innit, one down the arcade's only a quid."

"Santa's treat," Doyle said and took hold of the little lad quickly before she could voice some indignant refusal of Charity, pulled him in through the door and closed it.

Once inside the little boy looked around awed at the twinkling lights, the mechanical toy-making gnomes pounding their hammers silently up and down, their mouths frozen open in a terrifying grin, the half-finished toys circling endlessly on the conveyer belt, the huge Christmas tree in the corner - and then at Santa, sitting in his rocker, a large and possibly scary presence to the small people he was supposed to delight. And then he'll come into the house and creep into your room at night! Oh yes, he will! Oh don't be so silly! How could you be scared of Santa Claus?

"Hello there, Kyle," Bodie rumbled in his kindly Santa's boom, and Doyle watched the little boy's eyes flicker, registering Santa's magical knowledge of his name. He was a rough little kid, no soft curves of babyhood lingering on his small, thin frame, shaven head, tiny denim jacket and mini tough-guy boots. A deliberate re-creation in miniature of the man who had fathered him, no doubt; but nothing could take away the vulnerability of being only five years old and small for your age and unlucky in life's apportionings.

"You're too big to sit on Santa's knee, aren't you?" Doyle said. "Come and stand here," and he brought the tiny boy close to Bodie gently, with respect.

"Me sister says there ain't no Santa Claus," the little boy challenged, not yet won round.

"Girls!" Santa scoffed gently, "What do they know?" and Kyle grinned fleetingly, the ice broken, and Bodie began his Santa's patter while Doyle watched, his heart tugged in a way it had not been throughout the whole long morning of precious perfumed Osh-Koshed infants streaming in and out.

"... on the Norf Road," Kyle said in answer to Bodie's question. "Opposite Leyton Semetry. Me gran's in there," he added matter-of-factly, "'an me grandad's goin' in there next to 'er," and Doyle's eyes met Bodie's in a glimmer of a smile.

"I'll be making a visit on Christmas Eve," Santa was promising. "I park my sleigh on the rooftops, you know."

"It's ..." the little boy searched about for the words, possibly 'it has an extreme pitch, maybe even 45 degrees' and settled for "really 'igh."

"Rudolph can park on anything," Santa assured him majestically. "So I'll be coming down your chimney - " he forestalled the next objection trembling on Kyle's small, sugar-flecked lips - "even if it's blocked up, Santa finds a magic way in - and I'll be filling your stocking, so don't forget to hang it up, will you? Have you been a good boy?" The little lad's eyes flickered shiftily. "Well, do your best," Bodie carried on hastily, not daring to look at Doyle, "and we'll see what we can do. Now, let's see what we can find you in Santa's sack, shall we?"

"What I want - " the little boy's eyes went big and he shuffled closer to Santa's red velveteen knee, till he was leaning on it, staring up urgently into Santa's face, all doubts gone, this was Santa all right and he wasn't going to miss out on his chance, "is one of them Tonka trucks. You know - them big yella ones - wiv a digga. Mum said I can't 'ave one cos they costs too much so I come to ask you, didn't I."

"Write that down," Bodie said loftily to Doyle, "WIV a digga, err - " he struggled for an impromptu elf-name - "Doyly-carte."

Doyle repressed a sigh as he pretended to scribble on the palm of his hand: he hoped Mum had the object of desire tucked away in the wardrobe, but who knew?

"You don't 'ave to bring one for me bruvva," Kyle reassured, leaning on Santa's knee easily. "Cos 'e got the fire engine, din't 'e and 'e won't never let me 'ave a turn wiv it!"

The assumption that Santa would know exactly what he meant, the disingenuous cunning of scuppering his brother's chances amused Doyle, painted a whole picture with those few words: the coveted fire-engine, the mean and taunting elder brother, small, resentful Kyle watching and burning and biding his time. He held open the sack for the little boy to rummage in - and the small hand withdraw a package which, Doyle knew, would contain a miniature Harrods' van in green and gold. Not the object of desire - but maybe some consolation in the bitter, scrapping world of sibling hierarchy. Kyle clutched it and stood wide-eyed, struck dumb by such good fortune. "Tell your bruv - brother, Santa said this was just for you, OK? Santa said no-one can even touch it unless you say so," and he took the boy's hand and led him to the door and took him out to Mum, waiting restlessly by the buggy:.

"I 'ope yer said fank you," she said, eyes darting suspiciously over her small son, hand reaching out automatically to tug his jacket down, fuss over him the way all mothers did, everywhere, even if you owned a mini-thug in the making.

"He was a very good boy," Doyle evaded diplomatically, and watched the little boy slip his hand into mum's as they walked off, still clutching his precious Santa's gift. Then Doyle went back into the Grotto and walked up to Bodie, who was in the middle of extracting a note from a wallet buried deep inside his layers - "Bet you looked just like that when you was a kid, Doyle. Give this to Miss Moneybags, will you? Don't want them to think we nicked a Dinky Toy...Ummmph!" he was muffled in Doyle's arms and given a brief, bruising hug.

"Sometimes," Doyle whispered, "I just love you so, so much."

"Only sometimes," Bodie scoffed, but his eyes were bright and soft and lingered on Doyle's for a moment after his mate released him.

There was no time to talk more about the affecting little encounter, there was a flurry of activity outside, the cover was being whisked off the till. Doyle peered out, hands going to stuff themselves into his pockets to mask his fleeting embarrassment, finding only smooth and tighted thighs, falling away in disgust.

"Rudolph's nose's bin switched back on - yep, flashin' nicely - back in business, Santa me ol' mate..." and Santa settled back into his rocker to await his next visitor, the eyes that dwelt on his Helper Elf a little bright, a little soft.

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The line of customers seemed endless and it seemed as if hours passed before the crackle of the R/T alerted Doyle:

The Subject's on her way. No sign of an Object.

Bodie and Doyle stiffened. Doyle's hand crept automatically to his armpit under his elf-jacket to check his Browning was there, reassuring, warm to his touch. Bodie was armed too, he knew, though a Santa suit was hardly going to make for the fastest draw in - Antarctica. Not that he was expecting any trouble.. if an attempt was going to be made, it was more likely to take place outside and good old Murph was there wasn't he, alert and fast and still in possession of the balls he might lose tomorrow if he unwisely mimed the tinkly elven-tiptoe which had so entertained.

The door of the Grotto opened and in came the small Princess. Doyle was amused at himself for somehow expecting more of someone so rich and so unknowingly powerful, but she was just another child after all, though meltingly pretty with her long, lustrous dark hair and huge black eyes. Beside her glided a being clothed from head to foot in the niqab of her religion: mysterious, endowed with awe by the cloaking anonymity it conferred: an anonymity which made the work of security agents everywhere a nightmare, and Doyle found himself suspiciously scanning it up and down for signs that this might not be the female minder it was supposed to be - but he saw nothing untoward. The niqab that was supposed to preserve her from the lustful greedy stares of men raised, incongruously, its own fleeting speculation about what might be beneath, long lush olive-skinned bare limbs, perhaps? a paradox that both pleased him and then annoyed him with himself for living well down to their dolefully low expectations of Men, the species; he hovered respectfully to one side as Bodie did his Santa thing, while keeping one eye on the window, one ear alert for the first sign from his R/T that trouble might be on its way; but nothing happened, all was well.

The small Princess was either shy or spoke no English, for she said nothing in response to all Santa's best lines, not a word; but her huge, dark eyes dwelled on his face in wonder, and she scrabbled in his sack when he held it open with delightfully unprincess-like eagerness and brought out a wrapped gift, her face lighting up in an intense smile of pleasure.

"Aww... kids," Bodie said when she left. "Get to you, don't they?"

Each in their different way.

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It was time to leave, job well done, credit won for Cowley for his department's security arrangements to diplomatically please a secret ally. In the small changing room allotted to them they stripped off the costumes with no regret whatever and donned their normal gear: Jeans, teeshirt, jacket, swift and decisive: finished first, Doyle glanced at Bodie, still pulling on his trousers.

"Rest of the afternoon off, I reckon. Leave Murph and Willy to tidy up the loose ends - they didn't get to wear the silly-suits."

"OK..." Bodie mused. "Got plans?"

Doyle hesitated. "Yeah.. I have, actually. Bit of shopping. Living alongside Santa for the day's put me well in the festive spirit. Can you amuse yourself for a bit, sunshine?"

"Oh, I should think so," Bodie said. "Got a bit of a mission meself, as it goes... meet you in an hour?"

Doyle finished stowing his gun under one armpit, pulled his jacket round it. "Yeah, should be enough. Meet me by Luigi's - "

"Gonna buy me supper?" Bodie said, excited. "At the greasiest spoon in London! There's no end to your generosity is there, Doyle?" and Doyle swatted him.

"Don't knock it, you were 'appy enough to stuff your face on 'is nosh earlier. He may not have a Michelin star, but - "

"More Michelin Man style of catering, innit?" Bodie blew out his stomach and waddled on the spot like a penguin.

" - but I gotta pay him for what we 'ad earlier. Wasn't room for a wallet in me tights."

Bodie's eyes dropped meaningfully. "Not surprised..." and, alone in the small room, struck through with love, Doyle grabbed him and kissed him hard and swiftly on the mouth.

"I'll see ya."

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Doyle was early at the rendezvous, paid Luigi what he owed, and stepped outside to see Bodie humping along the pavement towards him. Doyle's eyes opened wide at the sight of his mate, his arms wrapped round a huge parcel on which his chin rested, a bulky box irregular in shape. It did not need his CI5 skills to work out its contents, however, as from the top a big yellow digger-scoop stuck out and swung back and forth as Bodie walked.

He fell into step beside Bodie as they passed Harrods' Christmas window, frosted with snow and fairy-lights. It was dark now, wet pavements shining with the glow of streetlights, shoppers hurrying home just as they were, laden with parcels, to hot chocolate and cosy rooms and Christmas Father Ted.

"That for me, is it?" In his breast pocket he could feel the shape of the little box bumping and rubbing against his chest as he walked. A chunky white-gold bracelet for a man of action with champagne tastes, more than he could afford perhaps, but not more than Bodie was worth.

Bodie's eyes, darkened by dusklight, flashed sideways to his. "I got something better for you to play with, Doyle."

Doyle nodded at the parcel, the briefest acknowledgement of something profound. "How we gonna get it there?"

"Norf - I mean North - Road, Opposite Leyton Cemetery - name of Kyle - two crack CI5 agents - how hard can it be?"

Doyle sighed. "OK, OK...Tell you what though.. I am not putting on the bloody elf-suit to deliver it, got it?"

"Understood. Though, Doyle.... You looked quite cute in it." Bodie's mouth trembled, but reined in the taunt as he sensed the wave of menace building up. "Me, on the other hand... " His head bent round near Doyle's "You do realise that Santa's an anagram of ....Satan?" his eyes gleamed blackly, "Wanna come home with me and work some more on the Dark Side?"

Doyle shivered. "Ohhhhh.. promises."

And despite the erotic thrill, the exciting thought of the night to come in Bodie's arms, uppermost in his mind were only the words he had had engraved on Bodie's gift, words engraved on his own heart:


Till I loved, I never lived

End


Sebastian, December 2006