A Captain Scarlet short story for Christmas
by Clya Brown
“So are you going away for Christmas this year, Mrs Tippett?”
Mrs Tippett folded her arms. “Well, Mrs Patel – usually I go to stay with my daughter Florence and her husband over in Ramsgate - not that I ever approved of that husband of hers, you understand. Flo, I said, you could have done better for yourself, but did she listen? Oh no, she always did whatever she wanted, did my Flo. Though I have to admit that he drinks less than that other boyfriend of hers, mind you. Bottle of whisky a day man, he was. Oh, sorry – where was I? Oh yes, I remember - no, well, unfortunately I can’t go this year. I’ve got a new lodger, you see.”
“Oh! Have you, Mrs Tippett?”
Mrs Tippett’s face took on a conspiratorial air, and she leaned over the counter, lowering her voice. “I wasn’t too sure about him at first, but he seems to be a very respectable gentleman. Not short of money either - four weeks in advance I asked for, and he paid it in cash - just like that! Takes out his wallet and peels off a dozen notes, he does, cool as a cucumber. I did wonder about that, but he looked very sincere, so I says to myself, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I says. Very quiet, you know, doesn’t go out much: he’s no bother at all. Likes to watch the news channels and read the papers. Oh – that reminds me – I’ll be wanting a paper. The Times, please.” The tone of her voice indicated the pride she obviously felt at being heard to ask for anything other than one of the tabloids.
Mrs Patel lifted the counter, walked over to the display of stationary and extracted a copy from underneath the pile of magazines that she had yet to sort onto the shelves. Glancing out of the door at the drizzle outside, she looked doubtfully at the newspaper. “Would you like a bag for it, Mrs Tippett?”
“Oh – yes please. He likes his newspaper to be nice and uncrumpled. Nothing he says, you understand, but you can tell. What’s in it, anyway?”
Mrs Patel glanced down at the bottom of the headline of the folded paper on the counter.
“Something about ‘MYSTERON POWER SAYS WHITE’, Mrs Tippett.”
Mrs Tippett made a face. “Mysteron Power? Never heard of it. I don’t know - you can’t get away from them, Mrs Patel. Everybody knows these soap powders are all the same – I don’t know what the makers think we’ve got in our heads. I dare say they imagine we’re all complete fools.” She started scrabbling around for her purse.
Mrs Patel frowned, turned it over and laughed. “No, Mrs Tippett! See here, there’s some more on the other side. ‘NAVAL CRISIS: WE WILL COUNTER MYSTERON POWER SAYS WHITE’. I thought it was a strange headline for The Times.” She opened out the front page and scanned it rapidly while Mrs Tippett fiddled with the purse. “Something about a beached nerve gas container ship in Portsmouth harbour. It says here it’s a deadly biological strain, and that it has to be eliminated before something terrible happens.”
Mrs Tippett looked up from her purse. “Biological stains? Deadly now, are they? Who says so?”
“Oh – the man who gave the interview. ‘Colonel White’.”
Mrs Tippett rolled her eyes at the ridiculous name. “I’m surprised they didn’t call him ‘Captain Superwash’. Is there a picture of him?”
“It says here he doesn’t allow photographs. But they’ve managed to get one of a pretty girl in a white uniform.”
Mrs Tippet snorted. “What a surprise. Handing out free packets in supermarkets, I dare say.” The darkness of her tone contained a suggestion of the sort of thing she reckoned young ladies of that type got up to after the cameras stopped rolling.
Mrs Patel peered at the caption underneath a rather fuzzy long-distance shot of the girl in a flying helmet climbing down from the cockpit of a jet fighter. “It says something here about maintaining aerial surveillance for any leakage of a green substance into the water.”
Mrs Tippett was looking out of the window at the endless drizzle. “Aerial? I’ve still got some of that under the sink - it didn’t get the marmalade stain out of my cream jumper, I can tell you. Have you got anything a bit stronger than a paper bag, Mrs Patel? He’s very fussy.”
“I know - I’ll put it in one of our festive ones for you. We got them in just yesterday.”
Mrs Patel folded it up and popped the paper into a brightly coloured plastic carrier, decorated with holly and sleigh bells.
“There you are, Mrs Tippett. Will there be anything else?”
Mrs Tippett considered. “Biscuits. He’s very fond of chocolate biscuits, and I’m nearly out.”
“Rich Tea or Wholemeal Digestive?”
“Wholemeal Digestive, please. Better make it two packets – he gets through them as if they’re going out of fashion.”
“No, I don’t think so. But I can always come back later if I’ve forgotten anything, can’t I – your shop’s so convenient, Mrs Patel.” She handed over a note for the shopping and put the change into her purse, then set off back down the road to see if her gentleman was up and about yet.
Hurriedly letting herself in, Mrs Tippett headed straight for the kitchen to drop off the shopping before drying herself off – the drizzle had worsened since she left the corner shop, and she was now fairly wet. Passing the stairs, she let out a shriek as she nearly collided with her lodger as he walked out of the utility room, carrying a pile of laundry.
“Oh, Mr Turner, you did make me jump! I’m so glad you’ve come down: I’m just about to make a cup of tea. Will you have one?
“No thank you, Mrs Tippett. I would like to wash these clothes.” His slow, measured tone brooked no argument.
Mrs Tippett looked at the small pile of clothes that Mr Turner was carrying, realising that it comprised almost his entire wardrobe except for the things he was wearing. Always the same with men: work their way right through their wardrobe and then want to wash everything in one go. No sense of planning at all – and unfortunately there was now a problem. She took a deep breath, having learned quite early on that her new lodger didn’t like to hear bad news.
“Well, it’s like this, Mr Turner. I’m afraid the washing machine’s on the blink yet again. I know I keep meaning to ring the repair man, but you know what it’s like with these faults that come and go – it never goes wrong when they arrive, does it? I always said to my poor Arthur – did I ever mention my poor Arthur to you, Mr Turner? Such a sufferer was my poor Arthur with his feet and his lumbago and all. Suffered for years he did. Well anyway, as I said to my poor Arthur; Arthur Tippett, I said, you never know when that washing machine’s going to give up the ghost once and for all – so I really think we ought to buy another one. But he wouldn’t have it: so careful with money was my poor Arthur. Passed away two years ago, he did, and I have to admit, though I say so myself, he was right about the washing machine, as it only breaks down about once every six weeks or so - but it is becoming a bit of a nuisance nowadays, so I was wondering if you’d be so good as to take a look at it, Mr Turner, as you’re rather good at things like that.”
She ran out of steam, and looked expectantly at her lodger. He spared the washing machine a cursory glance, looked down at the pile of clothes he was carrying in his arms, then returned his unblinking gaze to the landlady, causing her to take an involuntary step backwards. I’ll never get used to the look of him, she thought, and I’ve had some funny ones over the years. But he’s no bother, and he’s so good with gadgets…
“Do I understand that the device is malfunctioning, Mrs Tippett?”
She turned the word over in her mind a couple of times, decided that it probably meant ‘not working’, and nodded.
“So I will not be able to wash these clothes.”
“That is inconvenient.”
Mrs Tippett folded her arms again and opened her mouth to speak – a gesture he’d come to recognise as the prelude to another sermon. He waited patiently: it wouldn’t be long in coming.
“Well, Mr Turner – I know it isn’t for me to say, but I really do think you ought to buy some more clothes. Then you’d be able to go for longer without having to wash them, wouldn’t you? And you know, I think if I were you, I’d get myself some lighter ones. Everybody’s wearing bright clothes these days, and those dark things of yours really don’t do justice to you, you know. My sister Prudence – God rest her soul - always said that the colour of your clothes says something about you. Light clothes, light thoughts; dark clothes, dark thoughts, she always said. Oh! Not that I’m saying anything about your thoughts, Mr Turner! You’re a most respectable gentleman, of course, being a military man and all. As soon as I saw your uniform hanging up in the wardrobe I said to myself there’s a respectable gentleman if ever I saw…”
“You have seen the uniform.”
“Oh, yes – and such a smart thing it is too! Valerie – that’s Valerie who cleans for me every other Tuesday – calls from the top of the stairs, Muriel, she says, have you seen the gentleman’s lovely uniform? And of course no I hadn’t, because you said that you don’t want people in your room, but Valerie has to do under the wardrobe you understand, and the door was open, and she calls to me to come up and take a look. Oh my, says I. It’s ever so smart, Mr Turner; I’m surprised you don’t wear it more - then you wouldn’t have to do your washing so often, would you? Mind you, it’s a bit dark isn’t it – though that lovely badge on the cap brightens it up no end. Always wear a bit of colour, I always say. But anyway, as I was saying, I’m afraid you won’t be able to do your washing today unless you can get the machine to work. Otherwise it’s the launderette at the end of Milton Avenue, next door to the corner shop.”
“I will attend to the malfunctioning device.”
“Ooh! Well, in that case I’ll just keep out of your way, Mr Turner. My Arthur always said that the two most useful things I could do when he was mending something was to keep out of the way and make a cup of tea. Would you like a cup of tea, Mr Turner?”
“Well, I’ll just go and put the kettle on for myself then. Are you sure you won’t change your mind?”
Taking the lack of a reply to indicate that Mr Turner wasn’t going to change his mind, she set off for the kitchen, poured enough water for just herself into the kettle and put it on, then opened up one of the packets of biscuits and neatly arranged a little pile of them on a plate. While she was waiting for the kettle to boil she opened up the cupboard under the sink and extracted Arthur’s old toolkit – a rusty old ammunition box crammed full of screwdrivers and wrenches.
Picking up the toolkit in one hand and the plate of biscuits in the other she returned to the utility room just in time to catch the unmistakable sound of water running into the washing machine. Mr Turner was standing against the wall opposite, watching the machine intently as his pile of clothes sank into the ever-deepening pool of water at the bottom of the drum. He looked up as she entered.
“The device is functioning again, Mrs Tippett.”
Mrs Tippett entered the room with the same display of trepidation that she might have shown had there been a magician standing there. Eyes wide, she tiptoed over to the now-rumbling washing machine and bending down, peered through the glass front at the rotating clothes – and at the two bright green rings floating in the water. Catching her breath, she stood up and looked at her lodger with new respect, her expression one of unadulterated admiration. “Mr Turner! How clever of you! And so quickly too! How on earth did you do that?”
“The technology is primitive.”
Mrs Tippett grimaced. “Oh, well, of course we did buy it from WashMart before they closed down – they’re not really what you’d call up-market machines you understand, but mind you, my Arthur always said you couldn’t beat them for reliability. Twenty years that machine has lasted, Mr Turner – twenty years! What are those green rings you put inside?”
“Which green rings would those be, Mrs Tippett?”
“Those green rings! Oh – well, there were some green rings inside, but they seem to have gone now.”
Mr Turner turned to look into the drum. “The visual manifestation has dissipated, but is still functioning.”
“What? Oh! I know - it’s your soap powder that’s just dissolved, isn’t it, Mr Turner! Is it good at getting grease and stains out?”
“The process eliminates all undesirable biological organisms, Mrs Tippett.”
A bell rang inside Mrs Tippett’s head, jogging a faint memory of being told about something green in the water. Then the penny dropped.
“Well I never! That’s the stuff Mrs Patel was telling me about just this morning. And I thought that was all just sales talk - but if you say so, Mr Turner. I’ll get some in next time I see her – she’s bound to have some in stock. In fact, I’ll put it on my next shopping list right now, before I forget.”
Leaving Mr Turner to contemplate his washing, she returned to the kitchen to start a new list with the words ‘Mysteron Power (economy size)’.
The next morning while making her first cup of tea of the day, Mrs Tippett looked up at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Turning round, she found herself face to face with Mr Turner, who was carrying his suitcase in one hand and an opaque garment carrier in the other.
“I am leaving, Mrs Tippett.”
Mrs Tippett caught her breath, her face a picture of astonishment and dismay. “Oh dear! I’m sorry to hear that, Mr Turner! There’s nothing wrong with the room, I trust?”
“No, Mrs Tippett – the room has been most satisfactory. My employers have work for me down on the south coast. I have to go at once.”
The four weeks’ advance rent safely put away in her bank account flashed through Mrs Tippett’s mind, rapidly followed by her daughter’s invitation to spend Christmas with them in Ramsgate - to say nothing of the saving on the washing machine repair. Things were looking up. She broke into a smile.
“Oh! Well, Mr Turner, my cousin Lizzy runs a small boarding house in Portsmouth, and she usually has one or two rooms available around this time of year for naval people going to see their friends and shopping for the holiday, you understand. Respectable military gentlemen like yourself are particularly welcome. Here – let me give you the address.”
She scribbled out an address and videophone number on a scruffy little notepad, tore off the top sheet and handed to him. “Would you like me to ring her and tell her to expect you?”
Mr Turner bowed his head. “That would be very good of you, Mrs Tippett.”
She opened the door for him, picking up the newly-ordered morning paper from the doorstep as he walked away. Unfolding it, she tut-tutted at the headline: “PORTSMOUTH NERVE GAS THREAT - LATEST”.
She shook her head. “Poor Mr Turner – I do hope he’ll be all right…”
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