“MUMMY, MUMMY, WHY IS THAT MAN WEARING A DRESS?” shouted a young child of indeterminable gender.
I didn’t look up. Immigrants from the Middle East were still rare enough in this area to attract attention and, in their innocence, young children were liable to say what everyone was thinking. Embarrassingly loudly! I’d heard it several times before.
I continued scanning a woman’s shopping knowing that my arch-enemy, Paula Queagley, twenty-something Checkout Supervisor, was keeping her beady-eyed attention focused on me. She seemed determined to make my job as unpleasant as possible, pulling me up on every perceived grievance, real or imaginary. She’d already berated me several times for not scanning enough items per hour.
“Cash or card?” I asked the woman shopper.
She was unprepared for the task of paying for her purchases. She rummaged in her handbag, eventually locating her purse. Even then she took an age to sort out the necessary sum to pay. When at last she produced a note large enough to cover the sum, I nearly snatched it out of her hand.
After handing the woman her change, I said, “Have a nice day,” and faked the company-mandated three second smile in her direction.
I turned to the next shopper and said, “Hello, how are you today?” accompanied by the company-mandated two second smile. Then I saw who it was. “You could have used the express checkout, Your Grace,” I said, pointing to a distant checkout designated for ‘Ten Items Or Less.’
“It’s ‘Your Eminence now, Father,” corrected the apparently newly-minted Cardinal Rolando Calcavecchio, flourishing his garish cardinal’s robes. And the child had been right, they did look like a dress.
He was the man who had sacked me, defrocked me and repossessed my BMW after I had aborted the exorcism of an epileptic girl.
I started scanning his purchases, obviously picked at random from the rack of sweets just by the checkout. “I’m not a ‘Father’ any more,” I pointed out. “You defrocked me, remember?”
“I was following orders. The Vatican felt you brought the Roman Catholic Church into disrepute.”
“Cash or card?” I asked him.
“I’d like to talk to you. I have a proposition.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Paula Queagley approaching at speed. That was never a good sign.
“I finish at three,” I said, hoping to get rid of the cardinal. “Cash or card?”
Paula Queagley curtsied. “Good afternoon, Your Majesty. Welcome to my store.”
Her store! She was merely a checkout supervisor.
I waved a hand at the cardinal. “Cardinal Roberto Calcavecchio, Papal Special Emissary.” Then I waved at Paula. “Paula Queagley, Checkout Supervisor.”
“Do you know the Archbishop of Windsor?” Paula asked the cardinal.
The cardinal fielded the question with aplomb. “A good man. Doing God’s work,” was his verdict on the non-existent personage.
“How can I help you?” asked Paula. “Is O’Malley here causing you problems?”
“No,” replied the cardinal, “but I wish to talk with him after his shift ends.”
“No problem,” beamed Paula, “O’Malley can finish his shift early, I’ll get Shelley to substitute. Don’t forget to clock out, O’Malley.”
Bitch! I needed the money.
“Shelley to the checkouts.” Paula used her microphone to summon my replacement before I could protest.
When we got to the car park, I discovered the cardinal now merited a chauffeur-driven Bentley. The vehicle was parked in a wheelchair-user bay because it was too wide for the normal parking bays.
“Get in,” said the cardinal. “I’ll explain on the way.”
“No. You said you just wanted to talk, so talk!”
“The daughter of a Supreme Court Judge has been possessed. Two exorcisms have already failed.”
“Let me guess. She’s a teenager, isn’t she?”
Teenage hormones, a girl approaching adulthood and testing parental boundaries; it was more common than you’d expect for simple-minded parents to think of demonic possession. I had a standard approach for that situation. A quiet word with the girl beforehand. She agrees to behave for a couple of weeks and collaborates in putting on a show for the parents. The parents are satisfied because the evil spirit has apparently been banished, the girl benefits because, now apparently purged of evil, her privileges are restored, and the church benefits from a generous donation after the ‘successful’ exorcism.
“It’s not like that,” insisted the cardinal. “We think this one’s real.”
“Who were the two previous exorcists?”
The first name was no surprise, a showboater who could put on a good performance but couldn’t exorcise anything to save his life. The second name put a whole new slant on the situation, a decent guy who I regarded as competent.
“Look, I’m not promising anything, but I’m prepared to meet the girl. But what’s in it for me?”
“If you successfully exorcise the evil spirit, the Vatican intends to grant you full reinstatement.”
“I want no loss of service and full-back pay,” I insisted. I didn’t want my pension to be impacted.
“I’ll see what I can do,” said the cardinal. “Now will you get in the car?”
“We need to swing by my place first to pick up a few things,” I said. “And, if you want me to put on a decent performance, you’d better lay on some candles and incense.”
The cardinal nodded. In his eyes, the showmanship as almost as important as the objective.
A couple of hours later, the Bentley pulled up outside a lavish country mansion. Like exorcists, the judiciary are rewarded on showmanship rather than results. A judge can be a senile incompetent who is profoundly ignorant of the law, but if he looks and dresses the part, stamps authority on court proceedings, and knows when to clear his throat to maximum effect, he is welcomed to the upper echelons of the judiciary with open arms, resulting in a lifestyle of opulent luxury.
When the cardinal rang the doorbell, the judge himself answered the door.
“Lord Justice Head, Father Seamus O’Malley,” the cardinal introduced us.
“Please, just call me Richard since I’m out of uniform,” said the judge, beckoning us inside.
Upon entering, I was struck by an oppressive sense of evil. The inside of the mansion was the polar opposite to the pristine neatness of its grounds. It looked as though a malevolent whirlwind had passed through. And the walls were covered with vile graffiti, some of it was written in forgotten languages, and some of it was surprisingly inventive, suggesting uses for bodily organs and functions I’d never come across before. Still, the childishness of it all suggested a low-level demon.
“The servants all left after the latest manifestations,” said the judge by way of explanation, “and cleaning up the mess is a losing battle.”
The judge showed us into a reception room that was larger than my whole flat. There were plenty of family photographs on the walls, all of which looked as though they’d been thrown on the floor and stamped on. But the one that particularly attracted my attention was of a teenage girl in catholic school uniform holding a trophy above her head. Her skirt had ridden up to mid-thigh, exposing a large expanse of very shapely legs. Unholy thoughts crossed my mind.
Reluctantly drawing my attention away from the photographs, I realised the room already had two occupants, sitting in chairs awaiting us. I recognised the daughter immediately from her photograph. Her delectable legs were hidden underneath a pair of jeans. There were rips across the knees, although whether due to fashion or evil I hesitated to guess.
And the girl was radiating fear.
“This is my dear wife Verity,” said the judge, indicating the room’s other occupant, at least a decade younger than the judge, but exhibiting enough class and breeding to dispel any suspicion she might be a trophy wife. “And my darling daughter Belinda,” the judge continued. Then in a stage whisper, “But we call her Beachy.”
The girl rolled her eyes at that, a sign that a normal teenager was still somewhere inside. Both females got up and came over to us.
“Are you the man who’s going to rid us of this evil?” asked Verity.”Belinda hasn’t been to school since this nightmare started.”
Actually I was still looking at Belinda. Her fresh-faced wholesomeness and vitality were causing me to have more unholy thoughts, even though she was almost a decade younger than my daughter.
“Yes he is,” said the cardinal, without asking me.
“Please help me,” said Belinda, barely above a whisper. “I think I’m losing my mind.”
There was something very wrong. Demons didn’t usually show fear. I was far from sure that Belinda was actually possessed.
What I should have done was to sit down, relax my way into a fugue state, and commune with the spirit world to get a better picture. But I couldn’t relax with the cardinal present, I certainly I didn’t want him to know my methods, and since my fugue state was so easy to mistake for being asleep on the job, it would break the Vatican’s golden rule about putting on a performance. My least worst option seemed to be to proceed with the show and see what transpired.
“I’ll try my best,” I conceded.
“Excellent. What do you need by way of preparation?” asked the judge.
“We’ve brought all the necessary supplies with us. We need a room where your daughter can lie down in comfort while I perform the rituals.”
“Beachy’s bedroom,” volunteered Verity. “It’s probably the tidiest room in the house at the moment.”
Following Verity’s lead, we all trooped upstairs to what was obviously a teenage girl’s bedroom, although again it was larger than my entire flat. Verity was right. Apart from the usual teenage disorder it seemed an oasis from the evil, with the walls completely graffiti-free. Although, on balance, I preferred some of the graffiti to Belinda’s choice of poster idols.
“Why don’t you make yourself useful and set up the candles and incense,” I told the cardinal, secretly enjoying being able to boss him around for once.
To my surprise, he acquiesced without a protest.
“How do you want them?” he asked.
“Surround the bed. Usual formation.” There was no ‘usual formation’ but then the candles and incense were only for show so it didn’t matter. Whoever heard of a demon being afraid of candles and incense!
“How do you want me?” asked Belinda. “Do you want me to take my clothes off?”
“What you’re wearing now is fine, so long as you’re comfortable,” I replied. “But now would be a good time to use the loo. I’m not sure how long this will take.”
Belinda had en-suite facilities, and we all pretended not to hear the tinkling as she relieved herself.
By the time she had flushed and washed her hands, the cardinal had the candles and incense burners going.
“Do you want me in a crucifix position?” asked Belinda. “Are you going to tie me down or anything?”
“However you feel comfortable,” I iterated.
Belinda hurled herself on the bed, displacing a large brown blob-shaped cuddly toy with a long trunk, which flew over the head of the bed, missing the candles and incense burners and hitting the bedroom wall with a soft thud.
“Belinda, behave yourself!” admonished Verity.
“Yes Mother. Sorry,” replied Belinda. She chose to lie on her back, her arms by her sides, her legs firmly closed, like a corpse at an undertaker’s.
I took a variety of paraphernalia from the case I’d brought with me; Bible, crucifixes etc. “If everyone’s ready, I’ll begin,” I announced.
Fifteen minutes later, I was getting nowhere. Belinda was looking bored. I’d tried a variety of prayers, incantations and rituals. There had been no reaction from Belinda yet there was still the oppressive sense of evil.
I looked round the room at the audience: the cardinal, the judge and Verity, assessing their moods...
I went over to Verity. “Would you mind getting me a glass of water?” I asked.
“Would you prefer sparkling or still?” she replied.
Verity left the room. I immediately reached into my case for one of my secret weapons: Holy Salt. It’s bog standard bargain supermarket salt which has been dissolved in Holy Water then recrystallised out. The resultant salt combines the power of both ingredients. I store my recrystallised Holy Salt back in the original supermarket packaging so that nobody suspects.
Just inside the bedroom door, I sprinkled the salt in a curved shape.
“Is that to keep the demon in?” asked the cardinal.
“Yes, in a manner of speaking.”