Lovely people, if you’ve been around the blog for a while you’ll know I’m not big on adding to the chaos that surrounds the festive season. I think it’s stressful enough for all of us without me chucking some blogs into the mix about how to maximise your festive fabulousness.
I mean, you’re fabulous already. Just stick some tinsel on your head and call it done.
Also, while I’m not the grinch, I’m not huge on Christmas. It tends to feel a little frantic to me, and the stress that comes from the pressure to make it perfect – as if anything ever can be – just seems too much. Who cares if the wrapping paper doesn’t match your colour scheme, or if you’ve even got a colour scheme? Is anyone even looking at the intricate table settings by the time they’re three eggnogs and twelve sausage rolls in? Don’t lumps in the mashed potato just add interesting texture, and aren’t the burnt bits on the cauliflower cheese bringing a nice smokey flavour to things?
I say let’s embrace imperfection in our festivities as well as in ourselves. Because anything else just seems like really hard work, and haven’t we had enough of that this year already? Make this festive season yours. Cook (or order in) the food you want to be eating. Dress up if you want, or wear your PJs all day if you don’t. Watch movies that take your fancy, not the ones We Must Watch Because Holidays. Forgo a tree and get a cactus instead. Have mince pies for breakfast, or take the box you’ve only had one out of since last year into the backyard and set fire to it.
Unless, of course, if you’re that person who’s had their tree up since Halloween and has been playing Christmas songs since August. In which case, it’s your season! Have fun!
But wherever you are on the festive scale, it’s going to be another strange holiday season, lovely people. Let’s just enjoy it.
And with that out of the way, I shall continue my own erratic tradition of offering non-useful yet distracting posts, such as short stories about dissatisfied elves.
Happy holidays and all that.
You Better Watch Out – a Christmas Story
You better watch out, you better not cry!
The music wound its way insistently through the crowded ranks of workbenches, pressing down on the bent backs of the workers, filling every scrap of space between the low, pipe-strung ceilings and the cluttered floors. It echoed in the vast atrium that plunged from the distant roof with its top open to the pale, dreary sky, all the way down to the bottom floors, so far below they felt half-forgotten.
You better not pout, I’m telling you why!
The music was loud even over the roar of innumerable sewing machines and the clatter of thousands of small hammers, the clash of metal parts and the tidal gasp of frantic, ceaseless movement that washed around the entire building. Every floor – and there were so many of them that counting seemed futile – was open to the cavernous central atrium and its complex network of chutes and pipes, a delivery system to the sack that was steadily, impossibly growing in its centre, a colossal beast bulging into other dimensions and possibilities. It pressed to the very edges of the balconies that surrounded it, blocking out the lower floors as it rose and leaving the workers in a muffled darkness lit only by the constantly changing coloured lights above the benches and the dull, steady glow of fairy lights. The bottom floors hadn’t seen natural light since January.
Halfway up the building, and watching the sack swell past his workbench, stealing the last hint of fresh air and openness, Egbert sighed. It was a deep sigh that reached from the tips of his curly-toed, glue-stained shoes to the end of his regulation pointed hat.
Eloise looked up from the bench next to him. “Easy, Eggs,” she said. “You almost blew my flowers away.”
He looked at her, gluing tiny flowers into the window boxes of a dolls’ house, her fingers quick and neat. She pressed the final ones in place, gave the house a critical once-over, then pushed it into the chute next to her bench. The chute gave a hungry gulp, and she reached for the bare panels of the next house without pausing. The light above her bench glowed a cheerful green, casting her in ghastly shadows.
“There has to be more than this,” Eggs said, picking up a train carriage and staring at it. “Aren’t you tired?”
“Sure,” she said, applying self-adhesive wallpaper to the house’s panels with quick, efficient sweeps. “But isn’t everyone? And there is more, anyway. We’re already halfway up the tower. Another hundred years or so and we could be all the way up the top, where there’s light all year!”
“We’ll still be doing this, though,” Eggs said, pressing stickers onto the train. Sometimes he wanted to put them on upside down, or make smiley faces out of them, but up wasn’t the only option within the tower. You could be sent back down, too, and if that happened too often – or if your transgressions were maybe a little more severe – well, there were stories. Although he didn’t know if he believed them, as he was fairly sure reindeer were vegetarian.
It wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of elves to fill the empty benches left behind. It was cold out there in the ever-present snow, and a warm workplace, three meals a day, plus uniform and accommodation provided sounded like a pretty good deal. Of course, no one ever came back out to tell the truth about the place. That it was less warm than stifling, that your back ached from spending eighteen hours a day hunched over your bench, that you had a fifteen-minute break to scoff food once every shift, that the meals before and after shift came out of your six hours downtime, and that the accommodation was basically a bunk in a cupboard that other elves slept in while you were on shift. Plus, the uniforms itched. He plucked at the collar of his jacket and sighed again.
“It’s the best job in the world,” Eloise said, a little too loudly, and glanced over her shoulder. “What other job allows you to being joy to children all over the world?”
“Do we, though?” Eggs asked, and waved his train at her. “I mean, wooden train sets? Dolls’ houses? Do humans even play with this stuff anymore? Shouldn’t we be putting together iPhones or something?”
“The big man knows best,” Eloise said, then dropped her voice and hissed, “Eggs. You have to stop this. You know what happened to Elena.”
They both looked reflexively at the bench just ahead of theirs, in the coveted row along the edge of the balcony. Elena had just started crying one day, shouting that it was pointless, that no one wanted decorative nutcrackers anymore, it was all just a sham and she wasn’t doing another single one. She had sat there, arms folded, occasionally shouting that everyone needed to wake up and take a look around and see what their lives had come to, while the light above her bench went from green to amber to orange to a dark and ominous red, and the next shift Ernest, from one row in, was sitting in her place. All across the floor people moved one bench up, and a new face appeared from the floor below, and that floor all moved up one bench, and so on all the way down to the ground floor and the gates Eggs vaguely remembered walking in, so many years ago he’d stopped counting.
“We don’t know what happened to Elena, though, do we?” he said now. “Maybe she just quit.”
Eloise shook her head. “No. You know she didn’t. Remember that protest twenty years back or so? You think a whole floor just quit?”
Eggs looked down at the train in front of him. “No. I suppose not.” The protest had happened on one of the upper floors, and no one knew the exact details, just that there had been sudden mass promotions as entire floors moved up to fill the spaces left behind. No one asked questions. Not with that vague threat of reindeer hanging around.
“Get moving, then,” Eloise said, and nodded at the light above his bench, which was darkening into a dirty yellow, orange creeping in at the edges. “You’re falling behind.”
Eggs looked up with a squeeze of fright in his chest, and his fingers started flying over the train, applying stickers urgently. The light turning orange wasn’t terrible – it still wasn’t red, after all. But orange for too long meant no pigs in blankets or Yorkshire puddings for dinner. It’d be nothing but marzipan scraps and candy canes, with maybe some soggy Brussel sprouts and reconstituted mash that gave him indigestion. He threw the train into the chute. He needed to stop thinking so much. That was always his problem. Everyone said it. Don’t think, just make.
He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice …
Eggs got the light to a decent yellow before the end of his shift. Not as good as green, which netted you pigs in blankets, crispy roasties, and actual gravy, but good enough that he got a half-decent mug of mulled wine to wash his not great but fairly edible dinner down with. Eloise was on green, or course. She was always on green, and he tried not to feel jealous as she carried a small cheeseboard back to one of the long tables and climbed onto the bench next to him. He knew she’d have shared if she could, but that was as firmly against regulations as taking your jacket off in the stifling heat of the floor. And while no one knew how these things were policed, they all knew they were, and that was enough. Some of the elves said there was a magic surveillance system, but Eggs thought it was more likely a network of highly discreet cameras, their feeds watched by a massive team of elves in another building somewhere, spying on their brethren in exchange for a warm bed and a mug of hot cider. Not that he begrudged them that. They all did what they had to do.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Eloise asked, spreading Stilton on a cracker. “You seem restless. Even more so than usual, I mean.”
“I’m fine,” Eggs said, examining a sausage roll. No ketchup with it, not at yellow, and the bottom looked slightly burnt.
“Just tell me you’re not going to do anything silly,” she said, putting her hand on his arm and squeezing slightly.
He blinked down at her hand. She’d never touched him before. He could feel the warmth of her through his jacket sleeve, and he had to swallow before he spoke. “I’m not going to,” he said, and wondered if he were lying.
“Good,” she said. “I’d miss you. Elmore only ever talks about that time he wrapped the biggest gift in the wrapping department and how it took him six whole days, and Emily never wants to talk about anything except cats, like she’s ever seen one in her life.”
Eggs snorted. “She should be happy about that. I hear they’re ferocious things. Like polar bears, but smaller.”
“You can’t tell her that, though. She thinks them having claws is a myth.”
Her hand was still on Eggs’ arm, and he covered it with his own, hesitantly.
She smiled at him. “We’re lucky, Eggs. We’re halfway up the tower already. In another couple of hundred years we could be out, off the last floor and free to do whatever we want. We could travel. Go somewhere sunny.”
Eggs’ mouth was oddly dry. “What, together?”
“If you wanted.” She gave his arm a final squeeze and went back to her cheeseboard. He watched the smooth curves of her face, the little flush in her cheeks, her quick sure fingers darting over the crackers as deftly as they did over the dolls’ houses. After. He’d never thought about after. It seemed an impossible sort of thing. All there was, was this. Interminable trains, until he moved to another bench and it became interminable bears in tiaras, or something.
“We might not even like each other by then,” he said.
“Maybe,” she said, and popped a last cracker in her mouth, already getting up, ready to be back at her bench before the fifteen-minute break was up. “But maybe we will.” She gave him a final grin and hurried away with her empty board.
Eggs watched her go, then turned to the elf on his other side, who was bolting stuffing balls frantically. “Estelle, have you ever known anyone who finished? You know, left the top floors?”
She swallowed hard, staring at him with wide eyes, then said, a little indistinctly, “Well, not personally. But they’re well ahead of us. That’s a couple of hundred floors, at least. How could I know them?”
“Of course. That makes sense.” He smiled at her, but she’d already turned her attention back to her stuffing balls, so he got up and carried his tray to the rubbish station, tipping the scraps off it into the bin and stacking his tray with the others. Then he joined the hurrying, jostling wash of elves as they rushed back to their workstations, a sea of green jackets and red hats and aching backs.
On the way, he asked more elves about the top floors. No one knew anyone who’d finished, not personally, but they all agreed it was what they were all working toward. It was what made the slog worthwhile. “Like, it’s the dream, isn’t it?” an elf called Ezra said. “When we get there we get all the money we’ve earned over the years, and I hear there’s a bonus as well. And a house.”
Someone else thought you might get to retire anywhere you liked, but she personally didn’t trust anywhere the sea wasn’t frozen. What sort of place was that?
Another thought there might be a sports car involved, and a fourth laughed a little sadly and held out her hands, twisted with arthritis. “I don’t think I’m getting there, do you?” she said. “It’s all I can do to keep my light orange. Soon it’ll go red and there’ll be nothing I can do about it.” Eggs stared at her hands for a long moment, then offered her his gloves. She shook her head and walked away, hands cradled protectively to her chest.
“Would you come back, though?” Ezra asked, and Eggs turned back to him, his throat aching.
“Would you come back, if you got out? I wouldn’t. I’d be gone, baby, gone. Wouldn’t even wave.” He dived for his bench, and Eggs hurried toward his own. It was a fair point, but surely management would want at least a few to return, to parade them around and prove it was possible, that there really was an end, if not in sight, at least in existence?
So why did they have nothing but rumours?
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice …
The sack grew. It passed the floor where Eggs and Eloise worked, occasionally smiling at each other, and it kept growing as the days ticked on toward the end of the year. The hungry chutes kept sucking the toys in relentlessly, and each one swelled the sack like a ripple building a wave – unnoticeable alone, but unstoppable as they became a whole. Eggs got his light to green and kept it there, and he and Eloise wondered what the next floor up would be like, because surely they’d be the next to be promoted.
“Maybe there’ll be clocks,” Eloise said one day, as they ate matching cheese selections. “I always liked the idea of clocks.”
“You’d be good at clocks,” Eggs said. “You’ve got very steady hands. I’d like something more modern, though. I’m sure we should be working on fitness trackers or something.”
Eloise flicked chutney onto his plate. “No one wants a fitness tracker for Christmas. Imagine being told off by a device because you’re sitting around eating Christmas pudding all day!”
Eggs laughed. “True. I wouldn’t want a fitness tracker. I might have to stop eating cheese if I had one of those.”
“You wouldn’t,” Eloise said. “You don’t have to change a thing.”
And Eggs smiled at her and thought that maybe things would be alright. Although he still hadn’t found anyone who knew – actually knew, not just had heard of – an elf who’d graduated out of the top of the building, no matter who he asked. Everyone had the same story, but no one knew where it came from. And the story was that you worked your way up every floor by keeping your light green as much as possible and your work impeccable, and eventually, inevitably, you reached the end and were rewarded. And as there were always gaps on the floors above to be filled, that had to mean people were always moving out, didn’t it? They couldn’t all be going the way of Elena, or of Enrico, who’d thrown himself head-first into his own chute one day, never to be seen again. That couldn’t be the only way people left. Not with how often there were gaps in the benches to be filled.
Of course, some people tried to take food they hadn’t earned, or let their lights linger in amber or even red too often, and then they were gone, too, probably moved back down to the bottom floors, although no one was sure. But there were so many gaps. People were always moving up to fill them. So there had to be plenty of elves who finished, who were promoted out of the building.
He sees you when you’re sleeping …
Eloise wasn’t at her desk. There was a chubby elf there instead, whistling along tunelessly to the ever-present music, banging doors into place on the dolls’ houses.
Eggs, still rumpled with sleep, stared at him, a train lying untouched on his own bench as the edges of his light started to take on warning yellow tones. Eloise had been here yesterday. They’d had Christmas pudding with custard together in the cafeteria before heading off to the little sleeping cubicles. They’d waved to each other, and Eggs had pulled the door to the bunk shut and fallen asleep almost instantly, dreaming of tropical islands and clear seas and anything but mince pies for breakfast.
And then Eloise hadn’t been at breakfast. And now she wasn’t at her bench, and someone else was.
He leaned toward the new elf – his name was Eliot, if Eggs remembered right – waited for a pause between bangs, and said, “Where’s Eloise?”
Eliot looked up, startled, and managed to hit his thumb with the hammer. “Ow!”
“Sorry,” Eggs said. “Do you know what happened to Eloise?”
“No,” Eliot said, inspecting his thumb. “Got promoted, I expect. She always had a green light.” He looked at Eggs’ light pointedly, then started hammering rapidly at the dolls’ houses.
Eggs leaned back in his chair, his stomach tight and sick, and hurriedly decorated a couple of trains with stickers, posting them down the chute before the light could turn any yellower. He needed to work faster, to make sure he’d be promoted next. It was the only hope he had of seeing her again.
He knows when you’re awake …
Eggs skipped lunch that day, and the next. He worked like there was a reindeer breathing down his neck. The light above him lost any trace of yellow and grew a brighter green, then brighter still, until the whole section was cast in a luminous underwater glow, staining the pale skin of the elves in sickly hues. His fingers hurt and his back ached, but he kept going. He would be the next elf off this floor. He would.
He staggered to his workbench a few weeks after Eloise had been promoted, his eyes still scratchy with sleep and his mouth sticky from breakfast eggnog, and found Ezra sitting at Eliot’s bench, examining a window box doubtfully. Eggs dropped into his own seat just as his light blinked on overhead, the same brilliant green he’d left it.
“Where’s Eliot?” he asked.
“Promoted, I think,” Ezra said.
Eggs rubbed his face, that horrible tight feeling back in his belly. “He can’t be.” He pointed to the light. “It should’ve been my turn.”
Ezra gave him an uncertain look. “You keep asking weird questions. You know we’re not supposed to ask questions.”
“I haven’t for weeks,” Eggs protested. “I haven’t had time. I’ve been working so hard!”
Ezra shrugged. “Maybe it takes a while to make up for asking questions in the first place.” He started sticking flowers into the window box, frowning in concentration.
For one moment Eggs imagined grabbing Ezra and flinging him off the balcony, sending him flying into the grainy flesh of the sack, but only for a moment. Then he picked up a train and his stickers and started, before the light could fade from its brilliant green. He’d be next. He would.
Emmett was the next to be promoted, from one of the other balcony benches. Eggs bore it as stoically as he could, but only a few days later he found Eleanor at Eloise’s station (he still thought of it as hers, even though she’d been gone for two months and the sack was almost full, towering up the atrium, creaking and groaning with the strain). The year was almost done, the countdown timers that were displayed throughout the floors reading 00 MONTHS 00 WEEKS 02 DAYS 03 HOURS 24 MINUTES 53 SECONDS. He stopped next to Eleanor and stared at her, her hair tipped in green from the lights above their benches. She pressed a windowpane into place, then smiled up at him.
He couldn’t seem to find a way to answer, and after a long moment, as her smile faltered, he turned and hurried back across the floor, past the sleeping pods that lined the walls, past the cafeteria full of elves coming off shift, past the bathrooms with their reek of damp and Christmas spiced soap, and to the door marked, BY PERMISSION ONLY. He stopped in front of it, staring at its blank, windowless white face. There was a wreath encircling the words, but no handle. It didn’t open from this side. It only opened from the other, when someone was promoted up a floor, or sent down one. There was never any warning. For Eggs’ own promotions, there had simply been a blaze of light through his sleeping cubicle, jolting him awake, and a message had replaced the countdown timer at the bottom of the bunk. EGBERT ELF #2793647291 GO TO DOOR. He had gone, it had opened, and the stairs up had been lit. He had emerged on the next floor and found his name flashing above a bench, and he’d sat down and started work. It was the same every time – no one to guide him, no one to ask questions of, no one to even open the door. Just him.
Now he raised a hand and knocked cautiously. Even over the clamour of hammers and staple guns and clattering toy parts he heard the knock echo in the emptiness beyond. He waited, but no one answered, not that he’d really expected them to. He turned with a sigh and went back to his bench, where the light was already orange and starting to take on amber edges like an infection. He snatched up some stickers and began.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good …
EGBERT ELF #2793647291 GO TO DOOR.
Eggs looked up, frowning, as the light above his workbench, which had been turning a slightly less ominous yellow, suddenly flashed to red and began to scroll.
EGBERT ELF #2793647291 GO TO DOOR.
EGBERT ELF #2793647291 GO TO DOOR.
He stared at it, tasting old eggnog at the back of his throat.
“What did you do?” Eleanor hissed, her eyes wide. “I’ve never seen anyone called to the door mid-shift.”
Eggs swallowed hard and shook his head. “It must be mistake.” Only it wasn’t. He’d knocked. Why had be knocked? He picked up a train with numb fingers.
The light began to flash.
GO TO DOOR. GO TO DOOR. GO TO DOOR.
“Eggs!” Eleanor hissed. “What’re you doing? You have to go!”
Eggs put the train down, spreading his fingers wide on the workbench. It was starting to shake, and the chute was making hungry sounds, slurping stickers and undecorated train parts off the surface. The sign was a deeper red, if possible.
GO TO DOOR. GO TO DOOR.
The chute growled, and his hat whipped off, vanishing into the pipe’s maw.
“Go!” Eleanor shouted, grabbing her own hat as the suction grew. “Hurry up!”
Eggs stood up, his knees shaky and untrustworthy, and the chute rumbled, hungry as a beast. He staggered away from the bench, half-running across the floor as he headed for the door, and the slurping sounds finally quietened behind him.
The door popped ajar as he approached, and swung wide at his touch. He hesitated on the threshold, peering in. The stairs heading up were so dark as to be non-existent, but the ones heading down were lit in harsh white light. Rather than curving down out of sight around the stairwell, though, as he remembered from climbing them, they stretched off in a disturbingly straight line, dwindling to a single point at some impossible distance.
“No,” he whispered, and took a step back. A chorus of shouts went up behind him, punctuated by screams, and he spun around as all across the floor the chutes began to roar, slurping up loose toy parts and tools, sucking down hats and scarves, devouring everything wildly. A small elf called Eric was clinging desperately to the edge of his bench, and another yelled at Eggs, “You have to go!”
Eric shrieked as one hand slipped and he hurtled toward the chute, and a bigger elf grabbed the back of his jacket before he could get sucked in. Eggs thought he could hear the stitching starting to tear even over the roar of the chutes.
“Get out of here!” someone else shouted, now there were elves closing in on him, their faces stark with fear.
“Go through!” another yelled. “You’re going to make us all pay if you don’t!”
Eggs wanted to protest, to explain, but they were right. Eric was clinging to the bigger elf, sobbing, and further off there were more screams as the chutes grew hungrier.
“Oh, Christmas,” Eggs whispered, and dived through the door, sprinting for the stairs that led up, dark as they were. It was worth a try.
So be good, for goodness’ sake!
It didn’t work. Of course it didn’t work. Nothing here was ever left to chance. It was too big an operation for that, run on too tight a schedule. It was less than two days till Christmas, and Eggs was sprinting up the stairs by feel alone, the dark too thick to even see his outstretched hands, despite the wash of light from the passageway down behind him. His breath seared his throat, his heart louder in his ears than the screams on the floor had been. He made it up six steps, eight, ten, in velvet darkness, then his ridiculous curly-toed boots caught and he fell, plunging forward, braced for the impact of his hands and knees on hard concrete.
It didn’t come. He just fell. Fell, and fell, too startled to scream at first, then as he kept falling he started to howl like a kicked dog, howled his fury and grief and loss as he plunged through the darkness. He must be falling the entire height of the tower. The damn tower that sucked them all in, that never let any of them go, that never, ever told the truth of what waited behind the door, because it was just more of the same. More toys, more stickers, more hungry lights, or darkness. The work would never be finished. The tower would never be surmounted. Retirement would never come, it was just a myth to keep them working until they broke, until the chutes swallowed them or the reindeer hunted them down, or until they simply crawled into a sleeping cubicle and never came out again.
Eggs drew a deep breath and roared his rage at the dark, using a number of terms and descriptions he was fairly sure were banned in the tower, if not everywhere else. And he kept falling.
You better watch OUT!
It should’ve hurt when he landed, after a fall like that. Or there should have been nothing, the impact so hard that the line between life and what came after was erased before he was even aware of it going. But instead he merely had the sensation of slowing, of sinking into something that slowly brought his fall to a halt, a feeling of being swallowed by the dark. For one confused moment he wondered if the reindeer had got him after all, but he assumed he’d have noticed that. He brought a hand to his face, but he couldn’t see it. There was no light here at all, no green or orange or red, and it was oddly comforting. He reached out and patted around, discovering soft surfaces and smooth hard ones, rounded edges and strange padded curves. He was surrounded by them, above and below and to all sides, and no matter how he tried to move they just pressed around him again, so eventually he lay still. He couldn’t even tell which was up or down, let alone if there might be a way out.
He waited. After a while, exhausted by the fall and the fear and just the long years of being, he slept. He woke at some point, aware of a klaxon that sounded awfully like the one that went every hour after the twenty-four hours to Christmas mark had been broken, but it was a long way off. And it couldn’t be that, anyway, because there had been two days left when he started falling. And he couldn’t have fallen for that long. He listened for a while, but nothing else changed, so he fell asleep again. It had been a long time since he’d been able to sleep for as long as he wanted. At least there was that.
You better not CRY!
He woke to jostling movement, all the things around him moving and shifting. There was no ill intent in it, just a sense of resettling, like sand after rain. He tried to relax, letting himself be shifted in the darkness along with all the rest, and wondered if he could feel other movement, too. It felt colder, maybe, but it was hard to be sure. He certainly wasn’t cold, not with everything crowded in around him, but he thought there might be a whiff of something like fresh air. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d smelled that. The roof of the atrium might be open, but the air was never very fresh by the time it wafted past the hundreds of floors of workers to reach them.
“Hello?” he tried, but no one answered. He wondered if he should sleep again, but he was hungry now. Not that there was anything he could do about that, not stuck in here, wherever here was. He wriggled away from a hard corner that had decided to press into his ribs and curled around the soft, furry flank of something, and waited.
After a while he started to discern patterns of motion. They – him and whatever was around him – would swoop up, or what the sensation in his belly told him was up, feeling like it was trailing behind the rest of him. His ears would pop as they ascended, and an extra chill would seep in from somewhere. Then they’d dive again, his belly pressed upward and his ears thickening with pressure. The air was only barely less cold, but it felt heavier, and somewhere there was the crunch and scrape of movement, as of vast monoliths moving over ice. The movements repeated, over and over, and eventually he stopped trying to make sense of any of it. He might be dreaming it all, anyway, lying somewhere in the rubbish heaps of the tower, or being digested in a reindeer’s belly. Perhaps this was even his own personal afterlife, although he hoped not. It was rather unexciting.
He couldn’t have said how long it continued, time without countdown clocks and shift klaxons feeling oddly disjointed and meaningless. But suddenly there was light. It flooded down on him, a wash of warm yellow, and he smelled soot and burnt wood and a whiff of winter spices in the instant before an impossibly large and unnervingly hairy hand appeared and wrapped its fingers around his torso. He screeched, wriggling wildly and lashing out with fists and feet, but the hand was unrelenting. It plucked him from his resting place and swept him aloft, and he caught a glimpse of a tall tree and soft fairy lights and pale walls in the instant before an enormous face filled his vision.
“Well, well,” a deep voice said, and Eggs stopped screaming, staring instead at the creature in front of him. “What do we have here, then?”
Eggs couldn’t answer at first, and the creature gave him a little shake. He squawked, and managed, “Egbert Elf #2793647291.”
“Ah. The bad elf,” the giant said, and chuckled. It was a deep hohoho sound, and Eggs was certain the creature was going to shove him in its bearded maw and devour him.
“Not bad exactly,” he said. “I just wanted there to be more.”
The giant examined him. “Didn’t you work in the most magical place in the world?”
“No,” Eggs said. “I mean, there was magic there, but it’s not exactly magical when you don’t even have a loo break for nine hours.”
The giant shrugged. “Someone’s got to do it.”
“I don’t see why. Not like that. We don’t even get a day off, ever.”
“It’s always been done that way.”
“So? That doesn’t make it right.”
The giant stared at him, and for a moment Eggs thought the creature might just crush him in its huge hand. Then it chuckled again – hohoho – and set him gently on a side table, where a plate of mince pies sat next to a massive tumbler full of dark, peaty whisky, the sort only the always-green-lighters got on Christmas Day, after the sack had gone out. Everything was outsized – the mince pies were so big Eggs could barely have wrapped his arms around them.
“There’s no room for troublemakers in the workshop,” the giant said. “It’s catching. One of you starts, then your friends start, and suddenly everyone’s thinking. You can’t get people thinking. It’s no good.”
“We’re meant to think,” Eggs said. “We’re not robots.”
The giant shook his head. “It just slows things down, and we can’t afford that. Zero tolerance for thinking, I’m afraid.”
“You can’t stop us thinking. I can’t even stop myself from thinking. It’s impossible.”
“So you should keep it to yourself. Or think about good things. Gingerbread men and so on.”
Eggs wrinkled his nose. “There’s not much to think about gingerbread men, is there?”
The giant eyed him for a moment, then laughed, a proper laugh rather than the creepy hohoho. “Now you’re overthinking gingerbread men, which serves you right. There’s been a rash of bloody thinking going on. I don’t deal with such things myself, but I know it took the workshop a while to trace it back to you. Bad elf.” He wagged his finger at Eggs, and the elf swallowed hard.
“A rash? Who else … has this happened to anyone else?” He waved vaguely, indicating the unfamiliar room and the sparkling yellow lights and the sack slumped on the floor by the hearth.
“I told you, I don’t deal with such things. The workshop deals with its own problems.”
Eggs took a deep breath, braced himself, and said, “Are you going to feed me to the reindeer?”
The giant snorted. “See, those are the sort of ideas you get from thinking. These are for the reindeer.” He picked up a couple of carrots from the table, each of them far taller than Eggs. “I don’t know how they think I’m going to make two carrots feed twelve reindeer, though. I’m not a bloody magician.”
“Maybe there’ll be some at other houses?”
“Sure. But the damn animals fight, and I forget who got what when, and it ends up with Blitzen getting twenty of the bloody things and Prancer having none, then getting all dramatic and fainting in the traces over San Francisco.” He sighed, grabbed the whisky, and downed it in a gulp. “You can have the mince pies. Sick of the damn things. Why does no one leave a nice ham sandwich out?”
And then he was gone, turning back to the tiny fireplace with its woodburning stove and vanishing into it with the giant sack trailing behind him. Giant, yet far, far smaller than the sack they spent all year filling at the tower. But some things just are, and it doesn’t do to examine them too closely. Like the fact that Eggs was now the size of the very familiar wooden train engine he could see poking out of the top of one of the stockings on the mantlepiece.
Eggs pressed both hands to his head, fingers twisting into his messy hair. He’d lost his hat at some stage. There’s been a rash of bloody thinking going on. Who else? Who else had been … whatever this was? Demoted, exiled, released? Who else had he dragged into this with his useless questions?
“I’m so sorry, Eloise,” he whispered to the quiet, softly lit room. “I’m so, so sorry.” Maybe she’d just been shifted down a floor, though. Or maybe she really had been promoted. Maybe they’d realised none of this was her fault.
He looked around uncertainly, not sure what he should be doing. He was too used to being told when to work, when to sleep, when to eat, and there being no time for anything else. Wait, eat. Christmas, he was hungry. He staggered over to the mince pies and broke a couple of handfuls of crust off, scoffing it down. It wasn’t as good as green light pies, but it wasn’t bad. And right now, with no bench waiting for him, no stickers, and no sleeping cubicle, it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.
You better not pout, I’m telling you why …
Belinda watched the kids tearing through the wrapping paper like ravenous beasts in search of food, their stockings already emptied over the floor, chocolate oranges opened before breakfast and toys smeared with grubby fingerprints. She pressed her fingertips to her forehead. She might have had one too many bubblies last night, but it had been fun. A sort of street crawl with all the neighbours, everyone red-cheeked from cold and bundled into big jackets that took away the need to get dressed up, although she’d worn flashing antlers to go with Nick’s reindeer nose. Yes, it had been a good night, but she needed to wake up properly and get on with prepping for dinner, otherwise it’d be late, and Nick’s sister would Make Suggestions, and then Nick’s mum would tell her to shut up, and Belinda’s mum would tut and suggest they all calm down and have some herbal tea, and Nick’s mum would tell her it was none of her business, and Belinda’s mum would suggest Nick’s mum needed her chakras realigning, and no one would be talking to each other by the time the cheeseboard went out. So much depended on dinner, really.
“I thought we weren’t doing Elf on the Shelf,” Nick said, picking up the little figure that she’d found sprawled among the remains of the mince pies.
Belinda frowned at it. “I didn’t get him. I thought it must’ve been you, when you did the stockings last night.”
“Last night? Oh, God knows. I kind of remember doing them after we got back in, and I must’ve drunk the whisky, I suppose. Feels like I did.”
“And ate the carrots.”
“Bloody hell – I must’ve been drunker than I thought.”
They grinned at each other, then he added, “Maybe I nicked the elf from someone’s house. You know, as a joke. I hate the damn things.”
“Me too,” Belinda said. “They’re creepy. Can you believe there was one in Abby’s stocking? Your mum must’ve put it in. She’s the only person I know who actually likes them.”
“I don’t think she likes them. She just likes the fact we don’t like them, I think. Thinks it’s funny.” Nick set the elf on the mantlepiece, next to the one from the stocking, which was wearing a red dress. “I’ll ask around later about this one.”
“God, how embarrassing. Put it on the WhatsApp group, will you? Someone could be looking for it desperately. You know what people are like.”
“Weird,” Nick said. “People are weird.” He went to stop Abby from shooting her brother in the head with the archery set she’d just unwrapped, and Belinda picked up her phone with a sigh. She’d do it.
She raised the camera to take a photo of the elves, and blinked. They must have shifted when Nick put the new one down, because they were leaning together, shoulders and heads touching, and it almost looked as though they were holding hands.
“Creepy,” she muttered, and went to put the kettle on. She’d do the photo later, when it looked less like the things were smiling at each other.
Behind her, someone had put the radio on.
Santa Claus is coming to town!
“Well, he can take his bloody elves back with him, then,” she said to the quiet kitchen, and leaned against the sink to watch the snow coming down, soft and fragile and full of endless promise, while the house behind her swelled with laughter and excitement and love in its many strange and curious forms, and out in the pre-dawn darkness Christmas rumbled relentlessly, endlessly onward.
Lovely people, I hope this has been a little breather in a hectic month – and that you’re now eyeing those elves on the shelf with the correct level of suspicion (if you’re still unconvinced that they may be Bad Elves, just read A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker. There’s a story in there that may just change your mind …).
And if you’re feeling a hankering for other Christmas tales, you could try one about a young ghost hunter and a troll, or another about a misguided yet well-meaning dragon and a bird rescue gone wrong. Look, if you’re not reading, you might end up doing something useful, like cleaning. Don’t do that. It’s the holidays.
And should you fancy more free stories in your inbox, I can help with that. Sign up to the newsletter now to get two free short story collections, plus grab my (somewhat irregularly scheduled) newsletter-exclusive stories throughout the year!