I wrote this recently in response to a request for stories to be included in an online magazine. It didn’t quite manage to make it to publication but it was fun to write so I thought I’d share it here.
The theme of the issue was Lists, and this is what came to mind, about as far through the year from Christmas as you can get!
The list got longer every year but his patience seemed to get shorter.
‘Have you seen some of these?’ His huge voice bounced off the log cabin’s walls as he flailed a letter in front of her face. ‘I mean, what possible reason could there be for a five year old to ask for a sunbed?’
‘Maybe they have a lizard?’
‘A two metre long sunbed!’
The fire crackled in the hearth. ‘It could be a big lizard?’ The small woman was wearing a jolly green suit, which almost matched the current colour of the big man’s face. ‘How many times have you checked the list, Father?’ She used his honorary title, as it often helped calm him down when he was in one of those moods.
‘I think this is the third, but what with one thing and another it’s a little hard to tell. Look at this,’ his ample white beard seemed to grow more imposing as he quoted the words written on the cheery yellow piece of paper. ‘Ahem…’
‘…Do they not teach spelling and grammar these days? And that show is M rated, shouldn’t the parents at least have a look before these go up the chimney? And talking of the parents… What’s with that name, did they never watch Friends?’
The woman looked into the old man’s face, having to crane her neck up to do so or she would have been staring into his ample stomach. ‘I think you need a break, Father, I’ll get you a nice warm mug of cocoa.’
‘No, Adelaide, I’m finding the complex carbohydrates are affecting my waistline, can I have a glass of water please?’
Adelaide backed out of the room with a concerned look on her thin face. The elves had been helping out round these parts for thousands of years. Just because the festival had rebranded a few times and swapped icons occasionally didn’t mean that someone wasn’t needed for the production and logistics side of things.
In fact elves was a bit of a misnomer, the race was more akin to gnomes, who had excellent fine-motor skills, especially in the footwear department, and a fondness for shiny objects. The historical records suggested the race had been slowly edged out of their natural habitat in the northern hemisphere’s forest tundra, because of man’s ever increasing hunger for land and resources. Eventually they found themselves living in caves carved out of the permafrost and subsisting on a diet of boiled extremophiles and the occasional directionally challenged, and subsequently, extremely frozen avian.
When The Big Man took up residence the gnomes decided that a well stoked fire and as many marshmallows as you could eat were preferable to another night of Burkholderiaceae soup, Sphingomonas stew or freeze dried ivory gull with an aperitif of not-quite-thawed ice.
The ancient spirit’s eyes, so dark as to be indistinguishable from the final midnight at the end of time, stared forlornly at the boxy shadows in the corner of the room. His gaze was still fixed on them when Adelaide returned carrying a tray almost as big as she was. On top of it rested a large mug of, oh yes, cocoa and a plate with a bonsai mountain of mince pies.
The elf followed the burning trail of his gaze then looked back at his worried face. ‘It isn’t as scary as it looks, Father. I can help you get started, if you like?’
The machine had been provided by The Authorities to “Improve Efficiency and Help Provide a Better Standard of Customer Service to Believers”. For some reason the higher powers believed that messages had more impact if Written In Capital Case! The old man tried to calm down when he saw his friend and co-worker riding on a knife blade at the edge of terror. ‘I’m not averse to technology, Adelaide,’ he conceded, ‘it’s just that I’ve been working this way for as long as I can remember. The letters arrive, I check who’s been good or bad, the naughty list gets transferred to the vault, the good list gets dispatched to the workshop manager, and we’re good to go on the 25th. A “computer” will just make things more complicated.’
‘But Father,‘ Adelaide put her hand on his knee, ‘when you started you only had a handful of believers, even at the height of Saturnalia there were only about 60 million Romans! These last few decades have seen the whole world start believing in you, there are seven billion children to cater for now, how do you expect to even carry a list that long? The reindeer would have trouble getting airborne.’
‘You’re right, of course.’ The Big Man rubbed his red gloved hands through his mass of white hair and stood up, then walked over to the foreboding machine and pressed the power button, something went “ping”. ‘Show me how it’s done then, my young friend.’
Adelaide nervously climbed into the special chair, “With Six And Five Eighths Degrees Of Freedom”, which had mysteriously arrived when the computer turned up. The screen was already showing a friendly looking greeting, written in Comic Sans:
DeiOS 4.2 – Soul Control from Home.
She tapped a few keys until another pleasant message was displayed:
WishScan DDR: Digitising Dreams into Reality.
‘All you need to do is put the letters in here.’ She inserted one of the wish lists into the hole on the front of the machine, ‘and they’ll be scanned in and automatically categorised and added to the list.’ A message flashed on screen: Scan Complete – Behaviour Checked – Gifts Assigned.
‘Seems simple enough. Can I have a go?’ He picked up one of the letters and fed it into the opening. There was an electronic sound, a bit like vzzt, and the letter was spat out of the same opening onto the floor at his big black boots. The screen showed:
Orientation Error – 0x07338D93 – Change Position And Try Again.
‘Was I standing in the wrong place?’
‘No, Father, it means the paper was the wrong way up. Here see, put it in as if you’re about to read it.’ Adelaide showed him the correct way and, once again, the document disappeared in a small puff of enchantment.
After a few more attempts, some head scratching and a few choice words, some of which were new to the gnome, The Big Man finally managed to get his first letter to go in the hole without being spat out, shredded, turned into a lace handkerchief, or set on fire. ‘Ah, I think I’ve got it now,’ he said, ‘would you mind staying while I try a couple more, please?’
An hour later, Adelaide finally closed the door behind her. She had shown him how to view the scanned letters, look at the lists and search through the names or gifts. He told her he was just going to try a few on his own before he went to bed.
The next morning Adelaide prepared the Chief’s breakfast, placed it on a tray and proceeded to his office. Opening the door she was surprised to find him crouched over the machine, ‘Come here, Adelaide, this is amazing.’ The letters, which were previously in two piles almost to the ceiling, were now all but gone. The old man fed another in and watched it disappear into the device. As he turned to Adelaide she saw that the whites of his eyes were tessellated with tiny blood vessels and there were dark rings round them the colour of coal. It was obvious that he hadn’t slept.
‘How are you feeling, sir?’
He fed another letter into the machine and watched with wonder as it was added to the gift list. His bleary eyes juddered slowly towards her as his booming voice vibrated the fixtures and fittings, ‘On top of the world, my friend. You know, I don’t think I’d have managed to get through these before the big day if you hadn’t shown me how this contraption works.’
He fed another letter into the machine and gave a satisfied smile as it disappeared into the mystical ether. Adelaide watched as he continued to robotically insert the wish lists and checked the Naughty List, the Gift List and the occasional letter for scanning errors, to make sure a recipient was going to get what they had asked for, rather than a toy house (horse!), radio controlled chipper (chopper!!) or a solitary parrot (Monopoly!!!).
Eventually the final letter was entered and the machine made a satisfying bing noise as the old man turned it off. He slurped the steaming hot mug of cocoa and took a bite out of the cold turkey and stuffing sandwich, ‘Delicious!’
The gnome lifted her own cup from the tray and took a sip, ‘So, what are you going to do now, Father?’
A number of looks rolled across the old man’s face, like a series of 15,000-pound bombs detonating around a rural village in Kentucky, as he realised he had done himself out of a job until the big day. ‘What do you do around this time of year, Adelaide?’
‘Well, mostly bring you mulled wine and mince pies, sir. I could fetch the newspaper, if you like?’
‘No, no. I think I’ll just have a bit of a sit down for a while.’ As Adelaide pulled the door shut he collapsed into the comfy chair next to the fireplace. After a few minutes there was a deep breath and then snoring. In his dreams lights flashed and speakers blared, a series of terrifying machines marched through his mind, electronically yelling a chant which sounded, for all the worlds, like “we’re going to take your job old man”.
He woke up with a start and involuntarily declared, ‘I’m still useful.’
Adelaide had just entered the room, ‘Yes Father, you are. Here, have some roasted chestnuts and a hot chocolate.’
He took the proffered food and drink and sat in front of the computer again, scratching his bearded chin and looking thoughtful. ‘Who sent this device, Adelaide?’
‘The receipt states it was from,’ she searched in her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, ‘Minerva – Virgin Goddess of Wisdom, Handicrafts, Strategic Warfare, and Trade.’
‘Hmm, takes all sorts,’ the old man said. ‘Could you get me some parchment and a stylus, please?’ When he had thought for a minute he started scratching out some beautifully choreographed words on the page.
He left the room as Adelaide read the note. When she was done she turned round to find him in a noisy Hawaiian style shirt and shorts. She said ‘Um…’ as that was all that came to mind.
‘I’m going on holiday, somewhere hot! Could you hold the fort please? You seem to have the hang of all this technomancy. I’ll leave it up to you to get the deliveries and gift receipting done. I’m sure you’ll be fine.’
Adelaide stood in stunned silence as the door was shut. Her face was a picture of consternation but eventually she rubbed her hands together and said, ‘Right, there are going to be some changes around here!’