Busy with the new site, there’s a lot still to do. So here’s a tale from Underdog Anthology 7, ‘Christmas Lights and Darks’. This is a new one. I’m considering reposting some of the older ones as Christmas approaches.
One more week and it’ll be over.
The elves appeared in Helen’s kitchen on Boxing Day without so much as a by-your-leave. Surprised, she dropped her cigarette into her coffee, fished it out, swore at it, swore at the elves then threw the wet cigarette at them.
“Hoi, there’s no call for that.” The smaller elf ducked but the big one wasn’t so quick. Wet tobacco splattered across his tunic.
The smaller elf moved fast enough to take the coffee from Helen’s hand before she could throw that too. He emptied it into the sink.
The bigger elf looked down at his tunic. “Well, that’s gratitude for you. All those presents, delivered on time, and this is the thanks we get.”
Helen put her fists on her hips and jutted her law at them. “Who are you? You can’t just walk into people’s houses without an invitation. Haven’t you heard of knocking and asking to come in?”
The elves looked at each other. “Well, no, we haven’t. Santa sneaks into almost every house in the world every Christmas Eve and nobody seems to mind. He’s a lot bigger than us, too. And what do you mean, who are we? Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not to me. You could be anyone. You could be midget burglars dressed as elves for all I know.”
“We are elves.” The smaller elf took a cloth from beside the sink and handed it to the larger one. “I am Tiddles, and it’s a perfectly normal and very common elf name so take that smirk off your face.”
The bigger elf wiped at the remains of the cigarette with the cloth then threw it into the sink. “I am George. You are Helen Arnott, and we are here to talk about presents.”
Helen stared at them both until she had convinced herself that they were real elves. To maintain her increasingly tenuous connection to reality, she gazed through the window at her children, playing in the garden with their new flying gadgets. The children were real, the garden was real, the window was real, the kitchen was real and so the elves must be real. She sank into a chair and lit another cigarette.
“You’re not supposed to smoke when you have visitors.” Tiddles folded his arms. “We have to consider our elfin safety, you know.”
Helen took a long drag and blew smoke right at him. “Up yours. My house, my rules, and you were not invited so you have no say.”
“It’s as bad as Santa’s room in here.” George waved his hand in front of his face. “At least she’s not plastered.”
“What do you want?” Helen tapped ash into the ashtray. “Christmas was yesterday. What is it, elf day off? I have children to look after and a husband who will expect his dinner when he gets home from the pub. Don’t you have reindeer to muck out or something?”
George rolled his eyes. “Don’t remind us. Feeding and mucking out takes up most of the day and then we have to deal with Santa too, and on the way to next Christmas it’s present-making on top.”
“Yeah.” Tiddles took a step closer. “Then there’s the heating. We’re woodland creatures so we have the heating on all year because that fat idiot based his operation at the North Pole. Something about ‘tradition’. It’s no place for the pastoral creature up there, I can tell you. I haven’t seen a tree since I don’t know when.”
George nudged him and whispered, “We saw one on the way in. Beech, it was.”
“Shut up, George, and get the paperwork out.” Tiddles’ face developed a sneer. “We have considerable overheads since we signed those Santa contracts and made your human fantasy a reality. Reindeer have to be fed and Santa eats as much as all of them combined. Then there’s his drinks and tobacco bill and that’s before we even start on the raw materials for the presents.”
Helen finished her cigarette and stubbed it out. “So? I remember when Santa became real. Twenty-four years ago, when I was just a child. Real, mysterious presents came after we kids sent letters and most of us were in deep shit on Christmas morning because of it. Our parents all thought we’d stolen them. It took years before everyone accepted the truth. You little buggers made my life hell until then.”
“Yes, well, every new business has its teething problems.” Tiddles sniffed and looked away. “We could hardly advertise what was supposed to be a secret, could we? Anyway, you got what you wanted. You sent the orders in and we delivered. Now it’s invoice time.”
“Invoice?” Helen wrinkled her nose. “What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t fill in any order forms. I have no contract with you so you can’t invoice me for anything.”
“Oh?” Tiddles motioned George to display the laminated, yellowed pages he held. “What do you call these then?”
Helen inspected the pages. “Santa letters. Looks like mine from all those years ago. You kept them?”
“Of course. They are unpaid.” Tiddles took one from George and held it up. “There’s quite a list here. All delivered as ordered and delivered on time. You will note,” he tapped the bottom of the letter, “the order is signed and is therefore a legal request for goods.”
“It’s a Santa letter. I wrote it when I was about six years old. You can’t make it into a contract now. That’s not fair.” She reached for the letter but Tiddles pulled it away.
“We didn’t go into this business for fun, you know.” He waved the laminated pages. “When Santa approached us with his idea to make the old legend real, he had the whole thing costed and planned. Naturally he had arranged it so he only had to work one day a year while we work all the time, the swine, but we never intended to do all this for free.”
“We don’t ask the children for money. They don’t have any.” George took the letters from Tiddles and put them into his jacket. “We can’t ask the parents to pay either. They didn’t sign the requests. So we have to wait until you grow up. Until you reach thirty.”
“You’re telling me the whole Christmas thing is a big con? You let children order toys thinking they’re free and then you come back and collect the money later?” Helen considered her cigarette box but it was too soon for another. “This looks like some kind of racket to me. How do I know you won’t come back every year for more money?”
“We could do that if you prefer. There is a credit plan.” George reached inside his jacket again. “The interest rates are a bit steep though and you already have twenty-four years of interest on the account so I’d suggest you think carefully before deciding.”
“One-off payments are better for both of us.” Tiddles motioned to George to forget the credit forms. “We do have an awful lot of clients to visit and we don’t want to have to see them all every year. Besides, every year there are more. No, it’s better all round if we close the account now.”
“I ought to close your account with a breadknife.” Helen glowered at the elves. “All this time I thought Christmas was about giving and it turns out you and Santa are just as commercial as the rest of it. You’re worse because you don’t even mention a price at the time.” She took another cigarette and tried to light it but her anger made her fingers shake. Instead she threw it onto the table.
“I understand your disappointment. I really do.” Tiddles held up his hands and took two quick steps backwards. “But if we had told you at the time, imagine how it would have ruined your childhood. I mean, you wouldn’t want to see the looks on your own children’s’ faces if we told them we’d be back to collect later, would you?”
Helen slammed her hand on the table. “You leave my children out of this.” She sank back in her chair when she realised the elves couldn’t do that. The children were outside now, playing with Santa’s presents, oblivious to the cash demands they could expect when they were older. Should she warn them? Could she ruin every Christmas for them while they were still so young?
She glared harder at the elves. “Damn you. You’ve set up a nasty little racket here, haven’t you? If I don’t warn my kids, they get a cruel shock later. If I do, I look like the bad guy. Well maybe I’ll just tell them anyway. That would spoil your fun, wouldn’t it?”
“Not really.” George formed a tight smile. “We hate living in the cold. Some of us would be relieved if this was all over.”
“Don’t listen to him.” Tiddles made a fist at George then turned, all smiles, to Helen. “Look. I realise this has come as a shock to you. That’s because your parents didn’t know about the arrangement. How could we tell them? It was all supposed to be a secret magical thing. If you tell your children now, they’ll hate you for it. We stop granting presents when they get to fifteen. Tell them when they reach that age and they’ll have another fifteen years to be ready when the bill comes. Sound fair?”
“Not really.” Helen slumped in her seat. It wasn’t fair, but it was a way out of the choice she faced. She couldn’t bear to look at Peter and Felicity’s faces if she told them now. They were eleven and eight so as long as she kept their Christmas wishes reasonably cheap they wouldn’t be saddled with too much cost later. The word ‘cost’ flashed in her mind.
Helen sat up straight. “How much?”
“Huh?” Momentarily nonplussed, Tiddles and George glanced at each other.
“How much do you expect me to pay you?” In Helen’s childhood, toys were simpler and far less expensive than the electronics and designer things of today. She dreaded to consider the sort of demands her children might expect later.
“Oh. The invoice.” Tiddles held his hand out flat and waggled his fingers at George, who pulled a roll of paper from his jacket and handed it over.
Tiddles passed the roll to Helen. “There. I think you’ll find it in order. It’s itemised in detail and listed by year. Every toy, every cash gift, right down to the chocolate pennies.”
“It’s quite a modest invoice,” George said. “You were already six years old when we set up the business and toys were less complicated back then.”
“Shut up. I’m checking.” Helen stared unrolling the paper. Memories of toys past filled her head as she moved down the list. There was Barbie’s car and the fluffy sea-lion. She had called him Sealy and he was probably still around, moth-eaten and faded, in the attic. Tears blurred her vision and she blinked them away but the memories flooded back as she read on. The hours of fun she and her sister had with her ‘Operation’ game. Her father’s Christmas fatigue after he had spent most of the morning assembling the Barbie Boutique and getting it wrong. That three-dimensional wooden puzzle she had never managed to solve, and the box of metal puzzles which she had completely solved before Christmas dinner. The magic set. The sparkly shoes. The fairy dress. That recording of some band she had adored as a child but cringed at now. So many memories, so many reminders of a life now gone forever, a carefree life she could never hope to recapture. A stark reminder of the truth of ageing and of her own mortality. Of all the things the elves could have done, this was by far the most cruel.
Finally Helen reached the end. On the way she had not noted the individual prices. The toy names of her childhood had brushed aside the petty concerns of finance. When she saw the total she stopped and stared at it in silence for a long time.
“How much?” She dropped the paper onto the table.
“I think the print is clear enough.” Tiddles took the list and rolled it back up. “All the prices are lower than the shop equivalents at the time. You do, however, accumulate quite a bit of interest in twenty-four years.”
“Interest is added daily,” George wore a sympathetic look. “Really, it’s best to get this dealt with today.” He took out a card reader. “We accept all major credit cards.”
“Phil. What about Phil?” Helen stared at the cigarette she had tossed onto the table as if its existence was all that anchored her to the real world.
Tiddles sniffed. “Phil who?”
George nudged him. “Her husband. The guy in the pub. He was on our list just before her.”
Tiddles shrugged. “Oh yeah, him. What about him?”
A chill gripped Helen. “What did you do?”
“Our job.” George puffed his generous stomach out to the point where if his buttons had had eyes they would have been wide with terror. “We presented our invoice and he was happy to pay it.”
“What? Really?” Helen’s jaw hung loose.
“Truth be told,” Tiddles waved his hand, “he’s a bit tipsy right now. He thought it was all a joke. Even so, it was an entirely lawful transaction.”
“No, no, no.” Helen held her face in her hands. “You’ve bankrupted us. We’ll be in debt forever.”
“That’s what they all say.” Tiddles folded his arms. “Still, give it a couple of generations and parents will teach their kids not to be such greedy little buggers. Then it will all even out.”
“That’s inhuman.” Helen wished guns were still legal so she could shoot these two. “You are putting us through Hell to make some kind of Utopia.”
George sniffed. “We are elves. We are not human. And you humans clearly need some help with personal responsibility. If we can make a modest profit and help you lot at the same time, where’s the problem?”
“But… but…” Helen reached for her discarded cigarette.
“Look.” Tiddles moved closer. “We are not interested in any kind of human Utopia, we do not care at all how you choose to live. It would suit us if you ran up bills you were able to pay, that’s all. It’s a business, nothing more.”
“Phil paid you. We’re already broke.” A tear ran down Helen’s cheek. With shaking hands, she managed to light her cigarette and wondered if she would be ever able to afford another.
“There is enough left in your accounts to cover your bill too.” Tiddles smiled, the sort of smile that expresses a feeling of not actually caring at all. “Then you’ll be broke. But you don’t have to worry about next year’s Christmas presents at least.”
“And if you pay by credit card, like Phil did, you won’t have to pay it all back at once.” George held up the card reader.
Helen curled her lip. “What if I don’t want to pay at all? Are you expecting the courts to take legal action by elves at all seriously? They’ll laugh at you.”
Tiddles stared at the floor. “We are well aware that your legal system doesn’t cover elves. That’s why we don’t use it.”
“So you can’t do a thing to me.” Helen folded her arms.
“Ah, no, we can’t.” George looked uncomfortable. “Still it’s better you pay up, really.”
“Why?” Helen wondered at the way the elves avoided eye contact now.
George took a deep breath. “If you don’t pay, your kids will get no more presents. They will still get a bill when they turn thirty and that bill will include your unpaid bill as well as all the presents they’ve had up to now.”
“You little bastards.” Helen blinked at them. “Stupid bastards too. If I don’t have to pay, they won’t have to either.”
Tiddles pursed his lips. “Then their kids will get no presents either. That will be two strikes, then we take your descendants off our lists forever. Until the outstanding bill is paid, with accrued interest, your great grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren and so on, will be the only ones among their friends getting their Santa letters ignored.” Finally, he looked Helen in the eyes. “Imagine that. Forever on the naughty list. Because of you.”
“This is blackmail.” Helen put her face in her hands.
“I suppose it is, in a way.” Tiddles said. “In another way though, it’s just us asking you to pay for the service we provided.”
Helen dropped her hands to the table and sighed. “But I didn’t ask for any service.”
Tiddles raised his eyebrows and looked at George, who nodded and took out a laminated Santa letter.
“Yes, yes, okay.” Helen rolled her eyes. “But I didn’t know. You cheated me.”
“Well,” Tiddles said, “you’ve already worked out we can’t use your legal system against you because we’re not even the same species. That, however, means you can’t use it against us. So agree to our terms or let your descendants take the consequences.”
Helen tapped her fingers on the table. There had to be a way out. Something they missed. She rubbed her chin, picked up her cigarette pack, put it down again. Fiddled with her lighter, pursed her lips, ran her hand through her hair. Something. Anything.
“Let me see the paperwork,” she said. “All of it.”
Tiddles narrowed his eyes, but motioned to George to hand the papers over. Helen spread them across the table, cross-checking the laminated Santa letters with the itemised bill. Finally she stacked the paperwork into one pile and sat back.
“Well?” Tiddles raised one eyebrow. “I’m sure you found it all in order.”
“Almost.” Helen permitted herself a small smirk. “I accept that I asked for all those things and that you delivered them. I accept that I, albeit unknowingly, agreed a contract to have those things delivered.”
“Good.” Tiddles folded his arms. “How would you like to pay?”
“However.” Helen held up her hand. “There is no mention of any agreement concerning interest payments. I asked for the presents, you delivered them, but at no point was any form of interest mentioned.”
Tiddles and George exchanged an uneasy glance.
“Bugger,” said George.
Tiddles sighed. “So what do you propose?”
“I will pay you for the presents but I will not pay any interest. The interest is worse than a payday loan company, it’s about ninety percent of the total.” Helen looked Tiddles straight in the eye. “You really don’t want a reputation for being fraudsters, now do you? If everyone stopped their kids sending Santa letters and went back to just buying the presents themselves, where would your sneaky little business be then?”
“Okay, okay.” Tiddles scowled. “We realised some people would find that little flaw and factored it in. We can waive the interest on condition you sign a confidentiality agreement.”
George took out a sheet of paper, unfolded it and passed it to Helen. He gathered the papers on the table and tucked them back into his jacket.
Helen squinted at the paper. “What is this? Some new con trick?”
“It’s perfectly straightforward,” said George. “We waive all the interest – at a considerable loss to ourselves – as long as you promise not to tell anyone. If you do, the interest becomes payable and all the penalties we mentioned come back into play.”
“I can tell my kids? My husband?” Helen read the document over and over, searching for a trap, a trick, another cunning clause.
“No, because they aren’t bound by this agreement. Only you are.” George at least had the decency to look sympathetic. “You can never tell anyone at all.”
“Sign, and we take eighty-nine percent off the total bill.” Tiddles spoke softly. “All you have to do then, is forget this ever happened. Oh, you can still warn your kids when they turn fifteen but you can’t tell them about the interest part.” He grinned. “But hey, they are your kids, they’re bound to work it out, right?”
“And you don’t end up broke.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He handed her a pen.
“They’ll work it out.” Helen accepted the pen and after one last read through, she signed. Then reached for her handbag and took out her credit card. It all still seemed so unreal, so dreamlike. The elves looked blurred, almost transparent. Even the kitchen drifted in and out of reality.
Her children burst into the kitchen, yelling about some amazing trick they had pulled with their drone toy. Helen jumped and looked around but the elves had vanished. She shook herself. Elves in the kitchen? Must have been a dream, she must have fallen asleep for a moment. She hugged her kids and listened to their childish wonder at the toys Santa had brought them.
Something nagged at the back of her mind, but it was probably just fatigue. It felt as if she had to tell the children something but the detail had gone. Helen shrugged it off. It was unease caused by a strange dream, nothing more. She followed the children into the garden to watch their drone trick.
On the roof, Tiddles and George watched from their cloaked sleigh.
“It’s a bit mean, really,” George said. “We never tell the smart ones about the magic part that happens when they sign the confidentiality agreement.”
“It’s not mean.” Tiddles started the sleigh with the push of a button and it rose in silence into the sky. “We can’t let word spread about our interest scam. If it ever got back to Santa he’d be furious. We’d all be sacked and have to go back to scraping out a living in the woods. So far we’ve only lost out to about three percent of our targets. That’s not bad.”
“I miss the woods,” said George.
“I bloody don’t,” said Tiddles. “I’d miss my Bugatti Atlantique and my holiday flat in Monaco a lot more. Anyway, you own woods. Damn, you must own every forest in Scotland by now. I’ll never understand why you spend your share on the very thing we tried so hard to escape.”
“I know you won’t.” George smiled at the landscape passing below. “Humans clear forests for their houses, you know. That’s why I’m part of your scam. I want to buy the forests so they can’t have them.”
Tiddles rolled his eyes. “You’re a damn weirdo, George, but you’re the best paperwork handler in the world.” He put the sleigh into a steep dive. “Here we go again. Get the papers ready for our next patsy.”