A Christmas Story from the world of The Office of Lost and Found
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The small girl was blonde of hair and pink of coat and moments after she stormed into Santa’s Grotto, the surrounding air turned a vivid purple.
The sound drew Herman Jeffers. He descended an escalator, pushing past rubber-necking shoppers, thinking he really didn’t have time for this.
A crowd gathered around the grotto. The plywood construction was shaking. Fake snow fell from the roof. The queue of families previously waiting outside had retreated to a safe distance. The parents were muttering, the children crying.
“Stay back, everyone,” said Herman, arriving on the scene and tripping over a bag stuffed full of 3 for 2 toiletries.
“Watch where you’re going!” said the owner of the bag, a woman in an ostentatious fur coat. She began gathering up the scattered gifts. “If any of these are broken—”
“Then you might be causing a fire hazard as well as a health and safety violation,” said Herman, climbing to his feet and dusting off his security guard’s uniform. “They’d lock up people like you if I had my way.”
“Herman!” cried a Christmas elf, staggering from the grotto. “Look what that little bitch did!”
Bright red fake fingernails pointed to bright red scratches running to a rouged cheek.
Herman laughed. “Britney, Britney, Britney, that kind of thing’s got to be an occupational hazard when you’re dealing with brats all day. Now let’s see the brat in question and get this mess sorted out.”
Just before Herman reached the door, the brat in question stepped out of the grotto with a good clump of Santa’s beard gripped tightly in a pink-mittened hand.
“He couldn’t even name three reindeer,” said the little girl through pursed lips.
“Ah, you’ll be our pocket Armageddon then.”
“Taser her, Herman, before she tries biting your bollocks off,” said Britney, cowering by a stall selling mobile phone face-plates and dabbing at her cheek with a tissue. Her language prompted a volley of ‘tsk’s from the assembled parents.
“You know I don’t carry a Taser,” replied Herman.
“I know you haven’t got any bollocks either, it was just a figure of speech.”
Herman ignored her and leant down before the troublemaker.
“Where’s your mummy and daddy, little girl?”
“Abigail!” cried a voice from the escalators. “Abigail!”
The sound of her name being called sent the little girl scurrying off in the opposite direction. The crowd of shoppers parted to let her pass, intent on remaining curious bystanders instead of actually getting involved.
Herman caught the girl up within a handful of strides and grabbed her by the arm.
She duly bit him on the hand.
So he slapped her across the back of the head.
“What do you think you’re doing to my daughter?” asked a man running up with shopping bags in each hand.
“Showing her some discipline,” replied Herman. “Ow! Would you stop with the biting?”
“Yes, Abigail, stop biting the man,” said the father. “And you let go of her. I can take care of things now.”
Herman released the little girl and rubbed at the fresh teeth marks around his right thumb.
“I’m afraid it’s not going to be quite as simple as that, sir. There are quite a few traumatised people back there. It’d set a bad precedent if we let this kind of thing go.”
“But she’s just a child. You know what children are like.”
“I do, sir, I do. Wild, unruly, selfish – horrible things they are. I also know what parents are like. They let those stinking children run loose and then refuse to take any responsibility for all the damage that’s caused. Lock up the children and shoot the parents, that’s what I say.”
Abigail’s father stared at Herman and then made sure to put himself in between his daughter and the security guard.
“Okay, okay, this is my fault,” he conceded. “If I have to pay damages, then just… tell me how much.”
He fumbled a wallet from his coat pocket.
Britney the elf peered over his shoulder.
“That better be a platinum card I can see in there, because plastic surgery to fix scars like this costs a bleeding fortune.”
“I really don’t think money’s going cut it,” said Herman. “I think we’re all going to have to pay a visit to the shopping centre manager.”
“But—,” began Abigail’s father.
Herman averted his eyes from the protest and waved a hand toward a set of lifts until the father and daughter got the message and started moving.
“I still want someone to pay for that plastic surgery,” said Britney as the lift doors closed. She was left behind; a mute figure in red and green beyond the glass.
“Your mother is going to be so angry with you when we get home,” hissed the girl’s father.
“Is she really though?” asked Abigail. “Or is that just another big fat lie like everything else?”
“Abigail, you do not say things like that!”
“But it’s true!”
“It’s not!” Her father glanced at Herman before continuing in a whisper. “I never lied to you.”
“Then show me the real Father Christmas.”
The lift doors opened two floors up and Herman led them out. There were few shops on this level, so the walkway was largely free of the festive chaos that reigned below.
“Father Christmas is a busy man,” said the non-Christmassy father. “I can’t just click my fingers and make him appear.”
“Then I can’t just click my fingers and believe you.”
Herman laughed. “That one’s way too smart for you, sir. You’ve got it right, little miss. This Christmas thing’s all a big con. Brightly coloured lies tied up with a big ribbon, that’s what it is.”
“Don’t listen to him, Abigail. I’ll find you Father Christmas. I’ll prove he exists.”
Both Herman and Abigail snorted disbelief.
The door to the shopping centre manager’s office loomed ahead, but then Herman took an abrupt right turn.
“You know what?” he said. “In the spirit of Christmas and all that, I’m going to help you two out.”
“You’re going to let us go?”
“Oh, better than that. Much better than that.”
The watch repair store was a tiny kiosk embedded in a wall near one of the exits to the centre’s multi-storey car-park. The sign overhead was faded. The shutters were closed. It looked abandoned, but Sellotaped to the corrugated metal was a piece of torn paper with writing upon it.
“The Office of Lost and Found,” read Abigail’s father.
Herman banged a hand on the shutters.
“Thomas! Thomas, are you in there?”
There was no response for a few seconds, then the shutter lifted a few inches to reveal a line of darkness. A pair of bloodshot eyes appeared and blinked at them.
“Herman, I hoped you’d have forgotten about me by now,” said the man within.
“I couldn’t forget about you, Thomas. You’re my raison d’etre. I spend all my days trying to think of how to get you out of my shopping centre when no one else believes you exist.”
“Even I’m not sure I exist right now,” said Thomas, blowing a red nose into a tissue. “But I am sure I’m infectious. You’re no doubt all risking your lives talking to me.”
“This man can find anything,” Herman told the father and daughter. “Or so the stories go.”
“Anything?” asked the father.
“Even Father Christmas?” asked the daughter.
“Even Father Christmas,” confirmed Herman, smiling at Thomas.
The bright red coat, voluminous white beard and beaming smile were unmistakeable. When accompanied by nine prancing reindeer, a good dozen pine trees, countless glistening icicles and an example of just about festive symbol you could think of, it was hard to miss the fact that Christmas had arrived at the Redwood household. If you managed that feat regardless, the eight thousand, five hundred and six-two bulbs that made up this picture did their best to rectify the situation by flashing on and off all at the same time, then one after another and then, if you were perhaps blind and therefore unaware that Santa was waving a neon arm in warning when you ventured too close, hidden speakers would blare out “ho ho ho!” and begin a tinny rendition of ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’.
Unlike the hypothetical blind man, Abigail could not flee at this point. Her father was dragging her up the path, while she tried both to resist his efforts and block her ears to the sound. This was straightforward with her left hand, which provided a bare index finger to block the ear canal, but her right hand was covered by a fluffy mitten and this admitted the terrifying promise that the singers wouldn’t go until they got some figgy pudding.
Inside, the music was drowned out by extended family chattering in the living room. Mr Redwood and his daughter removed heavy coats and boots in the hallway without exchanging a word. Mrs Redwood’s head appeared from a kitchen doorway and studied the arrivals.
“Hmm,” she said. “I counted one grumpy sod leaving here earlier and I see two have returned. This must mean our last minute shopping trip did not go well.”
After weeks of opening until 11pm, the mall closed on Christmas Eve at six o’clock. Herman’s escape from that infernal place was done at speed. He loped across the emptying car-park and arrived at the bus stop in time for the number sixty-two to carry him away from the sickly lights and garish decorations. His job was bad at the best of times, but the month of December was a particular chore. At least it was almost over. One more chore to complete and then he could shut himself away at home and forget Christmas was even happening.
“It’s completely unreasonable,” muttered Thomas Locke. “Unreasonable and very probably impossible. Can’t be done.”
He shivered within the confines of the shuttered up watch repair kiosk and pulled his solitary blanket tighter around his shoulders.
A piece of note-paper fluttered up around his nose. Despite the darkness, he found the black writing plain to read. Thomas grabbed the paper, crumpled it up in a hand and tossed it over his shoulder.
“The finding isn’t the problem.” Every point of punctuation in his speech was marked by a laboured sniff. “Me dying is the problem. It’s close too, I can feel it. I’m using the last of my strength to complain and when I’m done, dead. Gone. No more finding for anyone.”
He coughed and cast a fleeting glance toward one corner of the darkened kiosk that was darker than the rest. Viewed out the corner of an eye, that darkness could be mistaken for the shape of a man dressed in a long coat.
An awkward silence was allowed to brood for a few moments.
“You should give that girl her mitten back,” said Locke. “We don’t need paying if we can’t do the finding.”
He expected another note to drift in front of his face. He waited, but none came. It took a long minute for Locke to muster the will to check the corner again. When he did, the man-shaped darkness was gone.
But the mitten remained.
“Okay, fine,” said Locke, throwing off the blanket. “If returning this mitten is the last thing I do, then so be it. It’s not like I was looking forward to seeing another Christmas anyway.”
The presents under the Redwoods’ Christmas tree were stacked three and four parcels high. Two-dimensional trees, bells and holly patterned across the wrapping paper teased Abigail’s young cousins, who were gathered around them, staring possessively at those with tags bearing their names and willing Christmas morning to arrive early.
“Can’t we open one now?” asked Johnny Redwood.
“Yes, just one,” agreed Millie Redwood.
“Or two,” suggested Gavin Thremley, whose mother’s maiden name was Redwood.
“Certainly you can open one now,” said Grandmother Redwood, who could have been a Grimm’s Fairy Tale woodcutting brought to life, albeit one decked out in Marks and Spencer’s autumn/winter range.
Squeals of excitement came from the children as they reached for the most enticing of their promised gifts.
“But…” said Grandmother Redwood loudly, causing the cousins to freeze, “opening one present early means you don’t get to open any more presents for another fifty-two years.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Them’s the rules, kids,” said the matriarch, smiling. “But by all means, open one now if you wish.”
None of the children did. Instead, they edged away from the stack of presents, glaring at them as if they had suddenly been doused in horse manure.
While the cousins sulked in the lounge, and aunts and uncles held adult conversation over wine in the dining room, Abigail was sitting at the table in the kitchen with arms folded. Her mother waved a box wrapped in metallic blue paper under her nose.
“Oh, come on, Abby, please. I promise you there’s something really good inside.”
“I told you, I don’t want any presents.”
“You know your grandmother makes up all that stuff about the rules? You’ll still get presents tomorrow if you open this one now.”
“You mean she lied? Like everyone lies about Christmas? What a surprise. I just want to go to bed now and you can come and get me on Boxing Day when it’s all over.”
“But we haven’t had dinner yet! And I baked mince pies for later. You love mince pies.”
“Not any more. You probably fill them with minced reindeer for all I know.”
“Let her go, dear,” said Mr Redwood from the kitchen doorway.
Abigail didn’t need further prompting. She jumped from her chair and was racing up the stairs seconds later.
“Peter!” said Mrs Redwood.
“You know she’ll just spoil it for everyone else if she stays down here being miserable.” He faced his wife’s glare. “Disagree with me, go on. You know what she’s like. She can’t sulk quietly in a corner—”
“If you hadn’t tried dressing up as Father Christmas last year…,” said Mrs Redwood, turning back to a worktop covered in baking materials.
Mr Redwood sniffed. “If you hadn’t got some weird fetish about bearded men breaking into your bedroom on Christmas Eve…”
Herman suspected everyone at the church was a criminal. The only exception was his half-brother, who was simply a fool for letting all these freeloaders in through the ancient wood doors.
“They’re not freeloaders, Herman,” said the Reverend Michael Jeffers with a smile. “Most of them have paid a heavy price to come here. They’ve lost jobs, homes…”
“Then they should have been more careful,” replied Herman, urging his half-brother to hurry on past the people in worn clothes lining the pews. He could tell some of them were drunk and others were high on drugs, while a few were plenty enough disturbed without the aid of artificial substances.
“You shouldn’t be so quick to judge,” said Michael Jeffers. “Misfortune can visit us all. We can only hope others are around to pick us up when we fall.”
“Every man should be able to stand on his own two feet.”
“And if life were to chop off your feet, what then?”
“I’d sue. Can we get this over with?”
Michael Jeffers laughed and led the way out of a back door, across a dark patch of muddy ground and into a Portakabin serving as a makeshift office while the never-ending renovation of the rear of the church continued.
“I think you spend too much time in that shopping centre,” said the Reverend, switching on a small, portable heater. “It’s soured you to the whole idea of Christmas. You do know it’s not really about tinsel and lights and buying as many garish presents as your credit limit will allow? It’s about peace and goodwill to your fellow man—”
“And a baby supposedly born in a stable while shepherds watched their flocks by night,” retorted Herman. “Do you know that means he was probably born in the Spring? This December 25th date has more to do with stamping out a pagan festival or guesswork about the day of creation than credible historical fact. Seems to me that lying about the birthday of the Messiah sets a better example for those hawking life-enhancing aftershave than it does for those who think everyone should just be nice to each other.”
“Yes, well, Merry Christmas all the same, Herman.”
The Reverend handed him a bottle of wine carefully wrapped in paper recycled from last year’s gift-giving. In return, Herman produced a plastic bag containing a bottle of wine bought ten minutes ago at the local off-licence.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Michael, and you can thank God from me that it’ll all be over in twenty-eight hours time.”
Locke’s nose dribbled onto his scarf and each drop felt like the last reserves of his life ebbing away. His whole body ached and his chest was wracked with pain whenever another rattling cough forced its way up out of his lungs. He wanted to curl up in a ball and die, but was reluctant to do so in the aisle of a twenty-four hour chemist.
He wiped his nose with the back of a hand and grabbed a box of fresh tissues from a shelf. It joined an armful of cold and flu remedies that he hoped would stave off death long enough for him to return the mitten in his pocket.
The girl behind the counter was wearing a red hat with a furry white bobble on top, but while her headgear showed festive spirit, her face did not.
“Wotcha, Mary,” said the short fellow queuing in front of Locke. He had a very high-pitched, sing-song voice and unusually pointed ears. “What do you say to me fixing some mistletoe to that bobble of yours?”
“I say I’m not kissing anyone until March unless they can show me proof they’ve had a flu jab.”
“Fair dinkum. Um, do you, err, get tinnitus at all?”
“You know, ringing in the ears, like jingling bells. Some people get it especially bad this time of year.”
“The only bell I hear is the one that rings when that door opens. Fair sends a chill through me every time. Never know what sickly creature you’re going to be facing next. That’ll be four ninety-five.”
“Hang on, I think I’ve got change.”
The diminutive man fished loose coins from his wallet and promptly spilled some on the floor. He darted after a pound coin before it rolled under a vacuum-moulded Labrador collecting donations for the blind.
“You know the best cure for jingling bells?” said the man, returning to the counter. “Turn your TV up. Drown them out, works every time.”
“I’ll remember that. Merry Christmas, weirdo.”
The pointy-eared customer left, the bell over the chemist’s door signalling his exit. Locke stepped up to the counter and then looked down at the floor.
“Talking of sickly creatures…,” said the serving girl.
Locke ignored her. Instead, he bent down and picked up a wallet.
“That must be Wally’s,” said the girl. “I bet if you run you can catch him.”
Locke slowly lifted his head and glared at her. Another life-sapping drip dropped from his nose.
Even with the curtains drawn tightly shut, Abigail could see the light from the display strewn around the house and garden seeping into her room. She unstuck posters from her walls and plastered them haphazardly around the window frame until the cracks were sealed.
These exertions left Abigail tired. She collapsed onto her bed, but her body wouldn’t let her relax. While her mind was making a stand against Christmas, her stomach was grumbling about missing dinner. She hit it with a fist. That didn’t help, but at least it made her feel like she was in charge.
Then she saw it: green, slim and discrete; pinned to the rump of her rocking horse. Abigail leapt from the bed and snatched the stocking from its mooring. Her mother had probably gambled that she wouldn’t see it until the morning. Even now she was curious to see what gifts bulged the fabric, but her curiosity didn’t argue with the fist that carried the stocking at arm’s length toward the door, which opened before Abigail reached it.
“Oh, damnables and botheration,” muttered her grandmother. “I could have sworn this one’d be the toilet. Hmm, perhaps I could just go in a corner and no one would notice.”
“What? What? A witness?” She squinted at the little girl. “My sainted undergarments aren’t going to like this, dear me, no.”
“It’s me, Granny, Abby.”
“I know who you are, I was just wondering how long it’d be before anyone noticed you were missing. The way you’ve hidden yourself away up here, it could be quite some time. Yes, perhaps it would be worth—”
“The toilet’s just across from the stairs. I’m going to flush this thing down it,” said Abigail, holding up the stocking. “I can show you the way.”
“No need, dear,” said the old lady, “I’m quite capable of finding my own way.” She turned around slowly in the doorway and switched out the light before leaving.
“Granny! I’m still in here!”
The old lady stopped and half-turned her head.
“Do you ever stop and think?” she asked.
“About how that shadow by the wardrobe looks like a man in a coat, watching and waiting for you to fall asleep?”
Abigail turned her head and saw the shadow. It looked exactly as her grandmother had described.
“Live in the moment, child. Play games. Build snowmen. Make believe.” She edged out of the room, pulling the door shut behind her. “Just don’t stop and think. Thinking’s for those like me, whose moment has passed.”
Herman walked briskly to fend off the night’s deepening chill. These streets were not brightened by Christmas lights, making do with regular orange street-lamps that offered no warmth despite their colour. But Herman was almost home. Once he was safely inside, he could turn up the fire and content himself with his murder mystery DVDs.
The first flake of snow only prompted him to increase his pace.
“That’ll be the country ground to a halt then,” muttered Herman.
Within five minutes, the snow was falling heavily, swirling like swarms of Christmas fairies beneath the streetlights and causing him to bow his head and swear frequently.
He didn’t see the couple hunched down in a doorway until he was almost upon them and only then when her wailing made him think a wild dog was about to attack.
“You’ve got to help us, mister,” she said. Dank hair falling from beneath a threadbare woollen hat framed a face damp with snow and tears. The man cradled in her arms was buried beneath countless layers of coats and cardigans, but despite all the clothing, his lips were blue, his eyes lifeless.
Herman walked on. The girl didn’t even register that he’d left. She continued talking with lips numbed by cold.
“Last words he said to me… last thing he said… was he heard jingling bells. Maybe he was right about Santa Claus…”
Thomas Locke stood outside a high-rise office. While the neighbouring buildings were dark, this one shone light from its high windows. This was odd, because Locke had circled the base three times now and was quite convinced there was no door. There weren’t windows at ground-level that would allow someone to climb inside and neither were there stairs up to an elevated entrance or ramps down to an underground car-park. Yet this curious place was where Mary from the chemist said the pointy-eared Wally worked.
Locke backed away from the building into the empty road and looked up. Chunky flakes of snow drifted down onto his face. Even if there were loose stones handy, he doubted he could throw one high enough to strike a lit window.
He produced a fresh tissue, wiped his face and blew his nose. Then he looked at the deposit left in the tissue, because that’s what men do. It wasn’t anything spectacular. His lungs were holding onto the green phlegm that infested them, leaving only watery mucus to soil the tissue. However, lining the edge of the tissue were the words of a poem:
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…’
Why anyone thought it was a good idea to print poetry on a disposable snot-rag was beyond Locke, but he knew this was a sign; this was the beginning of a trail that would lead him inside that building. His talent for finding was as inexplicable as the reasons for the writing on the tissue. Locke knew only that he could trust its guidance and that was telling him to look for…
There! Scurrying toward that drain to escape the thickening snow!
It was a rat instead of a mouse, but that was close enough for Locke. He immediately gave chase.
Abigail held a pillow over her head, trying to blot out the noise from the living room below. She didn’t want to hear her family’s desperate attempts at playing charades. The intermittent laughter was almost as bad as the arguments that broke out whenever Uncle Maurice thought Aunt Ivy’s mimes weren’t up to scratch. It was the same story as every Christmas and that was the last thing that Abigail wanted to think about.
The sudden burst of ‘ooh’s’ was new however. People began moving around below in defiance of the usual script.
Abigail threw aside the pillow. Her bedroom was dark, even though the light had been on. The hallway light had to be off too, because its tell-tale line of yellow was absent beneath her bedroom door.
She pulled aside one of the moved posters and opened the curtains. The strings of bulbs outside could be seen only as black threads criss-crossing a garden now pale and pristine in the moonlight. The snow reached halfway up the front gate, with more steadily falling. Her father was loudly blaming it for the power-cut. Abigail silently blamed it for returning the dark figure that lurked in the shadow of her wardrobe.
Herman blindly tried to find candles in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink, but soon gave up and decided he’d go to bed early instead.
His tiny terraced house rapidly lost the heat the electric fire had pumped into it over the last hour and by the time he’d cleaned his teeth and climbed into bed, his fingers and toes felt nearly frozen. The accumulated weight of a sheet, three blankets and two duvets reassured him that everything would be warmed up again soon.
He closed his eyes and immediately saw the inside of the shopping centre, festooned with glittering streamers and tinsel stars. Faceless shoppers milled around him until he managed to wrest control of his treacherous imagination and clear the floors. Then, concentrating hard, he took great pleasure in erasing every piece of Christmas decoration and every artificial light until the picture in his head was entirely dark.
That was when he began to hear the jingling bells.
The stench of the sewer clung to Locke long after he emerged from the grate in the office basement. He ached even more than he had an hour ago, despite taking twice the recommended dosage of Max Strength cold and flu tablets. Worse, he was sure that rat had been laughing at him before vanishing at the mouth of a rising overflow. Still, he was finally inside the door-less building and able to set about finding Wally and returning his wallet. If all went well, he might even be able to give that girl back her mitten before midnight and then peacefully expire without taxing himself further.
His eyes had grown accustomed to the dark whilst traversing the sewers and this proved helpful given the lights here no longer appeared to be working. He guessed the snowfall was to blame. Otherwise, it appeared to be an office building much like any other. There were desks separated by partitions and kitchen areas at regular intervals. Locke found nothing untoward about the place until he brushed past a photocopier and knocked a piece off. He quickly picked it up to try and put it back, but found it tacky to the touch. Further inspection revealed he was a holding a length of candy-cane and the photocopier itself was made of the same substance. Locke looked around in confusion, before feeling compelled to experiment on other parts of the office.
The desk partitions were made of gingerbread, the desks themselves, marzipan. A computer tower was opened to reveal circuits traced in liquorice and transistors made of mint humbugs. The staplers were chocolate and tasted quite nice, but the pencils were regular pencils made of wood and less palatable as a result.
Locke ran up the stairs, his illness forgotten. He just wanted to return the wallet and be out of this place before he found himself eating a whole A3 printer made of Battenburg cake.
He exited onto the eighth floor. This was where he’d seen some of those lit windows. A moment of listening gave no suggestion others were here. Locke ventured forward. Wally had appeared relatively normal, but there was no guessing what other kinds of people he’d find in a workplace built from confectionary.
He passed an open door. A glance inside showed it full of filing cabinets. Unable to resist, he checked the nearest. It was made of strawberry cheesecake. It had also been locked until he broke the lock off to taste it. Inside were paper files. The foremost one caught Locke’s attention. He pulled it out and began to read, while idly munching away at more pieces of the filing cabinet.
Locke looked round, then looked down.
The security guard was very short, with very pointed ears. His uniform was regulation black, but his shoes were green, with a toe that curled up and ended with a golden bell.
“You’re a real, live elf, aren’t you?” said Locke.
The elf duly shot him with his Taser.
“Are you all right in there?” asked Abigail’s mother from the other side of the barricaded bedroom door.
“I’m fine,” called back Abigail.
“Well, we’re all going to bed now. Your father expects the power will be back on come morning.”
“Doesn’t bother me.”
“You will be down for breakfast, won’t you? And maybe to open a present or two?”
Her mother sighed.
“Suit yourself. We’ll see you when we see you then. Night, night.”
Footsteps retreated away along the landing, a door closed and then all was quiet in the Redwood house. The only sound Abigail could hear was that of her own breathing.
“I’m not afraid of you, you know,” she whispered to the shadow by the wardrobe. “And I don’t care if you’re here because I said I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, because I know he’s not real and things that aren’t real can’t hurt you.”
The shadow did not speak and did not move from its position by the wardrobe.
“I’m going to go to sleep now. You’ll be gone when I wake up.”
She rolled over in her bed and pulled the sheet up around her chin. She wanted to check if the shadow had moved while she wasn’t looking, but didn’t dare. Instead she closed her eyes tight and told herself she was safe as long as she stayed in bed.
Then she heard the faint jingling of bells.
“We’ll have to kill you now,” explained Wally, waving the file Locke took in front of his nose.
“But no one would believe me if I told them,” said Locke. He’d given up struggling against the unnaturally strong silly string that held him to the chair as soon as he realised he was glad of the sit down.
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” said Wally, pacing up and down in front of a crowd of elves that glared at Locke from beneath paper hats and sporadically menaced him with party blowers. “Those ridiculous rumours that people mock today have a nasty habit of turning true all too soon afterwards. We remember when there were only four elements and the world was flat and—”
“Was Santa ever more than just an advertising campaign?” asked Locke, nodding at the file.
“We do all of this so you people don’t ask questions like that,” said Wally. He gestured to his colleagues, before pointing at windows that looked out over the powerless town. “All of the money and marketing and lies, we do it all so you big people never learn the true meaning of Christmas.”
Herman covered his ears, but it didn’t help. He shouted at whoever was causing the noise, but if they heard, they didn’t stop. He gritted his teeth and balled himself up in bed, holding tight bedclothes that were still as cold as when he first climbed beneath.
Finally, Herman snapped. He hauled himself out of bed and shoved his feet into his slippers. A dressing gown was brusquely pulled on over his pyjamas. He crossed to the window and flung it open. A blast of chill air swept into the room, carrying with it dancing crystals of ice. He leaned his head out in search of whoever rang the bells that denied his sleep.
The backyards and rooftops were lifeless; smothered by snow. Herman shivered. Goosebumps riddled his flesh. He withdrew, closed the window and hurried to the spare room.
The street at the front of the house was equally barren. The only light that fell upon the world came from a full moon gazing down from a clear sky.
Yet Herman could still hear that damned jingling. Was it coming from downstairs? He went to check, slippers flapping against his heels as he navigating the steps in the dark.
Nothing in the living room, but the bells were definitely louder. He closed his eyes and tried to determine their direction, but the origin seemed to fall within the bounds of his skull.
He stormed into the kitchen and threw open cupboards. He checked the oven and the bin.
Jingle, jingle, jingle.
He clasped his hands over his ears.
Jingle, jingle, jingle.
Herman snatched up a jam jar and hurled it at the wall. He saw it explode into glassy shards and globs of red, but heard only:
Jingle, jingle, jingle.
He staggered out into the hall and then back into his living room. It was then Herman knew the sound came from the chimney. With both hands he grabbed the electric fire and tried to pull it clear of the bricked up hearth.
The bells grew louder and louder, until the vibrations ran through his head and his teeth began to chatter. Twinkling lights appeared at the edge of his vision.
The fire fell away and he began scratching at the bricks behind. His fingers were blue and the veins standing proud on the back of his hands ran black, but Herman could not see this. He could see nothing but the twinkling lights and hear nothing except the jingling bells.
“Leave him be,” said an elderly elf, pushing his way through the crowd toward Locke.
“But he’s a human,” protested Wally. “He was trespassing! He stole a file on the Santa account and he stole my wallet!”
“I didn’t—” began Locke.
“Hush, both of you,” said the elderly elf. “I know why he’s here and I also know he’s of The Office of Lost and Found.”
This revelation sent nervous murmurs running through congregation. The newcomer walked up to Locke and then sat down cross-legged on the floor before him.
“You were asked to find Father Christmas, were you not?” he asked.
Locke nodded. “By a little girl called Abigail. She didn’t believe.”
The elder elf’s shoulders sagged and he shook his head.
“I will tell you the secret of Christmas, Thomas Locke of the Office of Lost and Found, but you must know that we keep this secret only so others do not share the fate that will befall young Abigail this night.”
Abigail did not want to leave the sanctuary of her bed. She had shushed as loudly as she dared, but whoever was jingling those bells either did not hear her or chose to ignore her protest.
She rolled onto her back, counted slowly down from three and then opened her eyes. Her heart skipped a beat in anticipation of the shadow looming over her, but instead she saw it remained by the wardrobe, unmoved.
Abigail gingerly climbed out of bed. The carpet was cool beneath her feet as she crossed to the window. A glance outside showed the snow was now three quarters of the way up the front gate. The pavements were free of footprints and the cars parked by the kerb had not moved since the snow started falling. Every tree was dark and still. Not even a breeze could claim responsibility for jingling bells.
It must be someone in the house, thought Abigail. She turned and headed for the bedroom door.
“Christmas is about presents,” explained the elder elf. “It’s about crackers and the terrible jokes you find inside. It’s about trees and the baubles we hang upon them. It’s about churches and prayers and carols sung even by those who cannot sing. It’s about the story of a child born in a stable and a jolly man branded by Coca-Cola and how a luxury fragrance can make you look handsome and witty and desirable to the opposite sex. Gross commercialisation, festive cheer and religious rites; Christmas is all of these things, because we made it so. Christmas is anything and everything that keeps us distracted.”
* * *
Abigail stepped out onto the landing. A floorboard creaked under her weight. Her breath flowered as a faint cloud in front of her face, before gently dispersing. She hugged her arms tight about herself. The jingling bells sounded as if they were coming from the guest room at the end of the hallway. When she heard a booming “ho ho ho” in the middle of the night exactly one year ago, she had run to its source with unabashed excitement. This time she proceeded with caution.
“If we are not distracted, we might see how dark the nights have become and we might feel the chill of the winter in our bones,” continued the elf. “Once our minds are open to such things, they are prone to noticing that which came before gods or credit cards and as we notice them, they notice us. And they come with their jingling bells and twinkling lights and bleed you dry of every happy year you’ve lived and have yet to live until all that’s left is a life not worth living.”
The bells grew louder.
Abigail could not feel her toes. She had her fingers wrapped up in the folds of her nightdress, but they too were turning numb.
She tried to speak up to tell the ringer of the bells to be quiet, but couldn’t summon her voice.
She cast a glance over her shoulder. Was that shadow by the banister the one from by her wardrobe?
The bells grew louder.
“I just want them to stop,” Abigail told the shadow. “You can come for me if you have to, but I have to make them stop.”
She turned back to the door. She didn’t even care if it was her father behind it, stealing away the magic of Christmas for a second year, the jingling was a pain in her skull that chattered her teeth and made the space behind her eyes hurt.
She pulled a hand free of her nightdress and reached out to the door. Her fingers were so pale they almost glowed in the darkness. She touched the handle. The brass burned against her skin, but she pressed down and pushed forward and the door swung open.
The room beyond was full of noise and colour. Abigail saw Christmas trees and gaily wrapped parcels. Children were running around, laughing and arguing. The smell of roast turkey filled her nostrils. It was a hundred Christmasses rolled into one, with each slowly bleached of colour by strands of black tinsel that criss-crossed the room like a bleakly festive spider-web. The memories fell from Abigail’s grandmother, who was suspended in the middle of the room, convulsing.
Abigail stared in horror as twinkling lights began to crowd the edges of her vision.
Her grandmother managed to turn her head. The old woman’s tears fell as crystals of ice to the floor.
“It’ll be okay, dear,” she whispered. “You just need to believe in—”
The words caught in her throat, strangled by black tinsel.
“But I can’t,” said Abigail, shaking her head. She could see the sight from a year before: the beard was fake, the fat belly a pillow; her parents puncturing age-old magic and mystery with a brandy-fuelled grope beneath the mistletoe.
Her grandmother finally fell limp. The bells ceased.
But only for a moment.
Then they returned, louder and deeper, chiming in time with the terrified beating of Abigail’s heart. The black lines within the room shifted, melting away like wax before cutting a new path that led them closer and closer to the little girl.
She backed away. Her head was swimming; drowning in noise while the flashing lights all but blinded her to the fate lancing toward her.
“I can’t believe in Santa,” said Abigail, “but I can believe in shadows…” She turned her head. “You can come for me now.”
The weave of black tinsel snatched for her, but the shadow from her wardrobe got there first.
The Reverend Michael Jeffers knocked on Herman’s door for a third time. While he waited for a response, he stamped his boots on the doorstep to help keep warm. A few of the neighbours were already out with shovels, clearing snow from the pavement or trying to extract cars from the white mounds that covered them. As the Reverend looked around, he couldn’t help but smile. There was something magical about a white Christmas.
The door finally opened.
“Merry Chri… Good Lord, Herman, you look terrible. And about ten years older. What on earth did you get up to last night?”
“Uh, nothing, I guess I must have just not slept very well.”
“Staying up late waiting for Saint Nicholas? I always knew you were a big kid at heart.”
“Yeah, that’s me. Big kid.”
“I was checking up on my flock after last night’s power-cut and thought I’d drop by and see if you wanted to come down to the church and help—”
“Do I look like I want to help anyone today?”
Herman glared at his half-brother and then slammed the door shut. He cringed on hearing a defiant “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” make it through the wood.
“What on earth is merry about Christmas?” asked Herman, sloping back off to bed. “I swear one of these days it’ll be the death of me.”
* * *
Locke sat on the wall to the Redwood’s front garden, swinging his legs back and forth so his shoes wore channels in the snow. He drew a deep breath in through his nose and grinned at the novelty. Then he watched Abigail finish off the construction of a snowman a few feet away. It had a long carrot for a nose and pieces of gravel formed eyes and a mouth. The arms were broken twigs and a battered old Fedora sat on the snowman’s head. She patted his ample torso into shape with mittens restored to both hands.
“You didn’t need to lie, you know,” said Abigail, while fastening a school tie around the snowman’s neck.
“About what?” asked Locke.
“About not finding Santa.”
“So you believe he exists now?”
“I believe… Santa’s not as important as people make out.” She appraised her handiwork before gesturing toward the house. “Do you want to come inside? Mummy makes the best mince pies.”
“No, it looks a bit chaotic in your house this morning.”
“That’s because Granny died during the night.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. She saved me. And she wanted me to live in the moment and build a snowman, so that’s what I’ve done. I think she’d like that.” She turned to face Locke. “Will you be visiting your family for Christmas?”
Locke bit at his lip and shook his head.
“I’ll be heading back to my kiosk. Maybe my business partner will be there… Would you believe he lost my flu and gave me socks? Socks. I suppose I should try and get him a Christmas present, but what do you get someone who—?”
He stopped and looked down at Abigail, who was standing in front of him with arms out-stretched.
“I think a shadow would probably like this,” she said.
Locke hesitated, then smiled and accepted the snowman’s battered Fedora.