I may live to regret this, but, here is the sequel to my Christmas short story.
When you get to the end, you might realise that that is not the end, either…
Henderson who wasn’t really a Santa was having a hard time trying to explain the lack of elves.
‘They fell out of the back?’
‘Both of them?’
‘Both of them at once?’
‘They both fell out the back, both at once?’
‘That is unusually careless of them.’
‘Is it?’ Nicol suddenly shouted. ‘Is it? They’ve been doing this job for almost two hundred years, and I can’t imagine how one of them would come to fall out, never mind both of them! What the hell were you doing whilst this happened? And how come you managed to stay aboard?’
‘I was up the front. They were sitting at the back. Behind me. I didn’t really see what happened.’
‘Alright. Run me through it one more time.’ Henderson shrugged.
‘It’s quite straightforward; we’d done the last drop, we were on our way back and the sleigh did a sharp turn, and, er, they fell out. That’s it, really.’
It really was difficult suppressing a grin.
‘And they fell out.’ Nicol stared at him. ‘They…just…fell…out.’ They looked at each other for a while without speaking. ‘This sharp turn that the sleigh did…’ Nicol looked out of the window for a moment, and then back at Henderson. ‘No one loses both elves! In fact, only once before has anyone even lost one!’
‘How did that happen then?’ he asked, hoping to change the subject, but Nicol was having none of that.
‘So you suddenly cut in the satnav.’ It was impossible to read anything in his face. ‘That’s never a good idea.’ He seemed to be waiting for an answer.
‘What makes you think I did that?’ But he knew that his expression had given him away. He shrugged. ‘It’s possible I did.’ He conceded.
‘It’s possible that you’ll have to go back and find them, then.’
‘Yup, go back.’
Nicol opened up the laptop that was the only item on the dusty table.
‘I can check the tacho. That should tell us where you were, and also when you were.’
‘I was on the way back, so I presume I was on ‘today’ time.’
‘It doesn’t work like that. We have to stay in time shift all the time we’re away from here, otherwise Air Traffic Control at Heathrow will have kittens. So…let’s see…’ He tapped a few keys. ‘Right, then. It plonked you straight into 1682 as soon as you left your last drop, and you went…’
‘1682? Why on earth then?’ Nicol shrugged.
‘Why any particular time? It’s well over a hundred years before we started. All the run-ins and run-outs take place BS.’
‘Before Santa. No chance of accidently colliding with yourself in mid-air. Or with anything else. Look at it like radio waves; a radio station gets a particular frequency so that its signal doesn’t interfere with any other radio station. In theory, that is. Every single run-in or run-out gets its own slot – year, month, day, hour, minute and second – so…’ he looked at the screen again, took a biro from one of his trouser pockets, rummaged around in his other pockets for a moment, then brought out a scrap of paper. He put it down on the table and smoothed it out, then carefully wrote down the figures from the screen.
‘Of course, it’s not really like that at all. Now, before we do anything, let me just Google that…oh, this doesn’t look terribly good. In 1682 a couple of strangely dressed creatures were found on a hillside just outside the village of Porton, which is where you were, according to the tacho, which began a frenzy of witch hunting that resulted in…blah, blah, blah…ah, here we are. Yes, two burnings and a hanging.’
‘What?’ Suddenly, he no longer felt like laughing.
‘Yes. Directly responsible for it, I expect. Apparently these creatures were examined by the village priest and someone referred to as a ‘doctor of physic’, who declared them to be ‘imps of Satan.’’
‘Does it say if they were dead?’
‘Nooo…’ he said slowly. ‘It doesn’t. But they’re tough little buggers.’ Unexpectedly, he gave a short snort of laughter. ‘Harder to kill than cockroaches, someone once said.’
‘Perhaps they’d tried.’ Henderson said, with feeling.
‘Be that as it may, we need the little buggers back.’
‘I don’t think we’ve ever had to do this before.’ He narrowed his eyes, staring intently at the screen.
‘I think the only way it would work is if we programmed in exactly the same deliveries as today’s. It should then come up with exactly the same route, using the same time shifts.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I’m not actually sure whether or not it’s affected by how long each stop is…I think I’ll have to over-ride the date and time thingy, as well, so it really thinks that it’s nine o’clock this morning.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then I push you out, like the elves.’
‘Not really.’ He looked as though he quite fancied the idea, however. ‘Now…’ He tapped away at the keyboard again, and then leaned forward, his hands resting on the edge of the table, staring at the screen.
‘What did you do before you had computers?’
‘Eh? Oh, it took a lot longer.’ He stared at the screen some more, and then scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘I don’t understand. What…?’
‘It’s not giving me the same…hang on, other than when you lost the elves,’ he glared, ‘did you use the satnav at all?’
‘A couple of times.’
‘Oh, bugger. I don’t suppose you could remember where?’
‘No, sorry…oh, sort of. It was just once. I’m still not sure where, although it was quite early on.’
‘Once. Are you certain of that?’
‘Oh, that might not be too bad.’ He stared at the screen a little longer, and then began tapping the keys again.
‘Can’t we just go straight to sixteen whatever you said?’
‘I don’t think so. There doesn’t seem to be an option for that. I’m afraid you’ll just have to sit in the sleigh for seven hours until you get to that point, and then land.’ Henderson stared at him.
‘I can’t help noticing that you say ‘you’ and not ‘we’.’
‘I’m not going. I can’t be gone for that long, I’ve got work to do here. The night shift will be in soon.’
‘What night shift? What about that EU working time stuff you mentioned?’
‘That only applies to the over fifty’s. Tonight’s Santa is a student making a bit of holiday money.’
‘Oh. But, anyway, we can just return to the same time that we left.’
‘Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You have to age exactly the same amount when you’re in time shift as you would here in 2015.’
‘Why?’ He shrugged.
‘You just do. Trust me.’
‘What the hell am I doing?’ He asked himself, as the sleigh slowly dropped through the clouds and came to rest in a small, muddy field. The gloom that covered the land reflected his mood pretty well, he thought. He sat still and stared around carefully, half expecting to see the elves lying close nearby; he imagined then stuck head down in the mud, feet kicking ineffectually in the air, and grinned. Then he reminded himself that he was supposedly in 1682, and thought again ‘What the hell am I doing?’
He could not see any elves. The only obvious sign of life was a horse that stood a little way away, apparently staring at him.
And a very large bearded man, who was brandishing a pitchfork.