‘Right,’ said Henderson, ‘here we go.’ He pressed the big green button and the reindeer burst into life. Less than ten seconds later, they were cruising through the sky just below the clouds. The TimeShift had kicked in, and, looking down, they could see they were passing over what appeared to be a small town, nearly every chimney of every house belching smoke, and the few roads between them devoid of traffic. Then the air around them crackled slightly, and instantly they landed on a rooftop in a modern day housing development. It was night time.
Henderson glanced at the elves and nodded. ‘Okay?’
‘Nah, you’re the Big S. Best you do it.’
‘You know the rules!’ he said, in a passable imitation of Nicol’s voice. To his surprise, they looked at each other, grinned, and then got out.
They all stepped forward together, and found themselves in the middle of a darkened room, although each of them was able to see as clearly as if it were daytime. There was a single bed on either side of the room, each containing a sleeping child. On the end of each bed lay a large bag shaped like a sock, made from red material and embroidered in white with ‘Merry Christmas.’ A card table had been set up at the foot of one of the beds, covered with a small white cloth on which there was a small glass of sherry, and a plate with two mince pies and a carrot. He popped the mince pies and carrot into a small bag he was carrying, and poured the sherry into a flask. While he did that, the ‘elves’ put the regulation number of presents into each bag.
‘Dunnit.’ Said one of them. Henderson nodded, put a tick against the first name on his list, did that thing with his fingers he had to do, and then they were back in the sleigh. He turned around and put the bag and the flask on the floor behind the seat, and pressed the button.
‘Mind if we have these?’ said a voice behind him.
‘Cheers. Saves on lunch, anyway.’ He paused. ‘They don’t mind you eating one or two, do they?’
‘No, eat as much as you want. They don’t much care what happens to them anyway.’
‘What do they do with them when we get back, then? Do they just throw them away?’
‘They used to, but it goes to a food bank, now.’
‘What about the carrot? Can I give it to the reindeer?’
‘No, these ones can’t eat carrots. Don’t try it, whatever you do.’
‘Oh. Right.’ There was silence for a moment, then he heard a fsshh followed rapidly by two others, and then a hand suddenly appeared over his shoulder holding a tin of lager.
‘There you go, Big S. There’s a spot of Christmas cheer. It’s a bloody long day, this.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ he said in surprise. He took a sip, and then shivered slightly. It tasted pretty strong. ‘Better than that bloody sherry, anyday. Cheers!’
‘What happens to that?’
‘The sherry? Biofuel. That’s all it’s good for.’
A couple of hours into the shift, Henderson found he was beginning to relax. He was beginning to relax quite a lot, actually. He took his hands off the controls and turned around, leaning one elbow on the back of his seat.
‘I know one of you guys is called Edwards,’ he said, conversationally, ‘what about the other?’
‘It’s Lesley,’ the bigger of the two said grimly, clenching his fists belligerently. Henderson smiled.
‘Oh, right. Lesley, then, pass me another of those tins, would you?’
He reckoned they must be about halfway through the shift. It was always difficult to tell, what with their bobbing backwards and forwards randomly through the last two hundred years or more, and because of that it seemed somehow ridiculous to start worrying about whether it was two o’clock or three o’clock.
And at the moment, it didn’t seem to matter anyway.
But gradually they were working their way through the list; each name was ticked off in order, and the sacks that held the presents in the back of the sleigh were slowly emptying.
He thought he’d drunk three of those lagers, although there was a little voice somewhere inside him insisting it was four, and was just thinking it was a jolly good job that he didn’t actually have to drive the sleigh, when…
Crunch! Sssssssccccrrrrrsssshhhhhhh! Whump!
It took a lot to get reindeer to crash, but it seemed he’d managed it.
‘Where are we?’ Henderson slowly wriggled up from the foot well and got back onto his seat. He pulled his list out from his pocket and stared down at it.
‘Err, just outside Huddersfield. Probably.’ They had landed, but for some reason instead of coming down gently onto the roof of the house they were to visit, the sleigh had rushed down through the falling snow until it had collided with a hedge of conifers. The impetus had taken them through the trees, although they seemed to have a fair amount of snow and twigs over them and on the floor of the sleigh, then they had bounced a couple of times on the ground and come to rest against a low stone wall that formed part of the rear boundary of quite a large house.
He felt a little shaken, but nothing worse than that. He looked round at the others.
‘There’s a fair bit o’ the white stuff here, ain’t there?’ said Edwards, rubbing the back of his head,
‘Yes. Are you both okay?’
‘Yeah. Let’s get on with it.’ They all stood up, and Lesley picked up one of the sacks.
‘Right.’ They stepped forwards, but all that happened was that they found themselves standing ankle deep in fresh snow. ‘Oh.’
‘That’s not meant to happen,’ put in Lesley.
‘No,’ Henderson looked up into the sky, where the clouds were continuing to release a fair amount of snow, ‘and nor is that.’
‘Somehow, we’re in real time. Get back in the sleigh.’ They jumped in, and Henderson sat staring at the SatNav with its large red over-ride button, wondering what he should do now. He had a feeling that he’d been told about this the previous year, but the alcohol had made his thoughts rather woolly. As he hesitated, though, he heard a shout and looked up to see a couple of figures running towards them.
‘Oh, shit!’ Quickly he pressed the start button, and the reindeer roared into life. Seconds later they were up in the clouds again, and then they were down and sitting on a snow-covered roof. He looked at his list, then looked suspiciously at the co-ordinates showing on the SatNav. It seemed the program had reset itself automatically and they were now at the correct house.
Inside, he checked the list again. One child, boy, aged eight. Name of Dylan. On top of a chest of drawers was a hand-written note beside a mince pie and a couple of chocolates that read ‘For Santa, love from Dylan.’
That seemed okay then. He put a tick next to the name and they returned to the sleigh.
It was another short hop to the next call; the sleigh had barely risen to the clouds before it was down on a roof again. This time, the snow was seriously thick, and the flakes hanging silently around them were very big and very fluffy. It was remarkable, he thought, that the reindeer didn’t feel the cold.
But they wouldn’t, of course. Not these ones.
‘Right, come on. Only a few more to do, now.’ They stepped forward into the snow and materialised in a small bedroom.
And froze in horror at what they saw.
If you’ve read this far, and my thanks for doing that, then you might like to read last year’s Christmas short stories: