Issue 85: 2016 12 22: It was t’Night before Christmas (JR Thomas)

22 December 2016

It Was t’Night afore Christmas

A morality tale of Crafty Folk

by J.R.Thomas*

As Mr Thomas* is busy with his late Christmas shopping he asked Mr B, his source from the City, for a seasonal tale. He assures us this is a true story – but then, he does work in the City.

Picture of a Yorkshire landscape of rolling hills and plains and fields

‘t Yorkshireman’s dream – the Vale of York from Sutton Bank

There is a legend, begun no doubt in Scotland, that Yorkshiremen are a miserable lot, not given to celebrating anything and especially not Christmas. Indeed, in one version it is alleged that the innkeeper that December night two thousand and sixteen years ago was a Yorkshireman on a tax free contract (two years all expenses) running The Flat Cap and Whippet, Bethlehem branch. But this is all untrue; a Yorkshireman likes a good Christmas knees-up as much as the next man; he just likes somebody else to pay for it.

For yes, this is a story of Yorkshire folk, away from their home turf, but still delighted to get together and celebrate the festive season, and, as anybody who is acquainted with that proud race will recognise, it shows them operating at their finest. Half a dozen of us, long exiled to the south but keeping up old acquaintance, like to meet before Christmas to wish each other the delights of the season, discuss our eventual intention (but not yet) to move back to the dales and moors, and try to work out how much each is earning, with a chorus of “Ilkla Moor Baht” echoing across Hanover Square at midnight.

What we should be doing of course is dining on beer and pies, but such things being inadequately provided in London W1, and the years of southern self-indulgence having taking their toll (“your’e reet soft” said my cousin, still living safely within the dreaming towers of Barnsley), we tend to favour such local diners as the Connaught or Wild Honey. The time was approaching last May to organise things when Freddie, a lawyer formerly of Leeds, emailed us all (much cheaper than a phone call) to, firstly, make it known that he was having an exceptionally good year, and secondly, to suggest that this Christmastide we could push the boat out a bit and we could upgrade to a well-known French establishment of longstanding and supreme repute in Brook Street (London that is, not Leeds) which he was happy to book. The other five of us thought this was a touching and generous idea and the evening was duly booked.

The Yorkshireman likes his night out and we were all there on time – indeed four were early and made good progress at the bar before we even got to table. But we were seated soon enough among the tasteful, if not meagre, Christmas decorations, the menus produced and perused, and the orders given; and we can pass over the scoffing and quaffing simply by saying that a blxxdy good time was ‘ad by all, ba gum. Crackers were pulled, grumpiness by those who got the empty end overcome, paper hats carefully discarded, and waistcoats loosened and then unbuttoned. Our grandfathers would have been proud, if astonished at the prices.

So you join us again later, considerably later, in a more or less empty restaurant, dregs of fine wines in the glasses, plates scraped clean, and the brandy glasses being regarded thoughtfully. The shooting stories had worn out a bit, the business environment was agreed to be appalling, the merits of Range Rovers and the new Porsche 4×4 compared, summer yacht charter costs complained of, bonuses of unlikely proportions subtly alluded to, and several juicy bits of gossip analysed and thoroughly wrung out. The chairs were not quite being put on the tables, but the waiting staff were certainly leaning on the furniture with meaningful looks. In short, it was that awkward time of the night when reality must be faced and unpleasantness must intrude. It was indeed time for the ceremony of the presentation of the bill; and eventually the estate agent present (there’s always one) turned to Freddie and said “Great idea this, Fred, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks very much old lad.”

Freddie suddenly looked as though a violent bout of indigestion had overcome him, but not so much that he did not manage to splutter “Nay, nay, I was just organising, I thought Tom might pick up the bill this year, accountants are doing very well, so he’s just said”.

The food poisoning seemed now to have spread to Tom as well, who went slightly puce and said chokingly “I paid for t’pies year before last, it must be Kevin’s turn; or is it B—‘s?”

With that instinct with which they are born, the maitre d’ had suddenly materialised close by, looking a little anxious. We all looked, one to each other, trying to avoid the maitre’s increasingly steely look; and then, as if possessed by the same idea at the same time, we all turned to Frank. Frank is our token group billionaire, a classic tale of progression from bricklaying to a fortune made in construction and clever land buying, going public at the top of the market (twice), leaving his main care (as he had told us earlier, several times) being which banks to keep the stash in. We all smiled gently at Frank; but Frank did not get where he is today…. “Na then, lads; share and share alike, that would be reet. What’s t’damage, Freddie, lad?”

£1,500 was the damage.

The ebonised Chinese tray, replete with a curling and impressively long till roll, was elegantly lowered to the table, dead centre. With a groan that was not heard, but could certainly be felt, six hands pulled out six wallets; cash was clawed unwillingly from the dusty recesses and counted, and recounted. The maitre relaxed and the cash was piled up on the bill until the elegant tray spilled its burden on to the table. Or at least, £1,250 was. At that point a huge rugged hand reached out, grabbed the cash, and put down the company credit card. The cash disappeared into some mysterious inner pocket of Frank’s jacket.

£1,250 cash, tax free.  And a bill payable by the shareholders. Truly a Yorkshireman amongst Yorkshiremen, and, in one northern household at least, a Happy Christmas.

Mr B – who is a Yorkshireman – runs the blog “Bowler Hats and Flat Caps”, occasional insights into town life and country life, and the joy that ensues when they collide.

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Issue 85: 2016 12 22: Misdirection (Neil Tidmarsh)

22 December 2016

Misdirection

Lieutenant San’s remote Christmas.

by Neil Tidmarsh

Christmas Eve.  The dark sky was full of stars – and drones.  Hundreds of thousands of drones – big ones and small ones, fast ones and slow ones – all delivering a deluge of last-minute Christmas gifts.  The night air rang with their humming and whirring, their clicking and clacking; but also with their smashing and crashing.  For something was going horribly wrong.  Many of the drones were crashing into the side of buildings, or colliding with each other, or plunging down to smash into the ground or splash into rivers.

Drones drop out of the sky and parcels fly everywhere

droneageddon on Christmas Eve

The drones were out of control.  Someone was interfering with their systems; someone was hacking into their programs to hi-jack and destroy them.  Yes, they were the targets of the biggest cyber-attack ever launched against the free West.

Many thousands of miles away, in the Peoples’ Republic of East Earock, Lieutenant San Ter Zelf crouched over her computer screen, her fingers flashing over the keyboard. A very recent graduate of the republic’s Military Academy For Cyber-Warfare, she was eager to prove herself hard-working, loyal and trustworthy.  Hundreds of other uniformed figures sat in row upon row all around her, all of them focused on their computer screens, heads down and fingers tapping, just like her.  Lieutenant San nodded enthusiastically at the encouraging words of Captain Scu Roo Jer, who paced up and down between the rows, exhorting them to even greater efforts.

“Good fighting, comrades!  This hits our Great Leader’s enemies where it hurts them the most! This strikes at the very heart of their decadent world!” Captain Scu laughed fiercely.  Her sharp little teeth glittered like polished bayonet-blades.  “Every one of your key-strokes is a shot fired into Materialism and Superstition, the twin giants holding up the whole edifice of their weak and corrupt universe! Christmas is their most important festival!  Destroy Christmas and we destroy them!”

Lieutenant San knew that the machines they were destroying were carrying ‘presents’.  But she didn’t really understand what that meant.   “What exactly are ‘Christmas Presents’, Captain San, sir, if I may ask?”

“They are gifts.   Things they give each other as tokens of affection and gratitude.”

Lieutenant San gasped.  She was shocked and puzzled.  “But doesn’t everything belong to the Great Leader?”  She looked up at the big portrait of the Great Leader beaming down at them from the far wall.  “How can they give something to each other without stealing it from the Great Leader first?  And don’t they realise that only the Great Leader is worthy of affection and gratitude? Surely it’s illegal for them to feel gratitude and affection for anyone else?”

“That is why they are the enemies of the Great Leader!  That is why they must be destroyed!”

“But, Captain Scu, sir – “

“Be quiet!” Captain Scu barked.  Her eyes narrowed threateningly.  “Back to work!  You are wasting time!”

Lieutenant San turned back to her screen, quickly, feeling a hot flush of guilt and fear.  Captain Scu was right.  They couldn’t afford to lose even a second while they were fighting this battle.  She caught the eye of Lieutenant Ro Bi Nherd, the soldier sitting opposite her, who looked up from his screen for half a second – and winked at her, sympathetically.  She frowned and concentrated on the figures gliding across her screen.  Something about Lieutenant Ro – his appearance, and what she felt when she looked at him – also made her feel guilty and afraid.  She didn’t know why.  It was something she didn’t dare to think about.

She thought about the machines and the ‘presents’ she was destroying.  Gifts which had been sent but which would never be received, if she and her fellow cyber-warriors did their job properly.  What did it feel like to give a present?  What did it feel like to receive one?  The present she was targeting right now, for instance.  A box-set of DVDs, being sent from somewhere called Basingstoke in a country called Britain to an address somewhere in a city called Leicester.  She was about to press a key which would have cut the delivery drone’s power and sent it spiralling to the ground a mile short, but she paused, overwhelmed by an irresistible curiosity, and instead guided the machine safely to its destination.  She pressed another key, and images from one of The Republic’s global surveillance satellites showed her the very house to which the delivery was being made. A door opened, spilling a warm, bright light out into the cold darkness.  Someone – a smiling mother – took the package from the drone and released the machine which sped off back into the night.  Voices and laughter spilled out into the darkness, too, the sounds of joy and excitement, as the mother called back into the house, waving the gaily-wrapped package.

For a moment, Lieutenant San was there on that bright doorstep, standing right in front of that cheerful woman.  She felt her happiness.  It was just as if the light and warmth flowing from that house was travelling thousands of miles through the dark, cold night to flow into her, too.  And there was music coming from the bright house; a recording of children singing, and bells ringing, and a piano. A sweet song, gentle and comforting.   So that’s what it felt like, giving a present. Wonderful.

But only for a moment.  Then she was back at her desk in that huge, drafty converted aircraft-hangar in the middle of the vast military complex in the middle of The Republic’s capital city.  And she felt pure horror.  An overpowering fear and guilt.  What had she done?  She was supposed to be stopping the deliveries, and she had just helped to make one.  She had betrayed The Republic.  She had betrayed the Great Leader.  She deserved to be punished, most severely.  She was close to panic.  She would be found out.  She would be stripped of her rank.  She would be expelled from the cyber-warfare unit.  She looked up from her screen.  What could she do?

It was cold and dark and quiet in there.  The only light and heat, and the only sounds – the whirring of machines and the tapping of keyboards – came from the ranks of computers.  She shivered.

Lieutenant Ro looked up from his screen, too, and caught her eye.  There was something in his expression, in the glance he gave her, which suggested… what?  Understanding? An offer of help, even? If anyone could help her, it was Lieutenant Ro.  He could erase all trace of her misdemeanour with one or two key-strokes, she was sure.  He was the most gifted hacker in the building.  He should have been a Captain or a Major even.  But everyone knew that there was a shadow, a question mark, hanging over him.  His brother had Gone.  He had Disappeared, two years ago. No one said anything, but everyone knew that his brother had run away to the west.  To Western Earock.  It was disgusting, shocking.  No wonder no one spoke to Ro.  No wonder he was stuck at the rank of Lieutenant.  He was lucky that he hadn’t been thrown out of the army altogether.  He would have been, too, if he wasn’t so brilliant at his job.

Nevertheless, there was something about him which made her feel… what?  For the first time, she dared to think about it.  She liked looking at him.  He looked nice, even if he was even thinner and paler than everyone else.  Everyone knew why he looked tired and hungry all the time.  His whole family were on half-rations because of his brother.  They were being punished for his brother’s shameful betrayal of The Republic and the Great Leader.  And San guessed that Ro was surviving on even less than half-rations, so that his little sister and his mother would have more to eat (his father had died some years ago, fighting in the Patriotic War against West Earock).

San knew that Ro was kind and brave.  In the last few weeks, since she’d started working there, she’d noticed that when one of them made a mistake, and Captain Scu yelled and screamed at them, and sometimes even beat them with her swagger stick, then for days afterwards everyone else refused to talk to the disgraced individual, and turned their backs on him or her and treating them with disdain, eager to show Scu that they shared her disgust and anger.  Everyone, that is, except Lieutenant Ro; he alone would talk to them and help them, quietly showing them where they’d gone wrong and how to do it correctly. He alone wasn’t afraid of Captain Scu.

He was her only hope.  She had no choice.  She took a deep breath and logged onto their internal messaging network.  “Problem with job 5151swa. Please erase?” she typed, and then sent it to his mailbox, as fast as she could, so she wouldn’t have time to think about what she was doing.

A reply came back a few seconds later.  “What job 5151swa?  There is no job 5151swa.”

Relief flooded through her.  She felt faint with it.  She glanced up at Lieutenant Ro, and he glanced up at her.  He smiled, and winked, and then turned back to his screen.

“Thank you” she typed.  She knew she wouldn’t have to remind him to erase their exchange of messages, and sure enough, half a second later, all trace of it had disappeared.

She felt that wave of warmth and light return.  It was as if she was inside that house in Leicester again, her voice raised with joy and excitement among all the others, her ears full of the voices of those children singing that sweet song.  So this is what it’s like to receive a present…  She looked up at Ro again.  He was concentrating on his work, his eyes fixed to his screen, unaware that she was looking at him.  The feeling of warmth and light increased.  Affection and gratitude swept through her.  He was so lovely, and so brave, and so kind.  Then she felt confused. But… but… we aren’t supposed to feel affection and gratitude for each other, only for the Great Leader.  We aren’t supposed to give each other presents.  We’re supposed to give everything we have to the Great Leader alone.  Our whole lives must be one glorious gift to the Great Leader…

She heard screams and shouts from the other end of the hangar, and the noises brought her back to herself with a jolt.  Someone had made a mistake and Captain Scu was yelling at them and beating them over the head with her cane.  Her words of insult and humiliation echoed around the hangar like the screams of some great merciless bird of prey.  In a second the light and warmth had gone.  For the first time, San admitted to herself that she hated Captain Scu – hated the harsh way she spoke, hated the rigid and over-precise way she wore her uniform, hated the way she prowled between the rows of desks, hated her easy resort to anger and violence, hated everything about her – and had hated her from the moment she’d welcomed her to the unit with a harshly-barked order and a sneer of contempt for yet another wet-behind-the-ears graduate dumped on her by the Academy.

She turned back to her work.  But now she was too aware of the coldness and darkness around her to concentrate. She forced herself to focus.  This delivery, for instance – a bottle of champagne to an address in Canterbury.  She checked the order. A present from an uncle in Edinburgh to his niece.   Curiosity overwhelmed her again. What sort of girl is the niece, she wondered?  Is she the same age as me? What sort of life does she lead? She examined the girl’s data records (they had access to the full details of almost every individual in the West – everything from tweets and Facebook pages to credit-card bills and e-mails and what books they borrowed from the local library). And the first thing she noticed was that the girl was t-total.  What?  Why then was her uncle sending her champagne?  There must be a mistake somewhere…  She quickly checked the order details.  No, that was all correct…  The mistake must be the uncle’s.  He simply doesn’t know that his niece doesn’t drink alcohol.  How stupid.  And what a waste.  Then she grinned.  Well, why not send it to someone who would appreciate it, then? Someone like…  She skimmed quickly through the records once again.  She found what she was looking for almost immediately. Round the corner from that address in Canterbury was a house full of students.  It looked like they spent all their time partying. They’d know what to do with that bottle of champagne…  A few clicks and the champagne was no longer on its way to the t-total niece but to the partying student-house instead.  Good.  She felt the glow of warmth and light return.

Then she froze.  Wait!  What have I just done?  I’m supposed to be attacking these enemies in the West, not helping them.  She felt a new stab of fear (but not, strangely, of guilt).  If I’m found out, I’ll be punished.  Then she thought about it.  What was there to find out? She hadn’t technically done anything wrong.  Their orders were to destroy or misdirect the drone deliveries.  And a Misdirect was regarded as twice as effective as a Destroy.  It doubled the chaos.  And that’s what she’d done – a Misdirect.  That was why she wasn’t feeling guilty.  She hadn’t done anything wrong. Had she? Well…  She grinned again.  Yes, she had.  She knew she had.  She wouldn’t be feeling that warmth and light if she hadn’t.  But she didn’t care.  She felt glad.  That’s why she wasn’t feeling guilty.  She looked up at Captain Scu patrolling the building like a pitiless wolf looking for the way into a sheep-fold, and felt a very satisfying burst of anger and defiance.  There was nothing to fear.  Nobody would know.  Nobody would find her out.

She chose another order.  A toy robot from a grandmother in Birmingham to a grandson in Brighton.

But hang on – the boy is fifteen years old.  Much too old for a toy robot.  Why not misdirect it to… an orphanage?  Is there one in Brighton?  Yes, there it is…  A couple of clicks on the key-board and the robot was on its way to children who would appreciate it.  Next order…  As it happened, the next order was a computer game from a granddaughter to a grandfather.  A quick check of the records showed her that the grandfather didn’t even have a computer.  So she misdirected the game to the fifteen-year old in Brighton who would have been disappointed and disgusted with the kid’s toy robot.

She skimmed through the list of hundreds of orders on her screen.  At least a third of them were unsuitable gifts going to unsuitable recipients.  Toys going to children who were too old for them, novels going to children who were too young for them. Cookery books going to people who didn’t like cooking. Sporting biographies going to people who didn’t like sport.  Show-biz biographies going to people who didn’t watch television or go to the cinema.  Daring clothes going to boring girls, boring clothes going to daring girls.  Why was that?  Were people just too busy to find the right present?  Were they just too desperate when they went shopping, and ended up panic-buying?  Did everyone have just too many presents to buy?  Well, whatever the reason, she, Lieutenant San, was going to put it right for everybody…

She worked hard through the night.  She misdirected the boring clothes to the boring girls, the daring clothes to daring girls, the sporting biographies to people who liked sport, the show-biz biographies to people who liked show-biz, cookery books to people who like to cook, novels to people who were old enough to appreciate them, toys to children who were young enough to enjoy them.  Her eyes didn’t leave her screen.  Her fingers were a blur as they flew over her keyboard. She forgot where she was.  The big, dark, cold hangar disappeared.  A glow of warmth and light engulfed her, sustaining her in her labours. Her shift ended, but she didn’t notice.  She carried on working.  Other shifts came and went, but she worked on. And on.  Through into Christmas Day itself.

The morning break surprised her.  The siren rang out, dragging her up from her work as if from a deep sleep.  She realised everyone around her was getting to their feet, standing to attention, ready to sing the Republic’s victory song in praise of the Great Leader, as they did every morning in the break.  She was still in a daze as they sang.  She could hardly get the words out.  She couldn’t help thinking about the sweet and comforting songs those children’s’ voices were singing last night, so unlike the strident and challenging tune which was crashing around them now.  The song ended, and Captain Scu clapped her hands.  She had something to say.  Everyone was to remain standing to attention.

Of course, the week’s figures.  The best performers praised and rewarded, the worst performers harangued and punished.

Lieutenant San could hardly stand upright.  She felt very tired.  She let Captain Scu’s sharp words flow over her without really listening to them.  And then she suddenly heard her own name, and she jerked to attention.

“Lieutenant San Ter Zelf!  A special prize!  This dedicated and selfless officer followed the path of duty with such zeal that she worked all night, refusing to come off duty for four whole shifts!  And she achieved a record number of Misdirects, more than all her unit put together for the last week!  So this week’s tokens – the gift from our Great Leader, given with gratitude and affection as a reward to his most loyal followers in the great battle against our heartless and selfish enemies in the West, from whose evil attacks he will protect us for all eternity – are awarded to Lieutenant San Ter Zelf!  Indefatigable warrior!  Undefeated foe of the West!  Destroyer of Christmas!”

Lieutenant San’s face was an expressionless mask as she bowed to Captain Scu and received the envelope of tokens from her.  The applause of the other cyber-soldiers boomed around the big cold hangar.  As she straightened up again, she exchanged glances with Lieutenant Ro.  He winked at her, and nodded, and for a second a secret grin – knowing and amused – shone out at her.

The tokens were for the Senior Officers’ Store – a shop where all kinds of delicacies were available to soldiers of the rank of major and higher (and occasionally to junior officers if they were lucky enough to be awarded tokens for exceptional service).  White bread, and coffee, and cakes, and fresh meat, and fresh fruit, and…   So San had heard.  She’d never actually been there herself.  Neither had Lieutenant Ro.  Everybody knew that Lieutenant Ro would win the tokens every week if everything was fair.  But he was never given them, because of the disgrace of his brother’s defection.

When their shift ended, and everyone was filing out of the hangar, San made sure she was right behind Ro.  When she was certain no one would see them, she pressed the tokens into his hand.  “Merry Christmas” she whispered, and hurried on out into the wind-swept parade ground before he could object.

The sky was full of dark clouds, and there were patches of black ice all across the bleak courtyard.  Flakes of dirty snow were falling through the heavily-polluted air of the capital city.  It was very cold.  But Lieutenant San didn’t care.

She was glowing with warmth and light.

 

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Issue 34: 2015 12 24: A Modern Carol

24 December 2015

A Modern Carol

by Tim Marshall

It was Christmas Eve, it was snowing and George Anderson was in a foul mood.  The day had been a nightmare.  His wife, Annette, had been busy all day in the kitchen making ready for the family lunch on Christmas Day.  She was tired, hot, had developed a headache and was, as a result, snappy and bad-tempered.  The children had been difficult and instead of playing upstairs or outside, had of course wanted to “help” in the kitchen.  This “help” had consisted of deliberately doing the opposite of what they were told to do, because they thought it was funny to stuff the turkey with brussels sprouts, add salt to the brandy butter and put marmalade on the pudding.

They had been sent to bed with dire warnings that no presents would be delivered that night unless they behaved.  Annette had gone up early too, with a bottle of aspirin and a hot water bottle.

George sat down and picked up the Radio Times.  What a bore!  Nothing but American films: Robocop IV, Rocky V, Mad Max X, Terminator III.  Nothing about Christmas at all.  Suddenly George was fed up.  Fed up with everything about and to do with Christmas – trees, mince pies, turkey, crackers, snow, bells – the lot.  What a load of rubbish!  And Terminator III as family entertainment!  What was the point of it all?  Just a meaningless mess of silly objects and violent films.  Why not abolish the whole thing and have done with it?  He threw the Radio Times down and leaned back, feeling very depressed.

There was a sudden thud outside the window and a muffled curse.  Then, before he could move, there came a knock on the window.  George got up with regret, shuffled across wearily, pulled back the curtains and looked out.  The snow had stopped and it was a beautiful, clear, starry night.  The whiteness surrounded the house and covered the hedges and trees.  It was a lovely, eerie sight in full moonlight, but George’s eyes took no notice of the wonders of nature.  They were glued to a fat figure standing on his lawn – a fat figure in red, trimmed with white, with a white beard and whiskers.

His first thought was one of anger.  Practical jokers!  He opened the window; he was not in a laughing mood.

“Clear off, fatty!” he shouted.  “I’m not impressed – go and try it on someone else!”

The figure looked surprised, even rather hurt.  It felt itself round the middle and back, as though it had lost something and was looking for it.

“Well, I am a little stout.  I have to be – it’s expected.  Anyway, it keeps the cold out.  But surely not fat?”

He looked at George with a twinkle.  George saw a face that seemed really old, but yet full of fun – wise and childlike.  Suddenly he felt ashamed of his rude words.

“Yes, well, I’m sure… I didn’t mean… no offence…”

“That’s all right,” said the figure.  “I knocked on your window because I think I’ve sprained my ankle – silly really.  After all my experience I should be more careful, but there it is.  Could I come in and rest it for a moment?  How kind of you.”

George never knew, afterwards, how it happened, but somehow the figure, large as it was, injured as it was, seemed to reach the window with consummate ease, pass through, and was in his best armchair as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

“That’s better.  Oo-ah, it’s nice and warm in here.  What a welcome change after the sleigh.”

George looked around for his glass; there must be one – surely he had drunk too much whisky?  But no, no glass.  He must be sober.  He tried to pull himself together.  Perhaps a drink was needed.

“May I offer you a drink?  Whisky?  Sherry?  Mince pie perhaps?”  He spoke without thinking.

“How kind of you.  A glass of whisky would warm me up.”

“Coming right up.”

He fiddled around with decanter and glasses and almost dropped the lot.  He stood in a trance – at his age, pouring a drink for Santa Claus!  He wondered who the joker was, although he seemed too real to be a fraud.  But that was ridiculous.  How could Santa Claus be real?  However, the feeling persisted.  He could not believe that the person he had met, and who was sitting in his front room, was a fake.  However strange it was, the reality of the man made him believe in the fantasy.

He carried the glass over to the rotund figure and found his guest leafing eagerly through the Radio Times.

“I say, I’ve never seen these films: Terminator III.  What’s that like?  I’m afraid that I’ve never gone to the cinema, for obvious reasons.  I would love to see a film for once – find out what people are enjoying and watching.  It’s rather cold in the sleigh, you know.  I keep asking for a heater to be installed, but these things take time and the electrical division is kept busy making the computers which are so much in demand these days.  In contrast, the wood carving department has been quite severely pruned.  Many members of that department have been retrained and relocated, you know.  What a relief to be warm and snug, if only for a moment, on Christmas Eve.  You’re very lucky to have all this.”  He waved a hand.  “And to enjoy Christmas so much.”

He looked at George shrewdly.  George felt uncomfortable.  He brushed aside the feeling and began to make what he hoped was polite conversation. “How do you manage to visit so many houses in one night?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t,” admitted the large figure.  “So many housing estates and building programmes.  We have to be selective.  So we choose the poorest homes or families and they receive the traditional presents.  Then there are families or homes which need something else: comfort and love.  Sometimes these homes are the homes of the very rich.  I’m concerned about the children, and a family may have all the money in the world, but the child may be desperately unhappy because he or she lacks a kiss or a cuddle.  We have developed an essence for such homes.”

“An essence?  What do you mean, an essence?”

“It has been developed by the Chief Elf, who is a brilliant chemist.  It comes in little sacks or bags – specks of special dust which, when released in the house and inhaled, encourage otherwise unfeeling parents to love their children.”

“That sounds ridiculous.  How can that possibly work?”  George was incredulous, and sounded rude.

“I don’t know: you would have to ask the Chief Elf.  However, you know that your senses determine, or can determine, very much how you feel or act.  A nasty smell can make you feel ill, a pleasant smell may remind you of Summer or of someone you love.  A sound – music perhaps – may remind you of times long gone.  Bugles and drums inspire soldiers to be brave in battle.

“So you see, there is nothing really ridiculous in the idea of some essence affecting your senses and producing a feeling of goodwill.  Our essence does affect the way people feel or behave.  Of course, they do not know why they change and they change only for a short time, but we hope it may re-kindle feelings of tenderness which were there once, but which may have died.  Once re-kindled, those feelings may continue to grow and not die out again.”

“Even so,” observed George, “you must cover a vast number of houses in one night.  How do you know which ones to go to?”

“Our electrical department has been making computers for some time now, and there has been a spin-off.  The sleigh is now guided entirely by computer, rather like the programme of a cruise missile.  The precise geographical position of the houses are fed into the computer in the sleigh, and the computer then works out the quickest route to the next house on the list.  It decides which to visit first and so on, in order.  The computer also identifies which presents, or bags of essence, are to be left.

“The guidance system is just as sophisticated.  The computer is linked to the harness of the reindeer, and by the fibre optics which form part of the reins, the computer can transmit pulses to the reindeer – instructing them to go up or down or to left or right, so they can pull the sleigh direct to the right house in the correct sequence.”

“So what do you do?” asked George.

“Not very much these days” sighed the figure.  “I’m there to be seen, if necessary, but these days it’s just a matter of sitting there and making sure the sleigh follows the computer programme.  And delivering the presents themselves of course.  Anyone could do it, I suppose.”  He looked across at George innocently. “You could do it, for instance.”

“Me!”  George jumped out of his chair.  “What do you mean, me?  I couldn’t do something like that – I wouldn’t know how.”

“I’ve told you – it’s not difficult.  And it would help me enormously.  My ankle is very sore, you know.  Still, I suppose you want to watch these films.  They do seem very good – very exciting.”

George was silent.  He went to the window and looked out.  It was a still night, the moon was clear and the snow was frosty.  Did he really want yet another evening before the television, watching a series of American films which were as Christmassy as a suntan in the Sahara?  Hadn’t he just been thinking that Christmas was rubbish and a waste of time?  Well, you couldn’t get more Christmassy than riding around at night in a sleigh on Christmas Eve, delivering presents.  “All right,” he found himself saying, “I’ll do it.”

“Oh, that’s marvellous.  I’ll just show you where everything is.”

“Wait a moment,”  said George.  “I had better show you where everything is.”

He showed his visitor where the drinks cabinet was and how the remote control for the television set worked.

They went outside, through the front door this time, George putting on warm clothes (they were old and were now looking a bit the worse for wear), and he was soon ensconced in the sleigh, being instructed into the mysteries of the dashboard.

“You press this button here, and the program will automatically direct the reindeer to the next house.  When you have finished at one house press the “Ready” button, and the sleigh will take you to the next one, and so on.  This panel tells you what to deliver at each house.  You must leave the driving seat and go round to the back of the sleigh.  The parcel to be delivered will be ejected automatically, and all you have to do is leave it at the house.  How you do that is up to you, but this set of skeleton keys and special automatic lock opener may be useful.  Well, I think that’s all.  When you’ve finished, just press in the number 22 into the keyboard and the sleigh will return here and pick me up.  I’ll go back inside now.  I think Terminator III is just starting.  Good luck, and have fun.  If you have any problems, just press the button marked “Help” in the middle of the dashboard.”

With these final remarks, the plump figure stumped back inside and closed the door.  George looked through the window and saw him settle in an armchair, pour himself a large whisky, sigh heavily and gaze earnestly at the television screen.  Nervously, George clambered into the sleigh, pushed the “Ready” button, and found himself towed into the sky behind a team of reindeer which seemed to speed along as fast as a jet plane.  It was cold, but tremendously exhilarating.  The sleigh soon started heading down to the ground and landed outside a house.  The dashboard flashed “Presents” and George climbed out and went round to the back.  A flap opened and a sack appeared.  He picked it up and approached the house.  He wasn’t going to try climbing down the chimney, or anything spectacularly dangerous like that.  He went to the door and placed the automatic door opener in position.  He pressed the “Open” button and stood back.  Immediately a laser started from the machine and shone into the lock.  The light went out, there was a pause while the machine assimilated the information about the type of lock, and then a key wound its way out of the machine, into the keyhole and was turned.  There was a click and the door opened.

George slipped the small sack into the house and closed the door.  He pressed the “Close” button and the machine re-locked the door and withdrew the key.  George detached the machine and returned to the sleigh.  Just as he was getting in, he heard a window open.

“Look, what’s that?” whispered a voice.

“It must be Santa Claus” came the reply.

“Can’t be.  Santa Claus has a kind of red suit with white fur.  He’s got an old overcoat and a mothy old hat.”

George winced at this accurate, but unflattering, description of his oldest, warmest and favourite clothes.

“Well then, it must be the bin men.  I suppose they come round on Christmas Eve to get their Christmas tips.”

“You’re right.”  The voice sounded rather sad and wistful. “Anyway, Santa isn’t coming this year.  Daddy said so.  Mummy said that he probably wouldn’t be coming.  I think it’s because Daddy hasn’t a job anymore, but I don’t see what that has to do with Santa Claus.”

The window was closed.

George pressed the “Ready” button and the sleigh took off.  He had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, he rather resented being thought of as a bin man; on the other hand, he smiled as he thought of what the two boys would find in the morning.  Santa had come to them after all.

The next house was large and grand, so George was not surprised when the computer flashed up “Essence”.  He took the little bag and walked towards the house.  A sash window was unfastened downstairs, which he lifted and simply climbed through.  The room he entered was as large and as grand as the house itself.  He hid behind a curtain and peered out.

A man and a woman dressed in evening clothes were standing before a roaring fire.  They both looked angry.

“Aren’t those little brats in bed yet?”  asked the man.  “We’re going to be late.”

“I suppose we have to make allowances for Christmas Eve.”  The woman spoke grudgingly.

“That Nanny – why she insists we have to go up and kiss them goodnight when we want to be on time for dinner, I do not know.  At the very least, she should ensure that they are in bed on time.”

“Perhaps they are excited because it’s Christmas Eve”  suggested the woman.

“They should have got over that nonsense by now”  remarked the man.

George was not sure what to do with his little bag of essence.  Still, the window was open and a draught was coming in.  He opened the bag and, from behind the curtain, shook it in front of the window.  He waited a few minutes, but nothing happened.

Then the woman sat down and looked at the fire.  “Darling” she said, “I don’t know if I want to go out after all.  The children will wake up early, if they ever fall asleep, and I would like to see them opening their presents.  We haven’t watched them doing that for years.”

The man picked up a log or two and threw them on the fire.  “It’s funny, but I was thinking we haven’t really enjoyed a proper Christmas, just the four of us, for years.  We always seem to be entertaining or being entertained.  Perhaps I’m getting old, but, you know, I think I’d rather like a simple ‘old-fashioned’ family Christmas this year, if it’s not too late.  I’ll ring the FitzSimmons up and tell them we can’t come – you’re not feeling too well or something.”

He left the room.  After a few minutes, he returned.

“That’s fixed that.  They didn’t seem to mind; actually they sounded drunk already.  Come on, let’s pop upstairs and see what those two horrors are up to.”

They went out and a few minutes later George heard the sound of shrieks and laughter coming from upstairs.  A voice was raised in remonstrance.  “Oh, you shouldn’t do that – they were excited as it was and now they’ll never quieten down and go to sleep.”

“Stuff and nonsense.  Anyway, why not?  It’s Christmas Eve.”

George looked at surprise at the empty bag.  Perhaps it did work after all.  Could he have it analysed and start marketing it himself?  He pushed such an unworthy thought out of his mind, returned to the sleigh, and pushed the “Ready” button.

The next house was one which was to receive a sack of presents.  George took the parcels to the front door and performed his trick with the automatic door opener.  He stepped into the house and stopped dead.  A blonde with peroxide hair, a shortie nightie and a threadbare dressing gown was sitting slumped in a chair with a large glass in her hand and a bottle of vodka on the floor beside her.  She seemed to be very drunk, if not comatose.  George walked softly over to the mantelpiece, put the parcels down and turned to go.  He found that the blonde was watching him.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, Mister?”

George was dumbstruck.  Caught out in his third house.  What could he do?  What should he say?  He decided to tell the truth.  “I’m delivering the presents.”

“What bloody presents?”

“The presents for your children.”

“Why?”

This stumped George for a moment.  “Because it’s Christmas Eve”.

“Ha – Ha –Ha”  said the blonde.  “Or should I say Ho-Ho-Ho?  Who do you think you are – Father Christmas?”

“Well, actually, I am.  That is to say, not really, but I’m standing in for him this year because he’s sprained his ankle.”  George had the distinct impression that he was not doing well in this conversation.

The blonde closed her eyes in disbelief.  “Can’t you come up with something better than that?  Anyway, why bother with this house?  We’ve nothing to steal.”

“I’m not a burglar.  Look, I’m leaving these.” George pointed to the parcels on the floor.

The blonde seemed to see them for the first time.  She tried hard and, at last, focused on them. “What are they?”

“I’ve told you – presents for your children.  I’m delivering them because it’s Christmas Eve”

“Are you serious, Mister?”

“Perfectly”

“You don’t look like Santa Claus.  He doesn’t wear an old coat and scarf and a hat like that.  He wears red with white fur.  I know.  I’ve seen the pictures.  Have you come from under the railway bridge?”

“No, I told you.  I’m only standing in for the real Santa Claus because he’s twisted his ankle.  Look outside.”

The blonde struggled to her feet and looked out of the window.  The sleigh and the reindeer were standing there.  She blinked and rubbed her hand across her eyes.  “OK, Mister, you win.  I know when I’ve had enough.”  She picked up the vodka bottle, looked at it and put it down again with exaggerated care.  “Pink elephants, yes – Santa Claus, no.  I must be going daft.”  She slumped back in the chair and closed her eyes.

George left quietly.

(The next morning the blonde woke cold and stiff in her chair.  She looked up and saw her two children excitedly opening four parcels.  The noise had woken her up.  “Hey, where did they come from?” she asked.

The youngest looked up reproachfully.  “Oh Mum, Santa Claus of course.”  She then went on pulling off the paper.

The blonde went to the window and looked out.  No more snow had fallen.  She could see clearly marks in the snow, which looked suspiciously like hoof prints and sleigh tracks.  “Santa Claus, of course,” she whispered to herself.  “Or maybe a stand-in.  Who cares?”  She looked up into the sky.  “Thanks Mister,” she murmured.

The next house was, again, one to which a bag of essence was to be delivered.  All went as before.  George entered through the front door, blessing the fact that bolts on doors seemed to be a thing of the past.  He stood in the middle of a fine room and wondered what to do next.  Just scatter the stuff around and hope for the best?  Suddenly, a hard voice spoke behind him.

“All right you, stay where you are.”

He turned round slowly to find himself facing a tall, old man in pyjamas, holding a cricket bat.

“I’m fed up with you bastards breaking in and stealing anything you can lay your hands on.  I’m going to phone the police and if you move, I’ll brain you with the greatest of pleasure.  I may be alone here, but that doesn’t mean to say that I can’t take care of myself.”

George was scared stiff.  He could see the headlines:

“Claus in Custody – Santa in the Slammer”

He was also surprised.  The information he had been given was that a bag of essence was to be delivered to a house where there were children deprived of love and affection, not a crusty old man, living alone with a cricket bat.  He spoke involuntarily: “Where are the children then?”

“What children?”

“I thought there were children here.”

The man’s eyes bulged and he stuttered furiously.  “You nasty pervert.  So you are after children are you?  How disgusting.  Still, I might have known – with a coat and hat like that.  Lucky for the family which was here before.  They moved out last month.  I’ve only just moved in.”

So that was it; the records were out of date.  George spoke desperately.  “It’s not like that at all.   I came to deliver this.”  He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the small bag.  “It’s quite harmless.   Why don’t you look and see?”

He was relying on the fact that everyone, even cantankerous old men, have a strong sense of curiosity.  Sure enough, the old man took the bag, felt it, opened the neck and sniffed carefully.  After a few seconds, he looked up.

“Hmm…, what a lovely smell.  It reminds me of…well, never mind…it was a long time ago now.  But what do you mean – you were delivering this?  Delivering it to whom and why?”

He took another sniff and put down the cricket bat.  George explained briefly and at the end of his story the old man looked at him and started to laugh.  George joined in.  He couldn’t help it.

“Well, that’s the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard” roared the old man.

“But it’s true” insisted George between his laughs.  “Look outside, if you don’t believe me.”

The old man went to the window, pulled back the curtains and looked out.  “Good God” he said slowly.  Suddenly he became brisk. “You must have a lot to do.  But first, a hot toddy.  Come along.”

In a few minutes, George was sitting in a large kitchen, sipping a steaming hot whisky and water and feeling nice and warm.  He knew he couldn’t stay long, so he gulped down the brew as quickly as he could, shook the old man warmly by the hand, thanked him, and strode back to the sleigh.

“And thank you!” shouted the old man, and George looked back to see him run into the snow with a bucket and shovel.  Faintly he heard, as sped away: “Do marvels for my roses.”

At last, after what seemed like a lifetime, George saw flashing on the dashboard of the sleigh, the word “Empty.”  He pressed the button for “22” and felt the sleigh take off again.  Sure enough, after a short time, he recognised his own neighbourhood and saw his own house loom larger and larger, until his sleigh landed gently in the garden.

He felt very tired and rather cold.  The sooner they fitted a heater in that sleigh the better, he thought.  He opened the front door quietly and went into the living room.  The round figure sat up with a jerk: “Ah, you’re back I see.  How was it?  You didn’t have to press the “Help” button did you?”

“No” answered George, “but I came very near to it on several occasions.  You know, there are a lot of odd people out there.”

“Of course, but that is why we have Christmas.  It is an attempt to instil some kind of fellow feeling and kindness into people for one day a year.  Hence the expression or hope: ‘Peace on Earth to all men of goodwill’.  You never know, one day it might work.  Anyway, I’m sure you must be tired and cold and want to go to bed.”

“Tell me, did you enjoy the film?” asked George.

“Well, to be honest, not really.  But it was a relief to rest my ankle and be warm.  You have very good taste in whisky, I’m glad to say.  I’m really very, very grateful to you for your help.”

“Not at all,” mumbled George, rather embarrassed.

The visitor left, conventionally through the front door, and George went to the window.  He saw the round figure climb into the sleigh and then the group – reindeer, sleigh, driver – rose into the sky and sped away.  The driver raised a hand and waved a farewell.

George turned back to the room.  He poured himself a drink and sat down.  Just a few minutes to relax and then he would go to bed.

The next thing he knew, Annette was waking him and the morning sun was trying to burst through the curtains.

“George, you silly idiot.  Wake up.  It’s Christmas and you’ve fallen asleep in your chair.  I wondered why you hadn’t come to bed.”

George rose to his feet stiffly.  What a stupid thing to do, fall asleep in the chair.  Why had he done it?  Oh yes, he was tired after having been up all night delivering presents for Santa Claus.  His wife pulled back the curtains and the sun streamed in.  It was a lovely, crisp, cold morning.

Suddenly George stopped dead.  What was that?  Up all night delivering presents for Santa Claus?  Was he mad?  At his age, thinking such things?  Where were Yellow Pages – did they list psychiatrists?  How did you spell it?  Then a grim thought: what did psychiatrists do on Christmas day?

His wife picked up the two whisky glasses.  “I’ll wash these up.  Who were you entertaining by the way?”

George, in a daze, watched his wife leave the room with the two glasses in her hand.  Automatically, he said: “Santa Claus”.

“Don’t be silly, darling,” replied his wife as she walked into the kitchen.

She came back almost immediately with an expensive warm overcoat, new scarf and hat.

“Look at these!  I found them hanging up in the hall and there’s a note attached.  It reads: ‘To my partner, George Anderson, with my warmest thanks. S.C.’  It’s time you chucked those old things out which you used to wear, but what a lovely present.  Who is S.C.?”

George’s voice was a little unsteady as he looked at the coat, hat and scarf.  “Oh, he’s an old friend of mine.”

“Really?” enquired Annette.  “I haven’t heard of him before.  How long have you known him?”

George turned and looked out of the window.  He smiled, and spoke as though to himself.  “How long have I known him?  I’ve known him since I was a child.”

 

© Tim Marshall 2015

Issue 34: 2015 12 24: The Sixteen Days of Christmas

24 December 2015

The Sixteen Days of Christmas

by Neil Tidmarsh

First sunrise, December 25th.  Christmas, day one.  A team of United Nations stewards woke Idliff in the F2 Zone.  Another team woke Merak in the B5 Zone.

Both men breakfasted separately with their aides.  Idliff hardly touched the food.  He conferred seriously and quietly with his entourage (three ministers and two lawyers), yet again going over the clauses protecting the country’s mineral resources.  But Merak and his two generals and three colonels set about the cold meats and pastries with enthusiasm, laughing and joking loudly with each other, eager to get the day’s historic business over so they could start on the champagne and roast turkey and Christmas pudding promised for after its completion.

The blood samples taken from both men as soon as they’d left their beds showed no traces of illegal substances, and the extracted DNA confirmed their identities.  “Those two characters aren’t going to pull any surprises today” said the first doctor testing the samples.  “It’ll be smooth and easy.  The difficult stuff, all the details – cease-fire, decommissioning, demobilisation, new constitution, interim government, elections – that’s already sorted.  They just have to sign on the dotted line now.  Simple.”

The second doctor was sceptical.  “You think so?”

“It’ll be all over by day seven.  Day eight at the latest.  Then it’ll be champagne and roast turkey and Christmas pudding all the way.  Peace and goodwill unto all men.”

The second doctor shook his head.  “The last hurdle is always the most dangerous.  It’s where the favourite often falls flat on his face.”

“Day eight at the latest” the first doctor insisted.  “Not convinced?  Care to bet on it, then?  Double share of champagne to the winner?”

“If it ever gets to the champagne” the second doctor mused, but he shook on it anyway.  I hope I lose, he thought.  I hope peace and goodwill do triumph today.  The fate of a whole country – the lives of thousands, the livelihoods of millions – depends upon those two men reconciling their differences.

The first doctor licked his lips.  He could almost taste that champagne already.  “What could possibly go wrong?”

Idliff and Merak were shown into the conference room at the same time (the scanners spotted no concealed weapons) but through opposite doors.  Their eyes met for a moment across the width of the room.  They glared at each other with hatred and contempt.  No polite greetings, no ‘Merry Christmas’.  Then they turned away and took their seats at either end of the room, their aides beside them.

Both men were young and dark-haired, but that was where any resemblance ceased.  President Idliff was tall and slim.  He was clean-shaven, his short hair was neatly-parted, and his old-fashioned dark suit, white shirt and grey tie were hand-made by the best tailors in London.  Commander Merak was short and fat.  He had long, tangled hair and a long, tangled beard.  He wore old military fatigues, camouflaged and filthy, and his army boots were scuffed and worn.

But appearances were deceptive.  Idliff, not Merak, was the career soldier, the accidental politician.  Idliff had been born in poverty, in a peasant’s village far from the capital.  He’d joined the army as a boy, immediately finding his feet in what was clearly his natural element.  He was promoted to sergeant within a year, to lieutenant within three years, captain within four. Then major, then colonel – and then the coup which overthrew the King.  Then President. He’d governed the country with scrupulous honesty and impressive efficiency, a dazzling contrast to the corrupt and lazy regime he’d replaced. But he’d dealt harshly and ruthlessly with all opposition, and his clumsy nationalisation of the country’s mines had antagonised the ousted multinationals and impoverished his people. He’d soon found himself facing internal and external hostility…

Merak, not Idliff, was the privileged prince, the accidental soldier. Merak, a nephew of the King, had been born into luxury and had spent most of his life abroad – at school in England, at university in the USA, at play in the night-clubs and casinos of London, New York and Paris.  He’d kept his head down when the civil war broke out; he’d only abandoned his playboy life when the powers funding the rebels against Idliff’s dictatorship convinced him they could put him on his uncle’s throne.

Idliff and Merak had fought themselves to a standstill after three years of carnage, tens of thousands of deaths, millions displaced as refugees, the country’s four major cities reduced to rubble.  And now here they were, about to sign a peace-treaty brokered by the UN.  After today, a new country could rise from the ashes of war.  Free elections, a parliamentary democracy, a constitutional monarchy.  No more violence and destruction. Peace and prosperity…

Everything was ready.  The UN chairman and his aides and secretaries, the consoles which displayed the terms and conditions of the treaty to hand on the table, screens on three of the four walls (the fourth wall was a huge window through which the dazzling light of the sun flooded the room) broadcasting scenes from their country relayed in real-time via satellite links. Idliff peered at the big screens. He could just make out the tents of a refugee camp (somewhere up by the northern border, perhaps?); the rubble of a bombed city (which one? his capital? it was hard to tell – all cities looked the same after a year or two of bombardments); and a sand-bagged artillery battery by the gates of an army base (loyal or rebel?). The world on the screens was still dark. Night-time. A digital display of local time in the top right corner showed it to be almost 1 a.m. there, 25 December.

Idliff looked at his own watch. Almost an hour since they were woken; almost time for the first sunset.

The UN chairman opened proceedings by beginning to read through the document listing the details for demobilisation of troops on both sides. Sure enough, less than five minutes later, the sunlight streaming through the huge window was cut off in a matter of seconds, and the room was plunged into darkness. The first sunset. The lights automatically came on overhead and the chairman continued to read, his voice barely faltering.

Idliff attentively followed the demobilisation document on his console as the chairman read it aloud. He sat stiff and upright. Every now and then he interrupted to suggest a different word, or the insertion or removal of a punctuation mark.  Merak slouched in his chair, bored and impatient, and waved Idliff’s suggestions through without objection but with an expression which made it clear he thought they were pointless and petty and a waste of time.

The chairman finished reading the demobilisation agreement and began on the document dealing with the decommissioning of arms. But barely a minute after he had started, a sudden blaze of sun-light burst through the big window and the overhead lights automatically turned themselves off.

Second sunrise, 25 December. Christmas, day two.

Idliff glanced at the big screens.  The time back in his country was now 1.45am.  Still dark, still night-time.  The whole country sleeping while its fate was being decided here, so far away.  The UN chairman paused to drink from a glass of water.  In the silence Idliff realised that the screens were relaying faint sounds as well as images; he could just about hear snoring from the sleeping refugees and soldiers, and whimpers and shouts and screams from minds gripped by nightmares, unable to escape the horrors of war even in sleep.

The chairman read through the draft documents covering the terms for a permanent cease-fire, for an interim government, for elections.  The second sunset plunged the room into temporary darkness again, and the third sunrise restored the light forty minutes later.  Christmas, day three.  Three more days came and went, in regular ninety-minute cycles of sunrise and sunset.  At twenty-five minutes after sunrise on day seven, the chairman finished reading through the draft constitution – the last document.

It was time to sign. To put an end to three years of war. To set the country on the path to peace and reconstruction.

President Idliff stood up. He made his way stiffly to the chairman’s podium. The chairman put a pen in his hands. He was vaguely aware of Merak standing on the other side of the chairman, but he didn’t look at him. In a moment they would have to look at each other, shake hands, smile, pretend goodwill and friendship, even if they didn’t feel it. Could I do that, Idliff wondered? I must. It’s a question of duty and responsibility, and they are my watch-words.

There were two identical documents on the podium, one in front of each of them. Iddliff and Merak would both sign at the same time, exchange documents, then counter-sign at the same time. Idliff heard Merak laugh, making some sort of joke with the chairman, saw him lean forward to sign. Idriff leaned forwards, pen poised.

Once he signed he would no longer be president. Merak would be king – a powerless figurehead, it was true, but still a king – while he, Idliff, would be… what?  A lowly politician, the head of a party which would have to take its chances among many others in the elections. He straightened up. Was this a victory for Merak, then? No, that wasn’t what was bothering him. It wasn’t jealousy. Then what was it? Once he signed, he would be letting the country go. He would be surrendering it into other hands. And that felt like a dereliction of duty. He felt like he was abandoning a responsibility, an act of cowardice completely foreign to his nature. Had he really done all he could to safeguard the country’s future? The mineral deposits, for instance, the mines – did this agreement really secure them for the nation?

He glanced round at the huge screens. It was now daylight in the refugee camp, the bombed city, the army base. Almost ten o’clock in the morning. People were visible, moving about, standing talking in groups, sitting around radio sets. Clearly waiting for something. Waiting for news of peace. Everyone in the whole world knew what was happening here. Everyone was waiting for him and Merak to sign away their hostility. But would he be betraying his country and people by signing? Had he done all he could for them? Should he try for an even better agreement for them? Was this deal really the best he could do for their future?

“Mr President?”

He turned, and saw the chairman inviting him to sign. He saw Merak at his shoulder, frowning with impatience. “The mines…” Idliff began.

Merak groaned. “That’s all covered in Clause Five – ”

“Yes, but paragraph seven – ”

“We’ve been over Clause Five – how many times?” He laughed, trying to keep his frustration at bay. “I know you’re not a drinking man, Idliff, but I’m dying for a spot of champagne! It’s waiting for us even now, cold and sweet and full of bubbles! I know you never touch alcohol, but how about it, just this once?”

“But paragraph seven – it could be stronger – if we just changed – ”

“No!” Merak shouted. “It’s strong enough! It’s time to sign! It’s done! Just sign the thing, damn it, and let’s get out of here!”

“But I must be certain – ”

“Let it go! We’ve done all we can! Now let’s pass it on into other hands. We’ve dismantled the war, now leave it to others to build the peace!”

“But this semi-colon in paragraph seven – ”

Merak almost screamed. “We’ve been arguing over semi-colons for weeks! Let it go, you pedant! Relax! Why do you have to be such a po-faced puritan? Can’t you smile? Can’t you laugh? Here’s a joke for you – you ruin the mines by nationalising them, your government mismanages them and impoverishes your people, and you’re still worried about protecting them? About Clause Five? You’ve done the mines enough damage, Mr President! The best thing you can now is to leave them alone and forget about them!”

Idliff felt his anger rising, bursting, about to spill out of control. “Of course I’m worried! I’m worried that you’ll sell them off to your international robber-baron friends at bargain prices!” Now he was shouting, too. “I’m worried that the profits will leach out of the country while you’re busy putting your ten-percent bribe on the roulette-wheels of Las Vegas! Just like your uncle!”

“Oh, we all know you’re the only honest man in the whole country, don’t we? Well, if you’d been a bit more clever and a bit less honest you might have avoided ruining our country and plunging it into civil war! If you hadn’t been so po-faced and humourless and intolerant, you might not have filled our jails with people you didn’t agree with!”

“You dare to lecture me? You? A playboy? A spoilt prince? A vain, trivial, worthless tailor’s dummy?”

“Sign the deal, Mr President, or get out of my sight! I can’t stand looking at you, all stiff and pompous in your ancient suit! I want to vomit! A pompous, pedantic, holier-than-thou, superior, stupid, cold, lifeless corpse! With the blood of a whole nation on your hands!”

“You pathetic spoilt child!” Idliff yelled. “Playing soldiers! With your heroic guerilla’s long hair, your noble champion of the people beard! Your pathetic poser’s combat gear! You’re no soldier! The sight of you makes me sick! You order me to sign?” He threw the pen down.

“Right.” Merak was trembling with rage. His fat face was flushed and his fat gut was quivering. He threw his own pen down. “That’s it. No agreement. No peace. I’m going. Now.”

They turned away from the chairman instantaneously, and marched from the room through opposite doors, their aides hurrying out behind them.

Idliff lay on his bed in his room in the F2 Zone. So that was that. No peace. More war. They’d had the twenty-four hours of Christmas to hammer it out, and they’d only lasted, what… He checked his watch. Less than eleven hours. Seven sunrises, six sunsets. The temporary cease-fire would lapse at the end of those twenty-four hours, the UN would pull out, and the death and destruction would start all over again. There was no hope of signing anything now. Not after those insults.

The ceiling of his room was all glass. He looked up at the heavens as the seventh sunset plunged everything into darkness. Day seven of Christmas was over. He had no curiosity about day eight. He wanted the remaining nine days, the remaining nine sunrises and sunsets, to pass as quickly as possible so they could return to Earth and resume the war they were cursed to pursue to the bitter end.

He thought about the vessel they were all on, the UN Space Ship ‘Peace and Goodwill’, orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, in constant free fall 250 miles above the planet. Sixteen orbits every twenty-four hours; one sunrise and sunset for each orbit, as they passed from the sun-facing side of the planet to the night-bound side; sixteen sunrises and sixteen sunsets; sixteen days of one and a half hours each for every 24 hours of an Earth day.

The UN had always found that peace negotiations had the best chance of succeeding if they took place as far from the field of conflict as possible.  The sense of distance and detachment encouraged the participants to focus rationally on the issues.  Eighteen years previously they had commissioned this orbiting space ship for such negotiations, with spectacular results. To be so far from Earth, and yet to be able to look out on it and see it as a single entity; it inevitably bound the conflicting parties together with a poignant sense of common humanity, with a god-like, broad-minded sense of impartiality. And somehow it made the deadlines all the more urgent. Such voyages were inevitably finite; the urge to complete the mission, to return to Earth from this limbo, to resume a productive life, was extremely powerful. And the rapid succession of sunrise and sunset was even better than a ticking clock as a reminder that time was running out. The first Christmas had proved extremely successful, and subsequently the peace-signings themselves were always timetabled for Christmas day.

This was the first time it had failed.

UN mediators shuttled between the F2 zone and the B5 zone as six sunrises and sunsets came and went. But both Idliff and Merak were immovable. Eventually the mediators left them to cool off on their own.

Idliff lay alone in his room, watching the sky moving from light to darkness, watching the great sweep of Earth’s sphere pass by. He could see continents and oceans, mountain ranges and jungles and deserts quite clearly. He could see his own country passing, like a living map. He thought about the screens in the main hall, that refugee camp, that ruined city, that army base. The people there, still waiting, still hoping. Was there really no way back into that hall, no way back to that document which was still waiting for them on the chairman’s podium?

No. He couldn’t back down. He couldn’t give Merak the satisfaction.

But what about his people? His country?

Merak strode angrily around the sitting-room in the B5 zone, cursing Idliff. His two generals and three colonels, lounging in the armchairs, joined Merak in cursing him.

“That up-tight, buttoned-down, t-total, superior, pompous prig! I’d do anything to dump on his dignity, to have him grovel in the gutter! I’d even – !” He stopped, and spun round, facing his henchmen, his eyes glittering with an idea. He suddenly laughed. “That’s it! Go and fetch that UN mediator back! Now! Quickly!”

A sunrise later – sunrise fourteen – a UN mediator appeared in the F2 zone. One of Idliff’s ministers took him to Idliff’s room. “Mr President, a proposition has come from Commander Merak…”

The mediator looked embarrassed. The minister looked outraged. Idliff listened, incredulous, to the proposition. “He wants me to sign the document naked?”

“Yes, sir.” The mediator hung his head. Was he trying not to laugh?

“Stark naked?” Idliff blinked in disbelief. “And I have to drink a glass of champagne?”

“A bottle of champagne, sir.”

“And those are his conditions? He’ll sign only if I..?” Merak..! What a bastard..! “And what about him? What are his penalties?”

The outraged minister stepped forwards. “Mr President, you can’t – ”

“No, wait.” Idliff held up his hand. Right, he thought. Right. We’ll see about this. Two can play at this game. “Tell the Commander that I’ll only sign that document if he agrees to drink nothing but water – not a drop of that champagne – and if he shaves his beard off – and, yes, all his hair, so he’s totally bald, and puts on a proper suit and tie, like mine! And polished leather shoes! He’ll hate that! So sober! So respectable! No more posing as the heroic liberator, the wild guerrilla leader!”

The mediator returned a few minutes later, breathless. Day fourteen was on its way. Time was running out. He could hardly believe that these fantastic bids would lead anywhere, but all the same, it was their only hope… “The Commander says that he will accept your conditions if you accept his. With one qualification; he refuses to shave his head. He will not go bald.”

“Just his beard, eh? Very well. A number one buzz-cut will do for his hair. And I have one qualification myself. I insist on keeping my underpants on.”

The mediator ran back with Merak’s answer. “He accepts. But your underpants must be Happy Christmas pants. And you must wear a Santa’s false beard. And a pair of reindeer’s antlers.”

So it was agreed. But there wasn’t much time. Soon all the 3D printers on board were busy producing the necessary props from the codes sent up from their New York HQ. Everything was ready as the sun set on day fifteen. There were only one and a half hours left of Christmas’s twenty-four. The deadline was only another sunset away.

Idliff was expecting everyone to collapse with laughter when he returned to the conference room. He was ready for it. He had prepared himself to ignore it. But they didn’t laugh. They watched him in silence as he walked towards the chairman’s podium. He was tall and athletic, well-built and well-muscled. He looked good in just his underpants. And the antlers, and the beard, made him look like some sort of archetypal folk figure enacting a solemn and ancient ritual. A mythical spirit or legendary deity. It didn’t undermine his dignity. It enhanced it.

Even Merak didn’t laugh. Idliff hardly recognised him. The Commander looked smart and respectable, in a dark, old-fashioned suit just like his own. White shirt, grey tie, well-polished black leather shoes. Clean shaven, short-haired. And he seemed to be standing taller, straighter. He looked like the kind of man who could represent a nation.

They nodded silently to each other.

There was a bottle of champagne and a glass on the podium. The bottle was uncorked, and traces of a smoky vapour spiralled up from its mouth. Idliff took the bottle and filled the glass with a golden fizz. He grimaced as he raised it to his lips. He was expecting to be disgusted, revolted. He poured the liquid into his mouth, was about to swallow it quickly, but the sweet dry taste and the sensation of the bubbles made him pause. I like it, he thought with amazement. Yes, I actually like it. He swallowed, and refilled the glass.

“Sit down, man, for god’s sake. Treat the stuff with some respect.” Merak shook his head. “It’s bad enough seeing it wasted, without seeing it insulted as well.” He sipped at his glass of water, then sat down beside Idliff. “Take it easy now. Enjoy it. Relish it.”

“I am enjoying it.” Idliff found it a little difficult to talk. His tongue was strangely heavy. He laughed. “And I feel good. Relaxed. Cheerful.” He laughed again. “I haven’t felt like this for years.” How odd. He felt very comfortable, sitting there in just his underwear. Free and easy. Liberated. No heavy suit, stiff shirt, tight tie. This must be how those medieval knights felt a thousand years ago, coming off the battlefield and shedding the hot and heavy burden of their armour at last. He turned to Merak. “You’re looking smart. For once, you really do look like a King in waiting.”

“I feel like one. It actually feels good. To be clean, and sober, and well-dressed. It feels strange, but good. A relief, for some odd reason.”

“Have a glass of champagne” Idliff said. “I know, my conditions forbid it, but what the hell, it’s Christmas. Go on…”

“No, I want to make the most of this strange new feeling. I feel serious, responsible, ready for the burdens of duty…”

“Well, I feel ready to shed them.” Idliff finished off his fourth glassful. His tongue was definitely not behaving itself whenever he tried to speak, so he talked slowly and carefully. “Ready to let go, to relax, to move on. Isn’t that what you told me to do earlier? Amazing. You were right after all.”

“And you were right, too. I was a spoilt, vain, trivial playboy. But I’m not any longer. From now on I’m going to be clean and sober. Duty, and responsibility…”

Idliff raised the fifth glassful to Merak as a toast, then emptied it eagerly.

Suddenly the sun rose on day sixteen, December 25th. The last sunrise of Christmas day. The dark curved mass of their planet slid away and dazzling light poured in through the huge window.

“Gentlemen” the UN chairman said. “Mr President. Commander. Are you ready to sign?”

“I am” said Merak.

Idliff couldn’t speak, so he simply nodded and laughed.

Standing side by side they signed, then swapped documents and counter-signed. Then they turned to each other and smiled. Merak held out his hand and Idliff shook it. “Merry Christmas” Merak said. “Peace and goodwill to you, Mr President.”

“Merry Christmas!” Idliff echoed him. He turned to everyone in the room. His ministers and lawyers, Merak’s generals and colonels, the UN chairman and secretaries and mediators. “Peace on Earth! And goodwill to all men!”

Cameras flashed. There was a thunder of applause and cheers. Idliff looked at the barrage of cameras facing him. Every one of them, he reflected, is broadcasting images of me in my underpants, wearing a Father Christmas false beard and a pair of reindeer antlers, all the way around the world. Oh well. He laughed. Yet another sacrifice for his country and people that the noble Idliff can feel proud off.

He looked up at the screens. They were dark now. It was night again in his country. Almost midnight. We’ve been awake for nearly twenty-four hours, he realised. But the refugee camp, the ruined city and the army base were now brightly lit by flaming torches, electric torches, bonfires and vehicle headlamps. And no one was asleep there. He could see that the people on the screens were hugging each other and jumping about and dancing and singing. Crowds celebrating. He could hear their laughter and their cheers and their applause. Peace. Peace at last. They were celebrating peace on Earth and a happy Christmas and goodwill to all men.

Idliff, Merak, their aides and all the UN staff had demolished the turkey and a good portion of the Christmas pudding by the time the sixteenth and last sunset said goodnight to Christmas day.

 

© Neil Tidmarsh 2015

 

Issue 34: 2015 12 24 William’s Contribution

24 December 2015

William’s Contribution

by John Watson

with illustrations by Jonathan Kenning

(Click here, then click again on ‘William’s Contribution’ on the new page,  to see this with illustrations better laid out in a PDF)

Mr  Jones’s farm was on the side of a beautiful hill overlooking a Welsh valley. Like many farms in that part of the world there were no crops but only animals and each morning Mr Jones and his wife would go out early to do their farming. The first job was to collect the eggs.

“Cluck, Cluck” said Lucy and Annie, the hens, as the eggs were taken away. They were always sorry to lose their eggs because it was so much work laying them; still, as they knew that they got regular meals in return they put up with it good humouredly. Anyway they had always lived on the farm and they knew that this was their contribution to it.

The ducks, Arthur and Edith were much more bad tempered and often tried to hide their eggs round the pond so that they wouldn’t be found. Often Mr and Mrs Jones had to hunt for a long time before they could find them but they always found them in the end, sometimes with the help of Shep the sheepdog who, being very clever, could always find everything. “Woof” would bark Shep when he saw the eggs. “Quack, quack” would protest Arthur and Edith but the eggs would still go into the basket so that Mrs Jones could take them to market.

After Mr and Mrs Jones had had breakfast there was more work to be done. The cows, Daisie and Meg had to be milked. They liked this because Mr Jones had the smartest sort of milking machine. It was much better than the ones used by the other farmers and made them feel the most important cows in the area. “Moo, moo” they would call out when it was time for milking.

There were other animals of course, helping the farm in their different ways. The sheep “Poppy and Pepper” gave Mr and Mrs Jones a beautiful woollen coat when they were sheared. That happened about twice a year. Poppy and Pepper would be rather cold after they had been sheared. “Baa, Baa” they would cry but luckily their wool would soon grow again so that they wouldn’t be cold for long.  The farm had horses too, Peter and Paul, who pulled the cart for Mr and Mrs Jones and who could be lent out to help other farmers. They were a bit grander than the other animals and looked down their noses at them saying “Neeiigh, neeiigh” in most annoyingly superior way.

william sadEach animal on the farm had its job. Even Kitty, the farm cat, spent her evenings out catching mice and rats which might otherwise have got into the food. Every animal, that is, with one exception. William, the little pig, didn’t really produce anything. Mr Jones had bought him because he had been told that pigs produce bacon and sausages but later he had discovered that they only produce them once they are dead and he was much too softhearted to let any of his animals be killed. So he kept William even though he didn’t really help the farm and, although he occasionally looked into the sty to see if William had laid any bacon or sausages, he was always disappointed.

Still it upset William to think that he was not pulling his weight and, although the other animals were always nice to him, he worried that they might find him rather a burden and wondered if he should go away.  Each day he saw Mrs Jones go to market with all the things the other animals had produced and gradually he got sadder and sadder.

Now one-day there was a fair on the field at the end of Mr Jones’s land. Mr and Mrs Jones were going of course and Mrs Jones had a feather in her hat which had been given to her by one of the farm geese. She wore a jacket made out of wool grown by Poppy and Pepper and in the picnic basket there were milk and butter produced by Daisy and Meg. Peter and Paul pulled the little cart in which Mr and Mrs Jones were riding and were wearing their smartest harness.

As the animals lined up to wave goodbye, William wished that he could have contributed something. He looked sadly over the side of his sty at the folk enjoying themselves further down the hill. He started to read the notices of the various competitions. “Strongest man” one said. He wished he could be a strong man and win it but he was only a little pig. “Most beautiful lady” said the next. William was a boy pig so he couldn’t enter for that one. But wait. The next one look better. “Bonny baby” it said.Williams signs final

william ideaWilliam was out of his sty as quick as a flash. He rushed into the farmhouse and stuck the end of the mop on his head. “Yes” it looked just like a baby’s hair. Then he grabbed a rug and pulled it round his shoulders. That look good too. He slipped under the fence and into the tent where he lay down among the babies.

Now luckily for William the judges were very old and could not see properly so it was hard for them to tell if one baby was a bonnier than another and they decided to choose a nice plump one.

“Well,” said the chief judge, picking him up “this one is a good weight”.

“It looks a bit like a pig” said the second judge, who could see rather better.

“Splendid,” said the chief judge “I was called piggy, myself, at school”. He lent back so that everyone could appreciate his magnificent frame.Williams judging final

“It sounds a bit like a pig, too” said the second judge.

“Excellent, a true Welsh accent”, said the first. “Whose baby is this”. Mrs Jones stepped forward.

“Yes, a truly remarkable likeness,” said the judge, handing over a large cheque. It was a little hard on Mrs Jones who was actually very pretty but then the judge was very blind.

“Do you think we should return the cheque” Mrs Jones asked her husband that evening. He thought for a moment and then said in his slow sensible way:

“I don’t see why. The competition was for a Bonny baby and William is a very young pig. He was certainly bonnier that any of the human babies there.”

So they kept the cheque and spent some of the money on a party for the animals. William was much happier now. After all he had made a really useful contribution to the farm.william happy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text © John Watson 2015

Illustrations © Jonathan Kenning 2015