The bedraggled bag lady in front of them rolled her eyes, pursed her lips and huffed through her nostrils.
“We haven’t got time for any of your explanations, you old rascal. You’re not where you’re supposed to be, there’s work to be done and you’ve decided to go AWOL with just a few days to go.”
Turning to Elvis, she dropped her stern demeanour. “Hello, dear. I expect you’re feeling a bit lost, aren’t you?”
The elf nodded mutely, and sipped nervously at the sickly pink drink in his hand.
“The name’s Gladys, dear. Gladys Tidings, but everyone calls me Glad. I’m the one who picks up all the pieces after this one” she flicked a thumb in the direction of Klaus “decides to have an existential crisis just before his busiest day of the year.”
She jiggled the bottle tops in her hand, opened her battered brown handbag and poured them in. Snapping it shut, she looked up with an air of no-nonsense and brisk efficiency.
“Right, come on, then.”
Klaus said nothing. He just gulped and threw the last inch of whiskey down his throat, burped loudly and stood up.
“Lead on, m’lady.”
Glad took them to the back of the pub, through a door marked ‘Staff Only’, past a wall of cardboard boxes lining the narrow corridor beyond and out a gun metal grey fire door to the damp chill afternoon beyond. Black bags brimming with empties vied for space with beer barrels nestled up against a small wooden shed. Glad strode to the ramshackle hut and opened the door, waving Klaus and Elvis in.
Instead of the usual smells of dust, mould and neglect Elvis was expecting from the inside of the shed, he was greeted with the scent of warm sugar and cinnamon. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he gasped in surprise as the space within revealed itself to be the size of a football pitch. Around the edges sat a ragged collection of people – outcasts every one. Faces ravaged by street life, lousy diet and living on the edges of respectable society. The type the ‘normal’ folk back in the shopping centre managed to dehumanize just enough to walk on by without a twinge to their conscience as they bustled to their next purchase.
They were everywhere, lining the walls of the inexplicably large shed interior. The unwanted and unclaimed, outsiders of every shape, size, age and origin. All looked happy to be there.
A Bob Marley lookalike (if the musician had lived to be older than Methusala and spent every day furiously chewing tobacco) gave Elvis a wide grin, displaying his single remaining tooth. Next to him, a mountain of a woman with cheeks like tomatoes and breasts like sofa cushions took a swig from a bottle and beckoned to him. Elvis looked nervously at Gladys, seeking assurance. She nodded and gave him a gentle push between the shoulder blades before taking Klaus by his elbow and leading him briskly to a large desk in the centre of the room, festooned with scrolls of paper, towers of phone books and buff folders. To one side, a giant tea urn stood gently sweating.
The woman-mountain twinkled eyes the colour of a robin’s egg at the elf, and patted the floor, beckoning him to take a seat next to her. He obeyed, still not sure what to make of everything.
“That’s better,” she chirped and straightened her flower pot hat in a display on old-fashioned gentility.
“Now, my dear, time for introductions. I am Lady Rosemary de Bergerac-Fitzgerald. But you can call me Rosie.” Without rising she gave a little curtsey. “And this fine gentleman here is Rufus St George.” The aged Rastafarian tossed his matted grey dreadlocks over his shoulder and offered a grimy hand.
“And who might you be?” asked Rosie, regarding the lost elf with a benevolent smile.
“Elvis,” he whispered. “I’m a wood elf, carpenter by trade, back…. back where…. well, back home. Though I’m not sure where home is anymore.”
Rufus roared with laughter and slapped the elf’s shoulder. “Welcome to the club, mon! We’re all lost here – we’ve no place to call home but here.”
Rosie cleared her throat decorously to silence his laughter.
“We, my dear, are the Plan Bs. We’re the ones who make sure Christmas goes ahead even when a certain reluctant someone decides he’s had enough of his duties.” She shot a meaningful look in the direction of Klaus, who was now sitting at the desk in the middle of the room, looking aghast at the piles of papers and muttering loudly beneath his beard.
Elvis looked around him. Everywhere, figures of so-called down-and-outs in the world outside were busy tying bows, sprinkling glitter, cutting cookies, stuffing chocolate coins into mesh bags, filling Christmas crackers. In the corner, three Scandinavian blondes that looked suspiciously elfin were sorting through a pile of envelopes. Rufus was rummaging through a pile of odd socks which had lost their mates in the wash of a million household around the world over the past twelve months. To his left lay a neat pile of personalised Christmas stockings, expertly transformed with felt stars, holly leaves or snowmen and a flourish of his glitter pen.
“Chop, chop, people!” rang out Gladys’ voice from behind the desk where Klaus was scratching his head over a long list. “Just three days to go. There’s soup and sausages, hot chocolate and mince pies for everyone, but we’ve got a deadline to meet and it’s all down to us. So, no slacking!”
A ragged cheer rose from the rabble, and they set about their tasks with renewed, if chaotic, vigour. A young girl with pierced lip, nose and eyebrows and an armful of tattoos stood up and walked to the tea urn where she filled two thick mugs with the steaming liquid. Drawing herself to her full height (just half a head taller than Elvis) she blew her black and green fringe out of her heavily-kohled eyes and walked over. She smiled shyly and offered one to the elf.
“Drink up,” she said with a sideways look. “It’s good – Gladys adds a special mix of spices and it really gives you a kick to get the job done.”
“Thank you Tiffany,” beamed Rosie. “Maybe you can show Elvis the carpentry shop, so he can get to work?”
The girl nodded, and beckoned to the elf with a purple fingernail. Elvis scrambled to his feet and padded after her like a puppy dog. He’d already decided he would follow her anywhere, not just the carpentry shop.
He’d follow her to the ends of the earth.
He’d follow her to the ends of the earth.
What awaits Klaus and his intrepid elf next?
Stay tuned for the next episode...