As he stretched on the tips of his pointed toes to pull the aged cistern's chain, Elvis heard a crash from the parlour. Concerned, he darted from the bathroom to see what had happened.
Klaus was sitting on the floor sorting through the contents of an upturned drawer from the dresser scattered across the floor. He was scrabbling about amid the old greetings cards, bits of string, tattered catalogues, gum wrappers and blunt pencil stubs, muttering frantically to himself.“Where the devil is it? Here. Here. I swear I put it in here for safe-keeping.”
He opened an old tobacco tin for the fifth time and up-ended it on the pile on the floor.
“What are you looking for?” asked Elvis.
“Nothing you’d know anything about, elf.”
Elvis sniffed huffily. He knew he was lowly, but he didn’t like being reminded of it.
“Well, if you stop thrashing about like an elk in quicksand for a moment, you might have a better chance of finding it,” he said, emboldened by irritation. “And if you tell me what it is, I might be able to help you look. Elves have very good eyes, you know.”
Klaus looked up and straightened his crooked bifocals. The elf was right.
“There’s a special key for the sleigh that lets me drive it just one reindeer instead of the whole team,” he offered. “I don’t trust most of ’em, but I reckon I’ve got enough on one to make sure he keeps his mouth shut.
“I never needed it – til now. But I always thought I’d put in a safe place. Doesn’t help that it’s so flaming small.”
Elvis put his hands in his tunic pocket and frowned in concentration. His fingers fell on one last jelly baby that Entynne had missed in her fit of generosity to the sugar-fiend reindeer last night. He pulled it out and regarded it absently. A green one. Not his favourite, but it would do. He popped it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
As he did, he slid his hand into the other pocket. Idly twiddling the lint stuck to the side of his tinderbox, he felt something small, small and hard. It had at circle at one end, a short shaft no more than a quarter of an inch long, and two prongs sticking out to the sides.
His face brightened with realisation and he pulled the object out and held it up in the old man’s direction.
“Anything like this one?” he asked, exercising all his will power to avoid crying ‘Ta Da!’ in a triumphant sing-song.
Despite being in the his pocket for as long as he could remember, the key was as bright and shiny as it must have been the day it was newly cast. Cold sunlight glinted off it and sent a glimmering spotlight dancing across on the parlour wall.
Klaus stared, lost for words. He reached for the miniature key and examined it, turning over and over again in his big, clumsy hands. “Well, well, well,” he chuckled to himself.
Suddenly stern, he looked up at Elvis and demanded: “Where did you get this?”
To his amazement the man in red seemed to accept his rather unsatisfactory answer.
“Hmmmph. Well, let’s see then.”
And grabbing his fur-trimmed hat and the sack with his prized possessions, he flung open the farmhouse door and strode out into the cold day.
“Are you coming or not, elf?” he shouted over his shoulder. “There’s no more time for toilet breaks.”
Elvis pulled the door closed behind him and sprinted after the old man. He had to jog to keep pace with his long paces across the frosty yard, his breath billowing out like smoke from Wilbur’s long pipe after a particularly long story-telling session.
“Where are we going?” he puffed.
“Where do you think? To the sleigh. But first, we need Rudolph.”
Most of the reindeer were still grazing in the paddock, but the red-nosed outcast was nowhere to be seen. Comet and his horse-faced mate looked up as the old man and the elf passed, before dismissing them and returning to delicately nibbling red, green and blue lichen from the drystone wall in front of them.
Klaus pushed open the door to the deer shed. Deep within, a faint glow could be seen from the corner. Klaus grabbed a set of reins debecked with crimson holly berries (but no noisy bells) and clattered them against the wooden sides of the nearest stall.
“Gerrup, yer lazy arse!” he bellowed.
A whimper came from the corner, followed by the pathetic sight of the sugar-crazed reindeer creeping out, his head hung low and his nose the dull red of a dying match. Clearly, last night’s fix had just been a temporary fix and he was now in the grips of a momentous glucose crash.
“Come on! I haven’t got all day. And I’ve got something to help you get going.” Klaus rattled a handful of candy canes and crystallised fruit.
Rudolph sniffed the air, rallied, and made a clumsy, staggering canter up the length of the shed. He thrust he snout into the old man’s hand and snuffled, licked and chewed greedily.
Klaus threw the reins to Elvis and told him to put them on the animal. Rudolph hardly noticed a thing as the leather straps were passed around his neck and tied across his muzzle. He just stood there, his eyes almost and his nose glowing brighter by the second, in a trance of sugar-induced ecstasy.
Gently taking the reindeer by the antler, Klaus pulled him in the direction of a low brick building at the far end of the paddock. A barely visible track led to its weather-beaten green doors – it was clearly used only on special occasions. The door opened and a heavy wooden sleigh emerged from the gloom. Klaus led Rudolph inside and after a symphony of huffing, the jangling of bells, and a few choice swear words later, they emerged with the animal firmly between the shafts of the sleigh, a nosebag filled with sherbet dib-dabs round his neck, and the old man in the driver’s seat.
“Well, if you’re coming, now’s the time,” he said, patting the cushioned seat next to him. “It’s time to blow this joint, hit the candy stores and find a drinking hole with a philosopher-barkeep we can tell our woes to.”
He reached in his pocket, pulled the golden key out and inserted it in a tiny hole in the dashboard. Rudolph’s stopped his manic crunching and looked up, suddenly alert and his nose burning neon red. A strange whirring vibrated through the air, and a soft cushion of air inserted itself between the sleigh and the snowy ground.
Elvis took one look back at the elf shed – to the only life he’d ever known. Nothing had changed. Everything looked the same. Dooley was busily hammering away at a loose slat on the reindeer shed. Entynne was giggling with a gaggle of her friends as they headed for the workshop. Myffanwy discreetly emptied the contents of Wilbur’s chamber pot onto the vegetable patch.
Not one of them missed him. No-one was looking for him. Probably hadn’t even noticed he had gone.
He stepped onto the sleigh and gave Klaus a grim nod.