Sunday, 20 December 2015

Cruel Yule: Part 7 - Croydon calling

The ground dropped away like a stone, and Elvis felt his breakfast rise up in protest.

He took a gulp of cold, clear air, and squeezed his eyes shut. The only sound was the jangling of the reins, Rudolph’s sugar-fueled snorts and the occasional ‘caw!’ of a surprised rook. 

After counting to ten, and assuring himself that his stomach had returned to its rightful place, the elf opened his eyes. Beside him, Klaus was swigging from a hip flask and mumbling angrily to himself. He cast a grumpy glance at Elvis, then rolled his bloodshot eyes.

“What the blazes am I going to do with you?” he growled, apparently not expecting an answer. “The whole point is get away from the magic nonsense and delivering gifts to all the kids in the world in the time it takes an atom to whizz round the Hadron collider. But now. Now, I’m gonna have to explain a thigh-high, pointy-nosed elf wherever I go.”

Elvis shifted in his seat, uncomfortably.

“Don’t they have little people where we’re going?”

“Yeah, they do, but don’t expect the royal treatment. At best, you’ll be something like a side-show at the circus. Whatever happens, don’t come running to me – I’ve got some serious business to catch up on.”

Cold, miserable, and now thoroughly confused, the elf sank back in his seat, suddenly missing the dull familiarity of life on the homestead he’d been so keen to leave just a few short hours ago. His nausea passed, and in time, the gentle rocking of the sleigh as Rudolph settled into a steady canter through the clouds lulled him to sleep. Obviously, a night in the deer shed with Entynne has taken more out of him than he’d realised. He settled into the warm dream of slightly obscene wishful thinking that featured some rose-tinted scenes definitely not suitable for family viewing. For the first time all day, he smiled indulgently to himself.

A deafening roar and whoosh as the sleigh banked steeply to the left jolted him away from his elvish wet dream. His eyes flew open to the sight of a giant stiff-winged bird thundering past them. Klaus was clinging  to his sack, though too late to save the coffee pot tumbling out and plummeting earthwards.

(The next morning, Hamish McPhee, a bachelor crofter in the Hebrides called the BBC Scottish Service claiming to have been visited by a UFO in the night. He had a hole in his roof and the melted misshapen remains of an alien artifact to show for it. Dougal and the other sheep agreed that was irrefutable evidence of “something out there”. None of them could explain the strong smell of burnt mocha that surrounded the object, but Hamish imagined aliens needed a kick of caffeine to get them going in the mornings as much as anyone.)

Elvis dared not close his eyes again. He stared around him, blinking like a startled bush-baby on speed. Below, the landscape was changing. Wild rolling hills merged with a patchwork quilt of tamed squares dotted with long glass sheds. The fields in turn gave way to trickles of houses, warehouses and factories running into towns, before being swallowed up into the ugly grey of concrete, office blocks and multi-storey car parks. Traffic lights twinkled in competition with flashing Christmas illuminations wrapped around anything that didn’t move.

It was all very different from the homestead. Elvis was starting to think he might have made a terrible mistake.

A shuddering bump roused him from his thoughts as the sleigh landed clumsily and Rudolph barely managed to avoid skidding over the edge of a flat rooftop. Klaus pulled his bulk out of his seat, hitched up his belt and reached for a bucket on the floor of the sleigh. He filled it with jelly babies and placed it front of the reindeer.

“Should keep him happy for a while,” he belched noisily. “Now, it’s my turn.”

He signaled to the elf. “If you’re coming, come on.” and strode off in the direction on a grey metal door in a concrete square no bigger than a suburban toolshed.

Elvis scrambled out and ran after the old man. He had no choice. Who knew what horrors hid among the glass, bricks and bags of old asbestos lying around the rooftop?

The door led to a damp stairwell with all the charm (and the scent) of public toilet. Down they went. Five flights felt like five thousand to Elvis’ little legs, but eventually they reached the bottom where Klaus opened a door at the bottom to reveal a world full of light, jangling colours and merciless cheery music. A neon banner overhead proclaimed “The Home of Croydon Shopping”.

Bemused, Elvis stammered. “Where are we? What are we doing here? And what’s ‘Croydon’?”

“Best not to ask,” answered Klaus, gruffly. “We left home to lose ourselves, didn’t we? Well, Croydon seems like as a good place as any to start.”

He took the elf by the hand like an errant child, and guided him past more red and green than if the Spirit of Christmas had thrown up on the place after a particularly wild office party.

Around them, people rushed to and from. Even from his waist-high point of view, Elvis could see the panic in their eyes and feel the wave of “Buy! Buy! Buy!” flowing off them like the stench of a week-old chicken breast forgotten in the fridge. They moved with the air of a hoard of zombies that had been given an electric shock, rushing mindlessly from one shop to another, knocking over small children and shoving a blue-haired old lady with a walking frame into the wall.

An orange-faced girl so short Elvis momentarily took her for a fellow elf shoved her impossibly pneumatic cleavage (barely covered in an X-rated version of Klaus’ fur trimmed red costume) in his face. She squirted a bottle of something that smelled vaguely of snowberries and reindeer pee in his direction with a cheery “Arctic Fox. sir? Just the thing for that special little lady in your life, innit?”

Before Elvis had the chance to politely decline her offer, Klaus had dragged him out a glass door that opened with a swish and a blast of synthetic-scented air into a dull, grey street. The ground was slick with the greasy remains of the morning rain and the world beyond the over-lit shopfronts looked tired and cynical. A bit like Klaus.

The old man looked one way, then the other, looking for something beyond the bustling crowds and street hustlers. After a moment to catch his breath, the elf felt his arm yanked almost out of its socket as Klaus set off with a new determination down the street.

Pushing their way through the door, they were greeted by a shout of 'Here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun' from the jukebox as they stepped into a dispirited bar, festooned in tinsel and fake happiness. It was empty but for a bored-looking man with a comb-over and a pot belly picking his teeth behind the bar, and a bag lady in checked trousers, a Hawaiian shirt and a too-big man’s overcoat, happily counting bottle tops on the table before her.

Klaus led Elvis to a booth in a dark corner and headed for the bar. The elf sat down, utterly bemused, and waited. After a few choice words and flashing a wallet full of plastic, the old man returned with a double whiskey for himself, two packets of cheese and onion crisps, and a bottle of a watery pink drink that smelled vaguely of red jelly babies for Elvis.   

“Sorry,” he said plonking the bottle down before the elf. “I tried to get you a proper drink but the tosser behind the bar said he couldn’t serve you alcohol without ID. I reckoned that if nothing else, this stuff might give you a bit of any energy boost – the ads say it gives you wings, after all.”

Klaus took a long sip from his glass, smacked his lips in appreciation, and took a deep breath. But before he could speak, the smell of sweet sherry and parma violets heralded the presence of someone else.

“Well about time too!” said the old lady with the bottle tops.
“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you, Klaus Kringle? This is no way to treat your wife, you know!”

The man in red shifted in his seat, and looked up at the bag lady like an apologetic puppy. “Gladys, sweet’eart! I can explain.”

...Part 8 coming soon - stay tuned. 

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