Christmas Prose Competition 2008
A 21st Century Christmas by Tibley Bobley
The workshop was cold and silent. A few elves sat or stood here and there, on boxes, leaning against walls, looking dejected. Melting icicles dripped from the high ceiling, splashing and bouncing off tarnished tinsel and soggy garlands. A huge mountain of requests and demands from children of the world's more affluent areas, stacked in one corner, slithered and rustled from time to time, threatening avalanche. Outside a reindeer could be heard braying and snorting, unhappy at the poor quality of its hay, contaminated with ragwort and the herbicides used to control it. It was nearly December and there was not a toy or wrapped gift to be seen in Father Christmas's workshop or storage areas.
The silence was broken by a creak, then a groan. The floor shifted. Elves looked up, looked round, their brooding interrupted, searching for the source of the disturbance. There was a rapid ratter-tat-tat, as a small, plastic sphere bounced along the floor, from the components end of the workshop to the finished, wrapped gifts end. It was a dolly eye, with a bright green iris. The elves followed its progress until it hit the end wall and bounced energetically to a stop. Then their eyes all shifted back to the parts end, widening as the groan increased in volume. There was a loud crack—the sound of a steel spring releasing and a narrow-mesh cage door sprang open, releasing a tidal wave of dolly eyes: blues, browns and greens, all clattering down the now perceptibly sloping floor of the workshop.
One of the elves, Rupert, made the mistake of stepping into the path of the bouncing eyes. His feet slid from under him and he was swept, joggling along on his behind, legs waggling and arms windmilling as he attempted to right himself before colliding with the wall. He might have saved himself the undignified display. He hit the wall anyway and swallowed a mouth-full of eyes. Normally, there would have been guffaws of laughter from the other elves, but the performance didn't even raise a snigger. They were all just too fed up.
They were waiting for Father Christmas to return from his round of talks and negotiations with suppliers. Materials were running out and unreasonable demands were being placed on the boss.
It seemed all too likely that most of the poor kiddies who desperately needed the latest mobile 'phone, playstation or laptop, would be disappointed. In the Congo, some mineral that no-one's even heard of, vital in the manufacture of these latest objects of desire, could not be obtained for love nor money. Some millions of extremely poor people in areas where this "coltan", or whatever you call it, is mined, were paying for the stuff with their lives, in vicious bloody wars. Only three million so far... well, last they'd heard, could be a few million more by the time Father Christmas finished. But all the murder and mayhem wasn't solving the problem. The unfortunate consumers might have to go without.
More worry on top of that - a few governments in northern Europe were talking about making Father Christmas responsible for the dreaded Health and Safety standards of his gifts—not only the Aitch and Ess of the kiddies, but the Health and Safety of their environment. It was going to strangle the elves and the boss in red tape, limit them in every area of manufacture and cost a fortune. They would be burdened with the job of safely disposing of all the waste plastics and other toxic materials that the annual Christmas consumer blow-out generates. All the broken plastic, electronic and battery-operated toys and rubber balloons that might once have been dumped anywhere, to leech their chemicals into the ground or choke unsuspecting birds, turtles and fish, would be the responsibility of Father Christmas and co.
Elves are simple souls. Christmas is their only interest: presents, celebrations and making people feel good. Getting everything ready in time was the only thing they'd worried about before. They'd never been forced to think about boring and irritating things until a few years ago, when the problems of the real world started to encroach. And what problems! Problems that looked insoluble! No wonder the elves looked so miserable.
A distant jingling was heard and suddenly all the elves were alert. Father Christmas's sleigh was coming in to land. They all scrambled for the central staircase to the roof-top landing strip. Their combined weight on the stairs caused an alarming judder that stopped them in mid-dash. Some looked up, some looked down and, seeing cracks appearing both above and below, they looked at each other for a moment before all rushing back down, just a fraction of a second too late. The sleigh landed and the centre of the building collapsed. Sleigh, Father Christmas, reindeer, elves and rubble crashed down in a wet, slushy heap. With a loud, creaking groan, the southern end of the building sank south and the northern end of the building elevated—but did not disintegrate. The melting permafrost could no longer support the heavy building. It was sinking into a glutinous bog.
Fortunately, Father Christmas, the reindeer and the elves are magical entities and were, therefore, completely unscathed. They heaved and hauled themselves out of the gloop and rubble and took refuge in the refectory block (which was also leaning rakishly), grumbling about the massive inconvenience of global warming and wondering how much further north they'd need to go to find reliable, year-round ice. They'd been debating the problem for a while. They didn't want to consider the obvious fact that was staring them in the face: that if they moved any further north, they'd end up in the centre of a melting ice-cap with a long swim to the nearest shore. No-one fancied the alternative of moving to the southern polar region, where, even if the ice did melt, the central frozen desert was dry and so, not inclined to turn into a methane-belching swamp.
Cleaned up, changed into fresh togs and supplied with mince pies and hot toddies, they sat around the long table, talking quietly and waiting for Father Christmas to call the meeting to order. Father Christmas's normally jolly, red face looked grave as he cleared his throat and tapped the table with a gavel.
They all looked up expectantly.
The faces of the elves mirrored the expression of their boss. Lines of worry crinkled their foreheads and bunched between their brows.
He looked from face to face, weighing his words, trying to find a positive spin to lift the mood of gloom. Then he beamed his broad smile at them, threw back his head and boomed "Ho ho ho!"
The elves brightened, instantly bucked up by the familiar sound of Father Christmasly jollity. They leaned forward, eager to be reassured that the old fellow had solved all the problems and everything was back, as it should be, and they could carry on as normal, without having to concern themselves with mundane things, like pollution, extinction, global warming and worrying about where all the polar bears had disappeared to.
"My very dear elves," he rumbled, "our most pressing problem is remedied. Just when things seemed hopeless, and the leaders of the European Union were threatening to ban Christmas..."
He paused for a moment, waiting for the elves' gasp of horror to die down.
"... one member approached me with a suggestion. He arranged for me to meet a Russian gentleman on a yacht. This gentleman—a Russian oligarch, I understand—was very friendly and helpful. He owns a number of extremely large ex-Russian navy vessels and he has agreed to allow us to anchor the largest of them at the North Pole. The ice can melt permanently and we will still be able to keep our feet dry and continue our work."
There was a general cheer of approval round the table. One of the younger elves piped up "And we can get rid of the old toys by just throwing them over the side."
Father Christmas was relieved that no-one had objected or mentioned the possibility of sea-sickness, but he frowned at this handy, rubbish disposal suggestion. "No Arthur, we can't do that. They would pollute the oceans, choke the animals, and the tides would carry them far and wide, to wash up on shores all around the world."
"We could put them in sacks and weight them down. Then they'd sink to the bottom."
"No. We can't do that either. I can see that you fellows need some environmental education - like it or not. But that must wait until after Christmas. In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do. A consignment of outdated mobile 'phones will be arriving shortly. You are going to learn to love the battered and broken toys and gadgets that come back each year. We'll refurbish the ones that are salvageable and we'll 'mine' the rest for materials. It's called 'recycling' and it's a necessity, of which we are going to make a virtue."
An older elf raised his hand. "Where will the reindeer forage when we're in the middle of an ocean? How will supplies arrive?"
"The nice Russian gentleman will help us there. He will be using part of the ship to store and distribute his own goods. His people will deliver to us at the same time. Other than that, we will continue to be as self-contained and sustained as we always have been."
The old elf wanted to know more. "What will the Russian gentleman be storing and distributing, Father?"
"I don't know Albert. I didn't like to ask. That would have been like looking a gift-horse in the mouth. We mind our own business. Our business is Christmas."
He looked around the table, searching the faces, wondering if the elves had found a new curiosity about the world beyond the Christmas realm. "Do we need to know more? Do you want to know more about the complicated world of economics, commerce and politics? You would have a better understanding of why our buildings are sinking, why we have to recycle old toys, why the polar bears are disappearing. But are you really interested?"
A babble of conversations broke out among the elves. It lacked the sounds of laughing and joking that usually lightened their chatter.
Father Christmas waited for them to reach agreement. Finally, Albert turned back to the boss and said "No. We don't want to know. It's not cheerful and it's not interesting. Those things will worry us. But..."
And here he paused to look around at his fellow elves. They nodded their approval, encouraging him to continue.
"We think we need to know!"
There was a murmur of agreement.
"Our job is to make children happy— the children of each generation. We can't rob the children of the future in order to sate the current generation. If only we'd known sooner..."
Father Christmas scratched his beard thoughtfully.
"Yes. Perhaps you're right. You never wanted to grow up. There never seemed to be any reason why you should have to lose your child-like innocence. Now there's a reason. I suppose that even the youngsters will have to be thoughtful and grown-up about this. Such a shame for them. And you feel that ignorance is a luxury we can't afford any more, do you?"
"Yes. That's what we feel."
"And, you want me to ask awkward questions of the nice gentleman who is kindly helping us to stay in The North?"
Albert shuffled uncertainly. "Maybe. After Christmas."
"You realise there may be consequences? A move to The South Pole doesn't appeal to you. Are you sure you want to risk it?"
The old elf looked around again for guidance. Several of his friends nodded.
"My dear elves! My very excellent dear elves," said Father Christmas, his eyes shining moistly, "I'm so proud of you!"
Albert sat down, blushing. The elves all chattered at once and patted him on the back.
Father Christmas smiled benevolently on the assembled workforce for a few minutes. A bell rang outside and he raised a hand to hush them. "All right. That'll be the mobile 'phone delivery I was telling you about. There's a lot to do before Christmas Eve. We'll move the workshop operation into this building for now. And after Christmas, it's going to be problems and difficulties every step of the way, so we'd better crack on!"