When Santa came down the chimney.
The ticking clock came to me first. I was trying to stay awake to see Santa. He's going to come tonight...the chimney gave a few belches of dust, a trickle of brick mortar and then he fell through and landed with a thump on the steel grating. For a moment he was still; unmoving as the dust slowly settled around and on him. Then he swung wildly, searching blindly for something to pull himself upright on, coughing and bellowing as he struggled. Finding a grip on the edge of the fireplace, he yanked himself up, shot a glanced toward me and narrowed his beady, black eyes. Mean, cold, cruel eyes.
“Who the fuck are you?” He shouted, then doubled over to wretch on the floor.
“Santa?” I timidly asked.
“Fuck's sake. Where's the brandy, short-arse?” He shouted as I studied his dirty red jacket, his pawing at a lighter to torch a broken cigarette.
“Santa?” I repeated, more inquisitively, and slightly louder.
“What?” He yelled in a sort of annoyed groan. “What are you doing here anyway? You're not supposed to be here. You're not supposed to see any of this.” He held his head in both hands then looked over at me. “At least tell me where you left the fucking brandy. You think I get paid some other way for this job? Come on, step to it.” I stood and moved cautiously toward the tot of brandy and mince pie that mum and I had left for him earlier in the night. He looked into my line of movement and intercepted the brandy before I could reach it and slugged it back. He picked up the mince pie and sniffed it distrustfully before hurling it against the wall, where it exploded with a dull thud. “There any more?” He asked, scanning the sideboards.
“Dad keeps it in the big cupboard, over there.” I answered, pointing to the fold down cupboard.
“Well I'm sure daddy ain't the type of man to leave a man dry with kidney stones like mine.” He took the brandy from the cupboard and drank it straight from the bottle. It would make dad angry if he was here. “Over here, you. Might aswell make yourself useful if you're not going to piss off.” He walked back to the chimney and called back up it. “Rudolph!” He called. “Send it down.” A moment later and a sack descended down the chimney. He took from the sack a few ornately wrapped boxes of varying sizes and threw them at the Christmas tree. After that swung round and looked down at me. “Right want to earn yourself a pound? Up you go. He put me in the sack and moved it somewhere. I was terrified, I didn't understand what he was doing. Was he really Santa? I was too afraid to talk but oddly sure of my safety,so I stayed quiet as the sack was lugged around.
He didn't seem very jolly. He didn't say ho ho ho or like mince pies. But he did seem to be Santa. He didn't deny it anyway. I could feel the sack moving away from the ground and in a few moments it was being opened again by an old, sad looking man with a pair of reindeer antlers and a red nose on.
“Who are you?” He croaked in an old, crumbly voice.
“Timmy.” I muttered up. He looked puzzled...
“What are you doing in the bag?”
“Santa said I would earn a pound.” He looked at me distrustfully, sniffed and turned away.
“Well you're too young to pimp, too timid to work as a pickpocket. Guess he needs a booze hound.” He muttered. At that moment Santa arrived, gasping and wheezing at the top of the chimney.
“Right then ya cunts. When we get to the next house, kid, straight on point. Find the brandy and bring it straight to me, we're already two hours behind this evening, we need to make tracks because I'll be fucked if I'm doing overtime. I have a card game to attend. Get on Rudolph, let's get going. Kid, in the van.”
“But Santa, I...”
“I said you'd earn a pound, now come on! Enough of this winging.” He got in the van and I followed, a bit scared? but also not sure how it had come to be on a rooftop. It didn't have a front either. Instead of an engine there was a bike in front of the windscreen. I was really puzzled. Rudolph got on the bike and began to peddle, and To my amazement the van lifted off the roof and began to lift up, climbing into the night sky.
“Santa, how is the van flying?” I gasped. Santa had picked up another misshapen cigarette and was lighting it with his clumsy, shaking hands.
“He's not an ordinary Reindeer, he's a magic Reindeer, int' he? Pass us that brandy, will you mate.” He turned his head and spat out the window. I looked around me, then looked back to Santa.
“I don't have any, Santa.” He stared at me with those beady black eyes, burning with anger. I wanted to go back home. My bottom lip started wobbling.
“What the fuck am I paying you for? I'm docking this from the pound. You'd best start thinking on your feet, son, or you're going to end up owing me money by the end of tonight.” The van was touching down on the next roof. “Right, remember your job, get the booze, I'll drop the shit off at the twig.” And he was out of the car. I followed. Outside I climbed back into the bag and was lowered down by Rudolph. Santa opened it up when I reached the bottom. “You're going to have to start climbing down the chimney, we got no time for this malarky. Rudolph has his own jobs to tend to. Muslims live around here, we piss in their letterboxes at Christmas. Now, fetch the Brandy, there's a good lad.”
I found the brandy on the fireplace. The bottle was left beside the plate so I picked it up. Santa took the glass from my hand and drank from it. He snatched up the mince pie. He held it in front of my face, broken pastry and filling pouring through the gaps in his fingers. Then flicking his fingers out to spray it in all directions.
“Do you know what really fucks me off in life, kid? Mince, fucking pies. 'Orrible little bastards. You got the bottle o' taint?” I held up the brandy in both hands. “Thas' a good kid. In the bag you get then.” I climbed back in the sack and was hoisted upward again.
“Santa?” I called up again whilst we headed to the next house.
“Stop calling me fucking Santa, will you? Christ, we're in England at the moment. Santa Claus sounds like the ineloquent ramblings of a Spanish donkey.”
“What shall I call you then?” I asked.
“Am I paying you a pound to work for me?”
“Then you call me boss. I know you're young but you'd best get into the swing of things now. You start thinking that we're all jolly mates on first name terms, the real world will destroy you and shit you out in no time. Pass me that Brandy.” I handed the bottle up and he drank from it. “I used to be somebody once. You ever heard of the Rainbow bridge? Bifrost?”
“No.” I answered.
“Well you're young, aren't you? Bifrost was a bridge that led to a place called Asgard. I used to work it. Nobody could enter Asgard without my say-so. Then I was a proper boss. Not like now, only working with poor old Rudolph. I used to have the pick of the Valkyries back in the day.” He swigged from the bottle then lunged into me. “You ever seen a Valkyrie coming back from a battle ground? Chest all clad in a steel breastplate, covered in sweat and gore?”
I didn't understand what he was talking about. I shook my head, bemused. He looked away with a mean smile and rubbed his privates.
“You're too young, Peanut. You wouldn't understand. Anyway, we're at the next house. Head on the job.”
We went off into the next house and got lots of brandy. Boss found a Cigar and held it in the air, laughing to himself like he was mad. Boss never got any friendlier but he wasn't really mean. Just grumpy, and he always wanted more Brandy. I asked him more about Bifrost and Asgard in between houses.
“What is a Bifrost, boss?”
“Eh? It's NAME was Bifrost, IT was a bridge, Y'know? Like what you go over a river on.”
“Oh...why was yours called Bifrost?” I asked.
“Because it was a fucking good bridge, mate. A special bridge that only the greatest of people were allowed to cross. Back in the old days the mead halls would be lively and laughter could be heard by all the night fires. But then, people stopped coming. The greatest people disappeared as the living forgot them, lost their names and deeds. You know how many people have passed over Bifrost in the last 700 years?”
“No.” He leaned over, coughed out a cloud of smoke and caught his breath again.
“Six...six bloody people, mate. And one of them was a confused Buddhist looking for Nirvana. Well you can't fight a war with five people and a confused Buddhist .”
“Why were you fighting a war?” I asked. He looked down at me again...angry again but also unsure,as if it made no sense for me to ask. I hunkered into the seat a little.
“What do you mean, why? Asgard was the meeting place before Ragnorok. The war of winter, the war to end all bloody things and bring about a new beginning and a new world. Ragnorok is doom, Peanut. What are they teaching you these days?” He shook his head and gestured at the windows. I stayed hunkered in my seat. I didn't like Santa. My dad would say he was a tosser. “Alright, alright. It ain't your fault you're a simpleton, blame that on the schoolhouse...anyway, Ragnorok was a really big fight scheduled for the future. But, obviously with only six people, it got cancelled. Asgard began to crumble. Odin sold Asgard to developers, it's now a leisure centre and golf course. Bifrost is a car park. You don't need to hear the grass grow to attend a car park.”
“Oh.” I thought it sounded good not to have a fight, but boss looked really sad. He smoked his drooping cigarette and shook his red, puffy face. “I'm sorry boss.” I said, hoping to console him.
“Things change, peanut. No matter how much you're looking forward to whatever plans you've made, things change.”
“Timmy.” I offered, but he didn't really notice. He just grunted and spat out the window. He shouted up to Rudolph. Rudolph turned to listen to boss, then looked over the side of the bike. He then went for a wee over the side. Finishing, he got back on the bike, gave two fingers to the ground below and we were away again. “Who's Odin? I asked.
“Pass me that brandy, we got a house coming up. Sniffer nose on, shit-for-brains.” We went into the house. They had put the brandy on the windowsill this time. Behind me there was no fireplace, but instead one of those electric heaters. I wondered how boss got through that? Boss shouted me back into action.
“Oi! Come on, back in the bloody bag.” I climbed in, boss handed me a big crow bar when I was in the bag, then I was back outside again. Boss had given me a raincoat to wear which was too big for me, but it kept me warm. He said he would dock a loan fee from my pound.
“So who is Odin, boss?” I asked when we got back into the van.
“He was the leader of my clan.” He took a swig of brandy then pointed towards Rudolph. “Tha's him, there.”
“I thought that was Rudolph, and he worked for you?” I said, puzzled.
“Well he does, now. After he sold Asgard he went a little bit, you know, edtheball.”
“What's that?” I asked.
“Mad, mate. Why do you think he wears reindeer antlers?” He made a gesture with his fingers above his ears and crossed his eyes.
“Because it's Christmas?” I asked. Boss tutted.
“It's because he's a fucking nutter, nowadays. He was pretty big back in Asgard; head honchos, in fact. Can you imagine being the all seeing, all knowing, all planning Billy big-balls, then losing it all because somebody nicks all the people that believe in you? I got it fucking bad, mate. And all I lost was a bridge; pretty nice one like, but a bridge all the same.” I looked up at Rudolph/Odin and his Antlers didn't seem fun any more. They seemed sad and pointless.
“Why are you doing this now, boss?”
“What? Delivering crap to dead trees rotting in the corner of peoples houses?”
“Yes.” Boss sniffed back and thought for a moment. He swigged the brandy and lit another cigarette.
“Because you get what you're given, or you get nothing at all. It goes like this, back in the day we get our jobs from these old girls called the Fates; very wise old dears who knit, but lives instead of jumpers. When Odin sold Asgard, the fates got replaced. Nowadays we get assigned our roles by some twats called Witchell & Brewster; they're a management consultancy in London. Another thing you kids don't realise. There is no choice in life, other than choosing not to eat the scraps given to you. Heimdall ain't dying through starvation like some little pathetic weakling. You here me? Shit for brains?” I nodded and handed him the Brandy without him having to ask me. He snatched it away and drank, then turned back to me, wiping his mouth and beard with his sleave. “Pay attention, yeah? You might just learn something.”
We got out of the van. Rudolph/ Odin had a Carrot in his mouth. I noticed he had different coloured eyes. One a very dull blue, almost grey. The other, a weird smiley face that didn't suit him. He looked sad all the time. He was dressed like a clown, and clowns always seem unhappy to me. “Come on, Peanut.” Boss called over. I caught up with him and we went down the chimney. At the bottom boss was quiet and alert. “Quiet son.” He held his arm in front of me. He peered around and sniffed at the air. “Nian's been here. Back in the bag, you're not safe here.” I climbed back in, silently. We left without a sound, I gasped a little back in the bag.
“What was that, boss?” I quizzed.
“Chinese problem, should have marked on the house list. Nian is busy there and you've neither offered it food nor dressed yourself in red. He finds you, mate, you're getting eaten.”
I was terrified and wanted to go home. I didn't even know what a Nian was but the way boss said it was enough for me imagine all sorts of scary things. I tried to think of something other than huge long teeth and Rudolph/Odins sad antlers and drooping bottom lip.
“What's a Nian, boss?” I asked.
“It's a monster that works the Chinese new year. In this country we all tend to work the same evening but usually it comes a bit later.”
“Why would it want to eat me?”
“Because that's what it does. If you don't give it food you need to wear red clothes. That's why I'm dressed in these flashy garms. You've done neither so stay away from Nian.”
“A monster? I thought Christmas was all about giving and happiness? Nobody told me about monsters at Christmas.”
“And it is, to an extent. But the other side of being given to is you giving away, what have you offered for the hard times peanut? Some say it's nice to give at Christmas. Others are a little more brutal about the reasons, and it takes a monster to scare those reasons home. If you don't give to your people when times are lean, we'll send in the dogs to get it...damn kids today, peanut. Not a clue between you all. Before everything got sold, replaced, devalued and turned into a fucking car park for a golf course we had reasons for doing things. Christmas all about happiness and getting glittery boxes for you is it, son? Back in my day it was about the whole clan sharing the last of the food, so the winter doesn't kill them all, one at a time. Different time, shit-for-brains; different time.”
I wasn't sure if I liked Christmas or not. Boss seemed to hate it and Rudolph/Odin just seemed unhappy about everything. And something from China wanted to eat me. I found a red rag on the floor and tied it around my arm. It wasn't much, but it was red at least. At least the Brandy seemed to make boss happy, I was happy to get it for him, in between moaning and shouting swear words out the window.
“You haven't done bad tonight, cunto. You'll have earned your wage at least. Pass me that Brandy, will you?” I handed him the bottle. He offered some to me, but it smelled horrible and I screwed up my nose. He looked at me as if I were odd and swigged some more. “Suit yourself.” He said.
“Why were you late in the first place today, boss?” He looked down at me, a bit confused.
“What?” He croaked.
“You said you were two hours behind.”
“Oh! Fucking Elves went on strike, back at the plant. Apart from the emergency belts, them running computer games and the Coca-Cola shed. The place went stone cold. Had to call in strike breakers to sort em out. We arrested two of them under the terrorism act, put three more in intensive care before they got back on their lines, by then we'd lost two bloody hours.” I didn't understand most of what boss said and reeled in and out of the conversation. I just kept thinking, dad would definitely think this guy is a tosser, I'm never doing this again. And then I hear him a bit more, droning on, like the chime of the clock in the front room at home. “So we picked up a lad and had him work the bottle run for an hour or so, but he disappeared somewhere after I left him with Odin for a couple of doors. And then we found you. And thanks to you, we saved Christmas, and got pissed on the job!”
At the end of the night boss dropped me off back at my house.
“Now, I'm docking you twenty pee for the coat, twenty pee for not doing your job in the first house, plus fuel tab for the night? Duh duh duh...you owe me a Carrot. You got a carrot?”
“No.” I answered.
“Right well you owe it. I'll come back for it another time. Gotta pay what you owe, Shit for brains. And just remember; peanut, when you think of Christmas, and all the crap you want me to bring around, just remember Odin, up there thinking he's a reindeer. Remember me, forced into employing you because of strikes by fucking Elves at the plant, ruining my schedule. Think about how much your greedy dreams burden people like me, like your olds, in there.” He pointed at the house, losing a splash of Brandy from the bottle. “Who probably go spending all their savings, all they could scrape together on just one day of joy, for you. And that; let's be honest, you've forgotten about by tomorrow. And always remember, there's a monster out there hiding behind some door or other called a Nian, and it wants to get you, and it wants to eat you...Now fuck off...” Boss pointed again at the house then turned to slouch away through the snow. I started walking to the door, but boss called back. “Hang on mate...do your folks smoke?” He shouted.
“My dad does.” I answered.
“Go in there and fetch me his fags will you? nice and quietly, I'll let you off the Carrot you owe me.”