Lonely This Christmas
Three small creatures, dressed in green and red, stood on tiptoes, their hands holding them up to a frosty windowsill, their faces just high enough to peer into a window ringed with condensation. Their grip was precarious; every so often, one of the elves would lose his balance on the snow below, or feel his fingers sliding off the sill, and would tumble to the ground. This brought forth laughter from his companions - elves find nothing funnier than other elves falling over - then hurried shushing as they tried to stay hidden from the man inside the house.
Watching for a while, they were intrigued.
"What's he doing now?" asked Torven, the elf who had fallen most often and so could see the least of what was happening inside.
"He seems to be… moving." Heggle replied, in a not very helpful way.
"That's not very helpful," pointed out Mishi, for elves cannot help but state the obvious.
"You're stating the obvious," Heggle answered with a smile.
This conversation could have carried on for many an hour - which elf conversations often do and which explains why they have never fulfilled their potential as rulers of empires - had not Torven slipped and fallen again. The three elves laughed uproariously. (Had they built an empire, it would have been a very happy one.)
Torven got back to his feet and stared through the glass again.
"Is he… is he dancing?" he asked hesitantly.
The three elves looked in. Inside, a fire roared in the hearth of the wooden cabin. A Christmas tree, weighed down with baubles and lights and chocolates and gifts and fruit and candies and all sorts of Christmassy goodies, stood in one corner of the room. A great red settee reached out across the middle of the room. Above the fireplace, on the wall, a portrait of the owners of the house, an old man with a full white beard and his wife, round and plump and puddingy, with rosy cheeks and a white bun of hair like a dollop of ice cream on her head.
And in the middle of the room, the man himself; dressed in his red suit, with his belt hanging loose, barefoot, his boots drying in front of the fire. And, yes, he was dancing. He held his arms out, one out sideways at the height of his wife's shoulder, the other as if around her waist. And he was waltzing - though the elves did not know this word, for they only dance in four-four time - he was waltzing alone.
It had only been a few months since his wife had passed away. Last Christmas had been her last Christmas; they had worked so hard together, finding and packing and tying and readying all of the presents for delivery, before he went out on his rounds. It had been bitterly cold last winter and she had caught a chill that just would not go. A cough at first, then a deeper hack, then a sense that her lungs were full and sticky, and finally, in the quiet summer months, he had held her hand and said Goodbye and she had breathed out her sweet cold breath for the last time.
Since then, the old man - Father Christmas - had tried to carry on alone; he had been busy with work, always the pre-Christmas rush, and the elves and the reindeer couldn't look after themselves - for elves are not good at cooking, and reindeer have no opposable thumbs. But even amongst the hectic schedule, there were times when he found himself alone, usually in the night-time and in his little cabin, when he would look up at the picture of himself and his wife and say "Mary, Mary, Mary" under his breath and realise how much he missed her now that she was gone.
And on those nights, he would wind up his old gramophone - for electricity is scarce in those cold far reaches of the North - and he would play songs that reminded him of their time together, and he would always end by playing "Lonely This Christmas" and dancing with the shadow of his wife, Mary. After some nights like this, he stopped playing the other songs and played only that one, and he would dance, and dance, and dance.
This was one of those nights and the three elves watched - not for the first time - as Father Christmas spun slowly around the room.
"This has to stop." Mishi said with determination in his voice.
"You sound very determined about that," Heggle replied.
Sensing where the conversation was going, Torven deliberately slipped and fell. The three elves chuckled. Torven, sensing that he had their attention, said from his cold seat in the snow, "I have an idea."
Mishi and Heggle stared at him. "Really?" they said in unison.
"Really. I have an idea."
The two elves looked at Torven, then at each other, then at Torven again. Then they burst out into a round of applause, for elves are always impressed by ideas. Torven took their applause with a small bow, really a nod, as he was still on the ground. He scrambled to his feet with a broad smile, proud of his achievement in having an idea. The applause died away. There was silence.
"So… what is it?" asked Heggle.
"What's what?" said Torven.
"Your idea!" Heggle cried, exasperated.
"Oh, um, now…. let me see…." Torven scratched his head through his little green hat. His mind had gone as blank as a foggy sky. "Oh yes, that's it!" And he gave another bow.
"You have to tell us what it is!" Mishi pointed out.
"Ah, right, yes." And the three elves leaned their heads together and whispered, for though elves are always impressed by ideas, they are very protective of them and do not want passers-by to hear what they are.
The next evening, Heggle, Mishi and Torven took their places at the window. But they were not alone. Every window into the cabin had a gaggle of elves pressed up against it, for though the three had tried to keep their idea secret, elves are really not the most discrete of creatures and word had spread far and fast. Inside, the fire roared, the tree sagged a little, the settee, well, it was just there. Father Christmas walked into the room, stamping his boots to shake off the snow before taking them off and casting them in front of the fire. It had been a long day; two of the reindeer had pulled muscles and the elves in the packing workshop had been distracted and unproductive all day. Father Christmas undid his belt buckle and breathed a sigh of relaxation. His belly seemed to grow a little, released from its restraint.
He looked up at the picture above the fireplace. "Mary, Mary, Mary," he muttered, then reached for the gramophone and started to play his song. He sang along quietly, "Well, it'll be lonely this Christmas without you to hold…" and to dance slowly around the room, waltzing with his wife who wasn't there.
And as he waltzed, the door to the cabin opened, and in walked Mary. Father Christmas stood stock still, staring at her. "Mary?" He said. The figure approached him, reaching out a hand to him. Flabbergasted, Father Christmas reached out to her, took her hand and actually took her hand. It came away in his grasp, a plastic hand from a mannequin. "What the deuces?" He cried as, unable to contain themselves, the elves around the house, and the elves operating the mechanical Mary, burst into fits of unstoppable giggles.
Not quite sure what was happening, Father Christmas flopped down on the big red settee.
"Does anyone want to tell me what's going on?" He asked of no-one in particular.
By this time, Heggle and Mishi had pushed Torven into the little cabin. It had been his idea so he could explain it - for elves liked nothing more than passing the blame to others. Torven shuffled hesitantly towards Father Christmas.
"Sir, we're very sorry, sir, but we noticed that you were lonely and missing Mrs Christmas. So we thought we would make you a new Mrs Christmas." And with this he gestured to the new Mary. Looking closer, Father Christmas realised that she was made of a mannequin, lots of red material, a little trolley so she could move, a beachball for her head and a lot of cotton wool for her hair. The elves had worked secretly all day on the model Mary and now looked nervously at Father Christmas, wondering what he would say.
It took a few moments before the man on the settee began to chuckle, and then to giggle, and then to laugh with all his might, a big, booming laugh that made the Christmas tree sway and the fire splutter and the elves - who could not resist laughter - join in too. Then, as if the wind had changed, the man's laughter turned into tears, a quiet sobbing, and the elves fell silent.
Father Christmas sniffed his tears back and gathered his composure. "Elves, elves, everyone, gather round." And all the elves from around the house tiptoed into the room, and sat at the feet of the big man in the red suit.
"Thank you so much for what you have done. You have seen that I have been lonely and you have tried to make me feel better. But this Mary, she cannot replace my Mary, who is dead and gone and will never come back to dance with me."
The elves sniffed in unison.
"I shall always miss my Mary, and I know you miss her too." The elves nodded in unison and collectively wiped back a tear that had strayed from an eye.
"But what you have made me realise is that, whilst I miss my Mary, I could never be lonely. I have so many good friends among the elves and the reindeer, and so many people who send me letters from around the world, that, although I shall never find another Mary, I shall never be alone. Thank you, my friends."
And with that we take our leave, backing quietly out of the cabin door, into the snowy night-time, safe in the knowledge that the elves will continue to look after Father Christmas - for, above all, that is what the elves are best at doing.