Santa stared disconsolately at his Ofsant report: ‘Quality of presents: good. Workshop and warehouse staffing: poor, due to decline of elderly elves and growth of demand. Business critical. Immediate action required.’
The wind howled around the eaves of the house. Lightning crackled across the moor. A distant owl, unsettled, hooted uncertainly. Edgar Allen Poe turned slowly in his grave. At 11 The Crescent, a child stirred in her sleep, and woke to see a recognisable figure.
‘Santa, is that really you?’ said Emily.
‘Ho ho ho, yes my child. I am Santa. Have you been good?’
‘Well, mostly,’ said Emily. ‘But I thought you were my dad, with his usual pretence of a fake beard.’
‘Ho, Emily, no; you deserve better. See this candy sugar cane I have brought for you? Your presents are waiting for you, up on the roof with the reindeer. Come with me, we will fly through the clouds of night, and I will bring you back before morning light. Bring your sister too.’
Emily looked across at her sister, still asleep in the other bed of their shared bedroom.
‘Her? Why? She’s not been that good. Miss Robertson said she is truculent.’
‘Emily, Emily,’ said Santa. ‘It’s Christmas Eve.’
‘Oh, all right,’ said Emily. ‘Hey, Goodysocks, get up.’
‘What, what?’ said Sarah
‘Santa’s here, let’s go.’
Sarah rubbed her eyes and thought of a lot of reasons why she didn’t like her sister. It wasn’t just the surprise of being woken up in the middle of the night. It was the knowledge that, like most of her sister’s surprises, this one would turn out to be unpleasant. Just like last week, on the way to school, when Emily ran across the road and nearly got run over, instead of staying with Sarah and crossing safely with Alice, the nice Lollipop Lady. But there, seemingly, was Santa.
‘Are you really Santa?’ said Sarah.
‘Ho Ho Ho. Now come on.’
‘Isn’t it sooty up there?’
‘Do I look sooty?’
‘Come on then, this magic sack will keep you free from soot. Just jump in: you’ll be warm as muffins and twice as smart.’
‘Come on Goodysocks!’ said Emily.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Sarah. ‘I just have to ask our parents. And tell Mrs Polkinghorn.’
‘Don’t be stupid, you can’t tell them,’ said Emily. ‘And what does your guinea pig know about Christmas anyway?’
‘Let’s go, Emily, no time to waste. Just pop into the magic sack. We won’t be long,’ said Santa.
‘Bye Goodysocks, back soon,’ said Emily.
And with that, Emily popped into Santa’s waiting sack and was soon in his sleigh with some other unexpectedly wriggly parcels.
Next morning, things were quiet at 11 The Crescent. Normally the girls would rush, dragging their stuffed stockings, into their parents’ bedroom, but today Emily’s bed was still empty and Sarah struggled to comprehend the situation. Santa wasn’t real, was he? But there was no sign of Emily, or stuffed stockings, and Sarah feared that something was terribly wrong. Somehow, she had to find her. She put on her dressing gown and quietly tiptoed downstairs. Mrs Polkinghorn would know what to do.
‘Sarah, it’s a bit early, isn’t it?’ said Mrs Polkinghorn.
‘Look, you’ve got to help me,’ said Sarah. ‘Emily’s been abducted by Santa. He just turned up in the night and she went off with him. I’m scared for her. I think she’s in danger.’
‘How do you know?’ said Mrs Polkinghorn, looking up from her lettuce.
‘I knew it when he left the mince pie, and didn’t smell of beer. I knew the usual Santa wouldn’t have done that. But Emily just went off with him without thinking. And now he’s got her in his clutches.’
‘Sarah, don’t worry. Just top up my bran and I’ll make a few calls…’
‘That’s probably enough,’ said Santa, at the end of a long night. ‘These children are quick learners: we’ll soon get the workshops up to speed again. Hah! That’ll show Ofsant. I’m looking for “Outstanding”! Come on guys, let’s go!’
He cracked the whip and the team picked up the pace. Not for the first time that night, he wiped away the ice crystals forming on his glasses. No problem, the reindeer knew their way home. But what was that red light in front of him, getting nearer, brighter? The sleigh slowed, stopped, as the reindeers’ path was blocked by another, very similar, sleigh, with a bright red light on the lead reindeer’s nose and a couple of flashing blue lights on the runners.
‘Step slowly out of the sleigh, Sir, and keep your hands in the air where we can see them. What have you got in those sacks?’
‘Nothing Officer, just a few turnips.’
‘Turnips, eh? Then what’s that weeping sound, above the icy wind in the cold night air? Blitzen – open the sacks!’
Constable Blitzen nibbled the rope securing the first sack and out, not surprisingly at this point in the story, tumbled several children, cold, but otherwise unharmed. As did another nineteen children from the remaining four sacks.
‘Nicholas Christmas, you’re nicked,’ said Inspector Rudolph. ‘I’m arresting you for the theft of childhood and the dreams of a million children and their parents. Best come quietly.’
‘Okay, Inspector, but how did you know?’
‘Nicholas – little girls in fairy stories used to be naïve. But modern girls are smart. They don’t eat candy sugar canes. They don’t believe in magic sacks that keep the soot off. They’re assertive, not truculent.’
‘Is that it?’ said Nicholas.
‘One more thing,’ said Inspector Rudolph. ‘Their guinea pigs work at GCHQ.’
‘I must be in the wrong story,’ said Nicholas. ‘I thought this was supposed to be gothic horror.’
‘Merry Christmas everyone, and pass the carrots,’ said Mrs Polkinghorn.
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