Bargy blew on his numb hands as he glared at the kettle, willing it to hurry up and boil. His meagre breakfast of two boiled eggs and no toast glared back up at him from his plate. The freezing air in his hut was stealing its warmth.
Just once, I’d like to eat hot eggs and toast dripping with melted butter and wash it down with scalding hot tea. Try as he might, Bargy just couldn’t get the timing right.
Down to half-rations. He shook his head at his meagre breakfast and blew on his hands.
Hang in there Bargy, this blasted year and its blasted lockdown are almost over. Every year was a bit worse and every year felt a bit colder.
Bad as it is, it’s better than Retirement, thought Bargy as a whistle brought his glare back to the struggling kettle. A knock-knock in the vacuum tube above him declared it as a message pod. Bargy held his breath as he rested his eyes on his delivery bay. The whistle lessened as the pod moved on.
Another whistle grew as his kettle gave a weak plume of steam. He placed his numb hands over it.
During their hey-day 150 years ago, Bargy used to curse the constant whistle overhead of message pods dispatching jobs, assignments and reassignments. Now the whistles were becoming rarer and rarer. More than half of the elf huts at the North Pole were empty, doors set ajar by the patient pressure of snow drifts.
Every year the factory belched into life, gearing up for the next round of utter pointlessness. Six weeks of work work work yearning for rest rest rest so that millions can smile on Christmas Day. Bargy knew that they were hanging in there by the skin of their collective teeth. Overtaken year on year by cheap imports from China. Holding onto their slim operating margin through rusty nostalgia. And now this year, this worst year of years, their business had been disrupted by the worst Chinese import of all. Covid-19.
Three days to go before the factory whistle blows, but there’s no assignment for me.
That was either great news, bad news or worse news. Golden ticket, reindeer shed or Retirement.
Every year Bargy prayed to be assigned to the Wrapping Department. The easy job. Next to sassy little Betty.
Ah Betty. I thought we had something there, but I got a bit merry on the eggnog last year and sidled up with some mistletoe and you blushed and bolted.
Bargy hadn’t seen Betty since the lockdown started six long months ago.
Bargy couldn’t wait for the kettle any longer. He shook his head and gulped down his tepid eggs with no toast. A moment later, the kettle chugged to the boil. Bargy poured his tea.
The remaining elves had taken to whispering down the vacuum pipes to stave off the slow creeping panic. Even though the punishment was instant Retirement. The whisper was that things were so tough that Santa had sold the lists.
Bargy’s gloom was broken by another incoming whistle, a clackety diversion and a thoomp as a message pod arrived. His hands tingled from the residual chimney magic as he picked it up. He looked upon his shaking hands with disgust.
I’m only 467. Too young to retire.
Retirement in the North Pole was a tin sled packed with meagre provisions and a falsely cheery wave and hurrah from a dwindling crowd of colleagues before running a gauntlet of polar bears hoping to make the nearest human settlement. No one knew if anyone had ever made it.
Bargy had once asked innocently why Santa couldn’t use his flying sleigh to drop the Retiree off somewhere nice within earshot of Mrs Claus. He’d spent twenty years on Reindeer Shed duty as a result.
Golden ticket. Please be the golden ticket. Bargy prayed as he held the message tube.
The Golden ticket was Christmas Eve sleigh duty. Joining Santa and Mrs. Claus in the big house. Warm and well rested all season.
Just keeping out of Mrs. Claus’ way. Laughing at Santa’s Dad jokes, keeping his hot toddy topped up and the fire stoked for six weeks and then just a single night’s labour hurling presents out of the back of the flying sleigh one by one as their nametags flashed past in a montage of Nice names. Sally, Cassius, Wendy, Joe, Crystal.
And this year, he would wait until they were over the tropics. And he would just step off the sleigh as Santa was heading for the vortex portal to get over the Pacific.
His fall would be broken by a palm tree. He would find a hat, find a normal job, maybe meet a short human with bad eyesight and make a good life.
The happy escape fantasy dissolved leaving him warm and hopeful. He thought about not opening the pod so he could hold onto the hope just that little bit longer.
With a sigh, he twisted open the capsule and the message popped out, floating in front of him.
“Assignment group: delta. Report to Reindeer Shed.”
So it’s bad. Or it’s worse. And this was the worst year to be on the worst job at Christmas.
Bargy sighed. There was still another lottery to go.
He chugged his hot tea enjoying the scald, swaddled himself in his greatcoat and stomped into his boots.
It took all his strength to wrestle his door open against the howling wind. Bargy slipped out as the wind slammed the door shut behind him. Sleet smacked his eyes as he wrestled his hood up. He turned to face the door, numb fingers fumbling to get the key in the lock. The keys dropped onto the Welcome mat half buried in snow. Its smiley face took on a sneering quality.
Bargy looked about at the dozens of empty neighbouring huts. Doors weighed open by invading snow drifts. The huts had become cold shells that used to host merriment, games and companionship. Bargy looked back at his door and to his left along the line of lit huts closer to the glowing factory, the Claus house and the reindeer shed.
Yet another sign of his low status in the eyes of the Clauses. 362 years of service to be literally left out in the cold. He picked up his keys from the mat and decided not to bother locking the door. Grumbling, he stomped through the slush toward the reindeer shed.
The smells of warm animals, manure and fire smoke were overlaid by spiced biscuits and warm eggnog. He slipped in through the heavy sliding door as it was closing for someone else.
There she was. Queen Passive Aggressive herself – Mrs Claus – standing with a tray of spiced biscuits and eggnog beside two straws, one long, one short.
To his surprise, Bargy saw Betty standing in front of Mrs Claus. Her bowed head did not quite conceal her trembling chin.
“Ah, Bargy. Good to see you. Now we can begin.” Mrs Claus lowered her tone. Her sharp eyes were veiled.
“Now my dears, I know that assignment group delta is not well thought of.”
There’s an understatement, thought Bargy eyeing the manure shovel and the door to the back office.
Oh please be shit shovelling.
“And I know – that you know – that this has been our hardest year yet.” Mrs Claus clapped her hands in front of her matronly skirt. A wisp of grey hair had escaped her immaculate bun. Yet another sign that the world was not right.
“And I know that there have been rumours circulating, even though we are all supposed to be self-isolating.” Her fearsomeness showed at that moment. Mrs Claus was the enforcer of this operation and she had personally retired many of Bargy’s friends, and some buggers he couldn’t stand, with a final cup of egg nog and plate of spiced biscuits.
Wait up, Bargy thought as he looked past the plate of spiced biscuits and the jug of eggnog at the rickety tin sleds and canvas packs of meagre rations that had no doubt already been raided by stealthy hungry elves.
Are we being Retired? Bargy risked a quick look at Betty, who at that moment risked a quick look at him. Bargy hoped he didn’t look as worried as Betty.
“And I wanted you to know that the rumour is true. Santa has indeed decided to share our lists this year. This is all part of the modernisation program and cross-industry collaboration borne of the excellent ideas on how to pivot our business model and streamline our practices. And I want to thank all those who took the time to participate in those workshops.” Mrs Claus seemed to think she was addressing a much larger crowd. Perhaps the extent of her own actions was a mystery to her. Perhaps she expected her workforce to be magically replenished by younger elves. Bargy couldn’t remember the last time he had held a youngster in his arms.
Bargy looked at Betty again. Ever so keen, ever so pretty, never so worried.
“And so, before we hold the lottery for the assignment group delta tasks, I would like to introduce you to our new industry collaboration partner.” She clapped her hands solemnly thrice and with an unnecessarily theatrical puff of smoke, the Grim Reaper appeared.
Betty gave a startled yelp. Bargy risked a reassuring hug. The Grim Reaper had materialised between them and Mrs Claus. Mrs Claus gave a wary smile and flick of her chin over the cowled figure’s shoulder.
The Grim Reaper tapped his scythe as he rocked from side to side, turning around in small increments to face Bargy and Betty.
The reindeer looked up from their munching and then returned to their ample dinners.
HELLO THERE. The voice was not loud, in fact it was not spoken at all, but its gravity formed its words in capital letters in Bargy’s mind.
MISSUS CLAUS HAS ASKED ME HERE TODAY TO EXPRESS MY GRATITUDE AT THIS ACT OF CROSS-INDUSTRY COOPERATION AT THIS TIME OF GREAT DISRUPTION TO OUR TRADITIONAL ROLES.
He held out a skeletal hand holding an unremarkable oblong box. AS YOU KNOW, I’M PRETTY SWAMPED AT THE MOMENT. I’VE GOT A BACKLOG OF MORE THAN A MILLION RECENTLY DEPARTED TO PROCESS. AND I GREATLY APPRECIATE ACCESS TO THE LISTS AND YOUR ASSISTANCE IN THE PROCESSING.
Betty looked on the verge of tears.
“Ah, just a moment Mr Reaper sir, we haven’t done the final task assignment yet. Now then,” Mrs Claus reached down for the two straws.
“I’ll do it,” said Bargy reluctantly relaxing his embrace of Betty. She looked at him caught between relief and disbelief. Before he could change his mind, he stepped forward and took the oblong box from the Grim Reaper. He could not resist a quick peep up into those empty eye sockets. Where he expected an absence of character due to a paucity of features, he found a wealth of expression.
AND YOU ARE?
DIDN’T YOU HELP OUT ON THE 1918 JOB?
“Yes sir. Pleased you remember me sir.”
The Grim Reaper looked with his empty eye sockets over to Betty and seemed to understand. ALRIGHT THEN.
“Well, that’s settled then.” Mrs Claus handed the manure shovel to Betty who took it with a sob of gratitude undercut by a lifted tail behind her and a small pebble avalanche.
“Thanks Bargy,” Betty said with a sniffle.
“No problem Betty. See you under the mistletoe?” He shot her a gallows grin.
“This way please Bargy.” Mrs Claus led him past the tray of eggnog and spiced biscuits.
What! That’s cruel. Even for you.
She opened the office door letting out a blast of warm air. Bargy followed her into a room dominated by a roaring fire, a writing desk, two rolled scrolls and a stack of blank parchment. On the wall were two vacuum tubes. One was red sinking down through the floor and the other was white extending up through the ceiling. Beside the stack of blank parchment sheets was a plate piled high with slabs of fudge, a whole jug of eggnog and a mug.
Bargy sighed as his stomach rumbled and the fire chased the chill from his bones.
Well, at least I’ll be warm and well fed.
He plopped himself down at the desk and looked up at Mrs Claus. “Okay then Bargy, thank you for volunteering. I know this is the worst job. But it has to be done.”
Bargy nodded. Mrs Claus left. As soon as the door clicked shut, Bargy stuffed slab after slab of fudge into his mouth. He picked up the eggnog and sculled straight from the jug. He unbuckled his belt to accommodate the grateful bulge in his belly and thought about the Retirement sleds in the next room. Next to Betty, shovelling reindeer shit.
Maybe they could make a break for it together. Maybe they could scrape together enough food from the packs to survive out on the ice long enough to make the nearest human settlement. Maybe they could saddle up two reindeer and eat one when they ran out of food. Or sacrifice it to keep the polar bears busy as they fled.
The happy fantasy ran around and around his head. But the reality of the task at hand drew him forward.
He set the Grim Reaper’s oblong box in the middle of the table between the two enormous scrolls. One marked NAUGHTY. The other marked NICE.
Inside the box was an ivory quill and a feeder slot. He picked up the quill and with a rattle of printing a ream of paper spooled out.
Henry Aaronson, DoB: 16 Sep 1943, DoD: 15 Sep 2020, CoD: Pulmonary Embolism.
Bargy opened the NAUGHTY parchment and scanned down the surnames. Aadmunsen, Aardvark, Aaronson.
There were six Aaronsons.
Yep, there he is. Henry Aaronson (age 14)
Hang on. Bargy checked the Date of Birth. Oh, there’s two of them.
Henry Aaronson (age 14)
Henry Aaronson (age 76)
Next to 76-year-old Henry Aaronson’s name was his Christmas wish – Make it to my next birthday.
Bargy sighed. Great start.
He ran the Grim Reaper’s ivory quill right to left through the name of 76-year-old Henry Aaronson. The quill pulled up the ink forming the letters of his name. The Christmas wish dissolved and the other names shuffled up the NAUGHTY list.
Bargy reached for a blank piece of parchment and swiped the ivory quill left to right. The quill spilled out Henry Aaronson (age 76) onto the first page destined for the red vacuum tube.
A buzz from the quill box feeder and a new name popped up.
Jill Abernathy. DoB: 28 Mar 1961. DoD: 26 Aug 2020. CoD: Covid-19
Bargy shook his head as he scanned down the NAUGHTY list. Nope. Jill was not there.
With a sigh, he opened the NICE list and there she was, fifty-second from the top.
Jill Abernathy (age 59) – An end to that horrible beeping noise, so I can rest.
Bargy sighed as he swiped the ivory quill right to left through Jill’s name and her Christmas wish dissolved. He selected a new piece of parchment and transferred her name by swiping the quill left to right. Bargy placed the new parchment destined for the white vacuum tube beside the NICE list.
The feeder slot rattled up name after name. Bargy diligently found the record of the recently deceased person on the NAUGHTY or NICE list, pulled it off the parchment and added it to the corresponding parchment.
Each time he filled up a parchment, he got up from the desk, tucked the list into a red tube or a white tube and sent it on its way. The names of the dead from the NAUGHTY list would travel down the red vacuum tube to Uncle Toby himself.
He could picture Uncle Toby amid the lovely warm fires of Hell opening the tube, unfurling the parchment and, with a grasp of his taloned hand, drawing the doomed from Limbo by their names.
The parchments compiled from the NICE list would zoom up the white vacuum tube to Saint Pete who would likewise draw the souls of the worthy from Limbo to Heaven. For each white vacuum tube pod, there were nine red ones.
The feeder rattled. The names spooled through. Tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, one million. Bargy diligently ploughed through the names and their unfulfilled Christmas wishes.
A new car. To see my daughter again. A sweater for my dog Jimmy. A remote-controlled speedboat. A friend.
Each dissolved Christmas wish mounted up in Bargy’s heart until he wanted to hang his head and cry.
The feeder spat out the next name and fell silent.
Hope Zymmerman. DoB: 25 Dec 1927. DoD: 11 Nov 2020. CoD: Covid-19.
Bargy felt a clunk deep inside as he sucked up Hope’s name from the NICE list with the ivory quill. The final Christmas wish of Hope Zymmerman dissolved off the page – An end to this damn virus before my grandchild gets here.
The ivory quill seemed to move of its accord as it spat her name out as the last entry on the list destined for St Pete.
With the last two tubes in his hands, one white, one red, Bargy heaved his heavy body out of the chair and up to the vacuum tubes. He wished Hope Zymmerman well as he sent her pod up the white chute.
He turned to the red vacuum tube. Bargy held out the final red pod over the receptacle and felt the warmth of chimney magic radiating up around his hand. He looked down the pipe into the void. A doorway to another world.
Maybe it’s not so bad down there. I might meet a nice succubus and we could make it work. Everyone’s welcome down there.
Bargy reached a hand down the chute. The chimney magic pulled at his fingers turning them into spindling spider legs. Bargy lowered his head and lifted up on his toes. The chimney magic pulled him in and out and down.
The world went dark as he slid head first into the tube. And got stuck around his fudge filled belly. The gentle heat ratcheted up into a foul hot wind that pulled the breath from his lungs stealing his scream. He was going to die in a stupid escape attempt.
It was all pointless. The weight of the world’s suffering had stolen his capacity to care. He stopped kicking.
Not how I thought I’d go out. Bargy’s final thought dwindled into darkness.
As his consciousness faded he felt a haul on his ankles. Oxygen rushed into his lungs as the room swam into being around him.
Her face was a picture of concern. Her mouth shouting words that Bargy’s deafened ears could not process. He held her tight. The buzz of words in her chest stopped. After the most excruciating of pauses, she returned the hug.
Over her heaving shoulder, the ivory quill stood up from where he had set it down and moved back to the NICE list.
Curiosity tugged at Bargy’s warming heart. He stood up drawing Betty with him and squinted at the letters spilling out of the quill.
The quill finished its work and lay itself to rest in its case revealing the rest of the entry on the NICE list.
Hope Zymmerman (age 1 day) – Arms to hold me and voices to sing to me.
Holding Betty close, Bargy moved to the white vacuum tube.
The chimney magic prickled on his face as he shouted “Hey Hope! Your grandchild is here. And you’ll never guess what they named her.”