By Tenth Muse Top
There were 23 Christmas stockings hung about the fireplace. All were exactly the same size, but some had already been filled, or partly filled, with coal.
Vestah Jones paused and contemplated the scene.
“What the…? Coal?”
She wanted to yell, “Who the fuck put COAL in HERE?” Yet the silent, sleeping house had its own power and it just was not done for Santa Claus to cause a foul-mouthed commotion, no matter how irked she felt.
She sank down onto a footstool, pulled out a tatty pamphlet and began to flick through its worn out pages.
“You’re gonna be tellin’ me there is a new protocol for this.” She muttered. “Let me see… ‘Size of gift is determined by Net Goodness Factor. This is derived from the Net Goodness Equation where a recipient’s behaviour (good or bad) is balanced by the recipient’s actual intention. Therefore, apparent good behaviour, which in the long term is self serving or harmful, is recognised for what it is. Likewise, errors of judgement, initially appearing to be corrupt, but which are driven by the desire to do good, are balanced.’ Tell me somethin’ I don’t know!”
Vestah slid a finger inside her knee-high, black, leather boots and wiggled it about in a semi-successful attempt to relieve an itch.
“Nothin’ about coal. Frick! Like that even helps! ‘Santa’s Modern Advisory’ – my sweet…! It does not even rhyme!”
She flung the manual onto a deep velvet couch.
Her mind, however, was only half paying attention to this new irritation: mostly she was pre-occupied with feeling really annoyed at finding herself wearing this itchy, ugly Santa suit at all. The job was one thing, but this stupid-ass get-up?
“I should have never allowed it to get this far.” She muttered and closed her eyes. She sent her awareness through the house, listening to the sleeping children, the restless teenagers and exhausted adults.
Her deep voice rolled through the spaces, a mellifluous caress, touching each one with gentleness. In response, the breathing patterns of the residents slowed and deepened.
Chuckling, Santa Claus rubbed her hands together and then flexed her fingers, cracking her knuckles in a tempestuous rat-a-tat-tat. “I have still got it. Santa is gettin’ her mojo back!”
In attic room 4b, a young girl stared into the darkness miserably, tears running silently onto an already sodden pillow. It reeked of age and manky feathers, but she didn’t care because the darkness was staring back at her and in its implacable face she saw utter hopelessness. There was no hope now. In all the world, for one little soul, there was no hope. As her eyelids fluttered shut, tears continued to trickle down Mara’s sleeping face.
Felicity Kavanagh was not having a good night. After putting the orphans to bed, shutting up the orphanage and setting out a (low fat, low sugar, gluten-free) cookie and glass of milk for Santa Claus, she had discovered that a mouse had got into the brussels sprouts.
This was an absolute disaster. The orphanage’s Christmas Budget only extended to chicken, potatoes and brussels sprouts and the latter was intended to be the largest portion of the meal. (Rule Advisory 31: ‘Greens are good for health and must be eaten with every meal, so our orphans adopt a healthy green-eating attitude for life!’) The Christmas sprouts were raggedy and chewed and many were totally destroyed. She wondered if she could mash up the remains and put them in a gravy.
Masher in hand, Matron Manager, Felicity Kavanagh, set to work, pulverising the rest of the sprouts. It might not be a tasty gravy, but it would be extremely healthy.
Vestah sniffed the milk set out on a little stool by the chimney. Cow. She was disappointed: she preferred goat. Or camel. A woman could cross an entire continent on camels’ milk! Yet Santa knew that this was a sincere offering and so she must accept it in the spirit with which it was offered. Gingerly, she took a mouthful.
“Arghhh!” The milk was warm, fatty and old. She spat it onto the hearthstone, folding herself up and staggering about making spewing noises.
“Disgustin! Arghh!! Let me try this!” Grabbing the low-fat, low-sugar, gluten-free cookie, Santa crammed it whole into her mouth and chewed ferociously, hoping that its abrasive crumbs would clean the taste of the milk from her mouth.
“Ew! Uck! Arghhh! Ick! Rabbit droppin’s!”
The cookie followed the milk and was sprayed onto the hearthstones.
“Oh dear. Oh dearie me, how bad can things now be?”
In a chair by the fire, a pair of green eyes watched her with intelligence and a comment she could not quite fathom. Greymalkin, a long haired, grey-pointed Norwegian Forest cat, was fascinated. She blinked at the new human in a non-threatening manner.
Spitting was not something she had seen humans do in here…. Though, it was true, this intriguing stranger did not smell like most humans. She twitched her nose sniffing: Greymalkin could not decode this odd woman’s scent at all.
The cat looked up at Santa Claus and then examined the milk.
“Sheee won’t like that. Messsy mess, Stranger. Messy mess.”
Eyes sparkling, Santa Claus gestured extravagantly towards the spilt milk.
“Well then, Greymalkin, the comfort you would bring, if you would please be a lickin’ this milk clean!”
The cat just looked at her.
“It would seeem youuu have the upper paw on meee.”
Santa chuckling, removed her beard and hood with a flourish and a bow.
“This night of nights, Special One, you know who I am. In this time of time, on this night of nights, I am the magic in the air, the dream of dreams, the frisson of hope-”
“And I am Moussser, Mooon Hunter, Flea Butt and Pusssss.”
Greymalkin yawned and neatly licked her paw.
“You are right, my apologies! I am Santa Claus, but I was about to give you my true name, Mistress Greypaws. When I walk among humans I am known as Vestah Jones. Merry meet, Greymalkin and merry meet again!”
The cat stood up and raised her tail. “Merrry meeet, to beee surrre.” She hopped down onto the hearth and began to lick up the milk delicately.
After a while, she uttered “Not eeating cookieee.”
Vestah grinned. “No? Well. Fair enough, we can throw it in the fire!”
She flung herself down into the newly vacated chair and slapped her thighs.
“What a place this is, Mmm? I am tryin’ to work out what has been goin’ on.”
Greymalkin paused in her lapping, “Thisss ‘time of time’ of yours, Santa Claus isss nooo time at all. The worllld has forgotten about magic. No one believesss in you.”
Vestah looked up at the stockings, bemused. “Someone does. I wager the children do!”
Greymalkin just blinked and washed her whiskers.
Troubled, Santa Claus settled her awareness to a finer, deeper tuning. Beyond sleep, what was really going on? She saw a dormitory with five sleeping occupants, all about the same age. One had three blankets, two had two, one had a single blanket and the last was covered only by a thin cotton sheet. Even asleep, the teenager shivered.
Vestah Jones did not like what she saw. In a fluid movement she was back on her feet, the beard and hood were back in place and Santa Claus set out through the Orphanage to investigate further.
In a corner of her little snug room, the room she used as a private office and retreat, Felicity Kavannah was now sitting at a plain wooden table, balancing the books. A frugal coal fire served to just take the edge off the freezing midwinter night. A blizzard was threatening from the east. She drew her dressing gown closer across her chest and turned a heavy, yellowing page.
The home had three sets of books: House Accounts, sent quarterly to the council’s finance committee; the Personal Reports Log Book, presented monthly, in which each orphan’s progress was indicated by a number, and lastly, the Reward and Punishment Log.
The two log books were administrated by Ms Kavanagh, as Matron Manager, under the fussy auspices of the Council’s Subcommittee for Behavioural Adjustment in Charitable Homes.
It was a simple balancing act. Rewards and punishments affected the personal score of an orphan. All scores were added up to give the Orphanage itself a rating and this directly influenced the grants upon which the home depended. Successful children with high scores not only guaranteed a bigger budget, they also won the Council prizes and status.
Consequently, the book that occupied the most amount of time for everyone involved, was the Reward and Punishment Log because in its actions lay success or failure. Even on Christmas Eve.
Felicity took up a fountain pen and dipped it into the inkwell containing indelible red ink. Marks made in this ledger, with this ink, lasted years longer than a lifetime – though this was no comfort at all to those written up in its pages. Here being ‘marked for life’ held a literal and ominous reality.
She ran her finger down the page, seeking once again the residents who had been punished: the Honeysett triplets, Tilly, Mara and Meili. Miscreants who, as far as Matron was concerned, continually and deliberately earned low ratings. Felicity felt a spike of anger flood her body. Tracking Mara’s entry across the page, she wrote in the date, the crime and the punishment.
’24th December. Theft. Coal in stocking. No Christmas presents to be given at all. Bread and water all day. ‘
Then she turned to Tilly:
’24th December. Lock picking (Intent unknown) Coal in stocking. No Christmas presents to be given at all. Bread and water all day. Stocking sent with her. Orphan relocated.’
Finally, her red pen scratched the fate of Meili across the columns.
The Christmas presents would be refunded back to the House account and the ledger was already open on the relevant page for her to make an adjustment in the plus column with a black inked pen.
Felicity sighed. There was one more set of entries to be made and they were the sternest reports of all. Carefully she opened the Personal Reports Log Book and picked up her red pen.
She sat back. It was harsh, she acknowledged, but necessary. After all, there was Felicity’s own personal Matron Manager Rating to be taken into account.
A gust of wind blew smoke down the chimney. The storm outside was worsening. There was a long roll of thunder and the lights went out.
Calmly, Felicity struck a match, lighting the oil lamp she had prepared for just such emergencies. She would have to check the home again, to make sure all were safe.
Santa turned another corridor, her palm tingling. Room after room, she had discovered tiny little punishments, each a unique infraction on love and trust. This home, a home set up with the specific purpose of providing nurturing, had become a masterclass in the infinitesimal withdrawal of that selfsame duty. Santa’s stride became a prowl and with every breath, she was inhaling anger. A low growl rose from her and all who could hear it trembled. (Behind the skirting boards even the house mice looked at one another, their eyes shining… A large cat prowled this night. It might be safer to stay in the walls and not go out again. It was a good thing they already had some sprouts.)
The punishments were hierarchical in nature and graded according to the apparent ‘seriousness’ of the child’s offence, so that the energy of oppression permeated everywhere. Pettiness replaced patience; order smothered excitement and wonder was suffocated. If the children no longer believed in magic, it was hardly surprising.
Santa experienced a tightening in her chest; the soles of her feet felt as though they were pressed upon the arid plains of the savannah in the grip of a drought. But this was a drought of love. She would fix this. Oh… how she would make it rain and she would bring love back into this home.
Somewhere, somehow, someone at the Council State Orphanage was about to have a Christmas they would never forget.
Matron examined the cookie crumbs and smeared milk on the hearthstones carefully.
“Did YOU do this?” She asked the cat sharply.
Greymalkin turned her back, flicked her tail and curled up. She didn’t acknowledge that sort of attitude.
Looking back at the hearth, Felicity narrowed her gaze and analysed the evidence. Let me see… even if the moggy had knocked the milk over, it was unlikely she would have chewed up the cookie …and…can a cat spray food in such a wide arc? She looked at the stool supporting the glass of half drunk milk. It would be very clever of her to leave the glass upright like that.
Greymalkin felt the Matron Manager’s scrutiny on her furry back and responded by covering her nose with her tail.
No. The answer was simple: someone else had been tampering with the offerings for Santa Claus. Probably the Honeysett girl. Or Tom Tinklelee – I wouldn’t put it past him either!
Felicity started towards the door, but something out of place caught her attention…a book of sorts was lying on the velvet Visitor’s Couch. A tatty, moth-eaten book! Was this …contraband?! The Matron Manager accelerated towards it and gasped, for the book was written in a pictographic script. One she had never even seen before! Felicity had no idea what the book was about and this made her highly suspicious. There may be many reasons to hide the contents of a book in code, but she was quite certain that not a single one of them could be any good!
At the top of the house, in the very apex of the extensive attics, Vestah Jones was confronted by a tiny door. A child-sized door. She would not have bothered with it, but her senses told her it was a room full of energy. The energy of sadness. In her mind’s eye, the door was cold and blue in colour. Navigating confined spaces, being something of an occupational hazard, Vestah pressed on.
The door creaked open to reveal a cold, barren room. The acrid smell of neglect filled her lungs. Walls, unpainted for a century, were dull and mildewy. In the moonlight, Santa could see that, placed equidistant apart, were three wooden stools set out in a triangular pattern. Each stool was fixed to the wooden floor by means of iron brackets and screws.
Santa frowned, deeply perturbed. Her heart ached. The lines forming around her mouth were filled with sorrow.
On the far side of the room was a large cardboard box.
‘What have we here?’ Floorboards, that would have creaked under any other foot, remained silent as she crossed the space to examine the box. She flipped back a flap.
The box was half filled with balls of wool. A basket nearby contained assorted knitting needles.
Returning to the wooden stools she placed a strong, warm palm on the nearest one’s worn, cold surface. A memory began to play in her mind’s eye: of three little girls, all alike. Three girls sitting with their backs to each other, knitting. Each girl was tethered to her stool with leather buckles around her ankles. It was cold as they knitted and their feet were bare. Only the laborious clicking of knitting needles broke the silence.
She wondered where they were now, these little girls, but her awareness could only find one of them.
Perhaps Greymalkin will be able to tell me!
Eyes gleaming with a new resolve, Santa made her way back down the stairs.
Up on the roof, protected from the worst of the blizzard by the Sleigh’s magic weather bubble, the reindeer were bored. Prancer looked at Rudi, who had his nose in a hay bag.
“You think She might bring us up something a bit less…grassy? I am over this stuff already!”
Rudi, who loved grass in all its forms, shook his head with the bag still attached over his ears. A flurry of snow danced around him.
“Mmphh…No.” He thought of something, “You should try this grass, it’s real special!”
Prancer jingled her reins, pawing the roof tiles impatiently.
“You always say that! Remember that fungi phase you went through? You had all the sleigh deer off their faces!”
There was the sound of chuckling from deep within the hay bag.
“Vixen thought she was a teapot!”
General guffaws broke out among the other reindeer.
“She kept pouring herself down chimneys!”
“Pawing! Ha!ha!ha!” Hysterical laughter greeted that one.
“It was only the one chimney…I think…” Vixen laughed too, “Remember the Auroras? The Northern Lights? They were something!” She rolled her eyes.
“Even in the Maldives!!!” Several of the reindeer started rolling about, besides themselves with mirth.
“Fly!” Shouted Rudolph.
“Agaric!” They shouted back.
After a while, Prancer, who had gone for a prowl to try and fathom out why Santa was taking so long and had listened very intently down the chimney, returned.
“I give in” she said, “pass the hay bag…She’s gonna be awhile.”
Reaching the bottom of the stairs outside of the parlour where she had last seen Greymalkin, Santa stopped, surprised. The door was open! She could have sworn that she had closed it.
“You.” A voice cut through the darkness. “Are late. And -really- is this the best that they could do?”
Santa frowned. She peered down the corridor into the gloom – out of which marched a small dark-haired woman in her late twenties, who was apparently bristling with fury.
She must have been in the kitchen. Yet this was the least of Santa Claus’s concerns. Who is this woman and why is she awake?!
Santa’s instincts kicked in and she uttered her age-old defence against unexpected humans.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”
That should do it.
Hands on hips, Santa beamed at the Matron Manager. (She could now see a badge of office conveniently sewn onto the shorter woman’s dressing gown. It read: ‘Ms Felicity J. Kavanagh. Matron Manager.”)
“Oh… give it a rest.”
Astonished, Santa tried again,
“HO! HO! HO!”
As thunder tumbles down the mountain preceding a wild wind to scare your very soul, or signalling an epic primordial rainstorm to come crashing down and seize the hour about you, so Vestah Jones’ voice rumbled powerfully towards Felicity.
So powerfully, in fact, the floorboards beneath their feet began to tremble and the house shook on its foundations. Ceiling lights swung on their wires, their unlit bulbs catching in the moonlight; pictures rapped against walls, white dust fell as snow to settle all around them and soot cascaded down the chimneys. Even the staircase moaned.
Throughout it all, Ms Felicity Kavanagh (Matron Manager) stood unmoved. She didn’t know what this tall, weird Santa Claus was doing out in the corridor, but she was damned if she was going to be intimidated in her own Orphanage by anyone. When it was over, she pursed her lips and flicked a patch of dust off her shoulder with two fingertips.
“Well.” She sniffed, “I can see where all the money has gone now.”
Felicity advanced and jabbed Santa in the chest with her finger.
“Who is going to clear this mess up, now? Not you. Not an agent of the Central Social Committee. Oh no! YOU lot go back to your guild cars and your guild parties leaving the likes of us to clean your bright ideas up after you. Well, I have had enough.”
With this, the Matron Manager marched back down the corridor into the kitchen and out into the scullery to fetch a brush and pan in order to sweep the hearth in the parlour, because Felicity’s complaint was never actually going to make it up to management level. It was not worth it. Complaints resulted in negative marks. Personal negative marks.
“But you can be assured,” she reappeared and swept past Santa Claus again, who watched her go by underneath flaring, slightly disdainful, nostrils, “that I will be writing up a very thorough report about you! Come along in here, so you don’t wake the children!” Felicity Kavanagh bustled into the parlour.
Santa watched her generous behind disappear into the parlour.
“Well.” It was not often that Santa Claus was speechless, but right now, she very nearly was.
A voice sounded from the softly lit room.
“I am waiting.”
Astonished, Vestah Jones stepped inside the parlour. This was going to be interesting.