By Michael Dempsey
It was a cold but beautiful night. Silvery wisps of cloud waltzed lazily beneath a navy sky. The sleigh drifted effortlessly through it, pulled by eight enchanted reindeer. Its rider was a fat, merry old man with rosy cheeks and pearly-white hair and beard. Father Christmas smiled to himself, his gloved hands resting comfortably on the shelf of his belly. It felt good to be back where he belonged.
It was a good haul this year, he decided. He had not wanted to overwork his employees, because they of course had their families to return to. Still, they had done an adequate job, and Father Christmas saw no point in prolonging their labour when it was not required.
He was secretly glad that there was more equilibrium between the well-behaved and the naughty children this year. Normally, the bad ones reformed in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so FC had about five sixths of the population of children of a country to prepare presents for. This Christmas Eve, however, there were almost as many naughty children as there were good, and he was only contracted to visit the good children, so there were far less houses to visit.
He was glad, because he didn't want to miss too much of The X-Factor which was showing tonight.
The sleigh was moving over cities now – great criss-crosses of light could be seen, scattered about and divided into roads and what-have-you. Father Christmas sighed, and pulled the sleeve of his glove up so that he could read the time on his Timex duo-display LED sports watch. It was a minute before midnight. Time to get ready.
The night air puffed through his beard and lifted his fringe. Taking in deep lungfuls of it, he shut his eyes, enjoying it. The reindeer's hooves skated on the black of the night, quieter than silence. It really was a perfect evening.
FC stood up. He turned around, reaching for one of the sacks piled behind his bench. He picked it up, unzipped it. Took out a gift wrapped in light blue paper. Shuffled carefully to the edge of the sleigh, and looked over into the star-spangled city, miles below. He raised the present above his head, opened his mouth to get another gulp of that fresh, cool air... and swallowed a load of fog.
Father Christmas coughed, and blinked; cold, muggy grey had suddenly obscured his vision. Unknowingly (and randomly) the sleigh had plunged right into the middle of a bank of very thick cloud. Where the hell did all this come from? He spun on the spot, forgetting the box he was holding, which spun crazily out of his hands and fell into the darkness.
He'd lost all sense of direction. From somewhere ahead – or behind, or to the side, he really couldn't be sure – he heard the reindeer complaining.
'Chief! What to do now?'
'What's your next move, boss?'
'Hang on, hang on, I'm thinking!' FC replied, a little hysterically. He was trying very hard, and failing in equal measure, not to panic. 'Erm... has any of you brought a map?'
He heard nothing in reply save for a distracted murmur of voices. They had stopped flying – sensible enough – and were hovering, airborne. FC felt around him and managed to find the bench. He sat down and pulled off one of his gloves to mop his perspiring face. Then he heard Prancer's quaint, clipped voice from not too far away.
'Why do you not ask Rudolph, Mr. Christmas?'
'Aye, grand idea, that,' he responded, suddenly relieved. 'Rudolph?'
'What, boss?' It was said with a heavy kind of resignation; FC could almost hear the roll of the eyes in Rudolph's voice. The reindeer definitely knew what was coming.
'Can you ho-ho-hone us in, boy?'
Rudolph made no response. The others did, though; some chuckled politely for a second or two, and others made 'tutting' noises. Comet very clearly muttered, 'Tosser.'
'Sorry, couldn't resist,' said FC, not even bothering to check the broad grin spreading across his face.
After a pregnant moment or two more, Rudolph finally responded. 'Sure. Where?'
'Let's head for home. We need to re-strategise.'
Suddenly, the swirling grey mass in front of them was tainted a bright, passionate red; Rudolph's nose had lit up, and the light cut easily through the fog. As one, now that they could see again, the reindeer gathered their strength, and surged forward. The clouds swirled and spiralled in indignation as the enchanted animals charged through them, galloping across the night sky.
Half an hour later they huddled in the small living room of FC's house, clutching blankets to themselves, sipping hot chocolate, playing card games, reading the paper or talking into their mobile phones. Only FC himself seemed interested in working; he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, sleeves of his undershirt rolled up, muttering and scribbling things down on a piece of paper with a pencil. He looked around at them all.
'Come on, guys! This isn't a time to rest! We need to plan!'
'OK, OK, calm down, Mr. C,' said Vixon, looking around, before going back to listening to the radio.
Father Christmas stroked his beard, pondering, and watched unseeingly as Rudolph inserted his iPod earphones. The timing was very, very bad. Of all the nights for the sky to completely cloud over, it had to be Christmas Eve. Why could this not have happened earlier, when they had taken the sleigh to get to the twenty-four hour Tesco in Lapland? Why had the sky been helplessly cloudless then?
Frustrated, he kicked a chair, not realising Dancer was using it for balance. Halfway through a pirouette, Dancer spun and crashed to the floor, letting out an odd 'OYP!?' of surprise. FC helped him up, muttering curt apologies.
'Dude, you're making a whole drama out of nothing,' said Dasher to the boss, peering over the top of his spectacles. He had evidently witnessed Dancer falling over. Calmly he folded his newspaper and placed it on the coffee table, continuing to look at FC with a stern, reproving kind of look. 'Why don't you use ol' Red Nose there?'
FC stared at him. He simultaneously felt like hugging and punching the reindeer. 'Brilliant! Why the **** didn't I think of that?'
Dasher shrugged. FC hurried off into the kitchen, where Rudolph was making a cup of coffee. FC felt suddenly nervous; Rudolph was avoiding his eyes, pretending FC wasn't there because he knew what he was going to ask him. But it had to be done. FC opened his mouth.
'Rudolph, with your nose so bright... can you do us a favour?'
Rudolph froze. Turned on the spot, clutching the kettle between his hooves. He raised an eyebrow.
FC rushed on, 'Won't you drive my sleigh tonight?'
Rudolph looked at him with an expression on his face that was impossible to read. Several agonising seconds of silence passed between them, before Rudolph finally responded.
'"Won't you"?' he said, 'as in "will you not"? As in, you don't actually want me to?'
FC deflated. He gaped at the reindeer.
Rudolph grinned. 'I'm messing! See, you're not the only one capable of making very bad jokes.'
FC laughed. 'So, you'll do it, then?'
Rudolph actually did roll his eyes this time, and placed a patronising hoof on the boss's shoulder. 'Yes, I'll do it.'
Right on cue, in skipped Cupid with a dazzling smile on his face. 'So, are we go?'
'Yes, yes, we're go!' replied FC excitedly, and the three of them hurried back through to the living room where the others were gathered. Dasher had disappeared behind his paper again; Dancer was practising yoga on the rug in front of the fire; Vixon was humming merrily to music on the radio; Prancer was halfway through refilling his footbath; Comet had fashioned a paper aeroplane out of a page from an Argos catalogue and was hurling it across the room; and Donner and Blitzen were speaking in terse whispers with each other in the corner.
FC sighed. 'Come on, guys, we've a job to do.'