Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Man from the Ministry - A Christmas Story

Every year I send out a Christmas short story. A small gift in lieu of Christmas cards, which are annoying, gather dust, fall behind radiators, fill up your window ledges with clutter and take up paper and ink that could be better used elsewhere.

This years is called 'The Man from the Ministry.'

As I'm stuck in India at the moment and unsure when I'll make it back to the UK (BA has cancelled our flight). I'm sending it out a little early.

I hope you enjoy it. 


The Man from the Ministry by Adam J. Shardlow
He slides onto a stool and stares glumly at the decorations behind the bar. I know the type. See them all the time, but the festive period is worse. They come out the woodwork beginning of December and drift away once the new year begins. This one sits and wipes the fine dusting of snow from the shoulders of his grey overcoat. A sober briefcase lies in an expanding puddle at his feet. With damp hair and a snotty sniff he calls me over.
I smile my best welcoming, putting on a cheerful face for the customer. I know it won’t help, but you have to try.
"Snowing out?"
Never ask a cold wet punter a flippant weather question. They don’t appreciate it. He sniffs again, louder, as if in answer.
"Well, what will it be?"
He points to a bitter pump and I start to pull his pint. The dark liquid splutters into the glass eagerly watched by the customer. This guy is miserable and radiates an irritated depression. I hope he doesn’t stick around too long as his mood is really going to put a dampener on the pubs Christmas spirit. Finished, I place the drink before him as he ferrets in a tiny brown leather purse looking for change.
“Cheer up,” I say, friendly pub banter falling from my lips. To liven him up I could give him the pint gratis, I reason, but then worry he’ll stay longer than he originally intended. "It might never happen."
He lets out a low fitful groan, as if someone punched him in the gut.
“Oh, but it will,” he laments. “It happens every year - and I hate it!” He grimaces as if to amplify how he feels about the time of year.
“Everyone’s a fan of Father Christmas,” I say with a wink. “Good cheer to all men, and all that.”
His eyes narrow and darken as if I have just made an unsavoury comment about his dead mother. Ignoring me he takes a long pull on the pint. At this rate he’ll finish it within fifteen minutes and be out of here.
“No, not a fan,’ he seems to be holding it together. “I was, and then I met him.”
I laugh out loud thinking he has cracked a joke at long last, that his mood is receding.
“You’ve met Santa. Good one.”
“In my bedroom when I was eight. Woke me up and ruined my dreams.”
He doesn’t sound as if he’s joking any more. On the bar in front of him he smears his fingers through a beer spillage, extending the puddle outwards until it forms an intricate snow flake. Realising the shape he obliterates it with a flick of the wrist. 
“Big jolly fella, wears red, gives gifts to kids. That guy ruined your dreams?”
“Not that guy. My Christmas was ruined by the real Santa. The truth behind the stories you’re told as a child. My dreams were ruined by the man from the ministry.”
At the sound of the floor board squeaking he rolled over in bed, dragging the blankets with him. Opening his eyes he watched the small patch of shadow and the pair of well polished black shoes, lit by the cats-eye of hall light coming from underneath the door.
“You’re awake, aren’t you?”
The boy sat up and rubbed at his eyes. It was cold in the bedroom and the touch of the cool air on his skin woke him like a cold flannel rubbed hard into his face.
“Damn and blast! I knew it,” whispered the shadows. 
The boy stared hard and the darkness split and moulded itself into the form of a small man with a large moustache hanging below a ridiculous nose.
“I thought I was doing well. My card.”
A hand rotated out of the murk holding out a sliver of white card which the boy took and examined. In large capital letters, black and imposing, it read ‘DAYE’. Below in smaller letters and by way of explanation, ‘Department of Annual Youth Enrichment.’ Never having been given a card by way of introduction before, the boy didn’t really know what to do next. He didn’t have any of his own but thought he could whip some up using crayons and paper if given enough time.
“Who are you?” The boy asked, remembering some strict instructions his mother had given him about strangers.
“I’m your allotted Santa. Santa 7451, to be precise.”
The man stepped forward as the boy turned on his small bedside lamp. The one with the cartoon shade. He held out a hand to the boy, who not wishing to be impolite, took hold and shook weakly. He wore a dark suit, a crisp white shirt and a perfectly straight and narrow tie.
“You don’t look like Santa,” said the boy who was serious about Christmas and had met someone claiming to be Santa in a supermarket grotto only last week who looked more like the real thing, even though he had been wearing a fake beard. This person looked like one of the business men he had seen on the train going into town.
“I can assure you that I am.”
“Where’s your beard?”
“Don’t have one. They get in the way and aren’t regulation dress.”
“You’re not very fat.”
“Thank you. I work out. You try entering a house in the dead of night, climbing down a chimney or entering through an unlocked window whilst carrying several extra stones in weight. Not easy, not easy at all.”
“But Santa wears a red suit.”
“Ridiculous idea. Too easy to be spotted. Black works best at night.”
That kind of made sense to the boy who was a practical young man. He decided to try a different approach.
“The real Father Christmas has a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Where’s Rudolph?”
“Ha,” the man let out a little laugh. “Retired - seventy-eight years ago. Had him stuffed and hung in the ministry dining room. We use enhanced extraterrestrial tech taken from a downed saucer from Salisbury Plain, now. Works a treat but the G-forces play havoc with my back.”
“Yes. You don’t think a single man delivers all the presents across the world in one night, do you?”
“Well,” the boy says, realising his obvious mistake.
‘No, no. Everything is automated nowadays. Far more practical. We look after the UK. The ministry being under the same Government branch as the security services. It’s them that give us the intel. You know, who’s been good, who’s been bad. The ‘Want List’ is updated and delivered by the Post Office. Even the elves have been outsourced. We use a company in China now. They’re very good, very economical.”
“So, there never was a real Santa?’ The boy felt upset at this. Upset and just a little bit hurt and bitter.
“Perhaps, once, many moons ago. Before my time, certainly.”
The boy nodded. It all sort of made sense really when he thought about it. Even if deep down a little bit of him wanted to cry.
“Anyway. Enough chatting. I have to get on. Now, where would you like this putting?” 
The small man held up a large present tied with a vivid red ribbon. The boy indicated the foot of his bed and the man deposited it squarely on the floor. He pulled a small machine from an inside pocket, which beeped as he scanned the gift on an invisible barcode, recording the delivery as ‘executed.’ 
Standing up he smiled at a job well done. ‘Nice present, that. Regulation size and value, but good quality.
‘Thank you,’ replied the boy, never forgetting his manners. ‘Do you want this back?’ He asked and held out the card.
‘No, no. You keep it. Might come in handy. Happy Christmas, by the way.’
The boy smiled weakly and turned out his lamp. 
“Yes, I suppose.”
In the darkness of his room he listened to the faint tread of the small man down the hallway, the knock of a window being closed and the quiet thrust of large engines. He turned over and pulled the covers higher.
He has finished his drink. The pint pot is empty. Foam slides down the inside like snow descending a warm window. He stares at it, chasing the route to the bottom. Finished, the man stands up abruptly, taking up his coat and briefcase. He smiles for the first time, slight and anxious.
“I told you,” he says it quietly, before adding “Christmas - bah humbug, I say.”
I’m not really sure what else to add. I look around the inside of the pub, the late night drinkers nestled in alcoves under mistletoe and holly, paper decorations and tinsel. They all seem to be enjoying themselves. Counting down the last night until the big day.
“Won’t you stay for another,” I ask. I think perhaps I’ll join him and take down a bottle of good single malt.
“I can’t,” he says fixing a bowler hat in place. “I have to get back. This time of the year the ministry is always busy.”
With that he turns and leaves, the door snatching closed with a burst of cold air and the smell of snow.
With nothing better to do, I call last orders.


No comments: