The tinkle of distant bells, a thump, and someone swearing. Loudly but… oddly squeakily. James started in his chair. He’d been wrapping Christmas presents and, possibly, there had been one too many mugs of mulled wine. He was sure he’d only sat down for a moment.
“Bugger,” said a voice from the direction of the fireplace.
James blinked. Hang on, he thought, we haven’t got a fireplace.
“Hey, what happened to the TV? And who the hell are you? What the hell are you?” he asked, pushing himself out of his armchair. The space on the wall where the flat-screen TV had been had, indeed, turned into a large grate. Complete with the charcoaled remains of a log, a sprinkling of ashes, and a rather nice cast-iron surround with twiddley bits. The whole thing was three and a half feet off the ground.
On the floor underneath, brushing dust from her clothes, was a small creature wearing a long, yellow coat and a hat with a large needle pushed through it. There was something that looked like a brush stuffed through her belt, and strips of brightly-coloured cloth poked out of her pockets.
“All right, all right, keep yer hair on,” said the creature. “I’m just helping out. S’all hands on deck these days. The Big Man can’t get to every house with kiddies in it on Christmas Eve. He has to del’gate. Not just elves these days, neither. Us brownies get collared, too. Even the tooth fairies has to help out. Mind you,” she added, “that works out quite well. They bring presents for all the kiddies wot asks for money to save up for stuff.”
“Oh,” said James, looking suspiciously at his empty mulled wine mug. “That… makes sense, I suppose.”
The brownie nodded and rummaged around in the sack. She pulled out two boxes wrapped in red and green paper and peered at the labels. “Mabel and Maria,” she read, “they’re yours, right?”
James’s eyes drifted to the framed family photo on the wall. It was slightly crooked. No matter what he did, it always ended up hanging slightly crooked. He thought of the girls asleep upstairs. It would be their first Christmas without their mother. He’d been determined to make everything perfect. But now there were scraps of wrapping paper all over the table, bits of sticky tape on every surface, and he didn’t even want to think about the mess in the kitchen. He wriggled his big toe which was sticking painfully through a hole in his sock. Amelia would’ve bought him new socks. It had been a sort of joke between them. Socks as a present, always: birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, she’d even given him a new pair as a wedding gift. He sat back down in his chair, pulled off the offending sock and threw it on the floor.
“Yes,” he said.
The brownie had followed his gaze to the photo on the wall. “S’a lot to do at Christmas,” she said softly, turning back and studying him.
James nodded. It had been busy enough with two of them, in the years before. Now the mountain of jobs seemed un-scalable. “I meant to clean up,” he said, waving a hand tiredly around the room, “and maybe make some cookies. My wife always used to make cookies at Christmas.” He pulled off the other sock.
The brownie pushed Mable and Maria’s presents under the tree. “Got any milk?” she asked, thoughtfully.
“Oh, yes, I did manage milk!” said James ruefully. “Over there.” His daughter Maria had been very insistent that they had to leave a glass of milk for Santa. James had suggested that he might prefer a nice brandy, but his older daughter, Mable, had said firmly that even Santa shouldn’t drink and drive.
The brownie trotted over to the glass, sniffed it cautiously, then picked it up and downed it.
“Yum,” she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “Right-ho, I’d better get going, lots more deliveries to do this evening. Y’know how it is. You get to bed. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”
“We-ell, maybe not all right,” she conceded, looking at him again. She had the eyes of a Labrador, full of warm intelligence. “That ain’t possible, really. Nothing’s perfect. And you can’t just replace wot’s missing. But people appreciate a bit of effort. There’ll be more smiles than tears, and who can ask for more than that, eh?”
James smiled, blinking away blurriness.
“Go on, now,” said the brownie, nodding at the door to the stairs. “Those girls’ll have you up early in the morning, if I’m any judge.”
“But I have to…” James looked at the paper-strewn table.
The brownie put the empty milk glass down. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “They’ll only see the tree. And then there’ll be paper everywhere anyway, right?”
James chuckled. “Right.” He looked at the wall and thought of something. “Um, you are going to fix the TV, aren’t you? I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think I’ll manage to sort out lunch without some sort of support from Pixar.”
The brownie waved a hand airily. “Don’t you worry. S’magic innit. All back to normal once I’m gone. It’s only cos you ain’t got a chimney. It was a good idea, a few years ago, using TV screens,” she added darkly, looking up at the wall, “before people started putting the bloody things half-way up the wall.”
“Oh, you weren’t to know. Right, go on, off with you to bed,” she said, making a shooing motion.
James turned obediently and put his hand on the door handle. He looked over his shoulder to see the brownie standing there, eyes twinkling in the dim light of the Christmas tree lights. She made the shooing motion again. Shaking his head, James opened the door and trudged up the stairs.
“Daddy, dadddeeeee!” The bedroom was dark, but for every bit of missing light there were seven doses of extra noise. “Dadddddeeee, it’s Christmas!” squealed Maria, jumping on the bed and landing heavily on James’s chest.
“Ooff! Be careful!”
“It’s Christmas it’s Christmas it’s Christmas get up, Daddy! There are presents! Father Christmas has been!”
“All right, all right,” said James, pulling his daughter’s unruly hair away from her face where it had become stuck to a small patch of snot. “You’ll have to get off me though, sweetie.”
“Okay,” she said obediently, rolling off and accidentally kneeing him in the side.
James swung his legs out of bed before there was any more damage. He reached for his dressing gown. “Where’s Mable?”
“She went downstairs. Hey, Daddy, did you bake cookies last night?”
James pulled on his dressing gown and headed for the stairs. “I was going to, but I ran out of time. We’ll make some lat–” he opened the kitchen door and stopped, staring. There was a huge plate of cookies on the worktop, beautifully iced with snowflake and Christmas tree patterns. Not only that, the dirty dishes he was sure he’d left in the sink had disappeared. The floor looked spotless. The stainless-steel sink gleamed. There were no crumbs anywhere.
“Good cookies, Dad,” said Mable, from behind him. She crunched. “Just like the ones Mum used to make.”
James nodded slowly and walked into the living room. Maria had darted down the stairs and was now sorting through an artfully arranged pile of presents under the tree, which looked rather more symmetrical than it had last night. The carpet looked better than it had in years, the table was clean and, when James ran his fingers over it, the wood actually smelt faintly of polish. He looked at the wall. The family photo still hung at its familiar, slightly crooked angle, and the television was where it had always been.
“Daddy, there’s a Christmas card in with the presents!” said Maria, handing him a white envelope. James turned it over. There was nothing written on the outside, but he could just make out a jolly, red Santa printed on the cardboard through the white paper. He tore it open.
Inside was printed the usual “Merry Christmas” greeting and, underneath in irregular, smudgy letters, another message.
Thanks fer the milk. I dun yer socks.
James looked down. Lying neatly over the arm of his chair were his socks, perfectly darned. He picked them up and smiled.
Somewhere, in the distance, there was a faint tinkling of bells.
Merry Christmas! xxx