Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Safety Clause

Ronnie kicked the door shut behind him. The old squash bag was heavy as he dragged his footsteps reluctantly towards the station. For the umpteenth time he cursed his stupidity. Having one too many was not unusual for him, but driving home after was, and although the ban was now lifted, he had lost too many gigs to afford the car.
He had taken a complicated route to the deserted station, and looked around once more to check that he was still alone. He pushed the heavy door open, and walked across the ticket hall, his black leather boots ringing on the marble-floor. The place smelled of pine disinfectant and …?

The hall was very dark. Something was not right. He stiffened as he heard the slap, slap, slap of footsteps coming towards him, and the strange smell was getting stronger.
‘You’re a difficult man to find, Mr Christmas.’ Ronnie’s button black eyes had not completely adjusted to the lack of light. ‘I’m down here.’ He lowered his gaze to waist height. There, carrying a clipboard and wearing a fluorescent jacket was a small ogre.
‘Jobsworth’, the ogre said, extending his hand.
‘Pardon?’ Ronnie’s white eyebrows shot up.
‘My name. Arthur Jobsworth. I work for Elfin Safety. We are obliged to make an annual check. New legislation. I did email you in July.’
‘I never read emails. All children do is demand a new Xbox or whatever because their old one is the wrong colour. Letters are so much better thought out. And some of them even ask for good things like for mummy to be happy and world peace. And they always reach me.’ Ronnie tapped his nose, winking. ‘Magic, you see.’
‘That’s as maybe, Mr Christmas, but I’ve still got to do my job. Now, if you could just answer a few questions, then sign the disclaimer, you can be off. Or not, as the case may be.’

On the platform, the station clock ticked its way towards midnight.

‘Is this going to take long?’ Ronnie asked. ‘I’ve got to get somewhere on time, or else…’
‘Or else what?’
‘Oh, nothing much.’
‘Sorry, Mr. C. Gotta be done, I’m afraid. Otherwise, I have the authority to ground you. Full name?’
Ronnie sighed. It was not in his nature to be obstructive, but it hadn’t been a great year for his Christmas spirit and if he was late with the presents… well, that was his credibility gone completely down the pan. And the Christmas abolitionists were baying for his blood, not to mention the more radical town councils.
The ogre tapped his clipboard impatiently.
‘Ronald Nicholas Christmas’
The ogre licked the tip of his felt pen, leaving a black stain on his tongue.
‘R-O-N-A-L-D’ He spelled out Ronnie’s name letter by letter. ‘That would be “Mr” Christmas then?’
‘Father. It’s a courtesy title.’ Ronnie had not been this irritated since that ridiculous ‘Night before Christmas’ poet had got him all wrong in 1822.
‘Righty-o then. Next section’. The ogre squinted at his board. ‘Documentation?’
‘Documentation. You know, current driving licence, first aid certificate, sleigh registration document, road tax for all 97 countries –‘
‘Hold it. I don’t use roads.’
‘Ah, my mistake. I’ll cross that out then.’ The ogre continued, ‘… import and export licences, signed declaration to say you aren’t delivering livestock, electrical safety certificates, International CAA clearance, recent MOT and current UK CRB clearance.’
‘CRB clearance?’
‘Yes, of course. We can’t have you going into sleeping children’s bedrooms to give them little presents without one, can we? Especially after all that hoo-hah about them being forced to sit on your lap to have their photos taken.’
Ronnie’s cheeks were beginning to glow red, and this was without the effect of the cold wind. He clicked his fingers and in a flash, a sheaf of documents appeared in his hand, which he handed to the ogre, who promptly scattered them on the floor.

The clock clicked away another minute.

‘Now, if that’s everything, I really have to get going.’
‘Not so fast, Ronnie. I need to check these. One by one, he picked up each piece of paper and began to peruse it slowly, sounding out the big words to himself.
‘Oh. I see you’ve got a driving disqualification. Not good. Not good.’
‘Not Got; Had. And anyway, I was only just getting into my car when the police arrived. You try doing my job without accepting a little light refreshment on the way. He looked at the clock. He needed eight minutes to get to the North Pole.
‘Could you hurry please? The elves will have got the boys ready, and they’ll be champing at their bits.
‘I’ll need to look at the sleigh.’
Ronnie hesitated. No one except the maintenance elves had ever had a close look at his vehicle.
‘Elfin Safety, you know.’ The ogre’s attitude had become slightly more threatening.
‘Anything for a quiet life. Come on’ Ronnie grabbed his bag containing his work clothes and strode along the platform to the railway shed where he kept the sleigh, with the ogre’s short legs working triple time to keep up with him.

‘Hi boys. All OK? Ready for the off?’ The reindeer blew snuffly welcomes, sending up steam and the sweet smell of partly digested reindeer moss. ‘Excuse me whilst I change for work.’ The ogre blinked as Ronnie clicked his fingers, before climbing, red-suited into the padded leather driving seat and began his launch sequence, hoping to get away quickly. ‘Now, Dash…’
‘Not so fast.’ The ogre placed a heavy hand on the edge of the sleigh as it started to tremble. ‘Registration number and identifying marks?’ He went down his list ticking off items.
‘Seat belt?
‘Life jackets? Varying sizes for elves and other on-board personnel?
‘Port and starboard designation lights? Rudolf’s nose alone will not do any more, I’m afraid. Oh, you have them. Good.
‘Shatterproof eye wear?
Ronnie rummaged around under his seat and produced a pair of World War Two flying goggles.
‘Will these do?’ Arthur Jobsworth was really beginning to annoy him.
‘Sir, reindeer excrement at 2000 miles per second can seriously impair your vision. And we can’t have that happening, can we?’ The ogre inspected the goggles. ‘Not up to British Standard 4110/1979, but I’ll let you off with a caution this year.’
Ronnie was beginning to panic now. He looked up at the station clock. He had to get there before midnight or Christmas wouldn’t happen…He smacked his forehead. Elfin Safety! What an idiot! He looked straight at the ogre.
‘Who are you?’
‘Me? Didn’t I give you my card?’ The ogre reached his three-fingered hand into the pocket of his safety jacket and handed Ronnie a ‘Wanted’ poster. Below a picture of the loathsome creature it said;

Arthur Jobsworth
Currently believed to be working for
World Wide Association for the Abolition of Christmas
Reward offered for information leading to his apprehension.
Approach with caution.

‘Put that up your chimney and smoke it!’ he yelled as he shot off, but Ronnie was too quick. With a click of his fingers, he appeared in front of the fleeing ogre and grabbed him round his scrawny neck.
‘Gerroff me. I gotta stop all those people enjoying themselves.’ The ogre was like a squirming sack of potatoes, but Ronnie was up for it. He felt a nudge in his back. Donner was holding a roll of duck tape in his mouth.
‘Good lad. Extra, extra, reindeer moss when we get back.’ If we get there in the first place, he said to himself. He threw the trussed-up ogre rather unceremoniously into the compartment that usually held the presents.
‘I’ll let the North Pole Elves deal with you. If you’re lucky, they’ll just put you to work in the Christmas toy factory with your own quality controller for the next thousand years. If not, the polar bears are always hungry at this time of year. Now Dasher. Now Dancer…’ The rest of his words were lost as the sleigh whooshed northwards.

* * * * *

Ronnie gently set the sleigh down outside the railway shed.
‘Great work boys. The London elves will be waiting to sort you out. I’ve got to go. No need to change my clothes. Got a job you see. One that pays the bills. Oh…I really shouldn’t have had that last sherry at Madonna’s place.’ He walked a little unsteadily out through the cold ticket hall of the main line station and into the quiet buzz of the tube next door, rummaging for his ticket in the fur-edged pocket of his red jacket.

Cold, wet sleet was falling as he emerged from the underground. Luckily, the house he was going to was only a few yards from Maida Vale station. Putting his mind on the forthcoming job for the first time that day, he composed his features, and ran over the act in his head as he rang the front door bell.
‘Ho ho ho. Mer-ry Christmas.’