Thursday, 11 February 2016

Aloysius Lark and the Case of the Missing Madrigal

“Up the stairs, first on the left” said the helpful stranger with the face of a Persian prince and the voice of a Cockney barrel boy. 

The carefully constructed blonde in Prada heels smiled thanks and sashayed up the narrow staircase, fully aware of the impact on those watching.

In the gloom behind unwashed windows obscured by towers of box files, an equally unwashed man took a furtive swig from the coke bottle in the nearest one and summoned his best Sussex Downs accent to bid the shadow at the door enter. 

In walked a vision of statuesque but studied femininity. Arched brows, a slash of red lipstick, eyes that kept you guessing - and the merest hint of an Adam’s apple.

(‘When’s a dame not a dame?’ the PI thought in his best Raymond Chandler inner narrative.)

“Aloysius Lark at your service, dear lady. You can call me Al. How may I help you?”

“I’ve come up from Brighton,” came the husky reply.

(‘Figures.’)

“My name’s Bambi Fancipants and I manage The Wayward Strumpets burlesque troupe. Maybe you know them?”

The PI grunted and shifted uncomfortably is his swivel seat.

The cool blonde’s composure suddenly melted as she gushed: “Help me, Mr Lark. You’re my only hope! Madrigal’s being held to ransom.”

Madrigal was her ancient one-eyed tomcat. Sounded like a thoroughly vile creature to Lark, but Fancipants seemed distraught at the thought of anything hurting a hair on his scabby tabby head. Days after Madrigal stopped turning up at her seafront villa for his morning kedgeree, she’d received a ransom note from Hamish McFarb, her silent partner in the Wayward Strumpets business and owner of Bundlewood Fun Fur Factory. His demand? Complete control of the Strumpets’ assets – or the cat would become mittens.

“I’m a wealthy woman and there’s nothing I won’t do to have Madrigal safely back where he belongs – except surrender the Strumpets to that beast McFarb! He’s gone to ground and I need someone local to ferret the weasel out."

She paused, before continuing coyly: "And let’s face it, no-one’s going to believe I’m a simple check-out girl at the Tesco superstore, are they?”

After giving Lark her details, a description of the mangy Madrigal and the last known whereabouts of McFarb, Fancipants turned on her exquisite heels and left, leaving the PI intrigued, but faintly miffed.

Final demands spilling onto the floor witnessed the fact that he needed the cash. But this was no run-of-the-mill ‘Toy Boy does a runner’ or ‘Mrs Goggins loses her dentures’ case. It would take real leg work – and that meant he’d have to leave his second-storey office, venture downstairs and hit the mean streets of Sussex.

First, though, there was no harm in a little Googling to gird his loins for the task ahead. Nothing could have prepared him for what the results revealed…


The Sussex Sentinel – 27 July 2010:

Freak ice boulder kills movie star and spinster

Hollywood and a Sussex village are reeling after a freak accident claimed the lives of one of Tinsel Town’s hottest properties and the local librarian.
     Rick Rivers and Bambi Fancipants died instantly when a 500lb block of ice and frozen waste plummeted onto the stage at the Holthorne-by-Sea fete, where Rivers was presenting prizes in the cooking competition. Investigators believe it had formed as a result of a faulty valve on the toilet of a plane that took off from Gatwick Airport 20 minutes earlier. The frozen sphere is thought to have fallen off just before the aircraft crossed the English coast.

Double tragedy
Rivers is best remembered for his impromptu performance of “The Lumberjack Song” when accepting the Oscar for his supporting role in “Mounting Miss Maisy” this year. Born Dickie Pond in Holthorne-on-Sea, he had returned to the village to conduct research for a documentary about his rise to fame – and to open the annual fete.
     His agent Barbra Heinschleck said: “Since Rick arrived in LA, he had turned our world upside-down with his cute English accent and penchant for playing bad guys. The tragedy is that he was poised for greatness – both professionally and personally. Not only had he been on the verge of signing for a major new movie deal, we were about to announce our engagement.”
    From Holthorne-by-Sea the Rev. Obidiah Digby, vicar of parish church St. Mary’s-On-The-Side, said the community was struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.
     “Naturally, we’re deeply saddened by the death of little Dickie Pond – I mean, Mr. Rivers,” he said. “But the greatest blow is the loss of Miss Fancipants - she represented everything great about rural English life. The very soul of discretion, she was always eager to serve in any way she could.”

Bequest
Neither Rivers nor Fancipants left any family. However, a Last Will and Testament found in the spinster’s cottage bequeaths her collection of Anne Summers memorabilia to the Brighton Home for Wayward Strumpets and expressed the desire that her cottage be converted into a new 20th Century Erotica wing of the county library.


Well! The dame in his office a while ago sure hadn’t seemed dead, but it seems she’d wanted it to look that way five years ago. Al couldn’t help thinking that a simple name change might have made the ruse rather more effective.

He sighed heavily, laced up his boots and lumbered down the dingy staircase to street level. That’s where he had to be to track down the fiendish McFarb – he was sure his contacts wouldn’t let him down.

He was wrong. 

Neither the knots of teenage gangstas defacing the town’s walls, the friendly landlords, the not-so-friendly betting shop managers, or the philosopher tramp who held court in the bandstand knew a thing. 
Or if they did, they weren’t talking. 

He even approached the sweet-faced lady in a pink hijab greeting indifferent Waitrose shoppers with a hopeful smile and “Wiggy Shoe?” as she tried to sell them copies of ‘The Big Issue’. Nothing.

Then, inspiration stuck. He shuffled into the saloon bar of ‘The Poisoned Pig Pen’ where he found old Harry, business correspondent of the local rag, propping up the bar like one of the historic pub’s ancient beams.

“McFarb, old chap?” chirruped the hack after Lark told him who he was trying to find. “Piece of cake! I was at a junket at his place just last week. Launched a new line of pet warmers - dreadful idea. Probably make him a fortune. Quite an arse really, but the man knows his single malt.”

In vino veritas, indeed...

...Two hours later, buoyed with renewed hope and a skinful of Dewars, Lark hailed a taxi and headed for Clayfield Flats, the not-so-secret hide-out of the plush goods magnate.

An eerie silence descended over the damp landscape as the cab sped away and the PI started tramping up the muddy private lane towards the sprawling mock-Tudor monstrosity. Rooks cawed a creaky welcome and something rustled in the hedgerow.

The house seemed deserted. No hum of TV or radio betrayed a presence within, nor did any lights brighten the inner gloom. But a sound from the rear alerted Lark’s attention. An insistent, mechanical tak, tak, tak, tak accompanied by a scent of scorched metal that grew stronger as he skirted the sodden lawn and headed for the back door. Unlocked, it opened easily to reveal an artfully reconstructed ‘olde worlde’ kitchen packed with 21st century stainless steel and halogen hobs. An old-fashioned kettle was rocking on the hotplate as the heat warped its faux copper base.

A flight of worn steps led down to the basement scullery, from where what sounded like a miniature pneumatic drill could be heard. Lark descended the stairs and peered into the darkness at the bottom. The steady, defiant gaze of a single gold-green eye staring out of the face of the biggest cat he’d ever seen floated out to greet him.

Of course. The famous Madrigal.

“Well, that was easier than I expected,” said Lark out loud as he bent down to scoop up the feline.

He jumped back abruptly as a sharp-clawed paw swiped at him, threatening to sever something vital. Only then did he spot what the animal was sitting on. The lifeless chest of a moon-faced man with a 1970s porn star moustache and a tartan tie. There was a sticky pool of half-dried fluid on the far side of his face that was turned away from the dim light.

Madrigal was idly playing pat-a-cake with a round glutinous object. A small trail of slime and blood showed the progress of the cat’s plaything from its original owner’s eye socket.

Aloysius Lark screamed like a little girl. 
When the shock of realisation passed, he took out his last century cellphone and dialed his client’s number. 

“Miss Fancipants, I don’t think McFarb is going to be troubling you anymore.”


Sunday, 7 February 2016

Voices

I sit on the bed, pillows hugging my back and my book in front of my face.

To the casual observer it’s a peaceful scene. A bookish but balanced nine-year-old reading in her room on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

But there’s more to it. The book is not just a way to escape my hum-drum suburban life into a technicolour world of adventures and heroic deeds. It’s not just food for the mind of an over-imaginative pre-teen. It’s my shield, my protection. The barrier between me and the voices.

Raindrops blatter the window, and I can hear Mum clattering saucepans in the kitchen against the low audible drone of some forgotten black & white movie to fill the empty slot on Saturday afternoon’s TV. My sister’s in her room with her friend Becky, playing some dumb game with their Barbie dolls.

Here, in my room, there’s just me. And Them.

I can’t remember when I first heard Them. It’s like they’ve always been there, lurking in the space between the top of grandpa’s old dark-wood wardrobe and the ceiling. A gap of a couple of feet high, enough for a child to sit reasonably comfortably amid the dustballs and dessicated spiders. And more than enough room for Them.

They’re always the same two. The man is stern and scolding, immediately making the hairs at the back of my neck stand up in anticipation of some dire punishment that never comes. But it’s the woman I hate. She’s wheedling, sly, sarcastic. Her words are soothing, supportive even, but her tone tells me everything I need to know. She’s the one who can hurt me the most. She’s the one I feel could drag me back to wherever they go where they’re not here, pulling me by the ankle one night when I’m lost in my dreams.

I haven’t told anyone about Them. Of course I haven’t. At best, they’d dismiss it as the product of an over-active imagination and send me out outdoors to get some fresh air and exercise. At worst, there’d be worried looks and whispered conversations about child psychiatrists.

So, I say nothing. Not to Mum and Dad. Not even to the voices, no matter how much they demand, plead or challenge me. “Ignore them and they’ll go away,” my Nan told me once when I confided to her about some boys picking on me. It worked with the school bullies, eventually, once they’d got bored with tormenting me and moved on to their next victim.

The voices seem to be taking longer. Much longer.

“Pay attention!” demands the man’s voice, not shouting, but cutting through the muffled air like an ice pick. “Put that stupid book down and listen.”

I hold my paperback even closer to my face, the tip of my nose almost touching the page. Words swim before my eyes and I have to blink to re-focus and re-arrange them into my shield.

“Oh, you don’t want to, do you?” I knew she would soon pipe up. With her soft, almost serpentine voice, hissing down at me from the top of the wardrobe. I hate her with a white heat that could melt entire galaxies. I sneak a peek over the top of the book, almost expecting to see tentacles curling down from the wardrobe, reaching out to touch me, grab me, take me. But there is nothing, just the old wooden door topped by a jumble of shadows.

“We know she can’t put her book down, don’t we?” continued the bitch, taunting me, daring me to answer. “She can’t do without her words, can she now?”

I grit my teeth and return my gaze to the page, concentrating hard and willing myself back into the world of elves and dwarves and dragon gold. Other times it’s to a girls’ boarding school, or a mystery adventure on an island in Cornwall, or a Victorian tale of time travel. Anywhere but here, with Them.

The voices continue like a pair of snakes slithering over one another in a glass tank. I hear their dry rasping, but I shut out the words, refusing to assign meaning to the sounds coming from them. Until…

“Put that book down. Put it down now – or we’ll make sure you never read again,” the man’s voice again, harsh, menacing, slicing through my silent shield with a threat that feels as real as knife to my throat.

“Don’t frighten her.” The wheedling bitch, pretending to care whilst preparing some new instrument to torture me with. “She knows we won’t hurt her, we just want her attention. You can give us that, can’t you?”

That’s it. Enough. If they want my attention, they can have it. Furious, I throw my book down, leap to my feet and take two steps over to the small desk wedged between the wardrobe and the corner of the room. I put one foot on the old kitchen chair in front of it and hoist myself off the ground to place my other foot on the desk.

The air is filled with a panicked slithering and low grumbles as I consider the bookshelves on the wall, wondering if they’ll take my weight to climb up to the top of the wardrobe to confront my tormentors. I try my luck. If the shelves don’t support me, the crash of collapsing furniture and falling child would soon rouse Dad from his crossword. And if they don’t, I’ll make it to the top of the wardrobe.

I stop, hesitating for a moment. Maybe that’s exactly what the voices want? Perhaps it’s all a trick to draw me into whatever dark realm they came from and to keep me there forever? Am I playing into their hands?

I dismiss the thought and with a push against my Children’s Encyclopedia sitting neglected on the lower shelf, hoist myself upwards and slide belly down onto the thick velvety layer of dust on the top of the wardrobe. It tickles my nostrils and my closed eyelids, making me sneeze. All sound ceases and I wonder if I’ve been struck deaf by my own sneeze.

Half expecting to stare into the mouth of a bottomless pit or dark swirling maelstrom, I open my eyes. I’m met by the sight of the wall, slightly speckled with damp from the attic and with a patch of magnolia paint in the corner, missed by the brush bearing the mint green I’d insisted I wanted for my room when we moved in. The wardrobe top is empty, except for cobwebs and a dead moth at the far end. No demons, no gateway to hell, and no more voices.

Somewhere between me taking the decision to trust my weight to the bookshelf and scrambling up with all the grace of a baby hippo, the noises have stopped. No dry slithers, no indecipherable whispers. Just the somber tick of the clock in the hall, the distant murmur or the TV and the tap of rain against my window.

I laugh out loud. They’re gone. For good. All it took was me to face them, challenge them to do their worst. Their worst, it turns out, is what they were already doing. Dragging my legs around I sit up, my feet dangling over the edge of the wardrobe I look down at my bed. I feel free like never before. I can do anything – even fly.

What if I really could fly? Emboldened by the banishment of my demons, I push myself off and outward towards the bed, flapping my arms frantically as I plummet downwards.

I land with a thud and a sickening snap from the bedframe beneath me. Probably broke the bed but I won’t tell Mum. She’ll ask too many questions I just can’t answer. She’ll see when she changes the sheets, but I’ll just blame it on my little sister. Til then, I can handle sleeping in a broken bed for a few days – now that I’m free of the voices.

And anyway, I swear that for a split second before crashing into the counterpane, I did fly, just a little bit.


Friday, 5 February 2016

News from the writer’s desk: De-hibernation?

Do not disturb. I'm disturbed enough as it is.
I know, I know. 

Things have been very quiet from the Writer’s Desk since I bombarded you with ten episodes of 'Cruel Yule’ and the Pathetic Poet's offering 'Wilbur The Ancient' just before Christmas, but even the Queen of Burble needs to take time out now and again.

Let’s just say I went into hibernation for a bit.

We’ll say that, but it’s not true. 
I’ve actually been pretty darned busy – with other stuff. So maybe we should say that 'She means well but…' enjoyed a slap-up meal, retreated into its cave, covered up with dry leaves and excused itself from the world for a little while.

But, time and guilt wait for no woman, so I thought I’d better shake off my winter snooze and remind you that I’m still breathing with an update from the writer’s desk.

So, what’s new?

Well, I decided to change my pen name from Mandi Millen to AJ Millen. Mandi sounded a little frivolous and - well - girlie for the kind of fiction that seems to flow from my fingertips (apparently direct from my Dark Side). I was also curious to see if the non-gender specific AJ would make any difference to the way people viewed my words.
Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, in addition to the my stories being published in the 'Grim Keepers' and 'Festive Frights' anthologies I told you about last time, I’ve had some of my tales included in another two collections:

'Stories In Green Ink' is now out in a new edition which features not one, but two, of my tales. I'm not telling you which ones - you can get your copy here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=stories+in+green+ink

Next, just in time for the annual love fest, comes ‘Hearts Asunder', a collection of stories from the dark side of romance, as an antidote for all those sappy hearts and flowers. One's called 'Black Rose' and it's from Yours Truly. Now available for you to order for your Kindle or your nightstand at http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1523805900?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00

There’s more to come.

I’m currently working on a piece for anthology of Easter stories, and I’m waiting to hear if my submissions for two more collections have made the grade. And, because sleep really is for wimps, I signed up for a collaborative sci-fi novel in progress and have tried my tentative hand at some song lyrics.

More of all of the above as and when (if?) they come to fruition.

Then there’s the day job. You know, the writing I get a pay cheque for. Busy, busy, busy, with all the ‘back to work’ ethos of the New Year and the debut of a formerly print in-house magazine in digital form.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my job. I really do. And I know how lucky I am to still be in gainful employment right now in Greece. But there are times when I feel like I’m drowning in other people’s words. It’s like they're bleeding out of my ears and my nostrils instead of traveling through my fingers to the keyboard.

That’s when I have to simply switch off at the end of the nine-to-five and veg out in front of the TV. But it's hard to switch off and I usually find myself analysing the good stuff to death to get to the bottom of its success, or shouting at the screen in protest at the crap pouring out of it.

So there you go, dear readers. My excuse for the dearth of new stories or burblings at She Means Well But… Central lately. It’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

But you don’t get rid of me that easily. 
The Word Nerd will return. With a vengeance. Or perhaps an eagerly-awaited but increasingly delayed new coffee cup. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

You Say You Want A Resolution?

Well, we’re now three weeks into the New Year and I’m sure you’re all well into your new clean living/gym bashing/teetotaller/good deeds alter egos.

Some of you are probably even halfway to sainthood, and even those who aren’t must surely be earning a vote of thanks from your arteries/livers/pet charities.

What you mean? “Umm. No.”?
What kind of an answer is that?
Where are the non-resolutionists of the world (Yours Truly included) supposed to seek inspiration and the occasional guilt trip?
What happened that smug smirk and self-congratulatory predictions of being “practically perfect” in every way by Midsummer’s Day?

Oh yeah. I know. Life got in the way.
It has a habit of doing that, doesn’t it?

One of the up-sides of being what even the kindest of people can't deny is middle-aged, is that I've managed to learn a lesson or two from life. And the biggest one is that, yes, it does tend to get in the way of our best laid plans.

That's why I don't 'do' resolutions.

For the first couple of weeks of the year, every year, I’m surrounded by friends, families and annoying acquaintances hurtling head-long on the “New! Improved!” resolutions highway, loudly tooting their special horns announcing their determination and good intentions to the world). But by the time February’s closer than last December, they’ve usually gone VERY quiet, and tend to change the subject when asked how their plans are going.

January is the absolute worst time to reinvent yourself, jettison bad habits or adopt new good ones. 
Joining the News Year’s Resolution bandwagon is just arbitrary. 
More to the point, it’s a sure-fire recipe for failure.

I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve got the ironic t-shirt.

I’ve jumped on the wagon for Dry January (post-holiday blues, dwindling funds, miserable weather and depressing anniversaries soon had me seeking solace in the warm inviting embrace of a fruity Merlot). 

I’ve announced to the world my plan to get fit and maybe be Marathon-ready by November (a failure to ‘Mind The Gap’ on the Underground and a visit to my local friendly A&E Department put paid to that). 

I’ve even signed up with gusto and enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo (not a single solitary word was writ).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not lacking in grit and determination. I’ve successfully kicked the baccy habit. I’ve banished meat. I’ve even managed to say goodbye to 20 kilos or more with a little help from the gym.

I just didn’t stage the equivalent of a West End of Broadway production when I did it. Nor did I start on a special day decided by the Powers That Be (whoever they may be), just like I’m not gonna love His Nibs Indoors that much more than I do today come 14 February. 

I just made the decision, when it felt right and I felt ready, and I did it. 

That's why you haven't seen (and you won't be seeing) any resolutions from me.
But, with luck and when you're least expecting it, you might just see results.


Monday, 28 December 2015

Wilbur The Ancient

By popular demand (well, at the request of my fellow warped Word Nerd Robert Mackey), I have been asked to write a new version of that seasonal favourite "Frosty the Snowman" featuring one of the minor characters from my recent Christmas parody "Cruel Yule". 


So, with apologies to the writers of "Frosty the Snowman", as well as their families, and for the cheesy rhymes and dubious taste, I give you:



WILBUR THE ANCIENT

Wilbur the Ancient was an aged sack of farts,
but when he told his tales, he would never fail,
to capture other elvish hearts.

Wilbur the Ancient, can’t recall when he was born.
But when he scratched his balls among the reindeer stalls,
he remembered he liked porn.

There must have been some magic in that old cracked chamber pot,
for when he took a shit, his face was lit
with relief that hit the spot!

Oh, Wilbur the Ancient had no clue what’s going on;
though Elvis flew the coop, with a joyous whoop,
he kept up the elvish con.

Trumpety, trump, trump, trumpety, trump, trump,
listen to Wilbur fart.
Trumpety trump, trump, trumpety trump, trump,
he’s just about to start.

Wilbur the Ancient, was fit for the funny farm.
Now Klaus is back, but Wlbur’s mind has cracked,
so he’s locked up in the barn.

There must have been some acid in his late night cocoa mug,
for when he woke, he no longer spoke,
he just barked like a prize pug.

A howlin’ at the moon one night, Wilbur took some time to think,
why he’d never died, had the Elders lied?
God, he wished he had a drink.

See, Wilbur the Ancient was a zombie through and through,
with a thirst for brains, even when in chains,
together with his ghastly crew.

Slumpety, slump, slump, slumpety, trump, trump,
hear his coffin call.
Slumpety, slump, slump, slumpety, slump, slump,
into his grave he falls.




Thursday, 24 December 2015

Cruel Yule: Part 10 - The Present Participle


And so, Christmas was not cancelled. It was just a little different for some.

Sales of selfie sticks plummeted inexplicably. Swathes of sophisticated teens were faced with the festive challenge of working out which end of the pencil to use to solve their crossword puzzles.

Little Danny from Dunsville, whose letter to Santa had attached itself to Klaus’ drunken cheek, was neither surprised nor upset by the paltry contents of his stocking. Though just eight, he knew that when he and his mum left in the deep of the night to escape flying fists and accusations, they’d be leaving the Christmas fund behind. He was happy just to be safe and not hear his mum cry herself to sleep every night. Anyway, the other kids at the shelter made him feel like he mattered once again. Reclaiming the smile he hadn’t used for years was his gift to him and his mother – and they would definitely have “better luck next year”.

Things were a little less content in assorted corridors of power, where men in suits used to getting their own way without having to argue their case were confronted with a scuttle-full of coal blackening their antique rugs.

For the first time in decades, Wham's "Last Christmas" failed to get any air-time on the Yuletide programmes. 

And no-one died in Albert Square.

Back at the homestead, Klaus threw open the farmhouse door after his big night to be greeted by a waft of Myffanwy’s famous coffee. He sniffed the air appreciatively, sat in his chair before the roaring fire, kicked his feet up and closed his eyes.

The long white hairs of his nostrils twitched as the scent got closer and stronger, tickling his taste buds and warming the tip of his frozen nose. And something else, a new note to the aroma, adding a sharp, warm tinge to it. He sniffed and smiled.

“Ah, Gladys. I should have known. It’s been a while since I’ve had one of your Irish coffees.”

“Well, you’d better drink it up quick,” came the sharp reply. “We got work to do round here.
"The elves are in revolt over that goth Elvis brought back with him. The reindeer are on hunger strike. Dooley and Entynne have eloped. Wilbur's had some kind of fit and keeps shouting for his crown. And we need to talk about Rudolph.


“But first, where’s MY present?”



Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Cruel Yule: Part 9 – Naughty or Nice?

Klaus was much less happy with the new state of affairs than his elfish friend. 

He’d left the homestead in a bid to get away from all the Christmas crap for a selfish world that wouldn’t know the real spirit of the season if it bit them on the backside. 

These days, it was all about the latest PlayStations, iPhones, selfie sticks – all in pursuit of self, satisfaction, Facebook Likes and smug Instagram duckfaces. 
And the kids weren’t much better, either.

But here he was, back at a desk, faced with towers of letters from self-entitled brats, lists rolling out across the floor and having to plan a delivery route for the most frantic twelve hours of his year.

AND he was doing it without a mug of mead, under the stern harridan glare of Gladys. He shot her a resentful look, only to plaster a sickly smile on his face when he realised she was looking in his direction. His lips grinned but behind his eyes, he harboured fantasies of the perfect Christmas crime - battering her senseless with a frozen turkey or leg of lamb, then cooking and eating the murder weapon. The smile spread to his eyes and he chuckled inwardly as he imagined the morbid scene.

A tug at his sleeve brought him back from his reverie. He looked up, then down until he found who had tugged him. A dwarf wearing a ‘don’t mess with me’ face and medieval battle dress offered him a neat pile of buff folders.

“Sorry to bother you, sir,” he said in a cultured voice. “but these need your urgent attention. We need your stamp before we can proceed with them.”

Klaus sighed and bent to take the files. They were surprisingly heavy, some six inches thick or more, all bound with auspicious looking scarlet ribbons. With a grunt, he hoisted them from the dwarf’s arms and dumped them on the desk.

“Thanks, Tyrion,” he sighed, and looked down at the files. Each one bore a name he was more used to seeing in news headlines: Obama, Putin, Cameron, Kardashian, Assad, some fella called Daesh, Trump….

“Oh, for f….  What would you do with this lot, my friend?”

“Personally, I’d demand trial by combat,” answered the little man with a big attitude. “But we probably don’t have time for that, and I sure Gladys wouldn't approve, so I’d put them straight to the top of the Naughty List.”

Klaus nodded, pulled a stamp and ink pad closer and dispatched the pile of files with a swift flourish and a red “Dislike” thumb-down symbol. It felt good. Like some kind of justice, albeit fleeting. He made a mental note to order more coal.

“Any more where they came from?” he asked.

“A whole roomful,” answered Tyrion and pushed an official looking form in triplicate before the old man. “But, if you give me the authority and the stamp, I can take care of them for you.”

Nodding over to another pile in the corner, he added: “There are more important matters for your attention.”

Klaus scrawled his name at the bottom of the form, handed it to Tyrion, along with the Dislike stamp and ink pad, and heaved himself out of his chair. The files in the corner were darker in colour, and bore no names. Each opened to an image. Drenched frightened children in fluorescent orange lifejackets. Terrified toddlers screaming in make-shift hospitals with walls pocked with cracks and bullet holes. A young girl quietly weeping as she cleaned herself while a sweating middle-aged man rose from the grimy bed behind her and pulled up his pants. A young boy, no more than eight years old, brandished a AK47 at the camera in a display of fake bravado and machismo.

A flood of helplessness swept over the man in red. He slumped in the corner, shaking his snowy white head. Angry tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes.

A familiar shadow loomed over him and a firm but gentle hand was placed on his shoulder.

“Oh, Glad,” he said, looking up to the woman he’d been fantasizing about battering with frozen foodstuffs just minutes before. “What’s the point?”

Gladys knelt beside him and looked into his eyes.

“Hasn’t that always been the case?” she said gently. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, does it?”

She took the top file from the pile and turned to the second page. More images showed the cold boat children in a shed on an island. Some still clung desperately to their mothers, but others were being helped into clean dry clothes by gaggles of scruffy middle-aged women more concerned about the kids than their manicures. There was no holly, ivy or mistletoe. No candy canes or tinsel. But something shone out of the dimly lit scene that had long since been lost from the busy shopping streets.

He looked at Gladys. Beneath her wild hair, ruddy cheeks and appalling dress sense, she was still beautiful. He blinked an apology at her and nodded.

As the pair struggled to their feet with all the grace of a pair of drunken rhinos, the first few saccharine bars of “Last Christmas” wafted through the workshed. It was abruptly cut off with a deafening ‘BANG!’ just after “this year, to save you from tears....”.

They looked up to see a very self-satisfied Tiffany, blowing an imaginary puff of smoke from the barrel of an air pistol, and a shattered 1970s cassette player lying on the floor.

“I always hated that bloody song,” she shrugged.



How will it all end?
Stay tuned for the final episode, coming before those stockings get filled (or will they?).