You know the way grown-ups always ask you what you want to be when you grow up? Well, I never had any problem answering that question. Because I always knew. I never had any doubts. I wanted to work for Father Christmas. In the workshop. You know the one. Where the Christmas toys are made. Even before I did my Elementary Elf exams – I passed them all! – mama says that I did nothing but talk about being one of Santa’s Elves. She says I dressed up like them, using green leaves that I found in the Fairy Fort at the bottom of our garden. Making pointed hats out of green crepe paper and sticking blocks of wood onto the heels of my shoes, the way elves do, to make themselves seem a little taller. Because you see, elves are small. Tiny in fact. And that suits me down to the ground. Because I am tiny too.
But there’s a difference between pretending to be something and then actually being that very thing. Because now I am one of Santa’s elves. The trouble is I’m not a very good one. In the first place, I’m the smallest elf in the workshop. I have to stand on an upside-down bucket to reach my workbench and even then my eyes just about reach over the edge. And I’m not just small.
‘Butterfingers’ Flint tells me when I drop a fire brigade – a toy one – on his toe.
‘Slowcoach’ Copper might say when I’m the last to get a needle threaded.
Butch – the tallest elf – just calls me Tiny and even though I am tiny, it doesn’t sound great. Not the way he says it.
When things go wrong at the workshop, it’s usually my fault. Take the other day for instance. I was working at the Laughometer. I suppose you’re wondering what a Laughometer does? So did I when I first arrived. Well, it’s probably the biggest machine in the workshop, all blinking lights and switches and knobs and buttons. Anytime a child laughs – and I mean any child, anywhere in the world – this laugh – or giggle, or chortle or chuckle or even gurgle – gets sent to the Laughometer. Don’t ask me how. And these laughs – and giggles, chortles, chuckles and even gurgles – are whipped like cream into the sort of energy that we need to make all the other machines in the workshop – like the snow-dome and the windmill and the paper-shaker – work.
Anyway, I checked the screen to see what kind of laugh was coming in and I could have sworn it was a chortle so I pulled on the chortle lever. I have to jump on it and hold on tight to pull it down enough to get the chortle into the machine. It’s hard work, believe me. But it wasn’t a chortle after all. It was a chuckle. And Miss Pritchett – who is in charge of the workshop – never gets tired of telling me how important it is not to mix up any of the laughs. The chortles have to go with the chortles and the chuckles with the chuckles. Otherwise, the system gets clogged up, she says. And boy did the system get clogged up that day. A lot of laughs leaked out of the machine and that slowed all the other machines and made the workshop sound like a very funny place, what with all the giggles and chortles and chuckles and gurgles lying in puddles all over the floor. But it wasn’t one bit funny. I was put on fairy-dust duty afterwards which is the easiest job in the place. Everybody knows that.
You’re probably wondering what we use the fairy dust for? Well, I happen to know the answer to that one. It’s what Father Christmas sprinkles in the eyes of any child who happen to see him on Christmas Eve. Some children hide behind the curtains in their sitting rooms you know. Or under their beds. Last year, one little boy hid in the coal bucket beside the fire place. But if you’re planning on doing that next Christmas Eve, take my advice and don’t bother. Because once the fairy dust gets sprinkled in your eyes, you just wake up in your bed the next morning and you don’t remember a thing about the night before.
I thought it would be different. Being an elf. Better, I suppose. At least, I thought I would be better at it. And then there’s Lapland. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely place an’ all but it’s just, well, it’s not home I suppose. It’s actually quite a long way away from where I live. With my family. My parents – us elves call them mama and papa – and my little sister, Starling who I never thought I’d miss on account of the way she chews the heads off my dolls and rips pages out of my favourite books. Mama says she doesn’t do it on purpose. It’s only because she’s a baby. It’s funny the things you miss. Like our house and the way you can see the mountains – snowy and tall – from my bedroom in the attic. The mountains look like baked Alaska, which happens to be my favourite dessert.
Us elves, we can’t go home for Christmas. That’s the busiest time of the whole year, as you can imagine. Getting Father Christmas ready for the trip. Making the toys. Packing the sleigh, tight as a drum. Some children think we pack all the toys on the sleigh at the one time but that’s not true. Father Christmas does it one continent at a time. Australia first, then Asia, Africa, Europe and all the way over the Atlantic ocean to America. He doesn’t go to the Antarctic. There aren’t any children there. When he’s finished one continent, he returns to the workshop and we pack more toys onto the sleigh and recharge it with cream from the Laughometer and polish Rudolf’s nose. It’s true that Rudolf’s nose is bright red but it can get a bit dusty, especially when he flies over places like the Sahara Desert, so we have to give it a bit of a polish and shine.
Of course, it doesn’t take Father Christmas as long as it would take you or I to travel around the world. He uses a special kind of magic for that. Even if I knew what it was, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you. It’s a secret, you see.
So here I am, in the workshop, trying to concentrate on fairy dust. It’s Christmas Eve. The busiest day of the years. Nobody talks, not even Wishes who talks in her sleep. Glint and Sparkle concentrate on putting the finishing touches on the furniture for the dolls’ houses. Shadow and Rainbow blow up the tyres of the toy cars and trucks and buses. Their cheeks puff up, like red balloons.
And then it happens. There’s a surge of activity in the Laughometer. This is not unusual. Especially on Christmas Eve when children laugh – and giggle, chortle, chuckle and even gurgle – a lot more than they usually do. When a surge occurs, the Laughometer bulges as it shoots all the extra laughs into the bit of the machine that we call ‘The Compressor’ which is just a fancy way of explaining how the extra laughs get squashed flat and stacked away neatly with the other laughs. Then the machine stops bulging and we all get back to work.
But not this time.
This time, the Laughometer bulges and keeps on bulging. Not only does it bulge, it coughs, splutters, shakes and shudders before the blinking lights fade like stars at dawn and the machine falls silent. In fact, the entire workshop falls silent, as all the other machines – the Wishing Well, the Stairway To Heaven, the Flower Tower; all of them – slow down before they stop altogether and the whole workshop plunges into darkness.
You might not know this but elves are afraid of the dark. It’s just that we’re not used to it. Even when the sun goes down in Lapland, the sky is still lit like a candle with the Aurora. The Northern Lights. You might think that the Northern Lights look like clusters of fairies in the sky, in dresses of green and red and yellow and white and pink, fluttering their fairy wings and dancing their fairy dances. Well, you’d be right.
In the few seconds it takes the fairies – who sleep during the day – to wake up and get their wings fluttering fast enough to leak their colours into the darkness of the workshop, everybody panics, running in circles with their pointed green hats pressed against their bright green eyes which is the thing that elves do when they are frightened. As for me, I stand still and close my eyes and think about mama and papa and even Starling and my attic bedroom at the top of our little house and the mountains that I can see from there – snowy and tall – liked Baked Alaska. This is how I stop feeling afraid. It works. I open my eyes. I feel my way towards the Laughometer and when I get there I run my hands along it. I feel nothing but a low rumbling deep inside the machine. I look around and pick up a fluttering fairy light, holding her close to the machine, trying to see where the problem might be. It’s hard to concentrate with the noise of hundreds of panicking elves all around but I know I have to. It’s Christmas Eve. The most important day of the year. And then I see them. A huge knot of giggles trapped in the pipe that leads to the chortles. I can still hear them giggling but only just. There is no time to lose. The pipe containing them looks like it’s about to burst any minute. Even as I stand there, more laughs crash down the mouth of the pipe where they collect before they are sorted into their groups. I throw myself against the opening and the laughs bounce against my chest, my head, my arms, before dribbling down my body and landing in a heap on the floor. It will only be a matter of minutes before they pick themselves up and try again. Laughs are very determined, you know.
‘Think’ I tell myself. ‘Think.’ It’s hard to think when you’re being bombarded by laughter. But I do manage to have a thought and it’s this. I need to clear the blockage of giggles in the chortles pipe. As more and more fairies flicker and flutter about the workshop, the light improves and I see Glint, standing beside the Rainbow Riot Machine with his green hat held over his green eyes.
‘Glint’ I shout. ‘Over here. Quickly.’
‘It’s too dark. I can’t see. I’m scared.’
‘It’s not. The fairy lights are on. Open your eyes.’
Glint peeks through a narrow gap in his fingers. ‘What are you doing?’ he shouts as I duck my head to avoid a particularly loud chuckle.
‘I need you to put your hand down the chortle pipe and pull the giggles out.’
‘Why don’t you do it?’ Glint asks, his voice wobbling like a jelly.
‘I have to stand here and make sure no other laughs get into the machine until we’ve cleared the blockage’ I explain, sneezing as two gurgles glance against my nose.
‘Ok’ Glint says, lowering his hands. ‘I’ll try.’ He runs to the pipe and tries to push his hand inside. But it won’t fit. He can’t do it. Nor can Sparkle, Shadow or Rainbow who see what’s happening and come over to the Laughometer to help.
‘It’s going to blow’ Sparkle screams looking at the machine with tears in her eyes. ‘Christmas will be ruined. Forever.’
‘Wait’ says Glint. ‘You’re the smallest, Robin. You should try.’
He takes my place, pressing his body tight against the main pipe where he is immediately splattered by a cluster of giggles, chuckles and a few belly laughs.
‘Ouch’ he says, but he stays there all the same. I run to the chortles pipe and try to squeeze my hand inside it. But the pipe is narrow. I curl my hand into the tightest fist that I can make and try again. It fits! I ease it down the pipe until my fingers touch the knot of giggles. They feel soft and light, like feathers. I pick them out, one by one, and I don’t stop until the pipe is clear. Glint steps away from the main pipe and the laughs on the floor pick themselves up, dust themselves down and charge into the machine. We all hold our breaths.
‘Well done Robin. You fixed it.’
I look up and gasp, the way anyone would if they looked up and saw Father Christmas, standing there, beside them, smiling his big old Father Christmas smile. I’ve seen him before. Once. When I first arrived. But still. There’s something about him that makes me gasp. It could be the twinkle in the bright blueness of his eyes. His beautiful red suit with the snow white trim. His long, curly beard. His shiny black boots. I can see my face in those boots. That’s how shiny they are.
A hush falls across the workshop. Even the machines, working again, are quieter.
‘Greetings my little elves’ he says and even though he has a lovely soft, low voice, everybody hears him. Eveybody looks up. Everybody gasps. He smiles his smile that is as warm as one of mama’s pancakes fresh off the pan. He turns back to me. ‘You’ve saved Christmas Robin’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
‘Eh, you’re welcome’ is all I can think of to say.
‘I want you to be in charge of the Laughometer in future’ Father Christmas says. There is a gasp from the other elves. And from Miss Pritchett who is standing beside me now.
‘But…but…Father Christmas. Robin is the youngest elf in the workshop’ Miss Pitchett tells him.
‘And the smallest’ a group of elves mutter behind his back. Father Christmas turns to them and smiles. ‘She is brave and resourceful’ he tells them and even though I don’t know what resourceful means, it sounds like something good, the way he says it.
‘She has saved Christmas, not just for the children but for us as well. Where would we be without Christmas? Everybody takes a moment to think about an answer to this question. But there is none. Instead, the workshop elves charge towards me and for a moment I am frightened. They reach for me with their hands and hoist me on their shoulders, carrying me around the room like a trophy, cheering and laughing.
‘Well done Robin!’ cries Flint.
‘You’ve saved the day!’ roars Copper.
‘You’re our hero, Tiny!’ says Butch and the way he says it sounds great. Fantastic, in fact.
I think about next week, when I am home for the holidays. Telling mama and papa and Starling all about Christmas Eve in Santa’s workshop. I can’t wait. But for now, sitting on the shoulders of my fellow elves, while I’m still the smallest elf, it feels like I’m on top of the world.