Anwen’s four o’clock cry woke Gwen. She rose from the bed carefully, so as not to wake Rhys.
That was a laugh. An earthquake wouldn’t wake Rhys, especially not after a party.
She lifted Anwen from her travel cot and sat by the window as she fed and changed her. She looked out at a very different view than she was used to from the flat in Cardiff. The silvery three-quarter moon in a deep blue-black starry sky illuminated a snow-covered meadow leading down to a lake with frosty edges and a craggy hill covered in pine trees rising up behind it. It was called Bassenthwaite Lake, one of the less well known bodies of water in the English Lake District.
Owen had found it by the simple method of putting a ruler on a map of the UK and marking a point halfway between Cardiff and Glasgow that wasn’t what he called ‘a miserable coal town in Lancashire’. He then set the girl in the tourist office above the Glasgow Hub phoning around for a self-catering house to rent over the Christmas holiday with room for at least twenty five people including several children and a baby. The girl didn’t mention that a vampire and a hybrid Human-Weevil were also among the company, but the former just needed a blackout curtain on his bedroom suite and the latter didn’t mind where he was as long as his adopted parents, Ianto and Alun, were there, and there was porridge for his breakfast.
Gwen smiled as she thought about the wonderful time it had been already. They had all arrived the day before Christmas Eve, in an assortment of vehicles, including the Torchwood SUV which Ianto commandeered because the tinted back windows gave Sam the privacy he needed. She and Rhys had given Andy Davidson a lift. He had sat in the back with Anwen in her car crib for company. Jack drove his extended family – Garrett, Ashley, Gray, as well as Garrett’s ex-wife, Annie, and their three girls, in an eight seater people carrier christened Van Diesel by the two boys. Owen came down from Scotland in the Ford Escape with Toshiko and their two children as well as Christmas presents for everyone in the spacious boot. Ray and Beth came up in a battered Ford Anglia that looked exactly like the one from Harry Potter except it couldn’t fly and refused to make itself invisible no matter how much Owen criticised it.
Martha came with Una, her adopted teenager daughter, and her boyfriend, Tom, taking a rare bit of time off from being a World Health Organisation doctor in some desperate part of Africa. Munroe Macdonald from the Glasgow office came in his 1970s Volvo Amazon Estate with a beautiful young woman whose Human name was Amanda and Human shape was apparently as stunning as her real one when she revealed it. She was, Gwen learnt, his favourite of a group of alien women who worked in a rather exclusive brothel that gave special rates to Torchwood personnel. Gwen decided she wasn’t going to ask any questions about that.
Glasgow’s immortal man, Dougal Drummond, and his boyfriend, Sandy McCoy, had a two seater sports car that made Owen envious. He had sold his when he decided to become a family man with Toshiko. Last to arrive, when the sun was well and truly down, were Shona and Darius with two year old Gabrielle. Their Daimler with fully tinted windows had been borrowed from Lady Moira, the aristocrat of Glasgow vampires.
The cars were all parked in the courtyard at the front of the house, now. It would take Rhys’s traffic management skills to get them all out again when they were ready to leave on the day after Boxing Day, but for now nobody planned to go anywhere except a brisk stroll by the lake after lunch.
Last night had been a great party. A long table had groaned under the weight of the buffet. Drink, both alcoholic and soft, had flowed freely. Ianto and Alun had taken it in turns to be DJ with a collection of Christmas classics. Everyone had relaxed and enjoyed themselves. Sam the half-Weevil had discovered how to disco dance. Una had danced with Ashley, the nearest eligible male to her age group, and tasted her first glass of champagne before deciding that she preferred coca cola. Etsuko had tried to stay awake with the grown-ups, but eventually she fell asleep on a chair with a plate of strawberry jelly in her lap. She had been taken to bed in the room she was sharing with her little brother and the party continued until a little after midnight.
Gwen sighed as she remembered the fun. It really was a rare thing for them to actually HAVE fun, even at Christmas. Torchwood in Cardiff and Glasgow guarded humanity from the darkness they were mostly blissfully unaware of. Coming up from that darkness to have an ordinary good time with each other was refreshingly wonderful.
And there was even more fun to be had, yet. While they partied three large turkeys had been roasting in the kitchen. They were going to have a fantastic traditional Christmas dinner later today.
First, of course, there were presents. The biggest and most numerous of those placed around the Christmas tree before everyone retired for the night were for the children. The very biggest was a bicycle for Una, who was only just starting to take the freedom to go out of the house for granted. The smallest was a box containing the key that went with a motor bike hidden in the garage for Ashley.
Anwen was too little, yet. Gwen wasn’t expecting much response from her to the teddies and activity sets with her name on. Gabrielle, Genkei and Etsuko were of the age to really appreciate the joy of believing that the gifts really came from Father Christmas.
So was Sam, technically. This was his second Christmas. He was five years old, or however many that was in Weevil years, and had written his own note to Father Christmas asking for books, a big box of crayons and the sort of computer games that helped with his manual dexterity.
Gray was the youngest to be too old for letters to Father Christmas. Gwen wasn’t even sure they HAD Christmas on the planet he came from. Ashley was born too old for it. She was sure Una hadn’t sent one, either, but this was her first Christmas as well as Anwen’s. At fourteen, the girl had never experienced anything like the excitement and anticipation of going to bed on Christmas night, just one of the social crimes against her that Martha was trying to make up for.
One way or the other, all of the older children had a lot of catching up to do, so there were piles of presents for them, too, and adults waiting to see the smiles on their faces.
“Yes, it’s going to be a lovely Christmas,” she told her baby, who gurgled and blew milk bubbles before falling asleep in her arms. She held her for a little longer in the quiet darkness. She had come to appreciate these middle of the night moments when her mother and Rhys’s mother weren’t trying to pass Anwen around like a prize cabbage. After a while she brought her back to the cot and settled her down again.
It was then that she heard a noise. If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn it was somebody on the roof, but that was daft, especially on Christmas night.
She heard the noise again and a horrible thought occurred to her.
It was always in the news, nearly every year. Some house where the kids went down to the living room to find a window open and their presents gone – the cruellest way to discover Father Christmas didn’t exist. There were always toy shops and charities and kind people with money to spare, lining up to give them new toys, but Gwen was sure nothing could really make up for that shock. One ruined Christmas morning would remain in their memory forever.
No way that was going to happen here.
If she was any other woman she would have woken up her husband and sent him downstairs with a cricket bat or golf club to defend himself with. But she was the one with weapons training and unarmed combat skills. She left Rhys to sleep on unaware and slipped quietly out of the room.
She was at the top of the stairs when a slight figure jumped out at her with a handgun held steady in the way Jack Harkness had taught them all. Toshiko quickly put the weapon back in her dressing gown pocket and sighed with relief.
“I thought I heard a noise,” she whispered.
“So did I,” Gwen answered. “Did we hear each other or….”
She stopped. There was another sound, this time downstairs.
“Somebody came down the chimney,” Toshiko said.
“No, you have to be joking,” Gwen argued. But it was exactly what it sounded like to her, too. The lounge where the Christmas tree was had a beautiful Victorian fireplace and a chimney almost wide enough for Father Christmas himself if he had dieted all year and held his breath all the way down.
“I really don’t think it IS him,” Toshiko pointed out. “Come on. Let’s find out what’s going on.”
They moved silently down the stairs, again the way Jack had trained them both, and crossed the hall to the lounge. Gwen opened the door quietly and Toshiko went in first, her gun held at her side, ready for burglars but just as easily expecting it to be Darius coming back from a night-time prowl or one of the kids raiding the nuts and fruit on the sideboard.
There was nobody stealing the presents, at least, but they didn’t quite feel they were alone. An uncanny sense that made the backs of their necks prickle told them that something wasn’t quite right in this room.
Then they heard the whisper.
“It’s all right. They can’t see us,” said a voice from somewhere near the Christmas tree. “Big ‘uns can’t see us.”
“Shhhh,” another voice responded. “They’ll hear you.”
“They can’t hear us, either,” the first voice said.
Toshiko still kept her gun at her side, but she moved a step closer. Meanwhile, Gwen dropped back to the door and reached for the light switch. As warm light filled the room they both spotted a movement behind the box that contained Gabrielle’s first rocking horse.
“Actually we CAN see you, and HEAR you,” Toshiko called out. “You might as well stop trying to hide behind there. I’ve got a gun, you know.”
“So have I,” Gwen added. It was back in Cardiff. She had not imagined a situation where she would need it, but she HAD one. That wasn’t a lie.
Then both women gasped in surprise as the two intruders came out from behind the presents. They were both about two foot tall with arms and legs like stick insects and large heads with pointed ears.
The phrase ‘house elf’ entered both their minds at the same time, but they dismissed the thought immediately before they were sued for copyright infringement. Besides, these elves wore clothes – full suits of red and white velvet with fur trim like miniature Father Christmases without the beard.
“Am I seeing things?” Gwen asked.
“If you are, so am I,” Toshiko answered.
“Who are you and what are you doing in this house? Gwen demanded.
“How come you can see us?” demanded the first ‘elf’ for want of a better word. “Big ‘uns can’t see us, only the kiddywinks, and they think they’re just dreaming.”
“We’re Torchwood,” Gwen said in a stern tone. “We see things that are really there.”
She suspected that wasn’t an original quote. She was probably infringing a copyright again, but it was true. Torchwood agents knew that the flicker in the corner of your eye, the darker patch in the dark shadow, the thing you thought you saw before you blinked, probably was real, and was almost certainly dangerous.
“Torchwood?” The two creatures grasped each other in a theatrical and clearly sarcastic parody of fright. “Oh no, we’re buggered, now.”
“Nice language from an elf,” Toshiko commented.
“We’re not elves,” one of them said. “Elves are big ‘uns, your size, with silvery hair and mean tempers. You don’t want to get involved with elves, even if you are Torchwater.”
“Torchwood,” Gwen corrected him.
Gwen didn’t bother to correct him this time. She suspected he was just taking the Mickey out of her.
“So who ARE you, then?”
“We’re the ‘Elpers.”
“‘Elpers,” the creature repeated. “We ‘elp the Big Man.”
“Big Man?” Toshiko and Gwen looked at each other while at the same time keeping an eye on the two intruders – a feat only females who are also mothers can generally achieve.
“No!” Toshiko exclaimed. “No, absolutely not. Gwen, one of us must be dreaming this.”
“Well, which one of us is it, then?” Gwen asked. “It feels real enough.”
“It’s got to be a dream.” Toshiko insisted. “No way, absolutely no way. They are NOT Father Christmas’s helpers.”
“Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Swiety Mikolaj,” said the first ‘elper.
“Père Noël,” said the other.
“Daidí na Nollag.”
“Yes, I know all the different names,” Gwen interrupted before the list of international titles got any longer. “Our mate Sergeant Andy arrested him under all of them three Christmas Eve’s ago. He’s upstairs now, Andy, I mean, not Santa, and if we don’t get some answers from you two, I’ll go wake him up.”
Andy was off duty and a long way out of his jurisdiction as a Cardiff police sergeant, but the threat of an actual policeman did more than the word ‘Torchwood’ to settle the two characters down.
“I’m Sidney Ignatius Scratch,” said the first one. “Sid to my friends. That’s my brother, Ignatius Sidney Scratch. Sid and Ig to those who knows us.”
“And you’re seriously telling us that you’re Father Christmas’s helpers?” Toshiko asked.
“‘Elpers,” Ig corrected her.
“I don’t know about serious,” Sid continued. “We don’t often do serious. We’re about joy and happiness for little kiddywinks.”
“You really DO work for Father Christmas….” Toshiko tried a different line of questioning.
“Not exactly ‘work’,” Ig responded. “It’s more a labour of love, if you know what I mean. We love bringing joy and happiness to the little….”
“So why are you HERE?” Gwen cut in.
“For the kiddiwinks, obviously,” Sid replied as if it was a foolish question. “You’ve got a bunch of them here.”
Ig held up a scroll with names written in swirling calligraphy. Gwen was sure that ‘Anwen’ was the first of them, with Ashley coming next alphabetically in the list of Torchwood’s children.
“Well, yes, I get that,” Gwen said. “HE has the list, of course. But why YOU TWO and not… well, HIM?”
“Gwen, you don’t really think….” Toshiko began. But what was the point in denying what was obvious to them both.
“They’re Father Christmas’s little ‘Elpers,” Gwen accepted.
“Not THAT little,” Ig responded with a suggestive grin.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that from somebody who goes into children’s bedrooms,” Gwen told him in a stern tone. “But my question remains – why YOU? Why isn’t Father Christmas here?”
“Yes, good question,” Toshiko added. “Explain that one.”
“He sent us because you’re off the route,” Sid replied. “There’s always a few, kids visiting their grandparents for the holiday, people who fancy Christmas on Bondi Beach with a barbecue. The poor little sods in foster homes being moved about all the time. We try to keep up. But you lot… we had you down for the Cardiff and Glasgow stops - and then you all decided to move. We were in a right panic wondering where you’d all gone. Then we got a note.”
“A note… from who?” Toshiko asked.
“A kiddiwink called Et…s…u….” Ig looked at the signature and tried again. “Et…su-koo? Does that ring any Christmas bells?”
“Etsuko, my little girl?” Toshiko snatched the crumpled piece of paper Ig had in his hands. It was a piece of Torchwood headed notepaper. She must have found it in the stationary cupboard at the Hub. In purple felt tip pen she had copied the address of the rented house and told Father Christmas they would all be there. She had listed all of the children, including Anwen, the smallest and Sam, the biggest, and Ashley who was technically an adult at eighteen and enrolled in the RAF, but still deserving of a good Christmas.
“Smart little kiddiwink that one,” Sid told her.
“Yes, she is,” Toshiko agreed. She put the note in her dressing gown pocket and sat down in an armchair. Gwen took the other chair. Maybe sitting down would make all this easier.
“So….” She prompted the two ‘elpers.
“So, there we were. The Big Man’s sleigh was all packed and ready to go. The route was planned. We couldn’t risk him taking a detour, because it messes up the timings. So it was down to us to do the business, as it were.”
“But the presents were all under the tree already,” Gwen pointed out. “There was no need….”
Sid and Ig both smiled knowingly.
“What?” Gwen demanded.
“You don’t understand, do you? Of course the parents buy the presents. I mean, do you think the Big Man is made of money? Besides, why do you think it is that the rich get better presents than the poor? If it was really up to him, every kiddiwink would get the same value of present. But that would probably work out at a yoyo and a candy cane per child when you do the maths, millions of them all over the world, including the ones that don’t even celebrate Christmas. All that lot in Africa – ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’? We bloody well ‘ope not. It’ll just make things harder for us.”
“But….” Toshiko began.
“What about….” Gwen tried to say, but the question evaded her. The statistic about the yoyo and candy cane was still baffling her mind.
“Of course, there are exceptions, now and then. He is a generous man. If he hears about a really special case, he’ll do something, a little Christmas miracle, but only very rarely. We have to discourage him from making them ALL special cases.”
“Why?” Toshiko asked.
“Yoyo and a candy cane,” Ig reminded her. “As I said, he’s not made of money.”
“By the way,” Sid added. “I notice your little ‘uns have left out milk and biscuits for the Big Man himself. Seeing as you’re not on his route and we’re here instead, is it all right if we….”
“Go ahead,” Toshiko said with a resigned sigh. “While you’re at it, pass those mince pies. I could do with a little something myself. I don’t usually eat in the middle of the night, but when I’m woken up by mythological characters in the drawing room I get a bit peckish.”
“Actually, I was thinking of making a couple of sandwiches,” Gwen suggested. “There’s plenty of ham left from the buffet.”
“Are there any pickles?” Ig asked. “I like that yellow mixed up stuff with the little onions and bits of cauliflower and gerkin in it. Spread a bit of that on a couple of ham butties for me and Sid.”
Gwen was on the point of saying that she didn’t cater for unexpected visitors in the night, but what was the point? She headed to the kitchen and made a plate of sandwiches. She put some piccalilli in a bowl on the side, making sure there were plenty of the pickled vegetable pieces in it. She found a jug of milk for herself and Toshiko and brought that, too.
When she returned to the drawing room the two visitors had made themselves a picnic of the milk and biscuits on the fireside rug. They added their share of the sandwiches, with generous helpings of pickle. Gwen sat down and ate a sandwich slowly, washing it down with milk as she considered the situation.
“If the presents come from the parents anyway, why do we need… Him?” she asked, fixing on one question that really niggled at her. “What’s the point of a… packed sleigh and… planning a route?”
“He has to do the business, going to every house, every kiddiwink, all over the world. That’s the thing about Christmas. It’s why it’s different from any other day. He has to be there to put the magic into it. Otherwise it’s just a present, not a Christmas present.”
“Huh?” Toshiko and Gwen glanced at each other, then immediately looked back at the two characters in red, half expecting them to vanish if they turned away for too long.
“Look, it’s this stuff that he brings,” Sid explained, reaching into a small bag at his side and bringing out a fistful of something that looked a bit like extra sparkly granulated rift energy. He tossed it up in the air and it fell around the pile of presents. He and Ig threw several more handfuls of the sparkly stuff around before they were completely satisfied.
“Christmas joy to all the kiddiwinks,” Ig said. “You just watch their little eyes shine in the morning. That’s not because you’ve bought them the latest Nintendo 3DS. It’s because you bought it for Christmas and we gave it an extra special Christmas sparkle.”
“I suppose there’s no point in asking how you know there’s a Nintendo in any of those parcels,” Gwen commented.
“None at all,” Sid answered.
“It’s for Sam,” Gwen told him. “It’s to help his fine motor movement – the way he uses his fingers and thumbs. It’s educational.”
“Yes, Sam.” Sid and Ig nodded as if they fully understood how difficult it was to be foster parents to a Human-weevil hybrid. “Yes, he IS one of the special cases. You’ve got a lot of the special cases here, actually. A whole bunch of them.”
“Sam, Una, Ashley, Gray….” Gwen thought. All of Torchwood’s adopted children.
“Yep, them’s the ones,” Sid acknowledged. “A lot of kids who haven’t had their fair share of Christmases. The Big Man said we had to give them the extra treatment.”
“So they’ll have a really good Christmas?” Toshiko asked.
“So they’ll always remember the meaning of Christmas,” Ig answered. “Anyway, that’s us finished up here. We’ll be getting along. Thanks for the butties and everything. It’s not often we get hospitality. Mostly it’s dogs and cats chasing us around the place.”
“Still dunno why you big ‘uns can see us,” Sid added. “It’s an odd case, this. Don’t know what the Big Man will say.”
“Tell him hello from me,” Gwen said. “Gwen Cooper, from Torchwood. He’ll remember me.”
“Gwyn Cropper from Touchstone,” Ig said.
“No, Gwen Cooper from….” She stopped. “You know perfectly well what I said. Go on with you, now, or the next letter the Big Man gets will be from me, complaining about his personnel.”
Ig and Sid put the remains of their picnic neatly onto the tray and stood together by the fireplace. Sid took another handful of the sparkly stuff from the sack and threw it high in the air so that it fell slowly back down again over Toshiko and Gwen, then they disappeared up the chimney with a whooshing sound and a fall of soot into the hearth.
“Well….” Toshiko said after a long pause. “I never….”
“We’d better go back to bed,” Gwen suggested. “I’ll put these plates in the kitchen.”
She wondered if she would actually sleep after all of that, but perhaps there was something in the stuff that Sid had thrown, because she dropped straight off as soon as she snuggled up next to Rhys in the warm bed.
She woke a few hours later in bright daylight. The sun shone from a clear, cold blue sky and there were noises on the landing that suggested other people, especially children, were up and about.
“Come on, sleepyhead,” Rhys said to her. She looked around and saw that he had already fed, changed and dressed Anwen. “Everyone’s going downstairs to open pressies.”
She put her dressing gown and slippers on and headed down to the drawing room. Almost everyone was still in their nightwear, yet. Gwen tried not to laugh at Jack, who was wearing a pair of Transformers pyjamas. Did they really DO that sort of thing for adults? Anyway, a happy bunch of people gathered together ready to watch the children open their presents.
Anwen was REALLY too young to understand, and she didn’t yet have the manual dexterity to pull the wrapping off the teddy bear that Rhys put into her hands. Her parents helped then settled her down in her day crib with the soft toy. Gwen watched Una unwrap her first bicycle and Toshiko’s two children with Shona and Darius’s little Gabrielle, as well as Sam, in a flurry of wrapping paper and ribbons. Next year her daughter would be old enough to enjoy the moment fully in the same way.
She looked at Toshiko and the memory came back to her… or did it?
“I had the weirdest dream last night,” she said to her.
“So did I,” Toshiko answered. “At least… I think it was a dream.”
She reached into her dressing gown pocket and pulled out a piece of crumpled paper. It was Torchwood headed notepaper with a message written in felt tip pen.
A message to Father Christmas.
Gwen looked at the fireplace. Was that soot around the hearth? Were there small footprints on the rug?
“Did it… really….”
“I don’t think we should mention it to anyone else,” Toshiko said. “It’s a bit too wacky even for Torchwood.”
Gwen agreed wholeheartedly.
“Merry Christmas, Tosh,” she said.
"Merry Christmas, Gwen," Toshiko replied. "And Sid and Ig, wherever they are!"