by Robert Williams

It was two weeks before Christmas, and Des and Mick were in town to brave the throngs of shoppers and get a bit of Christmas shopping done. Except that there were no throngs of shoppers. In fact, despite it being the middle of the day, there were just a few people milling about the streets.

"I don't understand it!" exclaimed Des. "Why is it so quiet?! Usually you can't move for people at this time of year!"

"It's the internet, isn't it?!" said Mick. "I read it in the Tolworth Bugle. The manager of the shopping centre is blaming the internet, because everybody does their shopping online these days!

"Everyone except us," said Des. "We must be the only people left in the country without the internet!"

"You used to have the internet, didn't you?!" said Mick.

"Yes, but I got rid of it because my e-mail was full of spam from Mrs Greasy and Mike the Manic Mechanic!" said Des. "Every time I tried to unsubscribe from their mailing lists I just got sent more of their rubbish! And that's not to mention those people from Nigeria asking to transfer the $37,000,000 left by their assassinated husband/father/milkman into my bank account!!"

They went up to the entrance of the shopping centre and peered through the windows. It was completely deserted.

"Look at Santa's grotto in the middle there!" said Des. "I bet he hasn't seen any kids all day! The internet certainly has a lot to answer for!"

But when they walked inside they discovered the real reason why the place was empty.

"Urgh, this place smells like a farm!!" exclaimed Mick. "But not just any old farm - a pig farm!!"

As they walked towards the centre of the mall, where Santa's grotto was situated, the smell got stronger and stronger.

"Tell you what, let's get out of here!" said Mick.

But curiosity had got the better of Des. Holding his nose, he peered into the grotto where the smell was emanating from, and was immediately knocked over by some pigs dressed in elf outfits coming out of the grotto.

"Oooooh arrrrr, oi mean, ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!!" said Father Christmas. "Come and sit on moi knee, little child, and tell me what you be wantin' for Christmas!"

"I'm not a small child, I'm Des!" said Des. "And you're not Father Christmas, you're Farmer Files!!"

"Oh darn, you be spottin' me through moi amazin' disguoise!!" exclaimed Files. "'Ow do you be doin' it?!"

" be honest it wasn't very difficult," said Des.

"Oooooh arrrrr!!!" said Files. "Well anyway, come on and sit on moi knee loike oi said!!"

"I'd really rather not if you don't mind," said Des. "I must be the first person to come in here all day!"

"Oooooh arrrrrr!!" said Files. "That be not true!! You be the second!! The foirst be Wayne, 'e's been sixteen toimes already!!"

Just then Wayne ran in.

"Make that seven'een!" said Files.

"Hey Santa, just one more thing I just thought of, I wanna new Scalectrix please!!" said Wayne.

"Ooooh arrrrr, oi mean, ho ho ho!!" said Files.

"Thanks Santa!!" said Wayne, rushing out again.

"Anyway, as oi was sayin', accordin' to the manager of this 'ere shoppin' centre, apparently everyone be shoppin' onloine on that there new-fangled in'ernet!" said Files. "That be why it be so quiet in 'ere!"

"I'm not sure that's the only reason," said Des. "Anyway, I'd better be off, I've got to get out of here!" The smell was starting to get a bit much for him.

"Ooooh arrrrr, don't you wantin' to be tellin' me what you want for Christmas?!" said Files.

"No, I've already sent my list to the real Father Christmas!!" said Des. "Got to go now!"

"Ooooh arrrrr, okay then, but if you be bumpin' into any of moi porkers, could you be roundin' them up for me?!"

"Yes, yes, yes," said Des, hurrying out of the grotto. When he emerged he found that Mick had vanished, but instead there was a besuited gentlemen looking a bit upset.

"Good grief!!!" exclaimed the man when he saw Des. "It's a customer!!! A real life customer!!"

"You must be the manager!" said Des. "The one who was whingeing about the internet!"

"Yes!" said the manager. "And look what it's done to my shopping centre!!"

"I don't think the internet's solely to blame!" said Des. "What about the fact that this place smells like a farm?!"

"Smells like a farm?!" said the manager. "Does it?! I hadn't noticed! I've got a cold, you see, I can't smell anything!!"

"And what about these pigs in elf suits running around the place?!" said Des. "Had you not noticed them?! What on earth made you take on Farmer Files as Father Christmas?!"

"There's just one reason," said the manager. "It's a cost-saving measure! You see we saved money by not needing to buy a false beard for our Father Christmas, because Farmer Files has already got one!!"

"Let me give you some advice," said Des. "Sack Farmer Files and fumigate the place!"

"Okay then," said the manager. "But I'm still going to need a Father Christmas..."

Shortly afterwards Mick turned up.

"Where have you been?!" said Des.

"I went into the furniture shop, it was less pongy in there!" said Mick. "Tell you what, because it's so quiet round here the shops are doing some amazing bargains! I've just bought a three piece suite for 3p!!!"

"How suite," said Des. "Never mind that now, I've just had a word with the shopping centre manager, and I've got Farmer Files the sack as Father Christmas!"

"Well maybe that'll tempt a few people back in here," said Mick. "Now let's go home."

"Wait, I haven't finished," said Des. "Guess who's playing Father Christmas now?!"

"Don't tell me - you are," said Mick.

"Yip!" said Des.

"That probably won't tempt many people back in here then," said Mick. "Now let's go home."

"Wait, I haven't finished," said Des. "Guess who's playing Santa's little helper?!"

"Oh no..." groaned Mick.

"That's right!" grinned Des. "You are!!!"

Mick sighed and hurried off to the shopping centre exit before Des could drop any more bombshells. However Wayne ran right into him.

"Wayne, look where you're going!!" exclaimed Mick.

"Sorry Mick but I've gotta go and see Santa!!" said Wayne. "I just remembered I also want a Playstation for Christmas!!"

"It's too late Wayne, Santa's been given the sack!" said Mick.

"Eh?!" said Wayne. "But it's too early, surely 'e don't need 'is sack till Christmas Eve!!"

Next morning Mrs Greasy was surprised to see Mick sitting in the cafe, much earlier than usual. Mick was only there because even sitting in Mrs Greasy's cafe dressed as himself seemed preferable to sitting in Santa's grotto dressed as an elf.

"You're early!!" said Mrs Greasy.

"Just in the vain hope that Des won't find me," said Mick. "I reckon I'm safe here, he wouldn't come in here of his own free will!"

"A-ha, I knew you'd be here!!" exclaimed Des, bursting in suddenly. Mick's heart sank.

"Morning Des, how do you fancy an early morning plate of bacon and eggs?" said Mrs Greasy.

"No time for that now, Mrs Greasy, me and Mick have important work to attend to!!" said Des.

"You?! Work?!?!" exclaimed Mrs Greasy, incredulously.

"Yes!" said Des. "And that means we won't be able to make your meeting today. Now Mick, I've got our costumes in these bags. We'd better get changed quick, we're due at the grotto in ten minutes!" He took the costumes out of the bags.

"I'm not wearing this," said Mick, looking at his elf costume.

"What's the problem?!" said Des. "All you have to do is put that on, and stand next to me looking helpful!"

"People will laugh at me!" moaned Mick.

"No they won't, trust me!" said Des.

Des put his Santa suit on, while Mick grudgingly put his elf costume on. As soon as Mrs Greasy saw him she burst out laughing.

"Right, that's it!" exclaimed Mick.

"There's no time for tantrums Mick, we're due at the grotto right now!!" said Des.

Because Des's car was in for a service, to Mick's horror they had to travel into town on the bus. When they arrived they hurried to the shopping centre, which was somewhat busier than the previous day, and took up residence in the grotto.

"Now if one person laughs at me in this costume I am going straight home!" said Mick.

Immediately a small child walked into the grotto, saw Mick and burst out laughing.

"That's done it!" exclaimed Mick. "I'm off!"

He walked out of the grotto. Des shrugged his shoulders.

"Ho ho ho!!" said Des to the child. "And what would you like for Christmas?!"

Des's custom that day was steady rather than busy. Towards the end of the day Mike the Manic Mechanic popped in.

"Hi there Des, I mean Santa!" said Mike. "Cor, I've had a busy day! I've bought myself a widescreen plasma television, a gold watch, a speedboat and a trip to the moon!!"

"Hang on, where have you suddenly got all this money from?!" exclaimed Des. "Normally you're skint!!"

"Tell you later," said Mike.

Just then the shopping centre manager popped in to see Des. He still didn't look very happy.

"What's the problem now?!" said Des. "The place has been buzzing with shoppers all day!"

"But we're still only managing half as many customers as this day last year!" said the manager. "I'm afraid internet shopping is still adversely affecting our business!"

"I reckon I can help you there!" said Mike. "I'll get your customers back, no problem!"

"Really?!" said the manager. "That would be fantastic!"

"In fact, I can guarantee that tomorrow morning your custom will be back up to exactly the same level as it was last year!"

"I don't like the sound of this," said Des. "Don't listen to him, it'll be something dodgy!"

But it was too late. Mike and the manager had struck a deal, and the manager walked off grinning.

"What are you up to?" said Des, suspiciously.

"Can't tell you at this stage," said Mike. "Anyway, it won't affect you. By the way, Des, you do realise that, as Father Christmas, you're supposed to buy all the kids all the presents they ask for?!"

"What?!?!" exclaimed Des.

"See ya!!" said Mike, leaving.

With a look of bewilderment on his face, Des took the next child onto his knee.

"Hi Santa, for Christmas I'd like some Harry Potter books, a Busted CD, a mobile phone, a DVD recorder, a new computer, a games console, a life-size model of the Eiffel Tower..."

"Oh gawd," groaned Des, hurriedly making notes. "Harry Porter books, a broken CD..."

The next morning at the cafe Mrs Greasy was trying to ring her sister Ms Greasy in order to invite her over for Christmas dinner. Mick was also there.

"I don't understand it!" said Mrs Greasy. "The line's dead!! If I can't get through to my sister she won't be able to come round!"

"Oh dear what a pity," said Mick sarcastically.

"Don't diss my family!!" exclaimed Mrs Greasy. "I tried sending her an e-mail but my internet connection's down as well!"

"Haven't you heard?" said Mick. "Everybody's phone line is down! The local telephone exchange was mysteriously demolished in the night!"

Just then Mike the Manic Mechanic walked in.

"Hi there Mrs G, just to let you know I won't be able to make the meeting this morning, I've just got to go and park this bulldozer, and then I'm off to do some more Christmas shopping! Bye!!"

"Good grief, that's horrendous!!" exclaimed Mick. "This time that Mike the Manic Mechanic has gone too far!!"

"I know!" said Mrs Greasy. "That's three days in the row he's missed our meeting!"

"I'm talking about his demolition of the telephone exchange!" said Mick, furious. "Why would he want to do that?! We should report him to PC Plod!"

"Circumstantial evidence," said Mrs Greasy. "We don't actually know that it was him, do we?! Anyway, there's no need to get worked up about it, why don't you have this nice plate of cod and chips to calm yourself down?"

Once Mike the Manic Mechanic had got rid of his bulldozer he popped along to the shopping centre in order to be congratulated by the manager. Mike was not surprised to see the place was now packed with shoppers, all of whom had lost their internet connection and now had to resort to shopping the old-fashioned way.

"Well done!!" said the manager, beaming. "I don't know how you did it, but this morning business is exceeding last year by far!!"

"It was nothing!" said Mike, modestly.

"I did try to ring head office, see if I could organise a cash reward for you, but strangely the line was dead," said the manager.

"Oh," said Mike.

Father Christmas Des was looking rather stressed when Mike went to see him. There was a massive queue of children and their parents leading into the grotto.

"Ho ho ho, what do you want for Christmas, small child?" said Des, unenthusiastically, to a small child sitting on his knee.

Des made hurried notes as the child reeled off another long list of expensive presents.

"I can't believe I've got to buy all this rubbish," grumbled Des.

"Hey Des!" called Mike. "How's it going?!"

"I'm Father Christmas, not Des, how many times do I have to tell you!" shouted Des.

"Isn't he the real Father Christmas?" said each of the children to their parents.

"No he isn't!" said Mike.

All of the children burst into tears and ran off out of the grotto to their parents.

"Mike, what on earth have you been up to?!" said Des. "I could cope with the number of children yesterday, but today this place is packed! I haven't had a spare second all morning!"

"Doesn't matter, I've got rid of them all now!" laughed Mike.

"Never mind that, I've already racked up a fortune in buying all their presents for them! I was up all night on the internet!"

"Internet?" said Mike. "You're not on the internet!"

"I am now!" said Des. "I bought a computer last night because I thought it'd be cheaper to shop online! And it was! There was a life-size model of the Eiffel Tower on E-Bay going for £10.50!!"

"Des you fool..." started Mike.

"And then guess what happened?!" said Des. "I lost my internet connection!! It just went, just like that!! Which meant I had to rush round all the shops this morning, before my grotto opened, to buy all their stuff!!! And I still haven't got all of it - do you know anywhere else where I can buy a life-size model of the Eiffel Tower, for goodness sake?!"

"Des you fool, can't you tell when I'm joking?!?!" exclaimed Mike. "You don't really have to buy their presents for them!"

"WHAT?!?!?" exclaimed Des. "I've just shelled out hundreds of pounds!! And you were joking?!?!?"

"Oh dear," said Mike, who was actually starting feeling a little guilty. "Tell you what, I'll do you a favour and I'll pay you back all the money you wasted. It's just a drop in the ocean for me now."

"Fair enough then," said Des. "But where have you got all this money from?!"

"Tell you later," said Mike. "Looks like you've got some more customers!"

Some more children were now queueing at the grotto.

"Oh no," groaned Des. "Not more pesky kids!"

Mike grinned and walked out of the grotto. But straight away he noticed some policemen milling about the shopping centre - so he did an about turn and walked right back in again.

"Des, I've got a great idea!" said Mike. "To further make up for winding you up yesterday, I'd like to volunteer to take over as Santa for the rest of the day!"

"Brilliant! Thanks Mike!" said Des who quite frankly had had more than enough playing Santa. He started to remove the costume. "Hold on a minute, my clothes are back home! I've got nothing to change into!"

"We'll swap clothes!" said Mike.

"Well...all right then," said Des, though the idea of changing into Mike's mucky overalls seemed less than appealing. They closed the door to the grotto and switched clothing. When the door was reopened, Mike was now Santa, and Des was now Mike.

"See ya Des!" said Mike. "Now come on kids, step this way!! Ho, ho, ho!!! Looking forward to crimbo?! Whaddya all want for Christmas then?!"

"He makes a much better Father Christmas than me anyway," muttered Des to himself as he walked through the shopping centre in Mike's overalls. "Let's be honest, that Mike, he's got a heart of gold, really."

"Got you!" exclaimed a policeman, grabbing him suddenly.

"What did I do?!?! What did I do?!?!" exclaimed a shocked Des.

"I think you know perfectly well what you did!" said the policeman.

"We've been following you all morning!" said another policeman. "And now we are placing you under arrest!"

"But I've done nothing!!" protested Des. "I'm innocent!!"

"Does demolishing the local telephone exchange count as 'nothing' to you?!" said the first policeman.

Des gasped. He was taken away to the police station for questioning.

Later that day Des turned up at the cafe. He had managed to get himself released from custody, after he had been able to use his computer to prove to the police that he had been surfing the internet at the time the telephone exchange was demolished.

"Des, why are you wearing Mike's overalls?" said Mrs Greasy.

"Don't ask," sighed Des. "But he's the new Father Christmas at the grotto."

Over the next few days Mike showed a certain reluctance to take back his overalls, and seemed perfectly content instead to carry on wearing his Santa suit and beard, even in his free time. He was still wearing them on Christmas Day, when all of the others received unusually expensive presents from him, including a widescreen television for Des, a microwave for Mick, a Mr Blobby CD box set for Wayne, an iPod for Dickie, a classy new suit for Clive and a diamond bracelet for Mrs Greasy.

"Mike, thank you for the present," said Mick, "it's certainly an improvement on the set of spark plugs you usually give me, but where have you got all this money from so suddenly?! You haven't won the lottery, have you?!"

"No, but I've been just as lucky!" said Mike. "You see, the other week I received a special e-mail from the wife of the recently assassinated President Kajagoogoo of Nigeria! Well anyway, to cut a long story short, she was asking me if I minded them transferring his fortune, which totals over $37,000,000, into my bank account! And for taking the trouble to do this, I'd receive ten per cent of the money all for myself!! Now how lucky is that?!"

"Well..." said Des.

"I've got to pop out there in the new year, thing is we haven't finalised it all yet because for some reason my e-mail's been down for the past few days," said Mike.

"So you haven't actually got this money yet?" said Mick.

"No, I've stuck it all on my credit card," said Mike.

"Oh dear..." said Des.

Needless to say, when Mike did go out to Nigeria to complete the deal, still dressed as Santa, he discovered the whole thing was a scam. This left him broke, with a massive credit card bill - meaning of course Des never got the money he was promised.

Copyright © Robert Williams

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