The Merry (Part 3): An Ordshaw Vignette

It is the most wonderful time of the year, because I have for you the final part in the Ordshaw Vignette saga that is The Merry. Those of you who’ve been with me for a while have no doubt been eagerly awaiting more (or occasionally looking at the ceiling and wondering whatever happened to those vignettes…).

For the newcomers: The Merry started as a vignette two years ago, which you can read here, with the sequel released a year later, here. We’ve now followed poor Claudia through two troublesome Christmases, and, no surprise, she’s back for a third!

In case you’re wondering, I always intended this to be a 3-part story that I would release in yearly intervals. Why? Because what’s more absurd than releasing a trivial short story with 12 month gaps. But that’s enough from me, buckle up your tinsel and behold the finale of The Merry!

The Merry (Part 3)

Twice, Claudia had seen them at Christmas, and never again. Yet they had ruined her life. When she was released from the psychiatric hospital, after outwardly confessing they didn’t exist, she lived in destitution for months before anyone was sympathetic (or reckless) enough to hire her. Impossibly, Ms Mary Julliard, the remarkable owner of a 24-hour industrial cleaning site, was willing to forgive Claudia’s past. There’d be little opportunity for theft or poisoning anyone while working night shifts loading soiled linen into washing machines, after all. But Claudia still lived in fear that she’d disappoint Julliard, especially with the holiday coming. Julliard was a pretty, smiling but seemingly lonely woman who didn’t deserve the same disasters that had befallen Claudia’s boorish past employers.

She prayed this Christmas would be different. A night dealing with last-minute care home demands, alone, then she’d have Christmas Day free, to hide away in her bedsit, with no opportunities to ruin anyone else’s day. There was even something comforting about sweaty labour in the chill dark of an empty industrial space, with only her heavy breathing and the rolling trundle of washing machine drums for company. No Christmas lights, no music, no alcohol. No –

Claudia stopped between the walls of two tall shelving units. A red box sat on the concrete floor, about two feet long and half as wide, with a green ribbon tied with a bow on top. Claudia swallowed, slowly placing her load of washing down. She scanned around. Nothing but shadows.

She squeezed her eyes closed and opened them again, willing the box to disappear.

It was still there.

“Please go away,” she whispered, addressing the box and whoever had left it there. The only answer was a clunking washing machine a few aisles back. Claudia took a deep breath. Well, she was going to have see what it was, wasn’t she? If they had left it (and of course they had, because it was time for them to ruin her life again), whatever it was, then she couldn’t possibly let Julliard or one of the others find it.

Claudia approached cautiously. Her neck tingled as though she were being watched. She hissed, “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

She steadied herself. They had insisted, in the hospital, that the fairies were all in her head. A deep psychosis, possibly due to leaving home when she was too young. Or something. She paid little attention to the reasoning, because she knew they were real.

Claudia crouched and gave the box a light poke with one finger. Solid and heavily loaded. She tentatively touched the ribbon. It would be best to toss it in the bin without so much as looking inside, but the little menaces would keep hounding her if she ignored them. Surely.

Claudia pulled the bow and the ribbon came free. Swallowing concern, she leant as far back as she could and flicked the lid off. She cringed, expecting something terrible to jump out – but nothing happened. Slowly, she opened her eyes again. Her eyes widened. And kept widening. She was drawn towards the box with wonder, but muttering, “Oh no. Oh no, no no.” She sat back on her haunches. “Why do you keep doing this to me!”

Her voice bounced back from the high ceiling, and she thought she heard something underneath it – the lightest snicker of laughter. Claudia gritted her teeth and looked back down at the box. In her many rabid recollections of her two encounters with the fairies, she’d decided they must be wicked Christmas sprites, emerging to cause holiday trouble. The first time she had found them by coincidence, the second they had targeted the Marchands because they recognised her working there, but now – now they were stalking her, alone. Framing her again.

Were they not satisfied that she had spent months locked away? Had she not fallen far enough? She stared desperately into the box. It was packed with stacks of paper cash. £50 notes tied in bundles. She quickly tried to calculate it – maybe 20 stacks in a layer, stuffed all the way to the bottom of the box. Tens of thousands of pounds. At least.

There was a tinkle of mischievous laughter from near the ceiling, unmistakable this time.

Claudia was overtaken by a great shudder of despair and slumped over the box. She struggled to keep upright, rather than collapse in a gibbering wreck, and it was all she do to whimper, “Why? Why?” She looked up and shouted, fighting back tears, “Why!”

There was only the trundle of the washing machine for a moment, then, as Claudia lowered her eyes, a familiar, abrasive little female voice piped up: “What the hell’s your problem?”

Claudia darted back and fell on her rear, looking up to the same little woman who had terrorised her two years running – hovering in the air a few feet above her, lacy wings flapping, wearing striped green and white tights, a fluffy snowman jumper, and a festive elf’s hat. She was only two inches tall, but folded her arms with weighty disappointment.

“Please,” Claudia said, “just leave me alone. Take this away – just –”

“We thought you’d be pleased!” a rough man’s voice said, the little bearded fairy in a red jumper, flying down beside the woman. “We’ve been planning this for months!”

Claudia stared at him incredulously.

“Granted, we left it a bit late, after last time and all,” the man continued. “But we started seeing decorations go up and that jogged the memory. Check up on that girl we kept getting –”

The woman tutted at him to keep quiet, as though he was sullying their grand scheme. She said, “It’s a gift, you big idiot.”

Claudia looked at the money again, then up at them. She shook her head.

“They can’t trace it, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s to make up for last time. A Christmas miracle!”

“Get you out of this dump, for starters,” the man put in.

No – Claudia pushed down her panic and confusion. She couldn’t let them do this again. She stood up, unsteadily, and glowered as they backed off with concerned expressions. “Listen to me. You ruined everything, twice. I got put in a hospital! I have a criminal record!”

“But you got out,” the woman protested. “And we would’ve got you out if you were still in, for sure.”

“Once we saw the decorations up,” the man volunteered. “We did check.”

“We’re not monsters.”

“Yes you are!” Claudia cried. “You’re wicked little sprites hell-bent on destroying my life –”

She was interrupted by their combined raucous laughter. The absurdity of being mocked by a pair of two-inch people left her speechless.

“Sorry, love,” the man said, “but you were hired help for a bunch of bloody nobs.”

“How dare –”

“You’ve got the exact opposite idea,” the woman said quickly, zipping through the air. “There’s enough in there to buy a house, probably. Do that, rent out a room or two, stop working, get yourself a real life. We’re saying sorry, woman, take it.”

Claudia’s mouth fell open, disbelieving. “You’re sorry?”

“Proper ruined our own Christmas too, you know,” the man said. “We were just having a laugh, made us feel down and rotten.”

“Oh, you felt rotten?”

“Don’t be so sensitive!” the woman said. “Take the cash, you’ll never see us again, that’s what you want.”

“Where did this money come from?” Claudia demanded. “It’s not –”

A door clanged open, far across the room, followed by loud, echoing footsteps. Julliard’s voice called out, “Claudia? I heard talking, are you here?”

Claudia locked frightened eyes with the female fairy, both of them frozen in a horrible moment of history repeating itself again.

“Enjoy your life!” the fairy woman whispered, and gave the tiniest wink before darting up into the air, followed by her grinning companion.

Claudia gawked after them, wanting explanations, instructions, anything – but Julliard was quickly approaching, saying, “I thought you must almost be done, and didn’t like the idea of you alone on Christmas Eve –”

She stopped abruptly at the end of the aisle and Claudia turned to her. Mary Julliard frowned from Claudia down to the washing on the floor and the gift box by her feet. Claudia bit her lip, gripped by the feeling that everything was about to fall apart for the third year running. Julliard approached curiously. She had on a Santa’s hat and a dinosaur Christmas jumper, and had a bottle of Champagne in one hand and two glasses in the other.

“I was alone, see,” she continued, “so actually you’d be doing me a favour if you joined me. What is that? Is that –” Julliard came close enough to see the money. “Claudia?”

“I’ve got a . . . secret admirer?” Claudia uttered, uselessly.

Julliard raised an eyebrow, because they both knew that was a terrible lie. There would be accusations. Shouting, suspicion, dismissals. But her eyes were dilated, already a little tipsy, and her lips stretched to a smile. She raised the bottle. “Then it seems we have more than just Christmas to celebrate.”

Claudia smiled weakly back as her boss worked at uncorking the bottle. Former boss, she internally corrected. Her eyes fell on the money again. One way or another, she wouldn’t be working here much longer.

And there we have it, a conclusion. A happy one, even, perhaps? After all her trials, Claudia surely deserves a proper piece of Christmas cheer…

Of course, one could go on, but I fear that’s where we leave her. If you enjoyed this short, though, the other Ordshaw Vignettes are available online or collected on Amazon. At some point I’ll put out Volume 2.

Happy reading, and seasons greetings one and all!