Terry's mother came into the kitchen and dumped three plastic carrier bags on the kitchen table. They thudded heavily and hollowly, as though there was something wooden in there. I was sat at the table, drinking microwaved Nescafe again, wishing I had the courage to tell Terry how revolting it was, while Terry was busy upstairs with a power drill. Every so often I'd hear the whine of the drill as he made holes in the bedroom wall.
"It's nice to see you again, dear," said his mother, opening the cupboard under the sink and pulling out what seemed to be a heavy bag, one of the 5kg bags of potting compost according to the bright green label on the front.
"And you too, Mrs. M," I said taking another sip of the coffee and wishing I hadn't. "Have you got plants in there then?" I tapped one of the carrier bags.
"Oh goodness, no!" she said, and laughed, a little redness coming into her cheeks almost as though she were embarrassed. This was the woman who'd effectively stolen relics from all the biggest churches in Italy, so I knew she didn't embarrass easily. "Those are elf-heads, I've just been down to Santa's Ghetto and beheaded all the elves I could find."
I had the sensation that the conversation was starting to slip away from me, which happens disturbingly often around Terry's mother. Occasionally I wonder if microwaving the Nescafe produces hallucinogenic compounds in it, which would explain a lot, but I've had a food-scientist friend check this out for me, and she swears it only produces carcinogenic compounds.
"Don't you mean Santa's Grotto?" I said hesitantly, still unsure if I shouldn't beat a hasty retreat and help Terry install the manacles.
"Those were the days," she said, sighing. "No, it's Santa's Ghetto now. He didn't pay the dealers in time, and they've moved in. Apparantly it's a bit nicer than your typical crack-house, and Santa's little helpers are now Santa's little whores."
"Dealers?" I said, mystified. "Why does Santa need dealers? Is this a distribution thing?"
"No!" said Terry's mother. "It was the reindeer. They couldn't keep up that kind of speed for his deliveries after he cut the rounds down to just one night a year, so he started buying in speed in bulk to keep them going. That was all fine until McDonald's started taking market share away from him with the free toys they gave out with their unHappy Meals; once they'd got a core base of kids who believed in Ronald McDonald but not Santa it all snowballed, and suddenly Santa's all short of hard currency, and his dealers want paying for the last 50kg of speed."
"...you're saying that McDonald's have disenfranchised Santa?" I was staring at her in shock; I hadn't blinked for the last thirty seconds and my eyes were starting to prickle, and my jaw had dropped open of its own volition.
"Not really, dear, that's a bit simplistic. Bad business decisions did for Santa in the end, but McDonald's did their bit too. You have to admire them really, they're selling meat that's come from animals forced to eat corn that they can't digest and don't want to eat to people who really don't want to eat what they've just bought. Somehow they're managing to make money from poisoning both sides of their food chain!"
I gulped my Nescafe, and the bitter taste helped restore me. I gagged a little, and peered into the nearest carrier bag, expecting to see a bleeding, severed head. Instead, I saw a hollow wooden painted head, and realised that these were from the wooden elves that lined the entrance to Santa's ghetto/grotto.
"What are you doing with these, Mrs. M? Are you going to turn them into plant-pots?"
"No dear, I'm filling them with gunpowder --" she tapped the bag of what I'd thought was potting compost -- "and shrapnel. I'll replace them later on this evening, after I've put the radio detonators in."
"The dealers are on my turf, dear. The ladies from the WI are getting nervous about them, and they've all started carrying."
"Carrying?" This conversation had definitely gotten away from me again.
"Knives mostly, but Gladys, who's 81 next month, has got nunchucks strapped to her zimmer frame, and a couple of rice flails in her handbag, and Doris, who does some very dubious things to her sponge cakes to get them to rise has been saying that her nephew can tool her up a treat. It can't go on like this, so I'm dealing with the dealers. So to speak." She chuckled quietly, in just the way that mad old ladies planning on bombing a crack-house don't in the movies.
"Where's Terry, dear?" she said, after taking the first elf-head out and starting to shovel gunpowder into it.
"Upstairs, in the bedroom I think," I said, as the power drill whined again. "Putting in manacles."
"Oh good," said Mrs. M. meaningfully. "I'm sure they'll come in very useful."