There are two life skills you need as a writer which nobody ever really tells you about. The first is an ability to either live off very little for several years, or to write and deliver new books extremely quickly. The second is a knack for summing yourself up in an interesting way in only a couple of snappy lines. It’s quite hard to do this latter if you’re a debut novelist, and haven’t got a list of previous publications to fill the space. Nicci Cloke was born in 1986 and has been to university like a lot of other people, and also worked in publishing like quite a few people. She once worked at Laser Quest too. This is her first novel and it took quite a while but probably not a noteworthy length of time to write. See? Not so snappy. Thankfully, though, my lack of prowess in the first skill has possibly this year gifted me with a new lease of life in the second.
Nicci Cloke was born in 1986. As well as being a writer, she has worked at Laser Quest, as a waitress, in publishing, and as an elf.
Yes, 2012 was the year which saw my dwindling finances and temporary relocation to rural Cambridgeshire open a window of festive opportunity. The local paper ran an advert from a Grotto which needed elves. They needed people who loved Christmas (me!) and who had experience in working with children (me, ex-Laser Quest employee!). It was a match made in heaven.
There were several days when I worried that I might not get the job and therefore be forced to reassess my right to life. They were highly-contested positions and nothing, not even a rock-solid Laser Quest career history and a love of Christmas jumpers, guaranteed me one of them. I prepared for defeat. But I was not defeated. I was an elf!
I spent a week or so telling everyone about my upcoming stint in a jolly and droll fashion. I imagined myself in stripy tights and jingling shoes, with rosy cheeks and children clinging happily to my legs. Then I was sent a picture of the uniform we’d be wearing, and I started feeling a bit less jolly and a lot less droll about the whole thing. By the time the first shift rolled around, I was starting to doubt that me and elfdom were a perfect match after all.
Six weeks later, on Christmas Eve, my days as an elf came to an end. They were a hectic, crazy, exhausting few weeks, and, let me tell you, there are plenty of cotton-headed ninnymugginses at large in the general public. But it was also REALLY FUN. And, should you ever decide to pursue your own career with Santa (and you should, he’s really nice), here are just a few of the things I learnt.
Children will believe any old shit
But only if they really want to. There’s a visible moment of doublethink at play when you tell a child something which is clearly ridiculous. ‘How old are you?’ they ask. ‘I’m 438,’ you say, and you see the logic centres of their little brains attempt to resist, before the process is successfully overridden by the fun centre: ‘WOW!’
It’s important to remember this, and to prepare, because:
Children like details
As an elf, you can be asked many questions. ‘What kind of toys do you make?’ is a common one. I recommend opting for something classic and quaint: dolls, puzzles, Lego, that kind of thing. I tended to be the Art Supplies Elf. There is something far nicer and more peaceful about such an imaginary career than one in a more modern department of Santa’s sweatshop. Having sat in on many children’s tête-a-têtes with the big man this year, I feel sorry for the Nintendo DS Elf. That poor guy is headed for a breakdown for sure.
Less easy questions, however, can be about logistics. Some children, for instance, will be interested in why you are quite tall – by elf standards at least. You can opt for two answers here – one is that, by the same magic he gets into houses without chimneys, Santa has made you taller, so you can reach the higher shelves and doors here in human territory. The other is that there are actually many types of elves, of all different sizes, who all do different jobs at Santa’s workshops. If you ask a child how one of the classic, elf-sized elves – the public face of the Grotto, if you will – would make and carry big toys like trampolines in a time-efficient manner, they will be hard-pushed to answer you. Team this with an undertone of age-old resentment for the cute, small elves who get all the publicity, and you are on to a winner.
You’ll get quite bored with these questions early on, but fear not – children are an imaginative bunch and can think up all kinds of things to be nosy about. They will ask you what you eat, or where you sleep, and all of these mundane details can spawn a quite unexpected conversation of its own. Tell a child that elves only eat cake, for instance, and that child will want to know what, in that case, elves eat to celebrate their birthdays. Producing these details satisfactorily is what makes the difference between a fun shift and a rubbish one, but don’t forget the most important part –
Get your story straight
It’s not just the kitchen sink details of an elf’s life that the children are going to be interested in. The oldies are still goodies. They want to know what Santa likes them to leave out for him on Christmas Eve, and they want to know where the reindeer are (probably the most frequently asked question – they can’t get enough of Rudolph). They will also want to know what the reindeers’ names are, so learn them! It is not acceptable to answer this question with ‘There’s Rudolph… And Dancer and Prancer, and, umm… Donner and Blitzen… And… Dave, Dave’s new. Dave’s actually my favourite.’ As much as you may argue that Santa would need a couple of newbies after all these years, there is no excuse for not doing your homework.
Even if you’re fully booked and you’ve overrun into Santa’s lunchbreak. Even if every time you venture outside your toyshop, two girls of about ten won’t stop tickling you in a way which is definitely bordering on inappropriate and they are probably a little too old to get away with. Even when the cotton-headed ninnymugginses keep shouting at you because their child can’t see Santa today, or because you are contractually obliged to charge them for their photograph. Keep smiling! It’s Christmas! And you are a temp! Give them that photo for free! Tell the tickling girls in a very stern and scary voice that Santa won’t be bringing them any presents this year! It’s all okay! Soon there will be a customer with tiny twin babies and she will let you hold one for a while and it will all be alright. Soon there will be a child who, when Santa asks her what she’d like this year, will say ‘A present, please,’ and you and all the parents will get teary-eyed and smile at each other and you will leave the Grotto feeling alive with the miracle of Christmas.
If in doubt, though, don’t bend down. Vomit is easier to get off your trousers than it is to wash out of your hair. I know an elf who can tell you that for a fact.
Whatever you do, unfortunately:
There will always be unhappy customers
No matter how much you smile, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Some people won’t like your Grotto, or Santa, or the fact that the café’s music is too loud. There will always be a child who, when you ask him if he’s thought of what he’d like to ask Santa for, will say ‘I’ve asked him for the same thing for three years and he still hasn’t brought it for me!’
Don’t let it get you down. You are just an elf, and you are doing the best that you can do.
Don’t get too carried away
Watch Elf enough times, and construct enough of a backstory, and that hyperactive, happy elf persona becomes quite hard to step out of at the end of a shift. If a child – who is perhaps just on the cusp of being a little too old for the Grotto experience – sidles up to you and says, ‘I know a secret. That’s not the real Santa – it’s just a man who works for him’, and you reply, quite shrilly, ‘Are you sure?! But I’m a real elf!’, you should be prepared for that child to go hurtling to his parents, in the middle of the busy café, and yell ‘Dad – that girl thinks she’s a real elf!’
But that’s okay. Because you are a real elf. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.