Little People


By Tom Holt

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“I was eight years old when I saw my first elf.” And for unlikely hero Michael it was his last. Cruella, Michael’s unfortunately named girlfriend, doesn’t approve of his obsession with the little people. But the problem is that they won’t leave him alone. And who can blame them when it’s Michael’s own stepfather who’s responsible for causing them so much misery? Oh yes. Daddy George knows that elves can do so much more than gardening.



I was eight years old when I saw my first elf.

It was a Monday evening in July or August: school holidays, I’d just been watching Star Trek on the box, and Mummy let me out in the garden to play. I was being Captain Kirk in the secluded patch between the spuds and the compost heap, and I’d just phasered next door’s cat into oblivion through a gap in the fence when I looked round and there, quite suddenly, he was.

If I close my eyes, I can see him yet. He was at least a foot high, maybe thirteen or fourteen inches, with sharply upswept pointed ears, short black hair and a slight but noticeable greenish tinge to his skin. As I recall, he was leaning against a nascent iceberg lettuce (God only knows why my stepfather grew the loathsome things; none of us liked them, him included) and he was rolling a tiny cigarette in a wrapper of withered spinach leaf. Stuck into the dirt directly in front of him were a miniature pickaxe, crowbar and shovel, like something you might expect to find among the accoutrements of a pre-Glasnost Soviet doll’s house – Heroine of Agriculture Barbie, or My Little Comrade. He was wearing a cute little yellow top, black tights and big clumpy boots, and when he’d finished rolling his fag, he gave his nose a quick ream-through with a tiny black-edged fingernail before lighting up.

I crouched there, staring, for at least fifteen seconds, which is a very long time indeed to hold perfectly still, especially when you’re eight. Quite possibly I could’ve stuck it out even longer if a wasp hadn’t materialised out of thin air a few inches from my nose, triggering an instinctive flinch-hop-skip-swipe procedure. By the time I’d landed and looked round, the elf wasn’t there any more, understandably enough; but that was OK. I’d seen him, which was all that really mattered.

‘Mummy, Mummy,’ I yelled out as I ran back into the house. ‘Guess what! There are Vulcans at the bottom of our garden!’

Mummy and Daddy George (my stepfather) were sitting out on the patio, glugging some kind of amber booze from small glasses. It was what they usually did in the evenings.

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Mummy said.

‘Vulcans,’ I replied, too preoccupied to point out that she’d just used a Bad Word. ‘I just saw one, down by the compost heap. He was only little, about this big, so there must’ve been a transporter malfunction, probably a misaligned EM coupling in the plasma conduit, and he was wearing a yellow shirt, so he was probably bridge crew, though I didn’t see his rank insignia—’

‘Hang on,’ Daddy George interrupted. ‘Where did you say this was?’

‘Down the garden,’ I replied impatiently – I’d already covered that point in my initial report, why was it that grown-ups never listened? ‘He had pointy ears and everything, just like Mister Spock. But then a wasp came and when I looked round again he’d gone, so he must’ve beamed back to his ship . . .’

‘Michael,’ said Daddy George, in his extra-quiet-meaning-real-trouble voice, ‘go to your room.’

Well, you didn’t argue with him when he used that voice; not if you had even a faint residual trace of a survival instinct. So I did as I was told: no arguments, no protests, no it’s-not-fairs, just a slump of the shoulders and a slow trudge up the little wooden hill to HM Prison Bedfordshire.

(Show me an eight-year-old kid who wants to go to bed at seven o’clock on a summer evening, and I’ll show you a clear case of demonic possession, alien abduction or both.)

As I went, I could hear them talking; Daddy George was saying something like, I thought I told you never to let him something I didn’t catch; Mummy was coming back at him with the old don’t-you-talk-to-my-baby-like-that-you-pig line, but I could tell it was very much a rearguard action and her heart wasn’t in it. For my part, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about; but ten minutes or so later I got a Class One Official Warning from Daddy George, all flared nostrils and eyebrows meeting in the middle. A quarter of a century has slipped by since so I can’t give you the exact words, but the general idea was that smart cookies don’t go around seeing small green-faced people in gardens; and even if they do, they keep very quiet about it for fear of being classified as dangerous loons and taken away to places with high walls and handles on one side of the door only. He added a few choice remarks about wicked children who made up silly stories just to get attention, coupled with a reminder that that part of the garden was (a) out of bounds and (b) infested with poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions (and if that wasn’t making up silly stories, I remember thinking, I’d love to know what was) and left, slamming the door behind him. After he’d gone I climbed into bed and studied the ceiling thoughtfully for a while; there was a little wisp of cobweb in one corner that’d been there ever since I could remember, and focusing on it helped me drift into a state of deep and insightful meditation. Just before I fell asleep, I distinctly remember thinking about something he’d said: small green-faced people in gardens. Small, yes; I’d said small, also pointy-eared and yellow-shirt wearing. Not green-faced, though. I hadn’t mentioned that aspect at all.

About Daddy George, my stepfather. From the above you may have got the impression that he was a grumpy, miserable little man who shouted a lot and was no fun. This isn’t entirely accurate. He wasn’t little. Quite the opposite: at the time I formed the impression that he was at least twelve feet high and about the same across the shoulders, with a shout they could probably hear in New Mexico, wherever New Mexico was. In reality he was no more than six foot five, six six at the very most, and it wasn’t the shouting you needed to worry about; it was when he turned quiet and looked at you for two or three seconds without saying anything at all. That was definitely a cue to leave the area, change your name and if possible your species, because Daddy George had a temper you could use to generate electricity.

He’d come on the scene when I was about four, four-and-a-half. My other daddy had slung his hook for some unspecified reason and I wasn’t to talk about him any more. About the same time we moved house, from a town or city I can barely remember to a big, way-cool house in the pseudo-country, a few miles on the quieter side of the M25. That was extremely good; likewise the fact that Daddy George ran a big, successful shoe factory, which made lots and lots of money and (better still) occupied most of Daddy George’s time. As I got older, it became easier for me to be out of the house when he was in it, an arrangement that seemed to suit all of us pretty well; and just before my fourteenth birthday I was sent away to boarding school. This took a certain amount of arranging, since (as Daddy George made a point of informing me) I was far too thick to get into this school by the conventional route of passing the entrance exam, and Daddy George had to build them a new science block before they’d take me off his hands.

Boarding school wasn’t perfect, by any manner of means – looking back, I get the impression that the bunch of misfits who ran it had drawn on ancient Sparta, Rugby in the reign of Victoria and Wormwood Scrubs as their main sources of inspiration in figuring out their operating philosophy – but it did have the overwhelming advantage of not being Home. True, this was a quality it shared with a whole lot of other, warmer places, but nobody was going to let me go to any of them, so at a fairly early stage I resolved to keep my face shut, my head down and my nose clean, and make the best of it. And it wasn’t so bad, at that; it was far enough away that the risk of my parents dropping in while they were in the neighbourhood was reassuringly negligible, and I did manage to learn some useful stuff, most of which concerned keeping warm and staying hidden. One piece of advice I brought from home that did stand me in very good stead was Daddy George’s warning about the danger of having seen elves. I quickly realised that in the basically carnivorous culture of a boys’ school, any kind of aberration or difference from the norm quickly marks you out as being on the wrong side of the predator/prey divide. Admitting that you’d once seen an elf would’ve been blood in the water for sure, and in consequence I gave the topic of elves, fairies, brownies, pixies, goblins and little people in general a very wide berth whenever it came up in conversation. Nonetheless: the more I didn’t talk about what I’d seen that evening and tried to forget all about it, the more it became part of me, something unspoken and therefore fundamental, like the British constitution. So I’d seen an elf when I was a kid. So what? Big deal.

Thus my first elf encounter stayed dark and buried in my heart like a tiny plastic aeroplane at the bottom of a skyscraper-sized cereal packet until the day after my sixteenth birthday, when I happened to be doing something very unusual, very out of character and, as far as I was concerned, very scary indeed. I was talking to a Girl.

We had them at our school, in the sixth form; about two dozen of them, as against two hundred and fifty adolescent males. This was supposed to be a good thing; and all I can say is that whoever dreamed up that idea was either fundamentally misguided or else had originated on the planet of the Plant People, where sex is a typo for a number between five and seven. What it was like for the girls I can’t really begin to imagine, though I’ve always tended to assume it must’ve resembled those primitive cultures where the king is treated as a god for 364 days of the year and gets ritually eaten on the 365th. For the boys – Oh, go on. Guess.

Consequently, from the age when I first started to be uncomfortably aware of them, girls to me were exotic, almost mythical creatures; more outlandish than Klingons and Romulans, way more outlandish than elves. And yet; on 10 September (day after my birthday; first day of term), there was I, alone with and actually talking to one. Bizarre? Yes.

Her name – well, that was part of it, I guess. Many parents name their children after fictional heroes and heroines, and little tangible harm results. Some parents call their kids after their favourite Disney characters, and still get away with it. It’s amazing how resilient young people can be. Once in a while, however, you get a truly appalling act of nomenclature whose repercussions last a lifetime.

‘Sorry,’ I repeated. ‘Your name, I didn’t quite catch it.’

‘That’s because I didn’t tell you,’ she replied, scowling. She had a face that looked like it was built around a scowl, to the point where two hundred and forty-nine teenage boys had taken one look and headed in another direction. ‘Where’s the science block?’

‘This way,’ I replied. ‘I’ll take you there if you like.’

‘Don’t bother.’

‘It’s no bother,’ I replied, quick as lightning. ‘I was going that way anyhow.’

Which was, of course, as barefaced a lie as you’ll ever find in the wild outside the Houses of Parliament; and she knew it, and so did I. But, for some reason, she didn’t tell me to push off, with or without extreme prejudice.

Instead, she simply grunted, ‘Yeah, all right,’ like a shy, freckled warthog, and allowed me to lead the way.

‘I’m Mike, by the way,’ I said. ‘Mike Higgins. So, this is your first day, is it?’


‘It’s not so bad,’ I went on, ‘once you get used to it. Like Stilton cheese,’ I added.


‘Not so bad, once you get used to it.’

‘What’s cheese got to do with anything?’

‘Nearly there. Actually, my dad built it.’

‘Built what?’

I tried to sound nonchalant. ‘The science block. That’s why it’s called the Higgins Science Centre, actually.’


I never met a human being who could invest the word oh with such a wide range of eloquent meaning. On this occasion, oh clearly meant, ‘Even if I believed you, why the hell would I care?’, a definition that for some unaccountable reason is missing from most popular dictionaries. In short, I was striking out; and it says quite a lot about the aura of pure unsullied miserableness that she radiated that, at that precise moment, I didn’t really mind. If this was a Girl, I said to myself, you can have ’em. Give me plastic model aircraft every time.

‘Cru,’ she said suddenly.


‘Cru,’ she repeated. ‘My name.’


‘Aren’t you going to ask me what it’s short for?’ The way she said the words was equivalent to a slap round the face with a glove from a professional duellist; soon, it told me, we’re going to fight, and you’re going to die. ‘Well, aren’t you?’ she added.

‘It’s short for something, is it?’



Well, indeed. I may be stupid, but I’m not thick, and when someone says, ‘Come over here so I can bash you’, just occasionally I have the common sense to stay put. Besides, once in a while I like to do the unexpected.

‘Aren’t you going to ask, then?’ she said, a tad louder this time.

‘Let me guess,’ I replied. ‘Crudence?’



‘Cruella,’ she said, ‘after Cruella de Vil.’

I frowned. Genuine bafflement. ‘Who?’

‘Cruella de Vil. You know, in 101 Dalmatians.’

I shrugged. ‘Never seen it. Here we are, it’s the big grey building on the left, the one that looks like a giant shoebox standing on end. Probably deliberate,’ I added. ‘My dad’s in shoes, you see.’

‘I couldn’t care less if he was in black leather and frogmen’s flippers,’ she replied, but it was obvious she wasn’t putting her weight behind it; just a token left-arm prod, for appearance’s sake.

‘You’ve never seen 101 Dalmatians?’

I shook my head. ‘Or Bambi,’ I said, ‘or Jungle Book or any stuff like that. We didn’t go to the pictures when I was a kid.’

‘Right.’ She stopped, and I stopped too. We were outside the science block, and there was no call for me to go any further, or for her to stay. ‘Well,’ she went on, ‘here we are.’


‘You said you were on your way here.’

‘I lied. Have a nice day.’

She twitched her nose, like a rabbit. Not many people can do that. I can. ‘Be seeing you,’ she said.

Suddenly I grinned. ‘The Prisoner?’ I asked.

‘The what?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Didn’t, either. It was still love at third sight, even if she hadn’t been quoting from my favourite TV show. ‘Be seeing you,’ I repeated, and I did the little gesture, just in case. She didn’t remark on it, and I went back to the main building, where I was now seriously late for double history.

And what, you may very well be asking, the hell had that got to do with elves? Well, I guess it depends on how you like your relevance: immediate, tangential or with lemon. I’m taking the line that it’s because of that initial encounter that Cruella Watson and I gradually slid in love – a long-drawn-out process that started with a grudged and wary non-aggression pact and slithered sideways into an unspoken acknowledgement that, when the teams of Life were picked, we’d always be the ones left over at the end, and therefore some kind of alliance was grimly inevitable. She was sullen, razor-tongued and miserable as sin, having a father who lived behind a desk in a solicitors’ office and a mother who despised her because her hair didn’t go with the curtains. I saw elves. Who in God’s name else would want either one of us?

Ah, you’re saying, how sweet, and probably you’re right. Sweet, though, wasn’t a term you’d ever use to describe Cru, except together with the words she isn’t at all or not the slightest bit. She crunched a path through life like a small, steady ice-breaker. As regards the chicken/egg issue, opinions differ; I take the view that she’d have been pretty much the same if she’d been christened Jane or Fiona, while she maintained that her parents’ act of thoughtless whimsy had wrecked her entire life and therefore she wasn’t to blame and could do what she liked. It was, according to her hypothesis, the defining incident of her life, and there at least I could see where she was coming from. Her Cruella was my elf.

That being the case, it was only a matter of time; indeed, it was as if I was under some kind of obligation in that regard. She’d told me her name. Honour demanded that I tell her about my elf. So, one wet and wretched Friday afternoon between last lesson and compulsory optional swimming, I did.

‘You did what?’ she said.

‘I saw an elf,’ I repeated. ‘Years ago, when I was just a kid. It was leaning against a lettuce in our garden, smoking.’

She was silent for five, maybe six seconds. From my point of view, very long seconds indeed.

‘That’s bad,’ she said eventually.

Didn’t like the sound of that. ‘What’s bad?’ I said. ‘I really did see one, you know.’

‘I didn’t mean that,’ she said. ‘But I thought everybody knew: smoking can damage your elf.’

Completely deadpan, too, which made it worse. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have told you,’ I grumped. ‘It’s just—’

‘Oh, I believe you all right,’ she interrupted. ‘Let’s see: about so high, with pointed ears, sort of yellowygreeny skin, a bit knobbly round the knees and elbows.’

She was right. I’d forgotten the knobbliness, or rather it had always been there in my mind’s eye but I’d never noticed it. ‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘how did you—’

‘There was a picture of one,’ she said, ‘in my Little Blue Fairy Book; and even though I was only six, I remember thinking, God, what an ugly little runt, they must be real because nobody would make up something as ugly as that. Did yours have a pointy nose, like someone’d been at it with a pencil-sharpener?’

I nodded. ‘Come to think of it,’ I said, ‘it did. Are you really telling me you believe—?’

She shrugged. ‘Depends,’ she replied. ‘In the Peter Pan sense, probably not. In the sense of not actively not believing just because everybody’s always told me not to, quite possibly. Did I ever mention that my mum and dad had the fireplace bricked in when I was seven, just to prove conclusively there was no Father Christmas?’

I frowned. ‘Proving nothing,’ I replied. ‘He could just as easily get in through a window.’

‘Not in our house. Not unless he’s got an oxyacetylene torch and a jackhammer, not to mention Dobermann-proof trousers.’ She smiled bitterly. ‘But that’s why I never needed to believe or not believe, you see. If there really had been fairies at the bottom of our garden, Dad would just have got a court order and had them slung out.’

‘I see,’ I replied. ‘What you’re saying is, there may be elves and there may not, you just aren’t particularly interested either way.’

‘I suppose so. I mean, it’s no harder believing in little men with sharp ears than it is believing in God, or relativity, or film stars; they’re all weird, and nothing to do with me. If you feel you want to believe in them, go ahead. If they’re ever relevant to anything, be sure and let me know.’

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It had all gone rather better than I’d expected, and now it was out of the way and we’d never have to go there again. A great weight off my mind, let me tell you.

Hah. As if. But there, I’m getting ahead of myself, like a derailing train. At the moment I’m talking about, everything for once seemed to be working out. I’d told her about It, the great big enormous issue in my life that made me screwed-up and defective, and she didn’t seem to mind. I was sorely tempted to ask her to marry me, but fortunately I did no such thing; even someone with a name like Cruella can only stand so much weirdness in the course of one day.

After that momentous dialogue, however, things did seem to move a bit more easily, as the WD40 of openness and trust seeped its way into the rusted-up threads of insecurity and self-loathing. To put it another way: I stopped creeping round like I had some unspeakable secret disease, which probably made me slightly more fun to be with. Given that Cruella’s choice of people to hang out with was limited to those who were prepared to put up with her moods and snippy fits – all one of me – the burgeoning of our relationship was probably not nearly as remarkable as I thought it was at the time.

Excuse me if I’m getting philosophical; it’s a fault of mine, I know. Basically, I’ve always tended towards the view that life is just a bowl of cherries told by an idiot, as the sparks fly upwards; I accept the hand life has dealt me with passive, sullen resentment and get on with it. Back then, of course, it wasn’t all unalloyed hatefulness. People were mostly a pain, but things were pretty cool; whatever else Daddy George may have been, he wasn’t tight with his money, and when you’re a kid you tend to look no further than the next cool thing, whether it’s a skateboard or a Walkman or a better skateboard or a computer or an even better skateboard with carbon-fibre dampeners. As far as things were concerned, it was always pretty much a case of ask and ye shall receive the cash equivalent, plus the bus fare so ye can go and buy it yourself – Mummy and Daddy George believed very firmly in the time-is-money equation, and invariably opted to let me have the money and keep the time for themselves.

Wonderful, as far as your average kid is concerned; except that, when you’re that age, at least half the fun of having some really cool thing is being able to wave it under the noses of your friends and bask in their jealousy and resentment. In my case, nobody ever seemed to care. If I had the latest model BMX bike straight from the factory gate or a pair of trainers so overwhelming in their coolness that I lost at least one toe to frostbite every time I put them on, nobody ever seemed to give a damn; I could even leave them lying about and nobody would deign to steal them. Accordingly, round about the time I first cut myself shaving, I stopped caring terribly much about mere artefacts and the kind of stuff I could have if I wanted it. Unfortunately this left a hole in my life about the same height, width and depth as me, and I was pretty well at a loss to know what to plug it with. True, that was about the time Cru came along; but I didn’t make the mistake of turning her into my new hobby. Like I said, I may be stupid, but I’m not thick.

Even so . . . thanks largely to Cru and the opportunity she’d afforded me for the first full confession I’d ever made of my elf-seeing tendency, I was gradually working my way back out of the pit I’d managed to tumble into eight years previously. It was as though I’d finally found the courage to go and see a doctor and find out that the symptoms I’d been fretting about for so long were just a slight cold, and not terminal cancer after all. If it didn’t matter about elves, I could start again; and gradually, day by day, that inner elf of mine started to fade. He was still there, but I didn’t have to go there any more. Instead, I tried to find something to like; and since Cru had made up her mind, on evidence as slender as the finest surgical suture, that she was naturally artistic and destined to create wonderful things out of bits of old junk, I reckoned I might as well be artistic too. This was, of course, a load of what mushrooms grow in, but fairly harmless as misapprehensions go, and if I’d carried it through and made it my life’s calling, I’d probably have turned out no worse than the average screw-up. As it was, I never got the chance.

Enter the second elf.

That particular end of term was hard for me. As if going home wasn’t bad enough in itself, being parted from Cru for the whole of rotten Christmas and wretched New Year was going to be torture (and if it wasn’t, every agonising, angst-crammed second of it, I’d want to know the reason why).

Our parting was such sweet sorrow –

(‘Well,’ I said, as my train pulled in to the platform, ‘bye, then. See you next term.’

‘Yup,’ she replied.)

– but not so sweet or so ostentatiously sorrowful as all that. To look at us, you’d think our relationship was something quite other – pedestrian and lollipop lady, for example, or stockbroker and not particularly affluent client. Then, at the very last moment, for the very first time, she grabbed at where my hand would’ve been if I hadn’t moved it to scratch my nose. I reciprocated by putting my arms around her neck and carrying out a manoeuvre that would probably have ended with her head popping off her shoulders like a champagne cork if she hadn’t snapped, ‘Stop it, you’re pulling my hair,’ in a tone of voice you could’ve shaved with. Personally, even after all these years, I don’t think you could get more romantic than that without a general anaesthetic.

‘You’d better get on your train,’ she said. ‘You’ll look bloody silly if it goes without you.’

‘All right,’ I said. ‘Bye, then.’


The train pulled away. I leaned out of the window and waved for as long as I could. She didn’t exactly wave back, but she didn’t exactly not wave either. I guess you had to have been there.

By the time the train reached my home station it was as dark as a bag and just coming on to rain, which suited my mood so perfectly that I decided I’d walk the mile and a half back to our house rather than take a taxi. After all, I wanted to arrive feeling weary, footsore, bedraggled and desolate, as a way of striking a theme note for the coming holiday. I put down my case, which was suitably heavy and cumbersome, wrapped my handkerchief around the handle, and set off at a deliberate slow trudge.


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
384 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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