Cyril Beck was not familiar with Elves. He knew of them, of course; everyone who’d ever been to a music hall or to the pictures, or who’d read a novel, knew of Elves. They were either flippant and vain or tired and dull, steeped in meaningless tradition and singers of endless ballads. As the catchphrase from the wireless went: “Does this remind you of yet another song, Tafty?”

When it came to real Elves, however, Cyril had only met two. The first, he was assured by his mother, had been called Mr Brin, and had lived in the village Cyril had grown up in for as long as his mother could remember. “Oh,” she would say, “he was so good to everyone. And to see the way he used to bounce you on his knee!” Cyril had been too young to remember him, and all he had left were vague memories of golden hair, the smell of tobacco, and the feel of tuppence in his hand to go buy sweets from the local shop. That had been long ago. Mr Brin had enlisted in the army in 1916 when Cyril was only four years old; he had been killed in France a few months later and only a few weeks before Cyril’s father had gone the same way.