Three people hospitalized, one of them a little girl in a coma, children traumatised, parents throwing Xmas mugs at his head – it hadn’t been a good first day at work for Joe Mackland.
Both his arms gripped by security gorillas, he limped to the manager’s office and was forcibly sat down, with his erstwhile employer glowering at him from the corner, and two detectives sitting across the desk trying to get his side of the story. Like asking a turkey for its favourite stuffing.
‘Do you hate children?’ asked the tall sweaty one, his little eyes looking tired and sort of pleading, ‘do you actually hate them?’ The lady cop next to him looked from one to the other, pouting and blinking her big brown eyes, while Joe stayed silent.
Big-eyes asked ‘Were you treated like this when you were a little boy?’
‘Hey I’ve abused no-one!’
‘There’s a lot of kids crying out there’ said Little-eyes.
This was Joe’s first real job for five years or so, and then on the first day he’s gone and done this. What a loser – How can he explain it? He hopes all the injured recover OK.
In hindsight, taking a job as a Store Santa was probably the worst idea for him, considering, but he was desperate, fat enough, and willing to look stupid. He had a First Class Honours degree from Cambridge and three years experience in an engineers practice, but he also had manic depression, and that tends to put employers off. Calling it bi-polar doesn’t help, when one pole is mania and the other depression.
It was the third kid that did it. He stood in front of Joe with eyes like a rabbit’s in headlights, and an open-mouthed smile, and asked for lego. And he whispered it, as if he was praying to God. To him Joe was as good as God, and it looked like the kid was worshiping him, his ignorant face full of love and awe. Just outside the grotto, barely ten feet away, was a seething fidgeting queue of a hundred more of them, their parents and minders stressed to breaking point by the desperate mission to buy more stuff, more gifts within their budget, more tat for the table, more miraculous i-crap, all of them bewildered and buffeted, but determined that their children get to see the whole point of it all – Joe Mackland, Santa.
Joe could hear them all from where he sat, facing this tender, wide-eyed victim. All day they would keep coming, and he was not there to give them anything much but himself. Not a fantasy, but the truth – the truth that Santa loves them.
Recalling his first really great Christmas present, when he must have been about this kid’s age, about four, what comes to Joe’s mind is a stupidly huge box of lego, with what was to him as good as an infinite amount and infinite variety of bricks and shapes, all the colours, even blue, and glass, wheels, an electric motor and batteries. It became his universe, and Joe was its creator. Formless and void as it was then, under his will it took form, and he populated it with living plastic figures – living in his imagination.
Santa gave it to him. His parents didn’t – they said they gave him the sweets but Santa gave him the lego because for most of the year he’d been a really good little boy. He didn’t ask how Santa could have known. He did wonder, but it was wonder rather than wondering. Like most kids he asked questions about all kinds of things, but whatever fiction they told him, he took it as true. It didn’t enter his little head that they would lie to him. Whatever the answer was, that was good enough for Joe.
‘How does he know?’
‘Ah I see, that explains it.’
‘How does he fly across the sky?’
‘Six reindeer pulling a sledge.’
‘But Daddy reindeer are not known for their flying ability and a sledge has no wings, and could not be big enough for all the presents for the whole population of the world, even excluding the children who have not been as good as me.’
‘You’re forgetting magic,’
‘Oh yeah, duh.’
Little-eyes leaned closer to Joe in a slightly intimidating way, and Joe leaned back in his chair, duly intimidated.
‘Why did you throw reindeer droppings at a member of the public?’ he asked, acting disgusted with each syllable.
Didn’t you ever want to do that?
‘It’s not real droppings’ he explained.
‘They look real’ said Big-eyes, without blinking.
‘Try telling that to the lady they hit in the face.’
‘Women love chocolate.’ Joe said flatly.
‘Is that why you threw it in her face?’
Yeah sure why not? Are you really interested or do you just want a confession?
‘She was verbally abusing me’ he said.
She’d looked the kind of mother who was determined that her little boy be the very last kid at school to believe that the fat man in red who squeezed down their chimney in Xmas Eve was in fact as real as mince pies. Almost as if his getting into heaven depended on it. She had pushed the kid into Joe’s grotto with the words ‘remember Santa’s very very old, so don’t shout, or the elves will have to send you out!’
Joe own parents had also invented arbitrary characteristics for this unbelievable character, such as his penchant for scotch, and his ability to vanish if little Joe opened his eyes when the stocking stuffer was in his bedroom. This latter ability he failed to use one year, when Joe was five, and was clocked standing at the foot of his bed, clothed in his customary red with white fur trimmings and with a thick white beard both confirming and hiding his identity. Joe was convinced. Thinner than expected but without doubt father Christmas in person, and Joe shut his eyes tight.
After the first three years of primary school he noticed that some of his friends must have fallen out of favour with the old man from Lapland, as they claimed that only their parents would be giving them presents. By the age of eight Joe felt that compared to most kids he must be really very good, as he was still visiting his house every December.
What was more, he felt that these kids were slightly stupid in that they did not realize the role of magic in it. Obviously your average old codger can’t fly around the globe in one night but didn’t they understand about magic? Were their parents so ignorant they didn’t know, or couldn’t explain it to them?
Joe was privileged! A little boy with occult secrets, and virtuous enough to stay on good terms with the bearded man in the sky who rewards good behaviour and knows all things. He interpreted his school-friends’ tittering and mocking as merely their way of covering up their own shame. He was eight. There were kids in Brazil that age patrolling their neighbourhood with loaded guns, and probably some of them also believe.
He was ten when his Dad let me in on the secret.
‘Don’t tell your little sister’ he said, ‘don’t tell anyone.’
‘Can I tell Mum?’ Joe asked, earnestly. She was still keeping up the act.
Multiple layers of irony played across his Dad’s features, before he said she already knew Dad was Santa.
Yeah Mum knew a lot of things about Dad she kept to herself. You must have had a very similar conversation with my younger sister, but not about Santa.
So now Joe was ready for secondary school, armed with adult knowledge, a weapon of information that had the power to tear apart a young child’s world. He was trusted with this, trusted to adopt a caring, patronizing attitude to weaker children, to protect their innocence from the devastating truth. Strangely, it came as no surprise – and Joe told his parents he already thought as much. I mean, honestly – magic?
‘Does that mean I get less presents?’ he asked.
‘Fewer’ answered his Dad, pedantic grammar about his only virtue. ‘Fewer presents and less expensive, because you’re growing up, and we’re not rich.’
Joe’s disappointment was softened by pride.
Looking back, he could put his English O-level grade down partly to his Dad’s influence. But God knows what else has rubbed off on him. By his third year in big school Dad had vanished – much like Santa – and his eleven year old sister was starting to swear at Mum.
Year on year, an exquisite longing for the favours of this magical, sacred father-figure from the snowy other-world had been built up and now suddenly all prospect of the longing being fulfilled had been blown away. Not by his parents, of course, but by common sense. Logic and science. But they couldn’t take away the longing itself, the addiction, the wishing for magic. That was part of him, programmed in over the years of deception, a process designed to please his parents and vicariously sate their thirst for magic. The longing scurried away into his subconscious, sulking and frustrated.
‘You have a lot of pent up aggression Mr Jones’ said Big eyes, ‘but that’s no excuse for violence.’
‘I’m not violent.’
‘You broke a customer’s jaw.’
‘He was trying to break my arm.’
‘He was trying to restrain you Mr Mackland. We have witnesses saying you had’ – looking at his notebook – ‘gone fucking bonkers’.
‘It was self defence.’
‘So you admit you hit him.’
‘I didn’t mean to injure him.’
‘You just wanted to hurt his feelings?’ sneered Big eyes.
Why was she mocking me? Tightly trussed up like a plump turkey wrapped in a uniform instead of bacon. Stuff you.
‘I hope the kid who hurt her head is OK.’ I said, out loud.
See – I do care.
Joe really did care. He even prayed, silently, sitting there in the manager’s office, that the girl in the coma would come around. That the only consequence might be that the screen falling on her head would have knocked some sense into her. He’s generally reluctant to pray, much as he’s reluctant to post wish-lists to Father Christmas, anxious to protect himself from disappointment. Certainly he don’t pray for himself. Although perhaps, when praying for the girl in a coma it wasn’t purely for her sake, but for his own too. One thing he couldn’t handle would be for a pile of guilt to be dumped on him now, like some avalanche of shame. Please heal the girl, he prayed, as if ordering something from Miracles R Us.
Joe had joined a church when he left home for University. Invited by two very friendly girls he met at Freshers Day, as he trawled the stands waiting to come across something that interested him. There was the fencing club, the film club and something to do with smashing the capitalist system, all of which he signed up to. The two girls didn’t ask him to sign anything, just go to church with them, so he did.
Not his thing, he realised after a couple of months. He got the distinct impression that if he carried on going all he’d be doing was trying to fill that void left when Dad finally disillusioned him. The parallels were striking, it was easy to see why it would attract people, especially people like Joe. Here was an extended family, with a father figure who rewards the good, can be everywhere at once, is very, very old (not clear if he has a beard, probably not, but Jesus definitely had) and wants to get inside you in some way. Joe was distinctly uncomfortable with that bit. But believing in this powerful person can inject some magic into your life, and there’s a whole lot about gifts. It’s clearly a fake Santa syndrome.
Needless to say his new church friends had a different perspective. Their point was that the Santa charade was just a story, symbolic of love and giving to the poor and so on, but in contrast God is the real deal, the real magic.
Sorry guys, thought Joe, once bitten and all that. You say you’re worshipping God, but most of the time you’re just trying to butter him up so he’ll give you unfair advantages passing exams, recovering from illness, getting boyfriends and finding parking spaces. Some even get quite worked up about trying to persuade God to make other people believe that Jesus is God, so that God won’t send them to a never-ending torture after they die. That’s a brief paraphrase obviously, but the point is why would God need to be persuaded? Joe felt that the religion, like the Santa religion, seemed overly concerned with using a form of magic carrot and stick approach to get people to behave themselves. Whatever Jesus original message had been, it’s been sort of moulded to fit the Santa-shaped hole we all have.
From then till now, there was only one thing he prayed for. To see his sister again, or for her to even reply to one letter, one email, one ad.
‘The poor little girl is in a serious condition,’ said Big-eyes, ‘perhaps, if you’d cared before, she wouldn’t be.’
‘That was nothing to do with me’ Joe protested, ‘the security guard knocked the side screen over.’
‘But you started it.’
‘There was a scuffle, but all I did was tell everyone the truth.’
‘They already know the truth Mr Mackland’ sneered Little-eyes.
‘No they don’t, they don’t know it!’
‘It’s meant to be a magical fantasy for the children, and you destroyed it.’
‘No, it’s meant to be a magical fantasy for the parents’ Joe protested, in a higher tone than he’d intended, ‘ and they use the kids to keep it going!’
But there he’d been, Store Santa actively assisting in this systematic emotional abuse of children, for money. Well, for peanuts. And when the kid asked him, Santa, his personal God, for lego, he lost it. He ripped off his beard and told the alarmed child to ask his Mummy and Daddy for lego, because there’s no Santa. Then he lurched to the doorway and yelled out ‘Hey kiddies! There’s no Santa! There’s no Father frackin Christmas! It’s your parents, they’re tricking you! Look!’ and he ripped off his Santa costume, under which, as it was very hot inside it, he wore nothing but y-fronts and a beer-belly.
That was all he did. Didn’t hit anyone or throw anything. Not then anyway. What happened next was that all the parents flipped, with an absurd level of outrage. Relatives of murder victims throwing bricks at police vans as they transport child murderers away, protestors shrieking at politicians about their policies destroying planet earth – none of them come close to this. Joe reeled under an assault of rage and hate that would have been fitting if instead of pulling his fake beard off and denouncing Santa, he’d pulled his pants down and waved his dick in their childrens’ faces.
Some offspring were scooped up and whisked away before the Bad Man could do anything worse, while some parents advanced on him with jabbing fingers, their eyes vicious slits under creased brows, and their lips drawn back in primate snarls. And the men were even worse, throwing their shoulders back and flexing their muscles, threatening life-changing injury on the ex-santa.
If, in the inner sanctum of the Vatican in the days of the Inquisition, he had yelled to all and sundry that the Pope was a hobgoblin and gay polygamy was a teaching of Christ, he might have stirred up this kind of ire. But he hadn’t. All he’d done was tell the truth.
‘You have stolen their innocence!’ roared one man’s ruddy face, half an inch away from Joe’s, as if ex-santa had de-flowered his kids instead of just enlightening them.
‘No I haven’t!’ he yelled back, pushing him away, ‘you have!’ He might have gone on to argue that what these selfish parents were doing was lying to their own children in a futile attempt to revisit their childhood delusions. He would have, if the red-faced man hadn’t pushed him back, much harder, so he fell into the lovingly crafted display of polystyrene elves and reindeer still jerkily swaying and singing along to jingle bells. The back of the sleigh fell from its perch and cracked his knee. Despite the pain, he got up and launched himself into the clamour of indignant customers, both arms swinging, fists randomly connecting with unidentified faces. While security guards tried to break them up, they only managed to inflame everyone, and there was a riot that would have made any football ground proud. The scenery didn’t stand a chance.
Before long they were all fighting each other, shouting without any chance of being heard, defending their partners and friends, an explosive cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone and stupidity coursing through their veins.
Joe watched the side screen – a painted slab of mdf dressed in fake snow and tinsel and with giant gold lettering telling the faithful that Father Christmas was in residence and for some reason needed cash for each visit – topple over, slowly at fist, then suddenly, and almost inevitably, onto a tiny girl who was trying to keep out of the way while her Dad proved he was not the sort of Dad who would be pushed around, oh no.
He thought her whole head was going to come off, but it was just some hair, and some skin, and so some Christmassy red was added to the screen.
Joe pleaded with his interrogators that this was all down to him. After giving the officers his account they went away to discuss matters with the manager while he sat by himself with only a tank of goldfishes for company. In all honesty, he did think it was all down to him. Not so much the injury and destruction, because clearly others were involved with that. But the hate. Joe drew that out from them.
A vast cool blanket of depression fell down on him with icy flakes, obliterating the landscape of his mind. He could see nothing, discern nothing, except this pure, freezing whiteout. It fell silently and irresistibly, and it covered him up.
I am bad.
By the time they returned, all that was left of Joe was a kind of autopilot. A quasi-human machine with basic motor functions and some stock conversation sufficient to keep him from immediate harm.
‘How is the little girl?’ Joe asked.
‘She’s still in a critical condition” said Little-eyes. Autopilot considered whether a follow up was required, and came up with something typically beside the point.
‘I thought she was in a serious condition, not critical. Is critical worse than serious, or better?’
Big-eyes frowned. Little-eyes sneered ‘she’s in a coma. You better pray she comes out of it.’
Autopilot considered saying ‘it wasn’t my fault’ and correctly rejected the idea.
‘You have a visitor’ said Big eyes.
A crumple-faced man in jeans and tee-shirt edged in past them and smiled at Joe. It was Gordon, a man who had sent him a Christmas card every year for a decade despite Joe never ever reciprocating. Joe had only seen him once, when he was leaving his church after he’d preached. During the service an attractive woman on the stage asked anyone new to put their name and contact details on a Visitors card if they wanted to, so they could keep in touch, and he saw no reason not to. The next day he repented and decided again that Santa For Grownups was not for him, but once you’re on a list at these places, it seems, you stay on it.
Gordon looked older now, hair longer and greyer, his smile grimmer. The officers left again and he grabbed a plastic chair and sat near Joe at an angle, which was good as he wouldn’t need to look the preacher in the eye.
‘Joe’ he said gently. Joe said hi. ‘Joe, I’ve just come from the hospital – I was called there ‘cos the Deans are members of my congregation.’
‘It’s their daughter who’s…’
‘Oh I see. I hear she’s critical, or serious or something.’
‘Well’ said Gordon, blowing out his cheeks, ‘it’s fifty fifty. David and Jala are in a bit of a state, obviously, but they’re embarrassed too.’
Apparently the Deans were mortified at their uncivilized behaviour as well as at the injury to their daughter. Perhaps sitting by the bedside of their unconscious daughter for hours on end wondering if she’ll ever wake had sapped all the fight out of them and given them cause to reflect.
‘Why are you here?’ Joe asked.
‘They wanted me to see you’ Gordon replied, ‘and tell you they’re sorry.’
‘It wasn’t my fault’ said Joe.
‘That’s what they said. Relax Joe, everybody mucks up.’
‘Not as much as me though eh.’
Joe wasn’t after sympathy, just wanted someone to know, to know that he knew, that others weren’t as bad as him. The mental snowblanket was deep.
‘Yes Joe, more than you. You don’t see it, week in, week out, like I do. Everybody is screwing up, including me.’
‘Anyway, I prayed with them, for their girl, and they were very upset about what they’d done, their part in it. I told them what I told you – it’s not their fault.’
‘What do the doctors say – is she going to be OK?’ Joe was half thinking about the officer’s veiled threat, that he better pray she lives. Gordon shook his head this time, no brave face on it.
‘It’s worse than fifty fifty actually, they’re telling David and Jala to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.’
Joe suddenly felt like crying, but couldn’t, his guts frozen by this snow blanket. The Deans losing their daughter resonated with his sort-of losing his sister, never knowing if he would hear from her again. It was himself Joe was sorry for, and I knew it, and that made him feel even worse.
‘Joe, I know you haven’t been to church since way back, you might not believe in prayer, it doesn’t matter, I just wondered…’
‘I don’t want you to pray for me’ Joe snapped, not angrily but firmly. And he meant it, he most definitely did not want that, not with Gordon anyway.
‘No no’ Gordon said gently, ‘I meant do you perhaps want to pray for Safia.’
‘Their daughter Safia. Do you think you might like to pray?’
Autopliot whispered yes.
Why not, I’m not totally uncaring, I’m not just a self-pitying bitter man, why would I not try anything for these poor people – even if it was pointless at least they would think I did something. I do care. I really do, a bit.
Joe agreed to pray, though truthfully he had no idea what he was doing. Gordon closed his eyes and Joe wondered whether to kneel or what, maybe hold his hands up like Moses, would that work better? He muttered something like ‘Oh dear God, please make little Safia better, I pray she wakes up OK, and doesn’t have brain damage, or not too much brain damage anyway, if that’s possible, and help her parents too, help them look after her, in whatever way, just please I pray make it all better dear God..,’
‘Stop’ said Gordon, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Jesus, Gordon, I’m praying!’
Gordon smiled, as if Joe had just told some kind of really subtle joke and he got it, and he grabbed his arm. Joe looked him in the eye, this threadbare elderly chap in jeans and tee shirt, who remembered him every damn Christmas, and it seemed to Joe he understood him.
‘Stop trying to persuade God to do stuff. Joe, relax, just say what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling about it, what you’re needing.’
Joe looks away, to the plain cream coloured wall of the office. He hears himself talking to the blank wall, but the wall was God, and he was telling the wall how annoyed he got about having to act this lie, this damn lie about Father Christmas, and how he wasn’t keen on the lie about God either, but just in case, if he must know, he’s really most upset about Safia, really scared she’s going to die, and he wouldn’t wish that on any parents, even them – maybe Dad who deserves all he gets, but not them, and he really wishes his poor sister would call or just let him know how she’s doing, it’s screwing him up being on his own.
‘I wish…’ he continued, and then collapsed, like a whole winter’s dam of snow breaking and a glacier-full of water bursting through, and he cried – actual tears and moans. It was utterly embarrassing, but he truly didn’t mind about that. After several minutes, sobbing and shaking with his head in his hands, he straightened up and told Gordon to leave him to be on his own, if he could please leave now, maybe he’ll see him one Sunday. Probably not though.
‘If there’s anything I can do,’ Gordon said, patting Joe’s shoulder.
Without thinking, Joe answered ‘You could tell the truth.’
After Gordon left, the officers came back in and told Joe, in effect, not to leave town, and to keep away from the department store. The manager confirmed he was indeed sacked, and gave him a cheque for a day’s work ‘in good will’.
‘Good will at Christmas’ Joe said with a chuckle, ‘that’s cool.’
The reason he did go to the church the following Sunday was not that he had changed his attitude to religion, or spirituality, or even magic. Nor was it because he particularly wanted to sing a load of sentimental carols, certainly not that. But primarily he felt that Gordon deserved some thanks. After that praying, if that’s really what it was, Joe had felt noticeably better, the blanket did actually lift, or more accurately, it melted, very quickly.
And secondly he wanted to see if he could find out what happened to Safia. Whilst not daring to ask anyone else, he wanted to face up to the Deans, David and Jala.
They weren’t there.
After the carols service it took him some time to work up the courage to corner Gordon and ask him. To his dismay Gordon’s expression turned serious, and he told Joe to wait while he talked to all the others as they milled about or filed out of the church. Joe waited patiently, by himself, in a corner, avoiding eye contact with everyone.
Eventually Gordon found him again, and his face was still grim. Joe tried to ready himself for the bad news.
‘She’s still in hospital’ Gordon said, ‘and they don’t know how long for.’
‘But, she will recover then?’ Joe asked with what he hoped came across as sincere hope rather than selfish terror. Gordon frowned, thoughtfully.
‘Yes, she will!’ he said, smiling suddenly, ‘didn’t you get my message?’
‘Message? No’ Joe muttered, shaking his head slowly, a little scared, ‘but obviously, I’m really pleased – I hope she’ll be, like, really OK.’
‘David and Jala wanted to see you, but they’re not here. They want to thank you, they said what you did made a big difference.’
Joe replied that to be frank he didn’t think praying really worked, that if she got better it was co-incidence – the doctors do the work, and, well, who doesn’t pray when you have loved ones in hospital? Some of them are bound to get better.
‘They don’t mean you praying’ he said, ‘no no, they’re talking about your dramatic performance at the store!’
He went on to explain the Deans were actually embarrassed, now, that they ever put so much effort into the whole Santa charade and the manic shopping, and, looking back, they wish they hadn’t.
‘Yes really, they want to thank you.’
Joe wondered if this was a bitter joke, but Gordon looked utterly sincere.
‘That’s nice.’ Joe said.
‘I told them not to worry, it’s all harmless fun, nobody’s ever really hurt by it, but they don’t agree. Each to their own I suppose.’
They made small talk after that, but as Joe was leaving Gordon told him he hoped he’d get back in touch with his sister soon.
‘Yes, yes I do.’
‘Well then’, Joe said, cheerfully, ‘in that case, tell God.’
And he made up his mind to buy Safia some lego. Not sure if girls go for that, but you never know. He would wrap it up and take it round to her house – secretly, he would leave it on the doorstep, but not dress up as goddam Santa.