A Christmas Tale

The children chattered and fidgeted as they queued, dragging their faltering parents through the painted cardboard kingdom of reindeer, elves and animated creatures, entering the magic castle to meet the great man in his red suit. The smaller ones clung tightly  to their mothers’ skirts with frightened frowns, waiting to meet this mysterious stranger called Santa. The older ones chattered and marvelled at the lights and the tinsel as they anticipated Christmas goodies.

Santa was thinner than most would expect, but it didn’t matter, his beard was bushy and snowy white and not made of cotton wool, and he laughed for every child as he set them on his knee and put his arms around them and asked them what they wanted for Christmas, promising nothing but his arrival on the important night. The children hung open-mouthed and wide-eyed on his every word.

Each child was given a souvenir badge and a fancy printed certificate to testify to their visit. No presents were given in the shop, Santa would bring all the presents at Christmas.

Santa sat in his big chair for ten hours every day, two hours at a time with short breaks. He laughed and talked and there was a genuine glint for every child in his old eyes. Everyone agreed he was the best ever Santa, his love for the children shining through and the children responding with laughter and sparkling eyes.
On Christmas Eve Santa left the store with great ceremony for his long journey to the North Pole. His mission tonight was too important to wait until the store closed. He disappeared through huge doors with a large forbidding sign: STAFF ONLY. As he left, he turned and waved to the children who were still exploding with excitement.

It was quiet inside the doors, there was none of the lavish adornment that gave the store its famous status of quality. Slowly, Santa pulled back his hood and sat himself down on an old stool. He lit a cigarette, drawing deeply on the much needed drug as he sipped from a small hipflask he slipped from his pocket. He took off the jacket and pants and reached for the old worn trousers that hung on a coat hook in the closet that served as his dressing room. Under the red and white hood was a lined and wrinkled old face, a lifetime’s tiredness in the eyes.

No one said goodbye when he left by the back door to walk home. Snow was falling and turning to slush on the pavement as he shuffled towards his one-roomed bedsitter. The room was cold, the fire was out and there was an air of stale dampness. He gulped from the half bottle of whiskey  bought in an off-license on the way home and contemplated his Christmas, alone, as it had been these many years. He had no plans for tomorrow. Slowly the alcohol made the thought less painful and he drifted into the dark welcome refuge of sleep.

Christmas dawned with excited children frantically ripping wrapping from their presents. Everyone was busy being at home beside cheerful fires, being with family, eating and drinking and enjoying their newly acquired riches from the man whose sleigh sped across the bright starlit skies of their dreams.

He wasn’t found for several days, no one had missed him. The death certificate stated that he died of hypothermia. The newspapers printed a small paragraph telling of an old man found dead in a shabby flat,  recording another winter statistic. There were few details.

The readers didn’t know that he was old before his time, or that he lived in a desperate isolation, or that he spent his last few weeks making so many children happy. The story didn’t name him.

There was no mention of Santa.