Santa (real name Andrew Smith, employee name Ian Goldsworthy) beamed joy to the puddle of mums and prams and toddlers in his gift wrapped department store grotto. Benevolence radiated from rough-hewn cheeks secreted behind the luxuriant white folds of hair and beard. The joy of giving joy to little children. His heart leapt.
“Who do we have next?” he said.
Santa’s Helper (real name unknown, employee badge name Cassie) in her green suit with red hat and bells wandered over to the green gold topped post with the sign “Wait here to see Santa”. He noticed a ladder in one of her green legs. She bent to greet a little girl behind whom stood a young woman, whether mother or nanny he couldn’t tell.
Santa’s Helper turned and said to Santa “This is Rosie.” A bundle of pink taffeta and sparkles danced toward him.
His heart plummeted.
No. Not Rosie. No. Not Rosie. Yes it was. That wry little smile like life was an ice cream to be gobbled up, the hand clapping. Undoubtedly Rosie.
In the blur his ex-wife weeping with the bruises and the baby girl sitting with her arms outstretched crying for her mother. When he went to pick her up she pushed him away.
In the fog the judge refusing custody and requiring rehab. Refusing contact. The crash of bottles, the spill of hot vomit, the faded simmering heart. The pallid walls of the rehab centre, the clean food and exercise, the endless sessions of self-analysis and the grinding of alcoholic need like a fiery sun unable to sink below the horizon.
He should not see her. He could lose his job. He could break her heart, and the hearts of all those in the room as she ran screaming. He could be imprisoned for breaking a court order. He could ruin his daughter’s life. He’d dragged himself through the dung heap. He’d bunked in grimy doss houses in dorms of men stinking of urine, or on park benches, or in abandoned cars, anywhere a loser like him could find shelter. He’d battled the demon drink in Court ordered rehab and after in the loneliness and filth of vagrancy. Finally in desperation he’d forged a new identity to make a new start. Andy Smith became Ian Goldsorthy, with a clean record and a new horizon. He’d got this job on the back of his new identity, he couldn’t stand to lose it now.
She’d be five and a half now. He had counted every day since Court. Even through the agony of rehab, the gut wrenching grit of abstaining, through the years of wretched loneliness he had dreamt of her, willed her to grow strong and happy, and prayed to every god he could name to protect her. He had lived in the hope that one day, when she was of legal age, he would get to meet her and make up for lost time. Become at last a father to his daughter.
And now, out of the blue, she was here. He had to hold her. He had to hold his daughter. Feel her tender weight, smell her innocence, rejoice in the cradle of her hair. He couldn’t refuse her. His heart wept.
He looked up at Cassie, longing for a miracle, longing for her to say “Oh, sorry, Santa, Rosie’s suddenly disappeared from right in front of us.” But Cassie just smiled back at him blandly. She had complained earlier that day that her shoes were killing her.
Suddenly the girl was upon him. She had clambered up on to his lap. While she had been bubbly on approach she was shy up close, and kept her face lowered as she fidgeted with a small doll she had brought with her.
Did she recognise him? Was she embarrassed, or frightened? A flame tore through him, and scoured his inner being from his gut to his outermost extremities, his toes in the big black boots and his fingers in the white cotton gloves. He leaned in close to her and his senses were overwhelmed by her perfume, a vacant mist of flowers and childish purity. He said, in as gentle a voice as he could muster,
He wanted to scream it out, to announce for all in the grotto that this little girl, this angel, was his daughter, but he could not.
“And who is this?” he said, pointing to the doll.
The girl kicked her legs on his shins. And the missed world of interaction slammed into his soul and shattered his heart.
“Petunia,” she said, and giggled.
“That’s a lovely name, just like Rosie,” he said. Could she feel his heart pounding in his chest? His mind rattling in its cage?
“She’s my friend,” said Rosie and looked straight into his eyes.
Inside he reeled, but outside kept his calm. Did she see him now? Did she see the man who had made her mother cry, who had ruined her life, who had disappeared in shame and guilt? Who had been barred from seeing her? Did she accuse him of neglect, of loss and emotional trauma?
Her gaze was trusting, wide eyed and wonderful, as if proud to introduce her friend to this old man from the North Pole.
“Well,” he said, “what would Petunia like for Christmas?”
The girl laughed and kicked his shins again.
“You’re funny, Santa,” she said. “Dolls don’t get presents!”
He rocked his head back and laughed with her. “Ho ho ho! I can see you’re a very clever girl.”
She held out the doll in front of her and then looked up at Santa expectantly.
“And how about you?” he said. “What would you like for Christmas?”
“A newken,” she said and continued her expectant gaze.
He thought hard for a moment. A newken. He had a good knowledge of the toys in the toy department; their pre-Christmas Santa training had covered the latest crazes and likely requests but this didn’t ring any bells. A nuken perhaps. No, that made even less sense.
He looked over to Cassie inquiringly, but she was leaning against the talking tree scrolling on her phone.
“A newken,” he said.
“Yes!” said Rosie. “Cos Barbie was with Ken and then left and Blaine was there but Ken’s come back in a fancy suit.”
“Oh, of course,” said Santa. “Who wouldn’t want the new Ken?”
And his heart swam in a swamp of pain, with the departed Ken replaced but still wanted. It was beyond his dreams. One day, one day…
“So, new Ken,” he said.
He wanted so desperately to buy it for her. He wanted to walk her to the shelves right there and then and pull out a New Ken and Barbie House and ball gown and scuba outfit and active girl and Barbie’s friends with the bald head and prosthetic leg and vitiligo and and…
But that would not work. Store Santas can’t give presents to any child, let alone his own. That would create an uproar for all those who missed out, not to mention cost him his job. And besides the aim was to sell toys, not give them away.
“Well, Rosie,” he said, “I will give the elves in my workshop a special directive to put you on the list for a New Ken. How’s that sound?”
The little girl said, “Thank you Santa, you’re the best,” and hopped off his lap to walk round to the exit poles and collect her store balloon.
I’m not the best, he thought. I’m the worst. Tears buffeted his eyes as his daughter prepared to walk away again, never perhaps to be seen again. He watched as she approached the woman who stretched out her arms to greet her. He’d never again get to do that. It was only this chance illicit encounter which had let him do it now.
And it whetted his appetite. The desire to hug her and kiss her again, like a real dad, nipped at his heart like the lust for grog on a reformed alcoholic’s will. He must resist it, like he had resisted any liquor for the five years since the Court case. He had willed himself to steel, and had kept dry, only to be undone by this one touch of her warmth and softness and the flooding crying memory of the past.
In the corner of his eye he saw Cassie with the next child, a small boy in shorts and brightly checked shirt.
He saw Rosie and the woman hand in hand start for the grotto door. She was jumping up and down and looking up at the nanny explaining something.
He rose quickly and said, “Rosie! Wait!”
His voice ripped through the group of parents and children. They jumped at its urgency and turned to see what the commotion was. A couple of mothers pulled their children in close. The woman and Rosie turned and stood in the grotto door framed by the neon luminance behind them.
“If it’s a New Ken you want, then it’s a New Ken you shall have,” he said.
Cassie looked at him stunned. “What are you doing?” she whispered through tight lips. He knew he was in the wrong, that he was risking his job, his life even, but he was undeterred. He said loudly,
“Cassie, can you please go to the Barbie shelves and pull out a New Ken for lovely Rosie here.’
Cassie stood there. “You can’t do that!” she said.
“Watch me,” he whispered and then said “if Rosie wants a New Ken then she needs to have him. We can’t let Barbie live in an incomplete family.”
Cassie glared, aghast.
“Please,” he said softly. “Here, take my wallet and put it on my account. Go. I’ll take care of the queue.”
He watched as Cassie tripped out towards the door and spoke with the woman and Rosie who jumped and clapped. He wondered what they were saying as they disappeared into the store lights.
His heart slumped at what he’d just done. There was no way Santas had permission to give away product, even if they did pay for it themselves. Santas were to show no favouritism, even if your own kid came in asking for presents. Santas were there to promise all and give nothing, just make the kiddies smile and force their parents to buy them toys.
There was a tug at his trouser leg. He looked down to see the next little boy staring back up and shouting,
“Hey Santa, can I have a bucket of magic sand?”
And as he looked about him a flood of children surged forward, hands up, pleading for gifts. Some junkbots, Blue’s Clues and Dance-A-Long, a coding robot, a sunken treasure ship, stuff he’d never even heard of. Parents and carers began to race for their charges, and a mass of family relations gathered in on him. There were more cries of “Santa!” and tugs on his pants. He had to swing his beard out of the way lest it be yanked off by grabbing hands. The grotto was becoming a crush. Management would be on to him like lightning. Slimy Barry Evermore, all red cheeks and stretched shirt buttons would be down with his security walkie talkie in hand and make a scene. Barry didn’t seem to like Christmas, he’d have no hesitation in sacking a misbehaving Santa. Assuming Santa hadn’t been smothered beforehand by an avalanche of young boots and shoes.
The one thing though, he thought, is that Management can’t haul him out in front of all the kids. That’d be too much for the top brass. He managed to extricate himself from the clasping fingers and climb on to his Santa throne.
“Children,” he said, “please be quiet and Santa will tell you something amazing!”
This quelled the hubbub momentarily. One voice said “What?” All eyes were on the big red man with the fake white beard standing on the chair.
He surveyed the scene, a huddle of anxious mothers, excited kids, a grotto full of wrapped empty boxes strewn with tinsel and balloons and baubles, and a talking tree, which at the moment was keeping very mum. He saw Cassie re-enter with his wallet in hand and stop appalled at the chaos.
Oh well, he thought, in for a penny…
“Today, children, is a very special day. For today every child here is going to get a gift from the toys that are available in the store. Santa’s helper over there is going to close the door to the grotto, so that we have all the children inside and then we’ll take a list of what you want and then we’ll get it for you!”
A disbelieving hush settled on the mob. Was this real? Was it? he wondered. Do I know what I’m doing? He figured if he wasn’t meant to give one kid a gift, he’d give them all one. It might cost him his pay packet, it would cost him his job, but he’d at least have given his missing daughter something. It was only five minutes to the end of the shift anyway, so closed doors wouldn’t be that much of a problem.
“Children, this is my special helper Cassie. Close the Grotto door please, Cassie,” he said. Cassie hesitated but did as he requested.
“Now, mums and dads, if you could line up your kids like before and we’ll work through your children and then get them what they ask for.”
* * * * *
Andy sat at the bar next to Katie, another one of the helpers at the Grotto. She fiddled with the swizzle stick in her Campari. She had long tanned fingers with red nails. He watched the bubbles in his lemon lime and bitters rise slowly to the surface. They’re like miniature elephants, he thought. Tiny, light elephants.
“You can take your hat off if you want,” she said.
He fondled the white pompom at the end of the red Santa hat he had pilfered on his way out of Barry Evermore’s dingy office, where he had been peremptorily sacked from his Santa position. He could see why Barry was so glum, spending his days in the grey and windowless bunker he shared with the PABX machine, shelving full of broken items and a chipped chipboard desk. God it was dismal. “You’re lucky I didn’t call the police,” Barry had said. To which Andy had replied “What, for buying seven grand worth of merchandise in half an hour?”
“I admire your courage,” said Katie.
“It’s killing me,” said Andy. “I’ve been dry for four years, but I’ve had a shitty day, so the best compromise I have is at least to smell the grog and enjoy the ambience.”
Katie turned on her stool to face him. He looked at her dark hair falling down across her cheeks, her cheap make up, her wiry fingers on the rouge light of the cocktail.
“I meant what you did,” she said. “I didn’t know you were on the bandwagon.”
“I have to. I lost my daughter to drink,” he said. “You got kids?”
“One,” said Katie. “A six year old boy.”
“His dad still around?”
“Good god no,” she said. “Thankfully he left about three years ago. Worst decision I ever made, but I got a kid out of it.”
“I bet he’s sweet, huh?” said Andy.
“Best thing. Sticky little hands all over me when I get home, stinks like a mole rat, and looks as cute as heaven when he’s asleep.”
“Which part of that does he get from you?” said Andy.
Katie laughed. “You’re pretty chipper for a bloke who’s just been sacked.”
“I’m used to it,” said Andy. “I’m the kind of bloke you kick out. It’s what I do.”
“You’re not being a bit hard on yourself there?”
“Let me guess,” Katie said. “Wife kicked you out because of the drink and you haven’t seen your daughter since.”
Andy choked at how accurate she was, how transparent he was.
“How old is she?”
“Five and a half,” said Andy.
“I bet she’s sweet, huh?” said Katie.
Andy chuckled and took a sip from his drink. God he hated the sugary fizz. All he wanted was a decent meaty beer to settle his stomach. He was still fighting it three years into abstinence.
“When did you last see her?” said Katie, “
Andy sank the last of his glass and put the glass down noisily on the bar.
“We split just over four years ago. I’ve been sober for three and a half.” He swung his legs around to get off his stool. “I have to stop torturing myself in here. It’s too tempting. I have to go.”
Katie turned as well. As they stood up he caught the TV up on the wall. A blonde reporter in a blue dress with a fat microphone was standing in front of the department store where he had, until today, been employed.
“… received a pleasant surprise when Santa got out of his chair and gave every child who was there a present of their choosing. A spokesperson for the store said that while this was not the usual practice the store was pleased on this one occasion to spread a bit of Christmas cheer to the children who had come to see Santa. We asked for details about Santa, but the spokesman could only reply that he lived in the North Pole and was down for an early visit. He did intimate though that Santa had paid for the presents with his own pay check.”
The station returned to the main desk, where a blue besuited host said, “So that’s one Santa who certainly has the gift of giving.”
Katie said, “You’re famous.”
“Where are we headed?” said Katie when they exited the pub.
“Home,” said Andy.
“Am I part of this?” said Katie.
“What, you want to come home with me?” said Andy.
“Well I assume you are only abstaining from alcohol,” she said. “You need an upside to a shit day. And I go for losers.”
“I haven’t dated anyone for years,” said Andy.
“Then it’s about time you started. Here, give me that.” She took his pilfered Santa hat and placed in on her head. He admired the way it flopped to the side of her hair. “Time to get your own present,” she said, “although I can’t guarantee I’ll be good for you.”
She placed an arm about his shoulders and led him down the street.
“How do we get there?” she said.
“Train,” he said. “There’s a station entry just over the road.”
* * * * *
His flat was a narrow ground floor studio at the rear of a block of apartments, equipped with a small kitchen at one end, space enough for a table and TV, and a bed and bathroom at the other. A window looked out on to a paling fence.
Andy moved the morning’s crockery off the table. Katie flung her bag on to one of the two chairs.
“Tight,” she said. She pulled out a pack of rollers and a small ziplock bag of green leaves.
“You toke?” she said.
Andy shook his head. “I’m trying to keep off anything addictive.”
“Oh.” She put the bag away.
“Who looks after your boy when you’re at work, or here?” said Andy.
“Really?” said Katie. “You’re asking that?”
“Sorry,” said Andy.
“You are Mr Sober,” she said.
“I took the Santa job because I like kids,” said Andy. “Plus I needed a job.”
“And you lost it for the same reason,” said Katie.
“True that,” said Andy. “I can make you a coffee if that helps.”
He filled an old metal kettle and placed in on one of the two burners on the small stove.
“My mum,” said Katie, “to answer your question. She’s good like that.”
She was leaning awkwardly against the table. He studied her thin legs encased in denim, her singlet top and mop of hair. She was smiling at him. He thought her face looked worn and tired. The task of survival is not an easy one for many, including himself. His main strategy had been sheer grit. He didn’t have the smarts to fix a clever future, or the financial wherewithal. He only had a drunken past and grunt for the morrow.
The whistle cut his thoughts. He filled two mugs with instant and poured.
“Out of milk, sorry,” he said, and handed her a mug. She looked at the hot liquid still rotating in the mug.
“I think I have a Kit Kat in the freezer,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting guests.”
“Look, you’re a wonderful guy,” she said. “I mean that. I’ve never seen anyone do anything as stupid as what you did today. It was fabulous. And you’ve hunkered down to get off the grog, and get on the straight and narrow. I really admire that.”
He looked into her eyes. They were dark, like her hair, lined with dark mascara. One was slightly larger than the other. Not the eye itself, but the eye lid. He had one like it. His ex-wife had said she liked the asymmetry.
“I’m probably the wrong kind of girl for you,” she was saying. “Like I said, I go for losers, because I don’t know how to get off the floor myself.”
She put the mug on the table and picked up her bag. She stepped forward to deliver a kiss on the cheek. It was brief, but he registered its tenderness, and her hot fragrance.
“I’m sorry I underestimated you,” she said.
They stood for a moment looking at each other. In the studio, in the half light, in the sharp heat of the coffee.
“You’re right though,” he said. “I’m not abstaining from everything.”
She put her bag down again.
“It’s easier to drag someone down than to lift them up,” she said.
“I’m no saint,” he said. “I’m not looking to redeem anyone. Just to get by.”
She turned her back to him and removed her jeans and top. Then she stood before him in bra and panties.
“I feel strangely naked,” she said.
“I’ll tell you a joke,” said Andy.
“Why did Rudolph have a red nose?”
“Cos he went down at that time of the month,” said Andy.
Katie laughed and said, “That’s appalling!”
Andy smiled sheepishly.
“I know, right? But it made you laugh.”
“Oh fuck,” said Katie and sat on the bed.
Oh well, Andy thought, in for a penny. Again. It can only ruin me.
He went to her and stood in front of her. She got up and they kissed.
It was briefly tender, but he was soon raided by a fervour that he had not expected. He pulled her to him. Her nails dug into his back. They separated but stayed so close their breath tainted each other’s. He pulled off his shirt and jeans, she took off her underwear.
This was new to him again. Nervously new and he wondered if he was being awkward. For her part, she seemed equally so, as if both of them had revealed a sore scar to the sunlight, hoping it would heal more than it might hurt. She pulled him into her. He felt this was a common event for her, but there was an element of urgency, as if she was protecting and exposing herself at the same time. For his part, he fumbled around as best he could and tried to appear manly, but fell on to the mattress giggling.
“What?” she said. Then she started giggling too. They lay on the bed laughing and kissing and he entered her again and they held each other in a determined embrace. Her heels hit his buttocks as he struggled with her and he revelled in her scent and sweat and suntanned limbs. He heard her cry and shudder and she bit his lip, not fiercely, but as a lioness might a cub. When it came time, his climax flooded out of him with open relief, like the spilled contents of a torn paper bag.
* * * * *
After a while they emerged from their slumber. She smiled at him and stroked his hair. She kissed him softly.
“That was much nicer than your coffee,” she said.
“Self-brewed,” he said.
“And your coffee is better than your jokes,” she said. He sensed her kiss was a reassurance in case he felt insulted by that comment.
“I’ve got to go,” she said. “Got to relieve my mum sometime.”
She got up and skipped into the small bathroom. He heard the sound of her piss on the porcelain, followed by the tinkle of roll on the holder. As the toilet flushed the tap turned on and off, then she reappeared, stepping quickly to the pile of her clothes.
“I’ll walk you to the station,” he said and jumped off the bed.
“You are a gentleman,” she said.
Having dressed quickly, they left the flat and walked around to the street.
A woman dressed in a neat blue outfit stepped in front of him. He noticed the tight belt about her waist.
“Are you Ian Goldsworthy?” she said.
Andy stepped back as confusion broomed his thoughts.
“You know, the Santa who bought all the children toys earlier today,” said the woman. He suddenly recognised her from the pub TV. She moved in between Andy and Katie.
“I’m Sandra Westcott, from Afternoon Forum, the innovative infotainment format show. We’d love to do an interview with you, if that’s alright. Get some background on what motivated you to buy the kids the presents. What your story is, and why you work as a Santa. Our viewers would love it.”
He saw Katie step away from him. There were a couple of guys in black jeans and checked shirts holding a camera and a boom mic. Its fluffy end pointed at the sky.
“And your friend here, is she one of Santa’s little helpers?” said the woman. But when she turned to look for Katie she said, “Oh, she’s gone.”
Andy bristled at the reporter’s lust for scandal.
“Mr Goldsworthy,” the woman was saying. “Can we ask you a few questions?”
He felt the phone in his pocket vibrate.
“Hang on,” he said.
It was a text.
Dear Santa, thank u very much for the fuck. I’d like another one for Xmas. XXX KT. PS, I told u ur famous. Work it.
He smiled, then looked up at the waiting reporter. Ok, he thought, I’ll work it. In for another penny. Christ, that’s three in one day.
“You’d like a statement,” he said.
“Yes please,” said Ms Westcott. She straightened up and readied herself with the microphone. Andy felt the cameras closing in on him, like some robotic voyeur. She flashed a vacant smile and said,
“So tell me, Mr Goldsworthy, how long had you been working as a Santa for?”
Andy took a short step back and said,
“My real name is Andrew. I took a job under the name Ian Goldsworthy as no one would employ me due to my past problems with alcohol. But I needed a job and I’ve been dry for a good four years now. Haven’t touched a drop of alcohol all that time. The thing is though, my past behaviour under the influence was so bad the Family Court ruled I was not fit to see my daughter for at least five years, and they’ll review after that. But unbeknownst to me she came in this morning and I was so overcome with love that I just had to buy her what she wanted. You see, I hadn’t seen her for almost five years. And I thought of all the kids in the room there might be many more like that, who might not get a present from a father, so I wanted to spread the love and help them all out. Crazy I know, but hey, it might have made someone feel better.”
He stopped. Sandra Westcott stood dumbstruck on the side of the street. The camera swung to the ground.
“Thanks, Sandra,” said Andy, and headed back into the apartment block.
* * * * *
When Andy checked his phone the next morning he found he had gone viral. The story had been promoted to the evening news, and comments had started pouring in on the various on line news sites. He saw the video of himself in front of the apartments. They hadn’t cut anything. They had cut in a shot of Sandra Westcott saying “Would you care to make a comment about your generous actions as Santa earlier today?” Apart from that fabrication there was not much else; she hadn’t had a chance to interrogate him.
But the comments blew out, and made him wary of what he had done in going public. He was a fraudster with a false name, was he also a kiddie fiddler? Did he steal from the store? (To which a person replied, and give it to the poor?). He was still a drunkard, once an alco always an alco, you can’t change. Past behaviour equals domestic violence, why do we give these shits any air? How did he get past security at the store? Who was to blame? Who to take the credit? Not him anyway, if Andrew really is his name.
The social media sites were equally contrary. He should be thrown in jail. Go back to where he came from. I’ve been dry for ten years no, buddy, good for you! You beat the system! The hashtag #AlcoNick had trended, with numerous memes of drunken Santas in compromising positions.
Well that put the cat amongst the pigeons, he thought. He made himself a coffee, and remembered he had no milk, so poured it down the sink. He’d get one at the Monkey Bar café on his way to the dole office.
When he appeared at the front of the apartments he was mobbed by a gaggle of reporters and cameras. As the beaks of microphones were thrust into his face he thought of himself as a potato chip swarmed by a ravenous flock of seagulls.
“Mr Goldsworthy, tell us about your daughter.”
“Did you ever hit your ex-wife?”
“What do you mean when you say you love children?”
Cameras flashed and clicked. A boom appeared overhead. He stared about the throng wide-eyed with alarm. He fought his way through muttering no comment, please. I have to get out. Some stopped when they realised he wasn’t going to say anything, but a number persisted, following him along the street as he walked to the station. The badgering was constant. How much did he drink on his worst days, was it just the one daughter, did he have a criminal record, did he feel ashamed about what he had done.
At the top of the stairs of the railway pedestrian bridge a large shadow of a man broke from the mob and blocked his path. The man was round faced and ruddy, with a voluminous black overcoat.
“Mr Goldsworthy?” he said.
Andy stopped. “Who’s asking?”
The man did not move.
“Are you Mr Goldsworthy, Ian or Andrew?”
“No, I’m not,” said Andy.
“You match the description,” said the man. You said you were Andrew on camera, so don’t deny it.”
Andy wondered if he was about to be spirited into a glassless limousine, when the brick in front of him said,
“I have some papers to serve on you.” A big fist held out a wad of papers. “Do you accept service of them?”
Andy stepped back, wary as cat’s prey under the eye.
“What is this?” he said.
The manblock registered no change of expression.
“I’m serving legal papers on you. Do you accept them, Mr Goldsworthy?”
“First up, mate, I’m not Mr Goldsworthy, and second, hell no, you can piss off and tell whoever sent you to do the same.”
The man bent down and placed the papers on the ground in front of Andy’s feet.
“Consider yourself served. I don’t have to give them to you, I can just leave them here. I suggest you pick them up, otherwise all these media people will have access to them, and know all the details of what my client alleges. Picking them up means you accept service. Good day to you.”
With that, the big man turned a disappeared into the morning sunlight. Andy stood there, the papers flapping in the breeze at his feet, wondering how such a massive chunk of manhood, dressed in black, could so easily vanish into a sunlit train station. He thought of the spy movies he’d seen with men in dark coats lurking in shadows with poisoned umbrella tips and code phrases. This dude was real. Maybe I could get a job doing what he does, thought Andy. He looked like he’d had a few nips for breakfast.
A reporter in the remaining mob said, “What are you going to do with the papers?”
Andy looked down at his feet. Then he turned and walked into the station. He snuck a look as he did so, and saw with some glee, the mob of reporters diving for the sheets of paper like pelicans for fish guts.
* * * * *
The papers were flashed across the screens that night. He surfed the channels for Sandra Westcott, for reason only that he knew her. They had filmed her segment in front of the station, where she mentioned fraud and misrepresentation and injury to corporate reputation. Damages were sought in the hundreds of thousands. Alongside the recitation of the legal claim was shown the footage of him outside his flat, pushing through the scrum and failing to explain his actions.
Fuck ‘em, I’ve got nothing anyway, thought Andy, and poured fresh milk into a hot cup of coffee.
The media mob outside the apartments had not diminished, and if anything had adopted a darker tone. The allegations of fraud were hurled at him, accompanied by barbed accusations of guilt and shame thrust from behind walls of microphones and garbling newspeople. How did he intend to fight off the facts when his past made him so culpable? Shouldn’t he be ashamed of working with children when he was not yet cured of his drinking problems. Although he didn’t need to, he felt like racing to the railway station, just to be rid of them, but he knew that footage of him fleeing the cameras would only cement his guilt in the public eye. But he was trapped, as he couldn’t retreat and return to his flat.
His pocket buzzed again, and he pulled it out. He kept walking in case any of the noses tried to glimpse who it might be.
Need a place to hide? XXXKT
He texted back.
Call when ur home.
He strode to the local grocery store and bought a loaf of bread and some toilet paper, then made his way home with the pack of hyenas on his tail.
“They’re awful,” he said.
“I don’t have much room, but we’ll find a place. Pack some clothes and a toothbrush.” She told him her address. He packed and left, trying his best to look like he was headed for the gym.
Her apartment was only marginally bigger than his, although it boasted a second room. A sallow light seeped in through a window at one end of the room. The living area was a tiny space crowded with a leaning sofa, pine dining table and three chairs. Opposite the couch stood a chipboard bookshelf which held the TV; some of the laminate had come off and a few shelves were missing. Toy cars and pieces of lego were scattered amongst the furniture. Her bedroom was off the kitchen, a double bed crammed between the wall and a scratched timer lowboy and festooned with layered throws. A macramé tapestry hung from one wall. Her son had a single bed in what Andy thought was more of a cupboard. The boy lay on the bed ensconced in a tablet. It blinked and burred as he twisted it about to capture aliens.
“Hi,” said Andy. “I’m Andy.”
“Say hello, Jason,” said Katie.
“’Lo,’ he said without looking up.
“It’s alright,” said Andy. “I was six once.”
“Handsome!” said Katie. Andy looked where she was looking. A black cat slinked along the kitchen sink, licking its surface.
“This is Handsome. I hope you aren’t allergic,” Katie said. She lifted the limp fur off the bench and placed it on the floor where it stretched and emitted a short feline sneeze. “Bless,” said Katie and turned to Andy.
“Well this is all a bit sudden. The price of fame I suppose. There’s two places to sleep. On the couch here, or in my bedroom. Take your pick.”
Andy studied the couch. It’s ageing velour surface was lumpy and stained with a smorgasbord of past treats. He didn’t think it would be long enough anyway. He looked into the bedroom again.
“If you don’t mind,” he said.
“Oh it’s not me who’ll mind,” said Katie. “It’s Handsome you’ll have to contend with.”
“I won’t make the obvious joke about cats,” he said.
“Your joke record’s not great,” said Katie. “Let’s just say I’ll be sleeping with two handsome cats tonight.”
She strolled over to the small kitchen, and extracted the kettle from amongst the piles of dishes and ageing appliances that littered the benches.
“I still have a job, so I have real coffee. Do you want one?”
“I’m envious,” said Andy. “That’d be great.”
He stood at the end of the scratched dining table sipping the freshly brewed coffee.
“How far does your mum travel to get here?” he asked.
“She’s down south, so it’s about an hour and a half drive here.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’m unemployed at the moment, so why don’t I look after him while I’m here, give your mum a break?”
“I’ll put it to her,” said Katie. “She usually insists on coming over. She lives alone otherwise. How good are you at vegemite toast?”
Andy’s phone rang as he was about to answer. He didn’t recognise the caller.
He didn’t have time to say no.
“I’m Reggie Forbright. You may not have heard of me. I’m from The Forbright Agency. We’re PR and communications specialists.”
“First up, I’m not Andrew Goldsworthy,” Andy managed to say in the nanosecond it took Forbright to draw breath.
“That’s my point,” said Forbright. ‘You need to protect who you really are and the image you want to project. Right now, you are being targeted by the bad press and your life is going down the drain. Let me guess, you’ve run over to a friend’s house to bunker down for a bit. They will find the friend, Andrew, and you will have made her life worse. And that of her kid.”
“How the fuck did you know that?” said Andy.
“I didn’t, but you just told me,” said Forbright. “Listen, every word you say is going to be used to beat you down until you are found hanging lifeless on the end of your belt in a basement somewhere, all so’s their audience can feel superior. I’m a fast talker, which means you don’t like me already, but these media people, they are wicked. They like nothing more than to see people like you ground to a paste til you’re nothing but a smear on the soles of their Prada’s, and then they move on to the next victim. Which in your case would be your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my-” Andy stopped as Katie looked at him.
“Even worse. They’ll say you slept with her, and you dragged each other down. What is she, a colleague, one of Santa’s helpers?”
“Jesus,” said Andy.
“Am I right or am I right?” said Forbright. “You don’t have many friends, and for many a friend in need is a pain in the arse, especially when your need is as public as now. So you’ve got to keep those you have. You need me, Andrew, It’s what I do, rescue people like you and give you a new lease of life. You don’t have to like me, and you won’t, I’m a cunt, but you have to protect yourself. You have to. Otherwise you are gone, dead, washed up in the tide of vicious media. Comprehendo?”
Andy was silent for a moment. The sheer barrage of words had knocked him sideways. As had the hard truth of what the media mob were doing to him. Forbright’s voice again,
“I understand it is all a bit much, mate. But you are drowning, and this is what I do. Come and see me tomorrow. Eleven o’clock. I’ll text you my details. Ok?”
Andy looked at Katie and the space she inhabited. He looked at his crumpled sports bag, containing only one change of clothes. He thought of the swarms outside his apartment, no doubt fuming he was not there, and tracking his movements to here.
“Andrew, eleven am, yes? Are you okay with that?”
Oh well, thought Andy, in for – no I’m not going to say that. I’ve spent three in the last couple of days, and look where I am.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll have a good think about it overnight, but eleven it is for now.”
“Good call, Andrew mate. Bring along any questions you have and we’ll get your life going again. Google me in the meantime, yeah, so you can see who I am. Cheers.”
“Who or what was that?” said Katie as Andy put his phone on the table.
“A bloke called Reggie Forbright who does, what do you call it, PR?” said Andy. “What does that stand for anyway?
“Public relations,” said Katie. “Did I hear him say he wants to save you?”
“Something like that,” said Andy.
“Then work it,” said Katie.
“Is that a catch phrase of yours – work it?” he said.
“I’ve never had anyone like that around me. So work it for all you’ve got. Get yourself out of here.”
“What’s wrong with here?” said Andy.
“Look at it,” said Katie and waved her hand round the room. “It’s a dump. I’ve got one thing I love in here – the little snotbugger on the bed, and maybe the cat but even he’s expendable if push came to shove. All the rest is shit. So you take an offer when it comes, okay?”
Andy smiled and hid behind his mug of coffee.
“Speaking of offers,” she said, “I’ve offered you a bed for a few nights, and I’ll be claiming my Christmas present in return. But right now I have a shift to go to – probably your replacement – and my mum will be here any moment. So make yourself at home and get ready for an afternoon’s chat about migrants, dole bludgers and corporate tax swindles. They are her favourite topics of conversation.”
She leant over to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek. She pulled back and stared at him directly eye to eye, fondling his ear and smiling an uncertain smile. As she turned to get changed in the bedroom her fingers drifted effortlessly across his cheek.
* * * * *
Beryce Matheson was a brick. Her skin was rough-hewn and clinker-pink, her hair wiry and grey, her body square and block like. She moved about the apartment constantly, picking up toys, washing dishes, folding clothes, mopping horizontal surfaces. Andy watched her as she moved. She was stiff at the hip, and rocked from side to side ship like as she walked. Her plain blue dress was like an ensign, signalling the sturdy path of her progress. He offered to help but was gruffly declined.
“I’ve been at it all these years, young fella, no sense in stopping now.”
Occasionally she paused, looked about and moved on to the next chore she could find. When all seemed to be in order she switched on the kettle and set out two mugs on the bench. While the kettle boiled, she walked into the boy’s room.
“Come on lad, ‘s time to see the day. We’re off to the park.”
She disappeared for a while; Andy caught a glimpse of her bending over stiffly to pick up pants and shoes and whatever else she considered needed a proper home.
“Up you get.”
The boy skirted out to the bathroom. Beryce’s head appeared at the door jamb.
“And mind you keep it in the bowl, laddie.”
She looked at Andy with a grim face. “I hope you don’t miss. Men have such poor aim.”
“Wash your hands?” said Beryce.
He turned and went back in, then reappeared.
“Dry them?” said his grandmother, and added as he went back in again, “On a towel?”
She held a pair of socks and grubby runners in her hand.
“Show young Andrew here how good you are at tying your laces.”
Jason jumped on to the couch and grappled with his socks and shoes, then, with intense concentration, successfully tied his laces.
“Good lad, shall we go?”
She put on her coat, picked up her tote bag and led Jason to the door.
“You comin’?” she said to Andy.
Andy leapt to attention and followed them out.
Out in the street she said,
“As in born in Australia?” said Andy.
“No, around here,” said Beryce.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“What do you do?” she said.
“I’m currently unemployed. I was a Santa where Katie works.”
“Oh, you’re the Santa who gave all the kids those toys,” said Beryce.
“Well you can’t be all bad then,” said the woman. Andy thought he’d leave that there. They strolled along a bit more, with the boy skipping on the path and inspecting fences for bugs.
“Course, Katie’s had string of bad ones,” said Beryce unexpectedly. “Not much of a role model you see. I kicked her father out when she was young. The shit was about to have a go at her, so I hit him with the frypan. He claimed the injury on workers comp, but at least he was out of the place. So you see, Katie’s a bit like me. Had a rough time with the blokes, and has only one stable focus to her life, her boy here.”
Andy took a long look at the block of woman beside him, and saw in the grim face her perseverance, her endurance, her hope in the possibility of the next generation.
“Just don’t be a bad one,” she said. “I can’t say she’ll know how to deal with you, but it’s better than a repeat performance.”
She put down her bag on a seat and said to her grandson, “What is it first, the castle or the swings?”
The pocket park consisted of a set of climbing equipment and swings centred in a square of bare lawn bordered by grey paling fences. He watched the boy swing back and forth with a sunny grin on his cheeks, the old woman behind him offering an occasional push to maintain his momentum. Andy looked up. The sun glinted between clouds that looked like nothing in particular.
* * * * *
Andy sat on the flat black leather bench in front of the sculptured marble reception desk. He and the receptionist were surrounded by glass walls and a forest of indoor plants. Three tall fern looking things with long purplish fronds hung at a precarious angle, like triffids waiting to snare a meal of unsuspecting guests. A girl in a shimmering gold skirt flashed in, dropped an envelope on the reception desk, and flitted out again. A printer hummed. I’m in a bloody fishbowl, he thought.
He was tired. The night had been spent feeding Katie’s son and getting him to bed, followed by a long discussion of her mother’s virtues. Her bed was cramped, all the more so when Handsome the cat insisted on joining them, followed at midnight by the sticky mole rat Jason. He had been pressed against the wall, fighting a lumpy mattress, as the bedclothes were variously pulled from him or heaped back on in the semi-conscious dark.
“Andrew!” Reggie’s voice jolted him awake. It buffeted the glass compound and was reinforced by the wide shark grin of the man who had just appeared. He was short, scarcely a shoulder to the reception desk, and wore navy suit, a stippled silver tie and matching kerchief in his breast pocket. A mop of groomed black hair swept back jauntily from a shiny forehead.
“Reggie Forbright,” he said. “Call me Reggie. Come this way.”
Andy had to bound out of his seat to keep up, and almost lost his host in a maze of workstations and mirrored glass walls.
“Have you been looked after for coffee?” said Reggie some distance in front. The man stopped and said, “I see not. Sally,” he said to the girl in gold, “could you get Andrew here a – what would you like, cappuccino? [Andy nodded] A cappuccino, there’s a girl. Thanks.” He swung his wide palm in the direction of an open glass door.
“Come. Sit,” he commanded.
Andy looked at the harbour sweeping out in diaphanous splendour below them. It was lined with waves of tall buildings competing to supplant the remnant greenery at the water’s edge. A trail of sails leaned in unison across the distant heads.
“Good view, hey?” said Reggie.
Andy sat in another black leather chair. Reggie sat behind his glass desk, a computer screen and phone its only occupants. Sally the golden girl arrived with Andy’s coffee. He held it on his lap.
“Oh, and a soy latte for me, thanks love,” said Reggie, then turned to Andy.
“Good on you for coming in,” he said. “I’ve had a good think about what to do. The task is to flip you one eighty degrees. Get your positive story out there. Make you a paragon of virtue. You ready?’
Andy took a sip of his coffee. The clatter of cup returning to saucer sounded embarrassingly loud to him.
“Okay,” he murmured.
Reggie leaned across his desk and shouted, “Sal, can you send in Dixxy?”
He faced Andy again.
“Coupla rules while we wait for Dixxy. One, I need to know everything. And I mean everything even if it’s not yet public. Even if you don’t think it can get public – anything can. Doesn’t matter how good or bad, I need to know it. I don’t care if you fuck hamsters for cheap drugs, I need to know it, okay? Cos if I don’t know it I can’t protect you when they bring it up. Which leads to the second rule: total confidentiality. Anything and everything we say here is one hundred per cent confidential and stays in this office, unless we release it for the purpose of the campaign. Does that make sense?”
“I won’t judge you. Or I will, I’ll say to myself here’s that pervert hamster fucker, but I’l say it to mysef, and it won’t diminish our efforts for you and won’t leave this office. Unless of course fucking hamsters is good for your image. But I’ve never heard Santa mention it.”
A lissom figure with a shock of peroxide blond hair on half of his head, rouged lips and eyeliner entered the room. His thin legs were encased in what looked to Andy like a sort of dark plastic mesh and his top was an asymmetrical affair in purple and silver braids.
“Dixxy, this is Andy we spoke about. Andy meet Dixxy. Dixxy and I workshopped a few ideas over the weekend. He identifies as male by the way. He’s an absolute fucking whizz on social media campaigns.”
Dixxy extended a lacquered hand and fixed Andy with a piercing gaze.
“We’ve been developing a plan for both regular and social media for you,” he said. “We run on two main fronts: alcoholism and kids. These are your two strengths. At the moment they are being used against you, but we can turn that right around and have you looking cleaner than sainthood. By the time we’ve finished the store will be begging to take you back.”
Andy gawked at the odd pair in front of him, one a stunted suit with matching accoutrements, the other a wizard bird of paradise, as they ran through an incomprehensible strategy involving Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok and a host of other platforms he had never heard about. Finally he heard one of them say,
“…and that’s just half the plan. What do you think so far?”
Andy stared at them both, and said,
“How do I pay for all this?’
“That’s where 60 Minutes comes into play,” said Reggie. “This is the finale after all the build up on the web. We do a tell-all interview to announce your resurrection, and the fee we get from that covers our bill. With a fair whack left over for you to spend. It’s no cost to you.”
“Who says socialism is dead,” said Dixxy.
“The way I figure it, it’s your only way out. The press is going to hound you until even your bones are scattered in the dirt, so you’ve got to rise from the fight and be triumphant. Sound good? Say yes.”
“Yes,” said Andy too automatically for his liking.
“Good,” said Dixxy. “I presume Reggie’s given you the poop on confidentiality.”
“Then let’s start by telling us your real name.”
“Andrew Smith,” said Andy.
Reggie slammed his hand down on the desk.
“Not Andrew Goldsworthy!” said Reggie. “I love it! Those fucking lawyers have served a non-existent person! Ha! Let them explain that to their client, and render a bill!”
“Why did you change it?” said Dixxy.
“I had to, to get a job,” said Andy. “With my past issues with alcohol no-one would employ me. I’m an electrician by trade, and it’s too risky to work when you’ve got the DT’s or are hung over. So I looked for casual work. With a new name it was possible to start over.”
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” said Dixxy. “The oppression of the working man. No-one believes you can change, they just want to keep you down. You’re a force against the pernicious class system.”
“Easy tiger,” said Reggie.
“No, it’s true,” said Dixxy. “It’s not acknowledged here, but there is a class system, based on a kind of moral and monetary equivalency. If you’re poor and impure, then you’re a victim within it, and you’ll struggle to be free.”
“I’ve told him to become a barrister,” said Reggie.
“God no,” said Dixxy. “They have to wear those awful wigs.”
“And your kid?” said Reggie.
Andy told them about Rosie, and his marriage breakdown, and the custody case. And Rosie’s surprise appearance at the store, and how she was the reason he broke protocol so badly. “But I don’t want them brought into it,” he said. “An absolute no-no.”
“I hear you,” said Dixxy. “This friend you are staying with, and her baby-”
“Six year old boy,” said Andy.
“Noted. Who is she?”
“A colleague from the store.”
“Are you fucking her?” said Dixxy.
“Pardon?” said Andy.
“You know, jiggy-jig, that sort of shit.”
“She’s been very kind to me,’ said Andy.
“I’m sure she has. But taking advantage of a single mother colleague in a time of crisis is not a good look. Sorry to say, but you’re going to have to dump her.”
“Katie?” said Andy.
“We can fix you up with some better digs,” said Reggie. “Somewhere safe and away from prying eyes. But this Katie woman is going to get in the way.”
“We need a smooth transition,” said Dixxy. “A bit of solitude equals monasticism in the modern eye, which will rocket your credentials.”
“You’re the victor,” said Reggie.
“The conquering hero,” said Dixxy.
Andy sat back in the chair completely flabbergasted. It was a world he had never encountered. He had no bearing for its ground, no vision of its substance. They were two devils staring him down, offering him glory in exchange for – for what, his soul? Someone else’s money?
“Why are you doing all this?” he said.
“Dixxy’s doing it because he’s an arts graduate punk reactionary who grew up on the north shore,” said Reggie.
“And Reggie’s doing it because he’s a failed jockey who realised he could fix people better than horse races,” said Dixxy with a sardonic grin.
“In other words, he’s a prick, and I’m a cunt,” said Reggie. “And we are your saviours. Welcome to Christmas.”
* * * * *
Andy sat on the beige bed cover in the middle of the serviced apartment the agency had installed him in. It was bland and sparsely appointed. A TV on the wall, a print of an orchid above the bed, a window overlooking an alley. He felt guilty.
Back at Katie’s he’d sat at her table and explained Reggie’s plans. She was standing at the sink, the detritus of dinner piled up on the small bench, toys spread like mines on the dusty floor behind and the electronic hankering of the tablet in her son’s hands.
“You think they’ll work?” Katie had said. Her hair was unkempt, but still attractive, and the lines on her face seemed more defined.
“Dunno,” he’d replied. “This stuff is a whole other world from me. But…” He scratched a bit of dried baked bean off the chipped laminate. “… one thing though, they can put me up for a bit while it all blows over. So I can give you back your space.”
She had looked at him glumly. He’d felt the tug of her forlorn heart. It had only been two nights, one clamorous with lust, the other cluttered and sleepless, but her support had made all the difference to him.
“It’s no worries,” she’d said. “I like having a man around, and it’s not bad for Jason either.”
He flicked the red fibre of bean from beneath his fingernail on to his empty plate. Reggie and Dixxy had ruled it. He needed to climb out of his hole.
“No, look, I’m really grateful.”
She’d turned to him with a taut face and look of disappointment, and a tide of wanting had flooded his mind. He was another who would leave her. Another upon whom she could not rely, who would teach her son that men are a passing parade. No, he could not be stumped by her need, he had to solve himself. It was her fault he was here, her need as much as his. It had only been two nights.
Yet his heart had still flinched. He was in no better shape personally than she. Worse in fact, being sued, hounded on the media, homeless and penniless.
Maybe he should have taken her ship in the dark. Now he sat on a foreign bed in the storm.
* * * * *
The next fortnight was a blur. A mixed array of black cars and bright lights, cameras and crowds. Sometimes he was pulled through a barking mob with a towel over his head, at others he was hurried in via a rear entrance. He stuck to the script Dixxy had given him for the TV tell all.
Why had he lied about his name? Because he wanted work. That’s all a man wants, to find useful work.
Had he been a drunkard? Like many men, he’d made mistakes. And done the wrong thing. And not a day goes by when he doesn’t regret what he did.
Did he ever hit his ex-wife? Let’s not get into details, he’d caused enough suffering. Best keep her plight out of it.
And his daughter? Love of his life. Loves kids, adores them. Never harm any one of them. So when she showed up completely unexpected his heart burst. Hadn’t seen her for, what, four years.
That’s heartbreaking. It is, and hence buying gifts for all the kids there. Seeing her just opened the floodgates. Silly, but no harm caused; the store didn’t lose anything, it was all paid for. All from his paypacket.
Sounds like they lost one of their best Santas. Yeah, well, he understood they had to let him go.
And how do we know you’ve changed? Haven’t touched a drink for three years. Not even with all the stress of this. Plus it was his second season as Santa. Must’ve been all good, as they’d asked him back.
Cut to an expert on domestic violence and alcoholism, anger management and resilience. A woman in square glasses and symmetrical hairdo. Yes, give a person purpose, and the capability to find their lives and progress, and the cycle can be broken. And to finish off with Andy:
So people can change? It took guts, and grit. But yes, you can, and you gotta. For the kiddies if not for yourself. Life isn’t easy, but the future is bright.
He laid low after that and watched #goodsanta grow. It burst through the online platforms, and echoed in mainstream media. Other men’s stories appeared, tales of woe and regret, forgiveness and redemption. “I’m just like Santa, and love me kids. I got myself under control.” “Wife took me back, god I love her.” “So great to see my boy again, and not through the haze of alcohol.” “Clean for ten years now. Remarried three years ago. On track with a special woman.” ‘Still struggling.” “Hang in there mate, you can do it.” “Pic of me back with the fam at the zoo.” “Well done mate, which one’s the gorilla?” “I need help, did three months and had a bender the other night.” “Do any damage?” “Only to me.” “That’s progress. We’re here for ya.”
Women’s groups joined in too. Many still sore. “I can’t be alone with men, I don’t feel safe anymore.” “Drink is no excuse, when you’re scarred for life.” Many others were relieved. “Got my man back, the big lug.” “My daughter smiled again for the first time in years.” “I’m off the grog too, it’s so healthy, but I’ll still have a tipple on a girls’ night.”
Calls of joy and success and failure fell like snow into the airwaves. Men’s lives had been heard, women’s despair revealed. Hearts had mended, souls softened, cubby houses were built, toys repaired like damaged hearts, families retook form and tears were dried with kisses. In a hot country were snow was not meant to be, the summer had brought change. For many, Santa held hope for a stable year ahead, even where the past had been rough.
Andy was lying on his bed watching daytime TV when there was a knock on the door. A voice behind shouted “room service!” Something sounded a bit inauthentic, but he got up and opened it.
Reggie and Dixxy barrelled in, all suits and rainbow cuffs, holding aloft two champagne bottles and a cake box.
“Hello, darling!” shouted Dixxy. “Man of the mo-ment!” He gave Andy a peck on the cheek. “How are you coping with all this attention?”
“We’ve got news,” said Reggie. His tie was undone and he seemed very merry.
“And gifts,” said Dixxy, “We’re the two wise men. The other one’s stuck in traffic.” He let out a happy giggle and turned to Reggie. “Will you tell him or will I?’
“It was your campaign Dixxy boy,” said Reggie.
Dixxy beamed, and stood up straight.
“Ready?” he said to Andy.
“For what?” said Andy.
“We had a call,” said Dixxy.
“From the store,” said Reggie.
“Who’s fucking this pig?” said Dixxy.
“Carry on,” said Reggie.
“They want you back.” Dixxy flung his hands in the air and twirled. “They want you to come back, as a Santa, Andy!”
Andy felt his jaw drop, and his cheeks flooded with heat.
“You heard,” said Reggie. “All is forgiven.”
“Wow!” said Andy, “I’m speechless. That’s a bloody big win yeah?”
Dixxy was rummaging amongst the cupboard.
“It’s more than a win, darling,” he said. “It’s a super win. We got you a pay rise, on account of all the hardship they put you through. And of course they’ve dropped the Court case.”
“And they know it’ll bring far more kids in to the store if you’re there,” said Reggie.
“Sitting on your throne,” said Dixxy, and added as he searched in the kitchen cupboards, “Don’t they have any goddam champagne flutes in here?”
“I can’t believe you guys,” said Andy.
He heard the bottle pop as the cork flew out and watched as Dixxy filled three water glasses full of sparkling red. He passed one to each of Reggie and Andy.
Andy studied it nervously.
“Oh don’t worry,” said Dixxy, “it’s non alcoholic. We couldn’t ruin our greatest success this year. Chin chin!’
They drank. Reggie grimaced.
“This is shit,” he said. Dixxy cackled. “I bought it for you, Reggie love.”
Reggie said to Andy. “Do you honestly drink this garbage?”
“No,” said Andy. “I stick to water or the occasional soft drink.”
“We have cake though,” said Dixxy and he flung open the box to reveal a flamboyant ruffle of golden cream and coloured beading atop a multilayered sponge.
“Dixxy likes cake,” said Reggie.
A thick slice appeared in front of Andy like a severed head on a plate, with a fork beside it.
“Indulge me,” said Dixxy, and Andy plunged his fork into the sponge.
“Oh Christ,” yelled Reggie, “it’d got rum in it!”
Andy let himself take a bite, and Dixxy said, “The alcohol burns off in the baking anyway.” It was Andy’s first taste of any spirit for three years. It was like burnt foliage on his palate, sweet and thick, and smelled of menace, like a hot coating in his thoughts. He put the plate on the kitchen bench.
“I was more of a vodka man,” he said, “but hey, thanks anyway.”
* * * * *
Santa (real name Andrew Smith, employee name Andrew Smith) felt his chin prickle beneath the dense white folds of his beard. A young boy was listing the things he wanted for Christmas.
He thought, did I look as innocent as this when I was six? A football, and a grader, one of those ones you can sit on and dig up sand like real ones.
He looked up. The queue stretched out a long way beyond the entrance to the grotto. Lots of men this time, he noted. Big burly blokes in tight shirts, bull bar moustaches, tie-dye tops and cargo pants, chinos and sandshoes, work boots and thongs, striped polos, Hawaiian blues. Little boys and girls tripped around them, pulling on their arms, knocking displays off stacks and filling the space with vibrant chatter.
Santa’s Helper (whose badge said Sandy) stood aside as a young girl pranced up the steps towards Santa, dwarfed by a leviathan with shorn head and round ruddy features. She wore a pink tutu with matching leotard, he a brown acrylic tee and navy shorts.
The girl jumped on to his knee and announced her name as Carly, “but wiv a K”. She wanted a Polly Pockets. Nothing more, just Polly Pockets.
“Well I’m sure that’s something that can be arranged,” said Santa.
“She’s a cute kid, huh,” said the big man from above, as the ballerina leapt off Santa’s knee.
“She sure is,” Andy said.
A hand as big as a Christmas ham appeared in front of him. Andy looked up into the looming shadow.
“I want to thank you,” said the father of the girl. “You convinced my wife we could make it work. I got my daughter back.” Andy shook the ham. The man added “I’m still a bit on marriage parole, if you know what I mean, but fuck, we’ll get there.”
Andy smiled up at him, as their hands shook, and a spirit of gratitude flitted between them.
There were three or four more children before the next surprise arrived.
“Hello, Jason,” said Santa.
“Hello,” said Jason.
“How’s your mum?” said Andy.
“You aren’t a real Santa, are you?” said Jason.
“No,” said Andy. “I’m just a stand in. A warm up Santa. The real one’s a bit busy getting ready for Christmas day. So we come in and help him out in the lead up.”
“Tell Santa what you want.” Andy recognised the voice instantly, and looked up at Katie. She smiled down at him, her hair pulled back and a ready spread of make-up applied.
“There’s your mum,” said Andy. His face reddened in embarrassment and shame beneath his beard. He felt again he had let her down.
“Yeah,” said the boy. He bounced his legs on Andy’s shins and fiddled with the buttons on his shirt.
“You worked it,” said Katie.
Andy shook his head.
“Thanks to you,” Andy said.
“Yeah, well,” Katie said. “Not all of us get to work it.”
Andy looked at Jason. “And what would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas, young fella-me-lad?”
“Young fella-me-lad,” said Jason, and giggled.
“I know,” said Andy, “why don’t you tell your mum, and she can tell me a bit later on. How’s that for an idea?”
“Yeah!” Jason said and jumped off Andy’s lap. “I’ll tell you, mum, and you can tell Santa.”
Andy stared up at Katie.
“Is that cool?” he said. “I’ve got a photoshoot here in ten; there’s still a bit of publicity stuff going down. But we could meet up after that, in about half an hour, and I could do my spending Santa stuff, but our of costume so it’s all above board. I’d like to do that. What do you reckon?”
She smiled warily at him.
“I’m trying to be disciplined this time, and not jump at the first thing with a heartbeat,” she said.
“I’d like to see you again,” said Andy. “I owe you at least a thank you present.”
He saw her breathe in heavily and exhale.
“Okay,” said Katie. “Half past two at the toy counter.”
“It’s a date,” said Andy, and added, “Happy Christmas.”
* * * * * * * * * *