Harry watched as Amy, with the tip of her tongue poking from between her lips, compiled her list. Finally, at the bottom of the page she wrote in fluorescent pink: ‘Happy Christmas. With love from Amy xxx’. Then, sticking a couple of shiny stars next to her name, she folded the paper and put it into a small envelope from her stationery set.
‘Aren’t you going to show us what you’ve asked for?’ Helena, her mother, asked.
The little girl shook her head. ‘It’s a secret. Only Father Christmas is allowed to know.’ And climbing down from the table she crossed to the fireplace. Suddenly she looked puzzled. ‘How do you make the envelope go up the chimney?’ she asked, confronted by a display of dried hydrangeas in a grate that hadn’t seen a fire in forty years.
‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll find a way,’ Helena said. ‘Come on, it’s time you were in bed.’
‘You won’t forget, will you? If he doesn’t get it, he won’t know what to bring me.’
‘We won’t forget. Now go and kiss Daddy and I’ll come up in a minute and read you a story.’
Harry held out an arm as Amy reached up to his cheek, the comforting warmth of her little body radiating through her pyjamas.
Then, pushing the envelope into his hand, she was gone, scampering up the stairs. From the next room he could hear the sound of laughter where his two older children were watching television.
‘So, does she still want to be a princess?’ Helena smiled as Harry opened the envelope and considered the list.
He passed it to her.
‘My! I would say so: “A Disney Princess Onesie, a pink dress with real fairy wings, …Yummy Dough…felt tips…The Midnight Gang by David Walliams, Slime, a two wheeler bike and helmet…’” The list went on.
‘Then there’s FIFA 19 for Ben, new trainers and a skateboard…’ Harry said.
‘Catherine wants some boots and needs a new coat and…well, everything really. She’s growing so quickly.’
Harry considered the fairy lights blinking on the small Christmas tree he’d bought and decorated that evening. It had been something to pass the time. ‘I think I’ll go and do some work,’ he said at last, and, avoiding Helena’s eyes, made his way upstairs to the little box room he called his study.
Work? There was no work. But now it was his turn to make a list. Four hundred pounds, he quickly estimated ‒ that would be the cost of Christmas, even if he cut the requested presents by half. No, five hundred, probably more, if he included the turkey and something to drink at lunch on Christmas Day when Helena’s parents and her sister’s family with their two children came over. It had been agreed it would be his and Helena’s turn this year. But that had been last Christmas when he’d had a job, before the round of staff cuts in January.
Switching on his computer he logged on to his current account for the third time that day. It was no use. No matter how often he recalculated there would be hardly enough to cover the mortgage this month, never mind making the minimum payments on his now maxed-out credit cards.
He closed his eyes. It had been a shock when he’d been made redundant, but Helena had been steadfast in her optimism. ‘You’ll find something else soon,’ she’d consoled. But he hadn’t. Now, after a hundred and seventeen applications (he’d counted them) he was a middle-manager of 44 with a family to support and nothing to manage. And it was Christmas.
One by one he listened as the rest of his family came to bed, Ben at 12, bounding noisily up the stairs at nine thirty to have one last session with his PlayStation before sleep, and an hour later Catherine, quieter, 14 now and self-conscious about everything there was to be self-conscious about. Helena came up when Newsnight finished. ‘It’s nearly half past eleven,’ she said quietly, putting her head around his door.
‘I won’t be long,’ he replied, and then sat motionless until well after two as the house grew cold around him. He was afraid. Christmas was the time for giving and this year he couldn’t afford to give anyone anything. He’d let everybody down.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Allerton. There’s absolutely nothing. It’s always difficult around Christmas. Perhaps in the New Year…’ The recruitment officer, a narrow faced young woman in a crisp, black suit, let the suggestion hang. ‘Have you registered with…?’
‘I’ve registered with everyone,’ Harry cut her off. ‘Look, I’m not necessarily looking for what I had before. I know that’s not possible. But, well, just a bit of something temporary… I mean, I’ve got children and…’ He heard his voice quaver and looked quickly down at his hands, embarrassed.
That wasn’t what responsible people like him were supposed to do. From the beginning it had been about keeping up appearances, putting on a brave face and letting slip the fiction of doing consultancy work from home ‒ ‘so much easier now that everyone’s online’. How many people believed him, apart, of course, from Amy, he didn’t know. At six years old she believed everything her Daddy told her ‒ even that he’d personally posted her letter up the chimney to Father Christmas the night before. Ben had been gently teasing her for still believing in Father Christmas as they’d been getting ready for school that morning, but she’d been adamant. ‘He is real, isn’t he, Daddy?’
‘How else would you get your presents?’ he’d reassured with a wink to Ben. She’d learn the realities of life soon enough.
Now, across the desk in the Professional Professionals’ Recruitment Agency, the young woman in black sighed slightly and, closing her file, lowered her voice. ‘Perhaps, Mr Allerton… have you tried the Job Centre?’
‘Ah, I was wondering where you were!’ Helena met him with a smile as she took the pizzas out of the oven. ‘Do you think you could pick up Amy from school tomorrow? I said I’d stay on and help decorate the surgery.’ Since the autumn Helena had found a couple of days’ work a week helping out at the local health centre.
‘Er…actually, I can’t,’ Harry said, taking off his overcoat and giving Amy a jokey Gruffalo growl. ‘I’ll be…working.’
Helena’s face widened in surprise. ‘Really! That’s terrific. Doing what?’
‘Nothing special. Helping out with some seasonal promotion over in that new shopping mall at Forreston ‒ just a couple of weeks until Christmas. But it’ll keep me busy.’
‘Forreston! Well, that’s good news. Don’t worry about Amy. I’ll fix something else.’
It wasn’t a complete fib, Harry told himself, as the children gathered and chattered about their day of carols and lessons, friends and games. And Forreston New Town was a good fifteen miles away, so no-one would ever know.
He took the bus to Forreston the following morning, his company car having long since disappeared with his job. Mr Peploe, the mall’s manager, a man of about his own age, was waiting for him.
‘Actually, we’d been expecting someone quite a bit older,’ he said peering at Harry with a slight frown as he welcomed him into his office. ‘But maybe it’s for the better. As you know, we were let down yesterday when the chap we’d hired suddenly had a problem with his pacemaker. Hence the emergency call to the Job Centre. Anyway, if you’d like to get changed…’ And, passing Harry a large box, the manager left the office.
Fifteen minutes later, at seven pounds an hour, Forreston Mall’s substitute Father Christmas took his place in Santa’s Grotto alongside the giant, 40 foot high Christmas tree. ‘I’m not embarrassed, demeaned or ashamed,’ Harry tried to tell himself from inside a voluminous red coat and hood, much of his face hidden behind a cotton wool beard and moustache, his eyebrows dusted white with talcum powder, and his baggy red trousers tucked into large snow boots. ‘It’s honest pay for honest work and it’ll help get us through Christmas.’ But he didn’t convince himself. The man whose sense of worth had collapsed with the loss of his job, who for months had struggled to hide his growing despair from his children, felt humiliated.
The morning was slow and the first visitors to Santa’s Grotto were of pre-school age. Some cried as they were pushed towards him by over-enthusiastic young women, and, nervous in this new role, he didn’t quite know what to do. Should he say ‘Yo-ho-ho’ and pull a funny face? Or put a comforting arm around them? No, not that. It could be misinterpreted. Best, he decided, to simply smile kindly, offer a cheap toy and wait for their mothers to retrieve them.
Mostly, however, the toddlers just looked puzzled or gazed at this strange man who asked them what they wanted for Christmas, and then, whether they answered or not, gave them something quite different.
The afternoon was busier as the mall filled, and the seasonal music got louder. In the morning it had been a murmur of angelic choristers. Now it was the raucous Slade wishing the shoppers ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, as the slightly older children, who snaked in a queue of pushchairs and shopping bags right round the Christmas tree, became more demanding, reeling off lists of magic sets and Twilight dolls, Thomases and Ben 10s.
What would a 7 year old want with an iPhone, he wondered, amused by one little boy. Compared with some of the requests he was hearing, Amy’s expectations seemed almost reasonable.
Sitting in a polystyrene cave giving presents away all day should, he might once have thought, have been an easy job, but he was exhausted when he got home.
‘So how did it go?’ Helena asked as he hung up his coat.
‘Oh, not bad.’
‘And the people you’re working with?’
‘Oh, you know, young…excited.’
‘What exactly are you doing?’
‘Well, just talking to clients really. Helping Forreston Mall connect with the local community. That sort of stuff.’
‘But you’re enjoying it?’
He hesitated, then: ‘Yes, actually, I am,’ he said truthfully.
He’d surprised himself. Apart from those early uncertain moments it had been very enjoyable. The excitement of most of the children had been infectious, and, once he’d relaxed into the role, he’d found himself joking with them, as their mothers’ camera phones had flashed to record their special moment.
After that, every day just got better. For months he’d slunk silently around his home with nowhere to go other than the recruitment agencies ‒ and a daily run at a time he thought it least likely any neighbours might see him.
But in the Forreston Mall, in his red coat and white beard, he was a star, on permanent public display, and as such he found himself quickly re-discovering the man he’d been before redundancy. Everybody loves Father Christmas and soon the staff from Between-the-Slices were bringing him sandwiches, the Polish boy at Monika’s was supplying free lattes and a joke a day…some even funny. While, after deciding that his cheeks weren’t rosy enough, a couple of pretty young beauticians from All Maid Up were taking it in turns to rub rouge into his cheeks every morning, reminding him, among giggles, to make sure he washed if off before he went home at night.
The shock of unemployment had been a financial blow, but only now did he fully realise how crushing the sense of being locked out of the working world and its daily camaraderie had been. And, as the queues of children outside his grotto grew ever longer as the big day approached, Forreston Mall and the staff who worked there, the shop assistants and security men, the opticians at What A Spectacle, and the cashiers and shelf packers in the supermarket and pharmacy, became his mall, his people.
‘You’re very good at this, you know,’ Peploe, the Mall’s manager, said thoughtfully as Harry changed out of his Santa Claus outfit in his office a few days before Christmas. ‘Much better than any other Father Christmas I’ve ever known…excellent at getting on with everyone. Do you mind if I ask what you normally do?’
‘Oh, a bit of everything really,’ Harry murmured, ripping off his woolly white beard. Telling Peploe how far he’d fallen would have been to confuse their relationship.
‘Do you think he wears a seat belt?’ Amy enquired the following night.
‘Do I think who wears a seat belt?’ Harry replied, balancing on a chair in the hall as he Sellotaped a Survival card of a reindeer in the snow above the sitting room door.
‘Father Christmas. It must be very dangerous going across the sky in his sleigh in the dark.’
Harry hid a fond smile as he got down from the chair. ‘What do you think, Catherine?’ he asked his elder daughter who’d heard the conversation as she’d been coming down the stairs.
‘Bound to,’ the girl smiled. ‘He probably has one around his sack, too, to make sure the presents don’t fall out.’
‘I thought so,’ Amy came back sensibly, and went to get some more Christmas cards.
Harry watched her go. Any day now some child at school would tell her the truth and the first myth of her little life would be exploded. It would be nice if she could believe for just one more Christmas.
‘I’ll be doing the last of the Christmas shopping tomorrow,’ Helena said as they went to bed that night. ‘It’s okay if I use our joint account to buy the rest of the presents and stuff, isn’t it? I mean, we can afford…?’ Her tone was tentative.
‘Oh, yes, we’re fine,’ Harry reassured as he put out the light.
‘Whatever happens in the New Year we’ll be able to get through Christmas.’ The job had come just in time. He had no idea what January would bring, but Father Christmas wouldn’t be letting Amy or anyone else down this year.
The following morning began the last full stampede of a shopping day before Christmas, and from the moment the doors of the Forreston Mall opened a queue of toddlers and their already exhausted mothers began forming outside Santa’s Grotto.
‘Notionally, I suppose this is my big day,’ Harry thought, as he told the little ones to make sure they were good and went to bed early so that he could bring them their presents.’ And he smiled to himself as one after another they nodded in excited obedience.
To keep the spirit of the season going right until the last minute, it had been arranged that the main hall of the mall be equipped with a surprise for this Christmas Eve afternoon. And as fake snow began to fall on the Christmas tree and Santa’s Grotto, a large choir of carol singers arrived, collecting funds for a new dialysis unit at Forreston Hospital.
How generous people are, Harry thought, as the choristers’ children, armed with gaily painted plastic buckets and pleading looks, waylaid shoppers, who, in the midst of the rush, still smiled and stopped and searched in pockets and handbags for some change for a good cause.
‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,’ sang the choir as money rattled into the children’s buckets and a TV film crew came and went, collecting images for that night’s local news.
‘Let nothing you dismay,’ Harry reflected, as he jiggled a little boy’s plastic antlers and sent him off with a little present. It was a good message. He would remember it.
It was late afternoon before the choir decided they’d sung enough and the young collectors were summoned to present their, by now, heavy buckets in front of the Christmas tree. The queue for Santa’s Grotto was finally thinning, too.
Nearly time to go home, Harry thought, almost sadly. It was the end of his job. And, checking to see that he had enough presents in his sack for the latecomers, he didn’t notice a little girl in pink stepping up to him.
‘And what’s your name…’ he began to say as he turned back. Then he stopped.
‘Amy,’ a familiar voice said.
He couldn’t speak.
‘And I want a pink princess dress with real fairy wings,’ she continued. ‘Don’t you remember, I wrote to you?’
Harry tried to disguise his voice. ‘Oh, yes, I remember.’
Amy was now peering closely at him, puzzled. Somewhere at the back of the queue of children Helena would be standing with the other parents, not recognising him.
He looked away, so that all Amy would be able to see would be his red Father Christmas hood.
But Amy followed his movement, her face closer than ever now.
‘Well, I think you should go to bed early tonight or else…’
But she’d seen enough. ‘Daddy?’ she said, her eyes shining in astonishment.
Harry gazed at the little girl. The moment she stopped believing had arrived.
But just then, there was a shout from the carol singers by the Christmas tree, and then another and the sounds of a scuffle.
‘Stop! Stop thief!’
Harry looked across at the choir. One of the men was struggling with a couple of hooded youths, wrestling to grab back two full buckets of charity money. But the thieves, with the advantage of surprise, were stronger. In an instant they were racing away down the mall, buckets in their hands.
Harry stood up. ‘Go back to Mummy,’ he said. ‘Quickly, Amy!’
But even before the child, still wide-eyed at her discovery, could back away he was off, running after the thieves, a surprisingly agile Father Christmas, angry that the goodwill of ordinary people was being thwarted here in the mall that had become his.
Down the main hall he went, out of the fake snow shower, dodging around and past gaping shoppers, in between stalls of crackers and fruits, past a warm brazier where chestnuts were roasting, all the time his eyes on the two young thieves. His snow boots were heavy, but he had an advantage. He’d been a sprinter at school, and he ran almost every day. He was still fast, and as the youths were dashing into an oncoming crowd, his path in their wake was clearer.
The chase ended quickly. Turning a corner that would have taken them out through the service doors the young thieves found themselves heading straight for racks of new suits already being rolled into Hombre for the Boxing Day sales. As they hesitated, seeking a way through, Harry was on them, tackling the nearest, his Father Christmas hood falling back off his head, his cotton wool beard torn away, a bucket of money flying across the mall…
It was the first time he’d been on television, and he squirmed in embarrassment as he watched himself, an angry Father Christmas hurtling like a force of nature through the shopping mall, then rolling on the floor, as two young men took angry kicks at him before making their escape ‒ without the carol singers’ money. The TV crew, sent to cover last minute shopping, had, fortuitously for them, caught the end of the incident.
‘Well, there goes my anonymity as Father Christmas,’ Harry said bleakly as the reporter announced the name of the ‘mall hero’ to the world. ‘Everyone knows now.’
Helena passed him a cup of tea. ‘I’m proud of you.’
‘Proud? For chasing a couple of thieving pests? It was hardly heroic. They were half my size. I was just angry.’
‘Proud of you for…well…everything…swallowing your pride, wanting to make Christmas nice for us.’
He didn’t reply. On the way home Helena had explained how, with the two older children out doing their own shopping, she’d taken Amy to Forreston Mall when she’d been unable to get Catherine the boots she’d asked for anywhere nearer home.
‘Where is Amy, by the way?’ he said at last. She’d been very quiet.
‘She’s in her room.’
‘I think perhaps I’d better pop up and see her,’ he said. ‘Part of her little world came tumbling down today.’
He was nervous as he climbed the stairs. Amy’s door was closed. He tapped on it, and then went inside.
Amy was at her little desk, a red felt tip in her hand. She didn’t look up as he entered. He looked over her shoulder. She was drawing a Father Christmas surrounded by sacks of presents. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
She carried on drawing. ‘You should have told me,’ she said quietly.
‘Yes.’ Suddenly she looked up at him and smiled brilliantly. ‘All this time I’ve been wondering who Father Christmas was and where he lived. I never knew he was my Daddy and lived here with me all the time. That’s so exciting!’
Leaning over, he kissed the top of her head.
‘There’s just one thing I don’t know,’ she went on.
‘Well, it might be a secret, but…where do you keep the reindeers?’
Harry begins his new job on January 2 ‒ as assistant manager at the Forreston Mall.
© Ray Connolly