Santa's Dirty Little Secret
1993 was my Annus horribilis, because that year's Christmas was less merry than I would have wished on my worst enemy. This unfortunate state of affairs had been unduly ensured by the final burst up between my stubborn, irresponsible, Mom and my grumpy, vengeful, old Gran. The outcome was the ignominious ejection of Mom and I from the grounds of Preston House in Leatherhead earlier that year, with ear-piercing assurance from Gran that she'd written us out of her Last Will and Testament. Mom and Gran got on like a Black & Decker Chainsaw and a tough Norway spruce; they disagreed over almost everything. So, it was a wonder that we'd both managed to live with Gran in the lush corner of the Mole valley, since the time I was born. Or maybe it wasn't any wonder after all since Preston was a grand old Manor house with more rooms than a savannah termitarium, and Granny would be lonely there all own her own. There was a butler and a couple of other house-keeping staff on the premises, of course, but that was no substitute for family.
Mom never had to do a single day's work up till then. She grew up in the manor house, graduated from the nearby University of Surrey with a degree in Classical Studies, went on a pilgrimage to the far corners of the world shortly afterwards, and came back to Leatherhead pregnant - with me. Gran needed Mom as much as Mom needed Gran, and I needed them both. But they never allowed a day to pass by without engaging in some petty, preposterous, argument. It seemed that, in everything, Mom was determined to hold a contrary, and apparently more superior, opinion to Gran's, and Gran was even more determined to impose her will over Mom. They rowed about Mom's lazy attitude and her late nights out. Mom complained about the measly stipend that Granny doled out to her. But sometimes the rows were about me: Mom was not doing enough toward my care; she wasn't showing any interest in my school work. Gran was being too meddlesome; she was out of touch with the needs of the younger generation, and she needed to get her pompous ass out of her medieval castle and learn about real people, rather than the outdated characters in her famous, romantic, novels that had earned her her ridiculous wealth. However, no matter how heated their row, or how intense their eruptive emotions, there was one thing that must never be mentioned, or alluded to in any way - My paternity. I had no father, and any talk about my paternity was entirely out of bounds. On that one issue both of them and my other known relatives, had a solid, irrevocable, pact.
But, despite all the bouts of arguments, days of rifts, and pacts of silence, life in the manor house held a lot of happy memories. Uncle Chris and Auntie Julie lived in Sutton nearby, and they called in regularly with Gerald who was the same age as me. We climbed trees and played hide and seek in the wood behind Preston House. I enjoyed strolling by the Mole with Uncle Patrick, during summer. We'd stop at the river bank to feed the ducks or to throw pebbles into the water when there were no barges floating by. The best time by far was Christmas, when a horde of uncles, aunties and cousins descended upon the Manor house from all the corners of the world. It was the magic moment when Gran let down her guard and desisted from her incessant nagging and furious scolding. That was also when Mon permitted herself to display her rare moments of sweetness. For us, Christmas started from four or five days before the 25th, when the first wave of relatives arrived, and it lasted until the second day of the New Year. It was a period of turkey and pudding every evening. Cards and decorations adorned the main living room. The house was filled with the merry sounds of the old and the young, and the ones in between, everyone counting down to the grand Christmas dinner and the opening of the presents.
The Christmas tree was a massive Scots Pine that occupied the centre of the second living room. It was bedecked with multicoloured tinsels, glittering balls of frosted silver, flashing crystal bulbs and surrounded by presents piled high to the heavens. The best present was always from Santa. I always knew what it was going to be, because I'd have written to Santa several weeks before, stating what I wanted that year, and Santa was guaranteed never to disappoint. Santa's present was always the last to appear at the bottom of the Christmas tree. I'd often speculated how he managed to get presents to children all over the world in the night of Christmas Eve. Millions and millions - goodness knew how many - children, and he still managed to get their presents right on time, without being seen by anyone. How the hell did he'd do it? Once I got a Starcaster Electric Guitar and Amp. Another time I got a remote controlled helicopter. The following year I got a Starsinger karaoke machine. I wondered later on whether the racket of my Elvis Prestley jam sessions had substantially contributed to Gran's decision to kick us out of Preston.
Mom and I moved to South East London, and Mom found a job as an Admin Clerk with Southwark Council. We lived in a flat on the 24th floor of a council tower block, off Old Kent Road. I clambered onto bus 75 at 7.50 every day to St Alban’s, which was my new Secondary School, while Mom set off in the opposite direction to Abbeyfield Road on bus 85. That was part of our horrendous daily routine, which began with each of our allotted 15 minutes slot in the tiny bathroom. The gruelling but mandatory breakfast of Quaker oats, hastily consumed to avoid Mom’s growing tantrums, set me up for the day.
I never fully settled down in that school. It was impossible to recover completely from the shock of the transition from the serene and idyllic life in Leatherhead to the squalor of South East London. Bronte School, my Mole Valley alma mater, with the well trimmed hedges and spotless classrooms, was the stark antithesis of St Alban’s. Take a student straight from Bronte in his full uniform of immaculate, pressed white shirt, silk tie and blazer, and put him in St Alban’s. He’ll look right out of place, like something dropped from outer-space. In St Alban’s, the students came to school in bewildering variations of the official school uniform and with scant regard for cleanliness and hygiene. Even the teachers wore unmatched socks under their trainers and jeans trousers, and their breath stank of a potent mix of alcohol and marijuana.
Everything in St Albans was cramped. The classes where built on top of each other, the corridors were too narrow, and the playground was the size of a postage stamp. The bigger boys bashed the smaller ones out of the way like gladiators in the fighting arena. The entire place was littered with miscellaneous rubbish, and the whole premises smelt like the Guildford Station gent’s toilet on a festive Saturday night.
But as a true testament to human endurance and my innate ability to adapt to extreme conditions, I soon learnt to keep my head down and avoid attracting any unnecessary attention. I quickly blended in by adopting the accepted dress code. I cut a hole in my left shoe, rented a rip in my shorts, wore my shirt un-pressed, inside-out, and dispensed with the genteel manner that I’d been brought up to speak in.
I always returned from school to our grotty, single-bedroom flat, at least two hours before Mom. I'd warily climb the dreary lift, feeling hemmed in by its tarnished aluminium walls. On my lucky day, the lift would be empty, and the only thing to cope with would be the nauseating smell of rust and decay. But, at other times it smelt of urine and sick. And, once, I’d shared the lift another passenger – a dead grey cat that appeared to have been strangled – I kept the maximum possible distance as the lift creaked its way precariously to the top floor. I was always glad for the breath of fresh air as I walked along the corridor to the front for of our flat.
Most of my time was spent looking of the window down into the idle street, at the cars and people reduced to the size of plastic toys. The scene below only invoked forlorn memories of Preston and the Mole Valley, and a lump in my throat. Turning to the side, I would see the grim quadrangle formed by the besmeared and graffiti-ed fence walls of the four tower buildings that comprised our immediate compound. The main feature of the quadrangle was the set of green communal waste skips with plastic lids that had long fallen off. The skips were overfilled, and the excess debris was strewn all over the place.
My days in the tower flat were held together by exciting thoughts of the coming Christmas. I daydreamed about it all day and woke up in the middle of the night thinking I’d heard Santa bringing my Christmas present. I wondered how Santa would get my digital camera to me that year. It was bound to be quite a challenge for the old fellow. Unlike Preston, where he had a choice of four chimney accesses, he would have to find some other means of entry into the flat. Where would he park his sleigh and his reindeers without getting a parking ticket from the traffic wardens who seemed to be the only vigilant people in the neighbourhood, and seemed to work round the clock? What if Santa was not lucky enough to make it into the building without being mugged, or if Rudolf was attacked by one of the next door neighbour's Rottweiler and he got his red nose bitten off? The little Santa's helpers would be scared out of their wits if they’re stuck in the lift with some of the guys around there, bellowing the smoke from their spliff into their poor little elfish faces. The poor things would be as high as a kite by the time the reach the 24th floor.
Christmas Eve night, I lay awake for most of the night. I couldn't wait for the morning to arrive, to leap out of bed and rip open the wrappings from my present. When sleep finally came it was troubled, restless and filled with strange dreams. I’d turned into a thumb-sucking panda with wings, but I couldn’t fly, no matter how much I flapped the wings. I eventually woke up because I thought I heard a noise in the living room. I looked at Mon on her bed across the room, and she was still fast asleep. I had no idea what time it was, you couldn't immediately tell if it was already light outside unless you drew the heavy curtains on Mom's side of the room. Deciding it was already Christmas morning, I walked through the short connecting passage and came fully awake when I saw who was in our living room.
But what was even more incredulous was what Santa appeared to be doing. He’d lifted his distinctive red gown with white and silver hems, and was peeing into the plastic flower pot that held our little Christmas tree, a dark patch growing on the light-brown carpet as he missed. I stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe my eyes or utter a single word. Even before Santa turned round, I’d noticed his robe hung loosely around him like a borrowed gown. He had on a tatty pair of trainers, and he was carrying a green bottle from which he swigged. Each time, it appeared he’d finished, but then he’d start again. The whole business must have taken more than ten minutes. I was astonished how much water came out of the man.
‘Hello Santa’. I said after he was finally done.
He turned round sharply. ‘Oh! You shouldn’t be creeping up on a man like that.’ His voice was not the deep, baritone croon I expected, and when he turned round, I was shocked to see that he had no beard. It was becoming increasingly doubtful if this man was Santa after all. ‘Well, sorry about that, I was dying for a piss, and I didn't want to wake you or your Mom scrabbling around for the loo.’ His eyes were bloodshot and he swayed as he spoke.
‘But you're not Santa’. I said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Of course, I'm Santa, can't you see?’, he spread out his hands and stood upright in full posture. He must have seen the doubt in my face, as he continued, ‘Look, I'll tell you how this Santa racket works.’ He belched, and I could smell the alcohol in his breath, ‘Well, you don't expect one merry little Santa to go round to all the houses to distribute the presents, do you?’
I started backing away into the passage and was preparing to let out a loud scream for Mom to wake up and come to my rescue. But he remained where he was and he continued talking.
‘So, you see. What we do is that we have a whole bunch of district Santas. I'm the district Santa around here,see... the one in charge of this block and three other blocks.’ He scratched his arse as he spoke, and his face also twitched as if he needed to scratch his nose.
For a brief moment, I felt brave enough to challenge him ‘OK. So, if you're Santa, how come you don't have a white beard? Where it's your big bag of pressies? Where are the elves? Where is Ruddy the Reindeer?’
‘I’m afraid; I don’t carry an identity card. And, as you know, there is a recession out there. So, the elves have been sacked. Sadly, poor Rudy has passed away. He was shot by Farmer Jones’, Santa’s eyes lit briefly as he said, ‘At least, he didn’t go to waste, and he made quite a delicious barbeque.’
My stomach heaved, but I controlled myself and managed to ask, ‘What about my Christmas present?’
‘Ah, I was just coming to that. You have no idea how hard things have been this year. There are no presents this Christmas, I'm afraid.’
‘I'm just going round to leave a note apologising for the lack of Christmas presents this year. ...You wouldn't happen to have a pen and piece of paper I could borrow, would you?’
It was at that point that Mom appeared behind me, I hadn’t heard her footsteps as she came from the room. She was in her pyjamas and was rubbing her eyes.
‘What's going on here? James, what are you doing here talking to yourself?’
‘I'm talking to Santa.’
‘Please go back to bed, James. There’s no one here. How many times have I told you that Santa does not exist?’
‘But -’, I was beginning to say when I suddenly realized that he’d gone. He'd completely vanished. Even the wet patch had disappeared, and the carpet was as dry as old Gran’s fashion sense. I’d simply imagined the whole damn thing, even though it was all terribly real.
The time on the little, round silver wall clock said 4:30. At least, it was, officially, already Christmas.
‘Merry Christmas, Mom.’ I said, turned round and went back to bed, while she remained standing there.
We spent the entire Christmas day in our poky little flat. There was no present from Santa. There was no Christmas turkey, no party hats and no pudding. I stared out of the window all day into the dreary Bermondsey streets. It was cold and windy outside, but there was no snow to cover the squalor of the place.
For the first time, as far as I could remember, I felt that Mom was worried about me. She kept glancing at me with that perplexed, anxious look in her eyes, asking at times what I was thinking.
We did not live in the tower flat for long afterwards. Halfway through the following year, Mom got her book published by the same publishers that published Gran's books. Mom did not write about romance, but instead she wrote an intriguing novel about an old witch who dwelled in a castle. Her book received tremendous acclaim, her success helped significantly by the fact that her Mom was a famous author and also because she wrote the book while living in a rundown council estate in South East London.
We moved back to Leatherhead, but not to Preston, and I soon started working on an idea for my own novel which would be a thriller about a serial killer who dressed up as Santa and broke into his victims houses.
Due date: 20 Feb 2012
Working Title: The Battle for the Soul
Reverend F Vickers has just been advised by a long standing member of his congregation, Nathaniel, who is also a Psychologist, that the problem he has been struggling with for the previous 2 years is a case of manic depression. This leaves Vickers and his wife, Sally, in a quandary, since the whole premise of their teachings has been the deliverance from such 'satanic' attacks on the human soul. If Vickers is to keep of his congregation from fleeting to other churches, he must get hold of himself and win the battle against the enemy. But that is only after he has dealt with the dissension that is building up among his assistants and elders in the Church.