Since early retirement Joe Williams looked forward to climbing into the bright red suit and black boots that symbolised Christmas. Over the years he’d lost count of the enchanted children who had visited the grotto, and felt blessed to be a part of their excitement. He never tired of listening to their Christmas requests, both large and small. Most were easy to fulfil, although a few were a downright impossibility, and often caused him an inward chuckle.
Joe looked around. There were only a handful of children left to see, and with a sense of contentment he realised that his calling was almost over for another year. From the corner of his eye he caught sight of a small girl tugging on a woman’s sleeve.
“He’s here Mummy, Santa’s here,” she said. “Hurry Mummy, please hurry,” urged the girl, as she attempted to pull a dark haired woman towards the vicinity of the grotto.
”Calm down Emily, we'll be there in a minute.”
As she spoke the woman’s mouth moved into a thin smile that didn’t seem to reach her eyes. Joe thought he detected a trace of weariness in her voice, but his attention was soon drawn back to the high-pitched voices of the other children. He forgot about the couple until a short while later when he found the girl standing in front of him.
“Hello Santa”, she said in a breathy voice.
Joe smiled. She was a pretty child with a mop of dark hair. “Good afternoon young lady. And what’s your name then?"
“My name is Emily,” she said, before adding, and I’m nearly five and a half."
“Emily, that’s a very beautiful name. Now tell me Emily, what would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas?”
She gave a thoughtful pause before saying, “My Mummy said I mustn’t ask for anything much - cos my daddy doesn’t live with us anymore.”
Emily sighed. “But I’d really like a doll - with long hair - and a blue dress.” Reaching into a coat pocket she drew out a crumpled piece of paper. “See?”
He read the note solemnly, and nodded. “Thank you Emily. As you probably know – I have lots of children to visit – so I can’t make any promises.” Not wanting to disappoint the girl he added, “I’ll do my best.”
“But Santa...” Emily sighed again. "Billy Pritchard - he’s nearly ten - and he lives next door - Well, Billy told me that I was a stupid baby - and that I wouldn’t get my dolly anyway, because - because Santa isn't real."
She sucked on her bottom lip. "Santa,” the child whispered through a sigh of sadness. “Is it true?”
Her eyes held a wide-eyed look of concern, and her waxy skin gleamed in the electric light. And as he looked upon her face something welled inside. It took him back to his own childhood.
Christmas had always been a special time in the Williams household, and like most five-year olds nothing else seemed to matter.
“Will Santa be here soon?” Joe asked his parents hopping from foot to foot.
They exchanged an anxious look. “Frank, you promised,” said his mother.
His father sighed. “It’s okay Elizabeth. I’ll tell the lad.” He glanced at his son. “Joe, come over here a minute," he said.
Joe darted across the room, and stared at his father expectantly.
“Son...” he began. He cleared his throat. “There’s no easy way to say this. So I guess I’ll just say it.” Softening his voice he went on, “The truth of the matter is - well the truth is - there’s no such thing as Santa. He’s just a person made up by adults for little children. A bit like a fairy tale I suppose.”
“No,” Joe croaked in a thick voice.
“I’m sorry,” said his father. “But you see your mother and I have always felt it is wrong to lie to you. We agreed that as soon as you were old enough to understand, we would tell you the truth.”
Joe’s eyes watered.
“Now, now, there’s no need for tears. I promise you son - nothing has changed. In the morning your present will be under the tree - same as always. It’s just that it will be mummy and daddy who puts them there.”
That night as Joe lay back against the pillows he tried hard to keep awake. Maybe his father had made a mistake, and Santa would come after all. Finally he fell into a restless sleep, still listening for the sound of Santa's boots clomping up the stairs.
Christmas morning, just as promised, he discovered his presents under the tree. Yet something felt different. And Christmas was never the same again.
Joe turned his attention back to the young girl. “Well Emily, the only thing I can tell you is this. Sometimes life is a bit of a mystery. And Santa is real - as long as you believe he’s real. So you don’t need to stop believing, not unless you feel you want to.”
Emily blinked at him as she absorbed this, and nodded her head solemnly.
Before she returned to her mother he reached into a sack and handed her a small gift. As Emily and her mother moved away, he watched them with a sober, thoughtful expression, until the images faded to nothing.
There was hardly any light, and the narrow stairwell of the old building smelled faintly of boiled cabbage, urine and stale cigarette smoke. Joe pulled a face. As he reached the first-floor landing he heard loud voices, followed by a woman’s laughter. Impatient to reach his destination he climbed the remaining stairs two at a time.
The apartment was small, but it was clean and comfortable enough. Joe unlocked the door and went straight to the kitchen. He set a couple of shopping bag on the kitchen counter, pulled off his coat and hung it over the back of a chair. He could hear his stomach gurgling and growling like a hungry bear, but he didn’t feel like cooking tonight.
Later, after he’d eaten a meal of cold meat, tomatoes, and bread, Joe leaned back in the chair and stretched his long length. He tapped his thighs with his fingers. Usually he enjoyed his own company, but tonight he was anxious to escape these walls.
He thought again about the young girl he’d met earlier. Was it only Emily’s disappointment that had disturbed him, or long forgotten shadows of his own? As he recalled, once the illusion of Santa had been shattered, it was as if some of the magic of being a child had been lost too soon. He’d always regretted not being allowed to discover the truth in his own time.
Joe sighed. He rose from the table and opened a corner cupboard. He took down a glass and a half-empty bottle of whisky. He poured a generous measure. Then he dug deep into one of the shopping bag, retrieving a box of mine pies that had miraculously worked its way to the bottom. He grabbed a plate from the dish drainer.
As he had traditionally done, for as long as he could remember, he placed the food and drink on an old wooden tray. He carried it through to the lounge. As he set the items on the mantelpiece he said, ‘For you Santa.’ He laughed at his own little joke.
It was after the plates were stacked in the kitchen sink and he’d drained the cup of milky tea, that he unpacked the remaining contents of the bags. Wrapping the doll in shiny paper, he crossed the floor, and pulled the door behind him.
Her hair was tied-back and she was wrapped in an overly large jumper. But even in the dim light he immediately recognized her.
She parted her lips and said, “Yes?” As her face looked upon the large frame standing on the doorstep she eyed him warily. “Can I help you?”
“I’ve come about Emily.”
The woman blinked. A puzzled look passed over her face. "Emily...?”
There's no need to be alarmed,” he assured her. “Let me explain. I’m Joe - Joe Williams, perhaps better known as Santa at this time of year. You brought Emily into the store this afternoon..." When he stopped he was almost breathless.
"Ohh," she muttered. Her eyebrows rose ever so slightly as she asked, “How did you know where we lived?
Joe rummaged in a back pocket and fished out the folded piece of paper. “Emily gave me this,” he told her. “It has her name and address on it.”
She studied the letter, and without looking up she said, “It's been a difficult year for Emily - for the both of us. You have no idea...” She glanced up. Her words trailed off suddenly – almost as if she’d said too much.
Joe peered into the depth of the woman’s eyes. Anger reflected there. But something else did too. Sorrow? Regret? He waited a moment before saying, "Well, I hope you don’t mind - but I wanted to bring Emily something that I know she really wants." He held out the package.
Her mouth dropped with surprise. When she found her voice she said, "This is so unexpected – I’m not sure what to say...How can I ever thank you?"
Joe smiled. "Really, there’s no need for any thanks. You see I’ve never had children of my own – so the pleasure’s all mine."
"Where are my manners?’ she said suddenly. ‘Would you like to come inside for a minute? I could make us some tea.”
Joe shook his head. "Thank you kindly. But it’s late, and it’s been a long day. I’d best be on my way."
"Well, any time you’re passing,’ she said.
Joe nodded. ‘Good night Mrs Philips. And a Merry Christmas.’
He was a little way down the path when he heard her calling.
"By the way, when Emily asks in the morning, who should I say sent her the present?"
Joe turned, smiled, and said, "Tell her it was Santa Mrs Philips.”
The city was transformed. The earlier pace had shifted into slow motion. There was barely any traffic, and the streets were almost empty. As he walked, a stiff wind brushed across his face, and he quickened his pace.
A few minutes later he reached the building. His breathing was laboured, and he stopped for a moment to rest. Joe grabbed the banister and hauled himself up stair after stair. He was aware of his heart thumping by the time he reached the door.
He switched on a light, and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. He removed his coat and hung it on a peg behind the door. Joe sighed. He could do with a stiff drink. He made his way over to the mantelpiece. He stared at the empty glass. For a moment he looked puzzled. He picked up the plate and slowly set it down again. All that remained were a few crumbs.
Joe shook his head in amazement. "Well I never," he said, "Well I never."