Gerry thought the mid November was a ridiculously early time for Santa to arrive, but he kept his own counsel. This was his second year as the Maryhill Shopping Centre Santa and he was glad of the work. He’d had a couple of days to supervise the construction of the grotto, sort out the presents and train his elf to react to the small signs he’d give him. This one’s a bit smelly, get him in and out quickly, this one’s about to burst into tears, get his mum and so on. Joe, the young trainee he’d been assigned, seemed a bit gormless, but was a nice lad and he had hopes of a trouble-free couple of months.
Today was the big day, though and he went through the routine that was going to become so familiar. First, the long cotton drawers and vest, then the padding, slipped over the shoulders and fastened round his midriff. Next, the bright red trousers, ends tucked into the shiny black boots, the jacket, as red as the trousers, followed by the wide black belt fastened round the bulging padding, holding the whole thing in place. Finally, just to make sure he cooked at a constant 200 degrees, the thick white beard, fastened by sticky tape and hooked round his ears.
With a muffled exclamation and a lot of effort he forced himself to his feet. I sound like my old man getting out of his favourite chair, he thought. The shopping centre was open, and a queue had already formed at the front of the Grotto, elegantly, if erroneously, decorated by skating, waving penguins and polar bears eating Christmas cake. He waved to his adoring fans, some waved back, some hid, one burst into tears. He waddled in to the tiny plywood building, decorated with fake reindeer hides and a fireplace with a monitor showing a roaring fire on a 30 second loop. He settled himself in to the huge, padded chair and gave Joe a nod.
“Let’s get started Joe.” The young man, self-conscious in his green velour outfit and floppy hat, ducked through the swing doors and ushered in the first child, a small girl in a thick coat, scarf, mittens and woolly hat. A young woman wearing jeans and a t-shirt, chewing gum, came in with her.
“Hello, young lady, come over here and tell Santa what you want me to bring you this Christmas. Have you been a good girl for your mum?”
“Ah’m no hur mum, ah’m hur auntie” said the young woman. The small girl looked up at Gerry with a serious and not altogether friendly expression. Gerry picked her up and swung her on to his knee and that strange thing happened again. Man and child became cocooned in a bubble of magic, taking them away from the dingy darkness of the Grotto, from the outside world, from everything. Elf and auntie faded to grey. The small girl on his knee felt it too, her eyes grew wide and she whispered, so softly that he had to put his ear close to her mouth, her innermost hope, that her daddy could come home for Christmas, and bring her a puppy.
“I’ll see what I can do” said Gerry softly, “and in the meantime here’s a wee present for you.” He took a present from the Good Girl bag, placed it in the little girl’s hands and lifted her off his knee. She took her auntie’s hand and, still under the spell, left the dark, quiet grotto for the bright lights and cheesy Christmas songs of the shopping centre.
By lunchtime Gerry was exhausted. Soon after 12 he asked Joe to place the sign that read ‘Santa’s feeding his reindeer’ at the end of the queue, and half an hour later he sighed with relief, heaved himself to his feet, had a good scratch under his padding, and lumbered out of the grotto to his dressing room. It took him five minutes to get out of his gear, then he sat luxuriating in the freedom. It felt as if he had just emerged from a particularly uncomfortable session in a sauna. He now had about 20 minutes before he had to get it all back on again, so he hurried to the canteen.
The afternoon session went the same way as the morning’s, with a steady stream of little people striding into the room, or edging in hesitantly, holding on to their parent’s hands. One or two took fright and bolted as soon as they saw him, their parents waiting long enough to claim a refund before rushing after them. But for the youngest ones, the believers who were seeing Santa for the first time, the experience was something they would carry with them, remembering it when they brought their own children to meet the man with the white beard.
After the first week was over Gerry bought Joe a drink at a pub near the shopping centre and found out a bit of his background. He lived with his mum on the seventh floor of a tower block, had left school that year with nothing but a metalwork higher, knew he was lucky to have even this job, despite the daft costume. In the old days, when he left school, Gerry told him, a metalwork higher would have been enough to get him into the shipyards, where he had worked for 29 years, until, at the exalted level of a Master Welder, he had been laid off two years ago, together with the 200 other men in the yard.
“Times are tougher now, Joe, you have to take whatever comes along and make the best of it.” Gerry said.
They finished their drinks and went their separate ways, Joe to the hot meal his mum would have waiting for him, Gerry to the one-bedroom flat he’d lived in since his marriage had ended 18 months ago, when Laura had finally lost patience with his self-pity. He would end up where he did most Saturday nights, in his favourite pub with the rest of the gang. At least he had enough money to buy them a round of drinks for a change.
The next few weeks followed a familiar pattern, the queue of children never depleting, Richard, the manager of the centre, was pleased and was already making overtures to him for next Christmas. A depressing thought, this was not how Gerry had envisaged his working life turning out. He and Joe were a good team, though Gerry’s opinion of the young man had gone up several notches since they had started. They shared a laugh whenever they had a break and the weekly drink in the local pub had become a ritual that they both enjoyed.
But then, sooner than they had thought possible, it was the final week before Christmas, the run-up to the big day and Santa was knackered. He’d done a quick calculation: Joe had ushered around 2,000 children into the magical grotto, with very few disasters (only one was sick on him this year, compared to half a dozen last year).
Early on that Monday morning, a small girl that he knew very well visited the grotto, accompanied by a woman he also knew well. He waited to see if Laura would see through the fat suit and bushy beard. She didn’t. But then she wasn’t looking at him, instead her mobile phone was taking all her attention. His daughter was standing in front of him. He plucked her off the ground and sat her on his knee.
“Now then Chloe,” in a deeper, more rumbling voice than he usually used. “Have you been a good girl for your mummy and daddy?” The small child wasn’t fazed by the fact that Santa knew her name.
“I have been good for my mummy, but my daddy’s not really my daddy” said Chloe, in a matter of fact way. “Can I have a new computer for Christmas please? And a pony?”
“Perhaps you’re a little young for a computer, Chloe, and is your garden big enough for a pony?”
“Well,” said Chloe, considering this, “the garden’s quite big… but I know what you mean about the computer, that’s what my mummy says too. How about a Playmobil farm then?”
“We’ll see what we can do, but remember, it’s got to be small enough to fit down your chimney.” Chloe looked a bit confused at this, but gravely accepted her present, took her mum’s hand and guided her out. Gerry’s ex-wife hadn’t taken her eyes off her phone the whole time. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Give us a minute before the next one comes in Joe.”
The next couple of days were busier than ever, and both Gerry and Joe began to look forward to Christmas Eve. Richard had hinted that they might be receiving a ‘wee bonus’. Gerry hoped that it would be a fat envelope but knew a bottle of Bells was more likely.
The grotto closed at midday on Christmas Eve and by 11 o’clock they had the finishing line well in their sights. Joe ushered in a boy who looked to be at the high end of the age range, perhaps seven, an age when many of his peers had stopped believing in the magic of Santa. Older kids were often the most troublesome, but Gerry knew this one wouldn’t be. He’d worked with the boy’s father for more than twenty years and had been at a very drunken party to celebrate the birth of the young boy standing in front of him, eyeing him with suspicion.
“Well, hello, Peter have you been a good lad for your mum and dad?” Peter looked startled.
“Yes, I have, I think. Could I get an X-box in my stocking please?” Peter said.
“Well, we’ll need to see, won’t we?” said Gerry, aware that Peter’s dad had been out of work as long as he had. “I hope my elves have managed to make some X-boxes. They’re a bit tricky for them, all those buttons and so forth. But don’t worry, if they haven’t I’ll make sure you get something even better.” Peter looked dubious but took his present and headed out of the door.
“Santa knew my name, dad.” Gerry heard him saying as the door swung closed behind him.
The last few stragglers went through the grotto without incident, their parents stumbling glassy-eyed after them and then it was all over. Gerry sighed, suddenly sad. The magic had left through the swinging doors with the last young believer.
“Go and put up the sign Joe” he said. “We’re all done here.” Joe ducked through the door with a wooden sign that read ‘Santa’s off to pack his sacks’, passing Richard who came bearing a wide grin and a bottle of Glenfiddich.
“I had my money on a bottle of Bell’s my old son,” said Gerry, “but that will do very nicely.”
Richard produced some plastic glasses from his jacket pocket
“You’ve done really well Gerry, the takings have been fabulous.” He poured a good measure into two glasses and handed one to Gerry.
“To the best Santa in Glasgow!” Plastic touched plastic in a quiet toast.
“Is it okay if my mum comes in to see where I’ve been working?” asked Joe, at the door. “And there’s a chap here wants a word, too.”
“Aye, bring yer mum in” said Gerry, “but whoever else is out there can piss off. Santa Claus has left the building. Come in and have a wee nip, Joe’s mum!”
Before Joe could pass the message on, the Grotto doors swung open and a large, red-faced man forced his way in.
“Ah want to know how you know my son’s name” he said. “And don’t give me any shite about it being because you’re Santa!”
“Hello, Tom,” said Gerry. “And how’s the world treating you since the yard closed? Have you been a good boy? Would you like a present?” Gerry held out a plastic glass half full of whisky. The red-faced man stopped short, but took the offered plastic. Then realisation struck.
“Gerry! Is that you under they whiskers? I’d never have guessed you would have ended up here.”
Joe appeared at Tom’s side.
“Gerry, this is my mum.” Richard poured two more whiskies and handed them round. Joe’s mum introduced herself.
“I’m glad to meet you. Joe’s always going on about you. You must come round to ours for a bite to eat after this.” Gerry was pleased to accept. A home-cooked meal would make a welcome change from his usual microwaved effort.
The grotto filled with laughter and warmth, giving it a late lease of life. An Indian Christmas, thought Gerry. He felt a wave of well-being infusing him. It spread to the other guests, a kind of magic, perhaps the last of Santa’s magic, fell on the small, impromptu party.
Tom crouched down beside Gerry.
“I’m glad I’ve seen you, pal” he said, “cos I’ve been talking to our old gaffer at the yard. It’s been bought by a Norwegian bunch and they’re going to be starting up again, in the spring, with an order for three supply ships for the rigs. He’s asked me to put together a team. You up for it?”
“What do you think?” said Gerry, “I’m out of a job here now, in case you hadn’t noticed. Here, will they be looking for any new trainees?”
“Aye, if you can find a decent worker amongst the sort of young folk they’re turning out these days.”
“They’re not all bad you know,” said Gerry, looking across at Joe. “In fact I can find you one no bother.”
For the last time he climbed, with some difficulty, on to his throne and held his drink high.
“Cheers everyone to the spirit of Christmas!”