The Garden Centre

 SUNDAY had always been a family day.  Max would permit himself a thirty-minute lie-in followed by a light breakfast and a quick glimpse through the papers, before attacking Michele’s list of essential household jobs.  The kids had their own list.  Then the four of them would sit down together and enjoy a traditional Sunday lunch.

He always looked forward to it.  His wife was a good cook who did not enjoy cooking.  Still, indulging her martyrdom was a small price to pay for a beautifully roasted shoulder of lamb, a succulent rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding or whatever other culinary delights she might conjure up that week.  Anyway, if they made themselves useful around the house while she was ‘slaving over a hot stove’, she would perceive this as a fair exchange of labour and they would be allowed to enjoy their meal in peace.  Moreover, they’d discovered that lavishing her with praise afterwards would usually get them out of doing the washing up.

Today was different.  Lunch would have to wait, as would the jobs on Michele’s list.  What’s more, Max had a unique and unarguably selfless excuse.  But that didn’t stop his wife making it abundantly clear that she was not pleased.

It was hardly a novel observation, but Christmas really did start earlier every year, Max thought.  It was early November when he’d received the ‘cri de coeur’ from the hospice.  The young fundraiser had told him that the local garden centre had agreed to build a Santa’s Grotto, supply presents for the children and donate all proceeds to the hospice’s development fund.  All she had to do in return was provide the Santas.  So the hospice was looking for volunteers to work on a rota basis, divided into two-hourly shifts, three Santas a day.

Max had explained that, much as he liked to support them and had done so wherever possible in the past, he was only available at weekends, in fact, only Sundays really.  Secretly he had rather hoped this would let him off the hook but, to his surprise, the conscientious young woman had snapped him up.

Today was the day!  Second shift, eleven til one.  Half an hour to change back into his normal clothes and get home at one-thirty for a delayed lunch.  ‘For once,’ Max thought feeling rather noble, ‘Michele will have to wait.’

He found himself picturing what the girl at the hospice might look like.

Since he’d never played Santa before, he wondered how seriously he should take it.  On the one hand young children were involved, living out their fantasies, hopeful that Santa would be as they imagined and not a disappointment.  ‘Wise’, ‘kind’, ‘generous’, ‘cheerful’ and ‘patient’ were words that sprang to mind.  He didn’t want to let them down, after all he had children of his own, Peter and Eleanor, twelve and fourteen respectively, so he was not wholly inexperienced in such things.  On the other hand it was only for two hours and how much could go wrong?  He’d probably never be asked again anyway.

Still, without quite knowing why, he wanted to do well and, as he drove carefully through the dank wintry lanes, he began rehearse what he might say.  In fact, it occurred to him that he was disturbingly unprepared.  Now the time had come, he wondered whether he’d been hasty, whether he was up to the task.  He was no actor and children could be cruel and unforgiving.

Helena (yes, that was the name of the girl from the hospice) had said there would be a ‘Santa’s Little Helper’ called Maude to assist him.  He imagined her as eighteen, blonde, blue-eyed and bubbly.  Yes, that was how a ‘Little Helper’ should be.  He hoped she’d be on hand to help him get changed.

It was bad luck that he got caught by the level crossing.  The near empty two-carriage train always took an age to go through.  Usually, there were ten times as many people waiting at the crossing than there were on the train.  Typical.  So much for the government’s policy on public transport, thought Max, his mind drifting.  Irritating.

It wasn’t that he was unhappily married, not at all, although they were in a bit of a rut after fifteen years.  He had been faithful to Michele and had no reason to believe that she hadn’t played with a straight bat, too.  But he had noticed lately that he was spending more time looking at girls.  Well, women.  Okay, women and girls, actually.  Not that he’d done anything so far, just looked.  So far.   It was most odd.  Something had changed on his fiftieth birthday, a number of things, in fact, none of them for the better, as if a little engineer inside him was switching off certain body circuits and switching on others

He wondered how many customers he’d get at the garden centre.  Think arithmetic.  Two hours, average three minutes per child, say, twenty an hour.  So, allowing for a tea break, possibly thirty children.  How old would they be?  Surely, these days, no child over eight would want to be seen dead with Santa.  Not cool, surely?  So they’d be young children, then.  Maybe, not so bad.

It occurred to him that he had only ever seen Santa once himself.  Usually Michele had taken the kids as part of a shopping outing, it wasn’t an activity he’d have been involved with.  Come to think of it, what about his own childhood?  His Mum must have taken him to see Santa, surely?  There was a vague recollection, nothing more.  He remembered hating clowns.  They’d frightened him.  Never could see anything funny about a human face daubed with paint, features distorted into a ghoulish mask.  Why did people find that funny?  Terrifying, yes, funny, no.  Maybe Santa fell into the same category.  Max made a mental note to try not to be frightening.

His train of thought was interrupted by, well, the train.  It lumbered noisily over the crossing, engine belching out black diesel fumes.  ‘I ask you,’ Max thought, ‘all that pollution for the benefit of one or two people.’  He looked in his rear view mirror, there must have been a dozen cars waiting behind him.  He was in the process of formulating a letter to his local MP when the barriers flew up and he was away.

He hadn’t far to go now and this was his last opportunity to gather his thoughts.  What was he going to say?  How would he pad out the time?  Maybe Santa’s Little Helper would have some ideas.  Would it be enough to ask their age, where they lived and what they wanted for Christmas?  Anyway, the little buggers were probably only interested in a snatch and grab followed by a quick get-away.  Kids were so materialistic nowadays.  Still, a few, maybe the girls, might be up for a more altruistic experience.  Best be prepared.

There was the garden centre up ahead.  He checked his watch; quarter to eleven, spot on.  As he turned in to the huge parking lot he took in the main building, a sprawling single storey structure lavishly bedecked with coloured lights and seasonal decorations.  Cheerful, unrecognizable tunes with lots of chimes and sleighbells were playing over exterior loudspeakers and there were piles of Christmas trees wherever he looked.  Then he saw it.  High on the roof, positioned to attract attention from the road, was an absurdly large Santa astride a sleigh decked high with gifts, reindeers in harness and a billboard proclaiming in large letters: “Visit Santa’s Grotto.”

He looked around him.  Where were the customers – he’d expected hoards of them.  Still, it was early, and chilly.  He parked alongside the half dozen or so other cars and headed briskly for the entrance.

He glimpsed up again at his alter ego on the roof.  ‘Blast,’ he thought, ‘what are the names of the reindeers?  Some little kid is bound to know and make me look a prat.  Rudolf, Prancer, Vixen – .’  Keep thinking.  ‘Donna, Blitzen – .  How many’s that, five?  How many were there?  Six?’  He wasn’t sure but he was inside now.  He began to feel nervous.  The sooner he located Santa’s Little Helper, the better.

The inside of the store was even more festive but, apart from the dearth of customers, he sensed something else was missing, although quite what it was escaped him.  He glanced around looking for the grotto, his designated home for the next two hours.  There it was, tucked in a corner, next to the decorations and artificial floral displays, a painted cottage with snow on the roof, a crazy chimney and a path with a little picket fence and a gate.  He was impressed.

Max chose to follow a second path, which appeared to lead round the back.  Sure enough, shielded from the inquisitive gaze of customers, was an unmistakably female figure in a kind of abbreviated Santa outfit, bending over a pile of red and white garments.  The back view was vaguely encouraging.

“Good morning,” said Max jovially.

The figure straightened up and turned around.  Not so encouraging.  “Oh, hello, you must be Mr Easton, I’ve been wait – , expecting you.  I’m Maude.”  She smiled, held out a pile of garments and gestured to a door.  “You better get into these, you’re rather short of time.  The boots are in there already.”

Max took the bundle and observed his new assistant with what he hoped was well-disguised disappointment.  She seemed rather bossy, but Max was happy to give her the benefit of the doubt, dealing with little kids all day long would account for her manner.  Still that wasn’t really it.  Maude was quite simply not what he’d hoped for.  She was sixty if she was a day, tall and angular, plainly made up, with steel grey hair cut in a stern bob part hidden under the little Santa hat.

“Right, then, see you in a moment,” he said cheerfully, hesitating by the door.  “Can I give you a shout if I need a hand?”

“Of course you can.  There’s a mirror in there so you can check the beard and wig.  Everything’s extra large, so you should be okay.  Shout when you’ve finished and I’ll come and give you the once over.  I have to put the signs out.”

Max pushed his way clumsily through the door and found himself in what looked like a staff toilet.  The door wouldn’t lock and persisted in swinging open towards him.  Self-consciously, he removed his jacket, shirt and jeans and hung them over the one available peg.  On went the famous red trousers, the jacket trimmed with fake ermine and the big black boots.  So far. so good.  The beard and moustache were not so straightforward, relying on wire hooks behind the ears and a piece of elastic over the head.  Lastly, the wig and hat.  God, it itched already.  He checked his reflection in the mirror above the sink and was surprised at how little of himself was left.  It was time to venture out.

Maude was busying herself at the picket gate.  The ‘open’ signs were up and Max watched as a mother and father with two children wandered past disinterestedly.  Maude saw him emerge from the toilet and bustled over.

“Splendid!” she cried, making a little clapping motion with her hands.  “Now, go and make yourself comfortable in Santa’s house and I’ll give you your briefing.”

Bent double, Max allowed himself to be ushered through the little painted door.  One wall was piled high with boxed toys leaving barely enough space for Santa’s throne and two smaller chairs.  He sat down on the hard cushionless seat and awaited instructions.

“Now, it’s my job to solicit the customers, take their money, and bring them in,” said Maude.  Her voice dropped in tone.  “I always try to get the children’s names in advance and whisper them to you so that you appear to know them already.  They like that.”  She sounded conspiratorial and pointed to the wall of boxes. “Once you’ve had a chat, all you have to do is explain that they can choose from anything here and then you give them a cheery ‘goodbye’.”  Max waited for more.  “That’s it,” Maude concluded, “there’s really nothing to it!”

“So, do I give them a big Father Christmas kiss or a cuddle?” Max asked, realising that he had no idea what the children would expect.

“No, absolutely not,” said Maude sternly.  “Remember, you’re Santa, definitely not Father Christmas – that word is not used in this store.  And, please remember that touching the children is strictly prohibited.”

“I see.”  Max realised he should have anticipated this.  “What if they want to take a photo?”

“That’s up to the parents or guardians.  We insist that at least one related adult is present throughout.  If they want to take a picture with Santa then so be it, but the protocol is to avoid physical contact at all costs.  Remember that a photograph could be used as evidence later in the event of a complaint.”

It dawned on Max that it was the word ‘Christmas’ that was missing everywhere.  What had things come to?  How dismal this was turning out to be.

“I think that’s everything,” Maude fussed.  She started to tidy the rows of boxes.  “We had an excellent session last evening.  A Mr Wellcome, do you know him?”

“Afraid not, no,” Max pretended to think, “Wellcome, you say, no, I don’t think so.  Excellent name for a Father Christmas, though, isn’t it?”

“’Santa’, please, do try to remember that we don’t use the ‘C’ word.  Well, anyway, he, Ronald, was really rather good.  All the children said so.  We made over fifty pounds – imagine that, fifty pounds in one session!”  Maude looked at her watch.  “Time to get started.  It looks as if it will be slow today, not many customers about.  Still, try to keep it to two minutes per session, maybe three if there are two of them.  Good luck.  We’ll have a tea break at twelve.  Oh, just a sec!”  Maude bent down and adjusted his beard.  “There, that’s better.  I’d check it from time to time if I were you, nothing worse than the children spotting it’s false.”  She left.

Max settled back on the throne.  ‘What isn’t false?’ he thought.  Through the fake, glassless window he could see and overhear the family who had walked past earlier.  The parents were in earnest discussion.

“Three quid each?” protested the father, “bit strong if you ask me.”  The two children, a boy and a girl, stood by quietly, not wanting to get involved.

“It is only once a year, Joe,” protested the woman, “anyhow, I want a picture for Mum, I promised her.”

“Oh, alright.  Go on you two, here, give this tenner to the old biddy and make sure you bring me back the change.”

They moved out of sight.  A few moments later the ‘old biddy’ appeared in the doorway.  “It’s Hazel and Philip,” Maude whispered in his ear.  The two children shuffled into the grotto with much encouragement from their mother.  “Oh, and their mother, Shirley,” Maude added in her normal voice before withdrawing with the air of someone who has more important things to do.

Hazel and Philip were about seven and five respectively, the mother was a petite, rather brassy woman who Max placed in her early thirties.  She wore a low-cut blouse and Max had to remind himself that this was a family outing.  ‘So, this is it,’ he thought, ‘it’s now or never.’

“Well, then,” he said in a deep, jolly sort of voice, “how nice to see you.  Happy C – ,” he stopped himself from uttering the profanity just in time.  “Happy, er, compliments of the season!”  The children looked slightly puzzled.  He smiled at the girl.  “So, how old are you, Shirley?”

“I’m thirty-six, if you must know,” said the brassy woman adjusting her blouse.

“I’m sorry,” Max said hurriedly, “I meant your daughter, I do apologize.  It’s Hazel, isn’t it?”

“I’m six,” said the girl decisively.

“Nearly seven,” interjected Shirley. “Go on, tell Santa when your birthday is, Haze.”

“This week,” said the child.

“Yes, but what day next week?” persisted Shirley, “go on, tell him.”

“Monday,” replied Hazel.

“Tomorrow, her birthday’s tomorrow, Santa!  She’s a Sagittarius, aren’t you, darling?  With Virgo in the ascendant,” she added as if to emphasize her point.

Max was a little taken aback.  It was obviously very important for Shirley that her daughter should tell him about this.

“Tomorrow?  You’re seven tomorrow, are you, Hazel?  Well then, it’s happy, er, Yuletide and happy birthday, too!  That’s pretty cool, young lady.”

“Very special,” Shirley concurred.

There was a brief silence whilst Max tried to think about where to go from here.  The children were beginning to fidget and he was conscience that it was up to him to make the next move.

“Right, so where will you be over the, er, festive period, Philip?”

“With daddy and Susan,” the boy replied.

“Oh, I see.  Susan – is she your – ?” he was stumbling now.

Hazel came to the rescue.  “Susan is daddy’s girlfriend,” she explained.  “Daddy lives in Brighton now.  It’s right by the sea.”

“Oh, so the man you are with today, that’s not your – .”

“That’s Joe,” Shirley intervened.  “Frank and I are separated.  Have been for two years.  Bastard,” she added, not quite under her breath.

“I see.” Max hadn’t expected anything like this.  “So, does that mean you won ‘t be having a family – ,” oh, sod it, he thought – “ – Christmas?”

“We’ll be having two family Christmasses,” answered Shirley.  “Phil’s going to Brighton with his Dad and Haze is staying with me and Joe.”

“I want to go to Brighton, too!” said Hazel angrily.  “It’s not fair!  Why can’t we all be together!”

Max could see that Shirley was getting anxious.

“Now, now,” he said mustering up as much merriment as he could, “we shouldn’t get angry at this time of year!  Remember, Hazel, it’s the season for goodwill to all men.”

“Bloody men”, muttered Shirley, “they won’t get no goodwill from me!”

“You see,” Max pressed on, “everybody makes mistakes, Hazel, we all have to forgive and forget and Christmas is the best time to do it.”

He knew as soon as the words had come out that this was a terrible mistake.  Philip started to cry and Hazel looked as if she was not far behind.  Shirley stood up, hands on hips.

“That’s asking a bit much, isn’t it, Santa?” she said.  “They’re a bit young to take that in, wouldn’t you say?  Come on, you two, wish him a happy time, choose what you want and let’s get out of here.  What’s in them boxes, anyhow?”

Max looked around at the stacked toys.  “Well, let’s see, shall we?  There’s an electric car with batteries, a dress-up doll, a spaceship and a game.  You can have whatever you want.”

Philip and Hazel browsed disconsolately through the pile of colourful cartons.  Philip took the car, Hazel chose the party game.

“That’s nice, Haze, we can play that after the turkey,” Shirley said to the girl.  She put her mouth to Max’s ear. “She’s having chicken really, but I daren’t tell her,” she whispered cocking a thumb at the boy.  “He’ll have the bloody lot plus trimmings where he’s going.”  She took hold of the kids by their collars.  “Right then, say ‘goodbye’ to Santa.”

Max felt wretched.  “Look, Hazel, take another present, for your birthday.”  He picked up the doll.  “Here, how about this?”

Hazel looked up at Shirley for approval.

“Go on, love, if you want it.  Santa’s trying to be kind.”

The girl picked up the boxed doll.  “Thank you, Santa,” she said.

The little family left with a half wave leaving Max alone with his thoughts.  A second later Maude appeared at the door.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“Terrible,” Max replied.  “Poor kids.  Their father’s walked out on them, they’re split up over Chris – , sorry, the festive period and I said all the wrong things.  Oh, and by the way, I gave the little girl an extra present.  It’s for her birthday tomorrow.”

“Very generous, I’m sure, but you’ll have to pay for that out of your own pocket,” said Maude.  “Everything’s costed out on the basis of one present per child.”  She bent down to check his beard.  “Incidentally, you didn’t ask the kids where they were spending the ‘Big Day’, did you?”  Max’s face gave him away.  “Never a good idea that,” Maude went on, “too many broken homes these days.  Right, the next lot are waiting.  Ready?”

“Yup, wheel ‘em in,” said Max.  “In for a penny in for a pound.”

“Okay.  It’s a little girl called Joyce – she’s five – and her Mum, Christine.  I don’t know the father’s name.”  She was off again.

Max took a deep breath.  Within seconds a rather plain little girl appeared in the doorway followed by a mum and dad who looked no more than teenagers themselves.  The young mum pushed the reluctant girl towards Max.  She sniffed loudly and her mother wiped the snot off her nose with a used tissue.

“Go and sit on Santa’s knee, Joycee, go on, give Santa a lovely big kiss.”

“No!” exclaimed Max recoiling in horror and wrong footing the little girl who tripped and stumbled against her mother.  They both looked crestfallen.

“Under different circumstances there’s nothing I’d like more,” he spluttered, hastily re-arranging his beard which had become maladjusted in the skirmish, “but, you see, I’ve got a rather nasty cold and I wouldn’t want Joyce to catch it.  It’s very chilly in Lapland, you know, ha!”  This seemed to mollify them and he decided to press home his advantage. “Now, Joyce, you must tell me how old you are and where you live?”

“I’m five and I live at 24, Annersley Gardens.  That’s the white house with the green front door,” Joyce lisped happily.  She was more self-assured than she looked.

“Thank you, Joyce, and do you have a chimney?”  The little girl looked questioningly at her mother.

“Tell Santa we don’t have a chimney because we’ve got central heating, darling.”

“No,” said Joyce.

“I see,” replied Max good-naturedly.  “Then how do you suggest I get in with all your presents?”

Joyce had no answer for that.  Max carried on fancifully. “You see, Joyce, what I usually do is leave the reindeer and the sleigh on the roof and climb down the chimney.  Then I slip quietly into your room and fill up your stocking with presents while you’re still asleep.”  The child looked to her mother for reassurance,  “Never mind, in your case I’ll get in through a window.”

“But our windows don’t open,” said Joyce.

“Because of the central heating, you see,” said the father in a thin, reedy voice.

“This is my husband, Nasser,” said the mother helpfully. “He put in the central heating all by himself.”

“Did he, indeed?”  Max leant towards the child.  “What a clever daddy you have, darling!  Well, I’m sure I’ll get in somehow.”  He had no intention of being caught out twice.  “Anyway, what do you want from Santa this Yuletide, Joyce?”

“A doll’s house,” came the instant reply.

“She’s been going on about it all week,” added Nasser flatly.  “Been looking forward to this, haven’t you, darling?”

“A doll’s house, eh?” Max responded.  He looked around him.  “Well, I don’t have one with me here, but I’m sure we’ll sort something out in time for the big day, won’t we?”  He winked knowingly at the parents but was met with blank expressions.

“She’s talked about nothing else,” said Nasser.  “Must think we’re made of money.”

“She’s only five, Nass, she doesn’t know what a doll’s house costs.”

“If you didn’t let her watch that kids’ TV with those stupid ads she wouldn’t even know what a doll’s house was!”

Here we go again, thought Max, don’t any of these families function normally?  He pointed to the row of dolls behind him.

“Look, Joyce, I might not have a doll’s house, but how about one of these beautiful dolls?”  He selected one and offered it to her.  “Here, isn’t she beautiful?”  Joyce took the doll and looked at it critically.  Her face broke into a smile.  “Good, there we are, then.  Well happy Christmas, er, whatever, to you all.  Enjoy every wonderful moment, Joyce, and try to help mummy and daddy enjoy it, too.  Remember they work very hard all year round for you and they deserve a break.”  He was rather pleased with that and made a mental note to use it again.

“Chance would be a fine thing,” said Nasser, dolefully.  “I’ve been out of work for eighteen months.”  He nodded to his wife.  “Her, too.  It’s been a tough year.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Well, good luck to you both – oh, and to Joyce, of course, I’m sure next year will be better.”  He leant forward and gestured towards the door.

“Is that it, then?” asked Nasser quizzically.

“Er, yes – that is, unless there is anything else I can do for you.”

“Oh, right.  It’s just that we thought we might get longer.  You know, for three quid?”

“I see,” Max had no idea how to deal with this.  “Well, you’re welcome to sit here for a bit longer if you like but I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I’ve got other children to see.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.  Okay, darling, say by-bye to Father Christmas.”  It was the mother who stood up first.

“It’s Santa, actually,” explained Max.

“By-bye, Father Christmas,” said Joyce.

The three of them left, the child clutching her doll.  Max felt sad.  This Santa Clause business was not all it was cracked up to be.

Maude was in a bit of a state.  “Santa, I’m so sorry, but the first family are back wanting a photograph.  Apparently they forgot just now.  I’ve explained how busy you are but they – “

Before Maude could protest further, in came Shirley tugging Philip and Hazel behind her.  “It’s for my mum, Santa.  She doesn’t get to see much of the kids these days and it’ll make her Christmas.  Won’t take a mo, sorry, should have done it before.”  She already had her mobile ‘phone at the ready. “Go on, Phil, sit on Santa’s lap, Hazel give him a big kiss on the cheek.”

The two children moved into position like well-rehearsed actors.  Max decided not to protest.

“No, no!” cried Maude, hand to mouth.  “Santa, you shouldn’t, you really shouldn’t!”  But, it was too late.  The deed was done and immortalised on Shirley’s Nokia.  “I’ll have to confiscate that film!” Maude was holding out her hand.

“What are you talking about, yer stupid cow?” Shirley replied disdainfully.  “It’s a mobile, there ain’t no film!”

“Then I’ll take the whole thing,” said Maude bossily, making a snatch for the ‘phone.

“Oh, and who says?” Shirley replied angrily, stealing it away from Maude’s grasp.

Philip had started to cry again and Hazel was panicking.  “I want to go home, Mummy, I don’t like it here!”

Max knew he needed to diffuse the escalating situation.  “Maude, it’s only a photograph, for God’s sake.  Leave it.  Please, what must the children think?”

A tall, muscular figure appeared at the door.  Shirley passed him the ‘phone.  “Joe, tell this interfering busybody to leave it, would yer?”

“Sorted,” said Joe, threateningly.  “Right, you two, out.”  The children left without protest.  Joe pushed his face up against Max’s.  “As for you, you bleedin’ fake, if ever you lay a hand on those kids again, I’ll kill you, got it!”

“Not him, Joe, it wasn’t like that.”  Shirley pointed at Maude.  It’s her, she’s telling me I’ve got to give her my mobile!”

“I said you couldn’t come back in!  First you jump the queue then you push me aside, force yourself on Santa and take a photograph!  Didn’t you see the sign outside or can’t you read?  We do have rules, you know!”

“Stop it, stop it!” Max shouted.  “This has been a complete disaster from start to finish.  Now, please, will you all leave my house – now!”

Rather to his surprise, this had the desired effect.  The four customers left without a backward glance, with Maude bringing up the rear.  “I hope you’re satisfied!” she sneered at him trying unsuccessfully to slam the plywood door behind her.

Max slumped back into his chair and looked at his watch; still over an hour to go.  ‘This is ridiculous,’ he thought, ‘I’m not making any of these people happy and I’m being humiliated in the process.’  He was a volunteer, for heaven’s sake, he didn’t need this, the hospice would just have to go without.  Let them get Ronald Wellcome back if he was so brilliant, he wasn’t staying for another minute.  He stood up and stretched.

“Crap, crap, crap!” he muttered progressively loudly, not noticing the solitary child standing in the doorway.  “Oh, h-hello,” he stammered, “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

“Hello, Santa.”  It was a girl, about eight Max thought, pretty and nicely dressed.

“I was just popping out for a bite and a cup of tea,” Max lied.  The girl looked down at her feet.  “The reindeer need feeding, you know,” he added lamely, hit by the wave of guilt that goes with upsetting a child.

“That’s alright,” said the girl shrugging her shoulders, “I’ll come back next year.”  She turned and started back to the door.

Despite the events of the morning, Max felt himself relenting.  He slumped back heavily onto Santa’s throne.  “No, wait, a year is too long,” he said resignedly.  “Come on, why don’t you sit down?”  The girl stayed by the door. ”Please?”

She moved to the chair and settled with a measured dignity beyond her years.  “Thank you, Santa,” she said.

“Why don’t you fetch your mummy and daddy,” asked Max, “wouldn’t it be nice for them to be here, too?”

The girl hesitated.  “We’re with my father,” she replied, “and he doesn’t want to come in.”

“We?” Max ventured.

“Yes, my younger brother, Tom, and I.  They are waiting outside.  I wanted to see you, they didn’t.”

“Just a moment, stay there,” said Max after slight pause.  He got up, went outside and looked around.  There was a small group of children and adults waiting at the gate.  Maude started to walk towards him.  Max looked frantically about.  There was an elderly man with a boy of about seven standing apart from the others.  He pushed past Maude and went up to them.

“Are you, Tom?” he asked the boy.

“Yes,” came the reply.  Max turned to the man.  “Do you know where his father is?”

“I am his father,” said the man.

“Good, come with me then, I’ve got your daughter inside and she’s feeling lonely.”

The man followed Max reluctantly.  “I thought the children would enjoy seeing you more on their own,” he said.  “Then Tom said he’d rather stay with me.”

“After you,” Max held the door open.  Maude was hovering.

“I’ll handle this, Maude, if you don’t mind,” said Max as he bustled her aside.

“Well, really!” Maude protested, not understanding why she was no longer in charge.

Max ushered them into the house shutting the door in Maude’s face.  A fat lot of help Santa’s Little Helper had turned out to be.  “Right, now why don’t you all sit down and we’ll have a little chat,” said Max.

He looked at the trio in front of him and thought how old and tired the man looked.  Straggles of remaining hair had fallen across his forehead, his face was deeply lined and his eyes red-rimmed.  The kids didn’t seem much brighter.  The girl got up.

“Would it be alright if we looked at the presents, Santa?”

“Yes, of course, if that’s what you’d like to do,” Max replied.

The two men watched in silence as the children studied the gifts on display.  They considered each option carefully before making their selection.

“Tom would like the game and I’ll have the car if that’s alright,” said the girl.

“Of course, if you are quite sure,” Max replied cheerfully.

The girl stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek.  “Thank you, Santa,” she said in his ear, “and Happy Christmas.  Don’t work too hard, will you?”

“Happy Christmas, Santa,” said Tom and without another word, they left hand in hand.

“Happy Christmas to you, too,” Max said after them, “and thank you.”

The man stood up wearily. “No, thank you.  That was very kind.  You didn’t have to go to the trouble of finding me.”

“Well,” said Max, “that’s not quite true.  You see, we are not supposed to see children without their parents being present.  It’s a rule, you know.”

“How depressing,” said the man, “a sign of the times, I suppose.”  He pulled up the collar of his coat although it was pleasantly warm in the little house.  “Well, I’d better be off, too.  I have the children to look after.”

“They’re lovely,” said Max, “and they seem to me perfectly capable of looking after themselves.”

“Yes.”  The man stopped and turned.  “I am very proud of them.”  His head sunk further into his shoulders. “You know, for every person who loves Christmas there’s another who finds it heart-breaking.”

The man’s sadness was palpable and Max was beginning to feel concerned.  “If it would help, you’re welcome to stay and talk.”

“Thank you,” said the man, “you’re very kind.”  He sat down again and looked at the floor.  When he raised his head his eyes were brimming with tears.  “You’ll have noticed that I’m rather old to be their father.  Tom and Sarah are by my second marriage.  She, my wife, is – was – thirty years younger than me.  Six months ago I returned from a business trip in Spain to an empty house.  She’d gone off with some young chap, a plumber I think, and taken the children with her.  We’d been married for eight years.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Max.

“She was so beautiful and I loved her so much.  All I wanted was to make her happy.  My first wife died twenty years ago.  There were no children.  I always thought that was my fault.  Then when I met Sally, well, the last thing I expected was to be a father at my age.”  The man’s head dropped as if the effort of explaining this had exhausted him.  He sat staring at his shoes.

“”You said you’d been working in Spain, what do you do exactly?”

The man took a deep breath and smiled weakly.  “Oh, I design and develop golf courses.  Have done for years.  Of course, it involves a lot time away from home.  My first wife didn’t seem to mind but Sally hated it.”  He hung his head again.  “But I never thought she’d run off with someone else.  Since I came home she hasn’t let me see the kids until today.  It’s tearing me apart.  I can’t bear it.”  He raised his hand to cover the tears running down his face.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t be burdening you with all this.”  It was an effort for him to look Max in the eye.  “You see I don’t know what to do.  For the first time in my life – I actually don’t know what to do.”

Max let the words sink in.  What an unenviable position to be in, he thought.  There but for the grace of God. “They are lovely children,” he said eventually, “it’s a shame not to enjoy their company while you can.  How do they feel about all this?”

“I don’t know – they’re sad, of course,” said the man, “but I can’t bring myself to talk to them about what’s happened.  I hate to think what their mother has been telling them.  I suppose I’m in denial.  If I admit to them it’s over with Sally, then it will be.  The only thing that’s keeping me going is that she’ll come back.”  His doleful eyes found Max’s.  “Do you think there’s any chance she might?”

The immensity of the situation dawned on Max.  Here he was, an ordinary bloke in a silly costume, talking to a complete stranger, a man older and more experienced than himself, who was in desperate need of some words of wisdom, a grain of hope, anything to see him through the next few days.  Well, he had a choice: to kick the man out and mind his own business or sit there with him and try to help.

“I’m sorry,” said Max, “I’m an amateur at all this.  I can’t even remember the names of Santa’s reindeers.”  He recited them, counting them off on his fingers.  “Donna, Blitzen, Vixen, Prancer – and Rudolf, of course – you see, that’s only five.  What the hell was the other one called?  Sooner or later, some kid is going to catch me out.  May be you can help me?”

The man looked up balefully, mouthing the names.  “Sorry,” he said finally.

“In that case, maybe you can help me with something else, something that’s been bothering me.  It’s all a mess, okay?  People get things wrong.  We just do.  And yet, because it’s Christmas, adults, children, families – mostly dysfunctional it would seem – they all come to see Santa.  Why do they do that?

“I don’t know,” said the man.

“That’s what has been puzzling me.  It’s not as if they believe in Father Christmas, that’s pretty obvious.  They certainly don’t think that I’m him.  But, for some reason it doesn’t seem matter, they come anyway.  Why?”

“I don’t know,” repeated the man.  “I came today because we were driving past the garden centre and the kids spotted that enormous Santa on the roof.  I wanted to give them a treat.”

“Exactly.”  Max pointed through the window to where Maude was mothering the little line of children and grown-ups.  “That’s where you’ve got to look, out there.  That’s where the excitement is, not in here.  It’s the anticipation, you see, that’s the fun of it, the ‘not knowing’ rather than ‘the knowing’.  Don’t you agree?”  Suddenly it seemed hugely important the man saw this.

“Yes, I think so,” said the man, his brow creasing into a frown.  “But – ?”

“You asked me whether there was any chance that your wife might come back,” Max went on.  “Well, frankly, I’d say it was unlikely.  You got carried away and married a girl who was too young for you.  The chances of it lasting were always going to be slim.  Having said that, the important thing is – you don’t know!  She might come back tomorrow, next week, next year, or she might not.  The question is – what are you going to do whilst she’s making up her mind?”

The man thought for a moment.  “The way I feel right now, I can’t see myself doing anything,” he said glumly.

“I know, I know,” said Max, “but it’s not enough, is it?”

Max thought of the dozens, possibly hundreds of times when he had turned down the chance to spend time with his own kids and how, when he was with them, he had been preoccupied with other things.  He waded on.

“Why would anyone want to be with you in your present state of mind?  You’ve got two wonderful children who you obviously adore, so for heaven’s sake make the most of every moment you share with them, especially if they’re few and far between.  Concentrate on them, not on yourself, that way they’ll want to spend more time with you, the father they recognise and love, not some bitter, sad old man.”

I don’t want to end up like this chap, Max thought.  Not to become a stranger to my own kids, not to lose Michele.  He knew something had to change, but what?  “If you’re worried about losing them, what are you prepared to sacrifice to be there when they need you?”

“Anything, everything,” said the man without hesitation.

“Then let’s start with your job, shall we?  Can you afford to cut out the travelling, to stay around, maybe set yourself up not too far away from their new home?”

The man hesitated.  “Yes, yes, I suppose I could.”

“Then do it,” Max went on.  “Decide what you want and fight for it.  Be positive, move forward from where you are and try not to dwell on what might have been.”

“Yes, I can see there’s no point moping, but it’s very difficult.”  He took a deep breath.  “You’re right about Sally.  She’s got her whole life ahead of her.  Why shouldn’t she get on and enjoy it with someone of her own age.  It can’t have been easy for her.  She’s not a bad girl, I refuse to believe that.”

“She’s young, that’s all.  Think.  You could have another fifteen, twenty years ahead of you.  Make the most of it.  Don’t waste time on the past.  The mystery is tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that.  That’s why it’s exciting and frightening, like Santa Claus!  Be grateful for what you have and for what you might still have.  Accept the ‘not knowing’, the rest will fall into place.”  He tailed off.  “That’s what I think, anyway.”

Max had no idea where that had all come from but he knew that, as much as he was addressing the man, he was talking to himself.  This would be his creed, too, his way to relieve the monotony of his own life, to turn things around, to go onwards and upwards with the family he loved

The man smiled and the years fell away.  He took a deep breath.  “Thank you.  You are quite right, of course.  I have much to be thankful for and, yes, maybe a few things still to look forward to.”  He managed a self-deprecating chuckle.  “I have always despised those who feel sorry for themselves and here I am wallowing in self-pity!  It’s true, Sally probably won’t come back, it would be foolish to count on that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.  You’ve reminded me that my happiness is in my own hands, not someone else’s.  Thank you, Santa, you’ve been an inspiration, just as you are supposed to be.”

The man got up.  He seemed to stand taller and for the first time a hint of a smile played around the corners of his mouth.

“It’s funny, isn’t it, here I am, a sixty-five year old man taking counsel from Santa Claus.  Well, there’s no shame in that.  I’d better go and pay the lady my three pounds, it’s been worth a lot more.”  He held out his hand.  Max shook it warmly. “I’m glad we found each other.  I am very grateful and I shan’t forget our conversation.  I wish you a very happy Christmas, sir.  Goodbye.”

Max watched through the window as the man re-joined the children who had been playing patiently with their gifts.  With a final look back, he smiled at Max and walked off with them, arm in arm, a spring in his step.

Maude had seen them leave and had positioned herself in the doorway.  “I won’t begin to ask what that was all about,” she said crossly. “I would offer you a cup of tea but we’ve got quite a queue outside and we really must get through them.”

Max stood up and took off the Santa hat and the wig.  “I don’t think so, Maude, I’ve got a family lunch to get home to.  To be honest I don’t really think I’m cut out for this so, if you don’t mind, we’ll call it a day.”

“Call it a day!” exclaimed Maude.  “We don’t ‘call it a day’ in Santa’s Grotto!  There is a job that needs to be done, indeed, has to be done!  Now, no more of this nonsense, please.  I’ll fetch the next children in.”

“Fetch them in by all means, Maude, but I won’t be here to see them, sorry.”  He pushed past her and headed for the staff toilet.

Maude called after him.  “I’ll be speaking to the hospice about this!  You’ve been a disgrace, an absolute disgrace.  I’ve only taken eighteen pounds, the worst yet!”

Max was relieved to get out of the cumbersome outfit, which he folded neatly and put on a nearby chair for Maude to find later.  Then he slipped anonymously out of the store and back to the car.  He glanced up at the roof and, despite the morning’s disappointments, felt a greater affinity with the polystyrene character perched up there.  More than anything, however, he realised he had never looked forward so much to Michele’s Sunday lunch.

It was nearly a week later when he received a follow-up call from Helena at the hospice. She was embarrassed to say that there had been an official complaint about him from the store.  The fact that he had walked out on the job had gone down badly, very badly indeed.  Max apologised profusely.

Helena went on to ask whether he knew someone by the name of Ian St John, or something similar, it had been hard to decipher the signature.  Apparently, the hospice had received a cheque for ten thousand pounds accompanied by a note saying ‘for Santa’.  Max said he was sorry but, no, he didn’t know anyone of that name, although, of course, it might have been a mistake, and perhaps the note should have read ‘from Santa’.  Helena agreed that was more than likely.  There was a PS, too, she added, it simply said ‘Comet.’  Did that mean anything to him?

Max apologised, he really couldn’t help, but why didn’t she telephone that nice Mr Wellcome, apparently he was very knowledgeable about such things.