December 18th. Nick Whitelock sat at his desk by the window and looked out as the cold, winter rain tracked its way down the pane. “Sleet, more like.” he thought to himself. He was, as usual, the last one in the office. The rest of them would be in the Arms by now, backs to the log fire and pints in hand, an anticipatory celebration of the Christmas holidays.
He looked down as his phone buzzed.
“Nick Whitelock.” That was it. No greeting, no fuss. That was Nick.
“Nick – it’s Sarah from Field Cottage. Can’t talk long – but I’ve been let down and I’ve tried everyone else. Can you be village Santa for the switch-on tonight?”
Ashleigh was only a small village, two-and-a-half-thousand souls, but it had it’s own little supermarket, a proper butcher, a post office and, crucially, four pubs. And it took its traditions seriously, none more so than the switching on of the village Christmas tree lights. Each year a minor local celeb, someone from the local radio or even the vicar at a push, would press the big, red button to light up the Christmas tree.
Santa was an essential part of the festivities, ho-ho-ho-ing, liberally handing out sweets to the village kids and fielding requests for bicycles, computer games and dolls. An important job. Belief in Santa to maintain. Just the sort of thing that made Nick feel uncomfortable.
“Sorry Sarah. I’m stuck in the office. A mountain of stuff to wade through and I’m stacked out with meeting prep for next year. Can’t see me being there before half six.”
“Perfect! You’d be just in time then. The costume’s in the kitchen in the village hall. Get togged up while they’re singing the carols, then wander round with the sweets. And try for a bit of festive spirit at least, Nick, OK?” Breathless with relief, Sarah rang off.
Nick was skewered and he knew it. He pushed his chair back and looked at the rain streaking the window again. He knew it was only for forty-five minutes or so. He knew that the kids in Ashleigh were delightful and charming. He knew he could slope off to the Castle afterwards for a pint, the warm feeling of duty done. But what if he got it wrong? Said the wrong thing? How could he be responsible for denting the warm happiness of childhood belief?
But Sarah had asked, and she was a neighbour and a pal. “Let’s get to it.” He muttered to himself as he checked his watch, sighed, turned out his desklight, locked the office in silence and drove home.
The village square was filling up as Nick arrived. The tree – still in darkness – outside the post office, was flanked by a small stage. Centre-stage was The Big Red Button for the lights. There were stalls selling mulled wine and, for the children, clumps of candyfloss being expertly spun from a machine onto sticks. There was even a little carousel with fire engines, racing cars and small planes. And the village butcher was carving a hogroast. As the aroma of crackling wafted across the frosted air, Nick remembered he’d missed lunch again.
He was about to order a roll when Sarah appeared.
“Nick! Thank goodness! I am SO glad you actually turned up! I know it’s not your thing, but thank you so much!” she exclaimed.
“Well, it was a bit of a Hobson’s choice,” he responded. “An evening in the office attempting to clear the alligators off my desk or the sheer terror of facing the Ashleigh littlies in all their inquisitive glory. At least this way I get the warm glow of satisfaction and a chance for a pint.”
“Oh, Nick!” said Sarah. “Come on, you’ll enjoy it once you’ve got the suit and the hat on. And you’ll be making their Christmases. I think you’re a bit of a natural underneath all that grumpy stuffed shirt stuff. The costume’s in the hall kitchen – you’ll find it easily enough.”
“Looks like we’re about to find out, doesn’t it?” said Nick as the countdown for the lights began.
As Nick pushed open the door, he wondered if all village halls smelt the same. Slightly woody, a bit stuffy, new paint and unmistakably of WI catering. He nodded to a few pals as he walked through to the kitchen. Wedged between a polished stainless Burco boiler and a microwave so large it probably dated from 1986, he found a black plastic sack.
He emptied the contents out onto the counter. A pair of red trousers with an unfeasibly large waist, a red and white jacket and another hat. This one red, trimmed with white fur. And in the pocket a huge white wig and a beard with an elastic tie-on.
Nick stood and looked at the Santa outfit. “Jesus. What have I got myself into?” he mumbled as he started undoing his boots.
Five minutes later – and borrowing the black leather belt from his own jeans – he’d suited up. The hall had filled up behind him too, with stallholders selling mince pies alcoholic enough to take out a giant, village-made sloe gin and enough Christmas crafts to fill a sleigh.
Nick peered at his rather indistinct reflection in the shiny surface of the Burco. He looked, he thought, just about passable. Fortifying himself with thoughts of a post-Santa pint, he hefted the sack containing his own bodyweight in sweets and, a little hesitantly, left the sanctuary of the kitchen for the village square.
“Merry Christmas! Ho ho ho!” He gave it his best “hit the back of the hall” projection and he was met instantly by a sea of excited, tiny faces. The expressions were a mix of sheer joy, awe, wonderment and even smiles from the older, more ‘enlightened’ kids.
A few seconds later he was kneeling down, holding the sack for the tots crowded around. Each one reached in and came out clutching their sweets, each (some, to be fair, parentally prompted) with a ‘thank you Santa!”
The crowd grew as the carols carried on and Nick found himself asking each child what they wanted for Christmas, had they been well-behaved and suggesting a carrot and a glass of whisky left on the mantlepiece would ensure something good to open on Christmas morning. He was, against all odds, enjoying listening to what the children wanted and handing out gifts way more than he could have imagined.
Finally, the crowd ebbed enough for him to straighten up and look around. As bedtime approached, children were being led home, clutching sweets, candyfloss and wooden reindeer models. Nick smiled as they retreated.
“Excuse me, Santa?”
It was a clear, small voice from directly in front of Nick. He looked down and saw a little boy, alone. He must have been, Nick judged, about five or six.
“Well, Merry Christmas to you! You must be the last one! No need to miss out though – plenty for everyone!” Nick laughed, still in full-on Santa mode, offering the now somewhat depleted sack of sweets.
The boy looked past the sack and straight at Nick with a directness that surprised him.
“What about the reindeer and the sleigh?” The boy asked.
Nick was nonplussed but still managed to keep his avuncular tone. “What do you mean, young man? What about them? Did you want to give them a sweet too?”
The boy, still looking him straight in the eyes, asked again, “What about the reindeer and the sleigh? Where are they? You can’t be Santa without a sleigh.” He frowned, worried.
Nick thought quickly. “Well, look around you – there’s nothing for them to eat here. So I’ve left them out on the cricket pitch. Plenty of grass there – and somewhere to park the sleigh where it won’t get in everyone’s way.”
The little boy tilted his head slightly, as though he was weighing up what Santa had just said. Then, just as a smile of relief lit up his face, his mother appeared from behind the carousel and swept him up.
“THERE you are, Sam! I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Should have known you’d be with Santa.” Then, to Nick, breathlessly “He absolutely LOVES Santa – thank you!” She smiled at Nick as she and the boy walked away, hand in hand. He looked back over his shoulder and waved happily to Nick.
Nick stood in the centre of the square, smiling happily to himself, unusually content. Apart from a few bustling helpers, nearly everyone had either headed home or to warm up with a whisky mac or a pint.
“Nice job, mate!” Steve, one of his pals from the Castle, clapped him on the shoulder. Word was clearly out about who was behind the beard this year. “The kids loved you – seriously! Did you see little Charlotte’s face when you told her you knew she wanted a bike? She hadn’t a clue it was you. Really nice job. See you at the bar in ten?”
Nick nodded, grinned again, and turned back to the village hall, his step rather lighter.
He’d earned that pint.
He kicked off the boots and tugged the red, fur-edged hat off, shrugging off the jacket too. Next, the white, long Santa wig. He’d joked earlier it made him look more like Einstein.
It wouldn’t move. In fact, the more he tugged at the white, long hair the more it hurt. The beard was stuck too. Nick reached for the elastic tied at the nape of his neck, but he couldn’t find it. Some bloody joker had lined both beard and hat with superglue before he’d put them on earlier. And they’d both stuck. Fast. From experience, Steve was the most likely candidate. He’d give him hell in the pub – this was going to cost him more than a couple of pints.
The noises from outside the hall faded as the last few stallholders left. He peered at his reflection in the polished Burco again. He’d have to go the pub like it and just take the gyp he was bound to get. Still, didn’t superglue wash out with hot water and soap?
“You’ll get used to that.” A voice said from behind him.
Nick spun around to face the voice. Its owner was, like Nick, arrayed in full white hair and whiskers, cheeks reddened from the cold air outside and a broad grin. He must just have come in from the square.
“It goes with the Job.” He added, beaming and holding out his hand.
Nick looked at him, puzzled, as he shook it on reflex. “What job? I’ve got a job.”
“Yes, you have. At least, you have now,” he said, still pumping Nick’s hand. “Welcome!”
“Sorry, you’ve lost me – welcome to what?”
“Ah, not surprised you’re a bit fuddled. People usually are. I should explain. You’re the new man, so welcome to the Job. For what it’s worth, I think you’re a bit of a natural. But we’ll see what the team think when you get them flying properly.”
“The new what?” Nick asked, struggling to understand what on earth the bearded man was talking about. “Team? Fly? Look, who the hell are you, what’s this about and – for that matter – how did you even get in here?”
“Ha ha! Perfectly reasonable reaction. It’s simple though,” the stranger said. “You’ve already spotted the hair and beard – they go with the Job. That’s why they won’t budge – they’re real. As real as you. You’re Santa.”
Nick simply looked at him. He couldn’t say a thing.
“Don’t look at me like that – it’s absolutely true. You get the sleigh, the reindeer – all eight of the little buggers – and the Round. You’re going to like the sleigh. It goes like stink. Needs to, of course or you couldn’t get round the Round, if you know what I mean.”
Nick laughed, suddenly realising. “Yep. Very good. This is Steve’s best yet, but it’s been a bitch of a week, thank God it’s Christmas on Friday because I need a break. But, right now, I need a pint a whole lot more. I’m headed to the Castle and I can tell him just how funny he is.”
Nick turned his back on the smiling stranger and walked out of the kitchen. Then, thinking he was being excessively rude, even given the circumstances, he called back wryly through the closing door, “You’re welcome to come along – Steve’s going to be buying. For the next year if I have anything to do with it.”
The hall was finally empty as he strode across it. The stranger didn’t follow. Nick shouldered the door to the village square open.
The stranger was outside, smiling at him broadly. And, over his shoulder the square, like the hall, was completely empty. Apart from the snow. A lot of snow. And, over by the Christmas tree, lights still blazing, was a…
Nick stopped, his mouth open. First, how had the man got outside before him? He’d left him in the kitchen, leaning against the old stove. Second, where the hell had two feet of snow come from in the ten minutes he’d been inside? And, thirdly, what was a sleigh and eight reindeer, their combined breath forming a cloud that billowed into the winter air, doing in the middle of Ashleigh village square?
“She’s all yours. Like I said, goes like stink. Blitzen’s a bit of a sod though – he’ll pull to the left if you let him. You’ll get the hang of it all soon enough though.” He put his arm around Nick’s shoulder and steered him towards the reindeer who were tossing their heads impatiently.
“If this is Steve’s idea of a joke, pal, it’s world class. It’s off the scale. But…”
Nick suddenly noticed that there wasn’t a soul around. The entire square was as empty as the hall had been. Apart from the smiling stranger standing in front of him and the reindeer. No-one else. The superglue beard was good, the Santa stand-in was a brilliant touch, but this was all a little too real.
Nick slowly walked over, each step crunching the fresh snow, to one of the reindeer. He reached out and stroked it tentatively as though it might disappear. Its fur was warm and coarse under his fingers. He felt in his pocket for something to offer it. By this point he was barely surprised to find a carrot. The grateful animal took it and nuzzled him in hope of more.
“Told you.” The stranger said. “You’re a natural. Dasher’s picky too – doesn’t take to everyone.”
Then, more quietly, he asked “Do you get it yet? You’ve got the Job. I know you didn’t apply, didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it even. But the Job chooses you – same as it chose me. That’s how it works.”
Nick sat down heavily on the bench by the tree and looked up as the stranger moved to sit with him.
“OK, you’ve got me. I haven’t a bloody clue what’s going on. I’m – more’s the pity – stone cold sober. I’ve never smoked anything stronger than a Marlboro in my life. And, as far as I know, I’m wide, staring, awake. What’s happened – happening?”
“Like I said,” the stranger smiled, “it’s simple. You’re Santa. It’s your job to make sure that everyone – not just the children – understands what Christmas is about. Remember how you felt when you gave out those sweets earlier? That’s the deal. You give. Most of all, you give of yourself. Just as you gave each of those kids time – listened to them – and made them believe in you. That’s the Job.” Nick noticed the way his eyes twinkled when he spoke.
“OK,” sighed Nick, “Let’s suppose for just one moment this isn’t the windup to beat all windups. I have four days of solid meetings, clients to keep happy and a business to run. I’ve never even ridden a horse, let alone driven – do you drive that thing or fly it?”
“You drive it – but keep talking.” The stranger responded.
“OK, I’ve never driven a sleigh. And now you’re telling me I need to be in charge of Christmas? The whole thing?” Nick finished incredulously.
The stranger grinned broadly. “That’s about it. But, remember how I said the Job chooses you? Remember the carrot? You’ve been chosen because you can do it. But, more importantly, you’ve been chosen because you need to do it. You’ve been stuck in that office for years. Yes, you’ve battled along well enough, but you’ve felt for a while like something’s missing, haven’t you? You started feeling it again this evening – that’s the Job calling to you. You need to get out there and give. They need you.” He patted NIck reassuringly on the shoulder.
Nick felt for the second time that night as though he’d been out-negotiated, out-manoeuvred and out-thought. And he had a feeling that someone – or something – rather more important than Steve or Sarah was behind it.
“Right. How does it all, er, work then? I mean, most of the village will have seen this lot,” he gestured towards the reindeers and snow, “And half the pub will be wondering where I’ve got to.”
“Ah,” said the stranger, “actually, they won’t. They won’t see a thing. Did you ever see Santa arrive when you were a kid? No? That’s because Santa’s out of time.”
“Out of time?” Nick echoed, baffled.
“Yep. How else do you think you’re going to get round everyone on Christmas Morning. If you were shackled to normal time you wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance.” He grinned at his own joke. Nick found himself smiling back despite himself. There was an infectious joy about the stranger that he couldn’t help but warm to.
“And it means that when you eventually hand over to your successor, just as I’m doing now, you’ll be back exactly where and when you left from. Time and place. Just the same. So no-one’ll miss you. Clients, family – or the pub.”
“OK,” said Nick again, “Let’s say I buy this whole thing. The reindeer, the sleigh, the Job and Round as you call it. Who are you? What’s your job – some sort of Christmas character headhunter?”
“Not quite,” the stranger responded. “I’m Santa. You’re taking over from me. I’ve learned all I can, done plenty of giving, seen a lot of smiles. So now it’s time for me to go back to my life – just like you will when it’s your time. That’s how it works.”
“So Santa’s not real, then?” asked Nick.
“Well, he’s as real as you or me.” answered the stranger, smiling again. “And all those garden centre Santas, the ones in the shopping centres, the ones collecting for charity, when they give and listen to what children want for Christmas, they’re real too. They take a bit of the magic and make it real. So, in that way, Santa’s real. Absolutely.”
This time it was Nick’s turn to grin broadly.
“Right,” Old Santa said, standing up. “You may be out of time, but you’ve a job to do. Keep giving. Keep listening. Keep caring about the Job. And it’ll look after you. And a carrot for reindeers every now and then is a fine plan. Keeps ‘em sweet. You’d better get moving.”
And, as Nick watched, he slowly faded in front of him until there was just a soft glow. And, in a few seconds, even that disappeared. Nick looked around. The square was empty but for him, the sleigh and his reindeer.
Nick grinned, dusted the snow off his cherry red trousers and grasped the rail above the worn, red leather seat of the sleigh, pulling himself up. The reindeer started pawing the snow, billowing clouds as their breath came a little faster. He picked up the reins and, as he gave them an expert flick of the wrist as though he’d done it for years, and hung on tightly.
Sam paused as he was half way through unwrapping a large box covered in reindeer paper. “Mummy?” he asked. “Santa’s real – really real – isn’t he?” His mother smiled and pointed to the empty glass on the mantlepiece that had held whisky the previous night. And, just to the side of it, the slightly chewed top of a carrot. “It looks like it, doesn’t it, Sam?”
And as she looked, she wondered how her husband had quite so artfully carved the carrot top with what looked like the sort of tooth marks you might expect a reindeer to make.
She’d ask him later.