Look, I’m as charitable as the next person. Okay, maybe not if the next person were Mother Teresa or Bill Gates, but saints and billionaires are pretty thin on the ground, and I reckon I more than do my bit, though I sometimes think if another of those earnest young persons oh so politely accosts me outside the shopping centre insisting they’re not after money and there’s no obligation, I might just forget I’m a lady.

     And we’d certainly done our bit in the Berry and Beer Gut. We firmly believed that collecting tins were for life and not just for Christmas, but it was gratifying to feel them getting heavier over the festive season, and we were entering a team in the sponsored dip on New Year’s Eve. If voluntarily plunging (well, fair enough, staggering!) into the North Sea in January isn’t a charitable act, then I don’t know what is.

     The manager, Jeff, who said it would just be pedantic to correct anyone who called him the Landlord, had the say on whether we opened on Christmas Day or not. Some Witherforks Pubs did, and some didn’t. Ours most definitely didn’t. It was up to the manager. He had asked us and said he’d abide by it, and despite the possibility of tips and the certainty of being paid time and a half, we voted unanimously against it. We would be open at nine am on Boxing Day, with an ample supply of black coffee and the hair of the dog, whichever people chose, but NOT on the 25th.

     Anyway, things were beginning to wind down nicely on Christmas Eve, when we heard that familiar rattle of tins and enthusiastic but off-key rendition of “Jingle Bells”. Even before we saw the costumes we knew that the charity collectors were abroad, and having already had a daytime crew of them, we were apparently going to have to endure – er, welcome – the night shift, too.

     “Oh, God,” I muttered, and it was not an appeal to the Almighty to bless me with a more charitable heart.

     “I know, Tanya, I know,” said Jeff, patting my arm. “I could live very nicely without them, too. But ride it out. We’ll give them a generous – well, reasonably generous – donation, and let them mangle a couple of verses of a carol, then hope that they can translate “Merry Christmas” into “Please Push Off”. Let’s get it over with!”

     At least the merry troupe, as I secretly christened them (suspecting they would have rather liked it) had made some effort with their costumes. I don’t expect the resources and outcome of a Hollywood costume drama, but a couple of Poundland elf tabards is just being lazy. They (or in the case of the men, I thought, cynically, more likely their female relatives) had done well, if you liked that kind of thing. The elves were – well, elvish, even down to the pointed ears and green hoods. Part of me thought they looked more like Refugees from Lord of the Rings than Santa’s Little or not so Little Helpers, but a couple of the customers were already asking them for selfies. Or should that be “elfies”? I often have an urge which is not to my credit (and have had it since I was five or six) to tug at Santa’s beard. Only once did I actually dislodge it, and that was at a party back in my uni days that I’d prefer not to think about all ways round, but generally, they’re tethered pretty firmly. All the same, you can tell. The best of false beards just – well, just doesn’t feel like a beard! It might convince the more credulous of the little ones, but that’s as far as it goes. We were lucky in our town in having a gentleman called Aidan Benson who was both a retired clergyman and a former mayor of the town and had the real article, a luxuriant snowy beard that made him much called on as Santa though he never did quite get the “ho, ho, ho” quite right, despite his fruity and sonorous voice. But this year Aidan was in New Zealand visiting relatives there for Christmas, so it couldn’t be him. Anyway, it – he, whatever!- didn’t look remotely like Aidan. He was considerably taller to start with, and I was pretty sure his boots didn’t have hidden heels.

     “Now let me guess,” he said, turning to Jeff, “You have a splendid little lad who hopes to find a Drobot on Christmas morning.”

     Well, that was hardly telepathic. He probably did know Jeff from somewhere, and virtually every child between the ages of five and eleven craved nothing more than the latest “toy sensation” – a kind of flying robot, and made in soft rubber so it couldn’t (theoretically) harm people or property. I also knew that Jeff and Melanie, for all their best efforts and marathon internet searches and treks to toy warehouses on the industrial estate, had not managed to locate one, and were worried that little Robbie was going to be very disappointed on Christmas morning. “Chill,” our pot-man Harry had advised him. Apart from a tendency to use expressions like “chill”, Harry is a model of common sense and manages, for the most part, to manifest it without being irritating. “It won’t ruin his life or even his Christmas. And no I’m not being one of those tough love parents who thinks we must do all we can to stop them being snowflakes at all costs. Of course we want to get our kids what they’ve asked for. But Robbie is a jolly little chap, and pretty grounded. “

     “That’s true,” Jeff had admitted, “But I could wish it was Melanie and I who were letting him down, and not Santa!”

     “I know,” Harry looked unusually wistful for a moment. “The time they believe gets shorter and shorter, doesn’t it? Oh well, at least they’ve never claimed on Blue Peter that they know how to make one!”

     That struck a chord with me. I still remembered the long-gone Christmas when my own little brother had been given a Blue Peter version of Tracey Island as made on that estimable and long-running children’s TV show. All I’ll say is this – adults might be convinced that washing up liquid bottles and cardboard boxes can be turned into anything we like with a bit of paint and imagination but children aren’t so easily fooled.

     The sleigh was attracting a fair bit of attention, and I could see why. It appeared, at least, to be made of real wood, and had flashing lights on it, and bells that didn’t sound like a doorbell or a dinner gong. 

     I wasn’t sure about the little deer with fake antlers that, presumably, they’d borrowed from the local wildlife park. True, he seemed like a very placid animal, and personified chilled out as he sat there calmly nibbling his carrot. But there was still such a think as taking realism too far. Then again I’d taken a picture of my cat in a Santa hat so who was I to talk? It would probably take time and quite a bit of tuna for him to entirely forgive me for that. All the same, that sleigh looked very heavily laden for one little reindeer – er, deer, I reminded myself – to pull around town. 

     “May we entertain you?” the man in red asked.

     If you really must, I thought. “By all means,” Jeff said. I steeled myself for the usual fare – but was pleasantly surprised. They sang a carol that I seemed to know from somewhere, but not one of the more popular ones, and sang entirely unaccompanied by instrument or backing track, Santa’s warm baritone blending with the more fluting voices of the elves. We found ourselves joining in on the refrain of “We come from the frost and we bring you the light, bring colour and warmth from the lands cold and white, and bring love and comfort to cheer you tonight.” Despite myself, I was sorry when it was over. It seemed as if they passed round the collection tins almost as an afterthought, though everybody appeared to give generously. 

     We went out to the door to wave them on their way- but they had already disappeared. “Blimey, that deer could win the Grand National, I reckon,” Jeff said. That was the kind of thing you are, just, “allowed” to say. I knew I could not say what I thought I had seen, as that’s the kind of thing that gets you a reputation, especially if you work around alcohol.

     Anyway, Christmas came and went, and I had the usual mixed feelings when it was over, and we embarked on that surreal week between Christmas and the New Year when time seems to play tricks with you, and both stretches and contracts.

     I noticed that Jeff seemed to be in a thoughtful mood, and stopped myself from saying “Penny for them”, knowing how irritating I found that particular thread. But he smiled rather ruefully and said, “I know what you’re thinking, and I WAS miles away. But there are some things you just can’t figure out, no matter how much you try. Or rather, you can but – well, Robbie did have his Drobot. It was there under the tree in lovely silver wrapping paper. I’ve not seen wrapping paper quite like it anywhere.”

     “So you and Mel did manage to trace one at the last minute?”

     “That’s the thing. No, we didn’t, nor any of our relatives and friends either. Robbie was delighted of course, and said he had known Santa would bring him one because he’d asked nicely.”

     We didn’t say much more about it. But I knew without needing to look at it that the wrapping paper around Robbie’s present would be just the same shade of silver as the fleeting silver trail I had seen in the sky!

December 27, 2019 09:31

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