The train station is packed and filled with the hustle and bustle of people on their way to and fro. Offices on one end, couches with soft spots and children and socked-feet perched on the sides of coffee tables. Emails and Power Point slides and a quick sandwich at the shop next door meet a warm meal, a glass of wine, a bit of a minced pie. The air is full of frost and light and if you reach out you can almost touch the cold.
I grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks, vowing to myself that this time I will remember the warm gingerbread taste in the pit of my stomach for just a bit longer. The cup warms my hand through its cardboard sleeve, and as usual I am grateful for the warmth. I am enervated from another night of poor sleep but the palliative of Christmas has soaked into my bones, making me feel young again.
A charity band is playing their shiny shiny instruments by a large Christmas tree, located just under the electronic display boards. Men in suits walk past, looking pissed off and plugging an ear so that their other ears can better receive the input from the mobile phones pinned to their heads. A child gets caught by the light bouncing off the silver trumpet, and the child’s mother grins down at him, urging him forward. Silent Night is playing. I love Silent Night, it’s on my top 5 Christmas carols list.
I look up from my bench and see, standing ten feet away, is Santa Claus. No one seems to notice him, he does not seem to be there for anyone to see. People hurtle past him, around him, at one point a plonker with a tie too long walks right through him. No one notices Santa is there, yet there he is, standing in front of me.
He smiles back at me. He takes several steps forward, until he is stood in front of me, at talking distance.
“Hello Santa,” I say, still smiling.
“Hello Shannon,” he replies. His eyes twinkle (do they ever stop?) and he smells mildly like he’s already been hitting the sherry, but it’s him all right.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“Can’t complain. Would rather like to, but can’t complain.”
“Rough year?” I ask.
“You could say that,” Santa says, navigating himself around to sit down on the bench I’d been sitting on. I move back further into the bench and lean back beside him.
“It has indeed been a rough year,” I murmur in agreement. “A rough old fucking year, Santa.”
He looks at me, and sighs deeply. “So it’s Christmastime, Shannon. I had to stop by.”
“I know you did. I’m appreciative, Big Guy. Very appreciative.”
“Tell me about you, Shannon. Tell me about this year.”
I look up and take a swig of my latte. The band is still playing Silent Night, softly and slowly, and every note rises up and waits beneath the rafters. “It’s been a hard year, Nick. Can I call you Nick?”
“Can I call you Sharon?”
I despise the name Sharon. “Right, Santa it is.” I look down at my hands. “I’d say that 2009 was the hardest year of my life, Santa. I look in the mirror and realize that I have changed so much. If I could do it all again, I think I would because of some of the amazing things that have come out of 2009, truly life-changing shit, man. But overall…? It’s been hard. It’s been a hard year.”
Santa reaches out a gloved hand. He wraps his hand around mine, and I notice with a grin that Santa is a mitten man (as am I). I sigh and look at our hands, his covered hand folded over my bare one. I look at my ring finger, still empty. We’re working on things. We’re working.
“And now fucking BA are going on strike, and wouldn’t you know it but Melissa and Jeff are booked to come here on a flight that falls in the strike period, so it looks like we won’t see them now. And I couldn’t wait because I have readied a stellar Christmas for them, and arranged for a big New Year’s Day get-together for them, and now it looks like they won’t come. And it’s bad because I want to reach back in time to the last time they were here and hug them tightly and tell them that so much is about to change, so much has changed, you know? But I can’t. Not unless this year for Christmas you’re bringing me that damn time machine I keep asking for.” I sigh stupidly. “Seriously, enough about me. I’m over me. I’m over talking about me, Santa, tell me about your year.”
“The Missus is concerned about my cholesterol and thinks I need to lay off the mince pies. As if! And the elves went on strike.”
“Those ungrateful fuckers.”
“Exactly! And it’s not like they aren’t compensated well, they even got a pay rise!”
“Ten percent isn’t bad.”
“Tell me about it. But no. The ELB isn’t happy.”
“ELB?” I query.
“Elf Labor Board,” Santa explains. “Apparently you can’t provide a bonus in marshmallows, that’s not on or some such nonsense.”
“Exactly! Wouldn’t you like to have a bonus paid in marshmallows?”
“Dude, do you get the internet up there at all? Because there’s been this thing going on called a recession. I think most of us would be happy to see a bonus at all, be it made of spun sugar or real money.”
“Seriously?” Santa asks. “I could use this recession business with the ELB…” he says, looking into the distance.
“Santa, don’t use my inside info for your own causes. What are you getting the babies for Christmas?” I ask, changing tack.
“It’s a secret,” he says huffily. “I can’t tell you that!”
“Well it can’t be any worse than the drum set their grandparents got them.”
“I really wish I was.”
“Note to elf: add paracetamol to Shannon’s stocking,” Santa jokes.
We pause, and then I jump in with the question I’ve had. “So tell me what you’re really doing here,” I query lightly.
Santa looks at me, shifting his weight slightly and straightening out a booted foot that passers-by just seem to walk through. “I had to come check on you,” he says with an embarrassed grin. “To get the details from the horse’s mouth, you know? I like talking to you, you’re a right pain in the ass.”
“That I am,” I agree. “I’m also not sure I like being called a horse. But I’m ok, Santa.”
“Are you?” he asks, looking at me closely.
“This isn’t the joyful reunion we usually have,” I say carefully. “There are no barristas dancing on the countertop, there is no alcohol flowing, there is no crap ridiculousness that usually seems to surround me at Christmastime here just now. But I’m happy. Honestly, I am happy.”
“Anything you want for Christmas?” he asks kindly.
“Can you make Maggie better?” I ask. More tests are being done and it’s not looking good. Maggie lays quietly in the living room, medicated, unhappy and unwell.
He smiles at me. I should have known better than to ask. “It’s been quite a year for you, young lady. I’ve been watching. A lot of bad has happened but you know, a lot of good, too.”
“Oh I believe that too, Santa. I do, really. I was looking through photos last night and realized that who I am today is completely different. And this, I think, is for the best. It’s right, it feels right. The Shannon you met at Starbucks four years ago is gone, but this new Shannon? I think she’s got potential.”
He winks at me and I wink back. “Is there anything you want for Christmas that old Saint Nick can deliver on?”
I think about it. “Santa, you know that new Waitrose ad campaign?”
“I love Waitrose. Their edamame beans are to die for.”
“That’s my boy. Now, they have a Christmas ad this year. It’s beautiful and it almost always makes me cry, which is a pretty stupid thing to say about ploy marketing.”
“Why does it make you cry, my dear?” he asks, concerned.
“Well Santa,” I say, standing and looking up at the ceiling of the train station and the trapped notes of the band beneath it. “the catch line is ‘This Christmas, there’s only one place to be.’ It shows a little girl, dressed in pajamas, looking dreamily up into Christmas tree lights. The implication is that this Christmas, there’s only one place to be – home. The only place to be is home. And this year my life came so close to having that lost. This year, my only one place to be was not in this house that I have lost babies in and this house that I discovered I would be having two babies in, this house that I built parts of with my own hands, this house that I love to absolute pieces. This house that I live in with my family and my cats and my idiot dog. This Christmas I was almost not home.”
I turn to look at Santa. “This year, Santa. This year, I’ll be home for Christmas. With two crazy toddlers and family and laughter and Doctor Who, you can’t forget Doctor Who. I’ll be home for Christmas, and that is the best Christmas present in the world.” I smile at him. “Although if you want to put a bow around David Tennant and pop him under my tree then I wouldn’t complain or anything.”
He smiles and lifts himself off the bench. He comes up to me and puts his arms on my shoulders. He leans in and kisses my cheek. “Merry Christmas, Shannon,” he says kindly.
“Merry Christmas, Santa,” I reply with a smile. “Watch the cholesterol, ok. And same time next year?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replies with a twinkle, and just like that he’s gone and I am left in the middle of the busy train station with an empty cup of coffee, a train to catch, and a Christmas to fall in love with all over again.