The sleigh leaps and whirls into the sky, the stars whipping past with such clarity that I want to reach out and grab them. There is the soft jingle of the bells as we fly, and Santa adjusts the volume on the Christmas carols so that he can be heard.
“Now let’s get down to business, Madame. What would you like for Christmas?” Santa asks.
“You can’t ride one.”
“Look, Santa, you asked me what I wanted. You didn’t say ‘Tell me on a practical level, involving all areas of logistics, what you want for Christmas so that I may make an expeditious exit.’ You asked what I wanted. I would like a pony.”
“Are we going to have to do this ever year?”
“Until I get my pony, yes.”
“I have five year olds with more sense than you.”
“Undoubtedly. Perhaps you want to sway them with a pony, too.”
He rubs his forehead with his mitten and grins, almost to himself.
We sit in silence, flying high over the countryside.
“It’s weird, you know?” I say out loud. “I’m here in what is basically a huge open topped convertible in minus temperatures, but I’m not cold. And I’m always cold.”
“It’s not weird.”
“It’s magic, right?”
“It’s an underfloor heater, Shannon. Magic can only do so much.”
“The Little Drummer Boy” comes on and Santa reaches out, changing it. He glances at me. “I hate that one. All those pa-rum-pa-pum-pums. Make your mind up.”
“What’s your favourite carol?” I ask.
“Do You Hear What I Hear.”
“That’s not creepy at all, Dude.”
“Kidding. ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town’ is my favourite, of course. I like to set expectations. You?”
“I like both ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘Silent Night’.” I reply. “I know the last one is a bit secular, but it’s a lovely song. Calming.” We fly along in companionable silence for a bit, until my nervous need for continual conversation sneaks in. “Is this what it’s like for you? You know, to fly around in the Santa Mobile and deliver toys?”
“It is. Do you want to have a toy delivery test trial with me?”
“Seriously? Like, seriously?”
“Do I kid?” he asks.
“Not nearly enough.”
Santa laughs and with a flick of the harness we head down, spiralling towards a home with a small plume of smoke coming out of the top. With a whoosh we speed towards the home, the bells singing gently in the night. The reindeer silently and gently come to a halt on top of the house. Santa turns to look at me.
“You coming, Shannon?”
I turn to look at him, and just like that we’re in a living room. The chimney thing a total myth, we have somehow gone from the sleigh at the top of the house to a warm and cozy lounge. I vow to denounce the fireplace myth as soon as possible.
A Christmas tree is lit up in the corner, decorated with red and gold glass baubles and, throughout the tree, smaller ones made with little fingers. Here and there are ones made out of plaster and covered with random watercolors, and on one branch hangs a picture frame ornament made out of pasta. Inside is a picture of a happy laughing family – a dad, a mum, a little girl of about five and in infant. It’s a candid family shot of a family gathered around a table, a blue sea behind them. A holiday picture, framed and displayed in a place of pride.
I turn to the sound of growling.
“Santa?” I whisper to the big guy, who along with four elves is busy placing packages around the tree.
“Just a second,” he replies.
“No really, Santa? There’s a dog. A big one. And he’s a little pissed off we’re in his house.”
“Well throw an elf at him.”
“Throw an elf at him!”
“They’ve elves, Santa. Haven’t you heard of the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare?”
“Yes, and they’re a bunch of interfering do-gooders. Trust me,” Santa replies. I step back and, grabbing the first elf I get my hands on, I launch an elf at the growling Alsatian in the hallway. Before the elf hits the dog he turns a somersault and is decked in full cowboy rodeo gear. He lands squarely on the dog’s neck and, one hand in a heavy leather glove, wraps a rope around the dog and starts riding him like a bucking bronco as they fly away into the darkened hallway.
“Well I’ll be damned,” I mutter.
“Told you that you should trust me. They live for Big Dog Rodeo.”
Santa closes up the bag of presents, handing me a small package. It says, simply, “To Sophie.”
“What’s this?” I ask.
“It’s little Sophie’s present,” Santa says, motioning towards the pasta frame ornament. “She’s the little girl in that photo and she needs this present very much.”
I hold the box in my hands – it’s small, lightweight, and wrapped in red paper with a big gold bow. “What is it?”
“It’s a locket. It’s a little heart locket with a picture inside.”
I look up at my companion, who’s watching me evenly. “Santa, why are we here early? Delivering presents, I mean. What are we doing here ahead of Christmas?”
Santa smiles sadly. “Sophie’s mother is upstairs right now, sleeping. She was discharged from the local hospital two days ago – she’s had treatment for cancer for a while now, and the doctors and Sophie’s mum have finally agreed and understood that there’s nothing more that they can do. Sophie’s mum has come home to pass away with her family around her. There is nothing in this world that she loves more than her children. Her Christmas wish to me was to have a family Christmas before she goes, and to take care of her little Sophie, who will only just remember her mother from the edges of her memory.”
I swallow hard. “This locket has a photo of her mother, doesn’t it?”
Santa nods. “It does. It’s a beautiful photo. It won’t bring her mother back, but it will bring some comfort.”
I tiptoe into the hallway. To the left is a large bedroom with a stocking hung from the doorknob. I slip the present into it and push the door just enough to see a silent little form on the bed, clutching a plush much-loved rabbit which is missing an ear. She sighs in her sleep, still very much a little girl, and my heart slams into my chest as I think of my own little girl. A little girl who is so loved that her mother’s greatest wish is to be able to say goodbye to her, and to be remembered.
I think my heart broke, just a little.
I shut the door behind me. I walk up to Santa who takes my hand comfortingly and in moments we are back in the sleigh, the starry night above me and a family sleeping below me, on one of the last nights that they would be.
“No mother should ever have to wish for a last Christmas with her family. That hurt, Santa,” I say, wiping my face.
“Sometimes it does,” he replies, snapping the reins of the harness. “And sometimes it is the most beautiful gift you can give.”
End of Part II
Part III Concludes on 08 December.