My son asked me the other day, “Are you Santa Daddy?” I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t and Santa died one day, a long time ago but of course, I didn’t, but I will tell you how.
That day began like any other but before its end my life was to change forever.
It is a typical driech day in the East End of Glasgow. In the backcourt of our tenement I am playing football with some pals. The sun is fighting its way through the dark eerie cumulus clouds of the December day like a weary pugilist, exhausted by old battles. An ethereal shaft of light telescopically unfolds before spotlighting our diminutive goalkeeper.
The goalie, now bathed in light like a Titian cherub, is still crying. He had been hit full in the face with the ball and is sobbing deep and hard despite Big Boys darting disapproving looks in his direction. Wee Tam is feeling sorry for himself, as it was clear he wasn’t cut out to be a goalie. It was after all, a position of grave responsibility that he didn’t want in the first place – but being last picked, it was his, by default. At least being good at football, meant that I didn’t get beaten up or laughed at. Until today.
Rain had stopped the football and we retreated for cover. Only weather of biblical proportions would stop us playing but being Scotland that was quite often. I was standing next to Wee Tam who was no longer crying but instead was feeling different parts of face to make sure he still had some of left. A God-like voice thundered over the sound of the driving rain, bouncing off the asbestos sheets of the nearby wash house.
“Fuck off Tam,” the voice boomed, ‘Um talkin’ tae Posh Boy here.” Wee Tam vanished into the heavy rain without looking back.
It was the dulcet tones of Big Joe who, today, is about to become my childhood nemesis. He was, according to local parlance, a heid-banger. However, to those who know him well – his victims – he was so much more than that.
He is a philosopher-king of violence. A connoisseur of carnage. Despite being only two years older than us, he was a Colossus in stature and Machiavellian in temperament. His bi-annual human sacrifice of beating up two Big Boys a year was part of local folklore. No-one bothered him the rest of the year.
“Posh boy, cum ‘ere,” he bellowed, his voice echoing around the close. I feared the worst as I usually stayed under his radar. I was only ‘posh’ because I spoke with a Glaswegian accent softened by my parents’ Irish burr. He looked at me with those narrow intense eyes of his. It was strange making direct eye contact with him. I’d spent many Sundays trying to avoid his uncomfortable gaze as I helped the priest serve communion.
“Whit ur ye gettin’ fur Christmas?”
His friendly approach wrong-footed me, but kept my guard up. I said that I hoped for a few toys but it depended on me being a good boy for Jesus and my parents.
“Huv ye been a good wee laddie for the Big Man Upstairs?”
“Yes I have!” I quickly proclaimed, before gathering myself and remembering that all this would be falling on less than approving ears.
“Whit kind uv toys dae ye fancy this Christmas?” Joe said in a tone of voice I’d not heard before. Kind.
Our parish priest was right, you have to give bad boys and girls a chance. So I began my modest list explaining that I was now a big boy being seven and needed grown up toys like a Stingray, which goes underwater, a fire engine “just because” but above all I wanted a Dalek.
“A Dalek, very cool wee man, very cool,” he cooed.
He was now smoking a freshly lit Woodbine, the pungent smoke wafting around his pursed nine-year-old lips. He seemed relaxed for once and I felt a knot in my stomach untangle that I didn’t even know had been there.
For once he was really talking to me, like a big brother or something. The rain continued to pour and the faint light of day was receding fast in the gloom rendering Joe silhouetted to me.
His voice, reduced almost to a whisper, asked me delicately “And who dae ye think brings ye the prezzies?”
I was puzzled. Everyone knew it was Santa. I was too scared to ask him if he knew that. If he didn’t know, maybe it was because he hadn’t ever got presents from Santa and Jesus, because he was so naughty, being a nutter and such like.
I hesitantly said, “Why, Santa, of course?” A rumble of thunder drowned out the sound of the rain. For a few pregnant seconds, Joe slowly stubbed out the cigarette. I could hear my heart beating in my temples. But then, Joe suddenly perked up.
“Ah Santa, isn’t he’s the wan wi’ reindeer an’ shit. Where does he live, posh boy?”
Joe really wanted to know! I became giddy with excitement and ranted about Lapland, elves and a magical sleigh. I had become so euphoric in our new found friendship that I then broke into a chorus of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’.
He suddenly reached around and grabbed my Fair Isle jumper with both hands and looked deep into my eyes. I could see tears welling up in his lifeless eyes. Weird that.
He leaned over to one side and hissed in my ear, delivering the life changing verbal blow.
“Santa doesnae exist – ya stupid wee cunt.”
I reeled away in shock. The first bit I understood. The second bit I didn’t understand but knew instinctively that whatever a cunt was, it was not A Good Thing.
I felt the sudden taste of salt as a shameful tear found its way to my mouth.
Joe was now leaning against the wall.
“How do you know Santa doesn’t exist?” I boldly asked him.
“Yon wee Jew Boy in ma class, Minted Manny – he spilled ra beans aboot Santa, tae spite me, coz I forced him tae sing carols last yeer.”
I ventured further, “I don’t believe you – prove it.”
Joe grabbed the back of my head and clenched my hair until he could see conclusive evidence of my tears.
“There is a space in ra back uff yer Ma and Da’s wardrobe. That’s where they hide yer stupid wee presents ya daft tube.”
I don’t remember leaving his grip. Next thing, I was staring into that space in the back of my parent’s wardrobe. It looked deeper and darker than any space that astronauts were navigating in whatever Apollo was spinning above me now. We had stopped counting after 13.
I took a deep breath and thrust in my trembling hand. I quickly located a silver box to my eye level. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I surveyed a beautiful toy nestling in the luxurious packaging. I pushed the button through the plastic. “Exterminate,” exclaimed the deadly Dalek.
It was what I had prayed to Jesus for, on a nightly basis, plus a top up prayer to Santa just to make sure. I wasn’t sure if this was allowed by Father Patrick but Big Tam, Wee Tam’s big cousin, said last week that Jesus and Santa were mates, big time, and that Santa was a really a saint called Nick. But Big Joe said Nick was the name of the Devil and he knew everything – especially after today’s revelation.
I quietly put the Dalek box back. The metallic voice, a bit like Mr. Roberts, our PT teacher, resonated in my mind. Exterminate.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas I was too shocked to confront my parents.
However, everything culminated in a Spaghetti Western stand-off on Christmas morning. The presents lay beneath the tree. My parents and I narrowed our eyes and examined each other’s unsmiling faces for clues of inside knowledge. It was clear the game was up for all of us. The sham was over and Santa had been murdered but there was no body. The half-eaten carrots, the milky glass and the familiar bright paper wrapped around the now tainted Dalek was evidence of a crime scene rather than a place to be merry.
As long as my son doesn’t find the space in the back of the wardrobe first I might just buy him the rebooted Dalek that he wants after all.
Then I will then tell him, that, yes, I am Santa, and I did it because my wife and I love him and want him to believe in magical things he cannot see like love and God and one day he too will do the same for his children. Just as long as some Big Joe doesn’t get to them first.