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As he entered the workshop, the elves lowered their voices and conspicuously changed subject. They made a show of doing this, of cutting him out. They didn’t hate Santa, they were just frustrated with the long, repetitive hours and needed someone to punish.
Bushy approached with a clipboard. Santa straightened his posture and cleared his throat.
“How’s everything going?” he asked.
“It’s going!” Bushy replied with a giggle.
“You think we’ll be ready?”
“We’ve been ready for days.”
“Great. That’s … fantastic work.”
The sound of wrapping paper crunching and tape being yanked and torn from industrial-sized rolls filled the temporary silence.
“Would you like to check the inventory?” Bushy asked. He was extending the benefit of the doubt, assuming some official purpose behind the visit. The truth was that Santa had nowhere else to be. It was the night before Christmas Eve, their most demanding yet, and he was bored.
“You read my mind, Bushy,” he replied, merrily.
Santa eased himself into a red golf cart, his girth spreading awkwardly over the driver and passenger seats. Bushy sat on his lap and steered, while Santa worked the accelerator. Virtually all of the presents had been wrapped. They zipped through aisles upon aisles of gifts, a multitude so vast the eye had nowhere to land and focus. Santa’s gaze bounced between packages of varying colours: festive red and forest green, earthy patterned prints, reflective wrapping, shiny silvers and golds, glistening now even in the weak, grey light of the storage facility. Yet beneath this dazzling display was a homogeneity of presents: phones, consoles, tablets. Every year, the variety diminished.
Bushy drove in silence. Santa wondered what Bushy saw when he looked upon these gifts. Once, the elves had been artisans. Now, they were procurers, dealing in abstractions: units, shipment dates, delivery logistics. The rise of tech had at first eased and then ultimately emasculated their profession. Did Bushy think about this?
“Do you want to see Zone B?” Bushy asked, once their canvass of Zone A was complete.
“No, no. It seems like you have everything under control.”
Bushy smiled and turned the cart around. “How’s the missus?”
“She’s gone to the South Pole for a few days.”
“Alright for some!” he said, with another mischievous giggle.
“There’s really no need for her to be here now. And, of course, I need to focus.”
“You can say that again.”
“It’s for the best, I think.”
“Actually, Bushy, I get rather … edgy on Christmas Eve.”
Bushy made no response.
“I get almost… gloomy,” Santa confessed, delicately.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Bushy said, keeping his eye on the aisle.
“It’s probably nothing.”
“Just pre-game jitters, I’d imagine.”
“How is morale? Among the elves.”
“This time of year can be hard—”
“Hard?” Bushy shook his head, uncomprehending. “I mean, from what I can tell, this year everyone is jolly. Everyone is feeling pretty jolly about the way things are progressing. I haven’t noticed any issues with cheer.”
“Great. I assumed as much. Just making sure.”
“Everything is fantastic,” Bushy said. His brows were lowered as if he was continuing the conversation in his head, puzzling over its implications.
They parked outside the workshop entrance. Santa lurched to his feet and felt his weight slam down hard upon his knees.
“Rudolph has been looking for you,” Bushy said.
“So everyone keeps saying…”
Bushy seemed anxious to rejoin the others. They stepped inside. The elves were working hard, carrying presents, stacking them, curling reams of red ribbon. Despite all this motion, they appeared purposeless. For all Santa could tell, they were simply moving objects back and forth. A simulacrum of Christmases past. At some point over the years, Santa’s enterprise had been subtly misshapen, stretched beyond its elastic limit. He watched them for a moment more, then slipped away, unobserved.
He was shocked by the state of his bedroom. Mrs. Claus had warned that she intended to do a “Deep Clean” before leaving, but this was much more. There was new bedding, a new watercolour print mounted on the wall. She had arranged an elaborate floral display above the fireplace, dusted the surfaces and shampooed the rug. It was as pristine as a hotel room. And, as in a hotel room, Santa wandered this immaculate space uncomfortably, aware that every time he made contact with his surroundings he slightly dishevelled them.
He did not resent her absence. Her family missed her and he was bad company on the 23rd, always anxious and unsocial. It had been a sensible decision. Yet now this strange overture, as if they’d had a fight.
Several magazines were fanned across his desk, all featuring Santa on the cover. She had left those too: a quiet prompt. He absently picked one and stared at an artist’s rendition of himself flying across a moonlit sky. Recently, his media image had altered. People were representing him as thinner, corpulence no longer being associated with jolliness, but disease. Santa stared at the flattering image and felt a strange mixture of vanity and self-reproach.
He turned his attention to the sled manifest, a document so vast they had resorted to printing it on scritta paper, the same as is used for Bibles. There were 994,412 people with the name “Scott” in the USA alone. Most of them wanted iPads. It was said that one death is a tragedy and one thousand a statistic. This principle could be applied to Christmas itself. At a certain scale, merriment became unintelligible.
He attempted to focus. He could not. He called his wife.
“I’ve been thinking about population forecasts…” he said, the moment she answered.
“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Jesus … 4.2 billion by 2030? They’re killing me.”
“Baby, no. We can’t go through this again…”
“I’m aware that I say this every year, but I have a really bad feeling about tomorrow. About the feasibility.”
“That’s right, honey, you do say this every year. And every year the outcome is the same: the job gets done. Can’t you just, I don’t know, try to accept that you’re very good at what you do? Try to take pleasure in it.”
He needed comfort. Comfort should be easy to give. He felt that she was withholding it deliberately.
Of course, he knew this was unfair. The fact that she had never been down a chimney, and he had, meant that on some essential, material level, they were different. He had a sense of the 24th that was wholly his own, stored somewhere deep, inaccessible. No matter how strong their marriage, how extensively they talked, this difference would never be breached. No other living thing could speak directly to his doubts. There was only one Santa: his worries were uniquely his.
“You sound far away,” he said.
“I’ve got you on hands-free.”
“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Just, you know, futzing.”
“Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Okay.” She paused. “You didn’t say anything about the room.”
“Right, yes. It’s … very dramatic.”
“You don’t like it.”
“I do. I’m just tired.”
“We can change it back if you hate it.”
“I don’t. Sorry, I’m just distracted. It’s lovely. Really.”
There was a pause, then she asked, “Have you spoken to Rudolph?”
“I haven’t run into him today.”
“You need to make an effort.”
“Well, I’ll see him plenty tomorrow.”
“He thinks the world of you.”
“He idolises you.”
Santa said nothing; any response would surely be petty. And he couldn’t explain why he had grown so distant towards his friend.
“You should rest,” his wife said.
“Okay. We’ll speak tomorrow.”
They both lingered. He had the impression that there was some code-word that he’d forgotten to utter. Something that might dispel this awkwardness.
“Nick—” she said, impulsively.
“I’m fine,” he assured.
“You’ll do a good job tomorrow.”
“Get some rest.”
“You too. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Nick.”
“Are you alright?” he blurted. “Is everything okay down South?” But by then, she’d hung up.
There had been a time when he and his wife flirted constantly and teased mercilessly. They had loved to tease, to push the envelope. Their attraction seemed indefatigable so it was thrilling to test its limits. On their third Christmas, back when Santa assisted with workshop production, he’d pulled late nights. She’d once phoned down from their bedroom:
“Mr. Claus, would you care to come up and join me in bed,” she’d said in a throaty murmur.
“Not particularly,” he replied, sotto voce.
“You’ve got something better to do?”
“I’ve got a date.”
“My other wife. You knew about her right?”
“I didn’t. Well, I’d better call my boyfriend.”
“You’ve got a boyfriend?”
“He’s incredibly rich.”
“Bet he doesn’t drive a sled.”
“No, he drives a Ferrari.”
“Okay, you’ve made me jealous.”
“He’s ridiculously attractive. And the things he can do in bed … my word!”
“He’s fat too! I love fat men.”
Santa wore a vacant smile as he recalled the exchange and the more heated exchange that took place after the call. These days, he and his wife were cautious when they spoke. It was as if they had stood witness to some disaster and each were complicit in its cover-up.
Santa’s shadow pranced about in the firelight. Otherwise, the room was very still. A piece of bark snapped. A displaced log fell with a muffled thud. The muted sound gave Santa the impression that he wasn’t in the room at all, but far away from it.
No matter how strong his practical misgivings, how tired his body, how unsteady his faith, Santa always woke on the 24th with a burst of energy. He opened his eyes alert, cognisant, like he’d not been asleep at all, but had merely blinked between thoughts.
The carpet outside his door was muddied; forked hoof prints trailed up and down the corridor.
“Either Rudolph is impatient to see me, or the devil’s come early for my soul,” Santa said, aloud, to himself.
He stepped into the snow. The sun glowed dimly, blurred behind a wash of pale overcast, like a cataracted eye.
The last of the presents were being loaded into the sled. Prancer and Vixen stretched and limbered while the other reindeer quietly gathered their thoughts. Only Rudolph, who was the youngest, moved skittishly between the elves and his fellow reindeer, joyous to the point of agitation. There was something about Rudolph’s cheer that made Santa increasingly uncomfortable. Sometimes when they spoke, Santa felt as if he were guarding himself against exposure, as if he were concealing an infidelity of some sort. And sometimes, to his bewilderment, he found that he wanted to be exposed.
He took a sip of his coffee; it was already cold and beginning to solidify in the mug. Rudolph bounded over, his nose blazing red, his eyes watery and bright.
“Look at this manifest,” Santa said, before Rudolph had chance to speak.
Rudolph made a low, appreciative whistle. “That’s a doozy!” he replied, excitedly.
“Maybe we should sack it off this year!” Santa joked. He rarely made jokes like that.
Rudolph laughed. “Why not? I’m sure nobody would notice!”
“Exactly! Yes, exactly.” Santa was laughing more now. “We could just say: sod it. Go inside, watch a movie.”
Rudolph chuckled politely. He looked towards the sled.
“Maybe roast some chestnuts,” Santa continued. “Crack open the whiskey…” The thought was incredibly funny. Santa really couldn’t stop laughing. “We could pack up all these gifts and use them next year. Or not! We could leave them here. Just abandon them. They’d be buried in snow by tomorrow! A nice, jolly graveyard of gifts. Let the kiddies go hunting for them.” The image was hysterical and exciting; little children bumbling around Arctic pastures, fields for PlayStations with chilblained fingers.
He let go. Santa laughed until the corners of his mouth hurt and his stomach hurt and tears streaked his cheeks. The sound was absorbed swiftly by the acres of virgin snow, his laughter disappearing almost at the instant of articulation. Eventually he stopped. The surrounding planes were silent.
“We really have to get going,” Rudolph said.
The snow poured. The sled and the elves and even Rudolph were obscured behind the powdery white flakes. Santa appeared to be surrounded by shadows.
“You ready?” Rudolph asked.
Over five hundred million gifts had been packed. Across the world, children waited in feverish anticipation. The gifts would delight them for a day and ultimately disappoint them. Eventually, they’d lose faith in Santa, in presents entirely; they’d ask for cash. They’d be replaced. The unceasing cycle.
“I just want someone to tell me that what I’m doing isn’t completely mad,” he said.
“It is mad! We’re depositing five hundred and twenty-six million gifts across the world in less than twelve hours!”
“I didn’t mean ‘mad’ in a fun, slang sort of way.”
“In what way did you mean it?”
“I meant in a literal way. As in insane.”
Rudolph’s nose dimmed slightly. “You’ll feel better once we make a start,” he said.
They moved through the air, travelling into darkness. At certain speeds, it is easy to confuse physical velocity with more abstract, even spiritual forms of progression. Santa was familiar with this tricksy phenomenon, he knew it was coming and yet he was unable to resist its effects. For a moment, he felt like he was really going somewhere. In the distance, he spotted a swampy patch of brightness. Aurora Borealis. The eerie light unspooled for miles across the black sky; his skin glowed sapphire and his green breath fogged before him. Santa felt humbled by the immensity of his task. The desire to do it and do it well absorbed him completely; his worries seemed suddenly small and light.
They started close to home, Greenland their first stop. The proximal approach was risky, pitting them against the time zones. But it divided their route into short spurts, which played to the reindeer’s strengths and it spared them a long journey across the globe with full cargo.
They advanced steadily across the desolate landscape, visiting humble abodes that had remained unchanged for generations. In one, an old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her children were dead and her home empty, but she prepared their stockings every year and Santa always filled them. What she did with the useless gifts, he could not guess, but he felt for her. At Christmas, sadness was a purer distillate and he did what he could to dilute it. These first visits were always more emotional; later there would be no time for details.
Next, Canada, venturing briefly into Alaska, then back across. In the Southern region, their progress slowed, particularly in the densely packed cities, where whole families lived only breaths apart. He moved through Vancouver trippingly, stopping and starting stopping and starting, distributing gifts in vast apartment blocks, dozens at a time. Once complete, they’d lost significant cargo and the sled moved faster. Bolting into the USA, the G-force pressed hard against Santa’s skull, pushing at his eyes, his cheeks, his jowls. The sled trembled.
“How are we doing, Rudolph?” he cried.
He worked harder. He filled his sack more heavily, reducing trips to the sled. His mind went blank and his muscles thought for him. He was a system of reflexes.
Santa scrambled down chimneys, fingers grasping for purchase, fingernails snapping off, legs pumping. He discovered himself in a lounge: garish, bright, decked out in white ornaments. The image vanished and he was on the sled. The reindeer moaned as they peddled over a labyrinth of rooftops, spritzed by a gentle rain. And then again. Ten houses. Twenty. Forty. In the sixtieth, his leg cramped and he walked with a limp, hobbling towards a tree which had, inexplicably, been placed in the bathroom. His sack, full of sharp objects, gouged his back. Pain was progress. As the sack stabbed, he moved faster, like a beast spurred.
“How are we doing Rudolph?
“It’s tight. It’s very tight.”
Faster still. He hurled presents towards trees, he pivoted on his foot like a sprinter completing laps. He was in a squalid threadbare squat in Brooklyn, reeking of old clothes, sweat. He was in a townhouse. A brownstone. He was on Fifth Avenue. The sole of his boot flapped free and he revelled in this, this validation of his labour. He fumbled across a ballroom, the men were in black tie. A woman in a sequinned gown observed him panting towards the ten foot spruce.
“How cute,” she declared, her accent waspish.
Some people could see him but most could not. Those that saw him recognised him vaguely, like a figure in a dream. An experience of translucence. He did not mind it now, on the job, but it haunted him after, that sense of light travelling through him, of being half-vanished.
The air in Mongolia was wet and sweet. The air in Kowloon was thick with pollution; a haze of petrol fumes settled on Santa’s skin. He did not slow. They covered Hong Kong. His throat was sandpaper; it hurt to swallow. Soon, his spit was just froth and there was nothing to swallow at all. Laos. Taiwan. Rudolph’s nose pointed the way, a small and constant conflagration in fields of dark.
The sun rose over Alice Springs, Australia, and bloodied the sky. Santa witnessed it through bloodshot eyes. Time was short.
By Wellington, his muscles were shredded; his limbs loose and disobedient. Hard to move quickly. Hard to be graceful: he bumped into a desk. He shoved a couch from his path, rather than walk around it. His body imprecise, a crude instrument.
When Santa deposited the final gift near the Slope Point, New Zealand, they were all too exhausted to cheer. He coughed until he retched and then wiped the sweat from his brow. Almost immediately, more sweat gathered. He fell against the sled, staring into the middle distance. The landscape pulsed. Lactic acid pickled his muscles. But he was done.
“Oh no,” Rudolph said.
Santa was too tired to acknowledge the remark.
“Oh dear,” Rudolph said.
“What. What is it?” Santa demanded.
“We missed one.”
Santa returned to the sled and there, in its shadows, was a single square package wrapped in violet Crepe-paper. He picked it up, his heart sinking.
Beneath his signature was an image of Big Ben, indicating that the present belonged in London, the other side of the world.
“It’s only four in the morning GMT. We could still make it,” Rudolph said. Dasher’s head sank, and he studied the dirt ground. He looked like he was about to cry. For a moment, Santa worried that he too might cry. An image of himself weeping ceaselessly rose in his imagination.
“We could…” Santa said.
“Could”; the suggestion of an alternative. The air became electric; a scandal, if not uttered, had been implied.
“We’ve never skipped a gift before! Not once!” Rudolph laughed with strained joviality.
The other reindeer looked at each other guiltily.
The package was light – most likely a Kindle Fire. Given the hundreds of millions of gifts they’d distributed, it seemed absurd that this flimsy thing should be of any consequence. He turned it in his hands and wondered how far it would fly if he projected the toy with all his strength.
And if he did? The reindeer would tell the elves. The elves would talk amongst themselves. His dereliction would license theirs.
The reindeer watched him. Rudolph squirmed. Santa understood that he had, in his hand, the single loose brick that could upend the edifice. He could fail. He could choose to fail. Let the whole thing tumble. The prospect was dizzying.
“We’ll go to London,” Santa declared, solemnly. “And then we will go home.”
They moved sluggishly from the Southern to Northern hemisphere, the darkness disintegrating in patches behind them. Upon reaching Europe, they turned west, traversing the sky like wearied vagabonds escaping a long pursuit. The sled swerved and the air grew frigid. They pushed on. In London, they travelled at an altitude and vantage that made the city seem like an elaborate toy village; oddly fragile and easy to crush.
Tommy lived deep in a nest of council estates in Whitechapel. There was no chimney, so Santa would have to enter by the door. He walked along a narrow, concrete gangway on the fourth floor. In the courtyard below, a group of teenagers were jeering and making trouble; grime music played from a muffled car stereo.
A woman sat in the living room, cradling a glass of red wine. She looked up, acknowledging him with only faint surprise, as if he were her husband come home at an unusual hour.
“Hello,” she said.
“Ho ho ho,” he replied, somewhat anaemically. He had sweated through his clothes many times and they felt stiff and filthy. The air around his body smelled foul.
“Sorry … do you … I don’t know, do you prefer to do this in private?” she asked.
“It doesn’t make a huge difference.”
He dropped the present under the tree. He noticed a glass of milk placed on the ledge of a boarded-up fireplace. He paused. He was incredibly tired; the night’s adrenaline was withdrawing, making him feel strung-out, shivery. His stomach lurched at the thought of milk, at the thought of putting anything into his body. Yet he had noticed the milk and she had seen him notice. He took a sip and forced himself to swallow.
The room came into focus. Reams upon reams of red tinsel had been tacked to the walls; it was the cheap plastic stuff. Several Christmas cards had been strung up with dental floss.
The four-foot tree was shedding heavily. It was covered in baubles and fairy lights that flicked frenetically from green to red to orange, the abruptly alternating rhythm gave the space an unhinged quality.
“We’ve met before,” she said.
“Suzie Baker. We met in ’78. I stayed up all night, staking you out.”
“Yes! Of course.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“I’m sorry. I have a photographic memory for children but adults are harder to place. I do think I remember…”
“I’ve seen so many faces,” Santa said, in a tone that seemed, even to his own ears, strangely confessional.
“It’s okay, really. You’ve got a tough gig.”
Nobody had ever said that to him before. Usually, when he spoke to clients, they talked about how enviable his job was. How he trafficked in cheer, travelled extensively. So many perks! they said. Such fulfilling work. It was important for people to believe in the perfect job.
“It is tough,” he said.
“Next year I might send gift cards,” he ventured.
“What are you doing up?” Santa asked.
“Just clearing my head. It’s been a long year … I don’t want to be mopey tomorrow. For Tommy’s sake, you know? Kids pick up on your energy.”
“Children can be incredibly taxing.”
“They lose it with time, though.”
“That sensitivity. By the time he’s thirteen, your jolliness will be irrelevant. You’ll be able to take a break.”
“A break… Frankly, I could use a break from life. Will I get one of those too?” “Not one you can come back from.”
Her eyebrows arched and then she peered at him. “I feel guilty talking like this in front of you… I can’t be responsible for depressing Santa.”
“It’s important to share these things. Incredibly important. I’m actually in a similar position myself.”
She smiled. “That’s hard to imagine. I mean, from the outside, you seem perfectly together.”
“Oh, I have doubts. There’s a lot about me that people don’t realise.”
“I have a dark side.”
“You do, do you?”
“‘Santa’ is an anagram for ‘Satan’.”
She squawked with laughter, startling him; it was a strange, unmelodious laugh, and incredibly charming.
Suzie looked down into her wineglass, as if remembering something unpleasant. He recognised something in that expression. Santa was always remembering himself, always alighting briefly from his moods and descending right back into them.
“I’ve been reading about introverts and extroverts…” he said. He wanted her to stay with him. “You know, it’s got nothing to do with how outgoing you are. It’s about energy. Extroverts draw energy from other people and introverts draw energy from themselves. They find people draining. You seem like an introvert. Like me.”
“I draw my energy from coffee.”
He laughed. “Can I sit down?” he asked.
“Of course! I should have offered. Sit. Please.”
Santa fell heavily into the chair opposite. She was a young mother. Her face was thin, almost gaunt. There was a stain on her black and white striped top and her jeans were furry at the knees, discoloured from wear. The old clothes strangely suited her. He felt suddenly conscious of how his gut ballooned over the armrest and he moved his arm protectively across his stomach.
His features burned red, then melted to a soft and forgiving amber in the changing light.
“It’s nice of you to sit here with me like this. I didn’t know your services extended to adults,” she said.
“It’s nice of you to host me.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Do you get the blues when it’s all over?”
“Christmas, you mean?”
“Yeah. Ever since I was a child, taking down Christmas ornaments has always felt so depressing. It’s strange, because I rarely actually enjoy Christmas itself – no offence.”
“Believe me, none taken.”
“But packing it up feels so morbid. Like I missed my shot at something.”
“I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been thinking something similar. Christmas Present is … slippery.”
“Even when I’m buying the ornaments, I’m already edgy, worrying about how long it will take to put them away again, or how I’ll get the tree to the skip.”
She tapped her wine glass. The edge of her nail struck the rim; it produced a thin ringing sound that wavered in the air and made him tense.
“It will be okay won’t it?” she asked.
“Certainly!” he replied. “Wait, will what be okay?”
“I don’t know … just, everything I guess.” She shrugged, laughed at herself.
“It will be okay.”
The affirmation appeared to hit home. Her body relaxed. He had helped.
An image of Suzie naked flicked, almost intrusively, across his mind. Then he welcomed it. He imagined her trembling in his arms. He imagined being in hers. Sex with his own wife had become a thoughtless ritual. They knew what each other liked and diligently performed. Their love was well rehearsed, choreographed, and when they parted, the room seemed filled with secrets.
Santa had an overpowering urge to share everything with Suzie. To go deeper. To help more. He yearned for that.
“I feel—” Santa began speaking, before he knew what to say.
“People like me hide behind people like you,” she cut in. “When I feel anxious, or incapable, I show Tommy cartoons of your workshop, your reindeer. It helps—”
“—Powerless. I feel, powerless,” he said, finishing his sentence while processing hers. “Everything I do…” he continued, unable to stop himself. “Everything is dedicated to making people believe in something that doesn’t exist.”
“Oh,” she said, tonelessly. “That’s no good,” she added, after a minute.
A piece of tinfoil became untacked and dropped from the wall. She got up immediately to right it. She fidgeted, but the tinsel would not adhere and eventually she snatched it from the wall entirely and put it aside.
“There really are too many decorations in here,” she said. “When Tommy’s a bit older, I don’t think I’ll bother. Maybe a tree. Something small, that’ll be easier to clear up.” She sounded different. She had shut him out. Suzie glanced absently about the room, as if she were alone in it.
“I should let you get some sleep,” he said. He did not wish to leave.
“Tomorrow will be full of cheer,” he added, impotently.
“Yes, I think so too,” she replied, politely.
Suzie saw him out, nodding as he left. The door shut quickly.
“Woah! What were you doing in there?” Rudolph asked.
“We had a waker. I chatted with her a bit. Spread some cheer.”
“Like the good old days!”
“Yes. Like those.”
Now, finally homeward bound, the reindeer enjoyed a second wind. They sang carols loudly, out of tune and out of synch with one another, garbling the lyrics and laughing. Santa could not shake a nagging feeling. He’d experienced this feeling once before, in the early days, when he’d left coal in a child’s house. Thereafter, he abolished the practice.
In no time at all, their home was in sight. It was a strange law of nature that he had observed often. The outward voyage is always slow and gruelling; the homeward journey always abrupt.
Inside the elves were celebrating. Every year, their festivities grew more decadent. Alabaster lay naked across his workstation and several of his colleagues were wrapping him alive. As they spread shining gold paper over his pale flesh, he laughed at them, at the rafters, at his situation entire. One look from Santa could silence this scene. If they could sense what he was feeling, they’d freeze and sober.
Glances drifted towards him. The job was done and still he was expected to perform. Santa made a limp victory sign. They cheered. He excused himself. The constant pop-pop-pop of Champagne corks bursting, the quiet sizzle and drip of bottles overflowing, pursued him through the room as he exited.
In his study, he considered playing a game of solitaire, but found it hard to move from his chair. He thought of Suzie. He had been ungenerous, and she was probably still awake. Already, he worried about next year and returning to that flat. Perhaps the room would be barer, stripped back: that would be his doing. And how would she treat him if they met again? Maybe she would greet him like a plumber, a necessary nuisance, watch him potter about the tree and hope that he worked quickly. The prospect frightened him. It terrified him.
After an indeterminate time had passed, Rudolph trotted in, his nose pulsing wildly. It was truly an odd shade of red. A red that had no corollary in the natural world. It was the red of American candy, the corn-syrup, zero calorie, mass-produced sweets that rotted the innards of children.
“You should be proud, Santa,” Rudolph stated. “This year was … incredible.”
A talking reindeer with an obscene nose. This was his lot.
“I almost didn’t deliver that last present,” Santa stated.
“What do you make of that?”
“I accept it.”
“But what do you make of it?”
Rudolph considered the question carefully. He seemed to be struggling with a thought that surpassed his faculties; it was like watching a child contemplate death. “Our sled is empty,” he said in a measured tone. “Our gifts are given. These are the things that matter.”
“I’m not so sure, Ru, I’m not so sure at all. I have this idea of what I should be doing, how this should work, and every year I feel I’m getting further away from it.”
“Well … maybe you should give up on that idea.”
There was nothing beyond the idea, just distribution plans. How pale their offering. He needed to share this burden. He could not do another twelve months alone. Yet the thought of Suzie gave him pause.
“Sometimes … to hold onto the things that really matter, we have to let go,” Rudolph added. He concentrated. He remembered something and exclaimed, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly!”
What was Santa to do with this? Penny aphorisms tossed into the swallowing dark.
Rudolph waited for a reply. He shifted his weight from hoof to hoof. Santa felt as if he could undo all of Rudolph’s Christmases with a single, cool remark. One day he would.
“That’s a lovely expression, Ru.” Speaking came at physical cost. “Where did you learn the phrase?” Santa asked.
“The elves say it whenever they’re cooking up a plan: hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
“A lovely expression,” he said again.
Rudolph’s nose throbbed and he drew in close.
Santa’s fingers played along the velvet fuzz of Rudolph’s antlers. He pressed down on the soft bone underneath, which was warm to the touch, which had the faintest pulse, and massaged it gently. It yielded to the pressure like damp bark.
There was no living bark outside. Outside, the arctic tundra ravaged trees, blasted their branches clean off, entire trunks snapping like sticks of chalk in the subzero climate. Only here, in Santa’s home, could such a small, warm thing survive the night.