ANDREW WELLOCK (1958-?); unmarried, no children. Went missing in 1983, abandoning his job in the toy section of a department store. There followed only perfunctory attempts to locate him – family members seemed indifferent to his whereabouts, and police found nothing suspicious to warrant any further investigation. Sometimes people just disappear, change their names, change their lives. It’s not a crime.

Only the monotone beep-beep-beeping of the life support gave any indication that the figure on the bed was still alive; you could stare at his chest for ages, trying to catch the slightest rise and fall of breath, but as Gerald would have said, you’d be wasting your frigging time. (Gerald’s real name was long and Icelandic and just a little elvish – he’d told the new recruit, in his typically blunt way, that it’d be a lot frigging simpler if he’d stop trying to get his tongue round it and just frigging well call him Gerald. The new recruit had nodded, and agreed.)

And now this new recruit was being led to the body of the great man, so nearly dead – let’s face it, dead already to all intents and purposes, only the beep-beeping was saying anything different. And he was a great man, wasn’t he? – this was someone who’d sledded down the Aurora Borealis, who’d enthralled the children of the Africas and the Asias and all the Americas besides, who had popped presents down chimneys in Peckham and Vladivostock. And yet here he was, spotted flesh, reedy hair, a whole puddle of wrinkles in human form. Giving off that strange odour that only clings to old people. The reindeer around the bed shuffled aside to let the recruit through.

“Santa?” he whispered. “Santa?” He looked at Gerald. “Can he hear me?”

Gerald shrugged, in his brusque elf way, a how-the-hell-would-I-know?

“I love you, Santa,” said the young man. “More than friends, more than family. More than anyone real or imaginary. And I’ll do my best, I promise. To live up to your memory.”

“You sure you’re up to it?” Gerald asked. And at that the young man bristled, he turned around, who was this elf to question him – he was only an ugly elf, and the recruit was strong and lithe, and so jolly potentially, he would ho-ho-ho like nobody’s business. Nobody could stop him being the best hero that he could be, nobody could stop him filling the world with joy – certainly not some sodding midget in a green leotard and a pom-pom hat. And he bunched up his fists, tight, hard, without even thinking.

The elf looked at the fists. He didn’t seem too perturbed by them. The young man looked down at them, then opened them out in some embarrassment.

“What I mean is,” the elf went on, “that what you’ll be doing is, let’s face it, impossible. Flying on a sleigh around the world.

Visiting each and every household on the same night. You’re warping space and time, which is bad enough, but you’re warping reality too. Not good for the system, that. Does weird things to you.”

The young man had been training for this for as long as he could remember. Ever since he’d been a kid, and had been captivated by the magic of Christmas, with his Daddy, his Mummy, his little brother Andy. Waking with Andy hours before daylight, sitting down beside the tree together in their pyjamas, waiting for the day to start and all the fun and all the games and all the unspoiled happiness – and that pact on all sides not to let that happiness

stop, they’d all stay cheery until Boxing Day no matter what – on this day, and only on this day, his father wouldn’t shout, his mother wouldn’t drink, smiles, all smiles. And Andy smiling too, Andy smiling throughout – this was a day when he wouldn’t need to protect his little brother, this was the day when Andy would be safe.

He’d lost touch with the family, as soon as he was old enough. And he’d lost touch with Andy too, sadly; he sometimes felt bad about that, they hadn’t spoken in years, not even so much as a card on birthdays now, not even a card at Christmas. He had never meant to lose Andy. Maybe Andy was too close. Maybe Andy had always been too close to all that had happened. But never with Christmas – he’d never lost touch with Christmas – he’d never lost touch with that magic – he’d never grown cynical, never stopped believing, never stopped believing that there was a point in believing. “I work out, don’t smoke, eat healthy,” he said. “I’m fit, I’m young. I’ve got years in me. I’ve got all these years to give the world. I’m only thirty-one.”

And Gerald smiled sadly, and jerked his thumb at the body of Santa Claus. In a manner which seemed dismissive, but still tinged with a little awe. “This one,” said Gerald, “is only twenty-six.”

The young man looked closer. And saw Santa’s face at last.

Still smiling out at him after all these years. Still hoping his big brother would protect him.

***

…Second story to come later this week. Thursday, I’d expect!

Rob

 

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