Nightmare Fifty: To Santa or Not To Santa
“Oh, not Santa Claus again” groaned Roger, covering his face with his hands. “Every year. Every single year.”
“The kids are growing up now—“, started Elizabeth, but Susan interrupted her.
“They’re at the critical phase now, Elizabeth”, said Susan, with a weak smile. She found Elizabeth very trying. How did Mark find himself lumbered with such a goose? He deserved better. “Do you want to let religion and superstition in the back door? If you plant Santa Claus in their heads, that’s what’s going to happen.”
“It’s only a tradition”, said Elizabeth, in a small voice. She was intimidated by Susan. She was so smart; an engineering professor. They were all so smart. Elizabeth felt out of her depth. “I don’t want to take the magic out of their childhood.”
“But that’s the problem, isn’t it?”, asked Terry, with his patient smile. “Magic. Are we really going to cripple their imaginations by making them think that the only source of wonder, the only source of awe, is magic? That reality itself can’t be full of marvel?”
“Is there in truth no beauty?”, murmured Susan, in a singsong voice that told Elizabeth it was a quotation.
“George Herbert”, said Roger, with a self-satisfied grin.
God, they were all so smart. They were all professors and research scientists and senior civil servants. She was the only trustee of the Huxley School who didn’t have a degree. Probably the only one who didn’t have a PhD.
She tackled Mark about it when they got home.
“Let the school do what it wants”, she said, pouring a coffee for each of them. “We don’t have to follow, do we? I mean, they’re the ones who are always talking about free thought, and the independence of the mind. Honey, let’s have Santa Claus. Isobel is five years old. It didn’t matter so much until now…”
“It’s more than just a school, dear heart”, said Mark, running his fingers along her cheek, and staring into her eyes. “It’s an experiment.”
“An experiment with your daughter?”, asked Elizabeth.
“Don’t put it like that”, said Mark, with a reproachful look. “Lizzie, do you want us to take Isobel out of the Huxley School?”
“No”, said Elizabeth, quickly, looking down. “No, I want her to stay. We’d never get her into another school like that. And she’s made friends. But…”
“But”, said Mark, gently, “if we keep her in it, we have to keep to the spirit of the school. How would it work if Isobel were to tell her friends what she was getting from Santa Claus”—he couldn’t keep the disdain from his voice as he spoke the name—“and all the other kids went home and asked their parents why Santa didn’t visit them?”
“Oh, it just seems so wrong, though”, said Elizabeth, struggling to keep from sobbing. “I mean, not letting them have normal books, and not letting them watch cartoons or kids’ programmes, not even letting them mix with ordinary kids. You all talk about how people are tricked and deluded. But who’s deluding who? Who’s keeping who in the dark?”
There was silence for a few moments, and Elizabeth looked away from her husband. She had never gone so far before.
“I’m sorry you feel like that, Lizzie”, said Mark, his voice colder now. “There’s a certain validity to what you say. We are censoring them. But what parent doesn’t censor what their kids are exposed to? Would you let Isobel watch a Rambo film, or a dirty movie? Of, course not. But religion and superstition are just as poisonous. Worse. The real pity is that society is so rotten with it, so that we’re forced to take these drastic steps. Let them grow up free of all that junk. They’ll meet it soon enough.”
“It’s just Santa Claus”, said Elizabeth, almost whispering. “It’s just a story.” She put her coffee down on the sideboard and walked towards the kitchen door.
“Lizzie—“ began Mark, in an exasperated voice.
“Don’t worry”, said Elizabeth. “I’m not going to corrupt your daughter.”
* * * * *
Isobel was sitting up in bed, reading her picture book, The Life of a Tree. It was one of the “good” books Mark had bought for her.
“How is the greatest little girl in the world?”, asked Elizabeth, ruffling her black curls.
Isobel looked up anxiously. “I don’t have to go to sleep yet, do I?”, she asked.
“No, butterfly”, said Elizabeth, perching herself on the side of the bed. “Not yet. How was school today? Tell Mommy.”
“It was OK”, said Isobel. “Mommy, who is the red man? The one we’re not supposed to know about?”
“What red man?”, asked Elizabeth, alarmed and hopeful at once.
“The red man that walks around the school”, said Isobel. “He says we’re not to tell anybody about him. He says it’s his school.”
“What does he look like?”, asked Elizabeth, entirely alarmed now.
“Horrible”, said Isobel, in a soft voice. “He has horns.”
Nightmare Fifty-One: Christmas Morning
Arnold had done his best to keep awake, but by three o’ clock he was breathing softly, one leg jutting out from his Perry the Pirate duvet. Above him, on the wall, a Christmas Countdown chart that he had made himself had crosses in red marker through all the boxes up to December the Twenty-Fourth.
Arnold was dreaming about a Makemate model of Victoria train station. He had been dreaming about it, waking and sleeping, for six weeks now.
Then there was a tapping on the window.
Arnold was a light sleeper. It didn’t take long for his eyes to open. When they did, his heart began to pound
Santa Claus was outside his window, crouched on the ledge.
Arnold was eight years old. He was a bright boy, the top of his class in school, the sort of kid who’d rather construct a model airplane than play with action figures or watch cartoons. But it had never occurred to him to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. He believed everything his parents told him.
He pulled the duvet back, slide from the bed, and hurried towards the window.
Santa Claus was raising a finger to his lips.
Gently, Arnold slid back the hasp of the window, pulled it open, and drew back the thick wine-coloured curtains.
Santa climbed through, slowly. He was dressed just as Arnold had always imagined him, in a bright scarlet suit lined with snowy white fur. His boots were a gleaming back, his beard was as long and as white as any child could demand, and he slung a big green sack over his shoulder.
But he wasn’t as fat as he was in pictures. He had a bulging stomach, but he didn’t have a fat face. Arnold could see that, in spite of the enormous beard.
And he didn’t seem jolly, like Arnold had imagined him, although he was smiling. He seemed nervous. He tiptoed forward and sat on the bed, so gently that the springs barely creaked.
“Happy Christmas, Arnold”, he whispered.
“Happy Christmas…Santa Claus”, said Arnold, also whispering. He was staring at the green sack.
“Arnold”, said Santa Claus, leaning closer towards him. “You’re going to a Christmas Party tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“Yeah”, said Arnold. He could smell Santa Claus’s sweat. “Uncle Oliver’s Christmas party.”
“Uncle Oliver”, said Santa Claus. A broad smile spread across his face, but it wasn't a happy or a friendly smile. “Yes, good old Uncle Oliver. What a wonderful man! A famous man! Arnold, I have a present for you to give to dear Uncle Oliver.”
Santa Claus turned around and reached into his green sack. Arnold wondered if it was a magic sack, because he didn’t have to rummage around at all before he drew out a small parcel wrapped with silver and red striped wrapping paper.
Arnold reached out to take it, but Santa Claus drew it back and raised a warning finger.
“This is a very special present, Arnold”, he said. “It’s extremely important. You must promise me three things, three very important things. You must promise me you won’t open it yourself. It’s only for Uncle Oliver to open.”
“I promise”, said Arnold, peering at the present. The words Uncel Oliver were written on a label on the side, in wobbly writing. Why would Santa Claus spell uncle wrong?
“And you mustn’t mention it to your parents. It’s a surprise, Arnold. Put it in your pocket before you go. Surprises are fun, aren’t they?”
Arnold nodded. Surprises were fun.
“And you have to pretend it’s from you. Grown-ups aren’t meant to get presents from Santa Claus. They get embarrassed. Can you promise me all those things?”
“Yes”, said Arnold, eagerly. “I promise.”
Santa Claus smiled at him, pleased, but a moment later his expression changed to one of horror. And he wasn't looking at Arnold any more. He was staring over Arnold’s shoulder.
Arnold turned around, and cried out in surprise at what he saw.
Another Santa Claus was standing in the middle of the room. But this one looked much more like the Santa Claus in pictures. He was the fattest man Arnold had ever seen; he seemed to fill the whole room. His face was flushed red, his silvery beard reached almost to the ground, and his pink skin seemed to glow.
And this Santa Claus didn't look nervous, or unhappy. Arnold had never seen anyone who looked as merry and as full of joy. It made him want to laugh out loud for sheer happiness.
He turned back to look at the first Santa Claus, and was surprised to see that he didn't look at all pleased to see the newcomer. He had dropped the present on the bed, and was stepping back towards the far wall, his eyes fixed on the fatter Santa. He looked terrified.
But somehow-- and he could never have explained this feeling-- Arnold felt that, if he was the first Santa, he would be scared too.
“Ho, ho, ho!”, cried the second Santa Claus. “Ho, ho, ho!”