Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone
Fortification was required. He unscrewed the cap and took a large mouthful of vodka, exhaling gratefully as the liquid warmed his tongue and made its leisurely way down his throat, then one last drag on the cigarette before it was flushed away. He closed the lavatory window and exited the cubicle, then placed the bottle in his locker and attempted to camouflage the smoke and vapour lingering on his breath with an extra-strong mint. It would see him through until the morning break, by which time he would be in dire need of a repeat dose. By lunchtime – well, there was a pub just across the road.
He drew a deep breath and left the changing room, making his way through the sparse knots of early risers, eventually arriving at what he was beginning to think of as his Golgotha. Even though it was entirely the wrong season for that sort of spectacle, public torture and execution would surely be a fitting end to what, on the whole, had turned out to be a thoroughly crap life spent struggling to rise above the circumstances of his birth but failing miserably to improve the lousy hand he’d been dealt. He’d tried hard, nobody could deny that – except the Department for Work and Pensions, whose default position appeared to be that he was a lazy, feckless sponger to be treated as a potential criminal and patronised at every opportunity – but he had no influence upon global events or financial trends, no control over the actions or fortunes of others. His efforts led only to decline, a spiral of diminishing returns. At his age, the latest redundancy left him with nowhere to go. Until he found himself here.
The working day began with a cursory inspection of his work station – health and safety regulations bought him a few minutes’ breathing space each day. Then he refreshed his memory with a quick read through the script, really a decision tree of mandatory responses carefully drafted so as to avoid offending children or parents of any NRS, BAME, NS-SEC or LGBTQIA persuasion. It seemed everyone had rights except him. As prepared for the forthcoming ordeal as he would ever be, he took his seat, an uncomfortable plastic chair poorly disguised as an Arctic snowdrift. Alright, so the old dust sheet glazed with a spot of white spray paint wouldn’t fool anyone with functioning eyes and more than three brain cells, but it seemed to keep most of his customers happy, as did the plastic reindeer and the improbably cute cardboard cut-out polar bear. It didn’t really take much.
This wasn’t exactly what he imagined when that sour-faced old bat at the Job Centre asked him if he’d ever pictured himself in uniform. Yeah, he said, who hasn’t? Everyone’s entitled to a fantasy or two. Despite his advancing years, and a nagging suspicion that she was taking the piss, he was thinking Royal Navy, RAF, Grenadier Guards, SAS – even the police or fire brigade, paramedic or security guard at a pinch. But not this. Never this. It was unfair, inhuman. But what could he do? They were poised to stop his benefit, which meant he was waiting at the threshold of yet another last-chance saloon. He’d protested, of course, but it was a stark choice: take the job or be completely skint at the very worst time of year to be without money. So he swallowed his pride and chased it down with the bitter medicine. The pay was rubbish, only a couple of pence above minimum wage, but at least it was only for twenty-four days, excluding a few days off, and it wasn’t physically demanding. He could do it. No problem, apart from the obvious.
Famous last words. At the interview they told him he would be paid a month in arrears, on the last working day of the month. The second piece of bad news was learning that his Universal Credit would stop as soon as he started work, because that too was paid a month in arrears, and technically at the start of the next month he would be earning money. He would, they said, just have to learn to budget, like everyone else. The housing element of his benefit would also stop and he would be liable to pay that, and a month’s worth of council tax, from his distinctly unimpressive pay packet. The only glimmer of hope was that his benefit claim would be restarted when this temporary job ended – though it would take at least six weeks to come through, probably longer. He was caught between a rock and a hard place, and being squeezed mercilessly. The only course of action was to carry on with what he’d started. This way he had a small chance of making it to the resumption of his benefit relatively unscathed and still with a roof over his head. In the meantime, he would spend his dwindling funds on booze. It got him through the day.
He stared down at his ‘uniform’. Red and white – red and bloody white. The ultimate humiliation. No self-respecting Spurs supporter should be seen dead wearing these colours. And it was too sodding hot. And the damned beard itched like hell. And the stupid fluffy eyebrows kept falling off. The grotto still stank from the previous evening, when the last customer had thrown up a vast load of well-churned burger, chips, ice cream, chocolate and cola, along with a pint or so of gastric juices. The kid had demanded, in flagrant contravention of the clearly signposted terms and conditions parents were supposed to read before letting their offspring loose in the grotto, to sit on his knee. In the end he’d compromised and placed the designated customer chair over the joint in question – he was damned if he was going to be accused of some monstrous act by a snotty-nosed brat with an attitude problem – and listened impatiently as the boy recited an inordinately long list of preferred options, none of which cost less than a three-figure sum, before emptying his stomach without so much as a hiccup as advance warning. How he had escaped the child’s spectacular projectile vomiting was a complete mystery. If he didn’t know better he would have put it down to divine intervention.
Every day brought a fresh horror. He’d been draped with beer-stained Arsenal scarves by drunken Gooners, threatened with violent retribution by smartphone-eyed brats severely disappointed by last year’s presents, and scrutinised with suspicion by hatchet-faced young mothers convinced that any man who would do this job must surely have perverse intentions toward their sticky, rodent-like offspring. Last Saturday afternoon had been the worst so far. Parked in the grotto with only half an hour to go before knocking-off time, mouth watering at the prospect of a few pints in the Coach and Horses, followed by a good, long lie-in the next morning, he was thinking maybe things weren’t quite so bad after all – though that rosy hue may have been a side-effect of those regular nips of vodka and a couple of beers where others might have placed a sandwich. Then they appeared, marching haphazardly through the mall and squawking like flock of mad parakeets, antlered, festooned with tinsel and strings of flashing lights, hats that matched his own, swaying precariously on heels little more than long needles. A bloody hen party. His prayer for invisibility fell on deaf ears. When that first fake fingernail pointed in his direction, simultaneous with a screech that brought the rest of them to heel, he knew there would be no escape.
I bet we could make you come more than once a year.
Show us your red-nosed reindeer.
Was that you up my chimney last night?
Let’s see your sack.
And so it went. A stream of unoriginal innuendo. Mistletoe from somewhere. A cocktail of wet, mocking kisses. A drunken, gin-scented tongue squirming in his ear like a huge, panicked tadpole. Clammy hands roaming inside his costume. Interminable selfies, all trout-pouts and lewd gestures. When they eventually tottered off to the next unsuspecting bar, they’d stolen his hat and beard, broken the reindeer, drawn a moustache and spectacles on the polar bear, and one of them had taken a crafty leak inside the grotto, ruining the white bargain-basement nylon carpet that passed for snow. And he was sure their barrage of high-decibel squeals and chirrups had permanently damaged his hearing. Next time a hen party appeared he would up sticks and run for it, wages and benefits be buggered.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, there was the music blasted out by the mall PA system, a ceaseless loop of seasonal schmaltz and banality, the same ninety-minute compilation repeated eight times a day. One of the speakers was directly behind him, no more than twenty feet away. Put bars around the grotto, lighten his costume by a couple of shades of yellow, and he could be in Guantanamo Bay, though he suspected Camp X-Ray would be less degrading and not quite as brutal.
Now the first customer of the day was approaching, a stunted creature of indeterminate age, gender, ethnicity and species, swathed in acrylic wool and bulked out with quilting as insulation from the festive rain and freezing wind haunting the streets outside. Its head was partly concealed by an over-large mob cap. One of its hands grasped an unwrapped, half-eaten chocolate bar dripping with thick, brown saliva; the other terminated in an attractive young woman who was presumably its mother, though she could equally have been its older and better-dressed sister.
What followed was uncomfortably familiar, like being forced to watch an old home movie.
’Look, Santa,’ the child gurgled, dense brown liquid oozing from its mouth and down the little round chin. Its eyes lit up in wonder, a pair of muddy LEDs.
‘Santa can fuckin’ wait,’ snapped the probable mother. ‘I’m goin’ to the fuckin’ nail bar, an’ I gotta top up me phone, then we gotta get yer nan’s present an’ me fags.’
‘Santa,’ the kid repeated, its mouth turning down at the corners, leaking two small drops of brown goo.
‘For fuck’s sake, I told you, we ain’t got time. I’m meetin’ Wayne at two an’ I gotta drop you off at yer nan’s before I get ready to go out.’
The little eyes screwed tightly shut. ‘I want to see Santa,’ the tot grizzled, its mouth opening wide and letting loose a cascade that could have passed for diluted tar.
‘Now look what you fuckin’ done,’ the semi-adult growled. ‘It’s gone all down yer fuckin’ front. Fuckin’ showin’ me up in front of everyone.’ She delved into her bag, a Louis Vuiton knock-off if ever there was, and dredged up a wad of paper napkins emblazoned with the familiar golden arches. A quick wipe of the child’s quilted front, a stained, crumbled tissue dropped uncaringly on the mall floor.
‘Santa,’ the youngster sobbed, a bubble of snot inflating at her right nostril. Another wipe, more litter. The kid emitted a low, keening wail.
‘I can’t fuckin’ take you nowhere,’ the grown-up grumbled.
The smaller entity responded with a barely audible whisper. ‘Santa? Please?’
‘Pack it in, you little sod. Oh, fuck it. Go on then. Five minutes an’ that’s yer lot. As long as it fuckin’ shuts you up.’
The child scampered eagerly into the grotto, snatching off its headgear to reveal a mop of curly brown hair. A little girl – though obviously, as stated in the terms and conditions of his employment, in these days of alphabet soup fluidity it was wrong to make binary assumptions based on mere biology. Wary as this Santa was of very small children of any sexual orientation or self-identified gender, his heart went out to this one. Where her larger companion was dressed to the nines in clean, pressed and seemingly brand-new threads with fake designer labels, the kid’s grubby clothes had seen better days, probably on someone else’s back, and she needed a bath. The girl was an inconvenience, the barely tolerated by-product of a selfish existence. He’d seen it before, at very close quarters. Her infancy was, he suspected, the same as his had been – a disappeared father, a mother whose attention and resources were focused wholly upon herself. It had not been an ideal preparation for life. Hence his present situation: a man for whom low self-esteem and failure were self-fulfilling prophecies, dressed in the cheap costume of an imaginary being and paid peanuts to give others the sense of wonder and hope that had long ago vanished from his own heart.
‘Is that your mum?’ he asked, keeping his voice low.
The girl nodded shyly, gazing it him with big brown eyes that had never seen much worth seeing and probably never would. At best, he thought, she would grow up to be just like her mother. At worst, one of the world’s doormats, neglected and bereft of self-esteem, destined to be a combined domestic servant and punch-bag. But he would stick to the script.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Janie Smith. J-A-N-I-E. Nan taught me to spell it. My mum’s name is Chelsea, but I don’t know how to spell that. She works in a club. She’s got a boyfriend called Wayne. They went to America in the summer. I stayed with Nan. Mum’s got a Honda Civet. It’s red an’ shiny. But I’m not allowed in it in case I’m sick, like I was in her old car.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Have you been good this year?’
She nodded, then glanced at her mother, who was standing a few yards away, arms folded and face like curdled milk. The girl sighed and shook her head, casting her eyes down.
‘That’s alright,’ he said, reciting Option 2 of the set responses. ‘Nobody can be good all the time, can they? And it doesn’t matter, as long as you haven’t done anything really bad. What would you like for Christmas or whichever midwinter festival you celebrate?’
‘A puppy,’ she said quietly. ‘But mum won’t let me have one. Vet bills an’ food costs too much. She won’t be able to buy fags an’ Processo.’
Bugger the script. ‘You mean Prosecco. Horrible stuff. I think I’d rather have a dog. What sort of things do you like to do?’
A shrug. ‘Drawing an’ painting best. An’ playing. An’ stories. An’ choc’late. Mum gets me choc’late from Poundland. She says it keeps me quiet. It’s cheap.’
‘Have you got lots of pencils and crayons, paints and paper?’
She shook her head. ‘Mum says it’s a waste of money, cos it’ll only get used up or thrown out.’
‘If you had a puppy, would you take good care of it? Make sure it has enough to eat and drink?’
A firm nod, serious eyes. ‘My friend Ibiza’s got a Staffie but he bites. Nan’s got a Yorkie called Freddie. I go with her when she takes him for a walk. She lets me hold his lead, an’ I like giving him his baths an’ brushin’ him, an’ playin’ with him in the garden. I want a cockatoo.’
‘I think you mean a cockerpoo. Do you live near here?’
Another nod. ‘We live in Grant Avenue. There’s a shop on the corner. It smells funny.’
That would be Pongo, the no doubt ironically-named ‘artisan’ toiletries store. He’d been in there once, just out of curiosity, in more affluent times. Their products did have some unusual scents, predominantly horse manure and rancid cat piss. The organic liquorice soap he’d bought as a novelty looked like a freshly-released dog turd when he unwrapped it, and didn’t smell much better. It went straight in the bin. No wonder the hipster behind the counter had smiled liked that when he handed over that tenner. ‘I know it.’
The girl reached out and stroked his beard. ‘It feels like cotton wool,’ she said, smiling. ‘Are you really Santa?’
‘Yes, of course I am. And I can prove it.’ He reached down to the small sack filled with packets of sweets that were supposed to be dished out to customers as they departed, a token down-payment on festive treats to come. The kids were not to leave empty-handed, that was the rule – number 47, if he remembered correctly. ‘Here,’ he said, handing her the whole sack. ‘All yours, Janie. Merry Christmas. Now you wait here a minute. I’m just going to have a quick word with your mother.’
By this time the woman was busy with her iPhone, perhaps checking for messages from Wayne, more probably admiring her selfies on Facebook. Her eyes widened with surprise when Santa suddenly appeared before her.
‘Chelsea Smith?’ He took his employee ID card from his pocket and flashed it quickly, before she could notice the mall logo. ‘Richard Hannay, Child Protection Agency,’ he lied. ‘I’m working undercover. We’ve had our eye on you for some time.’
The woman blanched. ‘Child Protection? What am I supposed to’ve fuckin’ done?’
He exhaled a sigh and shook his head sadly. ‘It’s more what you haven’t done. You haven’t taken care of her, for one thing. I mean, just look at her. Charity shop clothes that need cleaning as badly as she does. And she’s as unhappy as any kid I’ve ever seen. You don’t beat her, and she appears adequately fed, I’ll give you that. But otherwise it’s a clear case of neglect, physical and emotional. Are you aware of the penalties for that? Do you know she could be placed in care?’
She gasped, slumped, then rallied, reflex indignation. ‘Who fuckin’ grassed me up? Was it that fuckin’ old bitch at number seventeen?’
‘A concerned citizen, that’s all you need to know. Someone who is genuinely interested in Janie’s welfare. But that’s the least of your worries. I’m not impressed by what I’ve seen today, Ms Smith. My report will reflect that. However, I am prepared to give you a chance to make things better.’
Like most people, Chelsea Smith had only a dim idea of what the law could or could not do. And an inbred fear of people in authority, which in her bubble of a world meant anyone with a laminated photo ID card, a reasonable vocabulary and diction, and a stern attitude, even if they had bloodshot eyes and were dressed as Father Christmas with one fluffy white eyebrow hanging loose. ‘Yer fuckin’ jokin’ me, right?’ she queried, her voice quavering.
He frowned. ‘This is anything but a joke, Ms Smith. You have until the end of February to turn things around. Our officers will be keeping a close watch on Grant Avenue, and if they do not see the expected improvements – well, I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out. The courts do not look kindly upon those convicted of neglecting their children.’
She nodded frantically, no doubt envisaging money draining from her hands, perhaps even picturing herself behind bars, vilified in the press and on social media. ‘End of Feb, right. What’ve I gotta do?’
He could have screamed. This young woman was bloody clueless. ‘Well, for starters you can give her a good bath, clean the clothes she has, and get her some new ones. Spend more time with her, preferably without shouting or swearing. Read to her. Take her out, not just when you go shopping but for herself – a film, the zoo, a walk in the park, feed the ducks. Buy her some paints, coloured pencils, a sketch book, something like that. Kids like to draw, don’t they? I know I did when I was her age. Little things like that can make a big difference.’
‘I can’t afford all that.’
‘But you can afford a brand new Honda Civic. A nice red one, I believe. You can afford those expensive clothes. You can afford to smoke. You can afford to jet off on holiday to the USA with your boyfriend. All things considered, I would say you could also afford to cut down just a little on your personal luxuries so that your child can have a proper upbringing. You can make a start by getting her something nice for Christmas, something that shows you care about her. I suggest a puppy. Normally I would be against giving pets as Christmas presents. My friend in the Animal Welfare Unit has told me some very sad tales of puppies and kittens abandoned after Christmas. But I think a dog would be ideal for Janie. Pet ownership can teach people a great deal about responsibility. We would be monitoring the dog’s progress along with Janie’s, of course. A cockerpoo would be an excellent choice, as they’re good with children. In fact, I strongly recommend it. As my report will show.’
‘A fuckin’ dog? Yer havin’ a laugh. It’ll need feedin’ – an’ I’ll get hairs all over me bleedin’ clothes,’ she protested.
‘You can feed a dog for a day for less than it costs to buy a bottle of Prosecco or a pint of lager. And you appear to be able-bodied, so I’m sure you can brush your clothes without too much trouble.’
She attempted another rally. ‘I’ve got rights, you know. I’ve got the right to – er…’ That was as far as she got. Everyone knew they had rights, but only a few people seemed to know what they were, or that other people also had rights. Their best guess was usually that they had the right to do as they damned well pleased, which was probably why so many morons ended up behind bars for doing really stupid things.
‘Your child also has rights,’ he said sternly. ‘And you have responsibilities, legally and morally. It’s a simple choice. What’s more important to you – your fun and ego, or your child’s welfare and happiness?’
The real answer to that question was written all over her face, but she knew she was cornered. ‘Me kid, innit?’
He glared at her. ‘We’ll hold you to that, Ms Smith. Just remember, we know where you live. You’re on our list, and we’ll be checking, so you’d better watch out. Now take your child somewhere and give her a treat. Buy her some crayons and paper, something decent. And remember, cut out the bad language. Children are impressionable.’
Chelsea Smith scuttled away, pausing only to collect Janie from the grotto. He watched with grim satisfaction as they entered the nearby toyshop. Giving that self-obsessed young mother a dressing-down – not to mention posing as an official from a fictitious council department and making threats he had no authority to make – had not made him feel good. The woman was merely a product of her time, hypnotised by the sight of her face on a screen, learning to be the way she was by following the televised misadventures of a growing army of accidental celebrities who revelled in their shallowness and vanity, and who believed a pretty face and a six-pack or fake tits excused all ignorance, stupidity and poor behaviour.
No, he didn’t feel good about what he had just done. He had no sense of pride. But he felt righteous. Maybe he had made a small difference to one child’s life, if only for a few weeks or months. It was, he thought, probably the best thing he had ever done. Perhaps this good deed would change his luck – assuming, of course, that Somebody Up There had been paying attention, which he very much doubted.
He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes until his break. He needed a cigarette and a good snort of vodka after that performance. Maybe he should have taken up acting. Too late now, of course. He shook his head wearily and resumed his position in the grotto, trying unsuccessfully to stick the errant eyebrow back on. The music changed, from ‘Jingle Bells’ to ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.
The exultant screech made him look up, though for some reason he saw the pointing fingernail before the sound registered. Then they were heading straight for him, a tottering nightmare phalanx of heels, squeals, tinsel and antlers. His heart sank. Another bloody hen party? At this time of the morning?
‘Oh, for – ’