…and he really does know if children have been bad or good. He knows when they shout, pout, or cry because their parents unwittingly tell him – as do the children themselves, and their families and teachers and friends. Every blissful snore from a parent whose baby sleeps dry all night, every good school report, cup of tea made for Mum, car washed for Dad, or chore done for Gran – every act of Being Good vibrates through the ether like a sweet ripple of harp-strings. Being Bad, on the other hand – every teddy thrown out of the pram, screaming family row, hair-pulling playground fight, slammed door, sulk, and pretty much everything teenagers do, clangs through it like death-metal on an out-of-tune guitar.
Harmonious or otherwise, both sets of vibrations are picked up by invisible receivers, amplified, and transmitted to the Ethereal North where, on a Pole never trodden by human foot, Santa’s Headquarters lie. There, at precisely a quarter to midnight, the Saint was out making his final rounds before C-Day. Random snowflakes settled lightly on his cap and lost themselves in his hair as he peered in at the Post Office window. The Post Elves, who received and sorted all Letters to Santa sent by any medium, had long since shut up shop, but were keeping watch by the fire with a bottle and a pack of cards just in case any last-minute wish blew down the chimney. He knocked on the glass and waved. They waved back, and gave him a thumbs-up.
It was equally quiet in Dispatch, where most everything that had to be done already was. Behavioural Analysis was still buzzing, though – especially the Naughty Department as, all round the globe, over-excited children ran wild, poking things under the tree, refusing to go to bed (or to sleep when they got there), and pestering for yet another glass of water or to hear ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ again, while their increasingly stressed parents tried to secretly wrap the last gifts. Nice was far less hectic, of course, as good children tended to be tucked up in bed listening for Santa or dutifully sleeping to make him come quicker.
The Saint left them to it. Accounts, he knew, would stay busy all night, receiving reports and tallying Black Marks and Gold Stars accrued from C-Day’s official start on the first stroke of midnight; he’d look in on them later, see how the usual suspects were performing. In the meantime he strode on past the vast reindeer paddock and stables which housed the nine-strong teams, all called the same and all led by a red-nosed Rudolph, one for every country in the world where even a single soul kept Christmas.
The teams for the First Time Zone stood ready and waiting by their traditional sleighs, while Little Helpers bustled about with armloads of jingling harness and barrows bulging with bottomless sacks. Nodding approval, Santa checked his pocket-watch against the huge C-Day Countdown Clock, aptly set on a tall pole planted directly on Ethereal North beneath a glittering Polaris. Both now read a minute to midnight.
He drew a deep breath, threw his head back, and roared, ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!’ His red coat bulged and swelled, his beard bushed to double thickness, his rosy cheeks puffed, his whole body rippled; then, with a jingle of sleighbells and a whiff of mince pie, a second, semi-transparent Santa burst forth, solidifying with his every purposeful stride towards the first sleigh. He was followed by a third, a fourth, a whole procession of identical Santas peeling off from the Saint like layers of an onion, and crunching off in various directions to prepare their respective teams for take-off.
As the last proxy departed, an intensifying red glow signalled the approach of Santa’s personal sleigh. His team, elk-sized and pure snowy white, wore their velvety antlers curled back like racing bike handlebars; and all looked in fine fettle, snorting and stamping in the red strobe-light as Rudolph tossed his head impatiently.
“Steady, lad. Easy, now,’ said Saint Nicholas, patting his neck. “We’ll be off soon enough.” He settled himself in the sleek silver bobsleigh riding lightly behind on the snow, took a ledger from his sack and checked an address.
A Little Helper handed him the reins. “Doing anything special tonight, Father?”
“Yes, as it happens,” Santa replied. “Accounts have turned up a worrying anomaly in Middle England, so I’ll make that my first call.”
Kaz Smith’s given name was Karen. She’d tried to make people pronounce it Care-ren, or shorten it to Kay, or spell it Karrin, but her resolutely sensible parents were having none of that, and plain Karen she was obliged to remain, (until she could change it by deed-poll to Diamanda, Montserrat, Serpentine – anything interesting – as she’d resolved). And at least her mates called her Kaz, which she could live with in the meantime. Not that she was with them this Christmas Eve. She’d been given a choice: go with her folks to midnight mass, or stay in grounded with Grandma. It took a nanosecond to opt for home comforts, and with her parents safely gone, Kaz left Gran knitting in the lounge with her sherry and TV, locked herself into her bedroom, and kicked a sausage-shaped draught-excluder into place by the door. Changing into purple fleece pyjamas, a fuzzy black sweater that sagged to her knees, and a black Indian scarf, washed to grey, round her neck, she clamped on her headset; and with Marilyn sweet dreaming in her ears, lit a half dozen scented candles and a patchouli joss-stick. Then she opened her desk drawer, dug a vaporiser out of her pencil case, and her stash from a tin of mint humbugs where she kept it to hide the smell.
Vape charged and loaded, she inched open the curtains and window and sat down on the floor underneath. Here we go again, she thought, and sighed a long plume through the crack. Bloody Christmas. She imagined tomorrow’s lunch with the rellies, all lovable in their ways but equally exasperating, and straight as a Roman road. There’d be the usual quip from Grandpa George, her mum’s widowed father: “Here she comes, the spectre at the feast,” followed by the usual barrage of criticism and coercion aimed at turning her into Cousin Mary. Her mum’s twin sister, Auntie Jane, would sigh, “Oh, Karen… if only you’d make the effort you could be such a pretty girl.” Uncle John, her husband, would grin. “Yes, get some turkey down your neck, lass – get some colour in those cheeks,” while their daughter blushed silently down at a polite portion of everything, even overcooked sprouts. Auntie Betty would sniff. “Good grief, you look like a refugee! It’s a shame you can’t show more respect for your country’s Christmas traditions – not to mention your family’s.” Uncle Frank, her mum’s elder brother, would add, “Yes, and your Queen. I do hope you’ll stay with us this year for Her Majesty’s speech.” (He always stood to attention, saluting, when the National Anthem played). Finally, Grandma Gladys, her dad’s widowed mother, (rarely satisfied, much less glad, and resident as usual for the duration), would scowl. “Yes, and I’m very disappointed to see you in that ugly rag instead of the nice new sweater I took the trouble to knit,” thereby launching the next round of ‘Family Kick Kaz,’ special subject Base Ingratitude. Mum and Dad always stuck up for her, though she knew in their hearts they’d be thrilled to see her bounce in like Mary, sporting a supermarket Santa hat and Gran’s latest creation, and singing, ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas.’ And none of them had the faintest idea why it never was merry for her, or why she hated it so much!
Anyway, how should she play it? Suck it all up, wear a paper hat, pass the potatoes, and only speak when spoken to? Or be her true Gothy self, spitting the odd acid drop and tossing well-timed hand-grenades into the conversation? Kaz choked on the memory of her last Christmas cracker, ‘When Charlotte comes round you must call her Charles because she identifies as male now’, and coughed out heady citrus mist. (Char was in fact totally girl, but she was always game for a laugh, and had practically wet herself when Kaz told her how it went down). A hard one to top, she reflected, although ‘I’m moving in with Steff next year, and we’re off to do Voluntary Service Overseas when I’ve got my A Levels’ might just have the edge. She reached under the bed for the double-G&T she’d pinched from the fridge while Mum wasn’t looking – still cold – to toast the idea, and chased it down with more Lemon Haze. She was chilling nicely now, despite missing Kim’s party and the precious ninety minutes she and Steff could’ve grabbed between his parents’ shop shutting and her midnight curfew. Kaz sighed. It wasn’t fair. There was only one thing she really wanted for Christmas, but couldn’t imagine ever getting…
Santa pulled his hat over his ears to muffle the vibrations of the city, where youthful revellers were gleefully being Very Bad Indeed. Further out, away from the pubs, clubs and riotous parties, the atmosphere was calmer; although even among the fairy-lit trees and packed churches of genteel suburbia, family rows flared as children crept round searching for presents and interrupting things they shouldn’t, fought over the X-Box, or rolled in drunk/chemically-altered/long after curfew, and threw up in the hall. Nice neighbourhood though, he thought as the sleigh spiralled down towards a broad avenue of solid post-war semis interspersed with the occasional modest detached or retirement bungalow. Parking on a handy low cloud bank, he pulled nine nosebags from his sack and left the reindeer contentedly munching while he surveyed the target address. It was easy to spot, distinguished by a chink of soft light in a back bedroom window and the faint discord of someone being quietly, privately Naughty.
The Saint narrowed his eyes, calculating wind speed and trajectory. Then, gripping his sack over his left shoulder, he extended his right arm, pointed at the target, and dived headlong off the cloud. Contrary to popular belief, Santas don’t descend feet first – they like to see where they’re going. His right hand, bladelike, sliced a path through the air. Speed stretched his body into a red and white eel. With surgical precision he shot into the flue, only to be punched in the nose by a smoky bouquet of jasmine, patchouli and rose. Stopped short with his boots sticking out of the chimney, he gave way to a violent sneezing fit before managing to draw his feet in and ooze cautiously down to the hearth. Pushing aside a flimsy obstruction, he hauled out into the thick air of a candlelit cave, papered in vintage Goth and martial arts posters, and carpeted in discarded grungey garments. Its occupant, a slim girl in purple pyjamas and an outsize black jumper, was sitting cross-legged on the floor beneath the window, long hair swinging in time to her music, totally engrossed in packing crumbs of green stuff into a shiny black tube.
Kaz loved ‘Tower of Strength.’ So did Steff – it was their song. Singing along under her breath, head bent over her task, she was deaf to the sneezing chimney breast, barely registered the fall of the paper fan she used to hide her twee repro grate – it always did that when the wind blew in certain directions – and was oblivious to Santa popping out moments later like a champagne cork, and with much the same sound. Eyes closed, swaying to the beat, she inhaled deeply. “Me-ee hee,” she crooned on the outbreath at increasing volume, and ended with a rousing crescendo, “You are a tower of strength TO ME-EE-EE!” Then she opened her eyes to see a stout red figure standing on her black fake fur heath-rug, looking straight back. Its lips moved. Kaz couldn’t hear for The Mission, but she guessed it said, “Ho, ho, ho.”
Her lips moved too. “What the fuck?”She regarded the vape in her hand for a long moment. Then, very carefully, she laid it down, took off her headset and closed her eyes again. “Okay, okay, chill,” she muttered. “Everything’s cool. It’s not real, it’s not there, I’ve just overdone the weed.” She pinched her arm, slapped her cheeks lightly, shook her head to try and clear it. “When I look again it’ll be gone. And I’ll go downstairs, drink some OJ, grab some munchies, then get some sleep. And I’ll feel fine in the morning, ‘cause this isn’t real. Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”
“Ho, ho, ho. A common misconception, I’m afraid.” Santa doffed his cap. “I am in fact the real deal. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Weinachtsmann, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas – take your pick.”
“Yeah, right, and I’m the Virgin Mary.” Kaz rose and squared up in a combat stance. “Well, if you’re real, I don’t know who the hell you are or how you got in. I do know I’m sixteen, it’s gone midnight, and there’s some weird old fat guy dressed as Santa in my bedroom, without my permission – which doesn’t look good for you, does it? So get the hell out before I kick you out, you disgusting old perv-”
“What if I prove it?” he cut in. “Tell you what – ifI can make you believe in me, you let me stay for ten minutes.”
Kaz snorted. “You’ve got exactly ten seconds before I call the police. And my gran, which is probably worse.”
“You’re on.” Santa’s brow furrowed. His hair began to writhe and shrink, retracting to an inch of frosted stubble. His beard disappeared into a firm, manly jaw. His fat, rosy cheeks faded to tan and flattened into cheekbones to die for. His bushy eyebrows contracted, revealing a pair of glacial blue eyes with indecently long lashes and the profound gaze of a polar explorer. Finally, he inhaled his moustache, which made him sneeze again.
“Achoo! Excuse me,” he sniffed. “Allergies. Do you mind?” He pointed to the joss-stick, which went out, and the scented candles, which elongated into tall creamy pillars smelling only of beeswax, then fanned at the smoke, which turned into ice crystals and sublimed away. “Also excuse me for shedding some layers. I’m awfully hot.” You can say that again, thought Kaz as he unbuckled his belt, kicked off his boots, and shrugged off his thick velvet coat, shedding his big belly with it. Underneath he was wearing snug red leggings tucked into fluffy black thermal socks, and a white silky crew-neck sweater that clung to every bulge of his rugby player’s torso. “Phew!” He flashed perfect white teeth, looking like a cross between that James Bond actor and Sensei Curtis, her well-fit karate instructor. “That’s better. So, let’s start afresh. Hi, Kaz.” He extended a hand. “I’m Nick – pleased to meet you. Do you believe in me yet?”
Weak-kneed, Kaz sagged onto the bed. “Okay,” she announced to the stars on the walls, “I’m officially tripping my face off. Daniel Craig, playing Santa in his undies, doing magic tricks in my bedroom.” She nodded sagely. “Yup. Totally ripped to the tits. Hallucinating like fu- um, like fudge.”
“Well, if I’m not real, I can’t harm you.” Nick sank down beside her, cross-legged on the floor – no hands, like sensei again – “and if I am real, I won’t harm you because I’m a saint. But I’m curious about the harm you do to yourself.” He pointed to her stash. “What is that?”
“Skunkweed. Lemon Haze. Stupidly strong.” Taking a toot to demonstrate, Kaz held out the vape. “Try it if you like.” She giggled. “I’ll be able to tell Char I got Santa stoned.”
“Thanks, it’ll make a change from sherry.” He copied her, rather clumsily, and held… and held… and held the breath in. His eyes revolved, sparking like blue Catherine wheels. His cheeks and nose bulged crimson. Spikes of white hair exploded in every direction from his head and chin, and as quickly retracted. Then he exhaled a vaporous robin which flew tweeting round his head and dropped a small splat on his shoulder before vanishing in a puff of glitter.
Kaz bounced up and down on the bed, both hands over her mouth to clamp in her squeals, dark eyes dancing in delight. “Oh wow,” she gasped between her fingers, “that was brilliant! Do it again!”
“Mm.” A slow grin creased his eyes. “Ho, ho, no. I’ve a better idea. I feel, ah, very pleasantly festive all of a sudden.” He glanced round her room, devoid of decoration. “So let’s get some seasonal ambience going.” He reached out to touch her bedspread. Frost-flowers bloomed from his finger, silvering the black lace. Tendrils of holly and ivy crept over the ceiling and trailed down the walls to frame her posters. A frosted cobweb spread across The Damned, dangling a sparkly spider in David Vanian’s face; Siouxsie and the Banshees were bedecked in sequinned bats; strings of skulls in Santa hats grinned between Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy. A crackling, pine-scented fire sprang to life in the empty grate, a small Christmas tree of glittery pinecones and clove-studded oranges thrust up from the centre of the mantlepiece, and a spruce garland draped itself attractively around like a green feathery boa. Then a tangled ball of mistletoe with pendant icicles wove itself round the ceiling light; and as a final touch, everything lit up with brilliant white fireflies, randomly twinkling as they flitted among the foliage. Nick surveyed it, looking pleased. “There now! What do you think?”
Kaz’s jaw dropped. “I think I must be having the best trip, ever, in the entire history of the universe.” Awestruck, she gazed round her Gothic grotto. “It’s- it’s perfect. Utterly beautiful. Like wonderland. I love it, absolutely love it… thanks, Santa!” Impulsively, she bent and kissed his cheek – warm and surprisingly solid for a figment of her imagination. A thought occurred. “How did you get in, by the way? The door’s locked and you’d never fit down the chimney.”
Nick raised his arms, stretched lazily – and kept on stretching. “Ethereal body,” he replied, fingertips brushing the ceiling. “You know light exists as a wave and a particle? Well, I’m sort of like that – solid and not-solid at the same time. Bit like Jesus. So I did come down the chimney, as it happens.” His arms resumed their ordinary length. “God knows how it actually works – you’ll have to ask Him, I’m no physicist – but essentially, it means Santa can get into anywhere there’s Christmas. Even if the fire’s lit, or there’s no chimney at all.”
“Cool! That makes sense. So,” Kaz looked expectant, “where are they? I mean, Christmas night, red suit, big bulgy sack – that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“Ah. Another common misconception. We’re auditors rather than donors-”
“Ah, yes.” He drew a deep breath, puffed out his cheeks, and a translucent proxy Santa briefly stepped out and back in again. “We are legion. I couldn’t possibly manage otherwise, Christendom’s far too big. Even though we don’t make or buy the presents, obviously, they really do come from your parents or whoever. We merely process requests and apply influence according to your account balance – not that we can ensure children get their just desserts either way, you understand. Then at Christmas we tally the records to see who got what they asked for versus what they deserved – even checking a one per cent sample makes for a mad night – then there’s all the debriefing and performance analysis, and planning influences for the year ahead… it’s a very complex year-round business, let me tell you. Here, look.”
He fumbled in his sack, pulled out a leather-bound ledger, and opened it in the middle. The pages lit up. Turning it to face her, he tapped the screen. KAREN SMITH, 12 ACACIA AVENUE lit upalong the top in bold capitals. “This is your full annual statement.” With a tiny squelching sound, a black spot appeared on the left, beneath the heading Naughty, then another and another. Squish, squish, squish, squish-squish-squish, squishquishquishquish, they coalesced into a solid line which almost blacked out the screen. Meanwhile the right-hand column, headed Nice, brightened as an equivalent number of gold stars appeared in a constant chime of tiny tings. “Now, let’s zoom in on Christmas Eve.” He expanded the entry. “Demerit for considering Naughty Disobedience, namely sneaking out of the window to Kim’s party. Merit for thinking better of it – they cancel out. Demerits for theft and underage drinking,” he nodded at the empty can, “bumming parents out with un-festive attitude, failing to tidy room as per repeated requests, and last but not least,” he nodded at her stash, “illegal substance abuse.
‘Altogether, you ended last year slightly in the black. Good news is, you’ve redeemed yourself since.” Recent Transactions flashed up, TING-TING-TING. “Big gold stars for presence of mind, logical reasoning, and spirited self-defence in extraordinary circumstances, with bonus for performance despite chemical impairment. Demerits for extreme bad language – yes, I can lip-read – mild swearing and verbal abuse, mitigated by shock in said circumstances.” SQUISH! A big inky blot splashed the left screen before contracting into an emphatic black point. “Serious Naughty for plotting to sabotage Christmas lunch – again. Merits regained for improved attitude, honest appreciation, good manners, and hospitality…” An icon flickered, jumping from left to right, squish-ting, spot-star, then blurred into a shapeless mass and a continuous drone, “…the nature of which creates an anomaly. See, the grey area? Merit for sharing, demerit for accompanying Deliberate Naughtiness. Mitigation for my acceptance – and if a saint does it,” he winked, “it can’t be that bad. It’s a subtle balance and a lot depends on context, of course. But the main reason I’m here is to try and sort out a major anomaly in Predicted Receipts.” He swiped to the page, where a large gift-box icon was jumping about and fuzzing into grey. “I’m afraid it shows that your parents still haven’t decided whether or not to give you your main present.”
“A new gi? But my old one’s too small to train in now- oh my God,” Kaz exploded, “I don’t believe this! They’d stop me doing the only sport I’ve ever liked or been any good at just to keep me away from Steff! Well, I will bloody tell them today I’m moving in with the Kowalskis. They treat me like a young woman, not some silly kid.”
Both sides of the ledger were flickering grey and droning unbearably. Nick snapped it shut, sat on the bed, and patted the mattress beside him. “Come, explain. Why do your parents object? What’s wrong with Steff?”
“Nothing! He’s perfect. Fit. Gorgeous. Clever. He’s a bit older, that’s all, just turned nineteen – but I’m seventeen in April, so it’s only twenty-eight poxy months difference. Big deal! Dad’s six years older than Mum, and Grandad was eleven years older than Gran. They’re such a bunch of bloody hypocrites. That’s why I let them think my new friend at karate was a Stephanie, and said we were out training instead of round at his – he’s got this brilliant attic flat over the shop, and his folks were cool about me going up there because they trusted us. And we were sensible, we waited till I was sixteen,” she pulled up her sleeve to display her upper arm, “then I got an implant, and he got some condoms, and- well, that’s what got me grounded. We vaped a bit of weed, fell asleep- you know, after, and I missed my last bus. Andrejz and Dagmara were over the limit so they couldn’t drive me, and Steff was too stoned, and there weren’t any taxis, so he had to walk me home and I well missed my curfew. And of course Mum was waiting up, and she had to open the door on us snogging in the porch.” She smiled wryly. “Steff was so shocked he just legged it, and I don’t blame him, but it didn’t exactly help.
‘Then of course I had to tell. And of course, some folk got on my case, you know, ‘bloody immigrants coming over here stealing British jobs’ blah blah – even though his folks have been running the Baltic Deli on High Street for years, and they’re teaching me Polish and Russian, and helping with my German conversation, and they’ve all done a fu- a heck of a lot more with their lives than my boring bloody family with their ‘get qualified, get a good job, get married, buy a nice house, have kids’ – and it’s not me! I don’t want to go to uni straight from school. I might not want to go, period. I want to travel, teach English abroad, do something useful… not dick around for three years getting a degree I might never use, not to mention a shi- a shedload of debt. Why don’t they get it? Why do they think I’m ‘wasting my education’? I don’t plan to doss round on the dole getting pregnant, for God’s sake, and I could be a mature student any time if it turns out I need qualifications for some job. So what is the big deal? What am I missing here?”
Nick smiled. “Your family’s scared of losing you because they love you. They want to keep you close by them, doing something safe and predictable, because that’s what they know best and it’s always worked for them. But you’re different, you’re making different choices, and that scares them too. It means you’re growing up and away from them, which means they must be growing old… which means, whether they like it or not, your time of parting one way or another grows closer by the day.”
“Hmm. I suppose. I’m just so sick- they don’t listen, they don’t understand, they don’t credit me with half a brain, and they can’t let me be myself,they’re too busy trying to make me more like my cousin.” Kaz laughed darkly. “Hah, wait till she hits puberty and starts fancying boys, or girls, or whatever. Then we’ll see who’s so bloody perfect…” She went on for an hour, pouring all her hopes, plans and dreams into Nick’s bottomless well of attention. Finally, she nodded at her vape. “And they’d go completely Daily Mail if they knew about that. ‘Ooh, Karen, we thought you had more sense, it’s the slippery slope to addiction, you’ll be lying dead in a toilet with a needle in your arm next.’ They’re such hypocrites, getting pissed and pontificating on as if they know what they’re talking-”
Abruptly she burst into tears, bawling open-mouthed into his chest to stifle the sound in case Gran heard. He held her, rocked her, made soothing noises; and when she was spent, snapped his fingers. A large white cotton hankie appeared between them. “Here,” he said “blow.” Kaz emptied her face into it. “God, sorry about that,” she sniffed wetly. “I do try to be good, you know. Please the family. Do well at school. Get my karate grades. But it never seems good enough. Also, they give crap Christmas presents – I mean, totally crap.” She looked at him red-eyed, lip wobbling. “And is that all I deserve? Seriously? Am I that bad?”
In reply, Nick tapped into Recent Transactions. Ting, ting, ting, ting-ting-ting-tinginginging it chimed, as the weight of Valid Points, Persuasive Argument, Self-Defence, Provocation and Justification tipped the balance, smoothing out the grey areas. “No, Kaz,” he replied with a smile. “You’re not bad at all.” White curls cascaded from his head and chin. Suddenly he was fully dressed again, suited and booted, and seemingly somehow much bigger…
“Ho, ho, ho.” He held out his arms. “Come along, little Kazzie. Time to tell Santa what you most want for Christmas.”
Kaz crept onto his lap, slipped child-size arms round his neck, and whispered her dearest wish into his ear. He drew back and pinned her with an Arctic blue gaze. “You realise that particular gift cuts both ways? Very well, then – I’ll see what I can do.” Hefting her like an infant, Santa tucked her into bed, then bent low and kissed her brow. Kaz, no longer fooled by the beard, grabbed it and kissed him back with rather more enthusiasm than one should kiss a saint. “Thanks, Nick,” she whispered. “I do believe in you now. And I love you.”
“I love you too, dear heart. Merry Christmas.” He kissed her lips, briefly, softly, tickling with his moustache. “And a Happy New Year.” Then picking up his sack, with a cheery salute he vanished up the flue. The Gothic grotto disassembled in a cloud of glitter and rushed to follow him, trailing the scent of mulled wine and mince pies. There was a faint “Ho, ho, ho,” from behind the chimneybreast and, moments later, a faint, distant jingle of sleighbells as Santa and his team took off from the cloud – all of which was sadly lost on Kaz, who had already fallen asleep.
Christmas morning! Kaz stirred awake with delicious excitement, her first thought, ‘Has Santa been?’ Blinking in the chilly dawn light, she yawned up at a ceiling denuded of garlands, her walls bare of all but posters, no trace of ash in the grate. Of course. It was only a trip-dream… she’d have to text Steff, warn him how strong this deal was. And next year she would trim her room, make it look a bit festive… at least get some bottle lights, stick a vase of holly in front of the grate instead of that silly fan, (fallen over – again), perhaps try to weave a garland, make a feature of it… meanwhile, had Santa been? She felt fully alert, as if she’d slept a full night, and outside it looked to be daylight – but when she glanced at the clock, she saw it was only four-thirty. Her face lit. Diving down the bed, she yanked back the curtain and gazed out at their tree-fringed back garden, transformed beneath the full moon into a luminous winter wonderland. She opened the window and leaned out, rapturously inhaling the scent of a foot of fresh snow, then hastily drew back and shut it, shivering despite the sweater and scarf she still wore over her ‘jamas; then, stomach flitting with butterflies she’d long thought extinct, she padded over to open the door.
The expected avalanche rolled in, the usual contents revealed by their shape. Some seasonal novelty she’d slip, unread, to a book bank; some synthetic girlie garments, ditto into the next charity bag; a selection box full of palm oil and plastic she’d pass on to Kim’s brother, who ate anything; ditto unethical cosmetics to Char’s mum, along with a voucher for some old-lady shop she’d exchange with her for weed-money; and of course, the inevitable grisly jumper from Gran, to be followed by the inevitable row. Still, Kaz reflected, it was the thought that counted, (ting) – only those thoughts didn’t always seem very kind or unselfish, (squish). But at least Mum and Dad gave her things she asked for, and scrabbling the rellies’ pile behind her like a dog, she reached round and pulled in the parental pillowcase.
Flicking on her bedside lamp, she grimaced to see all her scented candles burned away completely. Had she really dozed off without blowing them out? She couldn’t remember. Squish, she thought. Silly cow, I could’ve burned the bloody house down. Then with scant expectation, she unwrapped a rectangular box. Her eyebrows shot up. A big Moo-Free selection from Frank and Betty! They could never grasp the difference between vegetarian and vegan, but this time it didn’t matter. Hit by a belated attack of the munchies, Kaz ripped in and stuffed a handful of organic chocolate buttons in her mouth, just as she had as a child. “Mm-mm.”
Cramming in another half-dozen, she picked up a small hard cylinder. Above the printed From on its tag, the word REALLY was underlined in black felt-tip, and beneath it, CUZ xxx. She carefully unwrapped the red tissue layers for recycling, and her eyebrows shot up again. Tinted lip-balms, rose, redcurrant and plum, cruelty-free in metal tins. These she could use – nice one, Mary! And a new bathrobe – pure cotton towelling, wonders will never cease, from Great-Aunt Barbara in Somerset – nice one, Auntie Babs! Grandad’s book made her gasp aloud. A biography of Marilyn Manson?! The flyleaf inscription read: It seemed apt since you try to look like this creature, love G. She grinned at a poster, glowering down with piebald eyes. “Wicked! I’ve been wanting to read this for months! Thanks, Gramps.”
A tiny parcel she almost overlooked had come from her mum’s cousin Clarence in Australia, who never normally got his gifts in the post before Christmas; to her pleased surprise, it contained a bead bracelet of native woods sold on behalf of a rainforest rescue charity. The usual card from her maternal aunt also held a pleasant surprise: £25 cash instead of a token, with the instruction Buy yourself something nice, luv A.J. & U.J. Ho, ho, ho, Kaz thought. Yeah, I’ll do that! Cheerfully, she reached for Gran’s parcel, wrapped as ever in plain brown paper, and untied the string. Hmm. Dark green, black, red, white – a definite improvement on last year’s hot pink with festive flamingos. She shook the jumper out, held it up, rushed to her wardrobe mirror, held it up against herself, and gasped anew. “Oh my God… I totally don’t believe this.”
She took a break to celebrate with a tiny toot, blowing it out through the crack of her window while snow fell softly again; then, feeling suitably festive, took out the big soft parcel bulging from the pillowcase and worked her way down through two packs of black bamboo socks, ditto cotton bras and panties, ditto fishnet tights, a desk diary, a Body Shop hamper, a rose-scented candle, a big bar of Fairtrade chocolate, and an envelope containing £50. The best, saved till last, was the black leather school bag she’d specifically requested – but not the crisp white gi she so desperately needed. Kaz felt sick, not just from a surfeit of buttons. Mum and Dad must still be so pissed off with her about Steff- well, they could get stuffed! She had £75, she’d buy her own gi, and not give them the satisfaction of showing she gave a toss about it. With a toot of defiance, she repaired to bed to indulge herself with Marilyn and Moo-Free until it was properly morning.
At seven-thirty she tapped on her parents’ door and walked in with a tray of tea and toast, decorated with a sprig of holly she’d pulled from the vase in the hall. “Good morning,” she greeted them. “Merry Christmas!”
“Good God!” Brian Smith said sleepily. “What’s this?”
“Breakfast. What does it look like?” Kaz set it down on the bedside table.
“My goodness!” Anne Smith sat up. “This is a treat. Thanks, love.”
“You’re welcome. Thanks for my presents, too, they’re brilliant. Right then,” she turned to leave, “don’t let your toast get cold. Oh yeah, and don’t eat the garnish.”
“Wait a minute,” said her father. “Where are you going?”
“Duh.” Kaz rolled her eyes. “To get a tray for Gran, where else? She’ll go spare if she finds out I made one for you and not her.”
“Good point. But she’ll be dead to the world for a good hour yet, judging from the amount of Bristol Cream she put away last night.” He smiled. “So you’ve got plenty of time for a quick look in that closet.”
Kaz opened the door. Her eyes opened wide. Instead of Dad’s rather shabby tartan dressing gown, a snowy suit hung there with her club badges already sewn on. “My new gi!” she cried in delight. “You got me it after all!”
“Yes, and it seemed silly to wrap it and get it all creased,” said her mother. “In fact, given the state of your wardrobe, you might as well keep it in here. It should see you through to your black belt, provided you don’t grow too much taller. Oh, and there’s something else behind it. Sorry it’s not wrapped either – we didn’t have enough paper.”
Kaz pushed the gi aside. Lying on the closet floor was a set of full-contact sparring pads and, propped against the wall, a long fat canvas tube.
“It’s a punch-bag,” said her father. “I’ll hang it in the garage for you to practice… then maybe young Mr Kowalski can come round here to actually train with you,” he added dryly, “instead of you going round to his place and getting up to mischief.”
“Yes, Karen,” said her mother, “Daddy and I have been thinking, and- well, perhaps we’ve been too hard on you. You are nearly seventeen, after all – and although we don’t approve of the, um, physical side of your relationship, you’re legally entitled to have it- to do it- oh, anyway, since you’re plainly serious about Stefan, we’d like to get to know him. So we wondered if he might care to join us for lunch – if Mr and Mrs Kowalski don’t mind, of course.”
Her father grinned. “Yes, think of it as the acid test. If he can survive a family Christmas lunch with our resident ogre, I shall deem him fit to court my beloved only princess.”
Kaz scrambled onto the bed and flung her arms round them. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cried, smacking their cheeks with loud kisses. “This is the best Christmas ever!” She scrambled off again. “I’ll fetch my phone, ask him now- oh.” The joy fell abruptly from her face. “Oh, but what about Brexit Betty and the Xenophobes? I’m not bringing him round here if they’re going to start banging on about Britain First and all that crap.”
“Leave them to me,” her mother said firmly. “I’ll make it very clear I’m having none of that at my Christmas table. They can either be nice and polite to Stefan if he comes – or they needn’t bother coming themselves.”
Shee-it, thought Kaz, am I still tripping? Either way, she rushed off to ring Steff, only to trudge glumly back five minutes later. “Dag and Andy say he can come on condition we both join them later for supper. But since I’m still grounded…” she trailed off, looking at the floor, trying not to sound hopeful.
Her parents looked at each other. “Well,” began her father, “it is Christmas,” her mother finished for him. “So I’ll take Gran a tray when I’ve had my breakfast.” She glanced at the clock. “Because you’d better start getting ready, Miss – you’ve only got five hours until lunch.”
C-Day now wore an unexpectedly rosy complexion – but what should she wear? Kaz flew to her room and flung open her half-empty wardrobe. Skinny ripped jeans? Nah, not two years on the run. Black leggings? Nah, too boring – he’d seen her in them loads of times. Black cobweb dress? That was new- nah, too Hallowe’en. Suddenly envisaging the perfect outfit, she riffled through the hangers again, searching in vain for a particular thing, that exactly-right, nothing-else-will-do thing. Then she rooted through the cubby-holes where she stuffed stuff she couldn’t be arsed to hang up, through the garments on the wardrobe floor among a mess of shoes, through the big drawer underneath, through all her dresser drawers, through the overflowing laundry basket in case she’d stupidly put it in there, and finally dug through the drifts on the floor. It didn’t help that apart from her school uniform, sportswear and faded denims, all her clothes were black or grey, and vanished like chameleons on the swirly charcoal carpet. She went through them again, cursing, yanking things out, tossing them aside, dumping things out of drawers and ferreting through the piles. And she still couldn’t find the damn thing.
“Oh, where is it? Where is it?” she wailed. It was her favourite, a vintage classic, too precious to lend anyone or leave anywhere – so it must be in here somewhere. Kaz surveyed her former bomb-site, reduced to complete Armageddon. Told you so, told you so, told you so, pealed through her head like church bells with Mum’s tongue. Bugger, she thought dismally. There’s nothing else for it it now…
First things first: a tiny toot. Presents next, all temporarily popped in the pillowcase. Kaz ran downstairs with the wrappings, stepped into a pair of wellies, heaved open the back door, waded out to the bins, brushed snow off the recycling and rubbish lids with her arm, struck and jiggled to break the icy seals, and deposited her loads. On the way back, to delay the inevitable a little longer, she dropped backwards into the chilly embrace of the lawn and made her first snow angel in a decade. Gazing up into the whirling grey sky, she caught a snowflake on her tongue, visualising the snowball fight she and Steff could have after lunch, the snowman they could build, and sighed happily. “Thanks for a wicked white Christmas, Nick.” Then she leapt up, dusted herself down, and clumped back to her gargantuan task. Dirty laundry – back in the basket. Socks, tights, undies, T-shirts, base layers, tracksuits – back in their respective drawers after sniffing to ascertain cleanliness, (minus the holey, saggy or threadbare she set aside for Mum’s rag-bag), for once balled in pairs or neatly folded. Outgrown gi tossed in corner by door for charity bag. Big stuff hung up properly, one garment per hanger. Jeans and leggings in one cubby-hole, jumpers in another. Slowly, her bedroom returned to a state of order not seen for some months; and as she addressed the last tangled heap of scarves, belts and bags by the hearth, an unexpected bright flash caught her eye…
Half an hour later, showered, wearing new undies under her new bathrobe, Kaz had no time left for make-up. Hastily, she removed her chipped black nail varnish, abandoned the idea of replacing it, drew a quick line of kohl round her eyes, slicked a dab of plum balm on her lips – not bad at all – tied up her hair, and scrambled into her Christmas outfit.
By six minutes to one, the Smith clan had gathered. Auntie Betty frowned from the mantlepiece clock to two empty chairs. “I must say, I don’t think much of this. Working in a shop on Christmas morning, of all days? What sort of parents make their son do that?”
“Canny ones who know the world’s full of folk desperately seeking stuffing, or cranberries, or whatever else they forgot on Christmas Eve,” replied Brian Smith, mildly. “And do please remember what Anne said.”
“Yes – don’t start, Bet.” Anne Smith dashed in wearing her new cookery apron from Kaz, and thumped down a covered tureen in front of her sister-in-law. “I don’t want yet another Christmas ruined with rows. So if you can’t be civil, be quiet – and if you can’t be quiet, go home. Go on,” she gestured with her matching oven-glove, “now, quick, before Stefan arrives. I don’t want him, or our Karen, embarrassed.”
Betty drew in her breath, but Uncle Frank stayed her arm. “Anne’s right, love. Let’s not, eh? Not today.” He patted her hand. “Let’s not spoil things for Karen – it’ll be nice to see her merry at Christmas for once.”
“Huh,” Betty sniffed, switching attack. “Where is Karen, anyway? Not lying hungover in bed, I sincerely hope – she’s meant to be grounded.”
“Not any longer,” her mother replied tartly. “And I’ll have you know she’s been up and about since seven. In fact,” she turned in the doorway, “here she is now! What on earth have you been doing, love?”
“Tidying my room, like you said. I even did my sock drawer.” Kaz minced downstairs in her best, chain-festooned, black stiletto winklepicker boots and new fishnets, her matching black leather miniskirt half-obscured by her new Christmas sweater. Her hair, bound with black bootlaces into two tall bunches, projected from her head like reindeer antlers with, perched between at a jaunty angle, the gift Nick had left by the hearth, his crimson velvet hat with white woollen pompom and trim.
All four male mouths dropped open. “Wow,” said Uncle Frank faintly. “You look nice, Karen.”
“Yes.” Uncle John swallowed. “I didn’t know you had legs.”
Mary goggled. “Love your hat, Cuz.” She held out her wrist, encircled by a thin silver chain. “And your present.”
“Love yours, too. And your hat.” (It was a gold cardboard crown, typically pulled from its cracker already). Kaz smiled to see her cousin’s lips and fingernails frosted pale pink, concealer on her spots, a hint of cheekbones emerging from the puppy-fat. Her smile widened into a grin, embracing the rest of the table. “Yeah, thanks very much for my presents, everyone – they’re brilliant, just what I wanted. Especially yours, Gran.” She teetered in and dropped a kiss atop the thin lilac curls. “I love it.”
“I should hope so, That pure wool cost a small fortune, and I had no end of trouble getting hold of the pattern,” Gran replied in her usual tone, but she couldn’t help turning pink. “It’s called-”
“Bats In Hats.” Kaz giggled. “Yeah, I know, I’ve seen it on online.” Twirling, she displayed the repeating black bat silhouettes with tiny white fangs, wearing red and white Santa hats, on a holly green background. “It’s so cool – Char will be totally jealous.”
“Well, it’d look a darn sight better in the right size,” Gran retorted, with the tiniest trace of a smile. “It’d fit your father, would that. God alone knows why you want things so big and baggy-”
Saved by the bell! Kaz’s heart leapt. “I’ll get it!” she cried, skittering over the parquet, and opened wide the front door. “Merry Christmas!”
“Whew!” Stefan Kowalski, six feet of green-eyed blond Slavic gorgeousness, whistled low for only Kaz to hear. “You look- nah,” he shook his head, “I can’t find the words. Not even in Polish.”
Heedless of whether anyone saw, Kaz kissed him for a long moment; then, radiant, she took his coat, took his arm, and proudly ushered him into the dining room. When the ensuing hubbub of greetings, introductions and popping corks died down, both took their places at the table where, moments later, Anne Smith joined them with a sigh of relief.
“Phew – cheers, everyone!” Gratefully she drained a foaming glass and poured herself another. “Brian, love, will you do the honours?”
Brandishing his carving tools, Brian Smith rose and stood over the turkey. “Right, then – who’s having what?”
Uncharacteristically, Mary piped up. “No turkey, thanks, Uncle Brian. Or pigs in blankets, or giblet gravy, or stuffing if it’s forcemeat. But I’d like some nut roast, please, if Kaz doesn’t mind sharing.” She tipped her cousin the faintest of winks. “I’ve decided I want to go vegan. Starting now.”
Cheers, Cuz, thought Kaz as the table erupted. Turning to Steff, she chinked her half glass of underage Buck’s Fizz against his full one of adult champagne. “Cheers, kochanie! Here’s to Saint Nick and the Smith Family Christmas.”