The street is covered with a silent blanket of stillness; shop lights shimmer behind the veil of steadily falling snow.
Beyond the veil, behind the glass, sitting in front of a painted fire, surrounded by smiling elves, Santa nods his robotic head.
Three hours to midnight, Christmas Eve – goodwill to all.
Jimmy is sitting, alone, under a street lamp.
‘There’s a place,’ a man had told him, just as the first flakes of snow fell. ‘St. Mark’s. Up the road there. They’ll help you.’
But Jimmy had refused help, so the man gave up, pressed some coins into his hand, placed a brown carrier bag next to him and left.
Jimmy is sixteen. The world that he knows, his world, is killing him, slowly, inside.
A small group of party-goers dance past him, in a wide circle. The tallest one leaves the group, walks over to Jimmy and kicks at his leg, sneering at his hopelessness. Jimmy doesn’t move. The tall one laughs, picks up the brown carrier bag and looks inside.
‘Sausage rolls, sandwiches, apple,’ he calls to his friends. ‘Who wants it?’
Jimmy keeps his head low. Once he had the energy to fight for his life. Now he just wants to close his eyes and never open them again.
Sally is five years old. She lives with her mum, but loves being with her dad. Tonight they’re visiting her gran.‘It‘s a tradition,’ her dad tells her. They always visit gran on Christmas Eve and take a gift off the Christmas tree, just as an appetiser for the big treats to come tomorrow. No matter what goes wrong in her life, the traditions of Christmas will always be sacred to Sally.
It’s late and she’s getting sleepy but she doesn’t want to go home yet. She wishes she could stay here with her gran and her dad. And she wishes her mum would stay too. But, even a five year old can understand that some wishes may never come true. Some hurts can never be made to feel better.
Her gift is a small teddy that fits nicely in her hand. Sally loves her teddies. This one is purple. He’s soft and warm and she holds him tight as she pushes her hands deep down into her pockets.
Gran is fastening Sally’s coat, while mum stands stiffly near the door, making an effort at conversation. The separation is still new. The anger is still raw, but they are all trying. For Sally’s sake.
Mum has brought wellies. The snow is getting deeper and as much as Sally enjoys it, tonight it’s hard to walk through. Her legs are already too tired and she has barely walked down the path before she is asking Mum to carry her. But Dad has noticed and suddenly he’s there, at Mum’s side and he scoops Sally up and sits her on his shoulders.
Harold doesn’t like the snow either. It’s hard enough to walk with the thick black boots on without the added inconvenience of what is now approaching three inches of the stuff.
And as for his costume, he feels like a fool. It’s alright while he’s surrounded by children, but here, halfway down the high street, he feels like a joke. He always feels like a bit like a joke. At five foot five and as round as he is tall, he is used to being mocked. And it isn’t just his shape. His face, as they tell him, must have challenged even the most devoted mother. He wonders if that’s why she left him, because she couldn’t bear to look at him.
Harold’s world has taken the best of him and given him nothing in return. His world has diminished him.
Tonight has always been the best night of the year. Nobody mocks him. Nobody makes comments about his face. No-one sees Harold. They see Santa.
He is Santa and everyone loves him.
The party has been wonderful, but now the party is over. He’s on his way back home to his not quite so welcoming wife who should never have filled the role of Mother Christmas.
He’s just entering the high street, the faces of the children still vivid in his mind. He hears the laughter, thinking it’s a memory that refuses to be silenced.
He hears it again. A child’s laughter? At this time on Christmas Eve?
He scans the street. The Christmas lights swing gently in the still falling snow.
The shop lights are bright, their displays as glitteringly artificial as ever. Reindeers, elves, jolly plastic Santas are everywhere. The myth of Christmas is all around him.
And then he notices the shape under the lamp.
Sally is laughing. As they turn into the high street, she is astounded by the sight. The lights seem much brighter than usual and the reindeers, in Lewis’s , she could swear, are moving. The elves have broad smiles and Santa is….and Santa is under the street light, leaning down, inspecting some sort of lumpy shape.
‘Santa,’ she gasps.
Harold hears the child and straightens up.
‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ he says automatically.
He is torn. The shape under the lamp is real. He’s a boy, no more than a boy, and he’s in trouble. But the child is a child and she is entitled to a child’s dreams and beliefs. And he is Santa. He can make this child’s wishes come true, but he’s also Harold, the office fool, and he doesn’t quite know what to do.
Dad puts Sally on the ground. He’s not quite sure what he’s seeing. Is that shape on the ground moving?
Mum sees clearly. It’s a person there, under the light, covered with snow. A dead person. On Christmas Eve. A dead person with Santa standing over him and her daughter watching.
She reaches out to grab Sally, but Sally is too quick and jumps over the snow to reach Harold’s side.
‘Santa,’ she says.
‘Ho! Ho! little girl,’ Harold says again. ‘Shouldn’t you be in bed?’
‘I’m going home now,’ Sally says. ‘I’ve been to my Gran’s.’
‘Good girl. Now off you go with your mummy and daddy and Santa will be along with your presents shortly,’ he says, adding a final, ‘Ho!Ho! Ho!’ for luck.
Dad is by her side now. ‘Well, Santa,’ he is saying, ‘What’s happening here?’
Jimmy opens his eyes. He hears the voices. They’ve woken him from a wonderful sleep. He was back, years ago, when things were good. When his mother was still his mother and not some name he hears now and again.
‘Is he dead? Is he dead?’ asks Mum.
‘No,’ says Harold, in his Santa voice. ‘He’s just been asleep.’
Sally looks at the boy on the ground. She too sees that he is no more than a boy. She sees his eyes and, with the innocent instincts of a child, recognises the sadness. She, in her simple way, can understand that there are many things in this world to be sad about.
‘Are you tired?’ she asks the boy
He nods and tears begin to form in his eyes and roll, silently, down his face.
Sally looks at her dad and Dad looks at Mum. They both look at Santa and he takes a step back.
He wants to shout, ‘I’m not really Santa. I don’t do miracles. I can’t do wishes. I’m pretending, for goodness sake. Look – false beard.’ But he doesn’t because Sally is watching him too and he knows that what he does, what he says now, will stay with her for ever.
‘There’s a place,’ he says to Jimmy, ‘I’ll take you there. You can’t stay here. Santa says so,’ he adds, winking at Sally.
‘We’ll walk with you,’ says Dad, still not sure.
They pull the boy to his feet and Dad and Harold help him along the street. Sally and Mum follow silently until they reach St. Marks. It’s not snowing as heavily now and Sally can see the stars in the black sky, which looks bigger tonight than she’s ever seen it before.
She holds on tight to her mum’s hand. Sometimes the world is just too big to understand.
Jimmy and Santa start the walk up the drive to the softly illuminated entrance to St. Mark’s church as Mum and Dad and Sally watch.
‘Where’s his mum and dad?’ asks Sally.
They look at each other.
‘Well, we don’t know sweetheart,’ they say, thinking that if they cared, if anyone cared, he wouldn’t be sitting freezing under a street lamp on Christmas Eve.
‘So he’s all alone,’ Sally murmurs. She thinks, for just one moment, and then wriggles free of her mum’s hand. ‘Wait, Santa, wait,’ she calls.
She takes the purple bear out of her pocket and presses it into Jimmy’s hand.
‘He’ll look after you,’ she says, knowing that teddy bears always understand sadness and, though their cuddles are not as good as Mum’s or Dad’s, they are much better than nothing.
Sally is asleep. Her dad carried her upstairs and sat on the end of her bed until her eyes closed. He creeps downstairs now to where mum is waiting with hot chocolate.
‘It’s been quite a night,’ he says.
‘You’ll be back in the morning?’ she asks.
‘First thing,’ he says softly, knowing how much they have lost.
She hesitates only for a moment. It’s time to forgive.
‘Stay,’ she whispers.
Jimmy is warm. He has eaten. He has changed into dry clothes. It’s a long time since he believed in Santa, but this Santa he will believe in forever. This Santa helped Jimmy change into dry clothes; he sat with him as he ate the thick stew that was placed in front of him and he said nothing, knowing that sometimes an understanding silence is better than a thousand words.
And then, each deep in their own thoughts, they listened together to the sound of the music drifting over them as the choir raised their voices in celebration.
‘You are somebody,’ Santa told Jimmy, before he left. ‘We are all somebody. There are people who care about you. You don’t know them yet, but they’re there, waiting for you. Give them a chance.’
Something has changed. Tomorrow lies ahead, fresh like untrodden snow. Harold has taken off his Santa outfit. He is now just Harold. He stares at his reflection in the full length mirror. His face is his face. If people don’t like it – so what? But the rest of it – it’s down to him. He isn’t the worthless article his wife tells him he is. He isn’t the pitiful office joke that keeps the juniors amused. He is Harold. And tonight, he saved someone. Tonight he made people happy. Tonight he did something good.
He stares again at the reflection.
‘I am Harold,’ he says proudly.
Sally is asleep. She doesn’t know that her mum and dad are still cuddled on the settee, still talking, still making tentative plans for the future. Forgiving each other – and themselves.
She doesn’t know that Harold is lying, contentedly awake after telling his wife that life will change for them in the new year. That he will be a better person, a stronger person and she must change with him, or he will leave. He has known that this time would come. He’s ready.
Somewhere in her dreams, Sally believes that Santa is hard at work, that one day her mum and dad will be together and a boy who she will never see again, but will always remember, will be holding a tiny purple bear in his hand. And she will know that it will be with him for the rest of his life.
The street still lies silent beneath its blanket of snow; the parties are over, the children, at last, are sleeping.
In the high street, the lights still blaze out the myth of Christmas. But tonight, as three very different worlds collide, the spirit of Christmas outshines them all.