Thank you all for your wonderfully positive feedback on my first short story, Perfectly Imperfect. I know it wasn’t (ironically) perfect, but it was a good start, and I have taken all of your advice on board.
I had also had an idea for a festive short story, but part way into the writing, I lost my way with it and was not happy with how it was playing out. Just yesterday I rediscovered my direction and decided to try and correct it. There’s nothing like leaving things to the last possible moment, so please don’t expect it to be perfect. Any feedback will be gratefully received and used to edit and improve this story, as it has become something of an 11th hour project. Please do let me know your thoughts!
For what it’s worth, I was helped by my very able and talented proof reader, Rey the cat. Here you can see her helping me cross the finishing line this evening:
As the calendar flipped over, the beginning of a new month was here – the 1st of November. An unremarkable day in most calendars. But head north, way up in the icy climes of the Arctic circle where the midnight sun rules the summer months and a never-ending night swallows the winter, and November holds a more important meaning. As far as the eye can see great planes of the purest white, only very occasionally punctuated with rocky outcroppings. Lumbering polar bears roam in search of their next meal.
But look a little closer, in the right place and really know in your heart what you want to see, and you might just find something more. An enormous city. Obscured from the sites of those not willing to believe, chalets and warehouses and workshops dot the landscape, their thoroughfares forming a twisting, turning maze of alleyways. The streets and alleys were filled with a sense of joyous industry. Songs filled the air, as throngs of little people, elves to be exact, went to and fro about their festive business. This, after all, is the home of Santa Claus, the North Pole.
The workshops began ramping up production, the sound of hammers and saws and sandpaper growing louder as the fabled workshops of the North Pole sprang back to full capacity, eager to help make the approaching festive season merry and bright. There was something to tantalise the senses everywhere you look. The strains of jolly festive songs could be heard at every turn; smells of gingerbread, eggnog and the spicy scent of cinnamon drifted on the cold arctic breeze; Brightly coloured clothes and twinkling rainbow-hued fairy lights abound.
It may be the first day of November, a day of no consequence for most, but here in the most northern territory in the world, it was one of the most important days of the year. It heralded the start of preparations for the coming Christmas holidays. Inside the workshops the elves busied themselves preparing toys ahead of the biggest day of the year. Santa Claus himself, however, was nowhere to be seen. Oh no, he would be holed up in his house, busy reading.
Sat comfortably in his favourite rocking chair, beside a roaring fire with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in hand, Santa perched his small, wire-rimmed reading glasses on his rosy red nose. His longest-serving elf, and frankly his closest friend, Alabaster Snowball knocked on the door before Mrs Claus bade him entry.
“Ahhh Alabaster! How wonderful to see you! You have the lists?” Santa boomed with delight.
“I’ve arranged for them to be brought straight up, Sir. They will be here any moment” he replied, taken a seat on the other side of the fireplace.
“Come, now, Alabaster. How long have we known one another?” the old man with the flowing white beard chided.
“Why, these last 300 years. 301 this year, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Of course you’re not mistaken, Alabaster! So must I repeat, for the three-hundred and first time; do not call me Sir? For I am most definitely not your superior, I am your friend.”
“Forgive me, Sir, Nicholas. Your predecessor was somewhat less genial than you.”
“That’s better, old friend. There’s nothing to forgive! Now, how do the lists look this year?”
“The Nice List is up 40% this year. Population growth has contributed, so the workshops are working overtime to increase output.”
“That is wonderful news!”
“Sadly though, the Naughty List has also grown. It’s biggest growth yet – 57% on last year.”
Nicholas looked ponderously into the fire, a troubled look clouded over his face. “What is happening in the world? Why is the Naughty List growing so much?”
Santa could not sleep. No amount of sugar plums dancing in his head would help him this night. He sat in his oldest workshop, barely used anymore. This was once the heart of Christmas in the North Pole. Wooden cars, little dolls and brightly coloured toys would be assembled and painted by the skilled hands of teams of elves. From here enormous red sacks were filled and loaded upon the sleigh ready to be delivered to excited girls and boys all over the world.
Sadly this had diminished over the years. Children wanted bigger, more complicated presents. Gone were the days where a little boy would eagerly await Christmas morning where he would run to the tree to find a brightly coloured toy car. No more were the letters where little girls asked for a horse, but would be just as happy with a sweet little doll. Now all they wanted were gadgets. Digital screens, and flashing lights and electronic noises.
All of this had troubled Santa of late, but now the sudden surge in names on the naughty list – that was a real concern. He knew the day would come, but as he sat in the orange glow of one of the furnaces looking out of the huge window as the snow fell, Santa new it was here – the spirit of Christmas was fading.
Alabaster sensed something was not right with Nicholas. Since their discussion of the lists earlier in the day, the jolly old fellow with a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly was not his festive self. From his window the elderly elf could see the glow from the old workshop and knew his old friend would be sat worrying the night away.
Pulling on his great coat, a luxuriant deep red velvet with green piping and snow-white fur trim, and his thick black boots, Alabaster stepped out of the door, two steaming mugs of cocoa in hand. He walked over in the swirling snow to the workshop. He took a seat next to Santa and placed down the mugs without saying a word.
Santa reached out a hand and lifted his mug to his mouth. Taking a deep draught of the hot sweet drink, he savoured the taste before swallowing.
“Alabaster, what has changed so drastically in the world, my old friend?”
“I am not quite sure I follow your meaning, Sir, errr, Nicholas.”
With a mirthless giggle and a little shake of his head Santa looked at his friend. “I see some things will never change, no matter what I try. But I am referring to is the naughty list. That seems to grow ever faster than the nice list.”
“Nicholas, you know as well as anyone that the lists grow and shrink as often as the tides change” Alabaster replied in a placating tone.
“How very true, old friend. But the children’s letters. They’ve changed. It is as though the children have lost their spirit. Christmas is not what it used to be for them, but merely a means to get the possessions they covet the most. Christmas is not the same.”
“Times change, Nicholas, they always do.”
“That they do Alabaster, but this is different.”
Santa finished his cocoa in a dejected silence, his old friend watching him cautiously. He stood, pacing the workshop floor. He seemed distracted, a distant look on his face. Santa paused when he reached the end of the workshop. A section of the back wall was covered in scrap wood, but there seemed to be a slight breeze coming from behind it. Suddenly he started clearing the scrap, revealing a long-forgotten door.
“Alabaster – is that the door to the old stable where we stored the old sleigh?”
“Why yes, I believe it is Nicholas. I’ve seen that look before, what are you planning?”
Santa and Alabaster uncovered the old sleigh, far too small for Christmas Eve now. But it is a classic model. A two-seater, in a vibrant candy apple red. All of the metal work shone a lustrous gold, even after all this time. Two of the elder reindeer were harnessed up to the sleigh, and the sliding stable doors opened wide.
“Are you sure about this idea Nicholas?”
“I appreciate your concern Alabaster, but I need to do this. I need to see the world, see the children. I need to restore my hope.”
“In that case, please take care.”
Pulling himself up into the padded leather bench seat of the sleigh, dressed in is thick travelling coat, hat, gloves and boots Santa took a hold of the reins.
“Thank you Alabaster, I will be back before long.”
And with that, the reindeer drew the sleigh out of the stables and as they gained speed, up into the frigid arctic sky.
The sleigh flew over the arctic circle, through Iceland and Greenland before heading over the British Isles. Without entirely knowing where he was heading, Santa steered his two reindeer further South. Before he knew it, the sleigh arrived in London. This city had always been one of Santa’s favourites. Things had changed a lot since the Victorian era. Certainly the city was by no means perfect then, but it had character. Now everything was so much bigger and more modern.
Santa wandered the city. He needed to see the children, needed to restore his faith. One of the great benefits of being Santa, was he could wander the streets unseen and observe everything. His meanderings found him on Oxford Street, filled with excited children running from shop to shop. Here Santa was sure he would rediscover the spirit of Christmas.
His hope waned quickly. All he saw were arguing families, and greedy children. There were very few happy voices around him. People were in such a hurry. Presents where being bought, not with love or Christmas cheer, but because it was what the children asked for. It was what the children expected. Santa felt lost, his hope vanishing.
The deeper into the city he roamed, the worse things got. There was no joy to be found, just people in a rush, angry, stressed and greedy. Santa, ready to give up, slowly ambled out of the heart of the city, and trudged along to where he left the sleigh.
As Santa passed by a children’s hospital, he heard a familiar voice coming from inside.
“Is that…? No, surely that couldn’t be little Joseph?” Santa wondered aloud to himself. There was nothing for it, he had to find out. He followed that voice, familiar and strong.
Santa pulled a stack of letters from his pocket, finding the one he wanted from the Christmas previous.
I am in the hospital this Christmas. I know you can’t make me better, and I don’t need presents. But I do want something this year. There are other boys and girls here, more ill than I am. Please bring them presents, make them happy.
Joseph, Age 6 ½
Santa’s hand dropped for a moment. That letter had touched him last year when he first read it, and along with a select few others from many years past, Santa kept this one. But he was sure Joseph had recovered well and left the hospital, why was he here again? Fearing the worst, Santa sped through the hospital to find the source of the voice.
As he entered the ward for the youngest patients, Santa found the body the voice belonged to and stopped in his tracks. All he could do was stand and stare. Young Joseph, still only seven and a half years old was visiting with very sick boys and girls. On a battered radio, Joseph was playing Christmas songs as he sat with the children.
He spoke with them, read festive tales to them. But most of all, he asked each and every child what they wanted for Christmas. He spent many hours visiting with them all, his parents following along at a distance.
Tears filled and spilled from Santa’s eyes. The compassion this young boy, not long out of this very hospital himself, showed to the children was more than he had seen in many years. As Joseph and his parents left the hospital, he asked them to take him to the toy shop nearby. He may not be able to buy much, but with all of the pocket money he had been saving all year he could by board games that all the children could enjoy together. He may even be able to get a few cuddly toys for the youngest.
As Joseph wandered the aisles filled with toys and games, Santa chose this moment to make himself seen. From over his left shoulder Joseph heard his name.
“Hello Joseph. You look well.”
The boy stopped still for a moment, before he turned.
“I saw you back at the hospital Joseph. What you are doing is nothing short of wonderful! And yet, I note I haven’t had a letter from you this year?”
“I just want the little boys and girls in the hospital to be happy. I know they will be sad being there on Christmas morning. If I can help cheer them up then I will.”
“Well Joseph, I can promise you that they will have something to smile about come Christmas Day. I am pleased you are doing so well, but now I must return home. There is much work waiting for me.”
And with that, Santa returned to his sleigh, and took the bracing flight back to the North Pole.
As the old sleigh and two elderly reindeer drew into the stable Alabaster was there to greet them.
Welcome back, Nicholas. Did you find what you were looking for?”
His cheeks were rosy and a huge beaming smile filled his round face. “I most certainly did Alabaster. While it isn’t easy to find, if you look in the right places the true spirit of Christmas lives on.”
Joseph walked into the children’s hospital with bags of presents in his arms. As he pushed open the doors to the ward, the sounds of joyous, childish laughter filled his ears. Everywhere he looked the little boys and girls were playing with dolls and teddy bears and games galore. Santa had been true to his word. And there, under the enormous tree was one unopened present.
Wrapped in bright red paper with a silver ribbon was a gift addressed to Joseph. Attached to the parcel was a note.
For my friend Joseph,
Thank you for reminding me of the true spirit of Christmas. I may not be able to give these children what the would most love for Christmas, I hope they may be happy, if only for today.
I think this small gift will be something you will be very happy with.
Joseph tore into the brightly coloured paper, removing the lid. There, nestled safely inside was the wooden race car he had wanted as a younger boy, before he became sick. He smiled, he cried, he laughed. At that moment, Joseph loved Christmas more than ever before.
© Steven Smith – December 2017
All that leaves me to say is thank you all for your kind support this year! Hopefully between Christmas and New Year I plan to pick up Our Boy Jack once more and work on it with renewed energy!
Merry Christmas to you all!