I knew the game was up when my mother told me that Santy had given her a list. I had heard about his many imitators and knew they were just benign North Pole ambassadors who lacked his Arctic magic.
I met one of them once in Lee’s on the main street of Dun Laoghaire, in a family sized camper tent with a strip of silver tinsel stretched around the entrance. His cotton wool beard dangling on an ear-itching elastic band as his nicotine coloured fingers rummaged in a plastic laundry basket that was loaded with presents. There were two baskets, one dark blue for boys and one pale blue for girls.
He sounded just like the driver of the 7A bus who brought me home from school every day. “Ah, son have ye been a good lad?” It was like First Confession all over again except with different costumes and just like my first time in the confession box armed with a few well-rehearsed sins, I told him that apart from puncturing my neighbour’s bike I had been a good boy. He coughed and scratched the stubble under his beard. “Ah, you’re a decent lad, a fine fella….” He was a little unsteady in the deck chair where he was sitting and I was afraid he might fall over and injure himself. That wouldn’t do, not with it so close to Christmas; there was lot of work to be done yet. That’s how Santy was in Lee’s. Or was he one of the ambassadors? I couldn’t tell. Whoever it was, he seemed very anxious to leave George’s St as soon as he could and get back to The North Pole. This was the busiest time of year and every hour spent here in Lee’s was time lost from directing operations in his snow drifted toy factory, far from Dun Laoghaire. All of that cold and blizzard white frightened me, I imagined the North Pole as a television screen of swirling frozen static, with no button anywhere that could ever switch it off.
Why had he ended out living in such a desolate place? Something eerie hovered around Santy. Who was he really? Had he done some terrible thing? He spent his life making toys in the world’s most inhospitable place. Was he trying to say sorry for something? And who were the elves? The only dwarf I’d ever seen for real was the one who sold newspapers outside Glasthule church on Sundays. He frightened me; I’d take my mother’s hand and cling to it like a gold ringed shield as we walked inside. My mind chalked up questions. How had a team of news-paper-men ended out working with Santy? How had they met?
Then one night, a few days before Christmas, a dream came to me that put me right about so many things. There were seven other dwarfs I’d heard of before; the ones who lived with Snow White. I always liked that story but felt it ended very unfairly for them, with all their joy taken away from them by a tall Prince on horse. Each time I read it, I hoped that she would stay with them, that she would explain to the Prince that he’d have to find another story but she always rode off with him, leaving them behind, unhappily ever after.
In the warm cinemascope of my pillow, I saw the seven of them trekking towards the world’s darkest corners and everywhere they went they wept for losing her and cursed themselves for being short. Their tears froze when they fell to the ground. Everywhere they went to forget their sadness; they’d leave behind acres of ice and snow, a dark white continent of loss that spread out behind them like a cape that would never be big enough to conceal their seven tiny broken hearts. And that was how I learnt that The North Pole had come to be.
Trailing far behind them I saw a man, who looked like a drawing from a story book, swaying in the cold and losing his balance on huge grey mirrors of ice. He was weeping too and cursing what he had done years before. He had let go of a rope that dangled deep down into a well. Children used to speed up and down the well, like a thrill ride, collecting pebbles down below but one day he, the village well man, had let go of the rope, his trembling hands not sure of themselves and two children were drowned. I learnt at age eight that the saddest people wander the furthest.
And so the world’s saddest tall person and the shortest tearful seven met each other and started on this strange enterprise together. Santy was forever lamenting what he’d done and the dwarves learned to forget just a little, the young woman who’d once danced through their days, as they helped him build his toys in the cold.
I was always relieved when a dream put me at ease and whispered some new part of an old truth to me. I’d add it to the old truth and for a moment my mind would ring clear as bell with fresh understanding. It was as if I saw further and more clearly how things really were. I kept these truths, the old and the new, like nuggets, deep in my story pockets, to help me along my way.
When I was leaving the tent in Lee’s he handed me a package from one of the baskets. I pointed at him and asked him, “Santy, did you really once work at a well? I know how The North Pole was born.”
“Am I well? Sure, Santy is always well, off with ye now”
My mother pulled impatiently at the hood of my duffel coat.
“Ah, what are you saying to the man, Billy…?”
She had said it, “The Man.”
So he was not Santy, he was “a man”
I knew that Santy wept most days for what he had done.
I tore my package open and saw that he had mistaken me for a girl; a string of plastic pearls, a tiny mirror and a comb.
I went home, put on my necklace and waited for the real Father Sadness to come.
Feature Image: O’Connell Street, Dublin, Christmas Tree, Lord Mayor Ben Briscoe, Santa Claus, Dublin Photographic Archive, 1988.