Having played Father Christmas at the local mall for three weeks, Harry has sworn off kids. His ears are ringing from the screams of children forced to sit for photos, and his shins are blue from the kicks of unwilling toddlers. Not to worry. All he has waiting for him at home is an empty house and a frozen dinner.
About the Author
Ginny Swart is a freelance writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Ginny started writing in 2000 and has had four books published and over 800 pieces accepted by anthologies, e-zines, school textbooks and women’s magazines all over the world. She was the overall winner of the 2003 Real Writers International short story competition and short-listed for the international section again in 2004.
Ginny is also the short story tutor for the on-line South African Writers College, the New Zealand Writers College and the UK Writers College.
Learn more about Ginny’s work at her website: Ginnyswart.com
Harry’s Christmas by Ginny Swart
“Smile for your mum. Smile now!”
Harry’s eyes burned, and underneath his fur-trimmed Father Christmas cap, his head ached. For the hundredth time that day he’d faced a flash camera with a small child on his lap in various stages of terror or bad temper.
Thank heavens it was only a temporary job. His friendly manner and his snow-white beard—a souvenir of forty years in the navy—made him a natural Father Christmas, and he loved children too. At least he used to. But over the past three weeks, he’d changed his mind. Many kids screamed when their parents forced them to sit on his lap, and his shins were blue from the kicks of unwilling toddlers.
What a relief. At six o’clock on Christmas Eve, his job was over. He removed the red suit and collected his pay. If he never heard another carol or saw another child, it’d be too soon.
As he walked to his car, he pondered the Christmas break that stretched bleakly ahead. What would he do with himself for the next few days? Opening the door, Harry realised with a start that he still wore the red cap. He stuffed it into his pocket, and then drove off with nothing more to look forward to than an empty home and a frozen TV dinner.
Just before turning into his street, a crowd of people blocked his way. They stood around a crumpled car and watched a still figure lying on the ground.
Harry parked and hurried over to see if he could help.
“I’ve called emergency,” said a man in the crowd. “They’re coming.”
As a seaman, Harry had known first aid, and he bent over the man to feel his pulse. Still alive.
The man’s dark eyes flickered open and fastened on Harry.
“Got to get there . . .” he said.
“You’re headed for the hospital, mate,” said Harry gently. “You’ve had a nasty accident.”
“Got to . . . got to take them . . .”
“Take what?” said Harry. “Lie still now, maybe I can help.” He worried that the man’s agitation would make his condition worse.
“The bag,” whispered the man. “In the boot.”
“Take it where? Where must it go?”
With a tremendous effort, the man whispered, “To the children. Tonight.” And then his eyes rolled back in his head.
His children? Where did they live?
An ambulance howled to a stop, and the paramedics got busy. They strapped the man onto a stretcher and slid him into the back of the ambulance.
“Hang on!” cried Harry. “Where does this man live?”
“Don’t worry, Granddad. We’ll sort that out at the hospital.”
The ambulance doors slammed, and the siren wailed as they sped off.
The crowd slowly drifted away and left Harry standing alone. He walked to the wrecked car and saw keys dangling from the ignition. On impulse, he leaned in to take them.
The damaged boot didn’t open easily, but he forced it halfway and reached for the bag inside. Feeling like a thief, he rushed to his car and started the engine. As he pulled out, a police van squealed to a halt, followed closely by a tow truck.
Round the corner, he stopped to examine the bag. It was tied with thick twine and had a big white label that read “For the Children of Sunshine Home.”
The bag was filled with brightly wrapped gifts. Harry remembered reading something about Sunshine Home, a children’s place no more than three blocks from where he sat.
It would only take five minutes.
* * *
Harry knocked on the door of the big, dilapidated house. As if on cue, a smiling, grey-haired woman opened the door immediately.
“Oh! Father Christmas! I’m so glad you’re here at last.” She reached to pull Harry into the house. “Quickly, hide in the sitting room. I don’t want the children to see you without your costume.”
“Now, hang on a minute,” protested Harry. “I’m not Father Christmas. I’m just the delivery service.”
He told her about the accident, and she was horrified.
“Poor Mr. Peters,” she exclaimed. “He’s one of our biggest sponsors and was going to dress up and give the children the presents. They’ve been counting the hours waiting for Father Christmas.” Her voice quavered a bit, and then she said, “Forgive me. My name’s Mary Banks. I’m the housemother.”
“Harry Morgan.” He shook her hand, surprised at the warmth and firmness of her grip. She stared at him for a brief minute and then said, “Mr. Morgan, couldn’t you do it? You can be our Father Christmas. Please?”
“Me? Oh no, not me! I’d be hopeless at all that ho-ho-ho stuff.”
Then Harry guiltily recalled that the store manager had complimented him on his warm way with the children. Yes, but that was before he’d sworn off kids.
Mary bit her lip and said quietly, “These are very special children. They’ve been taken from homes with drunk or abusive parents. Up to now, their lives have been miserable. At Sunshine, we do our best to make them feel they’re in a safe place where they’re loved.” Her eyes searched his face. “They really believe that Father Christmas is bringing gifts for them. They’ve talked about it for weeks. I . . . we . . . can’t let these children down, Mr. Morgan. Please.”
Oh heck, he thought, unable to resist the appeal in her deep blue eyes. Well, I’ll just hand over the gifts and be off. Twenty minutes at the most.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll do it, but I’m no expert.”
Liar, he thought, you’ve had three weeks of practice.
“Thank you, Mr. Morgan, from the bottom of my heart.”
“Okay, okay.” He was embarrassed. “But what shall I wear? Do you have a Father Christmas outfit?”
“Oh dear. Mr. Peters was going to bring one. But wait . . . I have a dressing gown that might do the trick.”
She hurried off and soon returned with a bright red gown which more than covered Harry’s ample girth.
“Luckily, you have a beautiful beard,” she murmured as she tied the sash. “It’s perfect for the role. Are you a naval man, Mr. Morgan?”
“Retired.” He smiled. “And please, call me Harry.”
“And I’m Mary. Now, what about a cap?” She looked stumped. “I haven’t even a red scarf—”
“No problem.” With a flourish, Harry produced the red cap from his pocket. “I just happen to have this.”
She smiled in delight. “I thought only boy scouts came well-prepared. I won’t even ask how you happened to have exactly the right thing.”
She stood back and admired the full effect.
“Auntie Mary,” a small voice called from the passage. “When’s Father Christmas going to come?”
She put her finger to her lips and motioned Harry behind the door.
“Very soon, Conrad. First, we have to sing Jingle Bells, and then I’m sure he’ll be here.”
She grinned at Harry and walked out of the room.
Better do this properly. He picked up the sack, let himself out of the front door, and stood on the veranda.
Soon the sound of childish voices singing Jingle Bells filtered out to him, and he waited until they were finished, enjoying the melody, sung rather off-key. Then he gave three loud knocks.
Squeals of excitement came from within, and he heard Mary saying loudly, “Now, who could that be, I wonder?”
Recognising his cue, he opened the door and stepped inside.
“Ho Ho Ho!”
“Father Christmas!” Shrieks of glee greeted him, followed by laughter and clapping. Fifteen washed and shining faces beamed at him.
“Here’s your place, Father Christmas,” said a chirpy voice, and a small brown hand clutched his and led him to a decorated armchair in the centre of the room.
Harry sat and smiled. Suddenly, a cluster of children didn’t seem so bad, not when they were this pleased to see him.
“Well, have you been good children this year?”
“And have you been eating all your vegetables?”
“Right then, let’s see what toys my elves have made for you.”
He rummaged in the bag and pulled out a gift.
“The first one is for . . . Derek. Come up here, Derek.”
A little boy crept towards him, and Harry noticed scars on Derek’s legs. Harry patted his knee encouragingly.
“Up here, my man. Now, how old are you?”
“Five,” whispered Derek, staring at the floor.
Five? He looked about three, small and skinny with bitten fingernails and a narrow, anxious face. No child should look like this, fumed Harry. He thought of his own confident, well-fed grandchildren who lived far away.
Derek stared at him hopefully. “My Mum said you don’t like bad little boys,” he whispered. “She said you never came to our house because I was a wicked little brat. But now you’ve come!”
“Of course I’ve come. I’d never forget my friend Derek.” He gave the lad a fierce cuddle and kissed the top of his head, then said confidentially, “No little boy is ever wicked. You must remember that. Naughty, yes, but I’ll tell you a secret. I love naughty boys better than the others.”
“Yes.” Harry winked. “But don’t mention it to the other lads, okay?”
“I won’t.” Derek slid off his lap, clutching his gift importantly, his face split in a wide grin. One by one they clambered onto his lap, and once their first shyness had worn off, they chatted to him like old friends. He gave them all a gift, a hug, and a tickle that sent them off in explosive giggles.
The children greeted each small gift with astounding joy. They cheered at the sight of little cars and cheap plastic dolls. They even carefully folded the wrapping paper to keep for future use.
All too soon, his sack was empty.
“What now?” he mouthed to Mary.
She stood and announced that Father Christmas had to be off to visit other children all over town.
“Let’s sing him our favourite carol while he goes,” she said. The children stood noisily, gathered together, and began to sing Silent Night.
Harry had such a lump in his throat he left hurriedly, hardly able to smile and wave. He made it to the veranda before blowing his nose hard. He stared into the garden, grateful that nobody could see him wipe his eyes.
“Thank you,” said Mary, standing at his elbow. “You were perfect.”
He grinned at her mistily. “I enjoyed every minute of it. Lovely kids, aren’t they?”
“Yes, they are.”
“I noticed this front gate has a hinge missing,” he said. “I could come over some day and fix it if you like.”
“Would you really? That would be wonderful if you have the time.”
“Plenty of time,” he said, “I could come tomorrow, in fact. And this railing could do with a few screws while I’m here.”
Mary laughed. “Are you sure you’re not the Christmas Fairy in disguise? Tomorrow’s Christmas day, but I don’t want to put you off until next week. You might fly away and never come back.”
“No fear of that,” he assured her. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
“Good.” She said simply. “How would you like to stay for Christmas dinner with us afterwards? If you haven’t any other plans, that is.”
“I’d like that very much.”
Driving off, Harry thought about which tools he’d need to bring. And he’d like to buy flowers for Mary and sweets for the children.
Christmas Dinner with Mary Banks and fifteen children. Harry whistled happily at the thought of it, and only later realised the tune was Silent Night.
About the Story
Harry’s Christmas was written by Ginny Swart.
Harry, a retired naval man, has been working as Father Christmas at the mall, but has become very disillusioned with the spoilt and demanding brats he has to deal with. He is happy when his job comes to an end on Christmas Eve and tells himself that if he never sees another child it will be too soon. But then something happens to change his mind.
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