A friend of a friend is recruiting Santas for shopping centres and says that they are having trouble finding them. The money was slightly better than my labouring job. ‘You just need a police check.’ she says.
‘Well I’ve already got one from being a teacher,’ I say.
‘That’s funny,’ she says, ‘because usually you would have to go to Santa school, but this year there is no time. This year there is a Santa shortage.’ she says. They give me a DVD to watch and a Santa suit in a big black bag. I have freakishly small feet so they didn’t have my size of boots. ‘Just buy gumboots from Mitre 10,’ she says.
The DVD wouldn’t work on my Playstation, but I read the booklet. Keep your hands in view at all times, it says. No tickling or intimate kissing, it says. Never talk about religion or race. Do not let Santa suit ride up on body. ‘Oh my god,’ I think in horror, ‘what have the previous Santa’s been doing and saying?’ Reading the booklet, I feel I have made a terrible mistake accepting this Santa job. What was I thinking? I can’t possible pull this off, I think, I hate Christmas and I’m not fat enough or old enough or jolly enough. Surely my face would crack if I attempted to ho ho ho. Use your normal laugh, advises the booklet, simply change the ha to ho. That sounded pretty Zen to me, I must confess.
There was a list of stuff in the booklet that I was expected to buy: rouge, eyebrow whitener, Fabulon fabric freshener, mints. I thought, well, that’s going to eat into Santa’s paycheck surely, so I didn’t buy any of it. Except the mints. I didn’t watch the DVD, but I read the booklet twice. It was mostly about not touching the children though and didn’t cover much actual Santa information, so I felt unprepared, going in cold, driving over the Westgate with the Santa bag towards Werribee, I don’t even look it up in the Melways. ‘What am I doing?” I say to myself, ‘Oh my god where the hell am I?’ I say. I don’t know where the hell I am.
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Werribee shopping centre is spread out like an octopus, there are police at every exit, waiting for someone. I have a lot of trouble finding Santa’s throne. A security guard takes me to the change room and I ask him what the police are doing but he won’t tell me.
I haven’t allowed myself enough time to put the suit on, it’s not like I actually know how, I suddenly realise. The beard seems to be the most confounding apparatus, so I leave that till last. There is quite a pathetic fat-suit; it’s more like thermal underwear. It doesn’t seem to make me fat at all, just hot. It must make you lose weight, I say to my ridiculous reflection. I have to make an extra short notch in Santa’s belt, because it keeps slipping off my belly. It’s not a good sign. There is some sort of tape included but I can’t work out what that’s for. I stick it to the mirror until I work it out. It’s probably still there, even now.
There are these little fake fur garters that you roll over Santa’s gum boots to make them look less like gum boots. I can’t really get them looking right but I have to devote the rest of my preparation time to Santa’s beard. I consult the booklet but it is not helpful, that vital information must be on the DVD. The stress and anxiety is making me sweat. I end up sort of squashing it under the wig somehow. I put Santa’s cap on. It all holds together pretty good.
Brush eyebrows forward, says the booklet. I place the glasses on the end of my nose, brush my eyebrows forward. Looking deep into the mirror curiously, I am very surprised to see Santa staring back at me, smiling. Jesus, there is even a mischievous twinkle in his eye. It is quite convincing. Santa looks like he needs a good feed though.
‘Oh no,’ says Santa to the mirror, ‘I forgot to go to the toilet.’
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Santa decides to use the stalls instead of the urinal, because he needs somewhere to put his sack and bell and gloves. He knows that he shouldn’t hang around the public toilets for too long.
When he is washing his hands, a Downs Syndrome boy, about 15, comes running in and gets a fright, ‘Oh no,’ he says, ‘It’s Santa.’ He seems extremely disappointed.
‘Merry Christmas,’ says Santa, meticulously drying his hands before slipping on his bright white gloves. ‘Merry Christmas Santa,’ says the boy’s carer, ‘I suppose when ya gotta go – ya gotta go,’ he says.
‘Absolutely.’ says Santa.
‘Ha ha ha,’ says the boy.
‘Ho ho ho,’ says Santa walking out of the public toilets a little furtively.
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On the way from the toilet to Santa’s throne, Santa meets and greets the public as best he can. It feels a little awkward and manufactured.
‘Hello Santa,’ says an elderly couple. ‘Merry Christmas,’ says Santa somewhat unconvincingly. ‘Hmmm, look at that,’ says the man to his partner, ‘a self conscious Santa.’ They walk off laughing at Santa.
‘Merry Christmas,’ says Santa to random members of the public, but it doesn’t feel right. ‘I am a fake,’ says Santa fearfully to himself, ‘a total fake and a phoney.’
Santa checks his reflection in the front window of Dick Smith Electronics, he is pleased with what he sees, ‘I will be a better Santa,’ says Santa to himself, ‘I will not be a crap Santa.’
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Santa sits on his throne and waits to pose for photographs with the children. Santa likes to make eye contact with everyone lining up for the photo. He waves to them individually and doesn’t move on until they have waved back or looked away. Henry Rollins did that to Santa and everybody else in the room, when Santa saw his spoken word show in the mid 80’s. It made Santa feel special. It made Santa feel like he was really there.
Small children love Santa from far away. They wave back at him like an old friend. But when they are thrust upon his knee, they wig out completely, kicking out, screaming. The parents have already paid for a photo with Santa so there is no turning back now. Sometimes the parents have to sit with Santa to calm them down, ‘see,’ they say, ‘Santa and Daddy are old friends.’ The mums are usually upset because they haven’t dressed up for the photo, or put on their makeup. It’s all they can think about during the photography; they are going to look worried in all the photos.
One of the dads is a bit unsteady on his feet and embarrassed about being in the photo and about the noise his daughter is making.
‘I’m really mad at you Chantelle,’ he says, ‘you’ve ruined the photo for Nan now.’ His daughter is making a scene, everyone is looking and laughing. The photographer suggests the dad sits with Santa and Chantelle to reassure her.
Santa gives her a little present, a colouring book and some crayons and she stops crying for a moment to look it over and the photographer tells Santa to look into the lens and takes the photo, but her dad is still angry. ‘I’m so angry at you Chantelle, ruining this photo for nan.’ He is looking straight into the camera and the photographer is trying to make them all laugh, ‘so now ya not getting any presents. nah, no presents. you had ya chance. you’ve ruined Christmas for everyone. nah. ya not gettin’ anything.’ He’s sort of hissing these words in her ear in a nasty little whisper but Santa can hear. Santa wants to ask her what she wants for Christmas but her dad won’t let her, he drags her off screaming past TOYSRUS. Santa feels like punching him in the nose. Santa feels like doing something, but there are children rifling through his chest of toys. ‘Hey,’ says the photographer to the children, ‘get out of there.’
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It is difficult. Santa suddenly realises he either forgot or never knew quite a lot about himself. Santa can’t remember if he is from the south pole or the north pole. The kids seem to know more about it than he does. It’s like he has amnesia or something; for example, he can’t remember how many reindeer he has. He tells a little girl that he has twelve. She says that her dad thinks it’s six. ‘Your dad is quite right,’ says Santa, ‘but I rotate them. Like tyres. They get very tired.’
She is worried about something, last week she was at Coles and saw Santa and then she went to Safeway and saw him there too. ‘How can there be two Santa’s in the same place at the same time?’ she asks Santa.
‘Hmmm,’ says Santa, ‘that is a good question!’ Santa holds out his palms like opposite goal posts. He feels a bit like a mime performer with the white gloves on; they are so expressive. ‘Do you think,’ begins Santa carefully, ‘that what you saw may have been one Santa standing in front of a big mirror?’
‘I don’t think there was a mirror there.’ she says.
‘Well sometimes mirrors are so big that you don’t see them.’ he looks into one white gloved palm and then into the other, it seems to convince Santa, ‘you know what I mean though? Maybe what you were seeing was a reflection of Santa.’ says Santa looking into each palm in turn, ‘one Santa and one reflection of Santa.’
She is not sure, she looks over at her dad, her dad is wearing a Fifty-cent t-shirt, he is laughing at Santa.
There is a bit of a gap in the conversation when Santa and the girl don’t know what else to talk about. Santa ends up saying all the things you would expect him to say, ‘Thanks for coming to see me.’ says Santa. ‘Merry Christmas,’ says Santa.
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When there is a lull in the conversation Santa likes to talk about the trouble he had parking his sled. ‘The parking spaces here are very small,’ he says making a small shape with his brilliant white gloves. ‘Santa’s sled is very long’ he says, stretching out his hands. ‘Anyway,’ says Santa, ‘I had to park my sled on the roof. It was the only place it would fit.’
He talks a lot about Mrs Claws because she is a safe subject, nobody seems to know anything about her. He talks about her a lot. Santa really misses her, he can’t wait to see her again.
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Santa can’t help feeling that most of the children that ask him for things are intolerably selfish and greedy. They seem to be just going through the motions for their mums and dads. It’s like they believe more in the presents appearing under the tree than Santa himself. Everybody wants what the TV has told them to want: remote control dinosaurs, iPods, xboxes and real live robot babies that cry and fart and shit. How do they expect him to know how to make all this stuff? Santa has to say what the booklet says to say, ‘Hmmm, I’ll see what I can do about that… ’ Santa can’t promise anything. Most of them don’t deserve more than they have already got.
‘Ok Santa,’ says the photographer, ‘these two aren’t having a photo taken, they just want to say something to Santa.’
‘Fantastic,’ says Santa. It is Santa’s favourite word, he was thinking he was saying it too much but then no, you can never say it enough. A girl of about seven or eight and a boy of about six, Santa is impressed with their bravery. They walk right up to him and shake hands, even though they look very worried and scared. ‘So what would you like for Christmas?’ asks Santa.
‘I don’t want anything for Christmas’ she says, her fingers are all curled tight into fists. ‘I don’t need anything either,’ says her brother, he is all tensed up too. They seem to be making a deal with Santa, some sort of bargain. ‘I just want my mum and dad to stay together,’ she says, ‘and stop fighting,’ he says. ‘I don’t want dad to go and live somewhere else,’ she says desperately, ‘I want him to stay with us.’
There is a little silence because Santa is thinking furiously hard. ‘I’m not sure I can do anything about that,’ says Santa looking over at their parents all sheepish behind the barrier, the dad rocking from foot to foot, looking apprehensive. The mum crying and looking away. ‘I’m not sure there’s anything you guys can do about it either.’ says Santa in his careful voice, ‘I know that it’s not your fault though. I know that for sure.’ Santa wishes that he had something good to give them. Something they could really use. ‘The thing is,’ Santa says, ‘I can only not give you presents if you have been bad and I know you are both very good. So here are some presents for coming to see me early.’
Santa has a sore dry throat and can’t swallow, but realises he can’t drink from his water bottle, his beard would get in the way. He waves at the kid’s parents and they seem satisfied. ‘Thankyou,’ mouths the mum to Santa and Santa feels all at once, like the Great and Powerful Oz; a true phoney, all hot air and double talk, lacking true miracles.
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Santa wants to help the children more but that would be truly impossible. He is worried that the toys he is giving out are poorly made. That they are in fact crap. He gives out a lot of crayons. ‘Do you like reading?’ Santa always asks, ‘Santa loves to read books,’ says Santa, ‘and draw pictures of Mrs Claws and all the reindeers having a party.’
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After three or four hours, Santa is very tired. He is thirsty and hot. The booklet stresses not to complain about it and so Santa doesn’t. Remember, says the booklet, photographs of Santa will be displayed on mantelpieces for a long time. Be accommodating, says the booklet, photographers pay Santa’s wages.
‘Santa,’ says the photographer, ‘you’re not looking into the camera lens enough. Ya gotta give me the Santa Sparkle,’ she says, ‘at the moment, it’s just not there.’
They keep giving Santa these tiny terrified baby’s that just wanted the smell of their mothers and not a weird skinny stale Santa. Santa has to balance sets of twins and triplets on his knees; he has to squash them together like a piano accordion, so they don’t fall off. Some of them look like they have just been born. Soft and tiny and fragile, all wrapped up snug like the pupae of some giant insect.
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Near the end of the day, Santa becomes suspicious of a bearded man hanging around his throne. Santa waves him over to talk to him and the man gives him a folded up piece of paper with his name on it and a list of CD’s he would like for Christmas. ‘Hmmm,’ says Santa stroking his beard, ‘I’ll see what I can do about that…’ Santa tries to shake the bearded man’s hand, ‘thankyou for coming to see me,’ says Santa, but no, the bearded man wants to sit on Santa’s knee and give him a hug. ‘Merry Christmas,’ says Santa. ‘Merry Christmas Santa,’ says the bearded man.
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When the Santa suit is back in the bag at the end of the shift, the photographer wants to have a word with me. ‘Ummm, the thing is, we’ve had some complaints from centre management,’ she says, ‘– you’re not really fat enough. Didn’t they give you a fat suit or something?’
‘But I was wearing the fat suit.’ I say. ‘It’s just that I’ve been labouring and I’ve lost weight.’
‘Well next time, if there is one,’ she adds, ‘you’ll just have to shove a pillow up there or something.’
First posted @ New writing from Eric Yoshiaki Dando
First published in the Sleepers Almanac, 2006