Santa stares at himself in the mirror, gathering his resolve. He feels strange, dressed as he is all in black. But these are strange times. His customary red suit hangs dry cleaned, ironed and smart in his cupboard which he has left open – a habit his wife hates. Santa shoots a slightly rueful look at the suit, turns back to his reflection and wonders for the umpteenth whether this is a good idea after all.
Then his gaze drops to a lengthy crumpled list on his dresser and, also for the umpteenth time, he realizes that it is. He picks up the list and sits down for a moment to scan it, his free hand automatically dipping into the packet of chocolate chip cookies he always keeps nearby. The rustling of the packet makes his wife stir in her sleep but he keeps munching, albeit a little guiltily. He knows he needs to keep the weight down, especially considering the taxing nature of tonight’s assignment, but he also needs energy. Sugar’s good for energy, he’s heard.
First on the list: Sri Lanka. Santa sits back in his chair, his brows drawing together as he tries to remember where that is. The reindeer always seem to know where they are going but he likes to have some idea as well. After so many years of doing what he does, he guesses he should know the world like the back of his hand. As loathe as he is to admit it, though, his memory isn’t as good as it used to be. He rummages around his person and finally unearths an ancient dog-eared world map from the depths of one of his pockets. Smoothing it out on his lap, he hunches over it, groping absently for his glasses while he squints in the dim light, trying to find the place.
“Ah” he exclaims triumphantly, spotting the name. Putting on his glasses, he takes a closer, less blurred look. An island – practically a dot in the Indian Ocean. Whatever could be happening in such a small place for it to be on this list? It had to be bad. “Must read the papers” he mutters to himself, knowing he never will. He turns around and looks at his wife, wondering whether to wake her and ask her. He decides against it, already knowing what she’ll say. “Google it”, she’d yawn, and fall back asleep. Google was her answer for everything these days.
“Computers” he says in a grumbling whisper, but gets up to switch it on. Mentally cursing new-fangled technology, he types ‘Sri Lanka news’ and hits enter. Nothing seems very terribly wrong – elections and all the rest of it. He catches sight of the word ‘war’ somewhere and quickly types in ‘Sri Lanka war’. Bingo. The news seems all bad. The start of the war. The middle. Even the end. Common phrases from all of the pages jump out at him and his brow furrows in an effort to understand it all. “Ethnic conflict”. “Terrorism”. “25 years”. “Minority”. “Defeat”. “70,000”. “IDPs”. “July ‘83”.”. “Victory”. “Human Rights”. “Child Soldiers”. “Menik Farm”.
A few more minutes of quick scanning and Santa’s had enough. He shuts off the computer with a vehemence that surprises him and is reminded again of why he never reads the news. The hackneyed adage about none of it ever being good is too true.
At least he knows where he is going now – although he knows access will be tough. Still, he has great faith in his willful reindeer – they always manage to get him in unnoticed, treating high security situations like these as games of hide and seek. They never lose.
He also knows what kind of children he’ll be handing out toys to, although he’ll never know what they’ve been through. Google only gave him the faintest impression – impersonal news articles leave a lot out. It never ceases to amaze him though, the delight on their faces when they’re handed a toy. Just one toy. They never ask for more. They’ve gone through things that would break the spirit of any adult, but give them a toy, a hug or even just a smile, there’s light in their eyes. And that light – that’s what real happiness is.
And they never tell. They’re the only ones he shows himself to – the ones who have had enough of not knowing, the ones whose lives have lost control, the ones who don’t have houses with chimneys and fireplaces, the ones who don’t sleep at night because of the horrors they’ve seen. They’re always awake when he comes. But they never tell. They watch him as he does his rounds, return his smile with shining ones of their own, and hug their new toy to their thin little bodies as if it was a source of incredible warmth. Some laugh. Some sob quietly, cradling their precious new gift. Others regard him an old friend, an annual, secret visitor. Even the ones who are too far gone to exist in the world the way they should have just watch him, silently, somehow knowing they’re safe.
Santa absently dusts crumbs off his black shirt, smiling to himself. Children are his job, and what a job this is! He would go to the ends of the earth to see those smiles. And he does. Every year, around this time.
He shoves his map back in his pocket, and glugs down the glass of cold milk his wife has left out for him. Time to get the show on the road. Outside he hears the soft jingle of the bells slung just above the reindeers’ hooves. They’re restless and waiting to go. Santa knows that he’ll find the sacks of toys packed nice and tight at the back of the sleigh. He knows that on his seat he will find an extra packet of cookies smuggled out from his wife’s kitchen by the elves. He also knows that the packet will be open, with a few cookies missing. Mischievous little buggers, those elves.
He makes to put on his heavy overcoat but remembers that it’s not cold where he’s going. He walks over to his sleeping wife and gives her white hair a gentle kiss goodbye. She smells of cherries and cinnamon.
As he struggles out of his window and towards his brimming sleigh, the alarm clock slots in a new date and time: 00:01 on the 10th of December. He knows he’s early. But these children shouldn’t have to wait.