“What, this?” I said, my arm still awkwardly entangled around Aurora’s waist. “This is Mrs Claus.”
The lie even sounded feeble to me, but this kid was young. Surely she’d believe it. Her unnaturally dark eyebrows knitted together in a scowl. She took in Aurora’s costume, the striped candy cane tights, and the plastic pointy ears. She shook her head.
“That’s not Mrs Claus,” she wailed. “That’s an elf!”
Then she screamed.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning, but sometimes it’s kind of hard to pinpoint that moment, isn’t it? Did this all begin with Natalia, the Spanish chick in my graduating class who, unbelievably, had let me make out with her behind the demountables instead of going to class? Did it begin with me not getting into University, and failing to apply for TAFE? Did it begin with my father telling me that he wasn’t going to let me live like a freeloader in the garage anymore, doing nothing but play guitar hero in my underpants, eating Doritos three meals a day? No. I think it began with Mum.
Mum, bless her, never could see the evil in people, especially not in her own son. She worked in administration at one of the bigger shopping centres in the area, calling out number plates over the PA system when they’d left their lights on, or asking parents to collect lost children from security. She was truly an angel, but at the end of the day, when Dad said no more, she had to comply. I guess that’s how I got the job. Who’d ever heard of an eighteen year old Santa anyway? Centre Management, apparently. As soon as the director, Dave something or other, heard that I’d taken drama, he said
“Perfect, perfect” and started measuring me for a costume. They must have been desperate. I mean, I’m not even fat, and I’m certainly not jolly.
“You’ll have to get a working with children check, though,” said Dave, scratching his nose, really kind of picking it but thinking I couldn’t tell. I scowled. I hate kids.
“Sure,” I said. Mum did the application for me that night.
She was there my first shift, Aurora Borealis. Of course that wasn’t her real name, but she was one of those hippy chicks who dyed chunks of their hair green and blue and went by obvious fake sounding names so that they seemed all mysterious. Natalia had moved away by that point, or maybe she’d just told me that she had; either way, she wasn’t returning my calls, and I was bored, and lonely, and it had been ages since I’d had sex. We had a co-ed change room, really just one of the dressing rooms in Myer that had been commandeered for our use. She never closed the door to her stall. I could count the ribs in her back as she bent over in these tiny pink lace undies to step into her tights. Skinny like a colt, my Dad would have said, but when she turned around… wow. I’d never seen breasts that big before except on really old, fat ladies who wore cotton printed shifts.
“Hi,” she said, smirking. She’d seen me staring. I blushed and darted into the stall, slamming the door shut. I could hear her out there, chuckling to herself. “Are you the new Santa?”
“Yup,” I said, wrestling my shirt over my head so quick it almost tugged my ears off.
“You’re much cuter than the guy we had last year.” My blush deepened. The embarrassing pillow I would have to stuff down my shirt lay heavy in the corner. Someone had sewn arm straps onto it. I pulled those on one at a time. There was a tinkle of bells and suddenly the curled ends of her shoes were visible under the door.
“How long have you been doing this for?” I managed. My throat was dry and sticky.
“Oh, donkey’s years. I’m a professional elf.”
“How can you be? This gig only lasts one month of the year.”
“There are other gigs. I also accompany the Easter bunny around. Sometimes I’m a fairy. One St Patricks’ Day I was a leprechaun.”
I snapped on the itchy beard, wincing as the elastic pinched my skin. “Come on, Santa,” she said, “Your public awaits.”
The line snaked around the Boost juice station and all the way back towards the bookshop. Fidgeting children, all dressed in clothes designed for people much older, pestered their tired, bored looking parents. Some women were so laden down with plastic bags and children’s backpacks that they had a tilt like a ship about to capsize. I sat in my ‘ice’ covered throne.
“Ho ho ho!” I said in my deepest Santa voice. “Merrrrrrry Christmas. Who wants to sit on Santa’s knee?”
Beside me, Dave, dressed in the least Christmassy suit ever, coughed. “They’re not allowed to sit on your knee unless the parents sign the permission slip,” he nodded at Aurora, who was handing out slips of green and red paper. “Don’t want to get sued, do we?”
Disgusted, I nodded. “What so, they just have their picture taken sitting… next to… Santa?”
“Well, standing, but yes. And then you give them the colouring in, and they post their letters to Santa in the red mailbox. All for the low price of $30.”
He glanced at the crowd, hushing me. “They do get unlimited prints of the photo. Provided they only want four, of course,” he winked.
“What if they want more than four?”
“One for Mum, one for Mum’s parents, one for Dad’s parents. No one ever wants more than four, four is plenty. Now smile, here comes your first client.”
Dave took the permission slip from the frazzled looking mother and gestured for the child to climb onto my lap. He was a small boy, but he dug his palm into my thigh in order to lever himself on. I winced, then covered it with another “Ho ho ho.”
“What’s your name, little boy?”
“This is Max,” said his mother, as if she were introducing Einstein. Max looked at me with a dribble of chocolate running down the middle of his chin. He must have at least been five.
“Does someone have a tissue?” said Dave, gesturing towards the chocolate. The mother looked embarrassed. She fumbled in her purse for a wet one, then hurriedly wiped at Max’s chin.
“Thank you,” I said. “Wouldn’t want to get chocolate on Santa’s best suit just before Christmas, would we Max?”
Max smiled. “Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?”
“Of course you can! But first, smile for the camera so the elf can take your picture!”
Aurora counted down from three and then there was a blinding flash. I blinked hard. One down, only a million to go. Max shuffled on my leg, his bony bottom digging into me.
“Ok, so, I wrote this down but… I want a Lego Star wars, and some rollerblades like my brother has got, and a hockey stick, and an eyeball…”
“What, wait, what? An eyeball? Why do you want an eyeball?”
Max shrugged. “The baby sitter says not to try anything because she has an eye in the back of her head. I want one too.”
Shuddering, I helped Max down from my lap. “I’ll talk to the elves about that one, but it may be a little bit tricky.”
“That’s okay, so long as I get the Star Wars.”
“Make sure you’re a good boy, Max, and Santa will see what he can do.”
The mother beamed at me. “Say thank you to Santa, Max,” she said in a simpering tone.
“Later dude,” said Max. Aurora winked at me over the camera.
As I disrobed at the end of the day, trying hard not to think about the number of babies with loaded nappies I’d cuddled that day, Aurora popped her head over the top of the stall. If she noticed I was in my boxers, she said nothing.
“Great work today, Santa. You’re a natural.”
“Thanks,” I said. I pulled my shorts on as quick as I could, hopping about as I tried to jam my legs in.
“What’s your name, anyway?”
“Ha! Jolly Old Saint Nick. No wonder they gave you this job. Maybe you really are Santa.”
“Maybe,” I yawned as I pulled my shirt on. I was exhausted. All I could think about was getting home to bed. A few hours of Call of Duty and I would be set for a great night in.
“Do you want to go and get a drink?” she said. “Me and some of the other elves are going.”
I had barely spoken to any of the other girls playing the elves. One of them, a surly Chinese girl, had sat by the post box watching children post their letters to Santa, sipping from a coffee cup, before disappearing at lunch and not coming back. I wasn’t even sure what her job was.
“Come on. It will be fun.”
“Don’t we start really early tomorrow? It’s Saturday?”
“So? What do you care you just sit on a throne all day and have your photo taken.”
“Hey isn’t that weird? That your face is going to be in these people’s family memories forever and ever? Bizarre huh?”
I swallowed hard, finished tying up my shoe laces and hung up the suit in my stall for tomorrow. “I hadn’t thought about it, but now I am. Jesus, thanks.” She hopped off whatever she was standing on and dragged it away from the door. I emerged into the hallway. She was still wearing her elf dress, though the stockings were gone, and she’d left her hair fall free of its plaits. Her feet were bare.
“You going to get changed?” I asked.
“No? It’s one week til Christmas? Why would I?”
We went to a bar just down the main shopping street. There were stars and tinsel on every lamp post. It was mostly filled with older executive types and girls fresh out of high school. The bartenders wore half waistcoats and red and green bowties. Some of the girls were wearing reindeer horn headbands.
“Merry Christmas,” Aurora said to one as she dropped off our drinks. She’d ordered us bright pink candy-cane vodkas. She raised her glass in cheers.
“Where are the others?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I asked them. I guess they weren’t interested.”
Winking at me, she took another sip of her drink. I raised my glass to my lips-- it was sickeningly minty and I spat it straight back into the glass.
“Charming,” she said.
My whole body felt warm just from being close to her. I couldn’t help it. Her elf uniform short and tight, and in the low light of the bar, I snuck a glance at her cleavage.
She leaned forward. “What are you looking at?” she said, stirring her cocktail with a straw.
The heat spread to my ears. “Nothing.”
Aurora downed her drink and then waved to the girl behind the bar, indicating she wanted another. The bartender nodded. “I love Christmas,” said Aurora.
“Are you really a professional elf?” I asked.
“Then what do you do?”
She shrugged and smiled mysteriously. “Fairy at children’s parties. Easter Bunny. One time I really
was a leprechaun. The rest of the time I’m a law student.”
Aurora cringed as she said it, as if waiting for something to collapse or explode. Maybe it was the alcohol, but I reached out and took her hand. “That’s cool.”
“It’s really not. It’s the least interesting thing I can think of. Besides Accounting, but I’m not any good with numbers. Elfing is the only thing I’m good at.”
“You’re good with the little kids. Why not be a kindy teacher?”
She pretended to gag. “Ugh, no. The kids are amazing, but have you seen some of those parents? Imagine being responsible for their little darlings and having to deal with their, “Toby doesn’t have dairy after two” nonsense. No thank you.”
“What about you? Are you a professional Santa?”
“What, really? Professional Santa?”
“No, I… I only got the job because my Dad said I couldn’t live rent free in his house anymore.”\
“Rough break. Do you go to uni?”
“What so, there’s nothing you care about, nothing you want to do?”
She let go of my hand. “Jesus. That’s rough.”
I nodded, disappointed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“I’m a law student because I want to be an environmental lawyer, you know. Stop people dumping toxic shit into the waterways and what not. Fight for Mother Nature. Nothing like that?”
I looked at her tanned skin and her free flowing hair. “I can see you doing that.”
“You really don’t care enough about anything to make it a career?”
I looked at my legs under the table. “Nope. I really don’t.”
The next day at work, my head was pounding. Aurora seemed fine, counting down behind the camera, waving a jingly candy cane to make the star struck babies look her way in time to capture the picture. My eyes felt like they’d been through the washing machine, and every time I burped, it tasted like minty vodka and sick. Thankfully, it was Dave’s day off and we’d been left to our own devices, just me, Aurora, and Surly Sue at the post box. I’d been trying to talk to Aurora all morning but she’d been ignoring me.
When Sue went on lunch, Aurora took the opportunity to pull the curtain on Santa’s Wonderland.
“Sorry guys, Santa needs to check on the reindeer. We’ll be back in ten. You can wait here or take a number and come back later.”
A murmur of dissent spread through the crowd as Aurora slipped behind the curtain herself, sealing us both inside. I pulled the itchy beard away from my face and scratched for all I was worth.
“What is it, Nick? You’ve been doing this weird thing with your eyes at me all morning.”
She was cross.
“I just wanted to tell you something.”
“So tell me. We’ve got work to do.”
I swallowed hard. “Music.”
“I thought about what you said, and… music. I care about music.”
A bemused smirk cracked the veneer of her face. “Really?” Laughing she gathered her hair in one hand and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead. “That’s so great.”
Her enthusiasm was infectious. I felt so relieved that I got up off Santa’s throne and gathered her to my fake stomach, hugging her tight.
“Merry Christmas, Saint Nick,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around my neck.
That was when the kid came through the curtain, of course. A little girl in a loose fitting pink dress, white sandals with butterflies on them. She looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair in a week.
“What’s this, Santa?!”
“What’s this?” I said, with my arm still around Aurora’s waist, now holding on for dear life. “This is Mrs Claus.”
“That’s not Mrs Claus!” she cried, grabbing her skirt and pulling it over her face to hide. Her knickers were huge and white and bunchy.
“Christ,” I said, and looked away. “It is Mrs Claus, I’m just giving her a quick cuddle.”
“That’s an elf!”
“Sweetie, why don’t you put your dress down like a good girl,” said Aurora in soothing tones. The girl complied. Aurora took her by the hand. She led the child out of the curtain. I heard her call to the crowd. “Anyone lost one of these?”
“Savannah! There you are.” There was the clacking of high heels on parquet. I peered out from behind the curtain to watch, thinking perhaps this was the end. Of course, Savannah’s mother was a corporate type, possibly in real estate.
“Mummy, mummy, I saw Santa hugging an elf!”
The mother looked at the daughter, and sighed. “No, sweetheart. Santa hugs Mrs Claus. Mr and Mrs Claus, see? They’re married. Just like Daddy and I are married and we hug each other.”
“Santa will be back soon, honey,” said Aurora. The little girl threw her a scowl. Making sure the mother wasn’t watching, Aurora scowled back.
“But Mummy! I saw them!”
“Savannah! If you’re going to be ridiculous, we’ll go straight home. No Santa picture. I mean it.”
Savannah stomped her feet and folded her arms. The mother looked apologetically towards Aurora. She picked her daughter up as if she was made of cardboard. “Thank you. Sorry. Goodbye.”
Aurora slipped back behind the curtain.
“That was close,” I said.
“Not really,” she replied.
Outside, the crowd was getting antsy. Someone’s baby was crying.
“Just remember,” said Aurora, fixing her ears and her lipstick in the reflective surface of a snow flake. “Shopping centre Santa’s are people too.”