Peter Tarnofsky

Rogue Santa

~~(A story to fill you with Christmas cheer. Or Chapter 5, as I like to think of it.)~~

“Everybody say, ‘Way-Oh, Way-Oh, Way-Oh’!” His voice leapt an octave as he suddenly sang the line, arms furiously gesticulating to the audience to join in as he switched to unamplified, and unimpressive, beat-boxing. His beard swayed menacingly.

Three more of the five-year-olds began to cry. Another two started when he attempted a Bhangra head move. His eyes moved to the left, his beard slid to the right and the bell at the end of his hat rang to its own syncopated beat.

“Do something!” hissed Mrs MacIntyre to Mr Swanson.

Mr Swanson stood up, rictus grin across his face. “Now then,” he said, addressing the cross-legged brood all twinkly-eyed before flicking a cold glare at the man beside him, the man standing in his space.

“Ah,” interrupted the guest, back to booming his overly fruited baritone, “Mr Swanson! Tell me, boys and girls, has Mr Swanson been a good boy this year?”

Mr Swanson’s attempted joviality in delivering, “I think we’ve covered this already” was entirely submerged by the bellow of “No!” that attacked the stage, affecting Mr Swanson almost viscerally. He looked out to the eyes of children he no longer recognised, seeing only hatred and contempt in them, fearing that perhaps the ten-year-olds should not have read ‘Lord Of The Flies’ this term.

He had not thought it would come to this, indeed only twenty-four minutes earlier he had felt the traditional warm glow of well-being as the annual ritual had begun, as he saw the man arrive. He had watched him enter the room, seen the children become wide-eyed with wonder and remembered once again why, two years after he could have taken early retirement, he instead chose to spend his days here.

Twenty-four minutes earlier, ringing the school dinner bell, dressed in the school’s cheap but effective supermarket polyester red suit, complete with cotton-wool cushion fat-pack, itchy elasticated beard-and-moustache combo and red hat unfortunately equipped with a jester’s bell at the end of it (perhaps due to a misunderstanding between the commissioning buyer and the Chinese sweat-shop), the father of a boy in year three strode into the hall.

Mr Miller had been forced to pull out of this year’s end-of-term assembly, after many years of admirable, reliable service. He had never outstayed his welcome – get in, do the Santa shtick for two minutes and get out again – he had never found those instructions difficult to follow. However, this year his company had been taken over and there was a compulsory, off-site, team-building Christmas function which, for a man hoping to finally receive his promotion after so many years of being overlooked, would have been impolitic to avoid. He had phoned Mr Swanson and explained his quandary and restated how much he loved his annual performance but that this year it simply would not be possible, but next year, well next year he would do his utmost to step back into the suit. Mr Swanson had understood, Mr Swanson had thanked him for all the years he had performed in the past, but Mr Swanson had, in thought and hand-gesture, cursed him for pulling out at such short notice. He had had three days to find a replacement Santa or have the indignity of excusing himself from the assembly in order to suit up. That could not be allowed to happen.

Several telephone calls later, Mr Swanson had his volunteer. He had explained the set-up, told him that Mrs Beech would have the costume ready at the school reception and that he could change in the store cupboard, thanked him profusely and considered the matter taken care of.

And his volunteer had begun well, the voice was right, deep and warm, with an occasional jovial chuckle in addition to the obligatory frequent ho-ho-ho. There had been nowhere to park his sleigh, he had told the schoolchildren, the younger ones showing a mixture of wonder and fear, the older ones a combination of contempt and boredom, so he had left it on the yellow zig-zags – did they think that would be okay?

“Yes!” they had replied.

“I do hope so,” he said, “unless there’s a traffic warden about to be a very naughty boy. In which case, there might be a few surprises for him in his stocking come Christmas eve.”

The children had laughed, the staff had looked at each other anxiously, unsure which way he was going to go with this line. Fortunately, he didn’t go anywhere with it and moved onto a different tack.

“Has everyone been good?” he asked, eyes flicking left, right, to the back of the room, to the front row.

“Yes!” came the reply, slightly louder than previously, as the children warmed to the stranger and perhaps sensed the greater importance of the question.

“Wonderful,” he said, “then stand up and join me in ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. And don’t forget to look at Mrs MacIntyre when you sing ‘Head’!”

Mrs MacIntyre stood up. “I wonder if perhaps we should…”

“How wonderful of you to join us!” he called and began to sing, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, sing along! Head,” looking at Mrs MacIntyre, “shoulders, knees and toes, sing along”. He was quite adept at the actions, even with the fat-pack making ‘toes’ a difficult manoeuvre. The children joined in with the singing and, to some extent, with the actions, the youngest uncertain whether to start, or moving half-heartedly, the middle group, throwing themselves into it with gusto, the oldest standing at the back staring at the unlikely sight. The staff sat in stony silence on the stage, unsure of their next move.

Slowing half-way through the song, before the section of gradually removing the facial features, he said, “Thank you for helping me with that warm-up. Let’s stop it there as we have so much more to get through. Sit down, children.”

Mr Swanson stood up. In an attempt to reassert his authority, he smiled at the schoolchildren and said, “Yes, thank you children, and thank you Santa. You may be seated. And I think we can give our guest a round of applause and thank him for his time.”

The children began to clap, the applause starting in the middle and slowly rippling to the front and back of the hall where a section of slow hand-clapping could be seen by the eagle-eyed Mrs MacIntyre but could not be heard by the beaming Santa Claus as he held his hands up for silence and struck fear into the staff with the blood-curdling phrase, “Thank you, but I’ve hardly started!”

He leapt from the stage, startling the nursery class politely sitting cross-legged on the floor at the front, strode half-way along the room, produced a deck of oversized playing cards with Santa’s head on the reverse, fanned them out and asked a girl in year four to choose one. She looked across to her form-teacher, who looked to the headmistress, who shrugged despondently. The girl took a card and a complex and somewhat confusing trick ensued involving a toy rabbit, oral egg production and a long ribbon of paper streaming from Mr Swanson’s top pocket with the name of the chosen eight-of-spades written across it. This led to whoops of appreciation from the back, children looking from side to side in the hope that one of their friends could explain it in the middle and incomprehension from the front, most of whom could not read quickly enough to realise the significance of the paper.

With Mr Swanson struggling to contain and control the paper snake which resisted his attempts to coil it back to a manageable size, Mrs MacIntyre stood, signalled to the children to settle down with a simple palms-down, arms slowly lowered motion and, in the welcome silence, turned to the guest. She looked him in the eye, gave a slight left-right head-shake and moved in for the quiet word. Too late, she saw the twinkle in his eye.

“Everybody happy?” he shouted. Ignoring the confused silence from the floor, he continued with, “then clap your hands! If you’re happy and you know it…” He seized Mrs MacIntyre’s still-outstretched arms and, singing far louder than consideration for her personal space would permit, he continued the song, punctuating each line by clapping the headteacher’s hands together firmly.

“You need to stop this at once!” she hissed at him, “And let go of my arms you silly man.”

“You’re right,” he boomed. “I am a silly man.” The singing from the children petered out, helped by shushing from the children at the back who, sensing conflict, wanted to make sure they could enjoy every last word.

He released Mrs MacIntyre’s wrists. Rubbing her arms pointedly, she returned to her seat, whispering “Wrap it up” over her shoulder.

“A very silly man,” he continued. “Why, do you know what happened to me last Christmas?”

“No,” called a single voice from the back.

“I’m not surprised,” continued the voice behind the beard, “as I haven’t told anyone this story. I had had one or two mince pies last year, maybe more than the usual – due to everyone being so generous to dear old me.”

“We can tell,” called a voice from the back. It could have been the same voice.

Alternating the song with narration, he continued, “anyway, I got stuck up the chimney. Really. And I began to shout. Do you know what I shouted? I shouted that girls and boys wouldn’t get any toys if they didn’t pull me out. And that chimney wasn’t clean, you know – my beard went black and I got soot in my sack and my nose was tickly too. Yes, I got stuck up the chimney.”

He paused and looked out over the crowd of children. Only the older ones at the back were enjoying themselves but their grins were those of children watching the aftermath of a traffic accident that was preventing them being driven to a dull provincial museum. The middle children were uncertain whether to join in the song or to listen politely to the rambling guest. The youngest children were squirming in what could have been boredom, confusion or bladder pressure.

“Aaa-choo,” he bellowed.

His brow was sweaty but he felt chilly. Maybe this job was harder than he had thought it would be. Maybe he could bring it back around if he could get the children to sneeze along with him.

“Sneeze along with me!” he shouted, waving his arms in a count-down one-two-three, “Aaa-choo”.

A few of them had shouted, but most were staring. He ran the back of his hand over his forehead and signalled the one-two-three to “Aaa-choo!”.

Maybe half of the children were joining him. Risking a fourth sneeze to make sure he had the audience on his side, he went straight into his finale of energetic dancing and a beat-box routine.

“Way-Oh! Way-Oh! Well? Come on, sing along children,” he called. He rubbed his forehead again and found it still clammy, still cool but now additionally swaying, strangely difficult to find accurately with his hand. How difficult can it be to find my own head, he thought, as he suddenly found himself lurching, his legs not properly responding, his view moving from the roomful of children to the fluorescent strip lighting in the ceiling. He felt twinges all over and a sharp pain in his coccyx as he hit the wooden floor.

The children applauded. Mrs MacIntyre harrumphed and tutted. Mr Swanson rose to his feet as he saw clear viscous droplets ease through the corner of the man’s mouth and ooze across his cheek towards the floor.

Mrs Beech opened the side door of the hall and walked discretely towards Mrs MacIntyre. She broke her stride when she saw the red suited mound lying in the centre of the stage. “Who’s that?” she whispered to the headteacher. “I’ve got Mr Whitman in reception. He’s really sorry to be late – a crash on the High Street closed the road. I gave him the costume because I could hear the assembly was still going on…”

Mr Swanson looked up. “Get the children out of here,” he said. “This is a real beard.”

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