"No! That's not true! You're lying!" screamed Martin. Then he stamped his foot and pushed Keith in the chest with all his strength.
Keith stepped back, more in shock than from the force of Martin's push, and watched wide mouthed as his friend turned his back and walked away, hiding in a corner. Keith was aghast at the reaction of his friend to what was a simple little thing to say, and so obvious. Martin was standing, staring at the wall shivering with rage and gasping with the effort of containing his emotions. His back was heaving as he dragged in great lumps of air, hoping that they would keep back the tears.
"But Martin, I only said..."
"You're a liar, Keith Dillinger, and I'm not listening to you!" and he stamped his foot again leaving Keith opening and closing his mouth trying to find the right words to bring his friend back to him.
"But everybody knows..."
"Everybody knows a lie and you're a liar and there is so a Santa Claus!" and Martin stamped his foot again and threw his arms crossed. Even from behind Keith could see the grit of his teeth and the jut of his little chin.
Keith was totally at a loss. It had never occurred to him that Martin might still believe in Santa Claus. It seemed so obvious to him that it was just another of the silly stories that grown ups told to children believing them to be too stupid or gullible not to see through it immediately. And he'd said so to Martin, hoping to make him laugh at the adults' silliness. But as soon as Keith had said it - "just like grown ups, try to con you into behaving with a silly story like Santa Claus" - Martin's little face had clouded and his eyes had sparked and his whole body had taken on a stance of menace that had surprised and, frankly, slightly impressed Keith. He had never thought Martin was capable of such anger.
But now he was left with a problem. How was he to make it up to Martin.
Cautiously, as if approaching some wild and prickly animal, Keith slowly tip toed up to his friend and carefully laid a hand on his shoulder. Martin jerked it forward and out of contact. Keith persisted and placed his hand there again, Martin tried to escape again but couldn't pull forward far enough. Keith waited a few moments for their warmth to make contact through he thin material of Martin's t-shirt and then spoke again, as gently as he could.
"Martin, please. I don't want us to fall out."
Martin sniffed but said nothing.
"I didn't mean to hurt you, I was just trying to make you laugh."
Martin pulled away and walked a few steps along the wall. Sideways so as to keep his face hidden from his friend. His voice was slightly choked when he spoke.
Keith bit his lip and silently cursed his big mouth.
"I didn't mean it like that. I meant for you to laugh at the grown ups, at the way they always try to trick us into doing what they want and keep expecting us to fall for it." As soon as he said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say but strangely, it wasn't.
Martin turned slightly to look at his friend over his shoulder. His eyes were slightly reddened but there were no tears. "My Mommy doesn't try to trick me, she always tells me the truth."
"Well, my mom doesn't either," Keith frowned, "but my step dad's always trying something. He must think I'm an idiot."
Martin turned fully to face Keith, his arms still crossed.
"So you didn't really mean it then?"
Keith took a step towards Martin, gently held both his shoulders and looked him clear in the eyes. "Of course not. I wouldn't say anything to hurt you." Martin flung himself forward and buried his face in Keith's chest, hugging tightly.
"So you really do believe in Father Christmas," said his slightly muffled voice. Keith swallowed his pride and was only glad that Martin couldn't see his face.
"Of course I do."
Martin sighed and relaxed and pulled himself closer into Keith's body and in a few moments the two were happily playing again and their argument forgotten, or at least unspoken.
For the rest of that afternoon the two boys played as normal, knights and kings, wizards and fairies. But nothing, Keith noted, that had anything to do with Christmas, and there was a slight reserve about Martin that you could only notice if you knew him well. But still they had fun and they laughed hard and they wrestled beautifully and Keith was happy. And Keith was just as sad as usual when Martin's mother called up that it was almost time for him to go.
Sighing, Keith got up off the floor where the two boys had been lying, hot and sweaty and panting blissfully together, and reached down a hand to help his friend to his feet. Then he headed for the door.
"Wait," said Martin, "I've got an idea." and he led Keith to his desk.
Martin pulled across two pieces of paper and two pencils. "I know how we can prove that father Christmas exists."
"There's no need, I told you, I believe."
"Yes, but I know how we can prove it. Here, take this paper," he handed one of the sheets of paper and one of the pencils to Keith and kept the other for himself. Keith sighed and accepted.
"What we do, we both write a letter to Santa, we tell him what we really want for Christmas, the one thing we really, really want, and we don't tell anybody else, not even each other, and then we post them up the fireplace. Then, when we get what we asked for on Christmas day, we'll know it must have been Santa because he was the only one we told."
Keith took a couple of seconds to work out exactly what Martin was suggesting and, once he understood, opened his mouth to point out the obvious problem but by then, Martin was busily writing something on his piece of paper, tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth and his arm wrapped closely around his writing so that Keith couldn't even see the paper never mind what was written on it. Bemused he watched his little friend's concentration for a while and then shrugged.
"What the hell," he thought, "I'll just write something down and post it and then on Christmas day I'll pick out one of my presents and say that was what I wrote and it was all true." That would make Martin happy. And that would make Keith happy. Silently he sat on the bed and rested his paper on the bedside cabinet, pencil poised above it.
What should he write? Well it didn't really matter - no one else would ever read it. But still, he should write something and suddenly he couldn't think of anything, his mind was totally blank.
Frustrated, Keith chewed the end of his pencil (which he was sure Martin would reproach him for) and tried to think of something, anything, to put down on the paper. Still nothing came.
"Well," he thought, "since no one else will ever see it, I might as well put down what I really want." But what was that? Well, he could really use some bits for his computer - it was getting really old and slow and outdated. Or there were loads of games he would just love to have. But none of them were what he really wanted. Keith knew what he really wanted, had done for years, but he knew that it was something he could never, ever have again. Still, what the hell, no one else would ever read it.
And so he wrote, carefully shielded by his arm, "What I really, really want is to see my father again." He looked at it for a moment, surprised at the prickling of his eyes, and then quickly wrote underneath "My REAL father." Then he folded it carefully and completely so that the writing was totally hidden and turned to look at Martin.
"OK, I've written it. Soon as I get home, I'll post it."
"But that's no good," frowned Martin, "Your Gran's got central heating, you don't have a chimney."
"It's okay, I'll put it in an envelope and send it through the mail."
"No, that's no good at all. Come on." and he grabbed Keith's hand and pulled him out of the room.
Martin pulled the bemused Keith out of the bedroom and down the stairs and into the front room of his parents tidy little house. Once there he gestured dramatically to the warmly flickering real fire in the fireplace that was one of the first things his father had done when they first moved in. "Ta-Dah!" Keith frowned.
"But that's no good, there's a fire burning."
"So, as soon as we put the letters in, they'll catch fire and burn up."
A large newspaper rustled from the chair behind them and as they turned, Mr Czirnczinsky's head appeared around a bending corner of it.
"So what are you two boys doing?"
"We're sending letters to Santa," replied Martin, causing Keith's face to redden.
"Oh," said Mr Czirnczinsky, "fair enough." And his face disappeared again behind the paper.
"That's how Santa gets them, see," said Martin, turning back to Keith, "That's the secret, you have to put them in a chimney with a fire lit. Otherwise they don't go up the chimney, they just lie in the fireplace."
Keith just shook his head at this piece of logic. "But then," he thought, "It's probably better this way." He was beginning to regret putting his real wish down on paper, especially if he couldn't take it home where he could be sure that no one else would ever see it.
Martin stepped up as close as he could get to the polished stone hearth of the fire and struck a pose.
"Letter for Santa!" he shouted and then threw the piece of paper into the fire. It browned and smoked then burst into flames and was gone. Martin pulled Keith up beside him and gestured that he should do the same. Keith was just about to throw the paper in when Martin stopped him.
"You've got to say who it's for, otherwise how would it know where to go?"
Feeling silly, Keith complied.
"Message for Santa!" he cried and then threw the paper in. Just like Martin's it smoked and browned and curled at the edges, then burst into flame and was gone. Keith looked at the tiny specks of black ash drifting upwards on the smoke and felt once again, that strange prickling in his eyes. Maybe he was coming down with something. For some reason he didn't seem able to move from the fire so it was a good thing that Martin's mother came bustling in, holding his coat.
"Come along dear, your gran'll be waiting and you know how much she worries, poor dear, and it's so near to lunch time already, I don't know what you've been doing,"
Keith tuned out the rest of the meaning of Mrs Czirnczinsky's words and just felt the sound running through him like a warm breeze. Although he would, of course, never show it, he liked Mrs Czirnzinsky's fussing of him. His gran was too frail and with his mother there was always something between them (it had piggy little eyes and frown marks and wore a silly little moustache) and by the time Mrs Czirnczinsky had walked him to the door and given him an all embracing hug and smoothed out his hair and told him to come back soon and he was always welcome here and given his hair another final tidy up and waved him on his way and watched him around the corner, the little prickling feeling of his eyes had been washed away by the big warm tide of her motherness.
Keith gave a little smile to himself as he walked along the empty street and thought of Martin's letters to Santa. "It would be so good," he thought, "if only it could be so."
And he sighed.
Now the one thing you have to know about Christmas, the one thing you really need to know, the thing that all children know with every fibre of their being, is that Christmas never comes.
No matter how many days go by, no matter how many doors are opened on the advent calendar, no matter how hard you wish, the day itself never comes. It's always there in the future, always approaching but never arriving. And the closer it comes, the slower it approaches almost as if about to change its mind and retreat again into the distant future. And then, suddenly, magically, one day it's Christmas eve and the clocks seem to tick slower and slower as you crawl through the day, watching every movement of the second hand. The day plods through the afternoon from dinner to lunch and through the evening as the TV fails to distract you from the ever slowing second hand until you get sent to bed unconscionably early, there to lie, tossing and turning and checking the unmoving clock every few seconds. And then suddenly, there is sunlight peeking shyly through the curtains and a few hardy birds are twittering self-consciously and it's the day, at last it's the day!
Keith was lying restless in bed too early on the evening of Christmas eve. He was at his mother's and the fragile Christmas truce had clung on for one more year. So far. As he tossed and turned, alternately tying and then loosening the covers about him, he could hear the sounds of his mother and stepfather clumping about in the room below. They were, he knew, putting out presents underneath the token plastic Christmas tree ready for the morning. Keith would go down in the morning and fake surprise and delight, his stepfather would force a grin and say "I guess Santa came in the night" and Keith would pretend to believe.
Honestly. Did they think he was a kid still?
Although to be truthful, Keith felt his mum knew he was too old for all that Santa stuff, but she went along with it for the same reason as he did. Keith had too few happy memories of Christmas with his real father to risk tainting them with any kind of argument on that day.
There was a slightly louder thump from below and a muffled word that Keith couldn't make out but probably knew already anyway. He turned again, pulling the cover tightly over his shoulder and feeling it pull against him where it was trapped under his hip. He wondered what he would be getting for Christmas.
Keith had dropped all sorts of subtle hints about what he wanted, but they all involved his computer in some way and for some reason his step dad didn't seem to approve of it. Keith had once overheard a 'discussion' between his mother and step dad about how he was 'wasting his life away on that silly thing' and about how 'kids need fresh air and exercise' and how 'it was unhealthy, staring at that damn screen hour after hour, playing silly games'. Fortunately there was nothing the man could do about it since the computer was HIS and moreover kept at his grandmother's, who was just glad he was quiet. Keith started to wonder what he would be getting.
The worst thing about these early Christmas eve nights, thought Keith, was the fact that you actually wanted to get to sleep but couldn't. I mean, you knew that the earlier you slept, the earlier you would wake (and get at your presents) but it was just too early to manage. And worst, he thought, your body tried to sleep, expected to sleep. I mean, you were in bed and your body said 'bed? - time to sleep' but your mind just said 'hold on there, it's way too early!' and so you ended up wide awake inside your own half asleep body.
Keith tried to turn over some more but was stopped by the tight covers trapped under his body. He gave a furious yank on them and turned over onto his stomach.
Sometimes, Keith wished he could be like Martin, innocent, trusting, believing. Then he could go to sleep convinced that 'Santa' would bring him the new graphics card he really, really wanted. Or at least a decent game. But, thought Keith, the more you expect, the more disappointed you are when it doesn't turn up. Keith began to wonder what he would have asked Santa for if he believed and grimaced as he remembered that stupid piece of paper Martin had made him write. He was glad that paper had burned up. He would have died with embarrassment if anyone had seen what he'd written. Keith turned over onto his back and stared moodily up at the ceiling. Still, he thought, if you know your wish won't come true anyway, why not wish for something impossible.
Keith's' dad had done that ceiling. His real dad. It was just after they had moved in. Keith couldn't have been more than a few years old but he could remember it clearly. He had stood in the doorway looking up at his father on a stepladder, hair covered with tiny droplets of white paint, and Keith had laughed and said "Daddy, you got old!" and his dad had chased him giggling around the house with a paint-roller threatening to turn him into an old man until his mother had laughingly threatened them with a dishcloth and told them to clean up for dinner. His mother had always seemed to be laughing in those days.
Keith turned on his side and curled up into a ball, knees to his chest and his hands clasped beneath his cheeks. Keith's eyes were achingly heavy and seemed full of grit as his body tried to sleep. "Hah!" thought Keith, "the sandman's been. Well he failed!" Keith's mind was as wide awake and racing as ever
Keith wondered if he ever could believe, really believe not just pretend, in Santa. Keith wondered if he ever had believed, like Martin did. Perhaps when he was a kid, when his real dad had been alive. Keith's eyes were aching now. He closed them and stared into the blackness behind the lids.
The truth was, it was all a con, Santa and the sandman, and god and all of it. The world was all about take not give, it took things from you and never bothered how you felt about it. There was a time when it was better, when it seemed as if he always got the presents he wanted. A time when opening the presents was a genuine surprise and delight, not just a pretence. Keith watched as his eyes made slow swirling patterns in the darkness behind his lids, his body swaying weightless in time.
There was Mr Twoshoes, thought Keith muzzily. He remembered excited little fingers, awkward on the gaily patterned wrapping, pulling aside a snowman and prying behind a sellotaped Christmas tree to find a brown furry face and two winking black eyes. Pulling the rest of the paper off, he saw the most beautiful big bear, almost too big for him to hug, dressed in evening gown and a golden cummerbund and two shiny black shoes. Keith hugged the mighty bear tightly and turned to beam at his father.
But as he turned he fell backwards and kept on falling, weightless and lost, into the darkness of an empty place. There were no Christmas trees here, no snowmen, no gaily coloured paper, and no father. He was alone, falling, streaming tears and clutching the old and tattered bear to him.
"Please!" he cried out, the words echoing in the emptiness, not expected to be heard.
But the bear heard him, Mr Twoshoes. It raised its furry brown face and twinkled its black plastic eyes and somehow, its sewn on face seemed to smile. Then Mr Twoshoes wriggled out of Keith's clasp and soared around him, smiling all the while. Then he soared upwards, grabbing Keith's hands as he passed, pulling Keith along with him. There was a feeling of speed and a rush of pine scented air and a light that suddenly grew brighter.
There was light again, and laughter, and winter sunshine glowing mistily through the branches of an enourmous tree. Beneath the tree a happy little boy was wrestling with a parcel almost as big as he was, his stubby fingers tugging awkwardly at the gaily coloured paper. Keith almost moved to help the little boy, but the bear's hand in his own stopped him. Its silence seemed to say 'wait'. The boy's fingers searched over the package seeking a starting place. Suddenly he found a fold in the paper and joyfully pulled, tearing a great swathe with a satisfying sound. Again, he found an edge and pulled, exposing the furry brown face and twinkling black eyes of a large teddy bear. Hurriedly, the little boy pulled off the remaining paper and gazed in delight at the bear - almost as large as himself - dressed in evening wear and two shiny black shoes. The boy bounced and laughed and pulled the bear to him as he turned to one side and said "Look Daddy! Mr Twoshoes!", holding out one of the bear's shoed feet as evidence. Slowly, almost not daring to breathe, Keith turned to face the man that the boy had addressed.
It was Keith's father. Not as Keith had last seen him, lying pain-filled on a hospital bed, but strong and healthy and tanned. Just as he'd been before the world took his strength away.
Tears sprang to Keith's eyes and his throat tightened.
Keith awoke mistily, clutching a pillow wet with the tears still streaming down his face. He sobbed just once and wiped away the moisture on his face, feeling a great emptiness inside. He pushed away the pillow and sat up, trying hard to cling to the last of the dream. But the harder he tried, the more it seemed to run away from him.
Eventually, and with a sigh, Keith raised himself from his bed and went to the window. Pulling aside the curtains, he peeked out into the street. The early morning sun, diffused by the thin high cloud and combined with the early hour, gave the world a silence that seemed to match the emptiness of his feelings. What was the dream about? He could remember only the great feeling of love and belonging. And for some reason a teddy bear.
Frowning in puzzlement, Keith sneaked open the closet door, carefully avoiding its squeak, and rummaged through the big old cardboard box that lay within. Finally, from deep inside the box, he pulled out an old and battered teddy bear. Mr Twoshoes, much the worse for wear and long neglected, his dinner jacket tattered and frayed and his shoes scuffed and dull. Keith stared at him for a long moment thinking. Yes, Mr Twoshoes was there.
Slowly the dream was beginning to return to him and unconsciously, lost in reverie, Keith pulled the old bear to him and hugged it.
It was the night of Christmas day and Martin had put out a glass of sherry and a plate of mince pies for Santa before settling down on the deep, soft old sofa to wait. People always laughed when Martin told them that he put out the sherry and pies on Christmas day instead of Christmas eve, but Martin just smiled and said "Santa can't drink on Christmas eve, he's driving". The night was warm and soft and Martin knew that he would soon fall asleep, but that did not matter. Martin closed his eyes and let the comfort take him away.
Martin woke to the soft tickling of a fine and downy-white beard and the rumblings of a barely suppressed "Ho Ho Ho". The mince pies were nothing but crumbs and the sherry glass was drained and the thick warm arms held him safe. Martin pulled himself further into the huge warmth and looked up at the sparkling blue eyes smiling down at him. Martin smiled back.
"So, little one," smiled Santa, "you still remember me."
"Always." sighed Martin, happily.
Santa chuckled, his big belly wobbling. "Not always, little one. Little boys grow up and become men, and men forget."
"I never will! I'll remember you always!"
"Ah, but you must grow up, how else would there be other little boys to remember me. But always know this - deep inside every grown up, there is a little kid who still remembers." and the old man smiled even deeper.
Martin pushed himself up on the Santa's stomach.
"Did you get the letter I sent you?"
With the air of a magician pulling a particularly fine rabbit from his hat, Santa pulled out a folded and crumpled piece of paper and began to read.
"'Dear Santa, please forget all the other things I asked for, all I want for Christmas is for my friend Keith to get his wish, yours Martin Czirnczinsky.'" Santa smiled again. "Yes, I got it. It's always nice when someone asks for something unselfish."
"And did you..." Martin nodded at the paper.
"Well, some wishes are harder than others, but I think I managed it. Yes, I really think I managed it. And now it is almost time for me to go, Mrs Claus will be here any moment with the sleigh, so you must go to sleep."
Martin sighed and sank back into Santa's belly. He knew that when he awoke, it would be one of his mother's big fluffy pillows he would be clutching, and he knew that when he told his parents that he had talked to Santa, they would just smile and nod.
But he knew that deep inside, there would be a little girl and a little boy who still believed.
That was Santa's gift to him.