Father Christmas Must Die
None of you knew Erickson in life, so why believe you know him in death? You’ve seen his picture on television. You’ve read the lies in the newspapers. You’ve devoured every rumour and held it up as the absolute truth. And on the basis of these lies and half-truths you revile his name.
Even those who were acquainted with Erickson have but an inkling of his inner self. You can only guess at the torments that drove him on.
Yes, he was brash. But at heart he was a kindly, goodly soul who wanted nothing more than to rid the world of evil. And still you condemn him.
A pox on the lot of you.
I met Erickson at University where his star shone bright and my own was a moonlet by comparison. I did little to distinguish myself. Shy and no great shakes at anything, I saw myself as one of those people put on Earth to make up the numbers.
I had no friends, but what else should I expect? Shy people are the invisible pariahs of this world. On the rare occasions we intrude upon the consciousness of others, we are dismissed as aloof. Because we can’t reach out, it is assumed we have no wish to.
Let all who once lauded Erickson and now vilify his name, remember this : none of you ever thought to rescue me from my loneliness. Each time you walked past without so much as a nod of recognition, each time you threw a party without me, each time you excluded me from your conversation, your walks in the country, your trips into town — each time you did that, you did me an injury.
Not so Erickson.
We were barely aware of each other for the first months of my tenure. I knew there was some chap called Erickson who was looked up to by his fellows as he cut a rakish swathe through the female Halls of Residence, but I scarce gave him a thought. He, for his own part, would have had no dealings with me but for Lovejoy’s Guide to the Occult, Volume 7.
The evening we met, an awful storm, which had been threatening for days, finally broke. I found myself unable to study for the drumming of the rain and the unearthly lament of the wind.
I had just decided on an early night when Erickson knocked on my door. He had come for the Lovejoy.
As he walked in to the tiny room that served as my bedroom and study, I was impressed by his aristocratic bearing.
‘Now, look here, Simpson,’ he said crisply. ‘I understand you have the 7th Volume of Lovejoy. You should have returned it weeks ago.’
What a wretch I felt. Caught red handed without an ounce of mitigation.
Meekly, I lifted the book from my desk and handed it over. Tucking it under his arm, Erickson fixed me with eyes as blue as the seas on which his Viking ancestors had sailed. ‘Properly speaking, you should return this to the library, but then some fool will only get to it before me. You can have it back in a couple of days.’
Without asking if he might, he sat on my bed and leafed through the book. He stopped at my bookmark.
‘Santa Claus?’ He looked up. ‘Funnily enough, Simpson, it’s the section on Santa that I’m after. Have you ever thought what lies behind this Kris Kringle business?’
‘A tale to encourage children to be good.’
Erickson snorted. ‘Do you know what a cargo cult is?’
‘Well, yes, but — ‘
‘Once a year, offerings of mince pies and warm milk are rendered to a being possessed of powers beyond our comprehension in return for a few baubles and a sense of well-being. What then is Santa if not a cargo cult?’
Slamming the book shut, Erickson got up and studied my CD collection. ‘Led Zeppelin? I had you marked as a Bach man.’
I hate Bach.’
‘There’s hope for you yet.’ Erickson smacked his lips. ‘Get your coat. We’ve still time to hit the pub.’
What sealed our friendship was a mutual love of bitter. Not for us the bland, gassy concoction called lager much-beloved by the rest of the campus. We wanted real ale — cask conditioned, rampant with flavour and drawn from pumps.
Once he’d established my taste in beer, Erickson was forever badgering me to accompany him on weekend jaunts to breweries and pubs. More often than not, I acquiesced.
We remained friends until graduation day when we said farewell and promised to keep in touch. We both knew we wouldn’t.
It was never my ambition to go to Antarctica but that’s where I found myself. I landed a job with a bio-tech company searching for novel sources of DNA. They assembled a team to probe the ice pack for remnants of extinct bacteria. The chances of success were remote; the potential rewards were great.
I was the junior member. To me fell the task of coaxing ancient spores back to life in petri dishes. Others got to play with electron microscopes, centrifuges and arcane machines which I was forbidden to go near.
My fellow team members — bearded, pipe-smoking, fanatical about chess — resented my presence and made sure I knew it. My BA meant nothing to these men of science with their doctorates and years of field experience. In their eyes I was little better than a lab rat.
And then there was the boredom. Six weeks in a plastic dome with no television, no opportunities for a casual stroll, no pub in which to seek refuge. Little wonder I went berserk. I must have been at breaking point when Byrd strolled into the recreation room and asked me to sit elsewhere. There were chairs aplenty, most of them empty, but I had chosen the chair he considered his own.
I gave vent to a scream like all the furies in Hell, and then I was on the floor, my hands around Byrd’s throat, squeezing, tightening. Why Colins had a tranquilliser gun on him I’ll never know. It saved Byrd’s life.
The Company were understanding. I was not the first employee to crack beneath the tedium of life in their plastic bubble. After flying me back to London, they told me to take a three month sabbatical and then see how I felt about returning to work.
Still on full pay, I rented a flat in London and divided my waking hours between studying and frequenting various pubs. Many an hour was spent gazing into a glass, perhaps in the hope of discerning my life’s purpose. I was not sure I wanted a career in the bio-tech industry. But what else was there for me?
I never considered suicide as a serious option – but I did consider it.
Lurking at the back of my mind is the memory of a pub, of too many beers and a painful encounter with a wet pavement. Strong hands pulled me to my feet, threw me in a car and put me to bed. I awoke in an unfamiliar flat with a hangover and the bleak acceptance of more grim awakenings to come.
The smell of bacon and fresh coffee lured me to the kitchen where I found Erickson frying a breakfast of epic proportions. I sat down and wordlessly accepted a mug of coffee.
We exchanged only pleasantries until we had both eaten.
‘Well, Simpson,’ said Erickson, popping the last of his toast in his mouth, ‘this is a fine pass you’ve come to.’
And indeed it was, but Erickson was not being critical. He immediately added, ‘We make a right pair – you and me. In case you hadn’t heard, I had a nervous breakdown in Peru.’
I slooshed coffee around my mouth, savouring its bitter, no-nonsense flavour. ‘I can’t imagine you cracking up. You were always so self-assured.’
‘It was the mosquitoes. That and a dozen patronising, know-it-all geophysicists.’
‘Sounds like you and I had much the same experience. Did you come looking for me?’
‘You bet. Somehow I knew I’d find you face down in the gutter.’
‘Thanks a bundle.’
‘I’m not having a dig, Simpson. God knows, I’ve seen enough of the pavement myself since I got back from the jungle.’
Erickson poured himself a cup of coffee. ‘Do you still dismiss Father Christmas as a childish myth?’
I thought he was making small talk. There was nothing to warn me I was about to answer one of the most crucial questions of my life. ‘I don’t think I ever believed in him.’
‘Maybe once. I wrote him a letter saying what a good boy I was and please could I have any of the following. I don’t recall what I asked for but I’m sure I didn’t get it.’
‘So he let you down? It’s a common occurrence.’
Without asking, I took one of Erickson’s cigarettes. ‘What is this fixation you have with Santa? It’s like a private vendetta. What’s he ever done to you?’
‘A good question, Simpson.’ Erickson settled back in his chair. ‘When I was a boy, a remarkable thing happened to me. I was eight I think — maybe nine. Anyway, it was Christmas Eve and I’d bought into the Father Christmas gag hook, line and sinker. Can you believe my naivety?’
‘Children that age believe anything their parents tell them.’
Erickson’s fist came down on the table like a hammer blow. ‘And that’s just it, isn’t it? That’s how the vile bastard gets away with it. Catch them while they’re young and they’re yours forever. What insanity leads normally rational adults to tell their children that a creature of the night can be anything but evil?
‘Good people walk by day. They don’t sneak into people’s homes through their chimneys, do they?’
I had to concede they didn’t. Maybe Erickson was on to something.
‘Like I say,’ he continued, ‘it was Christmas Eve. I was a rich, spoilt kid and that’s something I make no apologies for. I sat in my bedroom thinking about all the wondrous goodies dear old Santa was going to leave in my stocking. I’d asked for a pony, a train set, something made of gold, enough chocolate to fill a pantry and many other things. And I knew I was going to get them, but it wasn’t enough.
‘I’d recently heard from a cousin in Canada who’d bagged a miniature sports car for his birthday. It was a replica Ferrari complete with two stroke engine. And I wanted one. God, how I wanted one!
‘But the silly sod didn’t tell me about it until after I’d sent my Christmas wish list. The only chance I had of gaining my heart’s new desire was to meet Santa face to face — and that’s exactly what I intended to do.
‘I sucked ice cubes to keep awake. At eleven o’clock, I heard the servants say their goodnights before retiring. Shortly after, footsteps in the corridor told me my parents were on their way to bed.
‘I was by now one tired little boy. My eyelids felt like they had monkeys hanging on them. Just one more hour, I told myself. That’s all that stood between me and happiness. I was buggered if I was going to wait another year to play catch-up with my Canadian cousin.
‘It must have been close to midnight when I fell asleep. Damn it! If only I’d been stronger. My father always said I lacked discipline and he was right!’
‘I was woken by a groan. It was like nothing I had heard before. There was another groan and then someone cried out. The words were muffled, but I recognised my mother’s voice.
‘A chill went through me as she screamed and screamed again. Without a thought for my own safety, I raced down the corridor and burst into my parent’s bedroom and there… there…’ Erickson jabbed an accusing finger at something in his mind’s eye. ‘Damn it! Damn it to Hell!’
He fixed me with a look that raised the hairs on my neck.
‘Listen, Simpson,’ he hissed. ‘I’ve never told anybody this before, and the Devil knows why I’m telling you. If you breathe one word to anyone, I will kill you! Understood?’
I nodded. ‘You have my word, Erickson. This stays between you and me.’
Placated, Erickson took a deep breath and continued. ‘My mother was no longer screaming. She was gripping the headboard and sobbing. Her nightdress was — Well, I don’t have to spell it out, do I, Simpson? She was being violated by Father Christmas!’
I nearly fell off my chair. ‘Father Christmas! Are you sure?’
‘I saw him with my own eyes – the beard, the red suit, his trousers around his ankles, his face pressed against my mother’s. It was him all right.’
‘Where was your father?’
‘Dead. But I didn’t yet know it.’
‘I took my father’s shotgun from the wardrobe,’ Erickson said in an all-too-calm voice. ‘I loaded it and took aim. That’s when my mother opened her eyes and saw me. The look of horror and shame on her face will stay with me forever. It left me no choice.
‘She took the first round, straight between the eyes. I was knocked to the floor by the recoil but leapt straight to my feet.
‘The monster pleaded for his life. He spouted some nonsense about being my father, but my father didn’t have a beard. He didn’t wear red! And he certainly would not have defiled my mother.
‘I rammed the gun into his mouth and let him have it. I killed Santa Claus. Or so I thought.’
Shaking like a leaf, barely able to take in the full horror of Erickson’s tragedy, I reached for another cigarette. ‘You said your father was already dead?’
‘Killed by Father Christmas. I don’t know all the details.’
‘They say it was the nanny who found me. Apparently I was sitting on the bed with the gun pressed to my throat. I really don’t remember.
‘The police came and then some social workers and the next thing I recall was sitting in a cell wondering where my presents were. They told me I was insane. Well, is it any wonder after what I’d been through?
‘I spent the next four years being shunted from one institution to another. Finally, I learnt what it was the men in white coats wanted me to say and I said it. They let me out and I was taken care of by a maiden aunt in Winchester.’
This amazing story explained much that had puzzled me about Erickson. For as long as I’d known him, he’d carried some inner hurt, a mixture of bewilderment and anger. And here was the cause of it all : Father Christmas.
There was one thing that bothered me. ‘Surely if they had found Father Christmas dead, it would be common knowledge?’
Erickson laughed. ‘You don’t get it, do you, Simpson? It takes more than a shotgun to kill his kind. By the time the police arrived, he was on his way back to Lapland, or wherever the hell it is he lurks 364 days of the year. Think it through, Simpson. What kind of semi-human creature comes out at night and can only enter someone’s house if invited?’
The answer was obvious but I could not bring myself to voice it.
Although Erickson made no attempt to contact me after our conversation, I went out of my way to avoid him. I changed my daily routine, drank in different pubs, stopped going to the supermarket.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of Erickson, or even that I had taken a dislike to him. What bothered me was the possibility that he had more dark secrets to unveil –- secrets I couldn’t handle. I guess you’d call it cowardice.
The morning I received the letter seemed like any other until I noticed snow falling past my window. It must have been coming down all night because the streets and rooftops were inches thick in it.
The snow was an unwelcome reminder that Christmas was approaching, and I sat on my bed in gloomy introspection before remembering the envelope. Somehow I knew it was going to be bad news.
The Company were dispensing with my services. There was a cheque in lieu of notice. It was enough to keep me in drink for another month. And then, like it or not, I was going to have to find a job.
By opening time, the snow had eased up but not enough to tempt me further than the Ace of Spades, a small pub with oak beams and a menagerie of stuffed animals. Until my recent encounter with Erickson, I had treated it as a second living room, a place where I could lose myself in books and beer.
The landlord was taking the towels off the pumps as I walked in. I shook the snow off my shoes and warmed myself by the fire. Most days I was the first customer, but today there was somebody sitting in the snug by the window. I paid him no heed until he turned round.
Erickson looked pleased to see me.
It would have been ill-mannered to follow my impulse and head back into the snow. So I got two pints of bitter and joined him.
‘I was wondering when you’d show,’ he said as I sat down. ‘I’ve been here every day for the past week.’
‘You should have called round.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself, Simpson. As stimulating as I find your company, you’re not the reason I’m here.’ He pointed across the road. ‘You see over there?’
‘The department store?’
‘Galloway’s. One of the oldest shops in London.’
‘What of it?’
‘At this time of year, it stays open till ten.’
Erickson seemed to expect me to work out the rest for myself. I had no idea what his point was and indicated my ignorance with a shrug.
He let out an exasperated sigh. ‘Think, man. Think! What do these big stores do at this time of year?’
‘Stay open late?’
‘Don’t be obtuse. They all play host to Father Christmas.’
‘Now hang on, Erickson. You do realise they’re not real Santas?’
‘Do you take me for an idiot?’ Scowling, he pulled out a distressed photograph and threw it on the table. ‘I’ve had this since I was a boy. I think it was my father’s.’
I picked up the faded photograph. A sepia Father Christmas looked out at me from across the years. He was standing beside a cardboard reindeer. Just another out of work actor making a seasonal buck — or so I thought.
‘If you shift your thumb,’ said Erickson, ‘you’ll see a date.’
I moved my thumb. The date was faint but I could make it out. 1938.
Erickson took the snapshot and stuffed it back in his pocket. ‘The man in that photo must be very old — quite probably dead. Wouldn’t you say?’
‘What if I told you he was neither of those?’
‘You’ve lost me.’
‘He goes into that store every evening at ten minutes to eight.’
‘All Santas look the same.’
‘Not this one. This is the genuine article — Kris Kringle himself.’
‘Why would the real Father Christmas be working in a department store?’
‘What better disguise than to pretend to be someone pretending to be you? Don’t forget, Simpson, I’ve met the real Santa. I know what he looks like. If you want to see for yourself, come here at half past seven.’ Erickson knocked back his pint. ‘And for goodness’ sakes — be sober for once.’
And with that, he got up and swept out into the cold and snow.
After Erickson left, the Ace of Spades remained charged with his presence. Some near-tangible residue of his anger and despair hung in the air. It made the fire cold and the beer flat.
The bar filled with shop workers and people taking a break from Christmas shopping. Strange faces everywhere. Normal people doing normal things.
As always, I was excluded. I was the dishevelled, slightly-unwashed loner sitting in the corner. The one to be ignored. The one everyone expected would still be there at closing time.
I was reminded that Erickson was the only friend I had in the world.
Squeezed out by the lunchtime rush, I left the Ace of Spades and wandered around Galloway’s.
Morbid curiousity drew me to the Toy Department where harassed parents sought to buy their offspring’s love with expensive toys that would be forgotten within weeks. The queue for Santa’s grotto snaked around shelves loaded with shrink-wrapped joy.
Children waited to declare their virtue and claim their reward. Mothers and fathers clinging to tiny hands did their best to dampen expectations. Already they were calculating their monthly repayments.
Erickson was right. Santa Claus was evil.
I returned to the Ace of Spades at the appointed time but didn’t go in. Instead, I hid in a narrow passage cluttered with barrels and crates. It was snowing again.
The clock over the entrance to Galloway’s showed a quarter to eight when I spotted my quarry in his red costume. If he wasn’t Father Christmas, he was certainly equipped for the part. He had the right build and his beard looked real enough. With snow and shoppers spoiling my view, I couldn’t be certain that this was the man in the photograph, but the resemblance was definitely there.
The thing that struck me most was the way his head tilted to one side as if he had an injury to his neck.
Shuffling into the pub, I found Erickson by the window. Although the bar was far from empty, he had a table to himself.
‘I saw him,’ I said, handing Erickson a whisky and sitting down.
‘So what do you think?’
‘There was something about him.’
‘Even the Undead can’t walk away unscathed from a shotgun blast.’ Erickson looked me in the eye. ‘What does your gut tell you?’
I savoured a sip of whisky before answering. My gut had known from the start.
‘He’s our man all right.’
‘It makes me sick to think of him walking amongst us, unnoticed, unmolested. All those children…’ He broke off and downed his whisky. ‘I need your help, Simpson. Are you with me?’
My heart turned to lead. Whatever Erickson had in mind was sure to add to my woes. ‘Count me in.’
‘Remember we’re doing this for all those children who once a year are told a big fat lie. Is it any wonder they grow up unable to tell good from evil? Finish your drink and come with me.’
Erickson’s car was parked around the corner. He opened the boot and stepped back to allow me to view its contents — two mallets and a clutch of wooden stakes.
‘Tonight,’ he said. ‘Let’s rid the world of this filth for once and for all.’
Kris Kringle left Galloway’s shortly after ten o’clock. We traced his footsteps in the snow.
Halfway down an alley, he sensed our presence and turned. I should have waited for Erickson’s order, but fear got the better of me. I swung the mallet blindly. Chance guided it to the side of Kringle’s head. His neck straightened with a sound like damp kindling on a fire.
Santa staggered, went down.
Erickson was immediately upon him. I stood helpless as they thrashed in the snow. For a moment it seemed that two had become one. Erickson and Santa — an amalgam of limbs and heads.
Father Christmas got hold of Erickson’s hair and lunged at his neck.
And then Erickson was on top. He gouged Kringle’s eyes and took him by the throat.
‘Now, Simpson! In the name of God!’
I threw myself at Father Christmas and drove my stake through his heart. Blood fountained. It spread across the snow like the shadow of an eclipse.
Red and white. The colours of Father Christmas.
I was shaking as we walked away.
Somehow the police tracked us down. I know we left footprints in the snow but once on the main street we walked in the gutter. No snow there. No footprints.
And yet the police were outside the Ace of Spades before we’d finished our pints.
Erickson saw them first. He pointed to the panda cars outside the window. Then he pointed to the gents.
By the time the police entered the bar, we were in the alleyway and headed in opposite directions.
My severance cheque remained uncashed. I lived on my wits and the kindness of strangers. The shyness which made me all-but invisible proved a boon.
I walked to Manchester, surviving on scraps and sleeping in fields. By the time I got there, I was just another bum. Nobody gave me a second look. I was a scrap of sub-humanity, unworthy of attention.
After six months, I decided it was safe to associate with other hobos, to share their makeshift homes in underground car parks and empty shops. Soup and bread from the Salvation Army kept me alive. The indefatigable humour of my fellow vagrants kept me sane.
There were nights when I welcomed the cold because it took my mind off the hunger, and there were nights when I welcomed the hunger because it took my mind off the cold.
Once in a while, I’d find myself being kicked and pummelled by inebriated youths. And I didn’t mind so long as they left me unconscious.
Every meal was eaten with the thought that it might be my last. When I lay down to sleep, I wondered if I would see another dawn.
I suppose I could have given myself up. Freedom is a base currency when it’s the freedom to starve, to shiver in the dark, to be the plaything of lager louts. And yet it never occurred to me to do so.
I just got on with my semblance of life.
It was December again, days short of the anniversary of the night I’d become a fugitive. I was standing outside the Manchester branch of Galloway’s, daring myself to go in just long enough to drive the cold from my bones.
That was when Father Christmas came shuffling along with the gait of an old man. It was dark. He had his head down. A white beard obscured his face.
He walked beneath a streetlight. I saw something familiar in his eyes – a mix of ice and fire. Just a momentary glimpse before he disappeared through the staff entrance.
My mind reeled. Could it really have been Erickson? I tried to dismiss the thought as idle fancy, a longing to once again share his company.
The next two and a half hours were a torment. I stood outside the staff entrance, taking a stroll now and then to avoid being arrested.
At ten o’clock, the store shut its doors. By a quarter past, the last customers had been persuaded to leave. The exodus of staff began minutes later.
Father Christmas, still in his costume, came out at about half past and this time there could be no doubt. It was Erickson.
I followed him along the High Street. He hesitated outside a pub then walked on. Wary of attracting attention, I waited until he turned down a small road before coming up alongside.
‘Erickson,’ I whispered. ‘It’s me. Simpson.’
He glanced at me without breaking his stride. ‘Bugger off, Simpson. You’ll blow my cover.’
I continued to dog him, matching him step for urgent step, until he turned and grabbed my lapels.
‘Damn it, Simpson! Just how stupid can you get?’ He caught my odour and pushed me away. His beard could not disguise his disgust. ‘I thought we’d agreed we could never meet again?’
It was true, but then I hadn’t expected him to be in Manchester, dressed as Father Christmas of all people.
‘I’m sorry, Erickson. It’s just that…’ My voice trailed off.
He shook his head and smiled. ‘I’ve often wondered what became of you. I had this notion of you going to South America to fleece gullible tourists. I suppose I should have known better.’
‘Not one of life’s success stories, am I?’
Erickson pointed down the road. ‘I have a room. We’ll stick you under the shower, burn those rags you’re wearing and tog you out in something vaguely decent. It won’t be Savile Row — but then I am a fugitive.’
Erickson’s room was in the attic of a large Victorian house.
While he went through a suitcase pulling out crumpled clothes, I wondered if there was any way back to normality. Other people had assumed false identities and started new lives in foreign countries. Why couldn’t I?
Erickson handed me some cricket whites. As he closed his case I caught sight of a cricket set – bat, ball, stumps and bails. It was, I suppose, Erickson’s way of maintaining contact with his previous life.
The room across the hallway was unoccupied, so I was able to take my shower with little danger of discovery. Erickson’s clothes were a poor fit, but at least I was clean.
When I returned to Erickson, he was in his pyjamas, sitting on the bed, nursing a glass of whisky. The Father Christmas suit lay folded on the dressing table, but the beard remained. It was not, as I’d assumed, fake.
‘I take it you’ll be happy with the couch,’ he said, pouring me a drink. ‘It’s a bit lumpy, but it must be better than what you’re used to.’
Nodding meekly, I sat on the couch. The thought of a good night’s sleep in warmth and safety brought home to me how tired I was. A couple of sips of whisky and I was unable to stifle a yawn.
Erickson chuckled. ‘I’m as bushed as you are. Let’s get our heads down. We can catch up with each other in the morning.’
I was asleep before he’d put out the light.
Heartburn woke me just before dawn.
Sometimes a man can only find himself in the dark. I was Eric Simpson, fugitive, Santa Slayer. Whether the Universe liked it or not, I existed – a fact I chewed over for some time. If there was truly a God in Heaven, then he had let me down badly. I had risked my life to rid the world of a great evil. Where then was my reward?
Too angry to sleep, I got up and huddled against the radiator.
Erickson slept on. I listened to his gentle snoring and told myself that here was a man I would truly give my life for.
But the beard bothered me. It was white and bushy. I saw now as my eyes adjusted to the dark that he was wearing a cravat. And I thought back to events immediately after we’d sent Kris Kringle’s soul to Hell.
As we fled the scene, Erickson clutched his neck. In the Ace of Spades, he sat with his collar turned up. Climbing out of the toilet window, I’d caught a flash of crimson.
I went to the suitcase and took out the cricket bat and a stump.
Erickson awoke as I pressed the metal tip to his chest and raised the bat. His lips moved the slightest amount. I think he was trying to say, ‘Thank you.’
‘Goodbye, old friend,’ I said, delivering the blow which laid his soul to rest.
And that’s the whole story. I phoned the police and went quietly. Of course, they thought me mad. You all think me mad. You point and whisper behind my back : ‘See how he quickly he has become accustomed to his cell? He is happy here. Surely there can be no greater proof of insanity.’
A pox on the lot of you.