“Santa’s Helper,” New Era, Dec. 1993, 41
This Christmas seemed the worst ever. I longed for a BMX mountain bike like snowflakes want cold weather. My friend Simon had one for his 14th birthday last month. Cool blue and chrome with 15 gears. He’s always raving about riding through the Clent hills and forests, a couple of miles from our village in the central part of England.
But I didn’t get one. Instead my presents were a track suit, new skateboard, and the promise of a job starting the day after tomorrow. A paper round. A 6:00 A.M. paper round! I mean, how bad can things get?
Not only would I miss skimming over frosted hillsides at breathtaking speeds, but I would have to get up early, starting Wednesday. And it’s holiday time. Lying-in-bed time.
What were my parents thinking of? I can guess, of course. It’s all about working for things you badly want, so you’ll appreciate them. Old-fashioned nonsense if you ask me. Of course, I’d appreciate that bike. What could be more amazing than bombing into the distance along those mountain tracks? I’d be there every spare minute. Life can be mean at times.
It felt even more mean Wednesday morning. “Come on, Robert,” Mum whispered. “It’s quarter to six. Rise and shine. There’s porridge and hot black currant on the kitchen table.”
I couldn’t even focus properly. Surely this wasn’t for real. It’s liquorice black out there, freezing cold and lonely. The whole world’s asleep except for me—and my crazy Mum.
Breakfast didn’t taste too good. Lumpy porridge bounced in thick clumps as I stumbled onto our porch. Muffled in track suit, red jacket, white scarf, red woolly hat and boots, I felt like some undersized Santa.
“Now don’t forget houses 50 and 66 don’t want papers delivered,” Mum reminded, helping me stuff endless sheets into the dirty yellow bag.
I lifted the sagging load onto my shoulder. “Mum, I don’t want to sound weak or anything, but this is killing me. Have you felt the weight of these things?”
“Never mind, dear. Think of the muscles you’ll build. Here’s your skateboard. And remember, be quiet in the block of flats. Elderly people don’t like being wakened this early.”
“Huh!” I muttered, heading lopsidedly down the path. “They’re not the only ones.”
The first morning was painful. I never realized how many different letter box shapes there are. The wide ones move along with the newspaper. But others—I nearly lost my fingers a few times. Heavy gold ones that grab before the paper’s through are the worst. They look rich and splendid, but they grab.
I got quite a shock at one house. As I slid a paper through the wide chrome flap, I heard a snarling thud as a body hit the door, snatching the paper and just missing my fingers. A little shaken, I walked down the path and rode to the next house.
A muffled figure was climbing into his car. He turned as he heard me coming.
“Ah, there you are my lad.” The man actually sounded pleased to see me. No dogs. No fighting metal slits. Human hands to receive my offering.
“I hoped you’d arrive before I left for work.” His voice was soft, kindly. “We’ve been away, so we didn’t give our usual tip this year. Here, have this.” He put two pound coins into my hand in exchange for a paper. Two solid pounds. Brilliant!
“Thanks very much, sir.” I stood, open-mouthed, wondering if I should bow or shake his hand or something. But he was in the car and gone before I could move. I made mental notes never to take shortcuts over this man’s garden.
I moved on. With feet half iced and fingers black with ink, I began dreaming of earnings. Let’s see—if I get five pounds a week for sixteen weeks, in four months there will be enough for a secondhand bike. And I already have two pounds. I could almost smell spring sunshine and scorching tyres.
As six-thirty appeared, so did a lighter sky and household stirrings. I had ten houses to go before freedom. I never even saw the small lad until I reached his doorstep, because something else caught my eye. The newspaper fell open at page 4, and there, taking up a whole sheet of pictures, were bike adverts. Oh man, how my feet itched for those pedals. And look at those wheels!
The sound of sniveling brought my head up sharply. It was too cold for anyone to be sitting outside, let alone a little tot in his pyjamas.
“Hey, what’s up, mate?” I whispered, trying not to frighten him.
Lifting his brown curly head a moment, he wiped a sleeve across his face, like my youngest brother does when he’s trying to act braver than he feels. “Nothing much,” he said.
I knew he wasn’t telling the truth. I mean, pyjamas aren’t exactly outside gear, and that stone step can’t be the warmest place on earth.
I crouched at his level. “So why are you out here freezing?”
He squinted at me, as if weighing the friendship in my voice, then screwed up his face, pushing small fists at his eyes to stop the tears.
“Look kid,” I said, wondering how to get him inside without too much fuss. “It’s Christmas week. Don’t you want to go back in where it’s warm and play with your toys?”
Gulping sobs began shaking his body. Wrong line.
“Er … what’s your name?” I asked kindly.
His feet were curling sideways on the cold stone. I took off my hat, wrapping it around his purple toes. He half smiled. I put my scarf around his shoulders.
“I’m Jamie,” he said, “and … and … I wanted a bike for Christmas.”
You too, I thought.
“But my … my dad left home before Christmas came, and …”
Giving him a slightly grey tissue from the depths of my coat pocket, I nodded slowly and patted his arm. “You mean you didn’t have the bike after all?” I interrupted, feeling pleased at my cool detective instincts.
His big eyes looked up, reproaching me for being so dumb. “Yes, I did,” he exclaimed.
“Sorry,” I muttered, mystified. “Then why … ?”
“I was trying to tell you,” he interrupted. “You see, my mum got one for me. She thinks I think it was Santa, but I know it wasn’t ’cos I heard her talking on the phone. Anyway, all over Christmas I thunk and thunk. Dad used to take me to get her a present, but …” He scrubbed at fresh tears and hiccuped. “But this year no one did, and I didn’t have anything for her and …”
He stopped, and began shivering all over. I couldn’t think what to do next. Suppose he was getting pneumonia or something out here.
That’s when the brain wave arrived.
I touched his arm again. “Look, you get inside and sit by the window, watching. I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”
He rose to his feet, staring owlishly, one finger stuck in his mouth, his face filled with awe. He nudged open the front door and his voice sounded husky, wondering, as if magic were beginning. “What you going to do?”
“You’ll see,” I called, skating up the path.
By the time I’d finished the last delivery but one, I had second thoughts. Okay, so most of the shops are closed, but Dillons will be open already. It will take all of two pounds to get a present though. My dream bike slid into the distance. My subconscious dragged it back. I needed every penny. The kid won’t really expect to see me again. It was a stupid idea. He’ll be all right. He’ll soon forget.
I battled toward the final letter box … a gold one. As my cautious fingers outmanoeuvred the gleaming flap, I suddenly pictured Jamie’s pinched face gazing at me in wonder.
That did it. I slung the bag across my back and skated fast. Dillons looked warm, inviting. The box of chocolates came to £1.80.
I raced back to number 9, my skateboard taking bumps in harmony with my legs and feet. A strange bubbling was building inside me—and it definitely wasn’t the porridge.
Some massive clouds began unloading snow just then, but I could see Jamie’s window from several houses back. His nose was flattened against the glass, face squashed and goggle-eyed.
By the time I reached his door he was out on the step, bare feet wriggling, and eyes and mouth all but meeting in one huge grin.
“You forgot these,” he whispered, swapping my scarf and hat for the brightly wrapped box.
“What will you say to your mum?” I asked, catching his excitement.
I nodded, “But where will you say the present came from?”
“Santa’s helper, of course.” He spoke the name firmly, the grin shouting pleasure and satisfaction.
I glanced down at my red jacket, feeling a little foolish. “Of course,” I muttered. “Who else?”
The door closed, but curiosity got the better of me. Gently lifting the letter flap, I peeped through. It was one of those scenes you know will stay in your mind forever.
Jamie was yelling, “Mum, Mum!” She came rushing from the kitchen. As she received her gift, both their faces shared a kind of glow, as if some magnetic power were zapping back and forth.
I could almost touch the joy. My inside felt odd once more—happily odd—as if something were melting deep down, melting and spreading upwards until it reached my throat.
The scene blurred. I had to swallow hard. Softly letting down the flap, I tiptoed back to the pavement.