Jamie crossed out the 22nd December on his bedroom calendar, feeling a wave of anticipation as he did so. Only two days to go. While he pondered over what was yet to come, he recalled his mother’s words upon mentioning Christmas earlier that month: ‘Please, Jamie. Don’t get your hopes up this year, okay.’ But it was impossible not to. He loved everything about it. The colours. The music. The festive cheer. Yet he had never experienced it himself. Only through the television. The dusty block of metal in the living room was the only thing that gave him a glimpse into the world outside their walls. Other children his age enjoyed watching cartoons, but Jamie preferred to turn to the local news. At this time of year, it often provided the insight he desired. It showed him what was happening in the town right outside their door, which for him just out of reach.
‘Jamie! Come down here.’
He went immediately at his mother’s call. On his way, he regarded the locked door across the staircase. His father’s old room. The room he knew he would never be allowed inside. Nevertheless, with every day that passed, his curiosity continued to grow. Downstairs, his mother was sat at the dinner table. Jamie watched as she scraped the edge of her key over her weekly scratch card. From the expression that followed, Jamie could tell this one was another let down.
‘I’m expecting the Tesco order any time now,’ she said, without looking up. ‘So stay where I can see you. I don’t want you going anywhere near that door until they’re gone.’
Jamie nodded. He had always been a quiet boy; one that did what he was told, even if it didn’t always make sense. This was one of those times. He always knew there was something wrong with his mother. How she would frequently look over her shoulder, then twitch when there was nothing there. Above all, it was the eyes. Dark-rimmed and clearly deprived of rest, yet always alert. It was like she could sense something in the room that he never could. Jamie didn’t know if she was ill, or if something else had made her this way – but even at his age, he could tell from those eyes that she wasn’t stable. A knock at the door made her jump.
Jamie lingered in the kitchen as she went to answer it. Several bolt locks later, his mother opened the door to a stranger – her worst nightmare. The door chain remained attached, leaving them to converse through the resulting, narrow gap. Jamie crept closer so he could hear.
‘I’ve got some post for you, ma’am.’
‘Leave it on the door step.’
‘Umm, okay. But –’
‘Just do it, please!’
‘But, ma’am. It needs to be signed for.’
She hesitated, yet she had no choice. After a deep breath, she took the chain off and opened the door fully. Jamie wondered what the package could be. His mother often ordered to the house – seeing as she never ventured out herself – but with Christmas Day in sight, he couldn’t help but speculate. The second his mother had given her signature, she snatched the package away and slammed the door. Her hand shivered as she bolted it shut once again. Jamie was right behind her when she turned.
‘What did I say about coming near the door?’
She stormed upstairs with the parcel. Jamie stood for a moment, feeling the slightest chill seeping in from the doorway. Then, he heard rustling. Letters were being fed through the letter hole. He watched them drop, but did not approach right away, instead waiting until the postman’s footsteps could no longer be heard. When he knew it was safe, he picked them up. A few had “URGENT” written in bold, while others bore both his mother’s and father’s names. Among them, however, was a bright red leaflet. Jamie gasped as he read it:
“SANTA’S GROTTO: ONLY HERE UNTIL CHRISTMAS EVE!”
Of all the aspects of Christmas that Jamie had seen on the television, Santa Clause was by far his favourite. He loved the idea of waking up on Christmas morning to see presents everywhere. But then, he loved the idea of meeting Santa even more. Jamie’s excitement soon diminished, however – because his mother would never let him go. He couldn’t miss out on this. This was an opportunity he might not get again. Jamie spent the next day watching his mother closely, waiting for the perfect moment. He had his woolly fleece at the ready the entire time. The moment finally came in the afternoon, while she was preparing their meal for that evening. When he knew her back was turned, he threw on his jumper and one by one slowly unlocked the bolts for the front door. With one last look in the house, Jamie slipped silently outside.
The first thing that hit him was the cold. He shivered at the initial breeze, but grew to appreciate the freshness of the air. Frost coated the grass on the lawn before him and crunched beneath his feet as he took his first steps into the outside world. There was tweeting nearby. Jamie scanned and noticed a small robin was perched on a naked tree on the footpath ahead. The robin’s calls seemed to beckon Jamie. Before he could fathom this, however, it flew away. After ensuring his mother had not seen him leave the house, he journeyed further up the street.
Passing the other houses, he noticed how each one was decorated with pretty lights of varying, vibrant colours. Upon reaching the end of the street, he found a sign for the town centre, before heading in that direction. Although his fleece was far from sufficient – and although he remained apprehensive of what he might encounter – the thrill of breathing in fresh air and seeing the outside world with his own eyes brought him much joy. Jamie was then caught off guard. A group of children, similarly aged, were strolling his way. They were the first children he had seen other than himself. How was he to interact with them? He panicked and stepped aside to let them pass. He refrained from making any eye contact. When they were well out of sight, he carried onwards.
Soon enough, cosy gift shops began to appear either side of the street. More people swooped into view. Adults, carrying bag after bag of shopping wherever they went. Above him, lights like those before were suspended from building to building as far as he could see. Choir music faded into earshot. And as Jamie pushed further into a now lively high street, he spotted a huge Christmas tree in the centre of the square. It towered above everything else, boasting baubles the size of his head. And right at the top, there sat a glittering star. Everything was just how Jamie imagined it. The spectacle left him in awe.
He maneuvered his way through the crowd. Just as he arrived at the base of the tree, he saw it. Across the square was a modest, colourful hut, covered in glittering fake snow and surrounded by children. At the centre of the pen, resting on his throne, was Santa. Jamie rushed towards the Grotto and joined the queue. A girl, no older than five, was sat on Santa’s lap, telling him everything she wanted for Christmas. The child’s mother stood nearby, taking photographs – and it was here Jamie realised that he was the only child who had come alone. After half an hour of waiting in line, the child in front of Jamie jumped off Santa’s lap and headed inside the Grotto.
‘Who’s next?’ Jamie was taken back by the man’s deep, calm voice. ‘Ho Ho Ho! What’s your name little fella?’
Jamie didn’t answer, overwhelmed by the situation. Santa pulled him up onto his lap.
‘You’re a quiet little guy, aren’t you?’
Jamie nodded, sensing the children in the queue watching him.
‘Can you talk?’
‘Yes, Mr. Santa.’
Santa surveyed the crowd.
‘Did you come here all by yourself?’
‘Yes, Mr. Santa.’
‘Where are your parents? Are they shopping?’
‘No, Mr. Santa. It’s just me.’
‘Do you at least have money on you.’
Jamie shook his head. The parents in the queue exchanged dubious glances. Santa frowned.
‘I see. Well, I’m afraid I can’t let you into my Grotto without any money. If I let everyone in for free, my elves in the North Pole won’t have a Christmas this year either. Understand?’
‘I don’t care about the presents, Mr. Santa. I just came here to see you.’
Jamie heard one of the children pleading to his father with impatience. Santa sighed.
‘It was very nice to meet you, little one. Why don’t you run off home now. Your parents must be wondering where you are.’
Saddened, Jamie jumped from his lap and began to walk back home.
Santa reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a candy cane. It glistened in the glow of the Christmas lights. Jamie smiled and took the sweet. He glanced up with hope at the big, bearded man.
‘Will you be at my house tomorrow, Mr. Santa? To bring me my presents?’
‘I’ll certainly do my best, little one.’
The trek home was a long one. By the time Jamie reached his house, darkness had fallen and the street was illuminated by the neighbours lights alone. As quietly as he could, he opened the front door, sneaked inside and bolted it shut. But as he turned to go upstairs, he found his mother stood before him. The look she gave him was filled with fury.
‘Where the hell have you been, Jamie?’
She screamed at him. It was so piercing it caused Jamie to drop the candy cane.
‘You went into the town? Why would you do that?’
It was the eyes again. Jamie couldn’t bear them. He could feel tears brewing.
‘I went to see Santa …’
‘I’ve told you so many times about what’s outside that door. There are people in this world that want to hurt you, Jamie. Bad people. And they all live out there. You can’t trust anyone. Not even Santa!’
His lips wavered.
‘But, mummy …’
‘I told you not to get your hopes up and what do you do? You run off! I could have lost you. I already lost your father, I am not losing you as well. You hear me?’
Jamie burst past her and ran up to his room, sobbing uncontrollably. He remained there for the rest of the night, unable to sleep while his mother sat on the stairs, shivering in the cold.
When morning came, Jamie sneaked downstairs in the hope that Santa had kept his promise from the day before. He tip-toed into the living room, but then his heart dropped. There was nothing. No presents, no lights, no music. He collapsed on the sofa, disheartened.
His mother appeared in the passageway. She joined him on the sofa, much calmer than the last time they spoke.
‘I thought you might be up.’
Jamie refused to acknowledge her.
‘I’m so sorry, Jamie. I never meant to ruin Christmas for you. I was just so afraid that something would happen to you. You mean the world to me and I don’t think I could take it if I lost you. Everything I do, I do to keep you safe. I hope you know that.’
He continued to sit in silence.
‘Come with me. I want to show you something.’
Hesitant and uncertain, Jamie took his mum’s hand. He was led upstairs, where they halted outside his father’s room.
‘I think it’s time you saw what I’ve been hiding in here.’
She pulled out a key. Jamie was suddenly nervous, having waited so long for this moment. When the lock clicked open and she let him through, that anxiety disappeared. The room was just like any other, furnished with the most basic furniture imaginable. On top of the bed, however, lay a pile of Christmas presents. Jamie threw himself into his mother’s arms and giggled in delight. His mother cradled him and kissed his forehead.
‘Merry Christmas, Jamie.’
Santa had kept his promise.
‘Come on, let’s get some light in here,’ she said.
Jamie went to the window and pulled the curtains apart, then stared in shock at what he saw outside. A minute later, Jamie was downstairs unlocking the front door.
‘Jamie, what are you doing?’ his mother cried.
But it was too late. He flung the door open and everywhere they looked – the grass, the trees, the cars – it was all coated in a thick layer of pristine, real white snow. The mother stared, mesmorised.
‘Please, mummy! Can I play in it?’
‘I don’t think …’ His mother scrutinised the snow with great discomfort. But after a long pause, she gave a faint nod.
‘Yes. But don’t leave the lawn! Stay where I can see you.’
Jamie had never seen snow in his life, let alone walked on it and felt it to the touch of his fingertips. It was everything he hoped it would be. Should he build a snowman, like the kids on television? He remembered his mother in the doorway. She shook her head, knowing what he was going to suggest. He went to her with his arm outstretched. She stared at it with terror, but found solace in Jamie’s expectant, loving stare. Still shivering, she took his hand and ever so gradually, Jamie led her out into the snow.
She yelped at the chilling moisture seeping through her fluffy slippers. Neighbours across the street clocked their presence and waved merrily. She gave them a feeble smile. On the tree at the end of the lawn, there sat the robin like before. It tweeted at the pair, seemingly glad to see them. Then, once again, it flew away. This Christmas, Jamie had done what he never thought he could do. For the first time in many years, his mother had taken her first steps in the outside world – and Jamie had a feeling they would be the first of many to come.