SAINT NICK WAS getting on, after all – he for one was not surprised to have fallen ill, at long last developing immunity to elven fairy dust. It used to be that at the first sign of cold or flu, or any other ailment, one sniff would have him right as reindeer, bustling around the toy factory full of beans.
What Santa didn't know was that he'd gotten gradually crabbier in his old age, and these days the elves did not like him being full of beans one little bit. No longer did they look at him with awed silence when he stomped through the factory berating them, cutting yet more minutes from their break times, every now and then the odd kick, hat-bells tinkling. This time, when he complained of sickness, the fairy dust they'd given him had been mostly chalk.
So it was that Santa fell ill. Not greatly, just a bit under the weather as he put it, a bit lethargic, bit of a tummy ache, and – between you and me – some digestive trouble of a quite spectacular kind. He lay in his bedroom adjacent to the toy factory, so he could still see through the door if any elves out there lacked ‘hustle'. In truth, he was too busy feeling sorry for himself to watch them. The clang, thump, bang of hammers and nails rattled through the door. The elves relaxed and laughed while they tinkered away, making the usual fire trucks, dolls, bikes and Nintendo systems, despite the year's letters – and Request Reports from mall Santas – not yet even rolling in. It was still only August, after all.
Mrs Clause – from whom Santa mostly stayed hidden these days, ever since she got that bump to the head in '68 – appeared in the doorway and observed his condition. ‘You poor dear,' she said.
Go away, he thought, but said, ‘It's not much, love, just...well, I suppose I'm old.'
‘Not too old for a special lunch, I'll warrant. To make you feel better. You just wait here.'
His wife bustled off, and returned an hour later with a steaming hot mince pie, baked in a large tray she had to hold with both hands. She set it down on his bedside table, hesitated before kissing him on his hairy cheek, and left him alone with it.
He meant to toss it out the window. To eat it would mean he owed her, and she'd likely demand a chance to deliver the presents just this once, or at least bug him to take her along for the sleigh ride, like she always did. But the pie smelled so very good that he nibbled the crust. Delicious! Soon, he found he was wrist deep in it, stuffing it into his face by the handful, ignoring the sizzling heat of the small knots of mince, the nice lumpy gravy running down his chin.
When he was done, he sat amazed. It was not merely a pie; it was an experience. A foodgasm. True joy. Since when had she been able to cook like that? Had his suffering inspired her? He vowed to get sick more often. Then he saw her at the door, smiling in at her handiwork. It was too late to downplay his enjoyment: ‘Thank you,' he said resentfully.
‘Not at all,' she replied, with a twinkle in her eye that he didn't like at all. ‘Eaten enough?'
It had filled him to bursting, but oh, the taste... ‘One more slice, I feel, would help me regain my strength.'
She wagged a finger. ‘Tomorrow, perhaps. If, that is, you're still not well.'
You can bloody well rest assured of that, Santa thought. He waited till she'd stopped her smug grinning in the doorway, then licked the tray clean. Then he began the laborious but pleasant task of getting crumbs and meat from his beard, and settled down for a most satisfying nap.
AS HE'D PREDICTED, Santa had not quite yet recovered the next day. Mrs Clause brought him another steaming mince pie, capped in its golden dome of thick, crisp pastry. He stuffed his face in it, slurping and gargling, then caught sight of some elves through the doorway watching him at it, snickering. ‘Filthy slugs!' he roared, staggering from the bed, swiftly kicking each of them across the factory like footballs. In response, the sounds of toys being made – pop, bang, whistle – increased frantically.
The next day, again (the damndest thing) he had not quite yet recovered. So another pie arrived, with a peppermint candy cane for desert. He shut the door this time, and gorged himself stupid.
When a week of this had passed, word began to spread around the factory that the old man was past it, or losing it, or something of the sort. He didn't even come out to boss the elves around. Mrs Clause made it clear she would only feed him pies if he were sick; then it was back to the vegan diet. So Santa showed little interest in getting better. If Mrs Clause did spot him up and about, she'd exclaim: ‘You're looking well, dear! Back to work, then, is it?'
‘Oh no, just off to the latrine,' he'd reply. ‘Making headway against the illness, I'd say, but a long way to go.'
And she'd watch him closely until he went back to his room. And the elves, who found Mrs Clause about as unpleasant as her husband, though in different ways, nervously watched, and wondered what was to come.
FOR HIS PART, Santa noticed the pies were getting larger with time, and that was fine, for so was he, and there was more room now in which to put them. He never tired of them – she would vary the recipe just enough to keep things interesting and keep him guessing about what was next: some days a little bacon in the meat, sometimes spinach, or mushrooms, or a dab of tomato sauce on the pastry. Pies began to arrive for breakfast and dinner, too.
In the back of his mind, Santa knew he was neglecting his work. Once in a while, he'd shout out the door to make sure the elves were busy, but they had learnt this could be ignored without worry. It was Mrs Clause they feared now, roaming about the production lines with a crazy gleam in her eye. ‘Nintendos and fire trucks,' she'd mutter. ‘Same old, same old.'
The first letters and Request Reports began to come in. Mrs Clause brought them in to Santa in a big stack, along with Behavioural Reports which she had ticked or crossed for him, ‘to save your strength, dear,' she'd said, smiling down at him kindly. He noticed an awful lot of crosses down the list in red ink.
‘I should get back to work soon,' he said doubtfully, wanting nothing more than one more day – a week, tops – in here eating pies and doing crossword puzzles.
‘No, you stay here and recuperate,' said Mrs Clause sternly, dabbing his cheeks with a handkerchief. ‘Not until you are completely recovered.'
‘Shouldn't be much longer. When's lunch?'
And on it went, even as October passed and the November Rush began. Santa knew the sounds of toy making were not as frantic out there as they should be, but Mrs Clause assured him she was on top of it all. And, frankly, he didn't much feel like getting up anyway, for it was becoming difficult even to do that much. Mrs Clause had lately been making pies so large they had to be brought in by wheelbarrow, along with a full bucket of custard for dessert.
‘Did you hear about what young Simon did?' said Mrs Clause one afternoon, pausing with the wheelbarrow of pies annoyingly just out of Santa's reach.
‘What? Which bloody Simon?' he said.
‘The one in England.'
‘Eh? Oh, he went doorknocking for the Red Cross.'
She scoffed. ‘After that. He took the last piece of cake from the fridge, then blamed his younger brother,' she said.
‘Yes, terrible,' Santa murmured, almost hypnotised by the steaming pies. His hands fumbled and groped for them.
‘We have gotten too soft on them,' said Mrs Clause, moving the first pie at last within his grasp. ‘His Request Report says he wants a new mountain bike. I say we give him a hand grenade. Right in the stocking, so he gets a taste of justice. The little demon.'
‘Pie,' said Santa, desperately clutching it and hoeing in even before Mrs Clause could spread the chequered tablecloth across his belly.
‘What's that, dear?' she said.
‘Eh? Sure, sure, you know best,' he said, a spray of crumbs erupting from his lips, gravy spilling from his mouth like drool.
She smiled. ‘Rewarding good behaviour is well and good. Christmas should also be about punishing badbehaviour. And I mean to make up for all that we've let slide over the years. You mark my words.'
Santa didn't hear much of this over the sound of his own slurping and swallowing.
‘So, you agree?' said Mrs Clause, peering at him eagerly.
‘Er...oh, yes. A fine point. Do what you like. Thanks for...' he trailed off, stuffing another handful of pie into his mouth, slopping mince down his beard. He guzzled the bucket of custard in one long gulp, then passed out.
SOON, SANTA BEGAN to really get ill again, and was now so fat he could barely get out of bed, which he did sometimes, to stand before the mirror in his underpants, observing his gut hanging like bags of stretch-marked lard down either side. Down the front, it nearly reached his knees. I am such a fat, fat fuck, he would think, more than a little worried.
Until Mrs Clause arrived with lunch. Or dinner. Or breakfast. Or morning tea, afternoon tea, brunch, supper, nightcap, midnight snack and so on. And when he was full to bursting, she always insisted on one more spoonful. Soon he could not even fit through the door to leave his room, and had to shit in a bucket he'd shove outside for an unhappy elf on ‘latrine duty' to collect.
December came. In the week before the twenty-fifth, something within Santa Clause stirred, and he realised he was in trouble. It was That Time again, and how the hell was he going to fit into the sleigh? What reindeer would be strong enough to haul him along? Through what chimney could he possibly fit? Was there any point in trying?
Milk and cookies, he thought. He staggered to his feet, and his knees nearly popped on the spot. The mirror showed only part of him now, a broad blubbery mess of sweating fat. He went to the door, wedged himself there, and gazed out at the factory, where guns, grenades, dynamite, knives and implements of torture were rolling slowly down the production lines, being wrapped and tied with bows by unhappy elves. Mrs Clause stood overseeing it all, a whip in her hand, a fanatical leer on her face. ‘Hey!' Santa yelled at her.
She glanced at him, face softening with concern. ‘Yes, dear? What is it? Are you still unwell?'
‘Guns and bombs! Cigarettes! Are you mad?'
‘Look! Real live poisonous snakes! You can't gift wrap a snake!'
‘You wouldn't know – you never tried.'
‘Arsenic candy canes! What's the meaning of all this?'
She rolled her eyes. ‘We tell them: He knows when you've been bad or good. But they don't believe us any more. This time, we mean it. And on the plus side, there'll be fewer toys to make next year. And, I suspect, fewer misbehaving children on the books. You rest. I'll do delivery this time around.'
She'd been nagging him for the chance for years. He wondered what to say. His belly rumbled. Food would help – energy, to think it through. He fidgeted. ‘So. Where's dinner?' he said at last.
‘Coming,' she said. ‘Back to bed you go.'
An idea came. ‘Darling...will you bring some butter with my pie?'
She smiled. ‘Of course.'
Back to bed he went, grimacing as it almost collapsed under his weight. When the pie came, Mrs Clause brought a block of butter on a plate, as he'd asked, then kissed him goodnight. He waited till the factory's lights went out and the elves all went back to their houses, then smeared the butter up and down the door frame, and over his torso until it glistened and shone. Then came the hard part: squeezing his bulk, inch by inch, through a space too small for it. By the end, he was panting, sweating and in pain as he lay on the floor, licking himself clean.
Through the factory he staggered, past the pile of dead elves who'd been gift wrapping the snakes. Elf arms and legs, blown off by faulty hand grenades, lay in pools of golden elf blood, scattered about the factory. ‘What a mess!' he muttered. ‘This place has gone to the dogs.'
Santa went to Mrs Clause's bedroom and heard her snoring through the door, which he quickly padlocked. He switched on the factory's lights. ‘Elves!' he hollered. ‘Get out here, if you still believe in Christmas!' Then he had to sit down for a bit and rest.
No elves came. He went around to their houses himself, kicking the doors, dragging them out of bed by the ears. ‘Those children need toys, not booby traps and weapons,' he cried. ‘Work, damn you! Work! How could you go along with that old bat and her crazy ideas? Up you get! And I'll need a bigger sleigh built.'
They looked at him sullenly, but did as he asked. Disposing of the snakes, dynamite and so forth was itself a big enough job; but they were way behind in production of Nintendos, bikes, dolls and fire trucks. Santa reviewed the Behavioural Reports and, though he amended many of Mrs Clause's merciless Xs with big red ticks, there would only be time to make toys for the very best-behaved children. It would be a lean, mean year.
The twenty-fourth came. All the while, Mrs Clause had been screeching and banging on her door. Finally Santa's heart stirred with pity, but only a little. ‘Next year, my love,' he said, pulling on a coat for the night's trip. ‘Next year I'll take you with me on the sleigh.' He whispered the word ‘perhaps'.
THAT YEAR THE reindeer all got hernias, and Dasher needed to be put down. The elves were exhausted; there was a mass walkout, and talk of forming a union. But the best-behaved among us, as you will recall, got some of what we deserved. And Mrs Clause, once the festive cheer died down in the North Pole, was talked out of her grand schemes, and agreed to leave Christmas alone. (And she whispered the word ‘perhaps'.)
So, while we may not all have gotten what we wanted, at the very least we didn't get what, in Mrs Clause's opinion, we deserved. Which is better than nothing, even if nothing is what you had...and if there's a moral to this story, that must indeed be it. That, and take it easy on the pies.