I’m from the middle class and so went to a boarding school for most of my childhood. The only time we were allowed home was for the summer so I spent most of my early Christmases at the school. This is the story of the most memorable Christmas I spent there. The year that I met the real Father Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve. There I sat in the great hallway. One in a class of thirty, in a school of four-hundred and eighty. Outside, the chilling December winds were whipping against the rain-pocked red-brick walls of the school. It was cold inside but we were warm with excitement, waiting for the end of the assembly when the big man – the one and only Father X – would emerge. Finally the headmaster stopped speaking and out he came. The assembly hall was heavy with anticipatory silence.
“Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas boys! And girl! See you all at tomorrow’s Christmas assembly when I’ll be handing out presents!”
We burst into excited cheers. I looked at Florence who was sat in the girl’s chair. Her face was, as always, pleasant. But she remained stoic and unmoved amongst the bustling throng of excited boys. So too was Cal who always sat next to me. He leaned over and whispered:
“It’s pretty cool, but that’s not the real Father Christmas.”
I was attending a place called Bartlett’s Boarding School for Boys and Girl. It was an all-boys school that allowed one girl to attend; that girl was Florence.
She was the most beautiful person I’ve ever known, physically and spiritually. She was like a cat that you love so much that you just want to squeeze and squeeze it until it dies – but in a nice way. More importantly she was a good person. She was good in a way that was effortless and sincere.
Florence and I would hang out all the time and the boys would mock us. They couldn’t understand it. They’d call us names like “Adam and Eve-ntually gonna find someone else”. But if anything this only provided a perfect setting for our love: they didn’t understand and we didn’t care.
Florence and I walked the grounds outside after the Christmas Eve assembly. I was still warm and fuzzy from getting to see Father Christmas again. I wanted to share this feeling with her but I could tell that there was something on her mind.
“Wasn’t that great!” I said.
Florence nodded, but in a way that meant ‘no, it wasn’t that great’.
“Are you okay? Aren’t you excited for Father Christmas to come back tomorrow?”
Florence took a deep breath.
“That’s not the real Father Christmas.”
The words hit my stomach like lead cake.
“How do you know?” I asked.
She drew closer and whispered to me:
“Because I know the real Father Christmas. Because the real Father Christmas is my dad.”
This was a lot to take in. But there was more:
“My dad is Father Christmas, and he’s being held hostage at the school!”
She explained that in order to keep her at Bartlett’s, the faculty had kidnapped her father and was keeping him in the crypt beneath the school; that the crypt was guarded 24/7 except for the final assembly of term, which was Christmas Day – tomorrow. Her plan was to expose the fake Father Christmas and then incite a riot amongst the students.
“Wanna help?” She said. Then she smiled, with a glint in her eye that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to find again.
I could barely sleep that night, obsessively turning over what Florence had said in my mind. No matter how I tried to allay my thoughts, they kept coming back to Florence and her plan. Never before had an idea so completely taken a hold of my mind. For this was when I was a child, long before I grew into an adult when my mind became a prison that, claw and bite as I might, I can’t escape.
The next day I sat restless through the Christmas assembly. Now dreading the moment that Father Christmas, the fake Father Christmas, would come out. Soon enough I heard the assembly explode into festive cheers. There he was. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it! Florence took my hand and kissed my cheek.
I could do this.
I ran to the front of the stage and yanked off the big man’s beard and hat.
“This is not the real Father Christmas!”
Indeed it wasn’t. It was actually just Mr Welch the Biology teacher. To be honest with you, I was as surprised as anyone else. The students immediately devolved into a furious mob. Chairs were thrown around; the Christmas streamers were torn down and eaten by some of the stupider kids.
Florence stood in front of them and yelled: “I know where the real Father Christmas is! He’s in the crypt!”
In a mad frenzy the boys all cheered and ran downstairs chanting “Christmas! Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!”
The teachers tried to stop them but it was useless. They battered against the doors of the crypt once… twice… thrice… fource… there was no need for a fithce. The door gave way.
“We did it! He’s coming!” Florence embraced me. I looked into her eyes and saw all goodness and beauty. In that moment all was right with the world.
Then, from the crypt, came a low moaning sound. A great rumbling shook the foundation of the school. They say that at that precise moment, all the babies in the world started crying and all the puppies threw up. Some of the puppies threw up onto other puppies and then those puppies threw back up onto them.
The real Father Christmas lurched upwards from the crypt. Its face was a shadowy glob with a knife-boned nose and the hot smile of a lit pumpkin. It had huge black tentacles armed with a thousand tiny spikes. It laid these above ground and pulled itself free from the ancient adamantine shackles that had kept mankind safe for millennia. Its many tendrils tore through years seven to eight, reducing their young bodies to bloody ribbons that, in the decaying light of winter, looked like tinsel.
Standing on the rubble that once was Bartlett’s, it made a noise that sounded like everything other than ‘merry Christmas’.
I looked into those great red eyes and through looking into them came to understand the impermanence of all things, how all that lives must die, how the present is merely the decay of the future. In that instant I became an adult. It was like going deaf and blind in a roaring, tumbling world.
“Daddy!” Florence called out. Those immense eyes turned to Florence and melted. She climbed onto her dad’s great head, blew me a kiss and was gone forever.
I sat in the ruins of the great hall. After some time the ringing in my ears started to subside; I could hear an urgent rasping sound which I eventually realised was the sound of my own breathing.
Then I heard another sound. A slow crawling through the broken bricks of the great hall: it was Cal making his way over to me; he was missing both legs and four teeth. With his last wheezing breath Cal said:
“It was pretty cool. But it wasn’t the real Father Christmas.”