Mum had always said the same thing. “He was a crook,” she would sneer, a drool of brandy butter coating her drunken lips. “He was belligerent. He used me for one night and then never even calls. Never wanted to meet you. Hasn’t paid any child support. I’ve got half a mind to take him to court, but what’s the point? No one would ever believe me.”
It was the same every Christmas. Any other time of the year, she would never bring it up. Heck, she never even seemed hurt. She was proud that she’d raised me all on her own. But as soon as December came and I flicked open the first window of my advent calendar, a festive fury took hold of my mother. If she lived alone, she wouldn’t have put up a single thread of tinsel. There’d be no Bonsai tree, let alone a Christmas one. She put bread knives in the chimney.
“God, I can’t stand this time of year,” she’d rage. As soon as ‘Last Christmas’ began blaring out during our Monday shop, she made our next door neighbour go to Tesco for her.
I knew the reason, but I didn’t believe it. She was right – who would believe it? Mum had to get drunk just to tell me. “Have you ever wondered, Natalie, why you’ve never had a father around?” she’d ask. It was the same introductory quiz every Christmas.
“I’ve never really questioned it,” I would reply. And I meant it. Some families had dogs, some had cats. Some had other siblings, some were only children. It never really meant anything to me that I didn’t have a dad. Sometimes I had fantasised about him, thinking he’d left my mother to sacrifice himself in trying to solve world hunger, or he was teaching two tribes in deepest Africa that perhaps religion wasn’t the real reason they were arguing. But, in reality, I just thought he was probably some shady one-night stand.
“Don’t your friends ask you?” would come the response.
“Not really, it’s never bothered them,” I’d respond. I always tried to not give my mother fodder for more questions. She’d prepped them anyway, of course.
“It was Christmas Eve and I was still living with your grandparents,” she’d begin, the swigs of Bailey’s becoming more frequent and frenzied as each memory was unlocked. “It could have even been Christmas morning. I just remember seeing a figure bumbling around in the dark. I’d been out with Karen, Kev and Stu, and I was still feeling pretty buzzed. But before I could reach for the Neurofen I saw him.”
That’s when my eyes would begin rolling. Nonetheless, she would continue.
“They should call him that ‘cos he sunk his bloody claws into me,” Mum spat. “He was charming, glowing and incredibly kind. He sat down next to me and started telling me about all the places he’d seen. He loved travelling.”
“He’d make a great Tinder bio.” That was my response last year.
“Of course, I was entranced. I mean, I’d stopped believing in Santa years ago,” Mum would continue. “But here he was, in the flesh. He told me how he and Mrs Claus were not really seeing eye to eye. She was the more stay-at-home type. He told me I’d been good that year and deserved a special present, and that’s when I looked above and saw the mistletoe. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe he’d planted it there himself. I think he wanted out of that marriage.”
“Right, Mum, well this is all well and good, but…”
“We ended up kissing and, well, one thing led to another,” Mum explained tactfully. By the time I turned 16, she’d joke that Santa didn’t have any suitable “stockings” upon his person.
So that was my Christmas. Every bloody year. At first, I chuckled heartily. I thought she was just trying to make me smile, even if it was a little seedy. But as I grew older, the story would always be told. It was always the same. Little details would be added – the size of his carrot, the feel of his silk, the tickle of his beard – but she was adamant that it wasn’t some drunken dream.
The older I got, the more cynical I became. My main concern was that this ‘Santa’ could have been Uncle Paul and she’d ended up fumbling around with her own brother (he was always a bit incestuous, especially when he’d offer me a ‘giddy-up’). My other fear was it was a randy burglar who couldn’t believe his luck. When I fooled myself into believing Mum’s theory, even then I had doubts – Santa was on his busiest shift. His only shift. In between taking gifts to Greece and Gabon how would he have the time to get his coals off? I’d heard some crazy theories about Santa having the power to slow down time in order to circumnavigate the globe, and that he could do everything he wanted in seconds. But surely if he was visiting a girl’s grotto he’d want to spend hours in there?
“I wrote to him every week after I found out I was pregnant,” Mum sighed. The brandy bottle was about to be unscrewed. “There had been no one else. I let Kev have a feel of my tights in the pub but sperm can’t threw laddered cotton.”
“And did he respond?” I asked. This segment of the conversation must have happened when I’d reached a more quizzical age – I think I was 14 when I began wondering if Santa used his fingers.
“Nope, just the standard Christmas boilerplate,” Mum said. “And then when you were born, I sent him photos and begged him to come and meet you. I knew that he was probably in hibernation, but I thought he’d make the effort to see his newborn daughter.”
“Did you see him again at Christmas?”
“Nope, he made it pretty clear he didn’t wanna see me,” Mum said. “I got vouchers that year.”
“So he didn’t slide down the chimney?”
“No one did that year,” Mum said. “But no, he didn’t even take a sip of the whiskey I left out for him. I thought that would remind him of our time together. Whiskey seemed to pop his belt, if you get me.”
“I don’t need to hear this,” I said. “Mum, are you absolutely sure? You told me to stop believing in Santa when I turned 10.”
“Yes, because I don’t want you supporting your father,” Mum replied. “He’s never supported you. I have to buy and wrap your presents. I have to cook Christmas dinner. I was the one fighting the other mums down at Toys-R-Us. Where was he? Probably burning my letters on his fire, the fat shit.”
“I mean, wasn’t he a bit old for you?”
“He had the gift of the gab,” Mum said. “I wouldn’t usually go for a guy like that but I felt wanted. The way he scooped me up in his arms. I felt safe. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t all gentle, but…”
Mum tried her best. I had a pretty good upbringing. She worked as a supervisor at a hardware store, although had no knowledge of what a hammer did. Her boss, Reggie, had been in love with her since the day she started, and continued to keep her on and promote her despite her thinking an L-pipe meant a dodgy uterus. My nan and granddad always helped out with babysitting, but eleven months a year my mum was working until 6, picking me up, cooking tea, reading my bedtime stories and making sure I never needed a dad. It was only on the last month of the year where things would go a little haywire. The only time where I would have actually favoured having another person in the house.
There had been times when I thought about tracking down my dad myself. On my 30th birthday, I felt a sudden yearning to know. It was like an alarm clock had gone off in my head, that all this time I had been incomplete. That there had been a paternal piece missing. What if I died the next day and I’d never even seen my father? Never even knew his name? Mum had done amazingly well in bringing me up, and ensured that I got a good education and had loads of fun, but I was old enough now to know what happened.
“I’ve told you what happened,” Mum snapped.
“Mum, this isn’t Christmas Day, you can drop that story.”
“Are you implying I’ve been making this story up? For thirty years?!”
“I don’t know what I’m implying, but…”
“I just think I deserve the truth.”
“You’re drunk, Natalie. Just enjoy the party and we’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
“No, not tomorrow, now,” I said, grabbing her by the arm. A droplet of wine escaped from her glass and Mum gave me a look as if I’d just shot her in the kneecap. “I have to spend every Christmas listening to your tale of unrequited romance with Saint Nick, and every year I have to smile and sympathise. Well, I think I’m old enough now for you to tell me that you didn’t actually shag Santa.”
“I can’t believe you’re bringing this up now,” Mum said. “This is your birthday. Stop embarrassing yourself.”
“You embarrass yourself every Christmas Day!” I said. There was no going back now. Kev looked across, anxiously hiding his hands. “Didn’t you ever think I wanted a normal Christmas? With all the family around? With loads of presents? With my mother sober?”
“Enough! I’m not discussing this anymore. Why would I lie to my own daughter? I’ve spent every bloody Christmas telling everyone what that man did to me. But of course it’s me that’s ridiculed. I’m the one that looks crazy, while he gets to go and see the world and probably impregnate a lonely mother in Moscow.”
With experienced precision, Mum gulped the remains of her glass and strode off into the night.
As Mum walked off broken, I realised maybe I’d gone too far. I just wanted to put a stop to it all. To end the nonsense. But it’s been 30 years – how can anyone keep a lie going for so long? Maybe it had happened. Maybe she needed me on her side. She needed someone to believe in her and I shunned her.
“Hope you’ve had a great birthday, sweetie,” Kev said, noticing me deep in thought. “Is your mum okay?”
“Thanks, Kev. Oh…I think so.”
“Look, nothing happened that night,” he said, a panicked sweat protruding from his forehead. “I went to grab my own knee and accidentally grabbed hers. Twice.”
The next day, I left my apartment early and made my way over to Mum’s house. I knew she wouldn’t be expecting me – she thought I was a drunken mess and was blissfully hoping I’d be spending all day vomiting over my cat.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Can we talk about last night?” I asked, trying to remain calm and controlled.
“Yes, of course we can,” Mum replied. “It was a fantastic party, all the right friends showed up, Paul tried to pull the coat-check girl. Everyone had fun. How’s that?”
“Mum, you know what I want to talk about,” I replied.
“You want to make me look a fool once again, do you?”
“No, I want to help,” I said. “Are you gonna let me in? I bet you’ve still got that Neurofen from that night, yeah?”
We sat down and Mum began Irish-ing up her coffee. I gave her a flat refusal and nursed a glass of water.
“So let’s say Santa is my dad,” I began.
“There’s no ‘say’ about it. He is your dad,” Mum said.
I grimaced as her interjection shattered my skull. “Okay, sorry. So he’s my dad. Is there no way I can get in touch with him?”
“Maybe you could take a two-week vacation to the North Pole. Or Lapland. He’s got properties everywhere.”
“Actually, Santa was born in Turkey,” I said. “He might have a villa out there.”
“Istanbullshit! He didn’t even have a tan when I saw him!” Mum said. “He was as pale as snow.”
“He probably doesn’t spend much time there,” I said. “But I guess it means I’m part Turkish.”
“You’re not much of a delight, though.”
“I don’t know what to suggest other than wait until Christmas. It’s only a few months away. It seems to come quicker every year.”
“But how would we even see him?”
“We could stay up.”
“He’s probably still avoiding me. He knows what he did,” Mum said.
“Well, I’ll write him a letter,” I said. “And I’ll implore him to see me. I won’t ask for money or weekly visits to Greenland. I’ll just ask that I can meet him one time, just so I can say I have spoken with my father.”
“You can try, but I don’t think it’ll work,” Mum said.
“We owe it ourselves to try it.”
As I began scribbling, I tried to remember who exactly I was doing this for. Was it actually for me? Was it to get the closure I’d wanted for all of one day? Or was it to give my mother some kind of comfort, a kind of reassurance that there was someone else on the planet that actually believed her story. By the time I signed my name, it didn’t really matter.
The next few months segued into December before I even knew it. I was never a big fan of Christmas, mostly down to my mother’s annual outbursts, and at work they were all very aware of it.
“Why don’t you like Christmas, Nat?” Dwayne asked me one day.”
“I just don’t,” I replied.
“Come on, you can tell me. Are you Jewish?”
“So you’re just tight.”
He laughed cockily and flashed me a pout. “Sorry, babe. Look try and get in the spirit this year, yeah?”
“Alright,” I said. Before he could swagger over to the photocopier, I grabbed his hand. “Dwayne, can I tell you something?”
“Babe, not here.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Dwayne. Look it’s a secret,” I said. “I am a little excited this year. I’m actually gonna meet my dad.”
“Oh, that’s swell, Nat,” he said. “I mean, I’ve asked for a new tie, myself, but…”
“You don’t understand,” I whispered. “My dad is…Santa Claus.”
Dwayne burst out laughing. “Oh, Natalie, you’ve got such a dry wit,” he said. “I can see why you hate Christmas now. Your daddy always buying other kids’ presents and not spending any time with you. My mum’s the tooth fairy and she never once gave me a pound coin.”
“Dwayne, I’m being serious,” I said. “Mum tells me every Christmas that Santa is my dad and I always laughed at her. But maybe she’s telling the truth? I mean, she’s told me this every Christmas since I was born.”
“But Santa doesn’t even exist,” Dwayne said. “Who ordered his morning Uber, one of the elves?”
“I knew I shouldn’t have said anything,” I said. “You just think I’m crazy.”
“No, Nat, I don’t,” he said. Even Dwayne realised his jokes were going too far. “But if he is your daddy, what are you going to do about it?”
“Well, for a start, can you please stop referring to him as ‘Daddy’,” I said. “And secondly, I wrote him a letter a few months back and begged him to meet me. I don’t even care if he brings me any presents or not. I just want to meet him, and I want him to talk to my mum.”
“But it was a dick and dash,” Dwayne said. “He won’t wanna carve the turkey now he’s cooked it.”
“Charming,” I said. “It’s more for my mum than me. I want him to see what he’s missed out on.”
“Well, good luck,” Dwayne said, although I could tell he was still sceptical. “Tell you what, I’ll even guard your front door that night. We can have walkie talkies and I’ll let you know when he goes down the chimney.”
“It’s an apartment building so I presume he’ll inform the doorman,” I said. “But that would be very nice of you.”
“But look if he’s a deadbeat I’m not punching him for you, I just had a manicure.”
“Man being the operative word.”
“See you later, Santa lady.”
On Christmas Eve, Mum and I lay quietly in bed together. She squeezed my hand and flashed me a grin. She looked vindicated. Loved. It had been a long time since I saw her smile at Christmas.
“Do you think he’ll even show up?” Mum asked.
“I’m confident he will,” I replied. “Why don’t you have a nap and I’ll let you know if I hear anything?”
Mum cuddled up and closed her eyes. I lay still, my mind racing. One moment I was cursing myself for entertaining Mum’s crackpot theory, but the next I was pleased I finally took a step back and considered her story viable.
The hours passed. Mum’s nap had turned into fully-fledged slumber and I wasn’t far from joining her. All I could hear was the gentle tick of the clock and Mum’s occasional throaty snore. Suddenly, I was woken up by a loud crash. I tried to stir Mum but the drool trail from her mouth suggested she was done for the night. I hurriedly got out of bed and checked through the curtains, hoping I’d see him. Even if he turned and gave me a cheery wink. But there was nothing but two cats giving each other ‘gifts’ by the bins.
I checked my watch. It was nearly 4am. The entire complex was quiet. No movement. It was strange, but part of me thought he’d actually show. That he really was my father. Maybe he is and he’s scared I’ll ask him to teach me to ride a bike or give my ex-boyfriends a sound beating. I guess it would have to wait for another year. I went out into the living room and saw the tree, bereft of presents. When I was younger it was never particularly full. I don’t think Mum could really bare going out Christmas shopping, getting bombarded with Band Aid, tinsel and mulled wine. I decided to give up and hit the hay.
“Natalie, are you okay?” she murmured, before rising suddenly. “Has he been?!”
I sat on the edge of the bed. “Yeah, Mum, he’s been.”
“You’re kidding me?! Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I…He said seeing you would be too painful.”
“Yeah, well, once I’d kicked him in the balls I guess it would be.”
“He did say he was sorry.”
“Yeah.” I lay down next to her. “He said he was sorry but he could never raise a child when he’s technically looking after billions across the world. He said he was proud of me, though.”
“And is he going to give me some money? Is he going to be at your wedding?”
“Mum, let’s forget about all of that,” I said. “I don’t need that. I don’t need him. I stopped needing him when I turned 10.”
“I guess so, darling. Well I hope he told you this month’s been a bit tight and you might only get a jumper.”
I laughed. “As long as the jumper’s not tight.”
She went back to sleep and I poked my head through the bedroom curtains. Maybe I’d never meet him, but I’d gone through Christmas Eves believing in him and not believing. This would be the first one where I was caught in between.