Opening today’s door, we’re a year or two on. A lot has happened. For one thing my parents have now split up. We don’t see my dad any more. That door has long since been shut. In his place is a man who wants us to call him ‘papa’ but who is no sort of role model for a father figure. I miss my dad. We’ve moved from Dundee to Edinburgh, leaving the house and school I loved. The Happy Christmas phase is well and truly over. The rest of my childhood is a living hell. And worse at Christmas.
That first Christmas under the new regime I had more or less given up on Santa. I had more or less given up on everything. My life had been turned completely upside down and everything I believed in had not just been questioned, but ripped apart, scrunched up and thrown in the bin like so much wrapping paper. The glitter, it’s fair to say, had truly worn off.
Instead of a house with a garden we now lived in a top floor flat. There’s a park outside, but it’s not the same. There’s danger everywhere. I hate getting sent out in the dark for milk or whatever it is that my mum’s forgotten to buy to make the tea. I hate my new school and my new school mates appear to hate me. They lie in wait for me on the way home and slap and kick me. I tell my mum and she goes to the school and it only makes things worse. So I don’t tell. I just try and vary my route home. On the up-side, as we come near Christmas, there is a working fireplace and we’re on the top floor so Santa, if he existed, wouldn’t have far to come.
I don’t know why this happened. I thought we were all happy. I never heard my parents raise their voices. Which is totally different to now. Like I said, there is danger everywhere. And its worst inside the door of what, looking back, I find impossible to call home. My new step-dad has a temper. And then some. And I don’t understand that either. He doesn’t drink so there’s not that excuse. It seems to come out of nowhere. He’s fine until something upsets him or someone crosses him or something goes wrong. And of course in life, however much you try to walk on eggshells and do the right thing, there’s always something which can upset someone and there’s always something to go wrong.
And especially at Christmas. By this time I’ve grown used to standing outside doors listening to rows. And the one I hear this year is the final nail in the coffin for Santa. In some families rows end with slamming doors and silence. In this new family unit rows usually end with someone getting injured. And it isn’t my step-dad. Things are thrown and they get broken and then people get hurt. Sometimes it’s me. Mostly it’s my mum. She provokes him more, but she doesn’t deserve it. None of us deserve it. It’s no way to live. But we’re living it. We’re facing our first Christmas in the trenches.
I’m standing outside the door and I hear the ebb and flow of voices. I’m wondering whether I should go in, because I’ve learned that while it’s dangerous to enter the fray, if I do I might be able to stop him hitting her. I’m learning about intervention. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it just gives them pause for a moment. Sometimes he diverts his anger onto me of course, but that’s the price you pay isn’t it? Sometimes you have to sacrifice your body to the team? And sometimes we learn that if you go to the phone and say you’re calling the police, it stops him. Like all escalating events though, this only works so far. One time you do actually have to call the police. They come. And when my mum refuses to ‘press charges’ they go away again – a domestic they call it – and they seem to hold her in scorn. But what can she do? Unless they took him away then and there and put him in prison, we’d just be in a worse situation.
The one thing none of them, not one of them, seems to see is two children who should not be going through this. No one suggests that we’re ‘at risk.’ We’re a nice middle class family having a ‘domestic’ you see. So though we might get threatened with the children’s home by my mum (and often it seems like a decent alternative to the hell we’re living through) we know there’s no escape. I say we but by this time my brother and I are living pretty isolated lives. I’ve enough to cope with living through this for myself. You might think that ‘at least we have each other’ but I don’t recall that being the case. I just recall being frightened and alone all the time.
I’m standing outside the door. As usual. And the argument is about Christmas. I curse myself. I curse Santa. I curse Christmas. Of all the things to have a row about. This is so unnecessary. I keep listening. My step-dad is shouting about the money. Or lack of it. I don’t remember the fine detail, but obviously my mum – who loves Christmas - wants to give us more expensive presents than either he thinks right, or than we can afford. Who knows what we can afford any more?
The whole Santa myth crashes right down on my head in that one moment. This is what’s wrong with the lie. That for every family who happily run along playing Santa, there’s another family for whom the ‘secret’ means financial hardship. Spending money to keep children happy. It’s wrong. I know it’s wrong before I’m eight years old, and I don’t want it. I don’t want them to be coming to blows about my Christmas stocking. I don’t want to be the cause of any of this. I don’t want Christmas at all if this is the ‘spirit’ in which it’s to be played out now. I want more than anything to go into the room and shout, ‘I know Santa doesn’t exist so stop arguing. I don’t want any presents. I don’t need a stocking. I just want things to be like they were.’
And of course the one thing I really, really want for Christmas is the one thing I know I won’t get. My dad back. During my many nightmares, where my brain tries to make sense of the violence; through dreams of black clouds and rushing railway trains and cages filled with dripping meat in underground caves, I keep wishing and hoping that my dad will come in and save me. I need saving, not stocking fillers. There will be no peace on earth in this house for Christmas that’s for sure.
But I don’t go in. I go to my room to read a book and hope the shouting ends soon without too much bloodshed. Later, on what I assume must be Christmas Eve I discover another secret. I think I was probably on my way to bed but the old rituals of dressing the tree and getting together and sitting on laps with cuddles has gone and it’s more of a creeping quietly round the flat trying to work out where HE is and keeping out of the way. The door to the living room is open. I’m about to go in, but I see HE is there and as I silently retreat I see that he is writing ‘Santa’ large on a card that he’s about to attach to the top of a filled stocking. It is the ultimate irony. And it makes me sick to my stomach.
He’s trying to con me into thinking he’s Santa? He’s playing Santa to me? Come on. Apart from the fact that he has the most ridiculously ornate calligraphy styled handwriting which he always uses – is so proud of - so that it would be recognisable even in a court of law, the fact that I’m going to be expected to wake up in the morning and take joy in this thing that has been the cause of all that fear – it’s just not going to happen.
In the years that follow I often wake at four in the morning, but I’ll never again wake with the excitement of a stocking full of presents at the bottom of my bed. It’s not my step-dad’s fault that Santa doesn’t exist, but he didn’t have to forge his signature. Not after shouting about how we can’t afford Christmas. Not after making us feel guilty for even being there. So this is the year I really started hating Christmas. And I think you can probably allow me that. There is no good will to all men here except blaring out on the radio or record player. It’s a tinny equivalent and the real thing in no way lives up to the billing.
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.