Reginald Bainbridge placed the large, brown cardboard box on the kitchen table and carefully removed the lid. This was the day of the year he most looked forward to. For over two decades on the last day of November, he’d performed exactly the same ritual: bringing the box down from the loft and, one by one, taking out its contents. From the wire-rimmed glasses through to the shiny black boots, every item was treated with equal respect, all laid out in order on the staircase ready for a thorough inspection, in case any last minute repairs might be needed. This year, though, everything was just perfect. The only work required would be to clean up his fluffy white beard, polish the buckle on his belt and iron his red jacket and trousers. Santa Claus was once again ready to begin work at Daley’s department store.
That night Reginald found it difficult to sleep, such was his excitement. At sixty-nine years old, he still felt the same butterflies he had when he had taken over the job of Father Christmas from his dad, Alfie, all those years ago.
Drawing back the curtains the following morning, Reginald found himself gasping in delight at what he saw - a light covering of snow had fallen during the night so that the street and the winding lane opposite looked quite magical. He rubbed his chubby hands together in a state of unbridled glee and padded downstairs to make breakfast - two lightly boiled eggs, a piece of hot buttered toast and a steaming mug of tea. As he took his first bite, Reginald heard the familiar flop of the morning mail on the doormat. Toast in teeth, he shuffled out to collect it, returning to the kitchen with six or seven envelopes in his hand - bill, bill, advertising, bill.. oh, what was this? - an official envelope from Daley’s. How odd.
Dear Mr. Bainbridge,
We regret to inform you that we will no longer be requiring your services at Daley’s Stores since we feel that, in the current climate, some parents may not be comfortable with our traditional Santa Claus grotto.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your many years of loyalty and to wish you well with your future plans.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Reginald felt a soft sting of sadness in his eyes as he sat down at the table, staring for an inordinate length of time at the letter, as if simply looking at it might change its contents.
The following morning, as he came downstairs and passed his uniform, lying there just as he had left it, Reginald was overcome by an uncontrollable urge to put it on and, soon enough, Santa Claus was dressed and checking all was in order in the hall mirror. Satisfied that indeed it was - he looked immaculate - he walked through to the living room, put on his favourite Frank Sinatra Christmas album, sank back into his armchair and closed his eyes.
Some time later Reginald was awoken by a loud knock at the door. He knew it. It was only a question of time - Daley’s had realised their mistake and had come to ask him back. He straightened his glasses, smoothed his beard and headed for the door, only to be faced with a short, bald chap who was very, very red in the face indeed.
“Turn down that dreadful music or I’ll call the police! You’re deafening the whole neighbourhood!”
Reginald, ever the gentleman, hid his profound disappointment, smiled meekly, closed the door and returned to the living room to lower the volume.
Every day for the next three weeks, he followed precisely the same routine, putting on his uniform in the morning, making his breakfast and listening to Frank Sinatra, each morning truly believing that, surely, Daley’s must be regretting their decision by now. Then, on Christmas day of all days, the neighbour came knocking again but this time Reginald wasn’t in the mood for nonsense. He leapt up, strode angrily to the door and yanked it open.
“It’s Christmas day. The music isn’t even l...”
But it wasn’t the neighbour at all, it was a small girl with tousled blond hair.
“My Mummy said that this is where you live, Santa. Can I come in?”
The girl’s father who was standing by the gate at the end of the path, nodded conspiratorially.
“Er, yes, yes, of course you can, my love. Come in, come in!”
They walked through to the living room.
“I don’t have any presents, I’m afraid. Oh dear, oh dear. Let me see if I can at least find some sweets. Oh dear.”
“This is for you, Santa.”
Reginald turned around to see the girl holding out a small gift. He hesitated for a second before taking it from her and removing its silver wrapping paper. Inside was a black and white photograph of his father, Alfie, working in the grotto at Daley’s, a young boy sitting on his lap.
“That’s my daddy!” The girl pointed excitedly at the boy in the photograph.
Reginald was quite overcome. Oh, what a lovely gesture! He thanked her profusely and walked her out in order to thank her father too. Opening the front door and ushering the child out into the softly falling snow, he was stopped dead in his tracks by the sight that greeted him. The girl’s father was still standing by the gate but now the entire panorama had changed. As far as the eye could see, along the winding lane and over the hill, there was an endless queue of parents waiting patiently with their children, each of the little ones clutching a small gift in their gloved hands.
The girl’s father opened the gate for his daughter, while the first group of three or four families passed through in the opposite direction, stepping brightly up the snow-covered path to Santa’s house.