A Visit From Father Christmas

Laurel padded downstairs in her bed socks, carefully holding onto the banisters with one hand, the other gripping Henry by the ear. Henry's presence was a necessity. They always did everything together. Her daddy had given her Henry after she'd had the measles. They had named him together. According to her daddy, he just looked like a Henry and Laurel supposed that he was quite a serious-looking bear. They had decided that the situation warranted a serious-sounding name.

Once at the bottom, she rushed into the living room, dropped Henry on the floor and started back up the stairs, taking them one at a time. She quietly tiptoed back into her room and picked up the blanket of hoarded treasure before embarking on her journey back down to the lounge again.

Once it was all assembled, she moved her things to the carefully chosen hiding place behind the sofa and set herself up for a long wait. Laurel smoothed down her hair. She'd asked her mum to put it in bunches for the night. She wanted to look nice in case she did get to see Father Christmas. It might be her only opportunity to really see him. It was important that she look her best.

She opened up the blanket and laid out next to her the various goodies which she'd hidden away over the past week. She eyed the small pile of chocolates, crisps, cookies, and satsumas but didn't reach for them yet. They were there to help keep her awake. She had already waited a whole week to eat them. She couldn't give in now.

Henry sat with his back to the sofa, overseeing all the activity in silent approval while Laurel tightly wrapped her fleecy, extra-warm dressing gown around her and then took up her position lying on her front next to Henry, her Tweenies alarm clock in front of her and the Christmas tree in full view.

She had prepared herself for a long wait. Her best friend, Thomas, had told her that last year he had only had to wait an hour or so, but she could wait all night if that was what it took. Father Christmas was coming and she and Thomas knew something no other children did. That was if he was telling her the truth, which he had to be. He wouldn't lie to her. Thomas was the best friend she'd ever had.

He lived two doors down with Aunt Sylvia, although she wasn't really Laurel's aunt, but that was what Laurel was meant to call her. Laurel didn't mind that. Her own aunt, her real aunt, lived quite far away, so it was nice to have a backup so close by. Anyway, she liked Aunt Sylvia. She was a large, jolly woman who was always friendly and always offered Laurel a treat when they went over. Laurel had visited her and Thomas a few extra times this week to help stock up for tonight's feast.

Aunt Sylvia and Laurel's mum would have coffee mornings together during which they would discuss everything that was going on. Laurel hoped she would know as much as her mum did about what was happening in such a small village when she grew up. She and Thomas didn't usually stay in the same room as their mums though. Laurel didn't think it was important to learn about all these happenings now and her Mum seemed to have it all under control for the moment, which left Laurel and Thomas free to play outside or upstairs.

It had been during one of these coffee mornings a couple of months ago when Thomas had shared his secret. He'd waited until they were outside, wrapped up in so many layers they could barely move, and then admitted the biggest secret he'd ever had: Father Christmas wasn't real. Like all good children, Laurel had defended Father Christmas, denying this vicious rumour and pledging in no uncertain terms her firm belief in Santa's existence. It hadn't taken Thomas long to convince her though, partly because she'd wanted to believe him. He said he had secretly waited up on Christmas Eve last year, wanting to see Father Christmas, but instead had caught his own father placing presents around the tree - presents addressed to Thomas and signed from Father Christmas. Thomas had felt cheated and Laurel needed to know if it was true. Was it possible that she had been lied to all this time?

She had barely been able to contain her excitement over the past two months, unable to get the thought out of her head. This last week had been all but unbearable. She was terribly worried her mum might realise something was up. She would catch her mum looking at her with that sideways look she had, asking Laurel if everything was OK, asking her what was going on. Laurel had only grinned and said it was a surprise. What a surprise it would be.

Laurel glanced down at her alarm clock. An hour had passed and she had eaten most of her supplies. She now felt quite sick, but she couldn't give up her post. If Thomas was wrong, if Father Christmas had simply passed by his house because he hadn't been a good boy and his father had filled in for him, then she couldn't afford to leave her hiding spot for a minute, because Santa could move so quickly. She couldn't risk going for a drink of water only to find he'd been and gone when she'd got back. She wouldn't be able to keep this secret to herself for another year. In fact, she glanced now at the brandy and mince pie she and her mum had put out together, to make sure they were still there. He could have taken it in the blink of an eye, he could move that fast. Well, he had to be quick, otherwise he couldn't possibly reach all the houses in time. In her school alone there had to be at least a hundred children. Of course, some of them were brothers and sisters, so that would be only one house to go to, and not all of the children had been good, Laurel was sure, but it was still a lot of ground to cover and there were lots more schools around the country. That is, of course, if he existed. She felt a little disloyal doubting him, questioning the origin of all those presents over the years. It seemed somehow ungrateful.

The mince pie and glass of brandy were still there. She breathed a sigh of relief.

It was just gone midnight when she thought she'd heard something. She sat up to see if she could hear better and grabbed Henry for moral support. It took her a moment to realise the noise was coming from upstairs and then the downstairs hall light came on. Laurel gripped Henry tighter. She glanced back over to the mince pie and brandy. It was still there.

Her heart thumped loudly as she saw the feet and dressing gown through the banisters. This wasn't how Father Christmas dressed. He wore black boots which had white furry tops to them and red trousers and he came down the chimney. This Father Christmas was coming down the stairs. This Father Christmas was coming from inside their house. What Thomas had told her had to be true. She would get to see her daddy.

For two years she had missed him, ever since he had left them and gone to heaven. She had been told he couldn't come back, even though he wanted to, but he had to come back for Christmas. If there wasn't a Father Christmas, then he had to return to do his duty and put out their presents. After all, she'd got presents last year and he had already left them by then.

She waited until he was at the bottom of the stairs, waited until he was under the light, but obscured from her view and then she jumped up from her hiding place, excitement filling her so she could barely speak. Her heart was now thumping so loudly she was sure her daddy could hear it, her palms were a little sweaty and Henry was crushed against her.

"Daddy!"

It took a moment for her to recognise the figure at the bottom of the stairs as her mum. It took a moment for the loss and the hurt from two years before to come flooding back tenfold. If he hadn't come back on Christmas Eve, hadn't returned to fill their stockings and eat the mince pie and drink the brandy, then he really was never going to come back.

Why couldn't he come?

"Oh, Laurel, love."

Her mum's arms were outstretched, the expression on her face had gone from one of shock as Laurel had scared her, to pity, to sadness.

Tears poured down Laurel's cheeks even before she realised she was crying. Somehow it hurt more this time around and it seemed even more wrong that her daddy had been taken away from her a second time. She had built up her hopes and planned this day for two months, barely able to accept the wait until Christmas Eve. She had prayed to God and traded in all the Christmas presents she had ever had or would ever have in the future. She had even been unbelievably well-behaved. She wanted her daddy back, she wanted to see him again, to have him wrap his big hairy arms around her and pick her up, dangling her upside down while she giggled uncontrollably.

She rushed to her mum's outstretched arms and buried herself against the soft dressing gown, presents lying discarded on the floor around them as they shared this moment, both of them crying, both of them mourning the loss of the most important man in their lives.

Laurel's daddy was never coming back.

Thomas had been wrong.

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© Jacqueline Chandler 2003
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