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"Santa’s not coming to you, not now."
A harrowing Christmas tale for Sam and William
by John Peters

William had been down the recreation ground playing football ‘til it was dark. Make sure you’re back before six, his Mum had said, but William had forgotten the time. He knew his Mum would be cross, but you can’t keep looking at your watch when you’re involved in a life- or- death game of football. You don’t see David Beckham running down the wing, shaping to cross the ball then asking his opponents to hold on a minute while I check the time, Posh is expecting me back for tea at six. What would Alex Ferguson say?

Eventually, when it became so dark they could hardly see the ball any more, the boys packed it in, picked up the goal posts and went home. They were all in high spirits because it was Christmas Eve, and bragged to each other about what presents they were likely to be getting the next day. William out- bragged the lot of them, telling them he was getting a Play Station, a scooter and a Man United kit with number seven, Beckham on the back. The others laughed but soon stopped when he threatened to punch anyone who didn’t believe him.

William said see you, Happy Christmas to the others at the end of his street. He walked more slowly on his own, savouring the light show on his doorstep. Christmas lights shone in every window, some of them flashing on and off, making the street seem magical. Daniel Mackeson’s house at number 48 was covered in lights. Even on the roof. His dad got the lights free from work because he was an electrician or something. William wished his dad could get them lights. He wished his dad would come round to see them tomorrow. He did last year, in the afternoon, after the pub had closed. He gave William a present – a pair of Nike trainers – and they sang Carols together. It seemed like the best Christmas ever until he had a row with Mum and ended up hitting her. He said he was sorry straight away, but it was no use. Mum told him never come back, and although he had, occasionally, William knew he wouldn’t be welcome this Christmas. Not with Mum’s new boyfriend Dave on the scene.
William’s hands were numb with the cold so he blew on them to warm them up. He could see the breath from his mouth and he started exhaling deeply, like a dragon breathing smoke. Without thinking, he turned through the gate, which was always open, and walked up the path to the front door. He looked up from his dragon breath and instantly felt the magic drain away. The house was dark and the curtains were open. For the first time that evening, he checked his watch. It was six – thirty. The windowpane reflected the Mackeson’s lights flashing "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" on and off backwards. It’s the wrong way round on our house, thought William, how appropriate. He peered into the gloom and could make out the tree dark in the corner, and the twinkling string of red tinsel he’d nicked from school to line the top of the fireplace. He looked down. Beer cans were on the floor. The place was a mess.

William wasn’t sure if he still believed in Father Christmas or not, but he wanted the house to look nice for him, just in case. He didn’t want Santa coming down the chimney, taking one look at such a pigsty and saying they don’t deserve presents in this house. So William opened the door, left his muddy boots on the mat and set to work. He drew the curtains, turned on the fire and found a carrier bag, which he filled with empty cans, bottles and the contents of several ashtrays. The clanking sound echoed round the empty rooms and woke up Sam, who was in his kennel round the back. When William had finished tidying up and had switched the tree on, he went to put the rubbish out and let Sam into the house. He knew this wasn’t allowed, because Sam was a crazy dog who ripped the paper from the walls, but William didn’t want to sit and watch television on his own.

Sam charged round the house excitedly while William stood on a chair and washed the mud off his arms and legs in the kitchen sink. He dried himself with a tea towel and ran upstairs to grab a pair of dry tracksuit bottoms. He’d just pulled them on, when he heard the ‘phone ring. That’ll be Mum, thought William. He hurtled down the stairs and picked up the ‘phone, panting for breath and the dog barking madly.
"Why weren’t you back at six?" She asked.
"I forgot the time. Sorry Mum." Said William.
"Just like your father." There was a pause while she took a drag of her cigarette, then she said; "Is that the dog in the house? It had better not be."
"Where are you?" Asked William.
"I’m at Tracey’s house. I told you she was having a party tonight. It’s Christmas you know. Don’t you ever remember anything?"
Mum sounded drunk. There was no point trying to argue with her when she was drunk. "Can’t you come home?" Asked William.
"I’ll be back later. Help yourself to some tea and put yourself to bed. I’ll see you in the morning, love."

Mum hung up. It was probably best she wasn’t coming back now if she’d been drinking, she would only end up crying and telling him what a bastard his dad was. Even worse, she might bring Dave back and he might start hitting the dog for no reason apart from the fact that he’d been drinking too. No, if he comes back with her he’ll make sure he’s in bed fast asleep, waiting for Santa to call.
William made some beans on toast for himself and Sam and they wolfed it down together. He then carefully wrapped his Mum’s present and put it under the tree. He’d bought her a necklace from the school Christmas Fayre. It had blue stones in it that matched her eyes, and she would look beautiful wearing it, far too beautiful for the likes of Dave. If Dad saw her wearing it he’d be sure to come home and never hit her again. William placed the present under the tree, then snuggled up on the sofa with Sam and watched the television ‘til late. So late, in fact, that both of them fell asleep.
By the time Mum got back to the house with Dave they had both been drinking for several hours. "Shhh!" Said Mum as Dave slammed the door behind him, "You’ll wake the boy."
"Bollocks." Said Dave. "He’ll just think its Father Christmas."
"No Dave, remember. There’s no Father Christmas this year. He was too tired."
"Okay darling, whatever you say. Mum’s the word." Said Dave, his hands groping under Mum’s coat as she opened the living room door. He laughed. " Santa might not be coming but I am."
"Oh, William!" Exclaimed Mum, as she saw boy and dog curled up on the sofa.
William stirred and asked, half- asleep; "Has Father Christmas been yet?"
Sam, excited by Mum’s arrival, leapt off the sofa and started jumping up, trying to lick her face.
"What the fuck’s going on here?" Snorted Dave. "You’re supposed to be in bed young man, and this dog’s supposed to be outside." The dog cowered and snarled. "Get out of here, you dirty fucking animal." He said, grabbing Sam by the neck and dragging him to the door. "And as for you," he hissed at William as he took the dog outside, "Santa’s not coming to you, not now."
William looked at Mum, who sat down beside him, reeking of booze. "Sorry, love." She said, lighting up a fag and waving it about apologetically. She looked at her son’s sorrowful face, the way her husband used to look when he tried to make her feel guilty. As if there was anything wrong in trying to find comfort in the arms of another. After all, he was more interested in the company of a pint glass and only ever touched her with his fists. Despite all the confusion in her head she felt a twinge of conscience. "It’s not because of the dog, you know. I saw Santa earlier and he said he’d overdone it what with all the new babies being born this year, there’s just too many people to get round to these days and he’s really very tired. He said you were such a good boy you’d understand. Now off you go to bed."

William went upstairs but he couldn’t sleep. Not with the sound of Dave yelling at Sam, calling him a dirty fucking animal, hearing the thud of his boots in the dog’s side and his Sam’s pitiful yelps. William kept his clothes on and put on the Nike trainers his dad had bought him. They were a squeeze to get into now, but they were the only pair he had and he could run like the wind when he had them on. William waited, unable to look until it was all over.

When the shouting and yelping finally stopped, and Mum and Dave were giggling together in Mum and Dad’s room, William took a deep breath and opened the curtains. He could see Sam lying in his kennel, whimpering softly. Gingerly, William opened the window, climbed out and grabbed hold of the drainpipe. He slid down it as he’d done many times before, but this time he knew he wasn’t coming back. He landed on tiptoes in the yard and went over to Sam who was bleeding round the mouth. This didn’t stop him from licking William so that blood smeared his face, too. William untied the rope that chained him to the kennel and carried him round the front, down the path and out of the gate that was always open. This time, for the first ever, William stopped and pulled the gate shut behind him. The snap of the latch was like the starting gun of a race. He put Sam down on the pavement and looked up. Snow had started to fall. The lights in all the windows seemed brighter now, more magical. Never had William felt so alive. "Come on, Sam!" He said to his dog, and together they ran through streets -it was all theirs, this shimmering Christmas night.

© John Peters 2000

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