“Why did I agree to this,” he wondered, frowning, as he walked down the long hallway toward the parlor. Although he’d never admit it, even to himself, he knew exactly why he’d agreed to fill in last minute for a no-show Santa: the sweetness in the eyes of the woman who’d asked him to do it.
Lila had caught his attention the few other times he’d been inside. He’d always had to force himself to shift his gaze from the warm smile she cast. Her trim figure, always in motion, was flattered by her uniform; the graceful movement, mesmerizing to him. He tried to push the vision out of his head after each encounter as there was no reasonable way for him to get to know her better or contrive to run into her more often.
He paused to glance at his reflection in a large gilt-framed mirror and sighed. “I don’t even look believable.” He was thinner than one would expect a Santa Claus to be, his moustache and hair a little too stiff and long, his boots a dull brown and still crusted with mud from working in the estate’s woods and fields. Reaching the doorway, he hesitated a moment before stepping gingerly onto the expensive rug.
She was already in the room. “Come in!” she said brightly, turning at the sound of movement. Oh that smile! “Don’t worry about the rug. The children will be dropping popcorn and crumbs everywhere, so it will need to be cleaned anyway,” she said cheerfully. He was grateful to her for putting him at ease so quickly, and tried to shrug off wondering how awkward he must have looked for her to know right away what was troubling him. “That chair is for you,” she said pointing to a rustic wooden rocker placed in front of the Christmas tree.
“How stupid of me,” he thought. “Obviously that chair is for me, but here I just stand like a dolt waiting for her to tell me where to sit.”
He glanced around the area, taking in the display of wealth. Tasteful and understated though it was, no detail could be found lacking. The furniture had been moved to the perimeter or maybe some of it had been taken out; he wasn’t familiar with this room. A buffet table on the right wall held arrangements of treats served in silver or crystal bowls and on ornate platters. A gramophone stood waiting to blare holiday standards.
The Christmas tree in the corner was a bit spindly compared with the others placed throughout the mansion, but still dazzling with several kinds of tinsel covering the branches. Under it, a store’s worth of gifts crowded the chair: dolls in carriages, large-scale model trains, tricycles, musical instruments, and sports equipment dwarfed a pile of smaller goods hidden from view inside fancy ribbon-topped boxes.
He turned and settled into the chair in time to see Lila leave. No sooner had she gone than a gaggle of awe-struck children began filling the room. They ranged in age from about four to maybe 10 years old, and it seemed there were too many of them for him to count, all wordlessly looking back and forth from the tree with its towering piles of gifts to the table with its towering piles of sweets.
Lila breezed back into the room and cheerfully instructed the children to line up to visit Santa and select a gift from under the tree, unperturbed by the jostling for position that ensued. Some of the children shoved to the back decided to change course, going for first dibs on the sweets instead. One extremely shy boy clung to the wall, not willing to step into either fray.
The first several children, proud of themselves for having the largest selection of gifts from which to choose, sat on his lap for mere seconds before jumping down to grab their prizes. Those who had been waiting longer had either resigned themselves to a second choice item or spent the time noticing Santa’s inadequate appearance, then spending their turn lending their voices to his internal worries.
As the line dwindled, he glance to his right out of the corner of his eye and saw that the shy boy still kept close company with the wall. When the last child had climbed down from his lap and run off with a gift, he sighed again, glad the afternoon was almost over but wondering what to do about the shy child. He looked around for help, but Lila wasn’t in the room. He smiled at the boy and gestured for him to come over. Eyes wide, the boy edged closer. He looked around for something the boy might like and grabbed the last tricycle.
“This is for you,” he said. The boy took another hesitant step. He smiled broadly, and the boy moved close enough to touch the bike. He leaned back in the rocker, satisfied that his day playing Santa had come to a close. But to his great amazement, the boy suddenly climbed into his lap, rested his head on the white fluffy trim of the Santa suit, and fell asleep.
“John! I’m glad you’re–” Lila stopped, surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought they’d all gone. Let me take him back to his mother,” she continued in a whisper. “I came to let you know we’re having a gathering in the staff lounge. I was hoping you’d join me.”
He looked up from the small boy snuggled in his lap to the woman he thought about for so long now standing in front of him. “Nothing would make me happier.”
Post by Meredith Prince, winner of the Winterthur Yuletide Creative Writing Contest