Hands in his pockets, he stood on the bank watching Rick, the landlord, attach the last of the fairy lights around the edge of the boat. It rocked in the water haphazardly as the rotund man stepped out.
“That’ll look good,” Rick said, nodding at his handy work with a grin. “In the dark. From a distance.”
George McDonald was not convinced. It looked what it was – a pole from one of the pub’s garden umbrellas strewn with tiny lights to give the illusion of a sail, added to an old canoe that had seen better days. In the bright winter sun, it was hard to imagine any child would accept this boat was special, fit for the most famous and magical man, never mind the whole village.
Trudging into the warm bar, George readily accepted the pint of his favourite beer, savouring the rich flavour before gulping it down and demanding another. He ignored the nagging voice in his mind, which suspiciously sounded like Martha, questioning the wisdom of drinking the first one, let alone the second. Or third. He needed Dutch courage, George told himself and if he found it at the bottom of his pint glass, that was good enough for him.
Later at home, George sat in the dark and a cold mist formed with every breath. He should really put the heating on he thought, and eat, as his stomach growled loudly, reminding him he had not eaten since breakfast. He shuffled to the fridge and remembered that he had not been shopping either. The hall clock struck five. The countdown to the time he was going to make a fool of himself had begun. Any false courage seeped away with every loud movement of the minute hand. He was not going to do it. No one should expect him to, and George longed to remain at home alone, not at the centre of attention and joviality. The landlord would have to do it, he decided. After all, he was the one who got him into this situation and he had the perfect physique for it without the padding George was expected to wear.
Martha had been so pleased when she had heard on the grapevine that George had drunkenly volunteered to be the new Father Christmas for the annual event. Finally, he was taking part in village life rather than being aloof in his shed. She loved everything about Christmas and felt a glimmer of pride that she would be married to Santa (albeit a fake one). Within days the sound of the sewing machine could be heard behind the closed door with an intermittent humming of carols. George had shaken his head, bewildered. It was only June. When asked, she declared no husband of hers was dressing up in a hole-ridden, threadbare costume. It was this suit that Rick had thrust into George’s arms as he staggered out of The White Horse earlier and the suit George was going to return.
When he went into the hall he heard the faint, gentle hum of a Christmas carol. Cautiously, he opened the door. The scent Martha always wore greeted him. This was her world. Rows of jars full of buttons lined shelves while fabric billowed from drawers. The radio that was always on sat quietly, and a woollen cardigan draped over a chair just as she had left it. He picked it up and brought it to his face.
As George turned, he saw, hanging behind the door, a red velvet cape trimmed with fur, draped over a green robe. It was a replica of the printouts of Father Christmas that were scattered a pin-board on the wall and reminiscent of the clothing Martha always spoke about when she recalled her childhood Christmases. As he caressed the fabric, he felt her near, urging him not to let the village children down, nor her. The arrival of Santa was a tradition she loved and always went to without fail. All except this one. A tear trickled down his cheek. It was only going to be a simple procedure. She promised she would be ok, but now the world was colder place and he was lost without her.
He slipped the costume on. He felt her warmth and imagined her smile as he was transformed.
“For goodness sake, stand up straight, George,” he heard her say. “Father Christmas does not slouch.”
The boat creaked as the local Scout Master escorted him around the village island for the third time. The bright colourful lights from the trees danced in the reflections on the water while the ducks looked at him curiously. The swan stood guard on the muddy bank, ready to warn him off if he got too close. The cheers from the children drowned out the sound of the brass band playing. They didn’t care about the boat. Rick was right, it did look all right from distance, in the dark… and by the time it was moored up, the excitement shown in the faces of the children covered up any misgivings he once had. Lifting the sack full of presents on to his back, George felt a genuine smile form on face, before saying in his deep baritone voice “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!”