Thursday, 23 July 2009

Where once you saw waxwings

“I know a secret,” the old man says.

“What?” you ask, “what?”

“I know,” the old man says, “where Father Christmas keeps his sleigh –”


“– in the Summer.”

“Where? Where does he keep it?”

“An elf told me,” the old man says, and he gives you a knowing nod.

“Where does he keep it? Where does Father Christmas keep his sleigh?”

“I could take you,” he says, “if you were good.”

“Please can we? Please can we go?”

Cabbage is boiling in the kitchen. A fog of dinnertime has flushed the glass behind the geraniums. You can’t be long; it will be ready soon.

“If we’re quick, we can get back before anyone knows we’ve gone.”

Walking beside him through the quiet suburban streets, where colonies of lawnmowers protect their queen, it seems unlikely that the old man would know. It must be a trick, a stage prop from a show. A beautiful troika, copied in intricate detail to give the appearance of the magical vessel whilst on film. You suppose that one of the old man’s friends at the auction house has spotted it and told him where it was. In your head, Leroy Anderson accompanies every step.

“Are we going to the auction house?” you ask.

“Shh,” he tells you, “it’s a secret. We can’t have everyone knowing where it’s kept.”

You’re going to the auction house. This is the way you always go. Perhaps someone has brought a sleigh there to be sold, a sleigh like Father Christmas’s. It could raise a lot of money could that; you don’t suppose these things turn up that often.

Though you do not believe in Father Christmas, you don’t tell the old man this fact. It is something you have long known, that adults enjoy the conspiratorial protection of believing in children’s innocence. Telling him now – asking him, “So, what really is this sleigh?” – would destroy his safety. He would be forced to recognise the pretence that had been going on for years. You had always known; he had not.

“We can’t stay long,” he says, “your dinner will be ready soon.”

The auction house, low and pebble-dashed, sits amongst the industrial sheds around the sweet factory. Burnt sugar smogs the few thwarted rowan trees where once you saw waxwings, but today there are none.

You are not going to the auction house, but instead he leads you down a long, narrow path between two of the adjacent sheds.

“He has to hide it very well,” he says, “no one would find it here.”

You are stepping over cardboard and discarded polythene sheeting. The old man has to push a metal trolley to one side. Leroy’s jingle has become somewhat forced, a reluctant death-rattle as your shoes scrape through the gravel yard behind the building.

“And here it is!” he announces.

And here it is. Even in your most pragmatic reasoning, the sleigh was not this. This is not a sleigh. You stand there and nod. This is what you have come to see; this is what the old man was excited about.

“And he comes to collect it every December, to fill it with toys!”

You nod. Of course he does.

It is made from the same material as your wardrobe at home, only the damp from the yard has seeped into it here; the plastic veneer has buckled revealing the grey, fuzzy chipboard within. It is a large, square box – much like a skip; indeed, it is currently being used as a skip – and on the side is painted the image of a sleigh, packed with toys and a sign: BARGAINS! CURTAIN RAILS! DISCOUNT!

You nod.

“Yes,” you say, “here it is.”

The old man grins at you.

“Aren’t you getting in?”

You look at him, and then at the sleigh, and you cautiously walk towards it, peering down at the contents. It is packed, not with sacks of toys, but with black bin-liners. There is a broken whisky bottle. Some guttering. Moss.

“Go on,” the old man says, “get in and play.”

So you step over the lowest part of the side, and you stand there facing the front, and you stare out. You try to imagine the thing flying over the rooftops of the town – small glittering lights beneath as you have seen in films – but all there is to look at, is the metal shutter to the grey industrial shed, where someone has spray-painted a giant penis.

“Come on,” the old man says, “we haven’t got long. Why don’t you play?”

You look at him, and acceptingly nod, and you pull on your imagined reins with a savagery that could choke a reindeer.

“Why won’t you play?”