Santa and his Festive Friends

‘Rudolf, watch out for the…’. Screeeeeeech, boom, bang, boing. Santa heaved himself up from the street and traced his swollen fingers through his sodden beard, removing globs of pungent brown sludge, ‘…temple’, he groaned. It was Christmas Eve, which you’ll know presents Santa and co with the unspeakable task of delivering lashings of gifts and wishes to good little Christian boys and girls around the world. But this year, after avoiding getting stuck up a chimney or a much talked about strike of the Elfin Union, Santa had crash landed in the coastal town of Pondicherry, which twinkles in candlelight on the south east coast of India. His familiar red tunic hid the ribbons of sweat that now traversed his bulbous body, and his cherished sack had only survived thanks to a well placed umbrella of a local – now somewhat ranting – chai-chai-wallah.

As he brushed himself down and replaced his specs, he could see through the smudged lenses the image of Rudolf and friends being carried away aloft a raucous choir of locals, we would never know the fate of many of the fallen (reports of reindeer biryani are to be confirmed). Stood flummoxed by this very real dilemma – that Christmas could be cancelled – he swept his glance across the crowd, searching for some inspiration, some secret solution to his legendary positions impending downfall. ‘Hindustan, Hindustan!’ roared factions of the pack, his arrival brining them to familiar fever pitch. He sunk his head toward the grungy pavement, closed his eyes tightly and focused with all his might, soon the din of the crowd began to distance itself and an idea cascaded through his veins and to the tip of salvation, but at that very moment he was cruelly distracted by a gentle tugging at his knees. Investigating, he found two pairs of eyes, like winter moons staring up at him from beneath their shaggy manes, one a blonde short-haired girl who could easily have been mistaken for one of his most mischievous elves, the other ‘tiny Tim’ showing features more akin to his travels in the Philippines, (or maybe Florida) than of this idyllic Indian town. Their gaze scaled up and over his belly, grasping its way through the slimy crags of his beard and trickled into his soul, before opening his throbbing heart with the anticipation of a crumpled Christmas cracker. He saw goodness, they saw ‘rupee, rupee! Reb Reb, 10 rupee? Rupee? School-pen? Pen? Sharon, school pen Sharon?’. The beauty of the moment came crashing like a fallen angel, cruelly shaken free of her tinsel drenched tree; though, naturally, in the spirit of Christmas he found a stocking of surprise to bring a little Christmas cheer to their lives, and before leaving he warmed their hands with a couple of Lapland dollars, hoping they would buy themselves something unforgettable this Christmas. He seized the moment and escaped the crowd, dashing through the labyrinthine streets he emerged wide-eyed outside a Hindu temple, while baubles of sweat splashed from his brow between the cattle and carnage of everyday Indian life.

‘Rickshaw? Rickshaw? OK, OK!’ Santa turned on a sixpence to see a tall, slim man slamming the tattered brown plastic seat of his weathered chariot, beaming widely from ear to ear. He didn’t need asking twice, Santa leapt aboard and with the speed of a hobbling lamb they navigated their way through the narrow streets, whenever he dared to turn his back he could see the crowd (led fearlessly by the Rupee Sisters) melting like a snowdrift into the distance. ‘What country?’ asked the rickshaw-wallah, ‘ho ho ho, Lapland of course! What about you?’ he chimed, the conversation providing a welcome distraction from is breathless body, ‘New Zealand mate!’ said the wallah, taking Santa completely by surprise ‘look behind you!’ Santa turned to see the fair bespeckled figure of a rickshaw-wallahess pedalling her heart out, carrying a cargo of a highly bemused and battered Rudolf who had woken to find his aching hind slumped awkwardly across her cushioned steed. ‘Why, who’s that?’ Santa quizzed, bewildered how he’d completely lost sight of everything, ‘that’s the girlfriend Baba, Rachel!’ he chirped with a jingle in his voice. ‘Hey Andrrrrew! Slow down!’ came the dainty, poetic voice to Santa’s rear ‘Rudolf’s in a bad way, his nose is turning blue! Looooook!’. Before long they were riding parallel and to Santa’s relief they all seemed well-versed on his vocation, and the urgent need to get him back on his feet and streaming brightly like bunting through the world’s secret skyways.

With a screech, the pair of wallahs ground their brakes and Santa jumped out, glad to have reached a destination. Rachel-wallah ushered him inside the hideout where he was greeted by a pair of friendly faces stood proudly, smoking cigarettes behind a wooden countertop – they had that loving look, that could easily have fooled you into thinking they were your very own parents. ‘Welcome! Namaste! Have a look around our art gallery, Mr Santa. What country?’, Santa sighed like a Christmas turkey, ashamed that he had fallen so easily for this ploy. ‘Lapland’ he uttered, before once more adhering to the spirit of Christmas and traipsing obligingly behind an insistent Maureen and Steve trying to push marble Taj Mahals, ‘real marble Santa sir. Want a brandy?’; sandalwood Shiva’s ‘very holy Santa. Why not a whisky?’; red silk scarves ‘Mrs Christmas would love! Have a ciggy?’ It took a lot of backward steps, head wobbles and the odd tipple-two-or-three to shake the pair off, he eventually edged his way toward the exit, if only to stumble stylishly over the threshold of the shop and back once more into the ubiquitous grime. He was greeted by the worn sandals of the awaiting Wallahs, ‘let’s go! OK OK!’ Rachael slammed the seat of her spouse’s steed before bouncing back in front of a sickened Rudolf. Santa, now on the verge of retirement wilted back onto his seat, and they rode off once more carrying sacks, Shiva’s, scarves and all.

Santa tried with all his might to imagine how to lift his spirits and rescue Christmas and while rounding the corner (on one wheel) was about to insist the Wallahs released him when without instruction they yanked the brakes and pulled up aside an oily puddle. He alighted, and produced a wedge of Lapland Dollar, tipping his Wallahs as finely as a festive feast. ‘Noooo, sir’, Rachel stared at him poker faced, hand upturned. He plied her hand with more. She still refused, her hand remained until Santa had all but given up his Christmas bonus. In a penultimate gesture, the now prosperous Wallahs led him passed gaggles of nodding men and through a side door. It soon became apparent he was in the reservation office of the local railway, dark windows sprouted impenetrable swarms of people. Andrew-Wallah took him by the arm, and pointed towards another, less prominent doorway while Rachel struggled on determinedly behind, beneath the deadweight of a wheezing Rudolf. The familiar chimes of ‘rupee, rupee!’ rose upwards from the recurring Rupee Sisters, this time gifted just a wagging finger and a head-wobble before shunting his way passed throngs of entranced onlookers and into a little-known office. Andrew spoke a little Hindi, which combined with a few well-placed Lapland dollars secured Santa a ticket aboard the resplendent Lapland Express, the official railway of the seasonal skies. Santa was touched, the everlasting humanity of others had presented Christmas, with a real chance.

The train was pearlescent red with double white stripes streaming the length of nine spotless carriages. It rode above glistening sets of silver lined wheels and had the warm, spicy aroma of mulled wine. Mirrored windows harboured vistas dusted with snow, while white plumes of steam filled the air with glitter, tasteful fairy-lights lit the car aisles – a scene that instantaneously instilled Santa with the belief. After tending to a slowly recovering Rudolf, he took his seat and chuckled a hearty, ‘ho ho ho’. ‘All aboarrrrrrrd the Lapland Express, all aboarrrrd!’ rang out the Chief conductress with her soft melodic tones (strangely similar in accent to the Wallahs’), ‘all aboarrrrrrd, Christmas is coming! All aboard!’, her words fell like morning snowflakes. The train gently moved off with an accompanying jingle, ‘tickets pleeeeease, tickets at the ready people’. Santa put down the complimentary mince pie and peg of medicinal brandy and produced his crimson ticket, following it’s path up to find the conductresses festive features, peaked by a red crown, ‘Merry Christmas Santa sir, I’m Pam your hostess for this years joyous journey. I’m sorry to hear about the mishap, if there’s anything else I can do for you, please, just ask’. He couldn’t muster words worthy enough to reward her kindness, though she saw his smile balancing his glazed eyes.

The Lapland Express swooped up and into the skies of South India, as it looped north Santa caught the sight of it’s unmistakable trail lighting up the skies like tinsel through the cars window and in the reflection he saw his fellow passengers proffering their tickets; a pair of parental shop keepers, with luggage crammed with cheer, the Wallahs and their shiny rescue rickshaws and the bright eyed Rupee Sisters clutching the remnants of their crispy Lapland dollars, and also a passenger previously unknown to Santa; a curly haired elfin boy tapping quietly away at a laptop, he looked up only once, he winked and softly wished his travel mates a ‘very, Merry Christmas’.