August 5, 2016 by Lyn
Reid sealed the last envelope, and stacked them neatly in a pile on his desk. There weren’t that many – he didn’t speak to his father, and his mother and siblings had proven far more human than he had. Of what few loves he had had through the decades, most were also gone, and a few simply wished not to be reminded of him.
Humming “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” he slipped into the long, warm, fur-trimmed forest-green duster that he wore only this once a year. He stared at his reflection in a mirror until he’d tweaked his Mask into shape, tucked the cards deep into a pocket, picked up his sack of toys, and headed to the Village.
Maureen met him at her door with a coronet of holly leaves and a kiss sufficient to draw the cold from his bones. “You look perfect, dear,” she purred.
“So do you, Mistress Claus,” he teased; for tonight, she’d dressed to match, in a lovely dark green dress with red beads along the neckline. She was, as always, stunning, and he entertained a moment or two of decidedly un-Saintly thoughts.
But there were children in the house – every child in the Village, actually, as well as four of the very goodest of the very few good girls among Addergoole’s students and two boys who did their best to be good enough to suit, sweet kids who’d agreed to take on baby-sitting a village of kids for Christmas Eve. He ran a hand through his beard, kissed Mistress Claus chastely on the cheek, and stepped in to Maureen’s living room for his second-favorite part of this holiday.
“Dr. Reid!” Kyle, one of the older kids, looked up, the excitement of the season momentarily overwhelming his teenage apathy. Once he called, all but the youngest took up the call, and Reid was soon mobbed with small children tugging at his coat.
“Come on, kids,” Sarita called out; for such a fragile-looking girl, the Third Cohort student had an impressive voice. “Remember what we talked about.”
Over her shoulder, Maureen caught Reid’s eye, and smiled. She approved of this one. Good; so did he. And the kids seemed to listen to her, settling into a nice semi-circle in front of him, the tallest kids in the middle, the shortest at the edges, their minders at the ends holding the babies.
“We…” she coaxed, and the kids broke into song.
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.
They weren’t high art by any means, but Reid loved them nonetheless. “And a Merry Christmas to all of you, too,” he called, as he reached into the giant sack and pulled out the first toy.
“Nila,” he called out, and a slender, coltish Indian girl stepped forward shyly to receive her gift. “Niall!” A little boy, the son of one of his favorite First Cohort students. “Eryk!” Another toddler, in denim and barefoot, like his mother.
His gifts were always educational in nature, but when they were small, kids didn’t seem to mind if they learned while they played. It was harder with the older kids, of course, but many of them didn’t want to like anything at all.
“Chandra.” A little princess, like her mother, no matter how much Shira tried to raise her right. “Gavin.” A big boy, for all that he hadn’t reached his teens yet.
He knew them all, made a point of spending a little time with each of them throughout the year. He wanted his gifts to be appropriate, to be, if possible, appreciated. “Cecily. December. Annika. Ignez.” It had been easier the first few years, when there had only been a few children around the place. As the years went on, especially now as the students had begun having children, it took up more and more of his time. He didn’t mind; he had plenty of free time, and his own children were all passed on, grown up, or far away.
He handed a thick book to Alastríona; her mother would think it was too advanced for her, but she was a brighter girl than she was given credit for. Alewar, still in the grabbing-everything stage, got a set of brightly-colored wooden blocks. Aoibhe, who would be breaking hearts in a year or two down at Addergoole, got a tool kit, which she hugged to herself when she thought no-one was looking. And so it went, from the tiny babies still in arms all the way up.
Reid loved this, even when the kids discarded the gifts apathetically on the floor – someone always would, especially with this many to buy for, and children were often brutally honest. There were enough children hugging his legs, as Filippo was now, or shyly dragging their gift into a corner to examine it – Nilam, behind the couch, just old enough to be self-conscious, and Gwenaëlle’s daughter Elisheba under the dining room table – to more than make up for a couple lukewarm reactions.
It was a good thing they’d started early today, he noted, as he handed a very shy Aatami his lumpily-wrapped present; at this rate, they’d be lucky to get out the door by eight or nine.
He was pulling the last gift out of his bag – a soft, smooshy package with two long sharp rosewood ribs for Brita, who was just learning to knit – when Kyle came back up to him, an enigmatic look that might be confusion playing across his features, so very similar to his mother and half-sisters.
Reid braced himself – Kyle’s similarities to Maureen and her daughters didn’t end at his features, and he could be as volatile as a wildfire.
“A GameBoy?” the boy asked incredulously. Impossible to tell if that was a good incredulousness or bad, so Reid plowed ahead with his best “benevolent uncle” smile. “‘Educational’ can have a very broad definition.”
“My mother won’t like it,” the boy countered; it must be the good flavor of disbelief. Reid lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Lady Maureen rarely likes anything I do,” he confided. Kyle grinned, glancing down at his still-packaged gift.
“Thanks, Dr. Reid.”
“Ready to go, Saint Nick?” Maureen wrapped her arm around Reid’s waist possessively, and he laughed as both he and Kyle jumped.
“Of course, Mis… Lady Claus.” And that look on Kyle’s face was crystal clear – Reid had seen the are you going to be my father now?expression on more than one of Maureen’s kids through the years. “Are the elves ready?”
“The sleigh is packed, the reindeer are chomping at the bit, and the elves are threatening to TP my house if we don’t go soon. What’s more, our baby-sitters are eager to have us out of the house.”
“Let me give Brita her present, and we can go clean some chimneys.” From the look on Kyle’s face, he thought Reid and his mother were up to something dirty.
If only. He squelched the un-saintly thought and presented the twee little blonde girl with her gift. “Merry Christmas, Brita.”
“Merry Christmas, Dr. Reid.” She hugged the leg Filippo had so recently vacated and scampered off to unwrap her present, and Reid, guided by the forever-serene Maureen, waded through children to the back door.
Elves, indeed. Ginger, Laurel, and Shira waited by the car, dressed in demure green dresses and jackets with perky little elf hats. Even Shira looked like she was having a good time.
Maureen drove. Reid wanted to argue, but it was her car and, besides, arguing with her never got him anywhere. On the way to the airport, the women sang Christmas carols, occasionally arguing about the lyrics. The carols, and the arguing, were as much a tradition as this drive was, as Reid’s yearly turn as Santa Claus was. There was comfort to be had, he’d found, not only in the companionship of good friends, but in the routine of repeated actions. Knowing he’d be shouted down if he joined in, he sat back and enjoyed the arguments.
Their sleigh was indeed packed – Regine’s private jet, which they commandeered this once a year, on a holiday she didn’t care about – the “reindeer,” their pilot, impatient to be gone. Reid felt a little bad for him – unlike everyone else here, this wasn’t a volunteer mission for him, and he probably had family he wanted to get home to. Still, he was professional, not even raising an eyebrow at their outfits, getting them off the ground in record time, and he was getting well-paid for this.
Once they settled in, the “elves” picked up their caroling – and their debating – again.
“Seriously? And you call yourself a history teacher?”
“And you call yourself a Latin teacher?”
“Laurel,” Reid scolded mildly, just as Maureen cut in with,
“Ginger…” They shared a glance of wry amusement, and the girls, chastised, went back to singing.
They set down twelve songs and thirteen arguments later in a nearby city, where Maureen’s other elves had already bee n hard at work. A van waited for them, half-filled with goods to supplement that which they had brought on their sleigh.
“Jolly old St. Nickolas…” Maureen sang softly to him, as he hefted another green sack over his shoulder. Much to his chagrin, he found himself blushing. “I’m glad you’re willing to do this with me, Reid.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything, Mo,” he answered her, just as softly. She’d originally asked him along on his first of these Christmas Eve trips – before they’d even heard of the Addergoole School – because, as she’d said, “being a woman alone on these streets isn’t safe, even if you’re me. But most men I could bring along are too threatening, or come off as just plain creepy playing St. Nick.”
A little grateful to not be considered “creepy,” Reid didn’t mind that he wasn’t threatening. He’d spent decades cultivating a non-threatening reputation, after all. And if that reputation let him do something he enjoyed while spending Christmas Eve with Maureen, well, all the better, then.
They started with the hookers. This was Maureen’s tradition, after all, and Maureen always started with the streetwalkers. Wise men and women knew not to argue with Maureen about such things. In their van with their native guide, a skinny woman who had the look of a former addict, they travelled to the city’s less reputable districts, pulled their van to the curb, and began distributing their gifts.
Warm sandwiches. Hot coffee. The winter was cold, and these girls never wore enough clothing. Boots and gloves that looked nice and stayed warm, the charms stitched into the black-on-black embroidery to keep them from being stolen. Even though they hit a different city every year, the working girls trusted Maureen, and somehow they trusted Reid in his St. Nick getup.
“It seems like so little,” Ginger complained, in between stops. “We’re not actually fixing the problem.”
“No,” Maureen agreed. “But I’ve never been of the opinion that it’s our job to fix people’s problems. That’s an arrogance I’ll leave to Those Who Guide.”
They left that comment hanging in the air, none of them willing to touch it. “Then what’s the point?” Ginger asked instead. “If they’ll still be hungry and cold again tomorrow?”
“They’ll be less hungry and less cold than if we hadn’t stopped,” Maureen pointed out placidly, “and that’s my point, at the very least. What yours is, I don’t know.”
“I just want to help,” Ginger said in a small voice. A moment passed, and another, while the rest of the van held their breath, before Maureen relented.
“I know you do,” she said gently. “And sometimes it feels like trying to drain an ocean with a thimble. But the boots keep them warm and the food fills the holes in their stomach and for one day they know someone cared enough to stop. “
“‘Charity ain’t giving people what you wants to give, it’s giving people what they need to get,’” Shira quoted, her crisp voice slipping around the rough accent strangely. Ginger sighed softly and sank into her seat, and Reid wondered what she’d been expecting from this trip.
They stopped at the fire halls next – coffee and baklava and cookies made from Maureen’s grandmother’s recipe, thick and rich and nourishing – and at several hospital emergency rooms – light finger food and coffee for the staff, and a double dozen tiny hats and soft receiving blankets for babies lucky enough to be born to the world on Christmas Eve – and at those places the women sang sweet carols while Reid looked saintly, and here, there was no arguing over the lyrics.
Midnight passed while they sang, and it was the wee hours of Christmas morning when they began to visit the homeless shelters. As they parked the van outside, Ginger smiled shakily at Maureen.
“Thimbles ready?” The smile the older women gave her in response was as warming as the cocoa they’d been drinking all night.
“My dear, with you here, it’s at the very least a shot glass.”
The “Charity ain’t…” quote is from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, a holiday story which puts mine to shame.