I was six when I met Santa’s little helper.
I woke up in the middle of the night. I remember the November winds howling past the window – of course back then I didn’t understand that those were November winds, but I knew that they were a sign of Christmas.
My mom always said that Santa and his helpers needed the wind. The reindeers, she said, ate too many sweets during the summer months and so they needed the wind to get off the ground.
Mom also said that Santa liked the snow. He always brought prisons during winter because the snow made him feel less guilty for his weight. And, of course, Santa only brought gifts because he knew that he would get mom’s homemade cookies in return.
It was my dad though that told me about Santa’s helpers. In retrospect I think he might have tried to explain factory labor to me, but when he sat on my bedside and had to explain to me why Christmas was ‘not yet’ he talked about Santa’s helpers instead. He said they were many and they were working hard to make sure that all good children would get their gifts. He always left it open whether I was a good child or not.
“A train,” I told him. “I don’t have a train.”
“Oh,” he said. “Trains are difficult to make, you know? Santa will need to employ some smaller helpers just to make one for you.”
Santa’s little helper. That’s what he called them from then on.
“I want two trains,” I said another night. “So that they don’t have to be alone.”
“Two trains? That means Santa’s little helpers have to work extra shifts!”
I felt sorry for Santa’s little helpers. I imagined their small, thin bodies and their small wives and even smaller children and how sad they were that the little helpers had to work extra shifts – just like I felt sad whenever dad had to work extra shifts.
At least, when dad had to work extra shifts, mom left my bedroom door open. When dad came home late he always stepped first into my room to stroke my hair and give me a kiss. If the door was closed in the morning I knew that dad was home.
Sometimes I woke up during the night. I was happy when the door was closed.
When the winds got stronger and the snowflakes bigger the door was not always closed in the mornings.
“Dad has to help Santa’s helpers to make the trains.”
“But he’s too big,” I said. “He can’t help with the trains. They should let him come home.”
“Oh,” mom said. “If he comes home some children won’t get their Christmas gifts on time.”
Around that time I woke up more frequently during the nights. It might have been the wind. Or it might have been the open door and the draft it allowed to whirl through the room.
Still I insisted that my mom left the door open. I knew that a closed door meant that dad was home. The door should never be closed if dad wasn’t home. He had to close the door, it was dad’s door.
It must have been very close to Christmas. I remember that mom and I went shopping the day before. The shopping mall was crowded and there was a Santa sitting on a big brown chair. I told him that he shouldn’t make dad work so hard in his factory. I said it would be okay if I only got one train and that the train could sleep with me so that it would not be lonely during the night.
Santa promised that dad would come home earlier.
That night, while lying awake and listening to the wind, dad came home. I didn’t open my eyes because I didn’t want him to know that I was awake. Still he brushed through my hair and kissed my forehead.
He smelled foul.
The door closed behind him.
In the morning mom was cheerful.
There were only two plates on the breakfast table.
“Does dad have to work again?”
“Your father works hard. You want a nice Christmas, don’t you?”
“Will he be home tonight?”
“He might be. Just you wait!”
I did wait.
It was strange that I didn’t hear the front door. Usually I heard the clicking of his keys, footsteps and then the door fall back into place. That night there was no clicking and no front door falling shut.
There were only footsteps.
On the stairs. Pausing outside my room. Walking towards my bed.
A hand in my hair. A moist kiss next to my eye.
Foul; very foul. His breath smelled like the big metal bins at the mall.
I rolled over and away from him. I didn’t want a second kiss.
Dad grunted. He ruffled my hair again. Then he walked outside and shut the door.
“Wake up sweetie, only two days ‘till Christmas!”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
“Come on, I made pancakes!”
“Why does dad smell so bad?”
The smile fell from her face.
“What do you mean?”
“Promise you won’t tell dad?”
“Of course I won’t.”
She gave me a kiss. A kiss with a minty smell.
“His mouth smells really bad.”
“Maybe your father didn’t brush his teeth the last time you talked? He’s been very busy.”
“When he comes home tonight, can you tell him not to kiss me?”
“Okay,” mom said. “But I’m not sure if he will be home tonight. He is still traveling, you know?”
“No kiss then?”
“No kiss then.”
She placed her hands on my cheeks and laughed.
“Except from me!”
I didn’t mind the minty kiss.
That night, after she had tucked me in, mom tried to shut the door.
“No!” I said. “Dad has to close!”
“It will be cold.”
“But dad has to do it!”
“I’m not sure if dad can do it tonight.”
I pressed my lips together.
She closed the door half-way.
“I’ll leave it a bit open, okay? Just in case he comes.”
With my head half under my blanket I nodded.
“But no kiss,” I said.
“Of course, no kiss.”
I think it was the draft that woke me up. The footsteps followed. They were dull and slow, the way dad sometimes walked when it was very late and he wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t wake me up.
Dad stopped next to my bed. I felt his warm gaze on me. It made me feel safe, but the cold raised the hair on my neck.
His hand ran through my hair. It felt colder than usual and it seemed to rather grip than ruffle.
‘Dad met his friends,’ I thought to myself.
His hand abruptly left my hair alone.
For a moment he seemed to stand still.
Then I felt his breath; but mostly I smelled it.
A foul, rotting smell; like old fish in the trash.
I moved my head away.
His breath moved away again and the smell got weaker.
There was silence, except for dad’s slow breathing.
The hand moved back to the top of my head; he gripped my hair.
A warm wave of rotting fish approached my face.
I tried to turn away
The hand held my hair in place.
The warm smell nearly touched my face.
“No kiss!” I said.
The breath stopped abruptly.
The hand let go of my hair and dad slowly shuffled back towards the door.
I heard him leave the room; then the footsteps stopped.
I still felt the draft.
I turned to the direction of the door.
I opened my eyes.
The door was wide open.
In the doorframe stood a small man; his head at about the height of the door handle.
I stared at him.
He raised his right hand to his face and placed his thick index finger on his lips. Then he bent forward and his left hand touched the floor. He winked, turned on his heel and walked down the stairs.
When the morning light appeared in my room the door was still open.
My mother looked up from the pancake pan.
“Dad didn’t come home, did he?”
“It’s nice that he sent Santa’s little helper.”
“He sent who?”
“Santa’s little helper,” I said. “He tried to kiss me goodnight.”
“Oh, did you dream something nice?”
“Not a dream,” I said. “He gave me my train.”
I held the black and red locomotive towards her.
“He put it on the floor after he tried to kiss me.”
The pancakes smelled burnt.
A few minutes later there were many people in our house.
Dad came home in the afternoon.
I was happy that we spent Christmas with my grandparents.
Grandpa liked my train, but mom and dad wanted to take it away.
And they all refused to talk about Santa’s little helpers.