A Date With Santa

Was Josephine be­ing naïve, or was there more to the ad than met the eye?

My Weekly - - Contents - By Holly Hep­burn

RU a hot­tie? Play a wants D8M8. Cldbu! Josephine read the newsprint through twice then blinked wearily. Was it a code? The only bit she un­der­stood was the open­ing ques­tion and al­though she did of­ten get a bit flushed, she didn’t think a menopausal fifty-some­thing was what the writer had in mind.

“Why would some­one like that need a lonely hearts ad­vert?” she asked Keely, who was por­ing over a dat­ing web­site. “There’s a lot more op­por­tu­nity to meet peo­ple than when I was young.”

“If only it was that sim­ple.” Her daugh­ter rolled her eyes. “Be­sides, this is the way every­one dates now. Peo­ple are busy – who’s got time to find some­one they fancy, work out whether they like them back and if they’re sin­gle?”

“I sup­pose it does save a lot of mess­ing about,” Josephine con­ceded doubt­fully. “But that was half the fun. I don’t think Mr Playa is my type, any­way.” Keely peered over her shoul­der. “What about that one?” “Cud­dly North­ern er seeks down-to earth nights. Age and looks un­im­por­tant. What does that mean?” “He’s fat and ugly.” “Keely!” Grin­ning, Keely re­lented. “OK, that’s the worst case sce­nario. At best, it means he’s not shal­low. What else does it say?” “Must be un­der­stand­ing .” “Huh, he’s mar­ried.” Keely sounded dis­gusted. “Let’s look again.”

By the time Keely went home, Josephine had a short­list of five po­ten­tial dates. It seemed she wasn’t trusted to write her own replies; her daugh­ter had com­posed those, too. Du­ti­fully, she typed them up and sent each one to the email ad­dresses shown.

She sat back; not much to do now but wait. As she folded the pa­per, her eye was drawn back to Cud­dly North­erner’s ad­vert. Maybe she was naïve but he sounded nice. And it was pos­si­ble Keely was wrong; “un­der­stand­ing” didn’t have to mean “love-rat”, did it?

Josephine read the words again and sighed. It was so dif­fi­cult to get a sense of some­one from words on a page; the only way to make a true judge­ment was to meet them in per­son. Josephine reached for the key­board and be­gan to type.

“I’m a FREE MAN on Box­ing Day. WILD REINDEER couldn’t keep me AWAY”

You’re home later than I ex­pected. How did it go?” Keely dis­carded her mag­a­zine and rose to greet her mother. “Ac­tu­ally, no – don’t bother an­swer­ing that. Your face says it all.”

Glimps­ing her re­flec­tion, Josephine had to agree; her eyes were sparkling and she was beam­ing from ear to ear.

“I had a lovely time. Chris was charm­ing. We had tapas at a gor­geous lit­tle Span­ish res­tau­rant he knew.”

Keely sank back onto the sofa. “So what are you wait­ing for? Kick off your shoes and spill the beans.”

When it came down to it, Josephine was sur­prised by how lit­tle she had to tell. “Cud­dly North­erner” had turned out to be a wid­ower in his early six­ties, with no chil­dren. De­spite his pure white beard, he had a youth­ful face and Josephine had warmed to him in­stantly. In fact, he’d seemed oddly fa­mil­iar and she’d thought they’d met be­fore.

It wasn’t un­til he’d men­tioned his job that the penny dropped and she re­alised where she’d seen him.

“Let me get this straight.” Keely eyed her in dis­be­lief. “My mother is ac­tu­ally dat­ing Fa­ther Christ­mas?”

“I must have walked past Santa’s Grotto a zil­lion times this year al­ready. What a lovely job it must be, mak­ing all those chil­dren happy.” Keely gri­maced. “I bet he meets a few hor­rors. Still, he must be pretty fab­u­lous if he’s man­aged to bag a reg­u­lar gig in Sel­fridges.”

“He cer­tainly looks the part,” Josephine agreed, pic­tur­ing her date’s gen­tly rounded stom­ach and ruddy cheeks. A shy smile crept across her face. “I know it’s early days but I have a re­ally good feel­ing about him.”

Over the chilly weeks lead­ing up to Christ­mas, Josephine found her­self lik­ing Chris even more. His gen­tly self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour, the quiet sat­is­fac­tion he took in his job and his cheer­ful na­ture com­bined to make her count the hours be­tween dates, which weren’t quite as of­ten as she’d like.

He’d ex­plained on their first date that

De­cem­ber was his busiest time, but she couldn’t hide her dis­ap­point­ment when work got in the way. “Won’t you be able to get away at all?” He shook his head, look­ing gen­uinely re­gret­ful. “Christ­mas Eve will be manic. I know from ex­pe­ri­ence that it’ll take me most of the next day to get over it.” Josephine sum­moned a brave face. “I’ll see you on Box­ing Day, though? Even Sel­fridges can’t need a Santa then.” A deep chuckle rum­bled in Chris’ chest. “I’m a free man on Box­ing Day. Wild reindeer couldn’t keep me away.”

Josephine made the best of things, spend­ing Christ­mas Day with Keely and her son-in-law and try­ing her hard­est not to mope. She es­caped as soon as po­lite­ness al­lowed, slip­ping back to her empty house in the early evening.

Grate­ful to aban­don her pre­tence of jol­lity, she closed her front door against the frosty air and clear star­lit sky. She gave a heart­felt sigh; no snow again. Just once, it would be so nice to ex­pe­ri­ence a white Christ­mas.

She was halfway to the liv­ing room when the door­bell chimed. Who on earth could that be?

Her heart leapt as she inched the door open and saw Chris. “Any chance of a sherry?” Swal­low­ing a rush of ela­tion, Josephine ush­ered him into the liv­ing room, bab­bling help­lessly and flick­ing switches as she went. Wav­ing him to­wards the sofa, she dropped both their coats on the stairs and headed to the kitchen for drinks.

Smil­ing, Chris ac­cepted the over­gen­er­ous sherry she handed him with a slightly shak­ing hand. Then, un­der the glow of the fairy lights, Josephine picked up the last gift from un­der the tree.

“It’s not much,” she ven­tured ner­vously, watch­ing him tear away the wrap­ping. “Now you don’t have your Santa out­fit to keep you warm, you might need it.”

He held up the lux­u­ri­ous, hand­knit­ted red scarf, plea­sure ra­di­at­ing from his face. “It’s per­fect. Thank you.” Reach­ing across, he took her hand and touched it to his lips in a feath­ery kiss. Josephine felt her cheeks grow hot. “I know you won’t have had time to get any­thing for me,” she gab­bled. “It’s fine, hon­estly. You’ve been busy –”

“I did get you some­thing.” Ex­cite­ment fizzed inside her. “You didn’t need to.”

“I know,” he said, smil­ing. Then his ex­pres­sion grew thought­ful. “What’s the best Christ­mas present you’ve ever had?” Josephine didn’t have to think. “The charm bracelet I got when I was twelve.” She gave a nos­tal­gic sigh. “It had a silver let­ter J and a tiny wish­ing well and a car­riage with wheels that re­ally turned. My cousin snapped one of them off the day I got it. I cried for hours.” Chris nod­ded. “Where is it now?” A stab of re­gret cut through Josephine. “I lost it years ago, when I moved house. I even went back, to see if the new own­ers had found it.”

“And you’ve never for­got­ten it.” Chris spoke al­most to him­self. A gen­tle smile played around his lips. “Check un­der the Christ­mas tree.” “Your scarf was the only present left.” “Take a look,” Chris sug­gested. Con­vinced she would find noth­ing but pine nee­dles, Josephine knelt down and groped cau­tiously. Sure enough, her fin­gers closed on some­thing. She drew out a beau­ti­fully wrapped gift.

He must have slipped it un­der there while she was in the kitchen, she de­cided. Cast­ing an­other quizzi­cal glance his way, she peeled back the pa­per to re­veal a long slen­der box. Ly­ing inside was a del­i­cate bracelet, ex­actly like the one she had lost.

She gasped in de­light, ex­am­in­ing the shin­ing charms. A silver J nes­tled along­side an in­tri­cate wish­ing well… and a minis­cule car­riage.

She peered more closely. Three wheels per­fectly in­tact; one miss­ing.

Breath caught in her throat, Josephine gazed at Chris. “How –?”

He knelt to fas­ten the clasp around her wrist. “Here, let me help.” “How did you know?” Chris met her ques­tion­ing eyes and his gaze sobered. “When I placed that ad­vert all those months ago, I had a very spe­cific per­son in mind. Some­one un­der­stand­ing, I said. You re­mem­ber?”

Won­der­ing what that had to do with the bracelet, Josephine nod­ded.

“I had very good rea­sons.” He sighed. “I’m afraid I haven’t been en­tirely hon­est with you, Josephine.”

Her heart flut­tered into freefall. This was the part when her world fell apart. Keely had been right; he was mar­ried. She swal­lowed. “Go on.” Chris took a deep breath. “I knew what gift you wanted most be­cause it’s my job to know. Work­ing in a depart­ment store isn’t all I do.” His eyes sought hers. “I’m not just any Fa­ther Christ­mas. I’m the Fa­ther Christ­mas.”

At first, Josephine thought she’d mis­un­der­stood. But Chris didn’t elab­o­rate and the si­lence stretched.

“Don’t be ridicu­lous,” she man­aged even­tu­ally. “There’s no such per­son.”

He spread his hands. “Who else would know about your bro­ken charm? You never told any­one.”

Her mouth dry, Josephine stared. He was right; scared she’d get into trouble, she had hid­den the break­age.

“Who else knows that you wished with all your heart for snow tonight?” He stood. “Come with me.”

From the front door, Josephine peered into the dark sky. The first in­tri­cate flakes were few and far be­tween but soon they were spi­ralling thickly down.

“Still un­con­vinced?” Josephine felt warm breath softly tick­ling her ear. “Look at me. You’ll see.”

Her mind whirling, she gazed up into his twin­kling blue eyes. With a sud­den in­ex­pli­ca­ble flash, she knew ev­ery­thing. He’d been alone a long time, this man who gave ev­ery­thing to the world. It was a soli­tary ex­is­tence; no won­der he’d longed for a com­pan­ion. He needed some­one special to un­der­stand that, for him, work had to come first. Could she be that some­one?

She stretched out awestruck fin­gers to touch his chilly cheek. “Are you real?” He smiled. “I can rus­tle up a ‘Ho Ho Ho!’ if it helps.” Josephine smiled back. “Why now?” Chris shrugged. “I was lonely. The elves are cheer­ful enough but they get a bit weari­some af­ter a while.” A thought oc­curred to Josephine. “In the sto­ries you’re al­ready mar­ried.” His good hu­mour faded. “I didn’t lie when I said I was a wid­ower. My wife fell ill around two hun­dred years ago.” He glanced away. “There wasn’t any­thing I could do.”

Josephine re­mem­bered los­ing her beloved husband, years ear­lier. It had been dev­as­tat­ing but at least she hadn’t had to cope with the thought of spend­ing all eter­nity with­out him. “How did you know I’d be­lieve you?” “I didn’t. But I hoped you would.” Josephine stared at the snow. Be­fore tonight, she’d been on the brink of fall­ing in love with Chris. Kind, con­sid­er­ate and funny, he made her feel young again. Even bet­ter, he seemed to care about her as much as she did about him. Did know­ing who he re­ally was change any of that? “And you live at the North Pole?” He gave a grave nod. “It’s a bit of a com­mute but there’s not a lot of traf­fic.”

She rested her hands against his chest and turned her face up­wards.

“In that case,” she said, “how do you feel about long dis­tance re­la­tion­ships?”

She peered more CLOSELY. Three wheels were IN­TACT, one MISS­ING

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