A Dirty Business

As I grew older my parents informed me that I was often out of bed at times when I shouldn’t be. I had awful nightmares from as early as I can remember. One of the scariest of them all was seeing many faces above me, all around my arc of vision, staring down at me, grinning. Oh, how those grinning faces, with bad breath and yellowing bucked teeth used to scare me.

As I grew into my teenage years, I gradually began to realise that these faces originated from my short time in the pram. My proud mother would wheel me through the estate on her way to the post office or the Coop, with every nosey mother and even some of the men, wanting to glare down at me, raising their voices a few octaves, poking me in the chest and talking utter nonsense such as, ‘cuchy cuchy coo, who is a pretty little boy then?’ Little did they realise that these acts of unthinking self-indulgence would stay with me for many years, especially during my slumber, which was anything but peaceful.

Sometimes I would simply wake up screaming, ‘Go away! Go away!’ Other times I would quietly climb out of bed, walk about the house, usually not waking before I was back in bed. My father would normally hear me. Mostly he would gently guide me back under the bedsheets, without waking me up, and sitting with me until he was sure that my nocturnal activities had subsided.

On rare occasions I would wake up. I would cling to him, shaking with fear until the faces disappeared. On these occasions, if it was a particularly bad bout of angst, he would hold me in one arm while making me a cup of cocoa with his free hand. I would then sit on his lap, sipping the warm milky mix and snuggling into his pyjamas. These were my most special moments and the only times when I had Dad all to myself. Normally he was far too busy with his work to spend time for such tenderness.

One of my other regular dreams, which only on rare occasions turned itself into a nightmare, was the imagination that I could fly. It was one of these such occurrences that I wish to tell you about today.
******
It was the Christmas of 1966. That year, Christmas Day was on a Sunday. I was eight years old. The day before was very cold, with a clear blue sky and hard frost in the morning. I was especially excited this year because I had a feeling that my letter to Father Christmas would be answered. Of course, I no longer believed in a real Santa Claus. I had overheard my Dad telling Mum to keep me from going into the shed, because my present was there. I had wanted my first bike and knew that a bike would need something like a shed to hide in, rather than a bedroom cupboard. I was convinced that this year was bike year.
As Dad was off work on Christmas Eve, being a Saturday, he took me and my sister, Jenny on a long walk, with our dog. Betsy was a corgi crossed with a cairn terrier, and loved to be out with us along the canal. Mum had loads of baking and housework to do, so I think she was glad that we all went out of her way.
We walked over the fields near our house, down to a little hump-backed bridge over the canal. It was ever so cold and I was glad to have my woolly mittens on that Mum made for me. We walked along the edge of the canal, careful not to slip in. Even though it was frozen over, we would have gone right through for sure.
Suddenly Dad called out, ‘look Jimmy’, and pointed into the bright blue sky. At first I could see nothing unusual. He was pointing near to the sun and it dazzled me. I squinted my eyes and there it was, a big bird, stationary in the sky. It wasn’t moving. It just stayed exactly still.
‘It is a buzzard’, said Dad.
‘Why doesn’t it fall down?’, I asked. ‘If I sat up in the sky like that, I would just go plop onto the floor.’
Dad explained that the bird is not as exactly still as he looks. He is fluttering his feathers and wings just a little, balancing his weight against the wind.
I saw his head twitch slightly as he spotted something on the ground. He dived towards it. I thought he was going to crash right into the mud, but just at the last second his wings came up and he stopped an inch above the ground. Then, in a split second he was off again, flapping his wings and souring away.
‘whooaahh’ , I blurted out. ‘Jenny, did you see that?’
But Jenny was too busy concentrating on some ice over a puddle, trying to break it through.
‘Dad, I wish I could fly like that’, I said. ‘Imagine, it would be great.’
Dad laughed and said, ‘come on kids. Let’s jog a little. I’m getting cold’
When we got home I told Mum all about the buzzard. We had our dinner and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I remember thinking that I would much rather have wings than a new bike.
After we had eaten Dad showed me some pictures of birds from his wildlife book, and I eventually fell asleep in the armchair with the book still open on my lap.
******
I woke up. It was the middle of the night. I was in the living room. It was dark and cold and I was all alone. I knew that I must have been dreaming again, because the house was so quiet and I was scared. I wanted my Dad to come and make some cocoa.
I started to sob, when I heard a grunting sound coming from the fireplace. “oh bother’, I heard someone say. ‘Why don’t they build chimneys like they used to?’
I edged closer, until I was almost looking up the chimney. I could see a big black boot. I wanted to run, but something deep inside of me said that the voice I heard was not dangerous. Somebody or something was coming down the chimney and I needed to see who or what it was, even if it was going to gobble me up. I had to see.
Then there were two big boots, then stumpy little fat legs and finally a fat old man with a white beard and red suit stepped right out of the chimney, onto the hearth. My mouth was open, but I couldn’t speak. This was Santa. He really did exist and came down the chimney, just like I had been told. I was overcome with guilt. Only yesterday I told Jenny that he didn’t really exist and she cried. She said I was a horrible brother for saying such lies. Now, I knew she was right.
Santa took one look at me and said, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! You shouldn’t be here. You should be in bed sleeping.’
‘I’m s..s..sorry Mr. Santa, but I must have been dreaming and must have started to sleepwalk around the house. My Dad said I do it a lot.’
‘Well, never mind I suppose. I will just have to give you a sniff of “forget everything” powder before I leave. What were you dreaming about?’
‘Oh, I was dreaming about being able to fly. I would love to learn to fly. Can you fly, Santa?’
Santa replied thoughtfully, ‘well, normally I leave that job to my eight reindeers, as that is their job, but in order to meet the modern health and safety regulations I also had to do the full course in flying training. So yes, I can fly. Anyone can as long as they are trained properly.’
I imagined myself flying through the rooftops, delivering presents just like Santa. ‘Wow, so that means I could fly if only I had someone to teach me?’
Santa went very quiet for a moment. ‘I shouldn’t really be doing this but you seem like a nice boy’, he said. ‘I tell you what, if you promise to have an extra-large sniff of “forget everything” powder, when we return, I will show you the basics. I also did the flying instructors course last summer.’
We climbed up the chimney together and there, hovering above the house roof were eight beautiful reindeer, harnessed to a huge sleigh, piled high with Christmas presents. I was quickly introduced to all of them. There was Dasher, who seemed like the leader and had the biggest smile. I can’t remember all of their names, only Donder and Blixen, the two at the back and smaller than the rest.
Santa explained that he must hurry up and deliver some more presents, and it would give me time to get used to zooming around in the sky, before I started learning to fly for myself. I was given a seatbelt to keep me safe.
******
We swooped into the sky, just like the buzzard yesterday. Woah! We were really flying. We came to a stop just above my friend Billy’s house. I recognised it because I saw his mum’s car and she sometimes picks me up from school.
‘That’s Billy’s house’, I shouted.
‘Is he a good boy’, asked Santa.
‘Yes’, I quickly replied. ‘One of my best friends.’
‘Good, then I shall give him something very special. A new bike. What do you think, Jimmy?’
‘I suppose so’, I muttered. I wanted Billy to have a new bike but what if it turned out to be better than mine. That would be awful.
The next stop was Gary Parker’s, the school bully’s house. I told Santa that this was a horrible boy and nobody liked him because he steals their sweets and is a big fat bully. Santa winked at me and said that he had just the right present for someone like that. He wouldn’t tell me what it was though.
Santa said that he really enjoyed having me along because I knew the children in the neighbourhood. This helped him a lot and I felt proud to be allowed to help him. It wasn’t long before I forgot all about wanting to fly. I was so happy watching the rooftops go by and reindeer grinning and singing Christmas songs as they went about their business.
It was then that I noticed my pyjamas. They were black from the soot, when we climbed the chimney.
‘Oh no, Santa’, I cried, ‘just look at my pyjamas. Mum and Dad will be furious’
Santa was clean though. I asked him why he was so clean and I am so dirty.
‘Ah’, he said,’I used to get filthy too, but since we have these new Velcracene suits, its better now. Velcracene doesn’t hold dirt. Never mind, it will wash off.’
After a while Santa asked Dasher to bring the sleigh to a halt above a big office building with a flat roof. It hovered about ten feet above the roof.
‘Now, time for your lesson’, said Santa. ‘Time to fly’.
‘What do I need to do?’
‘Do? You don’t need to do anything. You just need to think. Close your eyes and think about flying. Then just fly.’
This sounded daft, even for an eight year old boy, but I pressed my eyes tightly shut and thought about the buzzard. I imagined that I was souring through the sky, just like he did.
‘Careful! Not too far now.’ I heard the voice coming from below. I opened my eyes and there, a long way below me, was Santa. He was looking up and shouting at me to slow down. I was really flying. I could do it. I circled around the building and came up from the other side, to make a perfect landing back on my seat in the sleigh. It was so easy, far easier than I had imagined.
‘I think that I may have found my successor,’ Santa laughed. ‘You were born for the job’.
We delivered more presents and Santa let me do a few more solo flights before he said it was time to go back home, before someone missed me. Dasher brought the sleigh to a halt just above our chimney and I patted all of the reindeer, thanked them for the ride and gave Santa a big hug. ‘Thank you so much’, I almost cried as I turned to go.
‘Maybe we see you next year,’ he yelled, and with that the sleigh turned and shot off into the night sky.
******
The next day Santa was restless. He couldn’t sleep. He and the reindeer were so exhausted after the hardest working day of the year, but he was troubled by his lack of professionalism. He had forgotten to give me the sniff of “forget everything” powder, which would have erased all memory of the meeting from my brain. Worse than that, I would remember how to fly, which wasn’t allowed for mortals. He had broken one of the golden rules, made by the founding fathers of Christmas giving. He would be severely punished.

******
‘My God! Karen come here. What on Earth….’ The noise woke me up and startled I looked up at a very angry Dad, staring at my bed and pyjamas. Being startled, I couldn’t speak and as quickly as Dad became angry, he then softened. ‘Never mind, Jimmy. It’s not your fault. I suppose you have been sleepwalking again.’
While I was sitting in the bath, being scrubbed clean by my Mum, I couldn’t stop thinking about last night. I was so excited that I forgot that it was Christmas. My Dad looked so disappointed when he proudly wheeled out my new bike, and my mind was somewhere else.
‘Don’t you like it,’ he asked.
‘Oh yes, Dad. I love it. It is better that Billy’s new one that he has had for Christmas.’
‘How would you know that,’ queried Dad.
‘Er, Billy and I sneaked into his Dad’s shed and we saw it,’ I lied unconvincingly.
Mum and Dad looked at each other critically. They knew that something fishy was afoot, but had no idea what it could be. I was not about to tell them. I just wanted to get out on my own, to see if I could still fly. I knew that when I left Santa, he had forgotten about the powder, and I felt a bit guilty about not reminding him, after he was so good to me, but learning to fly was the best thing I ever did. I wasn’t going to give that up.
******
The following year I added a new item to my Christmas list, a pair of Velcracene pyjamas, but I never received any. Over the years I searched for some and googled for them, but there was no trace. The flying continued however, and still continues to this day. When I have time to be alone, I take myself out into the countryside and sour through the trees with the birds. They are not fearful of me, but accept me as one of their own.
After all, wouldn’t you?