Santa sat beside me on the train. I knew it was him. Has to be! I marvelled, feeling my skin prickle with certainty.
His white wavy hair was slicked back from his full forehead and ended in curls at his collar. His full beard lay like freshly-fallen snow on his upper chest. A neatly-trimmed handle-bar mustache curved over his upper lip, and he wore square-framed, silver spectacles that rested on the nose of his naturally flushed face. He’s a perfect Santa, if ever I saw one!
My Santa didn’t wear a red suit though. He wore a navy trench coat over an olive-coloured shirt, and dark trousers. On his lap, he casually held a black leather note book.
I wasn’t surprised by his appearance. It was early October. Christmas was ten weeks away. I glanced at the note book in his hand. He’s off to apply for a job as a mall-Santa, I mused. He’ll be hired in a minute. He turned his head toward me and winked knowingly, sending my mind into a momentary spin.
As I exited the train and walked briskly toward the building where I worked, I silently hoped that he was on the list of gentlemen I was to interview that day. Today was one of my favourite days of the year. Managing a human resources department for a large department store has its challenges. For me the best perk was hiring an individual to act as Santa’s agent until Christmas Eve. I flicked my wrist and noted the time on my watch: 8:27 a.m. Good, I have enough time for a coffee before my day starts.
I stood in line at the coffee bar awaiting my turn, imagining how the next hours would unfold. I had arranged for my assistant, Tonya, to set up the small interview office just off the reception area. It was a cozy space for interviewing Santa candidates. Also, I had asked her to ensure that, in addition to a coffee thermos, she provide two canisters filled with a creamy, hot chocolate. On any other day, an interview candidate would ask for water or coffee, occasionally tea, but on this special day, rarely did a candidate ask for anything other than hot chocolate.
I checked my list again: one candidate every half-hour from 9:00 a.m. through noon, then starting again from 1:30 p.m. through 4:30 p.m.: twelve candidates, from whom I alone would select five Santas. One Santa would be expected to oversee the others and create a rotation schedule. I ran my finger down the list, familiarizing myself with their names. My lips stretched into a grin when my finger stopped at the last name. “Christopher K. Nicholas,” I whispered aloud. “I bet you take yourself seriously.”
“I see you found the mystery man,” Tonya said, stopping quietly by my side. Her familiar voice startled me from my reverie.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “When did you add this name? I didn’t see it yesterday.”
“I received a call just as I was leaving,” she replied. “I almost didn’t answer the phone, and when I did, I couldn’t believe the name, but the caller insisted.”
“Which agency called?”
“That’s the thing,” Tonya said, her smile matching mine. “The caller wasn’t from an agency. She said she was ‘calling on behalf of Mr. Nicholas personally’. Her words, not mine.”
“Hmm.” I tapped my lip contemplating the interview. “This should be fun. Let’s make sure we have fresh cocoa for this one,” I said. “We wouldn’t want to disappoint Mr. Nicholas, would we.” Tonya giggled.
I flicked my wrist again.
“It’s five to nine,” I said. “I’d better get going.
As the hours passed and the hot chocolate cannisters emptied, I interviewed several candidates who showed promise, but none with the leadership skills for which I had hoped. A few were disappointing, being either too dishevelled for my taste, too thin, or in possession of less than the level of merry required for the season. One of the afternoon candidates smelled of alcohol and made no effort to cover the odour with a mint. I planted a large X next to his name as soon as he left. The 4:00 p.m. candidate was a no-show, didn’t even bother to phone and cancel. Another X.
I welcomed the half hour respite before Mr. Nicholas was to arrive. It gave me time to freshen up, and to further consider the candidates. Who will my Santas be this year? Of the candidates I had hired last year, two had re-applied. I had been pleased with their work. I would hire them again.
“Mary,” Tonya’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Five minutes.”
I thanked her, straightened my skirt and gave my jacket a tug, then hurried along the corridor toward the meeting room. The elevator doors opened as I approached the reception area, stopping me short. It’s him! What luck! If he has management skills, I’ll hire him on the spot. I crossed my fingers behind my back.
Christopher K. Nicholas crossed the carpeted foyer toward the receptionist’s desk, smiling warmly toward the receptionist, which resulted in the rounding his apple red cheeks. She sat taller in her chair and smiled back, her face aglow.
Mr. Nicholas announced that he had an appointment with me and waited patiently for the young woman to collect her wits before she reached for the telephone.
“I’m here,” I said quietly, before she punched the second number. “Mr. Nicholas, I’m Mary Gratland.” I extended my hand to welcome him, then showed him into the interview room.
“Coffee?” I asked, knowing what would come next. Hot chocolate!
“Well,” Mr. Nicolas said, hesitating. “If it’s fresh, I would welcome coffee. I drink so much hot chocolate that I fear one day my eyes will turn brown. Coffee would be a nice change.”
I turned from the coffee counter, eyes wide. Did I just hear him utter ho-ho-ho?
“Coffee you shall have! And fresh it shall be,” I said, feeling giddy for some unknown reason. My skin began to prickle again. “I’ll make it right now. Decaf?”
“No, thanks” His voice was mellow and smooth. “The real stuff would be great. When I leave here, I’ll have a long flight ahead of me.”
While we waited for the coffee to brew, the interview began on a casual note.
“I oversee the work of a large conglomerate most of the year,” he told me before I could ask, “but, at this time of year when everything is running smoothly, I like to take a few weeks off and see if I can’t make a difference somewhere.”
“A large staff – several hundred. Our primary focus is on entertainment for all ages, with smaller operations in transportation, farming, confections and so on.” Again, he answered the questions I didn’t ask.
His resume lay untouched were he had placed it, on the table between us.
“Uh, how about that coffee?” I began to rise from my chair.
“I bet you’ve been rushed all day,” he said, staying my motion. “Let me pour coffee for you. You strike me as the “black-coffee-with-a-pinch-of-sugar kind of person when you’re working, but I bet when you’re alone it’s two sugars and a lot of cream.” He turned from the counter still stirring a cup of creamed coffee and placed it in front of me with a familiar wink, then returned to collect his own.
“H-how -,” I stuttered as he sat across from me once more, not knowing which question to ask first. Why did he volunteer the management information? How does he know how I like my coffee? The questions tumbled around my brain. I realized I’d been starring too long when he politely cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling perplexed. “I don’t –”
“Mary, you don’t have to be formal with me.” His smile was reassuring. “I’ve known you since you were very small. I like to think that I know you well enough to have given you just the gift you were hoping for every Christmas, but I know that I disappointed you on the Christmas of your eighth year, and I need to tell you that I am profoundly sorry that I let you down.”
I half shook my head trying to focus on the moment and his words.
“That’s why I decided to come today,” he said. “That experience has left its mark. Everything you think or do is weighted by it, and it pains me to think that I could have done more to help. My days since then have all started with ‘if only’. And, in spite of that experience and my failure to intervene, you still think highly of me.” He shook his head. “You still allow me a place of honour in your year. I am humbled by your loyalty.” A tear sparkled in the corner of his ice blue eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped, jumping to my feet. “I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, coming in here and insinuating –”
“Mary,” he said my name gently. It sounded like melted chocolate, smooth and silky. “I am who I am, and you know it. Look into my eyes and you will see that I am the one who found you in the snowbank behind your home on the Christmas Eve morning of your eighth year. Some of the lads were scouting for me and, when they saw you, they reported to me right away. Don’t you remember sobbing into my shirt until it was soaked with your tears?”
Awareness slowly penetrated my heart and mind. Layers of the concrete wall I had built around them since that dreadful night before Christmas began to give way.
“I thought I dreamed it all!” I said, tears pricking from the corners of my eyes. He shook his head again. “But, what could you have done!” I sobbed softly. He reached across the table offering a starched, white handkerchief with the letters SC neatly stitched in one corner with red and silver threads.
“You said you’d make him go away,” I said sniffling, “and he did. He never touched me again. I never saw him again. Mom didn’t understand why he left, and I couldn’t tell her.”
“I know he left,” he said, patting my hand, “but you’ve never forgotten him, and you’ve let him and what he did to you haunt your life ever since. It taints the way you view everything.”
“You left,” I said, “and I forgot you!” Guilt edged the sobs that filled his handkerchief. “How could I forget the one good thing in my life, and let him affect everything?” I dropped my head in shame.
In the distance, I heard the sound of the office closing for the evening – good-nights and elevator dings, then the lights went out. Mr. Nicholas jumped from his chair and flipped the switch on a lamp nearby. In the warm glow, the room felt like a cocoon of safety.
“He was punished for what he did to me,” I said. “Did you know?”
“Of course,” he said.
Of course, he would know! My head snapped up. “Did you –?”
“It wasn’t my place,” he said softly. “Another, higher power took over when I left. I am here today only to remind you of that day long ago, and to tell you that you have always been loved and protected.”
In that moment, I felt awash with warmth, love and safety. I felt the evil of the past melt from my heart and mind. I sighed deeply. “What happens now?” I asked, feeling befuddled.
“I have a thought. Something that you might find empowering. It’s up to you whether you choose to act on it.”
We talked a while longer and then he left.
The next morning, at 8:57 a.m., I sat in the small conference room once again, waiting as the minutes ticked by. At 9:00 a.m. sharp, the elevator doors opened, and a beautiful, young woman dressed in a fitted red-and-white pin-striped suit, her glossy red hair bobbed at her shoulders stepped into the foyer. Tiny silver bells hung from her earlobes and tinkled as she walked briskly into the conference room, hand extended. Her ice blue eyes seemed to gleam, as if she had a secret to share.
“Mary, I’m so glad to meet you,” she said. “I’m Juliana, Chris’ daughter. I understand we’re going to shake things up!”
Did I just hear that ho-ho-ho again?
Juliana Nicholas instilled in me the same quiet confidence that her father had help me find the previous evening, and I gave myself over to the plan we had discussed. By the end of the morning, our ideas were solid. From this year forward, each Santa engaged by the store would wear a skirt, and Juliana would manage everything.
“It’s about time women got some credit for their efforts,” she said bringing our meeting to a close. “Like many other things, without us, there would be no Christmas and its meaning would be lost!”
PS I apologize to my readers for the lack of photos. The Nicholas family prefers that photos be taken of himself only, and only when he’s working! (wink, wink)