This story is available in Afrikaans: ‘n Pa vir Kersfees.
I was drenched with sweat when I woke up. I lay there trembling like a reed in the breeze. I reached out for my wife. I groped around for a moment, but she wasn’t there. Then I remembered … she was gone … she and the children. She couldn’t put up with my drinking anymore, she said.
My mouth felt like it was filled with cotton wool and my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. The bed creaked when I moved and the sound echoed in the empty house. O God, it was lonely! In all my life, I had never been so lonely.
I had been drinking for years, but only in the past year did I realise that I had a drinking problem, that I was addicted to drink. Yes, me, the social drinker who had boasted that I can drink anyone under the table, was in fact a drunkard … an alcoholic. It was a rude awakening for me, and now … and now here I sat in an empty house with neither kith nor kin.
I still recalled the way my children looked the evening when they left. The two girls with their jackets that had seen better days and the boys whose pants had been too short for some time now. I had been under the influence and everything seemed perfect to me. The worst was when my son had taken out his handkerchief to wipe the spit drooling from my mouth. Remembering it, I wished I was dead …
I climbed out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen. I was thirsty and felt like a cup of coffee, but there was nothing in the house. The cupboards were empty. I filled a glass with water. My hands were shaking so badly that the water spilled over the brim. I had to use both my hands to get the glass to my lips. I had made a mess of my life … I hated alcohol!
I had not gone to work for two days. I delved around for a date in my foggy brain … it was the fifth of December.
The fifth of December? O God! What about my children? They didn’t have a single piece of clothing in the house. I had to go to work.
I didn’t have money for the bus and decided to hitchhike to work. Nobody stopped, and I ended up being late for work. I quickly changed my clothes and walked to my work station.
Just then, the foreman called me. “Pieterse! Brian Pieterse!” he shouted.
“Don’t come and ‘yes sir’ me, man, where is your doctor’s certificate?”
“I don’t have one, sir.”
Mister Paulse was a nice guy, but at that moment he was furious.
“Two days away from the job, and then you turn up late as well! Now look at this.” He opened the attendance register. “You have been absent about four days every month, all of them on a Monday. I’d like to fire you, but I’ll give you a chance to pull yourself together. You may go and collect your money now and then you can come back next year.”
“Next year? But sir …” I tried to explain, but he didn’t want to hear a thing.
Dismayed, I went to change my clothes again and collected my money at the office. Thirty rand. A miserable thirty rand. What can you do with thirty rand? I felt the warm, salty tears trickle down my cheeks.
I spent the whole morning walking around the city. There where sales everywhere and people walked in and out of shops. Only twenty days to Christmas! the advertisements shouted.
What now? I asked myself, but the answer eluded me. I went to a supermarket and bought a few items for the house. When I walked past the bar, the smell of wine and beer pulled me like a magnet. I had to cling to a pole to resist.
O God, help! I pleaded instinctively. I must get home, I must, I must. I felt like a stiff drink. It ate away at me like a cancer, it felt like I was going to go mad … Then I turned the corner. I was soaked with sweat and trembling from hunger.
The house was shrouded in darkness … and deserted. Only now did I realise what the light in the window had meant to me. I gave it all up … for alcohol.
I got into bed with a big mug of steaming coffee and some sandwiches. It was cold and for a long time I lay awake. Just before I fell asleep, I remembered my desperate prayer outside the bar. When was the last time I had prayed? I couldn’t even remember. It was a restless sleep: I dreamt about my children, wide-eyed with hunger.
The next day I woke early. The previous day, I had gone without wine all day. It was almost a miracle. I stared at my hands. They were still trembling and I felt feverish. Today I needed to get a job, any job.
Everywhere I went, I received the same answer: “Come back next year.” I searched all week long, but there was nothing … nothing. In the evening, I gave the bar a wide berth. When I reached home, I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving because I had stayed away from alcohol for another day.
On Sunday morning, I once again started out early. I was so restless that I could feel the change in me. I dawdled downtown. In the distance, I heard a church bell ring and my heart filled with longing.
I reached a shop where an oldish lady was busy decorating the window. Lost in thought, I stood in front of the window watching her. Her name tag read Francis Thorne. She smiled warmly.
After a while she motioned for me to come in. “Why do you look so sad on such a lovely day?”
“I’m feeling a bit downhearted. Can I help?”
“If you want, but I can’t pay you.”
“That’s all right.”
“I have to do my windows myself, I can’t afford a professional.”
“You’re doing well,” I said.
You think so?”
Yes, the only thing you’re missing, is a Santa Claus to attract the children.”
“A Santa Claus? That sounds like a good idea, but who?” She looked at me.
“Uh … I need to look for a job.”
“Don’t you have a job?”
I told her the whole story.
“You say you haven’t had a drink all week?”
“Not a drop of alcohol.”
“Then you’re obviously not an alcoholic. Mister Pieterse, I’m going to take a chance … I’m offering you the job of Santa Claus. You start on Monday.”
Monday morning bright and early I sat in front of the shop. I couldn’t wait to start working. Francis gave me a Santa Claus suit with a beard and a mask.
Business was slow at first, but by ten o’clock we had our hands full. I entertained the children in a big playpen while their parents shopped. I asked the children what they wanted for Christmas and then passed the information on to their parents when they fetched them. The sound of money in the cash register sounded like music in our ears. Our plan was working.
That evening I was dead tired, but happy. Francis sat behind the counter, her shoes off.
“Mister Pieterse, you are worth your weight in gold,” she said.
That night I slept like a baby.
The next few days, the playpen was constantly full of children. The children made me laugh and sometimes they made me cry over the things they asked for. I was glad I had the mask.
One afternoon someone pulled at my jacket.
I had a fright when I recognised the voice. It was my daughter, Janine. My eyes were filled with tears when I picked her up. She felt so frail.
“What do you want for Christmas, young lady?”
“I would really like new dresses for my mommy and my sister, and clothes and shoes for my brothers,” she said.
“And for you? Don’t you want something?” I asked.
“Yes, I want my daddy!” She burst into tears. Quickly my wife, Una, came over. Una looked straight at me, but she didn’t recognise me. She looked on in surprise at this Santa Claus, who was crying shamelessly with her daughter.
The people in the playpen who saw the drama, became quiet. Francis also noticed, and came to her own conclusions.
When the woman and her daughter came to the counter, she asked the child what she had asked for from Santa Claus. She nodded her head when the girl finished talking. Una opened her mouth to say something, but Francis put her finger to her lips.
“I still believe in miracles,” she said.
Una shook her head, clearly thinking the old woman had lost her marbles.
It was one o’clock, three days before Christmas, when I saw the child walk across the street. The child’s mother was peering through the shop window. When she looked around, the child was already in the street. The mother shouted hysterically. It frightened the child; she didn’t know what to do.
Without hesitation, I ran out the door and halfway across the street. I grabbed the child and pressed her to my chest, just as the motor hit me.
What happened afterwards, I don’t know. When I came to, I was in hospital. There was a strange man next to my bed.
“Thank goodness, you’re awake!” He said and held on tightly to my hand. “Sir, I owe you so much gratitude.”
“The child …?”
“Emma’s safe, sir, thanks to your speedy reaction. I’m Emma’s father, mister Jacobs. You are a brave man, sir, you deserve a medal.”
“It’s nothing, man, you would have done the same.”
“Would I? I don’t know,” he said.
The next evening Francis arrived, with Emma and her parents.
“How are things at the shop? I apologise for any inconvenience I might have caused you.”
“Excuse me, inconvenience? What are you talking about? The shop is packed with people now – I had to hire two girls. All thanks to you. After your heroic act, my shop became famous.”
I wanted to discharge myself, but the doctor wouldn’t hear of it. It was the day before Christmas and I really wanted to be alone, alone with my thoughts. I wondered what my wife and children were doing now. I didn’t even know where they were staying. I bit my bottom lip, trying to hold back the tears.
I was only discharged in the evening. It seemed very irregular to me, but I just wanted to leave, so I didn’t ask any further questions. The decorations and the visitors with gifts for their loved ones made me feel sad. I was such a disgrace.
“Oh Lord, please have mercy on my wife and children. Lord, please give me just one more chance,” I prayed softly.
Outside the hospital, a surprise was waiting for me …
Francis, Emma and her parents were there, in a kombi.
“There’s no need, I’m not disabled.”
“Climb in, mister Pieterse, don’t argue! It’s the least we can do for you.”
We drove in silence, each one occupied with his own thoughts. The little girl’s hand slipped into mine … The tears burned behind my eyelids. We stopped in front of the house. It was dark and deserted. I stood in front of the gate and wished they would leave. I wanted to be alone.
“Come on, mister Pieterse, go in, we want to see that you’re inside before we leave,” Francis said.
I slowly stumbled to the door. I wondered whether there was coffee. I couldn’t remember anymore.
Then the door opened and the lights were switched on simultaneously. There were many people in the front room. Some I recognised as people who had been in the shop on the day of the accident. There was also a large Christmas tree with lights that flickered and parcels arranged around the tree. The table was full of groceries.
Una and the children came out of the bedroom. They were all neatly dressed. I was speechless … As if in a dream, I heard Francis say, “Santa Claus came early this year.”
Janine grabbed my hand. “I knew Santa Claus would bring you back! I asked him.”
What can you say when there is a big lump in your throat and the tears are streaming down your cheeks?