‘Do you think he recognises us?’ Mark muttered, his voice muffled by the thick beard disguising his face.
'I dunno,’ Carly whispered back in an undertone, her face fixed in a glassy grin which didn’t reach her eyes.
‘If he does...’
Carly took a deep breath and approached the two people who stood waiting for her. She squatted down in front of the smaller one, the bogus smile stilled fixed on her face. ‘Hi there my little friend, are you excited about Christmas?’
The little boy—he looked to be about seven years old—cocked his head sideways as he looked at her, his face blank.
‘Would you like a picture with Santa?’ Carly desperately kept her focus on the little boy, doing her best to avoid raising her face to the boy’s father as he towered over her.
‘Ho, ho, ho!’ Mark’s voice boomed behind her. Carly glanced back to where Mark sat on a broad throne, kitted out in the traditional red and white Santa costume. His hair was covered with a thick white wig, fake glasses were perched on his nose, his face below his nose was masked by a thick white beard, and his belly was filled out by a pillow strapped to his stomach under the costume. ‘What would you like for Christmas, little one?’ he boomed. His voice was jovial, but his eyes betrayed his anxiety. ‘Come and tell Santa!’
‘Go ahead, Josh.’ The boy’s father’s voice, smooth as oil, rich like chocolate, floated down from above Carly. The man put his hand on the boy’s back and gave him a gentle push forward. ‘Take a picture with Santa.’
‘It’s a free service, sir,’ Carly said. She stood, turning away from the father, hiding her face from him. ‘Compliments of centre management.’ She took Josh’s hand in hers and led him the few steps to Santa Mark. She lifted the little boy up to sit beside Mark on the wide throne.
Mark turned towards the little man, clasped his hands over his fake big belly, and smiled through the fake beard. ‘What’s your name, young friend?’
‘Have you been a good boy this year, Joshua?’
Joshua blinked and cocked his head at Mark, his face still neutral. ‘The song says you only give presents to good children. But everybody’s nasty sometimes. So you mustn’t end up giving anyone any presents at all.’
Mark blinked. ‘Well... err... um...’
‘And at school scripture Miss Wendy said that Jesus is God’s present to everyone in the whole world. Even though we don’t deserve it.’
Mark muttered and spluttered a couple more times.
‘Let’s take the photo,’ said Carly, her voice simultaneously bright and brittle. She scurried over to the camera on its tripod, checked the framing and focus, and then, contrary to normal practice, set it to take the photos on timer. She scampered back to the Santa throne and knelt beside Mark, on the opposite side to where Joshua sat, and placed her face close to Mark’s.
‘Does he recognise us?’ she whispered in Mark’s ear as she grinned at the camera.
‘I don’t think so,’ Mark murmured back. ‘Even I didn’t recognise you for a moment this morning, with all that makeup on. And you look heaps different in that elf outfit.’
‘Yeah. And it’s a good thing I dyed my hair.’ She touched her hair, normally caramel- blonde, which now glowed a festive red that matched her elf costume.
‘The only thing I recognised were your boots,’ said Mark with a chuckle. ‘And even they’re green!’
Carly managed a genuine smile as the camera clicked and flashed several times in sequence. She jumped up, rushed around the throne, and lifted Joshua down to the floor. She then hurried over to the camera as it disgorged its old-style polaroid prints. She scooped the three photos out of the output tray, and, turning back to Joshua, knelt down before him to offer them to him.
‘Here you are, Joshua,’ she said. ‘Our presents to you this Christmas.’
‘Thank you, Miss Ellis.’ The father’s voice boomed behind her. ‘You and Mister Macintyre really do make a great team.’
A lump of lead seemed to settle in the pit of Carly’s stomach.
The man’s shadow fell over her as he stood beside her. ‘Mark, Carly. I was so delighted to sign you both up as actors in my performance company. But your employment contract explicitly forbids you from any freelance performance outside my troupe. Which this little Santa and elf charade clearly is.’
Carly’s head sagged and her eyes dropped towards the floor. She saw the gleam of the man’s polished business shoes as he stood next to her.
‘It’s such a shame, really,’ he continued. ‘The two of you have such potential. But I’m sorry. As soon as I get back to the office, I’m going to have to tear up your contracts.’
Tears pricked the back of Carly’s eyes. She wanted to say something—to speak up, defend herself, apologise—but words failed her.
Carly glanced up. Joshua still stood in front of her, his face turned up towards his father, his expression still inscrutable. His arm was stretched out because his father was trying to lead him away by the hand. But the little child stood resolute, the centre of the triangle formed by Mark, Carly, and his father.
‘Miss Wendy said that Jesus came to forgive us for all the bad things that stop us from getting presents from Santa.’ He raised his free hand and pointed at Carly where she still knelt before him. ‘Why can’t you forgive her?’
The older man cleared his throat. ‘Well, see now, son, it’s not that simple...’
‘And Miss Wendy said that Jesus came to give good news to poor people. Maybe this lady is really poor. And that’s why she has to be an elf in this shopping centre. As well as working for you.‘ He paused. ‘Can I do something for you, daddy? To make things right? So you can forgive them?’
The noise and bustle of the shopping centre seemed to fade into the distance. Carly felt as if the four of them were enclosed in an intimate cocoon of silence.
Joshua’s father roared with laughter—a big, booming Santa-Claus-style belly laugh, even better than anything Mark had concocted. ‘No, son, you don’t have to do anything for me to forgive them.’ He rested his free hand on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Only one person in history had to do that. And it’s not you.’ He patted his son’s shoulder. ‘I’ll forgive them just because you asked. Mark, Carly— report to the theatre as normal tonight. No- one needs to know about this little episode. As far as I’m concerned, it never happened. Now come on, my little man. More Christmas adventures await us.’
The man whisked the little child away. Carly stood up on shaky legs and turned to watch them go.
As he was led away, Joshua’s head swivelled to look back at Mark and Carly. His face broke out in a wide, beaming smile. He raised his hand and waved. Carly smiled and waved back, just as the boy and his father vanished into the shopping throng.
‘He forgot his photos,’ Mark said.
Carly glanced down. Her hand still gripped the three polaroid pictures of herself, Mark, and Joshua. ‘Might be a good thing,’ she replied. She pointed at the top photo. ‘They haven’t come out right.’
Two lines, faint but visible, cut across each photo, one from top to bottom, the other from side to side. They crossed a little above and to the left of centre, dividing the picture into four uneven quarters.
Mark shook his head. ‘Well. That’s wrecked ‘em.’
Carly nodded. ‘Pity. Never mind.’ She bent down and slipped them under Mark’s Santa throne. ‘Let’s keep them. Maybe he’ll come back sometime.’
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