Santa Claus is coming to town. Well, to the local fire station, to be more precise. So we decide that E should be exposed to the first in a long line of second-rate Santa impersonators and we dutifully join the queue fifteen minutes before the advertised 4pm opening time.
We are already at least tenth, and quickly a long straggly queue forms behind us in the quickly-descending darkness. A fireman – well, I call him a fireman, these days he is probably a Conflagration Consultant or something – lights a fire in an old oil drum. Thank the bloody lord for that, it is sodding freezing and I am woefully under-dressed, with only the three layers under my coat and a pair of gloves to stave off the impending frostbite. However, this being the fire station, they are not taking any chances and he proceeds to set up a tape and-cone barrier at about a twenty foot distance from the aforementioned drum, ensuring none of the queue feels even the remotest benefit of the warmth the fire is starting to generate. Sodding health and safety. Surely it is worth risking a pair of kid’s eyebrows and a possible burnt finger or two to get a bit bloody warmer?Apparently not.
At well past the advertised opening time, someone comes to tell us that Santa’s sleigh had got stuck in traffic but he is just finding a parking spot on the roof. I would smile but my cheeks have frozen. Already, a tantrum has broken out further back in the queue and many of the kids are starting to get a little out of hand. I rack my brains to find a plausible excuse for E as to why we have to leave right now, but none is forthcoming.
Finally, the queue starts to move and at a snail’s pace we creep through the fire station garage toward the nirvana that is Santa’s grotto. Which turns out to be less like a grotto and more like a hastily erected mini marquee in the car park. To extort cash from the parents – oops, I mean to entertain the queue – before we get to Santa, there is a miniature ferris wheel.
‘Can I go on?’ asks E. I fear he may think it a good idea, until he is suspended ten foot in the air in a rusty metal cage, at which point he may well freak out.
‘Sorry darling, it’s for bigger boys,’ I explain, at which point a small boy clambers into one of the cages. Even worse, he is quickly followed in by his mum, who somehow manages to fold her legs in three places and sit down. I immediately take a step to the right to obscure E’s view of this, and break into an over-enthusiastic rendition of Jingle Bells to stop him asking me to go on with him.
At last, we are at the front of the queue, where were are relieved of £2.50 by a girl in an elf costume. She is remarkably cheerful given her thin tights and the current temperature, but she is probably working on commission and can’t believe her bloody luck.
We enter the tent. Sorry, I mean grotto. There is not one speck of tinsel, not one bauble, not even a festive hose draped over the tent poles. Just a plastic chair on which Santa sits, beard askew to reveal brown facial stubble and sporting a shabby red costume that has seen better days. And better sodding grottos, too.
E sits on M’s lap next to Santa.
‘Have you been a good boy this year?’ asks Santa.
‘So what do you want me to bring you?’ he asks.
There is a slight pause. ‘A giraffe,’ E replies.
M and I laugh, but Santa is somewhat thrown by this mammal-base response.
‘I’m not sure a giraffe will fit down the chimney,’ he blusters. ‘Perhaps I can bring you something else?’
E remains silent, as he should. What sort of a bloody Santa can’t fit a giraffe down a chimney, for Christ’s sake?
Of all the animals you can pick from Africa, surely this is one practically designed for a chimney? If E had said elephant, then I would be with Santa: you’re shit out of luck, mate – how about a kitten? But a giraffe? Surely only a snake would beat a giraffe in Animals-Down-The-Chimney Top Trumps? (coming to a retailer near you soon).
And Santa is overlooking a crucial detail. He is quite happy to work on the premise that a fucking fat centenarian carrying a sack with a present for every single child on the globe has no trouble squeezing his lardy arse down a chimney, but suddenly a giraffe is out of the question?
I know I am cold and slightly bitter that this under-par encounter has cost the same as a delicious cup of hot, frothy coffee from the establishment across the road, but really. Call yourself a Santa? Oh no, that’s right, you don’t. You Conflagration Consultant, you.