Father Christmas awoke with a start. There was somebody moving around downstairs. Still only half-awake, he swung his arm wildly out over the bedside table, let it come thudding down like a wrecking ball on the assorted odds and ends he stored there – the book he was currently reading (Sedaris’s latest), his deodorant, his lavender and bergamot-scented sleep balm – until it crashed onto the top of his alarm clock and the time lit up, lurid and red – 5:04 A.M. He’d had barely forty minutes’ sleep. He’d staggered in a little after 4, exhausted from the busiest night of his year, but still he’d brushed his teeth and changed into his pyjamas before collapsing into bed and crashing out. It was the same every year. After he’d finished his rounds on Christmas Eve, he tended to sleep for almost a full day and there was little that could rouse him. But this year was different. Someone was moving around down there, with all the telltale creaks and rustles and shuffles of someone trying not to be heard.
He planted a kiss on the back of Mrs Claus’s head as she slept peacefully beside him, then hurriedly threw on his dressing gown and cautiously descended the stairs. The noises were coming from the living room. He peered in, murmured a nervous “Hello?” The noises stopped abruptly. Whoever was making them obviously knew they’d been caught. Father Christmas’s breathing was ragged now, shallow. Was he about to be murdered in his own home? “Who’s there?” he asked, fumbling awkwardly for the light switch. He turned it on and gaped open-mouthed at the scene before him.
His dad was stood motionless in front of the fireplace, wearing his own son’s instantly recognisable clothes, frozen like a deer in headlights, his hand thrust halfway down a stocking like a butcher stuffing a turkey’s cavity. They both stared at one another, both waiting for the other to make the first move. Eventually, Father Christmas recovered his wits enough to speak.
“Dad?” he said. “Why are you dressed like me?” His father sighed, and it was like the pressure of years fell off him all at once. He seemed to crumple. The stocking fell from his hand, and landed with a thud on the ground – satsumas, thought Father Christmas. He was stuffing it with satsumas. But he soon returned his attention to his dad, who seemed to have aged ten years in a moment. His shoulders slumped, his face went slack.
“I knew this day would come,” he said. “I just thought I could keep holding it off a little longer.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?” Father Christmas went over to him, hovered awkwardly by his side, not knowing what to do. The man looked so small and frail for the first time in his life, so sad and broken, that all he wanted to do was to take his arm, to guide him to a chair, to let him sit and breathe. But instead he just stooped and picked up the stocking where it lay and hung it back on the mantelpiece. “What are you doing with the stockings?” he said as he fussed. “I already did these. I do us first, before I even go out to work, you know that, Dad.”
“That’s just it,” said his dad, and he cupped his face with his hands so that his voice was muffled. “You didn’t, Father Christmas. You never did.” Suddenly, Father Christmas could hear a rushing in his head, the blood pounding in his ears. Some kind of darkness flickered at the edge of his vision. His dad shuffled over to a chair, sank into it, but Father Christmas now felt too weak to stand himself. He collapsed to his knees, only to look up and see his mum stood in the doorway, dressed as his wife. Upon seeing the scene before her, she smiled. It was a sad smile – as though the thing she had always been afraid of had finally happened.
“So. Today’s the day,” she said.
“What day? Mum, what’s going on?”
“You had to find out sooner or later, darling. There’s no such thing as Father Christmas. It’s just your parents. They dress up and do it themselves.”
“But…in my clothes?”
“We dress up as our son and his wife,” his dad intoned, his voice like the tolling of a great iron bell. “And we hang out the stockings and we put out all the presents. All over the world. To save him from the awful truth.”
“I don’t exist?” he wailed, the ringing in his ears so loud now that he could barely hear himself over it. “It’s just my mum and dad?”
A year went past. And Father Christmas started seeing a therapist, and he slowly divested himself of the trappings he had once believed were indivisible from his sense of self. He shaved off his beard, and the face underneath looked like a stranger. He didn’t remember this man, and he didn’t see himself in the point of his chin or the unfamiliar soft curve of his jawline. He could’ve sworn that before he grew the beard, he’d had quite a sharp jawline. But this was no face he recognised. He started wearing jeans and T-shirts, and he bought the same jumper from Uniqlo in three different colours – he felt weird about how often his parents had snuck his other clothes out of his wardrobe and worn them without his knowing, and the whole thing was tainted for him now.
As Christmas rolled around he started to hang around the shopping mall grottoes and heckle the Father Christmases. “He doesn’t laugh like that!” he would shout, as mall security dragged him away. “It’s more like this – heheheheheh!” And the Father Christmases would look back at him with fear, little knowing who this clean-shaven man in his jumper and jeans was, or quite how much he knew about the thing they pretended to do. The last thing they would hear before he was hurled out of the doors into the cold of the street was his insistent wail that “He doesn’t even like sherry, he’s an ale guy!”
But as the years went by he tried to remove this dependence he had on his work, on his job, on his role, his insistence on making his work synonymous with his identity, and he tried to invest in his friends and his hobbies and the things that made him happy. And he tried to submit to this feeling of not existing, and come to terms with what it meant. He supposed that, on some level, it had always been there. It had been there in that low-level fear he felt whenever he met someone new, that fear of being found out. That fear that even among the people he loved and trusted, he must be disappointing them somehow. That he must be being boring, that he must be fading away. That fear that soon it would be discovered that he didn’t know what to say when it was his turn, that he didn’t know where to look when people looked at him, that he didn’t know when to laugh at things except to learn by imitation. Sometimes he had almost convinced himself that he was just shy. But now he knew the truth.
He did not exist. He never had. He was just everyone’s mum and dad dressing up and putting presents beneath the tree. He was everyone else in the world going through the motions in order to preserve the idea of belief. He was a couple with a young child putting a mince pie and a carrot and a glass of sherry on a plate, and sitting back and looking at it for five minutes, and then eating the mince pie and the carrot and drinking the sherry and going to bed. He was a rigmarole that people felt duty-bound to perpetuate. He was a collective delusion that people continued to put their hope in.
“Why do you do it?” he had heard people ask one another at various points during the years since he had found out he didn’t exist. “Why do you still pretend?”
“Well,” came the reply most of the time, “I guess it’s just because my parents did it for me, and I remember loving it when I was a kid.” He was love. He was one of the ways that people tried to show love. And this thought made him feel better. He decided that next year would be the year of the radical rebrand. He would get a leather jacket. And he would shave his head. And he would learn the bagpipes. And he would go on a knife-making course. Whether he existed or not no longer mattered. He was ready to live.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Luke McQueen and Mark Silcox have released Christmas Is Here, the festive final number of their ridiculous show Songs With My Father, as a single in the hopes of securing the Christmas No. 2 slot. I believe in them.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Mark’s big solo number in the aforementioned show, in which he recounts the heartbreaking story of how Luke’s mum met her tragic end, when Mark had to “put his foot through her lung.”
Book Of The Week – Still reading To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, but I’ve now completed Book I! It was good. Enjoying Book II so far. And there’s yet to be much in the way of debilitating trauma and abuse, so it’s an improvement over A Little Life, unless all that stuff is yet to come.
Album Of The Week – Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan Stevens’ discography gives Mark Kozelek’s a run for its money in the “just gonna chronicle every awful grief and loss I’ve ever suffered if that’s ok” stakes. Stevens has the edge over Kozelek, though, in that he manages to write songs about grief in which he doesn’t imply that the people he lost were lucky to know him because of how talented he is, which Kozelek can’t stop doing. Anyway, this albums’ devastating.
Film Of The Week – Napoleon. This was really boring! I thought it was supposed to be great? It doesn’t really have much of an opinion on Napoleon and does very little to get us to engage with why he did any of what he did. It’s just two and a half hours of him doing stuff, often explained so poorly that it has to put subtitles onscreen to remind you who characters that we’ve already met are. Baffling. There’ll be a 4-hour director’s cut somewhere down the line that will probably make more sense, I imagine, though whether or not it’ll be better I’ve no idea. I didn’t much care for it.
One Final Thing – A while back I floated the idea of launching a “paid” strand to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes to go alongside the free weekly newsletter, for people who value it enough to support it financially. I reflected on the idea and decided that I’m uncomfortable with charging any sort of subscription model for this newsletter because that’s not the spirit it was created in, and trying to build an entirely separate strand to run alongside the free element that was of high enough quality to justify a price tag is an unrealistic amount of work to give myself on top of everything else I’m trying to do.
However, there were lots of readers who said they liked the newsletter enough to pay for it occasionally and they’d be interested in whatever model I came up with, and times are very tough in the creative industries at the moment, so if there is a way to partially monetise the writing I do for free, I’d like to explore that to help support my other work. So here’s what I’ve decided – from now on, at the end of the newsletter I’m going to include a link to my Ko-Fi account, just like online content creators do under their videos and sketches. If you ever enjoy a newsletter enough to want to support my writing and other creative work financially and you’re feeling flush enough that week, you can send me a one-off tip or donation. I don’t ever want anyone to feel like they should, or that it’s expected, and there’s certainly never any need to make regular donations – this newsletter is free, and I just want it to be useful and interesting to people! But if anyone ever has a spare couple of quid and took something meaningful from my thoughts and ideas and would like to support, it would mean the world and help to fund everything else I’m making at the moment. I hope you all understand my taking this approach, and that everyone continues to enjoy the newsletter in whichever way they choose!
That’s all for this week. As ever, if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter enough to send it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Otherwise, take care of yourselves until next time!
PS Some nice sunsets and dogs this week: