Based on a true story.
Every eight year old needs a confidant, a consigliere, a trusted adviser, and Claude is mine. Claude is 70 years old, lives next door, has a wife called Margaret and is the only man I can trust.
Normally, we would meet on our respective sides of the fence, I’d bounce a ball against one side, and Claude would water his gerberas on the other; or so it would seem. In reality, we’d be exchanging information, exploring the angles, whistling through the willows and sculpting the truth of the now out of the mystery of before. But this wasn’t a normal day, and so I had organised lunch with Claude, in the safety of his own home.
Margaret places a Peanut Butter sandwich and a glass of juice each onto a tray. Margaret makes a decent peanut butter sandwich, no question. Crunchy with butter and cuts the whole thing into triangles. But this was nothing compared to Mrs King who lived a few doors down from Claude. Mrs King used the same ingredients. The same Peanut Butter. The same Butter. The same Bread. But Margaret didn’t have Mrs King’s touch. Mr King was a lucky man. But that’s a very different story. I am too distracted at this point to note precisely what kind of juice we would be drinking, but I do know it is of the apple variety.
Claude and I retire to his back deck, and sit on two lawn chairs that look out on his garden; his pride and joy. The lawn is impeccably maintained, and the grass stops promptly where the garden beds begin, not a blade out of place.
I take a bite of my sandwich to calm my nerves.
“You’re quiet” Claude remarks.
I swallow my mouthful. And take another bite without saying a word.
Claude swallows nothing at all and continues.
“Do you know what you want for Christmas?” And takes the first bite of his sandwich.
“I want what we all want,” I answer.
Claude coughs, and swallows his mouthful.
“ Oh yes?”
Margaret slides open the fly screen door to the back deck, the door makes what sounds like a hush sound and I do. Margaret enters and places a knife on the table between us. Margaret turns her back to us and says, “just in case.” Claude and I stare at each other, we both say “thank you” and wait for her to slide shut the screen behind her.
The door slides shut with a shush, and I can no longer.
“I want the truth, Claude” I say and take another bite of my sandwich.
I stare at Claude while chewing a bite with a disproportionate number of peanut fragments. Claude locks his gaze with me while reaching for his juice.
“I know about Santa, Claude”
Claude is mid-sip on what, I now notice is an especially crisp and clear apple juice. A ray of sunlight catches the glass and projects a fractal display on the table where our sandwiches unexpectedly sit. Claude seems to lose himself in the luminescent display, so I pull him back into the conversation.
“Did you know, Claude?”
Claude nods,“Yes son.”
I’m not Claude’s son but he likes to call me son during times of difficulty. I don’t hate it, a lot of people do this to me, when Claude does it I knew the truth comes with it.
“I found the presents in my parents’ closet.”
Claude makes the sound of a toaster going off.
“Yes, well I suppose it’s time you know.”
“All those children, Claude.”
Claude reaches for the knife, I grab him by the wrist.
“No I’ll be keeping the crust on today.” I proclaim.
“Curls get the girls they say.” Claude asserts.
“Don’t change the subject, Claude.” I say ending the digression.
Claude lets go of the knife and brushes the crumbs off his sweater.
My mouth is stuffed with peanut butter and white bread. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
“Well, I can’t accept the gifts, Claude.”
“You have to, son.”
“But they are a lie, Claude.”
“Can’t a lie be satisfying?”
“All lies are, Claude, otherwise we’d just tell the truth all the time. And you wouldn’t need a fence around your garden Claude, the whole world would share it’s beauty.”
I took another bite of my sandwich.
Claude sipped his juice.
“Your parents have gone to a lot of effort, and cost.”
“Does Margaret not know?” I asked Claude, breaking the silence.
”Yes, of course she does.”
I wondered if that was how he paid for this house, he never seemed to go to work.
“And what am i supposed to do Claude. Leave out a glass of milk and a couple of chocolate chip cookies, runoff to bed like a good boy. Bury my conscience in a pillow? “
“For a while, yes. I do.” Claude replied
“For how long, Claude, a year, ten years. 20?”
“Just until your brother is old enough to know. It would hurt Elliot if he knew, son.”
“We all hurt, Claude.” I said.
“It’d hurt your parents too.” Claude says.
My mouth is still full but I sneak some apple juice in to make the whole thing easier to swallow.
“This makes their year, you know. Seeing your face when you come down the stairs.”
“But it’d be a lie, Claude.”
“Well, you want the gifts don’t you.”
“So…” Claude says pushing me to continue my train of thought.
“I guess if it will make them happy.”
“You’re a good boy.”
Claude takes a big gulp of apple juice and sits back in his chair comfortably.
“There’s just one thing I can’t work out, Claude.”
“And what’s that, son.”
“How did Santa die.”
“Oh Daniel,” Claude laughs “He’s not dead. No, not dead at all.”
Claude gets up and walks out into his garden.
I sat at the deck, processing what I’d heard.
“The Grinch then, Claude?” I call out. “Did the Grinch get him? Claude.”
Claude bends down to inspect a flower bud, only just opening.