Once upon a time there were three Santas. How can this be? I hear you cry. For everybody knows there is but one Santa and he lives on the North Pole. All year round he works tirelessly with his elves making toys. One day a year – on Christmas Eve – he loads up his sleigh and reindeer fly him all over the world. He delivers toys to the nice and spanks the bottoms of the naughty.
Gentle reader, if you believe that you are either five years old or you reside in one of our more discreet sanatoriums.
The three Santas – to make our story easier to follow let’s think of them as Saint Nick, Father Christmas and Chris Crimble – worked six weeks of the year for Jamley’s department store. Their job was to make sure the cash registers kept jing-jing-jingling throughout the festive season. The three Santas were idle for most of the year, but Mr Crimble sometimes gave his services at an obscure gentlemen’s club and Nick would wrap himself in bandages and stand on a street corner selling matches.
St Tom’s was a school for the sons of the wealthier classes. The boys were boarders and at Christmas time they went home to their families. Alas, some of them were unloved. They had parents so rich they did not have to pretend. So, seventeen boys were left to spend Christmas at St Tom’s. Mr Bugg, a housemaster, was unloved too. He was also unloveable. His salary was so miserable he could not afford to rent rooms for the holidays, so he too stayed behind.
This made him a curmudgeon. He knew no joy. Even on the eve of Christmas he prowled the passageways, his whippy cane under his arm, seeking out misbehaving boys. Merrick was a senior boy. He was eighteen years of age. He thought of himself as an adult. “Pish!” Mr Bugg exclaimed when he found the prefect in Study Seven puffing away on a cigarette. “You are no adult, bend over that chair.”
The cane slipped into Mr Bugg’s hand and he landed six top-rated stingers across Merrick’s backside. And Merry Christmas to you too, the boy growled.
Hank the Yank was an American. His father lived in New York. It was too far for the boy to travel home for Christmas, he said. It was too. For this was in the day before ordinary folk could fly the Atlantic. Only Santa and his reindeer could do that. Hank’s pop was extremely rich and had more money than cents. (Ho! Ho! Ho!) He loved to make expensive gestures. It showed people just how wealthy he was.
He arranged with Jamley’s to send their Santa Claus to the school on Christmas Eve. The news was treated with indifference. Even fake Santas were busy on Christmas Eve. The pubs stayed open beyond midnight. No Santa wanted the job.
Mr Blenkinsop, the department store’s assistant to the assistant floor manager, was at his wit’s end. Alas, Nick, Mr Crimble and Father Christmas were all as one. “Sod off,” they told him. “Do it yourself!”
Mr Blenkinsop was hurt. Where was the spirit of Christmas? Those boys were a long way from home, without their families. Alone. His sob story fell on deaf ears. The three Santas were anxious to leave. Mr Crimble had a bottle of dark rum hidden in his coat. It wouldn’t drink itself.
“Oh well,” Mr Blenkinsop sighed. He drew a ten shilling note from his wallet. “There. That’s for whoever does the job.” Three hands shot forward. “To be paid when you return.” Mr Blenkinsop was no fool.
Satisfied that one or other of the old duffers would deliver, Mr Blenkinsop wrapped his scarf around his neck and stepped out into the cool, damp night. This was England. It rarely snowed at Christmas, despite what Dickens would have us believe.
It was nine o’clock in the St Tom’s dining hall. Seventeen boys and one grumpy master tucked into steak and kidney pudding. It might be Christmas Eve but the fare at an English public school never changed. Mr Bugg was more miserable than usual. He had been warned there would be a visitor. Mr Bugg was not a jovial type and he discouraged joviality in others. Two fags engaged in a hilarious game of “slaps” were at that moment irritating him to distraction.
Whoosh! The door sprung open. Eighteen pairs of eyes stared in wonder. It was Santa. Dressed in his big red suit. “Ho, ho, ho …” Chris Crimble slurred as he staggered through the door. Merrick, who until that moment had been in a sulk, dodged as Santa lurched forward and fell headlong across the table. An empty bottle fell from his pocket.
“Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!” Merrick cheered, delighted at his feeble joke.
“Merry Christmas,” Crimble croaked. The smell of the meat pudding reminded him he had not eaten for hours. He scooped a handful and fed it through his askew whiskers.
“What the devil,” Mr Bugg was on his feet. At that moment. Whoosh! The door opened once more. It was Santa Claus. “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas.” Father Christmas was at least sober. “Hello, boys look what Santa has brought for you.”
“What is it Santa!” the boys cried in unison, for they knew the part they had to play in this little story.
“Here,” Santa delved into his sack and brought out a thin rectangular box. He handed it to Merrick. “Merry Christmas, young man,” Santa grinned. “Why thank you Santa,” Merrick replied grudgingly. For he thought he was too old to be given gifts by Santa Claus. The teenager fingered the box. “Oh my, thank you Santa,” he said again. This time he meant it. For in his hands he held a special gift box of two hundred Player’s cigarettes.
“What the hell!” Mr Buggs fumed. “What is going on here?”
There was no time for Father Christmas to answer. Whoosh! The door opened once more. It was Santa Claus number three. The boys stared in wonder. Could this be true? Three Santa Clauses in one evening. But, what was this? Santa number three was not alone. For Periwinkle, the school porter, clutched Saint Nick by the arm.
“I caught him by the school gate, Sir,” Periwinkle exclaimed. Puzzlement furrowed the brow of Mr Buggs. What on earth?
“He was escaping, Sir. Look.” Periwinkle picked up Santa’s sack and turned it upside down. Five silver trophies cluttered to the ground. Mr Buggs immediately recognised the school’s inter-house rugby cup.
“He was stealing the school silver, Sir,” Periwinkle said, to be certain that everyone understood what was going on.
“Call the police.” It was Merrick, determined to show everyone he was an adult. “At once,” he ordered Periwinkle.
“But Sir, I am but a poor man,” Saint Nick held the palms of his hands together as if in prayer. “A war hero, Sir, a man down on his luck.”
“Oh, per-lease!” Merrick retorted, for his father was the Lord of the Manor and a magistrate to boot. He knew how to deal with the working classes. “Call the police Periwinkle. At once.”
Periwinkle was a man who knew his place. “Will you guard him Sir while I go to the telephone?” he asked Merrick.
“Hang on, one damned moment,” Mr Buggs fumed. “I am in charge here. I will say what is to happen.”
Merrick glowered. How he despised the master who stood before him. “He must go to trial. The law must take its course.” He was a very pompous young man.
“No,” Mr Buggs had a plan. The night had been ruined. Not only by the thieving Saint Nick, but by all three of the Santas. Mr Buggs knew what was needed. He had not been a schoolmaster for thirty years for nothing.
“I shall deal with this. There is no cause to involve the police.”
Saint Nick wrung his hands in gratitude. “Thank ye Sir, thank ye,” he said in poor imitation of a rural peasant.
“Well see about how thankful you are in a moment,” Mr Buggs growled. “Wilson,” he called to a fag. A junior boy stood up. “Yes, Sir.”
“Go to my study and fetch my stoutest cane. Be quick about it.”
Saint Nick’s ruddy complexion paled. A broad smile split Father Christmas’s face. What sport this would be. Chris Crimble stared on, hardly comprehending what was happening.
Moments later Winker Wilson returned, cane in hand. It was a beauty. It was more than three feet long, not including the traditional crook handle. It was as thick as a pencil and a little warped. It was a piece of ashplant and had notches every three or four inches along its length.
Mr Buggs swished the cane through the air. It made a terrific swoosh as it flew. Saint Nick’s eyes watered. He was going to be beaten. In front of the boys. In front of the other Santas. This could not be happening.
“All three of you, stand by that bench.” Mr Buggs swiped the ashplant once more. Nobody moved, for it was not clear what the schoolmaster was talking about. “The three Santas. Stand by that bench,” he pointed with his cane. “I am going to thrash all three of you,” he said. Now, everyone understood the plot.
The three aged men shuffled across the room, for Mr Buggs was a schoolmaster at an exclusive fee-paying school. They knew their place. Such was merry England. He was in charge. There was nothing they could do. Unless, of course, they wanted to spend Christmas in the police cells.
“Bend over.” It was an imperious command. They bent.
Boys’ eyes looked on in astonishment as the cane flogged across three backsides. Dust rose from trouser seats. Merrick’s buttocks itched. The humiliation and pain of his own earlier caning rekindled. He took his chance. He bundled up boxes of cigarettes and took them to his study.
Father Christmas scowled as the pain increased in intensity. Saint Nick shut his teeth tightly, he wouldn’t embarrass himself by showing it hurt. Chris Crimble breathed heavily. Just wait until he told the fellows at his gentlemen’s club what had happened. How they would envy him.
Charles’s note. The drawing at the top of this story is from The Hotspur, an English boy’s story paper dated 23 December 1933. It is an evocative image but the story it introduced had no scene in it that related to the picture. It was what boys of the time would have probably called “a swizz”.
First published Christmas 2016
More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second