Peter Steward's Web Site
At the beginning of September Violet went into hospital for the second time that year. She wasn't really ill or anything like that but had to be periodically pumped out when too much alcohol built up. It was now a regular six monthly visit and the doctors at the hospital had got so used to it that they almost made her an appointment and had long ago giving up telling her that she was ruining her health through drink.
Violet liked to go in for her "pump out" either in September or October to get things sorted out before the Christmas season.
One evening Robin and myself decided we should visit her. They usually kept her in for about 72 hours just as a precaution.
"We really should visit the old bird. After all she's been pretty good to us," said Robin and I agreed.
We found Violet in Ward C in the third bed from the end. She was sitting up with radio headphones on. She was smiling and there was a box of chocolates in front of her - most of which had been consumed.
"Hello boys what a nice surprise. Have you come to see me on my hols. It's like a home from home here. Everyone's so kind. I'll be quite sorry to leave tomorrow but at least I'll have you two to welcome me home."
Violet was certainly her old self and lapping up the attention. She seemed to particularly enjoy it when a young doctor came to take her temperature. The fact that he was tall, dark and handsome might just have had something to do with it. Eventually the time got round to 8.30 p.m and the bell sounded for the end of visiting.
A rather youthful looking sister made a tour of the beds, asking visitors politely to leave.
"Now come on Violet, you know visitors aren't allowed after 8.30."
Robin and I got up and smiled and prepared to leave when Violet had her final say.
"You know sister these are my two lads. Aren't they handsome?"
For the first time since I met him I saw Robin blush. I'm sure I did too.
"But Violet I thought you never married," inquired the sister.
"Oh no sister these aren't my sons, they are my special boys. They make me feel young sister. I'm not as young as I look you know."
"Don't give me that Violet. I know exactly how old you are. It's on your chart."
"How did you find that out," Violet asked.
"Really Violet you've been coming here since you retired and that was 16 years ago."
As this conversation continued Robin and I took our leave and left the ward."
"God she gets more embarrassing by the day," said Robin.
Christmas that year was a quiet affair. I went home to spend a few days with my parents and we saved up enough ffeatures in the weeks leading up to the festive season to be able to take a few days off.
It was my idea to interview Father Christmas and as usual Birkett took the line that anybody who was foolish enough to think something up should be allowed to see it through.
"Why don't we interview Father Christmas," I suggested.
"Why don't we just interview God, "replied Robin.
"I tried the Queen once but she wouldn't see me," by now Louise was hoinging in the fun.
"Okay have a laugh but I'm serious."
By this time even Birkett was trying to be humorous. He came up to me and led me to a corner of the office.
"Eric I feel there's something you should know. Your parents should have told you this many years ago. I'm very sad to have to be the one to tell you the news byt Father Christmas doesn't exist.
"Well I didn't actually mean interview the real Father Christmas - just the old boy who does it in the Co-op. You know get to pretend he's the real McCoy. The kids will love it and I understand he's been there for many years."
"Okay your idea, you do it son. I don't want to hear anything else about it until the copy is in the basket," said Birkett.
So I rang up the Co-Op and got "Father Christmas' address." In those days people seemed much happier to pass on addresses and telephone numbers than they do today. Father Christmas turned out to be a guy by the name of Jock Scott of Leathland Avenue. He was only too happy to do an interview and it turned out to be rather a zany one.
For a start his tiny Jack Russell terrier tried to bite me as I walked through the lunge door. I didn't quite know how to address Jock so, for some unknown reason, I referred to him as Father.
"Well father how does it feel to be so important to thousands and thousands of children throughout the world."
Jock had a twinkle in his eye as he replied.
"I'll let you into a little secret son. I'm not the real Santa. Just some old guy who enjoys meeting the children at Christmas."
This wasn't going well. I needed Jock to pretend that he was the real Santa, but there was no stopping him once he got started.
"You know the Co-Op has a number of rules controlling my conduct. In fact they call it the Santa Clauses," he rocked back in his chair "Good one that isn't it?"
I suddenly felt that this was going to be a very long and very silly interview. The problem was his jokes were rather like Robin's - pathetic.
"I used to be a monk you know, but they wouldn't give me a change of clothes. In the end I got thrown out for having dirty habits," again he rocked back with laughter.
"I used to come down the chimney but now with all this central heating I have had to take a crash slimming course soo that IO can squeeze through the radiators."
By now there was no stopping him.
"Have you heard of the Irish Father Christmas. Got so worked up doing the rounds that he did a lap of honour."
I was just trying to work that one out when he started the next joke.
"You know Father Christmas hates the past. He just lives for the presents. Ho ho ho."
"I was asked the other day by a lovely old lady what the weather was going to be like on Christmas Day. It's going to rain dear I replied."
Eventually I got Jock back onto being relatively sensible and he did talk about some of his experiences.
"I remember one year it was particularly embarrassing. We always arrive at the Co-Op on a sleigh during the first week in December. On this particular day some other organisation had their Father Christmas doing the rounds as well and there we were face to face in the middle of the town with all these kids staring at us. Two idiots in the same place at the same time and both dressed in Santa suits. I had to think quick that day. The other guy obviously had the same idea. We both stood there in the street pointing fingers at each other and shouting fake."
He told me about a number of other embarrassing incidents including the day he was recognised in the street by a little girl.
"I suppose you could say I stand out in a crowd. I'm well over 6 ft tall and I have this physical defect." He held out his right hand and I could see that the top of a finger was missing.
"This little girls came into my grotty, sorry grotto, and chatted for quite some time. A few days later I was walking the dog on the Common when she passed me on the other side of the road. She just shouted across 'hello Father Christmas.' Well I tried to bluff my way out by denying it but she asked to see my hand. Before I thought about what I was doing I took it out of my pocket.
"There you are," she said. "You've got a finger missing just like the real Santa. I still tried to bluff my way out of the situation by telling her that if I was really Santa I would be wearing a red cloak and have a white beard but she said 'oh those are just his working clothes.' I certainly learnt that day that youngsters can be very observant."
He went on to give me his messages for the children that Christmas.
"Be asleep when I arrive or I might pass you by. Make sure the fire is out and leave me your letters on the table. Ask mum and dad to leave some sherry and mince pies out. Oh and leave the back door open if you haven't got a chimney. I'm still not slim enough to get through those radiators."
Finally after the best part of an hour we were at the end of the interview. He had proved a tremendous character and as I left by the front door he addressed one final remark
"If you see that bloody traffic warden tell him not to give me a ticket on Christmas Eve when I park my reindeer on double yellow lines in the High Street. Ho ho ho. Have a Merry Christmas."
Back in the office the ribbing didn't abate:
"Enjoy your journey into the world of fantasy?"
"How are the reindeer. Does he keep them in little reindeer houses at the bottom of the garden?"
The comments came thick and fast. I shrugged them off and settled down to write my fantasy piece aimed at the children.
Five minutes after I had placed it in the copy tray, Shad Greene called me in. It seemed to be becoming a regular thing and we seemed back to the difficult relationship we had shared when I first joined the paper.
"It's okay son, makes quite enjoyable reading but we can't have that bit in there." He pointed to the piece about leaving the back door open for Father Christmas.
"We'll have every burglar in the area having a field day if that goes through. All these kids will be making sure the back doors are open. I can just see some yob standing up in court saying he was encouraged to break into a house because of your article that told him back doors would be open on Christmas Eve."
"But surely nobody will take any notice of that and actually leave their doors unlocked. It was meant as a bit of fun," I said.
"Of course they will lad. You carry a lot of responsibility when you work on the local paper. People believe everything that's printed. The paper just can't be wrong. They think us journalists have some super human power that makes mistakes impossible. No by the time this comes out you'll have half the adults in the area thinking that Father Christmas actually does exist. We must be responsible and printing stuff like that is rather irresponsible. I don't want to dampen your enthusiasm. That's all I have to say. Now you'd better get back to work. I'm a bit behind with my reading of the Times today."
I got back to my desk to find a piece of typed copy from Robin on it. It said
"Father Christmas today appeared before the town magistrates charged with breaking and entering, parking his sleigh on double yellow lines and being drunk in charge of livestock. He was acquitted on a charge of speeding."
"Very funny," I said beginning to think this whole episode was getting rather out of control.
"I hope you lot realise that he knows everything. I wouldn't rate your chance of getting any presents this year."
When the newspaper came out that week there was a taster piece on the front page. "We speak exclusively to the Real Father Christmas who just happens to live in our town -see page four." So much for reality and not leading the local populous astray!
Spring came round again and the light evenings began to get longer and, occasionally when the weather was bright enough, Robin and myself would travel a few miles inland to a nearby town by the river to have a drink with a couple of policemen friends of his.
One particular evening in April we decided to meet them in a local hotel. So at 7.30 p.m we were there waiting for the arrival of George and Andy. By 8 p.m they hadn't arrived and 15 minutes later Robin was thinking of returning home.
"They're not going to show now Eric. Obviously got called out on a job somewhere. Probably a cow got stuck in a ditch. Usually takes the town's entire police force of six to sort that kind of thing out."
A few minutes later we were on the point of leaving when George came in dressed in a dirty T shirt, jeans and carrying a rather old and rather bent fishing rod.
"Sorry I'm late you two but I can't make it for that drink. Me and Andy have to keep watch on some stolen gear across the river. Tell you what got some cans of beer and come over with us."
"Only if we get an exclusive interview with the thieves," joked Robin.
So we climbed into a very unsafe rowing boat and rowed across the river to the other side and clambered up the bank.
"What do you think of the disguise," asked Andy as we realised he was dressed in the same manner as George.
"Problem is we're trying to pass ourselves off as fishermen and neither of us have ever fished. We haven't a clue what to do or anything. So we've just been sitting here, dangling this bloody line in the water and watching out for the sergeant. The stolen gear's just over there - an outboard motor and some other boating stuff. What a way to spend an evening. Who's gonna come to pick up stolen gear when there are a couple of fishermen not 50 yards away. We may as well be dressed in our uniforms. Pointless exercise really. Anyway I've got a radio here so we can have a bit of a party. We've got to stay here until it gets totally dark - so we'll be here until 10 p.m," Andy said.
"Now that there are four of us we can have a go down the river in the boat. Anyone game," George said.
A few minutes later George and Robin set off for the next village down river. The evening dragged on and myself and Andy enjoyed the music and the beer and towards 10 p.m Andy began to get rather worried about the lack of appearance of George.
"That bloody sergeant is going to arrive any minute to tell us we can leave off. He's gonna see that George is gone and then he'll see the boat's not her either. You'll have to pretend to be George. Just keep over there in the reeds and I'll tell him George's just gone for a pee. Make sure he can't see your clothes and when he shouts to you just say "yes sir, everything's fine or something like that. Remember to call him sir and not Sarge. He likes that."
The sergeant arrived right on cue. By this time darkness had descended and luckily all he could see were silhouettes as he was on the other bank. There was no chance of him seeing that the boat was no longer there.
"Evans, Douglas," he called across.
"Okay lads you can call it a day now. Bring the boat over with you and put that stolen motor in with you. It's time to give up," he spoke as quietly as it's possible for a pompous police sergeant to speak.
It was pretty obvious by this time that the thieves weren't going to show. If they had been loitering in the area and been suspicious about the two rather shady fishermen, they would have no doubt now that it wasn't fish they were trying to catch.
The sergeant left without adding anything and I hadn't even had to call him sir. We decided to give George and Robin 10 more minutes before walking along the bank to the road bridge where we would be able to climb back onto the road. It was seven minutes later that George and Robin arrived soaking wet.
"What the hell's happened to you two?" asked Andy.
"Fell in didn't we," said George.
"We were on our way back when the bloody thing capsised. We're absolutely soaked. The boat has sunk and it's a miracle we didn't go with it. We would have been back earlier but saw the sergeant making a nuisance of himself," George added.
"What a waste of a night it's been," said George.
"Not quite. I think I've got a bite," replied Andy as he began to pull the line in and sure enough on the end was a sizeable fish."
"Come on lads it's supper time."