Two weeks before Christmas and four days past her eight-birthday, Anna received a letter. It was on the kitchen table by her breakfast plate when she got up that morning. The plain white envelope had no address or stamp – but just had ‘Anna’ written, front and centre, in long, bold blue-ink strokes.
She’d never had a letter before and was not sure what to do. Letters were grown-up territory though her mother sometimes read aloud bits and pieces from Anna’s aunt who was coming home for Christmas.
And there were the letters that arrived from time to time that her mother did not open at all but put, instead, at the back of the desk drawer that Anna was not supposed to open. But she did, just once and recently, and was astounded that her mother could disobey such strict, red ink instructions and pronouncements as OVERDUE, OPEN NOW and DO NOT DESTROY – square across the top. Those loud, silenced letters frightened her a little and she returned them to darkness, pretending, like her mother, that they did not exist.
So she sat there on this morning, not knowing how or why she had a letter, and hoped for some instructions or, at least, permission. But her mother carried on as though she had not seen the envelope, as though it had arrived by magic on the table, and seemed in an extra hurry with her morning chores. Which was strange on Saturday when nobody had to go to school or work.
Eventually, having exhausted her own patience, to her mother’s back she said: “I think I have a letter” still reluctant to presume what might be seen as adult status. “Is that so?” her mother turned and looked at her, without surprise, as if she’d known all along. “Well, then we’d better open it”.
Though there was no writing at the top, she was gentle with the envelope and, after she’d removed the contents and handed them to Anna, put it on the high-up shelf above the stove where things were offered short-term safety.
The single sheet of paper had blue-ink writing down one side. Anna looked up and said: “Its says ‘God Bless, Santa Claus’ at the end”, thinking it was probably not a good idea to even wish for such a thing but her mother just said: “Imagine that, Santa writing to you. That makes you a very special girl” – making it okay and true.
In short, the letter thanked her for hers of two weeks earlier and assured her that, Santa, too, was very much looking forward to Christmas, and the stout and cake she planned to leave for him to eat. He was pleased to hear she’d hardly cried at all after being pushed off a wall at school and that the stitches to her forehead had healed up well. And he was pleased, that even though she’d been asked and asked, she didn’t tell her mum that her brother was the boy who’d pushed her.
The letter went on to explain, however, that it had been a very difficult year at the North Pole, and Santa was finding it hard, just now, to make ends meet.
He wanted, he wrote, to give her the presents she had asked for but everything was such a stretch this Christmas. He wondered, and he apologised for doing so, if she could make a contribution to her present.
He suggested an amount that corresponded to about half the balance of her post office savings account. Congratulated her for coming top of her class again (he knew, she blushed) and said that as she’d been a really good girl deserved to get the things she wanted. Before signing off with he asked after her brothers and hoped that they too were being good.
Well, Anna was so pleased, so honoured and so excited to have been singled out for such communication that she immediately forgot about the bicycle that she’d been saving for and asked her mum for permission to do a thing she never did and make a substantial withdrawal from her savings to send – that day – to Santa so that he did not have to worry any further. She hoped she had not asked for too much and wondered if she should send all her money to help him out with other kids.
Having witnessed near disaster the previous Christmas when her brother Michael had forgotten – she could not imagine such a thing – to write to Santa, Anna, who was always careful, had been extra careful with this year’s letter writing. She described in detail the particular specifications of the doll and pram she wanted right down to rounded heels and alloy wheels (she’d seen it in a catalogue and copied out the words). By doing so, she hoped to avoid the confusion and disappointment that had come perilously close to her brother the year before.
Assurance and reassurance that Santa did not forget good boys did not abate Michael’s certainty that he would be forgotten. Until finally, their mother, having double-checked the disconnected phone, again, bundled everyone into coats and outside to the car for the short trip through the dry-night frost to the now sleeping village where an emergency call to Santa averted near disaster.
From the car, Anna and her two brothers watched, through cloudy breath, their mother’s bulk fill up the phone box while she dialled Santa’s number. The call did not take long and their mother with, “You silly goose, he hadn’t forgotten at all but was sad not to get your letter”. Though Michael was ecstatic to be remembered, he received a kind of action man most boys had got the year before. And Anna felt that while it may be true that Santa does not forget good children it was better to be quite specific with him about the things she liked, from year to year.
But now she chased out fleeting thoughts that wondered: “Isn’t Santa magic?” “Doesn’t he make all the toys himself?” and “Why didn’t he ask my mum instead of me?” hoping they had not somehow been transmitted through the chilly ether to Santa who would be disappointed with her, feel bad about asking her for help and, maybe, decide she was not so good after all.
The old post office felt damp and warm, the thick brown floorboards lumpy and loose under Anna’s feet. It was busy with people sending packages and cards, and others waiting, as usual, to collect their welfare cheques. Mrs Daly the postmistress didn’t seem to stand up anymore but had a chair on wheels which ferried her from weighing scales to stamps, and from where, from time to time she hit a perfect basket tossing parcels into the open mouth of the large brown canvass sack suspended from a hook on the wall behind her, all the time keeping up a busy chatter with those directly by the counter and pitching helloes to new trade coming through the door.
From where she stood at first, near the back and wedged between the grown-ups, Anna could not see, but only hear, Mrs Daly above the muddle of bodies and other voices. When it got to Anna’s turn the crowd had thinned with only Mr Jacks still there and he was always there, and sometimes went fully behind the counter to lift down boxes Mrs Daly could not reach.
When she saw the savings book Mrs Daly shot a quick glance at Anna’s mother that Anna missed as she rehearsed her speech about how she needed to withdraw so much of her savings all at once. She half expected Mrs Daly to disallow it, but she did not.
“Let me see then what you have in here,” she said instead, running her eye over familiar pages of small deposits in the proffered book – a kind of child’s biography. Little cash rewards for childhood rites of passage and weak attempts at compensation – all received with generosity and quickly stashed with the takings from chores and enterprises of a girl who believed that good things could be safely stored.
“Anna’s had a letter from Santa”, her mum said in a low voice when Mr Jacks went in the back to put the kettle on. “He needs a bit of help this Christmas.” Mrs Daly nodded slowly. “Aren’t you the great good girl to help out Santa,” she said to Anna who beamed to be so acknowledged and to have had her savings so that Santa thought of asking her in the first place instead of lots of other kids around whose parents had more money but who didn’t save at all.
Mrs Daly counted out all the money, in notes, on the counter in front of Anna and then took it up, turned it over and counted it again. The way she did. “Do you want to send it now?” she asked. “Yes, please”. “And do you need to write a note?” She hadn’t thought about a note but said yes, she’d like to, just so he’d be sure the money came from her. “Okay, let me see, I have some nice Christmas writing paper here that I’d use if I was writing to Santa, you could use that if you like and come back in here to write it”.
So Anna went behind the counter and sat down in the cubby corner by the window and wrote out slowly in her best hand “Dear Santa, thank you for your letter. My brothers are being good. Here is the money that you asked for but if you don’t have enough for my doll and pram that’s okay. I will leave out the stout and cake anyway, and continue to be good, God Bless, Anna”.
She folded the sheet of paper over, put it in the matching envelope, which also had a little picture of a Christmas tree in the top left corner, and handed it to Mrs Daly who slipped the money into the folded paper and sealed the envelope.
“Ok, now where’s my good pen”, said Mrs Daly fishing in a drawer beside her. “Should I do the envelope?” and when Anna nodded yes, Mrs Daly wrote Santa Claus in long, bold blue-ink strokes, front and centre, and nothing else.
And Anna thought Mrs Daly’s writing looked liked Santa’s who must also have a special pen for such things, and how the letter got all the way to her from the North Pole without an address and now her letter would get all the way to Santa without his address. And Mrs Daly said: “Okay I’ll put it over here in the Santa special delivery pile”, and Anna saw her put it in a box, below the counter that had other letters addressed to Santa.
Before they left, Mrs Daly gave Anna a bar of chocolate and told her Mum she’d see her later on.