Sweat was running down his back in rivulets and pooled in his underwear. Christmas in the Southern hemisphere at an awesome 37 degrees, dressed in a red velvet suit, white beard, tasselled hat and black boots. He surveyed the manically shopping populace from his fake golden throne. The true spirit of Christmas was painted on their faces in garish colours as they rushed to and fro. Santa Claus was his name and boosting sales his game.
According to myth the Claus was a fat, white man supposedly living in the North Pole, hence the dress code. He commanded elves, reindeer and an ever pudgier Mrs Claus. In direct contrast Bongani Shabangu was ebony black, single, lived in a sweltering South Africa and commanded no one. As a boy he was asked by his father to herd the goats in the village, but Bongani managed to lose two of them and wasn’t trusted with the task thereafter. Nobody ever listened to him either; he seemed destined to be a marginal figure.
He shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position in the heat. As unobtrusively as possible he wiped the sweat from his brow. He was rancid and longed to stand under a cold shower. This morning when he had gotten dressed he was struck by the contrast of the white beard against his skin. He couldn’t deny the symbolism: good versus evil. The thought was a fleeting one.
Who had ever heard of a black Santa Claus? Yet, the money would come in handy as he had been between jobs for some time now. The unemployment rate was high and many of his friends were battling to make ends meet. He would be the best black Claus if that was what it took to put food on the table for another month.
No matter how dazzling his smile or how friendly his demeanour; most white mothers still grabbed their children by the hand if they so much as looked in his direction. The attitude was changing, but at a snail’s pace. It saddened Bongani to see this; children, no matter what their colour were still children at heart. Their needs and beliefs were simple it was the adults who made things more complicated than they needed to be. He wished that he had the power to change things, especially at this time of year where peace and goodwill should be pervasive.
As far as he knew no Santa Claus had ever been able to grant the wish of peace; he wasn’t a magical creature merely a mythological one. His legacy was born from the good nature of a Christian bishop, Saint Nicolas, who gifted two parish daughters a dowry in order to keep them from turning to prostitution. If magic resided in a good heart then the dear Saint Nic would have been stoned as a witch or a warlock, Bongani could never remember what you were supposed to call a male magician. It didn’t matter; what mattered was that Bongani couldn’t do anything to change people’s hearts. He was a single individual against masses who thought that black skin equalled stupidity and criminality. No use crying over spilled milk.
He shifted uncomfortably; it was going to be a long day. He was parched and couldn’t remember when he had had something to drink. In this heat one needed to stay hydrated. Where was the damn photographer? Probably off on another interminable smoke break. The man was lazy and full of himself; nattering on about what a brilliant artist he was. If he was that brilliant what was he doing taking pictures of children on Santa’s lap in a mall? Artist my ass Bongani thought, wishing the man would appear so that he could send him to buy an ice cold Coke.
A shy, Indian boy was being urged in Bongani’s direction by his mother. He smiled at the boy, remembering his own awkward shyness at that age.
“Nirav, Mommy wants a nice picture of you with Santa Claus to send to Granny in Durban. She would be so happy to see her little Nirav being such a brave boy. You can ask Santa what you want for Christmas too.”
The little boy looked at Bongani with huge eyes, uncertain whether the picture taking was such a good idea.
“Nirav, go and sit on Santa’s lap for Mommy,” his mother urged yet again.
It suddenly struck Bongani how perverted it was to urge a child to sit on a strange old man’s lap. They had nothing to fear from him, but still the world was a nasty place and for all anybody knew he could have been a paedophile. The manager who had hired him hadn’t even asked if he had a criminal record or not. He was hired as a day labourer no questions asked.
Bongani smiled encouragingly at Nirav and the boy inched forward. Between the two of them they managed to coax Nirav onto his lap. Big brown eyes stared into equally brown, adult ones. Bongani could feel the trembling of Nirav’s bird like body. Miraculously the photographer appeared as if summoned by unknown gods. He slung the camera strap over his neck. The Polaroid instant camera looked like a dinosaur compared to the new digital models. He snapped a picture randomly, even though the mother was certainly hoping to have one in which her son smiled.
In a voice which he presumed sounded at least a tad jolly he asked:
“Tell me Nirav, have you been naughty or nice during the year?”
Nirav shook his head which Bongani took as a negative on being naughty. When confronted with this question, adult and child alike would answer that they have certainly been nice even though the opposite might in fact be true. We all need to see ourselves in a better light.
“A nice boy like you deserves a nice gift. What would you like Santa to bring you this year?”
“A Playstation 3 or a pony or a remote controlled car or a puppy,” was the breathless response.
“Santa will certainly see what he can do about that. I will ask the elves to start making toys right away,” Bongani said uttering the prerequisite ho, ho,ho. He posed with a now smiling Nirav for a more appropriate photograph.
At this very instant a strange idea entered Bongani’s head. What if he was actually a demi- god dispensing punishment at random from the confines of his golden throne? He could decide- naughty or nice. Bongani laughed at himself, a joyous sound to Nirav’s ears who promptly tugged his beard down and wailed at the sudden discovery that Santa was a fake. His mother plucked him from Bongani’s lap and shot the latter a look which would have killed small animal life within the immediate vicinity. It wasn’t his fault that Nirav had tugged at the beard. He was simply a man doing a job for Pete’s sake.
Bongani scowled at the photographer in turn. The “artist” merely shrugged. Bongani was about to send him for a cold drink when he noticed that a line of children accompanied by their parents had formed, waiting to have photographs taken. His lips were extremely dry and he moistened them with his tongue. He was parched, but the manager had been clear that the customer always came first. The photographer collected the money and made a list to remind himself how many photographs he needed of each child.
Children came and went as Bongani went through the scenario time and time again. Four hours later, Bongani was in trouble.
A blonde, blue-eyed toddler scrambled onto Bongani’s lap and hugged him fiercely. Was it purely his imagination or did the girl have a golden halo hovering just inches above her curly head? Bongani shook his head and the halo vanished. He asked her what she wanted for Christmas, but she just looked at him with those innocent eyes and smiled. He realised she was still too young to have a meaningful conversation. She was so sweet that he would have promised her the moon if she had asked for it. He knew with a certainty that brooked no argument that this little angel was good through and through. Five minutes were all it took for her attention to wander and be drawn by the twinkling lights of the nearby Christmas tree. The mother thanked him and took her daughter to see the fairy lights.
Next up was a scowling young boy; seven or eight years old. The child sat rigidly on his lap, crossed his arms and talked before Bongani had the chance to smile.
“I know you’re not real, so don’t pretend you are.”
“How do you know I’m not real?” a flabbergasted Bongani asked.
“I’ve seen my parents putting the presents under the tree. There is no Santa Claus and no elves either. You are nothing but a big old fake.” The frown the child wore turned his face into a grotesque, snarling mask before Bongani’s very eyes. He almost dropped the child in sheer revulsion. He wanted to wash his hands to rid them of the feel of the boy’s body. The child was filled with malice.
“In that case I don’t think you deserve any presents. You are a naughty, evil little boy.”
“See if I care,” the boy yelled at Bongani, jumped off his lap and stomped away leaving grumbling parents behind.
“What the hell are you doing, lighten up dude, it’s just a kid for crying out loud.” The artist was annoyed; it made sense, he was being paid per customer.
“You didn’t see the evil in that boy’s face. Did you notice how it changed?” Bongani hissed.
The photographer showed him the photo which was slowly developing in front of his eyes; it was a normal, good looking little boy.
How could I have made such a mistake? His face had changed, hadn’t it?
By this time Bongani wasn’t sweating anymore and he was in trouble His heart beat erratically. Quite inappropriately he thought the children were playing tricks on him and somehow the photographer was in on the deal. Bongani, the man who wished for peace was replaced by someone who would have his revenge at any cost.
Twins replaced the boy whose face had changed. Bongani stared at them, waiting for the moment in which they would undergo a sudden transformation. For a while nothing happened and Bongani relaxed.
“Have you been naughty or nice during the year?” he asked pleasantly.
“Nice.” the two white boys answered simultaneously, but what Bongani heard was something else all together. He clearly heard the word “evil” as they both sneered at him.
They have too many razor sharp teeth! God have mercy!
Bongani shoved them away violently, feeling sick to his stomach. The boys wailed in distress. Their parents rushed to their sides, cuddling them in comfort.
“What kind of people are you to give birth to this twin headed abomination!” Bongani yelled at the top of his voice. He pointed a shaky finger at them.
“You want to cause trouble for me by sending the Tokoloshe, but I know what you are up to! I am a nice boy; I have always been nothing but a nice boy.” Bongani realised he was babbling and looked around him at the rest of the people gathered in silent disbelief. He sat down quietly when he saw the tear stained cheeks of the twins. Bongani’s face was deathly pale and he shivered uncontrollably. His skin was dry and flaky.
What is wrong with me? I am behaving like a lunatic. They are actually scared of me.
Parents where whispering and leading their children away; Bongani’s eyes followed them warily. A pudgy six year old black girl turned around and stared at Bongani. Her eyes were black, limpid pools, beckoning him to their icy depths. Her pupils were a fiery red and within them, Bongani could see a reflection of himself.
“I know exactly who and what you are,” the guttural voice issued from the innocent, pouty lips.
‘You can no longer hide your true self from me. What you wish the world to see is nothing but an empty facade. I will be coming for you, soon Bongani.”
Anger and loathing fought for possession of Bongani’s mind. Anger won as he lurched towards the girl, his fingers hooked into claws. They closed around her neck….
It took six burly men to drag Bongani off the girl. He was restrained and taken away by mall security in handcuffs. The next morning the grainy picture in the newspaper showed a deranged, black, stereotypical Santa. Though lacking in quality, the artist had finally won renown by capturing the galloping insanity in Bongani’s thirsty eyes.
She is a 47 year old visual artist, author, mom and pug breeder. Two of her Afrikaans short stories have recently been published in My kort vir jou sop available on www.amazon.com as an e-book and soon to be released in soft cover. She has taken part in Nanowromo 2012 and 2013 and reached the target on day 26. She has also published a collection of short stories on Smashwords, titled Twisted. http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/361196. She has her own blog at http://iread1966.wordpress.com, appropriately named Humouring the dark where the muse has captured many readers’ attention and a book about the character is in the offing. She is also active on Facebook and Twitter and is a member of a writing group. She leads her own book club and is a true bookaholic. Writing has always been her passion, however the timing always seemed incorrect as daily life interrupted more frequently than not. Now, she has decided to go big or go home.