Gary Hollins goes undercover in the big red suit. You can imagine how that turns out…

 

The shelves were lined with tinsel. The staff had been forced into ‘Santa’s Coming!’ tee-shirts and antler-horn headbands, but nothing said seven days to Christmas at Bell’s Landing Buy’n’Save like the monstrosity jammed into the middle of the store.

The bargain bins had been cleared to make way for a tacky, knee-high white picket fence around an obviously fake cardboard sleigh. It shook as the teenage elf helped a struggling mum position her baby in the lap of the tubby old guy in the Father Christmas costume.

To be fair, most of the paunch must be padding because the shabby red suit flapped on his arms like a sail. 

“Ho, ho, ho,” the old guy said. “Merry Christmas.”

The elf took photos.

The baby howled.

Gary Hollins groaned.

“Yeah, I know.” The man beside him, the store manager, shook his head. “It’s hard to believe any of my people have their hand in the till at Christmas.”

“I was thinking more about that poor bugger.” Hollins nodded to the wobbly sleigh.

“Tracy?” the manager said.

The elf was a pretty girl at that moment wiping something off the back of her hand. Judging by her grimace, a deposit from the baby — one end or the other.

“No, the bloke in the suit,” Hollins said.

“Is there a problem?” The manager asked. “We’re paying a hundred and fifty bucks an hour. The lady at Ridenour Investigations, whatshername—” 

“Debbie Haring.”

“Said you’d be happy—” 

‘Well, she would, wouldn’t she.” Hollins could imagine the look on Deb’s face when she got the call. He’d be the one in the stifling velour suit stuffed with rags, a false beard and wig itching his cheeks and scalp while a stream of snotty Bell’s Landing toddlers invaded his space. “Can’t you get the cops in?”

“At Christmas? Are you joking? We take twenty-five per cent of our annual revenue through December and the January sales. I can’t have uniforms in the store. Disturbing the customers. Upsetting my people.”

“The ones helping themselves?”

“Santa’s sleigh is right in the middle of the store. You’ll be able to keep an eye on the shelves.”

Hollins couldn’t see how. His SAS surveillance training covered most extreme high stress scenarios, but not observation while cradling a wriggling primary school lad and trying to remember the child’s Christmas list to whisper in his mum’s ear.

He should demand that Debbie back him up. Insist it was a two-person job. See how she liked dressing up as an elf. But his relish at that prospect soon faded. She’d kick his ass, and Tracy would lose her holiday job.

“You can tune into the lunchroom conversation,” the manager added. “You know. Infiltrate.”

Hollins closed his eyes and counted to ten. “Okay, when do I get the suit?”

The manager gestured to the old guy. “When he’s finished with it. How many do you think we’ve got?”

Great. I hope he’s wearing a shirt under that jacket.

For his first day in a smelly Santa outfit, Bell’s Landing put on a summer special — thirty-nine degrees centigrade.

The Buy’n’Save air-conditioning struggled gamely, but the kids were worse than the suit; sweaty, tired and grumpy the lot of them.

Tracy was a marvel — smiling, reassuring littl’uns who weren’t too sure about an exotically-dressed fake octogenarian and cajoling Hollins with cheery enthusiasm and frequent hydration.

Towards the end of his four-hour shift, he looked up from his water bottle to a familiar pair approaching. Debbie’s children. Jenny, the eldest, leading her younger brother, Lachy. Sure enough, Debbie lurked amongst the parents, phone in hand, recording his humiliation on video.

“This is Jennifer and Lachlan,” Tracy said. “Up you get, kids.”

Hollins only just stopped himself saying, “I know,” as Lachy climbed onto his knee. 

Jenny declined the opportunity to sit. 

He lowered his Father Christmas voice to a gruff bass. “And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?”

“I’d like a rashie for the beach and some Lego. Thanks, Uncle Gary.”

Jennifer gasped. “That’s not Gary. It’s Santa.”

“No it’s not.” Lachy sunk his fist into the beard and pulled.

Tracy charged to the rescue, but Hollins caught Lachy’s wrist in time to avoid disaster and waved her back to the camera.

She shook with giggles. At least he’d made Tracy’s day.

“Ah-hem,” Jenny said. “Err, Gary’s filling in because Santa’s busy at the North Pole. On Christmas Day—”

“Will you get any presents?” Lachy asked Hollins.

“Of course, he will.”

“But who from? He hasn’t got a mum or dad, or kids, or friends.”

Not completely true, but, “Thanks for reminding me, Lachy.”

“Everyone gets presents,” Jenny told her brother. “From Santa.” Her eyes slid from Lachy to Hollins, narrowed thoughtfully.

Hollins swapped the red velour straight jacket with the number two Buy’n’Save Santa, Burt, in the gents loo. He didn’t want to know any more about his new colleague than his name. Hollins was depressed enough without discovering what horrors might possess an elderly man to endure the torture voluntarily for minimum wage.

Outside the store, Debbie waited with her husband, Matt, and the children. “Did you spot the thief?” she asked.

“Were there staff working? I couldn’t see anything past that bloody beard.”

“Can we go and look at the pets?” Lachy asked.

“All right.”

The kids raced off, and their mother turned to Gary. “I’m sorry about that. I understand that Jennifer and Lachlan are like surrogates for…” She bit her lip, glancing at Matt. 

Debbie meant for what he left behind when he fled England.***

She touched his arm. “I want you to know that it’s okay — Shit.” She dropped his sleeve and ran off, waving her arms. “Lachlan. No! Don’t touch that cage!”

Matt sidled up to Hollins, frowning. “What the heck was that?”

“She’s guilty about forcing me to play Father Christmas.”

“No, she’s not. Deb’s laughing her head off. Sorry, mate. I don’t know why she’s trying to get you to buy them presents. We’ve already bought half the kids stuff in the known world. Hey, we can give you something to wrap if you like.”

“No, that’s fine,” Hollins said. “I’ve already decided what I’m getting them. Puppies. St Bernards. One each.”

“Like hell you are.”

Hollins dragged himself back to Buy’n’Save for late-night shopping, determined to solve the case of the light-fingered shop assistant before he lost all will to live.

Tracy was in the lunchroom, already dressed in her elf costume, chatting to a young bloke wearing the horrible Buy’n’Save Christmas tee-shirt. Could he be the thief?

“Oh, Gary.” Her cheeks creased with concern. “Don’t be worried. You’re doing fine.”

An opportunity to build his cover and illicit indiscretions. “I can’t stuff it up. I need the extra cash.”

He nodded to Burt, who’d just entered the lunchroom on his way to the gents in the shared costume.

“Oh, dear. Perhaps you could get some shifts in the store,” Tracy offered. “They’re still looking for extra holiday casuals after Christmas, aren’t they, Brad.?”

The bloke nodded. “I’ll ask.”

Oh, please don’t. Hollins hooked his thumb towards the lavatories. “I’d better change.” He winced at the thought of the false stomach pillow soaked with Burt’s perspiration.

He found his fellow Santa, beard and hat removed, grinning and shaking his head.

“What’s so funny?”

“You,” Burt said. “If you need a bit extra, it’s staring you in the face. Help yourself.” He thrust a hand into the voluminous red sleeve and came out with a six-hundred-dollar tablet. “They’re asking for it giving us this gear.”

On Christmas morning, Hollins rolled out of bed at the regular time and took breakfast as usual, Cornflakes at the kitchen table of his caravan park cabin.

His mum and dad would be deep asleep in England. His sister, too, if his niece and nephew weren’t up in the middle of the night checking for evidence of passing reindeers.

Memories. 

But his Australian friends, the few he cultivated, wouldn’t let him brood through the holidays.

One rang as he poured his second cup of tea — Debbie.

“Merry Christmas,” she said.

“Same to you.”

“Sorry to get you out of bed, but Jennifer wanted to talk.”

Speaking of one of his best pals. “Hiyya, Jen. Did you get lots of presents?”

“Loads. How about you?”

“None yet,” he said. 

“Oh.” She sounded disappointed.

“Maybe I’ll get some later, eh?”

“Hmm. Yes.”

Debbie came back on the phone. “You’re good for dinner?“

“You bet. I’ve got these two St Bernards for the kids.’

“Ha. Ha. Any time after four. We’ll be out until then.”

“Righto. Merry Christmas to Matt from me, and give your kids a hug.”

Before he could finish his tea, there was a knock on the flyscreen, and another of his favourite Australians, Sylvie, the park manageress, called out, “Ooo-roo.”

She offered him a gift-wrapped parcel. “Special delivery. One of Santa’s helpers left it at the office last night. She told me I had to deliver it this morning.”

The paper had pictures of reindeer. The package was tied with a green bow that had a card attached. It read in neat round letters: To Gary. From Santa.

“Don’t be late for lunch,” Sylvie said. “Bugger it. Come round as soon as you’re dressed. We’ve got the bubbly open.”

Hollins opened his present at the table with a crooked, silly grin he couldn’t wipe off. A pair of socks, red and green stripes with white Christmas Trees. Just what he needed with thirty-five plus forecast.

They’d give his shorts and flip-flops for dinner a festive air.

He texted Debbie:

To Jennifer.

Santa came. 🎄🥳

Made my day.

Thank you. xx

 

*** For full details off Gary’s shady past, read Gunner

Related Articles

2 thoughts to “Secret Santa

  • Barbara Harrison

    Lovely!

    • T.J.

      Thank you. 🙂

Comments are closed.