… The Christmas of 1972 I took being good to a whole new level. Santa only came to good little boys and I must not have been a very good one in ’71 because I never got the Meccano set I asked for. My mother said that Santa probably ran out because all the boys wanted the same thing that year. My father said he didn’t know and I was probably lucky I didn’t just get a lump of coal the way I’d been behaving. My birthday was only three weeks before Christmas and usually, I didn’t ask for much because I knew we didn’t have a lot of money. But when my mother woke me on my birthday with her soft, warm hand on my face, I knew by her smile that she had the birthday present I wanted. What it was in itself was not as significant as what it would become when Santa came, if Santa came.
You see, I had a plan. If Santa wanted good, then he would get good. I was going to be the best little boy he ever came across. It was genius, but I never imagined how hard it was going to be and I was in for a long three weeks. I was going to ask Santa in my letter, for a pair of white guns in a holster filled with bullets, a fringed cowboy waistcoat with a sheriff’s badge and a white cowboy hat. The guns were all important. I had very specific requirements. They had to have a revolving barrel so I could spin it around and they had to flip open to reload. They had to be white. Oh how I pictured myself in my hat and waistcoat, twirling my guns in my white hat, shooting Indians from their pie balled horses, or being fastest on the draw outside some saloon to defend some pretty girl’s honour.
My choice of birthday present was part of my ‘being good’ plan. It was a rifle. Not any old rifle. It was a white, Winchester rifle with a silver barrel and it was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever set my little eyes on.
“What do you think?” My mother’s question went unanswered as my jaw fell open.
“Will it do?”
She had no idea, but then again maybe she did. The perfect gift was encased in a box which in itself was a thing of beauty. My dream rifle sat nestled in a box decorated with the most incredible artwork. There were pictures of Indians riding fast and kicking up dust, a perfectly drawn fort manned by riflemen, with the cavalry charging through the gates shooting their Winchester rifles as they rode, reins between their teeth. I had only ever dreamt I could feel that good. My mother went to make me some porridge and left me to play with my gift, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Playing with this fantasy gift was going to have to wait, for I had my plan. That year, Santa was going to witness the ultimate demonstration of self-sacrifice, something surely no other boy in the whole wide world could manage. I was not going to pull the trigger on my rifle even once, until Christmas morning three weeks away. To prove my worth, to show my goodness, I would sacrifice my pleasure for three weeks and he would know just how special a little boy he was dealing with. This time Santa couldn’t possibly make any mistakes on his list or run out of my choice of toy.
I remember thinking that there would never be anything harder in my life. That was on day two. By the time one week had passed, I was unfaltering. My mother couldn’t understand it but I didn’t explain. I only told her that I was waiting for my guns from Santa before I played with it and ominously she told me that I shouldn’t. Santa had so many children to get to and it was always possible that I might not get the exact thing I asked for. But she didn’t know my secret. My mam didn’t know the way Santa thought. Lists… naughty… nice… no way would he let me down this year, not after what I had done to prove my worth.
On Christmas Eve, I went to bed at seven. It was ridiculously early but I didn’t care. I placed my rifle still in its beautiful box on the locker beside my bed, so it would be the first thing I would see when I woke up on Christmas morning. It was impossible to go to sleep, but somehow it happened and then as if I had just blinked and not slept at all, it was Christmas morning.
I opened my innocent eyes and in the dim light I saw my birthday rifle. I smiled the biggest smile and listened. For a few seconds there was no sound and then I heard it. My mother was already downstairs. I was like a greyhound out of the trap and in a single fluid motion; I jumped out of my bed, hit the floor running and grabbed my rifle. I took the stairs two at a time, my little legs straining all the way and half fell into the hall at the bottom. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door into the living room. It was dark except for the lights on the tree. They were all multi-coloured and blinking and I saw the shape of my mother sitting next to it in her favourite chair, drinking a cup of tea, waiting for me. In the shadows, I could only make out shapes beneath the tree so I moved closer, my little boy heart ready to burst, confident that Santa had seen the good in me yet uncertain because of my childhood scars that should have taught me not to hope. But in that moment, in that glittering half-light of a Christmas morning, that frightened little boy that I was, hoped like never before. I was a good boy. Wasn’t I? …