Why it’s time to bid farewell to Santa (or: Why Santa is bad for your kids’ elf)

I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief, or its lack, in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.

The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.

All other western cultural norms are fluid, it seems, except for this one. Never this one. The only things that will grant you an exemption from Santa are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then you’ll probably still be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.

It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each with the face of Richard Dawkins.

Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why should he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, there’s no such thing as ghosts, people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house or play-acting with his toys.

The power of Santa compels him… to do very little

Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?

Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).

Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty, or Jesus.

You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner, or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.

The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.

My family and I were in a shopping mall at the weekend, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Ho ho ho. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed.

We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.

Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.

CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”

PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”

CHILD: “…”

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)

Parents and guardians are the people that children listen to and look up to above all others, whose word is gospel for a significant proportion of their young lives. For them to distort a child’s understanding of the laws of time, physics and the universe is an unforgivable crime. Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place.

Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few easter eggs and we’ll talk.”

The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septugenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.

I guess what really irks me about this time of year is the fact that Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both our society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded, not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their future schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.

I always want to be truthful with my children.

“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”

“…”

“Daddy?”

“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”

I think I do, anyway.

Existential nightmare at the soft-play warehouse

softplay

Last week we took our son to soft-play, or The Hunger Games with rubber-foam-ladders as I like to call it. We entered the reception area and were buzzed through a security door into a giant warehouse filled with bright primary colours and screams. It felt like we were visiting a criminally insane toddler on death row. Those screams. Those… screams. I closed my eyes and imagined the thudding din of helicopter blades alongside the cacophony of piercing shrieks. This could be a war movie, I thought; ‘Nam, only more brutal. Why was this happening to us?

It was mid-week. The schools in our area were all in session, which we thought would guarantee us a quiet afternoon with a low kid-count: silence of the bambinos. Unfortunately, we hadn’t known that a neighbouring town’s schools were closed for in-service days (or Teachers’ Gin Days if you like), and that, as a consequence, the soft-play would be the site of a full-scale osmotic invasion of hyperactive, psychopathic Stirling kids. Sartre was bang on when he said that ‘Hell is other people’, but his aphoristic aim should’ve been more precise: hell is other people’s kids.

I wasn’t alone in my pain. I could see it etched into the weather-beaten faces of the parents who fringed the perimeter of the play-area, their wearied flesh pressed and wedged into the cheap plastic seats. We walked past a succession of toothless, sunken-cheeked grannies, who were all wearing the same expression, one that silently screamed: ‘I WISH YOU COULD STILL FUCKING SMOKE IN PLACES LIKE THESE… YOUNG LUNGS BE DAMNED!’ Their dark, haunted eyes evoked the horror of a holocaust. I smiled faintly at them, and steeled myself for the nightmare to come.

Kids are crazy little bastards (apart from my kid, of course, who’s clearly an exceptional human being, and nothing at all like your shitty little disease-ridden mental cases), propelled by sugar and selfishness. They lack both the developmental capacity to credit other people with having selves distinct from their own, and the ability to show compassion and regard for the well-being of others. Helping our son safely navigate the tunnels, ladders, ball-pits and climbing platforms of each of the three mini-fortresses was a hazardous and stressful endeavour. Kids careened about with the frenetic zeal of angry dwarf Gladiators, as they pushed, shoved, kicked, and thudded their way through the mazes. Our son became a tiny Indiana Jones, dodging four-limbed-boulders here, ducking roof-bound punch-bags there, all the while cooing and smiling, oblivious to the great danger that threatened to engulf him from every direction.

My fear was focused at the microbial level, on the shiny surfaces that were slick with sweat and saliva and piss and Christ knows what else. I was sure that my hands carried the traces of the bogeys and bum-kernels of a thousand wet-nosed, shat-nappied children, and every disease, from swine-flu to AIDS, was busy gleefully replicating itself in my blood. Who cleans this place? Do they get down on their hands and knees and scrub every inch of every surface, or do they shrug their shoulders and think to themselves, ‘Screw it, kids are ill all the time anyway, and I only get paid £5 an hour, so fuck this, I’m going to spray some Febreeze over this ball-pit and then go out for a smoke.’

ballpit

Despite all that, the three of us soon found ourselves in the ball-pit, doing the back-stroke through the multi-coloured sea of circular-filth-nuggets. Our son was delighted with the ball tsunami his thrashing and splashing created. A few other kids jumped in just as we were beginning a ball-fight, and before long all fire was concentrated on my face. I retaliated, of course, because where else are you going to get the chance to throw things at children and get away with it? Once the blood-lust abated, I fished my son out of the balls, sat him upright and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm: “WHO WANTS TO GET OUT OF HERE AND GO DOWN THE CHUTE?” Three random kids thrust their arms into the air, shouting “ME!”

“Well, I wasn’t actually talking to you guys, but, what the hell, I guess you can come along.”

And so we dragged a comet’s tail of kids behind us as we clambered out of the ball-pit and began the long, slow journey to the top of the fortress. One little boy, slightly older than our son, went out of his way to help little Jack navigate the climbing platforms, pulling him up at each level and making sure he was safe and steady. Once we reached the higher levels, he stuck to Jack like glue, protecting him from the hordes of wayward children as they sped towards us on their savage and singular trajectories. I figured I would have to re-evaluate my stance on the inherent psychopathy of children. Here was a noble and nurturing boy, a credit to his sub-species. I guess I was wrong, I thought. Kids are sweet and caring and kind after all.

I quickly re-re-evaluated, though, and come to the conclusion that he was the fucking worst of the lot. Clearly he was responding to me as the alpha of the pack, and keeping Jack safe was his way of appeasing me and showing due deference. If I’d ordered him to pick up Jack and hurl him from the battlements, the sick little bastard would have done it without hesitation. I guess that’s why I felt completely justified when I kicked the little boy in the stomach and hurled him down the chute backwards.

When I told my partner I was going to write about our experience at the soft-play area, she said: “Just remember to write that we all had a nice, fun time, because we did. Don’t do what you usually do and make our perfectly normal, happy family times sound nightmarish and horrible. And for Christ’s sake, don’t say something sick like you kicked that nice little boy in the stomach and then hurled him down a chute backwards.”

“Oh, and please try to call it something nice like, ‘Family Fun Times’ or ‘Super Soft-play Day’. Don’t call it something awful like, oh, I dunno, ‘Existential Nightmare at the Soft-Play Warehouse.'”

Folks, I did have a really, really nice time, it’s just that ‘nice’ isn’t all that funny or interesting to anyone except us, and – most importantly – this is Jamie Andrew With Hands, not fucking Mumsnet.

A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Do. Not. Eat. The. Food. I waited an hour for Nachos that cost me a fiver, and when I say Nachos, I mean half a bag of Doritos that somebody had blown snot over and then shoved in a microwave for twelve seconds.
  • Do check your socks before leaving. I was lucky this time, having by chance selected the one pair of socks I own that doesn’t have a gaping hole in the toe. You don’t want to be prancing around a plastic fortress looking like Albert Steptoe.
  • Finding a parking place at these day-glo hell-holes is perhaps the most heart-busting part of the saga. You won’t find one. Even though these soft-plays are usually inside giant warehouses, there are only ever about six parking spaces. You’ll find yourself driving round and around like The Hulk on steroids, unleashing torrents of vile, paranoia-themed bile at your fellow space-seekers, shouting at families for not waddling back to their cars quickly enough, and trying to manoeuvre your car into a four-inch gap before finally screaming ‘FUCK IT’ and angrily mounting the kerb to park on the pavement.

More family-related articles for you to enjoy:

A celebration of public breastfeeding

Baby talk: Baby’s first workplace visit

Happy Fathers’ Day to me

Weighting it all up

 

Trench

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago THAT NO FUCKER WILL PUBLISH EVEN THOUGH MY CREATIVE WRITING TUTOR GAVE ME 98 MOTHER FUCKING PER CENT!! WHAT, DOES SHE KNOW NOTHING, IS SHE A FUCKING IDIOT OR SOMETHING? But I’m not bitter about that in the slightest. I’ll just publish it here, so it can be read by those who matter. All five of you. This story hopefully proves there’s a heart behind all of the quadruple amputee jokes I do.

All locations in the story are a blend of different places, but anyone from Falkirk reading this may be interested to know (but probably won’t be) that the park at the beginning of the story is based on the top park in Wallacestone (apart from the water), and the industrial town in which most of the action takes place is modeled on none other than my dearly beloved Grangemouth.

Trench is a The Road-esque tale of a grandfather trying to do right by his grandson in a time of great horror. Excuse the shite formatting; this site’s not conducive to the smooth and proper publication of fiction.

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Trench

by Jamie Andrew

The old man gave the boy a gentle shove; the swing’s chains creaked.

‘Higher, grandpa,’ said the boy. ‘Higher.’

      His muscles stiffened with the effort, issuing a few creaks of their own. He moved just in time to avoid the back-swing and a pair of boots in his chest.

‘I can nearly see past the town!’

‘Not so loud,’ said the old man, drawing out and lighting a cigarette.

      The boy propelled himself ever higher into the blank and cloudless sky; normally it would have been alive with jets cutting white scars across its marine canvas.

‘I’m going… to jump…’ said the boy, wrestling himself higher still, ‘…and jump… over…’

‘Take it easy, now,’ said the old man.

‘…the whole… town…’

      He landed on the grass, his supple little legs soaking up the impact as if he’d done nothing more than step off a kerb. Fearless. Or oblivious. It amounted to the same thing.

      The boy tumbled and somersaulted over the grass; and ran like a greyhound around the rusting relic of a roundabout in the centre of the park.

      ‘Come to my side,’ said the old man firmly, moving hurriedly past the gently rocking swing to reach him. He too felt like a relic: his body ached. He’d outgrown the world, or it him. There was nothing more he now wished except to see his grandson safe.

‘We’ll need to get going, son.’

      It was crazy to have taken him there by himself, especially given what he was carrying. He guessed the play-park visit was as dangerous as it was selfish. But if this was to be the last day their last day together then he wanted something with which to remember the boy, and a memory for the boy to hold on to that didn’t weigh heavy with sorrow or infection.

      His wife would have given him hell for this, but owing to the trifle of hard and soft contrasts stacked inside her large heart loved him more because of it. The old man allowed himself a smile.

      Twigs snapped. He hadn’t seen them coming. Two men stood on the opposite bank of the stream that fringed the park, a hundred yards away or less. The town had been in quarantine for only days (was it ten? twelve?), but the men’s grimy, ragged clothes looked like they’d been worn through an apocalypse. Dark and dirt sat on their faces, and seemed reflected in their glazed eyes. Many unsavoury things, especially natures, had been brought to the surface since the sealing of the town and the removal of law enforcement; like rats after a flood.

      ‘By my side,’ the old man barked. The boy did as he was told, slowly and without panic. The old man softly placed his leathery hand atop the boy’s head, then trod out his cigarette on the grass.

      The old man stood a silent statue. The men stared; wolves that smiled.

      ‘Are you sick, old man?’ hissed one of them, the taller and more toothless of the two.

      ‘Want us to take care of the boy?’ croaked the other, the fatter one, his voice blending into a rackety cough, which in turn became a rasping laugh.

      They wore their illnesses like tattoos. Bruise-like legions and weeping sores peppered their faces.

‘Well?’

      The old man replied by way of opening his jacket and drawing out his Webley Mk IV revolver; a souvenir from his war years trading bullets in the deserts and trenches.

      ‘This gun’s killed worthier and less deserving than you,’ said the old man, steadily raising his gun level with the taller one’s chest. His mouth felt dry, and his words scratched like flesh against gravel as they worked up his throat. The water rationing had done it. And the cigarettes, his long-departed wife would’ve reminded him. ‘Don’t make me prove that this old thing still works.’

He felt the boy push against his right leg, thread an arm above and around his calf.

      ‘Your old thing stopped working years ago,’ rasped the fat man, which caused the tall one to cackle like he’d a lungful of wasps. ‘We’ll teach the boy what he’s missing out on.’

      The gun-shot made the boy jump. It made the men jump too: blasted the smiles from their faces. But they didn’t leave. The old man felt the boy’s hands clamp tightly around his leg.

‘The next two bullets will cure you of your sickness, gentlemen, I can guarantee you that.’

      His hand trembled, but only because adrenalin had become more and more a stranger to his bloodstream since the beginning of his bus-pass days.

      The men stared. The old man stared back at them. Whether it was the gun itself or the look in its owner’s eyes that repelled them, within seconds they were gone; vanished back into the dense fronds and bushes from which they’d slithered.

The old man led his grandson through the streets. Most of the windows in the blocks flanking them were smashed, and people’s possessions lay strewn on the grass and pavements like carcasses. Wardrobes, clothes, chairs, televisions. All smashed and broken. Derelict and spilling out. The old man caught the scent of smoke from a nearby fire.

      He watched the boy surveying the destruction, a look of fascination relaxing his delicate features. The old man’s chest tightened. His hip felt like it had been sculpted from granite. He squeezed the nape of the boy’s neck then reached up to ruffle his shaggy mop of hair.

‘Will we get sick, grandpa?’ the boy asked, looking up at him.

‘We’ll be fine, son.’

      For some reason the disease, whatever it was, had spared the very old and the very young: two groups of people contagion usually fell and fed upon with unrelenting ferocity.

      There was a medical unit in the town square where people were taken once they became sick, or died. Its reek made the town smell like a hospital that had caught fire. The healthy and symptomless could submit themselves to the unit’s care voluntarily, but rumours persisted that those who entered it never returned. Nor did they seem to win their freedom beyond the makeshift razor-wire fences and military sentry posts that bordered the town.

      He’d heard the stories. People had tried to escape. Others had simply tried to climb or walk out, refusing to believe that in our golden age of human rights a civilised government had the authority to pen them against their will. All had been shot. It was said that a middle-aged man had scrabbled a few feet up one of the fences before a far-off sniper’s bullet had pounded through the fabric of his suit, leaving a raw, bloody wound through his chest. The next day his body was gone.

      They always came like phantoms in the night – in full bio-suits, he’d heard – to retrieve the terminally sick and the dead. It mattered little whether or not the tales were true. They stopped people trying to escape.

‘Grandpa, look,’ said the boy, squeezing his hand.

      The old man turned to see three young lads shuffle out from the entrance to a block of flats. They stood and stared from the opposite side of the street, each of them wearing police hats too big for their heads. One of them clutched a kitchen knife, which drooped menacingly from his grip like a pendulous limb.

‘What do they want?’ asked the boy, staring back at them.

      It still unnerved the old man how quickly the veneer of society could crack and peel. He recalled the words uttered long ago by a commanding officer: ‘The road to Hell isn’t just paved with good intentions, sergeant: its slabs are cemented by the blood of Samaritans.’

      ‘Keep walking, son,’ said the old man, focusing on the sensation of the pistol that rested against his heart.

      They weren’t far from the fence. As they passed by the local pub, its elderly landlord – an acquaintance of the old man – was standing on the pavement outside. The landlord leaned on the butt of a shotgun that was doubling as his walking stick; he called them over.

      Even though the old man knew he was a few years younger than the landlord, he felt twenty years’ younger by comparison. A life of free booze and second-hand smoke had produced a face barely one step ahead of the mortician’s easel. His barman’s apron was spotted with dark-red and brown stains, which made him look more like an over-enthusiastic butcher than a bar tender.

‘Look over to the east,’ said the landlord.

      The old man looked out towards the town square. He couldn’t see the square itself, but behind the rows of streets and factories he watched the first of the military helicopters rise to the sky. The boy looked up at him. He smiled back as best he could.

‘Where are they going?’ asked the boy.

      The sky thundered with an orchestra of blades and engines, its music reassuring the old man that this course of action was the right one. Once the helicopters had climbed high enough above the buildings, they dipped their noses and swarmed off towards the horizon like giant insects.

‘Can I pour you a pint?’

‘Maybe later,’ said the old man.

The landlord’s eyes were fixed on the empty sky. ‘Last orders.’

*****

The soldier waited for them by the hole in the chain-link fence. He wore a balaclava, only his glazed, blood-tinged eyes visible. The last time the old man had seen him the soldier had been proud and erect. Now he hunched and twitched like a vagabond, his uniform ripped and smeared with dirt.

‘Keep the boy well back from me,’ rasped the soldier. ‘Do you have it?’

      The old man reached into another of his pockets and withdrew two thick rolls of bank notes.

      Throughout the long, happy years with his wife he’d maintained the illusion of every Wednesday strolling to the square with their bank book, even though their savings had been locked in a chest in the attic. She wouldn’t have approved. Until today.

      The old man held out the rolls for the boy, who received them with a look of puzzlement.

      ‘You give one of these to your mum, and the other to the nice lady who’s waiting at the other side of that field.’

      The old man nodded towards the hole and its jagged fringes. In the field beyond, tall blades of grass swayed in the breeze like waves on an ocean. The ground dipped downwards after about five hundred yards, above which green mop-heads of trees were visible. No sign of the military, or the road, or the soldier’s wife that would drive him to safety. The boy would be running across no-man’s-land.

‘Aren’t you coming, grandpa?’

      The old man bent down to place his palm on the boy’s cheek, and looked at him; really looked at him. In those shimmering blue eyes he could see his wife, his daughter. In the heat of the boy’s skin he could feel the future.

      ‘I’m coming later, son,’ he whispered, ‘I’m too old to be running through fields.’

      ‘Keep low in the grass and don’t stop running until you reach my wife’s car. It’s red.’

      The soldier wrenched an envelope from his jacket and threw it down at the mouth of the hole.

‘Give her this letter,’ he said, his head hanging earthward like a scarecrow’s.

      The old man looked down at the boy. He’d thought about writing a letter to his daughter, but affairs of the heart had always been his wife’s department. Besides, those clear blue eyes looking up at her would be the only message she’d need. He bent down to clasp the boy’s tiny hands in one of his, and kissed him on the head.

‘Your gran and I love you very much.’

*****

The automated message boomed from the loudspeakers the old man knew were bolted like chain-guns to the town’s many sentry pillars.

‘Citizens. Proceed to your homes. Remain indoors.’

      He stood on the small balcony of his top-floor flat and looked past the town. He lit his last cigarette. A few minutes later the first group of bombers appeared over the horizon. From that distance they looked like a flock of birds, swift and silent. When they whistled, he closed his eyes; his grandson on his lap, his wife by his side.

      Maybe the bombers would follow the boy; but today, the old sergeant’s blood had cemented something no disease could curdle, nor government extinguish.