When I was three years old I stabbed Father Christmas in the back of the neck with a carving knife and, with a great snort of blood, he died.
I will try to piece together this story as best I can, but I retain only a few, if awesomely lucid, memories of being a toddler. It is rather like when you look back over the latter hours of a drunken evening, when you were dazed and tangled up in your own legs and not completely there, and you both smile fondly and shudder at the flashes you can remember. Today I remain only rueful about my first murder. I am satisfied that I had conducted myself reasonably well, under the circumstances.
At the time, my mother had not yet died and my younger brother had not yet been born. The trouble began when my mother tried to introduce me to the concept of Santa Claus. A huge fat man with a beard would clamber down the chimney in the dead of night and… Well, I was howling with terror before we even got to the presents.
I pictured something like a hideous hairy beetle, emerging from a pattering cloud of dust and stained pitch black by the blackness up the chimney. I imagined his eyes and teeth shining bone white through the grime. My mother tried to calm me by showing that she was not afraid. This only made me more frightened. Had the invader cast a spell on her so that she would not come to save me?
On the night before Christmas I climbed up on to the kitchen worktop to procure one of the carving knives which were perpetually sucked to the strip magnet over the stove. When my father found me stamping around the corridors outside his study, brandishing the knife, he decided to interpret this as a sign of ingratitude for all of the Christmas presents which he had worked hard to get the credit to buy. My mother pleaded that I was not yet old enough for Father Christmas. My father responded with a sneer which would have put Scrooge clean off his gruel.
And so Christmas came and went without any presents. Our story resumes on one of those mornings in spring which is both dreamy and yet incredibly clear. The sky was a dazzling, almost manic blue; the air drank from every flower and the world rejoiced. On my way home from the lake, where I had been fraternising with the ducks, I was brought to an unexpected stop by the sight of my father.
He was leaning casually against a fence. This immediately unnerved me because he was not the sort of man who ever stood about or leaned casually against anything.
“Nice weather,” he remarked. I knew that he generally greeted the sun with the same disinterest that he would have extended to a grosz piece spotted on the pavement. “Been feeding the ducks, eh?”
“A little bird told me,” he confided. “That Father Christmas will be visiting our house tonight.”
My whole self seemed to shrink away to just a pair of staring eyes. I floated before my father, a quivery, spluttering little ghost.
“Ah yes,” he brooded. “But he’s not dressed in his usual Christmas costume. He’s actually quite a short man in person, you know, and I suppose he will be wearing something like jeans and a polo shirt.”
When I arrived back at the house, the largest carving knife from the strip magnet had been put before my place at the kitchen table. It was as if my father had winked at me.
I concealed the knife upstairs in my bedroom, sensing that my mother was not included in our conspiracy. Perhaps my father wanted to keep her in the dark because he was afraid of upsetting her. It was strangely reassuring to have my father for once on my side against the invader, but as the day faded, my father’s presence grew increasingly distant. I realised that I had been left to face the monster all on my own.
From the pictures I had seen of Father Christmas, he struck me as being a slovenly, fat man. He would be winded and disorientated after his struggle down the chimney. I would most likely hear him coming from several rooms away, whilst I knew that I was always as stealthy as a little mouse. By that age, I had learned to creep unnoticed from room to room even as the whole house shook with my father’s drunken fury.
If I had been truly afraid of Father Christmas, I would have hidden away in a warm, dark place, perhaps under my bed, and waited. The fact that I could imagine taking him down with the knife showed that I regarded his annihilation as a distinct possibility.
My mother gave me my tea, remarking merrily on how solemn I was looking that evening. I tried to smile at her, so as to set her mind at rest. I was sent to bed at eight but I was determined not to fall asleep. It would put me at a virtually fatal disadvantage if I woke up feeling all woozy.
I awoke in the middle of the night, feeling furious with myself and then extraordinarily alert. As it always is when you fall asleep and awaken unexpectedly, the world was both the same and subtly refreshed. I listened calmly to the definite noises which reached me from down the stairs, before groping for the handle of my knife. When I found it, I knew that I was now suddenly invincible. It would not leave my hands until Santa Claus was dead.
My heart was beating steadily as I poured down the stairs, depositing each scrupulously soft footstep where I knew that there would be no creak. It was dark at the bottom of the stairs and perhaps for the first time in my life, the door of my father’s study was open. There was moonlight at his window and I could distinguish a man busy amongst my father’s things, pulling out drawers and tearing through the paperwork.
I was almost enjoying creeping up on Father Christmas. I was now less than a foot away from his unsuspecting ankle. I took a deep breath and then jumped.
The room seemed to be filled with noise and yet everything was noiseless. An ocean of blood was roaring in my ears. Father Christmas was cowering on the floor, clutching his ankle and looking about frantically. I attacked from the side, putting my hand clear on his knee as I stepped forward to carefully push the tip of the knife into his neck. He simply sat there transfixed. I prodded with all of my strength until something seemed finally to give way and there was an unearthly snort.
I was then absent for a while, as if I was sleeping on my feet. Time had been suspended and I just swayed, unable to move or think. Then the lights were on and my parents had plunged into the room.
“Oh my God,” my mother shrieked, looking completely unlike I had ever seen her before. “Is that Pavel…?”
“Father Christmas!” my father corrected her excitedly. “He’s killed Father Christmas!”
My mother stared at him in horror. “Have you gone fucking mental? We need to call an ambulance… the police…”
“Too late,” my father replied in a tone of voice which was at once grim and bright.
“Why?” my mother screamed.
But my father was searching his study for something. He eventually retrieved a slip of paper and held it up for her to see. “It’s fine. There’s not even blood on it. We’d better cash it fucking quickly though, before the pigs come snooping.”
My mother had automatically clasped me in her arms, before thrusting me away again in bewilderment. “Father Christmas came to our house and our poor, terrified son reacted in the only way he knew how,” my father reasoned heartily. “I don’t want our son to be taken away… put into one of those homes that they have for people like him… and so the easiest thing to do would be to hide the body somewhere. Maybe down the bottom of a well.”
And so my mother gave me a brisk shower and put me to bed. I was hanging on her words, desperate for her to say something encouraging, but she could somehow not look into my face. The next morning all of the knives in the kitchen were taken away in a box and we ate only tinned spaghetti and ravioli from then on.
At the point where my memories of my mother begin to grow more vivid, she was dead, although, I hasten to add, not at my hands.
It was the last that I heard of Father Christmas for a while and for many years I was satisfied that I had murdered him. When I went to primary school a year after the murder, I scoffed openly at my friends’ stories about Santa’s supposed visits to their homes. A teacher eventually took me to one side and warned me, with a sort of strained kindliness, that I was spoiling Christmas for the other children. I agreed that it would be best if I kept my private knowledge about the death of Father Christmas to myself.
[Tychy previously reviewed A Christmas Carol. Ed.]