“The List” by Bernard O’Keeffe, read by Flo Gennari

Performed at “Shadow & Substance” on February 25, 2019. Click here for the Youtube video.

Harry knows Christmas is getting close when two things appear on his living room mantelpiece. The first is the Lindt Chocolate Advent Calendar. The second is The List.

Each morning in the four weeks running up to the big day Harry takes down the calendar, pushes that day’s window open with his finger, takes out the chocolate, and pops it into his mouth. Every window opened and every chocolate eaten brings closer the magical day when Father Christmas will be coming with his presents.         

            But each day when Harry puts the calendar back on the mantelpiece he looks at The List beside it and is reminded that everything’s not quite so simple.

            This is the list Father Christmas will see when he comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve.  He will pick it up, count the ticks in the Good column, count  the crosses in the Bad column and then decide what presents to leave for Harry. The more ticks, the more presents. The fewer crosses, the more chance of Harry getting what he asked for in the letter he posted to Lapland at the end of November.

            Harry tries hard every year, but he somehow never manages to get as many ticks as his little sister, Catherine. This may be because in the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day Catherine is a total creep, making a big show of doing those things she knows will get her a tick. She eats her vegetables, keeps her room tidy, does her homework, goes to bed when she’s told, loads the dishwasher, and doesn’t swear.

            Or it may be because whenever Harry manages to earn a tick he ruins it by losing his temper and doing something that gets his Dad running into the living room to add another cross to that right-hand column. Something minor, like blowing a raspberry, gets him just one cross but something more serious, like hitting his sister or saying ‘fuck’ gets him as many as  ten.

            Whenever Harry’s Dad puts a tick or a cross on one of the Lists he sings a song: “He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice”. He sings it two ways. Happy when he’s delivering a tick. Angry when he’s about to make a cross. And sometimes, to remind Harry and Catherine that the lists are important, he puts on the Bruce Springsteen version and stands at the mantelpiece as he sings along, examining each list closely. The song’s about Father Christmas, but sometimes Harry thinks his Dad might be singing about himself.

            Every Christmas Harry worries about The List. This year, though, things have changed, and he’s started to become more interested in another list. This one is his own, and on it are all of his questions about Father Christmas. These include:

How does Father Christmas manage to visit every house in the world in one night? That’s a lot of houses. And that’s a lot of chimneys.

Given Father Christmas’s size and the size of most chimneys, how does he get down them all? Come to think of it, how does he get down one?

 What does he do if you haven’t got a chimney?

If everyone leaves Father Christmas something to drink like his dad, and he has, say, one glass of sherry or whisky in every house in the world how pissed does he get?

And if everyone leaves him something to eat like his mum and he has, say, a mince pie in every house in the world how fat does he get? Or how sick?

Harry has so many questions about Father Christmas. And the more he asks, the more he doubts, although, as with so many other things in his life, he’s not sure where the doubting leads.

            On Christmas Eve, Catherine finds Harry looking at his list.

            “How many ticks have you got?” she says.

            Harry counts. “Twenty. How many have you got?”

            “I’ve stopped counting. Well over a hundred.”

            “And how many crosses?” says Harry.

            Catherine holds up her thumb and forefinger to indicate zero. “And you?”

            “Too many.”

            “Oh dear,” says Catherine. “Father Christmas isn’t going to bring you many presents, is he?”

            Harry bites his lip. He’s this close to telling his little sister about his List of Father Christmas Questions.  

            “That’s because you’re naughty,” says Catherine. “You keep losing your temper and doing bad things!”

            “I don’t!” says Harry. He can feel his anger rising.

            “You do!” says Catherine. “And Father Christmas knows.” She points at the list. “He’ll see all those crosses!”

            Harry looks at his sister’s teasing, sneering face and can’t control himself. He reaches the point of no return.

            “Fuck off!”  He leans towards her and blows a loud wet raspberry in her face. Then he pulls back his right arm and swings it forward. His open palm smacks against her cheek.  

            Catherine screams and runs out of the room. A couple of seconds later she comes back in behind their Dad.

            “He’s making a list,” sings their Dad, “ he’s checking it twice…” Harry has never heard him sing the song so angrily.

            Their Dad goes to the mantelpiece, takes down Harry’s list and with his pen crosses out every tick in the ‘Good’ column. Then he adds twenty one crosses to the ‘Bad’ column. Ten for the ‘fuck’. Ten for the hit. And one for the raspberry.

            That night, Harry can’t sleep. In previous years it was the excitement that kept him awake. This year, however, something else is bothering him.

            He only knows he’s fallen asleep when a noise wakes him up. It’s a loud crash followed by a loud ‘fuck!’ and it comes from the landing.

            Harry gets out of bed and tiptoes to the door. He peers out.

            On the landing floor is a pile of presents. A step ladder rests against the open trap door leading to the loft. And there, lying at the bottom of the ladder beside the pile of presents, is his Dad.

            Harry darts back behind the door. He hears his Dad moan. Then he hears the loft door shut and footsteps going downstairs.

            Harry tiptoes out of his room. He goes down the stairs one at a time and edges to the living room door. Slowly, carefully, he pokes his head round.           

            And there is his Dad. He’s taking presents out of a bag and leaving them in two piles in front of the fireplace.

            Harry watches as his Dad goes to the mantelpiece and takes down the two lists. He puts them in his pocket and reaches for the mince pie. He takes a bite, puts the half-eaten mince pie back on the plate, and then lifts the glass of whisky. He downs it in one.

            Harry tiptoes back upstairs and gets into bed. He thinks about waking his sister to tell her about what he’s seen, but decides against it. Remembering the Christmas mornings when he and Catherine would run downstairs together to see what Santa had brought them, he suddenly feels sad and alone—as if he’s just lost something or someone has died.

            As he tries to get to sleep, the Bruce Springsteen song runs through his head. and he desperately wonders whether, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Santa Claus might still be coming to town.

            There’s a tiny little bit of him that hopes he is.  If not for his sake, then for his little sister’s.

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