The Crime Readers' Association

A Christmas Wish

by T L Mogford

Michael appeared midway through the first week of the Christmas term. His transfer from his old school had been delayed in some way – it was never entirely clear why – and somehow, arriving a few days after the start of the school year gave him an added mystique.

Miss Whitaker told him to sit next to me, of course. Because I was well-behaved, and because she knew that I’d be kind to him. And Michael did look nervous as he sat down beside me. Seeing him pull out a Star Wars pencil case, I ventured a sympathetic smile, and when he smiled back at me, I felt my stomach slide.

‘Some people don’t have best friends,’ my mother always reassured me. ‘They just knock about with everybody – there’s no shame in it!’ But the problem was that kids like me didn’t knock about with anyone much at all. Always the last to be picked in PE, I was the fat boy shivering in goal, clutching at my Ventolin inhaler, terrified lest the ball come close, knowing that if I let in a goal, Phil Fenton would show no mercy – ‘A girl could have saved that one, you big Jessie!’ Then, freckled face screwed up in disgust, ‘You’re not crying, are you? Look at him! He’s crying…’

But maybe things would be different with Michael, I told myself. So, at the end of the first week, I summoned up the courage to ask him to come and play, and to my wonderment, he said yes.

‘Don’t call me Pooh-bear, will you? Not while Michael’s here,’ I warned my mother, the anxiety building under my ribs making me brusque. ‘And whatever you do, don’t put peanut butter in the sandwiches. Michael’s allergic…’

But I needn’t have worried. The afternoon was a triumph, and as we ate Vienetta in front of Return of the Jedi, I glanced across at him and smiled. So this is what it’s like, I thought. To have a real friend.

Looking back, I suppose I might have glimpsed something in Michael’s eyes as he looked about our shabby sitting-room – and at my mother, with her red hands and shapeless slippers – but it wasn’t until two weeks later that I saw what he was really like.

It was a blustery September day, and we were sitting on the grass, flipping through The Beano, when I saw Michael glance over his shoulder at the football match taking place in the playground behind us. ‘I feel like a run-around,’ he said, scrambling to his feet. ‘Fancy it?’

I shook my head – who wanted to play with the likes of Phil Fenton? – but off he went anyway, and then… Well, I knew I was in trouble as soon as Michael got the ball. Controlling it with a deft touch of the right foot, he shimmied to his left before slamming it into the top right-hand corner of the goal.

The playground fell silent. Phil Fenton walked right up to Michael, and I thought he was going to shove him in the chest. But Phil just nodded – the cool nod of an alpha male acknowledging a peer. ‘You’d better play for the other team,’ Phil said. ‘To even things up.’

Michael glanced back at me then. At first, his face seemed full of apology, but at the last moment a smile flickered across his mouth. A cruel, triumphant smile, I felt as I walked away, tears pricking in my eyes.

Then the body-blow. Michael turning up, that Friday in November, with a rucksack on his back– the sign of a sleepover. He could be going to stay with his grandparents, I told myself, but when 3.30pm came, it was Phil Fenton’s father who picked up Michael in his yellow sports car. And as Michael settled down next to Phil in the backseat, windows open and stereo booming, he caught sight of me watching, and shot me another of those smiles.

Hatred is like a fire: it builds from small embers. And then it burns and burns, and even the tiniest thing can act as an accelerant. A laugh. A look and a whisper. A pair of new trainers that happened to look just like Phil Fenton’s… It was the disloyalty of it that enraged me. Who’d been there when Michael needed a friend? Me! I would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. But now he’d moved on and left me behind.

At least there was the Christmas Fair to look forward to. It took place in early December, and for me it always marked the start of the festive season. The teachers put up the decorations, and an enormous tinsel-covered tree, and made a magical grotto where you could pay fifty pence to see Father Christmas. The parents manned the stalls in the school hall, and in the church over the road, and the children bombed about from one to the other, faces sticky with hot chocolate. And the best thing of all was, because the fair was on a Saturday, I knew Phil Fenton wouldn’t be there. He’d be at his father’s pad in the country, like he was every weekend.

But even that small relief was denied me. The day before the fair, I was in the boys’ toilets, washing my hands at the sink, when I looked in the mirror and saw Phil Fenton emerge from one of the stalls, piggy eyes gleaming with malice. ‘Santa’s not real, you know,’ he said, leaning against the wall next to me. ‘Wanna know how I know?’

I said nothing.

‘This year they’ve asked my dad to dress up as Father Christmas at the fair.’ Turning, Phil yelled over at the stalls, ‘What’s keeping you, Mike? You got the shits or something?’

Flinching at such casual use of a forbidden word, I looked over my shoulder to see Michael emerge, doing up his flies. ‘Oh, hi,’ he said flatly.

‘Hi,’ I murmured.

‘Dad’s in charge of buying the presents too,’ Phil told Michael, ‘so it’ll be worth queuing up.’

‘Cool,’ Michael said, though he looked a little taken aback by Phil’s revelation.

Later, I weakened. Sidling up to Michael in the lunch queue, I tapped him on the shoulder. ‘There are fake Santas,’ I said gently, ‘but that doesn’t mean the real one’s not real.’

Michael smiled at me. At first, I thought I’d made him happy – that we were OK again – but then his face twisted into a sneer. ‘You’re such a dick,’ he said, and turned away.

I felt like my guts had been ripped out. All through that day, I felt physically sick.

Mum looked worried. ‘What’s the matter, Pooh-bear?’ she asked, hands busy in her mixing bowl, the air spiced with cinnamon and ginger. ‘You love making biscuits for the fair.’

‘No, I don’t,’ I snapped. ‘It’s boring.’

I’d hurt her, I knew, but she tried to hide it. ‘Oh well,’ she said. ‘If you’re sure.’ She had a new recipe to try out this year, biscuits in the shape of Father Christmas, little silver balls for the eyes. ‘Sweet, aren’t they?’ she said, as she carefully laid another caramel-coloured cut-out on the baking tray. ‘Just like Santa.’

‘I know he’s not real,’ I said reproachfully, remembering the mocking look in Michael’s blue eyes.

‘Oh David,’ she sighed, ‘you always used to love Christmas.’ She looked at me for a moment, face etched with concern, then wiped both palms on her apron and reached for her handbag. ‘I’ve got a surprise,’ she said, pulling out three tickets. ‘Dick Whittington. At the Palladium. I thought perhaps you could ask Michael?’

Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I looked away. ‘Maybe. I’ll think about it.’

Seeing her face fall, I felt like the worst son in the world. Then I thought about Michael, and all the things he’d done, and an insane fury took hold of me, and wouldn’t let go.

It was while my mother was busying herself with the oven that I made the decision. Waiting until her back was turned, I pulled open the cupboard and dipped a hand into the open bag of peanuts. Then, quick as a flash, I pulled the baking tray towards me and pressed a single half-peanut into one of the gingerbread Santas.

‘Right,’ my mother said, swinging around to pick up the tray of biscuits. ‘Ten minutes at a hundred and eighty.’

I stood back, heart thumping, willing her to notice what I’d done, but she just slid the tray into the oven and shut the door. Then she looked up at me and grinned: ‘That’s that done, then!’

Then it was homework and bed. But I stayed awake after lights-out, staring up at the glow-stars on the ceiling with round, fearful eyes. What had I done? I feigned sleep when my mother checked on me, then waited another half-hour after I heard her bedroom door close, before sneaking back down to the kitchen.

The biscuits lay on cooling racks. Standing on tiptoe, I tried to work out which one I’d tampered with, but they were all covered in icing now, bright crimson and white, glistening in the moonlight. I ran a finger over each, hoping to feel the peanut, but it was impossible. What could I do? Destroy them? But what would Mum say?

I slept badly that night, and could barely eat my Ready Brek in the morning. When the time came for us to cycle to the fair, I edged up to my mother.

‘When will you be on the cake stall, Mum?’

‘They’ve put me down for the first hour.’

‘I’ll help, if you like,’ I said gruffly, shifting on my feet.

She smiled. ‘What a lovely fella you are.’

None of the other kids were helping their parents. They were all running about the fair like sugar-crazed maniacs, queuing up to see Mr Fenton play Santa, revelling in the expensive presents he’d provided – a laser pen; a Swiss Army knife; one of those new-fangled CDs, pristine in its cellophane. But I stayed at my post. The Santa biscuits were selling fast, and all I had to do was make sure that Michael didn’t buy one.

The hour was nearly up, the new shift close to starting. There were five Santa biscuits left.

‘Let me buy them, Mum,’ I pleaded. ‘They look delicious!’

‘You don’t want to use up all your money on that.’

‘It’s fine,’ I insisted, taking out the two pounds fifty I’d saved. ‘I want to.’

‘Sweet boy,’ my mother said, caressing my cheek with her thumb. Usually I warmed to her touch, but today, with the eyes of my classmates upon me, it was all I could do not to slap her hand away. Dropping my coins into the jar, she placed the remaining biscuits in our tin and stowed it safely under the table. ‘Here,’ she said, plucking a crisp five-pound note out of her purse. ‘Now, off and enjoy yourself.’

My spirits lifted. The danger had been averted, and I was rich!

I ambled about the fair, taking my time; taking it all in. There was the hotdog stall, run by Miss Whitaker and three cheery parents. The chocolate tombola. The bookstand. I spent time at each, before moving onto the best one, the second-hand toy stall in the church. I was just considering investing in an only-slightly-scratched Han Solo figure when I saw Phil Fenton and Michael sauntering towards me, wearing matching Chelsea tops.

‘Your dad’s so cool!’ I heard Michael say, voice warm with admiration.

I sought out his eye, but he just walked right past me. As though I wasn’t there.

The queue for Father Christmas wasn’t as long as I’d feared. The grotto had been set up in the vestry, with a dark-green velvet curtain hanging outside. When it was my turn, I pushed the curtain aside and found the little room lit up with tiny red and blue flashing lights. Phil’s father was sitting in a carved wooden chair, the frames of his designer spectacles resting on his artificial whiskers. He sized me up, not seeming to recognise me as one of his son’s classmates, perhaps wondering if a boy of my size would want to sit on his knee. Keen to head off that option at the pass, he crossed his legs.

‘So, what do you want for Christmas, young man?’

‘I want…’ I hesitated; Mr Fenton was already reaching into his sack. ‘To go to another school.’

He gave me a sharp look as he handed over my present – told me to be a good boy, and all would be well.

I didn’t feel like unwrapping my present. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was go home. In search of my mother, I headed out of the church towards the school hall. And that was when I saw him – Michael, standing by the cake stall, peering into the biscuit tin of gingerbread Santas.

I went hurtling over.

‘But those are mine!’ I called out breathlessly, as he took a fifty-pence piece from his pocket.

Michael swung around, frowning. ‘You what?’

‘I’ve already bought them,’ I gasped.

‘Oh,’ said the woman on the stall. ‘Sorry, I saw them under the table, and…’ Giving Michael an apologetic smile, she passed the tin over to me, and I clutched it to my chest.

‘You’re not going to eat them all on your own, are you?’ Michael said. ‘Second thoughts,’ he added, eyes roving over my doughy belly and chubby cheeks, ‘you probably are.’

It took no more than an instant to make the decision. ‘Go on, then,’ I said, holding out the tin. ‘Have one, if you must!’

Michael hesitated, as though debating whether to spurn my offer. But then he peered into the tin, saw the sweet glossiness of the icing, smelt the ginger and the cinnamon, and his hand dipped inside, fingers hovering over one biscuit, then the other.

I held my breath, telling myself it was not too late, that there was still time to change my mind, but just as I was about to open my mouth, Michael snatched up the biggest biscuit and bit into it.

As he chewed I watched, mesmerised, then turned away. Somehow, my legs carried me over to the bookstall, where my mother was fumbling in her purse. I waited for her to finish her purchase, then followed her like an automaton out of the hall.

All would be fine, I told myself as we cycled home. The chances if it being the biscuit were slim… But as we came through the front door, the phone was ringing.

My mother rushed over to answer it. ‘But I couldn’t have,’ she whispered into the receiver, her face turning grey. ‘I checked every ingredient scrupulously… scrupulously!’

Watching her sink her head into her hands, I found myself suppressing a smile, as I realised that, against all odds, my Christmas wish had come true. My mother would never be able to show her face at school again. And nor, therefore, would I.

Life would be different for me somewhere else, I told myself as I carried my present upstairs. Better. Easier. It never was, of course, but I wasn’t to know that then.




Read more about Thomas Mogford here.

His new book, The Plant Hunter, is out in February 2022.

View all stories

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.