It is cold. The tunnel is hewn from ice and ice surrounds the two of them. Beyond them the sounds of animals, hoofs stamping and scraping, breath echoing, the mist from their wide mouths imagined but no less real.
‘You drink too much,’ she tells him as she smooths his white collar against the red shoulder of his jacket and lets her hand fall to his pocket where she can feel the outline of the flask.
His reply is muffled by the huge white beard that hides his lips. She can’t see if he smiles or grimaces. Probably neither, she knows. Her hand lingers at his breast as she smooths the front of his jacket, feels the warmth seeping through the soft material. She lets it warm her hand, lets the energy pass from him and through into her, filling her.
She wipes the glitter away. ‘I never would,’ she says. She looks up into his dark, colourless eyes and holds his gaze for as long as she can. Seconds. That is all she can ever manage before she has to break away to avoid falling into the infinite sadness of his gaze. ‘See you in the morning,’ she says.
Without a word, he turns away from her and heads away down a snowy tunnel towards the sound of impatient hoofs and snorting animal breath.
High, high above the world, he looks down from his sleigh. Lights. So many lights, spreading like fire without heat. Light is life but this life has no warmth. He stays high in the darkness, the light not shining on him at all, just distant illumination that can’t touch him.
The reindeer snort, paw at thin air and somehow manage to make a noise even above the din of the stratospheric winds. They are tiny up here, an unnoticed dot. For years he has moved unseen amongst the peoples of the world. He has worked hard to remain invisible.
Not anymore. So much of the world is barred to him now, especially those who need him most.
Lower, lower, sweeping to a stop on a row of terraced houses, chimneys proud against the frost, TV aerials sketching patterns in the night, the cloudless sky filled with blind stars. He swigs from his flask, burps gently, grabs the sack from behind him, slides down from his sleigh and approaches the first chimney, fishing in his sack as he goes. He withdraws a clenched fist, sparkles falling from between his fingers, and holds it over the chimney pot.
He pauses for a long time, staring at his hand, at the glitter falling and spiralling into the dark, picking up reflections from streetlights, flashing light and dark, spinning through life and death.
It is all he can give. Every year it seems like less.
A black cat circles around his black boots, purring into the cold night, its sounds bouncing from the brickwork of the chimney.
He smiles through his beard at the cat, opens his fist, takes a pinch of sparkles and sprinkles them down. The glitter disappears into the creature’s fur and the cat leaves him, its purrs louder, the night stiller. He shakes his head, breaking the spell, and pours the sparkles down into the chimney, then moves on to the next and the next until he’s done the whole row. At the end his sleigh waits for him exactly where he hadn’t left it.
Across the city, to chimney after chimney, fistfuls of sparkles down every one, the sack never emptier, always ready to give its contents. Sometimes he wonders if he can tip the lot down one chimney; would it empty then? What would happen to that household? Years ago they’d have lived better, lived well, even. But it is always shared, especially among those who need it most.
He stares out at the high rises that dot the city’s skyline.
And then he is atop the closest, his sleigh and reindeer waiting for him, the animals pawing and snorting their impatience to fly again. Ignoring them, he peers over the edge and imagines all the glasses of sherry and whiskey in this one building. He takes a pull from his flask, sighing loudly through his nose as the hot liquid hits his stomach. He takes another. And another.
Like the sack, the flask never empties. Like the glitter, the alcohol barely touches him.
Replacing the flask in his pocket, he plunges his gloved hand into the sack and pulls handful after handful of glitter and sends it sparkling across the roof. He throws and throws until every space is covered, the roof a dead galaxy of immobile sparks.
Stopping, he stares at the cold, lifeless display, so like the cities of this world seen from high, high above. He bends to touch them, placing his palm flat on the roof, willing his warmth through his gloves and into the sparkles, into the roof. Both hands now; he is on his knees. He pulls off his gloves, lays bare, pale flesh against the sparkles.
Suddenly, he is on his feet and running through the display, kicking at the sparkles, trying to bring some life to them. But they flick and flop and fall. And lay still.
He stops. He’s breathing hard, his breath misting over and over. He pulls the flask from his pocket, takes a swig, pauses for breath, then another, and another. He upturns the flask, gulping at the hot liquid, letting it wash his insides. Tries to drink himself blind.
‘Another year done,’ she says to him. Her breath mists in the ice tunnel.
She can’t see if he smiles beneath his beard. She doesn’t think he does. Reaching out to his breast, she feels that he is cold now. She nods. ‘Well done,’ she says.