They had been queueing for at least half an hour now. The wail of infants combined with the jingly Christmas music. The bags, loaded with shopping, weighed down on Alison’s arms. She was regretting this decision. But Santa’s grotto was looming ahead of them, so close. And the promise that they would go had kept Danny reasonably well behaved for a good three hours that would normally have brought him to tears.
Now, however, Danny was fidgeting. The wait had been too long for him, Alison thought. She watched as he surreptitiously brought his hand up to his mouth. She gave him a nudge.
“Don’t bite your nails, Danny!”
“This one’s scratchy” he said, in self-defense.
“Well, it’ll only get scratchier if you bite it. I don’t understand why that special polish doesn’t work on you.”
“It’s gross. It tastes like ear wax.”
“So stop biting your nails.”
They had come to the front of the queue, and were hustled towards the fat man on his chair by a harassed-looking teenaged elf. Santa looked at Alison, with a twinkle in his eye, and winked.
“She’s right, young man. If you don’t stop biting your nails, I’ll only give you coal for Christmas!” he boomed down at Danny.
Danny stared up at him, giving Santa The Look.
“Do you want to sit on Santa’s lap?” the teenage elf asked hopefully.
“No.” Danny continued to stare at Santa.
“Do you want to tell him what you’d like for Christmas?”
“No. He’s mean.” With that, Danny turned and left Santa’s grotto. Alison, embarrassed, scuttled after him, mouthing apologies at Santa and the elf.
Danny acted strangely about Christmas all the way up to Christmas Eve. He got as excited as usual about the prospect of presents, and about the chocolate advent calendar that his grandma had sent him. When Alison had encouraged him to write a letter to Father Christmas, however, he refused, and went to sulk in his room. He bit his nails down as far as they would go, until Alison plastered them up out of fear they would start bleeding.
Then, on Christmas Eve itself, he suddenly seemed to change his mind.
“Can we put out a mince pie?” he asked. “And a carrot for Prancer?” It had always been his habit to choose a different reindeer for the carrot, since he had always said seriously that it wasn’t fair if Rudolph got all of them.
“Of course we can, darling.” Alison was pleased. She’d been worried about this whole ambivalence to Father Christmas – she didn’t want to be responsible for some kind of Christmas feud. She knew she shouldn’t have told him off in front of the store Santa; the poor man had just been trying to help.
And so the traditional mince pie, carrot and glass of sherry was laid out on a plate. Danny even insisted on choosing a mince pie, and put it on the table before Alison could fetch the sherry. Then he rushed off to bed, claiming that the earlier he slept, the sooner Father Christmas would come.
Relieved, Alison took a bite out of the carrot.
“So he’s got over the whole Santa thing, has he?” Mark, her husband, asked. He drank the sherry – Alison had always hated sherry.
“I think so. Thank god!” She took a bit out of the mince pie.
Something was wrong. It tasted like… ear wax? She wrinkled up her face.
“What’s wrong?” Mark asked.
“Something odd about this mince pie. It tastes like ear wax. Or maybe…” she looked up at him in horror. “It tastes like Danny’s fingernail polish.”