I stumbled out of the fireplace into traffic. A scooter screeched by me as a car swerved up onto the pavement. The driver blasted his horn and swore out of the window as he turned back onto the pitted road.
‘I could never get used to that,’ I said as bile rose up the back of my throat.
‘One day, you will.’ Santa Claus was standing on the pavement by an oil drum. It was rusted and warped. Coals glimmered through holes in the steel and smoke had scorched the plaster of the big white wall behind it. Crude graffiti twisted all over the surface of the wall and I shaded my eyes against the sun to look at the gnarled barbed wire at its top. ‘A fireplace is just where a fire is. As long as its large enough, its ours to use.’
‘To use for what?’
The street was cluttered with rubbish and overturned bins. Stubby blocks of dirty flats dwarfed us on the other side of the road.
‘Work.’ Santa adjusted his gloves and his hat, then he reached his arm into the coals. He frowned and reached deeper so the crusted rim of the barrel dug into his armpit. Then he pulled out an antique briefcase and smiled. ‘Did you think it would be a sack full of toys?’
I rubbed my eyes.
‘So what is it you do?’
‘I’m going to show you. But you have to keep up. This country is filled with new ghosts; I wouldn’t want you to get snatched away.’ Then he began to stride down the street towards a main street.
The buildings were foreign to me and the warm sun prickled my skin. But then I remembered that I had no skin. I dug a thumbnail into my finger and it still hurt, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that a dead thing can’t feel pain.
‘Don’t do that,’ Santa said as he stepped out of the way for a drunken Spanish man. He fell back against the car, spread his hairy arms wide and cried: ‘Feliz Navidad.’ Then he staggered into the street, mumbling to himself.
‘Don’t do what?’ I asked. Old posters listed like scabs on the wall to our right: pictures of a woman and the word viva over and over again.
‘Don’t obsess over what you are and what you aren’t. You don’t have a body like him, but is yours so bad that you’d rather waste your time agonising over it?’ Santa gestured at the drunk who had made it halfway across the road before sinking to his knees, then his belly. ‘Take the form that you’ve been given, and make something of it. Doing anything less is just a waste of time.’
Before I could ask anymore he was striding off again.
We stepped into a shop that was so small I didn’t think we’d both fit. There was a dusty glass counter along one and clutter everywhere. It fell in spills across the floor and crawled up to the ceiling in one corner by a grimy window with mesh over it. A dull ceiling fan whumped overhead. There was an old woman sitting in an armchair beside a doorway with beads dangling across it.
‘Merry Christmas,’ the old woman lisped in a heavy Spanish accent. She was wrinkled and dark as an old nut with a pair of blacked out glasses over her eyes. A colourful head wrap bound her hair, but odd wisps of it reached out from the sides of her head.
‘And to you.’ Santa inclined his head.
I looked at the odd assortment of things in the shop, but there was too much for me to focus: a big brown globe on a short table; newspaper clippings; a bent bayonet; crippled dolls; books of poetry; puppets.
‘How is your guest?’ Santa asked. I shook my head and tried to concentrate on the strange old lady.
She was looking at the ceiling as she spoke, and stroking something in her lap that was too small for me to see. I knew she was blind, but I’d never seen a blind woman before. Then she spoke in a rapid cadence of Spanish and jutted her swollen chin towards the beaded door.
‘Best be quick.’
Santa thanked her, then he stepped through the beads with a racket of rustling.
I made to follow him. But the woman caught my grip in a firm hand. When she spoke I could taste the rot of her teeth in the air.
‘I see disappointment in you, boy.’
I startled and almost called out for Santa. Then I frowned. ‘How can you even see me? Are you…are you a ghost as well?’
She chuckled under her breath. ‘No. Sometimes the blind just see better than the sighted, and the dead live better than the living. But not you. Your life was as unfair as your death will be. He will tell you things, and some will be true, and some will not. But if you are ever to master this magic of his, it’s not his feelings you should trust.’
‘Boy,’ Santa called from the top of the stairs which I saw leading up and away through the beads. The woman let get of me with a sigh and I almost ran up the steep varnished staircase.
Santa was waiting on the landing outside a wooden door. Inside I could hear pacing footsteps.
‘This will be unpleasant. But it is necessary.’ Santa held the handle of the briefcase with both hands.
‘What are we doing here?’ I whispered.
He stroked his beard with a frown. Then he rolled up one sleeve. The black marbling of his skin gleamed in the woody murk of the hall. On the outside of his arm was a tattoo: the letter B followed by a string of numbers.
‘I don’t know what that means–’ but before I could finish he had opened the door and stepped into the room.
It was sweltering inside the bedroom. The window was closed and thin cotton curtains were drawn against the sun. A fireplace roared on one wall and a single metal bed stood against the opposite one. There were knitted blankets folded up on a chair beneath the window and photo frames on the walls.
The man inside the room was sweating profusely. His shirt was a dirty yellow and the buttons stretched open slightly so a little hairy crescent of stomach was visible beneath the point of his brown tie. He brushed his thin hair over to one side and straightened his glasses.
‘Hello, are you who the frauline said you would be?’
‘I can’t quite know who she said I would be. I can only say I am who I am, and that you should take a seat.’
The German slumped down as if Santa Claus had pushed him.
‘T-this is all a terrible misunderstanding.’ He wiped sweat away from his lips. ‘My family have hailed from Argentina for generations. I was never there. The things they say I did–’
‘The things you did.’ Santa’s voice made the room cold, and for the first time the German seemed to look at both of us. His cheeks went rosy, then white. He shrank back across the bed and dug his back into the wall. Santa propped the briefcase on his lap and flicked the catch. Then he lifted the lid and looked inside. It was filled with photographs. ‘You see, Herr Strauss, we have evidence.’
‘That briefcase isn’t mine,’ the German squeaked. I stood still in the doorway, unsure if I was supposed to participate, unsure if I wanted to or not.
‘No, it’s mine now. But it was yours, before you burned it.’ Santa picked out a handful of photographs and fanned them out. It turned my stomach to look, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was a perverted version of what I had felt in the shop below: too many things to focus on one. In every photo there was a child. ‘I will not speak of what you did in the presence of a boy, you unspeakable little man. But I will hear you admit your crimes. I have been granted a mandate to protect the children of this world, Herr Strauss. And you have evaded justice for long enough.’
Herr Strauss had started to cry in pathetic little whimpers.
‘Are you going to kill me?’
Santa Claus laughed through his nose. Then he slapped the brief case closed and bellowed his laughter. He looked at me with a quirky little smile, and suddenly, I found myself laughing too. Santa Claus was right. I might not have a body. But neither did the Nazi. And we had magic.
‘No, Herr Strauss, no. You’re already dead.’
Then Santa hurled the briefcase into the fire and smoke belched into the room. It was thick and unbreathable. But I didn’t need to breathe. We were the smoke, Santa and I. We swallowed the Nazi whole, and we took him home.