Choosing to Believe by Rachel Smith

Warming up nicely, though his hands are still buried deep in his coat pockets, David studies the painting, unsure what to make of it. It must be important, positioned in the centre of the gallery like this, so everyone is subconsciously drawn in.

The image depicts the back of a Santa Claus outfit upon a slate-grey background, the brushstrokes thick and elongated, whipped off at the edges giving it an unfinished feel... indistinct, like a dream half-remembered.

Peering closer, he notices that the fluffy white ball marking the tip of the Santa hat rests upon the left shoulder, hinting that the person is facing right, but thick dark shading around the head obscures any hint of a face.

Deliberate, obviously, but why?

Footsteps slow near him, staccato on the hardwood flooring. Some stop momentarily as other visitors observe the painting, musing, exchanging hypotheses and first impressions. Probably.

He isn’t listening to their words.

He wandered in here to delay the chore of Christmas shopping, pretending to himself and the smart sparrow-like lady at the entrance that he knew something about art. Taking his time, he moved through the gallery, nodding now and then, as if he could afford any of the pieces on display.

He doubts he ever would either. The prices make his mouth dry and his eyeballs itch. But it is warm and quiet, so he stays.

Unsurprisingly, there is a theme: bright robin redbreast perched upon a snow-laden branch; children holding hands in a white forest clearing, gazing up at the stars; church bells; red ribbons and then, Santa Claus viewed from the back.

The irritating buzz of holiday cheer pervades even this elegant space. A rotund woman - made even more so by her voluminous furs - sweeps past, humming a familiar jaunty tune. There really is no escaping it. David sniffs, the cold dull feeling in his core unyielding despite the festive ambiance. He shuffles his feet and tugs a little at his black woollen scarf, but he can’t seem to move away.

Now why is this painting holding his attention more than the others?

Gradually, the gallery’s sounds and shapes muffle and blur as a long dormant memory stirs, rising to the forefront of his consciousness, transporting him...

He was six years old, snuggled deep under his duvet with winter moonlight spilling though the gap in his Peter Pan curtains. What had woken him? With a jerk, he checked the Christmas stocking that Mum had laid over his feet at bedtime and gasped.

It was gone.

A rustling from the hallway made his little heart splutter, his eyes wide, drinking in the moment.

The door handle creaked downwards and clicked. He threw himself backwards, flat against his pillow and affected the slow, easy breathing of someone asleep. But he kept his eyes open by a sliver, peeking out from beneath his eyelashes.

Milky starlight illuminated the bright red coat and trousers complete with thick white trim, the bobble hat and... his stocking! It was misshapen; bulging with presents.

He didn’t move, he fought to keep his legs still and his face relaxed as wonder flooded his being. He knew it was true! Some of the older boys at school said mean things about Santa, but

David didn’t listen to them. His body fizzed with delight.

And then Santa turned to leave, but just before reaching the door, he paused to look out the window. He leant forwards with one hand gently moving the curtain aside and moonlight fell upon his face. David lowered his gaze, not wanting to look directly at that face. A part of him – a big part – knew who he’d see, but he didn’t want to know, not yet.

So, he didn’t look.

Instead, he shut his eyes and listened as Santa left his bedroom and faded into the night. Not long after, as David drifted back off to sleep, he smiled as sleigh bells tinkled somewhere far, far overhead...

Back in the art gallery, David is shocked to find himself welling up. He’d completely forgotten that had happened. The memory of it tucked away all these years. He had known it was Dad, but he also wanted to keep believing in the magic, just a little while longer.

He’d forgotten the magic as well, somewhere along the way.

A man, encumbered by a floor-length brown coat, pauses next to David, eyeing the painting.

“What do you think?” he asks, cocking his head to one side, “Not sure myself. It seems a bit sombre to me, as if the painter doesn’t even like Christmas... or Christianity? Could it be a religious point they’re making? Oh, I don’t know.” He waves a hand, dismissing the artwork. “I’ve got no idea what this artist is trying to say.”

David smiles, “I think I might.”

Published in Issue #22

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