SHORT STORY: The Santa of Gunderson Shopping Centre
Linton Schmidt-Wood pulled off his pale blue bobble hat as he crossed the threshold of the Gunderson Shopping Centre, hastily running a hand through his tousled brown hair in an attempt to neaten it. He was racked with nerves, this was a big one and he knew it. He stopped just inside the door to take in the decrepit building. The lino floor was stained and bobbled, as tired and cold looking shoppers walked hastily to their respective destinations. Half the units were up for let, or worse, boarded up, and few were empty but for a couple of disembodied manikins and a singular role of bubble rap. The shops that remained open obviously weren’t doing so well, with most displaying huge posters advertising severe discounts in-store. One kitchen supplies shop had a hastily scribbled “Everything Must Go” across their window in marker, but the open shop was still deserted in spite of this tantalising offer. Only the bookmakers appeared to be busy. What a strange place this was for an audition.
He practiced his monologue in his head as he walked slowly through the centre, keeping an eye on his watch and looking for a signpost to the manager’s office. A series of anemic looking, poorly decorated Christmas trees ran down the middle of the main concourse, which made Linton feel slightly depressed. He loved everything about Christmas, the pomp and the pageantry, and this minimal effort had the effect of dampening his sky-high Christmas spirit, which was potentially disastrous for his audition.
“Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life.” he said under his breath in a gravely voice, averting his gaze from the sorry looking trees. His monologue choice wasn’t based on the character he was supposed to be portraying, but Linton thought them similar in terms of influence and gravitas, and this speech was simply more theatrical. He spotted a chipped wooden sign pointing towards the manager’s office, consulted his watch, and strode with a little more purpose.
“I’m here to audition for the part of Santa Claus.” he announced to the receptionist as he entered in his most confident voice. The woman behind the desk looked up from her newspaper looking thoroughly unimpressed.
“Sit there.” she said, nodding towards a single plastic chair in the corner and going back to her paper. Linton looked around. He was expecting to see other actors waiting to go in. It had been a while since he’d tried out for anything, but surely auditions hadn’t change this much?
“I’m sorry, am I early?” he asked.
“Probably. Mr. Perkins will be back in a minute.” she replied, not looking up. “Sit there please.” Linton removed his duffle coat and took his seat. He began running through the monologue again, but his nerves were just starting to reach overwhelming levels. His stomach lurched, as he tried to remember his lines, but instead his mind began to race over all the failures he had endured over his 20 years in the business. The rabbit incident. The time he accidentally kicked a fellow auditionee. The nervous laughter when he totally forgot his lines on that cruise ship. And, of course, the debacle at The Globe.
A man in his late 40’s, greying and with waxy skin, walked through the door in a stained jumper. His bloodshot eyes landed on Linton who shot back a grin.
“Who’s this?” the man said to the receptionist, rather rudely.
“Santa.” the woman replied, still not looking up from her paper.
“Oh, that’s right.” the man said, scrunching his face theatrically to signify that he remembered. “Linton, right?”
“That’s correct.” Linton said, rising to his feet and shaking the man’s hand. “And you must be Mr. Perkins. It is an honour, nay a privilege, to read for you today.”
“Right.” Mr. Perkins replied looking wary and releasing his hand. “Well, come on through and I’ll talk you through it.” He strolled through a side door into a dingy office not much bigger than a broom cupboard. The bare light bulb flickered feebly and the faded paisley wallpaper was peeling off the wall. Mr. Perkins sat behind the desk, which was strewn with papers. He gestured for Linton to take a seat. There wasn’t a lot of room to act in here.
“So, the gig is for every afternoon from 2 till 5 right up to Christmas day. Can’t offer you anymore than minimum wage, I’m afraid, but sometimes the parent’s will tip. If you could start this afternoon, that would be great. The last guy turned out to be a horrendous drunk. Usually that wouldn’t bother me, but one of the mothers claimed her daughter had got drunk just by inhaling the booze on his breath, so we didn’t really have a choice. Poor girl, was sick all over the concourse, which led to our Santa vomiting all over the suit.”
“I’m sorry.” Linton interrupted. “Did you say I booked the gig?”
“Well, yeah.” Mr. Perkins said, looking a little perplexed. “If you want it, that is?” Linton hesitated for a moment.
“It’s just.” he started, thinking of how to word what was on his mind. “I haven’t auditioned for ages, and I prepared this big monologue, and I thought you were going to put me through my paces?” he finished. Mr. Perkins sat with his eyes wide and mouth agape.
“Right, well, okay, let’s see what you’ve got.” he said, leaning back in his chair, still looking a little wary. Linton grinned. He rose from his chair and turned away from the desk, breathing deeply, trying to channel his inner Christmas spirit. When he felt satisfactorily jolly he turned round to begin.
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” he began, puffing his chest out and moving his arms engagingly. Mr. Perkins’ eyes grew wider. “Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies.”
“I’m sorry, can I stop you there?” Mr. Perkins interrupted, “Are you doing Gandalf?” Linton pouted. He hated being interrupted mid-monologue. It was a real pet peeve of his. He swallowed down his annoyance.
“Yes, yes it’s from Lord of the Rings, the motion…”
“You’re supposed to be Santa.” Mr. Perkins cut in again. “Why the fuck are you doing Gandalf?” Linton, again, took a breath, his face growing hot.
“There is, I have to say, an alarming lack of theatrically pleasing monologues performed by the character of Santa Claus on both screen and in literature. I thought Gandalf was a symbolic surrogate for Santa in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.”
“I think you’re thinking of Jesus, pal. Look, Just say ho ho ho, and merry Christmas and shit like that. You’re not supposed to be theatrical, you’re just supposed to be Santa. It’s really not the difficult.”
“Well sir,” Linton said, retaking his seat, realising the audition was over and his monologue would go unfinished, “We’ll have to agree to disagree.” His pout was so pronounced now that he looked like an absurd duck. Mr. Perkins still looked aghast.
“Look, do you want to do this or not?” he asked, leaning forward.
“Yes.” Linton said, quietly.
“Brilliant. Sandra will give you your costume. Come back here and change at 1.45 and she’ll take you down to the grotto.”
“I should tell you, I’m half Jewish.” Linton said, looking up tentatively.
“Why is that relevant?” Mr. Perkins snapped, throwing his arms in the air in exasperation.
“I heard elves, you know,” he said leaning in closer and whispering, “little people. I heard they can be a little anti-Jewish.”
“I honestly have never heard anything about anti-Semitic dwarfs, but you needn’t worry, Sandra is your elf. Listen, are you sure you want to do this?” he sounded like he was regretting offering the part to Linton.
“I will be the finest Santa that Gunderson Shopping Centre has ever seen.” Linton said, proudly, rising to his feet.
“Right, well grab your suit off Sandra and I’ll see you back here this afternoon.” Mr. Perkins said, standing as well and pointing to the door.
“I need one Santa suit please Sandra.” Linton told the receptionist. She kept reading the paper as she groped around under the desk. She extracted a red, furry suit in a dry cleaners cover and placed it on the desk, all without looking at Linton.
“Hopefully the vomit stains have come out. I’ll be honest, I haven’t checked.” she said.
It wasn’t at all what Linton had expected. He thought there would be lines, an audience, a chance to really to show off his acting chops. Instead, he just talked one on one with children, his beard was itchy, their hands were sticky and their grasp of the likes Pinter and Miller were negligible at best. The parents did not seem impressed with the work he had done so far. One man even snatched away his daughter before he had finished his Macbeth monologue.
“She’s just a kid you imbecile, she doesn’t need to hear those things.” he said angrily.
“Death is coming for us all, sir.” Linton replied with a jovial wave.
“Next.” Sandra said. She’d moved to a book now, but was just as inattentive as she had been in the office.
“Do I recognise you?” one of the mothers asked as she bought up her son.
“Of course you do. I’m Santa.” Linton said. He pulled his beard down and whispered to the woman, “I was also one of the ugly sister’s in the Walsall Grange Playhouse’s production of Cinderella 5 years ago.” he said, raising his eyebrows proudly.
“Nah, you’re that twat who rushed the stage at The Globe.” she said, with a huge grin.
“You shouldn’t curse in front of your son.” he replied, grumpily.
“My mate showed me the YouTube video.” she cackled, ignoring him. “You tried to push Stephen Fry off the stage and say his lines instead. It was fucking hilarious.”
“Madam, there are children here.”
“Those security guards fucked you up. Oh my God, can I get a selfie? I’ve got send it to Jean.” Linton had gone red in the face, as the woman pulled her phone out.
“And what do you want for Christmas young man?” Linton tried to say to the boy, but the woman could not be stopped from getting her photo.
“Can you just pull your beard down a little?” she asked, as Linton’s face appeared alongside hers on her phone screen. Reluctantly, and resuming his pouting, Linton pulled down his beard. She took the photo and shrieked with glee.
The queue was non-existent by 4.30, as many of the shops gave the day up as a bad job and pulled their shutters down early. Linton looked around, but there were no more children in site. Sandra was still reading her book, her elves outfit consisting of a charity shop green Reebok sweatshirt and a paper cracker hat really was a travesty. He took in his grotto, which was basically just a whiteboard with a bit of red fabric draped on it adorned with obviously selotaped tinsel. His Santa sack, full of hastily bought and wrapped plastic tat from the pound store, lay limply on the floor next to him. This was a bust. But it was also has chance to play a character, and, damnit, he wasn’t going to pass it up.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” he boomed, rising to his feet. “I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me.’’ he tried to catch one of the shopper’s eyes, but there were only a few milling about, and they all seemed to be resolutely ignoring him. Linton would not be perturbed by this slight from his audience.
“I don't know what to do! I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.“
“Oi! What did you say about drunken men?” a man with a shaved head and a large bottle of beer staggered towards him from the direction of the bookies. “Have you got a problem, Santa.” the man slurred as he advanced.
“I. . . No. . . I was just. . . It’s a line from a Christmas Carol.” Linton stammered. “I didn’t mean any disrespect to drunks, I. . .”
“Are you Jewish?” the man said, inches from Linton’s face.
“No. Well, half. Well, no, I’m Santa, he has no faith.” Linton said, taking a few steps back and trying to grin.
“A Jew Santa.” and the man spat on the floor. “I’m taking those presents and there ain’t a thing you’re gonna do about it.” he growled, pointing at the sack.
“Sir, those are for the children.” Linton said nervously.
“Now they’re for my children you nasty little prick.” The anger rose up in Linton like a volcano and he threw the hardest punch he could at the drunken man. He looked temporarily shocked as he staggered back, but he didn’t hit the floor. Linton grabbed his hand in pain. The man lurched back up and bought the bottle down over Linton’s forehead, knocking him out instantly.
Linton Schmidt-Wood regained consciousness lying on his back in the reception of Mr. Perkin’s office.
“Alright there, Linton?” Sandra asked, as she crouched over him. Her cracker hat fell of her head and fluttered to the floor.
“What. . . Wha?”
“Some skinhead prick hit you with a bottle. Don’t worry, he’s been arrested. I twatted him over the head with your toy sack and tied him up with some tinsel. It was quite the spectacle.”
“My head hurts.” Linton said, feebly. Sandra looked sympathetically at him.
“Yeah, probably will do for a couple of days. I’ll drive you to A&E just as soon as Mr. Perkins is done with the police.”
“Can I have a few days off, then?” he asked, closing his eyes again.
“Probably best you don’t come back, buddy. That asshole has friends. Plus, you’re obviously far too good an actor to be playing Santa in Gunderson Shopping Centre.” she said sympathetically. Linton scrunched his face up. He just lost another gig.
“This is such a tough business.” he said, letting out a sob and moving his hand to his head wound. “I hate Christmas.”