By Tenth Muse Top
Continued from Part II
Vestah stood in the snug room, her graceful fingers flicking through the Reward and Punishment Log as she speed-read its contents. She muttered the occasional word to herself, her lips moving silently for the rest. An aura of displeasure settled about her, the way a thundercloud of oppressive heat draws ever closer, ominously bearing down on the plains below. When she had finished, she took up the Personal Reports Log Book and worked her way through it to the present day. To Christmas Eve and to Tilly, Mara and Meili Honeysett.
The Matron Manager sat fidgeting on her wooden chair resentfully. Try as she might, and she wasn’t trying very hard, the compliance she had felt while over Santa’s knee was fast fading away. That coconut business had not helped anything. It had disgusted her and now, here was this uncouth personage daring to judge her rule book. Her revered rule book! Well, she wasn’t having it. She had rights: if Santa Claus had a rule book, then it followed that Felicity Kavanagh must have rights as well!
“Now look,” she piped up, “I know what you are going to say. But we have a saying here too, you know.”
“Oh yes…and what is that?” Any one of the other seven Santa Claus’ would have heard the softness in Vestah Jones’ voice and backed away slowly, but Felicity ploughed on regardless. She was a professional and was pretty confidant that she was on solid ground here.
“You have to be cruel to be kind! Right? Everyone says so.”
There was a pause. A pause in which, once again, Santa’s aura continued to fill the space between them, her beautiful face becoming weary as mountains. Her eyes, clouded in thought, were cast down, though her sigh was one of gentleness and patience.
“No child. You have to be kind to be kind.”
“Well, yes, but –”
Vestah waved her to silence and read aloud.
“24th December. Despite repeated warnings and punishments, Tilly Honeysett and Meili Honeysett have resisted all attempts to help them. They are dangerously disruptive influences, disturbing the entire house, corrupting their sister, Mara, and so, with regret, both are expelled forthwith. It is our view that, only by splitting the Honeysett girls up, will each get a chance to become obedient and useful members of society.”
She peered over the tome at the Matron Manager.
“They are 11 years old. They lost their parents to a fire and survived livin’ out of a box for a year, beggin’. All they have, correction: had, is each other and you have taken it away from them… You have taken all the love and meanin’ they had in their lives. All the shared memories, the life experiences. By the stroke of a pen and because of a sayin’ which makes no sense!”
Felicity was prepared for this. She had thought about it. A lot.
“Yes, but in surgery, for example, you use the sharpest knife. They say ‘a clean cut is best.’ Keeping these girls together was just keeping the disruption going — for everyone. It is very inconvenient — for everyone! A clean break is best. That is what I mean by being ‘cruel to be kind’. It’s a kindness really, in the longterm. They’ll get used to it.” There was an odd self-satisfied note in her voice, as though she were quoting someone else.
They say, they say! Thought Santa as she closed the book and replaced it on the table. ‘They’ say a lot about how to casually rationalise callousness. How to make cruelty tidy, for everyone’s convenience – everyone that is, except for the actual victims of it. Santa wondered who in Felicity’s life, ‘they’ were.
“Where is your operatin’ theatre? You are not cuttin’ out a cancer. This is an ordinary human event and these are human bein’s — girls apparently — and I do say apparently –– being naughty. Although there is a reason for their actions. So why suddenly decide to be so cruel?”
Before Felicity could reply, Santa waved her to silence again.
She closed her eyes, her awareness flowing out, encompassing the city around her. Home by home, street by street, she could feel normal human cruelty in all its petty ways, but there was something else too. She could feel how it had settled, by degrees, into people’s lives. This society had tipped to embrace it. This society valued it. Yes, there would always be deliberate cruelty, the product of a calculating mind or the casual hurts delivered by a closed heart. But here too was the cruelty of a judicial system, broken by infinite intellectual refinement. The very worst of it, though, was this cruelty which told itself it was actually being cruel to do good to someone else. Which pretended to itself.
“It’s not just me! I don’t make the decisions alone!’ Felicity’s voice trembled with hurt and indignation. “These things are carefully considered by the committee and I plead for leniency. They say I am too soft!”
“Cruelty by committee. Oh that’s alright then.” Santa answered wearily, “It is all agreed, by everyone. All signed off on and that makes it ok for you, even if you know the pain it will cause. The committee will comfort and praise you, at least.”
“No! KINDNESS by committee! It is just rough to begin with! A steep learning curve — but they will be all the better for it — in the end! We all will.”
Felicity’s face was once again red with rage, she didn’t realise she was shouting, or that Santa had cushioned the rest of the house from her volume level with a mere thought. The matron thumped the ledger with her hand and yelled —
“And yes — everyone does agree! I never act alone, I never act without taking advice! I believe I am doing the right thing!”
“Really? Is that a fact?”
Very slowly, Vestah Jones pulled the ebony paddle from the sheath in her boot. She balanced it across her fingertips with both hands, showing it to Felicity, who found herself abruptly disinclined to elaborate any further.
“Is that a fact indeed.”
Santa placed the paddle carefully on the painted mantlepiece, arranging it neatly with a fingertip.
“I am goin’ to leave that there.” Her deep voice sent chills running through Felicity’s body. “And you can tell me, if you think I should use it later. You can tell me. There will be no committee behind the decision.” She pinned Felicity with a glance. “Alright?”
“Good. Now, you will come with me.”
Vestah Jones took Felicity to dormitory 4b in the attic. In the moonlight, Mara’s dark hair curled against the pale cotton pillow. The child was asleep, but a trail of tears soaked her cheek and a dark patch was spreading on the fabric under her face. She lay facing the two empty single beds where her sisters had, until that morning, slept. Her body was at odd angles, as though it were contorted with pain.
Not unkindly, Vestah invited Felicity to sit beside her on the middle bed.
“One thing you forget about grief is that, with endless weepin’, your whole body hurts. Not just your heart.” She lay a gentle hand on Mara, stroking her hair. “But you know this too, don’t you Felicity? How the muscles in your back become so tired they feel strained and it aches constantly? How your stomach feels like it has been pummelled over and over with fists, it is so sore? And just from cryin’. Only from the cryin’. In the bright Christmas lights, even a cleanly washed face knows it is stained with invisible tears. Do you not remember? It is a wonder that nobody sees, but perhaps they do: or perhaps they did know and they just didn’t care.”
Felicity’s arms were folded tight across the chest. “I don’t know why you are saying this to me. I don’t know why you want to hurt me.”
She watched as Santa’s gentle touch soothed the child in the other bed and the little one’s body relaxed into dreamless, healing sleep.
“I don’t want to hurt you. It is the pain in your past which is devastatin’ you. And it is leakin’ out and it is burnin’ the people you want to help. I know there is so much good in you Felicity Jane Kavanagh, but you have strayed in the wrong direction. With all your ‘kindness’ and all your doin’ good. It is different to bein‘ good, you see.”
Next, Santa lead Felicity into the little attic room with the three stools. “This place is dreadful.”
Defensively the younger woman responded. “It’s not the street. It is warm.”
“Is it? Is it indeed.”
Santa took Felicity by the elbow and walked her over to one of the three wooden stools.
“No, Ms Kavanagh, since it is soooo comfortable. SIT.”
Despite herself, Felicity sat down, her sore bottom complaining about the hard wooden surface. She shifted resentfully and thought about enquiring after Santa’s rule book.
Santa clicked her fingers and two leather buckles curled around the Matron Manager’s ankles, securing them to the stool’s legs. The position emphasised how unforgiving the wooden seat was. Even without a thoroughly spanked bottom, it would take no time at all to be extremely uncomfortable. First the numbness would begin, then the pins and needles, followed by the cold and finally: pain.
Santa handed her two pairs of knitting needles and some wool.
“You think you can spend one hour in here, let alone a week of afternoons?”
Felicity’s eyes pricked with tears. She felt humiliated.
“I don’t have to.” Rebellion filled her mind. Perhaps she could appeal to one of the other Santa Claus’. Any one of them would be more reasonable than this one!
Santa just looked at her, her eyebrow rising, asking a question. One long and, possibly painful, silent question.
Blushing, the Matron Manager began to knit. The proximity of Santa, a wooden stool and that look were compelling enough reason to obey. Her cheeks contracted at the thought of even one more stroke to her tender behind and her heart thumped as she remembered the shiny paddle downstairs. Rebellion briefly crushed, she turned her attention to casting-on a line of new stitches, but a faint capillary of anger was beginning to beat again in her locked-away heart.
“According to your Punishment Log, the three little girls had holes in their socks–”
“Yes and I replaced them! A brand new pair of socks each! And do you know what they did? They sold two pairs of them, took the old ones out of the trash and carried on wearing them! They tried to fool me, by sharing the new pair to stop me from seeing what they had done, but I soon caught them! What would your rule book say about that then!”
Santa nodded and indicated that Felicity should carry on knitting. All this she knew anyway.
“And so, to teach them a lesson, you decided to make them knit new socks as punishment. Not one pair, or two pairs, or three even, but twenty-three pairs of socks. Every afternoon. Forbidden to speak.” Santa rubbed her hands together, cracking her knuckles again. “Forget the rule book! There are laws: sacred, universal, abiding laws and I know every one of them.” She pointed to her heart. “In here. And so do you.”
Felicity noticed that Santa was simmering. Disapproval, emanating from her whole being, gave her a more imposing presence than before. Despite her innate self-righteousness, Felicity felt guilty. Her mind was racing: Santa was making her feel guilty, when all she ever tried to do was help people!? But Santa just continued, seemingly oblivious to Felicity’s fidgety indignation.
“And I know when they have been broken. Not just that, I know when the spirit of them has been broken …or is about to be broken. I …know. ”
Her voice had become deep, deep as a whisper from the earth herself. The infinite earth beneath the oldest mountain. Her voice was quiet, as though the earth breathed from a cavern and spoke from the true heart of things.
As she spoke she waggled her fingers and Felicity’s knitting grew longer, the ball of wool shrinking as the sock took shape. Her fingers developed raw patches and a slight rash from the wool stung her wrist. Her legs were leaden with cold, but she carried on knitting as stitch after stitch rubbed the rough wool across the sores on her hands.
“This is as though three hours have passed, Felicity Jane. Just three.” The condemnation in Santa’s voice hit a nerve.
Felicity felt her eyes sparkle with tears. She knew this speech was about more than her actions. She was being judged: she had failed and she was guilty. She hung her head to hide her resentment, because Felicity Kavanagh was a fighter. What did Santa know? Felicity hadn’t got this far in life without toughness and grit pulling her through. Her eyes flashed. How outrageous to be spoken to like this!
She was probably supposed to beg forgiveness and ask what she might do. Instead, she let the little sliver of anger harden her heart and distort her usually impeccable sense of self-preservation. Instead, once again, she very politely prevaricated.
“Please…. can I explain?” She did actually want Santa to understand the truth, because then she was sure that Santa would agree with her.
“Please do.” Santa gestured, inviting Felicity to stand as the buckles fell away. The matron manager put the knitting on a stool and moved to the window to indicate streets she had known only too well as a child.
“Santa, life is hard out there for these kids. There is no Fairy Godmother to dry their tears and take them to the ball: I’m it. There is only me. Life is hard and the sooner they get used to that, the better. They have to learn and learn fast. They have to be tough. Obedient. I’m sorry, Santa and you can chastise me for this again if you must, but ….what is the point of you? You are just one day a year. Not even that, one night. The rest of the time, there is no magic, it’s just me…and there isn’t enough of anything to to go round, let alone me. I work very hard and I am only doing my best!”
Santa joined her at the window. The stars were beautiful now, but she let her attention fall to the streets below. Mostly the houses were dark, but in the odd home a window was lit up. The carers, doing the business of caring through the long hours of the night. The other side of the equation.
Gently she pushed Felicity towards the view. “Look out there. What do you see?”
Felicity peered at a town that she was so familiar with all she saw was the shape of it. She didn’t like it that much and it held no more meaning than that. She felt Santa’s body move behind hers, an arm embracing her and Santa’s hand gently covered her heart.
“Relax. Lean against me.”
“No child. Relax. Observe. If you listen, you will see. Here.”
The palm over her heart rubbed gently and Felicity felt a flood of warmth, spreading through her senses. She saw, in those houses, tired eyes smiling at the sick and gentle hands steadying a cup of water. She saw arms around a weeping child, woken from a nightmare and heard the loving hum of a lullaby. On a staircase, a weary man carried cocoa to his bereaved partner and, in a kitchen in a different home, a teenager pushed linen into a washing tub, having already remade his grandfather’s bed, without recrimination. In another kitchen, a young mother yawned over the cake she was baking for her little ones to have for breakfast on Christmas Day. It was the only treat they would have, and yet, they would all still save a little piece for the tramp who slept under the church clock.
“Life can be hard, Child, but what makes it unbearable is when people close their hearts to each other and proscribe harshness itself as the solution. What makes it beautiful is all this. All these acts of selflessness and kindness. It’s the connections, you see. You cannot be cruel AND be kind, you can only be one or the other. You were trying to do the right thing, but you chose the wrong way to do it. Yet, the wonder and miracle of it is that you can put it right, just by choosing again.”
Felicity broke free, breath and emotion catching in her throat.
“No! There has to be order! There have to be rules! Because when you have nothing, nobody helps you!”
Looking at the young matron’s closed face, Santa decided to try a different approach. She held out her hand. “Come on, take it.” Felicity shivered, feeling coldly angry in the face of the other woman’s vitality and irrepressible benevolence, but she slid her hand over the smooth palm anyway and, as the fingers closed around her own, the world around them changed. She heard galloping hooves, saw breath billowing in cold air which swirled about them, and she felt her feet land again on solid ground.
They were standing in an abandoned alley, just after a rainstorm. Water spewed out of a broken drainpipe, emptying itself onto a long-blocked drain and this sent rivulets of wastewater running along the edges of the buildings. It dripped from overhanging roofs and trickled down rusty iron railings. The alleyway was punctuated by newly-filled puddles, shining intermittently, as scudding clouds above them revealed and concealed the waning moon in the sky.
It was bone cold: the sort of coldness Felicity knew well, being the coldest part of the night. The part that was only a couple of hours before dawn. Only a couple of hours to go, but she remembered how those two hours seemed to last forever and how they were measured by each numbing, freezing breath and by the uncontrollable shivering of her young body. It felt as though sunrise would never come.
Movement caught her eye. She strained to see who or what was huddling under a broken loading platform next to the disused warehouse on her right.
“Get in here.” The voice was hollow, cracked. “Up on the ledge…That’s it. Give me that blankie now…”
A heap of old blankets was moving slowly, pushing a scrap of cloth deeper into the recess… It was then Felicity recognised Tilly Honeysett and saw that Mara and Meili were already bundled on the ledge. The heap, she realised, was an old woman who was carefully covering the little ones with her own dry blanket, taking their sodden ones away to hang from a scaffold pipe. She would be cold tonight, for that act of charity.
“No one knows her name.” said Vestah softly. “She is so old, she has forgotten it herself and there is no one to speak it to her and remind her of it. She has been homeless for that long.”
There were tears in Felicity’s eyes. “It is Agnes Rose.” She whispered, and then, in answer to Santa’s unasked question. “She helped me once, too.” In the silence which followed she added. “I’d forgotten.”
“Watch now.” Santa raised her hand and the scene changed.
Now they were under the railway bridge down near the station. Opposite, a shop doorway sheltered a sleeper who had constructed some protection from the wind out of a cardboard box.
Santa touched Felicity’s arm. “Look.”
Two little girls, accompanied by a fluffy grey cat, scurried down the street. Both were wearing regulation orphanage coats and hats. Approaching Agnes Rose, they slowed to a tiptoe, then stopped, nervous of the old woman.
Felicity saw Meili sneak forward and carefully position a pillowcase behind the cardboard box. For a moment, the sisters held hands, almost willing Agnes Rose to wake up, and then they were gone, running fleet of foot back to the orphanage, the grey cat sprinting after them.
“Scraps of bread. Stockings. A tiny amount of money.” Vestah looked compassionately at the young Matron Manager, “And yes, the missing pillowcase you were so cross about. Rose turned it into a vest of sorts. The socks were too small for her, of course, but they made very good mittens! She woke up the next morning and it was like Christmas…except she knew her benefactors had tiny feet and were poor, just like her.”
Felicity was silent for a while. Well, it explained one thing, but you can’t run an orphanage and have your charges running about the streets all night! She rolled her eyes. Of course, you couldn’t expect this wild Santa Claus to understand this, since she seemed to be half-feral herself — she was talking to the cat about defecating coconuts, for heaven’s sake! She shook her head.
“Was that Greymalkin? That unruly ragamuffin! She helped them?”
Santa smiled affectionately. “She would have scratched and bitten anyone who threatened them. Gone into battle for them! She is brave and loyal, your old cat.”
Felicity was not at all sure about that, so she changed the subject again. “And that is why they sold their stockings! I didn’t know, you know. No one bothered to tell me.”
“That is why, because the Honeysett girls did not forget how Agnes Rose helped them. Because giving back to old Agnes Rose felt natural to them and the right thing to do.”
She squeezed Felicity’s hand, there was a rush of air, the sense of galloping and the scene disappeared.
They were standing once again in the attic room with the three stools. Felicity’s knitting still lay on the closest of them and the full moonlight streamed in through the windows.
The Matron Manager could feel Santa Claus quietly watching her. Waiting for her to admit that she had been wrong. Waiting for her to accept that she had always had a choice. She gritted her teeth, grinding her jaw. Like hell.
“Do you still think expulsion was a fittin’ punishment for an act of kindness?”
Santa’s voice was patient. Annoying.
Felicity shook her head.
“They should have asked me. It is too late now. What’s done is done.”
Santa just looked at her.
“Listen! I was only carrying out the committee’s directives! Did you not hear what I said?”
Vestah sighed, allowing the heat to pass.
In the moonlight, her bright cotton shirt outlined her graceful body. Even in this cold space, she generated a warmth, which despite herself, Felicity was drawn to. She didn’t want that. The Matron narrowed her eyes and just stared at Santa. Her patience is unnerving. She folded her arms tightly across her chest, determined to not let the softness of the other woman undermine her.
When Santa spoke, her voice sounded like honey. “Felicity, that is precisely my point. Who? When the decision is made, who actually carries out the committee’s directives?”
“I do. I take full responsibility and I execute all the decisions. It the right of the committee to adjudicate and it is my right to carry out their instructions.” She hugged herself tighter.
“And do you feel good about that? When you think about Mara crying in her sleep and Tilly and Meili sent away to lonely, lonely places — do you feel your actions were both right and aligned to the spirit of rightness?”
Felicity didn’t reply, her breath was suddenly ragged. Santa tried again, gently, softly.
“Why are there tears streaming down your face now? You did not cry when I spanked you, yet you are crying now. Come on now, girl, tell me true, do your actions feel just to you? Does it make you feel right — or –”
Unexpectedly Felicity collapsed to the floor, her legs just giving way beneath her. She curled her knees up to her chest.
“Shitty.” Her voice was small.
Santa lowered herself to sit cross-legged next to her, extending her hand to place gently on the young woman’s back. The warmth of her palm permeated through her nightdress, soothing her.
“Right!” Even now, curled up on the floor, there was still power for one last resistance. “I feel in the right!”
“Excuse me? You feel ‘Shitty and –?'”
“Certain of the rightness of my actio…” Felicity faltered, a faint light kindling in her heart “Self-righteous.” Her breathing began to calm. “Shitty and …self-righteous. Not right.”
She looked at Santa. “I’ve got this wrong, haven’t I?”
She was rewarded with a beautiful smile and Santa wrapped her in the warmest embrace she had ever known. Everything was softness, sweetness, comfort and the gentleness of acceptance. In this embrace, everything was okay. Santa hummed and patted her back and kissed the top of her head until Felicity’s tears were dry. Then she spoke.
“Where I’m from, we have a sayin’… It is better than yours, you know. It goes…’No matter how far you urinate, the last drop always falls at your feet!’” Santa felt Felicity wince and grinned to herself. “It means you cannot totally remove yourself from your actions, you see? Try as hard as you like ‘whoosh-whizz’ ‘whizz-whoosh’ but there…a drop is on your shoe!”
Reluctantly, Felicity said. “Okay.”
Santa rubbed the young woman’s back, encouraging her to sit and then she elegantly stood and extended a hand to help Felicity up.
From the floor, Felicity looked up at her, wanting to know more and not wanting the closeness to end.
“Where you are from — are you known as Santa Claus? Or do you have a name, your own name, I mean?”
“I do have a name, but people find it confusin’. So, I have a name I go by. ‘Vestah Jones’ …She was a woman I once knew. I honour her by takin’ her name.” There was a tension around Vestah’s mouth, the lines becoming deeper.
Felicity nodded, understanding. So Santa does know about grief.
“Tell me what it is, though, your true name.” She saw her hesitate, and added. “Please.”
Santa Claus spoke and involuntarily, Felicity’s eyes closed. She found herself standing among the grasses of the Savannah, grasshoppers singing through a night lit with fireflies, under a vast web of stars; a warm breeze blew across the land, carrying the sounds of beasts and insects and in it all she could hear the pad of paws, stalking among the shadows. She knew, that if she opened her eyes, Vestah Jones would be standing there naked, beautiful, glistening in the firelight. She knew, too, that such an image was sacred and that it would be sacrilege for her to see.
She kept her eyes tightly shut until she heard a slight cough.
Felicity opened her eyes. Vestah Jones stood before her, fortunately still clothed. Her eyes shone with love for her faraway home.
“It’s beautiful, but it is not very Christmassy, is it?”
Vestah laughed. “And now you know why it is easier to just call us ‘Santa Claus!’ Because we all do the same thing. Hey now…” Seeing the young matron’s expression change, she asked “What is that face about?”
A single tear escaped and Felicity said shakily. “You have just given me a great gift, haven’t you?”
Santa looked coyly at her, head to one side, the slightest affirmation in her dark eyes. The Child was learnin’ fast. It pleased her.
“I want to be worthy of it. This gift. Will you help me make things right?” Felicity stood up, feeling the muscles in her behind complain as she did so. She wondered how late it was.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to get Tilly and Meili back. I want to makes things better. I want to learn to be better. I want–” She saw Santa’s stern face and her heart thumped. “I want you to help me.” She flushed, stammering. “I mean…I will get them back. I will say I made a mistake and I will take the reprimand and I will do better…but what I mean is…God…It is not that easy is it?”
Felicity swallowed nervously.
“Is your …paddle… the one downstairs…Is it magic?”
“And…” Felicity was blushing furiously now, “if I fetched it…would it help me remember what not to do?”
“Without a doubt.” Santa stifled an inward roll of her eyes. That is, after all, what a good paddling was for: to remember what not to do. It was true enough, though, her ebony-wood paddle was indeed laced with magic.
Felicity was trembling, tongue-tied, so Vestah asked her gently “Do you want to fetch it?”
“And would you like me to spank you with it, Felicity Jane Kavanagh?”
She was brave, this little matron manager, Santa would give her that.
“Yes. Please, Santa.”
“Because…because I feel so guilty and I know myself…I am not good when I feel guilty…I mean — I can’t operate that well and also guilt makes me feel angry…I tend to blame others…even if I have hurt them, I make it their fault…Can you help me? I don’t want to feel like that anymore.”
“Well then…” Santa waggled her fingers. “This guilt of yours we will unravel. Go an’ fetch my shiny wood paddle. With a swat and a sting and a damn good spankin’, with a slap and a thwack on your bottom like that! I will be waitin’ up here, ready for you, and when you approach me, you will know what to do.”