A boy sends a letter to Father Christmas asking for a remote control car. A boy who has been witnessing his mother and father tear each other apart, although he doesn’t fully understand what is going on. Still innocent – but growing less so – he lives in the strange, dreamlike land of childhood where important things are confused with trivialities and magic is still possible. The household may be collapsing around his ears, but it’s Christmas and the boy has asked for a toy. He still believes. Samanta Schweblin has written a story that brushes aside all the certainties, structures and mechanisms upon which we build our familial universe, she simply shows us everything through the eyes of a boy who has written to Father Christmas asking for a remote control car. No more, no less.
The Christmas that Father Christmas came to spend the night at my house was the last time we were all together. After that night Mummy and Daddy stopped fighting, but I don’t think Father Christmas had anything to do with it. Daddy had sold his car a few months before because he’d lost his job, and, although Mummy didn’t agree, he said that a good Christmas tree was important this year so got one anyway. It came in a long, flat cardboard box and had a sheet of instructions explaining how to fit it together in three sections and how to spread its branches so that it looked natural. Once it was assembled, it was bigger than Daddy – it was huge – and I think that that was why Father Christmas spent the night at our house. I’d asked for a remote-control car. It didn’t matter which; any would do. All the other boys had them, and when we played in the playground the kids with remote-control cars crashed them into the regular cars like mine. So I wrote my letter, and Daddy took me to the post office to mail it.
He said to the guy at the counter, “To go to Father Christmas,” and he passed him the envelope.
The guy at the counter didn’t even say hello – there were a lot of people there, and you could tell that he was tired from so much work. Christmas must be the worst season for them.
He took the letter, looked at it and said, “It doesn’t have a postcode.”
“But it’s for Father Christmas,” said Daddy with a wink. He was trying to make friends.
But the guy said, “I can’t take it without a postcode.”
“You know that Father Christmas’s address doesn’t have a postcode,” Daddy said.
“I can’t take it without a postcode,” the guy said again. Then he called out, “Next.”
Daddy leaned over the counter and grabbed the guy by the shirt. The man took the letter.
After that I started to worry because I wasn’t sure whether or not the letter would get to Father Christmas. Also, for about two months we hadn’t been able to count on Mummy, and I was worried about that, too, because she always did everything and was the only one who knew how to do things properly. Then one day she stopped caring; just like that, overnight. She went to see some doctors. Daddy always went with her, and I stayed at home with Marcela, our neighbour. But Mummy didn’t get better. There weren’t any clean clothes or milk and cereals in the morning. Daddy arrived late at the places where he had to take me, and then he’d be late again when he came to pick me up. When I asked him about it Daddy said that Mummy wasn’t sick, she didn’t have cancer and she wasn’t going to die. It could have been any of those things – no such luck. Marcela told me that Mummy had simply stopped believing in things, that that was what it meant to be “depressed”; it made you stop wanting to do anything and took a long time to go away. Mummy didn’t go to work or meet up with friends or talk on the telephone with Grandma any more. She sat in her dressing-gown in front of the television and flicked through the channels all morning, all afternoon and all night. I had to bring her things to eat. Marcela left frozen food in the freezer with the portions already marked out. You had to mix them up. You couldn’t give her all the potato casserole and then all the vegetable tart. I would defrost the food in the microwave and bring it to her on a tray with a glass of water and a knife and fork.
“Thank you, love. Stay warm,” Mummy said without looking at me, her eyes still on the television screen.
At the end of the school day, I held Augusto’s mummy’s hand. She was beautiful. That worked when Daddy came to pick me up, but later, when Marcela came, neither of the women seemed to like it, so I waited under the tree on the corner. Whoever came to collect me, they were always late.
Marcela and Daddy became very close friends, and some nights Daddy stayed at her house playing poker, and Mummy and me found it hard to get to sleep without him. When we met in the bathroom, Mummy would say, “Take care, love. Stay warm,” and go back to watching television.
Marcela spent a lot of afternoons at our house. Then she would cook for us and tidy up a little. I don’t know why she did it. I suppose that Daddy asked her for help, and she felt obliged because she was a friend. She really didn’t seem very happy. A couple of times she turned off the television, sat in front of Mummy and said, “Irene, we need to talk. Things can’t go on like this…” She said that she had to change her attitude; this wasn’t getting Mummy anywhere; she couldn’t go on taking care of everything. Mummy had to shake herself out of it and decide once and for all or she’d end up ruining all our lives. But Mummy never said anything. Marcela would storm out, slamming the door behind her, and on those nights, because there was nothing for dinner, Daddy would order pizza. I love pizza.
I had told Augusto that Mummy had stopped “believing in things” and that that meant she was “depressed”, and he wanted to come over to see. We did something very terrible, and sometimes I’m ashamed of it: we jumped in front of her for a while, but Mummy just looked away. Then we made her a hat out of newspaper, tried it on her in different ways and left it there all afternoon, but she didn’t even move. I took the hat off before Daddy got home. I knew that Mummy wouldn’t say anything, but I still felt bad.
Then Christmas came. Marcela made her special roast chicken with horrible vegetables, but because it was a special night she also made me chips. Daddy asked Mummy to get up from the sofa and eat dinner with us. He moved her carefully to the table – Marcela had set the table with a red tablecloth, green candles and the plates we used for visitors – sat her down at one end and stepped back a few paces, still looking at her. I suppose he thought that it might work, but when he’d moved far enough away she got up and went back to the sofa. So we moved the things to the coffee table in the living-room and ate in there with her. The television was on, of course, and the news was doing a piece about a lot of poor people who’d got loads of presents and food from richer people, so they were very happy. I was anxious. I kept looking at the Christmas tree because it was going to be midnight soon and I wanted my car. Then Mummy pointed at the television. It was like seeing a piece of furniture come to life. Daddy and Marcela looked at each other. On television Father Christmas was sitting in a living-room, hugging a boy on his knee with one arm while the other was draped around a woman who looked like Augusto’s mother. Then the woman bent down and kissed Father Christmas, and Father Christmas looked out and said, “And when I get back from work, all I want is to be with my family,” as a coffee logo appeared on the screen.
Mummy burst into tears. Marcela took my hand and told me to go up to my room, but I refused. She said it again, this time in the impatient tone she used to talk to Mummy, but nothing was going to keep me away from that Christmas tree. Daddy tried to switch off the television, but Mummy started to fight with him like a little girl.
The bell rang, and I said, “It’s Father Christmas.” Marcela slapped me, and then Daddy started to fight with Marcela and Mummy turned on the television again, but Father Christmas wasn’t on any of the channels.
The bell rang again, and Daddy said, “Who the hell is it?”
I hoped that it wasn’t the guy from the post office or else they’d fight again because Daddy was in such a bad mood.
The bell rang again, several times in a row, and Daddy got sick of it, went to the door and when he opened he saw that it was Father Christmas. He wasn’t as fat as on television, and he looked so tired he could barely stand. He leaned on one side of the door frame for a moment then swayed over to the other.
“What do you want?” Daddy asked.
“I’m Father Christmas,” said Father Christmas.
“And I’m Snow White,” Daddy said and closed the door.
Then Mummy got up and ran to the door. When she opened it Father Christmas was still there, trying to stay upright. She hugged him.
Daddy went crazy. “This is the guy, Irene?” he shouted at Mummy. Then he started to say bad words and tried to pull them apart.
Mummy said to Father Christmas, “Bruno, I can’t live without you. I’m dying.”
Daddy managed to get them away from each other and punched Father Christmas. Father Christmas fell backwards and lay flat on his back in the entrance. Mummy started to scream like crazy. I was sad about what was happening to Father Christmas and because all this business was preventing me from getting my car, but on the other hand I was pleased to see Mummy moving around again.
Daddy told Mummy that he was going to kill the both of them, and Mummy told him that if he was so happy with his friend, why couldn’t she be friends with Father Christmas? It sounded reasonable to me. Marcela went over to Father Christmas, who was starting to stir, and helped him up. Then Daddy started to say bad things to him and Mummy began to scream again. Marcela told them to calm down, pleading with them to come inside, but nobody was listening to her. Father Christmas put his hand to the back of his head and saw that he was bleeding.
He spat at Daddy, and Daddy said, “You fucking faggot.”
Mummy said to Daddy, “You’re the fucking faggot,” and she spat at him, too. She held out her hand to Father Christmas and led him inside. Then she took him to her room and closed the door.
Daddy stood absolutely still, as if he were frozen, and when he came back to his senses he realized that I was still there and furiously ordered me to bed. I knew that there was no point in arguing, so I went to bed without a Christmas and without a present. I waited in my room for things to calm down, watching the plastic fish in my nightlight swim on the ceiling. I wouldn’t be getting my remote-control car, that was clear, but Father Christmas was spending the night at our house, and that meant that next year would definitely go better.