On the day that Peter Clarke retired from his job at the post office, snow had started to fall on London, and Christmas could be smelt in the air. The city was a blissful winter wonderland, and Peter saw it as a sign that life, like the weather, changed with the seasons. He arrived early to work that Thursday morning because, as it was to be his last, he wanted to have an hour to himself to say goodbye. He had in his bag a flask of warm coffee, two bacon butties and an iced bun. Peter believed that all meals, including breakfast should be three courses, coffee to start, bacon butties for main and an iced bun for pudding. As he opened the shop door and surveyed the silence around him, memories like dreams flooded his mind, and he had to breathe back the tears.
Peter knew a party was being thrown in his honour later that evening. Mince pies, wine and brandy were all on the list hidden on Mike’s desk. Mike the new post officer manager was thirty years old. There was also to be a cake and hot sausage rolls. Peter caught himself smiling, old people’s food. He also knew a presentation was to be given along with a gift. He had been practicing his surprised face all week. All he had achieved was the look of a stroke victim.
He set his breakfast down on one of the tall counters opposite the sorting room and on retrieving a stall, usually hidden in the pathetic excuse that was the post office staff room; he sat and ate in the quiet of the morning. Peter had also arrived early that day because it was his job to organise and separate the letters addressed to Santa Claus from the other Christmas mail. Every year thousands upon thousands of letters, cards, and parcels passed through the doors of the post office, and many of those letters and cards were addressed to the man in red himself.
Peter had been told to sort and securely dispose of each letter as they came in, but Peter Clarke had a secret. He felt that if a person, child or adult, had taken the time to write such a letter. A letter that contained their wishes, dreams and desires, a letter that had been loving written and sealed, then it deserved to be read. He didn’t open them all, but took at random a dozen or so envelopes and would sit and read them before they were lost forever. Because the idea of those words, those moments of hope never being read, seen or shared made Peters heart sink. He still loved the romance of letters and words, and at Christmas he saw people share in that passion. As far as he knew Santa didn’t have an email address, and he hoped it stayed that way, for as long as possible.
Peter’s secrets extend beyond just reading the letters however, and as he finished the last bite of his bacon on brown bread, with red sauce sandwich, he pulled from his bag a box. The box was in fact an ordinary shoe box that had once contained a charming pair of swayed dress shoes that Peter had worn on his fortieth wedding anniversary. The ordinary shoe box however was now home to some extraordinary letters. A treasure trove of eleven precious letters, one for each Christmas Peter had worked at the post office. He had kept them because something in the writer’s words, tone, voice, had touched him so deeply that he couldn’t find the will to destroy that particular wish, hidden in a letter to Santa.
This year would be his twelfth. His twelfth and final year at the post office, his last letter to Santa, and as he tucked in to the delicious iced bun from Sainsbury’s own brand he took a handful of letters, and began to read. He hoped he would find among them a letter that would remind him always of this chapter in his life. That when he looked back on its words, he would remember a time of change, of hope and of goodbyes, it’s what he needed, the letter he had to find that winter morning in London, two days before Christmas eve.
All of the letters held a personal memory for Peter, which he kept quietly hidden in an old brown shoe box. When he held each piece of paper he could remember his age at the time, his place in the world that particular Christmas and what he had felt at each New Year as it dawned over an awaking world. He could tell you with a smile what his Mary had chosen for their pudding that Christmas dinner, cake or trifle. What he had brought her as a gift and the dress she had worn to midnight mass. Peter kept the letters because in them was a little piece of himself.
The first letter Peter had kept was from a little boy he had known. He had written to Santa asking for a bike, a red one. The little lad had lived on his street and Peter believed that fate or luck, or both, had brought them together. The little lad lived in a foster home at the time, and had been there six months. He didn’t talk, and hadn’t communicated with another person in over a year. When Peter discovered the letter he was able to throw in to conversation one day with his careers about getting the little fella to write them letters, and through the power of the written word they were able to get him talking. Peter and his wife, not having children of their own, brought and left the boy a bike, a red one that could go extra fast, under the proper feet. They had hidden it in the garden, a gift from Santa. The first words uttered that year by little Paul Howard were, ‘for me’?
The third letter he had found and kept was from a man serving time in jail. Peter has no idea how the letter had made it as far as the post office but somehow it had found its way in to his hands, and life. The man’s name was Thomas, he was serving time for assault and having lost his faith in God, he had decided to believe in Father Christmas at the grand old age of forty-five and had written asking for a six-pack of Guinness, a new addition of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ his favourite book, and forgiveness. Which he asked for last and out of all three ideally would like the book first. Peter sent the book and a letter to Thomas, and to this day, they continue to write to one another. The unlikely friends have never met, but a friendship through words, is as strong as any other.
Peter has seen photo’s from the day Thomas was released, received letters when he found work and met his now wife. Has shared in the highs and lows of Thomas’s life and, in return, shared his own joys and troubles. The day Mary was hit by a car on their street, the day she came home from hospital. The evening he learnt to cook a very impressive lasagna and the afternoon he received his letter of retirement. Together the men have shared half their lives, and in doing so have provided each other with a comfort, and a kindness, that otherwise would be missing from their private worlds.
Time was passing Peter by as he searched through the morning letters. Many made him smile, wishes of toys and clothes, of getting older, of chocolate, and snow. The winter sun wouldn’t be awake for another half an hour, but the world was waking without it, and he had only an hour left in which to find his final letter to Santa.
The sixth letter Peter had found and rescued was from a young girl called Lizzie. The reason he had stolen this little letter of hope, was that reason alone, the hope he could hear in her words made him treasure it above all the others. She had written to Father Christmas asking, not for material goodies, but for opportunities. For life to throw her some chances. She had to ask, because if she didn’t, is it possible that she’d be forgotten. She wrote words and wishes that were beyond her fifteen years. Peter never wrote back to Lizzie, never shared her letter with anyone else. He kept it as it was, her hopes and dreams sealed in a letter to Santa.
Peter began to panic, twenty minutes had gone by, and still there was no sign of the letter. The final letter that would send him on his way. A letter to push him out the door and in to a future of afternoon films and gardening. Five more minutes had passed. Peter poured another cup of coffee from his Christmas flask, a gift from Mary. His hands were cold and the pain from the arthritis had started to creep through to his fingers. You have time he told himself, you still have time. Peter Clark closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and reached for another envelope.
All the letters, the words, the years. The letter from Paul, from Thomas, Lizzie and Daniel. Daniel; the young chap who joined the army, and on leaving home wrote a letter to Santa, saying goodbye to a childhood he’d never really had. The letter from little Jack Foster who asked for only one thing that year, to play the part of Joseph in the school nativity. The letter from Kathy, a recovering drug addict who was asked to write to someone, anyone, sharing her thoughts and fears. She had instead decided to share her wants and wishes. A letter full of choices and questions, she was tired of sharing her past, she wanted to share her future. All the letters, the words, the wishes, the lives, Peter carried in his memory, stored safely in an ordinary brown shoe box. Eleven people, eleven wishes, eleven letters to Santa.
As he sat thinking, Peter reached for another letter, that was in fact, a Christmas card. A beautiful handmade card of a present decorated with bow’s and glitter. As he read the simple words inside, Peter knew he had found it, the twelfth letter to Santa. A letter to remind him, to teach him and to guide him. To make him never forget the spirit of Christmas. As he re-read the words, he felt his heart slow, the panic was over. The little letter from Abby Mayer simply asked that if possible could her sister Lucy please receive the doll’s house she had asked for, and she didn’t mind if it meant that she wouldn’t be able to get her ears pierced. She knew times were tough, her dad had said so. She wrote that Lucy had been good all year and deserved the doll’s house more than she deserved her ears being pierced.
Peter gently placed the card in the brown shoe box, and began to tidy his things. He slowly gathered together the box and empty flask, dusted the crumbs from his uniform and returned the stool with his day’s belongings to the nasty little team room at the back of the post office.
He then turned on the lights, opened up the tills, set out the stamps. For the last time in his life Peter brought the shop to life, and as he worked, he smiled to himself and started humming his favourite Christmas song. Wham, Last Christmas, he knew it was an odd choice but there it was. Some things can’t be helped. He heard the front door open for the first time that winter morning and as the first of his colleagues arrived, Peter looked up and simply said, ‘Merry Christmas’.