‘Take no notice,’ said John. He tucked the elastic of his long white beard under his wig, pulled it back into place and put his red and white hat on. ‘He’s a daft shite.’ He took a slurp of coffee.
‘Merry Christmas, Santas,’ said Callum as he sauntered over to the coffee hut. ‘How are we all today?’
Bill glowered. John ignored him. ‘All right, mate,’ said Mick. ‘How’s you?’
‘I’m good, big man, I’m good.’
Callum grinned. ‘It’s the flag of Shetland. I’m from there originally. Left when I was just a wean, but I still love the place.’ He drained his coffee cup and dropped the empty in a bin. ‘I’m away to the Monument in a minute, I’m collecting up there today.’
‘Aye? I was there yesterday, I did canny, like,’ said Mick.
‘Good to hear. See yous later, down the Duke?’
‘Aye, we’ll be there,’ said Mick. He turned to Bill and John as Callum walked away. ‘What’s the matter with you two?’
‘That spawny get, that’s what,’ said Bill, staring sullenly at Callum’s retreating back.
‘Fucking Gollum, more like.’
‘He’s all right, man. Just ’cos he’s a Jock doesn’t make him a bad lad. Not like he’s a fucking southerner, is it?’
‘Well then, chill, marra. Cool ya jets.’ Mick looked at his watch. ‘Although on second thoughts, move it. Time we weren’t here, there’s shoppers to guilt trip.’ He shook the collection bucket he held, a picture of a crying child on the front. ‘Howay. There’s the bairns to think of.’
‘Doesn’t seem right, not standing at the bar,’ said John.
‘I couldn’t stand another minute. Me dogs are barking. Hard work, this collecting lark.’
‘Aye, man, but worth it, eh? Think of the good it’ll do,’ said Callum, coming into the pub last as usual. ‘Good day, big man?’
‘Aye, canny,’ said Mick. ‘Yersel’?’
Callum nodded. ‘Can’t complain.’
‘Where’ve you been till this time?’ asked John.
‘Dropping the cash off back at the ranch. Got to do what the boss says.’
John looked at the picture on Callum’s collecting bucket, different to the one on the buckets carried by him, Bill, and Mick. ‘I hope you kept enough to get a round in,’ he said.
‘Oh aye, nae bother, big man. What’s everybody having? Billy boy?’
‘Nowt off you, you Jock bastard. And don’t you Billy boy me!’
‘Come on, man, it’s Christmas! We’re all on the same side here, all daein’ the right thing for charity, for the weans.’ Callum held his hand out. ‘Come on, shake on it, big man. Nae hard feelins.’
Bill looked at the outstretched hand then back at Callum’s face, then he pulled his right fist back and threw a punch. John grabbed him to stop him throwing another and he’d telegraphed the first one so far ahead that Callum had dodged it easily, although he dropped his collecting bucket and staggered back against the bar, scattering drinkers as he did.
‘Hey, pack it in or you’re out, the lot of yous,’ shouted the barman. ‘I’ll not have any trouble.’
‘Sorry, man,’ said Mick, ‘it’s all right now. Just a bit of a misunderstanding.’ He turned to Callum. ‘You’d best go, like. We’ll calm him down.’
Without a word, Callum picked up his collecting bucket and walked out.
‘Fuck’s sake, Bill, the lad was trying to buy us a pint! What is it with you and him?’ John let go of Bill and stepped away from him.
‘It’s not him so much as where he’s from.’ He scrubbed his face with his palm. ‘The first wife fucked off with a sweaty sock eighteen months back. Thought he was me mate, then the two of them bugger off to Jockland leaving me wi’ two bairns and a load of debt. Last Christmas was bloody miserable, man. Hardly any presents and I couldn’t afford to put the heating on half the time.’
‘That’s harsh, but it’s hardly that fella’s fault.’
‘Keep a cool head. Just two days to go. Think of the bairns.’
Bill sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. ‘Aye, you’re right. I’m sorry, man. Got to focus on the little ’uns.’
‘You want another beer?’
Bill nodded, and he sat down again as John headed off to the bar. He saw something lying on the floor and picked it up; it was Callum’s charity ID card. Bill threw it under the seat he was on, flipped it so it went right back to the wall. See how the fucker liked that.
‘Summat the matter, mate?’ Bill asked.
‘Can I see your ID, sir?’
Bill fished in his pocket and pulled out a laminated card, then held it up for the copper to see. As the policeman took it and scrutinised it, Bill looked past him, his expression impassive.
‘Just routine,’ plod said, handing back Bill’s ID. ‘Nothing to worry about, sir.’
‘There’s some clown with a flag on his back you might want to check out.’
‘Is he a Santa Claus an’ all?’
‘Aye. In a suit with a blue and white flag on the back, collecting bucket with a picture of a bairn in a wheelchair on it.’
‘And you think he might be dodgy?’
Bill shrugged. ‘Couldn’t say about that, like, but he’s not from round here.’
The copper walked away, talking into his radio as he went, and Bill turned back to the main thoroughfare, started shaking his bucket as he mingled amongst the Christmas shoppers. Coins rattled down the chute, through the slot and into the space below. The odd person tucked a note in and the bucket started to feel heavy.
‘No, what’s that?’ Bill asked.
‘He got taken away by a copper this afternoon. Mick saw him go.’
‘What was the problem?’
‘Couldn’t produce his ID. Zero tolerance for con merchants round here, man.’
‘Just as well ours are the business, eh!’
‘Aye,’ John nodded. ‘Just one more day to go, an’ all. Been a good run, I’ve done really well out of it.’
‘Me an’ all, spot on, man. Best idea ever.’ Bill’s foot knocked against the bucket, tucked under the table, and it made a satisfying clunk. Kate would be over the moon.
‘Where the hell do you think you’ve been?’ Kate hissed at him as he walked into the sitting room. ‘I’ve been worried sick in case something had happened!’
‘Why didn’t you answer your phone?’
‘The battery died.’
‘And you couldn’t use a payphone to tell us you’d be late? I thought you were locked up, like that Scottish bloke—’
‘I’m home now and everything’s topper. Now howay, pet, you cannat get vexed with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.’ He grinned at her. ‘Come here and gis a kiss.’ He dropped the parcels and pulled her to her feet then grabbed her in a bear hug. She shrieked as he covered her in kisses.
‘Hush,’ he said, putting a finger to his lips, ‘you’ll wake the bairns.’
‘It’s that beard, it’s horrible. It’s got things stuck in it, man, it stinks.’
Bill laughed and started singing, ‘I saw mammy kissing Santa Claus.’
Kate shook her head. ‘Shut up, you daft beggar. Come on, let’s get them presents wrapped.’
‘Did you get the shopping in?’
She nodded. ‘The fridge is bursting at the seams. We’ll get this done then have a couple of cans to celebrate.’
‘Champion.’ They set to and wrapped the gifts, piling them under the tree. When they were all done, there was a heap of presents for each child, with gifts for Bill and Kate, too.
She snuggled in to him and they stood and looked at it all; the new tree with its baubles and twinkly lights, the gifts in their colourful wrappings, the warm glow from the candles and the fake logs on the gas fire. ‘You’ve done us proud, pet. It all looks lovely. It’ll be a Christmas to remember, this one, like.’
Bill was about to agree when there was a knock at the door. ‘Get them cans,’ he said, ‘I’ll just see who this is.’
He opened the door to be faced by the same copper he’d spoken to at the Monument a couple of days earlier. There was another one standing next to him and neither looked very Christmassy.
‘What’s up lads? Want to come in for a can?’ Bill said, trying to front it out.
‘Don’t play silly buggers, man.’
‘I’m not. It’s Christmas Eve. Howay in and have a bevvy.’
‘William Smith, I am arresting you on suspicion of impersonating a charity collector. You do not—’
‘I never would have if you hadn’t sent us after that fella with the flag on his back. He’d lost his ID, but he checked out. Then I got interested in you. Didn’t take long to find out that there was no such charity as the one you were collecting for.’
Bill thought of the three kids asleep upstairs back at the house, his two boys and Kate’s little girl, warm and safe and looking forward to Christmas. ‘Charity begins at home, mate.’
‘Zero tolerance for con merchants round here.’
‘Oh, howay, man! I was only doing it for the bairns!’
‘Aye? Tell it to the magistrate in the morning.’ The clock on the dash showed ’00:00’. The copper looked at him in the rear view mirror. ‘Merry Christmas, Santa,’ he said.
Bill rolled his eyes. ‘Ho, ho, fucking ho.’