Though the clock only reads 7:42, Carl feels as if he’s been in this chair for longer than a lifetime. His legs are heavy, his feet are heavy, his smile is about to collapse onto itself. His suit is only worsening the situation, and the powdery faux beard seems to have expanded, annihilating him in the process.

The photographer’s gone on his coffee break and the shopping centre looks just about deserted. Carl closes his eyes and lets out a groan, trying to get away from the blinding fairy lights that spot his vision and entangle just about everything within a two metres’ radius.

He makes a mental note of finding some way to get back at Jim for this. Jim, and that musical or festival or opera that he had to attend – Carl forgets exactly what it was. He does remember being very groggy and caffeine-deprived when he’d agreed to fill in for him, however. No, not agreed. He never agreed to this. He was forced into it.

Who was he kidding? He wasn’t any Santa Claus. Jim was someone who could easily pass as benevolent jolly old Saint Nick, with his low bellowing laughs and crinkled smile, but Carl wouldn’t even make it past ‘jolly’.

He’d never liked the holidays. The decorations and gimmicks, the flashy tinsel garlands and glitter, annoyingly high-pitched Christmas carols stuck on repeat – they just weren’t his thing. It gave him a headache, quite frankly.

And then there were the children. Most, if not all, were brats, and the things he’d encountered throughout the day only further reinforced this belief. There were too many times he’d wanted to tell them straight out that he was not a jungle gym, but had to make do with a “settle down, now” instead.

Even though he’s still physically bound to the tacky plush seat of Santa’s throne, Carl’s mind is at home already. He’ll be in bed with a good book and a mug of tea, the nightmarish mishaps of the day forgotten.

“Mr. Claus?”

He opens one eye. Of course, it had to be another child. The little girl closes the door behind her hesitantly. Carl braces himself for an overenthusiastic hug or some other slightly-painful display of affection, but she just stands in front of him, fiddling with the sleeves of her sweater.

“Are you sleepy, Mr. Claus?”

“I was, I was.” Carl sighs and shakes his head. “Well, girl, what’s your name? What do you want for Christmas? A dollhouse? A unicorn?”

She shrugs a little. “My name’s Lila.”

He grunts and looks around for signs of the girl’s parents, but there is no one to be seen. “And is your mom around? Or your dad?”

“Not… not around here,” she says. “Can I just ask you for something really important, Santa? Really quick.”

Carl musters a smile paired with one of the scripted lines Jim had fed him beforehand. “Anything at all.”

“I want my dad to come home.”

For a moment the girl’s wide eyes are just as bright as the fairy lights, and Carl can’t seem to look directly at them.

“Well, Lila,” his voice is ragged as he continues the script and hands her a candy cane, “I’ll see what I can do.” Lila nods, her mouth a thin line. Carl opens his mouth and closes it several times, not quite knowing what to do. And so he decides to add something unscripted.

“He’ll be home.”