By Tim Porteus

THE onset of winter, with the deadly cold and dark, was something John always dreaded.

It was at this time he would make the decision to line up for a place for a hostel bed.

John was homeless and he usually slept rough. He’d not always been homeless, of course, but people rarely see the person behind the label.

The one good thing about winter for him was the approach of Christmas. People’s consciences seemed to be more sensitive at Christmas time.

He was an alcoholic and he blamed himself every day for what he was. But this just fed his sense of worthlessness and kept the cycle going. His earlier life, the ‘normal one’ with his wife and children, was now a long time ago, but when he slumbered he often re-entered it in his dreams.

Especially that last family Christmas, when they were all together. He would re-run that time in his mind, just like his wife would watch The Devil Wears Prada over and over and never tire of it. Yes, when he closed his eyes it could seem he was there again.

But when he came to his senses, he came back to himself: an unloved man, old before his time, who people ignored and passed in the street without looking at. He usually felt completely invisible. To be fair, some people did stop and talk, usually the same ones.

Perhaps they never truly understood just how valued those moments were.

He understood it, after all he despised himself, so how could he expect others to feel differently.

Alcohol seemed to be his one real friend, the only one to understand and ease his pain.

But St Andrew’s Day was approaching and this was his cue to get completely sober.

He would feel that tingle inside that people call ‘feeling Christmassy’. It was a painful, bittersweet emotion for John, and his friend alcohol always offered to help. But he would close his eyes and be strong.

It was the one thing in his life where he felt he had not let people down.

So he would summon all his strength and draw on who he used to be for those last vestiges of self-belief and refuse the offer of help from his destructive friend.

He made it and arrived at the door of the manager’s office, clean, sober and ready to work.

The manager had no idea John was the same man he passed on a daily basis on the street outside.

Admittedly, he did look different now, but if the manager had ever paused to look at John or speak to him, then he would surely recognise him. But for once he was glad of his invisibility. If the manager had ever recognised him outside then John would probably lose his job.

“Your costume is in the back room. You start in 30 minutes,” said the manager.

“The paperwork came through last week so you’re set to go.”

John knew the routine and got changed.

When he sat in his chair, he was transformed. He was Santa.

For the next five weeks, he knew he was going to be noticed and even loved. People would speak to him in a kind and almost reverent way, ask him how he was. His beard and red suit wiped away his sense of worthlessness.

All that day, families came and he spoke to more people in that one day being Santa than he did the rest of the year being himself.

Afterwards, he headed back to the hostel with money in his pocket.

His old friend whispered in his ear: “Spend it on me, spend it on me.”

“Maybe later, but not now,” John replied in his head.

But the hostel was full and he couldn’t find any other place.

And so he knew he’d have to spend a bitter night on the streets.

The food van would arrive soon, so he decided to wait for it in the busy centre.

As he sat, a young girl came up to him.

She just stood and stared. John recognised her.

She had been one of the children in his grotto earlier and suddenly a fear gripped him: she might recognise who he really was.

“Come away from there,” shouted her mother.

But the girl still stood, staring at John. Then she smiled. John smiled back.

Her father came up and took her by the hand, pulling her away without looking at John.

He recognised the father as well.

He had been so nice and friendly in the grotto, while his daughter stood with him for a photo.

But without his white beard and red suit, John was invisible again.

“Spend it on me, spend on me,” whispered his old friend again, as John had flashbacks of Afghanistan.

“Spend it on me and I will keep you company, nobody else cares,” pleaded his friend.

Then the girl was in front of him again, smiling.

“This is for you, Merry Christmas when it comes.”

Her father stood by her, holding her hand, but still not looking at John.

It was chocolate. The same chocolate bar she’d chosen with glee in the grotto.

“Thank you,” said John and the girl left with her dad.

John’s old friend was now silent. The food van arrived and he packed the chocolate under his jacket. It was more than chocolate.

Now he had to get through the freezing night.

Tomorrow, he’d be loved again.