I

 

Dear Santa,

I hope you’ve stayed fit and healthy since last year. Are all the reindeer looking forward to their long night out again? I’ve tried to be good all year, so I hope you don’t mind if I ask for just a few special things this Christmas.

First I would like my amazing man, Peter, to have everything he wants at Christmas and throughout the year. He deserves so much for being so kind and loving and for being the greatest thing that’s ever happened in my life.

Second I would love to have a black Labrador puppy to love and care for.

I know my last request is the hardest one of all, and I am sorry for asking, but I wish I had a dad who loved me.

Thank you for reading this, as always. Please say hello to all the elves for me!

Merry Christmas,

Andrew

 

ABOUT TWO weeks ago I was surprised to open a Christmas card from my son’s lover. The greater surprise was finding this letter to Santa folded inside it. When the kids were young, they had dutifully written their Christmas letters to Santa every year. The excitement of Christmas morning always reached fever pitch with the discovery of the replies from Santa left with their gifts under the tree. I still don’t know if they ever guessed that the treasured letters were in fact written by me. Both Andrew and his sister carried on writing their wish lists every year, long after they had grown out of the belief itself.

It appeared that Andrew, at least, was still writing his, if only as an annual nod to a much-loved family tradition. This latest note filled me with shame when I read it. How could I have loved him so much for nineteen years and then rejected him completely just because he chose to love differently from me?

It was dark and bitterly cold as I exited the motorway service area to drive the last twenty-five miles or so before throwing myself on Andrew’s mercy. Snow had been falling steadily for a couple of hours, and I was putting my trust completely in the satnav.

Peter had informed me in his card that they were staying at his cottage over Christmas. He sent the address in the hope that I might send my son a Christmas card there. Never wanting to do things by half, here I was driving hundreds of miles to a cold and remote part of the North of England to surprise them, hoping for some kind of doorstep reunion.

I wasn’t normally one for impulsive actions, but we had closed the office for Christmas, and since Margaret’s death I did little to mark the holiday at home. I was very much looking forward to spending Christmas Day and Boxing Day with my daughter, Claire, and her family, but that was still a few days away. Rather than twiddling my thumbs at home, I had packed an overnight bag and pointed the car north in search of the son I had rejected some seven years ago. His letter to Santa had been the tipping point. For too long now I had procrastinated between my need for forgiveness and my fear of outright rejection. The letter had given me a foot in the door. Andrew clearly wanted a loving father. Now I had to convince him I could still be that man.

I left the A1 motorway and drove northwest through driving snow toward Gateshead. Then, skirting the western edge of Newcastle, I headed west along the A69. I was leaving the security of the cities behind and was very soon passing remote villages in the hills of what I assumed must be the northern reach of the Pennines—the “Spine of England.” The driving and the weather had occupied my mind until the satnav announced “Right turn ahead.” Then I knew I had only about five or six miles to go, and my apprehension welled up again…. What if he refused to speak to me?

At least I’d had the sense to arrange accommodation. A bit of Internet research turned up a pub in the village of Crendon-on-the-Wall, which had bed and breakfast available and wasn’t far from the cottage. I had booked myself in for tonight, assuming that was all the time I’d need to find my answers.

The snow was now falling fast, and I arrived at the junction before the headlights picked out the road sign pointing to the A68 for Jedburgh. In two or three miles, I would be passing through the line of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman construction that had formed an earlier, centuries-old border between Scotland and England.

It must have been around the site of the old wall that I was informed of another turn, and this one was indeed signposted to my destination. It was a little over a mile along a very snowy road that I came upon the lights of the village, and at its heart was the Centurion pub.

I was shocked by the cold as I got out of the car, pulling my jacket and overnight bag from the backseat. A very short trudge through the snow brought me to the low wooden door, and I lifted the latch to enter the bar with a flurry of snowflakes around me. The main bar was warm, bright, and cozy. There were only a handful of customers inside, all of whom turned to look at me as soon as I walked through the front door.

“Mr. Barnes, is it?” Clearly the landlord had “made” me as the visitor in the way that only traditional locals could do.

“That’s me,” I replied as I shook the snow from my jacket.

He picked up my bag and directed me to follow him upstairs.

“What brings you all the way up from London in this weather?”

“A bit of a secret mission, I suppose.”

“But you’re only staying the one night?” he asked, clearly wanting more information.

“Yes, just a surprise Christmas visit to make, then back home again.”

“I see. Local is it, then?”

“About a mile away, I think, maybe less. Stonecroft Cottage?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then his eyes lit up in recognition.

“Oh yes, Pete and Andy’s place. Friends of yours, are they?”

This stopped me in my tracks. In a small rural community like this, I should have expected that the ownership of local houses would be well-known. What really surprised me was the casual use of “Pete and Andy” together. Did this man know they were a couple? If so, who else around here also knew?

“It’s complicated” was my feeble reply.

“Oh, sorry, don’t mind me. My wife’s always telling me I badger people with too many questions.”

“That’s okay. Is the cottage easy to find from here?”

“Yes, although the weather might make it a bit of a struggle. Were you thinking of going over there in the morning?”

“I was, but now that I’m here I’m tempted to just go tonight.”

“That’s up to you, but keep in mind there’s a chance that the road might be blocked. Let’s get you into your room and settled. Then you can have a think about what’s best to do next.”

He opened the door, and I was shown into a very cozy little bedroom.

“The bathroom is directly opposite, and breakfast is anytime you want it in the morning. There’s always somebody about.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then. I’m Joe, by the way.”

“Steven.”

We shook hands, and he left me alone. Up until that instant, I’d wanted nothing more than to rest after the long drive, but now I realized I needed to see my son sooner rather than later.

I quickly went back downstairs again and asked for directions to the cottage.

“Do you want me to call ahead and let the boys know you are on your way?”

“No, please don’t. I want it to be a surprise.”

There it was again: “the boys.” Just how well-known were they around here?