There Ain’t No Sanity Clause

‘Nice hat, Ed.’

Eduardo grinned back at me, and tapped his Santa cap. ‘You like it?’

‘Oh I do. It’s very you.’

‘Hey, I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but this year I thought I’d make an effort. For the tourists. They come for a Venetian Christmas and that’s what they’re going to get.’

I looked around the Magical Brazilians. The only other concession to the season was a small artificial tree upon the bar, whose tiny LED lights blinked from red to green and back again. It would have been a stretch to describe the atmosphere as anything more than “modestly festive.”

‘It’s…nice,’ said Dario.

‘They’ll be queuing up,’ said Federica.

Ed saw the doubt in our eyes and grinned once more. ‘Ah, but wait til you see the full effect,’ he said, and tapped the side of his cap again. A tinny version of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” issued forth. ‘You see?’

I nodded. ‘Classy.’

‘I’ve got a sweater as well. That one plays “Jingle Bells”. But I’m saving that for Christmas Eve.’

‘Probably the right decision. It’ll make more of an event of it.’

‘Anyway – ‘ Ed looked at the three of us – ‘what’ll it be? Two Negronis as usual? And what about you, Dario?’

‘You know what, Ed? I’ll have a Negroni as well.’

Ed frowned. ’Are you sure, man? You never drink Negronis.’

‘Well, today I am.’

‘Is it a festive thing?’

He shook his head. ‘It’s just…stuff…you know?’

Fede sighed, and reached over to pat him on the back. ‘Come on then, Dario. Tell us all about it.’

He swirled his drink. ‘Oh, there’s nothing to tell. Not really.’

‘Dario, you never drink Negronis. And if I’ve learned one thing from Nathan it’s that when a man says “it’s just…stuff” it’s code for “I have a problem I’d like to talk about, whilst still trying to pretend that I don’t want to talk about it.”’

‘You learned that from me?’, I said.

‘Uh-huh.’ She patted his back again. ’So, come on Dario. Tell us what’s going on.’

Dario sighed and sipped at his drink, wincing just ever so slightly. ‘It’s Emily. A couple of days ago we had The Conversation.’

‘The Conversation?’

‘About Babbo Natale. Father Christmas. Santa Claus.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘You mean…?’

He nodded. ‘I think last year was the last time. ‘

‘You mean she doesn’t believe in the big fellow any more?’

He shook his head. ‘She didn’t say so in so many words. But I could tell. I think she just didn’t want to come out and say it.’

‘Aw. That’s quite sweet.’ I sipped at my drink. ‘Mind you, you had me worried there. For a moment I thought it was going to be something serious.’

Dario just stared at me. Federica took more direct action.

‘Ow,’ I said, rubbing the back of my head. ‘Wrong thing to say?’

‘Horrible thing to say. Of course it’s serious, isn’t it Dario?’

‘It feels like it’s the end of something, y’know? I’m never going to be Father Christmas again. Tomorrow she’ll be off to university. The day after that she’ll be getting married.’ He blew his nose.

I was starting to realise why Dario never drank Negronis.

I was about to speak, but Federica frowned at me. ‘Is this going to be a useful contribution, Nathan?’

‘Erm. I don’t know. Perhaps not.’

‘Were you one of those boys who pretended they’d never believed in Father Christmas just to try and appear cool?’

‘I think I was. I’m sorry.’

‘And did it make you cool?’

‘No. Just grumpy.’

‘Well there we go, then. I remember the year that I realised I didn’t believe in Babbo Natale any more. And nonno was so sad, and so I pretended I still did. But it wasn’t the same.’

Dario blew his nose again. ‘I know what you mean. I could still go through with it. But both of us would know we were only pretending. It wouldn’t be the same. Not really.’ He looked down at his empty glass and shook his head. ‘Listen, if I’m ever tempted to drink one of these things again, you say NO, understand?’

‘You don’t want a beer or a spritz or anything?’

He got to his feet. ‘No, I think I’d better head off while I can still remember where I live. Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow vecio. Christmas tree shopping, remember?’

‘Absolutely. That’ll cheer you up, right?’

‘Oh, it will. She still enjoys putting the decorations up with me.’ Then his face fell. ‘At least, I hope she does.’

‘Dario!’ I frowned, and tapped his empty glass. ‘No more of those for you, okay? And see you tomorrow.’

He patted me on the shoulder, and bent down to give Fede a hug. ‘See you tomorrow, Nat.’


‘Do you want me to bring the presepio out?’

Federica shook her head and nodded at Gramsci. ‘Oh, he just loved that last time, didn’t he? I’ve still got the scars from trying to retrieve a shepherd from him. And he ate one of the donkeys.’

‘I think it was an angel, not a donkey.’

‘Does that really make a difference?’

‘Slightly more sacrilegious, I imagine. But – ‘ I held my hands up – ‘I admit, my cat nearly destroyed a precious memory of your childhood and so – ‘

‘And so the presepio goes to mamma this year. Safely out of harm’s way. And we’ll just have a tree.’

‘That’s fine. A tree. Definitely. It’s just – does it have to be a real one?’

Silence fell.

‘It does, doesn’t it?’

Fede nodded. ‘Would that really be so bad?’

‘It’s just they’re…well…a bit messy.’

She smiled and put her arms around me. ‘Come on, stop being Mr Grumpy who pretends not to believe in Babbo Natale. It’s Christmas. Goodwill towards men. Comfort and Joy, or whatever it is you say in English. And all you can say is, “it’s a bit messy”?’

I sighed. ‘So no chance I can just get an artificial one, then?’

‘You did that last year and it stayed up until the end of Carnevale. At least with a real one – a real “messy” one – you’ve got an incentive to take it down, before every last needle drops off.’

‘Look, the city keeps the festive lights on until the end of Carnevale.’

‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the big tree-shaped thing in Piazza San Marco? That gets taken down after Epiphany.’

I smiled. ‘Okay then. A real, proper tree it shall be.’

‘Good. Anyway, Dario’s looking forward to shopping with you. It wouldn’t be the same just going to Conad to buy a plastic one would it?’

 ‘I know. And hopefully it’ll cheer him up. Now, do you want lights with your tree?’

She shook her head, and looked down at Gramsci. ‘It’s a nice idea, but no. The last time your cat had something electrical to play with it took us half a day to get the power back on.’


‘Campo Santa Margherita?’, said Dario. ‘I didn’t know they sold Christmas trees here.’

‘They didn’t. Not ’til this year, anyway. Gheorghe managed to get a licence.’

‘Your Romanian buddy? Haven’t seen him since your wedding. Isn’t he carrying dogs across bridges or something like that?’

‘He’s franchised that out now. Says the business is practically running itself, so he needed a new challenge.’

Gheorghe’s World of Christmas occupied the area around the Scuola dei Varoteri, at the far end of the campo. He’d had a go at making it suitably festive, I had to give him that, given that all he really had to work with was a shed and a bunch of Christmas trees. He’d also fixed up some sparkly lights, and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime played in the background.

‘Nathan. Dario. Good to see you guys.’

I thought he was smiling, but it was hard to tell, much of his face being concealed by a bushy white beard. The rest of him was hidden beneath a voluminous red suit.

‘How’s it going, Gheorghe?’

‘Couldn’t be better, my friend. I think I’ve tapped into a whole new market here.’


‘You see, the challenge was that almost everybody in Venice has an artificial tree, right? How do you get them to buy the real thing? You’ve got to add value, somehow. Give them something they can’t get elsewhere.’

I looked around. ‘Which is?’

‘The full Christmas experience, Nathan. Think about it. If you’ve got an artificial tree you take it down from on top of the wardrobe, blow the cobwebs off and that’s it. Not much magic of Christmas there, is there? Whereas if you come here – ‘ he spread his arms wide to indicate the extent of his empire – ‘you get the full experience.’

I looked him up and down. ‘Including Father Christmas himself, it seems.’

‘The very same, Nathan. I’ve got an elf as well, but he doesn’t work on Saturdays.’

‘Right. No reindeer?’

‘There were a few students who were interested but then I thought – Santa’s got nine of them. Eats into profits too much. No, it works quite nicely as it is. You bring your family along here, the little’uns get to meet Santa himself – ‘ he tapped his chest – ‘they get a mini panettone to take away, and everyone goes home with a lovely tree. Oh, and I’ve done a deal with the bar across the campo. The grown-ups get a free glass of hot spritz thrown in as well.’

‘Hot spritz?’

‘You don’t like them?’

‘I tried one once. It was the taste of evil.’

‘It’s the taste of success, Nathan, that’s what it is. Now then, what can I get you?’

I blew on my hands and nodded in the direction of something that looked suitably spiky and green. ‘I’ll have that one.’

Gheorghe looked a little disappointed.

Dario shook his head. ‘What are you doing?’

‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m choosing a Christmas tree.’

‘You don’t do it like that.’

‘You don’t?’

‘Of course not. If you were going to buy a car, you wouldn’t just go “ah, that’s got four wheels, that’ll probably do”. You need to take a bit of time over it. Think about where it’s going to go, height, width, needle coverage all that sort of thing. Am I right, Gheorghe?’

Gheorghe nodded.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘I had no idea it was so complicated.’

‘It’s part of the Christmas season, vecio. Choosing a tree. It’s all part of the magic.’

I was about to protest that anything vaguely Christmas tree-shaped would surely do, and then stopped. Dario was not going to be Father Christmas this year, which probably meant he was never going to be so again. And although I had never worn a bushy white beard myself, I could tell that it meant a lot to him. So he could take as much time over choosing a Christmas tree as he wanted.


Gheorghe nodded in approval. ‘Two fine trees there, my friends. Couldn’t have picked out two better ones myself.’

I sipped at my hot spritz and grimaced. ‘These are horrible, you know?’

‘So why are you drinking it?’, said Dario.

‘Same reason I eat broccoli. Because I think it might be good for me. Listen, do you want my mini panettone? Little present for Emily or Vally?’

‘Thanks man. Do you want the rest of my spritz?’

I shook my head. ‘No.’

Gheorghe smiled at us. ‘Well, if I don’t see you before, Merry Christmas both. Crăciun Fericit!

We exchanged hugs. ‘Merry Christmas, Gheorge. I’m glad things are going well.’

‘Cheers, Nathan. His phone trilled, and his face dropped as he looked at the screen. ’Sorry, I think I need to take this. Bună, mamă…?’

Dario and I looked at each other as Gheorghe chattered away in a language neither of understood. Whatever it was, it sounded serious and not the sort of thing that we could just walk away from.

Gheorghe hung up, and removed his Santa hat and beard.

‘Something wrong?’

He nodded. ‘It’s my mum. She’s flying in from Bucharest. My brother was supposed to pick her up from Treviso airport, only his car’s broken down. And now she’s there on her own and she doesn’t speak Italian and she’s getting into a state and so – look, I really need to head off.’

‘Wow. Sorry man. Hope it all works out.’

‘Listen,’ he ran his hands through his hair trying to tease it back into some sort of shape, ‘this is a big ask but this is probably going to be the biggest day of the year for me. Trees-wise, I mean. Could you do me a big favour? Could you mind the shed while I’m away?’

I looked at Dario, and he nodded. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What do we have to do?’

‘Just sell trees. Free panettone, free spritzes. Tell the guys in the bar I’ll settle up when I get back.’

‘Sounds like even we can manage that, right Dario?’

He shrugged. ‘Sure. Of course we can.’

‘Okay. Now which one of you is going to wear the suit?’

‘The suit?’

‘The Santa Claus outfit. It’s part of the whole experience.’

Dario looked from me, to Gheorghe, and back again; as he realised what was about to happen.

‘Who, me?’

‘I don’t see any other Santa Clauses around,’ I said. ‘Come on Dario, this is your destiny.’

He grinned. ‘All right then.’ He looked Gheorghe up and down. ‘It’s going to be a snug fit.’

‘It’ll only be for a few hours. Thanks guys, you’re saving my life here.’ He set off in a half-walk, half-run and called back over his shoulder, ‘I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?’


Dario emerged from the shed, in full Father Christmas regalia.

‘How do I look?’

‘Like the man himself, Dario.’

‘Brilliant.’ He patted his tummy, and gave an experimental Ho Ho Ho. ‘Right, now it’s your turn.’


‘There’s an elf costume in there. I figure you should be able to get into it.’

‘Dario, I’m not going to be an elf.’

‘Oh yes you are.’

‘Oh no I’m not.’

‘Oh yes you are.’

‘Oh no I’m – oh god, now we’ve gone full panto. What I mean to say is that I am Her Britannic Majesty’s Honorary Consul in Venice, and I am not dressing up as a sodding elf.’

‘And I’m Santa Claus, and Santa Claus does not work alone. So get into that costume.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Okay, if I do it – if I do it – do you think you can find something other than Wonderful Christmastime to play?’

He scratched his beard. ‘Well, I’ll have a look. But I think the chances of finding The Jethro Tull Christmas Album are slim.’

I put my head in my hands. ‘Okay. What do I have to do?’

‘Fetch and carry spritzes. Take the money. As for the rest – ‘ he patted his tummy again – ‘just leave that to Santa.’

‘I don’t have to do any capering do I? Please tell me I don’t have to do any capering?’

He shook his head. ‘No. I think perhaps it’s best if you don’t’

And so I dressed up as an elf and fetched and carried hot spritzes from the bar across the campo, whilst Dario sold Christmas trees and got to play Santa Claus. For one last time.


 We surveyed the last of the trees and listened to George Michael inform us, for perhaps the seventh time that afternoon, that his previous Christmas had turned out to be something of a disappointment.

Dario was a natural at being Santa Claus, in the same way that Roberto Baggio had been a natural at football. Small children had been sent home with mini panettone and possibly unrealistic expectations of what to expect on Christmas Day. Parents had left with a tree and a warm glow from a hot spritz. But now he was looking tired, like a man who had ho-ed his very last ho.

‘Just two left,’ he said.

I nodded. ‘I guess those are ours then?’

He rubbed his beard. ‘I don’t think they are. I think I sold them by accident a couple of hours ago. These are different.’

‘You can tell the difference?’

‘Sure. Can’t you?’

‘I don’t know, they’re spiky and green and starting to look all the same to me now.’ I checked my watch. ‘Okay, I guess we can just lock up the shed and go home. I’ll text Gheorghe and tell him I’ll bring the money round tomorrow.’

He sighed, as he removed his beard and hat. ‘And there we go. That really was Santa’s Last Stand.’ Then he grinned at me. ‘But it was fun. Thanks, Nat.’

‘What for?’

‘For being an elf.’

‘Ah, think nothing of it.’

‘And now I guess I’ll go home, and I’ll dress the trees with my lovely girls. And if I don’t dress up for Emily this year, that’s okay. I’ve done it now, and that’s enough.’

I patted him on the shoulder. ‘I’m glad. So I can get out of the elf costume then?’

‘You can.’

‘I never have to do this again? Ever?’

’Never say never, man. Who knows, this could be a whole new career for you.’

‘I don’t think so. “Seasonal Elf” is one of those jobs that they don’t tell you about at school, strangely enough.’

‘That’s the difference between us, Nat. For me, Santa Claus is a vocation. For you, being an elf is just a job.’

I sighed with relief as I changed out of my work clothes and back into civvies. ‘And I’ll tell you another thing. I never want to hear Wonderful Christmastime again.’

Vecio, I don’t imagine Paul McCartney ever wants to hear Wonderful Christmastime again.’

My phone plinged, and I smiled when I saw the image on screen. ‘That’s Gheorghe checking in. He wants to know how it’s gone. I tapped away at the keypad. ‘I imagine he’ll be very pleased. ‘

‘All down to his two magic Christmas helpers.’

‘That’s what we are, Dario. That’s what we are. Oh, here we go, he’s sent us a photo. Come on , take a look.’

Dario craned over my shoulder, and looked at the photo of Gheorghe, slightly glassy eyed and with a string of tinsel around his neck.

‘Where is he?’

‘I’m told it’s the Christmas Tree Vendors of the Veneto Annual Christmas Party.’

He frowned. ’So I guess that woman sitting on his knee is not his mother?’

‘I think you guess correctly.’

‘What’s going on here, vecio?’

‘Oh, nothing at all,’ I said.

‘It’s just…I’m wondering just why Gheorghe had to go and pick up his mother at exactly the time we happened to be passing by?’

‘Well, that’s just one of those magical coincidences.’

‘Uh-huh. So we helped Gheorghe go off and get ever so slightly drunk at a party in the company of a young woman who I’m pretty sure is not his mother? Whilst we sold Christmas trees for him. That’s all there is to it?’

I smiled. ‘Absolutely.’

‘And I got to play Santa Claus the whole time?’

I nodded.

‘Oh no. I don’t buy this for a minute. You set all this up, didn’t you? Just so he could go to his Christmas party and I could get to play Babbo Natale one last time?’

‘Well, okay. Maybe I did.’ I patted his shoulder. ‘I figured the world needed a little bit more of Dario Costa’s Santa Claus. Call it an early Christmas present, eh?’

‘You mad bastard.’ He dropped his tree to the ground, and picked me up and spun me around. ‘I love you, man. But, you know, you’re crazy.’

I smiled. ‘Maybe so, Dario. But as we know, there ain’t no Sanity Clause…’

The End