Fiction

Cold storage

We called him Santa – unimaginatively, on account of his white hair – but we might as easily have arranged those same five letters in a different order. He did not come down our chimney, but he did make his first impression via trespass – hearing a noise, my wife found him in our backyard. You should know that my wife is not the shrinking sort and I’d generally fear for the health of anyone stupid enough to cross her, but that day she was tired – we had spent much of the previous night at the hospital with our boy. And now this stranger, in our yard, helping himself to the discarded palings from our recently replaced fence.

 

We heard nothing from Santa through the winter. Occasionally, a trickle of white smoke would worm its way out of his chimney and I would think of our old fence, as well as our new one, which had performed much better since the day of the trespass. Our boy was doing better, too. He was by then an outpatient requiring only brief, occasional check-ups. He would be walking soon.

Then, as Christmas neared, Santa came bearing gifts. He pulled handfuls of small, red tomatoes from his saggy pant pockets, handing them to me before I realised who he was. I struggled to contain them in the bowl of my hands. Eventually, he spoke. “I have a small favour to ask.”

 

Santa was renovating. He would need to store some furniture for a few days while his floors were redone. Our shed, which was mostly empty and located across a lane from his house, was the obvious solution. $20 a day was the deal. Santa expected it to take less than a week – he had lined up removalists, painters, floorers, cheap help found via an app. My wife wasn’t blown away by our projected takings – “$100 and he doesn’t have to hire a van or a storage unit.” I took her point, but we weren’t in the position to refuse unexpected income, however small. Besides, I thought, these things often take longer than planned.

 

Four days later, we left to visit my uncle in Ballarat. When we returned I half expected to find the shed empty, but Santa’s things were still there. It was now day 10, and something about passing the $200 mark seemed to sway my wife. “I’m glad we did this,” she said. “Are doing this.”

 

She was less glad when, venturing into the shed to retrieve a watering can, she found a defunct bicycle lumped on one of her leather chairs. I crossed the lane to Santa’s house and knocked on his front door. When he answered I explained to him the importance of the chairs to my wife, playing up their monetary value where I sensed their sentimental value was lost on him. He apologised and said he’d create a clear barrier between his stuff and ours. Then he disappeared inside and returned with a mouse-eaten picture book. “For your boy,” he said.

When we passed the 20-day mark, my wife and I began allocating the small fortune we were set to receive to various ends. It felt good to flip the script – we humble renters suddenly lording it over a homeowner. But as our excitement grew, so did my fear that we would see no windfall. Had I remembered my conversation with Santa correctly? Well, yes – I had written down the important details right after the fact. But could he have forgotten? Or was there maybe something else in play, something unwritten – would it be neighbourly of us to cap his rent at one week, given the delays, which were surely beyond his control? Should I raise this with him?

 

I got my opportunity the very next day. Santa had come good on his promise of a clear barrier, but he had achieved it by stacking two of my wife’s chairs one atop the other. I crossed the lane once more and once more he diffused things with a gift. I dropped the nicked and bloated zucchini in the lane – my wife was over his peace offerings – and restored the chairs to their proper positions. Then, having first made sure no one was watching me, I gave his wardrobe a weak kick.

 

Twenty-six days after he moved his things into our shed, Santa came to collect. As I watched the top of his head moving back and forth beyond our fence, I took a piece of paper and wrote $520 on it. I stuck the piece of paper to the fridge, not to record what I thought we had incoming but what I knew we were about to lose.

We didn’t hear from him for a week. Our boy was walking now – janky little steps that contained within them all the hope I had for the world – and delighting in him seemed more important than worrying about our neighbour, who was only a presence in our lives when he needed something.

When he did come round, he brought with him a paper bag and an envelope. We opened the paper bag in the kitchen – it was filled with passionfruit from his vine. We ate them with ice-cream. They were tart and sweet and overflowing with seeds. We placed the envelope on the fridge without opening it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Cold storage".

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Simon Webster is a Melbourne-based lawyer and writer.

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