My great friend, author RJ Downes is back this year with another seasonal tale...Up on the House Top!
Up on The House Top
That Christmas eve, finishing up his work, Bertram decided that one of the carolers didn’t look quite right. He reached down and plucked him from his spot and brought the small figure to his magnifying light. Holding it in the brightness, he scrutinized the minute singer. The little black dots he had painted on as eyes hadn’t dried properly before he’d stood it back up and as a result had run down the face creating an almost ghoulish effect.
“That won’t do.” Bertram muttered, setting the figure down and reaching for one of the tiny brushes he kept in an old baby food jar. The paint and water that had dripped down the outside of the jar gave the smiling baby on the worn label a similar affliction to the caroling figure. “That won’t do at all.”
Bertram had gotten quite used to talking to himself, making up his own little jokes and singing to himself to pass the time. He rarely talked to anyone real, so he felt it was a good idea to stay in practice. Not that he wanted to talk to another person generally but knowing he would have to again hopefully this evening, he made it a personal mission.
“Don’t worry, I’ll have you fixed up in a jiffy.”, he said to the tiny singer.
He reached for his wooden case and popped it open. The case was full of small tubes of paint. He selected Medium Pink and Extra Light Yellow. Carefully opening the tubes, he dabbed a bit of paint from each on his small plastic tray and set to work mixing the two colours together. After finding a close enough shade to the face tone of the carol singer, he touched up the area around the eyes, making them look smaller and less haunting.
At the age of fifty, Bertram Mortimer now lived alone in the house he’d been raised in. His mother had saved enough to leave him a solid foundation when she died the year previous, meaning he did not need to work as long as he was careful with his money, which he was.
When he was a younger man, he’d finished school, worked a number of jobs and even had a good friend or two. He’d also gotten close to marriage once before his mother had gotten sick. Although he’d never actually left home his turn at caring for his mother for the past ten years had virtually ended any ideas he’d had on living a life for and by himself. Now that she’s passed on, he found he’d driven away any regular friends and it had been so long since he’d held a normal job, he didn’t even have any work friends to speak of. He was, for all intents and purposes, alone. And he’d come to enjoy things that way.
His old coworker, at a pottery store he’d worked at, used to say “Why go big when you can just go home?” It had always been a joke coming out of the other man’s mouth but to Bertram it made a lot of sense. Why indeed? Home was the best place to be, away from noise, away from crowds, away from people in general.
Although he’d never actually met his father, from what he knew about him, wanting to stay away from people was a family trait passed down to him.
Finally satisfied with the face on the figure, he placed it down on its back on his table. He then looked up and surveyed the whole of his diorama. It was a section of a small 1970s town laid out on a wooden base, covered in snow and depicting the evening before Christmas. A cluster of small stores near the center, the downtown area, featured a Safeway grocery store, a Woolworths, a drug store and even a junk shop with a rusting metal sign proclaiming “Cooper’s One of A Kind” hanging over the sidewalk out front. In the center of the cluster was a movie theatre, a throwback in design to the kinds of cinemas that thrived in the 40s and 50s. On the marquee were listed some movies as old as the building. “In Colour: It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”.
The rest of the diorama was made up of small post war homes, brick and wood, with little chimneys and porches. Homes just big enough to raise a family but little else. No room for pools or fancy gazebos. At the farthest corner of the scene, a schoolhouse sat, its yard cut off by the edge of the display. A modest little town. His little town exactly as it was Christmas eve 1979.
There were small figures of townsfolk everywhere in the snowy landscape. Out shopping with tiny little bags filled with parcels that would end up as presents under tiny trees. Families walking towards the movie theatre. Even children playing in front of the school, obviously closed for the holidays. Small beige, olive and gold cars were parked all over the streets, a few here and there in the midst of being driven, even though the whole of the town was not big enough to have to drive anywhere.
Outside the Woolworths, the carolers stood, their little figures done up in early nineteenth century attire, probably hired by the tiny town council to enact the traditions from a simpler time.
It really was a replica of the town Bertram had remembered growing up in. It was the same town as the one just outside the walls of the house he lived in, but the real one wasn’t the same anymore. The town had changed and grown since the seventies and, to Bertram at least, it no longer had any of the charm that it did when he was young.
Bertram had built the entire diorama by hand. He’d started to build it in his teens but gave it up when he’d learned to drive. He’d found it in the attic when he’d gone up there after his mother’s funeral. After he’d dealt with all of the things that came with a parent passing away, he’d started working on it again. It had been collecting dust for more than thirty years and took a while to repair and clean up but he’d persevered and once the caroler was dry again, he might actually be done. The timing was perfect. He’d planned to finish it by Christmas eve and he did. After all, he knew he might not get another chance to finish it.
The part of the diorama he was most proud of was the cute little white house in the corner farthest from the school. This was his house. And despite the fact that most of the real town was no longer like it was in the model, his house still looked exactly the same as its miniature counterpart. He’d even found a small figure that looked like his mother in his childhood days that he painted and placed at the front door, coming home after a trip shopping for last minute Christmas gifts, probably at the Woolworths like everyone else. There was one minor difference between the model home and his real home, however. In the diorama, on top of the miniature version of his house, right beside the old television antenna tower, which he also still had on the real house, was parked a red sleigh and eight reindeer. Even though it was still early on Christmas eve in the scene he’d built, Bertram liked to imagine the Santa Claus had come early to his house; That Old St. Nick had finally come to spend more time with him than the time it took to whisk down the chimney and leave presents under the tree.
“Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus! Right down Santa Claus Lane!” Bertram sang to himself as he cleaned off the brush he’d been using.
The small table on which the little town sat was an old wooden number he’d bought for himself from a secondhand store and hauled up to the attic. Luckily, it had been light enough, and Bertram had been agile enough to get it up the ladder-like stairs that lead to the dusty space. When the house was built, he didn’t imagine anyone had thought about the prospect of someone trying to carry a table up to the attic. Nor it seemed, had they thought anyone would be spending much time in the attic. The floor was only the framing boards of the ceiling below. Bertram had also brought up several large pieces of plywood to create a makeshift floor for his table, his chair and his art supplies.
He’d decided to work on his project in the attic for several reasons, one being that this was where he’d found the project he’d started in his younger days. Another was the fact that he didn’t want to mess up any part of the house. His mother had kept things tidy and organized to such a degree before she got sick, that he’d always tried to maintain the place for her. Even now that she was no longer there, he felt it would be an insult to her memory if he made a mess anywhere in the house proper. The third, and most important reason he’d set himself up to work on the project in the attic had to do with the goal he had set himself to finish the project by Christmas eve. He wanted to be as close to the roof as he could possibly be for when the right time came. This year would be it, the right time.
Young Bertram had started school the fall of 1979. He’d been kept home from kindergarten and stepped, at the age of six, into a small school of children that had already know each other for a year before his arrival. An outcast from the start, he’d also been armed with some facts his mother had laid out to her young child. Facts that quickly gained him the ire of the other children as Christmas approached.
“Santa’s not real. He was made up to sell products.” He proudly told his classmates.
They fought him, of course.
“Oh, he’s real! My parents wouldn’t lie to me!”, another kid would say.
Bertram was unfazed.
“How is it possible for anyone to go to that many houses in one night?”
“He’s magic!”, another kid would say.
“There’s no such thing as magic, Bertram.” His mother often repeated when he’d watch variety show magicians seem to do impossible things. ”It’s all illusion.”
“How does he see us all when we are sleeping and awake if he’s at the north pole?” Bertram would point out to the other children.
“He has a magical telescope. He’s north of us, you can see everything south when you are that far north.”, another kid would say.
Magic was always the answer no matter how many times he insisted that it wasn’t real.
Duncan, the grade one bully, who was two years older than Bertram, singled him out after that. He made Bertram’s week before the Christmas holidays a nightmare. Each day’s beating or snow job or locker stuffing came with the same message.
“Santa is real. Don’t you forget it.”
Even after all that, young Bertram held fast to his denial. His mother had been very clear with him. Santa was not real, and it should not be discussed further.
That year on Christmas eve, while Bertram was in bed, he woke to what he thought were the sounds of something on the television antenna tower that stood against the house right outside his bedroom window. It surprised him but didn’t scare him as much as he thought it might. Someone was on the roof.
From his bedroom door he could see the lights were still on in the living room. His mother had sent him to bed while she stayed up wrapping presents. He lay there in the dark for a long moment trying to listen for other sounds. He heard the noise on the antenna tower again. After a moment, he heard the front door open and a conversation begin. One voice was distinctly his mother and the other, a man, he didn’t know. He crept out of bed, making sure to stick to the edge of the room where the floor creaked less, and made his way out into the hall. His mother sounded upset.
“You never come by to see him. You just come by when you’re in town and bring a present.”
“You told me to stay away.”
“It doesn’t mean you can’t try to come by and see him once in a while.”
“That’s exactly what it means! You can’t have it both ways.”
“Look, I’m here now because this is when I can be here. I fixed your tv antenna , like you asked. I brought him a gift. What more do you want from me?”
“I want you to stay.”
“You know I can’t do that. You know I can only stop by for a short time.”
By now Bertram had reached the hallway and miscalculated a step. The wooden board beneath him creaked loudly.
“Bertie?” His mother called out. “Are you up?”
Bertram held his breath in the darkness of the hallway. He heard footsteps and then the front door slam.
His mother appeared at the bottom of the stairs wiping away tears from her eyes. He swore he heard the sounds on the antenna tower again. Then the soft sound of sleigh bells.
“You should go back to sleep, dear.”
“Who was that, mommy?”
She looked at him with a sadness in her eyes.
“It was…no one. An old friend just dropped by to wish us a merry Christmas.” She said it quickly and then turned her face away.
He came down the stairs and reached out to hug his mother.
“Don’t cry, mommy. It’s okay.”
She hugged him back, hard.
“I’m not crying, honey. I’m just tired.”
As he hugged her, he noticed the big box by the tree.
“Is that from him? Your old friend?” he asked.
She followed his gaze.
“Yes. He brought it for you.”
He disengaged from her and sat down in front of the gift.
“But you can’t open it till the morning.”
“I know.”, he said.
“You need to go back to bed sweetie. Mommy’s got some…more presents to wrap.”
He reached out and touched the tag on top of the large gift. It flipped over slightly revealing a florid handwriting he didn’t recognize.
Merry Christmas from Santa it read.
“Santa?” Bertram asked looking at his mother. “But I thought…”
“That’s just what he wrote. Just adding a little Christmas cheer. Come on now. You’ve got to get your sleep. Tomorrow is a big day.”
Bertram did as he was told but it was a long time before he could fall asleep.
He knew his mother had been lying. He went over their conversation again and again in his mind. It was his father. It had to be. He had come to see them even though his mother had always told Bertram that his father was no longer in their lives. But he’d left suddenly without even saying a word to his son. Why?
Having never met his father, he’d always wondered who he was. Now all he had was a voice to go on. His mother had always said very little when he asked her. She would changed the subject or say something vague and nondescript.
That night, lying in bed, Bertram, came to a conclusion. As wild as it sounded, his father must be Santa Claus. He had to be. Why else was she so adamant that Santa didn’t exist when all the kids from school were told by their parents that he did. Why did his father show up on this night, of all nights? And why did he bring a present clearly stating it was from Santa, if Santa did not exist?
As he lay there in bed, the idea comforted him. If his father was Santa, that would explain so much about what had happened in his short life; Why his mother didn’t tell him. She’d be afraid he’d want to go live in the north pole with the elves and the reindeer. What kid wouldn’t? Why he felt so out of place at school. If his father was magic, then certainly he was magic too. The average normal kids with their average normal brains couldn’t possibly understand him and his magically gifted one. He didn’t fit in because he was special. His mother had always told him he was but finally on that night, he understood why.
His theory was confirmed the next morning when he went downstairs and found the big gift still there but missing the tag he’d seen the night before.
“Where did the tag go off the gift, mommy?”
“What tag, Bertie?” his mother smiled. “There was no tag. Why don’t you go ahead and open it first?”, she said.
He tore into it and found an large electric train set, complete with buildings and little plastic people.
Nothing more was said by either mother or son about the missing tag.
She was obviously lying, they both knew it, but he felt for the first time in his young life that he knew why and he accepted it quietly. He knew without asking anything else that he had been right. Six-year-old Bertram Mortimer had waded into the world of adult level mysteries and come out the other end case solved.
He couldn’t talk to his mother about it. She’d made it clear that she had no intention of talking about it. Besides it was such a big secret, he had to prove to her that he was worthy of keeping it. So, he kept quiet and pushed the secret way down. No mention of Santa Claus, no mention of his father. Even though he sat through about a million Christmas television specials that day that all begged for him to open his mouth about what he knew.
Bertram was a good boy, and good boys didn’t talk about things their hard working, moms, who do everything they can for their special one even though they were exhausted all the time, didn’t want to talk about.
The years began to pass. Each Christmas eve, he tried to stay awake long enough to catch Santa and each year there would be a untagged mysterious present waiting for him the next morning.
He’d devised a plan. He’d lay in bed and pretend to sleep. At the sounds of the sleigh on the roof, he’d rush out of his room and straight to the fireplace where he knew Santa would come down and he would…
That was as far as the plan really got. He didn’t know what he would do when he actually met his father. He just knew that he only had one night to catch him, one night to see him face to face.
Despite the plan, he always failed.
When he was seven, he slept straight through the night as much as he’d tried to stay awake.
When he was eight, he managed to make it to midnight before falling asleep. The glowing hands on his wind-up alarm clock confirmed it.
When he was nine, he awoke to what he thought were sounds on the roof. He raced down to the fireplace but found himself staring at a tree already filled underneath with presents, including his mystery gift. He’d missed him. He’d been too slow.
When he was ten, he managed to stay awake the whole night but again somehow missed him. And Christmas morning, it turned out, was quite awful for a child who had not slept at all.
The cat and mouse game, played by Bertram and his father continued with the mouse seemingly the winner.
The years after that became a bit of a blur. His hopes of catching good old St. Nick on that one night of the year began to dwindle. Every kid he knew was now of the belief that Santa did not exist. He wondered secretly if his father had used his magic on the town to make everyone forget.
By his fifteenth year the presents had stopped coming and Bertram had flipped entirely on the subject of his father. Having taken to wearing a long black trench coat and saying things like Christmas Blows Chunks, Santa sucks balls or simply Fuck Christmas to his friends, he’d completely given up on any hope of catching his dad. He didn’t say things like this to his mother, of course. If she ever asked him about how he felt about the holiday, he would simply mutter whatever and act indifferent to the whole thing.
The thing was, when he was by himself, the whole idea of Christmas and the father he couldn’t catch made him sad to the point of tears. There was no one he would tell this to, but in his heart, he longed for the hope of his younger days. He longed for the belief that kept him lying in bed, awake but eyes closed, hoping to hear the sound of sleighbells or hooves or even a HO HO HO!
That’s when he’d started to build the diorama. He took the buidings and figures from the train set he’d gotten from that very first gift, the paints he’d received the previous Christmas and with the help of some lumber yard scraps and some scale modeling books from the library, he set out to make a recreation of the time in his life when he still had hope, when he still had faith in the impossible. His miniature version of his town on Christmas eve 1979. The night he found out about his absent father.
He’d started building it in his room so his mother wouldn’t see it. He didn’t want to let on that he had any emotional connection to his childhood. Didn’t want to look weak or emotional to anyone else, even her.
Also, as much as he was frustrated with her that she’d never told him the truth about his father, he still felt a protective love of his mother and didn’t want her to think about the thing that probably caused her the most pain in her life. We have protect each other, son. All we have is each other.
He got so far in the project, building in secret on evenings and weekends, until the day got his learner’s permit and his mother let him take the car out to practice. Once he found the freedom of wheels, he left most things behind, sneaking out at night by using that antenna tower that was right outside his bedroom window. The project was left abandoned. It was shoved into the attic at some point back behind things no one had gone through in years , unfinished and ultimately forgotten, much like any hopes of catching his father on Christmas eve.
From that point, Bertram lived a more adult life. Christmases came and went with little thought of staying up. Life did, what life does. It filled up with so much background noise that Bertram Mortimer didn’t think about childhood things. There were too many responsibilities, to many things to do.
The years went by.
Somewhere in the blur of time, his mother got diagnosed with cancer and her fight began. Bertram quit his job and took over taking care of her full time. For a long time, she won the fights, battle after battle, but eventually, she lost the war.
Through it all, Bertram remained steadfast and strong and didn’t push his mother to tell him things she didn’t want to tell him. And she, fighting her battle with the tumors in her body, didn’t bring forth any new truths to her son. Her secrets, she took with her to the grave. That was how it was.
He didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. That was also how it was. He honoured her in eulogy, spoke to each and every one of the family members that had come to the small chapel where the service was held. He even kept it together when his cousin Wendy sang Auld Lang Syne, his mother’s favorite Robert Burns song.
It was only when he’d gotten back home to the empty house and, on a whim, found himself going into the attic that it hit him. His mother was gone. And with her the need to keep silent. It was when he pulled out the old half-finished diorama that he started to cry. The crying and the exhaustion of the day finally set in. He fell fast asleep up there in the attic that day and dreamt of that Christmas eve 1979. When he awoke, lying beside the diorama, covered in a fine dust and back hurting from lying across a bunch of beams, he decided to finish what he had started.
He hauled the table up. He hauled the plywood up. He set himself up a good light with a magnifier. His eyes weren’t what they were when he’d started the project. And each night from that February on, he’d dedicated himself to finishing the diorama.
If you had asked him exactly why he’d felt such a compulsion to finish it, he couldn’t have answered other than the fact that it connected him to a childhood he missed and a father he had theorized about but never met. But, on he worked, adding detail after detail, recreating the town of his childhood.
About mid-summer that year, when it was especially warm in the attic and work was slow on his project, he made a deal with himself. He would finish the project by Christmas eve, He would then try one more time to meet his father. One more time to catch the magical old man with the white beard and tell him he knew. It was something he would do for himself after so many years of doing things for others.
“Up on the house top, reindeer pause. Out jumps good old Santa Claus.” Bertram sang to himself. He picked up the caroler he’d repainted, checked that it’s face had dried well enough. He then placed it in front of the Woolworths with the others. It was finished. His work on the diorama was complete. He surveyed his town, looking for anything else to repair or tidy up. He found nothing. He was truly done.
His eyes drifted over to the duffle bag sitting on the floor next to his table. It was packed with warm clothes. All of this was a long shot, but he had to try, and he had to be prepared.
Feeling pain in his back from being hunched over the diorama for so long, he stood in the tall part of the attic, where the roof joined, and stretched. There was still a strong kink in his back, so he got down on the plywood he’d placed for flooring and let the flat surface smooth out the pain in his spine. He closed his eyes from the harshness of the bare light bulb that hung above where he worked. He didn’t sleep long there on the plywood, but woke with a start. He looked at his watch. It was getting late, but not too late. The old man couldn’t have come by yet.
A thud reverberated on the roof followed by the sounds of what could only be numerous hooves touching down. This was followed by the soft jingle of sleigh bells. Bertram raised himself to a sitting position. This was it. Now or never.
Standing, he paused for a quick second to look down once again at his diorama. In front of his house, the figure of his mother carrying home presents. She hadn’t noticed the sleigh or the reindeer on the rooftop yet. Wouldn’t she be surprised to see who was there, visiting her son.
He grabbed his duffle bag and hurried towards the attic window at the back of the house. It was right above his bedroom. The old television antenna tower would make an easy climb it to the roof. It would be a slippery and he wasn’t as young as he used to be, but he was determined.
He left the diorama there in the attic. It would be fine here until he came back. If he came back. If he didn’t, it would remain here, an epitaph to his past, in a little white house where once a young boy dreamed of meeting his father.
When he met Santa on the roof, he would…well, he didn’t know what he would do. He hadn’t planned that far ahead.
“Up on the house top, quick, quick, quick” he said to himself as he made it to the window and opened it.
He knew he had to be quick. Santa didn’t stay in one place for very long.
A few months later, long after the police came to the little white house to check on concerns from the neighbours that the newspapers were piling up and the snow hadn’t been shoveled in the walk, movers were hired to clean the place out.
The rest of his family, having found no trace of Bertram, had given up looking for him and decided he had must have left of his own accord. If he wanted to be found he would have made his whereabouts known. No one could say why his bank accounts remained untouched and the bills for the house had been left unpaid, but the finances were sorted and the house sold. All that remained was to clear out the furniture and belongings and donate them to a local thrift store.
It was while this was being done that the movers checked the attic and discovered the diorama sitting on a table amidst a collection of boxes and junk. Both men were tired from moving items and the prospect of moving such a large display down the ladder-like stairs did not fill either of them with excitement.
They decided to take a rest. One sorted through the boxes looking for interesting items he might claim for himself. The other, sitting in Bertram’s chair, took in the model town in front of him. He wasn’t old enough to immediately recognize that it was a miniature of the town the way it had once been, but he did notice how much the little white house in the corner looked like the very one they were cleaning out.
He looked in amazement at the detail; The old radio antenna tower, the woman walking up to the front door carrying presents and Santa in his sleigh having just landed on the rooftop. And in the sleigh next to Old St. Nick, the figure of a young boy sitting holding tightly to the side, his face wild with excitement and joy.
RJ Downes has been a playwright, producer, director, stage manager and actor for over 29 years. As a playwright his works have been performed all across the GTA as well as in Hamilton, Stratford, Kingston and Sault Ste. Marie. As a producer, director and stage manager he has worked with a wide and eclectic range of production companies in Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.