"So when are you going to write your letter?" my aunt asks, again.
I try to pretend she isn't there, but it's hard to make a grown-up disappear when you're eleven. She's been following me around my grandmother's house all day nagging me about this. I can't escape. I've told her three times now that Father Christmas doesn't exist, but every time I do she looks ready to cry and says things like, "Nooo!!! Of COURSE he's real! You must BELIEVE."
My aunt is thirty going on three. I can't win. She's going to go on and on until my head explodes.. or I write the letter. "Do you have writing paper?" I ask, defeated.
She dashes off to the kitchen yelling to my gran, "Shelly's going to write to FATHER CHRISTMAS! She STILL believes! Isn't that CUTE?"
My mom comes out the kitchen. She looks at me and says, "I didn't know you believed in Father Christmas anymore?" I just sigh.
I hate my aunt.
I hate my life.
I'd hate father Christmas, but that would be stupid, because…
I write the stupid letter, but it's not easy to do. This is Christmas in Rhodesia during the Bush War and it's hard to find anything to ask for. Yesterday we went shopping and it was a shock. The shops are virtually empty. Clothing racks with bare hangers rattling like old dry bones. Empty shelves with dust on them. I grew up with sanctions, but it was never like this. Back then there were things you couldn't get, and things that were smuggled in, but now there is simply nothing at all.
Everything is different. I felt it when we arrived, but now I understand the reasons behind the feelings. Trees and houses and streets are the same, but people are changed. Their faces are tense and they laugh too loud. There are soldiers in the streets and my uncle shows us his uniform and his guns. He has lots of guns. Ones for himself and ones for my aunt when she is home alone. They live outside of town. There are mines in the countryside. Some people got blown up by a mine placed in a picnic site. I know the place. We used to go there for picnics a lot. I wonder what a mine looks like. I wonder how people can want to kill each other at Christmas. Everything is different and changed.
"Well? Why are you taking so long?" My aunt is looking around the door at me writing my letter. I ignore her and go back to thinking about Christmas presents. Knowing what to ask for is hard because I am eleven. I want toys, but I don't want to want toys. I want to be big, but I don't want to grow up. I don't want to become a woman with breasts and responsibilities. I don't want to be a grown up who understands what a mine looks like and why people kill each other.
What can I ask for? I'm tempted to ask for things that aren't in the shops to prove Father Christmas doesn't exist, but I know that will only mean my mom will walk the town flat looking for something to buy me. I can't punish her for the fact her sister is a twerp. What about a jewellery box? Yes! I want a jewellery box, like the one I bought my mom when I was seven and had saved up my money for her birthday. One of those little satin-covered musical boxes with the ballerina. I love the way she turns around and around when the music plays. I saw a few similar boxes in one of the shops we were in yesterday. I'll ask for that. I feel happy now. I have no jewellery, except for a gold brooch my god-mother gave me when I was a baby, but that's okay. It's the dancing ballerina and the music that I'm really after.
On Christmas morning everyone is smiling a lot. My Aunt points to the corner of the lounge, "There's something there for you."
The whole family are watching me as I go over. There's a gift. It’s wrapped in old paper, because there was no wrapping paper on sale in the shops this year, but it has an "extra" of a picture of Father Christmas stuck on the top. I recognise it. It's one from my gran's collection. She has saved the pictures off Christmas crackers for years. I pick it up and look back at my family… they're all looking at me. I unwrap a little purple satin jewellery box. Inside a plastic ballerina in a lace tutu turns slowly to the tune of "Greensleeves."
Suddenly I feel stupid and embarrassed. Not because they think I'm a little kid and believe in Father Christmas. I feel stupid because I never realised they need me to believe so they can believe too. They want everything to be the same this year too, because change is scary, even for grown-ups. I never realised that before.
I look at their hopeful, anxious smiling faces. I understand now. It is up to me to keep them smiling. I will be excited to get this present from Father Christmas, for their sakes. For this moment they need him more than I do. They need to believe in simple magic and miracles. I life the box up and say, "LOOK WHAT FATHER CHRISTMAS BROUGHT ME!"
At that moment I'm eleven, but I feel a thousand years old.