I saw him fifty years ago, through the window of my father’s car, with the dirty London rain pouring down upon the crowds along the Charing Cross Road. I remember the soporific rhythm of the windshield wipers, the soft leather seats that smelt faintly of tobacco, and my father’s handsome, impassive profile, as he sat silently beside me, thinking his own thoughts.
The evening traffic was particularly heavy. We would crawl along for a hundred yards and then stop, while people with umbrellas and Christmas shopping swayed around the car, their faces distorted by the film of water on my window. But Santa Claus had no umbrella. He was standing on the corner outside Foyle’s bookshop, dishevelled and sagging, held up by two policemen. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead and he had lost his beard; one half of his face was smeared with mud. His head was lolling and his mouth was twisted into an idiotic grin.
My breath fogged the window and I quickly wiped it away with my hand. Perhaps he thought I was waving, for he suddenly looked up and stared at me with exhausted eyes. The grin began to fade away. His arms were pinned too tightly in the policemen’s grip, but I saw his right hand stiffen towards the car and move from side to side.
To this day I do not know what to make of that small gesture. It seemed to say don’t worry – pay no attention to all this. It might have been a dismissal, or a benediction.
Then the traffic edged us on and I lost sight of him. It was a while before I realised that my father had seen him too.
“Just a drunk in a red ulster,” he murmured as we turned onto Oxford Street.