"Just a wish away!"

Slouched on one of the seats customarily occupied by husbands foolish enough to accompany their wives shopping, Leonard waits. He's a little old man with a long, scrawny neck and a shrunken head, like a museum artefact. A beaky nose sticks out between two dark and darting eyes. His thin lips twitch as he swivels to speak to the man parked next to him.

"Eh?" says the man, cupping a hand to his ear. The mall is full of noisy humanity.

"I said," repeats Leonard, "Christmas is great for children, eh!"

"Oh, aye."

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun, it is to ride. Santa riding his sleigh comes into view around the corner, drawn by elves, pursued by a pack of gleeful youngsters. A glittering red and gold sign on the sleigh proclaims: Whatever you wish for, just ask Santa.

"That's not the real Santa," says Leonard, shaking his head.

"Aye, it's a fake beard a'right."

An elf skips up and hands them both a pamphlet. The heading reads " This Christmas, what you most want is just a wish away."

"Just a wish away!" says Leonard. He gives a raucous cackle, like a hen with streptococcal throat. "I'm in luck."

His wife Mathilda steams into sight, belching smoke, resembling a battleship about to deliver a broadside.

An incident from childhood flashes into Leonard's mind.

"Please, please, please, Mummy! I wanna stay up all night"

"Don't be stupid, Leonard."

"Why can't I?"

"Because you'll be too tired tomorrow."

"I won't be!"

"Santa only comes when children are asleep in bed, so if you stay up all night, he won't come!"

"Awww!"

Mother boxes him around the ears.

"You're such a child," Mathilda says, grabbing Leonard by the sleeve and jerking him to his feet. "Fancy believing in Santa Claus at your age."

Leonard mutters something.

"How dare you mutter at me!" bellows Mathilda, waving her fists in front of his face, oblivious to the stares and laughter from other shoppers, gathering to enjoy the scene.

"Don't put up with any crap, mate!" shouts the man he'd been sitting beside.

Leonard's face turns bright red. Only yesterday, she'd stormed into the pub and dragged him out by the scruff of the neck.

Leonard draws himself to his full height and stares Mathilda in the Adam's apple. "And you're a mean old cow, just like my mother was. You never let me do anything!"

Mathilda snatches the pamphlet from his craggy hand.

"I know what I most wish for..." Leonard begins, then falls silent, as Mathilda stands, hands on hips, staring at him without blinking. Her lips part, revealing clenched teeth, as her face and chins start to quiver.

Leonard hopes his wife can't read his mind, but turns to hide his face, in case she can.

"Stand up for yourself, mate!" calls a male voice from the crowd and several others take up the chorus.

Regaining courage, Leonard grabs the pamphlet back and whacks it in the palm of his hand.

"What's more," he proclaims, in a loud, rasping voice, "I'm gonna stay up the night before Christmas to see Santa come down the chimney!"

It's Christmas Eve.

"Silly old fool," Mathilda splutters, quaffing a third double whisky.

Sprawled in an armchair, hands behind his head, Leonard watches the fireplace. His eyes flit to two bottles of beer he's set on the hearth with his favourite opener and hopes Santa has a good thirst on him.

"Do you know what I'd wish for, if I was silly enough to make a wish?" Mathilda says, easing her backside down onto a couch, which protests loudly. "A pair of black knickers."

"Just because your father wouldn't let you have a pair? asks Leonard."

Mathilda parps her nose like a foghorn, pours herself another whisky, slurps it down and starts to snore.

Leonard's eyes are fixed on the fireplace. His head nods. Desperate to stay awake, he whistles "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer" through the gap in his teeth, but soon falls asleep.

In the morning, Leonard whoops with delight.

The beer bottles are empty.

A pair of black knickers hangs from the mantelpiece.

From a string of beads and crumpled clothes on the sofa, a wisp of vapour curls upwards.