The Little Christmas Shop on Nutcracker Lane by Jaimie Admans

 

Chapter 1

My phone beeps with a text message and I look up from the nutcracker bunting I’m painting. Hopefully the guy I’m seeing telling me he’s missing me and he’s sorry I’ve got to work late again. It’s not serious yet, but maybe it could be one day. After so many disappointing relationships, it’s nice to be dating such a reassuring man for a change. He’s always texting to ask where I am and what I’m doing.

Can’t wait to see you tonight.That’s odd. I’m not seeing him tonight. Wear that purple lingerie set I bought you. It looks sexy on you but it will look even better on the bedroom floor. Again, odd. I don’t own a purple lingerie set. Nia’s working late again. Thank God for this shop she’s got. We’ll have all night without her constant needy texts.

It instantly makes sense. Oh, great. Not only am I dating another cheater, I’m dating a cheater who thinks “it’ll look better on the bedroom floor” is original or even slightly seductive and thinks my texts are needy. I thought I was being romantic. I thought he liked me because he’s always texting to find out what I’m up to. I should’ve realised it’s because he’s carefully scheduling his purple lingerie appointments.

A few seconds later, my phone beeps again.

Hah! Had you going, didn’t I? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Does he think it becomes funnier with the more “ha”s he includes?

It beeps again. Obviously I was joking. Nia? Nia?? Nia???

I wait until he’s added an abnormal number of question marks and then text back. Oh, go schnitzel yourself, twatspangle. Enjoy your night with Ms Purple Lingerie. You won’t be getting to see my lingerie ever again, purple or not.

I delete the last bit before I send it. My lingerie is mostly a sort of off-greyish colour because I accidentally washed it with a black T-shirt. The mention of it is not going to make him fall at my feet and question his life choices.

I should probably feel sad, but we’d only been seeing each other for a couple of months. It wasn’t serious. And there’s become a sense of inevitability about it now. Every relationship is the same. Boy meets Girl, Boy is cute and funny, Girl does everything by the book and presents herself as most perfect specimen of normality she can muster – IE: Boy doesn’t know Girl bleaches arm hair and plucks out occasional hag whisker. Things seem to be going well for Boy and Girl, and then … Boy cheats on Girl. Repeat ad infinitum.

My phone beeps again. Sorry, Nia.

At least he sent it to the right person this time. And had the decency to apologise, which is more than can be said for the last three cheating boyfriends.

I put my phone down on the desk and pick up one of the blank nutcracker silhouettes I’m painting and lift it away from the string it’s attached to. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I ask it.

It doesn’t answer. Maybe it’s the answer in itself – talking to wooden Christmas decorations.

Strings of tiny, flat nutcracker soldiers are laid out in front of me and I move along the desk as I put a coat of primer on each wooden figure so they’ve got plenty of time to dry overnight, and tomorrow I can start painting in the details like faces and brightly coloured clothing.

Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s ended. Now I won’t have to worry about working late and not spending enough time with someone and can concentrate entirely on the shop and making it the biggest success it can be. Having my own shop on Nutcracker Lane is what I’ve wanted my entire life. It’s good that I won’t have any distractions. I keep repeating that to myself as I move from one hand-cut MDF figure to the next, trying not to let my mind wander to the text message. It’s not like it was a serious relationship. Just a guy I met on a dating app a couple of months ago, chatted a bit with online, and have met up with a few times since. I didn’t really think it was going anywhere, but I did think I was the only woman in his life. Another lie.

Tears blur the workbench in front of me and I try to blink them back as the tip of my brush dunks into the white primer. It’s not even him – it’s the fact that it’s happened again. Yet another guy who can’t be satisfied with just one person. Is it me? Am I not good enough for them? Other men get married and stay in committed happy relationships and their eyes don’t wander. And yet, even when I meet someone who seems like one of the good ones, I repel them like water on oil paint. This makes it the fifth guy who’s cheated on me in the last five relationships. That is not a promising ratio. And I’m the common denominator.

Maybe it’s time to give up on love forever. I don’t know why I keep trying when it’s becoming clear that every relationship is going to end the same way.

I shake my head, sniff and wipe my eyes, and hum “Little Drummer Boy” as loudly as I can. Painting nutcrackers always makes me think of this song. No use dwelling on it. Another unfaithful man is not worth any more tears – not when it’s December tomorrow and Nutcracker Lane will open to the public for the first time this year and my decorations will be for sale. This is something I’ve dreamed about my entire life and Stacey and I have spent the past few years trying to make it happen. Sharing a Christmas shop with my best friend. Yet another cheating boyfriend makes no difference to how amazing that is.

***

It’s late by the time I’ve got the strings of nutcracker bunting finished and transferred to the little workshop in the back room behind the main shop. I should’ve been painting out the back, but this is my first year, and I wanted to watch from the window as the other shop owners finished their final preparations before tomorrow and left one by one. I wanted to watch the last of the Christmas lights be turned off as the sky gradually darkened above us.

The clear roof has always been my favourite thing about Nutcracker Lane – the way you can watch the skies and experience the weather. Even though it’s warm and dry inside, the rain still patters down and the snow still blankets us, unlike the fake layers of felt snow that are piled up around the edges of the lane.

I pull on my red coat, tug my bag over my shoulder, and turn the lights off in the back room. One final walk through the shop floor reveals there’s nothing else I can tweak or change. I’ve been here every day for the last month, transferring stock from my garden shed-slash-workshop, rearranging tables and display units, setting out everything just right and then setting it all out again in another formation until it really is just right and Stacey yells at me to stop fiddling.

I want it to be perfect. My own shop on Nutcracker Lane is what I’ve always wanted, and I’m desperate for nothing to go wrong. I could easily spend another hour carefully rearranging the wooden snowman family that is standing near the counter or displaying the array of hand-painted baubles and hanging decorations that are set out in wicker baskets on a table, but even I know that I’m tweaking for the sake of it, and the shop already looks like the cosy little Christmas haven I always imagined my shop on Nutcracker Lane would be.

I set a hand-painted “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” glittery plaque straight on the wall and then have to do it again because it was straight anyway and now it’s wonky, and I adjust the gingerbread-house earrings on a mannequin in Stacey’s side of the window. It’s going to be amazing working here with my best friend. Going halves on the rent and sharing the shop space – her Christmas jewellery on one side, my Christmas decorations on the other, a window each, and one counter and till between us. We’ve done craft fairs at the weekends for years, but this is the first time either of us will have an actual shop for the season.

I give one of the retro Nineties-style foil garlands hung across the window a final fluff-up, hoping that my nostalgic display will encourage the feeling of walking into a homely cottage and not a shiny, flashy shop. My decorations are handmade and old-fashioned by modern standards, but I want them to invoke the feeling of Christmases gone by, before every decoration had to sing and dance and be controlled via a smartphone app.

I step out onto the honey-coloured crazy paving and bend down to turn off the multicoloured lights wrapped around the tree outside the door. There’s an identical one outside every other shop doorway on the street, each one decorated in the owner’s choice, usually displaying some of the goods. Ours is covered in hanging wooden stars and gingerbread men I’ve made, and acrylic holly leaves and candy canes that Stacey’s made.

Every shop on Nutcracker Lane is identical – all large redwood log cabins with fake snow draped across their slanting roofs and a three-foot-tall Christmas tree in a red Santa’s sack planter outside the door. The shopkeepers are allowed to decorate their own cabins in any way they choose, and each one has a wide double window and a sign nailed above the door displaying the name of their shop and a slogan. I wood-burned ours in my shed at home and it reads Starlight Rainbows. Handmade decorations and jewellery.

I lock up and slip the keys into my bag and turn around to take in the 11 p.m. atmosphere before the place fills with shoppers tomorrow morning. Well, hopefully. It’s been many years since Nutcracker Lane was as packed as it used to be when I was little and my grandma used to bring me here to visit Santa, see the lights, and buy a new decoration for the tree that year, and of course, make a wish on the magical nutcracker.

It’s deserted at this time of night. Even the Victorian-style streetlamps that line the lane on either side and emit a warm orange glow in the evenings are off, but there’s still the faint whiff of peppermint from the production of peppermint bark in the sweetshop next door today.

The only thing that’s unusual is the empty shop directly across from me. I can never recall seeing an empty shop on Nutcracker Lane before. Getting a shop here is more difficult than scoring an invitation to afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen. Not that I’m likely to manage that either, but since I started making decorations and selling them online, I’ve applied every year to rent a shop for the season, and this is the first year I’ve been a successful applicant.

It’s odd to see the log cabin opposite completely dark inside, with nothing in the windows and no sign above the door, not even a Christmas tree outside. Were they really that short of applicants this year? I know things have been deteriorating, but an empty shop is unprecedented. A shiver runs down my spine, and not just from the chill in the air as a cold breeze blows through the lane. Is this a sign of things to come? Is Nutcracker Lane really going downhill so fast that they can no longer fill all the shops?

I turn away and start walking towards the exit. Even with the lights off and the log cabin shops shut, the lane still looks festive. Without any gingerbread baking in the Nutcracker Lane bakery, the balsam scent of the Christmas trees mingles with the faint peppermint from earlier, making me wish I could stay here all night and breathe it in.

‘Goodnight, Mr Nutcracker.’ I approach the supposedly magical giant nutcracker. When I was little, I thought he was the most magical thing in the world – even better than Santa. He was the talk of the town. Everyone knew about the magical wish-granting nutcracker on Nutcracker Lane. He’s old. I don’t know how old, but he’s carved of solid wood, and his mouth and the lever at his back to operate it are his only moving parts, unlike modern-day nutcrackers that are all pins and dowels and glue. He’s an older version of the nutcrackers we see everywhere today, with eyes and a moustache carved into dark brown polished wood, and inlaid cherry-stained wood to make his rosy red cheeks, instead of being painted on like they are these days. He has the same white furry beard, long and slightly threadbare now, and his once-bright soldier’s outfit, painted in shades of yellow and red, is faded and chipped after so many years of cracking nuts. He holds a carved candy-cane wand and his black boots are encased in cement and buried in the floor to prevent him being stolen.

He’s the main attraction of Nutcracker Lane, and he stands proud, over eight-foot tall, in the middle of the big court inside the entrance. He’s surrounded by a wooden fence, Astroturf, and white-spotted red mushrooms with little wooden doors on their stems to make up an elf garden.

Next to him are a few large plastic cases of various nuts – walnuts, hazelnuts, and a fake nut alternative for allergy sufferers, and there’s a sign up that reads – Nutcrackers are brimming with magical powers. It’s long been said that if a wish is made at the exact moment a nut is being cracked, when the stars shine bright and the wind rustles his beard, and you can almost hear the sparkling of Christmas magic in the air all around, the nutcracker will grant the wish. Try it!

Surrounding the nutcracker’s feet are a bed of broken nutshells where people can throw them, ready to be composted after Christmas, and there are steps up to the handle so even little ones can reach, although a far more popular position is on the shoulders of parents, the way my granddad used to lift me up to crack a nut and make a wish.

The poor old thing might need a fresh coat of paint and some wood filler, but he’s stood here for as long as I can remember – if anything, he’s the most reliable man in my life. He’s here every year without fail. Every year as strong as stone, like an old friend you look forward to catching up with in the festive season, who brings a smile to your face when you remember them throughout the year.

This old nutcracker has seen so many years go by. Things aren’t how they used to be, but he’s still here, watching over his lane, even though wish-granting is a thing of the past now, and it’s been a long time since Christmas magic sparkled around here.

‘You’re the kind of man I need, Mr Nutcracker,’ I say to him as I go to walk away. ‘Goodnight.’

And for the weirdest moment, a chill goes down my spine as the breeze through the lane suddenly picks up and ripples his beard. It’s a crisp, clear night and I look up and see the stars twinkling through the glass roof and a crescent moon glowing to the east.

I glance back at the nutcracker, half-expecting him to have moved, what with the similarity to the sign about the stars twinkling and the wind rustling his beard.

I turn around and walk back towards him. ‘I know when the universe is trying to tell me something. And I suppose a wish couldn’t hurt …’

I go through the gap in the fence surrounding him and pick a walnut from one of the nut-vending machines. I reach around him to pull the lever up and open his mouth, put the nut in, and pull the lever gently back down.

I look up at his cheery, red-cheeked woodgrain face. A face I’ve looked into many times and always felt was smiling back at me. I was fifteen the last time I made a wish on him, and my last wish was that one day I’d get to work on Nutcracker Lane, and even though I am now working here, it’s taken twenty years to come true, and determination not to give up even when every application for a shop has been rejected, so I don’t think I can quite credit Christmas magic for that one.

‘Ah, what the heck …’ I pull the lever until the nutcracker’s jaws touch the walnut shell. ‘I wish to finally find Prince Charming. A prince like you, Mr Nutcracker. A strong, dependable, handsome man who will be loyal and charming and kind. Is that too much to ask?’

The breeze whispers through the lane again and the walnut splits. I take it out of the nutcracker’s smiling mouth, throw the shell into the nutshell garden, and pop the kernel into my mouth. ‘Goodnight.’

A cloud passes over the moon above and for just a moment, it looks like he winks at me.

I shake my head at myself as I walk away. Apparently break-ups cause hallucinations now too. It reminds me that I’m alone again, and I decide to take the long way round and pop into the 24-hour supermarket on the way home. Never mind magical nutcrackers and walnut wishes, there’s only one thing that’ll make me feel better in this situation – Ben & Jerry’s. Several tubs. And one of those gigantic tubs of chocolates they bring out for Christmas.

In 65,903 calories’ time, yet another cheating man will be nothing but a distant memory. It won’t matter that I’m alone again because it’s Christmas and Nutcracker Lane opens in the morning, and it’s my first year here. It’s going to be the best Christmas ever.