Miracle on Christmas Street by Annie O’Neil
367 days ago
Jess spied the glowing Santa from across the heaving shop floor. Plastic, cherry-cheeked, his chubby little red-suited body cosily nestled among frosted fronds of fake evergreen, garish holly berries and Day-Glo snowflakes. The wreath screamed holiday kitsch. A glorious combination of the best and worst in Yuletide decor.
It was exactly what she wanted.
Needed? Not so much. But need wasn’t what Black Friday shopping was about, was it? In fact, now that she thought about it, squished, as she had been for the past hour in a not entirely friendly queue of shoppers waiting for the security guards to unlock the front doors of Urban Outfitters, greed crushed need on days like this. Disheartening? Yes. Something she was going to worry about? Not today. No, today Jess was actively engaging every fibre of her being and, more pressingly, the remains of her dwindling bank account, into making her life look perfect so that, eventually, it would feel perfect. Then, and only then, would the dark suspicion that things had gone completely off track go away.
Who knew a cheese sandwich could wreak so much havoc in a prep-schoolteacher’s life?
The increasingly familiar prickling of tears stung at the back of her throat.
She gave the Santa wreath an I see you smile.
Did he …? Did Santa just wink at her? Well, wasn’t this a lovely turn of events? Day-Glo Santa was complicit in her plan to use consumerism to elevate her mood during her enforced absence from work. She locked eyes with him.
Okay, Santa. It’s you and me, pal.
Charged with determination and humming ‘Have Yourself a Kitschy Little Christmas’, Jess began shouldering her way through the crowd of wired shoppers. It was dog eat dog, as if everyone had downed fourteen shots of espresso before the shop doors had opened and then charged in, indiscriminately stuffing their baskets full of on-trend baubles, crocheted ‘paper’ chains and seasonally accented mini-cactus gardens as if their lives depended upon it. A woman came barrelling past her hauling a gin-filled advent calendar. An eye-wateringly high price tag was swinging from its adorable drawers, no doubt hand-painted by a virginal Laplander under the light of the North Star. The tag told her the calendar was worth her entire month’s rent. A princely sum for some airline-sized bottles of gin stuffed into a wooden tree.
Not that she was judging.
Homewares were important. Soft furnishings and just-so knick-knacks had the power to turn a house into a home. She should know. Living in an immaculate testament to charcoal, chrome and glass made her a bit of an expert on what did and didn’t work. (#LifeLessonNumberOne: Don’t let your estate-agent boyfriend convince you that living in his company’s executive show flat in exchange for discounted rent is a good idea. No knickers hung over the radiator. Ever.)
Two steps forward, one step back. Progress was slow. As pathetic as it seemed, she really, really needed this wreath. It was a symbol. A prize that would remind her that she could and would get her life back under her control. Sure, pinning her entire future on a garish Santa wreath was verging on insane, but crisis points were like that. Sometimes the smallest things made the biggest difference. And in this case, it was one very kitsch Kristopher Kringle.
After a fair amount of shoulder-bashing (there would be bruises) she was finally within grabbing distance. There was only the one wreath left. And it had her name on it.
An immaculately manicured hand appeared in her peripheral vision. There were teensy-tiny, ornately decorated Christmas baubles tastefully dotting each nail. All five of which were reaching for Santa.
Jess stretched forward, intent on getting her own nibbled-to-the-nub fingernails onto Santa first. The second she gained purchase she felt the other woman’s hand do the same. She looked up and locked eyes with her opponent.
She looked exactly like a mum from her school. Ex-school? She’d find out next week once the Head had ‘examined the evidence’ with the schools’ board of governors. Ignoring the churning in her gut, she focused on the task at hand. She could do this. In the teacher’s lounge, this type of wife was not-so-quietly referred to as Model Number Two. Model Number One was always a first, and long-term, wife. She was often a judge, hedge-fund manager, or ‘kitchen table’ gazillionaire who regularly held fundraisers for the rainforest or the tribal peoples of Papua New Guinea. Model Number Two was, more often than not, a second and far more indulged wife. She was almost always married to a dot.com mogul or an ageing rock star. She was generally about half his age (check), had long, ash-blond hair in ripply sheets of pre-Raphaelite perfection (check), wore Lululemon and a knee-length Puffa jacket which swaddled her tiny, perfect, personally trained body straight down to her Alexander McQueen Runway Platform trainers or whatever was de rigueur that season (check). This particular variation on Number Two had amazing eyes. Almost unnaturally blue. Azure? Cerulean? Tinted contacts. Had to be. Nothing that perfect was real. The woman’s tropical sea-coloured peepers were semi-hooded. A snake about to strike. Her smile, such as it was, was so insincere that there was little doubt it had been stuck in place by her discreet, but highly recommendable facial-contouring specialist. Her eyeshadow and eyeliner were immaculate. Her skin fresh and dewy like a peach. For a moment Jess faltered. Appearances weren’t everything. Maybe the smile was actually the strain of a beleaguered stepmother trying to put together a perfect Christmas for her newly inherited family of belligerent tweens.
Jess felt the wreath being tugged away from her. The woman had clearly sensed Jess’s momentary lapse in war mode. Right. Screw her and her fictional family. Plastic Santa was hers.
Jess narrowed her eyes. What would she make of this woman if it was parent–teacher conference day?
Number Two looked exactly like the mum who’d insisted Jess be ‘sent a strong message’ about her failure to maintain control in a school environment. Number Two wouldn’t listen to reason. To facts. Number Two didn’t care that teaching was not only Jess’s livelihood, but her vocation, and that being fired would pretty much ruin her life. Jess didn’t like Number Two at all. She ground her heels in. Dug deep. And rejoined the battle.
She dropped her gaze to half-mast, blurring the rest of the shop into a fairy-light, tinsel-laced snow-globe of motion as a core-deep determination gripped her very essence. Kitschy Santa was hers. She deserved him. No way was Number Two going to take yet another thing away from her.
‘Sorry,’ Jess said, grip tightening to white-knuckle level. ‘I think I had this first.’
‘No, I’m sorry,’ the woman said in an adorable Irish accent (because weren’t all Irish accents adorable?). ‘It’s just … it’s for my mum. My elderly mum. In a care home. I was pretty sure I spotted it first … if you don’t mind.’
Likely story. Her mum couldn’t have been older than sixty. Unless she’d given birth when she was fifty. Which meant the likelihood that this woman’s mum was mouldering away in a care home was minimal. Sorry, Number Two. Better luck next time!
‘I do hate to be contrary,’ Jess gave an apologetic shake of the head. ‘It’s just … my little nephew’s in hospital.’ Her cheeks pinked. A show of grief, she hoped, rather than her tell. She always blushed when she lied. She neither had a nephew, nor was the imaginary little soul in hospital.
Something hardened in Number Two’s eyes. ‘What’s his name?’
Uhhh … ‘Tim.’
‘Just Tim?’ Number Two asked, eyes narrowing further.
What was this? Villanelle Does Christmas?
‘I mean … that’s his nickname. Because he’s little. I’m sure he’ll grow out of it. We all are. He’s a Green. Like me. Tiny Tim Green.’
‘Your nephew is called Tiny Tim.’ It wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
‘That’s right.’ Jess readjusted her stance. This was not going to end nicely.
‘My mum has early onset dementia.’ Number Two countered. ‘Has done since she was ten.’
What? No. Surely not. Number Two was a liar, liar pants on fire.
‘My nephew doesn’t have legs. Or kidneys.’
Number Two’s nose crinkled as if she was trying to figure out if that was a thing. It was, but only if you were dead. A wave of uneasiness crashed through the nutmeg latte sloshing around Jess’s stomach. Lying about dying children was a sure-fire way to get smote by lightning. Not a wise thing to do seeing as, even though her life was pants, she wanted to live. Doubly bad if Number Two’s mum genuinely was grasping at the remains of her memories and a 1950s-style Day-Glo Santa wreath was the only way to relive that one, precious holiday. Again, the scratchy raw tug of tears hit the back of her throat. Oh, dear God, no. She wasn’t actually going to cry, was she? It had been a horrific week. And the weeks to come were bound to be worse, but … she’d found Santa. That meant something, right?
Number Two gave the wreath a tug. She clearly thought she’d won.
Jess tugged back. She didn’t want to lose. Or cry. Santa had winked at her, for heaven’s sake!
Number Two gave it proper yank. So hard Jess lost her footing. Arms windmilling, she slipped on a felt avocado tree decoration and fell backwards crashing straight into the supply of – oh, ouch – Christmas-themed cacti. Had to be. Nothing else would hurt this much. When she eventually stood up, if she ever stood up again, there would be mini cacti attached to her bum, her back, her shoulders. Her not so puffy winter coat was proving to be the perfect cacti pin-cushion. Number Two gave a quick sorry, not sorry shrug then disappeared into the crowd. A security guard was approaching. A couple of shoppers were tsking and not-so-silently discussing greed and where it got you.
Suddenly, more than anything, Jess wanted out. Away from strings of chili-pepper lights and beyond-trend Christmas tree ornaments. Away from the bash bash bash of shoppers’ shoulders as they barrelled down Oxford Street. Away from all of the London-centric hopes and dreams of being the glitterati’s most sought-after prep-school teacher. Clarity came to her as vividly as the unexpected acupuncture session in her posterior. She needed a change. To extract herself from the off-the-barometer expectations of the life she kept telling herself she should be living. There was only one way to do it. She had to remove herself from the whole Darwinian survival thing that existed here. A form of day-to-day life that meant eye contact was dangerous, making new friends was next to impossible and getting a job that paid enough to live in a home where she could hang her knickers out to dry whenever she wanted wasn’t laughable. She wanted to be somewhere more … Somewhere where she could storm out of her home and into the next-door neighbour’s and demand a cup of tea. Then get it. Somewhere, in short, that wasn’t London.