WRITTEN BY ELIZABETH McKAY
Will one little girl’s message bring Christmas joy to everyone?
“They look like a good fit,” Margaret said, “but walk over to the door and back, lovie, to make sure they’re not pinching your toes.”
Karen did as her mother instructed. Her face was still wearing the scowl she’d had since she came into the shop.
“Oh dear, she doesn’t look very happy,” said Mrs Anderson, beginning to pair up the discarded boots on the floor and put them back in their boxes. “Doesn’t she like them?”
“Oh, she likes them well enough,” said Margaret, “but she had her heart set on a pair of black patent shoes for the Sunday School party next week.”
“I see,” Mrs Anderson nodded.
“I told her she needs a good pair of sturdy boots for the winter and I can’t afford to buy shoes as well.”
“It must be very difficult making ends meet with four children,” said Mrs Anderson, “especially at this time of year.”
“It is,” Margaret sighed. “Bob’s been on short time since October. Both the boys need new jackets and Catherine’s been harping on about getting a transistor for Christmas. She’ll be turning fifteen soon and leaving school, so I’d like to make it special for her.”
They stopped talking when Karen came back and said her boots were fine and didn’t hurt her toes.
“You might as well keep them on to go home,” said Margaret, looking through the shop window at the dreich December afternoon. She hoped it might bring a smile to her daughter’s face. But it didn’t.
Margaret handed over the money and waited while Mrs Anderson rang up the amount on the till.
“That’s two shillings and sixpence change,” Mrs Anderson said, handing over the coins. “And I’ll put Karen’s shoes in a bag to take home.”
“Hello, Karen, how nice to see you.”
Everyone turned as Mr Anderson came out from the stockroom behind the main shop
“Are you looking forward to the Sunday School party next week?” Mr Anderson asked the little girl.
“Have you got a nice new dress to wear?” Mrs Anderson asked. As soon as she said it she covered her mouth with her hands and threw an apologetic look at Margaret.
But Margaret smiled.
“Yes, it’s very pretty,” Margaret said. “We ordered it from the catalogue and it came the other day. It’s red and white and suits her really well. And we bought a red velvet ribbon from the haberdashery to put in her hair.”
“It sounds lovely,” said Mr and Mrs Anderson at the same time and everyone laughed. Even Karen raised a smile.
“I wish I had some nice shoes to wear with it,” said Karen, walking over to the stand in the corner of the shop where several pairs of children’s party shoes were on display. “I like these ones.” She picked up one of the shoes. It was black patent and had a silver bow on the front.
“I’ve already told you, Karen,” Margaret sighed, “you can wear your boots to the church hall and then change into your slippers when you get there. Your brothers and sister need new things too.”
Mr and Mrs Anderson exchanged a quick glance
“I wish I could wear my slippers to the party,” said Mrs Anderson in an attempt to lighten the mood. “My feet are always aching by the end of the night.”
“I don’t suppose it would look good for the Sunday School Superintendent’s wife to be running around in her slippers,” said Margaret.
“Not really,” said Mrs Anderson.
“I don’t see why not,” said Mr Anderson and then ducked as his wife gave him a playful punch on the arm, making Karen laugh at last and Margaret smile in gratitude at the couple.
“Will Santa be at the party?” Karen asked, her eyes wide and sparkling.
“Of course,” said Mrs Anderson. “I’ve contacted him and it’s all arranged.”
“Will he bring presents?”
“Karen!” scolded her mother.
“He usually does,” smiled Mrs Anderson.
“He’s very reliable,” nodded Mr Anderson, handing over the bag with Karen’s old shoes inside.
“What did you do to your thumb?” Karen asked, taking the bag. “It’s all black.”
“I hit it with a hammer when I was putting up some new shelves in the stockroom,” Mr Anderson replied.
“Is it sore?” Karen asked.
“Not now,” he said. “It was at the time.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t hear him screaming all the way at your house, Karen,” said Mrs Anderson. “Honestly, what a fuss.”
Karen was laughing heartily by the time she left the shop with her mother. Much to Margaret’s relief she never mentioned new shoes again.
Margaret was preparing the family’s tea when Karen arrived home from school the following day.
Being the youngest, she finished half an hour before her siblings, and mother and daughter enjoyed the quietness and camaraderie of the time before the others arrived. The peace and quiet would end as soon as Catherine started playing her Beatles records and the boys yelled at her because they were trying to watch Blue Peter on the television.
Margaret was relieved to see her daughter looking much happier than she was the day before.
“Everyone liked my new boots,” Karen said, sitting down to the glass of milk and the biscuit Margaret had already left out on the table for her. “And for our English composition we had to write a letter to someone.”
“Who did you write to?” asked Margaret, peeling carrots.
“I wrote a letter to Santa,” said Karen, wiping crumbs from her mouth with the sleeve of her red school sweater.
The knife in Margaret’s hand stalled momentarily. “What did you say?”
“I asked him to bring me a new pair of black patent shoes for the Sunday School party,” said Karen.
Margaret fought hard to keep her voice in check
“But Santa won’t actually see your letter, will he, lovie?” she said gently. “Miss McGregor will have taken them in for marking.”
“She gave us them back after lunch break,” said Karen, munching on her biscuit, her legs swinging under the table. “She said we could bring them home.”
“Right then,” said Margaret brightly, sitting opposite her daughter. “Can I see it? I hope you used your best handwriting.”
“I posted it,” said Karen proudly.
“You posted it? Where?”
“In the box outside the shoe shop.”
“Did you have a stamp?” asked Margaret.
Karen shook her head.
“Ah,” said Margaret, seeing a ray of hope that would guide her through this latest dilemma. She reached over and patted her daughter’s hand. “I’m sorry, lovie, but I’m afraid Santa won’t get your letter. Letters need to have a stamp before they can be delivered.”
“The lady said I didn’t need a stamp,” said Karen.
“She was going into Mr Anderson’s shop. She asked what I was doing and I told her I was sending a letter to Santa. I asked if I needed a stamp and she said she didn’t think letters to Santa needed stamps. She was laughing when she went into the shop. I saw her speaking to Mr Anderson and he started laughing too.” Karen shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know what they were laughing about, Mam.”
Margaret exhaled a long, heavy sigh
A mixture of emotions trickled through her. One was sadness that she couldn’t afford the shoes her little girl longed for. The other was anger, tinged with a little bit of hurt. What right did James Anderson and his customers have to laugh at them? It was all right for him in his big house and with his own business. He had no idea how hard it was for ordinary families trying to make ends meet. How could he when he didn’t have any children of his own.
And then she felt a heavy weight of guilt, remembering how the Andersons had lost their only son at Dunkirk just before his twentieth birthday.
“I don’t think he was laughing at us, love,” Bob said, when she told him about it later. “I expect he was amused by our Karen’s innocence, thinking she could just post her composition in the box and it would get to Santa. They’re good people, the Andersons. They’ve helped a lot of people out one way and another. You’ve always said so.”
Deep down in her heart, Margaret knew he was right.
“Maybe it’s time to tell Karen the truth about Santa,” said Bob, lighting his pipe. “I’m surprised she hasn’t worked it out already with all the hints the boys have thrown at her.”
“Not yet, Bob, please,” Margaret sighed. “She’s still only little. Let her enjoy the magic for as long as possible. She’ll find out soon enough that’s for sure.”
“And how are we going to explain when she doesn’t get the shoes on Christmas morning?” Bob asked.
“I’ll think of something,” said Margaret quietly, biting her lip.
Margaret held her little girl’s hand tightly on the way to the church hall the following Friday evening. The air was crisp and frosty, and with the stars twinkling above and the lights from the Christmas trees peeping out from the windows of the houses, it seemed as if their drab little town had been turned into a fairy land.
“I can’t wait to see Santa,” Karen chanted as she skipped along at her mother’s side. “I can ask him if he got my letter.”
“You do know, don’t you, lovie, that Santa’s very busy at this time of year,” said Margaret.
“Of course,” said Karen, “he’s got to get the toys ready for all the boys and girls.”
“He’s so busy,” said Margaret, “that sometimes he can’t make it to all the parties he gets invited to. Sometimes he sends a helper to stand in for him.”
“But the real Santa will be at my party, won’t he, Mam?”
Margaret was worried
The little girl was on the verge of tears and Margaret wondered if Bob might have been right after all. Maybe it was time to tell her the truth. How else were they going to explain why she couldn’t have the shoes she so desperately wanted?
There was nothing else for it, Margaret realised now. They’d just have to sit her down after the party and tell her Santa wasn’t real.
“Karen, how nice to see you,” Mrs Anderson greeted them at the church hall. “What a beautiful dress. Red really suits you.”
Margaret hung Karen’s coat on a hook on the wall and was about to leave when Mrs Anderson caught her gently by the arm.
“There’s been a slight change to the programme,” she said. “Santa’s…”
“He’s not coming!” Karen wailed.
“Of course he’s coming,” smiled Mrs Anderson. “It’s just that he’s so busy tonight he asked if he could come to our party at the beginning to give out the presents instead of at the end.”
Mrs Anderson looked Margaret in the eye and smiled.
“I know the parents like to be here for that part so maybe you’d like to join the others around the Christmas tree if you’re not in a hurry to get home.”
“Where’s Mr Anderson?” Karen asked, looking around. “I’ve made him a Christmas card.”
“He’s… a bit busy at the moment,” said Mrs Anderson. “But he’ll be along later. Listen,” she put her hand up to her ear, “I think I hear… yes, definitely… it’s sleigh bells.”
All the children began to sing
The lights dimmed and Miss Menzies started playing Jingle Bells on the piano.
There were cheers and even a few tears when Santa walked through the door, waving and laughing heartily to the children.
One by one they went up to collect their gifts when their names were called.
Margaret was amazed at some of the presents the children received. She was quite sure the money had not come from the meagre Sunday School funds.
At last it was Karen’s turn. Her present was in the shape of an oblong box. She ripped off the wrapping paper. Inside the box was a pair of black patent shoes with a small silver bow on the front of each.
“They’re just like the ones I saw in your shop, Mrs Anderson,” Karen said excitedly, fastening the shiny buckles and then doing a little dance so she could hear the shoes tapping on the wooden floor. “Imagine Santa knowing I liked them best.”
“Imagine,” said Mrs Anderson. “And he got the size right too.”
“It’s a good job Santa came at the beginning of the party,” continued Karen. “Now I don’t have to wear my slippers.”
“I’d say it’s all worked out perfectly,” said Mr Anderson who’d entered the hall just a few minutes after Santa left. “Maisie looks delighted with her walkie-talkie doll.”
“She’s always wanted one of them,” Karen nodded. “But her dad could never afford to buy her one. Did you know he was blinded in the war, Mr Anderson?”
“Yes, Karen,” Mr Anderson said quietly. “I did know that.”
When Margaret came back to collect her at the end of the Christmas party, Karen couldn’t wait to tell her all about it.
“We played The Grand Old Duke of York and pass the parcel and I won a prize for musical chairs. I can run really fast in my new shoes. Much better than my slippers.”
Margaret could only smile at her daughter and hug her tight
“And to think you said it might not be the real Santa who came to the party,” laughed Karen.
“So I did,” said Margaret. “That’ll teach me.”
“When I get home I’m going to write him another letter,” said Karen.
“Now, Karen, don’t be greedy,” said Margaret. “Santa’s already been very kind to you. You mustn’t ask for more.”
“I’m not going to ask for anything else, Mam,” said Karen. “I’m going to say thank you for my new shoes.”
“I think that’s a lovely idea,” said Margaret gently.
“I think so too,” said Mrs Anderson, who’d come up behind them and had overheard the conversation. “In fact, why don’t you give it to me and I’ll pass it on to him? I have to write and thank him for coming to the party. I can send both letters together. It’ll save you the cost of a stamp.”
The two women looked at each other and smiled before their eyes drifted across the hall to where the Sunday School Superintendent was playing football with a group of young boys while they waited for their parents to collect them.
“That would be good,” said Margaret nodding, “and please tell him thank you from me, too.”
Mam,” said Karen, as they were walking home, “do you know what I noticed about Santa?”
“No… what?” asked Margaret, feeling slightly nervous.
“He’s got a black mark on his thumb the same as Mr Anderson,” said Karen.
“Has he?” said Margaret. “I wonder how he got that.”
“I expect he hit it with a hammer when he was making some of the children’s toys,” said Karen.
“Yes,” nodded Margaret in agreement. “I expect he did.”