This is a story I wrote for Christmas 2011. It’s set in the garden centre where Kate has her summer job in Forget Me Not. Kate makes an appearance, but the story is mainly about Louise, who has agreed to work for a couple of days in the Christmas grotto, dressed as an elf… Just the sort of outfit you DON’T want to be wearing when the boy of your dreams turns up…!
I hope you enjoy it,
Love Jo x
Louise smiled nervously as the first customers, wrapped up tightly in coats and scarves, approached. ‘Hi there,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Have you come to see Father Christmas?’ Don’t laugh at my outfit, she prayed, and adjusted the hat that was too big for her head, making it jingle in the process.
‘No,’ said the little boy, puzzled. ‘We’ve come to see Santa.’
His parents smiled in an embarrassed way. ‘Sorry,’ whispered his mum. ‘Owen’s been watching a lot of American films.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Louise. She tried again with Owen. ‘Well, Father Christmas has a lot of names. Sometimes he’s called Santa Claus, sometimes he’s called St Nicholas.’
Owen regarded her with patience. ‘I want to see the one who gives presents,’ he explained.
Louise gave up. ‘Then come this way!’ She gave three knocks on the door of the grotto, to give Mike Tilworth time to put down the catalogue he’d been reading. Then she ushered in the little family. One down – who knew how many still to come?
Louise hadn’t really intended to get a job just before Christmas. But she’d been in Tilworths garden centre with her mum only a week ago and one of the girls she knew vaguely from school, Kate, was serving behind the counter. ‘I didn’t know you worked here,’ Louise said.
Kate nodded. ‘I started in the summer and they’ve kept me on at weekends. We’re getting busy now so there’s loads to do.’ She gave a laugh. ‘Besides, it gets me out of the house – and I get to see my boyfriend, too.’
‘He’s around,’ said Kate. ‘He works here too – this is where we met.’
Louise noticed she’d gone a bit pink. ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ she said. For some reason, she was surprised. She hadn’t thought of Kate as the sort of girl to have a boyfriend.
Kate had been looking at Louise with a slightly curious expression. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like a job here, would you?’
‘A job? Oh, I don’t think…’
‘It’s just that we’ve got a bit of a problem,’ went on Kate hurriedly. ‘Mike and Janet – the Tilworths – they asked me and another girl to help out with the Christmas grotto this year, and now the other girl has said she can’t do it. And I really don’t want to do it all on my own…It’s only for two days…’ She looked pleadingly at Louise.
‘Uh, well, I don’t know. I’d have to ask my mum. I suppose I could…’
And that was how Louise found herself dressed from head to toe as a Christmas Elf, complete with jangly (too big) hat and red-and-white striped tights. She had been hoping that no one she knew would come to see the Tilworths Father Christmas, and for the first day, her luck held. The job wasn’t too bad really – she just had to try to make sure the kids didn’t get too bored waiting in the queue. Tilworths hadn’t had a Santa before, so Mike hadn’t been sure how many people would turn up. Kate and Louise were taking turns to be ‘on duty’, and Louise had started to enjoy it. The people in the queue were by and large happy and cheerful, even if some of the kids were rather badly behaved.
Louise had also met Simon, Kate’s boyfriend, and could quite see why Kate liked him. Simon was dark and serious-looking, but he had a lovely smile, and Louise found herself blushing when he spoke to her. ‘Has he got a brother?’ she asked Kate, half-joking.
Kate grinned. ‘Yes, but much older than him. Bad luck. Maybe you’ll find your Mr Right in the queue tomorrow?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Louise laughed. The people in the queue were mainly over thirty or under eight. She didn’t think it was likely that a cute boy would be hanging around the grotto!
‘Your turn,’ said Kate in relief as Louise returned from her lunch break on the last Sunday before Christmas. ‘I’ve had enough.’
Louise looked at the queue, which had tripled since she left an hour ago, and gulped. ‘Can’t we get them through a bit faster?’
‘Not really.’ Kate shook her head. ‘Mike’s really keen to make sure every child gets a chance to chat to him and have their photo taken and all that.’ She sighed. ‘I hope we’ve got enough presents. I think Janet’s got some in reserve in the staff room – I’ll go and have a look.’
‘What do we do if we run out of presents?’ asked Louise, wide-eyed with alarm.
‘Don’t know. I don’t think Mike and Janet had expected this many people today. Look, we’ve got enough for now. I’ll be back in an hour, OK?’
Louise smiled bravely at the families at the head of the queue. They stared back at her. Tough crowd, she thought. This lot had obviously been waiting longer than they’d have liked. There was a mum with four children waiting. The youngest, who couldn’t have been more than two, was grizzling, and the mother looked stressed. ‘So who’s written a letter to Father Christmas this year?’ she asked brightly.
‘Me,’ said a girl loudly.
Louise looked at the oldest of the four children. She must be at least ten, she thought. Too old to be visiting Father Christmas. I hope she doesn’t spoil it for the others. ‘And what did you ask him for?’ she asked.
The girl started ticking off a list on her fingers. ‘A green iPod, an iPad that’s got 3G on it, not the rubbish one that only connects to WiFi. Three DS games, some Ugg boots, a Kindle…’
‘Wow!’ Louise interrupted with a forced laugh. ‘That’s a long list!’ She glanced at the mum, who was gazing at her in a resigned way. ‘I expect you’ll have had to be very good all year to get those things.’
The girl screwed up her nose. ‘Nah. I’ll get them anyway. Or there’ll be trouble.’
‘Oh.’ What a horrible girl, Louise was thinking. I’m glad she’s not my sister…
The queue moved forward slowly – too slowly for some. There were mutterings from children and parents. Louise glanced at the clock on the wall. Still twenty minutes to go before Kate came back – and a whole three-and-a-half hours before the grotto was due to close! Suddenly she wished she hadn’t agreed to take this job after all. ‘Who’d like to see some juggling?’ she asked desperately.
‘Me, me!’ came a few calls.
Louise picked up three fluffy ‘snowballs’ from the display. Fortunately, juggling was something she was able to do! She’d attended a circus skills course in the summer and although she’d been useless on the trapeze and high wire, she’d taken to juggling like a duck to water.
The parents and children visibly cheered up as Louise juggled the snowballs. It took her a few minutes to get used to the weight and size but once she had, she could manage up to five at once. ‘Wow!’ breathed the children.
Louise grinned and started to feel a lot better – and then she caught sight of the most gorgeous boy she’d ever seen. One slight moment was enough to make her drop all five balls, and the kids went ‘aww’ in disappointment as she scrabbled around on the floor to pick them up, her face scarlet with embarrassment.
When she stood up again, she almost expected him to have gone. After all, what would a boy like that be doing standing in the queue for Santa? But no – he was definitely there, about eight families back from the head of the queue and looking right at her.
All Louise’s skill with the snowballs deserted her and although she tried really hard to concentrate, she kept dropping them. ‘Can I have a go?’ asked the six-year-old girl who was patiently waiting with her dad.
‘Of course,’ said Louise in relief. ‘Let me show you how to start off.’
For the next ten minutes, she taught a small group of children the rudiments of juggling, and she was concentrating so hard on not looking in the cute boy’s direction that it was a complete shock to hear him say, ‘Can I have a go too?’
‘Of, um, of course,’ she said, her face instantly returning to its former shade of post-box red. ‘Here you go.’ She placed two snowballs in his outstretched hand and jumped as their fingers touched.
‘Thanks.’ He grinned at her. He had light brown hair that sprang up from his forehead as though it were resisting gravity, and his eyes were a light hazel with flecks of grey. ‘I used to be able to do this but I’m really out of practice.’ Then he tossed both balls into the air with one hand, catching them with ease. ‘Oh.’ He sounded surprised. ‘That wasn’t as bad as I expected.’
A little girl tugged at his coat. ‘Alfie, do that thing when you balance it on your finger.’
He grinned down at her. ‘That only works with footballs, Ellie. These things are too lightweight.’
She pouted. ‘You haven’t even tried.’
‘Oh, all right.’ He rolled his eyes in amusement at Louise, who kept having to remind herself to breathe. Then he placed a snowball on the tip of his index finger and tried to balance it there. It wasn’t very successful. ‘Oops, sorry,’ he said, as he lunged forward to catch the ball and accidentally trod on Louise’s foot.
‘It’s all right,’ she said, trying not to wince. The elf shoes were only made of felt and didn’t offer much protection.
The queue moved forward. ‘It’s me next!’ squeaked Ellie in excitement.
Alfie grinned at Louise. ‘Can you remember being this excited to meet a strange man in a red outfit?’
‘I can, actually,’ she replied. ‘It’s kind of sweet.’
‘Ellie’s mum was meant to bring her,’ Alfie explained, ‘but she’s gone down with the flu, so I said I would. She’s my step-sister.’
‘Oh.’ Louise had lost the power of speech again because of that smile. How did he do it? And how had their paths never crossed before? ‘Are you – do you live round here?’
‘I don’t often come to the garden centre, if that’s what you meant,’ Alfie said. ‘Though I’m sure I’d remember seeing you before.’
‘I don’t usually dress like this,’ Louise blurted, and then wanted to kick herself. What a dumb thing to say – of course she didn’t usually dress like an elf!
His smile widened. ‘Really? It kind of suits you.’
‘Oh, ha ha.’
The previous family came out of the grotto, their twin boys clutching identical presents. ‘Me, me!’ cried Ellie.
Louise’s heart sank. ‘Oh. Yes, of course.’ Alfie was going! And they’d barely had two minutes to talk! ‘In you go.’
Ellie skipped through the door to meet Father Christmas, and Alfie made to follow her. That was it, Louise thought miserably. That was the boy of my dreams, and he’s gone.
But Alfie paused in the doorway and looked back at her. ‘I suppose you’re working here all afternoon, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Louise, and then added hastily, ‘But my friend Kate should be coming back in a minute which means I’ll get a short break.’
He looked pleased. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘because when we come out there’s one more thing we have to buy before we head home, and I don’t know where to find it.’
‘Oh, what’s that?’
He looked at her. ‘Mistletoe. You got some here?’
‘Oh,’ said Louise, feeling her face redden again. ‘Oh – yes, we’ve got lots. I’ll – er – I’ll show you when you come out.’
He smiled at her and then went into the grotto.
Louise closed the door behind them, feeling a tingling warmth spread through her. The rest of the queue can look after itself, she thought. I’ve got more important things to do!