Friday 29 December 2023

Mother Christmas Sally Angell, black coffee

The tree near the town clock twinkled. A figure, teatowel on head, and carrying a crook, hurried to his Christmas play. Red-nosed singers belted out carols on an icy street corner. And the delicious scent of cinnamon drifted from a hot mince pie stand. All the mood-boosting reminders of magical possibilities, in the run up to the big day.

     But Amy saw it all through a grey veil No magic, no joy. And the question circled endlessly in her mind.

      What am I going to do?

      The children were hyper. Bribed with sweets, they were sky-high on sugar. But she’d had to find a way of making them sit still in the depressing room they’d just come out of. The upset in Mia’s voice rang in her head.

      ‘I don’t like it in here, Mummy.’

      Me neither. Amy tried to shake off the last half hour. She just had to grab a few offers from the bargain store, and then face the walk home. No money for bus fare.She couldn’t wait to get away from the seasonal razzmatazz.

      The children spotted it first, were drawn like a magnet. Amy recognized the small building next to Card Factory. The Newborough Centre resented retail spaces left empty, so this was used as a hub for various purposes. Today’s was obvious, from the board outside; the manically beaming smile, red coat, beard, a sack of presents. Santa’s Grotto. A mother’s dread. Excited kids were trying to get in.

      Ignoring the howls, Amy marched her two past.

      ‘Not today.’

      Shit shit shit. Wilf was screwing up his face: I’m going to lie down on the floor and scream.

      Amy flinched at reactions from passing strangers. ‘These millennial mums,’ the smug looks said. ‘Can’t control their crotch fruit.’ Message received. Bad mother.

      ‘Excuse me, madam.’ A hand clamped her shoulder. A man’s voice. What now?

      Inside Santa’s abode it was cold and gloomy. On the wall someone had scratched out the last letter of Grotto and replaced it. And yes, this dive was indeed grotty. There was a tatty square of carpet on the floor, and some old-style lights drooped on a tree, although most of the bulbs weren’t working.

      ‘Santa’s had a stroke!’

      Amy’s ambusher had been in a panic. He needed someone to grotto-sit (you don’t mind do you?) while he checked on his pensioner employee (aka Santa), who’d been removed via the rear door, to an ambulance outside the Centre.

     Amy did mind. Not my monkey. Not my story. But he’d gone.

     A woman’s head poked in the back entrance of the grotto. The front door was fastened. The thumps from outside echoed painfully with each heartbeat. She wished she was anywhere else. A notice had been taped to the board outside. Santa gone to feed reindeer. Back soon.

      The woman came in, dragged by a small boy in reins.

      ‘I just need to sit down. Little bugger  refused to come out unless I promised Santa. I can’t go another step.’

      ‘I know.’ Amy sighed. I know.

      Mia and Wilf had pounced on the Lucky dip, and seized two packages. Oh can we open them. Can we?

      Well, why not?

      Opposite Santa’s stool, where Amy was perched, greetings cards were tacked to the wall, one a nativity scene. The usual players were gathered, and in the centre, the new mother. Mary sat there in her impossibly pristine sapphire blue dress, just after giving birth in an outbuilding, a stable. The straw was shiny and golden, the animals clean and beaming. Of course it was image, not reality. Amy knew that. Like the pretence mothers have to keep up. A secret club. Only we know what it’s really like.

      Amy gazed at Mary as if the radiant figure would give her an answer. A way out of her predicament.

      ‘You don’t look so good.’ She realized the woman with the boy was speaking.

      That did it. The whole drama replayed; the split from her partner a few weeks ago.. and her parents were living abroad so… the cost of the private rental…needing a job.

      A cough interrupted her flow. Grotto man again. How long had he been there, earwigging? Her confidante untied the boy’s reins, and charged out after him, with a thumbs up to Amy.

      Grotto man rubbed his face, leaving an angry mark. ‘Santa, I mean Brian, is being admitted for tests.’

      Amy almost envied Brian. What she wouldn’t give for a lie down. Her body thought she’d done a day’s work already. Don’t think about work. Her schoolboy job adviser hadn’t laughed when he asked about her employment history. But she wouldn’t have blamed him. This woman with egg down her coat didn’t look as if she could manage anything, never mind the sales department of a well-known store.

      Amy struggled up.

      ‘Wait,’ grotto man said awkwardly. ‘Thanks for stepping in. I owe you.’

      Amy shrugged.

      ‘The name’s Ben. Actually, I have a proposition for you.’

      Not likely. Amy got ready to tell him what to do with his suggestion. But why not? She’d be sitting down. And the children were happy, playing in a corner with a tall man in an Elf teeshirt.

      ‘Security.’ Ben tapped his nose. ‘From the office upstairs.’

      But why would they need someone for that? Oh! Anyone working with kiddies had to be supervised.

      ‘What a world we live in!’ Amy addressed Mary silently, mother to mother. And she would know about that, a young girl who had lived in uncertain times, her son’s very life in danger from a king who meant him harm. It put things in perspective. Amy made a decision.

      ‘Throw in coffee, hot chocolates, sandwiches, some paracetemol, and it’s a deal.’ She’d skipped breakfast. Not enough milk.

      Five minutes later Amy was climbing into a too-big red costume. The sleeves hung down over her wrists. Luckily the beard and the wig were separate, so the pile of white curls was plonked on her head. Best not to think who had worn it before.

      Was this a good idea? But cash in hand, he’d promised. It wouldn’t be much, but if she stuck it out, hopefully enough for a proper present for each of the children. And some festive treats. There was a quick debate about her role. Santa’s Missus? Ms Claus?

      The amended poster on the board outside now read:


      Elf was seated just inside the grotto, at a table, ready to take the three pounds each for the chance to see Mother Christmas, and a Lucky Dip present. Ben unlatched the door and the queue of eager mini-customers stampeded in. Amy swallowed a paracetemol, and forced her mouth into a toothpaste-advert smile. Deep breath. Now.

      ‘And what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?’

      A whisper and a grubby hand dived into the bucket.

      ‘And what do you want…?’

      Ben scrutinized for a minute, then left. He’d be back at Closing.


 ‘La – a – arst Christmas!’

      Amy and Elf screeched to canned music from outside, loud in the afternoon lull, and giggled. In Amy’s case, more of a struggle for air. Because it wasn’t funny. Last year. It seemed another world, a different planet. What had been and what is. Don’t think about it. Stay in the now.

      She had her children. They were what mattered. Wilf was asleep on the floor, Mia crayoning. Amy glanced over at the mother, father and baby on the card she’d been eyeballing all day to keep awake. There was trusty Joseph, keeping watch over his new family. And he wasn’t even the daddy.

      ‘Have you met modern man, Mary?’

      Amy had cancelled the date, arranged on an app in a bad moment when she’d wanted to remember what it felt like to be a woman, as well as a mum. But it wasn’t the right time.

       A vibration made her jump. She fished out her phone from under the red coat. An email: further to your interview today…… after time period…. sanctions..benefit reduced.

      No. that wasn’t correct. They hadn’t said that!

      How to keep going? But mothers had to. Even that innocent girl led into early parenthood, all those centuries ago.

      ‘Ready?’ Elf checked, gently, as he unlatched the door for another lot of parents and their offspring.  

They’d all gone. The grotto was quiet, just Amy and the children.  She needed to get them home. Elf had been summoned to the office. Criminal gangs were targeting the Centre, stealing the Christmas stock.

      She could just go too. The box with the day’s takings was on the table. Not a fortune, but enough to see her through, until she’d sorted something out

She could just tip the cash into her shopper. They’d blame the gangs.

      Amy walked over to the table. She saw her hand pick up the box. She paused. Don’t take anything that isn’t yours, she’d taught the children. But she herself had played by the book and look at that fiasco.

      Wilf woke up. Mia was staring at her with huge eyes.

      Amy slowly put the box down, just as Ben swung in, to close up. He looked at her steadily, and she got ready to leave.


      He sifted through the takings and handed over the amount agreed for the hours. And added another note. Something else. He had a shop on the High Street, staff vacancies for after the holiday. If she was interested?

      Another decision. A hundred difficulties. But Mia was down for pre-school in the New Year, a crèche might take Wilf. It was a start. An energy surged through Amy. Somehow she would cope, because that’s what mothers did. They came to the edge, they dug deep inside, and they found resources and a strength they didn’t know they had.

      As Amy left the grotto, the card on the wall tipped forward. The light caught Mary’s face. And could that be…? Amy was sure it was.

      A wink.

About the auhtor

Sally Angell has had her writing published in magazines and anthologies, and read on radio. She has run writing groups and been involved with writing activities in Northamptonshire. Living a quieter life now, Sally has time to observe life and write more stories. 

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