katie fforde The Christmas Stocking

It was Saturday morning, the day before Christmas Eve, and the mild, damp Christmas weather had sud­denly bucked its ideas up and turned cold. Romy was suddenly freezing.

She’d been selling Christmas decorations in an old station building at a bustling Cotswold Christ­mas market and she’d done well in the first two hours. But now, in spite of wearing masses of layers under her leather jacket (including her not-­very-­cool thermal vest), two pairs of socks under long­haired sheepskin boots, a pair of stripy leg warmers over her jeans (a later addition, courtesy of one of the other stalls), and a furry trapper hat, the cold was beginning to penetrate.

She looked longingly at the refreshments stall that was doing great business. She’d been up at the crack of dawn and she’d only managed to grab a banana and muesli bar on her way out. Also, her boiler had just broken down so the shower had been tepid and the flat freezing. A cup of something hot, and may­be a bacon butty, would give her stamina for the day ahead. But if she ran over to buy a cup of tea she might miss valuable sales from the group of people, mostly men, who’d just entered the building.

Although it was only about twelve o’clock they’d obviously just come from the pub. They probably thought they were getting their Christmas shopping done early, with Christmas Eve still to go, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they only had one pres­ent to buy. Adoring wives and girlfriends no doubt would be buying presents for mothers, sisters, ‘Auntie Flo’s and anyone else necessary.

She noticed a man come in behind the group and at first she couldn’t tell if he was with them, or on his own. He was wearing motorbike leathers and had a sort of swagger about him. He had slightly long, dark blond hair and walked with determination. As he didn’t appear to be drunk and wasn’t wearing a crumpled suit, she decided he was on his own.

Romy reckoned he was here to buy a present for his girlfriend or his wife, and so she gave herself a minute to stop finding him rather attractive and think about her own boyfriend. Gus was waiting for her in France, with his parents, getting ready for a big family Christmas. She looked around her stall, wondering, for the seven­-thousandth time, if his family would appreciate her presents, samples of which she was now selling. There was a difference between ‘home­made’ and ‘handmade’ and she was going for the ‘handmade, personalised look’.

She’d met Gus’s expat parents, who lived in France but didn’t seem to speak a lot of French or have many French friends. His two sisters she had checked out thoroughly on Facebook. They were nice­looking, sensibly dressed and looked like adver­tisements for Boden with their shiny blond children, whose white teeth were evidence of regular trips to the dentist and limited access to fizzy drinks.

For the elder sister’s three children, Romy had done a set of frosted-­glass jam jars with silhou­ettes of Mummy and Daddy, all three children, and the dog (a Labrador). She had been aiming for a generic child but actually she felt  she had achieved a likeness. It wasn’t an ideal present to be carrying on a budget airline – she hadn’t wanted to spend extra money on hold luggage – but she thought they were nice. For the younger sister’s two little boys she had painted plain white lantern fairy lights with figures from Minecraft. Finally both women, and their mother, were getting silk scarves, hand­-painted by Romy. Perfect for carry­-on luggage. She would buy presents for the husbands at the duty-­free shop. Alcohol was always acceptable.

As she ran through the checklist in her head whilst surveying her stall, Romy felt a swell of pride at her handiwork. She’d been working so hard this season, doing all the local markets and Christmas fairs, sell­ing her Christmas decorations. It wasn’t a major earner but, apart from the rent for the stall, it was almost all profit. And it topped up what she earned from her part­-time job while she was doing a master’s. She was proud of the decorations and only hoped Gus’s parents would appreciate them when they opened their presents.

Thinking about them as a family she reflected that while they were all kind enough, they were very hearty and, going by the parents, had loud voices. She didn’t really object to the volume, it was the backslapping and teasing that was only just the right side of cruel that bothered her. And they all thought that anything not entirely practical, like art, was a complete waste of time. To make matters worse Romy knew she had only been invited to France because Gus had told his family her own parents were going to New Zealand for Christmas. Really she would have preferred to spend Christmas with friends, but she would have felt ungrateful turning down the invitation

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He inclined his head. He had a slightly unkempt look that seemed genuine and not deliberate. If it was deliberate, it was extremely effective.

Gus was lovely, of course, and Romy had been mad about him when they’d first got together. But a year in she sometimes wondered if she’d only been attracted to him because he was so different from her previous boyfriend. He’d once admitted to her that his friends were all a bit shocked that he’d chosen such an arty, indie type while at the same time envying him for having such a gorgeous girlfriend. When they first met he had asked her rather anxiously if she had any tattoos. She hadn’t, but his question made her think of getting one, a bat perhaps, on her wrist. This trip to France would be a bit of test – if their relationship survived they were probably meant to be together. She wished she didn’t feel so ambivalent about it all: the Christmas and the relationship.

‘Here,’ said a voice. ‘I thought you could use this. You look cold.’

It was the man in leathers, handing her a mug of spicy hot chocolate.

She took it with a grateful smile. ‘Thank you so much,’ she said. ‘I certainly could use it. I hardly had time for a cup of instant coffee this morning and my boiler has broken.’ She took a heart­warming sip. ‘Please, take a look round the stall and have something free. For your girlfriend, maybe?’

She hated herself for what must look like a blatant bit of digging but it was too late.

‘I have actually got her present,’ said the man. Judging by his expression, he seemed fairly confi­dent that his girlfriend would like it. Romy knew

it was silly to be disappointed – it wasn’t as if she was free herself – but somehow she was.

‘Well, that’s good! Most men don’t even start thinking about it until Christmas Eve so you’re well ahead.’

‘I do need some Christmas decorations though; my house is a bit of a shell at the moment. My girlfriend’s been having an early Christmas with her family in Connecticut. I want the place to look amazing when she comes back. Make her really fall in love with it.’ ‘Well,’ said Romy, having now sipped enough hot chocolate to warm her up. ‘Christmas decs are what I specialise in. All made by me. And there are these, in case you missed them.’ She gestured to a jar on the floor that contained white­painted branches. On the branches were decorations made to look like hot-­air balloons. Every one had a single battery light so from a distance the branches looked as if they were dotted with stars. Close up you could see the individually painted egg-­like shapes.

He inclined his head. He had a slightly unkempt look that seemed genuine and not deliberate. If it was deliberate, it was extremely effective. ‘I have to say, I was drawn to them when I first came in.’

‘But you stopped at the coffee stall first?’

‘I saw you stamping up and down and flapping your arms. I guessed you were cold.’ He was very twinkly, and impossible not to respond to.

Romy laughed. ‘Was I that obvious? I am sorry. I think this stall is in a bit of a draught or something. Everyone else seems fine.’ In spite of his ‘bad-­boy’ good looks, he had a very kind smile. She experienced a pang of jealousy for the girl who had parents in Connecticut. ‘So!’ she said briskly. ‘What would you like?’

‘I think I’d like all of them,’ he said after some thought.

‘I can – happily – give you one, but not all of them.’

‘And I – happily – will pay for all of them. I’ll have my one free one too, of course. And everything else you have left. I want to make a big impression.’

He grinned. Romy coughed and looked down at her decorations. He was far too attractive for her own good, she decided, but as a customer he was pretty much perfect.

‘Well, the hot­-air balloons are five pounds each,’ she said. This had put people off, although the work and effort that had gone into them had been enor­mous. ‘The bats are four pounds fifty and the jam jars with the tea lights – although they are extremely pretty – are only a pound.’

‘In which case, I won’t have a free balloon. A hot chocolate isn’t worth a fiver.’

‘Have one of these then,’ suggested Romy. She held out a model bat made out of wire and black tights. She’d made several but they hadn’t sold well. Bats were rather niche, she discovered.

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