On the first day they got their uniforms.
“I expect you elves to be clean and tidy,” said Mr Jessop to Meg, Angela and Tod.
Meg liked the striped green and white tights, but was not so keen on the long thick red felt skirt. It was a bit stiff and new. Meg wished she had shorts like Tod. Angela’s hat with the jingly bell sat nicely on her curly hair, while Meg’s kept sliding over her ears.
The heating in the store was turned up high and it was hot work trying to keep the families in line, get the right parcel to Santa at the right time, and make sure each child took only one Christmas cookie on the way out. At lunchtime, Tod said to Angela, “I think us two should welcome the kids and Miss Chubby-Face can stay round the back.” But Angela said they should stick to Mr Jessop’s rota.
After lunch the queue was long and Meg got worried. Luckily, Angela knew lots of Christmas songs and they had a lovely time until Santa came back from the pub.
It was busy all afternoon and Meg thought everything went okay until half the cookies disappeared at once. When she looked up, a small figure in a torn T shirt was disappearing behind the display of reindeer.
“No worries,” said Tod, “there’s boxes and boxes more cookies.”
Tod changed into his normal trousers at leaving time. Angela said she wouldn’t bother, so Meg didn’t either. Snow began falling as they waited for the bus and it turned out the long skirt was quite cosy. The red colour was cheerful too. Meg put her skirt on the hanger behind the door. She loved having her own room where no one would touch her clothes.
In the morning, Angela’s skirt was shorter, above her ankles instead of down to the floor. Mr Jessop frowned.
“I didn’t want to trip over it,” Angela explained, “Health and Safety is so important, don’t you think?”
“Uh, yes,” Mr Jessop said. “Now, don’t forget. The green tickets are for premium parcels, the white tickets only get the bookmark and the cookie.”
Over the next week, Tod got friendlier as Meg learned how everything worked. She shouldn’t pick up the plate of cookies, otherwise they all slide off onto the carpet and it was important to keep smiling, even if the parents complained about waiting too long. Though Santa asked if each child had been naughty or good, the parcel didn’t depend on the answer. The parcels arrived already wrapped. Meg was a tiny bit disappointed, she was good at wrapping presents. She had won a gold star once, for doing all the gifts under the Christmas tree – paper and bows and everything.
A week later, Angela arrived in the middle of Mr Jessop’s morning briefing.
“The Megatronic MetaMove Robots are out of stock. Tell the customers that the Maxi MetaMove Robot is equivalent value. Little bit smaller, but more features,” he said.
Angela’s skirt was even shorter.
“That’s an improvement,” said Tod.
Meg counted five green stripes above Angela’s shiny shoes. Her own long skirt covered her tatty boots, she couldn’t afford new shoes yet.
Mr Jessop didn’t notice Angela’s outfit.
“Check each ticket, depending on parental choice, some girls get the robot and some boys get the teddy bear,” he was saying.
Meg looked closely at Angela’s skirt. The felt had been cut neatly, no stitching for a hem. Meg had never done any sewing and didn’t think she would make a tidy job with the scissors either. Tod was looking at Angela too.
Santa’s Grotto was very busy. By now Meg enjoyed helping with the queue. She liked chatting with the children, calming them down. There had been lots of practice doing that with the little ones at the Home.
One afternoon Angela was helping Meg put more cookies out. They had changed to a basket instead of a plate, so Meg didn’t worry so much.
“We should take out the broken ones,” said Angela. Meg was wondering whether to put them back in the box when someone rushed past, taking the pieces off the table and even one from her hand. Someone with very cold fingers – no wonder, dressed just in a T shirt when everyone else was in overcoats and scarves. That evening, Meg saw more children without coats. One was begging. She wished she had something to give them. At the Children’s Home they used to be told how lucky they were. She was lucky, having boots against the slushy snow and a room of her own to go back to.
One morning Angela’s skirt was above her knees, seven green stripes around her legs.
Mr Jessop raised his eyebrows, but he was in the middle of telling them something important. “Vagrants have been seen in the store. They must not be encouraged. Be vigilant.”
Tod said he and Angela should guard the parcels while Meg looked after the queue. But Angela thought the parcels were safe in the back room. Because it was Saturday, there were lots of Dads in the queue. The Dads all stopped to talk to Angela, which was fine, Meg had fun singing to the children. Angela had taught her the words.
Three days before Christmas, Angela’s skirt was really short. Meg counted nine green stripes, ten when Angela leaned over to pick up the next biscuit box. Angela dropped the box.
“Oh, what a pity, they’re all broken,” she said.
“No worries, there’s plenty more,” said Meg.
The queue got longer and longer, and the store got hotter and hotter. Customers were smiling, saying it would be a White Christmas. The store was open late. As they walked out into the falling snow, Tod said he would see Angela home. Angela laughed and said Meg was coming to her place tonight. Tod stomped off in the opposite direction. At the bus stop, Angela gave something to the begging children.
“Broken cookies”, she explained. “And I meant it about coming to my place. Turkey soup okay?”
They had told Meg not to go home with boys, but Angela was a girl, so it was okay. Angela’s room was even smaller than Meg’s. It was cosy though, with a patchwork bed cover Angela had made herself. She had a little stove to heat up the soup. Meg liked that better than going down to a dirty kitchen and strangers. Angela said she had a surprise, if Meg could keep a secret. Before Meg could decide Yes or No, Angela tipped up a store shopping bag. Lots of red felt things fell out in a jumble, pairs of mittens, and hats.
Angela had a needle and thread. “Last one,” she said, sewing the thumb onto a tiny mitten.
Now Meg knew why Angela had cut her skirt shorter and shorter. Angela asked if Meg would help give out the things to the children at the bus stop and to any others they could find.
“They always look so cold,” she said.
Meg wanted to join in, but she felt a bit shy. Angela’s stitching looked so neat and tidy. Then she had an idea.
“Have you got any paper? I can make parcels.”
So the next evening they went to Meg’s room, sang Christmas songs and wrapped Christmas presents. Meg told Angela this was much better than the Home. Angela looked confused.
“I am lucky,” Meg said.