It’s that time of year again and if you’re in need of some festive reading, look no further than Christmas Kisses by Alison May – a collection of three gorgeous, cleverly interlinked Christmas stories featuring three girls in desperate need of some Christmas spirit after their own personal ‘years from hell’.
We’ve already met Holly, now let’s meet Cora, who has just changed into an extremely unflattering reindeer costume …
Cora stared at herself in the mirror on the wall of the staff toilet. She was a vision in brown felt and nylon. Behind her Mrs Atkins was smiling broadly. ‘And now your antlers.’
Cora picked up the offending items and arranged the set of antlers attached to a head band on top of her head. Her face was coated in brown face paint, with the end of her nose picked out in scarlet. Apparently plastic noses were rather too common for Golding’s department store. She kept her gaze fixed on the mirror. ‘I thought I was going to be an elf.’
Mrs Atkins shook her head. ‘You’ve got to have a Rudolph. The children love Rudolph.’
Cora frowned. ‘But it makes no sense. Rudolph doesn’t talk or stand on two legs.’
The older woman heaved her sizeable bosom. ‘The children like Rudolph. It’s part of the magic of Christmas.’ Her tone implied that no argument with the magic of Christmas would be brooked from her employees. Cora’s best approach seemed to be to shut up and put up. She’d already had to knock the idea of travelling home to Scotland for Christmas on the head because she couldn’t afford the cheap bus, let alone the train or a flight, and she wasn’t particularly welcome in her parents’ home at the moment, not after the last time she’d seen them.
She stared at the downcast reindeer in the mirror. If she didn’t keep hold of this job the lack of money for the train would be the least of her worries. She smeared a final dab of pink onto each cheek and forced what she hoped was a festive smile onto her lips. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about the horror of a thirty-year-old woman dressing up as a make-believe magical reindeer. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about the Christmas bonus she’d been busy spending in the expensive stores on Fifth Avenue this time last year. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about anything other than being the best damned reindeer Golding’s department store had ever seen, in the vague hope that there might be a job for her after Christmas.
She turned to face Mrs Atkins, who gave her a once-over that would have passed muster with most regimental sergeant majors, before deciding that Cora was ready to be allowed near the grotto. ‘It’s a lot of responsibility being Rudolph, you know?’
Cora nodded. ‘Yes, Mrs Atkins.’
‘And we’ve got a new Father Christmas this year, so you’re going to have to be on your toes.’ She paused. ‘Maybe I should give Rudolph to one of the more experienced girls. Some of our elves have been with us for years, you know.’
Cora didn’t know, but she nodded anyway. ‘I can do it Mrs Atkins. I promise.’ She could hear the feigned enthusiasm in her voice. It disgusted her
She followed Mrs Atkins onto the shop floor. It was twenty minutes until the doors opened to customers. They wound their way through sorts equipment and luggage and into toys. One end of the floor was dominated by the grotto. It wasn’t like any grotto Cora had ever been taken to. They’d been plastic-y affairs crammed into an unloved corner of a shopping centre. This was something else. This was the North Pole transplanted to Knightsbridge. At the front there was what looked like real grass with model robins and woodland creatures nestled amongst foliage. Cora resisted the urge to reach down and touch the green blades. Beyond the grass, the scene gradually shifted from green to white as you followed the path the children would walk along to see Santa himself. The actual grotto was at the end of a winding lane of glistening ice and snow. Despite herself, Cora smiled.
A gaggle of elves were already waiting for instructions. Cora stood alongside them, while Mrs Atkins inspected the rest of her team. She stopped. ‘Where’s Father Christmas?’
One of the elves gestured in the direction of the staff staircase. Cora followed the pointing finger. A big-bellied figure in the familiar red suit was making his way across the shop floor, partly obscured by displays of ski equipment and a six-foot teddy bear. Mrs Atkins tutted pointedly. ‘Hat and beard on at all times please, Mr Carr.’
Cora caught a flash of dirty blond hair brushing against a stubbled jawline. Something about the line of his jaw was familiar, but she couldn’t think what. Before she had time to dwell on the mystery, the man pulled a thick white wig over his hair, and secured the white beard across his face. He ambled over to the group of elves, catching Cora’s glance as he passed. Sparkling sky blue eyes met hers. Cora felt a smile bubble spontaneously to her face. She swallowed it down. She wasn’t here to make friends. She was here because she had no choice. She dropped her gaze from the stranger in the Santa suit and looked away.
‘Very good.’ Mrs Atkins folded her arms. ‘For those of you who are new to us, a few ground rules. You are to remain in costume and in character at all times. You will be at your posts before the store opens and you will not leave until the final child has left at the end of the day. You are employed for six days each week. On late night shopping evenings the grotto will close for twenty minutes to allow the changeover to the evening Father Christmas, who will also cover the role on Sundays. Mr Carr you will leave the floor before the evening Father Christmas enters. We do not want the children to catch a glimpse of the two of you together now, do we?’
Next to Cora, the man in the Santa suit stifled a laugh. ‘What about breaks?’
Mrs Atkins sucked the air through her teeth as if she suspected breaks were an unnecessary modern innovation. ‘There is a break area at the rear of the grotto specifically for the use of yourself and your reindeer. You will exit the store through the break room behind the grotto, and not across the shop floor. And there is to be absolutely no smoking in costume. Father Christmas and his faithful elves should not be seen puffing on a roll-up in front of the store. Is that clear?’
The assembled magical characters nodded. Mrs Atkins continued, explaining that the role of the elves was to manage the queue of children waiting to see Father Christmas, and to ensure that gold ticket holders were shepherded to the front of the queue without causing a riot amongst the less favoured little ones. Access to see Father Christmas was already sold out for the final few days before Christmas and for every Saturday during December. Inside the grotto, it was Cora’s job to act as Father Christmas’s faithful attendant, ensuring that there was an appropriate gift to hand for each child, and keeping an eye on the time. The whole operation was overseen by the Chief Elf, a rather softly spoken woman who apparently worked in childrenswear most of the year but had grafted her way through the elven ranks to the top job. She reported, in turn, directly to Mrs Atkins. Cora hadn’t quite worked out yet what Mrs Atkins’ actual job was, but it seemed to involve being officious and particular, and Cora was clear that she didn’t want to get on her bad side. Depressing though it was, Cora needed this job. A year ago, less than a year ago, that would have been unimaginable. How on earth had she ended up here?
Three girls, three kisses, three gorgeous Christmas stories ...
Holly hates Christmas with a passion and can't wait to escape it - but then the flight to her once-in-a-lifetime holiday destination is cancelled ...
Cora has had the year from hell, and faces a bleak Christmas working in Golding's department store - in the most unflattering reindeer costume imaginable ...
Jessica is in denial after her husband's betrayal, and can't help but think back to when her life still seemed so full of hope and promise ...Three years from hell, three sets of broken dreams, three girls in desperate need of Christmas spirit.
Is the perfect Christmas kiss all it takes?
Christmas Kisses is now available to purchase in paperback from all good book stockists and retailers. Click HERE to order from Amazon.
For more information on Alison, follow her on Twitter @MsAlisonMay.