I once worked in a shoe shop. Everyone likes to joke that it was a cobblers but no, it was a retail shoe store in a shopping centre. I might be short but I’m no elf. Fairytale elves, that is, the kind that supposedly came out at night long ago to make shoes.
Like I’ve said, I just sold them. Most of them weren’t even leather, just plastic and fabric, cheap tat. It was a long time ago but I do remember one workday really well. It wasn’t anything to do with the shop itself but the floor I worked on.
It wasn’t too often that you saw the centre manager making the rounds but you could tell he was there from the glistening pinstripes of his dark blue jacket and the clack of his shoes. At a guess, Spanish leather.
My boss, Steve, noticed the manager’s presence before I did. We were both at the till.
‘Something’s going on out there,’ he said to me. ‘They’ve stopped.’
I looked out after him. ‘That’s the manager, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. And there’s a rather odd-looking fellow I don’t recognise stood beside him. I really don’t like how they’ve turned towards us.’
‘I just think they happen to be facing us. Either way the manager doesn’t look too happy to have stopped there, right in the middle.’
‘I don’t like it either. Go tidy up that display by the window.’
‘The display that Rachel’s just tidied up?’
‘You know what I mean. Be discreet but see if you can listen in.’
I went over to the display, feeling Rachel’s eyes bore into the back of my head as I started to pick up a pair of winter boots to check the soles.
‘I thought you would prefer the Food Court,’ the manager said quite loudly. ‘It would certainly be more spacious. We’re dead centre of the busiest floor right here.’
The stranger, a man at least a decade older than the manager and somehow shorter, was down on his knees. His stubby fingers were splayed and pressing against the ground, testing the resistance. He looked up and said: ‘Isn’t that the purpose? Put a grotto here and parents can’t avoid it.’
‘I just think that if we put it near the Food Court the parents would be filled up and less inclined to deny their children to go see Santa. They might even send them off on their own if the distance isn’t too great.’
The stranger shook his head. He had on a fat white tie that was flapping about outside of his half-opened maroon overcoat. ‘Now, you see that’s exactly why I need to be here to finalise the deal. Higher management rarely knows how to use customer traffic for this. If we planted a grotto in the Food Court people would arrive at it as an afterthought: they may be sluggish after stuffing their faces but they’ll see it as they come in and just ignore it to get to the food. What you need is surprise; kid turns a corner and suddenly there’s Santa! Mum and dad can’t evade it, kid wants to go. Bish, bash, bosh – form an orderly queue.’
‘And how exactly would we form an orderly queue with all the surrounding traffic?’ The manager had his arms akimbo.
‘Are you joking me? Single folk will give the grotto a wide berth: who wants to be seen floating around so many kiddies? No, they’ll just move straight on to whatever shop they need.’
‘I’m still not convinced.’
The stranger sighed. I think it was at that moment I noticed his ears: how pointy they were, how red. They seemed to darken quicker than the rest of his face. He was obviously holding back a lot of frustration.
‘Listen, mate,’ he said, resting a hand on the manager’s glittering shoulder. ‘This is exactly what I’m paid for. I know this season; it’s not to my personal tastes but I know it from every single angle. I have seen the inside of pretty much every single shopping centre and found the ideal spot with perfect, practiced precision. Nevertheless how about this? I’ll bring the grotto in tonight, pop it here, and we’ll see how you feel about it by midday tomorrow. What do you think? How does that sound?’
The manager smoothed down his thinning brown hair. He wasn’t quite at comb over stage yet but he wasn’t far off. He looked down at the stranger and said: ‘All right. A trial basis.’
‘Fantastic!’ the man with the pointy ears clapped his hands together and rubbed them.
‘So what’s it about?’ Steve said suddenly from behind me. He made me jump out of my skin but I didn’t let it show.
‘Just a Santa’s grotto agent with elf ears deciding on where to put the grotto. They’re thinking right between us and the travel agents.’
‘Well, so long as it doesn’t block the way into the shop.’ Steve laughed. ‘Elf ears then?’
‘Yeah. They’re still red.’
‘What do you expect? They still haven’t got the heating right yet.’
Suddenly the agent was fully turned towards us again. He started moving forward determinedly. The manager dithered before following him. I held my breath.
‘Actually,’ the agent said to us. ‘If you must call them anything, please refer to them as pixie ears. That’s what my mum used to call them. They were her fault as well.’
He had already turned away before the manager caught us up.
‘Everything in order?’ he said to the agent though his eyes were on us.
‘Yes,’ Steve said turning to me. ‘Just getting this one back to work.’
‘Bloody season,’ the agent said before disappearing.
The next day there was a grotto. It looked surprisingly natural, like snow had fallen in a particular way overnight and then froze into a small cave with a fat man in red already deep inside. I don’t remember it changing customer traffic all that much.
By Owen Townend