The Christmas Shopper (December story)

The Christmas Shopper

Lisa arched her back and rubbed it. Four o’clock, she thought. The store would be closing soon and it would all be over. Outside the drizzle had turned to drifting snowflakes. Along the road the wet pavements reflected the shimmering Christmas lights. Inside Carols and Christmas music played while the last of the shoppers wandered among the displays. When the door opened the smell of hot chestnuts from the brazier on the corner filtered in. The queue for Santa’s Grotto had disappeared and it was closing, the elves and fairies hurrying to get away.

There’d been the usual last minute rush; mainly men in a panic picking ‘something for the wife’ from the huge array of sparkling, gold and silver wrapped gifts on offer. Some had the names of their wife’s favourite perfume written on a piece of paper and others the name and size of lingerie items their wives had been in earlier to choose. No surprises there then.

She began to pack her things away, thinking about the evening ahead of her, when a young man approached her, his breath coming in short bursts as though he’d been running. Snowflakes glistened on his eyelashes and in his dark as night hair. Lisa’s heart missed a beat.

‘Are you the Personal Shopper?’ he asked,

Lisa pointed to her badge and smiled. ‘That’s me,’ she said. ‘Can I help you?’

He breathed a sigh of relief. ‘You can get me out of trouble,’ he said.

‘Trouble?’ Lisa frowned.

‘Yes. My mother’s decided to visit at the last minute so I need a present for her and one for my girlfriend.’

Lisa’s heart sank. As a personal shopper she dealt with people shopping for themselves and she’d have a good idea of their size, colouring and taste within minutes of meeting them. Gifts, however, were a whole new kettle of smelly fish; a minefield littered with pitfalls. She usually managed to pass hapless young men out of their depth looking for gifts on to her supervisor Betty. She had a way with them, stood no nonsense. She treated them like a public school Matron treats errant schoolboys. But Betty had left early.

Lisa sighed. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Two gifts then. What had you in mind?’

He brushed his fingers thought his unruly hair and looked exactly like an errant schoolboy; although one wearing a well-cut suit and shiny shoes. Lisa guessed him to be in his thirties, just like her.

‘I thought you might suggest something,’ he said.

She took a breath. ‘Have you looked around the store? Did anything catch your eye?’

He glanced around ‘Um, well, it all looks so…’ He shrugged.

She smiled her professional smile. ‘Most ladies appreciate perfume, jewellery, clothing. Something along those lines perhaps? What sort of price range?’

He looked blank. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said.

Lisa gritted her teeth behind spread lips. She hoped this wouldn’t take too long. He was absolutely gorgeous and normally she wouldn’t mind spending time sorting out his gifts, but tonight she’d planned to spoil herself in a hot scented bath, drinking champagne by candlelight and listening to Carols by the fireside.

‘Tell me about your mother,’ she said. ‘What does she like? Does she have any hobbies? Cooking? Painting? Travel?’ She was getting desperate now. ‘We have some lovely gift sets in all departments.’

He shook his head. ‘No. Not a gift set. She spends her life cooking and looking after other people. She never asks for anything for herself so I want something special. Something she’ll treasure because I picked it out especially for her. Something uniquely Mum – if you know what I mean.’ His voice softened and golden glints shone in his deep brown eyes as he talked about his mother. Lisa felt a pang of envy.

‘I’m sure she’ll treasure whatever you choose,’ she said. She thought about her own mother. This was the first Christmas she’d be spending without her. It was six months since the funeral but Lisa thought the ache in her heart would never go away. Her mother had loved Christmas and every day, as it got nearer, a fresh pang of memory surfaced. Christmas Day she intended to do the things they used to do together, going to church, walking through the park and watching the children playing with their new toys. That way she’d feel closer to her.

‘We have some lovely scarves, wraps and pashminas just in. They’re very popular among our more discerning customers. Would your mother appreciate something like that?’ she said.

His boyish smile broadened. ‘I’m sure she’d love it.’

He followed Lisa to the ladies-wear department where they spent some time going through the various colours and patterns. He came alive as he told Lisa about his mother and her sudden decision to spend Christmas with him. ‘We always used to spend Christmas together,’ he said, ‘until I move to the city.’ He sighed. ‘It’s really no different than anywhere else, but she was overawed by it. Anyway, I invited her as I always do and this year she agreed to come so I want it to be amazing, but not intimidating.’ He picked up a brightly pattern pashmina. ‘What about this one?’

Lisa smiled. ‘A good choice. It’s cashmere, beautifully soft and guaranteed to go with anything.’ In fact, she thought, it was just the sort of thing she’d have bought for her mother, were she still alive. Her eyes misted over.

‘Great. Can you have it gift wrapped and put on my account?’ He took out his wallet.

‘No problem,’ Lisa said, impressed with his choice and even more impressed with the Gold Card he handed her. .

‘Now, what about your girlfriend? Something similar?’

He looked shocked. ‘Gracious me, no,’ he said. ‘Something like this would never do for Fiona. Not nearly classy or expensive enough.’ Lisa caught a hint of bitterness in his voice.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to burden you with my troubles, but to be honest I’m not even sure I have a girlfriend anymore.’

‘Oh dear.’ Lisa felt genuinely sorry for him. He’d seemed so nice and a man who so obviously loved his mother couldn’t be all bad.

‘We had a row when she heard my mother was coming so I thought, if I bought her something fabulously expensive, extravagantly opulent and out-of-this-world stunning, she’d come round and accept her.’

‘Do they not get on?’ Lisa asked, intrigued.

‘Difficult to say,’ he said. ‘Fiona’s never met Mum. She wanted me to spend Christmas with her at her parents’ house in the country. Apparently her father is Master of the Boxing Day hunt. It’s the highlight of the year. Everybody who’s anybody goes. I offered to go with Mum, but Fiona said she wouldn’t fit in.’ Sadness filled his eyes. ‘She’s probably right, Mum doesn’t ride and would never hunt anything, but I said if my mother wouldn’t fit in then neither would I.’ He shrugged and turned to Lisa. ‘Mum’s terribly proud of me, but Fiona’s right, she wouldn’t fit in. She’d think them pretentious snobs and she’d probably say so.’ He chuckled. ‘Mum’s right of course, they are. Fiona’s all right when she’s on her own but…’ He paused. ‘So, what do you think?’

Lisa was tempted to tell him exactly what she thought, that Fiona was a spoilt brat who needed her bottom smacked and didn’t deserve him, but she resisted. ‘Jewellery,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing like a fine piece of expensive jewellery to get into a girl’s good books.’ ‘Bed’, she thought but didn’t say it.

At the jewellery counter it soon became clear that Josh, the name she’d picked up from his Gold Card, was willing to spend a considerable amount to get Fiona back. They looked through all the stores best pieces. Josh became more and more despondent with each one.

‘I don’t know,’ he’d say each time Lisa suggested something. ‘It’s not her style.’

‘So what is her style? Is there a particular designer she admires? What inspires her? What does she talk about? What’s her passion?’ Lisa thought she’d probably gone a bit too far with the last one but he merely blinked.

‘I’m blowed if I know,’ he said. Lisa noticed that even when he frowned his eyes twinkled. ‘In fact I now realise that I don’t know her very well at all, and the bits I do know I’m not sure I like very much.’

Lisa thought about her mother. She’d met Lisa’s father at a Christmas production of Cinderella. It was love at first sight. ‘A whirlwind romance’ her mother called it. She’d always said Christmas was magical and hoped Lisa would find her own Prince Charming. She never had, despite all her efforts.

‘Which would you pick if it was for you?’ he asked.

‘Me?’ She looked through the trays and picked up a heart-shaped locket studded with rubies. It wasn’t the most expensive piece by any means. ‘Any girl would die for a piece like this, especially if it was bought for her by her boyfriend.’

He stared at it for a while then said, ‘No. I think I’ll leave it. The more I think about it, the more I think I’ll leave Fiona to her posh friends.’ He smiled at Lisa. ‘You’ve helped me see thing clearly but it does leave me in a bit of a pickle.’

‘A bit of a pickle? How so?’ Lisa realised that a sudden change of plans could throw you, but she was sure he’d cope.

He gave a wry smile. ‘Mum was looking forward to Christmas lunch at The Ivy with me and my girlfriend. She’ll be really disappointed to find me on my own.’ He glanced at Lisa. ‘I don’t suppose…no…it’s too much to ask…’

‘What?’

‘Well, I know it’s outside the remit of a personal shopper, but I don’t suppose you know of anyone who’d like to share a Christmas dinner with a lonely bachelor and his mum? My treat.’

Lisa smiled. She thought of her mother and her belief in Christmas magic. ‘Actually, I think I might know someone who could be persuaded,’ she said.

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