Mia didn’t enter the kitchen immediately when she got to the end of the hallway. She hovered near the door in silence and watched her mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea. More accurately, a cup of tea sat on the table beside her mother, but it was untouched. Her mother was using her phone and her face was contorted as if she was in pain. She hated seeing her mother like that. She knew that no matter what they ended up doing together that day, none of it was going to come easily. Whatever was on the phone was of great concern and her mother’s breathing seemed to only descend to the top of her chest and back. Her shoulders too were fixed in a strangely squeezed position as if someone had come up behind her and shoved her arms upwards but then forgot to put them back. Mia’s eyes darkened as she sensed a familiar uneasiness creep into her body. She wished her father was there with them, but she knew he couldn’t be, because as had been explained to her, he had had to take work in some part of Germany that wasn’t anywhere anyone had ever heard of. He was sleeping in a dorm with fifteen other men and working 14-hour shifts. He tried to make it sound like fun. He tried to make it sound like it would be worth it. But it didn’t feel worth it to her.
Her mother suddenly looked up in fright, knowing that she was being observed. She impatiently beckoned Mia into the room and directed her to get her breakfast. By the time Mia was sitting down with a bowl of cereal in front of her, she could hear her mother attempting to muffle her voice as she spoke angrily to her father on the phone. She wasn’t able to catch everything but there was something about an account and ‘it’ not being there. There was something else about not asking someone for a dig-out again. Her mother ended the call with a very loud ‘great’. But it was one of those really cold, angry ‘greats’ that meant the opposite of what was said. When her parents fought, which had been more and more frequently over the last year, she heard that voice a lot. She knew it was about money and there never being enough of it, but she was always told there was nothing for her to worry about, that they weren’t going to have to move again and that everything would work out in the end. Well, that was what they always used to say. Now it was more like “I don’t know” or “we’ll have to wait and see.” Her mother sat down and drank some of her tea. She looked tired. Her face made Mia think of a beautiful China plate that had once been glossy and remarkable but was now faded and full of little cracks and chips. Something that would no longer be put out for visitors, something that would catch drips in a bathroom or an old pantry.
“Can you stop looking at me like that, please?” her mother snapped.
“I wasn’t looking at you like anything,” Mia muttered.
“Just eat your breakfast.”
Mia finished her cereal and brought her bowl to the sink. Her mother had her hand to her face and was pinching the bridge of her nose with her eyes closed. Mia returned to the table and sat down, waiting for her mother to look up again. When she didn’t, Mia spoke anyway.
“Dad’s not coming home for Christmas, is he.”
“Mia, don’t eavesdrop when I’m on the phone. I don’t like it. Some things aren’t for your ears.”
Mia sighed quietly to herself.
“And don’t sigh!” her mother said, “It doesn’t help. What would help is if you got yourself ready so we can get moving on time.”
Mia’s face brightened.
“Are we still going to Frederick’s?”
Frederick’s Emporium was the biggest department store in the city and was famous for how it transformed itself every Christmas into a lush wonderland of festive magic. Her father said it was only so they could try and sell people more stuff they didn’t need, but she and her mother went in every year because they found it irresistible. It was also prohibitively expensive because they brought in the most exquisite items from their list of exclusive international providers, like Zhang of Shanghai, Collins of Boston, Delacroix of Paris, and Myshkin of Moscow. Each year her mother had brought her there, both of them dressed in their best possible clothes – ‘the frocks that shock’ her mother called them – and pretended they were the kind of people for whom money was no object. They ticked off an imaginary list of eye-watering gifts for a list of imaginary friends and relations, saying things like “Oh, Percival would absolutely adore that!” or “That would be simply perfect for the manor!” or “Wouldn’t that be a darling addition to Jemima’s collection!” They would end their outing with a delicious cream tea in The Greenhouse, Frederick’s world-famous tea-room which was situated in an enclosed arboretum on the top floor of the emporium.
Her mother let out her own sigh and offered up a little half-smile.
“Yes, we’re going to Frederick’s.”
Mia jumped up from her seat squealing with delight and gave her mother a huge hug.
“Okay, okay,” her mother said, trying to calm her down, “but we can’t afford to go to The Greenhouse this year, we can only look. We’re not buying anything. I’m not even sure we should go –“
“No Mam, we’ll be fine! We’ll just look, I swear! Thank you! Come on, let’s get our frocks!”
An hour later, they were standing at the bus stop in their finest attire, having effected a transformation of which Frederick’s themselves would have been proud. Hair and make-up done, dresses and coats donned, they looked perfectly in the spirit for the season. An older lady who was also waiting smiled at them approvingly. Mia couldn’t stop herself telling the woman where they were going, and this fetched an even more approving look in response. The bus came, they boarded, and had only been sitting down a moment when her mother swore quietly as she regarded her coat. She had just discovered there was a button missing from the lapel. She shook her head as she looked at the space where the button was meant to be and muttered a barely audible ‘great.’ Mia took her mother’s hand and assured her that no one would notice. They passed the rest of the bus journey in silence.
They alighted at the corner of Swift and Joyce, rather than waiting for the bus to pull up right outside the golden revolving doors of the front entrance. This was the part of their tradition that allowed them to enter more discreetly through Frederick’s haberdashery, the entrance to which was located down the side of the building, a mere 20 metres from where trucks off-loaded fresh inventory several times a day. As they moved past the rolls of fabric and the countless boxes, jars, trays and drawers of buttons and fasteners and spools of thread and swatches of samples, Mia’s eyes swirled in her attempt to take in the cornucopia of colours and textures, and even though she had no practical use for any of it, she wanted all of it. She wanted to grab great clusters of the shiny buttons and throw them recklessly in the air high above the po-faced staff. She wanted to wrench vast sheets of the beautiful fabrics from their spools and drape them over everything like a rainbow of silk and satin sand dunes to tumble down. She wanted to swim in those colours, she wanted to drown in them until she resurfaced like a precious jewel unearthed from the heart of a fantastical ocean. The Frederick’s magic had begun to work on her, and she was helpless to resist.
They each placed a hand on the brass plates of the haberdashery’s swinging glass-panelled doors and pushed through them to be met by the frenzied cacophony of the bustling ground floor of Frederick’s. Busy shoppers gathered in well-heeled clumps at the various registers, wrapping stations and display counters. Coats and hats and heels, that was her abiding memory of the Frederick’s clientele each year. It was an abundance of fur, fake or not, hats decorated with flowers and feathers and birds and butterflies, and equally ornate shoes that clipped and clopped their wealthy owners to all parts of the emporium. It wasn’t unusual for them to have assistants trailing in their wake, laden down with bags and precariously balanced boxes, stoically bearing up as yet another parcel threatened to be the one to cause a comical collapse. The staff were a picture of well-trained finesse and never appeared in the least bit flustered. They were as poised and alert as ballet dancers waiting for their cue, and indeed, when things got especially busy, theirs was a choreography of impressive efficiency and service that left nothing to chance. Mia sometimes wondered if they were human at all, such was the absence of lumps, bumps, or curdles.
It was all unceasingly impressive and beguiling and tantalizingly exclusive and both Mia and her mother knew they were mere spectators, tourists on a day trip, but they both loved it nonetheless. The only thing that concerned Mia, the thing that made her instinctively move closer to her mother whenever she saw them, was the Frederick’s security team. They were unsmiling, cold-eyed shop police who underscored the reality that Frederick’s was an empire that was going to be protected at all costs. They were the enforcers of the ominous warning that appeared on strategically placed notices all around the store. It was an unambiguous message that Mia had found herself unable to forget. “Anyone on the premises in breach of law, conduct, and the Fredrick’s standard, will be processed without compromise. No exceptions. The Management.” ‘Anyone’ and ‘no exceptions’ were underlined and in larger, black letters. Her father had explained to her that ‘processed’ made it sound like paperwork, something mundane and clerical, whereas the reality was a bit sharper. Mia had seen with her own eyes children who failed to meet the Frederick’s standard being briskly manhandled and removed from the building by the Green Jackets – that’s what she had dubbed the security people because of their deceptively Christmassy uniforms – and it made her regard them with grave trepidation. They made her feel both nervous and guilty every time they crossed paths and she was certain she would become one of ‘those children’ whether she wanted to or not.
The ground floor was clothes and the Frederick’s Parfumerie, where she and her mother would typically try several samples on little strips of white card before finding one they liked and then asking to try that one on, whereupon they would make a big show of ascertaining whether they really liked it, with lots of tilts of the head and wrinkling of the nose, before deciding, no, they didn’t, and leaving brusquely in disdainful disappointment. Mia could tell her mother wasn’t really in that kind of mood today so she suggested they go straight to the third floor, bypassing the household and electrical goods of the second floor so they could head directly to her favourite part of the emporium – the toy department. The toy department at Frederick’s was the envy of department stores the world over, and never more so than at Christmas. It was said that spies would travel from those stores to try and steal ideas or simply to be inspired before returning to their own places of work to reproduce a lesser version of what they had seen. And what would they have seen? An arctic tundra populated by skiing elves and bobsledding reindeer with the Northern Lights shining overhead, perhaps. Or else an iridescent cave bejewelled with rubies, sapphires and emeralds and a lagoon around which campfires were perfectly lit. Maybe, as had been the case the previous year, they would have seen a breathtaking Alpine landscape connected by an elaborate network of rope-bridges and ski-lifts. Each year it was a closely guarded secret and people tried make sure it remained so, because that was the Frederick’s standard. Upon arriving at the top of the majestic staircase that led there, two doormen stood on high alert in front of two impossibly tall wooden doors, waiting to admit the next customers. Behind those doors lay the toy department, completely sealed in, a cathedral of wonder that every child wanted to experience.
Mia couldn’t wait to get in there to see what it would be this year, but just as they were about to ascend the stairs, the day unravelled. She knew her mother wasn’t really there with her. Yes, she was there physically, but she was distracted by something very much removed from the splendour of Frederick’s. She had on her nice frock and looked as done up as previous years, but it felt like it was a fragile shell that could break at any second. And then it did. A large woman carrying a tiny sausage dog in her arms brushed past them in the aisle and bumped her mother’s shoulder ever so slightly as she did so. Her mother got a surprise and exclaimed an involuntary “Oh!” as she looked back at the woman. The woman herself would probably have kept going but on hearing Mia’s mother, also stopped and turned. Over her glasses, she peered down at them both for no more than a second, but that was all it took. As if in slow motion, she scanned them thoroughly and then brought her eyes to rest on her mother’s coat and the place where the button was missing. Her face recoiled almost imperceptibly and her not inconsiderable nostrils flared as if they had just inhaled a particularly offensive odour. Then her eyes narrowed, her mouth tightened, and she turned on her heels and walked on, her little dog oblivious to the controversy.
It was more than Mia’s mother could bear. Whatever front she had been keeping up, she could no longer maintain it. Her face crumpled and she turned to Mia and quietly said “We’re leaving. We shouldn’t have come.” She moved to go, but Mia stood still. She was aghast at this turn of events and was in no way ready to abandon her visit to the toy department.
“Mam, come on, we can still do this. Never mind that woman and her silly dog. She hasn’t a clue.”
Her mother looked exhausted as she glowered at her.
“Mia, don’t do this to me. Let’s go. We can come again next year.”
Mia could feel herself getting upset.
“No Mam, I want to go now. It’s the only nice thing about this Christmas and I’m not going to miss it!”
She looked around to see if they had drawn the attention of the Green Jackets, and satisfied they hadn’t, she stepped towards the stairs. Just as she was about to place her foot down on the first stair, her mother grabbed her arm and yanked her back.
“Ow!” Mia cried out.
“Quiet!” her mother hissed.
“Let go of me!” snarled Mia. She jerked her arm free and ran up the staircase, composing herself just in time to see the great doors being opened for a small family in front of her. She smiled at the doormen as she followed serenely behind the family. The last thing she heard before the doors closed behind her was her mother desperately calling out her name.
She was still feeling upset and realised she had been on the verge of tears, and she rubbed her arm where her mother had grabbed it, but she didn’t have time to dwell on any of that because what she now saw in front of her was too overwhelming. She was looking at trees, tall ones, and lots of them. And they appeared to be growing out of a forest floor that was covered in soft dirt and needles. She could hear running water and excited chatter and oohs and aahs of the people who were already inside. She and the family walked up a carpeted ramp that led into the middle of the bewitching forest and it was there she saw the source of the water – an actual stream running through the woods. She could barely believe this had been created inside one room, but it must have been because she was walking through it. Subtle shelving displayed Frederick’s Christmas toys everywhere she looked. There were dolls and planes and teddy bears and cars and paint sets and easels and dollhouses and railway sets and scooters and figurines and books and hovering above everything, as if manned by invisible adventurers, were Frederick’s trademark mini-hot air balloons, a magically lit solar system of illuminated globes that people were constantly pointing out in awe.
It was, as ever, breathtaking, and Mia was just starting to luxuriate in it all when she heard the crackle of a radio and realised there was a Green Jacket in the room. She froze for a second as she realised her prophesy had come true – they had finally come for her. She was now one of ‘those children’. She had to escape. There were gaps between the trees that looked like they would lead to other sections of the forest. Moving as quickly and quietly as she could, she walked through the nearest gap and proceeded along a twisting path until she emerged at another clearing, this one not as big as the last and with a lower ceiling overhead. Well, it was a ceiling painted cleverly to look like a night sky and had she not known better, that is what she would have taken it for. It wasn’t as bright as where she had just left and it was only when her eyes adjusted that she realised she was looking at a huge display of stuffed animals that were seated in a rising formation that continued around almost all of the enclosed space in which she found herself. The animals looked as if they were waiting to be addressed and they reminded her of a picture she’d seen at school of senators in ancient Rome arguing about the best way to run the empire. Thinking she heard the radio getting closer, she found a spot to hide behind a giant black bear at the back of the group. She squatted down, closed her eyes and held her breath as she heard someone enter the space. It was a Green Jacket, it had to be! A man’s voice broke the silence and cooed into the darkness:
“Mia? Are you in here Mia? Don’t worry Mia, you’re not in trouble. Everything is okay. Your mother is worried about you, Mia.”
Mia didn’t believe a word of it. There was something treacherous in that voice, it was far too friendly to be trusted. She did feel a pang of guilt for her mother though. She knew she shouldn’t have run off, but it was the only thing she felt she could do. She was scared and she was worried. She didn’t want her father to be away. She didn’t want there to be arguments about money. She didn’t want to see her mother getting upset about missing buttons. She just wanted things to be nice. She wanted her parents to be happy. She wanted to see them smiling and laughing. She was sure they used to be like that. Not angry. Not stressed out. She’d made things worse by running off, she knew she had. She sunk lower into herself and let out a long, sorrowful sigh. The second she did, there was a tap on her head accompanied by a question –
“Are you Mia?”
She could have screamed, she got such a fright, but when she looked up expecting to see a Green Jacket, there was no one there. A small brown bear stepped forward from somewhere behind the big black bear and looked at her in silence. She stared back. He was a stuffed toy, she was sure of that. He must have a remote control somewhere, she thought. He leaned to the side and looked past her before standing very still once more. She instinctively looked over her shoulder to check what he had been looking at, but it was just empty space. When she turned back he had stepped closer to her. Before she could react he raised a paw and said “Don’t worry, the Green Jacket is gone. It’s safe for now.”
Mia’s mouth opened in disbelief. The little brown bear mimicked her, opening his own mouth and leaning his face a bit closer to her.
“Are you Mia?” he asked again.
Mia nodded her head. The bear’s expression seemed to brighten.
“Oh good,” he said, “I’ve found you.”
“You’ve found me?” Mia asked, feeling very confused.
“Yes,” the bear replied. “You’re one of those children.”
Mia’s face dropped.
“Oh no,” she cried, “Do you work for Frederick’s? Are you going to ‘process’ me?”
Now it was the bear who looked confused.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think so. I’m not really a processor. I’m more of a helper.”
“Who do you help?” asked Mia.
“Well,” said the bear, sitting down right beside Mia and looking at her in a very serious way for such a beautiful little brown bear, “I help children like you. Who need help.”
“Oh,” replied Mia. She wasn’t at all scared now, she was intrigued. “Do I need help?” she wondered out loud.
“Oh yes,” said the bear, “I believe you do.”
“But how do you know? How did you find me?”
The bear beckoned her closer.
“I work for Santa,” he whispered.
“You do?” cried Mia. “So Santa is real? And he really does keep an eye on all the girls and boys in the world?”
The bear looked at her matter-of-factly. “Well, of course!” he exclaimed. “What else would he be!”
Mia felt embarrassed. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just thought that maybe…”
The bear quickly interjected.
“Don’t say another word! I know what you were about to say. Poppycock! Santa is as real as you and me, and that’s all there is to it!” The bear gave a little snort in conclusion and clearly considered the matter closed.
“Now,” he continued, “How are we going to get you back to your mother?”
Mia’s eyes filled with tears when the little bear mentioned her mother. She felt so sorry for what she had done and she couldn’t see any way to fix it. She sniffled as the tears began to roll down her face.
The bear regarded her gently and dabbed her eyes with his paws.
“You smell nice,” said Mia as she cried.
“Why thank you,” said the little bear proudly, “I do try.”
Mia rubbed her nose on her sleeve.
“You should probably use a handkerchief for that Mia, you don’t want to be one of those children.”
“But you already said I was one of those children,” said Mia.
“No, I didn’t,” said the bear. “I said you were one of those children, not one of those children.”
“I’m confused,” cried Mia. “What do you mean, Mr. Bear?”
“I mean,” said the bear calmly, “that you are one of those children, with such a beautiful heart, that Santa can see it shining all the way from the North Pole. What you are not is one of those children, who only think of themselves and expect the entire world to step out of their way when they want something. Santa does not send us to help those children.”
Mia touched her chest.
“I have a special heart?”
“Yes,” said the bear, “you do, but don’t get a big head over it, because that will make it less special.”
“Oh,” said Mia.
“Yes. ‘Oh’,” said the bear. “Don’t worry,” he continued, “you won’t get a big head, you’re not that kind of person.”
The bear looked at Mia kindly.
“Okay,” he said, “We’ll just have a quiet think and then decide what to do.”
“Wait,” said Mia. “What’s your name?”
“Caramel,” whispered the bear as he slowly retreated into the darkness.
She stared after him, but he had vanished. She was about to call his name when she felt a tap on her head again. She looked up expectantly and saw a stone-faced Green Jacket standing over her.
Moments later, she was handed over to her mother who dropped to her knees and enveloped her in a big hug. She was crying as she held Mia out in front of her.
“Where did you go?” she implored, “I’ve been so worried about you. You’ve been gone for hours!”
Mia looked around. Frederick’s was empty. It was night. She didn’t understand. It felt like she had only been gone for thirty minutes. She told her mother and the Green Jacket that had found her where she had gone. She thought she shouldn’t mention the bear, but she did say that she had hidden with the big display of stuffed animals under ceiling with the night sky. The Green Jacket made a face and consulted with a Frederick’s staff member. They looked at Mia gravely as they told her no such display existed. She said she would take them there and show them, that she wasn’t lying, that it was through one of the gaps in the trees in the toy department, that that was where the Green Jacket had found her, but the grown ups didn’t care to indulge her and in what seemed like no time at all, she and her mother had been shown the exit and were once again waiting at a bus stop in the company of an old lady. The old lady saw that Mia was tired and smiled sympathetically. They travelled home in silence, but not in anger. Once home, Mia hugged her mother again and apologised for everything that had happened. Her mother hugged her back and sent her off to bed without another word.
The next morning when Mia woke she could hear her mother talking on the phone. She sounded happier and when Mia walked into the kitchen, she was handed the phone so she could wish her father a happy Christmas. She missed him terribly and let her mother cuddle her for a while after she hung up. They decided opening their presents would be a good idea. There weren’t many under the tree, but Mia was happy to receive what she did – a nice set of markers, a new jumper, a sketch pad, and a lovely book of stories for girls. She gave her mother her present, a pottery mug she’d made in school, and her mother seemed very pleased with it. Mia had put a lovely blue glaze on it because she knew that was her mother’s favourite colour. They were gathering up the discarded wrapping paper when her mother pointed to a present that they’d both missed.
“What’s that?” she said.
She went over to pick it up and turned to Mia in surprise.
“This is from Frederick’s! And it’s for you. Do you know anything about this?”
Mia shook her head slowly.
“Here, open it,” said her mother.
Mia took the box-shaped gift and set it down. She read aloud the message on the gift tag.
“Mia – To the girl with the very special heart. Take care of me and I will be your friend for life.”
She unwrapped it carefully, gently freeing the ribbon and opening up the distinctive Frederick’s paper. She took off the lid and gasped at what she saw.
“What is it?” her mother cried.
“It’s a bear,” Mia said quietly.
Her mother came over to look.
“Oh, he’s so beautiful. And he smells lovely! Wow, you’re a lucky girl – I wonder where he came from?”
“He’s from Santa,” said Mia.
“Of course he is,” said her mother. “What name are you going to give him?”
Mia continued staring at the bear as she spoke. A tear escaped her brimming eyes.
“He already has a name,” she said. “It’s Caramel.”