Lizabeth was tired – ten hours helping ladies chose gloves and handkerchiefs. The same smile pasted on her face, no matter how impatient (the last pair of gloves fit just as well as the next pair will) or upset (I am not stupid for confusing how many A initialed handkerchiefs with D initialed ones). Christmas brought out the worst in her customers – the pettiness over price, the exacting over wrapping, and demanding over lettering, and things she did not control such as delivery.
A few, her favourites, tucked a small “present” of money for services well rendered. “As they should,” she thought rather haughtily. “Figure like a Gibson Girl. Good morals too. Saving money for when I marry, I am. Not spending on frivolities.”
She had just started walking out with a new beau, Henry Higginbottom, and she wondered if he might be the one to get her off the store floor. Hansomish, with brown wavy hair eyes to match. Well placed as an apprentice book binder, polite, respectful-like. He’d do. For now She almost giggled. Not allowed on the floor. She had customers, gentlemen, who would try. But serious smiles were the rule.
Almost closing time – an hour early on Christmas eve. The girls and gents would form two lines to receive the wisdom of their employer and a small bonus for the season. If sales had been good, that bonus might be a tad brighter. Just enough time to rush through the market and buy gifts for her sisters and parents. Maybe for Henry, if that wasn’t too bold. Hair ribbons for the girls, of course, and two books from the book stall for Momma and Poppa. And Henry . . .
Deep in thought, she didn’t notice the last customer fingering the gloves with awe. Ill-dressed, Lizabeth wondered how she had gotten past the doormen. “Can I help you,” she asked rather more stiffly than she should. But the time and the look of the woman. Her dress was in style decades ago, and now hung loose on a smaller frame. An equally unstylish coat was carelessly thrown over the dress. A ludicrous hat of ribbons, feathers and bows, precariously balanced itself on her head.
“Gloves,” she said, “I must have just the right pair of gloves.” “For yourself madam,” Lizabeth inquired. “Oh no, for someone else. I would like to look at the kid leather ones for a hand about your size.” Lizabeth bent her aching back once again to the shelves of samples, retrieving the kid, some of the most costly, gloves. “There are expensive” Lizabeth stated, looking at the woman, whose face seemed to betray the sense of age – amethyst eyes sparkled under mounds of straw and white streaked hair. “Perhaps something else.” “Oh no, they must be kid,” the tiny woman cried, “Here – try these pair on.”
Lizabeth did as instructed. The gloves fit perfectly, the smooth leather conforming to her hand. “Splendid,” cried the woman, I will take four pairs”. Lizabeth toted up the amount, trying to catch the eye of the floor walker or floor manager – this woman was obviously deranged or hysterical. But, given the bill – before leaving the counter, the customer produced several large bills, more than enough to pay for the gloves at the cashiers desk – “I need scarves and caps to match,” she muttered And she tottled off towards another counter, leaving Lizabeth’s mouth gaping and a rather large gratuity upon the counter.
As a result – deemed a rich eccentric by the owner – who must be indulged for future business – the shop closed much closer to regular time. Lizabeth had to run and barely made the market before the venders closed up their stalls for Christmas. The ribbons were picked over, but she found some, sweetened with rock candy, and two somber texts for her parents. She bought an extra bag of rock candy for Henry, just in case.
As she headed home, she noticed four women huddled around a fire in a street brazier. Each wore a pair of fine kid gloves, warm scarves about their scruffy necks, and new caps upon their matted and uncombed hair. Lizabeth smiled. Father Christmas comes in many shapes and sizes, she thought, even tiny women in out-of-date clothes.
For Tale Weaver #99: A Dickensian Christmas 22.12.16