All Annie wanted was a new winter coat, but to reach Ladies Clothing she first had to fight her way through the Christmas Department… and it was only November the first. Lurid pinks and purples, gaudy gold and silver glitter for as far as the eye could see. Grinning reindeer, misshapen polar bears, fluffy mongrels and ugly kittens; a zoofull of cheap toys, not cheap to buy, just cheaply made.
She pictured the crates full of creatures arriving at the store, multiplied them by all the other stores in the country, envisioned a container full of crates, thought of the container ships she saw at the docks, piled high enough to topple over and sink. She saw a whole ship of stuffed animals, an ocean full of container ships ploughing through the waves bringing an endless supply of Christmas tack.
Annie continued her walk, still no sign of clothes racks, but a forest of excess packaging enabling gormless customers to be charged ten times the usual amount for a mug or pair of boxer shorts. Boxes, cartons, tins and tubs full of the most useless things, with the odd chocolate or packet of shortbread thrown in; crossword toilet paper, pink fluffy covers for mobile phones, ipads and ears. She thought she had seen everything till she arrived at ‘Gifts for Your Best Friend’; Father Christmas and ballet outfits for your dog and stockings for your cat to hang up.
The winter coat was forgotten and Annie’s blood pressure was soaring as she stepped onto the escalator, narrowly avoiding dangling decorations. As she ascended through the floors she blended in with other shoppers and none of them would have guessed her secret.
‘Excuse me Madam,’ said a young lady ‘this floor is staff only, offices and the managerial suite.’
‘It’s the manager I wish to see.’
‘Do you have an appointment?’
Annie showed her a small card.
‘Certainly, I’ll show you straight through.’
Annie sailed through the door before the girl had a chance to knock.
‘Get rid of the tat.’
The middle aged man behind the large desk stood up in surprise. He had only just heard the chain of stores had been saved from going into receivership and had no idea who the anonymous buyer might be.
When Annie had her surprise win on the Pan European Mega Autumn Lottery she had been overwhelmed. All she needed was a new coat, but she had always fancied owning a little shop…
‘The Very Useful Shop…’
‘Pardon’ said the confused manager.
‘That’s what I shall call the company, once we’ve done a few alterations… you can start by having all that stuff downstairs packed up and sent back where it came from.’
By early December Annie had been nominated for Woman’s Hour ‘Woman of Power’ and was a guest on ‘Newsnight.’
‘How many container ships were sent back?’ asked the presenter.
‘Enough for the world to get the message.’
‘Did you spare a thought for the livelihood of the people who worked in the factories?’
‘Certainly, I bought the factories; I pay the staff a living wage and we have taken on new staff to cope with the alterations. The Very Useful Factory Company is up and running.’
At Annie’s local shopping centre and in scenes repeated around the country, the pound shops, Christmas bazaars, calendar and card shops were empty. Everyone was flocking to The Very Useful Shop and the most popular department was Make and Take; the local news filmed customers of all ages cutting and pasting cards, painting pottery, knitting scarves and creating new garments from recycled clothes. Piped music was banned and customers were entertained by local choirs, hand bell ringers and a grand piano.
Rival businesses queried whether it was still a shop, but the Ombudsman reported that customers paid for the high quality raw materials and the delicious food served in the Meet and Eat restaurant.
Ministers from various departments came to visit and so too did several Archbishops. It was rumoured that the Queen was planning to film part of her Christmas Speech there, but more exciting for the children was the news that The Real Father Christmas was coming to visit.
‘Christmas Department’ was a runner up in 5 Minute Fiction’s Christmas competition 2012 and was featured on Christmas Eve in the on line Story Advent Calendar.
It rounds up the collection of stories in Hallows and Heretics – twenty four tales to take you through the year.