Christmas Eve 1976
We have a little girl here…
The visit to Santa’s Grotto on Christmas Eve is an unexpected treat. Daddy will be coming home later this evening. Mummy has explained to me more than once that the reason Daddy has to be away from home so often and for such long periods is that ‘he’s earning the pennies for us to spend’. I miss him when he’s away, but I like having the pennies. And I like it even more when he does come home, usually bringing something nice for me. And my excitement at the prospect of his return is always all the greater at Christmas time.
Mummy has decided at the last minute that she needs to buy him one more present, and my reward for being patient and well behaved while she searches for the perfect gift is to take my place in the queue of children waiting to tell Santa what they hope to find in their stockings tomorrow morning. It’s been carefully explained to me more than once that this isn’t the real Santa Claus. He, of course, is much too busy loading up his sleigh and harnessing the reindeer in preparation for his long night’s work. This is simply one of his helpers enlisted to meet and talk with the line of eager girls and boys to find out what they’re hoping for on Christmas morning and to ensure that the one true Santa will deliver the right presents to the right houses. It seems a plausible enough explanation, though I’m often puzzled as to why he has to wear exactly the same clothes as the genuine bearer of the title and consequently raise confusing questions in the minds of young children like me. Why doesn’t he dress like one of the elves that I’ve seen in some of my books toiling all the live-long day in the toy-making workshop at the North Pole? Or at least he could wear a big badge saying, ‘I’m not the real Santa. I’m just a helper.’
But they are questions that I’m happy to put to the back of my mind when – even more unexpectedly – my mother buys me my very first watch with the assurance that it isn’t one of my Christmas presents and the promise that I can take it out of its box and wear it as soon as we get home. Such a prospect puts me in a state of excitement that almost takes my breath away. I’ve only just learned how to tell the time and I never miss an opportunity to impress anyone who’s willing to listen with my newly acquired skill.
And that’s why I remember so clearly the moment when I first become aware of the friend who, one way or another, will be with me for the rest of my life. I catch sight of the enormous clock with the gold lettering that hangs from the ceiling of Kendrew’s Department Store. The big hand is on the 6 and the little hand is between the 4 and the 5.
‘That means that it must be half past four,’ I announce triumphantly and a little more loudly than my mother deems proper for a well-brought-up child from a family with aspirations to climb to the next rung of the social ladder.
‘Well done,’ she says taking hold of my hand and ushering me on to the downward escalator. ‘But we don’t need to tell all these people. I expect they already know how to tell the time for themselves.’
That seems a silly thing to say. Of course, they all know how to tell the time. Isn’t that something everyone has to learn when they are children? I can’t understand why she even bothers to mention it. But then, even at the age of three and three-quarters, I’ve already noticed that grown-ups, who seem to know such a lot, can still say silly things. When she thinks I’m misbehaving, Mummy will often look at me disapprovingly and say very quietly and slowly, ‘You’re forgetting yourself, Lori Bloom.’ That’s really silly. How could anybody forget themselves? You wouldn’t know who you were or what you were doing or where you were going if you forgot yourself.
I’m still trying to work that out in my head when I realise that what I can hear coming through the speakers all around us is the sound of a man with a soft, gentle voice singing about things coming to pass when a baby is born. I can’t understand why, but it’s a song that always makes me feel sad and happy at the same time, though it seems to be about another silly thing. Why would things come just to pass and not to stay? It doesn’t make sense to me, but my mother likes that song. She’s been listening to it on the radio a lot. One afternoon I asked her what it meant. But she was doing something in the kitchen at the time and said she’d explain it to me when she wasn’t so busy. It occurs to me now that no one can be busy just standing on an escalator. So this should be a good time to ask her again.
But just as I’m about to speak, the music stops and I hear a very different voice. One that sounds serious, just like Daddy does when he thinks something is wrong with his car:
WE HAVE A LITTLE GIRL HERE WITH CURLY BLONDE HAIR AT RECEPTION. SHE’S CRYING FOR HER MUMMY AND DADDY. WOULD THE PARENTS OF…
‘Lori, pay attention to what you’re doing!’ Mummy shouts and quickly grabs hold of my hand as the escalator steps level out and we reach the ground floor of the store. ‘You’ll fall if you don’t watch out. You know I’m always telling you to be careful when you’re on an escalator.’
‘But, Mummy, a little girl is lost,’ I protest. ‘And you were talking to me when the man said her name. Shouldn’t we go and find out who she is? Maybe we could wait with her until her mummy and daddy get there? What if they’ve forgotten her and gone home? Or what if they’ve decided they don’t want her any more?’
My own safety is of no consequence to me compared to the situation of a little girl who is lost in a busy shop on Christmas Eve without her parents. I can imagine the panic she must be feeling as she struggles to stop herself from crying and tries to tell her name to some grown-ups she doesn’t know.
‘No, Lori, we’re not going to reception.’
It’s obvious from my mother’s voice that she’s irritated by my question and that she’s not about to give in to my pleas. She’s weary of shopping and all she wants to do is to get home as quickly as possible.
‘We’ve been here longer than I intended as it is. And anyhow, the security people will have everything in hand. I’m sure her mummy and daddy will have missed her. They’ll have been to reception and collected her before we could get there.’
She holds my hand tightly as she strides towards the revolving doors and out on to the street. I’m having to run to keep up with her as we hurry through the crowds. The damp chill of the evening serves only to increase my childish sense of injustice. Not even the brightly decorated shop windows or the colourful illuminations strung across the road above our heads can lift my mood. A little girl is lost and we’re doing nothing to help. Just to go home and forget about it doesn’t feel right.
It’s almost six o’clock when we pull up into the driveway. The stop–start journey through the evening rush hour traffic has made me feel travel sick and I’m glad to get out of the car. I begin to feel better as soon as I get into the cold night air, and by the time we step through the front door I’m already feeling hungry. But I know we won’t be having dinner until Daddy arrives home in another hour. So, at Mummy’s suggestion, I help myself to a banana from the fruit bowl and go up to my room to try on my new watch.
My hunger is quickly forgotten and my banana is left uneaten as I fall under the spell of this newly acquired treasure. I handle it gently as I ease it slowly and carefully out of the box and put it on my wrist. It looks even nicer than it did in the shop. The strap is pink, the big hand is blue, the little hand is red, the face is white, and the numbers around the edge are green and orange and sparkly. I think that it’s one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.
Normally, just admiring such a thing of beauty and playing games that involve pretending to be grown up and checking the time would keep me fully occupied for the rest of the evening. But even my unexpected not-Christmas present isn’t enough to distract me from the thoughts that are troubling me. Try as I might to lose myself in the world of play, I can’t get the picture of that lost little girl out of my mind. In my imagination I can see her curly blonde hair falling over her face and the tears rolling down her cheeks as she looks up into the eyes of people she doesn’t know who are standing over her. Worst of all, I can hear her asking for her mummy over and over and over again.
I must have been lost in such thoughts for more than half an hour when I hear the front door open. I know exactly what that means and I rush downstairs. Daddy’s home! He’s standing there waiting for me when I reach the hallway. Even as a child I know that he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. And I’ve heard some of Mummy’s friends tell her that with his thick, black, wavy hair and his deep blue eyes, her husband looks like a male model or a film star. As soon as he sees me, he drops his bag on the floor and I jump up into his arms.
‘Well, well, well,’ he says, holding me up above his head and noticing what I have on my wrist. ‘We have a little girl here wearing a very posh new watch…’
He throws me up in the air and he’s about to say something else as he catches me again. But I won’t let him continue.
‘No, stop, Daddy!’ I shout. ‘Put me down! Put me down!’
Mummy has a very cross expression on her face.
‘Lori Bloom, that’s not a nice way for a little girl to speak to her daddy. He’s had a long journey so he could get home to be with us in time for Christmas. You need to say sorry. Right now.’
Every time I think of that moment it reminds me of a day trip we made to the seaside the previous summer. I was paddling in shallow water, looking at people sitting on the beach, when a big wave that I couldn’t see came up behind me and knocked me off my feet. I’d never been completely under water before and I thought I was going to drown. I’m not a child who cries a lot, but when I try to say sorry to my daddy, a great wave of tears hits me and I can’t stop crying. I feel as if I’m drowning in those deep, wrenching sobs. Daddy picks me up again, very gently this time, and carries me into the lounge where he sits me down on his knee.
‘Now what’s all this about, eh? It’s not like you to get upset and cry like this. Especially on Christmas Eve. What’s happened?’
The tears slowly begin to subside and then it all tumbles out – coming down on the escalator at Kendrew’s, the man with the soft, gentle voice singing the song about a child being born and things coming to pass that always makes me feel sad and happy at the same time, the voice that interrupts the song with the message about the lost little girl.
‘The man said the same words that you said just now, Daddy – We have a little girl here… That made me remember it all over again. That’s what made me cry…’
I start crying all over again, but Daddy pulls out his big white handkerchief from his pocket, dries my eyes, and makes me blow my nose so loudly that the three of us laugh. The storm has passed and the wave has receded.
After dinner, Mummy clears the table and I go into the front room with Daddy. The room is in darkness except for the lights on the Christmas tree and the flickering flames in the log fire that make pretty changing patterns on the opposite wall. It’s only the second Christmas I can properly remember, but already this has become in my mind ‘what we always do on Christmas Eve’. We snuggle up together on the couch and I imagine I’m in an enchanted cavern where something magical might happen at any moment. It feels safe and warm and I want to stay there forever.
‘I think you’re falling asleep, Miss Lori.’ Mummy’s come back into the room. ‘Come on. It’s time for you to help me put some food out for Santa and then you must get off to bed. You know he doesn’t visit a house unless the children are fast asleep.’
We go into the kitchen and set out a tray with a mince pie and a glass of milk, cover them with a bright red serviette, and lay a little card on top with the words, ‘Thank you for coming, Santa,’ written in gold-coloured ink. Then we go back into the front room so that I can kiss Daddy goodnight. He’s just put a record on the radiogram and the music is beginning to play as we push the door open. It’s the man with the soft gentle voice again, singing that same song about things coming to pass when a child is born. For a moment I think I’m back on the downward escalator at Kendrew’s Department Store. But there’s something else I can hear in my head. Something I haven’t been able to remember until now.
‘Turn the music off, Daddy! Please turn it off.’ I’m half-crying, half-shouting, afraid that if the song doesn’t stop the voice I can hear in my head will disappear and I’ll forget it all over again. ‘There’s something else I remember…’
I didn’t know the word for it then, but I’m looking up at two grown-ups who are utterly bemused by my anxious pleas. Daddy looks at Mummy, walks across the room to the radiogram and leans over and lifts the needle off the record.
‘What’s wrong, Lori?’ he asks. ‘Why don’t you want the music to play?’
‘Because I think I did hear what the man said in the shop when the song stopped. Mummy was telling me to be careful on the escalator. So it made me confused. But I think I really did hear what he said. I think I know the name of the little girl who’s lost.’
‘Hmm… you’d better come and sit down for a minute and tell us what you think you heard.’
Mummy sits on the couch beside me and Daddy kneels on the floor in front of me with his hands on my shoulders.
‘Well, we’re listening. What did you hear?’
‘I think that the little girl’s name is…’ I pause for a moment to make sure I’ve got it right. ‘I think it’s Calippa Cumberland.’
Mummy and Daddy glance at each other again. Daddy leans back on his knees, folds his arms and rocks backwards and forwards for a moment. He looks at me over his eyebrows like he always does when he thinks I’m making up a story.
‘Calippa? Hmm… that’s a funny name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone called Calippa. Are you sure you’re not just making it up?’
‘And maybe you’re thinking of when we stayed with Uncle Rob and Auntie Cheryl in Cumberland Cottage last summer,’ Mummy quickly adds with a smile. ‘I seem to remember you liked the sound of the name. I think Daddy even made up a little song as you were going to sleep about being in slumberland in Cumberland.’
‘No, no. I promise you I’m not making this up.’ I can feel the tears beginning to well up again. ‘I could sort of hear what the man was saying. I just couldn’t work it out right in my head because you were talking at the same time. But that is her name. I’m sure it is. Calippa Cumberland. And maybe she’s still there…’
Now there’s no holding back the tears. I sob bitterly for a little lost girl all alone in Kendrew’s Department Store on Christmas Eve after everyone else has gone home.
Daddy lifts me up and holds me tightly in his arms. He waits until my tears have subsided before he whispers in my ear.
‘Listen to me very carefully, Lori. I’m going to take you up to bed now. I think you’re very tired and you’ve had more than enough excitement for one day. And you need to be wide awake in the morning. So when we’ve tucked you up in bed I’ll phone the police and ask if any little girls have been reported missing. And I’ll call Kendrew’s, just in case there’s someone still there closing up the shop. I’m sure they’ll tell me that the little girl was collected and taken home by her parents. So you can stop worrying about Miss Calippa Cumberland. Does that make you feel better?’
I half-mumble, half-yawn a tired yes and nod my head against his chest.
‘Good,’ he says as he begins carrying me upstairs. ‘Now you can fall asleep and have lovely dreams about what will be waiting for you in the morning.’
But children are often wiser and understand more than grown-ups realise. I know that these are the kinds of promises parents make to their children to stop them from worrying. And I know that he will neither phone the police nor call the shop. As Mummy pulls back the covers and Daddy tucks me into bed, I’ve already made up my mind. Calippa Cumberland is lost in Kendrew’s Department Store and no one will ever find her. She’s doomed to wander unnoticed by busy shoppers day after day and to huddle in dark corners for warmth each night. But she won’t be alone. I’ll be her friend.
While every other child in England that Christmas Eve is dreaming of what delights the morning will bring, I’m talking to a little girl with curly blonde hair, helping her to dry her eyes and telling her not to be afraid because I will always be her friend.