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Secret Santas

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Ground floor perfumery,
stationery and leather goods,
wigs and haberdashery
kitchenware and food...going up

First floor telephones,
gents ready-made suits,
shirts, socks, ties, hats,
underwear and shoes...going up

The Grace Brothers men’s and ladies ready-wear department was festively, yet tastefully, decorated for the Christmas season. A large red bow hung above each of the lift doors, a tiny decorated tree stood on each counter, and the center display stand highlighted a selection of gentlemen’s holiday jumpers and hats. The jumpers were unfortunately ghastly, in typical Grace Brothers fashion. Each was worse than the last, adorned with a troupe of dancing penguins or the face of a reindeer with a giant red pom pom for its nose. However, the hats were even more spectacular. The most outrageous was a festively red Stetson ringed with green felt cactuses each decorated with little felt ornaments. It was perched merrily on the head of an otherwise unremarkable mannequin.

As opening time drew near, Mr. Humphries arrived, sashaying up to the menswear counter girded against the December chill in a down parka with a fur-lined hood.

“Good morning, Mr. Humphries!” Mr. Lucas greeted him.

“And a very good morning to you, Mr. Lucas.” Mr. Humphries pulled off his gloves.

“You’re rather chipper this morning, Mr. Humphries.” Mr. Lucas observed.

Mr. Humphries removed his parka to reveal that he was in evening clothes, with the exception of his jacket, which was a bright red soldier’s costume with long tails.

Mr. Lucas raised an eyebrow, thinking to himself that there was likely a good story to be had. “Had an eventful evening, did you?”

Mr. Humphries nodded coyly. “Yes, I don’t mind telling you that I never made it home last night.”

“I would never have known,” Mr. Lucas deadpanned. This was not the first time Mr. Humphries had failed to make it home.

“My friend and I went to a performance of The Nutcracker. My friend’s sister was a Snowflake, so she was able to get us into the cast party afterwards. Well, it was a most unusual party. My friend ended up going off with the Sugar Plum Fairy and there I was, with no ride and stuck in a crowd of strangers. To top things off, the Sugar Plum Fairy had come to the party with the Mouse King and after being jilted by the fairy, the king tried to take his grievances out on me,” Mr. Humphries exclaimed. “He demanded my friend’s name. He was rather threatening and I can tell you I was quite worried for a moment!”

“Well, who wouldn’t be?” asked Mr. Lucas. “You don’t want to mess around with a Mouse King.”

“Anyway, the Nutcracker himself came to my rescue, drove off the Mouse King, and took me home with him for safekeeping.”

“But how did you end up with the Nutcracker’s jacket?” Mr. Lucas asked.

“He took an inexplicable fancy to my dinner jacket. You can see from the fit on this that we’re exactly the same size,” Mr. Humphries did a little pirouette to demonstrate. “After what he’d done for me I didn’t like to turn him down, so I asked for his jacket in trade. The one he got was only an off the rack Grace Brothers staff discount model that I got Mr. Dimsdale in tailoring to take in for me, so I definitely got the better deal.”

“It does fit you splendidly,” Mr. Lucas agreed, “but wherever are you going to wear a toy soldier jacket, Mr. Humphries?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Lucas, but I am sure I will find an occasion for it. And it’s not every day you get to take a jacket off a Nutcracker.”

“Indeed no, Mr. Humphries, indeed no.”

As Mr. Humphries made his way into the dressing rooms to change into his spare suit, he passed Mr. Grainger who was just emerging, straightening his lapels and checking his tape measure. They nodded at each other in greeting and Mr. Grainger approached the counter, trying to think of some fault he could find with Mr. Lucas who was leaning idly against a display. He was distracted from his intention to exhort the boy to stand up straight by a summons.

“Are you free, Mr. Grainger?” Captain Peacock inquired from his station near the central display.

Although the store had not yet officially opened, Mr. Grainger looked left and right, surveying his domain to confirm that no customers were lurking unattended. “Yes, Captain Peacock.”

Captain Peacock waited expectantly.

Mr. Grainger peered inquiringly at him through the glasses perched on his nose.

Captain Peacock sighed. “Mr. Grainger, if you are free, perhaps you would come over here for a moment so we could speak without shouting across the length of the showroom floor?”

“Oh, oh, yes. Of course, Captain Peacock!” Mr. Grainger answered with a slight grin of embarrassment. He slowly made his way out from behind the menswear counter, clutching the ends of his tape measure. He ambled leisurely toward the central display. It is possible that his ambling was slightly slower than usual. If Captain Peacock was going to summon him like some stock boy, then Captain Peacock would have to wait. “You wished to see me?”

Captain Peacock nodded, “Yes, Mr. Grainger. As part of the holiday festivities for the staff, young Mr. Grace has kindly agreed to allow us to conduct a round robin gift exchange.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Grainger unenthusiastically. He didn’t particularly enjoy exchanging gifts. It was bad enough that he had to buy something for his wife. After a few missteps in their early marriage, most notably the year he made the mistake of giving her the latest in electric vacuums from the Grace Brothers housewares department, he had settled on getting her a bottle of her usual perfume and a box of chocolate caramels for her Christmas present. As both were used up within a few months, he could safely buy them for her again year after year. For her birthday it was lavender soaps in the shape of little shells and a bouquet of daisies. Mr. Grainger mentally patted himself on the back and assured himself that his wife appreciated his dependability.

Captain Peacock sighed. A grunt had not been the enthusiastic response for which he had been hoping. As usual, no one appreciated the weight of the responsibilities he took on as floorwalker and senior member of the department. “I have already written everyone’s names down on slips of paper. Would now be a convenient time to have the name drawing?”

Mr. Grainger again turned his head left and right, surveying the empty store. “Yes, I think now would be an excellent time.”

“Very good. Let me just consult Mrs. Slocombe.” Captain Peacock turned toward the ladies counter and beckoned Mrs. Slocombe, who was just patting her hair into place after having removed her scarf. In honor of the holidays, she had dyed her hair red and white and styled it to resemble a peppermint swirl. She also wore a large brooch in the shape of a Christmas stocking with a kitten peeking out of the top.

Mrs. Slocombe bristled. She hurried out from behind her counter, head held high and chest puffed out. “Here,” she began belligerently, “how come you ask him if he’s free and I only get a finger waggle?”

Captain Peacock let the verbal assault roll off of him, his poise firmly in place. “I apologize, Mrs. Slocombe. I was trying to avoid more yelling across the showroom floor.”

“What for? There’s no one here yet but staff.”

“I believe we at Grace Brothers should maintain an appropriate decorum at all times.”

“Well what kind of decorum has you waggling your fingers at people?” she asked.

Captain Peacock turned his nose up and answered stiffly “I do apologize.”

“Well, if you were really sorry, you’d ask me if I was free.” Mrs. Slocombe crossed her arms across her ample chest.

Captain Peacock rolled his eyes and sighed again. “Are you free, Mrs. Slocombe?”

Mrs. Slocombe glanced from side to side and replied haughtily, “Yes, Captain Peacock.”

“As I was telling Mr. Grainger, Mr. Grace has allowed us to organize a holiday gift exchange among the staff to bolster morale during the holiday season. I have written everyone’s names on slips of paper. Would now be a good time to have the drawing of names?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Very good.” Captain Peacock removed a handful of paper slips from his jacket pocket. “Does one of you have something we could use to draw the names out of?”

Mr. Grainger explained that he had worn a knit cap that day as it kept his ears warm. Mrs. Slocombe, ever resourceful, snagged the Christmas Stetson off of the mannequin and offered it to Captain Peacock, “Will this do?”

Mrs. Slocombe and Mr. Grainger each summoned their respective staff and the group gathered around the display. “How shall we choose the order of drawing?” asked Mrs. Slocombe.

“Let us begin with the most junior and proceed in order of seniority,” answered Mr. Peacock. Heads nodded as this scheme was agreed to. “Mr. Lucas, you are first.” Mr. Peacock offered the hat.

Mr. Lucas blew on his fingertips and cracked his knuckles before reaching in for a piece of paper. Everyone watched expectantly as he unfolded it. “What?” he inquired.

“Well,” said Miss Brahms, “who’d you get?”

“I’m not telling,” Mr. Lucas replied aghast. “It’s supposed to be a secret! That’s why they call it Secret Santa.”

Miss Brahms gingerly reached into the hat for her own slip of paper. She peeked secretively at it. And grimaced.

“Keep in mind, Miss Brahms, that although the name drawing is secret for now your recipient will eventually know who gave them their present when the surprises are revealed.” Captain Peacock cautioned.

“Here,” Mrs. Slocombe broke in, “when are we revealing ourselves?”

Mr. Lucas tittered. “As far as I am concerned, Mrs. Slocombe, there is no need for you to reveal yourself to me.”

“You behave yourself!” Mrs. Slocombe retorted. “Don’t forget Santa is watching you!”

“How about we exchange gifts at the tea break on Friday.” Mr. Humphries offered.

There was general agreement with this plan. Mr. Humphries drew a name next and delicately raised one eyebrow, “Oooooohhhh.” Mrs. Slocombe followed him, keeping her best poker face on. Mr. Peacock offered the hat to Mr. Grainger.

“Would you like me to hold the hat while you draw, Captain Peacock?” Mr. Grainger offered in return.

Captain Peacock’s eyes narrowed. “No, Mr. Grainger, I would like you to draw a name”

“It was my understanding that we were proceeding by seniority.” Mr. Grainger smiled determinedly.

“Yes, we are.” Mr. Peacock raised his nose haughtily.

“Well, Captain Peacock, I believe I have been at Grace Brothers for six years longer than you have.”

“Yes, Mr. Grainger, but I believe that you will find that I outrank you.” Captain Peacock smiled in a way that was meant to be benevolent but had the unfortunate appearance of being smarmy.

Mrs. Slocombe snorted and took matters into her own hands, grabbing the hat. She reached in and grabbed two pieces of paper, thrusting one at each man. “No more arguing. It’s against the holiday spirit.” She glanced back into the hat, “Wait a minute, there’s two slips left. How can that be?”

Captain Peacock cleared his throat, “Mr. Rumbold and young Mr. Grace will participate in the exchange. I will take the last two slips to them.”

Mr. Grainger rocked backward and hooked his thumbs into the buttonholes of his coat, “I believe young Mr. Grace outranks us all, Captain Peacock, so it is fitting that he gets the final name.”

Later that afternoon, Miss Brahms and Mrs. Slocombe were chatting as they put their displays away for the evening.

“Do you have any ideas for the gift exchange, Miss Brahms?” Mrs. Slocombe was partly making conversation and partly fishing to try to find out who had her name.

“No I don’t. And I’m terribly worried that I never will. I’ve got Mr. Rumbold’s name and I haven’t a clue what to get him.” Miss Brahms folded handkerchiefs and handed them to Mrs. Slocombe. “I tried to get that lot over there to help me,” she indicated the menswear counter with a shake of her head. “But all they did was joke. Mr. Grainger asked how I liked chocolate caramels, Mr. Humphries offered me a Nutcracker costume, and Mr. Lucas suggested I get Mr. Rumbold one of those racy boudoir photos they’re doing now down in portraits!”

Mrs. Slocombe clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Well, I’ve got Mr. Humphries and I’ve no idea what to get him either. He is so particular about things and he has such an eye for fashion.”

“I know exactly what to get for Mr. Humphries,” Miss Brahms offered. “You want to trade names?”

Mrs. Slocombe hesitated, “Well…” She considered. Then a sly smile lit up her face. “Yes, Miss Brahms. Let’s us trade. I don’t think anyone but Captain Peacock would mind and he doesn’t have to know.”

Friday’s tea break finally arrived, after a morning in which several dozen customers had tried on every hat, glove, and suspender to be had but few had bought anything. “Blimey,” Mr. Lucas thought to himself. “If the commissions don’t pick up I’ll be eating chicken bouillon and crisps for Christmas dinner.”

The staff gathered around a table in the cafeteria, each clutching a package and sipping a cup of tea. A construction paper wreath had been tacked up over the door in a feeble attempt to brighten the graying walls. Mr. Rumbold, unaccustomed to the regular staff dining hall, looked slightly uncomfortable as he eyed his tea suspiciously. “Young Mr. Grace will be joining us but he asked that we begin without him.”

“Who goes first,” Miss Brahms asked.

“We don’t want any more of that seniority nonsense,” Mrs. Slocombe added.

“What seniority nonsense?” Mr. Rumbold asked. Without waiting for an answer, he went on “I propose that we go clockwise around the table.”

“Starting with who?” Miss Brahms demanded.

“Whom.” Mrs. Slocombe corrected firmly. “Starting with whom.”

“Starting with you, Mrs. Slocombe,” Mr. Rumbold replied. “Ladies first.”

Though flattered, Mrs. Slocombe was beginning to lose patience. “Does that mean I get my present first or I give out my present first?”

“As you wish.”

“Right then. This is for you, Mr. Rumbold.” Mrs. Slocombe offered a flat package wrapped in red and white tissue paper with a multi-colored bow of ribbon curls nearly as large as the package itself. “My pussy helped me with the wrapping. She likes to chase the ribbons.”

Mr. Rumbold took the package. “Thank you very much, Mrs. Slocombe.” He opened it to reveal a picture frame. The photograph within was visible only to him. “Oh my!” Mr. Rumbold’s mouth flapped open and closed several times. “Mrs. Slocombe! You shouldn’t have. You really shouldn’t have!”

Mrs. Slocombe, taking the comment as delighted hyperbole rather than literal protest, preened slightly. “Mr. Collins in the portrait studio was most accommodating. He allowed me to try on several outfits so I could find just the right one. We were in agreement that white suited me, though I’m no blushing bride. But there was something missing. It needed a holiday touch. Fortunately, Mr. Humphries lent me his Nutcracker jacket.”

“I knew that would come in handy,” Mr. Humphries remarked.

As the other occupants of the table were battling unwanted mental images of Mrs. Slocombe lounging on a Turkish divan in garters, heels, and a toy soldier’s jacket, Mr. Lucas peered over Mr. Rumbold’s shoulder and inquired “Is that a whip?”

Mrs. Slocombe frowned at him. “It’s a fishing pole. I understand that Mr. Rumbold enjoys fishing on his holidays and I wanted to include his interests.”

Mr. Rumbold pushed his glasses up his nose. “Most kind of you, Mrs. Slocombe.” He put the picture face down on the table. “Miss Brahms, you’re next.”

Miss Brahms offered her colorfully wrapped package the size and shape of a brick to Mr. Humphries. “’Ere you go.”

Mr. Humphries shook the package playfully but to no effect. “Thank you, Miss Brahms.” He tore off the wrapping excitedly to reveal a loaf shaped baked good. He tried valiantly to hide his disappointment, “A fruitcake. How nice.”

“My auntie makes them,” Miss Brahms explained. “They’re soaked in rum.”

Mr. Humphries perked up noticeably, “Oh! A fruitcake! How nice!”

Mr. Lucas, next in line, handed a very small, very plain box to Captain Peacock. “It’s not much, I’m afraid. But on my salary it couldn’t be much.”

Captain Peacock opened the box to reveal a packet of chewing gum. “Chewing gum, Mr. Lucas?” He raised an eyebrow.

“It’s cinnamon flavored,” Mr. Lucas protested. “It’s a holiday variety. They only have them this time of year.”

Captain Peacock cursed his luck, and Mr. Lucas, internally but maintained his composure. “Thank you, Mr. Lucas. Mr. Grainger, you’re next.”

Mr. Grainger offered a small Grace Brothers box to Miss Brahms. She opened it to reveal seashell shaped soaps. “What’s this then? Are you trying to say I smell bad?”

Mr. Grainger was horrified. He knew this gift giving was a bad idea. “Certainly not!” At a loss, Mr. Grainger looked helplessly at his fellow men for assistance.

Mr. Humphries, full of Christmas cheer and looking forward to his fruitcake, stepped in. “Isn’t that the soap your wife likes, Mr. Grainger?”

Mr. Grainger relaxed. “Yes, yes it is. She has always said that the lavender scent was most soothing in the bath.”

Miss Brahms, mollified, leaned around to give Mr. Grainger a peck on his wrinkled cheek. “Thank you very much, Mr. Grainger. It’s lovely.”

Mr. Grainger smiled. Perhaps this gift giving thing wasn’t so bad after all.

“I’m next,” Mr. Rumbold declared. He held out a large round box. “Mr. Lucas, this is for you.”

“Blimey, it’s gigantic. I’m humbled.” Mr. Lucas placed the box in his lap and lifted the lid. He looked down, stunned. Miss Brahms and Mrs. Slocombe craned their necks, trying to see what was in the box. Slowly, Mr. Lucas lifted out the awful red Christmas Stetson with its ring of felt cactuses. He paused a moment, still dumbfounded. “I have no idea how to thank you for this, Mr. Rumbold. May I ask what about this hat made you think of me?”

Mr. Rumbold was somewhat sheepish but caught too much off guard to find an answer more tactful than the truth. “The eighty percent discount.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Lucas. “Yes, I can see how that might remind you of me.” He placed the Stetson carefully back in its box, considering whether he dared return it for the cash and whether Mr. Rumbold would notice its reappearance in the display if he did. On the bright side, even with an eighty percent discount, returning the Stetson should net him enough to get a chicken for Christmas dinner.

“My turn!” Mr. Humphries sang out cheerily. “This is for you, Mr. Grainger.” He offered a slim package tastefully wrapped in powder blue paper with a white ribbon.

Mr. Grainger accepted the package with a slight bow of his head, “Thank you, Mr. Humphries.” He carefully unwrapped it to reveal a small box of Cuban cigars.

“You said once that one of the few things you missed from the war was being able to get Cuban cigars off of the Yanks sometimes. I thought you might like these.” Mr. Humphries explained.

Mr. Grainger went slightly misty looking, removing his glasses to give them a slight polish with his handkerchief, surreptitiously dabbing at his eyes afterwards. “I can’t have mentioned that more than once. It is very kind of you to remember it. Mrs. Grainger won’t let me smoke in the house anymore, so I haven’t had a cigar in years. I shall hide these in the back garden and think of you when I smoke them.”

Captain Peacock cleared his throat to break the air of sentimentality. “This is for you, Mrs. Slocombe.” He set a foot long box on the table in front of her.

Mrs. Slocombe carefully untied the red ribbon and opened the box to reveal a bright orange feather tied to a stick with a bit of elastic. She held it up and turned it from side to side, “It’s a decoration for my hat, is it?”

“No,” Captain Peacock corrected. “It is a cat toy. You dangle it about and shake it. I am told many cats find it fascinating.”

Mrs. Slocombe gave the stick an experimental shake and the feather bobbed. She smiled. “Thank you, Captain Peacock. I am sure my pussy will be delighted with it.”

Mr. Lucas had turned pinker and pinker throughout this exchange, gradually losing his struggle to contain himself. “Are you sure you know how to work it, Mrs. Slocombe? Perhaps Captain Peacock should demonstrate the correct way to play with one’s pussy.”

Captain Peacock fixed the young man with his iciest glare, “That will do, Mr. Lucas.”

Miss Brahms tried to hide a smile in her napkin.

Tears of laughter ran down Mr. Lucas’s face. “Do you go so far as to tickle the pussy with the feather, Captain Peacock, or do you merely dangle the bait before it?”

“Mr. Lucas!” Captain Peacock reprimanded.

“Just a moment,” Mr. Humphries said. “Everyone here has given a present and everyone here has gotten a present. But young Mr. Grace hasn’t arrived yet. Who had Mr. Grace’s name?”

They looked at each other blankly. “He did get a name,” Mr. Rumbold confirmed. “I delivered it to him myself. But I didn’t look at the paper, of course, so I don’t know whose name he got.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Slocombe, “if no one here got his name and he didn’t get the name of anyone here, then he must’ve gotten his own name, mustn’t he?”

“That’s cheating isn’t it?” Mr. Lucas asked, imagining what kind of lavish present he might have gotten if Mr. Rumbold had swapped those last two papers and Mr. Grace had chosen his name instead. If he had a diamond tie clip to return, he’d have been able to afford a proper goose with all the trimmings for Christmas dinner.

“If one draws ones own name, one is supposed to re-draw,” Captain Peacock stated carefully, confirming the rules without directly accusing young Mr. Grace.

“But if one is drawing last, as young Mr. Grace did, there isn’t anything to re-draw from,” Mr. Rumbold pointed out.

Just then, young Mr. Grace tottered into the cafeteria, wearing a jaunty fur-trimmed Father Christmas hat. He was followed closely by his young blonde nurse, who was holding his overcoat and muffler. “Hello, everyone!” he greeted them cheerily, leaning on his cane.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Grace,” the staff responded in chorus.

“I’m just off to Casablanca for the Mediterranean cruise my Secret Santa gave me. That gift exchange was excellent for morale, Rumbold. Remind me to do it again next year.” Mr. Grace waved as he exited, calling “Happy Christmas, everybody! You’ve all done very well!”