Anna’s dress was a year too short and a year too young, with its babyish puffed sleeves. There was no money for a new one. Anna scowled as she tried to pull the dress over her thighs. She was too old for Father Christmas, and certainly too old to sit on his knee. Besides, she knew it was Mr Foster.
Mr Foster had saved the town, with his factory and his jobs. He had given the men back their manhood, the women back their husbands. He had put food on tables and clothes on backs. So it wasn’t too much to ask when, every Christmas, he expected the children to come, in their best clothes, with smiles on their faces, to a party at his big house on the hill.
Last year Anna had still half believed. But when Father Christmas had pulled her onto his knee he had smelled of sweat and peppermint. He had pinched her thigh hard enough to leave a mark, too close to the lace on her knickers.
‘It’s nip a nipper week,’ he had said, leaving his hand on her leg as he asked whether she had been a good girl. The top of one of his fingers was missing. That was how Anna knew that it was Mr Foster, because she had seen the half finger again on prize giving night at school, when he had presented her with a certificate for her composition.
Afterwards he had come over as they stood sipping weak orange squash and tea from plastic cups.
‘So this is your young thing, George,’ he had boomed. He knew all his workers by their first names. Anna had stared at the floor. At home, that night, her father had been angry with her, because she had not shown respect. Anna had stamped her foot in temper, and said she hated Mr Foster. Her father raised his hand as if to strike her, then thought better of it. She was sent to her room.
Now, Elves stood guard at the doors of the grotto as the children went in, one by one. Anna’s mother smoothed her hair and retied her ribbons. Anna pleaded a tummy ache, folding her arms across her stomach. Her mother’s lips were set in a thin angry line. She dragged her into the corner. Sometimes, in life, she said, you had to do things you didn’t want to.
It was Anna’s turn. Her mother shoved her forwards.
‘Like a lamb to the slaughter,’ muttered Eliza Crawley, who had never fitted in, and would be gone by the next Christmas.
Anna’s gift was a plastic tea set. Outside, she stamped on it until the tiny cups and saucers were all cracked. She muttered something that only her mother heard. A firm hand was placed over her mouth. Did she want that bike for Christmas, or did she not? They walked home without speaking, their hands buried in their pockets. They were never close again, after that.