The Week Off

Entry by: jaguar

27th December 2017
4pm Christmas Eve 2017. Judith sighed as she switched off the till in her little cosmetic concession, an island in the middle of the department store’s ocean. It had been quiet most of the day, it seemed even last-minute present buyers avoided Sunday shopping. The Store manager told them they wouldn’t stay open late just after 3pm. Judith should have let Dave know then but her favourite customer came in and kept her busy doing a full make-over. She bought all the products Judith used and thrust two twenty pound notes into Judith’s hand. ‘For you lovie. I look better than I have in twenty years and I so enjoy your little performances every morning.’

It was a condition of her job that Judith wore the brand’s make-up but Dave hated her plastering herself in colour, looking like a tart. He kept such a tight rein on her time Judith couldn’t do it once she got to work. The only way Judith could please both was to make putting her make-up on part of the sales day. She usually had quite an audience at 9am to watch her transformation as well as a chance to demonstrate the cleansing products at the end of each day. Thankfully Dave loathed the store and never set foot in it.

She’d been late for the first time that morning because she’d had to put foundation on before going under those glaring lights. Judith checked her face in the mirror. She couldn’t decide whether to take her make-off now or face Dave’s anger. Clinique Sally whistled at her. ‘Lucky Dave. Is he outside waiting like a prison officer?’

Judith suppressed a smile and shook her head. ‘I haven’t had time to ring him.’

‘Great!. Shall we go and have a sneaky snifter? If we go through the toy department we can get into the pub the back way. There’s no way you’ll be seen. Then we can pop you out the front, good as bleeding gold, just in time.’’

They always used to have a drink Christmas Eve but Dave didn’t like Sally. He’d helped Judith see Sal was a big drinker, mouthy, off-putiing to men. She’d been a good friend to Judith before but she could be loud, crude even. Then there was the cost of the drink. Dave didn’t know about Judith’s Christmas bonus but she’d need to put something in the bank to cover the hours she hadn’t worked that day. Could she afford a round? What about the smell of the alcohol?

Sal wrinkled her nose at Judith. ‘Suit yourself. I know when I’m not wanted.’ She strode off towards the elevator, her hips swinging from side to side, one stocking drooping below the hem of her too-short skirt. Dave would say she looked a state but Judith thought there was something jaunty and defiant about Sal, something that reminded Judith of her old self.

She made her mind up and shot after her friend. The elevator had already left so she checked herself in the mirror while she waited. She told herself not to forget to take the foundation off. There’d be hell to pay if she did. Right now she looked alright, even in her uniform with her hair scraped back the way Dave liked it. Come to think of it she looked a bit like a prison officer herself.

In the basement the toy staff were already marking stock down for Boxing Day. She picked her way through the piled-up aisle. A hand in a white glove shot out and blocked her way. Then it beckoned at her before a voice boomed out. ‘Room for one last one in Santa’s Grotto.’

She jumped then smiled because she thought she recognised the voice. It must be Billy, her only other friend in the store. He’d got a proper job a year or so ago but might be back to earn a bit more at Christmas. Had Sal set all this up? Judith followed the twinkling path to Santa’s Grotto wondering where the hand had gone.

‘Come in, come in.’ It didn’t sound like Billy now but she knew the voice although Santa was trying to disguise it. She crouched down and went through the low doorway. An enormous Santa sat in the middle of an Aladdin’s cave. Everywhere she looked there were twinkling jewels and lights and the whole thing smelt like caramelized oranges with a cinnamon dusting. Judith was surprised at how lavish it was. Dave kept telling her the store was doing badly. He didn’t like her working but they needed the money. Santa patted the orange silk ottoman next to him. ‘Come and tell me what you’d like for Christmas, young lady.’

If only real life was that easy. She'd tried to be good, she really had, but the harder she tried the more she got it wrong. Judith sat, her throat closing as she choked up a rush of spiky words. ‘I’d like Mum to still be alive, my dad to care, my brother not to be in the army and him and Dave to get on. I’d like to have gone to university or something, anything, to have got out of this town. I’d like to have never met Dave or not to have married him or…’

Santa’s smile stopped her. It was so understanding but so sad. His voice broke up as he said: ‘Jude, I’m sorry but I can’t change the past. I can’t go back and put things right. All I can do is give you something in the here and now.’ His gloved fingers traced her face from her chin up to each eye.

She must be crying but crying was pointless and made her look ugly. The look on Santa’s face suggested he’d seen her black eye. ‘There’s nothing you can give me can fix me now. The past has to be different, don’t you understand? I have to be a different, better person.’

Santa shook his head. ‘You're great as you are. What I’m going to give you is something a bit different. I’m giving you the week off.’

Jennifer frowned. ‘I’ve already got the week off, or rather I’ve got until Saturday.’ Her frown deepened at the thought of five days stuck in the house with Dave. 120 hours of getting things wrong or being intolerably stupid. Over seven thousand minutes of winding him up so much he had to correct her however much it hurt him. She couldn't bring herself to think how many seconds when any one of them might bring an explosion of rage.

Santa put his arm round her as Jennifer shrunk into herself. ‘Stop it,’ he gave her a very gentle shake, ‘stop expecting life to go wrong. What I’m giving you is the week off from hating yourself. Every time you hear that internal voice saying you’re not deserving or you’re not quite good enough, you tell it Santa knows you are.’

Jennifer snorted. ‘Fat lot of good that will do me when that internal voice has an echo in Dave.’

Santa wiped her tears with his fat fingers revealing the extent of her bruised cheek. Jennifer stared at the foundation stains on his white gloves in fascination before he peeled them off and spoke. ‘That’s my second gift. A week off loving Dave. The elves and I don’t think Dave has done anything to deserve your love.’

‘I don’t need a week off. I don’t love Dave. But, as he keeps telling me, I’ve nowhere else to go, no one else would put up with me. Even if I tried to go it alone, he’d find me, make me sorry I’d put him to all that effort.’ She couldn’t take her eyes off Santa’s fingers. She knew that hand but it couldn’t be.

‘Happy Christmas Jude,’ her father slipped his hood and beard off, ‘that was all I needed to hear. You’re coming home with me.’