Mr Mulholland’s Christmas Emporium

Submitted into Contest #19 in response to: Write a short story about a shop that takes place over a span of years.... view prompt

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General

Toby sighed as the train pulled into the station. Why am I here? he thought, not for the first time. Because, the rational side explained, if you hadn’t come your sister would have come to fetch you, and she has enough on her plate with work and the children. It was either here or go and spend Christmas with his son Matthew in Germany. At any other time, he’d have been pleased about that, but with Greta about to give birth, and their tiny flat, he thought he’d just be in the way. At least in the old family home where his sister now lived, he’d have a room to himself, and he knew the surrounding area well enough to go for a walk if he fancied getting away from the festivities.

Toby got his small suitcase, his coat, and made his way to the doors. Once on the platform, he saw his sister Natalie waiting for him. Thankfully she was alone. He’d have time to compose himself before facing the onslaught that were her children.

“Toby.” Natalie drew her brother into a hug, and he hung on, so he didn’t have to say anything. “How’s Greta?” Natalie asked when she finally drew back, and they started walking towards the car.

“Confined to bed. Pre-eclampsia. They’re keeping a close eye on her, and they’ll deliver her early if necessary.” Natalie nodded. “She was sorry she couldn’t get over for the funeral.”

“Of course she couldn’t. Elena would have understood. Both her health and the babies would have been at risk, even if she had been allowed on the plane, which I doubt.”

“Apparently she caught the funeral on skype. Fancy that.” His case was stowed in the boot of Natalie’s VW, and they climbed in.

“Greta’s a lovely girl,” Natalie said as she started up the car and moved out of the station car park. “Matthew’s picked a good one there.”

“Yes. She asked me to go over for Christmas, but with one thing and another. Well, you know how it is.”

“Yes, I know. You’d have preferred to be left alone so you could brood with a bottle of scotch.”

“It’s not just that. If she’s in hospital for most of the time, and Matt with her, I’ll be on my own anyway. My German’s not that good to make idle conversation with strangers if there’s no one else around. At least at home I could pop down the pub.”

“Where you’d sit and not talk to anybody in English either. Anyway, you can pay Matt and Greta a visit in the spring when the babies here, can’t you. Take Jonny with you if you’re worried about the language. He’s got his GCSEs this year, and German is one of his subjects.”

They were quiet while Toby thought about Natalie’s suggestion. “I could have stayed at home, you know. There’s loads to sort out still.”

“But Elena wouldn’t have wanted that, would she? So, you come here for Christmas, and in the new year you can go home and make a start on sorting things out. I know I always feel like starting something in the new year. Look,” she continued when he didn’t reply, “next Christmas if you want to stay at home, that’s fine. But this year, no. You need to be among those who love you, wear a silly hat, play silly games. Besides, you can’t miss the Christmas shop.”

“The Christmas shop? Good lord, you don’t mean old Mulholland’s shop?”

“Yep, same one.”

“I’d forgotten all about that. Good heavens. I haven’t thought about that in years. Old Mulholland. So who runs it now? Mulholland’ll be dead now, I expect.”

“No, it’s still old Mulholland.”

“But how? He was ancient when we were kids. And I remember him from way before you were born don’t forget. That must be fifty plus years ago.”

“Well, he’s there."

“Good lord, that’ll make him 90, 100 at least. Opposite the butchers, right?”

“No, how could he be? The butchers is opposite the bank. No, it’s between the card shop and the greengrocers.”

Toby sighed and fell silent, thinking about the Christmas shop. It had always been the highlight of the year growing up, showing up December 1st, disappearing overnight on Christmas Eve, probably going off to wherever they’d come from to celebrate their own Christmas. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see it. When he was young, it had seemed so perfect. Surely now anything would be a disappointment. It was probably quite tacky when viewed from adult eyes.

But hadn’t Mulholland been really old? Or was it just youth thinking anyone over thirty was ancient? He’d see when he got there. Besides, there’d been others. “Does he still have helpers?”

“Oh yes, still the same helpers. Barley, Conker, Aspen, Sky.”

“Sky.” How could he have forgotten about Sky? With her white blond hair and pale blue eyes, she had been his first heartthrob. A couple of years older than him, he had been smitten from the age of fourteen. She’d always had a smile for him, always had time to listen to him. At seventeen, he’d asked her out. She laughed, saying that she was too busy, and that when they were finished at the shop, she was going home for a rest. Then she’d kissed him lightly on the cheek before turning to talk to Mrs. Adams, a thing that made him blush and swear he wouldn’t ask again. 

He’d last seen Sky, and the shop, when he was 21. He’d been away at Uni but had come home for the holidays. He’d been looking round the shop when Sky had approached him, a look of concern on her face. “Why are you here Toby?” she’d asked. “You need to be somewhere else.”

Confused, he was wondering how to reply when his father had arrived. There’d been a phone call. His girlfriend from Uni had been involved in an accident and was in hospital. There was a train in fifteen minutes. He remembered rushing out, and yes, seeing the butcher in the window of the shop opposite, he was sure of it. He’d caught the train and rushed to Elena’s bedside. 

Since then, he’d been too busy with his own life to think about Mulholland’s shop. In fact from that time to this, he’d forgotten it had even existed. They’d always spent Christmas with Elena’s family or at home, and came to see his family at New Year.

When they got to the old house, Craig, came out and gave his brother in law a big, silent hug before taking his case. Once inside, the children gathered round. Jonny, the eldest at sixteen, was taller than his father, Toby noticed. He must have seen this at the funeral, but he’d not been in the right frame of mind then to notice such things. He hugged them one at a time, Jonny, Caleb, Rosie. “Are you coming to the Christmas shop with us Uncle Toby?” Rosie asked. “Jonny fancies Sky.”

“I don’t fancy her,” Jonny replied, his blush telling the lie.

“Do too,” Rosie shot back. “You will come with us, won’t you? Pleeease?”

“Yes, in the morning,” Toby replied with a smile. So, Jonny had a crush on Sky, just as he had. That means that the staff must have changed, while the names remained the same. The Sky Toby had known had been older than him, and Jonny wouldn’t fancy someone that old, surely.

The following day was Christmas Eve. Rosie especially was exited, keen to go and see the Christmas shop one last time before the big day. Jonny seemed quite keen too, Toby noticed, though he tried to hide it. He wondered what this version of Sky looked like. 

Breakfast was completed and they all got wrapped up before walking into town, Rosie tugging insistently at his hand. Mr Mulholland’s Christmas Emporium was indeed between the card shop and the greengrocers, and nowhere near the butchers. Funny, thought Toby, why did I think it was opposite the butchers? And I could have sworn that the card shop and the greengrocers were next door to one another. Then again it had been some years since he’d lived here. Maybe one or other had moved premises.

He looked at the front of the shop. It screamed Christmas with its decorations and window displays. Just the look of it took him back to his childhood. Reds, golds, greens. The ribbons, baubles, tinsel entwined in the wreaths. Lights flickered from all points. Every sort of toy was displayed in the window. And what appeared to be snow was falling all around. Surely some sort of clever piece of machinery, Toby thought. Yet when he held out his hand and allowed a flake to fall there, he saw a perfect hexagon, each pattern replicated on each of its’ six sides, before it melted.

As if in a dream, he entered the shop. All around the people of the town thronged, all full of Christmas cheer. He looked towards the back of the shop, and there was Mr Mulholland, no older it seemed than when he had last seen him, over forty years ago. And wasn’t that Barley? Looked like him anyway, but surely his son, or maybe even his grandson. And Conker? He looked the same too. And there was Aspen, all long red curls and green eyes. He stared round at everything, wondering that these people should look so like those that had gone before.

“Hello Toby, I thought I’d see you this year.” He turned, and there was Sky, exactly as he had last seen her, perfect figure, white blond hair, pale blue eyes, perfect figure, smiling at him.

“Sky? But you look…”

“Unchanged?” she offered when he faltered.

“Yes. You look exactly how you did when I last saw you. But that’s impossible.”

“Why?”

“Well, it just is. You used to be older than me. People get older.”

“People, yes.”

“But you’re people too, aren’t you?”

Sky cocked her head to one side and looked at him. “It’s been a long while since you were last here. Tell me, what do you remember of that time?”

He thought about it. “You didn’t want me here.”

“Wrong, I just knew you should have been somewhere else. What else?”

“Well, I thought your shop was opposite the butchers, but clearly that’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Well, no. The banks opposite the butchers, and that’s still in the same place as I remember it.”

“So, we fit in where we can. What else do you notice? With the eye of an outsider that you are now, what can you see? Or what can you not see?”

He looked around, not with the awe of his youth, but with the knowledge that something wasn’t quite as it seemed. He looked at Mr Mulholland, Mr Mulholland who must be well over ninety, but who didn’t look much older than him, Mr Mulholland who was surrounded by children as he did conjuring tricks. He looked at Barley, feeding treats to an old lady’s dog. He looked at Conker who was showing a group of boys the train layout that went round the shop. He looked at Aspen as she handed round mince pies, as she quietly put an old homeless man in the corner and gave him a plate of turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings. And he realised for the first time…

“There’s no tills here. You’re not selling anything.”

“Correct. But why would we? Why would we sell turkeys to rob the butcher, brussels sprouts to rob the greengrocer, cards and calendars to rob the card shop? All we sell here is the spirit of Christmas, and that’s free.”

“And what will you give me?”

“Hope. You think Elena has died. But she is alive in your son, in your granddaughter, little Sahra Elena. She’ll be a Christmas baby by the way, born tomorrow at 1.05am.” Toby said nothing. “And she’s in here,” she tapped his temple, “and here,” she placed a hand on his heart.

Toby thought about what she was saying, but found himself too stunned to think. He could still feel where her fingers had touched him. “When you get home, you will need to go through her things. You will need to, what is it they, move on? People will want to help. You can either accept their help, or you can do it yourself, and doing that, touch each item that was hers, think about the good times you had when she was wearing that yellow dress, thinking about the time you bought her that silver necklace with the peridot heart. A love like you’ve had is precious, not something all of us can ever have. It need not die just because she did. You may not feel it at the moment, but you’re a very lucky man Toby.” She touched him gently before moving away. “Now, I need to go to another young man. I hope to see you and your family back next year. You never know, we might be opposite the butchers again.” And with that, she winked at him and moved effortlessly off to where Jonny had been looking at her longingly.

The following morning, Matthew phoned to say little Sahra Elena had been delivered by caesarean at 1.05am. Mother and baby were doing fine. After dinner, it was decided they’d all go for a walk. They went through the town, and there, side by side, were the card shop and the greengrocers. There was no space between for Mr Mulholland’s Christmas Emporium. In fact, other than Toby, everyone seemed to have forgotten that it had ever been there at all.

December 13, 2019 17:21

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2 comments

Vaibhav Sharma
07:42 Dec 23, 2019

The way that story unwraps is sublime. It brings together hope and poignancy very well together.

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Annette Spenner
14:29 Dec 19, 2019

I liked this story. Very inventive and I always like a moral or some type of lesson on a short story. It gives you something to think about. Nicely done.

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