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Story 5

Cassandra Shore

Cassandra Shore grew up in Liverpool’s south end. She took her name from the Cast Iron Shore on the banks of the Mersey, where the sand is stained red from the rust of dead ships. It’s known locally as the ‘Cazzie’. So is she. She is a storyteller, poet and songwriter.

Don’t mock the magic of the Winter Solstice, especially when too many cocktails and a bionic woman are involved.
-- Cassandra Shore

Girlhood dreams come true in Cassandra Shore's The Grotto.

Grotto

By Maureen Bowden

 

It was Friday, twenty-first of December, the last working day before Christmas. We celebrated in The Grapes at lunchtime, and trooped back to the office at three-thirty.

At four o’clock, Marianne, our inebriated manager, said, “Go home, everyone, and Happy Holiday.” At least, I think that’s what she said. It was hard to tell. She fled to the bathroom to throw up, and we were out the door.

     I’d had a Malibu or six too many, but I trotted into town to pick up a few last-minute gifts, pushing the spectre of my credit card bill to the back of my mind. The darkening sky heralded the longest night of the year. The Christmas tree in the city centre, the street decorations, and the smell of hot mince pies on the evening air swamped me with childhood memories.  

#

It was 1978, I was five years old, and I wanted a bionic woman doll for Christmas. My TV screen idol, Jaime Sommers, could hear the baddies’ plots with her bionic ear, give them a good kicking with her bionic legs and drag them off to jail with her bionic arm.

My dad took me to the Christmas grotto at Blackler’s department store. We were crushed into a cage elevator, and rock walls rose around us as the cage fell deep below street level. We emerged into a cave where Santa Claus sat on a rock. He lifted me onto his knee. “What’s your name, dear?”

I skipped the pleasantries. “I’m Paula and I want a bionic woman for Christmas.”

He winked at my dad. “Don’t we all?” In my innocence, I took the wink to be a good sign, so I was optimistic when he handed me my present. I tore the wrapping off as soon as we returned home and found an insipid Sindy doll, with not a bionic bit in sight. I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

#

I dragged myself out of the recollection of childhood disillusionment and back to the present. Blackler’s was now long gone. Wetherspoon’s stood on the spot, or it had last time I’d looked. My feet led me to the location, on the corner of Elliot Street, and I found myself confronting, not the chain champion of the hospitality industry, but the old department store, where my faith in all things magical had been shattered. Had it been re-opened or was it a product of an excess of Malibu? With the confidence of the semi-sloshed I walked inside and approached the entrance to the grotto. An obese, middle-aged elf said, “How many children?”

“None,” I said. “Just me.”

“No charge for adults.” He ushered me into the elevator. My ears popped and a rush of cold air hit my face as we plunged into the earth. The cliff face passed by the outside of the cage. Veins of quartz glinted between the rock layers. I didn’t recall the fakery being as realistic as this. I stepped out into a high-domed, underground cavern. Blackler’s must have a hell of a cellar, I thought. I ran my fingers over the surface of a stalagmite. It didn’t feel like polystyrene.

     A shadowed figure sat in a niche gouged out of the cavern wall. “Come along. I have a busy weekend ahead.”  His hair and beard were as white as the fur that lined his red cloak and hood. A gift-wrapped box lay at his feet. “Paula, isn’t it?”

     I approached him, swearing to stick to pineapple juice in future. “I know you’re an illusion but, as long as I’m here I’ll take my present and you can show me the way out.”

 “Illusion, am I? Don’t mock the magic of the winter solstice, my dear.”  He handed me the parcel. “The store’s closed. You can take the fire exit. Follow me.” He led me to a staircase carved into the rock. A reindeer trotted out of the shadows. “This is Blitzen. Climb aboard.” I straddled the impossible beast’s back and, as we galloped up to the surface, my head spun, and my eyes lost focus.

When my brain groped its way back to a semblance of consciousness, I was sitting on the pavement outside Wetherspoon’s, with a humdinger of a headache and a gift-wrapped parcel beside me in the gutter. I tore off the cartoon snowman paper and stared at the cellophane-covered box. Jaime Sommers stared back at me: twelve inches of seventies’ TV glamour, blond hair flowing around her plastic shoulders. A layer of synthetic skin covered her legs, right arm and right ear, waiting to be drawn back by a child’s hand, revealing the robotics beneath. A bionic woman, thirty-eight years old, never taken out of her box, would fetch enough at a toy collectors’ fair to pay off my Christmas credit card bill and more. Or I could keep her, of course. After all, she was my Christmas present. Sober up, I told myself. She must have fallen out of someone’s shopping bag. A voice in my head said, “Don’t mock the magic of the winter solstice.”

A couple of drunks fell out of Wetherspoon’s, singing, “Treetopsh glishen an’ chil’ren lishen, t’ hear….”, and I heard sleigh bells above my head. I looked up. It may have been only an odd cloud formation, but I thought I saw a hooded figure driving a reindeer-drawn chariot, silhouetted across the face of the rising moon. 

The End

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