Hugh grabs a basket in the entrance for appearance's sake. He has done his shopping, all of his shopping, online. He just comes to the department stores to soak up the ambiance, to listen to the less intrusive jingles, the ones that don't get onto the radio.
Bright and Earl is the kind of shop that he doesn't really mind: they are neither too sophisticated nor are they 'Everything for a Pound' hole-in-the-walls. They sell taste along with the tat. If there is any place where he can figure things out it is here.
He stops just behind the perfume counter and lowers the basket onto the floor. This is one thing, one thing he can't understand. He stands in front of the display and stares directly at a Christmas tree with eyes. Big plastic eyes with green plastic lids. They stare back coquettishly. He glances at its skinny black arms and scoffs.
'Who buys these?' he mutters, 'Who buys you?'
Hugh moves down the aisle to find a boxed version. The tree is supposed to sing "Christmas Tree, Oh, Christmas Tree", "Good King Wenceslas" and, of course, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas". He returns to the display item.
'Go on then,' he says, 'Let's see if your batteries have run out yet.'
He taps the button at the front. The arms start working fast but the song comes out garbled and with glitchy pauses.
'We wish...mass...we...Chris...wish...and a happy new...'
Hugh pushes the button again. It is sticky and smells slightly of stale beer. As he wipes his finger clean on his trouser leg, a crooked smile breaks across his face.
'Oh, Mr Tree?'
'What do you want for Christmas?'
'I'm afraid I don't have a king. There's a queen down south though.'
'...mass and a happy...'
'I'm not a Christian, unfortunately.'
'At this time of year? Yes, I suppose most of us do pretend to be Christian, in a way. Myself included.'
'Did you just call me faggy? Did you just call me a faggot? Sorry, I just don't like that term.'
'Someone did a number on you, eh?'
The tree stops singing and starts to whirr instead. Its eyelids slide back suddenly.
He steps aside and grabs his basket. The whirring seems to be getting louder.
Hugh moves onto the kitchen aisle at the opposite end of the store. He heads towards the wooden spoons but he stops just short of them.
He picks up a nutcracker soldier, beautifully painted in red and green with a debonair moustache over its grimacing chompers. He reaches around to its back and flaps the handle up and down. It makes a rather hollow clack.
'Stand to attention, soldier!' he says, resting it back down on the shelf with the rest of its duplicates. 'I hereby promote you to sergeant. Now address your troops!'
Spinning the nutcracker around he starts to work the handle again. 'You heard him, lads, stand to attention!' the voice he gives the nutcracker is surprisingly Scottish. 'Right then, we've got a lot of work to do. I expect each of you to maintain your position until such a point as when you are taken away to be bought. Do I make myself clear?'
Hugh imagines the 'Sir, yes, sir.'
'Any words, sir?' the nutcracker sergeant turns back to him.
'Just remain old-fashioned, nostalgically whimsical or you won't get sold.'
'Pardon me, sir?' the nutcracker sergeant speaks up.
'You say that as if we cannot do it, sir. As if we weren't born to do it.'
'You weren't born, your were made.'
'We were made into nutcrackers, sir. So long as we have strong jaws we have our purpose.'
'How dare you, sir!'
Hugh stares at the nutcracker, eyes widening. 'You're decorative. You're bloody inanimate!'
'Waiting for action, sir, waiting for action! You are animate. What is your excuse?'
Hugh glances around him. Fortunately there is no-one around to hear, let alone speculate. He puts the nutcracker back down in front of the troops and hurries towards the childrenswear department.
Hugh escapes the clothes section relatively quickly and wanders up to a sales table. He runs his eyes over various bags of cheap plastic baubles and almost knocks over a bronze bookend. The item looks bashed and scuffed but it seems to feature a group of reindeer or rather their heads and front legs. He pushes it up against its other half and picks up the snow globe sat beside it.
It's a reduced item: was £15 but now is only £5. He follows the hairline crack that has been carefully taped over and wonders why they haven't reduced it further or even just got rid of it. He shakes it slightly, holding a hand over the crack to see if it leaks.
'Wonder if they sell the tape here?' he chuckles.
The white powder descends slowly on the small cottage inside the globe, gathering most in the space around it. The ground seems to be sunken there for some reason. Hugh wonders if the garden had escaped when the snow globe had been dropped. Either way all that is left is a trench. He shakes the globe again.
'Surely someone's at home,' he says, bringing it closer to his eye. The interior of the cottage is intricately detailed, he can see an armchair, a stack of towels, even a kettle. He thinks he can see the back of a head poking out from behind the door but the window at the side of the cottage is just too tiny. He tilts the globe, letting the snow enter through the crack in the lattice. 'They wouldn't make this thing without a friendly face. Hello?'
The snow starts to pile up against the lower cupboards reaching all the way up to the stove. He shakes the globe violently trying to shift the snow out of his line of vision.
'You're in here somewhere, I know it.'
The mounds of white tip back but there is just too much to get a proper look behind the door.
'For goodness sake.'
Hugh spies the head again but now the snow is getting in through the roof as well. He feels the dampness coming from the crack but continues to shake.
'For goodness sake!'
Everything is white inside.
'For God's sake!' he slams the snow globe against the corner of the table. His hands pull away just in time to avoid the shards of glass but not the backsplash.
He kneels down and picks up the cottage first. Looking from the bottom of the house he realises that the head was completely disembodied though attached to the door by what he presumes is glue. He sees a hand wrapped around the handle and wonders if this belonged to the same figurine. It must have broken apart after the first break.
'Excuse me,' a voice says from over his shoulder. He turns around: it's a sales assistant. Her hair is neatly stacked in a bun but she has a childish face. 'Did you break that?'
Hugh starts to pick up the larger shards of glass hurriedly.
'No, sir.' she pushes him back. 'Someone's coming to tidy up. Now did you break it?'
'I was trying to see inside.'
'Inside the snow globe?'
'The cottage.' He passes it to her. She stares at it.
'Sir, I'm afraid you're going to have to pay for this mess.'
Hugh reaches into his wallet.
'Could you follow me to the front desk please?'
He nods and follows her, wallet in hand. He turns back and realises that he's left the basket behind but remembers that there's nothing in it anyway.
As he moves through the many aisles, he can't help but start to hum along to the carol currently playing. The woman looks back at him. He holds back a smile, for appearance's sake.