THE AWFUL moment had arrived. Not long ago he’d felt there was plenty of time in which to prepare, to steel himself for the agony ahead, but somehow the dreaded hour had snuck up on him. What had one day seemed far off was already here the next.

Richard Barratt took a deep breath. He tugged at his collar and straightened his tie. He brushed off the already spotless arms of his suit jacket and glanced down at the perfectly tied laces on his leather shoes. Then, unable to put it off a moment longer, he pushed open the swing door and emerged onto the salesroom floor.

Overnight, while he failed to get a wink of sleep, crews had been hard at work. The Homeware department of Langley & Giles’s Oxford Street branch had been transformed from the pristine section he managed like a well-oiled machine to a hideous winter wonderland. Christmas had been infiltrating the store for weeks. The cards had started appearing downstairs in Stationery as early as September. Wrapping paper and labels had followed in October, along with Christmas puddings in the high-class Food Hall on the lower ground floor. And now the rest, signaling six weeks of Christmas-cheer hell.

Richard couldn’t understand why it had to be his section that bore the brunt of the deluge. Surely Toys and Games would make more sense. Christmas was all about children’s presents, after all. But upper management had been firm. Toys and Games required more space at Christmas, not less, and Homeware had the best layout to accommodate the monstrosity that formed the centerpiece of their annual Yuletide displays: Santa’s Grotto.

He walked over to stand in front of the plastic log cabin and grimaced. The tinsel festooned around his floor was bad enough, but this thing made his blood curdle. Cute to the point of vomiting, it represented everything Richard hated about the holidays. What was wrong with just a plain log cabin? Why did it have to be covered in glowing candy canes? And as for the flea-bitten model reindeer that looked stoned out of its brain—

 

Morning, Mr. B. Ready to get into the holiday groove?”