Here’s a sweet little Christmas story from the Story Tree. Hope you have a safe and happy holiday season! There’s a text version of the story below the video if that’s what you prefer.
THE COSTUME PARTY
By Paul Ferry
Towards the end of the day, Miss Coleridge turned from the blackboard to face the class; her lipstick was faded from two coffees and a bacon sandwich and her fingers were a frost-bitten chalky white. She had just written some words up on the board in her usual large italicised text. The words were: FANCY DRESS PARTY.
Miss Coleridge carefully placed the stick of chalk on the edge of her large wooden desk. It rolled off and hit the floor, breaking into two. With long practised ease, she bent at the knees and scooped up the chalk, depositing it in an area of her desk from which it could not easily escape. Unable to locate the cloth with which she usually cleaned her hands, she casually wiped her palms across her upper thighs, leaving a white smudge on her black skirt. This minor series of setbacks did not phase Miss Coleridge. She had been a primary school teacher for three years now. She was a professional.
A friendly smile was returned by the class of 7-year olds as Miss Coleridge perched on the edge of her desk, accidentally adding another chalky smudge to the collection on her skirt, and said: “Well children, as you know, we will be breaking up for our Christmas holidays at the end of the week…”
There was a ripple of delight throughout the juvenile audience.
“And we always do something special on the last day of term.” She smiled hollowly; special for the kids maybe, but usually a nightmare for the teachers. Still, the kids were what it was all about and as long as they were enjoying themselves…
Seated in a very ordinary seat on the right of the class, a little girl called Alice remembered the last day of term the previous year. There’d been a special netball match in the gymnasium between the final year girl’s team and a team made up of teachers. The teachers had fooled around a lot; some dressed in silly outfits, and let the girls win. Everyone laughed a lot. All except Alice, who could only think of her Mum, who had died suddenly only two months before. At that time, life had been a daze for Alice, one day blurring into the next.
Alice’s Dad tried his best; he was a good man and Alice loved him dearly. But the loss of her mother felt like a thorn in her heart that, try as she might, she was never quite able to remove. Now fourteen months had passed since that dark time and although not a single day passed that she didn’t think of her Mum, Alice had settled into a comfortable routine of life with her Dad in their familiar old bungalow. Perhaps this year would be better, she thought. Perhaps this year it would be okay to join in the laughter.
Alice pulled her mind back from distraction and paid attention to Miss Coleridge once more. The teacher was now saying: “This year, boys and girls, we’ve decided to have a Fancy Dress Party for everyone in the school. Prizes will be given for the three best costumes, so I’m sure your Mummies will want to help you look the best you can.”
Miss Coleridge caught Alice’s eye in the crowd. Bugger! She could have kicked herself. A whole year with this kid in her class – she should have known better. Furtively, she shifted her gaze to the other side of the classroom – straight into the eye line of Rhys, who had two Daddies. Bugger! Bugger!
She desperately tried to cover up, adding nervously; “Or your Daddies, or Grandmas, or Aunties – whoever.” That should just about cover it.
Alice, however, knew this made no difference. Her parents had both been only children and her only Grandmother lived hundreds of miles away in Dundee. She loved Little Scottish Grandma dearly and went to visit on regular occasions, but she was just too far away to expect help with a costume in time for next week.
The class was humming like a spinning top. Children discussed among themselves ambitious outfitting plans, most of which would endure great compromise before they came to fruition.
“I’m coming as Snow White.”
“I’m going to be Iron Man.”
“That red one off the Power Rangers.”
“Jade off Little Mix, that’s who I’m going to be.”
And so on. Miss Coleridge calmed them down with a downward motion of her chalky palms. “Calm down, children, calm down. There’s plenty of time until the Fancy Dress Party. Nobody expects you to decide straight away.”
Alice remained calm. There was little point in having any great plans for a fancy dress outfit. There was nothing in her wardrobe that she could use and she couldn’t sew herself a new costume, even if she did have the materials. She began to suspect that she would, as last year, not be joining in the fun with the other children.
Alice looked at the clock: half past two.
Just over an hour later, Alice stood inside the gates of the school. Around her, the last of the parents left with their children, but of Alice’s father there was still no sign. Alice didn’t panic, as this was far from unusual. Punctuality was not a word in her father’s vocabulary and not only she, but all of the teachers, knew this.
Mrs Scott, the third year teacher, approached Alice. She was much older than Miss Coleridge, a veteran of the teaching profession. She wore horn-rimmed spectacles and her grey hair was pulled tightly back in a severe bun. She smelled of carbolic soap and had a reputation for being something of a dragon, but she always seemed to have a soft spot for Alice. She was a long-time widow, the rumour around the school being that Mr Scott and their daughter had been killed in a car crash many years ago. She still limped from that terrible accident. Perhaps this was why she felt so close to Alice, because the lonely little girl reminded the lonely mother of her long lost child.
“Daddy late again, Alice?” she asked, her voice softening noticeably from her harsh classroom manner.
Alice replied with a silent nod. She liked Mrs Scott, though it was of her Grandmother that the elderly teacher reminded her. She moved in a little closer to the old lady’s side, finding comfort in her clean, soapy smell.
“I don’t know,” Mrs Scott feigned mock despair. “We shall have to buy that Daddy of yours a watch, shan’t we? We can’t have him being late like this all the time.”
Alice sighed. “He’d only forget to wear it.”
Mrs Scott sighed also. She had met Alice’s father – Jeff, she believed his name was – a couple of times at parents’ evenings and they had talked. He reminded her greatly of her late husband; an old-fashioned man, more at home under the bonnet of a car than in the kitchen or round the home. If only she had been twenty years younger, she could have maybe recaptured the life of which she had been so cruelly robbed. Still, there was no use in dreaming.
A slight screech of brakes distracted both teacher and pupil from the reverie as a silver grey car, a number of years since it had last seen the inside of a showroom, rounded the nearest corner and drew to a halt outside the school gates.
“Here he is,” said Alice.
“Better late than never, eh?” commented Mrs Scott, patting the little girl on the back of the head with a sandpaper hand.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Mrs Scott could see Alice’s father fiddling about under the dashboard of the car, his face creased in a frown. When he did emerge, he moved to the front of the car to look underneath.
Looking up, he caught Alice’s eye.
“Hello, Daddy,” she said.
“The brakes still aren’t right,” replied her father.
Jeff Crossley was a man beaten out of sheet metal, rubbed down with an oily rag and shoved into a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. He was unshaven, his hair untidy and not cut in too long a time, greying and receding at the temples. Though his face was square and rough-hewn, the eyes that looked out from it were soft and kind, a piercing shade of sapphire blue. His hands were stained with oil and beset with sticking plasters and there was a prominent scar running from his thumb to his wrist on his left hand.
He stood upright and thumped the car on the bonnet. “Stupid thing,” he accused; “I must trade it in sometime.” Only then did he move towards his daughter.
Alice ran to meet him. Jeff scooped up his daughter, his beloved only reminder of his sadly lost wife, in arms like twin cranes and hugged her to his chest. Alice closed her eyes and smelled the mixture of Old Spice and motor oil that made up her father.
Mrs Scott frowned as she watched this touching scene of father and daughter and she felt tears welling up in her eyes. But she had spent years repressing such feelings and she wasn’t about to let them out now; the shutters came up and the draconian educator was back in a split second.
“Alright, come along now,” snapped the old teacher. “I have to close the gate. Some of us have homes to go to, you know.” Her particular home meant a home-cooked meal shared with Angus, her beloved Scottie Dog.
Alice waved at Mrs Scott as she climbed into the back of the car and Mrs Scott broke character momentarily to wave back. The elderly widow watched wistfully as the car drove out of the street and then she sighed deeply and proceeded to lock the school gate.
The next morning, Jeff was putting a packed lunch in Alice’s school bag when he came across the printed note.
“Hey, what’s this?” he called across to his daughter, who was sitting at the kitchen counter, stuffing her face with one of the unhealthier brands of breakfast cereal.
“Just some Christmas Party thing,” shrugged Alice. She didn’t want to tell her father that she had deliberately not given him the letter because she knew that there was no way he’d be able to make her a costume.
“A Fancy Dress Party,” read Jeff. “Hey, it sounds like fun. You should go.” He was keen to get Alice more involved with the other kids, but he didn’t want to look as if he was pushing. Parenting was hard; it should come with a repair manual.
Alice shook her head. “Nah, haven’t got a costume.”
Jeff acted dismissive in a way that he didn’t actually feel. “Oh, we can sort that out,” he said. “You shall go to the ball, Cinders!”
Alice let out a muted laugh.
Cinderella, that was an idea, thought Jeff. What else did Alice like? All those princessy things; Sleeping Beauty, Show White, the Wizard of Oz, Frozen, Moana… oh, but how was he going to make a costume? He couldn’t even darn a hole in his socks without bending the needle and snapping the thread.
Alice was thinking the same thing. Her father was many things but he certainly wasn’t a seamstress and it was the wrong time of year to find a costume in the shops; if it had been Halloween or World Book Day then there would have been racks full off-the-peg costumes, but not at Christmas. The only costumes for children that you would find at Christmas would be elves or reindeer, which was as good as wearing a t-shirt proclaiming ‘this is the only costume I could get’.
The subject wasn’t raised again during the car journey to school, but Alice could tell that her father was thinking about it. He had that look on his face, brow slightly furrowed, that always meant he was lost in thought.
Jeff thought briefly about phoning his mother, but he hated to give her the impression that there was anything he couldn’t handle. He already thought she probably suspected that he wasn’t coping with single parenthood and he’d had to fend her off several times from jumping on a train and coming to live with them. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her or value her interest and advice, but Jeff knew himself – and he knew that if Alice’s Grandmother had stepped in as a surrogate parent, he’d end up letting her take control and he’d never learn the skills that he knew he had to learn.
Alice waved goodbye to her father at the school gate and wandered into the playground. The buzz was more than ever about the Fancy Dress Party. Some of the children even brought with them parts of the costume they were planning to wear. How did they get them so quickly? thought Alice. A boy walked past in a Mad Hatter top hat that was almost as big as he was and Alice momentarily felt as alone as that other Alice, lost in a world of curious characters she was unable to relate to. She sat on a wall, on her own, with her thoughts for company.
Across the playground, charged once again with Yard Duty, Miss Scott watched Alice sit all alone. She knew exactly what the problem was; Alice’s father wasn’t the type of man who could help her with a fancy dress costume. A part of her dearly wanted to help, to take out her sewing machine, wrap an arm around that sweet little girl and say ‘I’ll make you anything that you want’, but she knew it wasn’t the done thing.
The Fancy Dress Party was a contest. If she, or any other teacher, had stepped in it would instantly be seen as unfair. Laughable really, because the Headmaster’s daughter was in the contest, so it was already unfair; but Mrs Scott knew that she couldn’t get involved without getting both herself and Alice into trouble.
Mrs Scott sighed deeply and muttered a silent wish that things somehow worked out for the little girl.
Jeff wandered into the car repair garage where he worked. He still couldn’t stop thinking about the Fancy Dress Party problem. He couldn’t let his little girl down, but he was no seamstress. There had to be some solution. The familiar smell of oil and rubber relaxed him a little and he breathed it in deeply.
“’Morning Jeff,” called a pair of legs sticking out from under a Ford Escort.
“’Morning Mike,” he replied, seconds before his attention was drawn to an unfamiliar shape in the corner of the garage.
“What the hell’s that?” asked Jeff.
Mike Henderson slid out from under the car and got to his feet, joining Jeff by the object that had caused so much distraction. It was a very old vintage car of the kind that you rarely saw outside a period drama on TV.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” said Mike, patting the shiny bonnet of the lovingly restored Edwardian car. “Hudson Model 33, over a hundred years old but as good-looking as the day she was made.”
“Is it yours?” asked Jeff.
“Nah, I wish,” huffed Mike. “Part of Lord Benton’s collection, innit? He restores them himself usually but there’s some damage to the undercarriage and it needs to go up on the lift. Look, I had to get this stuff in special.”
Mike indicated a stack of shining sheet metal plates, each one about two metres square. Out of curiosity, Jeff picked the first sheet off the pile and was astonished at how easily it could be lifted.
“Blimey, it’s light,” he said.
Mike nodded. “Yeah, well these old cars weren’t built to carry a lot of weight. It’s some special kind of aluminium. From Germany, I think.”
An insane idea popped into Jeff’s head. It was almost too crazy to be possible, but maybe… just maybe… he could make it work. He lifted up a sheet of the aluminium and waved it in Mike’s direction with a wobbling noise.
“Can you spare one of these?” he asked.
“Sure, knock yourself out,” shrugged Mike. “They sent far too much of it anyway.” After a moment’s thought, he added: “What the hell do you want it for?”
In reply, Mike just smiled.
Jeff never touched a car that day; he spent the entire time on his ‘special project’. Taking three sheets of the light aluminium, he sketched and measured. He made templates out of newspaper and laid them on the metal sheets, then cut them into precise shapes using the special tools that they had in the garage. Satisfied that this was done correctly, he bent and curved some into tubes, creating hems on the edges to make them less sharp.
Mike scratched his head in bemusement; it looked for all the world like his workmate was making a suit of armour! A very small one, but a suit of armour nonetheless.
Jeff used the welding iron to close seams and pop rivets for effect. He took nuts, bolts and washers, creating joints that moved smoothly and efficiently. He waxed the finished product, polished and shined until the pieces shone like a mirror that he was able to see his face in, smiling back at him.
He found some off-cuts of foam rubber that had been used for repairing the upholstery in some posh car that was brought in and carefully attached it to the inside of the pieces that he was so dutifully making. It’s actually working, thought Jeff; he’d had his doubts, but his idea was finally coming together! His colleague watched in continued confusion as he dug out an old, dented tin funnel from the store room and started to polish it up to a fine shine.
Yes, Jeff beamed to himself; it was going to work!
Much to the surprise of Mrs Scott, who was on Yard Duty again, Alice’s father was on time when school finished for the day. In fact, he was actually early! No-one was more surprised than Alice, however, who suspected something terrible must have happened, like the house burning down, to make him suddenly so prompt.
But no, he was smiling as he got out of the car. Beaming a big Cheshire Cat grin from ear to ear and he seemed anxious and excited. He rushed across to his daughter, gave her a quick kiss on the top of the head and started bustling towards the car.
“Get in, Alice,” he said excitedly. “I’ve got something to show you. Something I think you’re really going to like.”
Mrs Scott watched with concern. “Is everything alright, Mr Crossley?” she asked.
“Better than alright, Mrs Scott,” he called back as he bundled his daughter into the car. “Everything is wonderful!”
Oh God, thought Mrs Scott; he hasn’t gone and joined a cult, has he?
She didn’t have long to ponder upon this thought however, for as soon as Alice’s father had strapped her safely in the back of his car, he leapt into the front seat and raced away from the school gates like a bat out of hell.
The journey from the school to Alice’s house didn’t take long, even when her father wasn’t driving like a maniac. The little girl barely had time to question her father’s strange behaviour before they were pulling up on the front driveway at a reckless angle that dented a plant pot and demolished a garden gnome.
Alice’s father was still smiling more than ever as he unfastened her from the back of the car and led her by the hand into the house. She paused in the front porch to drop her school bag and take of her coat as usual, but she barely had time to shrug off her bag before Dad dragged her into the living room.
The sofa had been pushed back to create more room and something was laid out on the rug. At first, Alice wasn’t sure what she was looking at – was it some shiny engine parts that her father had brought home from work? Why would she be interested in that?
But when her father switched on the living room light to combat the encroaching winter gloom, Alice suddenly realised what she was looking at; it was a costume, a bright silver costume with arms, legs and a breastplate made out of shining metal that sparkled under the electric light. There was a cap made from a metal funnel and an old pair of gloves and wellington boots that her Daddy had sprayed with silver paint; there was even a small axe made of cardboard that had also been painted to look like metal.
Alice couldn’t believe her eyes. She looked up at her Daddy, who was still smiling proudly at his handiwork. “Is it… is it the Tin Man?”
He nodded happily. “Yes. You still like the Wizard of Oz, don’t you?”
“Yes. Oh yes,” she cried.
“It’s in your size,” Jeff had experienced difficulty buying children’s clothes since the passing of his wife, so he always kept a slip of paper in his wallet with Alice’s measurements at any given time. “It might need the odd tuck here and…”
He didn’t finish his sentence. Alice flung herself at her father and hugged him with every ounce of her strength. “It’s brilliant. Thank you so much!”
Jeff felt tears welling in his eyes. In order to stop himself from crying in front of his daughter, he spurred the pair of them into action. “Let’s try it on, shall we?”
He helped Alice into the costume. To be honest, the measurements worked a lot better than he had ever expected. She perched on the end of the sofa and he slipped on the silver boots and gloves. When the costume was all in place, she looked absolutely splendid.
Alice was only able to walk in a rather stiff-legged gait, but that only added to the effect and it wasn’t uncomfortable because of the foam rubber padding. Jeff led her out into the hall to look at herself in the mirror. Now they were both beaming like Cheshire Cats!
A thought suddenly struck Jeff. “Oh, there’s something I forgot. Wait here.” He left her in the hall and dashed into the kitchen to fetch something. Moments later, he reappeared with an object clutched tightly in his hand.
“Remember this?” asked Jeff. He uncurled his hand to reveal a bright red enamelled fridge magnet in the shape of a heart.
Alice nodded. Her Mum had bought the fridge magnet on their last holiday together in Cornwall. She had said that she would put it on the fridge and every time Alice saw it she would remember how much they loved her.
“The Tin Man always wanted a heart, didn’t he?” Jeff took the magnetic heart and placed it on the chest of the metal costume with a sharp CLICK.
“It’s perfect,” said Alice happily.
The day of the Fancy Dress Party came around quickly. Alice decided that she wasn’t going to tell anyone about her costume, so that it could be a big surprise on the day. She kept the secret a little too well; even on the day of the party, both children and teachers alike had no idea if Alice was going to turn up.
Miss Coleridge and Mrs Scott stood by the school gates and watched gleefully as a procession of children arrived; princesses and pirates, pop stars and superheroes waved goodbye to Mummy and Daddy at the gates and wandered giggling and laughing toward the school hall. The two teachers had joined in the spirit of the event, with the younger Miss Coleridge dressed as a fairy and the older Mrs Scott – in deference to her reputation among the children – dressed as a witch.
It was a happy sight for the two teachers to watch all the smiling faces as the children excitedly joined the party, but at the back of her mind Mrs Scott couldn’t help thinking about Alice. She wondered what the strange little girl was up to while all of her classmates were here enjoying themselves.
HONK! An unfamiliar noise snapped Mrs Scott from her reverie. HONK! HONK! It sounds like an old-fashioned bulb horn, thought Mrs Scott, but other than the extremely unlikely possibility that one of these children of the 21st century had come to the Fancy Dress Party as Harpo Marx, she couldn’t imagine where it might be coming from.
HONK! HONK! Her question was soon answered. Gasps of surprise rippled through the parents gathered outside the gate as a beautiful vintage car entered the street and pulled up outside the gates of the school; it’s paintwork shone and the exposed metalwork was polished and gleaming. The driver wore the traditional garb of a Victorian motorist: a long leather coat, aviation goggles and a flat cap, although you couldn’t quite see who the small passenger was in the back of the car.
As the driver stepped out of the car and moved to open the rear door, both Miss Coleridge and Mrs Scott simultaneously realised that it was Jeff Crossley. They watched as the single father helped his passenger out of the car and then gasped in wonderment at the sight of Alice, resplendent in her Tin Woodsman outfit. The shining silver costume gleamed in the lights of the schoolyard as Alice kissed her Daddy, took a deep breath and started to walk towards the school.
Alice crossed the school yard like a rock star. Every eye was upon her; parents stared in admiration of the splendid costume and groups of children parted before her, gazing in fascination and a little bit of envy. The little girl was smiling and looked happier than she had for quite some time.
Miss Coleridge and Mrs Scott gazed in admiration at Jeff Crossley, who noticed their attention and doffed his cap towards them.
“You magnificent bastard,” purred the older teacher under her breath. “You pulled it off. You actually pulled it off.”
Jeff watched as his little girl entered the building. Children crowded around her, eager to touch the costume and ask questions, until the bright lights enveloped her and she vanished from his sight. He smiled, knowing everything was going to be alright.
Jeff Crossley waited in the car for the duration of the party. It was cold and he would have preferred to nip in the nearest pub for a half of shandy and a sausage sandwich, but he didn’t want to leave the car on the street. Lord Benton had been incredibly generous with the loan of the vehicle when Jeff had pointed out what it was for and he didn’t want to betray that trust by having it stolen or vandalised.
Instead, he pulled his emerald green scarf tight around his neck and reached under the seat for the Thermos flask of Bovril that he had brought with him and he sipped its hot beefy goodness whilst listening to Queen on his phone.
The time passed quickly and before too long, children started filtering out of the school hall, laughing, smiling and clutching goody-bags. Jeff stashed his Thermos under the seat and got out of the car, watching for Alice.
After a couple of minutes, Jeff’s daughter emerged from the school building, still smiling as broadly as when she had entered. In one hand she held her cardboard axe and a goody-bag and she was firmly holding hands with Mrs Scott with the other. They were chatting away until the teacher spotted Jeff and pointed Alice towards him.
Alice immediately started running towards her Daddy. When she reached him, she dropped her belongings and flung herself into his arms. He lifted her up, hugging her tightly; she was heavy in the aluminium costume but he hardly noticed the weight.
“I won second prize, Daddy!” cried Alice.
“That’s wonderful,” said Jeff, tears in his eyes. It should have been first prize, he thought, but let’s not spoil the moment.
He was suddenly prouder of Alice than he had ever been before; this little piece of his beloved wife that would only grow and grow in his affections. He hugged her tighter than would normally be advisable, safe in the knowledge that the metal suit would protect her from being crushed. There was a sharp CLICK.
Both Jeff and Alice were distracted from their hugging. They looked down and saw that the magnetic heart had detached itself from the front of the costume and transferred to a metal button on Jeff’s leather jacket.
They laughed and laughed, and were laughing for many years to come.