The Curious Case of Santa's Boots
By Lizzie Love
This article was originally published in the December 2000 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
It was on my first encounter with Santa Claus that I found out the truth. Mind you, I’d had my suspicions. You always knew when grown-ups were up to something, and they were so disappointed if you didn’t play along, that it seemed kinder not to tell.
It was always hard to work out what grown-ups really believed and what they pretended to believe for fun, although I already knew that the Germans and the doodle-bugs were real because of the broken houses I could see from my push-chair. That was why we were spending Christmas 1944 in the cellar of SOAL’s greengrocery in Ladywell Rd, Lewisham, not far from London’s docks.
When my great-grandfather Edward SOAL took over the green-grocery from his father William, he fully expected to be succeeded in turn by his own eldest son.
Edward had married Fanny WHITTINGTON in 1889. There were four sons, Leslie Edward, Alec Raymond, Owen Frank, and Edward Rupert Stanley, and a daughter Winifred Gladys. The two younger boys died in childhood. Leslie and Ray grew up in the trade, but all did not go as Edward planned.
Leslie, my grandfather, married Violet Annie JONES, a girl who was ‘beneath him’ in Fanny’s opinion so he took her to live far away and eventually became a Baptist minister. It was Ray who took over the business.
Leslie’s vocation took him from Somerset to Overseal in Derbyshire and on to Bradford and Doncaster in Yorkshire where my mother, Violet Winifred, was educated and met my father Leonard Eric INNES. Then in the late 1930s Leslie was transferred to New Malden, Surrey, not far from his birthplace, and it was there that Win and Eric were married in August 1939, in the last weeks of peace.
In 1940 the pretty little church was destroyed in a daylight bombing raid and although Grandad soldiered on his health deteriorated and he died in May 1942 a few weeks before I was born. He was 51.
By 1944, with most of the men away, and everything in short supply, Christmas was a matter of ingenuity rather than indulgence. Every camp-bed in the family had been marshalled and crammed together in SOAL’s cellar, where they rocked and creaked and occasionally collapsed as people crawled across them to reach their own. My mother and I had a strange wood and canvas concertina contraption that had been mended (frequently) with a great deal of string. My mother got little sleep but I slept like a baby, because I still was a baby, or so they said. Well, I was two and half, and I thought I was pretty big really, but then grown-ups won’t be told.
There is a myth that we don’t remember things before we are five, but most of us know otherwise. I had a first brief interview with Santa in a big shop, called Bentall’s, I think, at Kingston. He had a room full of pretty lights and we queued with a lot of other people. He asked me what I wanted to be and Mummy told me to dance and show him my pas-de-chat. She told him I was going to be a star like Shirley Temple, whose pictures she kept all over the place.
I was too young to be embarrassed, but made a mental note to ask for a red coat with white trimmings. I also needed to check out the apparent multiplicity of Santas as I had glimpsed several others in passing. Apparently, pre-Christmas Santas were substitutes because the real one was very busy.
My mother’s cousin Reg WADEY (who wore a tin hat with letters on) said Santa might not come, and was told off. “Listen,” he protested “The sky’s full of planes and rockets. He can’t use his lights. If he tries it, he’s a hero or an idiot!” … “He’s a hero” said Granny curtly.
On Christmas morning, cups of tea were handed out from the cellar steps and when everyone was settled Reg announced Santa Claus. It was Santa all right. Coat, beard and sack of gifts all present and correct. He stood on the steps as everyone unwrapped their home-made gloves, socks, pin-cushions, lavender-bags, and precious jars of Pond’s Cold Cream.
My present was last of all. A double bed made from an orange-box, stained brown. A coverlet crocheted by Granny and two small dolls, one white, one black, complete with nighties and bed-socks.
I stood on the bed as Santa handed it down. My eyes were level with his feet. He was wearing … Sssh! I’ll whisper … Uncle Ray’s boots.
I looked around.
Just as I thought.
Auntie Louis was there all right but ………...…
Of course I didn’t let on. It would spoil it for the grown-ups
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