The phone rang – it was Susan’s daughter.
“Hello mum! How are you?”
“I’m fine thank you. I’ve got Milly here now, can I call you back in a bit?”
“Yes, sorry, of course, I should have remembered it was your day with the grandchildren.”
Milly speaks. “Is that auntie Sophie? Can I talk to auntie Sophie?”
“Yes, yes you can. Sophie, I’m going to give the phone to Milly. I’ll call you later. Bye for now.”
Milly takes the phone from Susan. “Hello auntie Sophie.”
“Hello Milly. How are you? Have you been at school today?”
“Yes I have.”
“Um. Are you looking forward to Christmas? What do you want for Christmas?”
(quietly) “A toy robin.”
“A toy – what?”
(even more quietly) “A toy robin.”
“Oh! a toy robin. Does it do anything?”
“No, it’s just a robin.”
“Oh. Well …”
Susan takes the phone back. “I’ll call you later, bye sweetheart.”
Susan is impressed with the idea of a toy robin. And the question – she hadn’t thought to ask Milly what she’d like for Christmas.
A couple of days later she is still thinking about the toy robin, the modesty of the wish, the innocence of it. It brings her to tears in a way she can’t fully understand. Her husband David talks to her about her tears and she realizes she has to act. She will go on a quest for a toy robin.
Susan is not a shopper. Shopping for food is fine, nothing else, she loses heart and concentration after half an hour, and Christmas shopping in actual shops is especially bad. In Susan’s book, that’s what the internet is for. David knows this and will come to town with her to look for the robin. It’s too late to go online.
They set off at two o’clock. It’s cold and dusky already but the streets are crowded. They plan to walk down one side of the high street, visiting all the possible shops, then take a break in the library at the bottom of the street, and return up the other side.
First stop is Poundland. There’s lots of Christmas stuff, Santa hats, reindeer hats, owls, penguins, but no robins. The queue to pay stretches past long shelves of chocolate.
Next, Card Factory. There’s a queue to get in, and inside it’s like shuffling round the Sistine chapel. Susan looks at more Santa hats, candles, cuddly toy lions, tigers, aliens, penguins again, reindeers. A flashing snowman catches her eye. It’s jumbled up in a box with some owls and – hurrah! – one robin. She picks the robin up (it’s plastic) and it emits a purple light. She squeezes its tummy and the light comes on again. She squeezes again. It’s fun! (but not cuddly). She clutches on to it. David has found a snowman glove puppet. They wait in line to pay.
The robin doesn’t quite fit Susan’s idea of a toy robin (what, really, did Milly have in mind – a soft toy, she guesses) so they press on. Robert Dyas, Marks and Spencer, the Entertainer, Hawkins Bazaar; the parade of shops goes on and on. Susan is intrigued by the large number and variety of owls on sale. Are they this year’s Christmas theme? and why? In Clinton’s Cards she buys a soft cuddly reindeer.
At last they arrive at the library. Susan spends some blissful minutes choosing books. Lindsey Davis, Margaret Drabble, Sara Paretsky, and (daringly) Karl Ove Knausgaard. How she loves the library.
But the quest must go on. Susan and David set off back up the high street. There are many shops yet to visit, including the dingy W H Smiths (usually boycotted for a reason Susan cannot entirely recall; something to do with South Africa? or Private Eye?), and the not at all dingy Paperchase.
Finally Susan admits that she hasn’t focused on anything on the shelves for at least the last couple of shops, and the quest must end. She asks David the time. It’s only half past three – they’ve only been shopping for an hour, not counting the time in the library haven. It feels like the whole afternoon to Susan.
The sky is dark and the Christmas lights are on. They walk slowly home. Susan unpacks her purchases: a reindeer, a snowman, and a robin, which has turned itself on in the bag and is now flashing wildly, red, purple, blue, green – hang on. Susan looks more closely. The bird is slender and tallish. It’s black with a white tummy. It has black flippers, a Santa hat and a blue scarf. It’s a penguin.