Miracle on Regent StreetBy: Ali Harris
I gaze out of my bedroom window into the dark winter morning as the snowflakes fall softly outside. Is this it? I wonder. It’s not a sudden change in the wind, like the one that carried Mary Poppins to the Banks family, or the tornado that carried Dorothy to Oz, but maybe, just maybe, this downfall is the universe’s way of telling me that my life is about to change. A flurry of snow to signal the flurry of action I’ve been waiting for so long.
I drop the curtains so that they fall back in place and dash over to my dressing table where my Advent calendar is propped up against the mirror. I smile as I open door number one and pop the chocolate in my mouth. The picture is of a snow globe. Another sign that things are about to be shaken up?
Half an hour later I slam the front door behind me, heave my bike down the front steps and hop on, feeling a thrill of anticipation. Today big things are going to happen, I just know it.
Today, like every work day, I’m wearing plain black trousers, a white shirt (with a thermal vest underneath) and flat brogues. I’m also wrapped in a cardigan, my sensible knee-length duffel coat, bobble hat, and a multicoloured striped scarf, which I’ve wound tightly around my neck and mouth. Not a great look but it’s not like anyone is goit m ang to notice at this time of the morning. Or indeed at any time. It’s been two years since anyone really looked at me. That was when Jamie broke up with me.
Obviously I’ve changed massively since then and I’m completely over him. Well, maybe not completely. But, you know, these things take time. Two years isn’t that long to get over a five-year relationship, is it? I don’t care what my sister says, it’s perfectly understandable that I’m not quite there yet. Besides, since we broke up I’ve been focusing on other aspects of my life. I mean, I don’t live with my parents any more, for a start. OK, so I do live with my big sister, Delilah, and her husband, Will, in the converted attic in their house overlooking a gorgeous square in Primrose Hill, but it’s different because I’m independent. Like a 28-year-old woman should be. Well, independent apart from the fact that in exchange for my lodging I have to look after my 3-year-old niece, Lola, and 2-year-old nephew, Raffy, before and after work. It’s not ideal, but I can’t complain.
I inhale deeply and gaze around me wondrously. How could I fail to feel positive on a day like this? The roofs of the grand Regency houses on Chalcot Square are covered in white, as if a big scoop of vanilla ice cream has melted all over the peppermint, orange, raspberry and lemon sorbet-coloured houses. And the pretty garden that they surround looks like a Christmas cake that’s just been covered with a thick layer of royal icing. I push off, wobbling a little as I weave round it and cycle on to Regent’s Park Road.
I cross the road and head over to Primrose Hill, pedalling hard to break through the thick layer of snow that crunches under my wheels. Then I stop for a moment and just cruise downhill, feeling the wind whip against my cheeks, throwing my head back and closing my eyes so that I feel like I’m suspended in space and time. I open my eyes, grip the handlebars tightly and pedal furiously again. Because today, for once, I’m determined to go somewhere.
It feels as if I have been magically transported back in time as I cycle into Portland Place. No vehicles are on the streets and I can’t help but imagine them when they were cobbled and filled with horses and carriages. I’m just picturing myself in full Victorian costume, when I swing off down New Cavendish Street and onto Great Titchfield Street, past the unlit pubs and restaurants, and then I swerve down a smaller road, skidding to a halt as I pull up in front of Hardy’s department store: a place that has been my daytime home for the past two years and where, today, all my career dreams will finally come true.
Hardy’s sits elegantly on the corner of two streets just north (or, as many people say, ‘the wrong side’) of Regent Street. Over the other side is Soho, home to numerous famous theatres, legendary restaurants and cool, destination bars. But here, in ‘Noho’, we’re like Soho’s less famous but much prettier sibling. Officially classed as in Fitzrovia, Hardy’s is tuo;soo far from the big shops on Regent and Oxford Street for the crowds who flock there every day. Tourists don’t know we’re here, and Londoners would far rather visit salubrious Selfridges, quaint Liberty or just-plain-useful John Lewis than schlep all the way over to us.
The small but perfectly formed store seems to rise up before me now like a pop-up picture in a children’s Christmas book. I sit back on my saddle and glance up at it fondly, panting a little from my uncharacteristic race to the store. I’m not usually this desperate to get to work but today is different: the Big Announcement is happening at 9 a.m. My manager, Sharon, came into the stockroom last week and told me that they’re looking to promote someone to be assistant manager of the shop floor. She said that they had their eye on someone who’d been with the company for a long time (hello! Two years!), who knew the stock inside out (I’m only the stockroom manager) as well as the customers (I can name all of our regular customers off the cuff). Then she’d said they wanted someone who was passionate about the store. And if that wasn’t the biggest ever hint in the universe, then I don’t know what is. There isn’t anything I don’t know about Hardy’s. And Sharon knows how much I’d love to be out there on the shop floor, talking to customers, selling, being part of it all.
The store itself has seen better days, it has barely any customers and the stock wouldn’t look out of place in a museum, but I still love the old place. That’s why I was so excited to get a job here two years ago – even if it was only in the stockroom. I thought I’d only be working there for a short while, until they saw my potential and moved me on to the shop floor. But that still hasn’t happened. At least it hasn’t until today . . .
I glance up at the clock on the front of the store. It’s still only six thirty. I chain up my bike in the parking bay and find I can’t tear my eyes away from the store façade. Hardy’s is a beautiful four-storey Edwardian building with warm sandstone bricks that sit above the modern glass-fronted ground floor. Beautiful arched baroque windows line the entire first floor like a dozen eyes peering down on the street. Above them, thin rectangular windows are poised like eyelashes to flutter at passers-by. The rooftop silhouette is dominated by ornate columned balconies and a central domed tower, which is now lightly covered in a layer of snow. At the front of this tower is a clock that has been telling the time to passing Londoners for a hundred years. But looking at it now, the hands seem to stay perfectly still, like they’re frozen in time. Even the windows seem to stare blankly back at me. It’s as if the store is in a deep sleep.
It might be the 1 December but you wouldn’t know it here at Hardy’s. It’s supposed to be the busiest shopping period of the year, but each day the store is like a ghost town. And to make matters worse, the board of directors has decided to go minimal on the decorations this year. So they’ve got rid of Hardy’s traditional, crowd-pleasing fifty-foot-high Norwegian spruce, which has stood next to the central staircase, dripping with decorations and proudly guarding its bounty of beautifully wrapped gift boxes each December for decades. Instead, in a fit of frugality, Rupert Hardy, the fourth generation Hardy family member to manage the store, suggested that we make use of the two dozen tacky silver artificial Christmas trees that his father, Sebastian, had bought back in the 1980s but never used. Rupeancr used.rt said that they are a nod to the new, trendy ‘Christmas minimalism’, but we all know that it’s just a money-saving measure. But at what cost? I feel like asking. No one wants to shop at a place that is devoid of Christmas spirit. And customers only have to see the sorrowful-looking windows to conclude that Hardy’s is severely lacking in yuletide cheer.