(In 1918, nine years after opening his famous London Oxford Street department store, Harry Gordon Selfridge commissioned an architect to design a spectacular tower to sit on top of the building ….. )
‘I don’t want to, Jake!’
Kylie’s lower lip trembled as she looked up her brother. Standing on the bottom step, he seemed so much taller though they were nearly the same height. Jake was eight, only a year and an half older. There had been a chain across the passageway with a notice dangling from it. Kylie couldn‘t read the long words, but Jake had ducked under anyway.
‘I want to go back,’ she said. ‘Mummy said to wait in the toy department.’
‘Come on,’ he urged. ‘It’ll be fun. I want to see what’s at the top.’
‘It’s creepy. There aren’t any lights. Santa Claus can’t have gone this way.’
‘He must have, Kylie. There aren’t any other doors. Just these stairs.’
‘I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,’ Kylie said.
Jake made a face. He gave a gesture of impatience before hopping onto the next step. ‘You wanted to see Father Christmas. Well, now’s your chance.’
Kylie pouted. ‘That wasn’t really Santa. He’s just an old man dressed up in a red suit and a beard. For the babies!’
‘Well, I’m going up.’
‘Scaredy-cat! Kylie scaredy-cat!’
‘Daddy said Sell Fridges was haunted.’
‘It’s Self Ridges,’ Jake said. He adopted his most know-all, adult stance. ‘Anyhow, there are no such things as ghosts.’ He stepped down to the bottom tread and held out a podgy hand.
‘O.K.’ She hesitated, then gripped his fingers tightly and followed him as he took to the staircase. It curved to the right and into a helix before disappearing into the well of the tower.
There was just enough width to allow them to go abreast. It wasn’t exactly bright but there was enough daylight filtering in to enable them to see the way ahead. They climbed together, hand in hand. Kylie counted the steps. She reached fifty-nine and stopped. ‘I don’t know sixties and seventies,’ she breathed.
‘They’re the same as forties and fifties, silly,’ said Jake. ‘Sixty-one, sixty-two … Anyway, it can’t be far now.’
‘I want to go back. Mummy will be worried.’
‘Don’t be such a baby, Kylie. Come on!’ He counted another thirty steps for her and to Kylie’s surprise the staircase came to an end in a broad platform. They were in a sort of room with big windows and a square-patterned carpet. The man from the toy department was sitting at a big desk in the middle. He still had on the Father Christmas outfit but had pulled the beard down over his chin so that he looked as if he were wearing a fluffy white scarf. He had put on gold-rimmed spectacles and was studying some papers in front of him.
‘I told you.’ Kylie let go of Jake’s hand and just stared. ‘He’s not Father Christmas!’
The man looked up. He hastily replaced the beard but not before Kylie noticed he had a big black moustache that curled up at the ends. ‘So who have we here?’ he enquired.
‘I’m Jake,’ said Jake, stepping forward boldly. ‘Jake Spenser. This is my sister Kylie. She’s only six. She wanted to see Father Christmas.’
The man coughed but Kylie didn’t think his face unkind or his manner unfriendly. ‘How did you get in here? Are you lost?’
‘We followed you from the toy shop,’ Jake said.
‘And I suppose a chain across the entrance with a notice “Private – Management Only” isn’t enough of a deterrent.’ He paused and laughed heartily. It was a very Father-Christmassy laugh. ‘What am I saying? You probably don’t know the meaning of the word management – or deterrent. Where are your mummy and daddy?’
‘There’s just Mummy. She’s buying some Christmas presents.’ Kylie was over her surprise and found her voice. ‘You’re not really Santa Claus, are you?’
‘No, I’m Harry Gordon Selfridge.’
‘Oh,’ said Jake. ‘It’s your shop. Self Ridges.’
‘Sell Fridges,’ Kylie repeated, but with the changed emphasis. She giggled.
The man laughed again. ‘We don’t only sell fridges, young lady, as you know. And where I come from we call them ice boxes. Now, I think I’m going to have to take you to find your mother.’
‘Why do you call them ice boxes?’ Kylie asked.
‘Well, I guess that’s because I’m an American,’ said Mr Selfridge. ‘That’s what Americans do. And they keep things cold, don’t they? Like ice.’ He rose from his chair. ‘I tell you what, Kylie and Jake, would you like to see what London looks like from up here before we go?’
‘Yes please, Sir,’ said Jake.
‘Yes please, Mr Sell Fridges,’ said Kylie.
Mr Selfridge went towards one of the windows and the children followed.
Kylie felt herself hoisted in the air and a moment later she was perched on Mr Selfridge’s shoulder peering down on an Oxford Street bustling with Christmas shoppers. There was a policeman on a horse, two buses and some other traffic. The people were the size of insects and the cars looked very strange indeed. She glanced across at Jake, sitting on the shop owner’s other shoulder. ‘Doesn’t everything look funny from up here?’ she said. ‘It’s like being in an aeroplane.’
‘Have you been in an aeroplane, Kylie?’ Mr Selfridge asked.
‘Course. Haven’t you?’
‘Sure. Twice, as a matter of fact. Now, I think we’d better go down to the store. Instead of the stairs, we’ll take the quick route.’ He gestured to a glass door on the other side of the room before crouching to let them jump down from his shoulders.
Mr Selfridge, still wearing his beard, slid the door to one side revealing a tiny elevator. There were only two buttons and he pressed the lower one marked S.
Kylie had been in an elevator several times and expected a shudder as they started to move, and when they stopped. This time she felt no sensation at all other than a feeling of great excitement. Christmas was only a week away.
The lift door opened. Mrs Spenser was carrying a big square parcel under one arm and in her other hand two carrier bags.
‘Mummy!’ Kylie rushed forward to hug her mother around the waist. Jake followed more sedately.
Mrs Spenser ruffled his hair. ‘There you both are! I thought I’d lost you.’
‘We’ve had a lovely time, Mummy.’ Kylie tried unsuccessfully to peer into one of the carrier bags. ‘We’ve been up in the tower. We went to see Father Christmas and we looked down on Oxford Street but everything looked so funny.’
‘What do you mean, up in the tower? What tower? Jake, what have you been telling your sister.’
‘We climbed the stairs,’ Jake said. ‘Then Mr Selfridge brought us down in his lift.’ He turned round to look for the store owner.
Kylie turned too and stared, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping. What a moment ago had been a transparent lift door was now a much more solid one of wood. The sign above it read Toilets.
The man in the Father Christmas costume was nowhere to be seen.