A story for Christmas by John Worsey. Illustration by Lorna Apps-Woodland
I first saw Issie Oke on the day I moved to Southsea. While I squeezed boxes through my new doorway, ten-year-old Issie hurtled up and down the street on a scooter, singing a made-up song.
In the years that followed, she loved to pamper my dog whenever she saw us out walking. One day, she surprised us with a beautiful new name tag, which she had hand-carved from driftwood. She was a kind, attentive girl with a warm smile and a generous heart.
She seemed to vanish a few months ago. I asked her mum whether she had gone away to college.
“No,” Olu replied. “She’s doing an apprenticeship. Something very special.”
I was intrigued and, as I found out more, amazed.
“Do you think she’d talk about this for Southsea Lifestyle?” I asked.
“You’ll have to write a letter and ask.” Olu gave me the address. It was just three words long.
In November, Issie and I chatted over coffee and cake at The Tenth Hole. “I’m only back in Pompey for a couple of days,” she explained. “It’s about to get really busy at work.”
“So, what’s it like?” I asked. “The North Pole?”
“Freezing,” she grinned. “And brilliant.”
“How on earth did you get the job?”
“I saw an advert online,” she said, unexpectedly. “They told me later most people don’t bother applying, ‘cos they reckon it’s a joke. But lots do, still, from all over the world. They only take three of us every year. It’s hard to fit more in, ‘cos we need much bigger beds and stuff.”
“Bigger… than the elves?”
“Yeah,” Issie said, as if it was perfectly normal, which I suppose it is to her. “They’d love it in here, you know. An elf meal is one course savoury, three courses of sweet. I put on about a stone in my first week. So I started riding reindeer and that keeps me fit!”
“What are you learning?”
“All the traditional crafts – wooden soldiers, rocking horses, china dolls, teddy bears. They teach lots of different disciplines. Then there’s more modern stuff. We have to source the electronic bits kids want these days, so I help with supplier negotiations.”
“So the elves wouldn’t make, um, an iPad?”
“No way. They can do that cheaper in China, so we get it shipped to the Pole by express sleigh. We’re in the artisan toy business. Heirloom quality. But you can still play with what I make. You’ve got to be able to play with it. Otherwise it’s not Christmas, is it?”
“I suppose not,” I said. And a memory popped into my head.
Issie’s parents were loading a big tea tray into the boot of their car, one snowy morning. Little Issie, wrapped up in scarf, gloves and bobble hat, excitedly told me, “We’re going up Portsdown Hill! Look, I made a sled.”
I took a closer look and, sure enough, the tea tray had been modified with two sleek wooden runners and a set of curved handlebars.
Young Temi pulled shyly on my coat sleeve and whispered, “My sister is the best at making stuff.”
The smell of coffee brought me back to the present, where Issie was finishing her chocolate cheesecake. She sat back with a contented sigh.
“This is the perfect job for you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “There’s two things I love making, more than anything in the world. I love making cool stuff. And I love making people smile.”
Writing this, I can’t help but grin at how life works out. Issie Oke, the toymaker’s apprentice, honing her craft in Santa’s workshop. She’s there right now, working hard to make people happy. It’s what she’s always done. For Issie, it’s always been Christmas every day.