Mr Graham," said Lucy. "I've been running this agency for nearly five years and I don't think I've ever seen anyone who looks quite as..." She paused.
"As miserable as I do," Patrick Graham said. Lucy nodded.
"Yes. That's right. You do look completely and utterly fed up. We're used to that, of course. And we don't mind. It's our job to make you feel better. It's on our logo: Angels United: we're here to help."
"I don't know why I came in really," said Patrick. "I saw the angel hanging outside and thought of my son. We've had angels on our mind, one way and another. He's six. Liam... that's his name... brought one back from school the other day. They'd been making them for Christmas."
"You can't have ginger angels," Karen told her little brother. "Angels have got yellow hair. Don't you know anything? And her wings are too big. She'd fall over if her wings were really that big."
"Stop it, Karen!" said Patrick. "Don't be so nasty. It's a beautiful angel, Liam, and I'm going to balance her here on the mantelpiece where everyone can see her. Her wings are lovely."
"I stuck real feathers on, Daddy," said Liam. "Can you see?" "Yes," said Patrick. "She's a smashing angel."
Liam's cardboard cut-out didn't last long. The next night, Karen opened the back door and the draught blew it off the mantelpiece and into the fire which Patrick had lit to cheer everyone up. Liam cried and cried, and Patrick said over and over again: never mind, love. Never mind. We'll make a new angel for you. I'll find you feathers, truly I will. I'll help you. It'll be an even better angel.
"Mr Graham," Lucy said firmly. "Time is of the essence. Please tell me, as simply as you possibly can, what it is you'd like us to do for you."
"Right," said Patrick. "There's only five days to go and I've done nothing. About Christmas I mean. I need help buying presents for my kids." He waved his hand vaguely above Lucy's desk. "And so on. Food. Decorations. You know."
"How old are your children?" Lucy had begun to make notes.
"There's Karen. She's 13. And Liam. You know about him."
"May I ask if there's a Mrs Graham?" "Not any more. She's gone. She went just after Liam was born. We ... well, she was never cut out to be a mother and I don't know why we thought that having another baby would bring us together. It did the exact opposite. She took one look at Liam and practically ran screaming out of the house."
"Goodness," said Lucy. "How perfectly dreadful! I'm terribly sorry."
Patrick smiled, and Lucy noticed that when he wasn't slumped in complete misery, his face was quite transformed. Could he possibly be called handsome? She pulled her attention back to what he was saying:
"I don't mean that literally, of course, but we were divorced before Liam turned one, and she was off to Australia with a guy she met at a bar called Bondi Beach. She didn't ask for custody of the children, so....." "You don't have to say another word, Mr Graham. I can imagine how hard it must have been for you, coping all on your own. And Christmas of course is the very worst time of year for having to cope isn't it? But we'll help you, I promise."
I'm sick of it, Karen thought. It's never right. It's never like they say it should be in the magazines with holly wreaths hanging on the front door and red candles on the festive table. Festive ... fat chance! Last year Dad burned the Tesco turkey breast, and the presents were hardly wrapped at all. They weren't special. He'd left buying presents too late. As usual. "It's as though he wants to forget about Christmas altogether," Karen told Gina, her best friend. "Well, that's when your Mum left, wasn't it?" Gina said. "I remember you telling me."
I never told you the half, Karen thought. Nearly seven years had gone by since that time, but she'd never forgotten Dad weeping in his pyjamas on Christmas morning while Liam slept in his cot. Thinking: where's Mum, and what's happened to her, and why aren't there stockings full of presents like there were last year and why did they have to go to Aunt Trudie's for their Christmas dinner and why didn't they have any tinsel anywhere, like other people.
"I don't care where you've been, you're late," Karen glared at her father. "I've had to put Liam to bed. I wasn't supposed to have to do that... I was just baby-sitting, I thought."
Patrick sighed and smiled at his daughter.
"It's hard on you, I know. And I know you hate Christmas, but it'll be different this year. I promise. I've got it all under control."
Karen sniffed. "I've heard that before. I don't believe you any more."
"I know you don't. I don't blame you. I've made a lot of decisions tonight. First off, I'm going to leave my job and retrain. They're forever saying how they need teachers - well, they're going to get one. Me."
Karen looked anxiously at her father. Had he been drinking? He looked quite normal, apart from this smiley look he had on, which wasn't like him at all. Dad was a serious frowner.
"I'm going to be a primary school teacher," he said. Karen blinked. Patrick continued: "See? I've silenced you! There's not much that can do that, is there? And why are you so gob-smacked? I've been considering it for ages. I'll be a very good teacher. And I'll be able to be here in the holidays for you and Liam."
"I don't need anyone to be here for me, ta very much all the same!" "Sorry, sorry, of course not. For Liam then. And I'll just have more time to do stuff. Like this Christmas lark. I might get it right one day, and in the meantime..." he grinned.
"Yeah, it's the meantime I'm worrying about. Like the 25th of this month, what have you done about that?" "It's been taken care of. I saw an angel while I was out, glittering, pale blue and gold, high above the heads of all the shoppers. In Hargate Street, she was. Swinging backwards and forwards and glowing. So I followed where she led, and it's all fixed up. You can relax. We're going to have a perfect Christmas."
Karen looked carefully at her father and wondered whether it was time to phone that number. It was a helpline for children in some kind of trouble. She'd found it in a magazine and written it carefully inside the cover of her diary. They'd surely help if she told them her dad had lost his marbles so near Christmas. "I know," said Patrick. "You think I'm barmy, but I'm not. Just wait and see."
Karen went to open the door at 10 o'clock on the morning of Christmas Eve. Standing in the porch was a pretty young woman with red curls escaping from under the brim of a white woolly hat, glittery with sequins. Before Karen could speak, this person said:
"Hello, you must be Karen. I'm Lucy Meredith, from Angels United."
Karen stared at her. She said: "I'm sorry... did you say Angels United? What's that?" Lucy Meredith sighed. "I suppose your father hasn't mentioned that I'm coming to help you organise Christmas?" Karen shook her head. "Men!" said Lucy. "What are they like? Come and help me unload the van. Liam too, if he'd like to."
Liam had pushed past Karen and stood beside her now gazing at Lucy.
"See?" he said. "I told you angels can have red hair, didn't I? I knew they could."
"She's not an angel," Karen told her brother. "She's just come to bring some stuff that Dad ordered, that's all."
Liam pointed at the van parked behind the privet hedge. You could just see the top of it, sticking out above the green.
"What's that, then?" An angel about a metre high was standing on the van roof. White sparkly wings, red hair, and a golden trumpet, from which floated a banner with "Angels United: we're here to help" printed on it in silver letters.
Karen said: "That's not a proper angel, Liam. It's an advertisement."
Liam took no notice. He walked up to Lucy and put his hand in hers.
"I know it's an advertisement," he said, and then he turned and smiled at her. "It's advertising you, isn't it? You're the proper angel. I know you are."
Lucy smiled. "If you say so," she whispered in his ear and they walked down the garden path together to unpack the perfect Christmas.
Continued next week
Ad le Geras was born in Jerusalem. Before her first book appeared, in 1976, she had been a singer and French teacher. She has published more than 70 books for young people including, most recently, "Troy" (shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award) and "Voyage" (Barn Owl Books). "Voices from the Dolls' House" (Rockingham Press) is her first collection of poetry for adults. Earlier this year she received an Arts Council award to help her develop a second collection. She lives in Manchester