Sham was running. But whether he was running away from his fear or just running his fears away he could never be sure. Perhaps it was both. His heart was pounding and his legs were aching. He had pushed himself harder than ever before, deliberately running against the wind that blew across the hills above Yuleport, and every muscle told him that it was time to stop, but still he kept going.
Vaguely aware of the plaintive, haunting call of a buzzard echoing across the valley, he glanced upwards as he ran and saw the strangely jagged wings, stretched wide as the wind carried the bird wherever it pleased. The horizon was lightening, and the sky was a multitude of colours, as he came over the top of the hill and began to pound down the slope towards the town. Then the sun came up, bright orange, over the sea ahead of him. The water turned into a glittering mirror, brighter than the giant Krissmas tree in the main square, its ever-present lights shining palely in the dawn.
As he leapt over the stile and started down the main road to Yuleport, Sham’s heart lifted at the thought of the day ahead. He had woken so early this morning, due to both excitement and the vivid dream he’d had in which he’d been alone in the school playground, hammering his fists on a window. Inside, he could see a teacher – a man – who was speaking animatedly to the children. Sham was desperate to enter the school, to join in the lesson, but he could hear nothing, and no one could hear him. As he’d watched, the pupils in the classroom had turned, and they were no longer children but grown men and women, dressed in green suits, glaring at him coldly.
At that memory, Sham accelerated around the corner of his street, and forced his tired legs to sprint the final stretch. It wasn’t real. The Suits weren’t here. It was all right. It was morning and it was a momentous day: he really was going to school and nothing was going to stop him. There wasn’t a cloud in the summer sky. He made a mental note to ask the teacher, sometime during the next two weeks, what made the sky blue.
After a hurried but silent shower, Sham tiptoed back into his bedroom and quietly opened his wardrobe. There, he paused and stared for a moment. The Uniform. He reached out and touched it gently, almost reverently, before putting it on.
After dressing in the plain grey trousers and blue shirt, Sham realised that he had no grey socks to match, so he pulled on as plain a pair of Krissmas socks as he could find (dark blue with a snowflake design). As he did so, he heard his parents talking quietly next door. They were up. He went back into the bathroom and switched on his electric toothbrush, screwing up his nose as the tinny sound of “All I want for Krissmas is my two front teeth,” rang out in the silence. Whilst the buzzing brush vibrated against his teeth, Sham stared at his own face in the mirror, taking in the newly cut hair (he had insisted on this), tight and curly against his head, and the determined look in his dark eyes. His skin was still flushed from his run, but he felt cool and ready for anything now.
Back in his room, he reached under his bed, pushed a mountain of uninteresting toys aside and pulled hard on a strap. A brown rucksack jerked its way towards him. Sham felt the familiar thud in his chest, which he had every time he looked at this rather tatty brown bag. His grandmother had given it to him years ago, before she’d disappeared, and it was still his favourite present ever. The worn leather strap came open easily, and he pulled out a pencil case, also made of brown leather, with a zip at the top. With great care, he opened it, and took out a pencil, sharpened to a point like a needle, a round white eraser, a metal sharpener and a wooden ruler. Carefully, Sham lifted each item to his nose and breathed in deeply. Everything smelled so real, somehow, and so unlike everything else in his world. The scents of leather, rubber, wood and metal entered his nostrils, and with them, a memory: he saw Gran’s face, heard her laugh and felt her huge, enveloping hugs.
There was a ringing sound and then a loud, husky “Miaow!” from the doorway. Sham started and nearly stuck the pencil up his nose. It was just his cat, slinking in after a night’s hunting, the four silver bells around his neck jingling as he walked.
“Silly old Jingle-Cat!” whispered Sham, and went back to his rucksack. This time, he pulled out a lined exercise book, a little squashed at the edges. He opened it eagerly, the pencil in his hand. Some of the pages were already written on, in a shaky, irregular handwriting, which he hardly liked to admit, even to himself, was his own. He read the last entry:
In my room is a broken chair.
I keep it because it once held there
A special person with gentle looks
Whose heart was rich with books.
And the chair, like me, will never forget her.
He had tried to write a poem. Rhyming was tricky… and he had given up on the last line. He glanced at the empty chair beside his bed, and looked away quickly. There was only one friend that Sham had ever had. And she was gone. He blinked and propped the book on his knees, grasped the pencil more tightly in his hand and wrote, slowly and carefully, on a clean page, ‘Today I am going back to scool.’
Then he picked up the eraser and watched the last word magically vanish as he rubbed. He re-wrote “school” and put a full stop so firmly that the pencil point broke. This gave him the perfect excuse to use the sharpener, which he did enthusiastically. Then he took the ruler, and carefully underlined the sentence. Underneath, he wrote 7 x 9 = and furrowed his forehead in thought, as his brain searched for the answer.
“SHAM!” shouted Mr Deco from the living room. Sham heard the versatelly being switched on and the tune of ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ singing out through the house. He winced.
“Sham, it’s your job to turn on the tree lights,” continued his father in a tone of voice that Sham knew meant he was in a bad mood. “Come and do it NOW!”
Sham sighed and closed the book firmly. He put everything back in the pencil case, returning it and the book to the rucksack. He knew how his father felt about him ‘wasting time with school work.’
Breakfast was a silent affair that day, apart from Jingle’s deep-throated miaows as he asked for breakfast, and the sound of the bells tinkling merrily around his neck. With no presents to open and discuss, Sham’s parents seemed to be rather at a loss for conversation.
“Did you run this morning?” said Mrs Deco at last.
“Mmm,” nodded Sham, his mouth full of cereal.
“Put your kit in the washing machine,” his mother continued automatically, and then added, “It’s nice and sunny. First of August today.”
Sham nodded again. As if he would forget that. All he could think about was finishing and getting out of the house as quickly as possible. His eyes fixed on the insipid flickering lights of the fake Krissmas tree in front of the window. It was the new, very fashionable upside-down tree, from the Tree-Tops shop, which would spin on its base like a top if you pressed the hand of the brass elf that held it. Sham hated it.
As his father got up to leave for work, he patted Sham’s shoulder and muttered, “Don’t get any ideas in your head,” which Sham thought was a really inappropriate thing to say to someone just about to go to school.
His mother immediately turned up the versatelly, to cover up another awkward silence, and a presenter’s voice rang out across the kitchen: “…we welcome Professor Festive Days, once The Krissmas Party’s Minister for Krissmas Education. A very festive morning to you, Professor Days! Children all over the country will be going to school today. Hey – it’s not too late to change your minds, kids! Well, Professor, surely they will find the experience a dull one, compared to their normal joyous Krissmas life?”
Before the Professor had a chance to answer, Sham’s mother had switched it off again, with an apologetic glance at her son.
“Joyous Krissmas life?” The words seemed to be echoing in Sham’s head, and the Crunchy Snowflakes were making him feel slightly sick, so he put down his spoon and stood up, meeting his mother’s eye as he did so. He was surprised to see a guilty expression on her face.
Then she blinked and sighed. “I hope you have a good day, Sham. I know how much you’ve been looking forward to this. Just don’t get too used to it. It’s only two weeks, you know…”
There didn’t seem to be much else to say.
As Sham shouldered his rucksack and marched from the house, muttering a quick goodbye, his mother was still standing in the kitchen, absently twisting a sparkly tea towel in her hands. She was so motionless that Jingle had sat down to wash himself on one of her polar bear slippers.
This time last year, he had been a solitary figure going to school from this street, and today it surprised him to see four other children from Chestnut Avenue, dressed in uniform like him, emerging from their homes. Priya, a girl of about Sham’s age, whose family had recently moved in next door, was grinning as if she couldn’t help it, her teeth white and gleaming in her coffee-coloured face, her black hair pulled back in two long plaits. She looked as excited as he felt, and his own mouth twitched at the corners, as he wondered if they would be in the same group at school. Priya seemed to be trying to catch his eye, but he looked down shyly and walked quickly past her.
There were Mr and Mrs Reindeer, sending their son Rudy off with calls of, “Don’t worry, it’s only two weeks – remember it’s Krissmas all the rest of the year!” Rudy had a large reindeer rucksack grinning on his back. His hair, the colour of wet sand, hung in straggly curls, and there was something about his slumped shoulders that told Sham he wasn’t happy.
As he passed, Sham noticed that Mr Reindeer was already switching on the snow puffer, which generated what appeared to be real snow to cover the garden. He saw Sham staring at him, and waved with one hand, calling out, in a jolly voice, “Stays cold and lasts all day, you know!”
Ahead of them all, Faith and Hope, identical seven-year old twins, were holding hands and trotting along the pavement, kicking off fake snow from their shiny blue shoes, their blonde bunches swinging.
As Sham turned up the hill towards the school, a girl emerged defiantly from a narrow path between two houses. She was at least sixteen, very tall with dyed blonde hair almost as short as Sham’s, and an incredibly short grey skirt.
And now the school was in sight, its enormous windows gazing out, like gleaming eyes, over the red-brick walls. Sham had recently been looking at the building every time he passed, for signs of life, but there had never been anyone there. Pausing, he took in again the sturdy trees, standing to attention outside the walls, and the large, ornate, metal gate that was firmly shut. Rudy and the twins had stopped abruptly a few feet from the gate and Sham halted too.
“Looks like they grew the trees to hide the school,” he heard a quiet voice say, and he half turned to see Priya right behind him. He was wondering how to answer her, when a small hand grasped his. His instinct was to pull away, but the grip just tightened. Glancing down, Sham saw two very blue eyes looking up at him out of a white, scared face. It was Faith, the braver of the twins, and Hope was standing nearby, looking similarly pale.
“Where’s the cheaters?” came the whisper. In front of them, Rudy snorted.
“The what?” said Sham, bending a little so he could hear Faith’s nervous voice.
“The cheaters,” said Faith again, a little louder.
“Oh, you mean the teachers,” said Sham, laughing nervously. “Well, I guess, you know, they’ll be in the school, waiting for us.”
“Are you on your own?” said Priya, concerned, crouching down to talk to Hope, who was looking tearful.
“Dada had to go and deliver Krissmas cakes,” said Hope quietly.
“He’s a baker!” added Faith.
They were interrupted by a sound that made them all jump. It was the ringing of a bell, a loud, hand-held bell. As Sham looked up, he saw that the gates of the school yard had been opened, and that there was a young brown-haired woman in a sleeveless dress standing between them, heaving the bell up and down for all she was worth. Rudy clapped his hands over his ears and Faith clutched Sham’s hand even harder, whilst grabbing her sister with her other hand. Priya also held on to Hope, and the four of them moved forward together, as if they were all one family.
As they pressed through the big front door, Sham’s nose was tickled by the dusty scent of a building nobody had been in for a year. The paint was peeling off the walls, and the children’s now quietly chattering voices echoed back from the high ceiling. Sham felt as if the school itself were shouting out to greet old friends.
There was a long corridor ahead of them, and at various points along it were tables, with one or two adults behind them. Some of these adults were teachers, but then Sham felt his heart thud unpleasantly as he noticed the others. The Suits. Crisply dressed in clothes that Sham knew only too well – the close-fitting dark green suits of the Krissmas Party’s secret police – they were just as he had seen them in his dream. There were five of them at least, and they were standing apart from the other adults and the children, simply watching. In their hands, they all carried the familiar, thick, black and white canes; a couple leaned on them casually, but others, Sham noticed, held them like rifles over their shoulders. Seeing them there, the children’s enthusiastic chatter quickly died away, and the echoes apologetically lapsed into silence a second later.
A tall, thin man, with a greying beard that matched his grey suit, clapped his hands twice for attention. “Good morning, children. My name is Mr Noel. If this is your first time in school, you will be with Mr Archer at that end of the corridor, but if you have been here before, and can already read, you will be in one of the classrooms at this end with either myself or Miss Bell.” His voice was low and serious, and there was no welcoming smile on this man’s face, but Sham rather liked it – he didn’t look blank, like The Suits, just business-like.
“Is that the Cheater?” hissed Faith very loudly. Sham blushed as several children nearby stared at them and he yanked his hand (which was more than a little sweaty by now) out of Faith’s. Immediately, one of the Suits, who was standing nearby and had clearly overheard, stepped forwards, and Faith gasped, looking bewildered. Her sister gave a little scream.
“Ooh, she’ll be on the Naughty List now!” whispered Rudy from behind Sham.
“She didn’t mean it,” said Priya quickly, taking Faith’s hand and apparently quite unafraid of the man who was now frowning down at them. “She meant ‘Teacher’, of course.”
As Sham held his breath, he saw Mr Noel shake his head at The Suit and the man stepped back, his face expressionless again. Priya crouched down beside Faith and her sister and said something quietly to them both, which made Faith giggle. Feeling suddenly guilty at abandoning the little girl, Sham released his breath in a big sigh. Priya looked up and gave him a smile that he felt he didn’t deserve.
Within minutes, the children were lined up and being tested, so that they could be sorted into groups. Sham’s nerves at seeing a reading test disappeared when he realised that he could read it easily, and he found himself in a group of other readers which included, to his surprise, little Faith, as well as Priya, Rudy and the tall blonde girl.
“’Ope? Where’s ‘Ope?” Faith was saying plaintively to Priya, and Sham saw Hope’s face, white and wide-eyed, as she was led away with a group of non-readers. A few seconds later, Sham’s group, about twelve children in all, were led by Mr Noel to the nearest classroom, and ushered in.
The lady with brown hair was leaning on a table at the front of the classroom, her head slightly on one side, and a warm, welcoming smile on her face. She looked utterly relaxed, as if she did this every day.
“Good morning, everyone! Come in, come in,” she cried, moving towards them and beckoning them in. “Just find yourselves a space and make yourselves at home.”
The children shuffled through the door silently. Priya and Faith both took desks right at the front, smiling up into the teacher’s face. Casually, the tall blonde girl sat down right at the back, her arms folded, her long legs stretched out in front of her. Rudy plonked himself down heavily in the middle of the room, wheezing a little, and looking unimpressed by his surroundings.
For a moment, Sham stood by the door and looked around. There were no versatellies in here, nor any Krissmas decorations. The walls were almost bare, apart from two posters: one very faded one with the letters of the alphabet, and the other showing multiplication tables. Spaced evenly around the room, the desks were old and wooden, scratched but sturdy, with lids that opened to put your things inside. He remembered them from last year, and a warm feeling gradually spread through him, until it reached his face. Sham smiled; he was back in school again.