“It’s worth dying if you change the world,” Red was saying. Sham, who had been dozing in the sleigh, was startled into wakefulness immediately. Holly was holding something in her hands – it was a suit, a dark green suit. There was no mistaking the uniform of the Krissmas Party. As Sham sat up and rubbed the frost off his eyelashes, Holly jumped out and crunched off into the dark shadow of some nearby trees, and Red started attaching his skis to his boots and shouldering a rucksack. He was clearly about to leave them.
“What’s going on?” he asked. Red turned and looked at him with eyes that were as piercingly blue as those of the lead husky sitting near him.
“She’s getting ready to take you to the nursing home,” he said, his face expressionless as usual. “Amaryllis managed to get hold of a KP suit in exchange for her harp – it’s the best way to get in anywhere.”
For a moment, Sham didn’t understand what he meant. Then he realised that Holly was dressing up as a Suit to help him get Gran – and that Red’s girlfriend had swapped what was probably a treasured possession to make it happen. He felt so grateful; he didn’t know what to say.
“That’s – that’s blitz,” he muttered. “Thanks, Red.”
“Yes, well – your Gran matters. She’s one of the ones that does.”
He turned away. Rudy, who had been yawning and stretching beside him, caught Sham’s eye and nodded. Sham didn’t ask why Gran mattered – he was just glad that she did. Then he added, rather nervously, “What will you do now?”
“Better you don’t know,” said Red sharply. “Anyway,” he added, changing the subject, “the plan is that Holly goes in with you, Sham. Rudy will have to wait outside. She’s got a false ID with her, which should get you through the doors.”
“Um – what’s ID?” said Sham, feeling foolish.
“Identity,” said Red. “She’s got a card. It’s a speaking card, activated by a voice. We’ve managed to adapt it to work for Holly’s voice instead of – the real owner’s voice.”
“Who’s we?” Rudy asked curiously, as Red was pulling something out that had been hidden under the reindeer skins on the sleigh.
“Better you don’t know,” snapped Red again, starting to look irritated. “Just follow Holly’s lead. Once you’ve got Mrs Allbright, Holly will take you all somewhere safe. But – I wanted to give you this.”
He took out from a brown, leather case what looked to Sham like one of The Suits’ canes: it was black and white in colour, but it had a long, sharp point at one end. Rudy stared at it excitedly.
“Santa’s Grotto!” he said in awe.
Red ignored him. “It’s not what it looks like. It’s an ice melter. Press this button, and it’ll heat up. Hot enough to melt any ice immediately. See how the stick expands to make it longer? If you’re being chased across ice, it could come in useful, or if you’re trapped behind ice or snow walls.” He handed it to a stunned Sham and turned away, picking up his poles. Rudy took the ice melter out of Sham’s hands and started examining it carefully.
“Red – wait!” called a voice behind them. Holly came running out from the trees, dressed in a green suit. Red, about to ski away, stopped, looking annoyed.
“I need to give you this,” said Holly, grabbing Sham’s rucksack from the sleigh, and pulling out the blue folder. Sham felt himself growing pale – he had completely forgotten about the folder, after the drama of the night. Priya had trusted him with it and he’d forgotten. Red said nothing, but he took the folder from Holly and turned away to look at its contents, using a small powerful torch. He didn’t ask where the plans had come from, but Holly pulled him away and talked quietly to him for a few minutes. Both looked very serious, but neither Sham nor Rudy heard what they discussed. They didn’t dare to ask. Instead, they looked at the ice melter together and then put it back in the leather case.
Shortly, Red turned and skiied quickly away, without even saying goodbye. Sham looked at Holly as she came crunching back through the snow towards him. She looked quite different, very adult and unlike herself. Her eyes had been rubbed almost clean of make-up and her hair was slicked back on her head. She shivered in the suit, even though Sham could see that it was made of some thick material, different to that of the normal Suits.
“I’ll drive!” said Rudy importantly, seating himself in Red’s place and picking up the huskies’ harness. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Holly nodded, her face preoccupied. “Okay, ‘ere’s what we’re gonna do,” she said, wrapping a white fake fur coat around her, and pulling on a large, fluffy white hat in the same material. “As soon as it’s nine o’clock, we’re gonna go right up to the front door and act as if we’re meant to be there. If we look as if we know what we’re doin’, they’re less likely to ask too many questions.”
Sham nodded. Rudy encouraged the dogs forwards, and they all started running, slowly at first, but then faster, apparently tirelessly, towards the sea. As the dim light of dawn lightened the sky, Sham tried to relax beside a now silent Holly, feeling strangely light-headed from lack of food and sleep. Occasionally, he found himself dozing off, but each time, his mind jerked him back awake with memories of the previous night.
Firstly, the horror of Holly’s nearly tragic accident. Then after meeting up with Red and the huskies, they had circled the city, crossing the frozen river further inland, and then started back down the other side. There had been nobody on the smooth, white road then, but once, a fox, skinny and brown, had rushed across the road ahead of them, causing the huskies to bark noisily (until silenced angrily by Red). At one point, they’d stopped for a while in a pine forest clearing. The trees held their burden of snow precariously, as if they would drop it all on their heads at any moment. For a moment, Sham had seen the wide eyes of a large owl, sitting nearby on a low branch, before it took off and flew gracefully away, hooting as it went.
The huskies had been given a drink and some food, which they’d consumed noisily, and some of them had curled up in the snow for a quick nap, like Jingle in front of a warm fire. Because of the shelter the trees provided, even Red had seemed more relaxed and lit a small lantern quickly and efficiently.
“Cold is how they like it,” he’d told the boys, pointing to the huskies. “Can’t sleep properly unless it’s cold.”
At this point, Rudy had produced from his rucksack a small metal flask. “Drink some of this – it’ll warm you up.” He’d passed it round. Red took a gulp first, and passed it on without any reaction. Then Holly had taken a swig and almost choked.
“Is that – brandy?!” she spluttered in disbelief, but her cheeks almost immediately got some colour back into them.
Sham had taken a cautious sip and felt the liquid searing his throat and working its way down to his stomach. It was incredible – like drinking fire. He’d coughed and taken another sip, feeling his legs strengthening at once.
“Wow!” he’d said. “Where’d you get that?”
“My dad’s drinks cupboard,” Rudy had muttered guiltily, and then they laughed. But Holly hadn’t – it was as if she was afraid to laugh in front of her brother. And Red, of course, was silent. Sham was beginning to wonder if he ever even smiled.
Abruptly, Sham had asked Rudy, “Weren’t you scared – back there?”
Rudy had bitten his lip, embarrassed.
“No, actually. I didn’t have time. D’you remember when Miss Bell said, ‘The time when you don’t have time to think is the most important time to act’?”
Sham nodded, amazed that Rudy had remembered anything Miss Bell said – he had certainly never seemed to be listening. Holly, however, was looking at her brother, and didn’t seem surprised at what he said next.
“Miss Bell? Jingo Bell?” said Red. “That traitor?”
The two boys had looked at him in shock.
“What do you mean?” said Sham. When Red hadn’t answered, Holly had stepped in quickly.
“What ‘e means is, she’s a teacher. I mean, not just for us. She teaches stupid Krissmas Party kids. All year. Not just KrissEd, like the rest of us. They’ve been gettin’ educated for years, learnin’ to read, and all that, while the rest of us…” she’d stopped, as Red had raised one gloved hand to silence her.
Then he’d said, in a voice as cold as ice, “Don’t ever mention that woman again.” Sham couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He and Rudy had looked at each other in horror, but neither had dared to speak.
Sham’s tired brain now tried to process what he had heard about his teacher. With Red gone, and his forceful opinion not clouding his memories, Sham remembered how Miss Bell had told them truths when no Suits were around; how she had been with the Wenceslas Women when they were arrested, and he suddenly knew that – in this instance – Red must be wrong. Miss Bell was no traitor.
“You know we were talking about Miss Bell last night?” he said cautiously to Holly. “Well, I reckon it wasn’t her fault.”
“What?” said Holly, looking as if she was not really paying attention.
“Miss Bell. Remember what your brother said? I was thinking that if – if she was being told to teach The Suits’ children, how could she not do what they made her do? Like everyone else. Like you and Red, working at the elf-mail centres. And – and the kids, I mean The Suits’ kids – they didn’t have a choice either.”
Holly looked at him, and shook her head. “Believe what you want. But we all ‘ave a choice. And yes, we worked on the naughty words – but always we was secretly ‘elpin’ the Resisters.”
Sham thought for a moment. “Well, but she did that too – I mean she took books from The Suits to give to other children. You know, through the Wenceslas Women. Isn’t that doing something?”
Holly shrugged. It was as if she didn’t dare disagree with her brother, even though he wasn’t there. There was silence for a moment. Then Rudy announced from the front of the sleigh, “I need a toilet break!” and broke the tension that had started to develop between them.
They stopped briefly by a small, snow-covered copse of trees. There was a dim grey light as the sun rose somewhere above the clouds, and the distant humming of a Cloud Assembler, constantly reminding them of its presence. At least it had stopped snowing for now.
“Reindeer skins,” Rudy muttered to him a little later, as they got back in the sleigh, “are not designed for peeing purposes.”
“Yeah?” said Holly, smiling wryly, and pulling up a zip on her trousers. “Just count yourselves lucky you ent a girl, right?”
Sham and Rudy laughed.
Soon, they were entering the outskirts of Yuleport, with its silent factories and red-brick houses, all sealed up by drifts of snow, imprisoning those who lived inside. And then Sham had a sudden thought that panicked him. “Why would they let me into the nursing home?” he said. “Um – I know you’ve got the ID card, but what am I doing with someone from the Krissmas Party?”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure about that one yet.”
They were silent for a moment, listening to the panting of the dogs, and growing ever closer to the sea. Then Rudy said, excitedly, “What about this? Holly could say that you’re here to communicate with your Gran! The Krissmas Party hate old people – a real Suit wouldn’t want to talk to her if they could help it.”
“You’re right,” agreed Sham. “She said that in one of her letters.”
Holly nodded slowly, as the sleigh came around an icy corner and down towards the river.
“Okay. That means you gotta look as if you’ve been brought ‘ere by force. I’m gonna drag you in, so get ready to ‘ave a bruised arm!”
As they drew closer to the giant walls that hid the Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home, Sham saw Holly glance across the frozen river towards the gigantic concrete towers, shaped like Krissmas trees. Their sloping sides were covered with snow, like real trees. One of those buildings was her own home.
“I wonder ‘ow mam is,” she muttered.
Sham wasn’t sure how to answer her. Holly’s mother had been taken away at the same time as his own. “Um…what does your dad do?” asked Sham, wondering why he had never asked her this before.
“What? Don’t got no dad,” said Holly matter-of-factly. “It was always just me, mam and Red.”
Sham didn’t know what to say. But it certainly explained why Red seemed like the leader of the family and why Holly clearly felt she had to do what he told her.
The sleigh jerked sideways, as the dogs trotted around another corner, and they found themselves on a main road, approaching the gates with the huge tartan ribbon on them that Sham had seen from the other side of the river. Behind the ribbon, he could now see that there were huge metal chains and a giant padlock. There were a few others out on the roads now, and it was strange to see huskies and reindeer pulling old-fashioned sleighs, instead of the electric buses and sleighs that were now useless on the packed ice and snow. In response to a few curious glances that they received, Rudy tried to sit up straighter and look older than he was. High above them, a huge flock of seagulls was circling, dipping and rising, calling noisily, looking for any hint of food.
“There’s the main entrance!” said Sham, pointing to a guard’s hut that looked like a tartan-wrapped Krissmas present in front of some golden gates. He swallowed. There were The Suits, then the gates, then the locked doors of the home itself. He was suddenly terrified, and felt sure that his face would be recognised by someone who looked at the Naughty List regularly. How could they possibly get into this prison? But he didn’t have much time for panic to take hold because Holly was already in character, her head up, her face cold, and when Rudy had stopped the sleigh, she ordered the huskies to lie down and then turned and said loudly,
“Stay here, boy. I will speak to the guards.”
Her usual Yuleport accent had been replaced by a sophisticated, cutting one. She sounded exactly like her brother. Sham nodded and tried to look sulky rather than petrified, but his hands were shaking in his gloves.
Holly marched up to the guards’ hut, opening her white fur coat to reveal the green suit underneath, and peeling off her gloves. To Sham’s huge relief, it was not a Suit on duty, but an ordinary guard, in his tartan suit, who opened the door, looking surprised.
“Krissmas Party business. I need immediate access to the home.”
The man looked hesitant, but was obviously in awe of the suit and Holly’s tone of voice.
“Um, yes, Miss – er -”
“Snowy Flake,” said Holly. She held up the ID card and said loudly, “Confirm identity,” at which the card whirred and spoke. “You are KP member 933, Snowy Flake.”
The man, who had been on the point of speaking into a microphone, looked convinced and pressed a button. The gates slid open.
It can’t be that easy, thought Sham. Rudy, who had been sitting like a statue on the front of the sleigh, turned and caught his eye. He looked white and wide-eyed under his reindeer hat. Holly tersely beckoned to Sham to come and ordered both Rudy and the dogs to stay. The panting huskies put their heads down on their paws and watched Sham walk past. Holly waited until Sham was alongside her, and then she grabbed his arm – hard.
“What took you so long?” she barked.
To Sham’s amazement, the glass front doors of the home slid open as they approached up the gleaming white steps.
“Welcome to the Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home – may you rest in peace in your home from home!” sang out the speaking sign as they got to the top of the steps.
They were in.