Chapter 11

Snowy Flake Saves the Day

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays, cause no matter how far away you roam…”

Krissmas music was playing merrily as Sham and Holly entered the Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home. As soon as they were through the door, Holly marched up to the front desk.

“A festive morning to you,” she said, her chin held high. She really did look years older, thought Sham. It was as if she had acted this part many times before.

“A festive morning – er, madam, er miss…”

Holly held up her plastic ID card. “Confirm identity,” she said again.

Once again, the card whirred and spoke. “You are KP member 933, Snowy Flake.”

The receptionist immediately looked relieved.

“Ah, yes, Miss Flake. We’ve been expecting you. Your elf-mail reached us first thing this morning.”

There was a moment of what Sham felt (certainly for himself) to be a stunned silence. No-one moved or spoke. The speaking clock on the wall said, “It is 9 o’clock!” brightly. The tartan-suited girl, whose hair, Sham now noticed, was in two silly bunches with tartan ribbons, looked at them with a fixed smile on her face and her head on one side.

“You look shocked, Miss Flake. Is anything the matter?” There was just the hint of suspicion in her voice.

For a moment Sham thought that Holly was about to give them away. His mind was racing, though he kept his face blank. There was only one person who could have sent the message: Priya. He wanted to tell Holly, but it seemed she had worked it out for herself. She quickly recovered her powers of speech.

“Of course I’m shocked,” she said, in her loudest, most cultured accent. “It only just reached you? I sent it yesterday morning – and asked for top security clearance. As Krissmas Party mail, it should have Santa-skipped the main filters. I can only assume there was a mistake at this end. Play the message back to me AT ONCE so that I can see whether you have deleted any important parts. ”

Sham realised just how clever Holly was being – not only had she covered up her astonishment brilliantly, but she had made it into a reason to hear the message.

The receptionist looked suitably intimidated, and quickly pressed the versatelly screen to access elf-mail. Before long, an expressionless voice (which nonetheless sounded suspiciously like Priya) spoke to them:

“On behalf of Miss Snowy Flake, I am contacting the Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home to request immediate access to resident April Allbright. This resident has become a danger even to those in the home, and must be removed. Please ensure that she is ready to be collected by Miss Snowy Flake at 9 am sharp on September 2nd. Festive Greetings, Pretty Package, KP Secretary.”

The message was long enough for both the children to recover their composure.

“And is she ready?” snapped Holly, as Priya’s voice finished speaking.

“Oh, yes, quite ready, Miss Flake,” simpered the receptionist. ”But she’s being a little troublesome about being moved from her room.”

“Which is exactly why I brought her grandson with me,” interrupted Holly, and Sham tried to look as sulky as he could as the receptionist glanced at him. “We knew she was trouble.”

A red-coated nurse with a horrible, fluffy Santa hat, appeared at this point, and had a hushed conversation with the receptionist. Sham took the opportunity to glance around the entrance hall. There were strings of Krissmas lights everywhere, and Sham could see at least three flickering green ones. He wondered how long it would be before someone checked on the real Snowy Flake’s picture and discovered the deception.

“We’ve got to be quick,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. Holly nodded.

“Take us to the patient at once!” she barked at the nurse, who immediately started bustling around with her card key.

“Yes, Miss Flake, of course, of course, please come this way.” As she led the way through several doors, and up various flights of stairs, she continued chattering nervously.

“I’m most surprised that Mrs Allbright is still such a danger. We had hoped that the operation would put a stop to her illegal activities. But of course you should know.” Holly and Sham exchanged looks, and Sham felt his heart sinking. Operation? He remembered Priya’s words and dreaded what he was going to see.

“It’s very strange that we’ve never seen this boy before,” went on the nurse, with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, “only the old lady’s son. Why didn’t he come today?”

“Mr Deco is busy with Krissmas Party business in London,” answered Holly. “Mrs Allbright was always very attached to her grandson before she came in here, and he will be useful for persuading her to move. Now, we will answer no more questions, unless you wish to end up on the Naughty List.”

The nurse blushed and stopped talking. But that did not mean there was silence. They were now in a corridor full of open doors. Through the doors, Sham could see elderly people in armchairs, some covered in blankets, watching the versatelly. Even this early in the morning, it was on very loudly in every room, and Sham could hear a man’s voice shouting, “And here’s Krissy Candle, winner of Santa’s Spy, to switch on the newest display by Linklights! Just look: you can see the ice sculptures, lit up from the inside – yes, from the inside – by the lights. Isn’t it just blitzen, Krissy?”

The nurse marched ahead of them until they came to the last room of the top corridor. It was the only closed door. There was now loud music playing from the versatellies, and the sound of cheering from London crowds. Everyone started joining in “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” with what Sham felt to be sickening enthusiasm.

“Now leave,” said Holly with authority. “We will succeed better if only the boy goes into the room – alone. I shall wait outside for him – and for the trouble-maker.”

A moment later, Sham was knocking on the door of Gran’s room.

A faint voice said, “Come in.” Taking a deep breath, Sham turned the handle. To his surprise the room was in darkness. The curtains were still shut, although there was evidence of activity, because he tripped over a suitcase on the floor. He closed the door behind him.

“Who’s there?” said the same voice from the direction of the armchair. The chair was in front of the versatelly screen, but the screen was black and silent. Sham moved forward, his heart beating so hard he was sure she must be able to hear it. He walked around in front of the chair. His eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and there was enough light from the snow outside to allow him to see the comfortable shape of his grandmother, her legs covered in a blanket, her hands gripping the arms of the chair. Her long hair was still uncut, still full and thick, and was wound into a large bun on the back of her head, just as he remembered.

For a moment he just stood near her, feeling thankful. They’d done it – they’d actually found Gran. But – there was something very wrong. He reached over and switched on a candle lamp. Gran continued to stare straight ahead. Sham felt what seemed like a physical blow to his chest and the tears welled up in his eyes. She was blind.

“Gran?” he croaked.

His grandmother had put her head on one side as he spoke, and her forehead furrowed in concentration as she tried to remember the voice.

“Sham-boy?” she whispered at last. “Sham, is that you?”

Sham felt a strange desire to laugh even while he cried. She remembered him. He gently picked up one of her hands and held it, unable to speak because of the lump in his throat. With her other hand, she touched his face, saying, “Sham – my dearest Sham-boy – is it really you at last?”

“Yes, Gran, it’s me. I found your letters.”

For a moment Gran looked puzzled, then a smile crossed her face, and she nodded. “I knew you’d find them. Clever boy.”

“I’ve come to get you out of here.”

The door opened and Holly stuck her head into the room. “We’ve gotta go – now!” she hissed.

“Who’s that!” asked Gran fearfully. “Not another operation, is it?”

“No, Gran, her name’s Ho- I mean Snowy Flake. She’s going to help us get away. We must go now, Gran. Can you walk?”

“Yes, Sham-boy, if you guide me. I haven’t got used to not being able to see yet. Just a couple of weeks ago.”

Just a couple of weeks ago. After they had found the envelope. It was all his fault. If he’d never taken the envelope from the cupboard…if he’d come sooner… Sham felt a fury rising up inside him that made him want to hit out at someone. But not here – not now. He had a job to do. He helped his Gran to her feet, and found that she was tall when standing, not stooped at all. And she was younger than he’d thought. She held herself proudly, with her chin up, but she clutched his shoulder for support. Sham picked up her red coat, which was lying on the bed, and carefully helped her into it, putting a big fluffy red hat on her head.

Holly was watching from the door. She came into the room, shut the suitcase and picked it up. For a moment she stared at Gran and then at Sham, but she said nothing. Then she whispered, surprisingly gently, “Mrs Allbright, I’m gonna sound really mean when we’re walkin’ outa here, but it’s not real, right? Just an act to get us out.”

Gran nodded, looking distracted. “Wait!” said suddenly. “Sham – have they packed my photo – and my book – in my bedside table?”

Sham looked past her and saw a photo frame still standing by the bed. He felt a pang when he realised she could no longer see it – but he went and picked it up. A quick glance revealed a group of smiling people, but he had no time to examine it. He opened the drawer of the bedside table and put his hand in to the back. There were a couple of hairclips, which he pushed aside, but then his fingers closed on something else. The drawer was broken at the back, and whatever it was had almost fallen through, but he grabbed it and pulled. A small leather-bound notebook slid out – and Sham quickly put it, with the photo, into his large reindeer coat pocket.

“Got it, Gran,” he said softly, hurrying back to her side.

“Can you carry the case?” whispered Holly. “No way any Suit ever carries anythin’.”

Sham nodded and took the tattered suitcase in his left hand, whilst holding on to his Gran with his right. “It’s all right, Gran – just follow our lead. We’re off now.”

They walked silently past all the open doors, with the sounds of celebration still pouring out into the corridor – Sham guessed most of the nurses must be watching too, which was why the corridors were so empty.

Instead of taking the stairs, Holly pressed a button by a lift. A little bell rang, and Gran muttered, “Wrap it up,” just before the lift sang out, “Wrap it up! We’re going down!”

Holly pulled a face. “Don’t it make you sick?” she muttered. Seconds later her face was back in the character of Snowy Flake, her eyes on a small green light above the lift door.

The doors pinged open and they stepped in. Not a word was spoken as they went down: all knew that lifts were places where it was easiest to be seen and heard. Thankfully, this lift was playing dreadful tinny music: the same song as when they entered the nursing home, so Sham hoped no microphone would be picking up the pounding of his heart.

“Wrap it up! We’re here!” sang the lift as they stepped out. Immediately, they were face to face with the prim nurse who had taken them upstairs. She was not smiling. Sham put down the suitcase. He wished he had brought Red’s ice-melter with him. He felt very ready for a fight, if necessary.

But the nurse was glaring at his grandmother.  “So – we’re finally losing our most troublesome patient!” she exclaimed, her eyes cold. So that was it. It made Sham no less angry, but it looked as if the versatelly’s news had been too interesting for them to check up on Holly’s story – yet.

“Nurse Cruel,” said Gran, holding her chin up again. “So sorry to be leaving you, my dear.”

“Nurse Cool, as you well know, Mrs Allbright,” sneered the nurse, and then winked at Holly, who looked back at her coldly.

The receptionist bustled up. “We need you to speak into the Release Elf-Mail – just to confirm the Krissmas Party’s decision.”

Sham felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. They weren’t out of here yet.

But it seemed that things were still on their side, for just then a terrible howling and growling came from outside. The huskies, fed up with waiting, had started fighting, and Rudy was shouting and flapping his arms at them agitatedly, as if was conducting an orchestra.

“My dogs have been kept waiting long enough,” barked Holly. “I will send confirmation from my laptop in the sleigh. You have been most helpful,” she added, seeing the receptionist opening her mouth to protest. “It will be noted – and rewarded. I hear that trips in the Cloud Assemblers are hard to come by. I shall put both your names forward for such a treat – in gratitude.”

The two women looked at each other in excitement.

“A very festive morning to you, Miss Flake!” said the nurse, using her card to open the door.

“Where are we going?” asked Gran.

“You will go where we take you without another word,” said Holly as forcefully as possible. She strode out of the door and Sham followed, leading Gran carefully down the steps. Holly was already with the dogs, trying to calm them down, while Rudy hopped back into the sleigh with great relief. Then he, like Holly, stared at Gran for a few seconds, as Sham was helping her into the sleigh. Glancing back, Sham saw the two women at the door, barely watching them, but talking excitedly. He could still hardly believe it: they’d done it – and Gran was free!

Gran stands up to ‘Nurse Cruel’ – by Navya