The Girl Next Door
Somewhere a bell started to ring. It was the end of the school day – Sham could hardly believe it.
As he walked out through the school door into blazing sunshine, he heard the rippling song of a blackbird in a tree by the gates, and paused to listen. It was as if its complicated, joyous music was echoing the feeling inside him at that moment. His head felt – full. That was the only word he could think of: new words, new ideas, new challenges, all buzzed around his mind in a happy muddle. And he wondered: was this how children who went to school every day always felt?
Then he heard Priya call, “Sham, wait for me!” and turned to see her peering through the door at him, a grin on her face. “I’ll be there in a minute!” she added, and disappeared again. Having spent much of the day in her company, Sham was far less embarrassed now by this attention, and he moved into the shade of the tree to wait. The blackbird continued to sing, stopping only when the tall girl, whom he now knew was called Holly Berry, noisily marched over to join him.
“Phew,” she said, “It’s ‘ot.” Sham didn’t answer, and she glanced at him sideways. She pursed her lips and went on. “Well, school ent what I was expectin’. Still – better than goin’ to work, I guess?”
Holly had shown no interest in Sham, or in anyone else, for that matter, during the day. She had snorted often, as if she disagreed with the teacher, and picked sullenly at her red nails or stared at The Suit who had sat almost invisibly at the back of their classroom all day. When she and Sham had been put together to look at a map of Yuleport, she hadn’t said a word to him. Now, however, when he still didn’t answer, she looked at him directly with piercing blue eyes.
“Wha’s your name, then?” she asked. She should have known this already, if she had paid attention in class, reflected Sham.
“Sham Deco.” He answered as briefly as he could.
Holly frowned. “Oh yeah? That’s a weird one. But I’ve ‘eard that name before – Deco, I mean. Dunno where. Why ‘Sham’?”
He shrugged. She kept staring, forcing him to answer. “I think my grandfather chose it,” he said finally. “Don’t know why. My mum and dad never told me.”
“Oh, right,” said Holly, sounding unsatisfied. She suddenly looked a little uncomfortable, and for the first time he wondered if her attitude was actually just covering up nerves. And she was at least making an effort to talk to him now. But he was so unused to having conversations with other children himself that he had to wrack his brains for something to ask.
“Have you got any brothers or sisters?” was all he could come up with. To his surprise, Holly answered.
“Yeah. One brother. He’s grown-up.”
“What does he do?” he asked.
Holly grinned for the first time. “’E works in one of them elf-mail centres,” she said.
“Really?” said Sham. He knew that thousands of people worked in the speaking message facilities, but he’d never met one of them. Quickly dismissing the image of Holly’s brother dressed as a little green elf as he worked, he added, “Doing what?”
Holly glanced round at one of The Suits, who was watching the children leave from the front door, and lowered her voice. “Listenin’ to messages, pickin’ out any Naughty Words and sendin’ the elf-mails – but ‘e just calls them ‘e-mails’ – on to The Suits.”
He was taken aback. “What Naughty Words?”
“His words are all ‘d’ words: death, dejected, depressed, despondent, detonate, dictator, disaster, disappointed, discontented…” She rattled the words off at great speed, and Sham realised he was staring at her with his mouth open.
“How do you know them all?” he asked, pulling himself together.
“Cos I work there too, sometimes. But it’s borin’ stuff – most people don’t use Naughty Words any’ow. Oh – there ‘e is. Gotta go,” she said suddenly, nodding towards a tall boy, who was marching down the road towards them.
“Your brother? I thought he was at work…?” began Sham, but Holly had run off to meet the boy, who most certainly did not look like an elf: his hair was just as spiky as his sister’s, but a reddish-brown colour. He looked cross, and was clearly telling his sister to hurry up. If he had known then what he knew later, Sham would have taken more notice of Holly’s brother, but as it was, he was beginning to feel impatient. His legs were itching to go and run again, so that he could think properly about his day, and he was about to leave when Faith and Hope appeared at the door of the school, hand in hand with Priya. Their teacher was with them, and she was laughing at something Faith had said. When she saw the twins’ father, Mr Full, waiting on the other side of the road, she nodded to him and went back inside the school.
“Dada!” shouted Faith, as she pulled her hand out of Priya’s and raced into the road, right in front of Sham, and right in front of a passing, red electric sleigh. Without a thought, he leapt out and grabbed her, swinging her up and out of the road with both arms. There was a squeal from Hope and a shout from Mr Full, but Faith just seemed to think it was a game and laughed riotously as she was put down. The driver of the sleigh slowed down for a moment and yelled something out of the window before driving away.
“I remembers now – you’re the running-boy, ent you?” cried Faith, turning and looking at him properly. She held up her arms. “Do it again!”
Sham looked embarrassed and shook his head, but he led her across the road, to where her father was standing stock still, with his hand over his mouth. Faith immediately cried, “Guess what, dada? There are capital letters – but no capital numbers! Ent that weird?”
“Santa’s Grotto!” said Mr Full at last. “Faith, do you not understand what just happened? How many times have I told you – ?”
“Sorry,” said Faith, not sounding it. “Miss Bell is soooo nice – she’s my teacher,” she continued, unabated, “- and they’ve bin our friends all day.” She pointed at Sham and Priya, who was now crossing the road with a wide-eyed Hope.
“Festy afternoon, Mr Full,” Sham said, feeling self-conscious.
Mr Full reached out a hand to shake Sham’s. “Sham, thank you. You’re Mock Deco’s boy, aren’t you?” he said, one twin now clinging to each leg. “A festive afternoon to you too, and thank you so much for what you just did.”
“No problem,” said Sham quickly. “But actually she was the one looking after them all day…” he added, indicating Priya, who stepped up, smiling. Mr Full gave a small frown, as if trying to place her, and then he said, “Ah, yes, Priya. I met your father last week. He works for the Party, doesn’t he?”
As Priya nodded, Sham stared at her. Was it possible? Did Priya’s father really work for the Krissmas Party? The thought filled him with horror. Priya seemed to know what she was thinking, because she smiled and gave him a wink.
After leaving the twins and their father (who was giving Faith a very earnest talk on road safety) Sham and Priya started to walk down the hill. Sham was trying to work up the courage to ask her about her father, but before he could do so, Priya looked sideways at him and said quietly, “That was impressive. You have very rapid reflexes. I saw you running this morning. You are very fast.”
Sham was starting to feel that everyone in Chestnut Avenue was watching him run. It was a fact that he didn’t know anyone else who went running. They were either into ice hockey, or skating or curling – basically, any sport involving ice. After falling over badly on ice when he was very young, Sham had lost interest – running didn’t need an ice rink, just a road or a mountainside. And there was nobody around to judge you, or so he’d thought…
While Sham was trying to think of an answer, they heard a cough behind them, and glanced round to see Rudy just a few steps behind them. Before Sham could say anything, Priya smiled and said, “Come and walk with us.” Sham tried to give her a hard look, but she didn’t meet his eye. Instead, she moved slightly to one side, to allow Rudy to walk in between them. He stared at them both, adjusting his reindeer rucksack on his shoulders, and then he reluctantly lumbered forwards to join them. They walked in silence for a few moments.
“We were talking about running,” said Priya brightly. “Sham runs, and –“
“Don’t like running,” interrupted Rudy. And that was the end of that conversation, thought Sham, smiling slightly.
“What did you think of school, then? Wasn’t it great?” Priya asked, her enthusiasm undented.
Rudy looked unimpressed. “Are you out of your Krissmas tree? No, it wasn’t. Those lessons are just a waste of time. And what was that lunch? Macaroni cheese? I only eat turkey and stuffing at home.”
“Well, I liked it,” muttered Sham, but Rudy continued, without acknowledging his interruption.
“And Miss Jingle Bell,” he said scathingly. “Where did they get her from? You’d have thought that learning to divide one stupid number by another one was actually fun.”
“I like her,” said Priya, still smiling. “Anyway, why did you come if that’s how you feel?”
Rudy coughed and went red. “My dad,” he grunted. “Wanted me to know how bad school is. And he was right.”
Priya had no answer to this. Apparently, Rudy had run out of grumbles for the moment. There was another pause, and they all turned down Chestnut Avenue. As they approached Rudy’s house, Sham saw that a group of Japanese tourists had just finished taking photos of the front garden and were heading back to their bright red Santa Bus, chatting excitedly. He grimaced. But he had to admit that it was certainly impressive – Mr Reindeer had redone the snow and it lay, thick and smooth, on the lawn. And it looked as if Mrs Reindeer had also been busy building a series of snowmen of different sizes, all with hats, coal eyes, carrot noses and stripy scarves around their necks. The snowy lawn was like an oasis of winter, in the middle of a summer desert. It gave Sham inspiration for a comfortable subject to discuss, and he asked suddenly: “What fake snow does your dad use for the garden?”
Rudy looked pityingly at Sham. “It’s not fake,” he said earnestly. “It’s almost 100% real snow with the most advanced Anti-Melt properties. And it cares for and protects the grass too.” He sounds like a versatelly advertisement, thought Sham.
Leaning down, Rudy picked up a handful of the snow, crushing it into a ball, and said, “See? Can’t get much more real than that without it actually snowing.”
Priya picked up a handful herself and nodded. “It’s amazing!” she agreed. “It should be completely melted in this sunshine but it’s still cold.”
At that moment, Rudy’s large front door opened, and Mrs Reindeer’s plump face looked out. “Rudy!” she called in a jolly voice. “Don’t mess up the display – the tourists might want more pictures. Now come on in!”
Rudy obediently trotted off, without another word.
“Bye!” called Priya brightly, but Rudy was already being pulled in through the door by his mother.
Sham and Priya carried on walking in silence. As they reached Priya’s house, she turned to him and said, “Do you want to ask your mother if it is all right to come round to visit?”
Sham liked the way she carefully pronounced each word. Looking at her, he saw that she was smiling at him with the same friendliness she’d shown all day. He looked down, embarrassed. “No need – I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he said quickly.
Priya grinned. “Come on then,” she said, a wide smile on her face. “Ma and Dad will want to meet you.”
Inside the house, there was a low, gentle humming sound, which Sham couldn’t place, an exciting smell of spices that reminded him of one of the Indian restaurants in Yuleport, and a tapestry involving a number of elephants in procession adorning one wall. But there was also a surprising lack of Krissmas decorations. A small, plain Krissmas tree stood on a low table right by the window, with a few meagre baubles and one string of white lights on the side that faced outwards. Not what Sham would have expected from someone working for the Krissmas Party.
Priya’s father, Mr Raj, was a small, thin, intense-looking man with glasses, and he pressed something on the glass table where he was working, with a quiet click, before shaking Sham’s hand as if they were business colleagues.
The humming stopped abruptly.
There was something about Mr Raj’s stern face that made Sham hesitate to ask any questions. He turned with relief to Priya’s mother, who had just emerged from the kitchen. Mrs Raj had laughing eyes of brown flecked with orange that seemed to be lit by some inner light. Her glossy black hair hung loose over a bright orange tunic and loose trousers.
“Hello, Sham,” she said, and her lilting voice was as lovely as her face, with the same precise way of speaking that Priya had. “You are very welcome. I have often seen you out running, bright and early in the morning, and I’m very happy that Priya has met you at last.”
Sham swallowed hard and tried to think of something interesting to say.
“How was school?” asked Mr Raj.
“Really fun,” said Priya merrily. “I’ll tell you about it later. For now we’re going to my room for a chat. Please can we have a pot of tea and some biscuits, Ma?”
“Of course,” said Mrs Raj, still smiling. “I’ll bring it up in a few minutes.”
Priya nudged Sham out of the room and up the stairs. As they entered her bedroom, Sham saw that it was unKrissmassy but bright and friendly, mainly due to colourful cushions and a beautifully embroidered bedspread. Closing the door quietly, she kicked off her shoes, sighing with relief.
Beside the bed was a small, cluttered table, and Priya quickly cleared off several books, putting them on an already packed bookcase. It took Sham a moment to register, and then his mouth fell open. Books? But nobody was allowed to have books. His own collection – which Gran had given him – now tatty and far too young for him, was hidden away where even his mother couldn’t find it. Sham had never even seen a bookcase like this before, and he could hardly take his eyes off it. Trying to read the titles sideways was almost beyond him, but there did seem to be a few by someone called ‘Charles Dickens.’
“I know it’s a mess – sorry! Just trying to make space for the tea,” Priya was explaining, not understanding his expression. “My ma makes great tea. And I bet she’s baked something too! Here, sit on the bed.”
She had already jumped on to the bed and was sitting cross-legged, hugging one of the cushions to her tightly. Sham said nothing, but sat down a little awkwardly at the other end and leaned back on a cushion against the wall. Outside he could hear the tune of ‘Winter Wonderland’ from a passing ice cream van.
“I can’t tell you how good it is to talk to someone my own age,” said Priya. “Since we came, nobody seems to want to make friends. Is it because I’m Sri Lankan, do you think?” she asked frankly, looking Sham straight in the eye.
Sham looked surprised. “No, of course not,” he said. “It’s always like that here. Children don’t really talk to each other much.”
Priya chewed her lip and looked thoughtful. “Yes, it’s very different over in my country.”
“And do they all go to school?” asked Sham. Priya nodded. “And what about Krissmas? I guess you don’t have to do Krissmas stuff all the time?”
Priya shook her head again. “No, just once a year, and some people don’t do Krissmas at all,” she said apologetically, as if she understood just how he was feeling. Sham looked at the ceiling. Priya observed him silently for a moment. Then she said, “Back there, everyone said how lucky you all were, having Krissmas all year round and never going to school.”
“What? I HATE it!” Sham spoke far louder than he’d intended, and Priya looked a little taken aback. There were footsteps on the stairs, and the next moment Mrs Raj entered the room. A delightful smell of freshly baked cakes came in with her and the mugs clinked merrily on the tray. Sham blushed, wondering if she had heard his exclamation. She gave no sign of it, however, but put the tray down on the table.
“Thank you, Mrs Raj,” said Sham rather awkwardly.
“You are most welcome,” smiled Priya’s mother. She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
“Thanks, Ma!” Priya called after her, starting to pour the tea. “Do you like milk and sugar?”
“What, in pine needle tea?”
“This isn’t pine needle tea!” said Priya, laughing. “This is real tea from the best tea plantations in Sri Lanka! I’ll put some milk in for you, and you can tell me if you like it.”
He watched as she added milk and stirred. Then she handed him the mug and waited. He took a tentative sip of the tea and found the flavour exciting and different – like everything else about this family. He nodded his approval.
Priya looked at him. “Do you have any other family living near you?”
Sham shook his head. “My mum and dad don’t have any brothers or sisters. And my grandparents – well, I guess they’re all dead.”
Priya sat up straight, her face alight with interest and sympathy. “But don’t you know?”
“My Gran – my dad’s mum. She used to live with us.” He struggled to remember what had happened. “Then she disappeared. I think I was about six then. I don’t know what happened to her.”
“And don’t you want to find out?” persisted Priya. Sham was starting to feel disconcerted by her questions – he missed Gran all the time, but he wasn’t ready to tell this new friend about that just yet.
Instead of answering, he asked instead: “Is your dad really working for the Krissmas Party?”
“Yes. He’s an engineer. An aeronautical engineer,” Priya added, her voice muffled by cake.
“Oh,” said Sham blankly. “Now it’s all as clear as slushy snow.”
Priya grinned. “It means someone who designs planes,” she said. “We came over here from Sri Lanka because my dad was asked by the Krissmas Party to help them with something, but I don’t exactly know what. We don’t support the Krissmas Party though,” she added more seriously.
“Planes?” said Sham, frowning. “What are they doing with planes?”
“I don’t know, but they’ve brought in a lot of people like him, I think, to do this work, because people who have lived here all their lives just aren’t – well, you know, educated anymore.”
Sham’s lips tightened. He thought of the false smile of Ivy Wreath, the Prime Minister, as she said how the only important education was Krissmas Education. Then he thought of his own father, unable to read, and struggling to keep his job with Linklights. And that made him think about his grandparents. Were they really all dead?
While they continued chatting together, Sham was making a new resolution. He felt as if today he’d been handed a box that he’d looked at for years but never opened. Now it was open just a crack, but he still couldn’t see what was inside it properly. It was time to put his hand inside and grab whatever was there, even if it was going to bite him.