It was the humming that woke him.
Sham got out of bed quietly and moved towards the window. Pushing back one curtain just a couple of inches, he peered out at the night sky. Christmas lights all along his street were shimmering eerily in what seemed to be a thickening mist.
As Sham’s eyes adjusted to the dark, his ears strained to hear again what had woken him. It was a low, droning sound, like a swarm of bees, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere above his head. He carefully unlatched the window and pushed it open.
The first thing that hit him was the cold. He shivered and felt the hairs stand up all over his arms and back. As he breathed out, he could see the cloud of his breath rise up in front of him.
This made no sense! He had gone to sleep on a sultry August night, with the stars twinkling above him. But now, when he looked up, and could see nothing but a grey blur, and the air was biting into him.
As he continued to watch, he became aware that the shimmering lights were not moving – something else was on the move all around him – fluffy white things were drifting out of the sky. Unable to accept what he was seeing, he pushed the window open further, tensed the muscles in his legs against the windowsill and leaned out as far as he could go. He lifted his face and felt the gentle touch of what appeared to be real snowflakes on his face. Putting out a hesitant hand, he caught one on his palm. It was perfectly formed of many tiny ice crystals stuck together, and it melted away in seconds.
It occurred to Sham that he might still be dreaming, but he’d never felt so awake. The humming sound was fading away, but the soundless, fluttering flakes continued to fall, and already the grass was disappearing under a fine white sheet. Sham waited for it simply to melt away, but then he realised that it really was cold enough for the snow to lie – and how was that possible?
Quickly, Sham pulled his window shut, switched on his lamp and started to pull on his clothes. He thought for a moment of waking his parents, and then decided against it, and rushed downstairs as silently as he could. Jingle was sitting by the window in the living-room, beside the tree, staring out at the whitening world. He miaowed questioningly as Sham passed, pulling on a coat. “Shh!” whispered Sham, his finger to his lips. Then, with a stab of excitement, mixed with fear, he opened the front door.
Outside, the cold hit Sham again, and he clutched his ill-fitting jacket more closely round him. There was something dense and muffled about the silence. The snow was coming down more heavily now, and the outdoor fairy lights on many Christmas trees and houses were blurring, but they also continued to light up the whitening ground and sleighs in people’s driveways. Standing still for a moment, Sham felt almost hypnotised by the endless layers of drifting flakes before his eyes, but then he caught a movement in the direction of the Rajapakse house. Peering ahead and stepping forward carefully, he heard the delicious crunching sound of his feet compacting the snow and stopped abruptly, as it sounded so loud in his own ears.
Once he had stopped moving, he realised that he was still hearing the crunch of snow, and he gasped as a scarlet figure loomed out of the fuzzy whiteness in front of him. He blinked snowflakes off his eyelashes, and then sighed with relief when he realised that it was Priya, grinning at him, wrapped up in what looked like a brand new, red winter coat, her dark hair hanging loose, and speckled with silver, as the lights sparkled on the flakes that landed there.
For a moment, they looked at each other without speaking. It was as if they were alone in a bizarre white world, that had nothing to do with reality, and they would wake up in a moment, warm in their beds. Then Priya came closer and whispered, “I knew you’d be here. I saw it in my dream.”
Sham was startled, but he had other things on his mind.
“What, in the name of Santa, is going on?” he whispered back. “Why is this happening?” Their voices had that curious, hollow sound that comes from talking in the snow.
Priya shrugged, dislodging a little pile from her shoulders. “I don’t know – I didn’t dream that part, but it is beautiful, isn’t it? I’ve never seen real snow before.” She lifted her face for a moment, so that the icy flakes floated on to her cheeks, and she looked as if she had large white freckles on her dark skin.
“Oh, it’s just like Narnia!” she whispered.
“A magical place from a story,” answered Priya in a hushed voice, opening her mouth to catch a snowflake on her tongue. “It’s my favourite story, I think – and I feel just like Lucy!”
Priya didn’t answer. She was gazing up wistfully. “If this was really in a story, it would be right at the beginning, and everything would change from that moment on…”
For a few moments, they stood in silence, just enjoying the unfamiliar sensations. Then Sham said suddenly, “If this carries on, what about school? They’ll close it again, won’t they?”
Priya stopped smiling and looked at Sham, wide-eyed. “Do you think that’s what they wanted?” she whispered. “Nobody’s going to be interested in school anyway, if they’ve got real live snow in the summer.”
“Well, I’m going to go, even if I’m the only one there,” said Sham firmly.
“Not the only one,” answered Priya, smiling.
“What shall we do?” muttered Sham.
“Nothing. There’s nothing we can do. Let’s go home, Sham. It was lovely, but now I can’t even see through this blizzard – and I’m really freezing.” Priya’s teeth were starting to chatter and Sham suddenly realised that his toes were like blocks of ice. The temperature seemed to have dropped while they stood there.
And then, without any warning, the fluffy white flakes were gone – instead the largest raindrops Sham had ever seen were falling on them. Both children looked up in amazement, and found themselves almost blinded by rain. In the couple of seconds it took them to react, they were both drenched, and then they moved, racing towards their respective homes without another word.
Sham stood for a moment in his doorway, watching as the rain began to wash away the snow as quickly as it had fallen, and he could swear that the temperature was already higher than just a few seconds ago. He could just see the red blur that was Priya in her coat standing in her doorway, before she went in and shut the door. Then he did the same.
“Headline news this morning, the 2nd August. Swathes of the United Krissmas Kingdom are under water today, with hundreds still trapped by floods. Rescue teams have spent the last few hours using boats to evacuate people from the worst affected areas. This is reported as being the worst flooding in over 100 years.”
Sham was sitting at the breakfast table watching the versatelly. His father was staring out of the window at the rain, and his mother was vaguely stirring a cup of pine needle tea, her eyes wide and worried, but fixed on the versatelly screen, which showed scenes of almost nationwide flooding.
“Looks like we’ve been lucky,” said Mr Deco. “The garden’s a mess and the drains at the back are blocked up, but at least nothing’s come into the house.” He slurped his tea noisily.
Mrs Deco nodded and pressed the screen to change channel.
“…all under water. Most unusual weather for the time of year, and nobody seems to have been able to predict it. Now back to Wintrey in the studio.”
Sham and his dad looked at each other for a moment. As Wintrey Showers’ raucous voice started talking about the latest fashion in snowball skirts, Sham’s dad sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling. He stood up and drank the last of his tea in one gulp. “Got to be off. Better stay home today, Sham. Probably won’t be any school anyway after all this, mind.”
Oh yes, there will, thought Sham. But he said nothing. Although he had so many questions to ask his father, this was not the time. So he just nodded to his dad, who was putting on his coat.
Running upstairs to collect his rucksack, he paused for a moment by his window, and saw that the rain was easing off, but there were huge puddles and little streams running down the sides of the road, all strangely milky in colour because of the fake snow. The gardens looked messy and dirty, and the Krissmas trees were drooping with wetness. Running across the fields was out of the question today – too much mud.
Then he saw the door of Priya’s house open, and she came out in a blue rain Mac, kissed her mother goodbye and came running towards his house. He grinned and felt a strange warmth in his heart at the thought that he had a real friend at last. He quickly picked up his rucksack and ran downstairs, just as the doorbell sang out the tune of ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly.’
“Did you listen to the news?” asked Sham, as they started walking. “Nothing about the snow, of course.”
“I know. I tried to talk to my dad about it, but he just changed the subject. Odd.”
At this point their conversation was interrupted by Faith and Hope, bursting out of the door of their house and running over to them.
“We was lookin’ out for you!” shouted Faith. “The weather’s gone Krissmas crackers, in’t it? Our garden don’t look good, do it? Our dad’s really mad.”
She splashed her feet in the nearest puddle with her red elf boots, which were shiny and plastic and had pointy toes, and then she grabbed Sham’s hand as before. Her sister more shyly took the hand that Priya was holding out to her.
“’Ope was walk-sleepin’ last night, wasn’t you, ‘Ope? She dreamded it was snowin’ outside!”
Sham and Priya looked at each other. Hope blushed.
“It wasn’t a d-dream,” she said. “And I w-wasn’t sleep-walking.”
“Look, there’s Rudy,” said Priya. Faith immediately started sticking her tongue out at Rudy’s back, as he marched along in front of them. Priya took the opportunity to bend down and whisper in Hope’s ear, “You’re right – it wasn’t a dream!” at which the little girl looked surprised and then smiled.
Sham wandered home alone from school later that day, as Priya had stayed to chat to Miss Bell (she really never seemed to run out of things to say!), and Rudy had rushed home for an Inuktut language lesson, which his father insisted on him taking. As he walked, Sham was thinking about the previous night, which felt even more like a dream now that the summer sun was shining again, and the puddles drying up. He’d almost forgotten about it during today’s lessons. It had never been mentioned at all. However, he heard again Faith’s piercing voice as they had started the morning.
“Where’s The Suits?”
“I believe they’re busy today,” Miss Bell had answered Faith with half a smile.
Whatever the reason for their absence, it had meant that Sham’s second day at school had felt a lot more relaxed. There had been no ‘Festive’ was greetings, just the old-fashioned ones of ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon.’ In the afternoon, Mr Noel had come in to give them a history lesson – a lesson about kings and queens of the past, when the UKK was called Great Britain – and which nobody except Priya knew anything about. Then they’d had a quiz, in which Priya scored the best, (obviously), Holly deliberately gave the wrong responses, Faith couldn’t stop shouting out her own answers, and Rudy kept cheating. But somehow, Sham didn’t mind any of it: he couldn’t remember when he’d laughed so much.
He was finding, to his surprise, that he liked people, even Rudy, who was starting to relax and enjoy himself. Was this how children who had ordinary school every day always felt?
And today, without The Suits present, the children had asked questions.
“Do you hate Krissmas?” Rudy had asked cheekily at one point, and everyone had gasped, even though The Suit wasn’t there.
“No,” Miss Bell had responded firmly, to Sham’s surprise. “I may not like having it every day, but I love the spirit of Krissmas. It’s all about giving and receiving gifts – about singing, sparkling lights and happy children – and I love those things.”
Sham had never thought about those things being nice. They had always been there in his life – and he wasn’t at all sure about ‘the happy children’ part.
“Whatever,” Holly had muttered, and Sham found himself agreeing with her. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask about the snow from last night, when it was as Miss Bell had read his thoughts, for she looked at him as she continued.
“But there are some things that I cannot talk about, even here. For your own safety. I wouldn’t want any of you to end up on the Naughty List.”
There had been no laughter at this. All children, even the oldest, took the Naughty List very seriously. Priya, however, had looked mystified.
“I’ve heard that name before. What is the Naughty List?” she’d asked.
Miss Bell hadn’t answered at once.
“They show the Naughty List on the versatelly every month, don’t they, Miss Bell,” a girl called Silva Belse had said, sounding frightened, “so if you’re on it, everyone knows about it.”
“My uncle lost his job when they put ‘is name there,” Holly had volunteered.
“Why? What did he do?” everyone had asked. Holly had shrugged, but she’d looked quite proud of having had a relation on the list rather than otherwise.
“People can appear on the List for many things,” Miss Bell had said to Priya, “such as sending an elf-mail with bad language or for not providing your children with proper Krissmas Education.”
“But sometimes the Krissmas Party come and take you away!” a boy called Ice de Berg had added in pleasurable horror.
Sham wondered if Miss Bell had been on the list herself – he found it hard to imagine that she was ever off it. Most of the children had seemed uncomfortable at that point, so no one had asked any more questions.
Just then, as he turned into his own street, there was a merry jingle very close to him, and Sham jumped. It was his father, who waved at him out of his red electric sleigh, as he cruised silently past him on his way home. Suddenly, Sham remembered what Priya had said to him about his grandparents. He found himself speeding up, and arrived just as his father had walked into the house. Taking a deep breath, Sham marched in and followed his father straight up the stairs, barging into his parents’ room, without knocking. Mr Deco looked tired and drained, but Sham barely noticed this.
“Dad, what happened to Gran and Grandad?”
Sham’s father looked startled. He was loosening his tie, which had red flashing lights strung all the way down, and this, for some reason, irritated Sham more than usual.
“Grandad died, before you were born,” said Mr Deco, turning away and opening a drawer. “And Gran – she wasn’t well, and now she’s gone.”
“But is she dead?”
Mr Deco’s shoulders stiffened. As he turned round, he looked furious, but his mouth opened and shut as if he had no idea how to avoid answering such a direct question.
“No,” he said finally. “And that is all that I’m telling you. She is very sick and you cannot contact her. I will have no more questions about her. Do you want to end up on the Naughty List?”
Sham shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. He could hardly believe he’d said it, but the news that Gran had been alive all this time made him too angry to stop. “Has she ever asked about me? Tried to contact me?”
“No!” said Mr Deco firmly, but not meeting his eye. “Never.” Sham didn’t believe him. A noise at the door made him turn. His mother was standing there, white-faced. Did he imagine it, or did she glance towards the cupboard where the presents were kept and then look back at him?
Sham launched once more into the attack. “And why do we have such weird names? Why ‘Mock’ and ‘Sham’? Everyone else has normal Krissmas names. What’s different about us?”
Mrs Deco had a strange look on her face: Sham couldn’t decide if she was annoyed with him for asking – but somehow she didn’t look angry. However, she answered him first.
“Sham, you must stop asking these questions,” she said decisively.
Surprisingly, Mr Deco looked as if he was less worried about this question. Perhaps he was just happy to get off the subject of his mother’s whereabouts.
“He has to know sometime, Tinsel. It’s quite surprising that he’s never asked before.” He paused for breath, and his mouth twisted. “My father was a teacher.” He said it with a barely hidden disgust.
“A teacher? But why didn’t you tell me? What kind of teacher?”
“Science,” said Mr Deco tersely. “Of course, he lost his job when the Krissmas Party came into power. So he was angry. When we had to have new names, he called himself Artifice Deco, your Gran chose Faux and he called me Mock. He made me promise to call you Sham – before he died.”
Sham was about to ask how his grandfather had died, when his father said, in a tone that silenced him, “Now I’ve spent today fixing water-logged Krissmas lights. I’m exhausted. One more word, one more question, and I will make sure you end up on the Naughty List.”
“Mock!” gasped Mrs Deco. There was a moment’s silence.
“I’m going for a run!” announced Sham, and marched out of the room. He walked blindly back to his own room, slammed the door and started tearing off his shirt, ripping one of the buttons. Tears stung his eyes, and there was a huge lump in his throat. Priya had been right – there was still so much to find out. He remembered that glance at the cupboard that his mother had given – was it a clue? He would wait for his chance, and then he would search there. At least he now knew – his grandfather may have died, but Gran was still alive – and he was going to find her.