“Are you all right, Sham? You seem very quiet.”
A week later, an excited Priya and a very subdued Sham were walking a little way behind both their mothers, pulling a small, wheeled sleigh full of Sham’s old toys.
They were on their way to donate to a local charity called The Wenceslas Women, on the outskirts of Yuleport, where rows and rows of red chimneys stood to attention along tarmac streets, and the hills sloped gently down towards the river mouth and the sea. With the sun setting behind them, these streets were thrown into shadow, but they were lit with cheap strings of multi-coloured lights that climbed up every wall and over every roof and chimney.
Before Sham could answer Priya’s question, she was distracted by the lights and was exclaiming at each new design.
“Oh wow! Look – that house is totally covered in miniature blue lights! Does your dad make them? Aren’t they beautiful?”
Although she was chatting merrily, and full of questions as usual, Priya was, from time to time, also looking a little nervously at a group of children who had started to follow them down the street, staring fixedly at the heavy sleigh of toys that Sham was dragging along. Sham didn’t notice them, and his answers to Priya’s questions were short and distracted. His mind was busy, and he was debating whether to tell Priya about what he had just discovered – but there were too many people around.
For the past week, he had been unable to carry out the search he’d planned: somehow, he always encountered either his mum or dad whenever he went upstairs. Of course, being at school all day had meant that he had far less time than usual in the house, and, as the week passed, he had been enjoying his lessons and being with his friends so much, that he had almost forgotten about Gran. Almost. But she was always there, in the back of his mind – and his sleep had been peppered with dreams about her.
So today, after school, as he was on his way to the bathroom, he noticed Jingle trotting out of his parents’ room and remembered what he had to do. He crept to the door of his parents’ room, and said, “Mum?” softly. There was no answer. Within seconds, he was at the forbidden cupboard – it wasn’t even locked, as he had been taught from a very young age never to look inside. Carefully, he opened the door, and was faced with a small pile of toys and games, some already wrapped. He had no interest in any of them. He carefully pushed them aside, wondering what he was looking for. There was nothing beneath the pile of presents except scissors, sticky tape of various colours, wrapping paper and ribbons. The cupboard was otherwise empty. He sighed.
As he was closing the door, however, he paused a moment and leaned forward into the darkness. Now he could see that the whole of the back of the cupboard was covered by brown paper, and it was strangely lumpy near the bottom. Picking up the scissors, he made a small incision running horizontally across the paper, until it was large enough to put his hand in. And then he felt it. A bulky envelope. His fingers fastened around it and pulled it gently towards him, his heart beating faster.
“Sham!” a voice called from downstairs. It was his mother. He pushed the pile of presents until it partly covered the paper again and then closed the cupboard silently. As he rushed out of the room, the envelope clasped in his hand, he could hear his mother coming up the stairs.
“Sham?” repeated Mrs Deco, coming into Sham’s room to find him calmly sitting on his bed, stroking a purring Jingle. The envelope was already under his pillow. “Didn’t you hear me? We’re going to join the Wenceslas Women – and Priya and Mrs Raj are coming. Hurry up!”
So now here they were, approaching the riverfront, and arriving at their destination of two enormous block of flats, and it was too late to talk to Priya about the envelope now. The huge buildings must have once resembled Krissmas trees. Each tower block had a gigantic metal star at the top, and both the windows and the metal stars were sparkling like real lights on a tree, as they caught the final rays of the setting sun. The walls, originally painted green, were now peeling badly, with grey concrete showing through underneath.
Behind the flats, Sham could see the lights sparkling in the water, and then his eye was caught by a large and very ugly building on the far side of the river. It had high red brick walls with large metal gates, facing towards the river, and Sham thought that the place looked like a prison. But what was strange and out of keeping with the rest of the building was that the gates appeared to be tied shut with a gigantic, tartan-patterned Krissmas ribbon, tied in a bow, like it would be on a present. There was a guard’s building outside the gates, and Sham could just see the outline of several smartly-dressed people inside, silhouetted against the light. The Suits. He shivered. Priya had followed his gaze and was looking at the same building.
“What is that place?” she asked in a whisper.
“No idea – I’ve never been round here before,” muttered Sham, before his mum started ushering them inside.
Inside the apartment block, things didn’t look too good. Many of the walls here had been drawn on, with pictures of evil-faced Santas, mad reindeer and angry elves carrying axes. One looked as if he was about to cut Rudolph’s head off.
“I bet whoever did that is on the Naughty List,” whispered Sham, as Mrs Raj quickly pressed the button for the lift.
“They may not know who did it,” murmured Priya.
Sham looked up at the ceiling and then nodded his head towards a string of Krissmas lights above the lift, indicating with his eyes that Priya should look there. The green light in the centre was flashing out of time with the others.
“GLC’s – Green Light Cameras,” Sham said out of the side of his mouth. “The Suits put them everywhere – and they’re watching.”
“Heading for the stars!” cried a speaker to the side of the lift, making them jump. With a ping, the lift doors opened.
“In you get,” said Mrs Raj, smiling.
The four of them got into the lift, with the sleigh in the centre, and Mrs Raj pressed a button that had a picture of a star on it.
“Heading for the stars!” cried the lift again and the doors shut. As they reached the top floor, it sang out again: “Welcome to the Star Room!”
This floor was a large rectangular room with ceilings sloping upwards to the pointed top, and windows on all sides. Here, chatting quietly amidst piles of boxes, was a small crowd of women, wearing T-Shirts with two large ‘W’s on them. There was a sudden silence as Sham’s group stepped out of the lift, and all eyes were on them – then there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief, and cries of “Festy afternoon!” rang out from all sides. Sham suddenly felt very conscious of being the only male in the room.
“Mrs Raj! Mrs Deco!” cried a familiar voice, and Sham and Priya turned to see Miss Bell on the other side of the room. She waved at them both, but was soon occupied with chatting to their mothers and sorting through Sham’s toys.
Priya nudged Sham and pointed. To his surprise, Holly was there too. With her was a woman who looked very like her, only plumper; Sham guessed it was her mother. Holly looked startled to see them. Then she said something to her mother and came strolling over. She was dressed in a very short red snowball skirt and a very tight white T-shirt with ‘WW’ on it. Her fingernails and lips were bright red to match the skirt, and she had spiked up her short blond hair with glitter gel. She was barefoot.
“What you doin’ ‘ere?”
“We just came to help our mothers. Is that your mother?” asked Priya, but Holly ignored her and was looking at Sham.
“Do you live here?” he asked, as Holly obviously wasn’t going to answer Priya.
“Yeah,” said Holly, “Sixth floor.”
“I didn’t see any numbers on the lift buttons, just pictures,” said Priya. Holly pursed her lips and looked at her.
“We’re not stupid, right? We can count – our symbol is the fairy, if you must know, but if you think I’m gonna say I live on the Fairy Floor, you must be nuts.”
“Okay,” answered Priya, shrugging.
“Anyway,” said Holly pointedly to Sham. “‘Ave you seen the view from up ‘ere? Come and look.”
Sham looked at Priya apologetically, but she smiled.
“You go,” she said. “I’ll help Miss Bell!” She ran off happily towards their teacher.
“Okay – I’ll be there in a minute,” said Sham, following Holly rather reluctantly to one of the many large windows.
He had never been so high above Yuleport before. It was almost dark now and the view was extraordinary. It was possible to see right across the city, across the rows and rows of grey-roofed houses with their red chimneys. It was all lit up almost as bright as day. He could even see the giant Krissmas tree in the town square sparkling and glittering, but now the whole town was a mass of flashing colours, reflecting in the river and the remaining puddles from last night’s rain.
“Like it?” asked Holly. Then, without waiting for an answer, she lowered her voice and said, “I’ve remembered where I ‘eard your name before. ‘Deco’ was the name of the first Resisters, all them years ago. My brother told me about them. They tried to stop the Krissmas Party from changin’ everythin’.” She was looking at Sham with new respect in her eyes. “There was lots of fightin’ and stuff. But Red said The Suits got ‘em in the end.”
“What? Who? My grandparents?” Sham was stunned.
“Well, I dunno – but I never ‘eard that name any other place. Better ask your Mum and Dad.”
She changed the subject before Sham could recover.
“I come up ‘ere a lot. I was ‘ere last night. You know what? It weren’t jus’ rain, right? Before the rain, it was snowin’.”
“What? I mean, I know,” answered Sham, still reeling from Holly’s mention of his grandparents. “Priya and me saw it too – and so did Hope, Faith’s sister.”
Holly nodded. She narrowed her eyes.
“You shouldn’t be friends with that girl,” she said bluntly.
“Who, Hope?” said Sham, though he already knew who Holly meant.
“No, you silly elf, little Miss Sri Lanka. ‘Er dad works for the Krissmas Party. I tell you what – I’m not talkin’ about nothin’ – I mean nothin’ – in front of ‘er.”
Sham glanced across at Priya, who was busy packing red sacks with Krissmas Fairies in different coloured dresses, and laughing with Miss Bell.
“You’re wrong about her,” Sham whispered crossly. “Whatever it is that her dad does, she doesn’t know anything about it.”
“All right, keep your ‘air on,” said Holly. Then she looked out of the window again. After staring for a moment, she suddenly froze. “Wait. Who’s that? Somethin’s ‘appenin’ out there,” she hissed. “We need to get out of ‘ere – NOW!”
A speaking clock on the wall abruptly announced, “It is eight o’clock!” and, at that moment – ‘Welcome to the Star Room!’ – the lift door slid open and five Suits stepped out, their faces cold and expressionless, their hair slicked back from their faces. It was hard to tell if they were men or women. In their hands they held thick black and white canes, like walking sticks, which Sham had often seen them carrying.
Holly turned and glared at Sham, her blue eyes wide and fierce. “What ‘ave you done?” she hissed. “You brought that girl ‘ere – now look what you’ve done!”
Sham had no chance to answer. Within seconds, The Suits had pulled from their ‘canes’, slender, vicious-looking Inuit snow knives, their reindeer-bone handles gleaming. Priya and several of the Wenceslas Women screamed, and Miss Bell stumbled backwards on to a table, knocking off a box. Sham leapt forward to catch it, but he was too late. As it crashed heavily to the floor, hurling its contents across the floor, it revealed, beneath the clothes and toys, dozens of books! One of The Suits marched across, picked up a book from right in front of Sham’s nose and sliced it down the middle as if it were made of butter. Pages, let loose from their cover, fluttered gently to the floor.
There was a stunned silence for a moment, and then the other Suits leapt into action, overturning boxes and scattering their contents across the floor. Books of all colours and sizes were suddenly everywhere, and Sham saw his mother, looking fiercer than he had ever seen her, move towards the light switch by the lift. He had a glimpse of Priya looking terrified and Holly glaring at The Suits, before the room was plunged into darkness.
Chaos! There was a riot of movement and noise. As Sham’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, dimly lit by Krissmas lights from outside, he watched helplessly as clothes, toys and books were strewn everywhere, pages flying wildly around the room. He could hear the screams of women as many of them tried to run for the lift or for the door to the fire escapes, and could see flickers of flashing steel as The Suits rounded up the crowd with their knives. There seemed to be more of them every moment, and escape from the Star Room became less and less likely.
Torn between trying to make a dash for it, and wondering how to help the others, Sham seemed frozen to the spot, but suddenly he felt his mother grab his hand, and pull him towards a window. Miss Bell and Mrs Raj were already there, each with an arm around Priya, whose hands were over her mouth as she gasped for breath. Holly seemed to have vanished.
And for the first time, one of The Suits spoke out of the shadows.
“You are discovered. This is over. There will be no more books. No more education. Every one of you is now on the Naughty List.”
And Sham gasped at the sound of the familiar voice. It was their headmaster. It was Mr Noel.
“I think it is amazing! I also like the cliffhangers at the end, they make you want to read more.”by Laia