Sham was running again. He was racing down the hill above Yuleport in the morning sunshine, and then suddenly he wasn’t outside, but indoors, inside the school hall where they ate their lunch. Strangely, he wasn’t even breathless and his legs weren’t aching at all.
There were children all around him, but none of them seemed to notice him. They were all gazing at someone – a man – on the other side of the hall. To Sham’s horror, there were also several Suits, and they had certainly noticed him, because they were staring at him coldly. They had come to take him away and Sham knew that he had to reach the man before The Suits got him. Pushing through the crowd, he put out his hand to touch the man’s loose, white shirt.
And the man turned. His face was partly in shadow, but Sham could see his eyes, rimmed with metal-framed glasses; they were like deep, green pools, and they were gazing into his own. Sham was close enough to see the lines etched into the skin around those eyes, as if he was tired and had seen too much pain. The man placed a warm hand on his shoulder and spoke, his voice deep and calm:
“Keep your courage alive. Be strong.”
Abruptly, without anything changing, Sham knew that this man was his grandfather – the first Resister! Already The Suits were moving in and trying to grab him, and he stepped back out of their reach and found himself falling, away from his grandfather, away from The Suits, into nothingness.
Sham sat up, gasping, in bed. The dream was still there, on the edge of his consciousness, and had left behind it a strange feeling of peace and strength. But this didn’t last, as he hadn’t any idea where he was. The room he was in was like the inside of an igloo, with a rounded, bluish ceiling and pure white walls and furniture. Reindeer furs lined the floor and covered the two beds, and there were paintings of huskies and seals on the walls. And there was a versatelly! It looked oddly out of place in the wall opposite the bed. For a few moments, Sham thought that he was still dreaming, or that The Suits had taken him to some frozen prison in the North Pole. Then he saw and heard a snoring hump that was Rudy under the covers of the other bed, and looked out of the window to a summer dawn on Chestnut Avenue. That’s when he remembered. His parents were gone and he was in Rudy’s house.
As he stumbled from the bed and on to the landing, the scenery changed. Now he was in an Arctic Lodge, with a large wooden staircase, a red velvet carpet, real reindeer heads on the walls, wood panelling everywhere, and a huge Krissmas tree sticking up from the hall below. It was surreal. The next moment, he realised he was going to be sick, and only just found the bathroom on time.
As he knelt on the bathroom floor, with Mrs Reindeer patting his shoulder rather awkwardly, memories of the previous night came flooding back to him. He didn’t want to remember, but how could he forget the voice of the traitor, Mr Noel, coldly issuing orders to The Suits before taking his mother and Priya’s mother away in a police sleigh. How could he forget being driven back to Chestnut Avenue, or the sound of Priya crying as she saw the wreckage of her own home, torn apart by The Suits? In a daze, he had allowed himself then to be taken into Rudy’s house and put to bed by Mrs Reindeer, but he was hardly aware of what was happening.
After he had stopped being sick, Mr and Mrs Reindeer were very kind in their rather odd way. While Sham sat in the kitchen and stared down through a glass table to the floor, they gave him hot chocolate and exchanged looks, clearly embarrassed by his silence. Rudy, however, whilst sympathetic, seemed genuinely excited by the whole situation, and proved that Sham’s vomiting had not spoiled his appetite by munching his way through two crystal bowlfuls of Frosted Snowflakes. Meanwhile, he chattered away eagerly about Mr Noel, who had turned out to be a ”Very Important Person in the Krissmas Party, and one of the leaders amongst The Suits.” Mrs Reindeer, seeing Sham growing red in the face, said, “Shoosh, pet!” and steered Rudy into the living room.
“Sorry, Sham, this must be very hard for you,” Mr Reindeer said, in what he obviously thought was a comforting manner. “Of course, you didn’t know what your mother and that Mrs Rajapakse were up to. Nobody is blaming you – or your father. Distributing books to the poor! A shocking business. Nobody should be made to read, least of all the poor! It will give them ideas.”
Luckily, he was putting bowls into the glass dish-washer at that moment, and wasn’t looking at Sham, who felt so angry that he made his lip bleed from biting it. Looking around the ice-sculpture kitchen, with its glass table, chairs and kitchen units, he suddenly realised that Mr Reindeer, who was a banker, must be very wealthy. As soon as he could speak again, he changed the subject.
“Where’s mum?” he asked croakily. Mrs Reindeer had just come back into the kitchen.
“Oh, don’t worry, pet,” she said, patting his shoulder clumsily again. “She’ll come back. They won’t keep her for long, I’m sure. Your father is trying to sort everything out.”
That wasn’t an answer. Why did grown-ups never answer properly? Except for Gran. With a pang, he remembered how she had always answered him perfectly, whatever he’d asked. And now… he was here, away from his house, and probably The Suits had already taken away Gran’s envelope from under his pillow. He felt desperate to talk to a friend.
“Where’s Priya?” was his next question.
“Oh, she’s with the Full family,” Rudy’s mother said cheerfully, obviously relieved that she could answer that one properly. “Faith and Hope were very happy to have her, and Mr Full took her in.”
“I need to go for a run,” Sham said suddenly, making a move to stand up. Mr and Mrs Reindeer looked at each other.
Then Mr Reindeer cleared his throat. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he said gruffly. “When you are on the Naughty List, you have to stay in and not meet anybody. Until we hear from Mr – er, from The Suits, we have been told to keep you inside.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Rudy came rushing in again, telling Sham to come and join him for Krissmas Education lessons. Sham felt as if a hand had gripped his chest, but Mrs Reindeer hurriedly hushed her son again and whisked him away.
Waking up in the same igloo bedroom, two days later, Sham felt better. He looked at the stocking still sitting on his bed, full of today’s useless gifts. He knew that he’d probably upset Rudy’s mother by not opening them, but he just couldn’t stand it. Then he glanced across the room at the bed where Rudy had left his bed unmade, his red pyjamas crumpled up on the floor where he had stepped out of them this morning, and torn wrapping paper giving evidence that he had opened something and gone somewhere to play with it.
Those first few days had passed in a haze. The Suits came and went, and had inaudible conversations with Mr Reindeer, but Mr Noel was never with them. There was still no sign of Sham’s mother or father, and he still hadn’t made contact with anyone outside the Reindeers’ home, including Priya. Unable to run or even walk outside, he found he couldn’t think things through properly. He was completely and painfully isolated. Sham wondered what had happened to Miss Bell. And Holly? It seemed that she had escaped from The Star Room while the lights were out.
And now, three days after the arrests, it suddenly occurred to him that Jingle would be starving! He felt terribly guilty for not remembering him sooner, so he threw on his clothes and rushed downstairs to ask Mrs Reindeer, who reassured him and insisted that she was feeding the cat regularly.
“It’s so good to see you up and about, pet. You do look better. Doesn’t he look better, Rudy? Don’t you think, pet, that it’s time you began your Krissmas Education lessons again? We’ve let you have a couple of days to rest.”
Sham glanced at Rudy, who blushed a little. He and Rudy were gradually becoming friends, and when Rudy was away from the influence of his father, he was starting to seem more human and could have a normal conversation. He had even asked his mother to stop giving them turkey and stuffing for lunch every day.
“Yesterday, one of The Suits said…” Rudy paused, and went even redder. “I mean, they asked where you were. They said you had to start KrissEd immediately.”
Sham knew there was nothing else he could do. And he might just find out some more about where everyone was. He nodded, and the relief in the glass kitchen was palpable.
After breakfast, Sham and Rudy sat down in front of the versatelly in the living room. This wasn’t easy, amidst all the controllers and empty boxes of the games that Rudy had been playing with, but Rudy expertly switched the versatelly to the teaching channel. Sham realised then that it was two weeks since his last KrissEd lesson. And he realised that this would have been his last day in school, if they had still been there. It made him feel angry again, but when Rudy connected to the lesson, where Professor Festive Days was already fiddling with buttons and preparing to teach, he was completely distracted by the fact that another face had just popped up in the corner of the screen. It was Priya, sitting motionless at a table!
Sham nearly cried out, not only because he was shocked to see her, but because it was unheard of to have other children visible in KrissEd lessons – but she shook her head at him, as if to prevent him from acknowledging her. She looked different: her usual bright smile was missing. Then, for a moment, Faith’s head popped up next to her, waving wildly and mouthing “Hi, Sham!” and then they disappeared again. Sham and Rudy looked at one another for a moment, and Rudy shrugged. They didn’t dare say anything more.
The Professor now filled the screen, and behind him, there was tinsel hanging from the lights; a fake tree, white and fluffy, with red and silver baubles and red, white and green lights, stood proudly in the corner.
“Oh, I wish it could be Krissmas every day,” the theme song of the Krissmas Party, was blaring out from hidden speakers around the room.
Professor Days was standing by the tree, facing the camera, rubbing his hands together. He was a fluffy-haired man in his sixties, with a wispy moustache. Underneath a red suit, he wore a patterned shirt and a tie, decorated with Krissmas trees and holly.
Rudy smiled happily, but Sham didn’t. He guessed that this professor was a special teacher for those who, like him, needed bringing back in line. Holly had mentioned him during their first week at school: “I seen that Professor Festering Days on the VT again this mornin’,” she’d hissed to Sham. “The old elf used to be Minister for KrissEd.” Her tone of voice had shown exactly what she thought of him, and the way she spat her gum into the bin after saying it showed it even more.
The music stopped abruptly.
“A VERY FESTIVE MORNING TO YOU ALL!” bellowed the professor. “I am Professor Festive Days!” he added, but wasted no time on further introductions. “I can see you all now. I have a few newcomers to my class today, I see; several more who sadly are now in the position of being on the – “ he lowered his voice – “the Naughty List. But let’s not worry – let’s get right down to it. We will start today by sharing what matters most about Krissmas.”
There was an awkward silence. Sham fixed his eyes on a piece of blue tinsel sparkling in the sunlight behind the Professor’s head, and wondered how many other children were also taking part in this lesson.
“But why are you here?” he asked Rudy out of the corner of his mouth. “You don’t need to be – you’re not on the Naughty List!”
Rudy shrugged and grinned. “It’s fun!” he said. “Professor Days is quite deaf, and you can do stuff in his lessons.”
“UNMUTE yourselves! What matters most about Krissmas? Come on – what is your answer?” roared the Professor.
“Families getting together?” Priya’s voice said at last, with an odd echo.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Families spending time together!” said Priya more loudly.
“Um – well – yes,” answered the Professor, pursing his lips and peering at the screen. “A nice thought, er, Miss – er?”
“Rajapakse,” said Priya. “Priya Rajapakse.” The echo was back.
“Prettier Wrap-a-Package?” said Professor Days, nodding vigorously. “What an interesting name.”
Sham snorted with laughter, for the first time in days, but he quickly tried to cover it up with a cough. Then Rudy began to giggle behind his hair.
“Any other ideas?” said the Professor loudly.
“Giving presents?” called an invisible participant.
“Yes! Exactly that – and we need to meet the demand. What else?”
Rudy pressed the button to unmute. “Pooing reindeer,” he said very quietly, but loud enough to be heard by the other children. Sham stared at him – he couldn’t believe that this was Rudy speaking! There were some muffled giggles from unmuted children.
“SANTA!” shouted another child.
“Yes, indeed! The founder of all our Krissmas joy!” warbled the Professor. “But you haven’t found the most important yet!”
“Snow,” said Rudy, resignedly.
“NO?” said the Professor. “I’m sure you must be able to think of something!”
There were further stifled sounds of laughter, but Priya actually tutted sympathetically and said very loudly,
“He said ‘snow’, Professor!”
Professor Days clapped his hands.
“Ah – that’s different! Well done, Mr Reindeer – yes, I know your father well – and Miss Wrap-a-Package – yes, well done indeed! Without snow, the Krissmas feeling is so lacking. So many people in our country cannot afford to have the fake snow that some of you take for granted – and it makes them feel so left out and underprivileged.”
He took out his handkerchief, wiped a tear from his eye and blew his nose.
In the background, someone pretended to sneeze and then to blow their nose – and it sounded suspiciously like Faith!
Sham would never have believed that he could be laughing so much at a time like this. But he had somehow found Priya again, and he now knew that there were other children out there just like them. The lesson was a resounding success.
“I think it is ever so amazing, especially how you have included virtual school to reflect our own situation.”By Lily