Chapter Six: “The Living Messages”
Part 1 – Sham
“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will never see.”
It took Sham a minute to figure out this sentence. It was scribbled on a scrap of paper that he had found tucked partly under his own front doormat. As he was already breathless with the excitement of having made it into his own house, he barely took in what he was reading, and simply folded the note up quickly and put it into his pocket. He was on a mission!
It must have been close to midnight. Woken as usual by Rudy’s snoring, Sham had been lying in the darkness, wide awake, for at least half an hour, before he had dared to get up and sneak downstairs. He had fully expected some kind of alarm to ring, alerting the household to the fact that he was moving. But nothing happened. Constantly alert for Green Light Cameras, his eyes had scanned the stairs and the hallway, where the enormous Krissmas tree stood. There were lights everywhere, of course, flickering merrily, but none of the green ones seemed to be out of time. Perhaps Mr Reindeer was such a staunch supporter of the Krissmas Party, that they were not considered necessary in his house. Besides, he had versatellies in almost every room, and when they were on, The Suits would be able to watch them anyway. But they were off now. The house was silent, except for the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, which had grown louder as Sham approached it.
The Reindeers’ front door was huge and wooden, and locked with an enormous key. Sham had watched Mr Reindeer turning that key night after night, with a satisfying clunking sound, and then removing it and placing it on the living room mantelpiece above the fireplace, behind this old wooden clock. He never made any secret of where he was hiding it, which surprised Sham, but he really thought that Mr Reindeer had no suspicion that Sham would try to escape.
By the time he had reached the Reindeers’ front door, Sham could hardly believe what he was doing. But there had been just one thing on his mind: to find out if the envelope that he had taken from his mother and father’s room was still there, under his pillow. If it wasn’t, somehow all hope would be lost, and he had no idea what he would do next.
Turning the key without making a noise had been another story. Sham had fitted it almost silently into the lock, and then started turning it, as slowly as he possibly could. In spite of the loud ‘Clunk!’ that made him hold his breath for a moment, it had turned easily, and soon he was opening the door and stepping out into Chestnut Avenue. As he was only wearing a pair of Rudy‘s light summer pyjamas, Sham had been grateful that it was a warm summer’s night, and as he’d tiptoed down the street, trying his best to keep to the shadows and away from the lights of the many Christmas trees, he could see the outline of Priya’s house and then his own ahead of him. No lights on at this end of the street. But he knew it so well, and he knew where the spare key was kept, under the small, grinning elf gnome that his father loved so much.
Once inside his own house, Sham felt more comfortable. The upside-down Krissmas tree was lying on its side by the window, but not much else was disturbed. This was a good sign, and for the first time, he felt hopeful of finding the envelope. As he crept up the stairs, the house smelt faintly musty, as if already suffering from having nobody living there, and it gave him a pang to think about his mother, who had always been there, waiting for him. However, as he passed the bathroom, the loveliest sound greeted him: Jingle’s welcoming miaow, echoing strangely. It took Sham a moment to realise that the large, ginger tom was sitting in the sink, his eyes peering over the edge, as if he was hiding.
“Poor old Jingle-Cat,” whispered Sham, stroking his cat fondly, while Jingle sat up and started purring fervently with joy, his bells ringing loudly in the darkness. “I wish I could take you with me, boy, but I can’t. Mum will be home soon, I’m sure.” He hoped that he was right.
When he went into his bedroom, he saw that it looked undisturbed, and his heart beat faster as he moved quickly to his bed and put one hand under his pillow. There was nothing there. Throwing aside the pillow, he frantically felt between the covers and under the bed, pushing aside boxes and making almost as much mess as he had expected to find there. But there was nothing. It was gone. As Mr Noel had said, it was all over. The Suits had taken the envelope and seen whatever was in it. They would know what Gran had done. But he would never know. He would never find her and never see her again.
For the first time since the arrests, Sham flung himself down on his bed and allowed the tears to flow. His cat crept into the room and jumped up beside him. Flinging his arms around Jingle, he buried his face in the comforting, purring warmth of his pet’s fur and wept silently for his Gran, for his mum and dad, for Priya, for all of them. Most of all, he wept for himself and his lost hopes.
Part 2 – Holly
The next day, Sham’s whole body felt exhausted and he was quite unable to concentrate on the KrissEd lessons that Professor Festive Days was leading. Rudy had decided not to attend today, because it was all about Eskimo hunting, which he was very practised in already, so Sham was forced to participate without his help. He was doing the lessons in Rudy’s igloo bedroom, because he just couldn’t face being downstairs with the Reindeer family today, and Mrs Reindeer had seemed to understand this. She had stared hard at his red-rimmed eyes and then told him that he could even stay in his pyjama bottoms if he stayed close enough to the screen.
After several years of learning about the Inuit way of life, Sham should have been quite confident, but he just didn’t care enough to remember, and the Professor grew increasingly irritated with him – and indeed with all of the Naughty List children in the lesson. Although there was no way of seeing her, Sham knew that Priya was trying her best, but it was all so new to her. However, she was the only one of the children who sounded remotely interested.
As the class was drawing to a close, Sham suddenly remembered the piece of paper he had picked up from his doormat the previous night, and cautiously pulled it from his pocket. Professor Days was saying his goodbyes, in a sickeningly jolly manner, as Sham almost inaudibly read the words out loud to himself: “Children are the living messages we send –“
There was a squeaky whirr and a click and the versatelly screen went blank. Less than five seconds later, the screen shimmered with grey and white dots, and Sham distinctly heard the words, “ – to a time we will never see.”
Another whirr and a click, and he almost jumped out of his skin as, instead of Professor Days, there was Holly’s fierce-looking face glaring out at him.
“Finally!” she hissed. “’Ow long does it take?”
Sham had literally no response. He had no idea what had just happened! Glancing nervously at the door of Rudy’s room, he wondered if anyone else was hearing this – or seeing it! Surely, The Suits would know Holly was there – surely…
“It’s all right,” Holly said more gently, realising at least some of what Sham was thinking. “It’s secure. My brother – remember he works at the Elf-Mail centre? He’s amazin’ with versatellies and codin’. It’s a secret code – The Suits can’t ‘ear you.”
“What’s a secret code? I don’t understand – I didn’t do anything!” Sham tried to keep his voice quiet, but really he felt like shouting.
“Yeah, you did – you said the first ‘alf of the code, and I said the second. Wait – are you on your own?”
“Did you put that note under my door?” he asked.
“Yeah, I guessed you’d go back ‘ome at some stage – thought it would be sooner. I’ve bin waitin’ by the versatelly for days!”
Sham was peering at the screen.
“Is that a harp behind you? Where are you??”
Holly glanced behind her impatiently.
“Yeah, it belongs to Amaryllis.” As she leaned to the side, Sham could see a riot of colour behind her. The room was filled with flowering plants. “She’s a friend – she took me in after the Wenceslas Women got taken. I couldn’t go ‘ome.”
“Who is she?”
“Amaryllis Lily. ’Er dad Cactus is somethin’ big in Krissmas flowers. And yeah, she plays the ‘arp.”
This did not sound like someone who would be friends with Holly. Seeing the look on his face, Holly added, “She’s Red’s girlfriend,” and rolled her eyes. “Anyway, no time for elfin’ about. We need to talk business. Red is goin’ to ‘elp find your Gran. Give us a couple of days. What was ‘er first name?”
Sham felt his heart lift – and then fall again. “Faux – it means ‘fake’ in French. But listen, Holly, it’s no good. I had found something from her – I hid it in my house, and it’s gone. The Suits must’ve taken it. ”
Holly leaned forward excitedly. “What was it? What did she give you? Was it some secret plans? Or a map?”
“I don’t know. I never had a chance to look. We were arrested that same day. I thought they were probably just letters. Hang on – plans for what? A map to what?”
Holly sighed. “Nothin’. Never mind. All the more reason to get ‘er out quick then, before they do somethin’ worse to ‘er. Just tell us where she is.”
“I – I don’t know,” said Sham, feeling utterly useless. “And I’ve no idea how to find out.”
Holly sighed. “All right. Leave it with me. Maybe Red can find out, now that we know ‘er name.” At that moment, there was a call from downstairs.
“Cooo-eeee?” It was Mrs Reindeer. “Time for lunch, Sham! Are you still talking to Professor Days?” Then there came the sound of footsteps thundering up the wooden staircase.
“Got to go!” hissed Sham.
Holly was nodding her head as Rudy came crashing into the room. Sham switched off the versatelly in the nick of time.
Part 3 – Priya
After his conversation with Holly, Sham’s mind was in a whirl. Why was Red wanting to help him free Gran? What had been in the envelope? What would they be doing to Gran right now? Perhaps there was something he could do, now that he knew there was a secret code to the versatelly? He wanted to use it right now! If only he could talk to Priya. How could he get the code to her? He supposed he could sneak over at night and – do what? Faith and Hope or Mr Full would pick up anything he put through the door. So instead, he just sat, feeling powerless, doing pointless KrissEd lessons or staring out of the window at the summer days passing by, trapped in a house with nobody to help him. He debated confiding in Rudy, but decided it was just too risky.
Finally, after three days in which nothing at all happened – no news from The Suits about his parents, and no news from Holly about finding Gran – Sham decided to try and use the code again, and just hope that Holly was there. It was late afternoon; Rudy was in the garden, trying out a new snow puffer with his dad, and his mum was busy cooking a goose. Carefully, Sham switched on the versatelly to the usual elf-mail setting. Then he leaned forward and said carefully, “Children are the living messages we send…”
Whirr and click.
“…to a time we will never see.”
Sham’s heart leapt at the voice.
Whirr and click.
“Hi Sham,” whispered Priya, smiling at him. He was so happy to see her face, he couldn’t help grinning back.
“I – but – how?” he stammered. “Did Holly give you the code?”
“No, I had a dream,” whispered Priya. “I knew you’d call today. So I taught Faith and Hope how to braid their hair (you know, they don’t have a mum, so they didn’t know how to do it), and now they are busy plaiting each other’s hair upstairs! We have some time. Mr Full is out delivering Krissmas cakes. He’s a baker, did you know?”
By the time Sham had recovered himself, Priya had made herself comfortable on a chair in front of the versatelly. She looked tired.
“How are you, Sham?”
“I’m – well – I’m okay. I guess. What about you? And your mum and dad?”
Priya shrugged, but she seemed to blinking back tears.
“Mum is on The Naughty List – but dad is working on something important, so they’re just keeping them… somewhere, for now. Dad was allowed to visit me yesterday – just for a few minutes. What about your parents?”
“I don’t know,” said Sham, gruffly. He felt hollow and there was a huge lump in his throat. He hoped that he wasn’t going to cry again. Before this happened, Priya forestalled him.
“I have something to show you. Do you want to see?”
“What do you…?”
He stopped abruptly, as Priya held up in front of him a beautifully wrapped Krissmas present. It was box-shaped, and covered in dazzling golden paper, with a silver bow. She was smiling.
“It’s for you,” she said. “I mean, it says my name on it, but it’s for you.”
“I – I don’t understand,” muttered Sham. Then he almost growled: “I don’t want any more presents!”
Priya just smiled again. “Shall I open it for you?” Sham shrugged, and watched as she started to carefully unwrap it. There was a lot of rustling close to the microphone, and gradually a brown box appeared. On top was taped an envelope. Priya opened it quickly, and pulled out a small piece of paper.
“It’s from my dad,” she said quickly, and scanned it without saying anything.
“What does it say?” asked Sham, intensely curious now.
Priya gasped. “Wait!” she said, and glanced around, in case she was being watched, before tearing open the box.
Dazed, Sham watched Priya lift up in front of her a large brown object. He rubbed his eyes and leaned towards the screen. It was the very envelope that he had been searching for. It was his turn to gasp.
“What? How? It’s not possible!”
“Listen,” whispered Priya, leaning in towards the screen. “My dad says that The Suits took this from your house. Unfortunately, they took out some important papers – but they threw the rest aside. He managed to pick it up and hide it – then he wrapped it up as a present and brought it to me yesterday. He just told me it was for you and that we must open it in secret.”
Sham was speechless, so Priya opened the large envelope. Inside, the letters were stuck together and she had to pull them hard to separate them. Some were written on very old paper and the writing in pencil had almost disappeared. But the one on top was clearly written on white paper. Sham was leaning forward until his nose almost touched the screen. Priya kindly held the top letter up close to the versatelly camera. At first, Sham couldn’t make sense of the writing – it was spidery and small and the letters were joined together. But as he focused on the first three words, he realised that he knew them: “My dearest Sham-boy”, he read. It was as if someone had thrown him back in time. The last time that he had heard that name, he’d been just six years old. He could suddenly see Gran so clearly, her arms wide, her eyes sparkling, calling to him to come to her, and always with that name, ‘Sham-boy’.
He swallowed and squinted at the next lines, but they were almost entirely illegible to him. Quietly, he said, “Please. Read it to me. Please.”
Priya rubbed her eyes, peered at the spidery handwriting and then began reading, her voice hesitant at first, but then increasingly alert.
“My dearest Sham-boy,
You may never read this letter. Your father will not read it because he has been determined, all his life, not to learn to read. I also do not think he will pass it on to the Krissmas Party for fear of what they would do to him. But he almost certainly will not give it to you. He may destroy it.”
Priya paused for a moment and looked at Sham. Her dark eyes were bright with interest and sympathy. Sham said nothing but nodded eagerly.
“However, my hope is that he will have enough conscience to keep something his mother has written, or that your own mother, who is much more open-minded, will keep it for you. Whatever happens, I feel sure that one day, through your own instinct, which I am already so proud of, you will somehow find it and read it.”
“When was it written?” Sham said in a choked voice.
“Five years ago. Sham, I’m so sorry.”
“Carry on,” said Sham. “Please.”
“They will tell you I am ill. They will tell you I am confused. I am neither of these things. They said the same things about your grandfather when they took him away. We have never accepted the Party and we have never believed their lies.
This place is nothing but a prison. They hate us – the old are worthless to them, or else dangerous. I see through them all. The small amount of money I brought in with me is helping me bribe one of them to send this letter.
I wonder if you know the truth yet, Sham-boy. If you are reading this, then you must be learning it. Already I can see your grandfather in you – in your honesty, your curiosity, and your dislike of having Krissmas every day. Nothing is more important than the truth – the truth shall set you free. Stay strong, Sham-boy.
Your loving Gran.”
Priya carefully folded up the letter and there was silence. The weight of Gran’s words was almost too heavy to bear. Sham wondered how he could stand it. His only comfort was that he and Gran were both shut away against their will. But Gran was shut away – where?
“Does it say any address on the letter?” he asked abruptly.
Priya shook her head.
She listened for a moment, and Sham vaguely heard the squeals from the twins in the distance. “But let’s keep going – let me read some more.”
Sham nodded. If the first letter had been hard to read, the next few were much harder. Scrawled on pieces of wrapping paper with a pencil, even Priya had problems deciphering the handwriting.
“A long time has passed since my last letter. They found my writing paper and my pen and took them away. This pencil was dropped by a man they brought in this morning. I feel bad to take it, but this is more important…”
And so it continued. Each letter was full of the same grim details, of elderly people imprisoned, of endless days spent in their rooms with nothing but the foolishness of the versatelly for company. The worst part was that Gran’s letters got shorter and shorter as time went by. It was as if she was forgetting the world outside. And finally she had stopped writing altogether – probably she had run out of money to bribe staff into posting them. Either that, or Sham’s father had stopped keeping the letters. There was no reference at all to whatever it was that The Suits had taken from the envelope before discarding it.
When Priya had finished reading, they were both silent for a moment. The squeals from the twins in the background indicated that they would be coming downstairs very soon. But somehow, Sham just couldn’t end the call. He kept staring at the letters that Priya held; he wanted to hold them in his own hands, to feel the crunch of the paper, even to sniff it, and to somehow feel closer to Gran by doing so.
“What if we’re too late?” he whispered. “What if she’s – dead?”
“She isn’t!” said Priya firmly, greatly to Sham’s surprise. “I know she’s alive.”
Sham was starting to think that Priya had some kind of super power – but then she smiled. “It’s just a feeling – but I know it’s true. I also know that Holly and her brother are going to help you.”
“A dream?” said Sham quite sarcastically, and then wished he hadn’t, because Priya nodded.
“I’ll try and come back – same time tomorrow – the twins are coming!” There was a loud screech from Faith, and Sham just caught a glimpse of her rushing into the room, with her hair sticking out all over head in beaded plaits – and then they were gone. He was alone – but yet he wasn’t. He now had Priya, Holly and Red. He felt so grateful. Together, they would be ‘living messages’ – and together they would find Gran.