“Sham, pay attention!” Priya was hissing at him. “Listen to this – it bypassed all the filters…”
She pointed to the screen. Sham dragged his attention back from the window. Outside, the snow fell unceasingly, hypnotically, out of a leaden sky. They had sneaked off to Rudy’s bedroom, away from the jolly Krissmas party that was going on downstairs, and had been exploring websites on the versatelly that claimed to be for care homes for the elderly. Of course, everything they looked at was controlled by the Krissmas Party, and the websites were obviously designed for KrissEd purposes, or for people outside the UKK, with images of groups of smiling elderly people with nurses, all drinking tea, eating Krissmas cake and wearing party hats. Priya had been rattling off speaking elf-mails to every place they had come across for half an hour, with no response.
But now there was a picture on the screen of an elf holding up an envelope, and when Priya clicked on it, a voice started speaking, while sprigs of holly and berries danced around the screen.
“We are so sorry,” the message said in a jolly voice, “But we do not have any person of the name of Faux Deco in our home. However, a man signed into our speaking visitors’ book as Mock Deco, which is an unusual name, so perhaps this will help. He was visiting Mrs April Allbright, and –“
At this moment, the message cut off, and a different voice started speaking. It had the usual robotic tone of an edited elf-mail message.
“We are unable to assist with your inquiry. A new elf-assistant responded incorrectly to your illegal elf-mail. We have no person of the name you requested. We inform you that we will be reporting your message to those in charge and you may expect to appear on the Naughty List next month. Festive greetings, Senior Nurse, Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home.”
The elf-mail clicked shut. Sham and Priya looked at each other – and then laughed nervously. Then Priya said, shaking her head, “Little do they know that we’re already on the list anyway.”
Downstairs, Faith, Hope and the Reindeers were singing, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful…” at the top of their voices. And Sham, for the first time in many days, felt like singing too! They had found Gran. He couldn’t speak for a moment. It was hard to take in.
“What did that first lady say?” Priya was saying. “Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home? Now we know for sure the name of the place. And we even know what her original name was!”
“April Allbright?” Sham said the name slowly and questioningly. “Why does that ring a jingle-bell? I remember those words – but for some reason Gran always sang them to me, and I just thought it was a song about spring.” He glanced at Priya, looking a little embarrassed, but she looked so interested that he actually dared to sing very softly: “’The spring has come, it’s all right! It’s April now, it’s all bright’. I guess she was giving me a clue, but I just missed it.”
Sham had a sudden inspiration.
“Do you remember the high wall and the metal gates over the river, behind the place where Holly lives?” he said. “The gates were tied up – with tartan ribbon! I bet that was it.”
“You’d make a good detective!” said Priya, impressed. “But of course there might be lots of places with the same name.”
Sham shook his head. “I’m sure that’s it – my Dad must have been in touch with her, sometimes even visiting her, and he wouldn’t want to go far. He’s too busy.”
“You’re right. I also had a feeling that your Gran was near. So what are we going to do now?”
“She’s so close! All that time, I never knew. I have to – I mean we have to get her out -.”
A sudden noise at the door made Sham stop talking abruptly.
“Oops,” said a voice, and the door opened. Rudy was standing there, looking sheepish. “I dropped my mug,” he said. Sham’s eyes met Priya’s and then she spoke.
“How long have you been there?”
Instead of answering, Rudy picked up his empty mug from the floor and came into the room, closing the door behind him.
“That girl’s probably on the Naughty List now,” he said.
“What girl?” asked Sham, frowning.
“The one who just gave you the message,” said Rudy. “Poor thing.”
Priya put her hand over her mouth. Rudy gave a wry smile. “I’m not stupid, you know. When you two were looking so miserable and then sneaked up here, I guessed you were up to something.”
“What are you going to do?” Sham felt his voice shaking as he asked the question.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything. I’m not surprised you want to find your Gran. I liked mine too, before she went to live in New Zealand.”
Sham and Priya both looked surprised.
“And anyway, if you want to get to her in this weather, you may need my help.”
“What? How can you help?” asked Sham, and he saw that Priya’s eyebrows were raised as high as they could go.
“What do you know about surviving in a blizzard?” asked Rudy with a rather patronising tone.
“Not much,” muttered Sham, and Priya whispered, “Absolutely nothing.” She seemed to have been almost silenced by this new Rudy.
“Well, I do,” said Rudy confidently. “I –“
“Children are the living messages we send…”
Whirr and click. Sham breathed in sharply as the versatelly screen started flickering – they had left the elf-mail connected! Then he leaned over and said quietly, “…to a time we will never see.”
Whirr and click. Holly’s face appeared on the screen, looking grimmer than usual. She was about to speak, when she realised that both Priya and Rudy were staring at her from behind Sham.
“What are they ‘elfin’ well doin’ ‘ere?” she hissed. “I thought you was banned from seein’ little Miss Wrap-a-Package ‘ere?”
Priya gasped. “How could you possibly know that name?”
“Come off it! I’ve been breakin’ in to your KrissEd lessons – easier than pullin’ a cracker. And what about ‘im?” She pointed rather insolently at Rudy, who looked as if he was about to answer back.
Sham interrupted before an argument could develop. “Holly, Rudy’s changed since I came to stay here. He’s not the same person.” He saw Rudy look at him in surprise. “He was just telling us how he could help us. Weren’t you, Rudy?”
“Yes,” said Rudy pompously. “If you’re going anywhere, I’m coming too.”
“Oh yeah?” said Holly scathingly. “Why’s that then?” And she added, staring right at Sham, “Doesn’t sound much like he’s changed, if you ask me!”
“What do you know about surviving in conditions like these?” asked Rudy crossly.
“Why? What d’you know?” retorted Holly. “You’ve bin livin’ your cosy, protected life with mummy and daddy. When’ve you ever ‘ad to survive anythin’?”
Rudy looked at the screen with disdain.
“When I was eight, my father took me to Siberia, to meet the Nenets. Yes, you don’t even know who they are, do you? They’re reindeer herders and they know more about snow even than the Inuits. We were there for two months. The Nenets showed us how to make shelters from snow, how to walk over thin ice, and how to use reindeer skins and even snow itself to keep warm.”
Sham stared at Rudy. It was as if he had grown visibly in front of them, his face full of expression and emotion. Priya smiled and patted Rudy on the back.
Sham glanced at Holly, and saw that, for once, she didn’t seem to know what to say. There was a grudging admiration in her eyes, but he knew how hard it would be for her to back down. He decided to save her the embarrassment.
“Rudy, you can come,” Sham said firmly. “If we go, I think we’ll need your help.”
Holly glared at him, but he thought that was just habit. Rudy looked pleased.
There was a pause, and then Holly changed the subject. “Anyway… Did you guess this weather was comin’? Maybe, because of the company you keep, you already had a pretty good idea.”
Priya looked at the floor and then moved sideways, so that Holly couldn’t see her any more.
“Yeah,” said Holly, with a sneer. “That’s what I thought.”
“What do you know?” asked Sham quickly. He wished Holly wasn’t always so rude, but he couldn’t afford to get cross with her, as she was the only one, outside their lockdown, who could really help him find Gran.
“Nothin’ but bad news,” said Holly, and Sham’s heart sank. “First, there’s the vixin’ snow –“ she shook her head angrily.
“Vixing?” queried Priya. Sham and Rudy both looked at her, shocked.
“Don’t say that!” said Rudy.
“It’s a really bad word!” muttered Sham. “Vixen was Santa’s bad reindeer – you know?”
Priya shook her head, mystified. But Holly was still talking.
“But that’s not all. Before the snow came, there was rumours that The Suits – well, they found our base. I mean, the Resisters’ secret base. Nobody knows ‘ow they knew. Some of the Resisters managed to get away – but a lot of ‘em were taken. That means everything we was plannin’ is probably – done. Finished.”
Sham and Priya looked at each other in horror. Quickly, Sham told Holly about the envelope, about how Priya’s father had brought it to them with the letters, but how they knew The Suits had taken something before throwing the envelope aside.
Holly looked even more grim. “Must have been a map then. So now, more than ever, we’ve got to find your Gran. But I came on ‘ere to tell you – we still ent got no idea where your Gran is.”
“It’s all right!” intervened Priya excitedly, leaning in so that Holly could see her face. “We just found out!”
“What? What does she mean?” Holly still seemed reluctant to engage with Priya at all, so Sham updated her on their recent findings.
“You wouldn’t have found her because her name is different – they call her by her original name, I think – April Allbright. But listen, Holly, you know that building across the river behind your flats? The one with the ribbon on the gates.”
“Yeah, course I do. The windows of Red’s and my bedroom is ‘igh enough for us to look over the walls. It’s definitely, like, a place where they keep old people – we’ve seen ‘em walkin’ in the garden.”
“I’m sure that’s where Gran is – the Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home.”
“You’re kiddin’ me? All this time, the wife of the first Resister ‘as been livin’ almost next door?” Holly was shaking her head.
“Yes. And I’ve got to get her out of there,” Sham went on.
Holly grinned for the first time. “Not on your own. We’re not sittin’ around waitin’ for somethin’ to ‘appen. Someone’s gotta stop the Krissmas Party, an’ your Gran and us – we’re the ones what can do it. Red will ‘elp us, I know ‘e will.”
“But how can we get out? How can we do anything now? We’re trapped!” said Priya.
Rudy was peering at the screen. “Is that a harp? And what are all those flowers behind –“
“Oh, for Santa’s sake, shut ‘im up. I’ve gotta go. I’ll be back soon, with a plan. Just keep checkin’ in.”
From that moment on, Sham was thinking about getting out and saving Gran – and he knew the others were too. Back at the Fulls’ house, Priya continually messaged Sham, using the secret code on the versatelly, and Rudy was frequently coming up to Sham to whisper: “I’ve found a powerful torch – I’ve packed it in my rucksack,” or “We’ll take two compasses, in case we get separated.” He seemed to think that they were about to head for the North Pole, rather than just to the other side of Yuleport!
Holly was trying to find a way into the Tartan Ribbon Nursing Home which didn’t set off any alarms, and Priya pored over Gran’s letters, reading and rereading, looking for clues to the best way to rescue her. However, after two days, Priya was distracted by the arrival of her mother at the Fulls’ house. She had been set free! It appeared that The Suits, on this occasion, had kept their promise, since they now had what they wanted from Priya’s father. Sham also heard from his parents by elf-mail, and they were apparently now stuck in London. His dad, who both looked and sounded wildly enthusiastic, was busy sorting out lights for all the major tourist attractions. His mother was tearful at first, but once she realised that Sham was being well cared for at the Reindeers’, she was clearly relieved to have him safely looked after. For a moment, he wished he could tell her the truth, but then he remembered that she too had kept Gran’s existence a secret from him for years, and he hardened his heart.
Meanwhile, the days passed and the snow had a strangely hypnotic effect on them all. It was hard to believe in anything except the fake winter and the cold and the need to keep warm. Life now seemed to be all about surviving. Snow had fallen on snow: it was packed deep in places, with powder snow on top. It was getting harder and harder even to go outside for a breath of fresh air. There was also a danger from seagulls, which were still around, and had come inland for food; they often appeared in huge, raucous flocks, attacking anyone who had something to eat.
And in the background, so prevalent that even Sham soon no longer noticed it, there was the distant droning of the Cloud Assemblers somewhere high above the snow-filled clouds.
The need to know what was happening in the world outside meant that the children were all suddenly very enthusiastic about KrissEd lessons, and tuned in daily on their versatellies. Professor Days was as over-excited as it was possible to be, and spent most of each lesson showing the children how well-prepared the UKK had been for the dramatic change in the weather. He would start each day with a news report managed by the Krissmas Party.
“The UKK has never managed things better!” an American reporter would shout, standing by a snow-free runway, with a blizzard blowing in the background. “In spite of hazardous conditions all over the country, planes are still able to land at the airports, due to the remarkable snow-ploughs clearing the runways night and day and the terrific anti-freeze chemicals being laid down here. The tourist industry is suddenly booming again! People are calling this sudden transformation a modern-day miracle!”
The scenes were those that all the oldest Krissmas cards showed: snow gently falling over London, and all the shop fronts decorated to the full with tinsel, trees and lights. Other news items showed reindeer skin coats on sale at every big store, ice hotels being built in prominent places, and hundreds of real sleighs now gliding through the streets, pulled by reindeer or huskies. Children were building snowmen, sledging and having snowball fights. Everyone looked happy and excited.
“It looks fun,” Rudy said gloomily, when they were next in a private conversation with Holly. “And we’re stuck here, miles away from it all.”
“But it’s not real,” Sham responded. “Of course they only show the fun. When did they ever show anything else on the versatelly? They’ll think differently when people start freezing to death.”
Holly, leaning backwards in her chair so that she disappeared from view for a moment, said angrily, “I expect stockin’ loads of people ‘ave already frozen to death, everywhere except London. But we’ll never ‘ear about it anyway.” She paused and looked behind her, to check that nobody was coming. “Me and my brother are ready to ‘elp you get your Gran out. We’ve got a sledge – and we’ve got the ‘uskies. ‘Ow about you? Can you get out?”
Sham’s heart started beating faster – they’d been talking about this for so long, it seemed like something that would never actually happen. Was he really brave enough for this adventure? Rudy, however, was almost jumping around next to him in excitement – and he spoke for them both:
“We’re ready!” he said. And Sham had no choice but to believe that he was too.