Rani was a Hindu. She didn’t celebrate Christmas. It never ceased to amaze her how that concept confused people. She would patiently explain the traditions of Divali, the festival of light that fell near the end of the year, and how that was similar to Christmas in some ways, but at the same time nothing like it. Then they would usually say something like “But do you still get presents on Christmas Day?”
At which point she usually gave up trying to explain.
But actually, on the morning of December 25th she did have quite a few nicely wrapped packages to open, because she had friends who felt they couldn’t leave her out when they bought presents, and it would be impolite to refuse them. The smallest was a little jewellery box that contained a silver charm for her bracelet. It had the arms of Bavaria on it. Pieter had sent it from Bavaria. It was nice of him to remember her.
Clyde’s present proved that he was both talented and aware of cultural differences. It was one of his own paintings, nicely framed in natural wood. It was a copy of a Divali icon that she had showed him a few weeks ago when they talked about such things. She was pleased. It was a unique gift, and a thoughtful one.
Sarah Jane had been practical. She had given her a brand new, state of the art digital voice recorder for her journalistic assignments. She knew that would come in useful when she went back to work after the holiday.
Luke had left his Christmas shopping nearly to the last minute. She smiled as she remembered his anxiety to find the perfect presents in one afternoon down Ealing Broadway. He hadn’t let anyone come with him. He was determined to surprise them all.
And she was surprised and pleased by the long, slim case that opened up to reveal a beautiful pen. It was black with silver fixings. Along the barrel it had been engraved with her name.
She found a writing pad and tried out the pen. It had a nice dark blue ink in it. She wrote her name across the top of the page because she couldn’t think of anything else for the moment. Then paused for a moment before putting the pen to the paper again and started to write.
Twenty minutes later she stopped because she had run out of paper. She had covered the whole of a thick reporter’s pad with neat handwriting. She read back what she had written and was surprised. The idea for this article had been running around in her head for days but every time she tried to write it, whether by pen and paper or on her laptop or the PC on her desk in the Metropolitan office she got no further than the first line before inspiration dried. But everything she wanted to write about the Christmas season from the point of view of somebody who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, an outsider’s view as it were of the shopping frenzies, the wall to wall advertising, the Christmas TV specials, the marginalisation of the religious aspects of the festival, were all there.
And it was some of the best writing she had ever done. It was absolutely perfect. Her editor would have taken it straight away if she had done it a week ago when the deadline for the Christmas week issue was due.
It was too late for publication, but it was still a piece of writing she could be proud of, and it could go in her portfolio for her journalism course. She was more than pleased with the result.
The only disturbing thing was she couldn’t remember writing any of it. The last twenty minutes were a blank. She knew it was her work. She recognised her own style, her own turn of phrase, in the piece. But she couldn’t remember how it got from her head to the page.
Never mind. It was there. She put it carefully away in her desk drawer and placed the pen back in its box before answering her mother’s impatient call to come down to breakfast.
Clyde did believe in Christmas, although he had never really been a religious sort of person. Like most people in Britain he had embraced the secular idea of presents and feasting, having fun. Christmas was a break from worry about college assignments for him, a break from work for his mum. They were a small family, but they were a family and Christmas morning in the living room with the presents under the tree was a special time that he had always looked forward to. The pile of presents wasn’t huge, and a lot of the gifts were of the cheap and cheerful kind, but his mum smiled widely when she opened each one with her name on and thanked him profusely.
The pile with his name on wasn’t huge, either. It never had been. When he was younger his mum had done her best, working extra shifts to get him the toys all the other kids took for granted. She still did that, now. The new racing bike had been leaning against the dining table because it was too big to go under the tree. It was impossible to disguise what it was with wrapping paper but she had tried, and he had shown proper levels of excitement as he ripped it all off.
“Thanks, mum,” he said. “This is great.”
“Next year you ought to be getting your first car,” she said. “Your friend Luke already has one.”
“Cycling is good exercise,” he answered. “Besides, when I sell my first painting for loads of cash I’ll be able to buy you a car.”
“I know you will, sweetheart. Are you going to open the present Luke gave you?”
“Yes, I’m getting to it now.” Luke’s present was rectangular and flat. He had a kind of an idea what it was, but even so it was a thrill pulling the paper off and he was impressed by Luke’s idea of a useful Christmas gift.
It was a portable drawing easel. There were plenty of them around in art shops, but this one looked as if it might be an antique. It was made of old wood that had been carefully restored, perhaps removing fifty year old paint splashes. It was beautifully finished with a curved edge around the top and a slot at the bottom for brushes and pencils.
It was a real artist’s easel. It might even have belonged to a famous artist. Somebody like Picasso or Dali!
He laughed at himself. As if! Picasso’s old easel probably got sold at Christie’s for half a million pounds, including all the old paint splashes. It wasn’t found in a shop off Ealing Broadway.
Still, it HAD been used by an artist, perhaps more than one, in the past, and that idea thrilled him. It made him feel that he really was an artist himself, not just an art student, a mere beginner.
He reached for his mobile phone and sent a quick text thanking him for the present and wishing him a happy Christmas.
“Mum,” he said as he put the phone away. “Stop looking at the labels. There wasn’t anything from dad. You know that. It’ll be the same as usual. I’ll get a HMV token in the post around New Year when he remembers. That’s ok. The shops won’t be open properly until then, anyway.”
His mum smiled bravely. This awkwardness happened every Christmas and they got over it in a few minutes. She went to put the kettle on, saying they could have special coffee with cream on top for a treat. Clyde took the easel and a brand new set of artist’s charcoals that had been among the assorted presents from his mum and sat by the window where the natural light was good. He thought about some of the paintings he had looked at in art history – views from artist’s studios – seascapes and rolling vistas, views over the rooftops of Paris or Milan. He looked out of his window and saw a row of old boarded-up maisonettes that were due for demolition in the new year. The shops below were mostly shuttered, all except for the twenty-four hour store run by an Iranian immigrant who seemed to be there any time, day or night. It was an uninspiring sight. He wondered what all those famous artists would have done if they had that view from their window.
He started to draw the outline of the maisonette roofs anyway. He could call it ‘Urban Decay’ or something.
His mother made the coffee in Irish coffee glasses, leaving out the whiskey since it was only nine o’clock in the morning but managing to get a half inch of thick cream to float on top. She left a glass on the table beside her son. He reached out from time to time to sip it as he worked. He had a cream moustache that he forgot to wipe away. She drank hers sitting on the sofa with some early Christmas morning nonsense on the TV. She didn’t watch it. She watched her son engrossed in his drawing, wondering if it was possible for a boy from an Ealing council flat to earn a living from art or would he end up having to give up his dreams and become a painter and decorator to pay his bills, never having the chance to be what he wanted to be.
An hour later he put down the charcoals and used a duster to wipe the stuff from his fingers. He looked at the drawing he had done and frowned in a puzzled way.
“What’s wrong?” she asked getting up from the sofa and coming to look at what he had done. She looked out at the familiar window view then back at the sheet of thick drawing paper on the easel. Yes, it was a picture of the maisonettes. But it wasn’t a true to life representation. The roof was slanted at a strange angle. Not one of the windows or doors was rectangular, or even in line with each other. There were no people about in the real street below, but Clyde had peopled his drawing with strange, angular characters with square heads and exaggerated features.
“It’s… unusual,” she managed. She had to admit that she knew next to nothing about art. She knew Van Gogh cut off his ear and Monet did water lilies and there was that bloke from Manchester who did the stick figures in terraced streets. She couldn’t say if what Clyde had drawn was a pile of nonsense or something incredibly unique and talented. She hoped it was the second.
“It’s mine,” he said. “I drew it. I recognise my own style of working. But the genre.... I’ve never done anything like this in my life. It’s a Picasso. It’s like Picasso was looking out of our window and decided to draw the maisonettes.”
He looked at his mother. She was looking back at him in a puzzled way, as if she didn’t understand him. It was a look he didn’t like. Even when he was younger, before he met Luke and Sarah Jane, when he had frequently caused her anxiety with letters home from school about his disruptive behaviour, she understood him. She understood that he was a teenager with too much energy, too many thoughts in his head, to be satisfied with any school curriculum. But now she didn’t understand him at all.
“It’s all right, mum,” he said. “Really it is. They call it pastiche – art in the style of another artist. It will blow their minds at college. Worth an A+.”
“I never thought you would ever get an A+,” she answered him. “I’m pleased. Well done, Clyde.”
She hugged him then went off into the kitchen to put the vegetables on for Christmas dinner and make the stuffing for the turkey. He looked again at his drawing, then at the easel.
“Maybe it did belong to Picasso,” he thought. Then he laughed at himself for such a fanciful idea and went to help his mum with the Christmas dinner she was making for the two of them, just as she had done for as long as he could remember.
Sarah Jane had a lot of presents under her tree. One of them had appeared out of the blue overnight. Literally out of the blue, she thought. Trust him to pop in just to leave a Christmas gift and go off again. If she’d known he was there, she would have invited him to stay. It would have been nice to catch up on all his news, meet the new friends he had travelling with him. But that was The Doctor. He never did ordinary things like stopping for Christmas dinner.
His present was as eclectic as him. The label under the highly decorative lid said it was an Arcutreyan Music Box with over three thousand tunes. There was a hand-written note from The Doctor warning her to avoid tunes 2,000 – 2,050 unless she really wanted a good night’s sleep. They were very potent lullabies that would send anyone within hearing into a full REM cycle in seconds.
“Happy Christmas, Doctor, wherever you are,” she said with a wistful smile. “See you when you drop by Earth some time.”
Luke watched her close the music box and put it on the sideboard. Then she picked up the much smaller package he had carefully wrapped in gold starred paper. She opened it slowly and carefully, as if she wanted to savour every moment of opening a gift from him. It was only their fourth Christmas together, and yet they might not have very many more left. He had already talked to her about the possibility of doing his post-graduate studies at Munich University. He and Pieter had gone as far as discussing flats in the city that they could rent together. Of course he could always come back for Christmas, as he had done these past two Christmases when he had been at Oxford. But it wouldn’t be the same. Besides, one day he wouldn’t be a student. He would be a man, with his own life to lead. Maybe he wouldn’t have time to come home to Ealing. Maybe Ealing wouldn’t BE home any more.
He pushed those thoughts aside just as she did and enjoyed every moment of this Christmas, letting the future look after itself for now. The last of the paper dropped away onto the already debris strewn drawing room floor. Sarah Jane opened the velvet covered jewellery box and gasped in genuine surprise and pleasure as she lifted out the twisted rope chain with a pendant on it.
“It’s not real,” he assured her when she held it in her palm and felt the weight of the inch and a half wide pale yellow teardrop shaped jewel. “I’ve seen it done in the chemistry lab. They can force grow crystals to make jewellery.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Sarah Jane said. “K9…. Analysis, please.”
K9 was singing along electronically to Silent Night being sung by a rather more tuneful choir at the start of the Christmas morning church service on the television. He stopped singing and came to her side, extending his probe. She held the crystal up to him and his ears span theatrically as he analysed the jewel.
“It is opal, mistress. Cut and polished in the year 1876 in Adelaide, Australia. It is extremely valuable.”
“Thank you, K9. Good dog.” She patted him behind the ears and he made an agreeable sound. She turned to look at her son. “Where did you get it?” she asked.
“A little antique shop off Ealing Broadway,” he said. “Where I got the presents for everyone. The man said it wasn’t real. He wouldn’t have sold it to me for… for what I paid for it… if it was real.”
“Perhaps he was mistaken. You really should take it back and tell him what it’s really worth. If it’s a small business, with the credit crunch and everything… it’s just not fair to take it from him cheaply.”
“I think there’s probably some consumer law about that,” Luke said. “Once the sale is made… that sort of thing. But I can’t do anything about it until the shops open after Christmas. Why don’t you wear it in the meantime? I don’t know why, but as soon as I saw it I thought of you. I thought it would look so pretty on you. You’re… still beautiful, mum. And you ought to have beautiful things.”
“Oh, you soppy thing,” she told him. She hugged him tightly. “Yes, I’ll wear it. But on Tuesday we’ll both go down the Broadway and have a word with the shop owner. I’d feel guilty, otherwise.”
“Ok, mum.” He took the pendant from her and put it around her neck. She looked in the mirror and agreed with Luke that it was very pretty. She adjusted the way the opal hung against her skin. In the background she could see Luke on his mobile phone talking to Pieter who had called to wish him a happy Christmas. K9 was singing to the carols again. It was Once in Royal David’s City now. He was very out of tune, but she didn’t care. K9 singing Christmas Carols badly was a part of the joy of the day.
She turned and went to the kitchen. She planned to do the turkey dinner about one o’clock, but she sliced a bit of white meat from the bird that had been roasted the night before and made up two sandwiches to go with a mid-morning coffee.
She came back into the drawing room to find Luke on the phone, still and K9 singing along to Once in Royal David’s City.
“How long have you been talking to Pieter?” she asked. “I know his family are rich, but calling a mobile on an international line is expensive.”
“It was just a few minutes,” he answered. “He’s just got back from the morning church service. It’s an hour ahead there, of course. He wanted to thank me for his present. He hasn’t opened it yet. They have a family tradition of waiting until after lunch.”
“But he rang to thank you anyway?” Sarah Jane thought Pieter was a very enthusiastic friend. “K9, you could have stopped singing while he was on the phone. Just how many verses does that hymn have, anyway? It was on when I went to make the coffee and sandwiches.”
“No it wasn’t,” Luke commented as he sat on the sofa and reached for his coffee cup. “The children were doing their nativity when you went into the kitchen. They only started Once in Royal when you came back in.”
“That’s funny.” Sarah Jane shook her head. “I could have sworn….”
“Déjà vu?” Luke suggested.
“That or I’m going bonkers,” she answered. “Which wouldn’t be surprising, all things considered. But I’ve not gone there, yet. So let’s enjoy our Christmas. Have you opened your present from Maria and her dad?”
“Not yet. Here, you open the one they sent you.”
Sarah Jane relaxed and let the carols, from the Westminster Choir assisted by K9 wash over her as she opened another present and enjoyed coffee and turkey sandwiches with her son on a Christmas morning to treasure.
“Sweetheart, come to lunch,” Gita Chandra said to her daughter. “I’ve called you twice. What are you so engrossed in?”
“Just an article for the Metropolitan,” she answered. “I had an idea for it and decided to get it written down before I forgot it again.”
Gita looked at the desk in her daughter’s bedroom. The laptop was switched off, the printer silent. Instead she was writing on an a4 pad of lined paper. She was halfway through the two hundred leaf block. There were two more blocks and three smaller notepads on the desk, all filled with Rani’s neat handwriting.
“You’ve been working hard since summer,” she said. “These are all your journalistic notes? I suppose you type it all up afterwards?”
“Yes….” Rani said cautiously. She looked at the pad she was in the middle of and turned it so that her mother didn’t notice that she had put December 25th as the date at the top of the first page. She closed the other pads. They all had the date on them, too.
She looked at the sum total of her output for one morning and was impressed with herself. It was good stuff. Even the vaguest idea she had thought she ought to write about was here. And it was all good, finished stuff that she could offer to the editor as soon as it was typed up. She would get her first by-line for certain. The next edition of Metropolitan would be her real professional debut as a writer.
She was pleased. She never knew she could be that good at writing, or that prolific.
Or was she? Seriously, was this all her, or was something else going on? Something sinister… something that she would usually want to discuss in Sarah Jane’s attic.
She looked out of the window, across the road at number 13 Bannerman Road. The lights were off in the attic. Mr Smith would be in hibernation. Sarah Jane and Luke were having a quiet Christmas together, just like ordinary people. She wouldn’t bother them today. Or tomorrow. She could go around on Tuesday, when Christmas was over.
“Your dad made turkey korma,” she heard her mother say. “Seeing as everyone else in the street is having turkey today.”
Rani laughed. Talk about culture clash! But the aroma was enticing. She closed her writing pad and put her new pen back in its case before heading downstairs to join her parents for lunch.
By the time his mum told him to shift off the table so she could set it for Christmas dinner Clyde had done three more charcoal drawings. One was a portrait of his mother that was his own style but strongly influenced by Vermeer. One was a still life of a slightly wilting poinsettia plant that his mum had been given by a friend at work. It had more than a hint of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in it. The other was Bannerman Road as it looked from Sarah Jane’s attic window, done in the style of LS Lowery, the Salford ‘street artist’ whose name his mother couldn’t recall except in reference to a pop song that was a hit when she was a young girl.
“Not bad,” he thought. “Not bad at all. I’m really going to surprise them at college.”
Then a moment of doubt crossed his mind. Was it all his own work? He’d never done anything like this before. And it was weird how he couldn’t actually remember anything between putting the first charcoal mark on the paper and leaning back to view the finished product. And he had done all three pieces in one morning. Usually it took him a full day to be satisfied with something like this, longer with an oil or watercolour. He wasn’t a lightning sketch artist. The joy of it all was in taking his time to produce something that was uniquely his.
This didn’t feel uniquely his. He felt as if something was guiding his hands, guiding his mind as he created these pictures.
And he was full certain it wasn’t the ghost of Picasso – or Vermeer, Van Gogh or Lowry, either.
This was something he ought to talk to Sarah Jane about. But it was Christmas Day. He couldn’t go rushing over there. She was having a day off from weirdness, her and Luke as a little family, just like himself and his mum. Besides, he couldn’t do that to her. She was looking forward to the sort of Christmas afternoon they had always had together, playing Trivial Pursuit and Cluedo, eating mince pies and raiding the festive tin of Quality Street until the Queen’s Speech, then the blockbuster movie of the afternoon before cold turkey, salad and pork pie followed by Christmas cake for tea.
That was what he was going to do today. Tomorrow they would do the same only it would be roast pork and trimmings for dinner and a Christmas Log cake for tea. Possessed art work could wait until Tuesday, when Christmas was over and he was ready for Sarah Jane’s attic.
Sarah Jane and Luke had finished their lunch and were relaxing with coffee in the drawing room when Pieter phoned again. Sarah Jane pretended not to notice that Luke took the phone into the hall to talk privately to his friend. A boy of his age needed to talk without his mother listening in. She sat by the window and looked out at the street, idly touching the pendant that still felt new and unusual against her throat. The street was coming alive now after a quiet morning. Boys and girls with new bicycles, scooters, skateboards were out and about. She watched a little girl from down the road, Jessie Bradley she thought she was called. She was eight, and she had a shocking pink bicycle with Barbie logos on it. Eight year old girls liked that sort of thing. She wasn’t as fast as the boys on their racers, but she was cycling along the road happily.
Then a car turned into Bannerman road. It was blue and it was going too fast for a residential street. Sarah Jane yelped in horror and ran into the hall. She flew past Luke and out through the front door, hoping that the little girl was alive. The car had hit her hard enough. The driver hadn’t been paying attention at all.
She stopped by her gate and blinked. The street was quiet except for children at harmless play. Jessie was riding her bicycle past the parked cars where Mrs Atkins had relatives to stay and the driveway was already taken.
She saw the blue car turn into the street. It was going too fast. She called out to Jessie and ran towards her. Sarah Jane, the girl, and her bicycle all landed in an uncomfortable heap as the car swerved past and carried on. The older kids on their racing bikes moved aside. She saw one of them reach for his mobile phone and report a drunk driver to the police.
But nobody was dead. Jessie had a grazed elbow. Sarah Jane was going to have a bruise where the handlebars had stuck into her side. But they were fine. She stood up, lifting Jessie to her feet and checking that her bicycle wasn’t damaged.
“You’d best stick to the pavement for a bit longer,” she said to her. “Take care, now.”
She turned and walked back into her house, shaken by the turn of events. Luke was standing there, holding his phone and looking shocked.
“Are you all right, mum?” he asked.
“Yes, I am… physically. But either it was déjà vu again or I really AM going bonkers.”
She went back into the drawing room and sat down. She took a sip of coffee before explaining what had happened, what she thought she saw from the window and what actually happened when she got outside.
“It was as if what I saw through the window was a precognition of the future – the very near future. And I think it happened earlier, too. When K9 was singing and I went to make the sandwiches. I mean, I didn’t think much of that. I thought all the carols were starting to sound the same with his droning or something. But this time… there was no mistake.”
“I believe you, mum. And it’s not the only weird thing happening. Pieter rang me about his present. I got him a really nice leather bound diary, velum pages, his name inscribed on the front, that sort of thing. And… when he opened it… every page was already written in. The whole year ahead… as if he’d lived through it already. He said… well he wouldn’t tell me any details, but he said that our semester break in February was going to be really interesting.”
Sarah Jane pursed her lips thoughtfully. Her hand absently reached and touched the pendant. It was becoming a habit already, and she had only been wearing it for a few hours.
There was a knock at the door. She looked out. It was young Jessie with her mother. The pink bicycle was leaning against the gate.
She turned away to go and answer the door. Luke was puzzled.
“Nobody knocked,” he said.
She looked out of the window again. Mrs Bradley and her little girl were coming up the driveway. She waited for them to knock and went to the door. A few minutes later she returned to the drawing room with a box of Edinburgh toffee wrapped in a festive ribbon.
“They… wanted to thank me… for earlier,” she said putting the sweets down beside The Doctor’s music box.
“That was nice of them,” Luke commented.
“Yes, very nice. I think….” She reached towards the pendant then changed her mind. “I think… it has something to do with this. Every time I touch the opal, it gives me a sort of flash forward, just a few minutes.”
“Not quite as extreme as Pieter’s diary,” Luke said. “He’s got his whole year planned out in detail.”
“Yes. I think I really need to talk to Pieter later. There are rules about knowing your own future. The Doctor was always telling me about that kind of thing. He will have to be very, very careful not to cause a paradox by trying to do things differently than they’ve been predicted.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that,” Luke said. “But….” He sighed. “You know, mum, I really wanted an ordinary Christmas, without anything strange going on.”
“So did I. That’s why Mr Smith is hibernating and I’ve not even looked in the attic since yesterday morning.”
“Nothing bad has happened. In fact, something good came of the pendant. Jessie could have been killed or badly injured, and that would have ruined Christmas for everyone in the street. Pieter’s diary just says he’s going to have too much to drink tonight and spend most of tomorrow nursing a headache. Can we leave it until Tuesday, when Christmas is over?”
“It’s not usually a good idea to leave things like this,” Sarah Jane said. “It might GET dangerous.”
But in her heart she agreed with Luke. She really wanted a quiet, ordinary Christmas, too. So she took the pendant off, being careful not to touch the stone, and put it back in the box. Then she poured two glasses of sherry. Luke hesitated as she offered him one of the glasses.
“But mum, I’m not eighteen, yet.”
“You were born aged thirteen. The rules never really counted with you. Come and sit down and have a drink and let’s listen to some of the tunes on The Doctor’s music box. Not the lullabies. We probably won’t wake up until New Years’ Eve.”
They did that. Later, Luke sent Pieter a text message telling him what they planned to do after Christmas, then they both put the problem of pre-cognitive pendants and pre-written diaries out of their minds and enjoyed their family Christmas.
On Tuesday morning, though, they got into the lime green Figaro and drove down to Ealing Broadway. It was still quiet. Some of the smaller shop hadn’t bothered to open even though the Christmas holiday was technically over. Those and the shutters over the late night kebab shops and Chinese takeaways that wouldn’t be open until later in the day anyway made the usually bustling high street look empty and ghostly.
“It was further down,” Luke said as they walked past a newsagents that was open for business. “On Uxbridge Road, opposite the Job Centre. It might be shut, still.”
“Or it might be….”
The Job Centre wasn’t open, either. They stood by the secure metal shield in front of its windows and looked across the road. There was a kebab shop one side and an Irish pub on the other.
And in the middle was a gap. There obviously used to be a building there once, but it had been demolished. There was a patch of grass and a bench and what was left of the back wall had been decorated with an impressively detailed mural of ‘Ealing Life’. Of course there was a bit of graffiti on it around eye level and there were cigarette packets and beer cans littering the grass, but it was an attempt to create a quiet spot in the middle of an urban street.
“The shop was here,” Luke insisted. He kicked at the grass, perhaps expecting it to be fake, with the floor of the shop hidden underneath. “It WAS here. It was called… Something… Mr… something beginning with W. Mr W Something’s Gift Emporium. It looked really nice from outside. Old-fashioned, but nice. And the prices were reasonable. I bought everybody’s presents at once. I was surprised about that. I thought I’d have to walk all over looking for the right things. And I really wasn’t sure what to buy for Clyde and Rani anyway. But as soon as I came in here I knew just what I wanted to buy and it was all here.”
“Oh dear,” Sarah Jane said in an almost matter of fact way. “It’s another one of those disappearing shops. I am going to have to get onto this problem in the New Year. These things are popping up all over, causing all sorts of trouble.”
“Is there more than one of them, then? Or the same one turning up in different places?”
“Either way, I’ll get to the bottom of this. Meanwhile, let’s get back home.”
Rani and Clyde were waiting when they got back to Bannerman Road. Pieter Rothstein turned up in a taxi shortly afterwards. He had caught the earliest plane to London he could get, bringing his diary with him. Sarah Jane looked through it while they drank coffee in the attic and compared their experiences. She tried not to read any of the details too much. She shouldn’t know what was going to happen to Pieter any more than he should. She did read one bit in detail. It concerned a party near the end of the summer term at Oxford and it was something she would have to talk to Luke about afterwards, but she wouldn’t worry about it just yet.
“What about you two?” she asked Rani and Clyde. “It must be useful being able to write articles without having to think about it, or paint wonderful pictures with almost no effort?”
“Yeessss,” Clyde reluctantly admitted. “But the thing is… We talked about it between us. I want to be famous for what I can do as an artist, not what some kind of magic easel does. And Rani feels the same about her journalism.
Rani nodded in agreement.
“It just doesn’t feel right. It’s cheating, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” Sarah Jane answered. “I’m glad you both came to understand that by yourselves. It was very adult of you. So now we have to decide what to do.”
“I want to know what made this happen,” Pieter said. “What kind of demon writes the future into a diary?”
“I can answer that question for you, friend of Luke,” said the voice of Mr Smith. Pieter was disconcerted. He had just talked of demons and now a computer was talking to him.
“Mr Smith, this is Pieter Rothstein,” Luke said. “He’s my best friend from university.”
“Pleased to meet you, Pieter,” Mr Smith answered, his screensaver glowing in what presumably was meant to be a friendly way before it cleared and the screen filled with data nobody could possibly be expected to interpret. “My sensors detect the presence of D-Morphic particles in this room. It is my analysis that the Christmas gifts Luke bought from the peripatetic shop were all imbued with those particles.”
“D-Morphic?” Rani asked the question, but it was obviously in all of their minds at once.
“They were developed on the planet Desti-V and almost destroyed the economy because too many people were predicting the stock market as well as making art and literature redundant because people could so easily produce their own. Their use was banned, but artefacts containing the particles do pop up from time to time. Human history and folklore has many examples that came to Earth. There are a few genuine crystal balls used by fortune-tellers that have D-Morphic properties. Any fairy tale or fantasy involving talking books or lamps that produce surprising results when rubbed is probably the result of D-Morphic particles.”
“So, is there anything we can do about this?” Rani asked. “Can we stop it happening?”
“Yes,” Mr Smith answered with a hint of smugness that caused K9 to tut loudly in his mechanical voice. Mr Smith ignored him. “A bombardment of harmless K-Energy in the room will neutralise the particles. They will make your Christmas presents into ordinary things again. But you must all be sure you want that to happen. Once it is done, it is done. I cannot reverse it.”
Rani and Clyde said yes immediately. Clyde laid his easel on the coffee table and Rani put her pen on top of it. Pieter glanced at a few pages of his diary and then did the same. They all looked at Sarah Jane. She was holding the box with the pendant in it thoughtfully.
“I saved Jessie’s life by knowing what was going to happen,” she said. “That was good.” She thought about it more. She had praised Clyde and Rani for being adult about their decision, and now she was hesitating about making the same decision.
Then she thought of The Doctor. Actually, she thought of several Doctors. The latest one grinned at her in a friendly way but he shook his head. So did the one before. The one who had left her in Aberdeen so long ago gave her a stern look. The one she had first known smiled like a favourite uncle, but she felt she could hear his voice, very quiet and not trying to persuade her in any way, but assuring her that she knew that it was the right thing to do.
She put the pendant with the other gifts and stood back. Mr Smith did the computer equivalent of clearing his throat then a pale blue light emanated from his screen and filled the room for a few seconds. When it was gone, everything looked the same.
Pieter reached for his diary and opened the pages. They were blank. Was there just a tinge of regret in his eyes? But he had made the decision along with the rest of them.
Sarah Jane opened the box and took out her pendant. She put it on and touched the stone. Nothing happened.
Rani tried writing with her pen. It was her own thoughts as she thought them. She was satisfied.
“I haven’t got any pencils and paper with me, so I’ll have to assume this is ok now,” Clyde said about his easel.
“All right,” Sarah Jane said. “Well, I’ve got tons of Christmas cake left, and lots of mince pies. Let’s have some more coffee with them.”
While she was gone to make the coffee, Pieter turned to the empty pages of his diary for the semester break in late February.
“I can’t remember any of it, now. It’s as if it was wiped from my memory, too. But I do know that you’re all coming to my castle for the winter holiday. And we’re going to have one heck of an adventure. According to what Sarah Jane said, if you don’t the universe will unwind. So put that date in ALL your diaries.”