It was the night before Christmas, and not a creature was stirring….
Well, that wasn’t quite true. A drunk was definitely stirring as he wandered down Bannerman Road singing Silent Night, badly and loudly.
Sky Smith wasn’t asleep anyway. She had gone to bed at midnight after an enjoyable Christmas Eve party attended by Rani and Clyde and their respective parents and a few other friends. She was tired, then, and expected to sleep soundly, but she had gone through all of those phases of sleeplessness that included being too hot, too cold, needing the loo -twice – needing a drink of water, and being kept awake by noisy and inconsiderate people outside.
Or maybe it was just excitement about Christmas. She told herself she was too old for that, but she still felt a certain thrill knowing that there would be presents in the morning. She was still young enough to covet gifts for herself, but she was also mature enough to appreciate the joy of giving, too. She thought about the presents she had bought for her mum and brother and his friend, Pieter, who was staying with them. She was looking forward to seeing their appreciation of what she had given them as much as what everyone else had bought for her.
The drunk finally meandered out of earshot and she turned over ready to try to sleep.
Then another sound disturbed her. This one was much closer than the street outside.
Somebody was in the house – downstairs in the living room.
She probably should have woken her mum or maybe even her brother and Pieter. They could deal with a burglar far better than one teenage girl in a dressing gown and novelty bunny slippers. But she didn’t think of waking any of them. Instead she crept down by herself.
There were voices in the living room. Strange voices – one of them very strange. It sounded like a small voice coming from near the floor. Sky opened the door carefully and looked inside.
“Are you sure this is right?” the small voice came from a figure only two feet tall dressed in red and green and tinkling slightly when he moved due to a small bell on his hat. The term ‘elf’ had to be applied to him. ‘Christmas elf’ even more appropriately.
“Of course, it’s right,” answered the man who looked exactly as Father Christmas was meant to look according to all the Christmas cards and the various films Sky had seen with present delivery as a major theme. “I don’t make mistakes. I checked the list – twice.”
“That’s as maybe, boss,” the elf argued. “But… Sky Smith, five years, two months old. Look at these presents – an Android tablet, ice skates – size four, a musical jewellery box, cosmetics case….”
Father Christmas paused in his work of placing presents around the tree. He looked at the database file on the elf’s IPad and frowned deeply beneath his white beard.
“You’re right. This is a bit odd. But it’s definitely the right address. It’s the right Sky Smith.”
“Like there are very many of those in the world,” the Elf complained. Then he stared at his IPad again. “Look at that. She was down as a non-believer, which is weird for a five-year-old. But she just flagged up a few seconds ago as a believer. Never seen that before. When they stop believing there’s no going back.”
Sky stepped further into the room. Neither of the unlikely intruders had seen her, yet.
“These are definitely her presents,” Father Christmas confirmed, looking at a printed card he drew from the pocket of his red velvet coat. “Gifted by various friends and family. But it really does seem….”
She cleared her throat meaningfully. The two possibly fictional characters looked around.
“Uhoho, busted,” the Elf commented.
“Don’t be facetious, Eric,” Father Christmas cautioned him. “Hello… er… Miss….”
“Smith, Sky Smith,” she said helpfully. “But nobody calls me ‘miss’, yet.”
“Big girl for five and two months,” Eric commented. “Or petite and pretty for sixteen.”
“You’re five hundred and seventy-five,” Father Christmas told him. “Less of the ogling of young ladies.”
“Much less,” Sky agreed. “Who are you and what are you doing here? I mean…. I know what you look like, but… seriously….”
“The belief check is oscillating,” Eric observed. “She’s not sure.”
“I’m not surprised,” Father Christmas answered him. “I’m having trouble believing in her.” He looked at the index card again. “Sky Smith, born October the Fourth, twenty-eleven….”
“Yes, that’s right, I was,” Sky told him. “But on October the fifth I grew to an eleven-year-old. It was all the plan of the Metalkind. I was…. Oh, dear, do I have to go through all this? Look, that’s why I didn’t believe in you. I went to eleven all at once. I didn’t have time for believing in anything. But… here you are, in my living room, with an Elf… called Eric.… so, I HAVE to believe.”
“You believe because I have an Elf?” Father Christmas looked at her in bemusement, something she had never seen before. It was a word that belonged in fiction, not life, but she recognised it now.
“Any burglar can dress up like that. But he’s two-foot-tall and wearing an outfit nobody in their right mind would wear unless he was what he says he is. You’re real, and you’re here. And that’s ok, except I’m sixteen and a bit old for leaving out milk and mince pies for you. If you’d like some left-over volt au vents or mini sausages on a stick, there are loads of those in the fridge….”
“We’re both quite all right for food and drink,” Father Christmas assured her.
“Speak for yourself, I’d quite like a sausage on a stick,” Eric remarked. “The mini ones are just my size.”
“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Father Christmas told him. “Besides, we have already overstayed our welcome at this young lady’s home. We have to be moving on.”
“Goodnight, then,” Sky told them both. “Have a safe journey.”
“Goodnight, Miss Smith,” Father Christmas responded before reaching in his pocket for a device that looked like it belonged in the attic of Bannerman Road where Sarah-Jane Smith had collected alien artefacts and curious technology all her life. The air around him and Eric started to shimmer as his personal transmit engaged.
Sky blinked. She was suddenly sitting in a sleigh, flying above silvery-white clouds with a cool velvet sky full of stars above. The sleigh was everything the films aspired to with gold edges to the finely carved woodwork and plush seats. The reindeer were beautiful, all sporting fantastic antlers. Their reins jingled with rows of bells.
“Why am I here?” she asked, not bothering with the ‘how’, since that was obvious.
“Good question,” Eric said. “I thought only the two of us could do it.”
“She must have been pulled into the transportation beam,” Father Christmas answered. “She must have travelled in something that emits artron energy. That makes her like a transportation magnet.”
“Yes, I have,” Sky conceded. “You’d best just take me back, now.”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Father Christmas told her. “This sleigh is hyper-hyper-sonic. We’re already a thousand miles away from your house. You’ll have to sit tight until we’re back in orbit over London again.”
Well, that wasn’t such a bad thing. It was surprisingly warm in the sleigh and the clouds had parted to reveal that they were travelling over an ocean at enormous – possibly hyper-hyper-sonic – speed. It was a bit thrilling.
“Why are we a thousand miles away from my house already?” she asked. “Aren’t there other houses in London to visit?”
“Alphabetical order,” Eric explained. “Smith, Sky, Bannerman Road, London, is followed by Smith, Skye, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, followed by Smith, Skyla, in De Smet, Minnesota, USA, Smith, Skylar in Coober Pedy, Australia and Smith, Skyler on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. And in my opinion, all of your mums and dads could have picked less awkward names. We can’t even tell without checking the database which of you are boys and which girls.”
“That shouldn’t even matter. Have you never heard of gender neutral toys?” Sky contended, ignoring the slur upon her naming process. “But, in any case, it makes no sense. Delivering by locality has to be better. It’s how they do it in all the films.”
“If we did it like most of the films we’d only deliver in America,” Eric pointed out and Sky had to agree with that.
“What about the NORAD Santa tracker? That goes North-South according to lines of latitude.”
“It may well,” Father Christmas responded. “But I don’t work for NORAD. Alphabetical is the best way of making sure nobody gets left out. Too many children move house before Christmas or go to their grannies or… Heaven forbid… are in emergency temporary accommodation. If we deliver by house number those children get missed just when they really need me.”
“Yes… but….” Sky was wondering how Father Christmas could find those dislocated children even by alphabetical order.
“It used to be possible to go by location when people didn’t move about so much and names went with places,” Eric continued. “We could deal with all the Joneses, Evanses and Williamses in Wales in on go. Now they’re all over the place. You Smiths are everywhere.”
“Since the name derives from blacksmith and those were needed everywhere before cars were invented, I expect it has always been that way.”
“Lunenburg coming up,” Father Christmas said, interrupting the discussion about the diaspora of common surnames. Sky looked down to see that they were moving a lot slower and closer to the sea. A small town was straight ahead with a harbour full of fishing boats and pleasure yachts. The town seemed to be built mostly of wooden clad buildings, many of them painted in a salmon red or yellow. Sky had a sense of a Dutch influence in the architecture, then wondered why she thought that at all since she knew nothing about Dutch architecture. It just seemed right.
“Can I come down with you?” Sky asked. “I’m… sort of interested. This child is nearly the same name as me. It’s like we’re related, sort of.”
“With your DNA tuned into the transportation beam, I’m not sure there’s any choice,” Father Christmas conceded.
“You’re not wearing shoes with Velcro fastening, are you?” Eric asked. “We’ve found that Velcro loses its integrity with repeated use of the transporter.”
“I’m wearing bunny slippers,” Sky showed him. “And a nightie. And I’m thousands of miles from home. Velcro is the least of my worries.”
Skye Smith was a boy. It was the sort of name that could go either way, of course. Judging by his school photo on the shelf he was about twelve. His Christmas presents included a pair of skis, a model yacht kit and a CB radio set. They all came from the sack even though the skis were too big to fit in there. Sky didn’t comment on that. She knew all about things that were bigger on the inside.
“Try some home maple syrup candy,” Eric said, offering a plate. “Might be the last from this house. The kid’s twelve, on the cusp of disbelief.”
Sky tried the sweets. They were very chewy. The piece in her mouth kept her going all the way to De Smet, Minnesota, where Skyla Smith was a six-year-old girl who had never heard of gender neutrality. All her presents were pink.
Skylar Smith in Coober Pedy was also a girl, aged thirteen, approaching disbelief. She was an artist. Her gifts were all paint related and the plate of biscuits left out for visitors propped up a very realistic portrait of Father Christmas and Eric.
“We were spotted a couple of Christmases back,” Eric explained. “Nice likeness. It’s lucky this one is Australian. An American kid would be in therapy if she claimed to have really seen us. Parents! They tell them to believe in Santa, then panic when they really do.”
“Let’s get gone before she spots me, as well, then,” Sky suggested. “The parents will get really worried about Father Christmas, an Elf and a girl in the next picture.”
“Wise idea,” Father Christmas agreed. “Next stop, the Isle of Skye. We can take a little detour afterwards down to London and leave you back home.”
Sky was relieved to hear that, but also a little disappointed. This unexpected trip on the sleigh was only surpassed by travelling by TARDIS. She was thrilled to have the opportunity. She wished, just a bit, that it could last a bit longer.
But she had been to Canada, the USA and Australia. What more could a girl who was having trouble getting to sleep on Christmas night ask for?
“That would be great,” she said, leaning over Eric’s shoulder to read the file on Skyler Smith who lived in a tiny village called Struan on the Isle of Skye. This was a boy of eight who liked trains. His presents included a huge, deluxe Hornby set with four trains, scenery and about a mile of track, a scale model steam train that made real steam, and a complete set of Thomas the Tank Engine books.
The boy in question was asleep under a Thomas the Tank Engine duvet on the sofa in front of the Christmas Tree. Sky stood behind the sofa with Eric while Father Christmas delivered the presents as quietly as possible.
“Is he one of the dislocated children with no bed?” Sky whispered.
“No, he’s a worried kid who thinks burglars might come in and steal his presents. It happens sometimes.”
“In London, maybe. Not a tiny place like this, surely?”
“He must have heard something on the news. Kids worry about the funniest things.”
“There’s something else, here,” Father Christmas said as he came from the tree and looked closely at the sleeping Skyler Smith. His expression was not that of an eight-year-old peacefully dreaming on Christmas night. If anything, he looked scared and fretful.
Father Christmas pulled off one of his gloves and placed his hand on the boy’s forehead.
“As I thought… Mara.”
“Mara?” Sky queried.
“A dark creature from Scandinavia,” Eric explained. “Which is just around the corner, as it were, from these parts of Scotland. They create nightmares.”
“I can’t cast it out,” Father Christmas sighed. “It’s a strong one. You might have to do it, Sky.”
“The innocence of a child is what they prey upon, but only in sleep when their minds are vulnerable. A waking child is too strong. And one who is less than six years old but with the strength of sixteen….”
“What do I do?” Sky drew close to the sleeping boy.
“Take the pillow from under his head, turn it over and replace it, draw a triquetra upon it with your finger.”
“Draw… what?” Sky queried.
“One of those three cornered knot thingies you see on Irish folk music CDs,” Eric explained, drawing the symbol on the air.
“I didn’t know it was called that,” Sky admitted. She bent over the boy and held his head while she turned the pillow over and made the symbol. Father Christmas opened the living room window briefly, and Sky was sure a black shadow streaked out before he closed it again and drew the triquetra in the condensation.
“That will keep it out,” he said. “The boy will sleep soundly, now.”
“I think he will,” Sky confirmed. Young Skyler looked much calmer, now. She moved away to join Eric and Father Christmas to transport away.
“Eric, reconfigure the deliveries for locality,” Father Christmas said when they were aboard the sleigh again and hovering above the cluster of dwellings that constituted Struan. “Mara don’t come alone. They will have nested here. We need to look in on all of the children and free them from the nightmares.”
“So, we’re not going to London, yet?”
“I’m afraid not,” Father Christmas answered apologetically. “We need your help, my dear.”
The routine was the same at each house where children lived among the Struan community. The child was invariably twisted in discomfort as the Mara attacked their subconscious thoughts. Again and again the odd remedy seemed to work.
“What is a triquetra, anyway?” Sky asked as they left one seafront house and headed for a substantial farm. “What does it mean?”
“Some people take it to be a symbol of the Holy Trinity, a variation of Saint Patrick’s shamrock,” Father Christmas explained. “If that comforts them, then all well and good, but like me, it really goes back much further than that. It is a symbol of the wholeness of nature, giving protection from that which is outside of nature.”
“Among many other things that dwell in the darkness, and which envy the good in humanity. Anyway, it works. The children sleep peacefully once we’re done.”
So many of the children were very young. The idea that something dark and frightening was attacking them through their dreams was so sad. Sky was glad to be able to help them.
“Is it just the children?” Sky asked when they had visited the last of the outlying farms where children slept, including two grandchildren sleeping in camp beds in the living room of a very packed house for Christmas. “What about the grown-ups?”
“Grown-ups get nightmares because of things other than Mara,” Father Christmas explained. “Farm subsidies, mortgages, Brexit! There’s nothing I can do about those. Come on, back to the sleigh. Just one more thing to be sure that they don’t sneak back in, tonight.”
Once they were settled back into the sleigh again Father Christmas brought the beautiful but impossibly non-aerodynamic vehicle low over the village. Then he spoke encouragingly to the reindeer. They banked left slightly and then made a very complicated manoeuvre. It wasn’t until they were almost done that Sky realised they were tracing a triquetra symbol in the air above Struan.
“That should give everyone a good night’s sleep,” Father Christmas promised. “London, next.”
“Yes,” Sky agreed. “I’m a bit tired now. We’ve been working here for hours. Funny it isn’t nearly morning, now.”
“That’s the other thing about reindeer travel,” Eric explained. “Time doesn’t pass the same way. We’ll have you home before that silly drunken man comes back up your street.”
Even though it had been an adventure Sky was glad to hear that. She knew a dozen drunken revellers wouldn’t keep her awake now. Indeed, she started to drowse during the journey from the Hebrides to London. She was nearly asleep on her feet as she said goodnight to Eric and Father Christmas and headed up to bed to the sound of the drunk outside attempting to sing Jingle Bells.
She woke with a cold morning sunshine streaming through the bedroom window. She was still wearing her dressing gown over her nightie and one slipper. The other one had come off inside the bed. She retrieved it and ran downstairs to find everyone else up and eating breakfast. She ignored all the accusations of ‘sleepyhead’ and quickly ate a bowl of cornflakes before the presents were shared out.
“That’s strange,” Sarah-Jane said. She handed a small package to Sky. “I don’t remember that one.”
“Must be from Father Christmas,” she answered to everyone’s amusement. She opened the package and found a gold chain with a triquetra pendant. A note inside read ‘Protection against nightmares’ and was signed ‘FC and E’.
“Who’s that, then?” Luke asked her as he helped her to fasten the chain.
“A friend,” she answered. “A special friend.” She refused to say any more. Luke nodded. Everyone was entitled to their secrets, especially at Christmas.