Max clung tightly to his mother’s hand as they crossed the street. She was so tall that her face was nothing but a shadow to him, framed by her wide brimmed hat. He wondered if he would even recognise her if he saw her when he was out with Nanny Kate. He thought not, for it was a rare thing to see her at all.
He sighed and looked around him. Unlike the previous winter, there was snow this year, and Max couldn’t stop staring at it. He remembered Nanny Kate telling him that it was made of flakes of frozen water, but Max thought it looked more like the white powdery sugar dust that she usually put on her cakes. It didn’t taste like it though.
‘Max, please refrain from eating that. I refuse to have people think that you are nothing but a filthy street urchin,’ his mother said, bending slightly to brush the snow off his jacket. He caught a glimpse of pale skin and wheat coloured hair, but then it was gone again, replaced by shadow. ‘I simply don’t understand why your father wished us to come out in such weather without a carriage at least; and to think we must walk past that awful spectacle on Jingle Street, too.’
Max looked up at her. He had no idea what a ‘spectacle’ was, but he had heard of Jingle Street. Nanny Kate had told him about it only a few weeks ago. She said that every year, on Christmas Eve, a group of performers would arrive and do the most dazzling things; acrobatics, dancing, fire breathing and playing fine music. At the end of it all, they would call all the children forth and give each one a present.
Nanny Kate had made it sound so wonderful that Max had pleaded with her to take him there; but she had simply smiled and said that Christmas Eve was an important day for her family and perhaps his mother would take him instead. He had doubted that very much and he had been right to, for no sooner had he asked her than she sent him to bed without any supper.
From what he had managed to overhear, the purpose of their outing this evening was for his mother and him to meet his father for a party at the ‘establishment’. The ‘establishment’ sounded rather terrifying to Max, for Nanny Kate had told him it was a place where many important people gathered to meet, though they often disliked each other and some, she had said, were even enemies.
The rules at the ‘establishment’ were strict; he was only allowed to wear his best clothes and he wasn’t allowed to run around or talk unless he was spoken to first. Nanny Kate had been most certain about that, for his parents’ reputation depended on it. He supposed that if it was that important, then he had better be on his best behaviour. Still, he wished Nanny Kate was here now, taking him for a walk in the snow and perhaps making the snowballs that she had told him so much about. He had spent the previous Christmas Eve’s with his other nannies, so he couldn’t understand why he had to go to this awful party. Why couldn’t he have gone wherever Nanny Kate had gone instead?
His mother turned down a small side street, walking so swiftly that he had to almost run to keep up with her. At the end she stopped and he heard her inhale deeply. Then, she marched out into the next street, her head held high and holding his hand so tightly that it began to hurt.
Max gasped. Large lanterns made of paper hung down from thick rope attached to the side of the buildings, lighting the entire street. They were every colour he had ever seen; bright blues, purples, greens, yellows, oranges and reds; even silver and gold. They extended back so far that he couldn’t even see when they ended. But that wasn’t all; there were men, with legs longer than most people were tall, gliding around with long, trailing costumes. There were rows of dancing girls in delicate gowns flowing just like water; they spun and leapt across the snow while tiny bells at their wrists and ankles tinkled gently.
Crowds of people, many of them children even younger than he, stood in the street to watch them all, laughing and joking with each other in a way that Max had never seen people do before.
Further back was a man surrounded by small fires and, as Max watched, he picked up the fire and ate it before breathing it back out with such force that the flames seemed to lick at the very moon.
‘Mother, did you see that?’ he asked, pulling excitedly at her arm.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, Max. Now come along, or else we shall be late,’ she replied without even glancing at him.
He sighed and looked at the ground, but then a voice caught his ears, singing a song so soft and sweet that he thought it would lift him off the ground and let him float about the sky, drifting on the wind. As they walked closer, the song became clearer and he realised he recognised the voice.
Jumping up, he saw over the heads of the other children crowded about the centre. There, standing in a gown of red velvet with her golden hair spilling down her back, was Nanny Kate. He had never seen her look so beautiful before; all she wore around him was her grey dress and apron with her hair pinned back tightly away from her face.
Tugging free of his mother’s grip, he ran forwards into the crowd, pushing and crawling past until he was right at the front. Nanny Kate saw him and smiled, coming to the end of her song.
‘Max,’ she said, stepping forwards off the platform she had been standing on. ‘You’re just in time, my father and I are about to hand out the presents.’
‘Why, of all the people!’ Max’s mother said behind him. ‘Nanny Kate, I cannot say how disappointed I am in you. To think that you are involved in all of this; encouraging my son to consort with such riff-raff!’
‘I’m sorry that you feel that way, Ma’am,’ Nanny Kate replied, a crease appearing at her brow. ‘I thought that perhaps you had brought Max here at his request.’
‘What foolishness. I would never consent to such an idea,’ his mother sniffed airily. ‘I shall expect you to hand in your notice first thing tomorrow morning.’
‘But Mother, it’s Christmas Day tomorrow. Don’t make Nanny Kate leave!’
‘That’s enough, Max. Now come along,’ she said, and pulled him back out of the crowd.
He looked at Nanny Kate and cried; large, fat tears rolling down his cheeks to drip in the snow. She looked back sadly, but smiled all the same. Then the other children crowded back around her, begging her to sing something else, and she was lost from his sight.
That evening went slower than any other time in Max’s life. He refused to talk to his mother and ignored everyone who tried to ask him something, even when his father took him aside and threatened to return all his presents to the shops if he didn’t behave.
When they arrived home, he was sent straight to bed. He went gladly, wishing desperately that he could run away from them both. Jumping on his bed, he picked up his pillow and beat it angrily at the window.
He stopped, thinking that he had imagined it. Nanny Kate couldn’t have returned and come into the room without his parents knowing.
The thought made him cry again, and he flung the pillow across the room and buried his head in the bedcovers.
‘Max, there’s no need to cry.’
He looked up. It had definitely been her voice, but how?
Looking around the room, he saw no-one, not even a shadow. Then he glanced at the window and gasped. There, as though it was a reflection, was Nanny Kate’s face, looking straight at him.
‘Nanny Kate?’ he said, touching the glass.
‘Yes, Max, it’s me, though this is just an image of myself. I have something to attend to at the moment, but I will be along shortly. Promise you won’t do anything bad until then?’ she asked softly.
Max nodded, unsure what to say. How was Nanny Kate doing this? What did she mean, an image of herself? She was here but not here. The thought made him dizzy.
‘Good boy,’ she replied with a smile. ‘I won’t be long.’
Her face vanished then, with Max’s own taking its place as he continued to stare at the glass.
He wasn’t sure when it was that he fell asleep, but he woke to a loud clatter on the roof.
A moment later, there was a rustling coming from the fireplace in his room, and, lighting the lamp beside him, he saw two feet appear under the chimney.
An old man ducked under the grate and walked out into the middle of the room, his long white beard hanging down to his knees. He wore a large red coat, trimmed at the collar with white wool.
As Max stared at him, another pair of feet appeared in the fireplace. Nanny Kate gracefully knelt down and came out, hopping over the grate to stand beside the old man. She still wore the red velvet gown that he had seen her wearing at Jingle Street, but now she was wearing a green cloak too, covered with holly berries and leaves embroidered in gold thread.
‘Good evening, Max,’ she said, embracing him fiercely as he ran over to her. She turned to the old man, who, Max saw, was also carrying a large sack made of patched leather. ‘This is my father. He wanted to give you a present earlier, but you left before he was able to.
‘A present? For me?’ Max asked, staring at the old man.
The old man smiled warmly and pulled a small package, wrapped in green and red paper, from his bag. ‘Here you are, young man,’ he said, placing it in Max’s hands.
With a nod from Nanny Kate, Max opened it. Inside was a silver pocket watch, with his name engraved on the inside. The dial was strange, for the numbers went round first in the usual order, but underneath they went in reverse.
Nanny Kate knelt down and took him around the shoulders. ‘Merry Christmas, Max,’ she said. ‘Remember, no matter what happens tomorrow, you can always speak to me by wishing on this pocket watch.’
‘I can?’ he asked.
She nodded. ‘Yes, but make sure your parents never find out about it. I would hate for them to take it from you.’
‘I will,’ he said seriously. The old man chuckled slightly.
Nanny Kate stood up. ‘We must go now, I’m afraid. Goodbye, Max.’
Both she and the old made stepped back into the fireplace, directly under the chimney. Max blinked and found they were gone.
He sniffed sadly and looked at the pocket watch, listening to the ticking of the second hand. There was something soothing about it, and soon he found himself back in bed, drifting gently off to sleep.