The Christmas lights blinked on and off, making the tree look as though it was twinkling. I sat under it, filling my nose with the smell of new wrapping paper and tinsel, wishing it was already morning.
‘Now, Rupert,’ Nan said, sitting down in the squashy armchair next to the tree. ‘I have a very special present for you this year. You can open it tonight, but you have to promise not to use it until tomorrow.’ She had a mysterious smile on her face as she said it, and produced a small box from her handbag. ‘Do you promise?’
‘Very well then,’ she said. ‘Here you are.’ She handed me the box, which was wrapped neatly in silver paper. I undid it carefully, knowing that this wasn’t the type of present you could tear at in a mad rush. Inside was a bauble. Just a single bauble made of blue metallic glass. I felt the happy expression slip off my face, replaced by one of extreme puzzlement.
‘It’s a bauble,’ I said.
‘Yes, but a very special bauble,’ Nan said. ‘I gave your father one just like it when he was your age. Now, you must be careful not to drop it. And don’t forget, you mustn’t hang it up until tomorrow.’
‘It’s bad luck,’ she said. Then she laughed. ‘Don’t look so disappointed, Rupert. You can have the rest of your presents tomorrow.’
While I was in bed that night, I heard Mum and Dad talking to Nan. Since I was too excited about Christmas day to sleep, I crept onto the landing at the top of the stairs and listened to what they were saying. To my surprise, they were talking about me.
‘Are you sure it was wise giving it to him this year? He’s awfully young,’ Mum said.
‘Nonsense, Maggie. Alexander here got his at the same age, and it didn’t do him any harm,’ Nan said.
Dad laughed nervously. ‘We should be getting to bed, you know how early he wakes up on Christmas day.’
I heard then get up, and not wanting to be seen I ran back into my room and threw the covers over my head. Dad poked his head around my door, and I let out a few fake snores. Satisfied, he left, closing the door behind him. I sat up, my heart thumping with excitement.
The bauble was on my bedside table, still in its box. I picked it up, switching on my bedside lamp so I could see properly. It looked just the same as before, plain metallic blue, without any decoration at all. My own reflection stared back at me, so distorted that I let out a snigger. Wanting to stifle the sound, I forced my fist into my mouth, but dropped it away again as I saw what was now on the bauble. It was a picture of a giant air balloon. It looked so real that I put my hand out to touch it, but it vanished, leaving me staring at my reflection again.
Certain that it hadn’t been some trick of the light, I looked away again and turned back to it quickly. There it was again. The exact same air balloon, drifting across a cloudy sky. Careful not to touch it this time, I looked closer. There was a man in the basket of the balloon, dressed in a short brown leather jacket and a matching cap with giant goggles on the top. He was waving at me. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, but it he was still there, grinning widely and swinging his arm in great arks. Staring stupidly, I waved back. As soon as I did, the picture changed and I saw myself taking the bauble downstairs and hanging it on the tree. Then the picture changed back to the man in the balloon. He was looking at me expectantly.
‘I can’t,’ I whispered. ‘Nan said it would be bad luck if I hung it on the tree before tomorrow.’
The man folded his arms and shook his head. Again the picture of me going down to the tree appeared, but this time it didn’t go back to the man, just to my reflection. I sighed, not knowing what to do. In the end, my curiosity won out and I crept downstairs, wincing at every creaking floorboard.
The tree lights were still on, twinkling away merrily, and I noticed that several more presents had been placed under the tree. Gingerly, I reached out and placed the bauble on one of the middle branches. I looked at it reflecting the lights, and suddenly felt myself falling. The room fizzled away and I landed with a bounce on a giant cushion, floating along in a pinkish sky.
A group of birds flew past me, circling around the other cushions floating about. I watched them swerve as the bright greens and reds of the air balloon floated up to my level. The man in the basket appeared soon after, chuckling to himself. ‘I thought you’d never make it, lad,’ he called over to me. ‘Welcome to the World of Impossibilities. Anything you wish will come true while you’re here.’
‘Of course, lad. Your imagination is the limit,’ he said.
‘Then I wish for…a hamburger,’ I said. A hamburger appeared in my hand, hot and smelling as scrumptious as any I’d ever had.
‘Now you’re getting it, lad. ‘Fraid I best be off now though. I’ll be seeing you,’ he said, and waved goodbye as his balloon sailed higher and higher.
I waved back, before attacking my burger with delight. It tasted just as delicious as it smelt, and while I was eating it I considered what the man had said. Anything I wish would come true? I had to test it. Ignoring the sudden butterflies in my stomach, I took a giant leap off the cushion, landing on another that was at least a whole football pitch away. I bounced straight off it, high into the air, and went on to bounce off another and another.
Fifty giant cushions later, in mid-jump, it occurred to me that I could choose not to fall if I wanted. I stuck in the air, looking around at the cushions floating around me, and spotted a rainbow, bright and colourful as the one painted on my bedroom wall. I could slide down it and find out if there really was a pot of gold at the bottom.
Excitedly, I ran through the air. A thick red carpet appeared from nowhere, rolling out in front of me, taking me directly to the rainbow. It was soft and squashy under my feet, and I felt so light and springy that I had to practice my cartwheels all the way along. Unfortunately I wheeled my way straight into the side of the rainbow and hit it with a thud. I got up, putting out a hand to steady myself and felt that the rainbow was smooth.
Giggling with excitement, I jumped on it and whooshed down with incredible speed. I put my hands down to try and slow myself, and found that the colours of the rainbow were now precious jewels. I gathered up whole handfuls of them, but then landed in a giant black cauldron, buried up to my neck in gold coins. No, not gold, chocolate coins, wrapped in gold foil. They were just like the ones that Mum usually hid in the Christmas tree. If only my pyjama bottoms had pockets, I would have stuffed them full of jewels and chocolate to take back with me.
That brought me to a sudden halt. How was I going to get back?
I climbed out of the cauldron and looked around. There were great buildings of marble and granite all around me, with wide streets full of market stools covered in brightly coloured awnings. In the square where I had landed, a musician played a flighty trill of his flute, and jugglers and fire eaters competed for spectators. Dancers swirled about, trailing sleeves of fine silk. It was the most wonderful sight I’d ever seen.
‘Come here boy, and taste the fruit of your dreams,’ a merchant said.
‘No, try on our finely tailored suits,’ said another, brushing the first one away.
‘Don’t listen to those petty traders, boy! You should come here, and take home one of our fine woven scarves for your mother, or a clay pipe for your father,’ said another in a stripy suit. It was so colourful that it made my eyes dizzy.
More and more people called out to me to come and look at their wares, and some even got into heated arguments over who would serve me first. ‘But I don’t have any money,’ I replied each time, but they would simply say I could pay them next time or that it was a gift. Soon my arms were growing tired under the amount of boxes I was carrying, and my feet grew hot from walking. I was sleepy and I wanted to go home.
‘Please,’ I said to the people I passed. ‘Please, how do I get back?’ But no-one took any notice, they simply laughed and said I was pulling their leg.
It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would miss it all if I stayed. I had to get back. Still everyone laughed at me, and the faces that had looked so kind now looked cruel and began to frighten me. I was lost and alone, and I began to cry.
I found a shadowy corner and sat down, trying to rub away the tears. A shadow passed over my face, and I looked up. ‘What’s the matter, lad?’ It was the man from the air balloon, still with his leather cap and goggles.
‘I don’t know how to get home,’ I sniffed.
He knelt down and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t despair lad, just remember what I told you. Anything you wish in this place will come true. Though I have to say your wish is a rare one. Most people that come here don’t tend to go back,’ he said, rubbing his chin. ‘Only once has someone done it, and that must be nigh on thirty years ago now. A young boy, if I remember rightly. Looked just like you in fact. If I didn’t know better I’d have said you were one and the same.’
I looked at him and saw he was serious. ‘I…I think my Dad might have come here, when he was young.’
‘That must be it then,’ the man said. ‘Still, if you really want to go back like he did, all you’ve got to do is wish it.’
‘Th-thank you,’ I said.
‘No problem, lad. Have a safe trip now.’
His face swam out of focus as he spoke, and I found I was being pulled upwards as though someone was pulling on the back of my pyjamas. Faster and faster I seemed to go, and then…THUD. I landed back on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, blinking. Light was pouring in through the window, and I could see snow falling outside. I heard footsteps behind me, and turned around guiltily.
It was Dad, wearing his chequered dressing gown. ‘Merry Christmas, champ,’ he said, smiling. Then he caught sight of the bauble still on the tree and raised his eyebrow. ‘Didn’t get much sleep last night then?’
I shook my head, thinking he’d be angry, but his mouth split into a wide grin and he started laughing. I laughed too, so hard that my stomach muscles hurt.
‘I feel like I’ve missed something,’ Mum said from the doorway, with Nan appearing behind her. ‘What’s the joke?’
‘Nothing, Mum,’ I said innocently, and Dad laughed even more.
‘See, Maggie?’ Nan said to her. ‘I told you it would be all right.’