It’s been planted for a while, didn’t you know?
Kept under your nose but unscented,
disguised by other flowers.
I left it there to grow,
hoping you wouldn’t think it was a weed and pluck it out
before it had chance to fully show.
It’s been planted for a while, didn’t you know?
Kept under your nose but unscented,
disguised by other flowers.
I left it there to grow,
hoping you wouldn’t think it was a weed and pluck it out
before it had chance to fully show.
The light was fading as we talked, water
sloshing against the troll bridge that I was going to leap on
even before you said you were expecting me to.
I love how you can take my whimsical moments and wrap
them in tissue paper and ribbon, holding them tight
as if I’d gifted them to you.
You couldn’t see the path, only the puddles reflecting us
as we strolled along, together.
It’s so typically you – focusing on what is truly clear
and taking the rest, no matter how difficult, as it comes.
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.’
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.
A moment of passing,
threads of an old tale.
That’s all it took.
And it brought me back to myself.
Threw back the years.
With you, I’m how I was then.
That same core is still here, working the cogs
through the grime and the grit.
They’re tarnished, they’re beaten, they’re dented,
but when you held up the x-ray mirror,
I could see it was still me.
The me I always want to be,
but fear to let out in case
she gets hurt, ridiculed.
You unfastened her chains
and released her
And she found she was safe.
You made her safe.
I’m handed a ball-shaped mass of paper.
Glitter bows and silver pen all over.
Sometimes the small things that are inside
count more, you say. Unwrap it. You’ll see.
Wire cage under the paper. Hanging
from the top, five metal balls. Newton’s cradle.
Tick, pass centre, tick. Like my heart.
Like your heart. Beats passing back and forth.
Momentary silence between them, but
always an answer in the end.
Naturalist and multi-award winning author
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