I tie the cord of my dressing gown. I’ve grown so much the sleeves come right up to my elbows. Mummy says it doesn’t matter that it’s a bit small, it’s not as if I’m going to wear it outside for the neighbours to see. Walking down a couple of stairs, I loop the fraying edge of the carpet around my toes. The fourth step’s warm from the pipes underneath and I stand, listening for the gurgle from the boiler. There’s a smell of burnt toast coming from the kitchen. Mummy says bugger and the sash window judders – I bet she’s scraping the bread and tipping the black crumbs outside. This happens quite often in our house.
There’s no school this week so me and Paul are taking it easy. He’s reading a comic in bed but Mummy has to get up because there’s Daddy to look after. It’s not long until he leaves for work. The coins in his jacket clink as he swings it off the back on his chair and he finds his coat hanging on the stand. He sees me on the stairs but he doesn’t say anything – he nods at me and calls goodbye to Mummy. Now I know it’s safe to go all the way down.
The door to the lounge is closed. This is unusual, we don’t normally shut doors in our house. Grandma says we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for all the heat we waste, but when she’s not around, Mummy says it doesn’t matter and that they’re more important things to worry about. I push the door and peak inside. The Christmas tree’s in the corner and a few bits of foil twinkle. Switching on the light, I see the floor’s covered with carrier bags, and tissue paper, ribbon and felt. There’s one green bag with gold writing from Marks and Spencer. Lined up by the wall are a couple of baskets. Paul is written in red letters on one, the other says Sus, that must be for me, it’s meant to say Susan. There’s some folded clothes, it looks like a pink jumper and there are two pairs of socks turned into balls. White socks, long ones, they must be for me. I’ve been praying for white socks, I’m sick of getting teased for wearing my brother’s old grey ones. My heart thumps in my chest. I know I shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be looking. There’s been some kind of mistake. It isn’t Christmas for another two days. I swallow down the lump in my throat and shut the door.
On the kitchen table, the toast rack’s empty, but the cereal box is open. Yesterday Paul found the plastic toy but he didn’t eat any crispies, he had porridge. I told Mummy it wasn’t fair, you’ve got to eat the crispies to get the prize, but she said not to fuss and that life’s not fair. Mummy’s sitting on a stool over by the oven and the door’s wide open, making the room warm. The washing’s hanging from the ceiling on something called a Sheila’s maid. I’m glad it’s not called a Susan’s maid. Mist covers the windows and I draw a flower to decorate the space, drips running down my finger.
‘Time for breakfast.’ Mummy closes the book. ‘Go and get Paul. Tell him to come down right away.’
In our room, my bed is against the short wall, and Paul’s is against the long wall. At night, light peeps through the slit in the curtains and I can see him. Sometimes we whisper to each other, if he’s awake and I’m awake. If there’s a row going on downstairs and you can’t sleep through that. Mummy says it’s the drink that makes Daddy shout and when that happens I curl-up like a snail, pull the covers around my neck and stare into space. I like to know where my knees and my legs are, it doesn’t do to spread. You don’t keep warm when you spread.
Paul throws back the cover and jumps into his slippers now that there’s food to be had. He rushes downstairs still reading his comic. I don’t know how he does that without bumping into something. The door to the lounge is still closed, but Paul doesn’t notice there’s anything strange. I’m sorry that I looked in. Mummy says when you’ve done something wrong it’s best to own up but I’m not so sure. I usually keep quiet when something’s gone wrong and I’m under suspicion. This makes Daddy angry and he shakes his fist. When I cry Mummy hugs me and then she sends me off to bed with a prod. It’s strange going to bed in the middle of the day.
In my bowl is a mountain of crispies and a moat of milk. I pour sugar from the shaker and make a crust on top. Grandma hisses whenever she sees how much sugar I take but Mummy says I’ve got a sweet tooth, just like her. Paul’s still reading the comic, the pages shake when he laughs and his shoulders go up and down. Swinging my legs, I tap the tiles on the floor and try not to hit the cracks. The flower I drew on the window has disappeared into a stripey mess.
I finish my breakfast and I look around for Mummy but she’s not in the kitchen. I slosh my empty dish around in the washing up water and lean across the sink to reach for the mop with the shaggy head. Once I’ve finished, I turn the bowl upside down on the draining board. I rub the spoon and check it’s clean by staring into the shiny bit. In the reflection, I see my cheeks are puffed like a gerbil’s, and my fringe covers my eyes.
‘You’re looking at yourself again.’ says Paul.
‘No.’ I put the spoon in the cutlery drawer.
Mummy rushes into the room, the flares on her trousers flapping. I wish I had a trouser suit like that. It’s purple with a tunic that goes right up to her neck. Daddy ordered it from the catalogue especially for Christmas, but he’s let her wear it a few times already.
‘Have either of you been in the lounge this morning?’ Mummy holds her forehead in her hand.
‘Not yet,’ says Paul. ‘But I want to watch the telly later.’
I squeeze the dishcloth and the droplets splatter.
‘What about you Susan?’
I get busy cleaning up.
‘Have you been into the front room?’
‘No.’ I look at the taps when I answer.
‘That’s good,’ she says. ‘Just give me a few minutes, then you can watch telly all day if you want to. Special treat for Christmas.’
‘Yippee,’ says Paul.
‘Oh.’ I wonder what has happened to all the special things on the floor.
‘You better get dressed,’ says Mummy.
The lounge door’s open when we come back downstairs and everything’s tidy. The curtains are open and the lights on the tree flash. But there’s no clothes, no white socks anywhere. They’ve gone, they’ve vanished. I hope I haven’t spoilt our Christmas and that they’ll be no presents for anyone. Perhaps it’s my fault. I walk up the stairs, tears dripping from my eyes. Beside my pillow I find Blue Ted, we sit on the floor and I squeeze him so tight that I can’t breath.
Daddy’s in a good mood when he gets home. He says he’s only got one more day to work until he has a well earned rest. Hugging Mummy, he tucks his neck onto her shoulder and he dances with her, shuffling from side to side. She giggles, his whiskers are tickling, she says. They cuddle for a bit, then Daddy sees me staring, and he lets go of Mummy. They stand holding hands, like they’re going to play ring-a-ring-a-roses.
‘I’ve got more good news for you Alan,’ Mummy says. ‘A card arrived from my mother today.’ She nods towards the one with three camels on it. Daddy walks to the mantlepiece. He doesn’t even look at the picture, he’s more interested in the piece of paper that falls out. ‘D’you think that’s enough to pay for everything?’ Daddy nods and puts the paper in his wallet. ‘It’s a relief, isn’t it? Now we can enjoy Christmas without worrying.’ Daddy says yes and asks if the kettle’s boiled.
On Christmas morning, we’re not allowed out of our room until its seven o’clock. Paul’s in charge of the time, and I have to wait until he says it’s okay to look for our presents. I huddle in my bed while Paul chatters about the Scalextric he hopes he’ll get. Maybe I imagined seeing the room all covered with papers and the presents. Perhaps it was a dream. My heart pumps as the hand on the clock moves closer and when Paul shouts we race along the passage.
‘Wow,’ he says. ‘There’s a great big box under the tree. I bet that’s for me.’
Mummy and Daddy follow us into the lounge. We can open the gifts from Father Christmas, but not the ones under the tree. Not yet, anyway. Mummy passes me a pink pillowcase and Paul has the blue one. There’s lots of lumpy things inside, and I pull out the basket first. The red letters say Susan, that’s better, I think.
‘What’s this for?’ Paul takes his out.
‘It’s a waste paper basket,’ says Mummy. ‘Not many children have their own, peronsalised waste paper basket. You can put your rubbish in there. Drawings that you don’t want anymore, sweet wrappers, things like that.’
‘That’ll be useful,’ says Paul.
Inside my basket there’s another present, tied with ribbon. I undo the bow and the paper falls open. I see the socks. The same ones from the other day. Long and white.
‘Do you like them?’ asks Mummy.
‘Yes.’ I cross my arms and hold them next to my heart. ‘They’re just what I wanted.’
‘Funny how Father Christmas always knows what you want,’ says Mummy. Daddy’s laughing and coughing at the same time. She gives him a little tap on the wrist and he becomes quiet. I open another present, and there’s my pink jumper. I’m pleased and confused. Nothing’s a surprise.
‘What’s up?’ says Mummy. ‘You look sad.’
‘I’m not sad.’
‘She’s always been ungrateful, that little cow,’ says Daddy.
I feel the tears coming and Mummy strokes my cheek.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ she asks.
‘Nothing.’ I gulp. ‘But are you sure all these things come from Father Christmas?’