It was the time that Charles Dickens called the night before the day of Christmas – about five o’clock to be exact. Nevertheless, Sky Smith was wide awake. It was her first Christmas Day. She was very excited. She didn’t want to go back to sleep again. That would be a waste of Christmas.
She got up out of her bed and put her dressing gown and slippers on before tiptoeing downstairs quietly so as not to wake her mum or brother, or K9, who was the most vigilant guard dog in the world. She went to the kitchen, first. The turkey for dinner was on a covered tray on the table. The fridge was full to bursting with leftover food from the buffet party last night when Rani and Clyde and their families came around.
Sky made a little more room in the fridge by putting some of the sausage rolls and vol au vents on a plate and calling it breakfast. She poured herself a glass of milk to go with it and wandered through to the drawing room to eat them. She put the Christmas tree lights on and sat in their soft, multicoloured light.
She looked at the huge collection of presents around the tree. A lot of them had her name on them, of course. Her mum had been buying presents since the end of October in order to ensure that she had a bumper crop of them. Then there were plenty of parcels left by friends, as well.
She picked a Quality Street out of the big tin on the sideboard and ate it as she looked closely at some of the less obvious packages and tried to guess what was in them. She didn’t open any of them yet. She knew her mum wanted to watch her do that. She sat on the sofa with her milk and nibbles and enjoyed looking at the tree and the decorations. It was nice to just sit there quietly and think about how much fun it would be when everyone was up in a few hours and the room would be full of light and noise and fun.
She had read all about Christmas. She had seen a lot of films in the past few weeks and heard every Christmas song there was. She knew exactly what it was supposed to be like, but she had not yet experienced it. The run up to the big day had been a whole heap of new experiences, from helping her mum make mince pies to putting up the decorations, lighting the tree for the first time, shopping for all the last minute things like Satsumas and cartons of cream for topping off the deliciously fruity drinks that she had been enjoying all yesterday afternoon and evening. Even helping to get the turkey into the oven, which was a bit of a disgusting process in a way, with the giblets to take out and basting it with goose fat, was exciting.
Going to sleep on Christmas night, knowing that there would be presents in the morning was also exciting. Of course, she was too old at thirteen to believe in Father Christmas, but the excitement of going downstairs to see all those wrapped boxes was there, all the same.
And now it was Christmas morning – well, nearly.
K9 whirred quietly into the room followed by Luke in his own dressing gown and slippers. His were more sensible than hers. She had a pink dressing gown and fluffy bunny slippers. Luke was a science graduate at Oxford. Navy blue was his night-time colour.
He brought a hot cup of instant coffee and sat beside her on the sofa. K9 settled by their feet. The faint hum of his servo motors took on the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’. It got annoying after an hour or so, but it was nice just now.
“Happy Christmas, Sky,” her brother said to her.
“Happy Christmas, Luke,” she answered. He was looking at the presents too, but didn’t open any of them.
“Do you feel like I do?” he asked his little sister. “That just looking at them is nearly as nice as opening them. The anticipation of what might be in each parcel is an excitement in itself.”
“Yes, that’s exactly how I feel,” Sky agreed. “Although… I think it is kind of obvious what the bicycle shaped one leaning against the window-sill is.”
“A wheelbarrow,” Luke teased. They both laughed.
“I remember my first Christmas in this house,” he added. “My first year. It was really special. Mum went mad with the presents – a bike, a TV for my room, a laptop, loads of books and games and everything. She didn’t have to do that. I really didn’t need all of that… although it was fun getting the presents. But what was really best was having a home and a mum, and feeling that I was loved. That was what made that Christmas for me.”
“Yes,” Sky agreed again. “Yes, that’s important to me, too. But the presents are going to be great!”
Luke smiled. She was thirteen. He was sure the presents were very much of primary importance to her. She was as normal as any other kid in that respect.
“I’ve missed twelve Christmases,” she continued. “Compared to everyone else my age.”
“Yes, I was the same,” Luke told her. “I was born aged thirteen. You grew from a baby to that age in a day. We were both cheated out of what everyone else takes for granted. Clyde was talking last night about when he was a little boy and went to see Father Christmas for the first time – you know, at the shopping centre. It was his mum who started it, teasing him about how sweet he looked in a little red jumper with elves on it. He just got in on it. And then he sort of realised that I had never done that and he shut up. He didn’t have to do that. I don’t blame him for being ‘normal’, and I’ve never minded not being ‘normal’ except with really important things like fitting in with other people my age. But all the same….”
“You really do wish you had a memory of seeing Father Christmas when you were a little boy.”
“I wish I had a memory of believing in Father Christmas. I was born with loads of knowledge and no experiences, and already knowing that Christmas wasn’t really magical – except in a nostalgia sort of way.”
“Yes,” Sky sighed. “The same with me.”
Luke put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned her head close to his. That was nice, too.
“We’re a family, still. And we’re lucky in so many ways. There are kids in care, homeless ones, kids whose homes aren’t so good who don’t have presents at all. We’ve got nothing to complain about.”
“I know,” Sky said.
Neither of them said anything for a little while after that. Sky let herself doze in the warmth and the comfort of the sofa with her brother by her side and K9 trilling along by her feet.
Then she was dreaming, or remembering, or maybe both. She wasn’t quite sure.
She was three, the first Christmas she could properly remember and properly appreciate. Luke was nine, six years older than her, and a lively boy. His favourite present was a scooter, the sort that was a ‘must have’ for girls as well as boys that year. His was silver and blue. He was pleased as punch with it and couldn’t wait to get out and ride it.
Sky had a scooter, too. It was pink with rabbit pictures all over it. She wanted to play out. She almost didn’t want to open the rest of her presents because she was too excited about the scooter. Finally, after making them both eat some cereal and put on coats and gloves, Sarah Jane let them go out to play.
“I’ll show you how to ride it, Sky,” Luke promised. He held his little sister’s hand and led her into the driveway of the house on Bannerman Road. He showed her how to stand upright with one foot on the platform and push herself along. He still wanted to take his own scooter out on the pavement and go around the block, but not until Sky could do it by herself.
She learnt quickly, of course. She was smarter than ordinary children. Both of them were. Luke loved ordinary things like his bike and the new scooter, and used them just like other boys. But he could also measure wind resistance as he cycled and work out the weight ratio for maximum riding speed on the scooter. Sky was soon whizzing up and down the driveway on her own.
But Luke never got around to riding his own scooter that morning. He had too much fun with his little sister in the front garden. It wasn’t until later, after Christmas dinner, when she was full of turkey and stuffing and rich pudding and fell asleep on the sofa, that he got a bit of time to himself and went out in the cold, crisp afternoon and racing around the streets with his friends on their bikes and scooters, only coming back into the house when it started to get dark.
“Mmmm,” Luke whispered sleepily. “I remember that. I taught you to build a house with your first Lego in the evening.”
“That was a really good Christmas,” Sky told her brother. “Mostly because you were a great big brother and spent so much time with me.”
“I remember it being a really good Christmas because nothing weird happened that year,” Luke said. “It seems like every year since there was some kind of alien or spooky thing happening.”
“Yes,” Sky answered. “We’ve had a lot of weird Christmases. Wasn’t it the year after that I snaw Father Christmas for the first time? Mum thought I was too little before then.”
“Yes. I was ten and I didn’t want to bother at all. I was too old to sit on anyone’s knee. But I went into the grotto with you. It looked really good, I remember it being like a REAL ice cave, and Father Christmas had a really good beard. You were dumbstruck. You almost forgot to tell him what you wanted for Christmas. Good job I knew what it was and I could tell him.”
“I wanted that big doll that was nearly as tall as me,” Sky said. “With the battery operated voice. And I wanted a red dress for me and one for the doll to match.”
“That was the one,” Luke remembered. “The doll sat up at the table next to you and mum actually carved turkey for it and put out a small portion of pudding.”
“Cassie. That’s the name of the doll. I still have it. It’s on the chair next to my dresser, still wearing the same red dress. I grew out of mine.”
“That was the doll that we caught walking around on its own, moving furniture and using my laptop. We were worried at first, in case it was an Auton. Mum knows all about them from when she worked at U.N.I.T. They had a couple of problems with them before she joined. Then Mr Smith scanned the doll and worked out that the battery compartment contained a Livetian Engri, a tiny being that had the ability to make plastic move. It just wanted to contact its own people and get home.”
“It’s just an ordinary doll now – much safer.”
“I definitely remember the Christmas after that,” Luke added. He was feeling sleepy again. He thought he was talking, but really he was remembering. Vivid images came into his mind.
Sky was five by then. She was hyper about Christmas for days before. The day wouldn’t come fast enough. That was why Sarah Jane had bought tickets to the pantomime at the New Ealing Theatre. It was Aladdin. Sky had been absolutely rapt all through it. It was just about the first time she had ever seen any kind of theatre performance. She hadn’t really grasped the difference between fact and fiction. She talked all the way home in the car about magic lanterns.
And the next day she had rubbed everything she could find, looking for a genie - the gravy boat at the dinner table, the ceramic piggy bank that was among her presents, every single one of the ornaments on the dresser in the drawing room.
And, it being the sort of house it was, she managed to find one. At least, it probably WASN’T a genie as such, unless the alien creature that emerged from the old bronze pot with peculiar swirling patterns on it WAS the original lamp genie that gave rise to the legend of Aladdin.
If Sky had told anyone about it, they could have done something sooner. But the creature swore her to secrecy, and at five years old Sky took secrets seriously.
She took wishes seriously, too. She didn’t wish for more toys. She already had everything she wanted for Christmas. But she wished for snow – it had been a wet, drizzly Christmas and nobody was expecting anything else for the rest of the week, but just after sunset on Christmas Day it started to snow. It kept on snowing all night. The next day the cars parked in Bannerman Road were up to their hubcaps in it. The children went wild building snowmen, throwing snowballs, racing through the snow on plastic sleds that had been in the garden sheds since three Januaries ago.
Sky didn’t have a sled – until she wished for one, and then she and Luke spent a glorious Boxing Day joining in the improvised races.
The day after it was fun, too, though they had to be careful because any cars that hadn’t been moved into garages or under carports were nearly buried in the overnight snow.
The day after that was fun again for the children. But by then the Christmas bank holidays were over. Trains and buses were supposed to be running again and the postal service was meant to be delivering, and shops had to open, and the adults were starting to get worried.
By the following day, the localised weather phenomena that had covered London, usually the last place to become snowbound even when the rest of the country was blanketed, was being commented about on TV. It was only then that Sarah Jane became suspicious that it wasn’t a natural occurrence and asked Mr Smith to run a diagnostic. When she found out that the climate anomaly originated in her house she was disbelieving at first, but then extremely worried. She questioned Luke, but he told her he didn’t know anything about it, and since he was always a trustworthy boy she believed him.
“Sky loves it,” he mentioned, purely as an afterthought. “I’m worn out pushing her on the sled. We should get K9 to be a husky and pull her along.”b
“Sled?” Sarah Jane thought about that for a moment. “I know she has one. But I can’t remember… when did we buy the sled? I really can’t think where it came from.”
“Me neither,” Luke admitted.
Sarah Jane puzzled about it a little longer then she questioned her five year old daughter thoroughly. Eventually she broke down, caught between keeping a secret and not telling lies to her mum, and admitted what she had done.
Her last wish of the three on offer stopped the snow. A phone call to U.N.I.T. brought a car with snow tyres and a cage made of dwarf star alloy to take the ‘genie’ away for questioning. Sky was upset about that, and cried a bit, but Sarah Jane promised that it wouldn’t be hurt – just taught not to make mischief by befriending little girls who didn’t understand how much trouble genies could be.
The snow thawed by the day after New Year and people gradually forgot about that very White Christmas, but Sky always remembered the time she had made it snow with help from a genie, and she kept the sled for when they went on winter weekend holidays to the old Brigadier’s family home in Scotland – where it snowed more often and there were proper slopes to slide down.
When Sky was six and Luke twelve, her Christmas presents had all been quite ordinary, but Luke’s had been troublesome. It was the old Brigadier who had given him the antique set of painted soldiers with a fort and artillery pieces. Sarah Jane had not been entirely happy about it. She didn’t really approve of guns and military toys, but she couldn’t say no to anything that Lethbridge-Stewart did. Besides, he had said, he didn’t have a son to pass it onto. His daughter, Kate, was already grown up and training as a doctor. He had nobody else to give the family heirloom to.
When Sarah Jane talked to him a few days after Christmas he positively denied that the soldiers had ever come to life on the shelf in his boyhood bedroom and started shelling Lego buildings. Perhaps, he surmised, it was something to do with the residual energy from Mr Smith, the alien made computer. That was the only explanation they could come up with, anyway. Luke kept the soldiers and their very fearsome artillery in a lead-lined box until a couple of days after New Year when The Doctor dropped by to see Sarah Jane and used his sonic screwdriver to de-activate the soldiers and make them into safe, ordinary toys again.
“Remember the year I was seven?” Sky asked. “And you were thirteen.”
“Will I ever forget that one?” Luke answered her. “You were asking questions all the time about the nativity set on the mantelpiece – questions like how could the shepherds find the right stable and did the angels get cold and was it snowing in Bethlehem.”
“I wanted to know if the nativity set was really like how it was,” Sky reminded him.
“And when The Doctor came to visit us that Christmas, you asked him all the same questions. And he decided the only thing to do was show you for real.”
“He took us in the TARDIS. He said it was against the rules, really, because this was a fixed point in time. And he said we had to bring presents, but they didn’t have to be gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
“I brought a basket of fruit,” Luke remembered. “You brought shortbread. The Doctor said those were really good presents because food was expensive in Bethlehem. He brought loaves of bread and cheese – the sort that would be made in their part of the world in that time, so it didn’t look wrong.”
“It didn’t look at all like the nativity set,” Sky recalled. “It was very dark, and a bit dirty, and smelly with the animals and all. And they didn’t have bright coloured clothes like the figures in the set. They were quite poor, really. And tired. But they said thank you for the presents.”
“The Doctor didn’t let us stay long, in case we caused temporal problems. We didn’t want to get home and find that the nativity set now had three wise men, shepherds and two kids with strange clothes on.”
“I think that was the very best Christmas of them all in a lot of ways,” Sky noted. “That was a really special thing to do.”
“We’ve had loads of good Christmases,” Luke agreed. “Even the very strange ones, like the Christmas when you slept downstairs on the sofa because you’d heard about a family getting burgled on Christmas Eve and all their presents stolen.”
“And I woke up in the middle of the night, and there was a noise in the room. It wasn’t burglars, and it wasn’t Father Christmas, either. It was The Doctor. He was putting presents around our tree. When he saw me awake, he told me that he sometimes filled in for Father Christmas, when he was busy. He asked if I wanted to come along with him and bring presents to some other people, and I said yes. I was in my nightie and dressing gown and bunny slippers, but he said it wasn’t the first time people had been in the TARDIS like that. He said he had saved the world on Christmas Day wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown with a Satsuma in the pocket.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” Luke said with a chuckle.
“We went to loads of houses. The Doctor helps Father Christmas a lot. Some of the people he brought presents to were old friends of his. One house was actually in the future, about a hundred and fifty years in the future. And he said it was the house where his granddaughter lived, with a husband and children of her own. He brought lots of presents for his great-grandchildren. I asked him if they knew him, but he said he had never been to see them properly. He thought his granddaughter wanted to live an ordinary life and if he turned up it would make things hard for her. But he brought the presents for them and hoped they were happy.”
“I didn’t know The Doctor had a family,” Luke commented.
“I don’t think many other people do know, not even mum. It was a sort of secret between us. I think it would be all right for me to tell you, though.”
“Totally all right,” Luke promised. “He ought to go and say hello, though. They’re his family, and he shouldn’t forget that. Family is important. We’re a family. You and me, mum, K9 and Mr Smith. Even though I’m away a lot… and I’ll probably be away even more next year, when I’m going on field study work abroad, knowing you’re all here at home makes me feel safe and comfortable wherever I am.”
“I’m glad,” Sky said. She said something else after that, but Luke didn’t quite hear what it was. He looked and noticed that she had fallen asleep snuggled up next to him. He tightened his hold around her shoulders and kissed her forehead. He closed his own eyes, intending to doze a little, but moments later he was fast asleep, too.
“Wake up sleepyheads,” Sarah Jane said, shaking them both awake. Luke and Sky both looked around and were surprised to see that it was daylight outside. There was a tray of coffee and mince pies for breakfast – Sky’s second breakfast of the morning – and it was Christmas day, proper, just coming up to nine o’clock. Sarah Jane opened a window and the sharp cold of a snow-covered outside reached them as well as a delightful sound of church bells peeling somewhere in the distance.
“There are presents to open,” Sarah Jane reminded them both.
But neither of them were ready to open presents, yet. They looked at each other in surprise as they remembered….
“Was it a dream?” Luke asked.
“If it was, I had it too. But it doesn’t feel like a dream. I can remember it all so clearly. And….”
To Sarah Jane’s surprise, Sky suddenly ran out of the drawing room and upstairs to her room. She came back down again a minute later.
“The doll in the red dress is there,” she told Luke. “It’s real, all of it.”
“But it can’t be,” he answered. “You and I… we never….”
“I know that,” Sky said. “But I also know… it’s like I have two sets of memories, and they’re both real.”
“Do you two want to open presents or not?” Sarah Jane asked.
They turned and smiled at her and then set about unwrapping their presents like any other children on Christmas morning. They were surprised and pleased by the contents of the packages and appreciative of the effort Sarah Jane had gone to for them.
One package was addressed to them both. They looked at it and then carefully unwrapped it together.
It was a photograph album, a nice quality one with a padded cover and ‘Luke and Sky’s Christmas Memories’ inscribed on the front.
They turned the pages slowly and saw pictures of themselves over the years – Sky with her first scooter - the two of them visiting Father Christmas, posing with a cardboard stand-up of Aladdin at the pantomime, having winter fun in the deep snow, and a dark, slightly out of focus picture taken with a camera phone with no flash. They had to look very carefully to realise it was a picture of them bringing gifts into a lamplit stable.
There were lots more pictures, from all of the Christmases they remembered sharing as brother and sister – those memories that they knew didn’t quite seem right, but which they clung to fondly and didn’t want to lose.
There were lots of blank pages for new pictures, but on the back page after the blank ones there was a picture of a man in an embroidered coat and a strange hat with a tassle hanging down. There was a parrot on a stand next to him. The man was smiling widely.
Underneath the picture was a message.
“Luke and Sky’s Christmas memories – Compliments of The Shopkeeper and The Captain.”
“Oh,” Sky murmured. “I see.”
“Ah,” Luke added. “That explains everything.”
He hugged his sister fondly then he hugged his mum. So did Sky. Sarah Jane hugged them back.
“Merry Christmas, both of you,” she said to them.
“Merry Christmas, Smith Family,” K9 piped up, because nobody had taken any notice of him while all this present unwrapping was going on and it was time a robot dog made his presence known.