This is a link to a post on my more techy blog where I’ve set out some of the basics of Echo ownership – starting with the observation that it’s more cat than gadget.
The four year old girl crouched in the footwell has never heard of christmas and wouldn’t care if she had. She stares at her hands and wipes them on the pink anorak that used to fit but now hangs more loosely from her shoulders.
The twelve year old boy next to her is angry and feels himself uprooted and displaced. He has heard of christmas but he blames the westeners who celebrate it for where he finds himself. His eyes tell simultaneously of a child’s dark despair and the blazing hatred of the adult he will become. He is already conjuring revenge in his head.
Their grandmother strokes his hair and nuzzles the girl closer to her feet but cannot be their mother. She too knows about christmas but finds it impossible to disentangle her feelings about it from their current plight. The flags of the people who mark it are often the ones which bring destruction, or which hesitate and do nothing to stop it. But some of those same flags fly proud at their destination which promises relief. Those people will be celebrating soon and what will that mean for her and the little ones?
Her son crashes into the seat next to her, scarf around his face, weapons bulking his khaki jacket. ‘We’re leaving,’ he says to his children, ‘Stay down.’ The gunfire stops, then starts again. The green bus starts then stops. There are two more starts and stops before the convoy eventually inches away along its assigned corridor of broken, bombed out buildings, abandoned family cars, and three blackened buses once as green as their own.
While his mother sobs silently into the chill air, the young father hunches over his children, a futile shield against snipers. He breathes them in and prays not to see their blood, but at least if they die today, the world will be watching. Soon it will be christmas day and then the countries of the puppet masters will be looking elsewhere. Their TVs will be full of joy and fun, their fridges stuffed with food, and their minds wiped of far-off troubles. No news is good news and they will not look for news.
Later, when they come back to pick up where they left off, believing somehow that the world will not have moved on while they were otherwise engaged, the father of children, widowed husband of a young wife, and son of a weeping mother, wonders what there will be of this fragile caravan for them to see. He hopes not ghosts. His son glances up at him and the father sees a ferocity burning in his eyes that he recognises. He bends to soften it, to say that there are good people everywhere in the world, but he cannot bring himself to promise it.
My thanks to an activist friend, who has spent much time volunteering among refugees at the Calais Jungle camp, for her comments on an earlier draft. She said no one she had met blamed Christians and so I have softened that reference. They do blame the West though, and I have taken licence to push that to the front in service of the message, which is that refugees and evacuees will still be in huge peril while most of us will be looking elsewhere until after the new year. If bombing and injury were not enough, starvation damages young brains, and emotional insecurity damages young minds. How can we hope for positive change when the next generations are so physiologically and mentally vulnerable? If you have a moment and a spare pound or so, please consider a donation to Save the Children for Syria or DEC’s Yemen crisis appeal. Thank you.
Clarice puffed out her cheeks, pink with the cold, and screwed up her eyes against the chill wind. She turned her face to the sky and peered through frosty lashes at the heavy clouds lumbering in from the coast.
‘Where are you?’ she called, hot breath forming its own tiny weather front above her nose as it hit the freezing air.
‘Come on in, Clar, you’ll catch your death.’ Mother.
Clarice stamped her feet, chilly in her spotted wellies despite the thick Huggy socks that hung pinkly over their tops.
‘But she promised!’
‘I know sweetheart, but you know fairies. I expect Santa’s got her working double shifts on all that last minute wrapping.’
Clarice knew when she was being sold a dummy. Seven she might be, stupid she wasn’t. She tugged at her hat and covered her ears, and then she tugged at the rope on her red plastic sledge and marched it across the tarmacked drive onto the lawn. The grass was flat, defeated by the wintry cold, and had scuffed up patches where Bugs, their scatter-brained Springer, had been excavating. The patches scraped the bottom of the sledge, making a screeeeek sound so Clarice picked it up, polished it off with her sleeve, and carried it to the centre of the garden. There, she positioned it so it was facing down the long slope to the trickling brook, sat herself on it with the rope in her hands, and waited. It would snow, Demelza had promised.
Demelza was a sprite, a wisp, a flitting insubstantial thing that Clarice could see, or sort of see, if she was looking a bit sideways and a bit upways but never if she was looking frontways. If she looked frontways, Demelza vanished and so did her drawings but luckily, Clarice could capture drawings in her mind, see them in the air, curling and glowing like neon after images. She could move them around, and she could make compositions with them. That’s how she knew it would snow today, even though it never snowed in Sussex on Christmas Eve. Demelza had given her a drawing that said so and she had copied it down and put it with all the others for proof.
Clarice sat making little dragon puffs into the air and recreating Demelza’s drawing around them while she flicked back and forth through her catalogue of inky designs and rocked in time on the plastic sledge . Now, any minute.
‘Clar, that’s enough, in you come.’ She heard the crunch of booted feet on the newly frosted grass, the scrabble of other feet skittering excitedly alongside. Dad had brought Bugs to soften the blow of denial.
Just then, three things happened.
Demelza returned so that Clarice stopped dead, her eyes rolled up, her grip on her small sheaf of papers loosened so that they fluttered onto the grass under her dad’s astonished gaze.
The wing of a butterfly in Rotorua also fluttered in its own time on a breeze that caught the world in its net.
And high above, the physics of winter magic built fractals out of raindrops and began to float them gently down to earth.
©suzanne conboy-hill 2010
SANTA’S IQ TEST
‘If Santa really exists,’ Gary announced in the professorial monotone of his Asperger’s, ‘he will be able to read it.’
Trevor looked into the serious blue eyes of his nine year old son and took delivery of the bundle of papers. They were going shopping tomorrow; this had better be easy to figure out.
Later, Gary in bed and ritually counting the fluorescent stars on his ceiling, Trevor unfolded the letter.
‘Dear Father Christmas …’ it began, then nothing – just rows of black lines, some thick, some thin, some spaced out and some close together. Gary had spent hours doing this and he was meticulous so it definitely had meaning but what? Maybe there was a clue on-screen. Trevor called up Gary’s account, pushing aside some wrappers and labels stacked neatly next to the monitor. There it was, four pages, all lines. He zoomed in; Gary was a demon for detail, he could have hidden something in the lines. Trevor squinted at it. Nothing. Zoom out then; whoops, way too far. Hang on though, it seemed familiar. Trevor looked at the page, the stack of labels, back at the page and dawn broke – bar codes! Gary had produced, with photographic accuracy, a bar coded present list as a digital challenge to Santa’s authenticity. Trevor checked the labels; a USB stick, a DVD of British birds, a Dr Who annual. Repeats for now but maybe not next year and he dreaded to think what fiendish tests his son might have devised by then.
©suzanne conboy-hill 2010
TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
Arthur inspected himself: shirt, pullover, trousers (with belt), and sock. Just the one sock. The other was stranded on the end of his foot like a piece of flotsam at high tide, a pixie hat of ruched wool with a holly pattern woven into it. Bugger! Arthur took a deep breath, coughed rousingly, and geared up for another assault. Rocking himself forwards in his seat, he rode the impetus towards his target, now illuminated by a sliver of sunlight angling in between the still closed bedroom curtains.
Aha – a bomber’s moon! Got the bastard in my sights, slight course correction at Knee Joint, Danny giving it everything in the rear gunner’s bay, RAT TAT TAT! Old girl had better hold out or we’re done for. And it’s a direct hit! Back to Blighty in time for tea!
He pinched the recalcitrant sock between finger and thumb and hauled it downwards and then upwards to dock with the cuff of his long johns. Three Six Three squadron counted home, all present and correct, Sir! He dropped back into the chair, huffing a little from the exertion, and closed his eyes for a moment, half a salute hovering in the air.
‘You decent, Arthur?’ It was Allie; cheery, bustly, and somewhat rotund due to her having a face like a starved puppy around people’s chocolate supplies. ‘Sarah’s all dressed up and ready for her date,’ she said, pulling back the curtains and eyeing up the biscuit tin Arthur kept on his dresser. He noticed but said nothing. Often, she would bring her tea in with his and they would share a dunk on a Saturday morning, but not today. Today was special. Arthur’s thoughts flickered like an old film, re-winding, cutting and splicing, bringing up the colour. A soundtrack crept in on syncopated soft shoe shuffling patent pumps. Jazz, boogie, jitterbug; all the girls in ration-shortened dresses and glowing with excitement at the prospect of meeting a handsome sailor or a soldier, or even an airman.
‘Need a hand out of that chair?’ Allie was standing, hands on ample hips and head cocked over to one side in professional evaluation.
‘Got rope and tackle?’ Arthur winked back. ‘Thought not. Right then …’ and he began rocking back and forth to gather momentum. ‘Let’s see. How soon. I can reach. Take-off speed!’ And he was upright. Allie slid a hand under the blue blazer that had been laid out on the bed, military insignia neatly pinned to the lapel, and held it out behind for Arthur to slip his arms into.
‘I bet you were a right looker in your day,’ she beamed, turning him round and fussing like a proud nanny over a child in his new school uniform. She smoothed down the pockets and pulled the shining buttons towards their targets.
‘I bet Sarah had to fight off the competition, alright’. Arthur raised an eyebrow and mustered a twinkle. ‘Ready for your Christmas lunch then? Table for two, Sir, right by the window.’ She offered her arm.
‘Thank you, Allie, but not today,’ Arthur replied, looking not at her, but at the man in the mirror. ‘Today I will get there under my own steam.’
Face, shaved, no nicks. Check. Collar, crisp. Check. Tie, neatly knotted and centred. Check.
He felt in his pocket for the little box with its smooth edges and precious cargo. ‘You get on, I’ll be there in a minute.’ The man in the mirror looked back; blond hair slicked and brylcreemed into place under his precariously balanced cap, eyes ready to burst into life with the telling of a rambling story that might or might not be true, the faintest of smiles threatening to crack the carefully assembled military carapace supposed to add gravitas to his bare eighteen years. ‘Time to go.’
The young airman straightened his back, tugged down his uniform jacket, and patted his pocket for the twentieth time. Then, cap tucked under his arm, he made his way down the corridor into the hall with its flags and bunting, and across the crowded dance floor to the little wooden table for two hunched under the window. Good thing there was a decent blackout curtain; those eyes were surely the most sparkling he had ever seen.
©suzanne conboy-hill 2010
‘Come on, prezzie time.’ Stella’s mother slapped a hat on Stella’s head and held out a tube of sunblock, ‘You’ll need it to go outside.’
‘I won’t because I’m not going outside.’
‘Please, just stop grumping, see if you can’t crack a smile?’
Stella crossed her legs in front of her on the bed and then folded her body on top of them.
‘Come on Stella, it’ll be fab.’
‘I hate this place.’
‘You don’t want your presents then?’
Stella’s foot beat a rhythm in the air like the tail of an irritated cat, ‘Not fair.’ Presents were all that was left of a proper Christmas. One that was cold and you could switch on your Christmas lights in the middle of the day, walk down the street at half past three in the afternoon and see everyone else’s trees twinkling through their curtains. Australia was stupid, it didn’t deserve to have Christmas. She crossed her arms over her head and hugged her ears.
‘Why did we have to come here?’
‘It’s where your dad and me are from.’
‘It’s not where I’m from.’
‘You don’t know that; what if it is? What if your birth family’s here, wouldn’t that be a thing?’
Stella thrust out a pair of raw-pastry arms and puffed an escaped strand of near-silver hair in her mother’s direction, ‘Because obviously, I’m a natural beach babe, said nobody ever.’ She retracted her arms and her mother waited, letting the heat of the moment dissipate before baiting a new hook, ‘There’s a package that looks like it’s from Mrs M.’
‘Ursi?’ Stella groaned, raised her head and leaned it back against the wall; now she’d have to give in, drag herself outside to where summer was ruining Christmas by being in the same place at the same time. She groaned again; was that even legal?
A few minutes later, hat rammed low over her forehead, sunglasses crammed like black bottle bottoms onto her face and a scowl leaking out from underneath, Stella scuffed onto the patio and slumped into a lounger near the table with the presents on it. The table was draped in red cloth with Ho Ho Ho printed along the white edging, and some flickering fairy lights, strung among the gifts, battled with the glare.
Stella rolled her eyes – Ursi would hate it. Her house was squat and dark all year, looking more like a derelict hovel than a home, but from the beginning of Advent right through to Twelfth Night there were lanterns among the tangled shrubbery, her front path was covered in frosty sparkles, and the windows glowed like hot honey. Most kids stayed away though, freaked by Ursi’s bright white hair and eyes that looked like they went all the way down to the bottom of the Arctic ocean. They called her a witch but Stella liked her so they called her a witch too which made Stella feel a kind of kinship. Ursi said Stella had an ‘old soul’ and they got on.
Hearing about the package tied an unexpected knot in Stella’s stomach, driving her eventually to get up from the lounger and mosey over to the table. She trailed a desultory finger over the gifts: several bore tags with her name on them; some large and boxy, others small and boxy, and a big thing that had ears individually wrapped in shiny red foil. But the one that drew her, that stood out from the rest, was a small package done up in bright white paper that had a blue tinge to it, making it look like a slab of ice. She picked it up; she didn’t expect it to be cold but she was disappointed nonetheless to find it was warm. Her name was clearly printed on the front.
‘When did you give her our address?’ she said, turning it over in her hands. The FROM label was a join-the-dots puzzle; a box with string flying off one corner and U.M scribbled in the centre. She squinted at it.
‘I thought you told her.’ Stella’s mother squinted at the label too.
‘I didn’t see her before we left – you never see her in the summer.’ Stella found the edge of the wrapping and pulled it open. There was a box inside which she set down on the table and opened. In it was an old iPhone, slightly battered looking but with all its bits and pieces. She switched it on; it said Hi, and it loaded a screen with just one app showing.
‘What’s that?’ Stella’s mother leaned in to take a look.
‘It’s that astronomy app, the one that shows you all the constellations and the space station and stuff.’ Stella thumbed it, tilted it up at the sky without thinking. Her mother tilted it down again, ‘Best try it tonight,’ she said.
Stella looked back at the downturned screen, it was barely in shadow but the display was astonishingly bright and clear – digitally penetrating the patio, the top soil, the earth’s crust and core, the ice and the tundra of the north, to show the night sky on the other side of the world arcing across it. She peered closer, shaded the screen a little; one of the stars was pulsing – the North Star, the beacon to homecoming sailors.
Stella pressed it, it expanded to fill the screen and kept expanding with dizzying acceleration; larger and larger, the world encompassed within the screen and the screen bearing down on hot suns, cold suns, comets and planets; then just one sun and one planet.
It plunged through the blue atmosphere, past snowflakes the size of islands, skimming the frozen waves, swooping alongside singing glaciers, and racing through glittering valleys, stopping only when it arrived at a small house, drifted deep into the snow but with a crisp clearing out at the front. There were lanterns all the way along the frosted path, and its windows glowed the colour of hot honey.
First published by EDF, December 2015 © suzanne conboy-hill 2015
Audio is here