North Star: a girl, an old friend, and a Christmas present

NORTH STAR

‘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

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