The small kitchen was crammed with Christmas decorations. A tiny tree wobbled precariously on the little white fridge, every branch hung with a home-made decoration, some going back eight years to when Dot was just four, a few from her mum’s childhood. The window that looked out onto the garden was draped with fairy lights. Every wooden cupboard door was hung with an intricate, many sided, glass crystal in jewel-bright colours. The air was warm with spices.
Dot sighed happily.
‘And relax,’ she said.
‘Why aren’t you relaxed?’ Her mum had appeared next to her silently. ‘What’s going on?’
‘I am relaxed.’ She pulled out a tomato red, painted wooden chair and sat down at the table. ‘That’s what I just said.’
‘”And relax” implies you weren’t relaxed before,’ her mum said, peering at her and wrinkling her nose.
‘It’s a turn of phrase, mum. Relax,’ she added.
‘Hmm,’ was all she said. ‘Right!’ She pulled open the oven door. ‘Ham.’ She put it down heavily on the pine table.
Dot leaned over the criss-crossed, amber meat that was studded with cloves and breathed in the smell of twelve Christmases already passed and many more to come.
‘Oscar!’ her mum yelled, and reached into the oven again to pull out a dish of steaming, creamy potatoes. ‘Osc… Oh.’
‘Here I am.’ His dad pulled out the chair next to Dot’s. ‘And relax,’ he said.
‘Not you too. Why’s no-one relaxed?’
‘I just said I am relaxed,’ said Oscar.
‘Precisely,’ said Dot. ‘See?’
‘Hmm,’ her mum said again. ‘Right. Help yourself to potatoes. Let’s have a glass of champagne.’ She wiped her hands on the tea towel that was tucked into her waistband, brushed her brown hair off her forehead and opened the fridge door.
The cork popped. She sat down, leaned back in her chair and lifted a glass to her lips. ‘And relax,’ she said. They all laughed.
‘Aren’t you glad,’ said Jen, ‘that we’re here for Christmas for once, instead of going to Nadia’s in Norfolk? Not that there’s anything wrong with Nadia,’ she said quickly. Nadia was Oscar’s younger sister. ‘But it’s nice to be home.’
‘Plus,’ said Oscar cheerfully. ‘Nadia’s adorable, but she’s quite mad, of course. Did you seen what she was wearing when we Skyped her? A purple dress with yellow tights? Really?’
‘Imagine,’ said Dot dryly, and she reached across the table for the potatoes.
An hour later the table was crammed with half empty dishes, a deep bowl of sticky toffee pudding was still oozing caramel and the white jug had a dribble of thick cream down its neck. Dot’s traditional Christmas half glass of champagne had just one sip gone, but Oscar’s and Jen’s were empty.
‘So what was it Dot said?’ asked Jen. ‘That you needed to remember?’
‘Don’t worry,’ Oscar said. ‘I made a note, like you suggested. Sometimes I think that girl is a genius. She just instinctively gets things I labour over for years.’
‘I’m crap at physics, Dad.’
‘Now, Dot,’ said her mum warningly.
‘Sorry. I am though.’ It wasn’t the word crap Jen objected to, it was her describing herself as bad at something. But she was. She wasn’t a thinker like either of his parents – everything at school was a struggle for her. She just couldn’t join the dots and make sense of it all.
‘Different people develop at different paces,’ Jen said.
‘Yeah. I’m developing at the pace of an ant.’
‘Ants are incredible.’ Oscar’s face lit up. ‘Have you ever seen a model of an ants nest? Vast. Glorious. Like an underground cathedral.’
‘You’re a cathedral, just underground,’ said Jen, pleased with the analogy. ‘No-one’s seen it yet.’
‘I see it, Dotty my girl,’ said Oscar. ‘Believe you me, one day you’ll be a better scientist than either of us. Well, better than me at least. Your mother’s a bone fide genius, of course.’
‘I doubt it. Me not mum, I mean.’
‘I don’t doubt it for a second. Let’s take our glasses and the chocolates through to the sitting room,’ said Jen.
‘No. More. Food,’ groaned Dot, clutching her stomach.
‘There’s plenty of room in there,’ Jen said, tapping it with a finger and smiling to herself.
‘Mum!’ Dot objected.
‘What?’ She was unrepentant. ‘Here.’ She handed her the Christmas Chocolate Box, a wooden box that had once transported a vast quantity of tea leaves that Oscar had ordered, on impulse, from China, the way some people impulse-purchased a pair of socks. ‘I’ll bring the glasses. Find something Christmassy on TV. I’ll bring you some milk.’
‘Mum, I’m not six.’ She hesitated. ‘Okay,’ she said.
Dot pushed the kitchen door open with one foot. Scrawled in magic marker up the warm grey wall to the second floor was a sentence in spikey capitals.
A PARTICLE TRAVELS TO EVERY POSSIBLE LOCATION AND IT TRAVELS TO ONE SPECIFIC LOCATION AND IT TRAVELS NOWHERE, it said.
‘Uh oh,’ she said. ‘Dad, you’re going to be murdered.’ She shivered when she said it, as if her future self had whispered something horrific in her ear. ‘In trouble, I mean,’ she said quickly.
‘Oscar,’ said Jen wearily. ‘Not again. I said on the post-its.’
Oscar shrugged. ‘Too small,’ he said cheerfully. Dot rolled her eyes at her mum.
They settled down on the red sofa. The room was lit by the twinkling of candles and the glitter of strings of lights. Jen tucked her feet neatly under her and reached back to re-do her ponytail. She was wearing a cosy, dark blue wool dress that she always wore at Christmas. Its colour had always seemed like the midnight of Christmas Eve skies and the soft feel of it made Dot fill up with the happy sadness of old memories. Oscar leaned back, throwing an arm across the sofa behind Dot’s back, and undid the top button of his trousers. Dot reached for the remote.
She could still feel that creeping anticipation in her belly. Was it excitement? She brushed off, again, the thought that actually it felt a little bit more like dread. School was over for a couple of weeks at least. So why did she feel so ill at ease, like the feeling you have when someone’s watching you?
‘Did you read that article?’ asked Oscar.
‘What article?’ said Jen, reaching for the chocolate box.
‘The one that described me as “half genius, half buffoon?”‘
‘What utter nonsense,’ said Jen. ‘All genius, all buffoon, more like. Anyway, they’ll change their tune soon enough, when you turn everything they thought about time and space on its head.’
Oscar chortled in delight. ‘Indeed!’ he said. ‘Indeed!’ He thought for a second. ‘When we do,’ he corrected her.
‘Time travel?’ said Dot, interested. ‘Is that even possible?’
‘Well,’ said Oscar, ‘that’s an interesting question…’ He flicked channels and the television froze. ‘What the…?’ He pressed the select button again and again.
The room fell into dead silence. Dot looked around her, confused.
And out of nowhere an eerie wailing fell into the sudden quiet. It swept into Dot’s head and swirled around it, rising and falling, as drawn out and high and sweet as ghost church bells carried on an unreal wind. The world felt as if it had switched gear and slipped to one side.
‘What’s that noise?’ said Dot, but she felt as though her words didn’t make a sound.
And, just like that, the world clicked back into place and the room was just as it had been before.
‘What noise?’ said her mum. ‘Do you mean the carol singers?’
Outside, a single, high, clear voice sang, once in royal David’s city. More, older voices joined in. Stood a lowly cattle shed.
‘Oh yeah,’ said Dot. ‘Must be. Sorry. It sounded weird for a second.’
‘Let’s go to the window and watch.’ Dot’s mum loved carol singers; in fact, she loved anything Christmas related with a passion bordering on obsession.
‘No.’ Oscar leaned back on the plump cushions. ‘Let’s listen from here. It’s nicer. We can imagine them in mufflers, holding lanterns.’
Dot closed her eyes and listened, heart still pounding. Nothing weird at all, she told herself. Just voices singing. Not even perfect ones. You could hear coughing and breathing in the wrong places – she’d be told off for that in choir. But there was a sadness to it – a wistfulness. Carols were always sad, weren’t they, even the happy ones? She couldn’t think why, when Christmas was supposed to be joyful. She let the voices drift over her and imagined himself tramping through the snow of another world, years and years ago. A world of wood fires and biting cold. A world far away from the twenty-first century and decimal fractions.
A warm arm slipped around her shoulders and a kiss landed on the top of her head. She was back in the world of central heating and Tee shirts inside in the winter.
‘You’re drifting off,’ said her mum. ‘Off to bed with you. I’ll bring you a hot chocolate to have in bed, since it’s Christmas Eve. One night won’t rot your teeth.’ She said that every year. She gave her another kiss. ‘Merry Christmas, lovely girl.’
‘Happy Christmas, Dotty,’ said his dad. ‘See you in the morning.’
‘Have I got new football boots?’ she asked, for perhaps the hundredth time.
‘You’ll see,’ said her mum cheerfully. ‘Now, off to bed with you.’
Dot stumbled reluctantly towards the door, walking as slowly as she could. ‘It’s only ten,’ she said. ‘It’s not even late,’ but her eyes were heavy and her legs were leaden and she didn’t plan to put up too much of a fight.
‘Love you,’ Oscar called over his shoulder, and he switched channel to the news. Later Dot would kick herself that he hadn’t said ‘love you, too’ when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to say and when it would turn out to matter so much. But she just wandered upstairs sleepily, listening to the mutterings of the late news downstairs as she brushed her teeth.
She pulled on she pyjamas and fell asleep before her hot chocolate arrived.
She was standing in the playground at school, completely alone. Not alone, everyone-else-is-in-the-classroom-alone, but properly alone, like a plague had killed everyone on the planet and it was just her, the wind and the flies left. It was a weird light, dim but not dark. Like the eclipse she realised, half in her dream and half the normal, waking Dot. That odd light you got in an eclipse, as though someone had turned the dimmer switch on. It was not a light that was to be trusted. It was alien, threatening, cruel.
She started to walk across the familiar but strangely eerie playground. Her footsteps were heavy, as if the whole earth was shaking under them. She stepped on across the silent playground and towards the school field. Her shadow was long in front of her.
But it wasn’t her shadow. Her own shadow was there – small, to the side. Whose shadow was that, then, the one that loomed massively in front of her?
No, not you. She tried to run but her legs didn’t work. Dread seized her body.
Dot woke up with a start, heart pounding painfully. Her room was silent with that muffled quiet you only get after heavy snow. She lay unmoving, eyes shut, still reeling from the nightmare. She could tell from the quiet and from the thick dark that it was the dead of night, not morning yet.
There was a sudden heaviness on the end of her bed by her feet. That’d be her stocking. She kept her eyes closed for a few seconds, like she always did, wanting to believe in the magic, and then she opened them – couldn’t resist it.
Not her stocking, but her mum. She didn’t say a word. She just sat there in the dark and looked at her. It wasn’t the happy, alert, loving face that she was used to. It was a different face – a sad, wistful face. A private face. One she didn’t remember seeing before. She shut his eyes again. She didn’t want to intrude. While she was waiting for her to either say something or go, she must have fallen back asleep.
And when she woke up everything in her safe, happy world had changed.