What is Christmas? Who has the perfect Christmas? Hugo doesn't think that he could ever have the perfect Christmas but all the ingredients are nearer than he thinks.
Striving to attain a Storybook Christmas inevitably leads to dissatisfaction and disappointment but appreciating what, and who, you actually do have can give you your perfect Christmas.
A little magic always helps...
It was raining – yet again.
Great big fat angel teardrops smashed into, and slithered their way down, the outside of the steamed-up window pane.
Hugo made another greasy fingerprint trail as he traced the journey of the biggest, the fattest one of all, from top to sill.
Hugo was very, very bored.
It was nearly Christmas and Kate, Hugo’s Mum, was up to her eyeballs in clouds of white puffy flour, crunchy brown nuts and plump dried fruit.
She was also bored, and very, very cross.
Tinker, the cat, who tended to live up to his name, had knocked Christmas Cake Version One off the kitchen table and it had taken Kate ages to clean up the mess from between the cracks of the old flagstone floor – even with the enthusiastic help of Winifred the whippet.
Winifred, it must be said, now looked strangely green for a whippet.
Hugo had been banned from the kitchen, along with Tinker and Winifred, who were now whining and scratching at the laundry room door. Hugo was allowed to go into the drawing room but that wasn’t terribly exciting either.
Kate had turned the radio on loud and was blasting out Christmas carols at the top of her voice to try to get back in the mood. Hugo hoped that it wouldn’t take too long because, frankly, she was not the best of singers and sounded more like Tinker when he was yowling for his meaty chunks.
Hugo just felt in a bad mood.
At school last week he had been telling stories about the magical properties of Angel Tears to his friend Annie. Annie was only 3 months younger than Hugo but was so little and thin, compared to Hugo, who was the tallest boy in their class, that he felt he needed to protect her like a big brother and, on the other hand, wind her up as she hung onto every word that he said.
Annie, secretly, thought that he was rather silly but friends were thin on the ground in their village and she did get fed up being on her own all the time. Most of the time she just gritted her teeth and let him get on with his nonsense.
Last week though she had liked the idea of Angel Tears, enough to let her, usually sad, eyes light up and for him to think that she had fallen, yet again, for his stories. Maybe this time he was telling the truth – hmmm… maybe not.
Hugo had thought about Angel Tears last time it had bucketed down but then it had only been a fleeting thought as he hadn’t been so bored that time.
This time was different and he knew he would have to do something before he went totally bonkers.
Checking that his Mum was still singing and absorbed in panic baking, Hugo crept through the hallway, pulling on his duffle coat and wellies as he went. Knowing that the big old oak door would squeal and moan and make an enormous CLAAAAAANG he didn’t shut it properly but just rested the door and frame together, hoping it wouldn’t blow open.
In his pocket he had stuffed a small, colourful bowl that usually took pride of place on the shelf in the hallway but now was hidden behind masses of cards. Large and small with pictures of robins and Santas and pretty villages covered in newly-laundered sheets of crunchy, white snow.
Bah humbug he thought, looking up at the heavy, dark grey sky. Proper Christmases only ever happen in books and on the front of cards.
Hugo was sure that he wouldn't be bored in a Proper Christmas. His Mother would buy all her food at Mark's and Spencer's instead of trying to be Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver (and failing, and thus getting cross), his Father would come home and build snowmen with him and take him on his sledge to the nearby hills in their not-so-pretty village and carol singers would trill their way through the crisp air, blowing out frosty breath before coming in for a warm welcome, mulled wine and mince pies.
The only carol singers they had had this year were two scruffy boys who sang worse than his Mother and got through brief snippets of 5 carols in 30 seconds flat. His Mother had laughed and given them 50 pence each for sheer cheek. Just wasn't the same somehow.
It was the same at school. The decorations went up at the beginning of December, rehearsals for the nativity play seemed to take over and everything was just Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.
For example: sitting on big garish beanbags in the little year-library next to his classroom, Mrs. Gretchen, one of the ‘other mothers’ who had time to spare as a teacher’s help, had insisted on him reading no less than three Christmas stories out aloud to her during his one-to-one reading-practice session.
Hugo would rather have read about builders and trains and sharks but, at this time of year, that was just not allowed by Mrs. Gretchen.
Mrs. Gretchen was a big scary woman with dodgy breath and cheap perfume which irritated the inside of your nose and she also had a very strange dress sense. You didn't want to argue with Mrs. Gretchen.
Hugo had made that particular mistake before and she had pulled her face right down to his and, with a big, encouraging (to her) smile on her face blasted him with garlic breath which made him feel positively dizzy and ill for the rest of that day. From then on he read what she asked him to and, thankfully, she kept her distance.
Every Christmas book had included snow, happy festive people, perfect mince pies, lots and lots of presents and a jolly Santa or two.
The only Santa he had seen this year was a rather moth-eaten one outside Woolworths on the High Street in the nearest town. The town was full of miserable, bag-laden, grey-faced shoppers fed up of queuing for everything and as for snow…
By the time the holidays had arrived it all suddenly fizzled out. Okay if you had a great big jolly family but when there were just the two of you there was no point making a big fuss. Two people could only eat so much cake and pies. Kate tried her best but it still didn't seem right somehow.
Hugo looked back up at the miserable, leaden, sky and sighed before shrugging and running down to the back of his squelchy garden.
Sometimes Hugo wished he lived in a tree, away from everything. At least he would be able to catch the tears that pelted down on his upturned face and, when he had enough, sell them to gullible Annie.
“Angel Tears,” he would say, “useful for a 101 things – want to buy some?” Hmmm… maybe he would try it anyway.
Annie lived in the small cottage just over the fence at the bottom of the garden. His house was a big one and at one time the cottage had belonged to it. Now though, the land had all been divided into smaller bits and sold off to pay for the upkeep of his house.
Kate said that he would have been great to live there years ago with servants and gardeners but now it was a chore more than anything – especially when important bits, like tiles, kept falling off the worn old roof.
Annie’s Father and Hugo’s Mother had made a gate in the fence so that the children could play together safely without going round the road way which was now the route for thunderous lorries on their way to the motorway five miles over and beyond the sledging hill.
Hugo and Annie were the only children this end of their long winding village and they were the only ones who got on the yellow school bus as the others were too old now and went to the comprehensive in the other direction in the mucky white bus.
Anyway, he was on his Christmas holidays now and, in all honesty, in two minds whether he was more bored on them than off. As much as he wouldn’t admit it to his friends he rather enjoyed school and most of the lessons and the teachers weren’t bad at all. Mrs. Gretchen was the exception but really she was nice, just very scary.
Hugo’s tree house stood proudly at the bottom of the garden. His mother had cobbled it together for him the first summer his father had left. It was ugly really and a bit odd but so solid that the tree would have to fall down first before it did. He had been proud of his mother. She was definitely better at building things than singing or baking.
Hauling himself up through the lower branches, Hugo managed to pull off his muddy wellies on the little platform before crawling, under a plastic flap, into the house part itself.
A couple of old worn and faded rugs lined the floor and carpet tiles in all colours were stuck on the walls to keep out draughts. Plastic sheeting was tacked on the roof to keep it dry and some blankets and cushions were piled up to snuggle into to keep warm on cold wet days or to fling onto the grass on warm dry ones.
Some old comics and books were strewn on the floor and, less desirable, some green furry food left over and un-cleared-away from his last visit – ugh.
Hugo scraped the contents of the plates onto the grass below, just in case any bird was that desperately hungry, and pushed the plates into a corner out of his sight for now.
He wondered if Annie was at home and as bored as he was. He would go over in a while and see, but first he had something to do.
He took the small bowl out of his pocket, not without some difficulty as it had managed to wedge itself in, and looked at it for the hundredth time.
He loved looking at the colourful patterns made up of entwined flying birds and colourful foliage created with tiny brush-strokes. He thought that someone must have used a magnifying glass to be able to paint them in such detail.
Right, now to get some Angel Tears and have some fun with Annie.
Hugo carefully placed the small bowl on the platform of the tree house and, after crawling back in, piled up some cushions, snuggled up with some blankets and, with the rain pelting down noisily through the branches onto his roof, started to re-read his old comics for the umpteenth time.
Fully absorbed, an hour soon passed and it was with a start that Hugo remembered why he was there. Pulling on his still damp coat and creeping back onto the platform he found a satisfyingly overflowing bowl. The Angels were as miserable as the weather today.
After struggling to pull his wellies on he swung his body over the edge and when his feet had connected with the ladder he carefully held the bowl as he slowly descended one-handed. Some of the tears had slopped onto his upturned face before he made it safely down but the bowl was still two-thirds full of the precious liquid.
Hugo trudged to the back of the orchard. Normally he’d have run as fast as he could through the fruit trees but with the bowl of Angel Tears he had to take it slowly and carefully.
The gate was stiff, swollen with the rain and for a split second he doubted whether it would open at all. It did with a sudden swing that took him by surprise and yet more of the Tears sloshed to the ground. Hugo left the gate open, fearful that he would be trapped this side if he forced it shut again.
Annie’s room was under the eaves at the back of the cottage and he saw her lit up with her nose pressed to the glass and all squashy. She jumped back with a start as her eyes met his and they both laughed silently on their respective sides of her window.
Two minutes later the kitchen door was flung open and she invited him in to the glowing warmth.
Toby, Annie’s dad, was immersed in a television programme about Hammerhead Sharks and just grunted an hello at Hugo, who would have liked to have joined him in front of the enormous widescreen filled with teeth and terrors of the deep.
He was drawn back to dry earth (such a silly expression when it was raining so much), when Annie asked him why he was carrying a small bowl half-full of water.
“Angel Tears,” he said in a secretly small voice. “I’ve brought them to show you. Magic...”
Annie frowned and looked at him through suspicious slit eyes. Then she lifted her chin and marched up the creaky, narrow stairs to her room. Hugo’s room was huge but he much preferred Annie’s tiny one. It had sloping ceilings and Toby had painted clambering flowers all over the place so it felt like Hugo’s tree house had been turned inside out when summer was in full bloom.
Annie loved her room too and would read for hours curled up on the armchair stuffed between her thin wardrobe and her high bed. Her bed was so high that she had only just been able to put away the stool that she had needed to climb into it. As it was high there was also lots of room underneath it which is very useful when you only have a small amount of floor space.
Annie liked to read about fairies and witches (good ones) and wizards. She was also mad about any animal that was fluffy and could not understand Hugo and Toby’s obsession with things that bite and scare you silly. Annie was gentle as well as little and that made Hugo uncomfortable with himself at times especially when he agreed with her over cute wild things.
They both lay on their tummies under Annie’s bed, the place they always told secrets and special things.
When Hugo’s father had left suddenly one day and then Annie’s mother had died, they hid under there to share their sadness. When they got special presents they went under to share the excitement of something new and precious.
On this occasion the Angel Tears were the most precious things that Annie had ever seen. They glistened and twinkled, caught by the light from the single, unadorned light bulb that swung from the centre of the draughty room. Their little colourful bowl adding to their magic. Hugo wove tales of spells and potions that they were used for and they both wished for the Christmases that they had read about but never felt.
Annie, smiled warmly at Hugo and wished, so very, very hard, that she could see her mother again and Hugo felt horrible. Maybe he shouldn’t have given her something to hope with. Maybe he was being too cruel, maybe Annie didn’t deserve to be told stories.
Annie saw the look in Hugo’s eyes and felt horrible. She shouldn’t have teased him especially when he had told such wonderful tales that she had fallen under his spell, just for a little moment.
“Let’s go into your tree house and see if we can magic up some fairies with the Angel Tears.” she said, not at all hopefully. Hugo had never let her in it before, even after she had shared her own special hideaway with him.
Hugo was feeling so guilty that he actually smiled with warmth when he said that that was rather a good idea but to wrap up well as it was very cold and wet just to get there.
Annie looked amazed but didn't waste any time in dragging out an old jumper and scarf, tucking her jeans into her wellies and grabbing her coat from the cupboard under the stairs as they walked past it.
Toby was still glued to the sharks and didn't really seem to take much notice as Annie told him where they were going. She knew he wasn't really paying attention as he knew that she was desperate to be let into the tree house and would have been as surprised, as she still was, that Hugo had invited her so easily.
They had almost reached the platform when the little bowl slid out of Hugo’s wet hands and smashed onto the ground. The two children looked horrified at the four pieces that lay on the ground minus their precious cargo. Hugo was particularly mortified as he realised that it was also his mother’s favourite bowl and he would get into big, big trouble when she found out.
Hugo looked up at Annie’s little legs that were swinging above him and somehow remembered to ask her to take off her wellies before she went in. He downheartedly collected up the pieces and then followed her up.
He looked at her wide, confused eyes which felt so sorry for him but were also taking in this most secret of hideaways.
Hugo gently paced the bits of the bowl on the rug between them and they looked at them and then at each other, several times, before either of them could speak.
Annie managed to croak out a few words first.
“Maybe we could glue it or something?” Hugo half smiled but could only shrug before he pushed the pieces into the corner with the mouldy plates.
“So – what do you think then?” he asked, waving his hand around like an estate agent.
“Brilliant. Amazing.” Annie replied, thoroughly meaning each distinct word. “I can see why you spend so much time here – I would too.”
She rubbed her fingers down the rough carpet tiles, touching each and every different colour in turn. Hugo offered her a blanket, a couple of oversized cushions and a book and they both lost themselves in warm and happy moments for a small while.
“Hugo,” Annie suddenly, but quietly, said. “Do you really believe in Angel Tears?”
He only hesitated for the briefest of moments,
“Of course I do.” he said. “Do you?”
Annie nodded and bit her lip.
“Let’s get some more and wish very hard on them for a new bowl and a Happy Christmas.”
Hugo dragged out a mouldy bowl and thrust it onto the platform.
They waited. The rain rained hard and the wind howled loudly but they were snug and in their own little world.
Winifred barked to be let out and, very, very, carefully placing her finished cake, version two, on the dresser, Kate went to open the door. However, it was already open and Kate frowned.
“Hugo,” she yelled and then “HUGO,” much, much louder. The house was silent. Kate rushed about, still shouting, from room to room but Hugo wasn’t there and she started to panic over something much more important than a cake.
Winifred came back in and Kate grabbed a towel from the coat rack to rub her down with. Hugo’s duffel coat was gone. So were his wellies. The weather was too ghastly for even Winifred to want to stay out and that didn’t make Kate feel any better at all.
She picked up the phone to ring Annie’s house. Maybe Hugo had gone there – she hoped so.
Toby answered sleepily and said he hadn’t seen Hugo, sorry and all that, but he was sure that he would soon turn up.
Kate was in a dreadful panic and was about to ring the police when Toby rang her back. He was really sorry but she had just woke him up and he couldn't think straight. Of course Hugo had been round there and now he was worried as Annie wasn't there either now.
They agreed to meet by the gate in the fence and look for the children together. It was getting dark now and Kate was thankful for the company, even if it was Toby, who was glum at the best of times. Finding the children was the important thing now.
Running past the tree house Kate suddenly pulled up with a start. How stupid she had been. Where was the one place that Hugo went when he was fed up? She was just so tired with running the house by herself and being a disaster at all this Christmas stuff that she couldn't think straight any-more herself.
A shuffling in the trees made her jump and she let out a huge sigh of relief when it turned out to be Toby, tripping over old roots that stuck out from the ground.
She smiled at him and said that she thought she knew where they might be and looked above their heads.
Small voices drifted past them, snatched away by the wind. The rain was easing off now but too late for them to be anything other than drenched. They were both smiling great big beams of relief not noticing the cold just the hot relief of worry fading away.
They caught some laughter and Kate said,
“Shall we leave them? It’s so lovely to hear Hugo actually laughing for once.” Toby agreed, on both counts. Annie rarely laughed either.
Kate felt rather silly at the drama she had caused and asked Toby if he would like a glass of mulled wine as it was Christmas Eve.
He hesitated for a moment, Kate had always seemed a very strong woman to him and he wasn't very good with strong women. He was an artist and always felt a bit silly around other people.
Annie’s mother had always loved being around other people but Toby was quiet and preferred to be left to himself, his painting and his widescreen television.
Quickly, he recovered from his thoughts and stammered out a
“Yes, please, thank you.” In case he seemed rude.
They made their wet and muddy way back to the house.
After a while, even the blankets couldn't keep out the bitter cold and Hugo and Annie, teeth chattering, decided to go and ask Kate for a steaming mug of hot chocolate each. Once this had been thought of they couldn't get back to the house quick enough.
Wobbling precariously by the front door they helped pull off each other’s wellies, with the usual struggle, and crept in as quietly as the old door would let them.
Now it was Hugo’s turn to be amazed as they heard laughter coming from the drawing room. Most of Kate’s friends lived away from the village and, although she spent lots of time chatting to them on the telephone, she didn't get to see them very often.
“That’s my dad,” Annie frowned at Hugo, “How odd, I don’t think that he’s ever been here before.” Hugo shrugged and pulled a puzzled face back at Annie.
Kate was just leaving the room to refill their glasses and, seeing the two children, joined in the frowning before her face exploded with the biggest smile Hugo had ever seen.
“I was worried about you,” she said, “but never mind about that now. We’ve got company.”
Toby and Annie stayed for most of the evening. They played board games and cards, ate wonky mince pies (which were very tasty if you didn't look at them) and even started to sing Christmas songs (after all the mulled wine had gone).
By the time Toby and Annie reluctantly ventured forth into the dark, wet, cold night they had all agreed to spend Christmas Day together.
In the morning they would open all their presents at Annie’s cottage and have a small breakfast. Apparently, Toby made excellent American pancakes. Then, in the afternoon, they planned to go back to Hugo’s house for a big Christmas dinner.
At first Kate had been upset when Hugo had told her about her favourite bowl being smashed but said it didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things and they could stick it back together. They carefully and neatly did this before Kate put the huge turkey into the oven to cook slowly overnight. Kate always bought a far too big turkey and they then had to eat globby turkey stew and runny turkey curry and odd-shaped turkey pies for what seemed like forever after each Christmas.
On Christmas day morning, after the extremely tasty, and not so small after all, breakfast, Toby carefully painted the missing bit of the pattern over the white cracks and did it so well that you could hardly tell that the little bowl had been broken at all. Kate, Hugo and Annie were most impressed.
“Teamwork,” Toby had said, “if it hadn't been a good mend I couldn't have painted it.”
After dragging a reluctant Winifred, who much preferred roasting herself in front of a blazing fire than being dragged along for a soggy walk, across a few fields, Annie and Hugo peeled the sprouts and put little crosses in the ends and wrapped millions of chipolata sausages in streaky bacon before leaving Kate and Toby to cook the rest of the dinner, watched over, very, very, carefully by a now warm and dry Winifred and a hopeful Tinker.
Hugo and Annie plonked themselves down on the window seat in the drawing room. Kate had cleaned out the fireplace and a humongous fire was roaring away for the first time that Hugo could remember. It made him feel all cosy and warm even though it was still grey and raining outside. They talked with great excitement about their presents to each other. Toby and Annie were going to paint big thrashing sharks and lots of other underwater things on the walls in Hugo’s bedroom and Kate and Hugo were going to build a smaller tree house for Annie (well, she did already have her under the bed hideaway).
“Do you know,” said Hugo, “you don’t need snow and perfection to have the best Christmas ever. Do you?”
“Not at all.” said Annie, “This is just perfect as it is. Our perfect.”
She looked hard at Hugo and, placing her hand flat against the rainy window, smiled as she said;
“Maybe... just maybe... Angel Tears are magic after all.”