Written by Steven Croft, this evolving Advent tale can be read on many levels and is suitable for adults and children alike. It is packed with codes and secrets and invites the reader to explore the deeper meanings of Advent and Christmas.
255pp. Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk
The table of contents is by dates from November 30 to December 24
On the day it began, Sam dragged himself out of bed (late as usual) and savaged his face in three places while shaving. ‘Memo to self,’ he mumbled to his imaginary PA. ‘Try to wake up before scraping blunt razor over spotty chin. Change blade at least once a year.’ The mirror revealed traces of red on his new white shirt collar but, of course, there was no time to change now.
There was a sharp knock on the bathroom door. Sam’s niece, Alice, in a tearing hurry as usual.
‘Sam! Hurry up!’
Alice was standing on the landing in her dressing gown, looking cross. ‘You’re making me late. Again!’ The bathroom door was slammed and bolted. Sam winced at the noise. He never spoke in the mornings unless he could help it. He finished dressing, grabbed his bag and made for the door.
Megs, his big sister, caught up with him just as he was leaving.
‘Sam. You promised to call into Hamleys today to pick up that Advent Calendar for Alice. Here’s the letter. Don’t forget.’
Something stirred dimly in the back of Sam’s mind. He took the line of least resistance and put the envelope in his coat pocket fully intending to leave it there.
Sam was staying with Megs and Alice for a while, having moved in three weeks ago. They were still getting used to each other. The house was a small terrace in a sloping street on the edge of Enfield. It was handy for the station. Sam worked in central London just near Farringdon tube. But it wasn’t really big enough. Sam had the second biggest bedroom but it was piled high with boxes of his stuff, which overflowed sometimes into the small front room, much to Alice’s annoyance.
There were no seats on the train (normal). The tube measured 17 on the Sardine Scale (where 10 is the maximum and 15 is get on board only by using both shoulders and looking straight down for the entire journey). Work was just a boring blur. After work Sam normally went for a drink with friends but first there was the note in the inbox from Megs.
Sam. Don’t you dare forget to pick up that calendar. Alice has come home from school and is screaming for daily chocolate. All her friends have had theirs for months, apparently. I’m a useless mother (as usual) and there’s no way I can get in this evening. She was so excited to get that special offer. I’ve no idea where it came from.
Sam wavered for the first time. Megs was his only sister. And she’d had a mouldy time since that used teabag of a husband traded her in. And Sam was staying with her rent-free at the moment while certain things were sorted out (or not). ‘Memo to self – let’s not go there just at the moment, shall we?’ But Advent Calendar? What kind of a thing was that for a stroppy teenager?
Dim memories from childhood stirred in the very shallow pond of Sam’s soul. According to Tizzy at the next desk (long legs, short skirt, hot lipstick, big boyfriend) it was a countdown to Christmas with chocolates in. Germaine in Accounts (sackful of kids and no money) just smiled: ‘What do you want with an Advent Calendar?’ Maureen at reception (103 if a day and massive cardigans) said it was a shame really. ‘You just can’t buy religious ones any more. My vicar writes to the local paper about it every year:
‘What on earth has an Advent Calendar got to do with religion?’ thought Sam, on the way-to the pub. ‘Pints of Jellyfish – it’s the last thing I need!’ It was the time of day when he began to slow down and get ready for the evening, the time when his mind began to catch up with his body, looking forward to the first drink of the day. The thought of a crowded toy shop was deeply unattractive. ‘Beats me. Sadvent more like.’
Despite his best intentions, he fished the envelope out of his inside jacket pocket and took out the small white card edged in gold leaf. There were no pictures, just an old-fashioned copperplate script.
Dear Miss Carroll
I am delighted to inform you that you have been selected to receive our special Advent Calendar this year. Please present this card in Hamleys toyshop in Regent Street on 30 November.
A. Gabriel Esquire
He dimly remembered Megs saying that Alice had cheered up a bit when the card had arrived a couple of days ago. She’d never won anything before – and she’d had a bad few months with the divorce and moving house and schools. But it was probably just some bad sales gimmick. Why couldn’t Megs come and get it tomorrow?
It took real effort to wrench his guidance system out of autopilot and jump on a bus to Oxford Circus. Once he was on the bus, Sam remembered that the Christmas lights were switched on the day before by some kind of footballer’s wife: Regent Street looked like a shimmering river of light peppered with winking Santas and frolicking penguins. Hideous. Traffic was nose to tail with much honking. There was a bigger jam still on the pavement which somehow wasn’t wide enough. But the real battle began once you passed through the heat curtain and into the shops.
Hamleys was a mass of tiny gawping infants gripped firmly by exhausted parents. Novelty helicopters clattered overhead. Father Christmas had arrived yesterday: ‘Try the Second Floor!’ shouted an elf with a blocked nose when Sam showed his card.
‘Note to elves: bring Tunes to work. Note to self: say no to big sister more often.’ Sam thought longingly of the normal booth in the pub and the first pint of the weekend. Progress up the escalators was blocked by a humungous stuffed camel clutched by an embarrassed thirty-something. He was complaining to his wife over and over in shrill tones like a parrot on steroids.
‘Fifty quid this cost me. She’s wanted it for months. Fifty quid! Still, it’s only once a year, isn’t it?’
‘Once too often if you ask me,’ muttered Sam, staring up the camel’s backside three inches from his nose. ‘Note to self: no kids. Ever. And if kids, then leave home for Christmas. Suffering centipedes – look at that crowd.’
Elbows to the ready, Sam squeezed and shuffled through the Department of Cuddly Toys and the Ministry of Mechanical Models. There were still no signs of Advent Calendars. He looked again at the card, then looked around for some kind of information desk. There was a jolly green goblin at the top of the escalator. ‘Try the information desk,’ she said. ‘Over by the Bear Factory.’
There was a bit of a queue. Sam listened impatiently to elaborate requests about Mechano, spare parts for radio-controlled aeroplanes and DIY chess kits. He checked his watch, cleared his throat and tapped his foot. ‘Come on! Come on!’ At last an assistant was free.
‘Advent Calendar department, please. Chocolate ones,’ he said, smiling and waving his card at the assistant.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ the assistant began. ‘Hamleys doesn’t sell Countdown Calendars.’
‘Countdown Calendars?’ said Sam. ‘I wanted an Advent Calendar.’
‘We’re not allowed to call them Advent Calendars any more,’ said the girl, in a low voice, glancing right and left. ‘It’s not inclusive or something. They’re called Countdown Calendars now. But we don’t sell them anyway.’
Sam thrust the card under her nose. She read it, then shrugged her shoulders.
‘Never seen one like that before. Must be some kind of joke.’
There was a low cough from behind Sam’s left shoulder.
‘I think I can be of assistance, sir. This way, please.’
A superior-looking man in a dark suit and tie and a bowler hat led him away from the information desk across the crowded, noisy shop floor to a small doorway set into the far wall.
Sam stepped through a curtain of tinsel and bells and then suddenly burst through to a place of calm and stillness.
‘Take a seat, sir, I won’t be a moment. We are expecting you.’ The man’s voice was deep and cultured with a lilting Welsh accent.
‘Lolloping lobsters,’ Sam gasped, sinking into the first chair he’d seen since leaving work. ‘Stuff Christmas down a big hole. I’m sick of it already. Never understood it. A great madness that comes on all the world.’
The sense of silence in the little room was complete. The babble outside was cut off as if someone had flicked a switch. No chatter. No cash registers. No piped music. Sam felt as though he’d suddenly gone deaf. The light was dim, like some kind of stockroom (but without the stock) and it was pleasantly cool. The smell was clean sawdust.
Bowler-hat man came back and stood behind a low counter. Between them was a large brown parcel, tied with string.
‘Here it is, sir, all ready for you. The Advent Calendar. I hope you like it.’
‘Thank you,’ said Sam, not quite knowing what else to say. It was larger than he expected. It was square and about the size of a very large picture. ‘There must be lots of chocolate in there!’
‘Oh, I doubt it, sir, I doubt it, although you can never be quite sure.’ Sam didn’t quite get that – but the man was so solemn he didn’t like to ask questions – and time was getting on. ‘Is there anything to pay?’
‘Not just at this moment, sir, no, nothing to pay. You will be careful, won’t you, to open the doors on the right day, otherwise things can get a bit, well, complicated, and we wouldn’t want that, sir, would we?’
‘I suppose not,’ said Sam, humouring the man. What could go wrong with a chocolate calendar?
‘We’ll need a mobile phone number, sir, if that’s alright, for the texts. It’s really very important to open them at the right time.’ Sam scribbled his number down without thinking. Alice had one but it was broken. She was hoping for a new one for Christmas. And there’s a help line this year for the first time,’ said the man, proudly, as he held back the curtain for Sam to leave. ‘Just dial 266 433 555 in case of complications. It works from any phone and it’s free. Here’s my card.’
‘Thanks, Mr –er-Gabriel,’ said Sam, puzzled, looking at the small business card. ‘I don’t expect we’ll be needing it but good to know you’re there. Must be off.’
‘Goodbye, sir. See you again.’
‘Oh, I doubt it,’ Sam muttered, as he pushed through the curtain of tinsel out into the main store again, blinking in the light. The large brown parcel was secure under his arm. It was surprisingly light – like a large sheet of cardboard – but very awkward to carry. He looked at his watch. ‘Bother and bananas.’ Should he join his friends or get this back to Alice and Megs? Just one, for the road? It was Friday, after all. Christmas cheer and all that. Sam smiled in triumph as he saw the camel man still in the queue for stuffed bears as he rode the escalator to freedom and the weekend ahead.
Alice yawned and shook herself awake around nine – her normal time on a Saturday. Almost her first thought was chocolate and the special calendar.
She hoped against hope that Sam had actually been to Hamleys and hadn’t lost the card. Last night Megs had feared the worst.
‘Never mind, love,’ she sighed. ‘We can go in and get it tomorrow if we have to.’
As she pulled on her jeans, jumper and trainers, Alice thought, not for the last time, that the word ‘uncle’ was much too adult to describe Sam.
‘The English language needs a new word,’ Megs would say on a good day. ‘For someone who is your mum’s brother but has no sense of responsibility.’
She heard Sam come in, of course, around two in the morning: his regular time on a Friday night. There was the normal accompaniment of friends throwing him out of the taxi; of Sam looking for his keys; the odd ‘Barrels of barnacles’ and other less savoury expressions.
He would be fast asleep on the couch in the front room. One of his many annoying habits was crashing out on the sofa when he came in from a late night.
Alice rattled down the stairs. Sure enough there he was, looking as if he’d done battle in the night with giant mushrooms. Normally, if she was feeling merciful, Alice would leave him to sleep for a bit. Today she wanted only revenge and chocolate and so she drew back the curtains and turned on the lights.
‘Hand over the calendar, Sam. It’s wake-up time. Did you get it?’
Sam made cow-like noises and pulled the quilt over his head. His boots stuck out at the bottom. A hairy hand pointed to the large brown parcel, tied with string.
‘Leave me alone, monster. S’there.’
Alice threw a cushion at the lump that was his head and fetched the scissors. Sam had one eye pushed over the duvet watching like a hermit crab. She peeled away the cardboard wrapping.
‘Sam, this isn’t funny! I thought you were collecting me an Advent Calendar. I wanted a big one with Maltesers or Terry’s Chocolate Orange segments or Galaxy. What’s this exactly?’
Sam farted and looked pleased with himself. He was waking up now, reaching back into yesterday for the memories. He spoke slowly.
‘That’s the one the man gave me. I handed over the card like you said. Strangest blinking calendar I’ve ever come across’.
Alice took off the last of the wrapping paper and held the object up to the light. It was like nothing she’d ever seen.
The Advent Calendar was very light and made of wood a couple of centimetres thick in the shape of a large diamond. They found out later that the wood came from an olive tree. It had a lovely sweet smell and a polished surface. The centre was light brown with a darker strip around the border which tapered to a thin, smooth edge. Alice turned it over. There was no label or marking on the back to say where the calendar had come from but there was a small gold-coloured chain so it could be hung on the wall.
Alice stood on a chair and threaded the chain over the spare picture hook where a mirror used to be. The calendar somehow fitted the room and made itself at home immediately, blending in with the surroundings and looking as though it belonged. Alice stayed on the chair and looked more carefully at the front. On the bottom edges of the frame were eleven square wooden buttons.
The one in the middle, at the very bottom of the diamond, had two dots, one above the other. On the left were the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4 carved into the buttons. On the right were the numbers 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Alice felt them with her fingertips and traced their shape.
Sam was standing behind her now with the duvet wrapped round him from neck to ankles looking like a vast, vertical blue caterpillar. ‘There’s just one problem,’ he mumbled.
‘Where’s the chocolate?’ she snapped, intrigued but still cross. ‘No. Where are the doors? Shouldn’t there be little doors? One for each day?’
Right in the centre of the frame there was just a single square double door. You had to look a second time to see it as the colour was just slightly darker than the main surface of the calendar. Alice and Sam peered more closely. It was made of rougher wood and stood out a little. The number 24 was printed on it in tiny letters. But there was no sign at all of 1 to 23.
‘Coffee,’ moaned Sam, and began to shuffle off towards them kitchen still wrapped in the duvet.
‘Just one moment, Sam, you great lump,’ said Alice, blocking his path. ‘This arty nonsense is all very well but where is my … ?’
Sam’s phone farted. Sam looked pleased with himself again. It was set to do that when a text message arrived. Sam began his normal game of hunt-the-phone.
Alice gave up in disgust and turned back towards the calendar without knowing why. Something was different. She looked carefully and ran her fingers across the smooth surface. That was it. Another door had appeared in the centre of the space at the top: black and very distinct against the light wood. How had she missed it the first time?
‘Sam! Look at the calendar!’
Sam crawled out from under the sofa, grinning in triumph, phone in hand. He came over. ‘Found it. Lummy, look at that. Trick of the light?’
Alice peered a bit closer. There was a small number 1 painted in dark grey on the surface of the door. She had to look sideways to see it.
Sam was trying to read his text: ‘Nine, colon, two?’ he said, puzzled. ‘Strange: Alice ignored him and tried to open the new door with her fingernail, part of her still hoping for chocolate. It wouldn’t budge.
An unusual, thoughtful look came over Sam’s face. He rummaged in his coat pocket (always dangerous) and fished out a small white card (along with an assortment of bus tickets, small change, paper clips, biro tops and gum). Alice looked over and pulled a face.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Mr Gabriel!’ said Sam in triumph. ‘The man in the shop who gave me the calendar. He said they would text through the code for each day. I gave them my number because your mobile is broken. It’s obviously some kind of gadgetry. The door appears at a set time and they send out the codes. Clever stuff. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Try those little buttons.’
‘At last,’ said Alice, brightening up. ‘Now maybe we get the chocolate. This could be fun.’
She grabbed the phone, read the message herself, then punched the buttons one at a time. Each one stayed down with a satisfying click as it was pushed home. ‘Nine.’ Click. ‘Colon – that’s the two dots.’ Click. ‘Two.’ Click. Sam caught hold of Alice’s arm, reaching for his phone.
With the last click, something was happening. The door at the top of the calendar slowly began to swing open. There was just blackness on the other side – a richer, deeper blackness than a painted square on the surface of the calendar. For Sam and Alice it was like looking down a tiny, dark hole or through a window into nothingness.
They both took a step backwards in shock. A split second later, the tiny door was as big as a large window and it came rushing toward them. A moment after that, before they could move or think or do anything, at all, they were completely swallowed up by the great and utter darkness and, at first, complete silence.
Without having experienced it, it is impossible to understand how vile it is to be swallowed by darkness. Perhaps a blind person would have some idea or someone who lives in a place without electric lights. Alice had never been in a completely dark room before or out in the countryside at night. Nothing had prepared her for the sheer blackness of everything. For the first time in her life, she gripped Sam’s hand and was glad he was there.
‘What’s going on?’ he whispered, shivering. The duvet had disappeared and Sam was left in his T-shirt and boxers. ‘Who turned the lights out? Power cut?’
‘I’ve no idea.’ said Alice. ‘It feels as though we’re outside.’
‘We can’t be.’ said Sam.
Together, still holding hands, they bent down and felt damp earth between their fingers. The air was clammy and still.
‘So what happened?’ said Sam, fully awake now.
‘I punched in the numbers. The door opened. It got bigger. The darkness kind of swallowed us.’
They turned around slowly, hoping to see something behind them. There was nothing.
‘Sam, this is scary. What can we do?’
There was a dank, rotting smell and the air was completely still. For ages, as it seemed, they stood rooted to the spot, looking around but seeing nothing, ears straining into the silence.
Then very gradually their eyes began to adjust to the dark and began to sift blackness from blackness and make out shapes. Their ears began to catch soft, muffled sounds in the distance. Sam took a step forward, very carefully, and discovered they were standing next to a kind of rough cobbled track. Stooping down, they discovered that to each side was soft, boggy ground where hardly anything grew. Ahead was the silhouette of some kind of great city surrounded by a high wall. The track they were on led up to an open gate.
Still holding hands and trembling as much from fear as from the cold, Alice and Sam moved slowly forward, up the gentle path to the gate, still not daring to speak. They inched their way slowly along, keeping to the edge of the path. The soft, low sounds were coming from the city itself. The gates were open and unguarded. They passed through.
Once inside they began to make out the shapes of people shuffling to and fro, great crowds of them going about their daily business. Most were very thin and stooped. They moved very slowly and carefully in the darkness, keeping as close to the walls and making themselves as inconspicuous as they could. Sam and Alice stayed well back from them and the strange people avoided contact even with each other. They were still frightened but Alice’s curiosity was beginning to get the better of her fear.
Occasionally, someone would brush past them and Alice and Sam noticed that their skin felt clammy. They walked deeper and further into the city for longer than Alice cared to remember. It was like a long, grey dream. She couldn’t ever remember being without light for so long. The same stooped, sad figures wandered aimlessly to and fro. The darkness began to eat into them after a time, sapping hope and life. Sam had hardly said a word since the journey began.
Then, gradually, very gradually, there began to be a change. As they came nearer to what felt like the centre of the place, there seemed to be more and more people moving in the same direction, slowly at first, then the movement picked up momentum and even some speed. Sam and Alice were caught up and walked swiftly with the crowd.
In the end Alice had to do something. She was bursting with questions. She looked around at the crowds rushing past and then spoke to a girl her own age as softly as she could: ‘What is this place? Where are we going?’
The girl came close and looked at them in amazement and in dread. ‘You must know, surely?’ she whispered, looking over her shoulder. ‘This is the City of Choshek.’
‘How long has it been dark here?’ asked Alice. ‘Does it never get light?’
‘How long? It has always been dark here, miss, always and always. We have always lived like this. There is a longing in our hearts for something else, something different, and we believe it was different once, but the memory is so far in our past. It eats at us when we wake and beckons us in our dreams but we have no name for it. In the meantime we have learned to live in this darkness.’
Something stirred in Sam now Alice had made a beginning: ‘Where are all these people going?’
The girl turned to him and, again, spoke with respect but softly, as if not wanting to be overheard.
‘To the great assembly, sir, in the centre of Choshek. There has been a rumour that the oracle will speak and name the thing we all seek. You must come. We have not seen a moment like this for many generations.’
She moved away, her eyes full of fear and hope. Sam and Alice followed as best they could but lost her quickly in the crowds. They kept on walking until they came to the place where all the people in the city were gathered: a spacious cobbled market square which Alice guessed was in the very centre. There was a stillness, an expectancy over the gathering. For as far as they could see on every side, the crowds waited in silence.
On a raised mound of earth in the middle stood an old, crooked man with a long staff, silhouetted against the perpetual night sky. He raised his staff high. Sensing the time was near, a rippled whisper passed through the crowd: ‘The oracle speaks: Then all fell silent, straining to hear. The oracle too spoke softly but his words cut through the night and carried across the vast square and out into the streets of the city.
‘People of Choshek, hear this. There will be light again in this dark place. One day, the dawn will come. The time is near. People of Choshek, take heart and hope again.’
His voice was thin and weak but his words carried strength and life and hope. The crowd around Alice and Sam became a little more alive, some angry, some excited.
They watched together as the oracle raised his staff high above his head and then plunged it into the ground where it seemed to take root and grow taller. There was silence again. Then, the very tip of the staff burst into a tiny flame. Alice gasped. She felt as if she had been starved of light for so long. From where she stood, at first it was like a candle in a football field; then, as the people watched and waited, it grew in intensity until somehow its brightness began to light up the entire city.
For hours, it seemed to Sam, he had been longing for light and warmth. His senses leapt towards the strengthening flame. He began to look around and see the city for the first time. But the people around them had never seen light at all, it seemed. Some reached forward straining towards the burning torch, fascinated by its glare. Others shrank back, shielding their eyes and looking for the familiar shadows. There was a buzzing and commotion all around.
‘Childwoman! Childman! Come quickly!’ There was a soft, gentle voice behind them. ‘The oracle would speak with you.’
One of the people of the city carrying a smaller staff was beckoning them to follow. He took Alice by the hand and led her through the crowds, with Sam following. They moved away from the flame, to a building with a high balcony where the oracle was waiting. Alice looked out across the mass of people drawn to the light which still burned brightly.
Sam saw that the oracle stood taller than the other inhabitants of the city because he refused to stoop. He looked around him as if he could see even without the light.
‘Childwoman, childman, do you know where you are?’
Sam chose that moment to come to his senses and start to protest. To Alice’s alarm, he was being protective but Sam’s voice sounded hollow after all that she had seen and was seeing.
‘Now look here. We want to go home. Straightaway. This minute. I need coffee and this young lady needs chocolate.’
‘You are right, childman,’ said the oracle (very patiently, Alice thought). ‘It is indeed time for you to return home. But remember. Remember the City of Choshek and the promise of the light. Carry the hope within you.’
The oracle stretched out his hand and touched first Sam then Alice lightly on the shoulder. They fell backwards together just as though they were tumbling back into a deep, dark sleep.
Minutes later, as it seemed, Alice opened her eyes. They were back in the front room. There was the duvet. There was the phone. There was Sam, screwing up his eyes against the light. There was the winter sun streaming through the windows. There were the normal household noises: the traffic outside, the radio in the kitchen, Megs getting ready for the day.
And there was the Advent Calendar on the wall, making itself at home. the small dark door at the top was now wide open. Alice looked more closely. There was no chocolate to be seen. Inside was something even better. Inside all was darkness, except for a tiny, living candle flame.