Jack 3: Completely Chronic Christmas

It was Christmas morning. The first Christmas since Dad had died. It was cold. Bitterly cold. A northeast wind howled round the house.

Jack woke up and opened the curtain to look out. The ground was already snow-covered. Even in the short time that Jack was at the window watching, the snow seemed to fall faster and thicker.

"Yippeee!" Jack yelled as he ran down the stairs to the kitchen. "Look, Mum, look. Snow on Christmas day. It's ages since we've had it."

"I know, Jack. And we'll have a lovely Christmas at home. Pity that Uncle Peter and Auntie Pat can't be with us. I'm sure they'll have a lovely time with Pat's family." Jack's mum sounded sad. "Uncle Peter offered to be with us, but I said it wasn't fair to Pat's family. Anyway, he's helped so much."

"Yes, he's been great," said Peter." It's fair, though. We get them every other year. And it's a long way to Pat's family in Dublin."

"But I do know that they've made an extra special effort with presents this year, with all we've been through."

"Well," sighed Jack. "I'd give all the presents in the world to have Dad back."

"Me too," Mum said. "I sometimes wondered whether I'd manage at all. But I've got you and Jen." She took his hand and pulled him into a big hug. Jack felt his Mum sobbing.

"At least we've got Grandpa and Grandma coming round. I hope they can make it this snow without a car. I know their neighbours will bring them down if they need help. After all, it's only five minutes in a car."

"Yes, good old Grandpa. He's so good with his games. Even Jen isn't moody when he's around."

"Anyway, time for breakfast," Mum said, as she put the toast and kettle on. "I think it's a day for breakfast in front of the gas fire. In this weather, I can't afford to keep the whole house warm. Let's work out how we're going to get Jen out of bed and into an armchair."

"I think a nice cup of hot chocolate would do the trick - for both of us, that is."

Mum smiled. "Yes, good idea. Please pop up and tell Jen that hot toast and chocolate will be waiting by the fire in ten minutes. Tell her she can come down wrapped in her duvet."

Jack ran up the stairs and knocked on Jen's door. He didn't dare go into her bedroom without knocking after the time when he'd burst in and found her putting what he called her 'war paint' on. She warned him then, "Don't ever come in without knocking and being invited. I need to concentrate fully when I'm doing this. I could have put mascara into my eyes or lipstick up my nose."

His knock was greeted by a low moan. He couldn't work out what she said at first./ He knocked again and the moan came back louder. Jack finally worked out that it said "Come in." So he did, bringing the good news to the heap of blankets and duvet from which only the top of Jen's head stuck.

"OK, I'll be down."

Jack ran down the stairs. Mum knew he wouldn't want to wait for Jen and had already laid out his toast and hot chocolate on a tray on the table in front of the sofa. The gas fire was lit and giving out a nice comforting glow.

Jack tucked into his toast. He was hungry. Big, thick slices of bread straight from the bread maker, toasted to a golden brown. Honey on the first slice, crunchy peanut butter on the second, marmite on the third. He liked every taste in the morning.

Five minutes later, Jen struggled down, wrapped in her duvet and blanket. Her tray was waiting for her, and Mum was sitting in the armchair with her tray. Jen had just one slice of toast, but with a thick covering of cream cheese and jam. "Ugh," thought Jack, as he saw her eating it. "Ugh," thought Jen, as she saw Jack eating his. Mum smiled as she saw their expressions when they looked at each other's food. Then she drank her coffee and ate her half slice of toast. She didn't suggest a morning video as she knew that Jack and Jen could never agree what to watch.

"Presents in an hour, when're you're both washed and dressed."

"But Mum, it's so cold in the bathroom," said Jen. "I don't even want to go in there."

"I'll put the fan heater on. It will be warm in ten minutes."

And twenty minutes later, Jack and Jen were back in the lounge, Jen with her duvet on top of her clothes and Jack reading one of the books he'd brought back from the school library at the end of term. He was reading up on myths and legends. Ever since the visits of 4D and FourTh, Jack wanted to know more, even though there was nothing in the book about Cloud Nine.

Suddenly the phone rang. "Oh dear, I hope it's not Grandpa and Grandma saying they can't make it," said Mum.

She picked up the phone and Jack cuddled close to her so he could hear too.

"Is that Mrs Henderson?" asked a friendly voice.

"Yes."

"I'm calling from the Royal Infirmary. I've been given your name by Mrs Williams, your mother. I'm afraid your father has just been admitted."

"Oh, no." said Mum. "What is it?"

"It looks very much like a heart attack."

"Oh, my goodness. I don't believe it."

"We don't think he's in danger but we're going to have to keep him in for a few days to check him. Mrs Williams is by his bed. She came up in the ambulance. She asks whether you can come up. She knows it's snowy, but she very much wants you up."

"I will. I haven't got a car, so it will take me about an hour to walk up." Mum looked out of the window and could see the snow building up."I expect the roads aren't passable now, are they?"

"Well. we're only sending out ambulances in life or death cases, so probably not."

"Nothing that a good pair of gumboots can't cope with," Mum said bravely. "Thanks for letting me know. Which ward is he in?"

"We've got him on the surgical ward. It's called the Lister Ward."

"Is there anything he needs?"

"No, just come up yourself."

"OK, thanks. Goodbye."

"Mum, that's unfair," said Jack. "Grandpa was so healthy. He wasn't fat or anything. He didn't smoke ever, did he?"

"Well, when he was young. They all did. I doubt it's that. But there's a weakness on his side of the family. Your great grandfather on his side died quite early. Anyway, enough of that. I need to get ready. Please stay near the phone. We'll have to have Christmas lunch tonight. I'll put some food out for you and Jen to microwave. Do you mind waiting until tonight for the presents? I want to be with you."

"Of course not, Mum. Jen will be happy to go back to bed."

And half an hour later, they were both back in bed. Jack was reading his book, with the phone handset on his bedside cupboard. Jen burrowed down into her bed, listening to her iPod.

Mum popped her head round the door. "It's ready meals for lunch, I'm afraid, But your favourites. Lasagne for you, curry and rice for Jen. They're both microwave meals. Just follow the instructions. I must dash."

"Bye, Mum. Love you."

"You too."

Jack  heard Mum run down the stairs, and a few minutes later the front door banged. Jack snuggled down into his bed with his book. He was quickly lost in the world of dragons, ancient heroes and gods, but within half an hour he had dozed off.

He was woken suddenly by the phone ringing.

"It's Mum. Grandpa's OK, though he's not very well. I'm going to have to stay up for the day, I'm afraid, so we may not be able to have our Christmas lunch in the evening either. Everything's in the fridge, so it will keep for tomorrow."

Jack already knew that there was no turkey this year, only a chicken. It fitted nicely into the fridge. Not like the turkey they had last year, when Dad was alive. It was so big that it had to be taken out of the freezer two days before. They lived off it for days.

"Also, Jack, we need your help. Grandpa wants his own pyjamas, toothbrush and shaver. He's also got some special pills which they haven't got in the hospital at the moment - they've just run out. They're by his bed. Grandma wants few more clothes and her washing stuff too, in case she has to stay in for the night. Would you mind taking their key - it's hanging in the usual position behind the larder door - and walking up to their house to get their stuff, and then bringing them up."

"Of course not, Mum." He was quite looking forward to going out into the snow. "Please tell me what Grandma needs." He grabbed a pen and paper from his desk.

Mum listed the clothes that Grandma wanted and where they were.

"Just wrap up well, darling. Put an extra pair of socks on before you put your gumboots on. They keep the wet snow out, but not the cold. And please have your lunch first. There is no hurry. I want a nice warm meal in your tum before you set off!"

"OK, Mum. What's the time now?"

"It's already half past eleven, so put your food on in an hour or so, have a good lunch, then set off."

"OK, Mum."

Jack has become a master of the microwave ever since Dad had died. Mum often worked late at weekends, when she didn't have to take them to school, so Jack was used to getting instructions. "Just as well I work in the supermarket and get all this food cheap," she said so often. "It may not be the best, but it's not bad, and it's good value."

"I don't mind," he'd answer, "Just keep bringing me lasagne." And she did.

Jack made lunch and by two o'clock he had set off, well wrapped up in his long, warm coats, two pairs of sock on, thick gloves and a woolly hat. The snow was by now half way up his gumboots, and he had to tread carefully, as there was ice underneath. As he walked up the hill to Grandpa and Grandmas' house, the wind was behind him, but he could feel it was getting stronger, and somehow it managed to get through his hat to his ears.

 He unlocked their door, put all the things Grandpa needed into two supermarket carrier bags, one for Grandpa and one for Grandma. and set off for the hospital. It was a long walk, as it was in the opposite direction. He walked down past his house. It was so cold that he popped in for ten minutes for a cup of hot chocolate, before setting off towards the hospital. It was on the hill on the other side of the valley. It took him until four o'clock to get to the hospital. He'd remembered the name of the ward and was soon up with Mum, Grandpa and Grandma. Mum gave him a big hug, and felt his frozen nose.

"You're frozen. Poor Jack. But this place is hot. You'll soon be warm as toast."

"I hope so," said Jack, who was still shivering from the cold.

"Just give yourself a few minutes, but then you must get back. It's dark already, but the pavements are well lit. You must get home. There's more microwave food in the freezer. I'll be back later tonight. The doctors said they've just got another couple of tests to do and I want to be here to see the results."

"OK, mum." And Jack wrapped himself up again and set off back home.

He was half way down the hill when he heard the clop-clop of a horse's hooves behind him. He turned round to see a knight, fully dressed in armour, riding an enormous white horse. Over his armour, the knight wore a white shift, onto which was stitched a big red cross.

Jack didn't feel afraid, even though the horse was so big. It looked more like a carthorse than a charger. "Perhaps he needs a strong horse to carry all that armour," Jack thought.

"Jack, my boy, get up on my horse," said the knight, extending his hand, which was fully covered in chain mail.

"But who are you? How do I know if I can trust you?"

Your friends on Cloud Nine have been watching over you. You have had a Completely Chronic Christmas, and I am the Completely Chronic Christmas Crusader, or 4C - you know how we shorten our names. They are a bit of a mouthful. I've come to take you to a Christmas meal of the like you have never seen."

"But what about Jen? She's waiting for me to see what Mum wants us to cook."

"Do not fear. On my way here I left her a feast, which she is happily eating right now. It's got a special ingredient to make her forget where she found the food. Come on, up you get!"

And so Jack was pulled up on to the horse.

"Hold on tight, you won't want to fall off," cried 4C, as he spurred his horse into action.

"Careful," yelled Jack, you'll slip."

"Not in the air we won't", and in seconds they had risen above the roof tops,  flying faster and faster. Jack held on tight as the horse accelerated. It seemed like only a few minutes before they had travelled over many countries. Finally the horse slowed down, and gently descended, into a square in an old town. The square had a big church at one end and was surrounded by buildings that the street lights showed up as being made of a warm light brown stone, though many were covered in signs in a language which Jack did not understand.

"Where are we?" asked Jack.

"We're in a little town that you've certainly heard of, but never seen. It's called Bethlehem. You know what it's famous for, don't you."

"Of course, don't be silly. But why here?"

"Well , it's the obvious place to bring people who've had a Completely Chronic Christmas. Behind the church there's a hall that nobody goes into at Christmas, and that's where you and lots of others like you are going to have the best ever Christmas meal of your lives."

And 4C got off his horse and led it quietly round the church, holding Jack's hand.

"Yum, yum," said Jack. "But just one thing, why you?"

"Ah well, that's a bit of a sad story," replied 4C. "What do you know about the Crusaders?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. Something about taking back the Holy Land for Christians?"

"Yes, that's right. But we didn't do a very good job of it. Yes, we won it back for just under two hundred years. We called in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But we thought we had the right to it, as if it was only OUR Holy Land. We were pretty nasty to the other two religions whose Holy Land it was as well."

"Who were they?"

"Why, the Jews and the Muslims, of course."

"Oh yes, and what did you do to them?"

"Well, it's Christmas, so I don't want to go into it in detail. But we did shed a lot of blood. Men, women and children, They thought we were dirty, uncivilised people. We thought we were on a holy mission. That's why I'm here. My job is to make it up to children all over the world on the most important day of our year."

"So what do you do for the rest of the year?"

"Oh, don't think I just show up on the day. There's a lot of planning that goes into this. We're watching hundreds of thousands of kids all over the world. It's not just me, not even just the Crusaders. After all, what do they know about Bethlehem  in the middle of China? Not much, I expect. No, in every country, we've got some special heroes with, how shall I say, mixed histories, who've got to make it up to kids on their special festive days. And fortunately, the days are all different. There are even different Christmas days. So we can lend each other a hand. Anyway, that's enough of that. Time to eat."

They approached the hall. There was a bright light shining beneath the door. 4C knocked gently on the door, and it was flung open to reveal long tables with children sitting along both sides, tucking in to the most glorious turkey dinner.

"Oh, they're finishing," said Jack. He was disappointed.

"No, look over there, at the end." And Jack saw that there were many tables still to be filled. "Remember, Christmas lasts for 48 hours, or a little bit less," said 4C.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it starts in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, and it ends in other islands, Alaska and Hawaii. You know about time zones, don't you? The earth takes 24 hours to spin. So we feed the children in who've had really bad mornings when the day begins, children like you in the middle, and at the end come those from the furthest time zones who had had bad evenings," he said, a little proudly as if the organisation was all down to him.

"Ah, I see," said Jack.

"Anyway, take a seat and tuck in. I've got to take a few back and pick up some more, so take your time."

And so Jack did. He was with children mostly from all Europe and Africa, with a few Americans who had had bad mornings. He tucked in until he almost burst, and it didn't seem like an hour had passed when 4C appeared again.

"Time to go home, Jack. "We need to hurry, and that's because I've got some good news for you. Your Grandpa is going to be alright, and Mum is already walking home, so we need to get you into bed before then."

Jack suddenly felt tired. He was ready for bed. 4C lifted him up onto the horse, which seemed to travel even faster home, and before he knew it, he was being carefully lifted through his bedroom window. But he was awake enough to say to 4C "Give 4D and FourTh my best wishes for a Happy Christmas. And thanks."

"My pleasure," replied 4C, and he was gone. In seconds Jack was in his bed, and minutes later fast asleep. Mum came home and peered into the room. She came over to Jack's bed and kissed him on the head, made sure his blanket and duvet covered him fully, heaved a sigh of relief, and went downstairs to microwave her supper. She was looking forward to Christmas lunch and presents on Boxing Day.

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