Charlotte woke clammy with sweat, her heart racing. The dream again. She squeezed her eyes tight to remove the pictures and screaming in her head, then lay quietly, waiting for the hammering of blood in her ears to stop. Her brothers’ whistling breaths alongside her showed they were undisturbed. In the weak yellow light of the streetlamp, illuminating the room through the thin curtains, she could just make out her shadowy surroundings. Turning her head slightly, she could see the hump of her Mum in the corner, huddled asleep under a pile of coats. She had stayed in the armchair again that night then, to give them more room in the bed. Charlotte sighed deeply. She wanted to pee but that would mean waking Mum up as she was not allowed to go to the bathroom alone. She slid soundlessly out from the covers and tiptoed across the cold floorboards to the window. Checking her brothers and Mum were still sleeping, she quickly popped her head under the curtain.
Outside, the sickly lamplight lit up an icy, deserted city street. Once grand houses lined up in shabby rows of bedsits and cheap rentals. In the boarded-up building opposite, steps led up to a wide, deep doorway guarded by two moulded pillars. Charlotte imagined posh ladies in beautiful ball gowns, returning from a night at the opera, stepping down from horse drawn carriages and trotting up the steps to enter the fancy house. Now, the doorway was dirty and dark but she could just make out the huddled figure folded against the wall, away from the wind’s chill fingers. He was still there. Charlotte had watched the man move in a week or so ago; making a bed for himself out of cardboard and setting out his meagre possessions – a carrier bag, a rucksack, a blanket. Every day when she passed him on the way to school, she gave him a smile and a little wave, her Mum hurrying her along the street.
“Come on Charlotte, don’t drag your feet, we’ll be late!” Mum was always hurrying them. She said they mustn’t be late but Charlotte knew it wasn’t that. She knew Mum was afraid. Afraid to be out of the bedsit, afraid to be on the street, afraid in case Dad found them. The man in the doorway never smiled or waved back at Charlotte. He just looked at her with his sad, shiny brown eyes. He was afraid too. Charlotte saw that look in her Mum’s eyes. She saw that look in her brothers’ eyes. She saw that look whenever she caught her face in the cracked mirror hanging in the grubby bathroom they shared with three other families.
A freezing draught cut through Charlotte’s fleecy onesie and she shivered. The bedsit was so cold she could see her breath like smoke rising from a dragon’s nostrils. Imagine how much colder it must be for him, sleeping outside in the filthy doorway. Charlotte wondered who the man was and where he had come from. He was not old but his face was not young. It was hollowed out and lined with tiredness and worry. He was straight and tall, though he bent his body away from the biting cold. Charlotte liked to imagine the man was a Prince who had run away from an evil King who wanted to murder him.
“Charlotte, what are you doing?” Mum’s voice hissed in her ear, “Get back to bed, you’ll freeze!”
“He’s still there.” Charlotte whispered back.
“Who’s still there?” Mum asked.
“The man living in the doorway. Will he live there forever, Mum?”
“I don’t know. Depends why he’s homeless…he might be an old drunk or on drugs…” Mum’s head joined Charlotte’s under the curtain.
“He isn’t old or drunk. He’s just thin and tired.” Charlotte explained sadly.
“I expect someone from the local church will help him soon. They help homeless people, especially at Christmas.” Mum put her arm around Charlotte, “Get back to bed. Stop worrying yourself.”
“Will they find him a home, like us?”
“Oh Charlotte, call this a home?” Mum kissed her head.
“Are we homeless, mum?” Jack’s sleepy voice came from the bed, “Dylan at school said we’re smelly old tramps because we haven’t got a home and we go to the food bank instead of Tesco.”
“Well, Dylan sounds like a very naughty boy who Santa won’t be visiting this year!” Mum snapped, then said more gently, “Of course, we’re not homeless Jack. This is temporary. We won’t be here forever. Just until I’m back on my feet. Just until the court case is over, then we can get the old house sold…we’ll have money.”
“We have a roof over our heads, Jack.” Charlotte cuddled up to her brother, “It’s dry and we have a bed. That poor man is out in the rain and wind and cold. And he only has cardboard to sleep on. We are much luckier than him.”
“Oh Charlie, only you could say we are lucky!” Mum shook her head in disbelief.
“I feel sad about that man!” Jack began to sniffle, waking up little Lewis who joined in.
“Now look what you’ve started.” Mum sighed gathering all three of her children in a big embrace. “I think that man looks like he’s from Syria or somewhere. One of those refugees.”
Charlotte had been told about the Syrian war and the refugees at school. Mrs Thomas had shown them where Syria was on a map. She told them it was a hot country where they grew olives and spices. Her Grandma had once given her an olive to try. She had spat it onto her hand as it tasted so yucky and Dad slapped her arm, telling her not to be rude and disgusting.
“The Government has got enough to do looking after its own, let alone people coming from abroad.” Mum said.
“But that’s not fair, Mum. Mrs Thomas told us that refugees are running away from war. He couldn’t stay in his country or he would die!”
“I know Charlotte, it’s sad and unfair but there’s nothing we can do about it. Look at us. If I can’t get this sorted, we’ll be joining him!”
“Are we leaving here?” Jack’s brow furrowed with worry.
“Do we have to live on the street?” Lewis wailed.
“No, no, not at all…” Mum soothed, “Don’t you worry. I told you. Our house will be sold and Mummy will buy us a new one. No more talking about homeless people and refugees, Charlie…it upsets everyone.”
The next day, the family were up early to get ready for school. Sharing a bathroom with three families meant it could be quite a wait for your turn. Mum needed to spend extra time doing Charlotte’s hair in a French plait, twisted with tinsel, as she was Angel Gabrielle in the nativity play that afternoon; her first time with a speaking role. Mum had managed to make her costume from an old party dress she found in a charity shop and Charlotte was proud of it. Her brothers were both sheep and had made masks in school from cotton wool and cereal boxes. The three children had only been at the school for a term and Mum was especially pleased they were in the play.
Before leaving the bedsit, Charlotte grabbed her cuddly pony. She never went anywhere without Dobbin. He was the only toy she had managed to fit in the small suitcase the day they had run from home. Although he was not her favourite cuddly, he had become very special to her. He was soft with a velvety muzzle she liked to rub between her fingers and he smelt of her old room. Then, they were out in the icy cold wind and Mum was rushing them along the street. Charlotte looked across at the doorway, ready to wave and smile but the man was not there.
“Come on Charlotte, no dawdling, we haven’t got time.” Mum pulled at her hand.
Charlotte dragged along after her, anxious about where the man could be. She wondered if the evil King had found him and taken him back to his castle. He might be lying in a damp dungeon. She did not think about or look where she was going. All she could see was the man in chains sitting in a dark, miserable prison.
“Charlotte, watch out!” Mum shouted, but it was too late, Charlotte collided with somebody and fell on her bottom with a bump.
“Ow, ow…” Charlotte began to cry.
“I am so sorry.” said a soft, rich voice, “I did not mean…”
Charlotte looked up into two shiny, sad brown eyes. It was the man. She smiled at him, quickly wiping away her tears, “It’s all right, I’m OK.”
“Just an accident.” Mum said, helping her up and brushing her down. “No worry. We need to be going.”
As Mum hurried them on, the man called out, “One moment please, you forgot this.”
He handed Dobbin to Charlotte.
“Thank you.” Charlotte tucked him in her rucksack as Mum pulled her away again.
The man turned and walked on to his doorway.
After the nativity play, Mum explained they had to visit the food bank to get their Christmas shopping.
“I was so proud of you all!” Mum said as they walked to the community centre, “You were brilliant. I could hear every word you said Charlie. I think Santa might have left some special things for you at the food bank today because you are such good children.”
“Has Santa left us a present?” Lewis skipped along in excitement.
“We might not get presents this year,” Charlotte warned.
“Is it because he doesn’t know where we live?” Jack asked.
“Of course you’ll get presents this year.” Mum said, “I just told you. He’s left you all something at the food bank. He told me himself. You have all been really good this year, he said, and deserve a present.”
“You talked to Santa?” Lewis exclaimed in surprise.
“Yes, he rang me up this afternoon.”
“How did he get your number?” Jack asked.
“Santa is magic. He knows everyone’s numbers!” Mum said.
They entered the community centre in a state of anticipation. Mum led the way to the food bank at the back of the building, fumbling in her bag for the vouchers she used to buy items they needed.
“Wow!” Charlotte said.
She could not believe the change in the food bank. It was decorated with tinsel and twinkling lights, Christmas music played from a CD player in the corner, the volunteers all wore Santa hats and Christmas jumpers and were singing along merrily. In one corner, there were big sacks full of wrapped presents. The sacks were labelled Boy or Girl and with different ages.
“Look what Santa has brought!” Jack shouted.
“Shall we do food or presents first?” Mum asked.
“Presents!” the three children agreed at once.
Charlotte chose a present from the sack which said ‘Girl aged 7-10 years’. Her brothers had presents from the sack which said ‘Boy aged 4-7 years’. She wondered if Santa really left gifts at the food bank or whether it was kind people who felt sorry for them at Christmas. Surely, if Santa was real, he would bring presents to them at the bedsit. He was magic and would always know where they lived. Her brothers seemed convinced though, and even if it wasn’t Santa, Charlotte thought those people were very kind indeed. She told them thank you in her head.
After the present choosing, Mum took them over to the food.
“I’ve saved extra vouchers so we can treat ourselves.” she explained.
They all enjoyed picking out Christmas treats. There were mince pies, a Christmas cake, a box of chocolates and a multi-pack of crisps to go with the usual essentials.
As they were leaving, one of the volunteer ladies called out, “Wait a minute, me dears!” she ran over with three selection boxes for the children and a box of Christmas crackers, “Merry Christmas!”
On Christmas Eve, Charlotte looked out of the window at the man huddled in the doorway. It was bitterly cold. The weather woman on the radio said it might snow that night.
“He’s still there,” Charlotte said, “he hasn’t gone to the church, Mum.”
“Oh Charlie, what did I say to you, please? It’s not helpful and it upsets everyone. Come on now, it’s Christmas Eve and we’ve got to decorate the room.”
Mum had been to the charity shop again and found some tinsel and a Christmas angel. All four of them helped stick the tinsel around the walls with Sellotape. Mum put the angel on top of the chest of drawers. Charlotte and her brothers arranged the crackers around the room and stuck them with tape too. Then they put out their treats and presents on the shelf next to the bed.
That night, Mum said they could eat later, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. She heated up tinned tomato soup in the microwave and served it with slices of bread and cheese. For a special pudding, they had a mince pie and a chocolate each.
“What’s Dad doing for Christmas?” Lewis asked out of the blue.
Charlotte noticed her Mum’s face go pale, “I don’t know, lovely.”
“Probably in the pub…” Charlotte said.
“He won’t ever find us, will he?” Jack asked.
“No, now stop worrying about things like that! It’s Christmas!” Mum smiled, “Let’s sing some Christmas songs, come on, what shall we start with?”
Later, Charlotte lay awake thinking about Dad and whether he would ever find them. He had shouted at Mum that she could never leave him. Charlotte tried not to think about the night they left the house, but the image of Dad dragging Mum by the hair out of the room was stuck in her brain. She and her brothers hammered on the door but Dad had locked it. They couldn’t help Mum. All they could do was listen to the smashing and banging and screaming. Charlotte knew she couldn’t go to sleep because she would have the dream again and she didn’t want the dream on Christmas Eve. She thought about the man in the doorway instead and how it was horrible for him to spend Christmas outside and alone. They were luckier than him. They had a home and each other. They had presents and food to eat. He had no one and nothing. They had left their old house but he had left his country. Then, Charlotte knew what to do. Carefully, she crept out of bed and put on her coat and boots, checking every so often that everyone was sound asleep. She picked her selection box from the shelf, unpeeled a cracker from the wall and removed a mince pie, slowly and gently from its wrapper. She bundled them in her scarf, picked up Dobbin and went to the door. Checking again that nobody was stirring, she opened it soundlessly, setting the catch so she could get back in.
On the landing, it was pitch black. The bulb has blown weeks ago and the landlord never replaced it. Charlotte felt her way along the wall to the stairs, then edged her way down one at a time. It was a bit brighter in the hall, a blood red pooled on the floor where the streetlight shone through the stained glass above the front door. She put down her parcel to struggle with the old, stiff door handle, then pulled back the door with all her strength. Picking up her things, she went out into the night. The weather woman was right. It had snowed. A thick carpet, golden under the artificial lights, shone untouched and pure. The grim city street had been transformed into a fairy-tale land. Charlotte looked across at the imposing house opposite. The wide doorway was in shadow but she could just see the outline of a blanketed figure tucked into a corner. Bravely, Charlotte crossed the street and began to climb the steps up to the homeless man. Her feet scuffed the snow.
“Who’s there, please?” the soft, rich voice called, afraid.
“Hello,” said Charlotte, “It’s OK. It’s me, Charlotte, I live over the street. I’ve brought you something for Christmas.”
The man stood up and walked out of his dark corner, “It’s you, the little girl who fell in the street. I have seen you in the window. Go home, it is not safe for you out here at night. Your mother will be worried.”
“I want to give you this then I’ll go home.” Charlotte held out her bundle.
“I cannot take this from you.” said the man, “It is not right. You do not have much. I see. You and your family are struggling.”
“Please.” Charlotte said and their eyes met under the yellow streetlight. The man saw the pain in Charlotte’s eyes and Charlotte saw the pain in the man’s eyes.
He took the gift, “Thank you.”
Charlotte cuddled her Dobbin and walked back home. The man watched her until she was safely inside.
The next morning, the boys woke early, excited about Christmas presents. Charlotte was groggy from a sleepless night. They sat on the bed as Mum gave out their parcels. Jack had a Lego tractor. Lewis had play dough. Charlotte had a sketchpad, paints and watercolour pencils. Mum said they could finish the mince pies for breakfast.
“One’s missing!” she exclaimed when she opened the box.
“Sorry Mum, I ate mine in the night. I got hungry.” Charlotte apologised.
“Oh well, you’ll have to have a satsuma.” Mum smiled. It was Christmas after all and she wouldn’t get cross with them today.
“A selection box has gone too…” Jack piped up. Charlotte gave him a stern look.
“Charlotte, you didn’t pig out on all your chocolate?” Mum raised her eyebrows.
“I wonder if it’s been snowing?” Charlotte changed the subject. The brothers ran to the window and pulled the curtain back.
Mum and Charlotte joined them at the window. It looked beautiful outside, crisp and clean and bright.
“He’s not there.” Charlotte said, “He’s gone. Everything’s gone. Even his cardboard bed.”
“I told you the local church would come and get him. They’ll see he’s all right for Christmas,” Mum gave her a hug.
After breakfast, it was time to go to the bathroom to get ready for the day. They always went together because Mum didn’t like them being alone in the bedsit.
“Oh, your scarf is lying out here, Charlotte. You must have dropped it yesterday.” Mum said when she opened the door. She picked it up, “There’s something in it.”
“What is it Mum?” Charlotte took the scarf and unwrapped it. Inside, there was a piece of cardboard. On the cardboard was a beautiful drawing. It showed Charlotte riding a glossy horse with a velvety muzzle. She was dressed in a flowing gown with tinsel in her hair.
“That’s wonderful.” Mum said.
“I look like a Princess.” Charlotte smiled.
“There’s writing on the back.” Mum said.
Charlotte turned the drawing over. She read out, “Dear Charlotte, thank you for being my only friend in this strange, grey land. Once, in my own country, I had friends and family. I had a job, a home and money. I had a life. Last night, you made me see I can have friends here too. I can be brave, like you, and go and make a new life for myself. Goodbye, little Princess. Karam.”
“Last night?” Mum raised her eyebrows.
Charlotte looked apologetic, “Well, I can explain everything Mum but, just remember, it’s Christmas…”
If you would like to support refugees or food banks this Christmas, then here are two great charities:
The Trussell Trust
A very Merry Christmas to you all!