It was Christmas Eve and the snow outside lay deep and crisp and scattered with the icy little jewels of Prudence’s tears. The day before Christmas had been a Christmas horror for Prudence. Sleep, the lack of it, making her head heavy. When making her morning coffee, the putrid stench of the turned milk. Having to restart the boiler time and again, before settling for another ice shower, then stepping out into the cold room, with no heated towel. The stubbed toe; the splotch of marmalade on her clean dress; the dead battery in her watch; the scratch that she’d discovered on the lens of her glasses after last night’s Christmas drinks. But mostly for the confusion when she had tried to start up her laptop, only to be greeted by an error message on the screen HARD DRIVE NOT DETECTED.
Not that all of that was the end of the horror. That was just what had happened before she had left for work.
‘Why didn’t you back it up?’ she admonished herself under her breath as she walked along the high street, towards the train station, hair across her face, incognizant to the looks received from the passing pushchairs and suits. ‘Why didn’t you just back it up, you stupid, stupid dick?’
Her novel. The one that she had been working on for the past five months. The one thing that reminded her that life was more than wake, work, home, sleep. Her sole passion for life. The one thing that made her feel an infinitesimal bit more than worthless. For it had just begun to all click into place: the plot settled into a solid structure like pieces of a jigsaw; the narrative loops finally beginning to weave like threads, like rainbows; the characters really coming to life, accompanying her through the drudgery of daily existence. It was something that she could talk about with friends and the people that she met that made her seem actually interesting.
And all of it was simply . . . gone. Lost. Chewed and swallowed into virtual ether. As if it had never existed but in her thoughts. The thoughts that would not leave her alone as she walked along the high street.
At the station, the platform was packed with people. The electronic board advertising that each train towards the city was Delayed. Delayed. Delayed.
‘Some bloke dropped a cigarette into the turn up on his jeans,’ she overheard a platform guard telling a group of commuters. ‘Set hisself alight just after the train left the platform. Problem is,’ he continued, ‘he only noticed he was on fire once the train was halfway along the countryside route, so they’re having to close down both tracks to gain access . . .
‘Nah, luv, don’t know how long. Just keep an eye on the boards.
‘Sorry, mate? Oh yeah, some bloke dropped a cigarette into the turn up on his jeans. . .’
For the previous weeks, the daily passing days, it had been the leaves on the track, and then the ice, and then the snow. And now some bloke setting hisself alight.
After joining the queue for the buses, standing all the way through two towns to the next train station on the line, to then once more stand on the journey to the city, Prudence had eventually arrived at work just over two hours late.
The teary telephone call and look on her face was enough to stop John, her supervisor, from having words with her. It was only when she sat at her desk that Prudence realised the smoothie she’d earlier picked up had been leaking in her bag. Half of bottle of thick berry juice bathing her diary, her phone, her scratched glasses, her purse, makeup bag and her gloves in the fruity, nutritious goodness.
With her coat still on and buttoned up, Prudence picked out a spot and just stared. Could feel her lips drying out as they began to turn down. Staring at the potted lily on her desk, the leaves wilted and browning at the tips. Too much water or not enough? she wondered vaguely. It didn’t seem to matter what she did.
As she removed her coat she looked around the office at the festive jumpers, the Santa hats, the tinsel and the odd cheeky sprig of mistletoe. All of the smiling faces. She listened to the ludicrous enthusiasm of her colleagues, sounding to her like a presenter of a TV shopping channel. “Gooood mornin’, Pierce and Spruce, my name is Nicole, and how can I help you today?” Inflections of ridiculous soubrette soprano rising to an uncharted pitch. “Oh deary, well let’s have a look at that for you and see what we can do for you today.”
The last day at work before Christmas. Everyone happy, looking forward to travelling home to celebrate. To husbands and wives, to boyfriends and girlfriends, to children, nieces and nephews. To cheer, fun, love and sharing. Happiness. Sitting there, fingering the still-sticky patch of marmalade, Prudence listened to the joy in the voices, laughter unbridled. And she felt more miserable than she could ever remember.
Her phone began to ring. She switched on her monitor – a pang for her lost novel creating a contraction in her stomach – and put on her headset. ‘Good morning, Pierce and Spruce, Prue speaking, how may I help you?’
‘It’s Christmas Eve and my delivery still hasn’t arrived,’ the voice on the end said. ‘So where the hell is it?’
‘If I could please jus –’
‘This is bloody ridiculous,’ the voice continued, a slightly rasping Medway accent, part-market trader and part cockney-gangster. ‘Second time I’ve phoned, this is. What kind of a bloody service do you call this?’
‘I’ll need to take your n –’
‘You said that it would be next day delivery,’ the voice cut in once more. Prudence could hear the spittle rattling on to the handset at the other end. Could almost feel it wetting her spongy earpiece. I wish you’d just shut up for second, she thought. So that I can actually help you. ‘Two days I’ve been waiting now, I have. Two bloody days.’
‘If I can take your name, please, then I’ll be able to fi –’
‘Geering,’ the voice snipped in. ‘Maidstone,’ it added.
‘Okay, Mister Geering,’ Prudence replied, tapping at her keyboard, ‘if you could pl –’
‘Mister?’ the voice stabbed into Prudence’s ear. ‘Mister?’ shriller now. ‘You takin’ the piss o’ me, young lady? It’s Missus Geering, alright. Missus,’ really yelling now. ‘I order from you in good faith, and this is how I’m treated? I’ve a good mind t –’
While her ears had been being assaulted by Mrs Geering’s fury, Prudence had found an order on the screen for a Mrs Veronica Geering in Maidstone. Now she interrupted the voice screaming down the phone at her.
‘I think that I’ve found your order here, Missus Goebbels, sorry, I mean Geering –’
‘Are you being –’
‘One Massage Therapy Foot Spa with Pedicure to go to Nelson Terrace in Maidstone,’ she continued, ‘is that correct?’
‘Yes, that’s what I ordered in good fai –’
‘And you ordered that on Saturday the twenty-second of December at three-fifty-six p.m. for next working day delivery, does that sound right Missus Geering?’ Prudence could see very well that Mrs Geering’s Massage Therapy Foot Spa with Pedicure was designated to be delivered today at Nelson Terrace, Maidstone for between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m – a couple of hours from now. Prudence knew that she could simply advise Mrs Geering of this. And usually she would. Having spent the past three years working in the complaints department of Pierce and Spruce, Prudence was very used to the Mrs Geerings of the world.
‘I ordered the bloody thing as a –’
‘Did it come as a bit of a surprise to you, Missus Geering?’ Prudence asked. ‘Christmas, I mean.’
‘What? What do you mean?’
‘Well, in my experience, it’s on the same date every year, isn’t it, Christmas? Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Look, young lady, I don’t like the tone of your voi –’
‘So, my point is, why didn’t you order the stupid, tacky foot spa in, say, early December? Rather than just three days before Christmas?’ You stupid old hag. And with that, Prudence hung up the phone, took off her headset, and pressed the button on the telephone keypad. Away from desk. She rubbed her forehead, her eyebrows, her eyes, and sat there with her cheeks in her hands. After a moment she stared again at her sorry lily, and then looked once more around the office. She watched John speaking with Nicole. Nicole nodding. And then both of them looking up, looking her way. And then John heading towards her.
On the train home from work earlier than usual – what, with her having been suspended – in between the moments of thinking about her novel and her hard drive, Prudence was thinking about the end of her telephone call with Mrs Geering. She was certain that she’d only said stupid old hag in her head.
The bleak midwinter darkness was settling upon the town. On the slow and cold walk home from the train station Prudence had become overwhelmed. By the joy around her, the families, the happy faces and the disparate feeling that she just wasn’t a part of this festive happiness. Everything around her was illuminated by bright twinkling lights, and yet she was shadowed by her own dark cloud; physically numbed by the cold – unable to wear her berry juice-bathed gloves – and now emotionally numb to the loss of her novel. Prudence didn’t even have the spirit left any longer to lambast herself for the stupidity of not having backed up her hard drive.
Despite its nutritious soaking, it turned out that her phone was still working. Having given it a quick clean in a sink before leaving the offices of Pierce and Spruce, Prudence had stowed it safely in her coat pocket. And now it was silently vibrating in her hand.
The Mothership it said, beneath a picture of her mother, apron on and one finger wiping around the inside of a mixing bowl, looking up with a guilty expression. Because that picture was funny to Prudence, when there was funniness to be found.
‘Hi mum,’ she said, after thinking for a moment whether she should, whether she could answer the call.
‘Sorry to call you at work, Prue. I just wanted to check what time you’re going to be with us.’
‘I, uh . . .’ It had started to snow again. A fat snowflake had just landed on Prudence’s nose. She stopped, someone nearly walking into her back, giving her a nudge and a rude word before skirting around her. Prudence barely noticed. She looked around at the lights around her, strings of them across the street, Christmas trees in every warm window. It felt strangely surreal, as if she had just woken up in the middle of the high street.
‘What’s wrong, darling?’ her mother asked. ‘You don’t sound right.’
‘Nothing, mum. I just had a g and t on the train.’
‘On the train?’ her mother said, practically reaching down the phone and demanding that Prudence turn and look at her. ‘I thought that you were working until five today?’
‘I just . . . I didn’t feel well,’ Prudence replied, starting to walk towards her flat. ‘So I came home early.’ Closing her eyes, she took a few steps in blinking darkness. ‘I don’t think that I’ll be down tonight, mum. I think that I’ll just get an early night and be with you bright and early in the morning.’ The last words she had attempted to sing. Even as she did she had heard the sadness in her voice.
‘Oh, it’s not the norovirus, is it? It always goes around at this time of year. Do you think that it was a good idea to have a g and t if you’ve a bug?’
‘No, I’m not sick. It’s just . . .’ What was it just? I’m just manically depressed, mum. So super-sad that I’ve kind of given up on everything. That life itself seems to have it in for me. More than that, I wish that you’d just leave me alone right now. ‘I was at a Christmas drinks party last night, and I just don’t feel right.’
‘Well again, do you think that having another drink will make you any better for tomorrow? I don’t think that – ’
‘Mum, I’m fine.’ Prudence found that she was gripping the phone a little bit tighter than usual. She’d already been dreading even two days back at home for Christmas. The mothership asking why she wasn’t married yet, why she didn’t just go out and find a nice young man; whether she’d had enough to eat; whether she wanted something else to eat. And if she was still wasting her time writing that novel. ‘I had one drink on the train home and I’m just tired. Like I told you, I’ll be with you bright and early.’
‘Well Will and Linda are going to be here for nine. So I’d like for you to be here by then. Make sure that –’
‘I’ll make sure that I am, mum,’ Prudence said, racing towards the end of the call. The phone cold against her ear; her hand freezing as she held it. ‘I’m going home now and straight to bed. See you in the morning. Byyyeee.’
It was moments after ending the call that Prudence had begun to start crying. And she hadn’t managed to stop all the way home, head down, her hair a tangled, snow-speckled mess, scattering the jewels of her tears onto the icy snow.
And oh, to be home. Most days she hated coming back to her three room apartment. Sure, the rooms were big enough, and it was easy enough to keep clean, but it was dark and it was lonely. It wasn’t how she had ever imagined she’d be living at the age of thirty six. Not in her worst nightmares. But today just to be home was something.
Prudence was already looking straight at the boiler before she realised that the flat was warm. That the boiler was showing only a steady green light and not the red flashing one that it usually did when it was playing up. That was definitely something. No reason to ponder why it was working, simply that it was. It was something. Perhaps the change that her day of horror deserved.
She unbuttoned her coat and slid it off. As she did, something slid down over her chest, across her naval and out through the bottom her dress. Crouching down, she looked at her necklace. The clasp had broken. Kneeling, Prudence held it to her forehead. The familiar gritty pain was beginning behind her nose, rising, pricking at the backs of her eyes.
‘No,’ she said, shaking her head, the melting snow dropping in beads from the tips of her hair. ‘No no. I can’t,’ she half-whimpered. No more tears. She couldn’t cry any more tears. Whatever it was, why it had all happened today of all days, she simply couldn’t wallow in it any longer. After all tomorrow was Christmas Day. When she’d have to put on the mask of a brave face.
Holding the necklace in her hand, Prudence stood up and walked through to the kitchen. On the way there her mind had told her No wine. By the time she reached the refrigerator her hand had decided that Yes, I will have wine. She put the bottle on the side and took a wine glass out of the cupboard. Before she unscrewed the cap on the bottle she had already realised that there was another something. Why was the bottle of wine that she had left in the fridge a couple of days before already empty?
All of a sudden there was a bang in the fridge, startling Prudence, almost making her drop the empty bottle. And another. And then another bang, this time making the refrigerator door open a touch before closing again. And then another bang and a clatter. All definitely coming from inside the fridge.
Carefully, very carefully and slowly, Prudence began to open the door. Keeping the door between her and the opening, but helpless not to peer inside. She gave a little squeal when a purple blob flopped down onto the floor at her feet. She was about to nudge it with her foot when, to her surprise, the blob moved.
And then a hand! Rubbing its . . . head!
‘Eurgh, fuckin’ hell, mate. What happened?’ the little animating blob said. It rolled around a bit from side to side before settling on its bottom. It looked around and then very slowly turned its head to face Prudence. ‘Alright?’ it said with a faint little frown and a smile. Prudence could only stand there, frozen as an icicle, holding open the refrigerator door.
The little purple blob rolled uneasily onto its feet and stood there swaying a little, again facing away from Prudence. It turned to its right, staring at the cabinet drawers next to the fridge. With a deep breath, it grabbed onto the bottom handle and, quiet ungracefully, clambered up from handle to handle puffing, panting and moaning as it went. When it reached the top, it lifted one of its stumpy legs up on to the counter and shuffled its round belly over the edge until it was sitting on the top, one leg on the top drawer handle, the other leg crossed over.
‘Are you just going to let all the heat out?’ it said, indicating the open fridge door. Its voice was as a little blob should sound, if little blobs that fall out of refrigerators on Christmas Eve should talk at all. Squeaky, like a dog’s squeezy toy. ‘Let the cold in, I mean?’ it said. Closing its quite bulbous eyes, it rubbed its head, its body shaking a little. It pinched the bony bridge of the nose, sitting between its nostrils. ‘You know what I mean,’ it said, rubbing its hands together. Prudence looked at the hands and feet, six fingers, four toes. But kind of cute, like squirrel or baby spider monkey hands.
Yet still she could only stand there looking at the blob, holding onto the door, letting the heat in and the cold out. Its eyes were wide set, big puffy whites with bright yellow irises; tiny dots of pupils. Where it had been purple, its pimply skin was slowly turning to a dirty artichoke-green colour. Its ears were long and thin, sort of like bunny ears but thinner, the auricle entirely open and flat. They were moving independently of each other: the left hanging down and gently swaying; the right ear up, alert, but a little bit floppy at the end.
‘Soooo . . .’ it said, gesturing with one of the hands. ‘I fixed your boiler. It was so fuckin’ cold in here I went in the fridge to warm up. And really, you should, you know . . .’ It mimed closing the fridge door. It watched as Prudence closed the door and then stand back, arms folded. It picked up the empty wine bottle. ‘Sorry about this,’ it said, looking sadly at the bottle. ‘I got myself stuck in there,’ it nodded towards the fridge, ‘and all I could do was drink this to survive.’ It widened its eyes, until they were all but popping out of its face, which they pretty much already had been.
‘There are raspberries,’ Prudence managed to say. ‘And jars of preserves. And water.’
‘I had the raspberries,’ the little blob replied, putting the bottle back down. ‘Actually,’ it said, pointing a finger out in a rather camp expression, ‘they went quite well with this bottle, I must say.’
‘But why were you in my fridge?’ Prudence asked.
‘Prue,’ it said, smiling, showing its perfectly straight tiny teeth, shaking its head, ‘I already told you. I got stuck.’
‘But why my fridge? What are you doing here? What are you?’ Prudence moved her broken necklace from one hand to the other and then crossed her arms again, leaning back against the door jamb.
‘I’m attracted by the scent of tears,’ the little blob replied. ‘Especially,’ and it pointed its finger outwards again, ‘from girls who like a drink. They taste so much better that way.’
‘That’s really . . . creepy,’ Prudence replied. ‘And wait a second, how did you know my name?’
‘I brought your post through for you, darling.’ The little blob indicated the three cards further along the counter. Both of its ears started spiralling. ‘Not exactly detective work.’
Prudence looked at the cards, and then back at the little greeny blob. She shook her head. Tiredness was overtaking her again. I wish this day would just end already. She blinked clear her eyes. And yet the blob was still there. ‘You’re real?’ she said. ‘Like what, some kind of . . . sprite?’
‘Hmmm,’ the little blob scratched at the rounded bottom of its face. ‘Yeah, I guess I’m a sprite. I’m the Christmas sprite. Well, I’m actually a Maldipléchuip, that’s the closest translation anyway. But sprite sounds way cooler. I’ve, uh, been having a bit of an identity crises lately.’ Both of its ears slumped down by the side of its face, before one sprang back up. And then the other. And then one dropped, swinging around a bit before slapping the Maldipléchuip’s cheek. It reached up one tiny hand and held the ear until it stopped. ‘Listen, have you got any more wine at all? Or any booze? I’m abso-fuck-in-lutely’ parched.’
‘I don’t have any more chilled bottles, no,’ Prudence replied. ‘I’ve got some gin, but no tonic.’
‘That’s fine,’ the Maldipléchuip replied. ‘Warm wine and straight gin chaser is fine for me’. It dropped from the counter down to the kitchen floor. ‘Ouchies! Further than I thought,’ it said, rubbing its back. It walked straight over to the integrated wine rack and plucked a bottle of white from it. ‘And where’s the gin?’ it asked, smiling sweetly up at Prudence, both of its ears sticking straight out sideways.
‘Let me get you a glass,’ Prudence said, skirting carefully around the Maldipléchuip and grabbing another wine glass from the cupboard. ‘Ice?’ she asked, grabbing a handful from the freezer and filling her glass.
‘Not I,’ the Maldipléchuip replied. ‘Just the gin, please.’
‘Let’s just have a nice glass of white to start, yes?’ Prudence replied, raising her glass of ice. ‘And then you can tell me why the hell you’ve decided to come and creep me out, of all people, on Christmas Eve.’
They moved through to the sitting room and sat down on the sofa next to each other. The Maldipléchuip had suggested that Prudence should just call him Chuck. ‘I quite like the name Chuck. And well, it makes things simpler now that we’re friends.’
‘I’m not sure that we are friends,’ Prudence replied. ‘You won’t even tell me why you’re really here, except for that you like the taste of my tears.’ Chuck being here was at least keeping that particular tide from the bay. It was so distracting to find a sprite in one’s fridge that she hadn’t thought even once about her day of horror. About her lost work.
‘I was getting to that,’ Chuck replied, rolling over and scratching his side. Prudence corrected his wine glass just before the liquid started slopping out on to her sofa. ‘People always ask the same questions on a first date: Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Why have I come home to find you going through my knickers draw? I all gets so tedious.’
‘Did you go through my knickers draw?’
‘Uhh . . . nope?’ Chuck replied. Using two hands, he tilted the glass and drained the wine from it. ‘More please,’ he said, blinking rapidly, his ears flapping like wings. Prudence filled his glass. ‘More please,’ Chuck said before he had drunk any, tilting the glass forward.
‘Just drink what you have first, okay,’ Prudence said. She realised that she was still holding the broken necklace. She put it down on the coffee table. ‘And I’ve not had the best of days, so I’ll be kicking you out pretty soon so I can just get some sleep.’
‘But you do want to know why I’m here first?’ Chuck asked. ‘ I mean, I guarantee that you do.’
‘Yes,’ Prudence replied. ‘Do just tell me. This is pretty weird for me, you know.’ She readjusted herself on the sofa, one foot underneath her, facing Chuck. ‘I know that this isn’t real, that it couldn’t possibly be.’
‘Oh, it really is. I told you that I’m the Christmas Maldipléchuip. The Christmas sprite. So each year I seek out someone by the scent of their tears, like I told you. There have to have been a lot of tears for me to be able to find them. And so I found you. To give you one, two, three wishes,’ Chuck said, counting them out on his fingers, finally getting the right amount of fingers to stand up, his ears doing all kinds of crazy weaving and waving about. ‘It’s always three wishes, isn’t it. And that’s all good and well, so that people don’t misuse them. But everyone always does. Always. Every time.’
Prudence was sitting up now. Her heart was making its beat known. Three wishes. Three Christmas wishes. She imagined that this was how it felt to win the Lotto draw. Disbelief first. And then dreams of money. Dreams of a better life. A way out of Pierce and stupid Spruce. A way out of this flat.
‘But I can’t just make you wealthy, you know,’ Chuck replied. ‘There are rules. No bringing anyone back to life. No making someone love you. No turning a pumpkin into a . . . whatever they turned a fuckin’ pumpkin into.’
‘What? You wish for a carriage?’
‘No that’s what Cinderella had a pumpkin turned into.’
‘Really? A fuckin’ carriage?’
‘Well yes, so that she could go to the Prince’s ball. In style. Like a princess.’
‘Well I can’t make you a princess either, I’m afraid,’ Chuck replied. ‘Nothing that could change the course of history. And no destroying other people’s lives. Or any kind of revenge. ‘
‘I’m not vengeful,’ Prudence replied. ‘And I don’t hate anyone.’
‘Well alright,’ Chuck said, clapping his little hands together. ‘So let’s start.’ He cocked his head slightly to one side, earnest as a counsellor. ‘What do you wish for, Prudence?’
Twisting strands of her hair through her fingers, Prudence thought. About what she really wanted. What would make her happy? What would her Cinderella moment be? Surely like most single girls there was one simple wish to wish for. Carefully she thought about the best way to word her first wish. ‘So you can’t make someone love me?’
‘Nuh-uh.’ Chuck shook his head. And held out his wine glass. Prudence was about to fill him up.
‘This won’t impair your wish weaving, will it?’ she asked.
‘Nah,’ Chuck replied. ‘Not at all.’ Moving his glass a little closer to Prudence, making geeing little puppy-like whimpers.
‘And you really can grant wishes to come true?’
‘I fixed your boiler,’ Chuck replied, puffing out his plump chest. ‘And I didn’t even need to be asked to do that.’
‘Then I wish to be more attractive to men,’ Prudence said slowly, unable to help but smile. She put her hands to her cheeks to cover her blush.
‘Interesting,’ Chuck said, unsteadily putting his wine glass down on the coffee table – Prudence quickly moved it onto a coaster. ‘So you’re, what, fortyish?’ Chuck said, curling his thin lips and seesawing his hand.
‘I’m thirty-six!’ Prudence replied, her blush burning brighter.
‘Uhh, that’s what I meant, really,’ Chuck replied. ‘About thirty-sixish. Or thirty, really.’ On his knees, he began to waddle over the sofa towards Prudence. His pimply skin began to ripple; his ears again straight out sideways. Instinctively Prudence began to withdraw.
‘S’fine,’ Chuck half-slurred. ‘Trust me. Come here,’ he said, the pimples beginning to radiate a redness from within.
Prudence leaned towards Chuck. And he placed his hands over her eyes. They were warm. She could feel the energy, like when a friend had practiced her healing hands training on her, surprised when they really did begin to become hot.
Even though Prudence could still sense the phantom feeling of Chuck’s hands over her eyes, she now also felt his hands moving all over her face, her cheeks, her forehead. His hands were in her hair, just brushing through. It was strangely sensual, this little sprite touching all over her head. ‘Open up,’ he whispered with his hands on her lips. And then his fingers were rubbing at her teeth, running along the gums and the tops of each tooth.
‘Done,’ he said. ‘Oouergh!’ In his keenness to retrieve his wine, Chuck had fallen off the sofa. He was quickly back up on it, next to Prudence. From somewhere he had produced a hand mirror. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Look.’
Taking the mirror by the handle, Prudence turned it to face her. And she looked just the same.
Or so she thought at first.
She began to notice, bit by bit, the disappeared thread veins on her cheeks, the slightly higher arch of her eyebrows, the lines from her beneath her eyes and across her forehead . . . gone. Her skin was smooth but glowing; her eyes were bright, the pale browny irises turned deeper, darker, like with her hair, which now also had gentle waves running through it. And her lips, they were fuller; the Cupid ’s bow more pronounced. She parted her lips. And the complete transformation of her face showed greater than ever. Her perfectly white and straight teeth, slightly longer and rounded than before, showing no gum, just . . . perfection!
‘It’s a start,’ Chuck said, slugging at his wine. ‘I mean, you do need to get on a fuckin’ treadmill, darlin’. And read some books; get some hobbies. You’re not bad, just a bit dull, I suppose. A bit below average on every level. But it would take more than a couple of wishes to sort that lot out to supermodel standards,’ he said, gesturing at her body.
‘Hey!’ Prudence said. ‘That’s not very kind. That’s rude.’
‘I’d do your tits for free, mind,’ Chuck said, smiling and rubbing his tiny glowing hands together.
‘Oi! I wish that you’d just . . .’ Prudence put a hand to her mouth. She’d been about to waste a wish – now that she had seen clearly that Chuck the Maldipléchuip was quite capable of granting them.
Betrayed by his smile, Chuck had clearly seen it too. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘What were you going to say? You’ll still have two wishes left’ – his ears standing straight up on end, before twisting together above his head – ‘This one won’t count anyway, because you didn’t finish it. I just want to know what you were going to say. Honest.’
‘That you’d just shut up,’ Prudence said, careful to not actually wish it.
Chuck sucked his lips together, miming them being stuck, his hands out, gesturing What can I do? He pretended to attempt to drink some wine, but couldn’t through his stuck lips.
It made Prudence laugh, the ridiculousness of the little greeny blob with the floppy ears rolling about on her sofa pretending to be mute. She was feeling, all of a sudden, like she was . . . what was it? Feeling a bit more confident? She took a swig of wine. It could have been to do with the wine. As she put her glass back down she caught a glimpse of her laptop, sitting on her desk in the corner.
‘Can you do technology?’ she asked. ‘I mean, as a wish?’
‘Did I fix your boiler?’
‘You did,’ she replied. It was really warm in here now. It was lovely. Another of those simple things that you take for granted. Like she imagined that people who have love start to do. Because you read about those things, see those things, hear of those things every single day. ‘But a boiler is not technology,’ she said, with a cheeky wink at Chuck. She took another sip of wine. She was feeling better. And all because of this strange, creepy little blob.
‘If you want it, wish it!’ Chuck said. ‘And I’ll see what I can do for you, Prue.’
Taking a moment to compose herself, Prudence began to speak. ‘I wish,’ she said, ‘that you could fix the hard drive on my laptop. Bring back all of the data, the documents, the pictures. All of it! Hang on.’ Crossing the room, Prudence brought the laptop to Chuck and set it in front of him, carefully moving his wine glass and the coaster to a safe distance.
‘Let’s have a look,’ he said. He flipped the screen up and hovered his hands just above the keyboard for a moment. Watching him looking at the screen, Prudence saw Chuck staring at the power button. Again his body was rippling and beginning to glow. He pressed the power button and the screen came to life. But it had done that earlier when Prudence had tried. And tried again. As she waited for the computer to boost, she took another swig of wine.
The password screen came up. This it hadn’t done earlier. As before, she could hear her heart, feel its beat. If this worked she could erase the entire horrid day. She could go home for Christmas happy. And beautiful. And she would join a gym, go swimming, start running again. She would back up her story. If this worked.
She entered her password.
The home screen loaded. The cursor blinking. All of her information was there in front of her. Everything that was lost returned, like . . . like . . who fucking cares. It was there: the photos and images, the music, the podcasts, the ideas. And the file titled The Falling Olive. Her novel.
Prudence was transfixed by the screen. She noticed that her palms had started to sweat. She was drumming her fingers on the coffee table. She looked at Chuck, the bright yellow irises a little bleary now; the little blob clearly a bit disinterested by the screen. In fact, she thought that she had caught him checking her out. Perhaps because of her new attractiveness that she had wished for and he had given her. She could almost have kissed him. Almost. But no chance of that actually happening.
‘You did it,’ she said. ‘You actually did it!’
‘Pass me my wine,’ he said. ‘Well, fuckin’ fill the bastard up and then pass it.’
‘Of course. Of course.’ Prudence emptied the last of the wine into Chuck’s glass and did as he’d asked. And then she kneeled on the floor in front of the sofa and clicked on The Falling Olive.
It opened immediately. Straight to the title page.
All of the text was in Hebrew script.
‘Okay,’ Prudence said aloud. She held down the Ctrl and A keys, selected all of the text, moved the cursor up to the font box and selected the first font. Arial.
Nothing on the screen changed. The text remained in Hebrew.
She unselected the text, clicked instead on Calibri to make sure, and typed The Falling Olive at the top of the screen. As she typed, the letters came out as זית נופל
And the more that Prudence worked at it, the more fonts that she tried, the more frantic she became. The more she attempted to rationalise what might fix her story, the more frustrated she got when the fixes didn’t work. And the longer she tried, the more her blood boiled. Computers, they could do this to her. Part of why the hard drive had died in the first place might have largely been down to how many times she had thumped her laptop in anger. Even at work, words from John had been had when Prudence couldn’t help but throw the odd punch at her monitor. She just managed to stop herself short of doing that now. She thumped the coffee table instead.
‘Stupid thing,’ she said. ‘You stupid bloody thing.’ Picking up her glass, she finished the last of the wine. She felt hopeless. Prudence slumped forward onto the coffee table, head in hands. ‘I just wish that I was dead,’ she said.
Chuck the Maldipléchuip put Prudence’s broken necklace back on the coffee table, the closest thing to hand that he had found to garrotte her with. But only after he’d already smashed her over her pretty head with the empty wine bottle. From its resting place on the floor, the bottle was pointing at Prudence’s head. The rivulet of blood following a route through her hair.
‘Every time,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Every fuckin’ time.’
For Chuck knew that there were ways of achieving fortune, love and happiness with three simple wishes. But no one ever seemed to be smart enough to know what to wish for to get it. There was even a way to become a princess, if that was what a girl wished for. Or a boy, if it was what he truly wanted. Anything was possible. Absolutely anything.
This one Prudence had been close.
After murdering the girl, Chuck had quite simply changed the text back to her mother tongue and skim-read her work. It was actually really rather good. But the anger, the frustration. The impatience of people, the greedy race to fortune, love and happiness. Three wishes, they were supposed to be a blessing bestowed on such a fortunate few. Yet used unwisely, so often such a gift ended up being a curse. It was true, the old maxim.
Chuck sighed as he looked down at the lifeless form of the girl on the floor. It certainly was unfortunate. And just a day before Christmas, too.