When she woke, Ginny was lying on her side facing the edge of the bed. Her legs were curled up under her bump and for once her back wasn’t aching. She shuffled slightly and opened an eye. It was still dark and she couldn’t see the clock.
‘It’s almost eight o’clock,’ Harry whispered.
‘Mmm,’ she acknowledged, wondering how long he’d been awake and watching her.
She felt him move behind her, and knew that he was rolling closer for a morning cuddle. His knees touched her bottom and slid gently down the back of her thighs. He slowly shuffled until his chest pressed against her back. His fingers moved sensitively across her hip and gently up and around her waist until he was holding both her and their, as yet unborn, third child. He kissed the back of her head.
‘How are my girls this morning?’ he asked.
‘Lily’s fine, but I’m still a little worried. What are we going to do, Harry?’ she asked.
‘We aren’t going to make any more rash promises to our kids,’ he whispered with feeling. ‘No more, “we’ll fix Santa’s beard”, no more “we’ll find the bad man who did this”. Not unless we can be absolutely certain that we can keep our promises. We’ve failed to do what we told the boys we’d do, and now they are worried about Christmas. I honestly don’t know what to do about it either, Ginny.’
‘We should never have pretended that Mr Phoenix was really Santa,’ Ginny murmured. ‘But I wish he hadn’t run off after my beard growing spell failed to work. With his help we might have been able to persuade the boys that he wasn’t the actual Santa, that he was simply someone pretending.’
‘He was really upset about losing his beard, and that’s what affected the kids,’ whispered Harry despondently. ‘I couldn’t even find the door he walked through. It was almost as if he vanished! He’s got remarkably good security at his store. I think that all we can do is wait until the boys get up and ask them what they want to do. Christmas should be happy and magical for them, Ginny, like Christmas at Hogwarts, and at the Burrow, was for me.’
‘We might find out something in Side Way, Harry,’ Ginny replied, but she didn’t sound hopeful. ‘Do you think that Lavender will…’
‘Lavender’s not supposed to be at work. It’s her day off today, and she was planning to go to Diagon Alley with Mark,’ said Harry. ‘I know that Mark promised to help, but this isn’t an Auror operation, Ginny. Lavender’s a good investigator, but when she’s off duty, she’s off duty. I don’t suppose that she will do anything, at least not until she’s finished her Christmas shopping.’
‘We could try to speak to Mr Phoenix.’
‘If he’ll see us,’ said Harry.
‘You’re Harry Potter, Harry, and he recognised you! Of course he’ll see you,’ said Ginny. Suddenly uncomfortable, she straightened her legs. ‘But it’s a ridiculous story, what possible use is a stolen beard?’ she asked as Harry moved to accommodate her. She shuffled onto her back, and, after a struggle, rolled to face Harry. They lay belly to belly and looked into each other’s faces in the gloomy half-light.
‘You could use it for a Polyjuice potion,’ Harry said. ‘Apart from that, as Mark said, you could make a false beard with it, but why? And why couldn’t we grow it back?’
‘I was thinking about that when I got up for the loo in the middle of the night. I think I know,’ said Ginny. ‘Remember that time George tried to make your beard grow, just before the Wizengamot meeting. He hit you square in the face with that jinx, but nothing happened.’
‘Because when I shave with my magical razor, I stay shaved,’ said Harry, understanding. ‘You’re right, Ginny. But all that proves is that whoever is doing this is using a magical razor. We’re no closer to knowing why.’
‘True…’ Ginny said no more. They both fell silent and smiled at each other, knowing that their discussions were over.
It was no more than a scuffle and a whisper, but it was enough. Their sons were awake. Harry began to move, to sit up, but Ginny put a hand on his shoulder, preventing him from leaving her.
They lay still and silent, listening to the noises coming from the adjacent bedroom. Harry’s breath was warm on Ginny’s cheek and she leaned over to kiss his nose. In the other room, James was whispering something, but Ginny could not make out the words. There was a loud thump. For a fraction of a second, Ginny was worried, but no cry followed. It was, she realised, simply James getting out of bed by bouncing on it and jumping onto the floor.
‘Me do ’at,’ said Al loudly. There was an equally loud thump followed by high pitched laughter.
The loud noises were followed by faint footsteps on the thick carpet.
‘It’s dis door, Al,’ said James.
Ginny heard the door handle move and saw Harry lift his head to look past her, to the door leading to the room their sons had shared. The moment they heard the door open Ginny and Harry both spoke.
‘Good morning, boys,’ said Ginny.
‘Hello, guys,’ was Harry’s greeting.
‘Eh, oh,’ said Al.
‘Morning MummyanDaddy,’ said James,
He ran to the bottom of the bed, pulled up the covers, and began to wriggle into the bed from the bottom, aiming, as he always did, to crawl up between them. Al, as usual, followed his brother.
Ginny felt Harry release her and roll away. She shuffled onto her back and waited as she felt James creep up past her waist.
‘Hello, Lily,’ said James as his head brushed his mother’s belly. ‘Boo!’ he announced loudly, as his head finally popped out between them.
‘Hello James, how did you get there?’ Harry asked as he kissed James’s sleep tousled hair.
‘Crawled, of course,’ James explained seriously.
Al, his route blocked by his brother, chose instead to climb up his father.
‘Oof,’ Harry groaned as a surprisingly sharp knee caught him under the ribs moments before Al, too arrived at the top of the bed.
‘Morning, Al,’ said Harry.
‘Eh, oh, Daddy ’n Mummy,’ said Al.
‘Well, boys, what do you want to do today?’ Ginny asked.
‘Get Santa’s beard back,’ said James firmly.
‘Es,’ Al agreed.
Harry and Ginny exchanged a concerned glance.
Over their breakfast in the hotel restaurant, Harry and Ginny tried to persuade their sons to forget about the missing beard. They were unsuccessful, and when it became obvious that their attempts were upsetting Al they made their plans accordingly.
‘We will go to the big store and speak to the owner. Perhaps he will know something,’ Harry suggested to his still subdued sons. ‘Santa vanished outside his store, remember, and even if we find Santa’s beard, we don’t know how to find him.’
‘Easy,’ said James. ‘You write a letter to him, address it to a norf pole, frow it inna fire, an ‘e gets it like magic.’
Ginny exchanged a worried glance with her husband; it was obvious that James was not going to forget the events of the previous evening, and neither was Al. The problem wasn’t going to go away. She fervently hoped that Mr Phoenix would see them and that he’d admit that he wasn’t the real Santa Claus.
Side Way was busier than ever. The streets were crowded with happily smiling families enjoying the Christmas experience. Ginny looked down at her sons, they both looked very serious. As they walked along the bustling street, James pulled his mother to a halt outside the department store window.
‘Look!’ he pointed proudly. ‘Santa! My found him.’
Ginny looked into the window. Behind the placard reading “Santa’s Busiest Day, courtesy of N J Phoenix, Dept. Store” was a large photograph. In it the man they’d met the previous evening was waving cheerfully. He was sitting in a large chair covered in white fur, and behind him a sign read “Phoenix’s Famous Santa’s Grotto”. Ginny smiled in relief.
‘Well done James,’ Harry said.
‘Yes, clever boy,’ Ginny added. ‘You know what this means, don’t you?’
James shook his head. Ginny looked at Harry for confirmation before speaking. His eyes told her yes; it was best to prepare the boys now.
‘The man we met yesterday wasn’t the real Santa Claus,’ she began. ‘That photograph shows that he works here. Lots of shops and stores have people who dress up like Santa, and ask children what they want for Christmas. The man we met was just pretending to be Santa.’
James and Al gravely considered this information.
‘Santa not know my wanna money,’ was Al’s unhappy conclusion.
‘I’m sure that he will have told the real Santa,’ Harry assured Al.
‘Summum still stole his beard,’ said James. ‘Wha’ if he had bin Santa? I bet a bad man didn’t care!’
‘Shall we go and talk to him? We can ask how he is,’ Ginny suggested. The boys nodded. Much relieved, Harry and Ginny took their sons into the store.
Toy Department filled an entire floor and, of course, Santa’s Grotto was at the opposite end to the stairs and lifts. Their progress towards the Grotto was slow, as James and Al dashed excitedly up and down every aisle, making outrageous demands.
Ginny and Harry followed closely behind them and took advantage of the—these days rare—opportunity to hold hands. Ginny spent much of her time reminding her husband that the majority of the boys’ presents were already bought and wrapped, and that they shouldn’t spoil their sons. She watched her husband’s inner turmoil. His desire to make certain that the kids weren’t spoiled like Dudley was fighting his desire to make sure that they had a much happier childhood than he did.
‘We’ve bought them enough already, Harry,’ she whispered, hugging him.
‘If you’re sure, Ginny,’ he said, eventually.
When they finally reached Santa’s Grotto, they discovered, to their astonishment, that it was closed. Ginny immediately sought out a shop assistant. ‘Where’s Santa?’ she demanded. ‘Where’s Mr Phoenix?’
The startled assistant smiled politely at Ginny; he had taken in her pregnancy before he’d looked into her face. When he did, the man recognised her instantly; he glanced over her shoulder, and spotted Harry and the boys.
‘There hasn’t been a Mr Pheonix at the store for many years, Mrs Potter. The store’s founder had three daughters,’ he explained.
‘We were right, he must have been pointing at the photograph behind the sign,’ said Harry to Ginny. ‘Where is your Santa?’ he asked the man.
‘We’ve had to close the Grotto temporarily while we find a replacement Father Christmas, Mr Potter. Phoenix prides itself on the quality of our Christmas displays and we insist that our Father Christmas has a genuine beard.’ He lowered his voice confidingly. ‘Our man turned up this morning beardless. He told my manager, some ridiculous story about being attacked and having his beard stolen. We had to … let him go. We hope to reopen this afternoon.’
‘Snot a story,’ James announced loudly. ‘We see’d him.’
The shop assistant looked at James in surprise.
‘We did,’ Harry confirmed. ‘We met him both before, and after, he’d been attacked. He was stunned and shaved. We were wondering how he was. Can you give me his address?’
‘We, er, we can’t give out our employee’s addresses, Mr Potter,’ the man said uncertainly.
‘What about his name?’ Ginny asked.
‘Ah, er, well,’ the man began. ‘He, er, we, er, well… He showed us his payslip from his last employer, so we had to accept that as proof of identity, but, er…’ Ginny was beginning to lose her patience; she placed her hands on her hips and glared at the man. Quailing under her gaze, the man finally cracked. ‘He said that his name was Nicholas Saint, sorry,’ the shop assistant admitted nervously.
‘And you accepted that?’ Harry asked.
The man nodded unhappily.
‘Who Nickerless Saint, Mummy?’ James asked.
‘We’ll explain later, James,’ said Ginny, although she had no intention of doing so.
‘Please ask your manager if there is any way you can give me an address,’ said Harry. ‘It’s important. We’re staying at the Wand and Thistle until tomorrow. You can leave a message for me there.’
The man nodded and scurried away.
‘We still can’t find Santa, sorry boys,’ said Ginny. ‘But at least we know that this Mr Saint was working here, so he wasn’t the real Santa, was he?’
Al still looked very uncertain. His mouth was pursed and small and he was blinking rapidly. Harry squatted down and hugged his younger son.
‘Not Santa, Al,’ James assured his brother as he, too, moved forward into his father’s embrace.
Ginny hunkered down to join in the family hug.
‘Shall we have another look at the toys instead?’ she suggested after she’d been helped to struggle back to her feet by Harry.
Al and James gave Ginny’s suggestion a few minutes thought. When James finally said, ‘Yes,’ Al nodded in agreement.
It was some time before James’s hunger finally overcame his desire to look at toys. When it did they climbed the stairs to the crowded fourth floor restaurant and waited in the queue to be seated. Despite the immediate offer of a table, Harry insisted on waiting his turn.
They had almost finished their lunch when Ginny saw the woman. The queue for the restaurant was even longer than it had been when they had arrived, but the woman had pushed her way to the front and began arguing with the waitress. Ginny wasn’t tall, but the woman was even smaller, she was less than five feet tall, even in her heels. She was blonde, bespectacled, and wearing Muggle clothes.
The woman ducked past the waitress and strode rapidly towards their table. Ginny glanced at Harry and reached for her wand, she knew that Harry was doing the same.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt, Mr Potter,’ the blonde woman began.
Ginny saw Harry flinch when the woman spoke. The blonde’s voice was naturally high pitched, and her obvious excitement was making it shrill. Her words were a dentist’s drill to the ears and brought with them the natural desire to make the horrible noise stop, now! ‘My name is Rhianna Wrigglesworth and…’
‘Mark Moon asked you to contact me?’ said Harry. ‘Is it about the Beard Hunter?’
‘Yes, Mark is on his way,’ Rhianna continued. ‘He’s bringing someone with him, he didn’t say who. He asked me to tell you my story, said it was urgent. I’ve been trying to find you…’
‘And now you have,’ said Harry, giving everyone’s eardrums a moment of relief. ‘I’d appreciate a brief report, Bailiff Wrigglesworth.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Rhianna calmed down a little, and her voice became merely annoying. ‘The night before last I was called to a silent alarm at Tadcaster Trinkets. Mr Thistlethwaite doesn’t maintain his alarm properly and it is always going off, so I attended the scene alone.’
Ginny smiled to herself as she listened to the form of words. You could always tell a law officer by the way he or she spoke.
‘I found the rear door to the store room open, so—having just cause—I entered the premises. I heard someone moving, and identified myself. The man swore, and I realised that he was about to Disapparate, I tried to stun him, but I missed and he escaped. I called Mr Thistlethwaite and discovered that a box of Bauble Beads had been stolen. However, in his haste to escape, the thief had dropped this.’
Rhianna placed a small cloth pouch on the table. Harry opened it, peered inside, and pulled out several strands of white hair.
‘Santa’s beard,’ James said excitedly.
Rhiannna Wrigglesworth looked quizzically at James.
‘No, James,’ said Ginny. ‘This lady found this beard the night before last. The man who dropped it must have needed a replacement. So that’s why he stole another beard last night.’
‘Did you get a good look at the man?’ Harry asked.
Rhianna Wrigglesworth shook her head. ‘I only saw a silhouette,’ she said. ‘He was a squat little bloke, not much taller than me, and bandy-legged. I caught a faint whiff of cheap booze and stale tobacco.’
Ginny exchanged a knowing glance with her husband, but before Harry could speak there was another commotion at the entrance to the restaurant. Lavender and Mark had arrived. To Ginny’s amazement, they had Mundungus Fletcher held firmly between them.
‘That’s him,’ announced Rhianna with an excited, eardrum-shattering, shriek.
‘Very bad man,’ announced James, pointing accusingly at Fletcher.
The entire restaurant fell silent and waited to watch the drama unfold.
Fletcher burst into phlegm filled laughter, ‘Don’t be daft kid, there ain’t no such fing as…’
He got no further, Harry, Ginny and, it seemed to Ginny, every other parent in the restaurant had drawn their wands and were pointing them threateningly at the scruffy little man. Al Potter let out an unhappy wail and Ginny swept him into her arms. The daggers from Ginny’s glare had pierced Fletcher’s voice box and he trembled fearfully, unable to speak.
A new voice broke the ensuing silence. ‘Mr Potter, I’m Miss Ett, I’m manager of the toy department, I understand that you were looking for me. Perhaps it would be best if you and your … associates … came to my office.’ Ginny looked at the stout middle-aged woman who had spoken. She recognised the man at her side as the shop assistant they had spoken to earlier.
‘What’s happening, Mummy?’ asked James.
‘I have no idea, James, but I’m sure that we’ll find out soon.’ She stood, passed the still unhappy Al over to Harry, and left more than enough money to pay for their meal. ‘Lead on, Miss Ett,’ she said.
‘Please call me Marion,’ said Miss Ett.
The peculiar procession left the restaurant and followed Marion through a door marked “staff only”. Al and James were wide-eyed with excitement as they entered the hidden side of the store. Mundungus, Ginny noticed, was looking at everything with an appraising eye. He was obviously casing the joint. Mark and Lavender had released him, but he was in the company of two Aurors and two Law Office Bailiffs, and he was cowed and silent.
As Miss Ett led them down two flights of stairs and along a corridor filled with battered and broken boxes Harry had explained what was going on to the toy department manageress. After hearing the story, at least as much as Harry knew, Miss Ett had sent her assistant off to try to track down Nicholas Saint.
They eventually reached a door marked “Miss M Ett, Toy Department” and were ushered solicitously through it.
‘Sit,’ Harry told Mundungus when they entered the office. He conjured a hard wooden chair next to the office wall and motioned Fletcher into it.
‘Harry,’ Fletcher began.
‘Shut up, Dung,’ ordered Harry.
He created six, rather more comfortable chairs in a semi-circle around Fletcher, chose the central chair, sat, and scooped James onto his knee. Ginny picked up Al and sat next to him. Lavender sat on Harry’s right and guided a bemused-looking Mark into the seat next to her. This left Miss Ett and Rhianna to fight over who sat next to Ginny.
‘Can I ask; what exactly is going on?’ Miss Ett said.
‘That’s what I’d like to know missus,’ Fletcher said. ‘I’m bein’ harassed.’
‘Shut up, Dung,’ Harry said.
‘Really, Mr Potter, language!’ Miss Ett protested.
‘It’s his name, Marion,’ Ginny explained. ‘This is Mundungus Fletcher, known to everyone as Dung. And this time he’s in real trouble.’
Fletcher opened his mouth to protest.
‘Say nothing,’ Harry ordered. He turned to Mark and Lavender, ‘I assume that Rhianna contacted you.’
‘Yes, Harry. She got in touch with Mark, just after we’d collared Dung. I told her to contact you. I thought that it might be important. Rhianna thought that I was joking.’ Lavender turned to the blonde and smiled sweetly as she unsheathed her claws. ‘It’s so nice to meet you, Rhianna,’ she said. ‘Mark’s told me all about you.
‘Why did you arrest Dung, Lavender?’ asked Harry hastily.
‘He isn’t under arrest,’ said Lavender. ‘We simply told him that the Head of the Auror Office wanted a word with him. He’s here voluntarily.’
‘So I can leave at any time.’ Dung stood up.
‘If you don’t sit down and shut up, Mundungus Fletcher, you won’t be dealing with the Auror Office, you’ll be dealing with me!’ Ginny warned the little man.
Fletcher looked at Harry, who simply shrugged. The little man slumped back in the chair, defeated.
‘He was selling these in Diagon Alley,’ said Lavender, pulling the glass lens from her handbag and passing it to Harry. ‘He’s selling them as protection Amulets.’ She passed Harry the “guarantee”, too. He read it, suppressed a smile, and passed them to Ginny.
‘That’s a Bauble Bead, like the ones stolen from Tadcaster Trinkets,’ squealed Rhianna.
‘It weren’t me,’ Fletcher said half-heartedly. ‘I bought ‘em off a bloke…’
‘Lying is very naughty,’ said James.
‘It is, James,’ Harry agreed. ‘So Mr Fletcher is going to tell us the truth, isn’t he?’ Harry glared at the little man. ‘Otherwise I’ll summon my house-elf. And ask him to bring his biggest saucepan.’
‘Kreacher nice,’ Al announced happily. ‘My likes Kreacher.’
‘I bloo…min’ well don’t,’ said Dung with feeling.
‘The truth, Dung,’ said Harry. ‘Who is “Felonious Crookes”, and have you really been stealing beards for ten or more years.’
‘If anybody is Felonious Crookes, then I suppose it’s me,’ said Dung. ‘But, you can’t steal a beard. I only provided a free shave to a few hairy blokes, and I kept the hair. That ain’t a crime. It can’t be. If it was, then every barber in the country would have to give you your hair back after he’d given you a haircut.’
‘Mine does,’ said Lavender. ‘A girl can’t be too careful.’
‘Why, did you do it, Dung?’ Harry asked.
‘It’s useful for Polyjuice Potions, plus I’ve bin sellin’ them Amulets for years. Nice little sideline at Christmas, they are. Made an absolute fortune over the Christmas of ’97 I did. Of course, trade’s fallen off since then, so I’ve had to stop claimin’ that they protect people from Dark Magic, but everyone’s heard o’ Merlin, ‘is beard must be magical, mustn’t it? I’ve been doin’ it fer donkey’s years. Like I say, it brings a bit o’ extra money in over Christmas. It’s money for old beard.’ Dung chuckled, but when no one else laughed, he fell silent. ‘That were a joke, Harry,’ he said hopefully.
‘Not,’ announced James.
‘No,’ Al agreed.
‘The man you shaved yesterday, Dung, He was Santa Claus in this store,’ Harry told him.
‘And you made him lose his job, and you made our sons very unhappy,’ said Ginny.
‘At Christmas!’ Ginny added, folding her arms and glaring.
Fletcher trembled. ‘Merlin,’ he said, looking warily at Ginny. ‘Yer almost as scary as yer Mum when yer do that! I didn’t know, did I? He was just some bloke in the street. If yer want ‘is beard it’s in my case, ‘bout half of it is in ‘em Bauble things. It took me half the night to make ‘em.’
‘Arrest him for the burglary in Tadcaster, Rhianna,’ said Harry. ‘And if I ever hear about any more missing beards, Dung…’
‘But, Harry, it’s Christmas, what about some charity for a fellow member of the Order…’ Fletcher’s protests were cut short because Rhianna Wrigglesworth had pulled out a pair of Portcuffs and clamped them around his wrists. Mundungus Fletcher vanished in a bright blue light.
‘Thanks, Mr Potter,’ she screeched. ‘If you need him, he’s in the cells at York Sheriff’s Court. Bye, Mark, I’ll tell Rhys that we’ve caught the Beard Hunter.’ She hurried from the room.
‘Well,’ said Miss Ett. She looked bamboozled by the peculiar turn of events. ‘I asked you here, Mr Potter, to explain our policy about our Santa Claus. I wasn’t expecting…’
The office door opened and her assistant entered, along with Nicholas Saint.
‘You’ve found my beard! Thank you.’ The man was beaming happily.
‘Yes, but…’ Harry began.
Nicholas Saint lifted Dung’s suitcase from Lavender’s lap and threw it into the air. The case burst open, as did all of the Baubles inside it, and the strands of beard floated slowly through the air and reattached themselves to his face. Ginny felt the Bauble she was holding tugging at her hand so she released it and watched the final few strands break free and return to their rightful place.
‘Yay!’ said Al.
‘Wow,’ said James.
‘How?’ asked Harry and Ginny.
Nicholas Saint stroked his beard and laughed. It was a real Santa laugh, a merry “ho-ho-ho” chuckle.
‘How? Christmas magic, of course, it’s something I’m very good at. Thank you … thank you all,’ he said. He turned and, with a twinkle in his eye, he addressed each of them in turn. ‘Harry, Ginny, all you want for Christmas is friends and family. You have those in abundance. It’s rare and wonderful to meet people who are content. You want a happy Christmas, and now you will have one. James, Al, I know what you want, but do you really want a monkey. Do you think that you could care for a real live monkey?’
The two boys sadly shook their heads.
‘Then I’ll see what else I can find for you. It will be my surprise.’
He turned to face Mark Moon. ‘I know what you want too, Mark, and it’s something I cannot give you. Instead, I’ll give you some advice. The present you must give is one you have already given. But you must make it physical.’
‘He’s getting to be very good at physical,’ Lavender interrupted.
‘And you, Lavender,’ Nicholas said, cutting her off. ‘Possessions aren’t everything. Sometimes the thing you need to give costs nothing, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also priceless,’ Nicholas said.
‘What?’ said Lavender puzzling over his words.
But Nicholas was already striding from the room. ‘I have children waiting for me, and I mustn’t disappoint them, must I, my dear Miss Ett? Farewell, and Merry Christmas to you all.’
‘But… Well…’ Miss Ett began, but she got no further. Words failed her.
‘What just happened?’ asked Lavender.
‘I fink he really was Santa,’ said James.
‘Yes, Santa,’ Al agreed.
Lavender’s father was handing out the presents, it was a family tradition.
‘And finally,’ he announced. ‘Mark brought this around for you yesterday. I’d forgotten, and it seems to have fallen to the back of the pile.’ He handed his daughter a rectangular box.
Lavender was sitting cross legged on the floor, surrounded by wrapping paper, and new clothes. She looked at the wrapping paper with its smiling Santas and read the label, “For Lavender—something you already have, made physical, all my love, Mark.”
The words of Nicholas Saint drifted back to her as she carefully unwrapped the present. The man had gone straight to work in the store, and the queue of children and parents around his grotto had made it impossible to ask him any more questions. Harry had been happy to let it rest. His kids were now convinced that Mr Saint really was Santa Claus. He certainly had a good act, Lavender thought, smiling as she remembered the twinkle the old man’s his eye when he’d noticed her watching him.
She looked down at the box. It was covered in pale lilac satin and had the words “Phoenix Jewellery Department” embossed in silver upon its lid. She opened it slowly and examined the contents curiously. It was a silver key on a silver chain; a necklace. The bow of the key was in the shape of a heart, the bit was a stylised MM, Mark’s initials, and the shank was patterned. No not patterned, she realised, it was engraved. She read the tiny words on the shank: “the key to my heart”, and burst into tears.
Mark opened the door to his flat. Lavender noticed that he was wearing the striped shirt and chinos she had bought him for Christmas. He looked down at her, saw the silver key nestled in her cleavage, and smiled his happiest smile.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked nervously.
‘I didn’t know until I saw this,’ she said, lifting the key from her bosom. ‘I didn’t realise that I’d never told you. But I’ve thought about it, and I haven’t. Because the men I’ve told in the past threw the words away. My gift that costs nothing is this: I love you, Mark.’
He turned away, and she knew that he was crying.
‘Are you all right, Mark?’ she heard his mother call from the living room.
‘He’s fine, Mrs Moon,’ Lavender shouted.
Al’s monkey marched up and down the living room floor, banging its drum. Al was marching behind. He was using a toy wand as his drumstick and a hastily emptied sweet tin as his drum. The sweets lay scattered and forgotten across the floor.
James’s monkey jumped and tumbled and he chased it, laughing, unable to catch it until the clockwork finally ran down.
‘Wind up, wind up!’ he demanded.
‘And mine,’ Al asked when his monkey stopped drumming.
Harry smiled at his wife and did as he was told.
‘The best presents aren’t always the most expensive, Harry,’ said Ginny.
‘How do you think he delivered them?’ asked Harry. ‘This house is supposed to be secure.’
‘Perhaps he really was Santa Claus,’ suggested Ginny smiling.
‘Was,’ said Al.
‘Yes!’ James looked around the room at the piles of wrapping paper. ‘What’s your favouritest present Daddy?’ he asked.
‘The smile on your faces, boys,’ Harry said. ‘Merry Christmas.’