A new tradition that has sprung up in recent years is the German market. These picturesque enterprises make everyone feel all warm and cosy and Christmassy, but what if there’s a sinister side…
Glad to be home, Lydia sat on the sofa. The television was playing cartoons but she was watching the lights twinkling on the Christmas tree. More accurately, she was eyeing up the presents that were beneath the branches. You could tell which ones were from which member of the family because the wrapping paper came from the same roll. Silver and snowflakes from Auntie Jean. Disney characters from funny Uncle Tom. Holly leaves and bells from Mummy. And… oh! Lydia frowned. There was a present present she hadn’t noticed before. It certainly hadn’t been there when they had gone out.
She dropped from the sofa and walked on her knees towards this horde of treasures. She peered at the unfamiliar package more closely. It was a cube, wrapped in green velveteen and tied with red ribbons. There was no name tag but Lydia knew without a shadow of a doubt, this gift was intended for her. She reached out to touch the soft fabric. So smooth, so soft… It would be a shame to open it.
She thought about asking Mummy where it had come from but she stopped herself. She stayed on the floor, looking at the mysterious present. She would have to wait. Wait until the morning or at least wait until Mummy had come out of her bad mood so she could ask about it. Mummy was in the kitchen taking out her bad mood on the poor vegetables she was preparing for tomorrow’s big dinner. Lydia knew to keep out of Mummy’s way when Mummy’s temper was up.
The funny German man was to blame for Mummy’s grumpiness. Lydia recalled with a shudder how embarrassed she had been when Mummy had raised her voice and drawn the attention of all the shoppers – so many people! Lydia had tried to hide behind Mummy’s coat, her cheeks glowing hot from this exposure. The funny German man had kept calm and this had only made Mummy more cross. Nein, he said, we do not give refunds. Es tut mir leid.
What a funny way to talk!
Still it was better than what Mummy said. Mummy had used the eff word more than once and Lydia was worried Santa would overhear and that would be it for Mummy; no Christmas presents for potty mouths.
Lydia had tried to pull Mummy away from the stall. They could lose themselves in the busy market. So many pretty stalls. So many pretty things. They could go and get some hot chocolate or some sweets or – but Mummy had snapped at her, in front of all those people. “Behave yourself, Lydia. Mummy’s dealing with this!”
Eventually, the funny German man had relented. He had handed over the refund in full with his best wishes for the holidays and the new year. He had even offered a replacement free of charge as a sign of his goodwill. Mummy had told him where he could shove his replacement and, stuffing banknotes into her purse, had pulled Lydia away, muttering loud enough for the stallholder to hear, something about bloody foreigners and it was no wonder they lost the war.
Lydia couldn’t even remember what the fuss had been about. Something Mummy had bought from the funny German man. Something about rats… A rat trap, that was it! Mummy had bought a rat trap and it hadn’t worked so she had taken it back and shouted at the man –
Did this mean they had rats? In the garden! In the house?
“Mummy…?” Lydia muted the TV and called over her shoulder.
“What?” Mummy barked her reply from the kitchen. “I’m busy, Lydia. Can’t it wait?”
Lydia closed her mouth, deciding against asking about the rats. Mummy had probably bought it as a present for somebody else and had tested it to be on the safe side. Yes; Lydia chose to believe that explanation.
The sound of Mummy chopping vegetables filled the silence.
“Oh, go on then,” Mummy called out, sounding like friendly Mummy again.
“Go on what?” Lydia called back.
“You can open one. Just one, mind. The rest have to wait until the morning.”
Lydia gaped. Mummy’s bad mood must have well and truly gone if she was allowing the opening of a present a day early! Perhaps Mummy was feeling sorry for the scene at the German market.
Lydia knew exactly which present she was going to open. She had to move some of the others so she could reach it and pull it from under the tree. As she moved them she could guess what they were. A book – oh, yawn! Some clothes – oh, boring! But at last she was able to get both hands around the green velveteen package and bring it to the centre of the floor.
She admired it from all angles. There was definitely no name tag, no message. Oh well, she considered, if it turns out to be for somebody else, I’ll just have to open another one, won’t I?
She slid the red ribbon to the edges of the box and pulled it off. The lid sprang open, two flaps parting like the automatic doors in the big shops.
“Well?” Mummy shouted, “Have you got one?”
“Yes!” Lydia replied. She peered into the box.
“Well, what have you got?”
She reached in and pulled out…
“A hat!” She turned the thing over in her hands. It was flat; one side was red, the other green. A long red and green feather curled from the brim. Lydia separated the two sides and put the hat on.
“It’s like Robin Hood’s hat!” she informed Mummy. “It’s pretty.”
“Oh…” said Mummy, noncommittal.
Lydia looked into the box again. There was something else. She took it out. It was a wooden instrument like a recorder or penny whistle. She described it to Mummy.
“Lovely,” said Mummy. “Go on then. Give us a tune!”
Lydia put the whistle to her lips.
“Go on then,” Mummy repeated. She came to the door, wiping her hands on a tea towel, surprised at the silence in the living room. “Lydia?”
Lydia was not there.
There was an empty box on the floor. Green velveteen and red ribbons. She couldn’t remember seeing it before. She picked it up, puzzled. A business card fell to the floor. She stooped to pick it up. She read the red and green lettering.
“P. Piper, Hamelin. Home Collection Service.”