This two parter first appeared on Sally Cronin’s splendid blog, here. I’ve set it out in full in case you missed it first time around.
‘What is it, Mum?’ Emily Smith, fourteen, looked up from her book.
Gilly, her mother, said, ‘A parcel from Uncle Augustus.’
‘Who is Uncle Augustus?’
‘I don’t really know. Someone on your father’s side. Do you remember the man you said looked like Gandalf? At Ben’s funeral?’
Emily nodded. She had wanted to speak to him, but there hadn’t been a chance on that awful day.
Gilly went on, ‘He said he’d be in touch with a little something.’ She pulled open the letter attached to the parcel.
‘What’s he say, Mum?’
Dear Both. I’m so sorry to miss you this Christmas, but I’ve had this curio for a while, waiting for the right home. Perhaps Emily can find out its secrets.
Emily moved to her mother’s side as she ripped off the paper. In moments they were staring at a dark wooden box, two feet square and six inches deep. On one side there were twenty-four little knobs in three rows of eight but none moved.
Gilly said, ‘It’s like an advent calendar but with one square missing.’ She left Emily trying to work out how it opened.
Three days later, on the first of December, Emily woke with a start; her alarm said just after midnight. Had she heard a noise? Lying in the dark, straining to hear, she realised she was extraordinarily thirsty. She needed a drink and soon. Pulling on her dressing gown, she crept down to the kitchen.
As she gulped the cold water she leaned back against the sink. Uncle Augustus’ present sat propped against the back door; it looked like her mother intended to throw it out. Emily put down her cup and went to retrieve it.
It was as she picked it up she noticed that, just above the first knob, a gold “1” had appeared. It looked like fresh paint. Emily smiled. Her mother had worked out the secret and painted on a “1”. She wondered what was inside.
She had no intention of opening it then and there, but a surge of curiosity made her run her finger down the “1”. Immediately the drawer sprung open. Inside was a small wooden brick on which was written: Make a wish
Emily’s smile broadened. ‘Get you, Mum. My bodyweight in chocolate, of course.’
She had barely said the word “chocolate” when she heard thumps outside the kitchen window, like someone was throwing something against the glass. Nervous now, she pulled up the blinds. Rectangular packets hit the glass and bounced onto the flower bed and lawn just outside the kitchen.
Surprised rather than frightened, she hurried to the back door and threw it open. Something caught her on the cheek and dropped at her feet. It was her favourite bar of chocolate. All around dozens of bars of chocolate lay and more fell from a murky, weirdly lit sky. It was quite literally raining chocolate bars.
Emily didn’t stop to wonder how her mum had arranged this or the damage the bars were doing to the sodden lawn and flower beds. She knew she had to start collecting her prize. A flash of light drew her gaze to her right: the wheelbarrow. Of course.
It took her a sweaty forty minutes but, eventually, she had collected them all. She thought about bringing the barrow inside, but it was then she saw the mud on her slippers and pyjamas and the damage done to the garden. ‘Oh God, I’m in so much trouble,’ she said to herself. Quickly she wheeled the barrow to the shed, pushed it inside and covered it in an old blanket. Somehow she’d sort out a better home when she got back from school later.
Back inside Emily washed as best she could and changed into clean pyjamas. The dirty clothes and slippers went in the washing basket. She’d worry about them in the morning too. Exhausted, she glanced at the bedside clock; it said three am. Today was going to be awful.
‘Emily? Come on, sleepy. Time to get up.’
Emily felt as if she hadn’t slept and peered at the clock. It said seven thirty, but surely it couldn’t be already. Just then she heard her mother scream and swear. Feeling sick she grabbed her dressing gown and hurried downstairs.
Her mum stood at the kitchen window staring into the garden. ‘Someone’s vandalised our lawn. Why would anyone do that?’
Emily thought about the chocolate bars and the box. She wanted to say something but didn’t know where to start. The best she could manage was, ‘I’ll help you tidy up, when I get back after school. If you like.’
Her mum smiled and kissed her on the head. ‘That’s a lovely thought. Let’s worry about it later. We both need to get a move on.’
Emily forced down breakfast. She wanted to have a look in the shed but there just wasn’t time. She would have to be patient.
Emily didn’t get back from school until after it was dark; there was a house meeting and then her bus was cancelled. She was just pulling on her gumboots when her mother appeared from upstairs. ‘What are you doing, Emily?’
‘I said I’d help with the mess.’
Her mother tutted and turned back to the kitchen. ‘That’s a lovely idea, but it’s too dark. Come on, what say you we make pancakes?’
Emily looked longingly at the back door and reluctantly turned to follow her mother.
The next morning Emily could barely sit still and eat some toast. She had to look and see if that chocolate was real. Finally her mother went upstairs to find her umbrella and clean her teeth. As soon as she had shut the door to the kitchen, Emily raced out of the back door and down the garden.
She pulled open the shed door and gasped; inside the wheelbarrow sat where she had left it. She yanked away the old picnic blanket she had thrown over it and goggled; there it was, her bodyweight in chocolate. On top sat the box. Emily glared at it.
Outside her mother’s “really not happy voice” floated down the garden. ‘Emily Smith, what are you doing?’
Emily, however, was staring at the box. The number “1” had gone; instead the second knob had “2” by it. She touched the drawer and it sprang open. Another wooden brick with Make a wish on it appeared. She could hear her mother’s squelching footsteps getting very close. She glanced at the brick. You might make her friendlier, she thought.
‘Wowza, Ems. You got chocolate? Sick.’
Emily frowned and gawped at her grinning mother as she dropped to her knees and dug her hands into the barrow’s contents. Her smart wool skirt sunk into the mud that had fallen off the tyre when Emily had hidden the barrow the night before. ‘Mum? You sound weird.’
‘Hey, it’s Gilly, silly.’ Her mum giggled. ‘Gilly-Silly. That’s soooo neat. BFFs right?’
‘I just came to say we need to get going but, hey, what say you we have a duvet day? Just us girls and this chocolate feast? Laters, we can go get our nails done at the new nail bar and then go and buy those sick shorts you saw Thursday?’ She tore off the wrapping paper from a bar. ‘This is my all-time fav choc. Did you know?’ She tried to say something else but her chocolate-filled mouth prevented any coherent sound.
Emily tugged her jacket. ‘Mum, you’re getting filthy. We need to get going.’
Her mother shook her head violently. ‘Chocolate. Need chocolate. Now, now now. Choc choc choc…’
‘I have to get the bus, Mum. You going to be okay?’
This time there was a vigorous nodding. ‘Choc choc ch…’ which turned to mumbles as more chocolate was stuffed into her mother’s mouth.
Emily backed out slowly. Her mother had begun ripping open wrappers at random and cramming in yet more chunks.
‘Stop it, Mum.’
Her mother spat the contents into her palms and sneered at Emily. ‘Boring. Bet I can eat more than you.’ She glanced at Emily out of the corner of her eye before she planted her face in her hands and started slurping up the regurgitated gloop, brown liquid oozing out the sides. Gilly wiped her face, smearing it everywhere and then reached out with her chocolaty hands apparently intent on making palm prints on Emily’s school uniform.
Emily turned and rushed away. She had to be at school. She’d call her mum when she had break. Make sure she was all right.
When she called her mother didn’t answer so she rang her neighbour who sent Emily a text.
Your mum is in the garden shed. She sounds happy.
As soon as she got back from school, to a dark house, Emily shot down the garden with a torch and pulled open the shed door. It looked like there had been a chocolate explosion, in the middle of which her mother lay on the filthy picnic blanket, groaning. She was surrounded by wrappers.
‘Come inside, Mum.’
It took Emily an age to half carry, half drag her mother indoors; on the way she threw up over the roses and giggled and then vomited again over a tub of pansies. Emily made her some hot water and lemon, pulled off her filthy clothes and helped her to bed, where she lapsed into a deep sleep. Emily asked her neighbour if she thought her mum was okay and was told she looked like “she might have had too much of a good thing” and to leave her alone with lots of water and a bucket.
She made herself toast and went to bed early.
Emily slept badly and once again woke with a start just after midnight. Something made her go to her mother’s room. Glancing in, she could see her mother clutching the advent calendar box to her chest. She wondered how it had got there because the last time she’d seen it, it was in the shed. As she eased it out of her mother’s grasp, she saw a gold “3” was glowing from the third drawer. She touched the number. Clutching the Make a wish brick, she said, ‘I want my old mum back.’ She stared at Gilly. After a moment her mother began snoring. Emily sighed; Mum was back all right.
To be continued….