It was their first argument.
“Haunted houses aren’t real!” Sahir shouted.
“Aye they are, and my house is haunted!”
Dexter was really annoyed. His face was bright red from shouting. How dare she doubt him. At this moment in time, he hated her. Usually he enjoyed her company.
Sahir had arrived on Gravel Street, in the house opposite his, just last year. Her family had moved from Syria after, she said, in her words, her house was, “exploded to small bits.” Sahir was usually good fun. She played football, with her scarf and long skirt flying out behind her. The boys got annoyed with her on the pitch because she was always so fast. If she managed to get the ball, that was game over for the other team. She would glide skilfully past everyone, arms outstretched, making aeroplane noises and the ball could not be stopped by any goalie, even Robbie James.
She was the bravest, strangest person he had ever met. And where he met her was just as strange. One night he had looked out of his window to see her sitting on her roof, cross legged, gazing up at the starry night. He had looked at his fitbit. It was 3.30 in the morning. He had opened his window and shouted across at her, “Are you OK?” She had given him a dirty look and shouted back at him, “I am just enjoying the Plough, Mr Nosey neighbour.” He had just shrugged is shoulders and closed his window but wondered who this strange girl was, and what the heck the Plough was.
The next day, at 8am when he was being rushed through his breakfast by his dad, the door bell had sounded. There stood the same strange girl in the same school uniform he was in. She looked him up and down with her brown, shining, sincere eyes and said, “You are coming or what?”
He usually dragged his feet going to school, but when his dad said it was OK for him to walk to school with this strange person, he was ready in two minutes flat. That was when he found out what the Plough was. She told him it was a group of stars shaped like an old fashioned plough – a machine that digs up the ground. In America, she said, the Plough was called “The Big Dipper,” which is what Americans called a soup ladle.
She became his best friend. The mad things they did became legendary in the school class. Like climbing the highest tree, tying a rope around it to make a swing that swung people halfway across the canal was the most famous… even the P7’s were in awe of that one. Well, Sahir had done all the climbing and tying. He had directed her from the ground, letting her know when she was in the middle of the branch.
Another time, just a few days after Sahir had joined the class, the teacher had told them he was just nipping out to the photocopier and would be, “just three minutes!” As always when he had to, “nip out,” he added, “Remember, I can hear you all the way down the corridor.”
As soon as he left, Ashley Gordon stood up and went to the door and peeped round it. “He’s gone!”
The classroom was like a different place as soon as she had said that. The shackles were lifted. Dexter hated these times. It was almost like a little bit of the world had broken. Order fell apart. And Ally Rodgers and his wee crew would start on someone. No-one knew who it would be, but there was relief that it wasn’t you if someone else got it.
Dexter usually kept his head down, either reading or continuing the work they were supposed to do, as most in the class did.
A shadow fell over Dexter’s book, and his heart sank.
“Disaster Williams is teachers pet!” Ally Rodgers lifted the book Dexter was reading and flung it through the open window. There were gasps.
“Oh look what you’ve done, Disaster Williams,” Rodgers sneered. “Everyone saw it… Williams had a temper tantrum and the book flew out the window, isn’t that right?” His little gang all nodded and agreed. The rest of the class, trying not to be the next victim, tried not to react. Dexter knew that if he was not the victim, he would be trying to react in a way that didn't condone what was happening, but wouldn't mark him out as next on the menu. He knew no-one would be brave enough to help him. No-one ever was.
She moved like lightening across the classroom. Her face, usually lit up in the brightest smile, looked angry, determined, steely.
She grabbed Rodgers by the collar of his shirt, punched him sharply, hard on the nose, just once, and let him go. He fell to the ground, clutching his face, blood dripping from his chin and hands, wailing.
Everyone fell silent.
She stood over him and whispered, “A girl can beat you.” She turned to each of his wee gang defiantly. “You are wanting to be next?”
To a person, they sat down fearfully, in their seats.
She then walked over to the window and climbed out onto the second floor window sill. She disappeared. Everyone ran over to the window chattering and laughing, ignoring a screaming Rodgers. A few seconds later, her face reappeared and she climbed in, walked over to Dexter and handed him his book.
“Next time, punch the little silly boy good in the nose, Dexter Williams.”
“He’s coming!” Ashley Gordon ran from the door to her seat, and everyone followed, except for Sahir. She walked over to the crying Ally Rodgers, lifted him by his elbow and asked, “Beaten by a girl?”
The teacher walked in and stopped and stared at them. “What happened here?”
The class was in complete silence.
Sahir’s face was back to it’s normal, radiantly smiling, friendly default setting. “Ally Rodgers walks to change his library book and tripping over a chair. I take him to the office to be cleaned up good.”
And she did. Pulling Rodgers past the puzzled, stuttering teacher and through the door.
And after that, Rodgers bothered no one.
Dexter was really annoyed with her when she said she didn’t believe him about the strange noises in his house at night. The noises, although usually soft, sometimes almost imperceptible, sometimes were loud enough to awake Dexter from light sleep. His mum and dad had set mouse traps, but they caught nothing. And when they were in the attic they had found things had been mysteriously moved; cleared to the sides, as if something was making room to walk through the boxes, old toys and bags of clothes they just hadn't got round to giving away to the charity shop – or was that their imagination? Had THEY moved the boxes the last time they were up there?
“Its haunted, I’m telling you! Our house is haunted!”
“Its no a ghost house, you big afraidy,” she said.
He had stormed off, leaving her in the street and running to get home so she couldn’t catch up and change his angry mind.
Christmas Eve, and he had fallen out with his best friend. This made it seem all the worse.
Later, he lay awake, excited for what might be left for him under the brightly decorated tree, but mostly because the argument from earlier was replaying over and over in his mind. How could he have handled that better? Sahir should have been more understanding, he thought. She shouldnt have been so dismissive… or was it just a misunderstanding? Sometimes how Sahir spoke sounded out of place, but that was only because of her being one of the EALs. English as a second language. He lay there for what seemed like hours. Usually he would just switch on his bedside light and read until his mind calmed and he felt tired again, but he knew his mum and dad would be extra vigilant tonight, so he just lay thinking about what had happened earlier. Then it happened.
Then the noises started. Creaking, then what sounded like soft footsteps across his ceiling. He lay listening like he did every night. He didn't want to hear a mouse trap snapping; he didn't like to think of the wee mouse squished to death by those strong springs. But he did want this to stop. At least the snap sound would be some sort of explanation. He thought of Sahir and what she said and he thought, “I’m going mad or else Santa is on my roof!”
A year ago, before he met Sahir, he would have either buried himself deeper into his duvet, or ran in to his mum and dad’s bedroom. But meeting her had changed him. He wasn’t the bravest person in the world, but he was a lot braver than he had been. There were worse monsters in the world, and Sahir had told him about the faceless monsters who had shot her friends and blown up her city. She had, without embarrassment, told him about her fear, her helplessness and her tears when her life and her city was torn apart and he felt stupid being afraid. Whatever this was, he thought, it was not as bad as what Sahir had to go through.
He knelt on his bed and opened his window and looked across the road. Sahir’s bedroom light was on, but no Sahir staring at the Plough or Orion’s belt or the moon.
He climbed up on to his window sill and held tight to the inside of his window and stretched himself up to look at his roof… and he saw it. A face staring back at him from the little skylight window in his roof. He nearly fell backwards, out of his window onto the street below in shock.
But on a second look, he saw it was Sahir, staring back at him with her wide happy smile.
“Did I awake you?” she asked, smiling.
“What the blazing heck are you doing in my attic, you idiot?” He snapped back.
“Sorry Dexter Williams. It’s Jupiter. I love to look at Jupiter on my roof in Syria. I could no see it from my roof here, so I climbed to your house every night. Ghosts not real, Dexter Williams! People real. I miss the people I sat on the roof watching the universe when I is in Syria. But I can stare at the same stars they are staring at… at the same time. Connection. Where-ever they be in big scary world.”
She stretched out and helped him onto the roof.
And that’s where he found out that the Ghost of Christmas knew loads and loads about the beautiful, glittering, friendly, comforting universe…