Ben found the lamp in the attic, wedged in between a bin-bag full of clothes and a mothy old box. He ignored it at first. He was supposed to be looking for the tree-lights, though there didn’t seem much point, since the tree had already fallen over twice and was shedding all its needles. Ben scowled. It was Christmas Eve. Dad was still sick, Mum had the thin-lipped look she got whenever she was worried, and the baby was crying every minute of the day. Christmas was going to be a disaster.
His eyes strayed back to the lamp until finally he reached over and pulled it towards him, peering at the writing along its side.
Wishes granted, it said.
“Hah!” snorted Ben. “Genie included, I suppose?”
He rubbed it, not expecting anything to happen, but the minute he did so green smoke shot from its spout and the attic melted away, leaving him standing in a draughty, wood-pannelled room, staring into the huge yellow eyes of a screech-owl.
“Visitor!” it hooted.
There was a growl from the corner and Ben found himself confronting a very tall man with piercing black eyes, a pointed hat, and a beard that reached down to the floor.
“Well?” snapped the wizard. “Who are you?”
“Ben,” said Ben, slightly scared. “Ben Ormsley. Who are you?” He stared at the lamp. “Where’s the genie?”
“Off sick,” sniffed the wizard. “You’re not the only ones to get seasonal ‘flu, you know. The rest of us are working overtime. Myname is Merlin, and you’re lucky I can fit you in at all, seeing as how everyone seems to expect to see me and no-one thinks to ask whether I wish to see them.” He eyed Ben crossly. “It’s one wish, by the way, just so we’re clear. I’ve enough to do without stretching to three. One wish, or a plague of toads, take your pick.”
Ben could only gape at him, his mind a total blank.
“Toads it is then!” the wizard cried, raising his arms with glee.
“No!” said Ben. Toads were the last thing he needed.
“Well there must be something you want,” said Merlin peevishly. He reached into one of the sleeves of his voluminous red robe and pulled out a pair of glasses. “The lamp doesn’t come to simply anyone, you know. Clearly you had need of it.” He fixed Ben once more with a gimlet stare. “So what’ll it be?”
Ben looked up at him. There was in fact something he wanted more than anything, but he tried hard not to feel too hopeful.
“Can you make my dad better?”
The wizard opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again in surprise.
“I’m afraid not,” he said eventually, in a slightly different voice. “Healing spells across such time and distance are beyond even my abilities.”
Ben shoved his hands into his pockets. “Fine. Forget I asked.”
Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Is there nothing else you wish to ask for?”
“No,” snapped Ben. “Everything’s going to go wrong anyway so I might as well just go back and get it over with, thanks.”
Merlin looked at him, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
“Perhaps,” he said. “And then again, perhaps not.”
He bent down and stared deeply into Ben’s eyes.
“As I thought!” he cried, triumphantly. “A brave and an unselfish heart! Courage, Ben Ormsley! There is something that might yet be done!”
“What d’you mean?” said Ben, bewildered.
Merlin ignored him, wrapping a beautiful starry cloak round his shoulders with a flourish.
“Hold the fort, Archimedes,” he said to the owl, striding to the centre of the floor and beckoning Ben to follow him. “I shall return forthwith.”
The owl hooted softly and flew to a perch by the doorway.
Ben turned to the wizard. “What’s going on? Where are we…?”
“To the North Pole!” cried Merlin, producing a staff from nowhere and banging it down on the floor.
Freezing winds whipped round them, and suddenly they were standing in a vast and glittering cave of ice, full of people skating to and fro with parcels and lists and bits of string. There was a roaring fire in the corner, and the air smelled of pine trees and spices, but just as Ben was about to try and find out where it was coming from a door behind them opened and a large man dressed in green came in, stamping snow off his boots and carrying two empty sacks.
Merlin gave a polite cough.
“Hullo,” said the man, catching sight of them. “Who have we here then?”
“I am Merlin, of the realm of Pendragon,” said Merlin, sweeping an elaborate bow. “And this is Ben Ormsley, of the realm of…”
He looked inquiringly at Ben.
“Finchley,” said Ben.
“…Of the realm of Finchley,” Merlin finished. “This,” he said impressively, turning to Ben, “is Saint Nicholas.”
Ben looked nervously from Merlin to the saint. “Who?”
“Saint Nicholas,” Merlin repeated, frowning. “Santa Claus, Father Christmas. Surely you’ve heard of him?”
“Santa?” said Ben, his jaw dropping.
The man in green laughed. “Am I not what you were expecting, Master Ormsley?”
“No,” said Ben. “I mean,” he added hastily, “not ‘no’, just that…”
“We have come, dear sir,” said Merlin, mercifully interrupting, “with a request.”
Saint Nicholas raised a genial eyebrow. “Ask away.”
“The boy has received Aladdin’s lamp,” explained Merlin. “He wished for something magic cannot grant, and asks for nothing more. Normally this would of be the end of matters but in his case I believe we should make an exception.” He looked meaningfully at Saint Nicholas. “I would, however, need your assistance in the matter of the bell.”
“Ah,” said Saint Nicholas, nodding sagely.
“What?” Ben demanded, looking from to the other. “What d’you mean, ‘ah?’ ”
“Tell me, Master Ormsley,” said the saint, kindly, “are Christmas preparations not quite going to plan?”
Ben looked at his wise eyes, and suddenly found himself telling him all about Dad – about the endless tests and treatments and waiting, about how anxious Mum was and how she’d wanted it to be a perfect Christmas for them all, and how Nicky just wouldn’t stop crying.
“Everything’s going wrong!” he burst out. “The tree’s wilting and the turkey hasn’t defrosted properly and Mum can’t find where she put the presents from Aunt Jenny – nothing’s how anyone wants it and I don’t know what to do!” He stopped, breathless, and realised there was somehow a lump in his throat. He swallowed hard a couple of times to get rid of it.
Saint Nicholas nodded again. “I see,” he said.
Ben looked at him and realised that he really did.
“Very well, then,” the saint continued. “Merlin is right. We cannot heal your father but we might be able to help with the rest.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a small silver bell. “Take this.”
“And put this on,” said Merlin, taking off his cloak and putting it round Ben’s shoulders.
Ben stared at them, baffled. “What’re they for?”
“A clarifying spell,” said Merlin.
“A what?” said Ben.
“It provides a moment of complete peace,” Merlin answered, “in which to see things clearly.”
“Most of it will depend on you,” added Saint Nicholas, before Ben could point out that he could already see things quite clearly enough.
“But I’ve never done any magic!” he protested. “I like football!”
“Experience is immaterial,” Merlin sniffed. “It is a question of attitude.”
“When you return home,” said Saint Nicholas, “ring the bell and say the thing you feel most strongly. The rest will follow.”
Ben started to ask what he meant, but everything was fading. Once more there was an icy blast, and then he was back in the loft.
The smoke alarm was going off.
“Honestly Ben, what on earth have you been up to?” demanded Mum, flapping angrily at the last bits of green smoke from the lamp. “You were supposed to be getting the lights, not playing dress-up!”
Ben looked at the starry cloak and went hot with embarrassment.
“This is all I need!” said Mum. “First the turkey, then the tree, then the presents and now this!”
A wave of hopeless anger began building in Ben’s chest.
“The bell!” hissed a voice. “Ring the bell!”
Ben blinked and saw a moth with red wings and tiny glasses hovering by his ear. For a moment he hesitated, then he shook the bell firmly.
The alarm stopped. The loft was filled with the smell of pine-trees and spices, and the stars on the cloak shimmered like diamonds. For a timeless moment, everything went very still. Then Mum shook her head, blinking as though she’d just woken up from a dream.
Ben took a deep breath and said the thing he felt most strongly.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Mum stared at him dazedly. “What?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ben, urgently. “About the turkey and the tree and the rest of it. It’s not important.”
“He’s right, Jean.”
Ben looked down the loft hatch in astonishment to see Dad looking up at them. Nicky was sleeping peacefully on his shoulder.
“Brian!” said Mum, anxiously. “You should be in bed!”
“Never mind that,” said Dad. “Come down here a minute.”
They climbed down the ladder. Dad looked tired and ill, but he was smiling, and the minute they stood beside him he put his free arm around them both and wrapped them in a bear-hug.
“There now,” he said again, hugging so tight that Ben’s could hear his pulse through his chest. “We’re all here, that’s what counts. Everything’s all right.”
And all of a sudden, it was. It truly didn’t matter about the lights (which they found in the end), or the turkey (which they binned), or the presents, which turned out to be behind the sofa. They were together, and they were happy, and that was enough.
Much later, Ben crept back up into the loft. The cloak, the bell and the lamp had gone, but the smell of pine trees still lingered in the air.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“For what?” said a voice from behind him.
Ben whirled to see Merlin sitting grandly on the bin-bag.
“For fixing things,” he said. “You and Saint Nicholas.”
The wizard shook his head. “We didn’t.”
Ben frowned. “But…”
Merlin held up his hand. “It was what you said that made the difference. All we did was give you the space to say it.”
Ben watched him stand up.
“I’m not going to see you again, am I?”
Merlin shook his head. “No,” he said. “But keep your courage and your kindness, and you won’t need to.”
“Thanks anyway, though,” said Ben, awkwardly. “I won’t forget you, you know.”
“I should think not!” said Merlin loftily. Then he smiled as he started to vanish, light blazing around him. “Farewell, Benjamin Ormsley. May you and your family have a very merry Christmas!”
And over spaghetti bolognese, round a slightly wonky tree, they did.
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