The great thing about living in a small cottage in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lush evergreens, is that no one really bothers you. Rural crime is quite commonplace around here, but even if a speculative burglar did come to my humble dwelling they’d see that the keyword is “humble”. The only visible nod to 21st Century living is the double glazing, which is the cheap white plastic version rather than hardwood. Peer through the glass when I’m not in, and you’ll see I don’t have any of the gadgetry and fashionable clutter that would make a trip to the country economically viable. My phone is always in my pocket.

Besides, to get to my place you have to go through Lone Rock Farm’s yard, and they’re rich pickings for people with a desire for portable generators, farm machinery, and occasionally cattle. I think of the place as a bustling additional line of security.

This is not to say I don’t take my own security seriously. I have to, to a degree. I order a lot of things online, and the younger son at the farm got in a lot of trouble last year when parcels I’d had delivered never materialised. The courier’s had all said they’d been delivered, and in two cases they’d even provided a photograph of the item tucked into the gap left just for such things in the log pile at the side of the house. In the end I installed a decent CCTV webcam with a motion alert on it that sends footage to my phone, and revealed young James Morrissey apparently had a passion for Japanese whiskey, 78rpm Blues recordings, and obscure collections of early 20th century short fiction.

I got everything back, but relations with the farm are soured, for a number of reasons. Seen as I am as a “Townie” my insistence on involving the police more as a lesson to James went against the apparent country way of doing things, and while we were all down at the police station in Buxton someone made off with a vintage tractor and fifty gallons of red diesel.

As a result, if someone is delivering to me who hasn’t been before, when they get to the farm for directions they plead ignorance and send the driver on their way. Only if they get to my friend Mike at the nearby micro-brewery do they get concise instructions that match what I’ve already put on the delivery instructions!

So it was, last winter, I’d just about got to the point where every delivery made it through the yard and to my door, as I prepared for Christmas. We’ve not had a lot of bad winters for a while, but up here it comes in thick and fast even if the lower land and towns don’t get much. On this particular day I’d just taken delivery of enough food to see us through to the New Year, and was busily putting everything away when I heard the sound of a diesel engine and tyres crunching over the gravel of my yard.

I wasn’t expecting a delivery, but I did of course think that one of my relatives in the States or Australia (or possibly my estranged Son in Brazil) might have sent me something unannounced. I could tell right away it was one of these independent services, because it was a tatty looking white Ford Mondeo estate car, the suspension sagging, and the back seats flat and piled high with numerous boxes. The driver, stopped, was tapping away on a small laptop screen, peering at something on the passenger seat, and clearly mumbling to himself.

I went to the front door and opened it, noting how very chilly it was now. An hour ago when the food arrived it was a couple of degrees above freezing, but now it felt much lower, and the grey of the sky had gone from the gentle bright of sunshine behind it, to the solid iron of impending snow.

The driver stepped out, parcel in hand. As if on cue, great thick clusters of fluffy snow began to blow in at forty-five degree angles, settling immediately.

“Great.” I heard him mumble, as he nodded acknowledgement to me.

“You found the place alright?” I asked, standing in the doorway.

“This is Whelan Cottage, right?” He asked, sounding stressed. “Mister Burns?”

I assured him it was, and I was. I was pleased he didn’t follow it up with “Excellent” as a drawn out response, mimicking the Simpsons cartoon character of the same name, as so many people tended to do. I spent most of my life being Charles Burns without any issues, but one American comedy later and I have everyone asking if my middle name is Montgomery. It is.

“Parcels for you,” he said, flatly. “Lots of parcels.”

I stared from him to the car, and back. “You’re not telling me all of those are for me?”

He nodded, quite amiably, but with the look of someone who isn’t having a good day and has just realised by the weather that it’s not necessarily going to get better. He wasn’t much younger than me, probably late forties, but he had a weathered look to his long thin face that told me he probably spent a lot of time working outdoors.

“All bar two. They’re both returns. The other dozen or more are for this address.”

“Crikey.” I said, flatly. “Do I have to sign for them all individually?”

He looked up at the sky, blinking against the snowfall. “Yep. But it’s all touchscreen these days so it don’t take long.”

“You’d better come inside then.” I said. “I’ll help you get everything out, if you like. I wasn’t expecting any deliveries, and certainly not so many from one source.”

He seemed grateful, although I noticed he’d left his engine running. I offered him a cup of tea or coffee as I starting squiggling an approximation of my signature on the tablet’s small screen. He declined, and as he did so there was a curious popping sound from outside. It was a definite pop, but it sounded quite deep in tone. We both looked up. There was a small cloud rolling across the yard.

Together, we said “What the?” and made our way to the door.

I opened it to see snaking tendrils of steam coming from under the bonnet of the old Mondeo. I knew from painful experience of my youth exactly what had happened. One of his radiator pipes had burst. I’d known this happen to me, when it was just a tired old rubber pipe that split at a joint, and as some sort of engine failure that meant exhaust gases from the engine had pressurised the pipes and literally made one explode. I didn’t pretend to understand the exact way this happens, but from seeing that happen to my old mate Nigel when I was at university I thought this looked serious.

“Oh no! Oh God no! This is all I need!” He said, clasping a hand to either side of his head, pulling the woolly hat down slightly over his ears and eyes as if to shut the experience out. He grimaced, sagging.

“Switch your engine off and let’s get that bonnet up!” I said, hurriedly, patting him on the back. “It may not be that bad!”

It was that bad. One of the radiator pipes had split, and it looked really bad. I’m a retired cameraman, and I know nothing of how cars really work until they stop working. I asked the delivery man if he was an RAC or AA member, but he said he wasn’t. We looked at the pipe a bit more, now steamless as Derbyshire winter temperatures took over, and then decided we’d better get the parcels in, if only to take his mind off it for a moment. He looked very stressed.

“I can’t even get a signal on my bloody phone up here.” He lamented, as we got the last parcel stacked up at the side of my kitchen table.

“You can use mine to call someone,” I said, cheerily. “I deliberately picked a network I know works here. It’s why I don’t have a landline. Data’s great here too.”

“Data?” He asked, slightly angrily as he looked around.

“You know. The internet.”

“Oh.” He prodded at his phone as if this would make it work.”

In the end he called his despatch office, but it was clear from his face they were of no help. They were clearly interested only in if he’d made all the deliveries he needed to. They weren’t bothered his car was broken, that the weather had turned, or that it was getting dark. When he came off the phone he thanked me, accepted the coffee I’d made him on impulse, and lamented the fact that current economics meant he used the car for deliveries in the daytime and as a taxi in the evening. This current problem was one of many recent problems with the car, and we both knew there were few worse places for it to happen.

By this time, there lay a good two inches of snow on the ground. It was coming down thick and fast, and I was concerned he wasn’t going to get home. I’d learned his name was also Charles, although known as Charlie, and that he’d driven all the way from Castle Donington in Leicestershire. I knew that to be a good ninety minute drive, as I used the airport if I was traveling to my ancestral home in Ireland. In this weather it would be a ninety minute drive just to a main road headed that way. The motorway would be very busy, and if the weather closer to Derby was anything like this, the other main roads would be chaotic and likely littered with minor accidents.

Charlie was getting more stressed.

“I could probably risk towing you to Buxton.” I offered. “I’ve got a Vitara. It’s four-wheel drive.”

He glanced at me from his forlorn gaze towards the worsening, darkening day. “I don’t think it’s worth the risk. No power steering and no brakes without the engine. I’ll just have to get walking to where I can get a signal and phone the missus. But she’ll be in the warehouse ‘til gone midnight. Shifts, see?”

It was a time like this that made me realise how lucky I am. For many years I felt very sorry for myself, as during the Gulf War of the early nineties I lost my foot and part of my leg in Iraq. When I tell people they immediately assume I was a soldier. It doesn’t help to say “Actually no, I was a war correspondent’s cameraman, and I lost it in a Friendly Fire incident on a road into Baghdad.” No one wants to hear what is not heroic. It’d be easy to get bitter, even with considerable compensation that keeps you living comfortably for the rest of your life. Soldiers more invalid than I get much less for much worse.

Here was a man working two badly paid jobs to keep his head above water. Here was a man whose partner was working into the small hours of Christmas Eve to make ends meet. Here, in my fully paid-for house, with my fully paid-for new car outside, garaged just a few feet from his fifteen year-old rusting and damaged only apparent source of income.

“Right,” I said, decisively. “I can see two clear choices here, Charlie. Either I drive you home and risk it back, or you borrow my car and bring it back when it’s safe and sensible to do so.”

He looked at me, wide eyed. “I can’t possibly ask you to do that, Mister Burns!”

“If we don’t make the choice you could be stuck here for days. If it gets worse you might not even get home for Christmas. How many kids do you have?”

He spluttered a bit. “Well, just the four at home, between us. Four grandkids visiting over, too, with her eldest.”

I grabbed the keys and held them up between forefinger and thumb.

“Charlie, I’m driving nowhere ‘til the New Year. My partner gets in from Edinburgh on the train tomorrow afternoon and gets a taxi here. My daughters are coming up, if they can, from Lincoln on Christmas day. I don’t need the car. You do.”

He shook his head quite violently and his expression was sad. “I really can’t, Mister Burns. It’s too much to accept. You don’t even know me, and besides, if I got pulled over what am I to say? I’d have no insurance!”

“Oh the police will be busy enough tonight!” I waved a hand dismissively. “Come on then. I’ll drive you. It’ll only take a couple of hours, and we can put your other boxes in my car.”

He took some convincing, and the only thing I was worried about was the bend at the steep bit between my yard and the farmyard. It’s just short of a mile and was quite well maintained until the Morrisseys fell out with me. The only risky bit in this weather would be a part where the camber of the rough tarmac on a sharp right hand bend leant cars towards a shallow drop down to a dewpond. Take it carefully, and all is well. Misjudge it when it’s wet, and you can slide off. Not all the way to the dewpond, but close enough if the rough turf is sodden.

I misjudged it, and it was terrifying. Even with four-wheel drive, I hadn’t thought the snow would bank as much as it did. What I thought was good flat ground was not, and the Vitara lurched to the left, hit a boulder, and I panicked. We slid, and momentum took me. My poor car left the track backwards, with us both shouting, and slid gracelessly down to a stop right next to the dewpond. No amount of trying could get us back up either. I was stuck, I was angry with myself, and I was embarrassed. I’d tried to help this poor chap, and all I’d succeeded in doing was to add terror to his troubles!

There were no two ways about it: we were going to have to walk down to the farm. It was nearer, and I could swallow my pride and ask one of the Morrisseys to get a tractor and chain to drag us back to the road. The onus was on them to say no, even if they did accept someone else in need of help, other than myself.

“So you don’t get on with them?” Charlie asked as I explained how awkward this could be, with a brief account of the parcel thefts and subsequent farm machinery theft.

“Oh. The lady at the pub I stopped at to ask directions said they were a weird lot.”

I’d heard it said before.

“I wouldn’t say weird.” I said, strangely feeling defensive of them. “They’re sort of contrary. Moody. He couldn’t do enough for me when I first moved in, but when I said his son had stolen from me I genuinely thought he was going to beat me up. Whereas she, bless her, had always been very cold with me, but argued with him that this was just the sort of thing she knew James would get up to since he was little. Always with lads on the wrong side of the law, into the arcane, and listening to weird rock music. I think it’s because their older two got out of farming. Their daughter’s a lawyer and their other son is an events manager. Works for football clubs and big corporates, and suchlike.”

“There’s always one rebel,” Charlie said, sadly. “Mine’re no different, in a way. Two eldest doing alright for themselves. Don’t bother about old Dad any more. Same with two of Karen’s three eldest. Don’t like us being together, so basically ignore us. Sad really. Just hoping the ones still at home turn out alright, but my eldest don’t half sound like this James!”

I started to struggle a bit as we got closer to the farm. There are bolts in my leg that secure the prosthetic part, and in real cold I feel a dull throbbing pain. I developed a limp which I can’t avoid, and Charlie asked me if I was injured from the crash. I explained that no, it was my false leg, and he began to enquire about it. We’d made it the farmhouse though, and I said I’d explain later.

The farmhouse, unusually, was in darkness. The kitchen light always seemed to be on, but this evening there wasn’t a light to be seen. Even the Christmas lights weren’t on, and they’d been up since the beginning of December. I knocked hard on the old fox-shaped brass knocker, which sounded oddly dulled in the hissing, deepening snow. There was no response. Another knock: another lack of response. It occurred to me that their power may be off, so I said to Charlie that we’d be better to walk around the back to see if there was even candlelight in the living room.

There wasn’t. There was also, we noticed, no sign of footprints in the snow. Also, all the vehicles were there. Bob Morrissey’s tatty Land Rover sat covered in snow. Jean’s little Micra was likewise seemingly half buried in it. Even James’ motorbike had collected snow as it stood under the covered area where they seemed to collect an assortment of broken mechanical artefacts and presumably useful other bric-a-brac. Both of the big tractors were there across the yard near the cowshed, and the usual assortment of farm trailers were clearly unused since the snow started nearly three hours ago.

What was strange was how silent the cattle were in their winter home. They usually stamped about audibly banging into things in the big metal shed, but they were just standing there, watching us as we moved about the yard looking for any sign of anyone, once I’d pointed out this didn’t look right.

“Well we’re certainly not going to get any help here,” Charlie said sadly, as he moved towards a brick outhouse adjacent to the cattle. “Is this door usually left open? Looks like it should be shut.”

I didn’t know, but he was right. I’d always thought perhaps that bit of the farm was the milking shed, but it didn’t take me long to realise you’d only get a few cows in at a time. I also hadn’t really considered that not all cows are for milking, and that maybe once, long ago, cows went in there for a different reason.

We peered in, but there wasn’t much to see. I found a switch, which set an old fluorescent tube light into life after some brief flickering. The room was incredibly clean, unremarkable, and utterly empty. All it really did for us was to confirm that the farm did have electricity. So where were the Morrisseys?

We decided to walk back up and see if we could move my little four-by-four, but it was having none of it. I think Charlie now sensed I was suffering, so we headed as quickly as we could back to my cottage. By now the wind was getting up and drifting against his poor old car.

“Maybe we could fashion some sort of repair for that piece of pipe?” I said, trying to sound cheerful.

“Have you got any duct tape?” Charlie asked, idly sweeping snow from his side windows.

“I’ve got parcel tape rolls by the dozen. Duct tape? No.”

He let out a dry little chuckle. “Bloke I used to work with used to say you should always have a roll of duct tape and a can of oil. The duct tape to make things that shouldn’t move stop moving, and the oil to make the things that are supposed to move keep moving. Half that back bumper’s held together with duct tape, but it’s at home.”

“Well the only thing I can think of now is for you to wait out the weather here for the night.” I said as we moved back into the luxurious warmth of my kitchen.

Charlie was quiet for a moment, then sort of grimaced, while very deliberately avoiding eye contact.

“I could,” he said tentatively. “But I don’t know if I should. I really appreciate the offer, but,” and here he gestured to a picture on my windowsill, “I’m not sure about all of this. I don’t really think it’s all, y’know, alright.”

I frowned, not understanding. Then it dawned on me. It’s not the first time I’ve met with this kind of response, but never in a situation like this. I put on my serious face and folded my arms.

“I’m not going to try and have sex with you. I’m in a happy relationship. Just like you.”

He looked up and briefly at me, then sighed. “Well, okay. Only, y’know, not really like me. You know.”

I looked at the photo of Peter and myself on our wedding day. I suppose to anyone it’s very obviously a wedding day photograph, and most people just look at it and think how happy we look. For some, it’s a talking point, sometimes starting with “I would never have guessed you were gay!” or “But haven’t you got children?” but for some, including the Morrisseys, it’s an immediate exit cue.

“All I know is you’re completely safe here. You’re welcome, whatever you think, to stay here. I wouldn’t send someone from the Westborough Baptist Church out into that weather on foot.”

He looked up and gave a little half smile. “Then you’re a better man than me. I’m not even a queer and I want to break their faces for what they do at Army funerals .”

I turned and filled the kettle, looking firmly at our wedding picture. “Sometimes you have to tolerate intolerance, and other times not.”

We talked for quite a while after that, much more animatedly than we had done. Charlie had, he admitted, seen the “gay marriage” picture quite quickly and wanted to just get out of here. I don’t think he’d really taken the time to talk about his feelings on the subject with anyone other than homophobes or just the plain disinterested. We’d quickly found common ground on the subject of relationships viewed by other people. Just as my son found it sickening that I was in a relationship with a man, his own son found it sickening that he was in a relationship with an Asian woman.

At a little after midnight my phone rang, and it was Karen, his wife, worried sick about him. He calmed her down, explained all that had happened, what the plan was, how he wasn’t likely to turn gay for the night, and that he would be home in the morning as promised, although maybe not with what the kids had wanted for Christmas. They might have to have Santa come and pay them a special visit a few days late!

I prepare for Christmas well in advance, but I could tell from the conversation that Charlie ultimately did everything at the last minute. I felt bad, because I pitied him. I’m always comfortable, because of circumstance, but he (I learnt from chatting) had made bad choices, and been in situations beyond his control. What I appreciated about him, was that he never once tried to lay the blame at someone else’s feet.

“You haven’t opened any of your parcels.” He said after we’d discussed the next steps for getting him home for Christmas.

I looked at the pile. It hadn’t really sunk in that there were so many, but I figured they must largely be Christmas presents, and by no means cheap ones. There was something that was definitely flat screen TV sized, and of the fifteen, only two were addressed to both myself and Peter. I opened those, and sure enough they revealed festive wrapping paper. I took them into the lounge to put under the tree, and went back and picked up a lighter, smaller one.

When I opened it I was a bit dumbstruck. The box inside was rectangular and a foot long, with very little packing. On it was the Ford motor company logo and the words “Genuine Parts” along with a barcode and some obvious warehousing codes and text. I frowned at it and wondered what it could be. When I opened it, I got the shock of my life.

It was a radiator hose.

I showed it to Charlie, and at first it didn’t seem to click. But as I scrabbled the box back towards me and looked harder at the text, I could see what I’d just opened. It was a radiator hose for a 1.8 litre diesel Ford Mondeo, built in 2000. Charlie’s Mondeo was a 1.8 diesel.

“This is really weird.” Charlie said. “Who sent it?”

I checked the packaging. The sender details showed as Mr. E Sendha, and the address was from a road I didn’t know, but in the small town of Chapel-en-le-Frith, not too far away.

Entranced, I opened another parcel. It was a box-set of Dwayne Johnson action films. While I find him easy on the eye, they are neither mine nor Peter’s kind of films. In the next box, a set of screwdrivers with interchangeable heads, a spanner and socket set, and a packet of adjustable circular clips.

“This is really, really weird.” Charlie said, taking his tablet, turning it on, and checking back on the delivery and sender information. “Who is this bloke?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Mr. E. Sendha? I’m guessing he’s Mystery Sender.”

Charlie had gone pale. “Whoever he is, he also knows how to do computer hacking. There’s no delivery report on this thing anymore!”

He turned the screen towards me and showed me what looked like a table of addresses with times. They started at eight in the morning in Oakwood, near Derby, and ended abruptly at Chesterfield, an hour before he had arrived at my cottage. I’d glimpsed the same thing briefly when I’d signed the signature box to acknowledge receipt of the items.

“This is very creepy.” I said. “Not so much the hacker removing these things but, let’s be honest, a parcel containing a part to replace a broken part on the car delivering the part.”

“Do you believe in fate?” Charlie asked.

“Not really, no.” I said, opening another parcel to find it contained a game console.

“Are you a keen gamer?” Charlie asked.

“Not at all. I have friends who love all of those shooting games, but I think I’m a bit old for blasting aliens.”

Charlie sighed and looked thoughtful for a long moment. “I was just going to say I suppose that’s not really your type’s kind of thing, but that would be really wrong of me, wouldn’t it?”

“Whether you meant men in their mid-fifties or the LGBT community at large, I’m pretty sure both can be found to indulge.”

The next box revealed a Caitlin Moran book.

“Now her, I like.” I said, showing the book to Charlie.

“Bloody hell.” He said, as if I’d just showed him his own grave. The colour drained from his face.

“Are you okay?”

He gulped. “I’m supposed to be getting that for Karen. If the next parcel you open has her Raised By Wolves TV series on DVD in it, I’m going to freak out.”

I opened the next parcel, and the colour drained from my face too. I was pretty sure Charlie wasn’t psychic, as I don’t believe in such nonsense, but this was the strangest thing I’d ever experienced.

“I’m not being funny, Charles, but this is basically my Christmas shopping list. All delivered to your house. By me. What the Hell’s happening?”

I shook my head gently as I placed the DVD on the table like it was as fragile as porcelain. “I’d think some cruel joke, but the radiator pipe and the apparent tools to fit it would suggest otherwise. Are you any good with fixing cars?”

“Me? No. Unless you count taping a back bumper back on.”

“I think you should open this one.” I said, passing him a more slender parcel.

He took it, and opened it very carefully. His eyebrows raised, and he pulled the book out and showed it to me.

“A Haynes workshop manual for Ford Mondeos from 2000 to 2003. How utterly unsurprising.”

“Karen joked about buying me one.” Charlie save gravely. “It doesn’t make sense that it’s here.”

“Specifically, or generally?” I asked, trying not to mock. It really was too bizarre to contemplate.

Both spooked, but now both utterly tired, I showed Charlie to the guest room and made my way to bed myself. I’m not sure either of us slept soundly, and I was startled to get an early morning text message from Peter saying he was up early to try and beat the transport chaos to get home in good time. I decided not to tell him about the previous day’s strangeness as I knew he’d call me right back and basically ridicule the whole situation. His caustic wit is not always best without seeing his face, but such is life with a professional stand-up comedian.

The morning was crisp and clear, with the Derbyshire scenery looking fantastic. After a pot of coffee and a round of toast, Charlie looked at the workshop manual to see if the radiator hose could be easily exchanged. Since it seemed it could, we both went out into the six inch deep snow and worked together to fit it. It was much easier than I would have anticipated, but without such a book I would have had no idea. Neither, Charlie admitted, would he.

The car started fine, and although it was clear it was going to be a job getting Charlie to the main road we knew we had at least a chance of it at ultra-slow speed. The spot where I had slid off was warning enough that caution was essential. I travelled with him down to the farm, in the hope the Morrisseys were now back and could recover my stricken Vitara.

They weren’t there. What was there was a police Land Rover, with one very confused looking young Constable. And this was where our experience of strangeness suddenly paled into insignificance. Not only had the Morriseys from the farm disappeared, but so had their two eldest children. Both had been reported missing, mainly because the daughter had disappeared while on a flight from Kenya to Amsterdam, and their son’s car was found abandoned at some road works traffic lights on a country lane in Cheshire, near where he lives. The engine was running, the stereo was on, and it was locked from the inside.

Now it seemed like the parents and youngest son were missing too. We were asked to return to my house, while the constable called in a detective, which would be quite some time, considering the weather.

Something else that was worth considering was my decision to make sure Charlie left with all of the things that had been delivered to me that were quite clearly destined for him. That was the word we were both most comfortable with at the time: destined. The surrealistic nature of the previous evening had (we now knew) left us both with very little sleep and a resolute desire to know what on Earth was going on.

When we got back to the house I wasn’t so sure “on Earth” was the half of it. There were no fresh footprints other than our own, but as I opened the door I noticed a white envelope on the floor. It had no address on it, just “C&P” in crude block capitals. I thought it at first to be a Christmas card, and when I opened it I was sort of right.

It depicted a scene from a cottage kitchen decorated festively, where a tall man with a short grey beard stood opening parcels, while opposite another, slightly younger man, sat looking at some sort of book with a car on the front. In the background there was a window looking out over glorious winter countryside through a small snow-covered courtyard with a white estate car in it. This all looked remarkably familiar except for one chilling thing: the gaunt, androgynous figure with shoulder length black hair and equally black clothes leaning against the refrigerator at the end of the table, between the two men.

This was unmistakably a painstakingly crafted watercolour picture of my own kitchen, with both me and Charlie detailed accurately. Chillingly, James Morrissey was watching over us. I slowly showed the card to Charlie, who visibly recoiled.

“That’s creepy. Really creepy! And that kid in the picture? He don’t half look like my lad Martin’s weird friend from college!”

I frowned. “Isn’t it Martin who doesn’t talk to you because of Karen?”

Charlie looked sad. “Aye. That’s him.”

“Does he go to college in Chesterfield?”

“He did, aye.”

“This is James Morrissey in this picture. He went to Chesterfield college too.”

I frowned, and recalled something James had said when we were in the police station, about accepting people for who they were, not who you wanted them to be. It had seemed trite teenage drivel at the time, but he’d looked pointedly at me. It was hard for me to disagree, but all it succeeded in doing was angering his father and escalating tempers of the supposed adults in the office. Myself included, as I heard the phrases that had haunted me in my youth.

“Why can’t you be more like your brother and sister?”

“It’s like you’re not even mine, you’re so bloody weird being like this!”

“We try to give you a normal life and this is how you repay us?”

All the while, James just sat there in silence, looking bored, distant, and almost like he wasn’t really there. Yes, he really was a weird kid. But that never excused anyone the right to thieve.

I opened the card.

To Charles and Peter,

Thanks for trying to do the right thing instead of just getting me put in prison. Sorry I had to involve Martin’s Dad in this little drama, but he needed to stop being homophobic like Martin needed to stop being racist. When you know you’re different and you find out how, that’s not your fault because it isn’t a fault.

I know Martin will never repay the money he stole, so I hope the presents go down well. His dad’s a nice guy and I know he’ll be a bit more tolerant now. I only wish my folks could be. They said years ago it was like I wasn’t really theirs, so imagine my surprise when I find out I’m a Faerie.

You both know what it’s like to be called a Faerie, right?

Anyway, I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas and a great New Year.

James of the Rock.

I read it out to Charlie. He seemed surprisingly unsurprised.

“Well I never.” He said quietly. “When I met him I knew he was weird. He asked me where I was from and if I was sure. I took real offence at that. Cheeky sod. All my bloody life I’ve had people saying I’m not all there, off with the faeries, and stuff like that. And you know what’s funny? It is him who’s sent all this stuff. I know. Calling himself James of the Rock, and sending it from Mr. E Sendha. ‘Sendha’ is Hindi for ‘rock’. I know coz our Karen was born Hindu.”

“Incredible.” That was all I could manage.

It was. I’d heard of the concept of “Changeling” from my reading old books on folklore, and to a lesser extent more modern ones. In my youth I’d found it fascinating that the weird, troubled, unusual or just plain unconventional kids might not really be human, but as I discovered who I really was, and more importantly stopped hiding it, that being a Changeling was nothing but folklore and nonsense. It was no more credible than gods or aliens or monsters.

It’s now almost Christmas again, and I’m documenting this because my five year old niece (born of my once estranged son, and described subtly as precocious) is staying with me. She wanted to see “the room where the people go to the other place”. I had no idea where she meant, and Peter just laughed at the notion. So we went for a walk down to the empty farm, where we opened an outhouse door that’s normally locked. Inside it was spotlessly clean, as though someone came in and tended it unlike the ramshackle rest of the property.

“Can I go through?” Carly asked. “I’m not really that naughty.”

I ruffled her short dark hair and smiled. “Maybe one day you can. When you know who you really are. Right now I’d just wait and see what Christmas brings you. You’re only young once.”

She smiled and looked up at me. “My invisible friend says you’re always young, over there.”

“As long as everyone’s happy.” I said.

I never did find out if James got his human family over there as reward or punishment. I just know he got them over there.