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The Christmas Machine

Most people still called it the Christmas Machine. Becca called it a faffing nuisance, but turned up on her appointed day to get a Christmas, as she did every December. The queue went all the way up Yule Street to the great red doors, a queue so long that, if you didn’t mind exaggerating, the people at the front looked like little elves between miniature fir trees. A queue moving so slowly that, if you didn’t mind exaggerating, frost would bloom on your sunglasses. Becca liked exaggerating, especially to herself, but joined the line, like everybody else, because there were Rules. Everybody would have a Christmas, and they would have the Christmas they deserved. Probably. Assuming the Formula was to be trusted, and the Statisticians were to be believed, as everybody generally did.

Becca was specifically Becca and not generally everybody. Nevertheless, she shuffled polka dot boots forward in the queue, accidentally catching the starry eyes of the youngest in the pretty young family in front.

‘What thort of Christmas are you wishing for?’ he asked her, before lisping, ‘Pleasethankyou.’

Silly question, she might as well give a silly answer, raise a wee smile. ‘I’ll be merry whatever the Christmas Machine gives. I’d be merry on the Moon. I’d be merry in the toe of a giant stocking.’

His parents turned, smiling too, and his sister, suitably rosy cheeked with tinsel in her pigtails, and their dog pricked up its little ears and wagged its little tail. They were wearing matching red jumpers, even the dog. In knitted letters each woolly-pully asked ‘OH-NO-OH-NO or HO-HO-HO?’

‘Is that the theme this year?’ Two years previously there’d been a fairy theme, which had turned out to be a Rule not a tradition, which had caught Becca out. She’d ended up queuing twice, the second time freezing her wings off in a tutu.

‘That’s what we call it, the HoHoHo Machine.’

Newish tradition, coming up with a nickname for the Christmas Machine. Twinklatronic. Noelator. Sparklesprayer. That sort of thing. It was still the faffing nuisance to Becca, not that she’d say so out loud. There were Rules.

‘Well, you all look smashing.’ Becca said, because, why not?

The Dad’s teeth shone. ‘I knitted them myself.’

She bet he had, on glittery needles, to make them look perfect so that they’d deserve their perfect Christmas. This lot clearly trusted the Formula. ‘Jolly well done.’

Everybody shuffled forward, including Becca, not that she particularly wanted to be included.

The boy was considering her shocking pink coat, her splodgy hair. ‘Don’t you like Christmas?’

Mum grimaced. ‘Of course she does. Everybody does.’

OH-NO-OH-NO a boo-boo in the queue to the HO-HO-HO!

‘Always did.’ Becca said, meaning, she always had.

Dad rearranged his family into a love huddle. ‘Would you like to hear the HO-HO-HO Machine story?

Telling the story of the Christmas Machine while waiting your turn for the faffing thing had been one of the first traditions, and one of the best as far as Becca was concerned. Every time she heard the story, it was told a bit differently. All manner of exaggerations. That gave her hope. This lot started with,

‘A long, long time ago…’

Not so long ago that Becca had forgotten when people got the Christmas they made, if they could afford to, or were given by their nears and dears, or ended up with by luck, good or bad. That’s what everybody in general hadn’t liked about those Christmases, their unfairness. Absolute scoundrels showing off their expertly procured Christmas while absolute smashers had not two brussel sprouts to rub together. But, back then, there’d been the chance to find yourself in just the peculiar Christmas you wanted, with more delight in it than you could ever have expected, never mind deserved. If Becca couldn’t say what made those Christmases magical, she didn’t see how a Statistician could.

That first machined Christmas, nearly thirty years before, she’d just set out into life and about finding herself. The queue hadn’t seemed like a faffing nuisance that year, but another adventure, until she’d been told what she deserved. It wasn’t only Becca they’d mucked about that year, the Statisticians. Teething problems with the Formula, they’d said.

Meanwhile, she’d been given Your Christmas is: Saharan Oasis, and away she’d flown. Not that she was one for sticking to tradition, even then, but a handful of dates in a sandstorm with a faffed off camel and no map? More random than algorithmic. Still, she hadn’t gone on about it. Partly because she’d found the wild in the middle of that storm. Mostly because there were Christmas Machine Rules, and gratitude had just been added to them.

Everybody had shuffled a jolly decent way along Yule Street. She was thankful for that and skipped to catch up. She also gave silent thanks for nobody bothering her with silly questions about what Christmas she wished for, when it made no difference, wishing, not anymore. And at least it wasn’t snowing tickly fake snow, the fir trees smelled like winter in the wild, and nobody was singing the jingle.

Somebody behind her started singing the jingle. The somebody was done up as a yeti, sounded like one as well, but Becca recognised the melody. The jingle for the Christmas Machine advertisements, starring people who apparently deserved to be on telly. Everybody generally loved a singalong in the queue. Becca was all for singing, specifically singing her own tune, making up the words as she went along. Faffing jingle. Who rhymes merry with merit? Not that she’d say that out loud.

Everybody shuffled forward. Everybody would get their Christmas, whatever they wanted, so everybody worried what they deserved, whatever they pretended. Even the dancing reindeer up ahead. Probably. Whether they trusted the Formula or not.

The previous year, she’d come with friends. Hadn’t seemed a faffing nuisance at all. Each of them thought the others deserved something special, not that it was said out loud. The Machine gave them Your Christmas is: Secluded House, Secret Santa, Pot Luck Dinner and Bring a Bottle. They’d all got the gifts that the giver really wanted. All turkey crowns and no spuds. Gallons of fizz and not a drop of gravy. How they’d laughed at themselves. Where was the logic in that?

Everybody shuffled forward. The pretty young family was greeted by a Pantomime Dame, chucking little cheeks and checking them off the list. Their smiles stretched into strangeness as they went into the Christmas Hall, like reflections in a bauble.

Poor lambs. Whatever Christmas they got they’d have to take it and be merry, if they cared about next year’s. There were Rules. Not that wishes mattered, she wished the Christmas Machine would give that family their perfect. If they got what everybody generally wanted and hoped they deserved, it wouldn’t make a speck of difference to her specific Christmas.

Faffing nuisance, worrying what you deserved, especially when you didn’t trust the Formula, believed in magic not statistics. Like, the magic of silence in lonely places, because it wasn’t silent if you listened, it was full of the wild, and yourself. Like the magic of chance encounters. Didn’t she deserve magic?

Only if she was exaggerating.

The Pantomime Dame beckoned, chuckling as she checked Becca off the list, telling her the Rules for using the Machine, as if they’d ever changed, flourishing Becca’s candy cane shaped key.

‘Smashing,’ Becca said, before lisping, ‘Pleasethankyou.’

The great red doors slid open, and out came the faffing jingle. Becca crossed the forest clearing, on faffing fake snow past woodland automata, to the plastic gingerbread housing of the Christmas Machine.

Everybody said the gubbins itself was no bigger than a lump of coal. Everybody said the gubbins had never broken. Maybe this was the year she’d not take the Christmas she deserved. Maybe this was the year to run wild, to exaggerate herself.

Becca popped her candy cane shaped key into the lock of the plastic gingerbread door. A card popped out through the letterbox, as everybody knew it would and as it generally did, green with gold lettering. The card read:

Your Christmas is: ---

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