"There's lots of trees outside - why do we have to bring one inside?" Dee asked, helping to drag the felled pine through the snow.
"Just because." Sparrow answered shortly, out of breath from wielding the axe and now hauling the tree back to the house.
"It's tradition!" Tekla chirped, running alongside in her rubber boots, stumbling a little in the snow.
Dee tugged harder on the branches and followed in Sparrow's footsteps. He stamped his feet into the packed snow, but his toes still felt cold, despite the two pairs of socks. He curled them up inside his too-big shoes and thought of the hot food that would be waiting for them when they got back to the house.
"That's funny...." Sparrow dropped the trunk of the pine and pointed ahead. "There's no smoke from the chimney."
Dee's face fell. No smoke meant no fire, and no fire meant no hot food.
"I'll go see!" Tekla ran ahead before Sparrow could stop her. They hurried to catch up, but not before Tekla came running out of the house again. "There's no one there!"
They forced the tree in through the door and into the room with the fireplace. It was, as Tekla had said, empty. The remains of a fire smouldered in the grate, and their belongings were scattered around the room as they had been when they left to get the tree.
There was a noise at the door and shortly after, the other three came into the room. Bee was first, her staff tapping on the floor, then Zed, with as much firewood as he could carry with one arm. Rat was last, holding a struggling puppy in her arms, scratching and nipping with sharp baby teeth. Rat gently bit the puppy on the ear in retaliation. It squealed and wriggled to be set free, but she crouched down in the corner, still holding it tightly in her strong little arms. Tekla ran over to look.
Sparrow pointed at the fire. "You were supposed to be cooking!"
Zed hung his head.
"Rat disappeared." Bee said. "We had to find her."
Zed hurried over to the fire and knelt down by it. "At least I brought back some firewood..."
"And what is that?" Sparrow's finger swung round to Rat and the puppy.
"She won't let it go."
Tekla turned her face to Sparrow, "Can we keep it? Please? Please?"
But Sparrow was busy rummaging through the packs for food. She took her knife and started chopping potatoes and carrots on a plank of wood, scraping them into a metal pan as she did so. Zed poured in some water from the canister and set it at one side of the fire, nestled in the embers. Dee came back with more water from the pump and placed the bucket by the fireplace. Bee busied herself stuffing items back into the packs and generally tidying.
"Where's the bird?" Sparrow asked.
Zed pointed to a plastic bucket behind her and she reached in and pulled out the carcass of a turkey. A few feathers still stuck to the skin, and she plucked these off, grimacing as she did so. Although she was well used to eating meat now, the details of preparation still left her feeling a bit sick. She took her knife and messily cut into the flesh of the bird. She stripped as much of the meat as she could and put it in the frying pan which she then sat in the middle of the fire. "Keep an eye on that, Zed."
She went outside to wash her hands at the pump, and came back in ready to decorate the tree. They set it up in a corner of the room in a bucket filled with stones. Sparrow had found some red fabric and tore it into strips to drape around the branches. And in the kitchen Dee had found a roll of tinfoil. Sparrow took this and showed Tekla and Bee how to thread pieces of it onto string to make a garland. In a cupboard under the stairs they found a box of candles and they placed these on the floor around the tree so that the tinfoil glittered in a circle of light.
"It looks like stars..."Dee said to Bee.
Bee thought that Christmas smelt of pine needles and fire smoke. She felt the prickly branches of the tree and gently set the tinfoil garland swinging so that it made a sh-sh-sh sound as the pieces rubbed together.
"Now we need presents," Sparrow said.
"What's presents?" Dee asked.
"Things you give one another."
"Nice things..." Tekla added.
Dee thought a bit. He didn't have much but he did have a few collected things. He pulled out a handful from his pocket.
"Not now!" Sparrow said, "They have to be wrapped first. In secret." She produced a stack of old newspapers and put them in the middle of the floor. Everyone took a sheet and scurried away to odd corners of the house. Even Rat grabbed a crumpled bit of paper in her fist and took it away.
After the food was all eaten, Sparrow said it was time to do presents. Rat and Tekla sat in the corner, feeding the puppy strips of leftover turkey. Sparrow went first. She gave Bee one of her old school ribbons, one of the satin ones that felt so nice when you ran your finger over them. Dee gave Zed one of his precious bottle tops with pictures printed on. Tekla gave Rat a long coloured feather. Rat looked as though she was thinking very hard and then pushed the puppy into the middle of the circle, covered with the sheet of newspaper. The puppy whined and nosed at the paper.
Sparrow lifted the paper off. "I suppose we're keeping the puppy then..."