Dora looked up into the sky. For the first time, suspended in the blackness, apparently not very far above her head, she saw the earth - shockingly huge and close - but not the round, blue earth she had learned about at school. That earth was still there, like a name hiding behind a half-remembered face; and she could have got it back if she'd had the time to rack her brains; but there was no time, and what she saw instead was a flat-topped, circular world with an enormous tree growing out of the middle - and a mass of roots, rocks, soil and glittering silvery upside-down palace towers underneath.

The underneath was the lit-up part. The flat top was in darkness, and most of the huge tree was smothered in shadow too. Only the right-hand topmost branches were gilded with morning light.

Before she could stop herself, she looked to the side, where the light was coming from, and found herself staring straight into the sun: smaller and whiter than she had ever seen it before, but also far more brilliant. She only looked for a fraction of a second, but it was enough to blind her. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, but she could only see pulsing colours. Then gradually her vision began to clear, but in the middle of it was a black glowing blot. The blot seemed to be expanding or coming closer. Its outline sharpened as her eyes cleared. It was the beetle.

“Hoo hoo! The beetle! The beetle!” cried the owls in a panic. They all took to the air at once, with a tremendous flapping and clapping of wings, like so many frightened pigeons.

“Wait! Wait for the children!” shouted the Queen. But it was too late. The owls were flying off in all directions, as fast as their wings would carry them.

“Run for it!” said Adam, and Dora ran.

It was a strange, nightmarish, slow-motion kind of running. She found herself covering twenty feet with every stride, as if she had magic boots on, and yet she couldn't seem to go quickly. Between one step and the next she floated like thistledown. When she landed, her feet made a soft patting noise in the white dust and kicked up little chalky clouds; and now that the owls had all taken flight this was the only sound she could hear, apart from her own breathing and Adam panting just behind her. She couldn't see or hear the black beetle any more, but she had a horrible feeling that it might be hovering in the air just above them, opening its jaws.

Then she heard a new noise: a sweet jingling sound, and a sharp crack.

They reached the sharp rocks at the edge of the crater. In a couple of paces they were up them, and a wide white desert came into view. Then a shadow fell across them.

Dora cowered and looked up, expecting the beetle; but it wasn't the beetle. She could hardly believe her eyes. Flying overhead was a sleigh drawn by a team of reindeer. Bells were jingling on their harness. They flew in front of her and landed in a swirl of dust. The driver was a gigantic fat man with a white beard, dressed in red with fur trimmings. As he pulled the reindeer to a halt he was already waving and calling to Dora.

“Quickly, my dear!”

Suddenly the white glare of the desert seemed like untouched snow. Everything else went out of her head. She jumped down from the sharp rocks, and covered the distance to the sleigh in three or four flying leaps. A red-gloved hand closed around hers, and pulled her on board. A moment later she was wrapped in a warm rug, and a comfortable, delicious magic seemed to wrap itself around her too. After all the dangers and surprises she had been through, she felt safe at last. An immense sleepiness came over her. Santa Claus cracked his whip, the reindeer strained forward in their creaking leather harness, the bells jingled musically, and they were airborne.


She was at home, on the couch in the front room. She felt an enormous relief: everything was back to normal, and all her adventures were over. Then her Dad came in, and started telling her that he'd got to go to London, otherwise he wouldn't be able to get her a GameBox. There was something she wanted to explain to him in return, but she couldn't remember what it was. There was an advert on the telly, something to do with Christmas, and instead of telling her Dad what she really wanted to, she started to shout at him to be quiet, because she wanted to watch the advert. Even in her dream she was shocked to hear herself shouting like that. Things had only been back to normal for a few seconds, and already they were going wrong, somehow. There was something the matter with the way the world worked: nothing seemed to be straightforward: everything kept getting muddled up and going wrong. But another thing was bothering her too: there was somebody sitting next to her on the couch, trying to remind her of the thing she wanted to tell her Dad, but she couldn't hear what he was saying, and when she looked round to see who it was the couch was empty. Then when she looked back at her Dad, instead of coming to give her a goodbye hug he was hugging himself and wrapping his arms around himself in a funny way. He'd managed to make them go right the way round his body so that they weren't just hugging him: they were winding round him like a snake or a worm, or like brambles winding round a treetrunk. Then a black beetle came crawling over his shoulder and down the front of him, and simultaneously something happened to the couch Dora was sitting on, because she felt a bump go right through it.

She woke up with a lurch, and was relieved to find herself still inside the sleigh. But they were back on solid ground. The bump she felt must have been the sleigh landing.

The seat next to her was empty, but alongside the sleigh stood a short, fat little man dressed in green, with a green cap on his head and a pipe in his mouth. He was holding a piece of paper and a pencil, and looking at her over the top of his half-moon glasses.

“Dora, is it?” he inquired. “Is that your name, my dear?”

“Yes, it is.”

He put a tick on the piece of paper, then tucked the pencil away behind one of his ears. When he did this, she noticed that his ears were pointed.

“Well,” he said, “that completes our party. Welcome to the Christmas Experience, Dora. If you'd care to follow me, we'll begin the tour.”

“But where's Santa Claus?” said Dora.

“Oh, you'll see him later. He'll be hard at work by now. This is his busiest time of year, you know. But come along. Chop chop. There's lots to see, and no time to spare.”

Dora still hesitated.

“Is there something wrong, my dear?”

She was trying to remember something. She knew there was something she ought to ask him, but she couldn't think what it was. In the end she said:

“It's just – well – how am I going to get home?”

But she still had the feeling that she should have asked something else.

“Oh, is that all?” said the little man with a smile. “You'll be taken home along with all the others. You'll be riding with Santa in his sleigh, and when he delivers presents to your house he'll be dropping you off at the same time. It's all part of the Christmas Experience.”

“Really?” said Dora. Her heart beat faster with excitement.

“Yes, really. It's a new thing: this is the first year we've done it. It's only for children who have been extra-good - and whose parents have made advance bookings online. But I gather that you're here as a bit of a special case. So come along, and let's not waste any more time.”

Dora still had a nagging feeling that she'd forgotten something, or there was something else she needed to know, but she was so excited that she pushed the feeling to the back of her mind, and scrambled eagerly out of the sleigh. More little men dressed in green were already unbuckling the reindeer from their harnesses and leading them off somewhere.

It was dark, there was snow underfoot, and more snow was falling from the air. The sleigh had landed in a snowy field. On one side of this field was a dense wall of fir-trees, and on the other side was a row of wooden buildings, which looked like stables and barns and houses. Both the fir-trees and the wooden buildings were hung with hundreds of glowing coloured lanterns. Just in front of the wall of fir-trees was a row of snow-men and snow-women: she could see their friendly smiles in the half-light, and she almost expected them to come to life and start moving around.

The little man led the way into one of the biggest of the wooden buildings, and inside it they found a group of girls and boys, all younger than Dora, who were staring around with wide-open eyes, and in several cases wide-open mouths too. They were under the supervision of another little man, who looked and sounded almost exactly the same as the one with Dora.

The first little man handed the second little man his piece of paper. The second little man glanced at it, nodded, then folded it up and put it in his pocket.

“All here,” he said. “Good. Well, first things first. Lollipops and candy-canes all round.” He rapidly passed out lollipops and candy-canes to all the boys and girls. The little girl next to Dora couldn't get the wrapper off her lollipop, so Dora helped her.

“Thank you,” said the little girl. “My name's Alice. What's yours?”


“What shall I do with my wrapper, Dora?”

“Give it to me, if you like, and I'll put it in my pocket.”

“Thank you. Can I hold your hand if I get scared?”

“Yes, if you like. But don't you think it's lovely here? What are you scared of?”

“I'm a tiny weeny bit scared of pointy ears,” whispered Alice. “And I'm a tiny weeny bit scared of Santa's beard.” Then she stuck her lollipop in her mouth, and stuck her hand in Dora's, both at the same time.

Dora gave her own lollipop a lick. It was the most intensely sweet thing she had ever tasted.

The wooden building was big and shadowy and swarming with activity. More coloured lanterns hung from the beams above their heads, and at the far end of the room was a Christmas-tree so tall that its top went right up into the roof. But between them and this Christmas-tree were rows and rows of work-benches, with an aisle down the middle. The benches were occupied by lots of little men with pointy ears, who were all furiously wrapping presents as fast as they could manage. Every time one present was finished the little man who had finished it would jump up and carry it to the side of the building, and while he was there he would pick up a new toy to take back with him. The wrapped presents were collected by yet more of the little men, who went rushing up and down the sides of the building stuffing them into sacks and loading the sacks onto red trolleys. When a trolley was full it was dragged down the building at a run, and through one of two swing doors to either side of the Christmas-tree.

Alice tugged Dora's hand. “Where do them trolleys go?” she whispered.

“Ask the man,” said Dora, nodding towards their guide.

Alice merely stuck her lollipop back in her mouth and shook her head, her eyes bigger than ever.

“Excuse me,” said Dora. “Where do those trollies go?”

“Why,” said the guide, “to the sleigh, of course. Ready for delivery to all the good girls and boys who believe in Santa, all over the world.”

Alice tugged Dora's hand again.

“How does all them presents fit on a sleigh?” she whispered.

“Ask him,” Dora whispered back; but Alice shook her head.

“Excuse me,” said Dora, “how do you manage to fit so many presents on a sleigh?”

“Aha,” said the guide. “Magic. And, you may ask, how does Santa manage to deliver them all in a single night? Magic.”

All the girls and boys nodded and smiled to each other, as if to say that this confirmed what they had already thought.

Another tug on the hand from Alice. “Doos Santa make all them toys?” she whispered. “Or doos him elves make them?”

Dora sighed. “Excuse me,” she said, “do Santa and his elves make all the toys?”

“No, no,” said the guide. “They make some of them. But if you ask Santa for a GameBox, the GameBox doesn't get made here. GameBoxes are made by the Urizen Corporation.”

It gave Dora a funny surprise to hear the name. It didn't seem right somehow.

“You can buy them in the shops,” explained the guide, “but some of them are made specially for Santa Claus.”

That seemed to make sense; but anyway, Dora didn't have time to think about it much, because Alice was tugging her hand again.

“Me asked Santa for a GameBox,” she whispered.

“I asked my Dad,” said Dora. “But he couldn't get me one.”

“Now, if you'll follow me,” said the guide, “we're going to see the sleigh.”

He led the way down the aisle in the middle of the wrapping-shed; and then they followed an elf with a red trolley through the door to the right of the Christmas tree, and found themselves in another shed-like room, this time with a sleigh in the middle of it. Dora wasn't sure whether it was the same sleigh which had rescued her from the moon: if so, then she hadn't realised before how large it was. In the back of it a mountainous pile of sacks was taking shape, and elves were climbing up ladders to add yet more sacks to the top of the pile.

On the far side of the sleigh, occupying an entire wall, was a map of the world bristling with coloured pins. More elves on ladders were working on the map, consulting lists and pushing in more pins. The guide led the children round the back end of the sleigh so they could get a closer look.

“This map,” he explained, “shows all the places where Santa will be making his deliveries.”

There was a tug on the hand from Alice.

“Why is there nearly none pins down there?” she whispered, pointing to a big area of the map which was almost empty.

“Excuse me,” said Dora dutifully, “why are there only a few pins in those poor countries?”

“That's a good question,” said the guide. “But I'm afraid the answer's rather sad. You see, Santa can't make deliveries to all the girls and boys in the world. He'd like to, but before he can come to your house you have to believe in him. You have to really really believe in him, deep down in your heart. You all believe in Santa, don't you, girls and boys?”

All the girls and boys nodded, including Dora.

“Of course you do. But there are some areas of the world where hardly anybody believes. Perhaps their Mummies and Daddies don't tell them about Santa; or perhaps they tell them, but they say he's only a made-up story. So even though Santa would like to take presents to those girls and boys, he can't. It makes him very sad.”

Alice squeezed Dora's hand, and looked very sad herself.

“Now, come along,” said the guide. “It's the reindeer next.”

They all cheered up when they heard this. He led them through another door, and they found themselves back out in the open air and the snow. The wind was blowing harder now, and the snow was coming down in thick flurries, which quickly turned the fronts of their clothes white and made it difficult either to see or hear, but Dora thought she heard a snatch of music. Then one of the little boys started jumping up and down and pointing.

“Look! Look! They're dancing! They're dancing!”

Everyone looked where the little boy was pointing. On the far side of the snow-field, next to the fir trees, the snowmen and snow-women were moving. It was difficult to see exactly what they were doing because of the blizzard, but some were going in one direction and some were going in the other, and they seemed to be weaving in and out, linking arms as they crossed, in a stately chain.

“I want to go and see the snowmen!” cried the little boy, and several other children joined in.

“You'll need coats for that,” said the guide. “Don't worry, we'll have time later. They'll be dancing for hours. Follow me!”

They followed him across the snow and into another building. It was almost a shock to get indoors out of the snow and the wind. At first it seemed very quiet, but then they realised that the gloom of the new building was full of movement: stamping, snorting, the shadows of antlers on the walls. They were standing in another aisle. On both sides of them were stalls full of straw, and in each stall was a reindeer.

“Would you like to feed them?” said the guide. “Don't worry, they're very friendly and gentle. You can give them a carrot each if you like. Just hold your hand out flat, like this, and put the carrot right in the middle of your palm, like this.” There was a bucket of carrots by the stable door. He put a carrot in the middle of his own palm to demonstrate, then handed them round. Alice and Dora shared a carrot.

“Will you do it?” said Alice, as they approached one of the stalls.

“Go on,” urged Dora, “you have a go.”

“I'm a teeny tiny bit scared of them antler-cows,” said Alice.

“Reindeer,” said Dora.

“Yes,” said Alice, “radar. I'm a teeny tiny bit scared of them.”

Dora broke the carrot in half. “I'll do it first,” she said, “then you can have a go.”

She held up the half-carrot on the flat of her palm. The reindeer stretched out its neck, and she felt its moist, bristly lips and its hot breath tickling across her fingers; then it lifted its head again, crunching eagerly, and for a moment she found herself looking into its big brown eyes.

“Your turn,” she said to Alice; but Alice but her hands behind her back and shook her head.

“He knows we've got some more,” said Dora.

The reindeer was looking quizzically from one of them to the other, puffing and snorting. Dora quickly slipped the other half of the carrot into Alice's pocket. Alice squealed, but before she had time to do anything the reindeer was nosing at her side. She pulled the carrot out of her pocket and dropped it on the floor; and almost before it stopped rolling, the reindeer had hoovered it up.

“Oh,” said Alice, “I wish we'd got another carrot.”

But the reindeer wasn't finished with them. Having been nearly cheated once, it wanted to make sure that they weren't hiding anything else. It swung its head from one of them to the other, and then it nuzzled each of them in turn on the side of the face, almost as if it was giving them a kiss, or trying to whisper a secret to them.

“He likes us,” said Alice with a sigh of delight.

But Dora had noticed something odd. When the reindeer had nuzzled her, she hadn't smelt anything. In fact – she sniffed the air – she still couldn't smell anything now. Surely the stable should have a smell: it ought to smell of straw and dung and body-heat; and when the reindeer nuzzled her, she should have been able to smell its hair and its breath. What was the matter with her nose?

What was the last thing she had been able to smell? She tried to think back. At first she couldn't call anything to mind, but then she started to remember: the smell of droppings in an owl's nest; hot chestnuts and potatoes on a shovel; the hair of a squirrel's tail; the dry acrid dust of the moon...

She looked all around. There was something wrong, or something missing: something she should have been able to see, but it wasn't there; or something she was supposed to ask about, but it had somehow slipped her mind. What was it? She racked her brains, but the answer wouldn't come.

“Now, children,” the guide was saying, “time to move on, time to move on. Mustn't keep Santa waiting.”

“Can't we stay here with the reindeer?” said one of the little girls.

“No, no; the reindeer need a proper rest before they pull the sleigh. They need a quiet time by themselves, so they can get some sleep. Tonight is Christmas Eve, don't forget. And we mustn't keep Santa waiting at the busiest time of the year, must we? He's just got enough time for a quick chat with each of you.”

Dora felt another squeeze from Alice's hand. Evidently Alice was still a little bit afraid of Santa's beard.

The guide led them back out of the stable, into the wind and the whirling snow. The snowmen and snow-women were still dancing their stately dance on the other side of the field, and some of the children stared towards them wistfully, but Dora hardly paid them any attention. She was still trying to smell something, or to remember what she had forgotten. But it was no good. She couldn't smell the fir trees, or the thin chilly smell of the snow itself. When they approached a wooden house with glowing windows and smoke rising from the chimney, she couldn't smell the smoke. There was definitely something wrong with her nose. And all the while she was getting a stronger and stronger feeling that something was missing.

They found themselves in a living room in front of a roaring log fire. There was another Christmas-tree in the corner of the room, nowhere near as big as the one in the wrapping shed, but more beautifully decorated. And drowsing in an armchair in front of the fire, in his shirt, braces and slippers, with a pipe in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, but with his eyes almost closed and his chin almost right down on his chest, was Santa Claus.


“Santa!” shouted several of the children when they saw him.

He sat up with a jerk, slopping some of the tea over the side of his mug. “Ooh – my goodness - ah- I wasn't asleep, I wasn't asleep,” he said hastily; but then when he saw the children, his eyes twinkled and his belly began to shake with laughter. “Oh, ho ho ho – silly old me – I'm afraid you caught me napping, you young scamps. The fire was so lovely and warm, and the armchair was so comfy... Well, well, well, never mind, never mind. Now, who are you and what are you doing here, I wonder? I expect you must be the children who've come to have a look around and see how we deliver all the presents.”

“We are! We are!” shouted the children.

“Oh, ho ho ho, well, how lovely to see you all, my dears. It does me good to see some nice happy children around the old place. I can't think why we didn't do this years ago. I hope you've all been having a lovely time.”

“Yes, we have!” they cried.

“And what was your favourite bit?” inquired Santa.

“The sleigh!” said one, “The snowmen dancing!” said another, and “The reindeer!” said two or three.

“Ho ho ho ho ho!” laughed Santa. “Well, you have been having a good look around, haven't you? Those are some of my favourite bits too! Bless my soul, so the snowmen have started to do their dance already, have they? Time must be getting on! Dear me, I must have sat here longer than I thought! Now, there's just enough time for me to have a little private chat with each of you, about what you really want for Christmas, and then I shall have to make myself busy again, while you go and have something to eat and get dressed up warm ready for the sleigh. You know you're all coming home with me tonight, don't you? I'm going to fly you back home along with the presents!”

“Yes, Santa!” chorused the children, jumping up and down with excitement.

“Ho ho ho, what a lovely treat it's going to be!” said Santa, putting his pipe and his mug down on a table next to his chair. “Now, who's going to be the first? The rest of you can pop into the room next door, where there are some nice crackers to pull and some nice snacks to eat. But who's going to be the first?”

At this point the guide came and stood in front of the fire and took the list out of his pocket. “Alice!” he said, reading out the first name on the list.

Alice jumped, then turned to Dora. “Can you be with me?” she whispered.

“Well, if they let me,” said Dora. “Excuse me,” she added to the guide – she didn't dare ask Santa Claus – “is it all right for me to stay with her?”

The guide and Santa both stared at her and Alice. Dora blushed, and Alice hung down her head so as to avoid looking at them.

“Oh, ho ho ho!” said Santa, twinkling his eyes again. “Of course it is, of course it is, if that's what she wants! What's the matter, Alice? A little bit scared of my beard, I expect. Lots of little boys and girls are, you know!”

Alice glanced up shyly, but said nothing. The guide started to usher the other boys and girls into the next room, and then followed them out himself. After they were gone, a silence fell. The fire crackled. Santa Claus sat smiling, combing his beard with his fingers, and gazing at Alice and Dora.

Alice tugged Dora's hand. “Is he God?” she whispered loudly.

“Oh!” said Dora, surprised by the question. “No, he's not God. He's just Santa Claus.”

“God's got a big beard too,” said Alice.

“Yes,” said Dora. “Well, at least, he's got a beard in some of the pictures.”

“But God lives on a cloud,” said Alice decisively. “Not the North Pole. And his beard is bigger.”

“Ho ho ho ho ho!” said Santa, who had been listening to all this with great interest. “What a clever girl! Now, come along, Alice – why don't you come over here and give my beard a great big tug?”

To Dora's astonishment, Alice let got of her hand, marched over to Santa Claus and tugged at his beard with both hands.

“Ooh! Ow!” cried Santa. “My goodness me, don't take it out by the roots! Ho ho ho!” Then he lifted Alice onto his knee. “Now then, tell me what you'd like for Christmas.”

“Didn't you not get my letter when it went up all the way in the chimberley-pot, Santa?” said Alice, staring straight into his eyes.

“Oh, yes, I should expect I did,” said Santa. “But I get lots and lots and lots of letters every year, sweetheart. So just remind me what it was that you wanted.”

“A GameBox, Santa, of course!”

“Oh, that's right. A GameBox. Lots of boys and girls want them this Christmas. And do you really really believe in me, Alice?”

“Yes, Santa!” said Alice loudly. “Of course I do! I'm sitted on your knee!”

“Oh yes, so you are!”

“And I believe in God too!” said Alice stoutly. “And him beard are even bigger!”

“Ho ho ho! What a good girl! Now jump down, and off you go into the next room, while I have a little chat on my own with Dora.”

Alice jumped down from his knee, ran to the door, and went through it with a slam.

Santa gazed at Dora.

“Now, Dora,” he said after a moment, in a more serious tone of voice. “I know all about you, of course. You wanted a GameBox as well, if I remember rightly.”

“I did want one, Santa,” said Dora. “But my Dad said he couldn't get one for me.”

“Well, well,” said Santa gently, combing his beard with his fingers. “I expect we can do something about that.”

“But I don't want one any more,” said Dora. “The thing I want most now is to have my Dad back.”

“Do you, my dear? Come here and hold my hands.”

Santa held out his hands, and Dora went and stood right in front of him and took hold of them. They gazed into each other's eyes.

“Now then, Dora,” said Santa softly. “Do you really believe in me, right down deep in your heart?”

“Yes, Santa, I do.”

“Then you can have your Daddy back, my dear. All you have to do is give me that box.”

Dora's heart gave a lurch. “The box?” she said.

“Yes, sweetheart. That's all you have to do.”

“But – I don't understand, Santa.”

“Your Daddy wanted that box,” said Santa. “He wanted it to help him with his work. He wanted you to take it to him in London. But everything got muddled up, didn't it? Well, we can set it all straight now. You give me that box, and I'll give it to your Daddy, and then he'll be able to come home.” He squeezed her hands and smiled. “Come on. What do you say?”

So Dora took out the box and gave it to him.