‘Christmas Eve again already?’ Eric gave a horrid, scratchy yawn. ‘They come round faster and faster. Oh, it’s you, Maude. Off to Paris, are you? I thought you might. It’s been a long time, dearie.’
The spider crab squinted his jewel-like eyes at Maude and then Deidre and cackled with glee. ‘Really? You’re taking her with you? Will they even let her in? Won’t they turn her away at the door?’
‘Ssssh, of course not,’ the Tigon snapped. ‘Don’t be unkind, Eric. It doesn’t become you.’
He muttered, ‘You’re right. I’ve become tetchy over the years. People don’t even ask me to do magic stuff for them anymore, in case I turn on them capriciously and do something nasty. It all comes of being on display so much. I feel over-exposed.’ His cabinet was unique in that it could be seen from both inside the hall and from outside in the street. He was supposed to be an exotic enticement to passersby, which he found wearing.
‘Time’s getting on,’ Maude said softly. ‘And we need your help.’
‘Time can do strange things on Christmas Eve,’ he mused, and then he swiveled his eyes to study her carefully. ‘I know what you want. I know which spell you want me to cast. Oh, that’s a lovely idea. Oh, yes, dearie. I don’t mind doing that one at all…’ His skinny limbs twitched and his armoured body began to judder and emit a pinkish-golden glow…
‘Oh, crikey! Oh, help!’ Deidre gasped, clacking her beak. ‘I’m not so sure now, Maude. Is this going to be safe? Is this going to work out as we want it?’
But Maude wasn’t listening. She was busy submitting herself to the workings of Eric’s particular sorcery. There was a rushing and a sparkling noise in the air all about them and they both felt that a transformation was starting to take place…
Maude was patting her friend’s wing with her paws. Deidre was aware of the comforting weight of her claws. And then the claws were gone and Maude was patting her hand. Her hand? Why, they both had actual hands. Warm, fleshy hands with blood – real blood- running through their veins.
It was strange and unknown, this whole sensation of being human and being made of actual flesh. To Maude it was a long-ago feeling, filling her with nostalgia and glee all at once. To Deidre it was wholly novel and queer. She had never been made of flesh and blood.
All at once the two of them were sitting side by side in an aeroplane, with a stewardess helping them to fasten their seatbelts. There were only moments until the plane took off for its Christmas Eve flight to Paris.
Deidre turned silently to look at Maude and saw that she was wearing a fluffy hat and dark lipstick and she made rather a handsome older woman. She was saying to the stewardess, ‘My friend has never flown before. She’s rather nervous.’
The stewardess smiled. ‘No problem, madam. It’s a very short hop. We’ll be at Charles de Gaulle in just over an hour. You’ll hardly even notice the journey.’
‘Wonderful,’ said Maude, eyes sparkling.
It snowed over England and the Channel as they flew. Flakes whirled past the dark windows. Deidre grimaced, sitting back and gripping the armrests for dear life, completely terrified. The look on her face made her companion burst out laughing. Deidre in human form had a large bulbous nose, a receding chin, a skinny neck and hair that came in fluffy grey tufts. She still looked every inch like herself. She was even making anguished, strangulated Dodo noises as the plane caromed through the night. It ascended through layers of cloud and falling snow into unfathomable heights of deepest blue. Maude drank in the ancient stars with a sigh.
‘Oh, how glorious.’ She encouraged her friend to look.
Deidre was dumfounded by everything for the full duration of their journey. The flight passed in a delirious flash and suddenly they were landing and disembarking and being ushered through customs quite smoothly. (Eric was a marvel! He’d magicked up passports and crisp new Euro notes stashed in their handbags like the lining of a plush nest.) ‘He’s most thoughtful, that crab spider,’ Deirdre said, following her friend onto the travelator and the escalator to the railway station, where the Paris train was waiting.
‘Isn’t he just?’ Maude smiled, watching her own reflection in the train window as it sped through the concrete suburbs. Their carriage was packed with all manner of people bound for the city. Some were clearly heading home for the holidays, laden with parcels and bags. Others were in their finery, looking forward to an evening of fun.
Deidre sat squashed close to her more worldly friend. She wasn’t used to being out in the world at all. If she was honest, Maude, too, was finding it all quite bewildering. Everything had moved on so much since the last time she had roamed abroad. Everything was lit up and automated. There was electronic voices coming out of the very air, and all the humans had telephones they communed with as the train rumbled along.
And yet the skyline of Paris as they approached seemed very much the same as ever. The pale form of Sacre Coeur on the hill over there. The Eiffel Tower, all shimmering gold. Everything seemed more or less as Maude remembered it.
All of a sudden they were beneath the centre of the city and there was the crush and the confusion of the Metro station. They were hurrying up tiled stairs with hundreds of human beings and then, all at once, they were out in the open. It was snowy and dark and they were by the river. The air smelled different and delicious. Deidre was just about keeling over with excitement.
‘We’ve made it! We’ve actually made it all the way here! Look at us, Maude! Just look at us! Look how far we’ve come!’
Maude was standing halfway into the busy road, yelling for a taxi.