Andy was kneeling on the end of his bed with the curtains open, his nose pressed against the windowpane. It was snowing, so he was watching the view from his bedroom window transform itself into a white paradise.

His brother was asleep in the adjacent bed, as his regular breathing pattern and lack of incessant talking marked the occasion. Andy didn't exactly hate his brother, but there was little love between them.

Mark was the elder by a single year and a day, but he made Andy's life less pleasurable than it could or should have been. They were very different, these two boys. Both coming from a loving and comfortable home, both were cherished and loved by their parents and grandparents in equal measure, this wasn't a case of favourites, but of character.

Mark was active, almost hyperactive to the point of stupidity, whereas Andy was more inclined to read a good book, or to undertake a more creative activity in preference to the endless kicking of a soccer ball or rugby ball.

The problem with older brothers, who were also bigger, was that one tended to do what they wanted for an easy life. Those few time he had declined, his life was made impossible until he acquiesced. Mark was ten now, making Andy nine. Their birthdays were in the summer, so Christmas was a special time as both birthdays were a long way off.

Andy watched the snow fall, but he had tears in his eyes. He remembered a special Christmas, many years ago now, when his mother had told him to close his eyes and make a Christmas wish. Whatever that wish was, he was sure to come true on Christmas Day, but not necessarily the next one.

Five year old Andy had closed his eyes, wishing with all his heart, mind and spirit that his dearest desire would come true: to be a little girl.

He knew he should have been a girl from his earliest memory, but when he told his mother, she had smiled and explained that God made everyone for a reason, so not to even think about it.

As the years passed, the conviction grew to an absolute certainty. It took over his whole being, yet he could tell no one about it. His aunt and uncle lived several miles away, but they had two girls. Marcia and Debbie were a little older than the boys, but only by a couple of years. However, a couple of years at their age might as well be a decade.

Older brother Mark didn't like his female cousins, as they weren't interested in the same things he was, whereas Andy adored them. He got on exceptionally well with them, joining in their games, even if it meant playing at more domestic related activities involving dolls and clothes. Debbie was his size and, although two years older then he was, they became special friends. One glorious occasion will forever remain etched in Andy's memory. It was the summer, they were all over visiting the cousins and it had been a glorious day.

The cricket was on the television, so Andy's father and brother were ensconced in the TV room watching England try to beat the Australians. His mother and aunt, as sisters, were in the garden sitting on the swing hammock and chatting while Marcia was off riding with a friend.

That left Debbie alone with Andy. The pair were in the attic, exploring that mysterious place, with its old crates, trunks and boxes. There was one trunk containing dressing-up clothes that had been his and Debbie's mothers when they were children.

Much to Andy's delight, Debbie insisted in dressing him as a girl, even fetching some of her clean underwear for him. She then made up his face and, for the first and only time in his life, he felt that he belonged.

The moment was fleeting, but he never forgot it. Debbie realised that Andy had enjoyed the experience, but never offered to repeat the incident, feeling, perhaps, responsible for something that may not have been right. The pair became close, yet nothing was ever mentioned.

As he watched the snow, the tears came, as they did every Christmas. Andy had made the same wish every Christmas Eve, to wake every Christmas morning to find it not granted. He'd always wake early, eager to feel between his legs to find out that he was now free from his curse. Every year it was the same, as he encountered that hated and familiar worm.

Resting his head against the cool pane, he sobbed silently. Distantly, he heard the grandfather clock in the hall strike twelve. So, it was Christmas and he was again destined to remain in a body he loathed.

He was cold, but he was unwilling to return to his bed. Something kept him against the window. Through his tears, he watched as strange shapes were formed out of familiar objects. Trees became bigger and rounded, bushes disappeared and a soft silence seemed to blanket the land. A lane that ran past the house and the hedge on either side was now almost twice the size. It led to the village, which was about a quarter of a mile away.

It wasn't a main road, but cars would pass occasionally. In the summer, mad cyclists, dressed in strange clothing and silly hats, would often clog it, as there was a five-mile route that took them all around the Chiltern Hills without actually spending much time playing with the traffic on the main roads.

He watched as someone walked down the lane. He frowned, as it was very late, so he wondered if it was Father Christmas, as he appeared to be carrying a sack.

He knew that Santa Claus wasn't real. They'd found that out a couple of years ago, when Mark had found the presents hidden in the spare bedroom wardrobe. Mark would search the house now, every Christmas, eager to see what he was getting. Andy didn't want to know, as the joy of Christmas was the surprise. Besides, he'd pretended to be asleep when his father had crept in with the stuffed stockings and laid them by the bed.

To be fair, the only gift the boy wished for was to be a girl, and he was convinced it would never happen.

The figure made no effort to come in their open gate, instead continuing to walk towards the village. Andy frowned, as the figure was moving slowly and hesitantly. He appeared to be an elderly man, dressed in an old coat and carrying a sack. Andy wondered if he was a burglar. As the boy watched, the man stumbled and fell down onto the verge.

Andy didn't even hesitate, he put on his dressing gown and raced downstairs, slipping his feet into his Wellingtons by the back door. He unlocked the back door and ran out to the lane, his feet making fresh prints in the deepening snow.

The man was on his side, so Andy rolled him over. He was breathing and his eyes were open. His face was going blue with cold, and although he smelled, Andy helped him up and took him to the outhouse. Their father had renovated the outhouse as a games room a couple of years ago. It had the old sofa in there, with a pool table and the old TV with games console attached. It was somewhere the boys could go that was safe and out of the way.

Andy let the man slump onto the sofa, as he switched on the electric fire. With the lights on, he saw that the man was dressed in a very old coat tied in the middle with a piece of string.

He was a tramp.

"Do you want to go to hospital?" Andy asked.

The man smiled, his keen eyes staring at the boy's face. "Nay lad, I just need a bit o' warmth for a few moments."

"Would you like a hot drink? I can go and get you some tea or something."

The electric fire was glowing red and the warmth spread slowly across the room.

"Aye, that'd be grand."

Andy ran back to the kitchen, switched on the kettle and made a mug of tea, trying to be as quiet as possible. Once made, he carried it across to the outhouse and gave it to the man.

"I put three sugars in it, in case," he said.

"Thanks."

He handed the man a mince pie that he'd taken from the larder.

"I thought you might be hungry."

The man smiled and nodded, stuffing the pie into his mouth. Andy watched, spellbound at the crumbs attached themselves to the grey matted beard.

"Have you nowhere to go for Christmas?" Andy asked.

To his surprise, the man chuckled. He no longer looked so cold. In fact, he no longer looked so old or so dirty.

"I'm where I need to be, lad," he said, slurping the tea.

"I'd hate to be alone at Christmas."

The man stopped drinking and looked at the boy. "There's a difference between being alone and being lonely."

"I know. Sometimes, I like being alone, as it lets me be the person I want to be in my mind," Andy said.

The man chuckled and resumed slurping.

Finally, he placed the empty mug on the table, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

"Thanks, that saved my life."

"You can stay here tonight. We won't be up for ages yet."

"What are you doing up?"

"I can't sleep."

"Excited?"

Andy shook his head, flicking his hair out of his eyes in rather a feminine gesture.

"No, just wishing."

"Oh?"

Andy smiled, but the man was startled, as the boy’s smile was a very sad one.

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" said the man. "You call being so unhappy 'nothing'?"

"I never said I was unhappy," Andy said, a little afraid.

"You didn't have to. What's your name?"

"Andrew, what's yours?"

The man said nothing, but stared intently at the boy. Then, brushing the crumbs off his chest, he stood up.

"I'd better go and let you get some sleep."

"You don't have to."

"I do, I've things to do and people to see."

Andrew smiled, picking up the empty mug. The man seemed much better.

"I had a sack, did you see it?"

"Oh, it must be on the lane."

"Best I go get it, then. Thanks for the tea."

The man went over to the door and let himself out. Andy switched off the fire and lights, following close behind.

The man returned to the lane and picked up the sack. He noticed Andy had followed.

"Best you go indoors, you'll get cold."

"I'm fine. What's in the sack?"

The man chuckled and opened it. Andy leaned over and looked in. It was quite smelly, but he could only see old clothes and newspapers.

"All my worldly goods!" the man said, closing it and hefting it onto his back.

"You never told me your name."

"Aye, you're right, I never did," he said, starting to trudge off.

Andy watched him. After a few paces, the man stopped, turned and stared at the young boy.

"It'll not be easy," he said.

"What?" Andy asked, confused.

"Possible, but not easy."

"What is?"

"Best you get to bed, you'll be needing your strength."

"What for?"

"Christmas, it's an exciting time."

Andy shook his head. "I'll be fine."

"Nay, lad. You'll need your sleep, so off ye go!"

Andy shrugged. "Okay, happy Christmas, then."

The man smiled, and Andy saw his perfect white teeth gleam at him. "It will be, believe me, it will be the best Christmas ever."

"Yeah," said the boy, unconvinced, as he turned and walked back to the house.

The man watched him from the lane. As the lad reached the back door, the man shouted something.

"What?" said the boy.

"I'm called Nicholas, my friends call me Nick."

"Okay, Happy Christmas, Nick."

"Happy Christmas Andy"

Andy waved and went in, locking the door and washing up the mug. He crept back upstairs and returned to his vigil by the window.

He could see that Nick was still standing in the lane. The old man reached into the sack and took out a dark object. He threw this object into the air. Andy watched it rise and then was amazed as it transformed into a white dove. The dove rose and swooped in front of his window, making him pull back. Then he lost sight of it. Nick waved and turned away, walking slowly out of sight into the blizzard.

The clock struck one, so Andy, feeling sleepy all of a sudden, snuggled down into his bed, falling asleep instantly.

Mother's voice cut through the sleep.  "My, aren't you a sleepy head, this morning? Come on, wake up, everyone else is up. Don't you want to open your stocking?"

Andy was suffering from fuzzy-head, so he shook it to try to clear it. He remembered the tramp and going out in the snow. He opened his eyes, sitting up, instantly surprised that Mark's bed was missing.

"Where's Mark?" he asked.

"He's been up for ages. I think he's in his room playing with his new game-boy."

Her words permeated slowly through Andy's addled brain.

"His room?"

"Come on, Annie, stop being quite so dopey. We're off to church in an hour, so get your stocking and come into our room to open it. Oh, and put your dressing gown on, you'll catch your death in your night dress."

She walked out, leaving an exceptionally numb child staring at her retreating back.

Annie?

Night dress?

The girl's hand flew to her crotch.

A beatific smile creased her face, as tears of genuine joy spilled from her eyes. She raised her hand to feel the long hair that cascaded down to her shoulders, as a laugh bubbled up into her throat.

Downstairs, as her father placed some mugs of tea on a tray, he heard his daughter laugh. On coming up the stairs, the laughter was infectious.

"What's up with Annie, this morning?" he asked his wife.

"Search me, she was really dopey when I woke her up."

They both looked in on their daughter. She was staring at her reflection in the mirror, tears of joys rolling down her cheeks and the most amazing smile on her face.

"Annie, are you okay?" her father asked.

Turning to him, she ran across the room and flung her arms around his neck.

"I am now," she said. "This is the happiest Christmas, ever!"

 

 

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