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The lighting of the Christmas tree in Intingua square wasn’t going to plan. First, the workers had arrived, but the lights hadn’t. By the time the lights finally arrived, there was no one to put them up because the workers had long got tired of waiting and gone home. It was only when the local MP Senhor Lima had arrived with his megaphone and entourage, and after many phone calls and much shouting, that things started happening.
Perched on a short stool at Barraca do Leo,Marcos had watched it all. Right now, the workers’ truck was moving slowly between the chemist’s, where the crane arm that had unfolded from the bed of the truck had previously deposited a large square with the outline of a reindeer, towards the pet shop. Another square – this one with the star of David – was now dangling precariously from the crane. A thick-gloved man was hanging out of the basket, trying to steady it. Marcos turned around in his seat and took a sip of his sugarcane juice. No sooner had he put it down on the shiny metal counter that it was filled back up to the brim.
‘Thanks,’ he said, smiling up at a woman in front of him.
Pamela ran the cart with her husband, Leonardo, whom everyone knew as Leo. She had already topped Marcos’s cup for free twice. Marcos had been there for a couple of hours, chatting with Leo as he fed long, cylindric sugarcanes into the mouth of a whirring machine, which squeezed the juice out into a metal jug, and then threw the limp, stringy remnants of the cane onto the pile on the ground.
A large shout from across the square made of three of them look. A woman had just pulled up in front of the pet shop in a battered old car. She had jumped out and was now berating Senhor Lima.
‘Wasting money on Christmas lights when the streets are full of potholes … Look at my car!’
Senhor Lima, who had been in the middle of shouting through his megaphone about his new year plans to improve the town of Intingua, looked perplexed. One of his aides was waving his arms like a giant bird, apparently trying to calm the woman down.
Pamela gave a loud tut and turned, metal jug in hand, to attend to a customer who had just arrived a few seats down from Marcos’s right. Suddenly, Marcos felt someone bump into his left side, almost knocking him off his stool. It was his cousin, Maria.
‘I’ve been waiting for you at the bus stop for ages,’ she said crossly, picking up Marcos’s cup and taking a long drink of the sugarcane juice.
‘No, I told you that I’d wait for you here. Grandma gave me money for breakfast,’ Marcos replied patiently.
Maria wasn’t listening. She was fiddling with the top of her tank top. ‘Look at this. Dad gave it to me for Christmas.’
Marcos looked at the gold, heart-shaped pendant hanging at the end of a thin gold chain around her neck.
‘Nice,’ he said. ‘Did you have a good time at your dad’s?’
‘Yep,’ Maria nodded, picking up the cup again and draining the rest of the juice. ‘Ah,’ she said, smacking her lips in appreciation at the refreshing drink.
‘Hey!’ said Marcos. ‘That was mine.’
Maria shrugged and set the cup down on the counter with a flourish. She fished out an ice cube with her finger and popped it into her mouth.
Marcos and Maria were cousins. They were both ten years old, lived in the same building, went to the same church and had the same friends. They even had the same dark brown skin and thick, curly black hair, though Maria’s was longer and usually decorated with a brightly patterned hair clip.
Marcos twisted around in his stool again and looked over at the crane. ‘I can’t wait for tonight,’ he sighed.
‘Of course, you can’t,’ said a gloating voice from behind them. ‘It’s going to be the best night of the year – everyone’s coming out for the lighting ceremony tonight. Just you wait. Dad’s gone all out.’
Gustavo, a very tall boy with curly black hair who always wore expensive trainers and a different basketball cap for each day of the week, sauntered past. He was flanked, as always, by his best friends Rebeca and Wesley.
Gustavo’s boasting – already his favourite hobby – had got much worse since his dad had won the recent local election. Now the MP in Intingua, Senhor Lima got lots of money from the government to carry out different projects in the town, and Gustavo was enjoying all the increased attention he was getting from his classmates and even older students. They all wanted to invite him to their houses and, of course, get invited to his.
‘Don’t be late or you won’t get a good seat. I’ll be on the podium with Dad, of course,’ Gustavo called over his shoulder as he walked towards the crane, where Senhor Lima was now struggling to pull his megaphone from the grip of the woman with the battered car.
Maria tutted and sucked on her ice cube. ‘What’s he on about “good seat”! I bet there won’t even be any seats! There’s plenty of space in the square for everyone.’
Marcos didn’t reply to this. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Grandma told me to come straight home after I met you.’ He bent down to pick up the backpack Maria had thrown on the ground by the stool and slung it over his shoulder.
… and Marcos and Maria are going on a magical adventure!