Merry Christmas everyone! We are nearly there now. There’s just a few days left to wrap your gifts, make your Christmas cake and hang the mistletoe. With that in mind, tonight’s short story is a festive one. I hope you like it!
A Christmas Tail
I bury myself further into the dead leaves and detritus, seeking out whatever warmth I can from my make shift bed, but it’s so cold now I can see my breathe. There have been so many nights like this, where I shiver myself to sleep, teeth chattering, and with the temperatures continuing to drop, and the imminent threat of snow, I am terrified that at some point, I won’t wake up again. My stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten for hours, and what I did have, the remnants of a discarded coffee shop sandwich abandoned by a satiated patron before I was shooed away by staff, wasn’t much to begin with.
It wasn’t always like this. I had a home once, I had someone who loved me, who I loved in return. But they died, and my life fell apart without them. I think of her now, her smile, her comforting touch on my face, the scent of her skin. I look up at the stars, millions of tiny pinpricks in a backlit canvas, and I imagine she is up there, somewhere, watching over me. But the thought brings little comfort on this cold and lonely night, and I feel a tear make it’s way down my cheek as I lay my head down to sleep.
I can hear she’s distracted, only half listening as she stirs the wooden spoon in the big bowl. We are making cake, which smells so good, and I am waiting to lick the spoon.
“What if he forgets me?”
“Santa. What if he forgets me. There’s so many children. My teacher says there are squillions all over the world. He might forget one or two, it’s understandable.”
“Santa won’t forget you. You wrote him, remember?”
I remember. I had asked for a puppy but my mum told me he couldn’t bring live animals in a sleigh, that it’s super cold up high in the air where it flies, and a puppy wouldn’t be able to stand it, so I changed it to a pink bike. I still wish for the puppy.
“Grown ups forget things all the time, even if they write it down. You make lists on the fridge and still forget stuff.”
“He won’t forget Sara.”
“But what if he does?”
“He won’t. He’s magic.”
“Sara, mummy is trying to concentrate. If I can’t make the mixture properly, there will be no spoon to lick and no cake to eat on Christmas day.”
“I stop talking. I want the spoon.
I feel like I’ve been walking for hours now. My feet ache, and my coat isn’t warm enough for this weather. I need some heat and some food. I move back into the town centre, following the smells and sounds. I take the back alleys and entry ways. People don’t like my kind, the waifs and the strays, the unwanted and undesirables. We are something to sneer at sitting outside their shiny department stores while they throw away their money on trinkets and baubles. We are the ugly thing you ignore when we beg for food. I learned early on that I got on a lot easier when I stayed in the shadows, out of sight and out of mind.
I find the place I’m looking for, a restaurant near the University. Their bins are always overflowing with food, and there’s a spot by the basement level kitchen, a grate used to vent air, which will be warm and dry. I lie against it, chewing the old loaf I have found by the bin. I can usually get an hour or so here, until one the staff emerge for a cigarette and move me on. Then it will be more hiding, more sneaking, seeking out another spot to survive where I won’t be in someone’s way. I always seem to be in their way.
I stare at the boxes under the tree. I know Santa hasn’t been yet, and these are just the gifts from Uncle Tom and Aunt Betty, and Granny and Grandpa, but I check them one by one just in case. None of them are bike shaped and none of them have little barks coming from them. I keep checking the time. It’s almost my bed time, and that means Santa will be coming soon, but I already know I’ll be far too excited to sleep. The night will drag, and I will feel every single minute as I count down until Christmas day.
Last year I got yelled at because I got up too early. I could see that the presents were there, and that Santa had been, but Mummy said that he was still watching, and that only naughty girls got up at 4am and woke up their parents, and we all know what happens to naughty girls…they get coal. She said that my gifts could still be magicked away if I didn’t go back to bed. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I believe her, but there is way too much at stake to risk her being right.
So I will just have to wait and listen and hope that he hasn’t forgotten me.
It’s night again, and it’s colder than I have ever felt before. I did’t know this kind of cold existed. It’s in my very bones, along with the damp, and I can’t stop shivering. I have been walking for an age, trying to stop the numbness spreading from my feet into the rest of my body. I know what will come of me if that happens. I think I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the road, as the streets I am in now are unfamiliar. The moon is shrouded in thick, black clouds and only the yellow street lights illuminate my path. They cast long and ominous shadows, and I find myself afraid, of what I am unsure, but I feel it nonetheless.
It’s Christmas eve, and the houses I pass all have cheerful coloured lights on strings outlining their shapes in the darkness. Through an occasional open curtain, I can see families gathered, drinks being drunk and food being eaten, and I can hear their laughter carried faintly on the wind. This is the worst time of year for the lonely. There is so much emphasis on family, on parties and gatherings of friends and embracing loved ones or kissing them under mistletoe. But I don’t have any of that. I don’t have a family, or friends, or mistletoe. I feel so alone.
I pass a garden, the gate hanging from rusted hinges, and inside I can make out the outline of a shed. I hesitate, always reluctant to risk showing myself, to face their rejection, that expression on their faces, disgust mixed with annoyance. But as I feel the first snow of winter begin to fall from the black inky sky above, the decision is made for me, and I carefully, and quietly make my way across the lawn to what will be my bed for the night.
I check the clock. The big hand is pointing at the 12 and the little hand is pointing at the 5, which means I’m still not allowed to get up. I hate waiting; it never leads to any fun. You wait at the Doctors to get jabs and gross medicines, you wait at school for your teacher to start the lessons, you wait in lines and at bus stops. No good ever came from waiting. I try to resist the temptation to get up, but I can feel my toes wriggling and my feet tapping and I know they have already made the decision to get up on my behalf.
I walk quietly and quickly, avoiding the squeaky floorboard and stick to the very edge of the stairs, taking each step as delicately as I can. I pretend I am a spy like in the movies, on a super secret mission. I feel a little bad for getting up, and I know I could get in trouble, but I won’t open the presents or anything, I’ll just check they’re there, and perhaps give one or two a squeeze to try and guess what’s inside. That’s not naughty really is it?
I poke my head into our big living and dining room, to find the tree lights reflecting off lots of shiny paper and bows. I barely contain a scream as I run towards them, forgetting how a spy would act, and becoming a child again. I place my ear to a few of the bigger boxes, but there is no whimpering, no barking. There is a pink bike in the corner with a big gold bow. I should be happy; it’s pretty and has streamers on the handlebars to make you go faster, but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed about the puppy. If Santa is really magic, I don’t see why he can’t bring me a puppy. Maybe next year I should write to Amazon, they seem to deliver anything.
It’s just then I see him, walking across our back garden, towards my play house. He sees me and stops, and for a moment we stare at each other.
I only make it half way across the yard when I spot her. She is small, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, wearing red pyjamas covered in smiling ginger bread men. I freeze, as we stare at each other. It’s so cold now, and I am beginning to feel so sleepy. The little wooden shed in the garden is so close, and I so desperately need a place to sleep, to seek shelter from the snow now falling in great waves of white. If only she would look away for a second, I could perhaps dash inside and hide, but I know I won’t make it, and I know I haven’t the strength to find somewhere else.
And so, I sit down in the snow, and close my eyes, and wait for the people to come and yell at me, to kick me or curse me. I’m too tired to stay hidden any longer, and besides, I have already been seen. Perhaps these people will be kind, perhaps they will let me sleep in their little wooden house, and give me a blanket and some food. But in my heart, I doubt the thoughts almost as soon as their formed, and I know the cold will take me, like it took my love.
I’m just so tired. I’ll just close my eyes for a second.
“That’s enough blankets Sara.”
“But he’s still cold.”
“He’s fine, let him have some air for goodness sake or you’ll suffocate him.”
“Maybe we should get your hot water bottle too. Mine is only small.”
“He’s fine Sara. Look, he’s wagging his tail.”
And he is. It’s just a little movement at first, slow and deliberate, but soon he is wagging it like the puppies on the TV and the thumping noise it makes as it bangs off the chair makes me giggle. He was so cold when we got him inside, and mummy even rang an animal Doctor to check what to do. I learned in school that they are called Vets. The Vet said to make him warm and comfortable, and see if we could get him to eat something. No trouble there, he wolfed down my Mummy’s turkey and gravy potatoes, and he even ate the bones!!
He is little, and white with a big black spot over one eye and one black foot, as if he lost all his other socks except that one. Even his tail has a little black end, like it’s been dipped in paint. I stroke his head as he sleeps in the giant blanket fort I have made him, and occasionally, he licks my hand, which tickles.
I tried to pick a name, but Mummy says we have to check to make sure he doesn’t already have a family and another little girl before I name him, in case we have to give him back. I named him anyway; he’s called Spot.
“Now, don’t get attached Sara. He may belong to someone who is out there right now, worried sick.”
“No, he’s mine. Santa brought him. He looks exactly like the pictures I drew for Santa, see?”
She takes the page I thrust at her, and looks at me the same way she does when I have a cough or the chicken pox.
“I suppose he does, but…”
“I guess you were right though.”
“I was? What about?”
“About it being too cold in the sleigh for puppies. He was shaking when Santa delivered him.”
“And you were right about Santa, he didn’t forget me. He remembered me, and he brought me my Spot. This is the best Christmas ever.”
I kiss her on the cheek, before going back to stroke Spot’s little nose. She looks like she may say something, but seems to change her mind, and instead she just takes Daddy’s hand and mine in hers, and we all stroke Spot together, until his tail is wagging so fast, it’s just a blur.
And it is the best Christmas ever, because I have Spot and he has me. Next year, I’m going to ask for a kitten.