It had been a trying night, he reflected, as he changed course towards the southwest and his last stop. From the very start, his annual journey had been beset with problems. First the broken harness, which should have been picked up weeks ago, during the routine inspection. Slapdash was the word that sprang to mind; you had to be meticulous with a complex harness for eight animals. He gave a little sniff of annoyance. Helpers really weren’t what they used to be. Nothing was. Then his list had disappeared, along with his glasses, and not the slightest idea where he’d last seen them. By the time his wife had finally located them in his coat pocket and the last few parcels had been loaded, he was running dangerously late.

Maybe he was getting too old for this job. But who else would take over such a thankless task? What kind of fulfilment lay in the production of beautiful things all year if you then had to spend an entire night out of bed – at his age – delivering them to people who, as far as he could see, often took them for granted or even put them away, never to be seen again? When had anyone ever given him anything? Gallons of cheap sherry, yes, and tons of shop-bought mince-pies of inferior quality that gave him indigestion until Easter. A proper gift, just for him, from their hearts was what he longed for, to motivate him for another year of toil. But fat chance, he sniffed as he drew his red coat tighter around his ample waist and gave the reins a flick. They hadn’t done so in centuries. Why would they start now?

Fortunately, it was a still night, not a breath of wind, so they had been able to make up time, particularly once the bulk of the load was shed, and his mood had gradually improved. His last stop was one he actually looked forward to, which was why he left it to the very end each year. As the big sleigh smoothly rode the sky above the South Downs, the reindeer now tired and no longer up to their tricks of friskier moments earlier in the night, he looked about him and couldn’t help sighing with pleasure at the scenery below.

West Dean College in the winterIt was a night of crackling cold. The frost had dabbed trees and open fields with a silvery white, and the full moon outlined the soft silhouette of the hills against the night sky. Flocks of sheep were huddling together under the protective branches of the mighty trees that dotted the hillside; and an owl hooted a welcome.

His heart lifted a little more when the big old house came into view, dark and snug in its hollow, wrapped securely in several layers of shrubbery immaculately trimmed to mirror the gentle curves of the Downs. The glass of the greenhouses sparkled in the moonlight; smartly edged paths meandered among the flowerbeds; the little brook was a silver ribbon guiding him along. He loved everything about the place, from its perfect situation in the valley to the cosy drawing room, where he hoped to spend a peaceful half hour at the end of his long night’s work, doing justice to the mulled wine kept hot for him in a thermos flask – no sherry here, thank goodness! – and the delicious home-made mince pies always set out for him on a small table by one of the sofas. Now that was a touch of class. There might also be fat bunches of organically grown carrots from the kitchen gardens for his reindeer.

The roof was tricky to negotiate due to the battlements, but he had plenty of practice and managed to tuck sleigh and reindeer neatly in between the row of chimneys.

“Wait!” he commanded, and with a piercing clatter of bells that threatened to wake up the entire village, the eight reindeer settled down, looking mulish, but too tired to rebel. He shouldered his last sack – not a very big one; there hadn’t been any children in the house for many years – and began his descent down the chimney. The last embers of an earlier fire were glowing gently beneath him, warming his legs as he went down. Hardly any smoke; not like other chimneys where he’d had to brave billowing black clouds and vicious flames – risky, in spite of his fire-retardant suit.

West Dean College studyThe sight that met him as he jumped on to the hearth rug was just what he’d expected: the large, elegant room with its tall windows curtained against the cold; the paintings, weapons and coats of arms gleaming on the panelled walls; the grand piano in its alcove with a book of Christmas songs open on the stand; the soft carpets; and the tall tree tastefully decorated with golden baubles. With a grunt of relief, he lowered himself into his favourite sofa, poured a large goblet of mulled wine and bit into his first mince pie. There were three, and he would not be leaving any. At long last, the spirit of Christmas that had eluded him all night began to creep cautiously into his heart. Maybe it had all been worth it again, after all?

He was just taking a bite out of his second mince pie when a loud meow startled him and, looking up, he saw a large, fluffy cat sitting on the hearth rug, in the very spot where he’d just landed moments ago. A tortoiseshell with a long, silky coat and green eyes that fixed him with a probing stare.

“Hullo there, cat,” he said, with a very full mouth. “I haven’t met you before. Have you moved in during the year? I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing here?”

The cat blinked in agreement.

“I’m a figure of myth and legend who brings presents once a year, on Christmas Eve.” He rattled it off in the bored tone of one who is repeating a well-practised phrase for the umpteenth time and gestured at the plump red sack leaning against the side of the sofa. “And much thanks I get for it,” he added morosely.

The cat approached him doubtfully, sniffed at the sack, then sat back as though her mind was made up, arranged her tail delicately around her paws and gave him a long look that reached down into his very soul. It was intensely irritating, and he tried to resist, but found he couldn’t. A deep warmth began to spread in his chest and rose all the way to his cheeks. She knows how I feel; she understands. But no; it couldn’t be. He quickly shook his head to get rid of the silly thought.

“You think there’s something in there for you?” he grunted, drawing his bushy eyebrows together in the way that never failed to spread fear among his helpers. “Now why would I bring something for you, tell me that?”

The bright green eyes closed for a moment, giving the cat a pained expression. Then she turned abruptly and disappeared through the open door. Without her, the room seemed different, as though a light had been snuffed out and all the warmth that had been building inside him had been extinguished along with it.

“That’s that then. Typical!” he shrugged and picked up the third mince pie.

But he had hardly bitten into it when the cat was back, carrying a toy mouse in her mouth, which she carefully placed at his feet. He almost choked on his mince pie in surprise.

“Good Lord!” he spluttered, “is that for me?”

The cat gave a barely perceptible nod. He looked more closely at the mouse. It was beautifully made of soft, grey felt and had a long, shiny rubber tail, very realistic, and silky whiskers. Surely every cat’s dream? But she was giving it to him. The thing he had been waiting for, had hardly dared hope for after centuries of disappointment, had happened: someone had given him a gift, from the heart. He cleared his throat in order to hide the unexpected emotion that threatened to uproot his well-established gruffness.

“I suppose I’d better see whether I’ve got something in my sack for you, then”, he muttered, suddenly embarrassed by his rudeness earlier.

 He sank his arm deep inside the sack and rummaged about. The cat waited politely. At length, he pulled out a parcel with a green bow on top that exactly matched the colour of the cat’s eyes and a label that read Buffy in big gold letters and put it down in front of her.

“Yours I believe, my friend. I hope you like it.”

Buffy and her Christmas boxThe cat unceremoniously tore off bow and paper with her sharp claws to reveal a shallow china dish decorated with colourful fish and filled to the brim with cream. She took one lick, gave an appreciative chirrup and continued lapping contentedly, making little smacking noises.

An odd tremor went through his facial muscles. The corners of his mouth twitched upwards, the wrinkles around his eyes contracted, and before he could stop himself, he was smiling. This had not happened for at least a hundred years, but it felt amazing.

“Seems like I chose the right gift for you,” he chortled as he let the remaining contents of the sack tumble out all over the hearth rug. “Let’s hope I’ve done equally well for the humans.”

With great tenderness, he lifted his toy mouse by its tail and lowered it into the empty sack, pushed the remainder of the mince pie into his mouth and, as the cat lovingly licked the bottom of her new bowl, began the steep climb back up the chimney. But he felt feathery-light and nimble, and the climb, normally so challenging, hardly tired him at all. As he popped out at the top and stepped on to the roof, the air seemed milder and the reindeer looked pleased to see him. They stood up dutifully, anticipating his command, with a pretty jingle of bells. He swung himself on to the sleigh, flicked the reins and, as the sleigh lifted off the roof, swept across the park and took a northerly direction, he pulled off his hat, whirled it in the air with uncharacteristic recklessness and yelled “Merry Christmas, West Dean! Merry Christmas, everyone!”


By Susanne Haywood







The Very Best Toy for Cats

"Of all the [cat] toys available, none is better designed than the owner himself. A large multipurpose plaything, its parts can be made to move in almost any direction. It comes completely assembled, and it makes a noise when you jump on it."

Stephen Baker

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