Santa reached down into his sack and pulled out a tiny jet black kitten with the bluest eyes and held him gently in the palm of his gloved hand.  “Now then, Barney,” he whispered, “you have a job to do.  Are you up for the challenge?”

The kitten blinked.  Santa continued, “there will be dark days ahead, but there will be light eventually.  You will need all your strength, faith, determination but most of all, love.  You will need lots and lots of love.  Can you do it?”

The kitten blinked again, taking in the enormity of the task ahead of him.  Santa and the Great Cat had called him in to the office, sat him down and explained that he had a very special assignment and that only he, Barney, was equipped for the job.  He was given the option of not taking it if he felt afraid or if it was too much for him, but Barney – whose name means ‘brave as a bear’ – sat upright in the Great Cat’s office, with Santa sitting next to him, and said he was proud to be chosen for this task. 

The Great Cat had placed his forefinger on Barney’s chest and immediately, a few white hairs appeared.  Barney’s whiskers twitched with amazement. 

“This is the touch of God,” the Great Cat said, “I know you are capable of doing great things.”

Barney stood up, wobbled a bit with a mixture of excitement and fear, and went out to where Santa’s sleigh waited.  Toys for children throughout the world were stuffed into the big red velvet sack but Barney just waited for Santa to come and put him in the top of the sack.

And now, Santa placed him carefully beside a sleeping boy.  “His name is Rian,” Santa whispered, “which, just like your name, means powerful and brave.  But at the moment, Rian is going through tough times and he’s not very happy.  Barney, it will take a tremendous amount of your willpower to keep the faith and no one will mind or think any the less of you if you feel you want to back out now.  I’ll take you back and you can live with Mrs Claus and me.”

Santa had removed his glove and was stroking Barney.  Barney turned and licked Santa’s hand.  “Don’t worry about me or Rian,” he said, “we’re going to be just fine.”  With a final lick of Santa’s hand, he turned around three times, and nestled into the crook of Rian’s stomach.

“I’ll see you next year, Barney.”  Santa said, putting his glove back on and disappearing up the chimney.

Barney slept next to Rian, not moving for fear of waking him up, hoping that Rian would like him, and even come to love him eventually.  He knew Rian was an unhappy boy struggling with recent developments and it was his job to help him through these times until the sun shone in his heart again.   

The duvet moved and an arm pushed itself out, turning the alarm clock round. “It’s Christmas Day, Rian, happy Christmas, I don’t think,” Rian said to himself.  “Holy bananas, where did you come from?” He noticed Barney curled up.  Barney nudged his face into Rian’s hand which was resting on the cover.  “I don’t like cats and I didn’t want a pet.”

Rian sat up, pushing Barney off the bed onto the carpeted floor. “Shoo.  Scat.”  Barney struggled a little bit to right himself but he clung on to the overhanging duvet and pulled himself up.  He smiled his best smile but Rian had got out of bed on the other side and was now in his bathroom.   Barney stayed where he was waiting to see what he should do next.  To help him think, he had a good wash all over, by which time, Rian emerged from the bathroom.

He picked up a pair of crutches that were leaning against the wall and holding himself awkwardly, managed to open his bedroom door.  He left it open just long enough for Barney to leap off the bed and make a dash for it, swishing his tail out of the way just in time. “Wait,” Rian called to the kitten. “What happened to you?” He had noticed something that he was not expecting to see.  Barney had three legs, his back left leg was missing.

Barney did a circle showing Rian his full body from all sides.  Rian crouched down and picked him up.  “Hey, little guy, what happened?  Did it hurt?”

Barney licked his face which Rian had placed close to his.  Rian smiled.  He quite liked the feel of the little raspy tongue on his cheek.  He opened his bedroom door and hobbled back to the bedside table where he found a note that Santa had left.

“Dear Rian,

I know you’ve been a very good boy all this year and that you’ve been having a tough time in recent months.  Barney has had a tough time too and the Great Cat and I thought the two of you could hang out together.  You can help each other to heal.  Barney was born with a deformed back leg which he just dragged.  It was not going to get any better so he had an operation to remove it.  I know you might think he’s not perfect, missing a leg, but in the Great Cat’s eyes every living thing is perfect, regardless of how many body parts they might have and whether any of them are absent. The Great Cat and I thought you and Barney would be perfect together – you’ll have four legs between you – enough, surely to get on in life!

I will see how you’re getting on next Christmas.  Take care and have fun together.  Remember, laugh, love and live!

Love Santa and the Great Cat xxxx”

Rian looked down at his own stump and wondered at the odds of having a pet with similar circumstances to his own.  His own leg had been removed because the cancer had spread to the bone.  It couldn’t be saved and his parents had made the agonising decision to have the leg removed before the cancer spread any further.  He’d had a lot of chemotherapy and his hair was only just growing back.  He was still a bit on the skinny side and his mum made him lots of nutritious soups and fruit smoothies trying to build him back up again.

Both parents worried that he was giving up on life as he stayed in his room most of the time, staring listlessly out of the window, not really seeing anything, and not wanting to take part in family events. He wasn’t well enough yet to return to school so his parents took it in turns to home school him in his favourite subjects.

What neither parent knew was that Rian had watched a Christmas movie where Santa had told a little girl to wish really hard for what she wanted.  Amazingly, it had come true.  Rian, without any real conviction in his heart, wished for something that would help him come to terms with the loss of his leg, and help him overcome the phantom pains in the stump he still experienced.  He knew that was two wishes, strictly speaking, but felt that they could be lumped together to be one wish.  He hoped Santa would understand.   He didn’t reckon on Barney’s arrival as being the answer to his wishes but he’d wait and see.

While he’d been reading Santa’s note, Barney sat near the crutches, looking up at Rian.  Rian hadn’t put the sock over the stump and Barney could see the angry red scars that criss-crossed it.  He hoped Rian had kind people who looked after him after the operation, as he himself had done.  But Barney had been lucky.  Cats manage very well on three legs and once he found his balance, apart from an occasional wobble, he coped without the leg that dragged behind him uselessly.    

Rian suddenly fell towards the bed, just managing to pull himself on to it.  He clutched the stump and writhed in agony.  Barney jumped up on to the bed and curled around Rian’s stump, purring and padding with his little front paws.  After a few minutes, Rian began smiling.  “That’s awesome, Barney!  You really helped me.  Thank you, little guy.”

Barney nestled into Rian’s hand as it stroked his head, but he kept focused on the job in paw: that of padding Rian’s stump.  Rian realised that he was smiling for the first time in a long time.  Who could believe that a little three-legged kitten could bring about such joy.  He couldn’t wait to show Barney off to his parents.

He lifted Barney up onto his jumper and told him to cling on, while he collected his crutches and headed for the door again.  Living in a bungalow meant that all the rooms were on one level and he could easily navigate his way from room to room.  He made his way to the spacious living room, where an enormous tree decorated to within an inch of its needles, sat proudly near the patio doors.  Under it, a pile of presents waited for this moment and his parents sat in awe, as Rian, with Barney clinging on for dear life to his jumper, awkwardly inched his way towards them.      

His Mum hastily wiped her tears, while his father got up to hug him.  “Happy Christmas, son!”

“Happy Christmas, Dad.  Meet Barney.”

His Mum joined them and they all fussed over Barney, who was rather enjoying the attention, if he was completely honest.  Rian asked if they had anything to feed Barney and he’d need a litter tray and toys.  Suddenly there was a lot of things he thought they didn’t have but would need to make Barney’s life with them perfect. 

“All taken care of, Rian,” his Mum said.  “When we got up this morning, there was half a dozen boxes of kitten food on the counter, bowls for food and water, catnip mice, and a litter tray.”

“Don’t forget the Santa hat bed,” his Dad laughed.

Rian put Barney on the floor and went to the kitchen.  Delicious smells coming from the oven made his stomach rumble but he knew that little Barney must be starving.  He didn’t know when the little guy had last eaten, so he prepared food and put down a bowl for him.  Barney came rushing over and ate every morsel.  He hadn’t realised just how hungry he was and he looked up at Rian expectantly. 

“You want some more?” he asked.  “Perhaps we should change your name to Oliver!”

He put the rest of the food from the sachet into the bowl and mashed it up.  Barney ate it all but then went to where the litter tray was.  He looked back at Rian as if to ask for some privacy and Rian raised his hands. 

“Ok, little guy, I’ll leave you to do what you need to do in private. Heck, I sure wouldn’t want an audience when I’m in the bathroom.”

He went to the lounge and sat next to his Dad while his Mum began handing out presents.  After a while, Barney rejoined them and made his way up the trouser leg on Rian’s good leg and on to his lap.  He had a good wash, making sure his whiskers were clean, before giving Rian’s hand a raspy lick, and falling asleep.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this happy and certainly, from seeing Rian’s disbelieving face earlier that morning, to the smiling boy now, he thought that Rian was probably the happiest he’d been in a long time.

He didn’t even stir when Rian’s Dad gently lifted him from Rian’s lap and put him down on the sofa cushion.  Even the delicious aroma of a Christmas dinner didn’t wake him and he slept through while the family ate their meal, laughing together for the first time in many months.  Rian joined him on the sofa afterwards and closed his eyes. He had to nap little and often because the chemotherapy had drained him of his energy and he’d sleep for an hour or two, waking up recharged for another couple of hours.

Dad took a lot of photos of the two of them, asleep next to each other, on the sofa, a faint smile on Rian’s face.  And instinctively, Barney reached out a paw and touched Rian’s stump.  His purring made Rian’s parents smile because they realised that this Christmas, they had, indeed, seen a miracle. 

Pauline Dewberry


Dogs Come when Called

"Dogs come when called. Cats take a message and get back to you."

"Of course, every cat is really the most beautiful woman in the room."

Edward Verrall Luca (essayist)

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