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The hearthIt was the dull thud on the roof that woke me, followed by the pitter-patter of a dozen noisy claws. An invasion of giant birds? Tammy, quite deaf in her old age, snored softly on; no sound came from Mum and Dad upstairs. The fire still glowed, the room was cosy and warm. I was about ready to turn around a couple of times and settle back down on my blanket, thinking false alarm and strange dream, when something came sliding down the chimney, slowly but stubbornly. I leapt up and my tail doubled in size. An intruder? What was I going to do about that, all by myself?

The back of the log burner gave off some heavy breathing and sighing, screws squealed reluctantly, the metal plate at the base of the chimney screeched aside, and just as I was about to perform my all-paw levitation with a twist towards the hallway, the strangest creature emerged into the room, all covered in soot, shook himself on the hearthrug – I would later get the blame for all the mess, of course – and chuckled,

‘Ah! It’s you!’

I glared at the fat little human in a dirty red outfit, whose face was almost entirely covered by a grey beard that looked as though it might once have been white.

‘What’s your problem?’ he winked. ‘Never seen Santa Claus before?’

Having recovered my customary sang froid, I was not a little peeved at having been disturbed in the middle of the night, in my own home, by a mythical figure.

‘I have, actually,’ I replied testily, pointing with my chin towards the rows of Christmas cards on the bookshelves depicting various different interpretations of the same fictitious character. ‘And I know you’re not real, so get back up that chimney. It’ll take me the best part of the night to clean up after you as it is. Look at the mess you’ve made. Mum will be livid in the morning!’

But far from being intimidated by the threat of an irate Mum, the strange creature began to chuckle.

‘Not real, eh?’ his little round belly wobbled up and down; he was seriously overweight. ‘Well – let’s see about that!’

He pulled a large bag from the chimney that brought with it another puff of black smoke – I stared in disbelief as the soot spilled over from the hearthrug on to the shiny timber floor. I would not be able to get out of the room now without leaving paw prints which would later be taken as evidence. But the creature plopped the sack down without seeming to notice and began to pull numerous items from it, pretty parcels, all nicely wrapped in shiny paper, some with bows and tempting bits of string dangling down. As he placed them around our Christmas tree in an attractive jumble, he muttered the names of all my family. Puzzled, I walked over to inspect.

‘Bilbo!’ he exclaimed eventually, pulling the last parcel from the bag. ‘That would be you, no?’

I nodded, still a little doubtful.

‘Then this is for you!’ he announced and handed over a large parcel all decorated with little fishes.

‘For m-m-me?’ I stuttered.

‘For you, my friend’, he beamed, ‘to make sure you’ll always remember I’m real!’

And before I could say ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ or ‘what’s in there’ he’d squeezed himself and his bag – now limp and empty – back through the gap behind the log burner, secured the metal plate and scrambled back up the chimney. He emerged at the top with a noisy plop which, to my absolute amazement, sucked up after him all the soot he’d been spreading around our sitting room, leaving everything spotless.

Bilbo after Santa had gone I dropped down on my blanket, stunned by the extraordinary experience, and stared at the log burner. It looked perfectly normal and harmless now. I blinked. Had I been dreaming? But the pretty parcel was still in my paws and there, quite clear in the cold winter night, was the patter of claws again, a little jingle of bells and a cheerful ‘Hey-ho!’ from a voice I recognised. I clambered up to the window sill, pushed the curtain aside and froze: a vehicle without wheels, pulled by half a dozen hoof animals with branches on their heads was flying across the rooftops, turning sharply past the full moon with a flourish. I shook my head: nice guy, but what a show-off!

Eventually I left the window, placed my present under the tree in amongst all the others, returned to my blanket, did a happy march, turned around until I began to feel dizzy, lay down and went back to sleep. I would open my present with everyone else, in the morning. Nobody needed to know I’d ever doubted Santa Claus was real. Did they?

 

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