It all looks nice, so nice.
Windows edged with fake snow, glistening tinsel adorns the ledges and sills, reflecting the candle light from the mantle which itself is laden with fluffy stockings, plastic Santa's and nativity figures.
It all looks so nice.
Fir trees covered with baubles, chocolate novelties, candy sticks and other ornamental objects.
It all looks so nice.
Under the tree, bound with metallic ribbon and smothered with multi-coloured decorating paper, lie many different gifts for many different people. Some were bought because they had to, some were bought because they wanted to and some were actually bought with feeling and thought. On the table, bowls of sweets, nuts and pretzels surround the centrepiece of a small log with candles melted into the twisted, deformed cavities age has carved into her crooked body. Laughter filters through into the stark reality of winter outside number 47 Wilton Street, where thin traces of snow cover lawns and pavement, amplifying the noise, carrying it along until the wind scatters it forever.
Yet last night was such a different story, a story to which the children of number 47 are oblivious. The laughter to be heard last night, when the children were all tucked up in their novelty quilts and fluffy duvets, was influenced by drink rather than emotion. That's when father decided to show his wife what he had bought the children for Christmas. It seemed a good idea at the time. I mean, the house lacked that something which would bring them closer together, that something to make them more of a family, that something which would take the heat away from their fading marriage.
"Close your eyes dear," he said, "I have a surprise for you!"
Giggling from her umpteenth Bacardi, she replied, "Oh I love surprises, what is it?"
"You'll see!" he said as he walked out of the kitchen door to the garage bordering the house.
The chill of the night air cut deeply into her cheeks as he returned from his task with a large sack in his hands.
"Close the door after you!" she said, slightly acidic, a tone that was picked on almost instantly.
"I had to leave the door open to bring your surprise in!" he replied gruffly, the edge in his voice apparent now.
You see, when things aren't perfect, it doesn't take much to spark the fire that still burns inside, and this, coupled with copious amounts of alcohol is all that is needed to rekindle that fire and stoke its flames.
She opened her eyes now, having lost the moment and the mood.
"What's in the bundle?" she asked, again, with an edge.
Reaching in to the sack, he lifted a small brown Labrador puppy by the ears and thrust it at her.
"What the hell is that!" she snapped.
The Labrador rolled its eyes, fur now pulled over its face by the grip of its holder, all his pent up fury in his grip.
"Well, it's not a friggin diamond ring is it!" he said; a dig at her lustful vanity and desire to cover herself in expensive jewellery.
"I am not having that bloody thing in my house! The last thing I need is another mouth to feed and something else to clean up after," her face was stern and she wore no mask to hide her contempt.
"It always comes to what you want doesn't it? Never mind the kids or us as a family, its always what you want!" hurt mixed with rage now contorted his face into a look of repulsion, not only for her, but also for the puppy that he held even tighter now. So tightly, it began to whimper and let a small stream of urine flow over its sandy brown fur and onto the table over which he dangled.
"It's pissing all over the Yule log, get it out of here!" she screamed, waving her hands frantically in the direction of the door.
By now he had had enough. Walking towards the front door, a trail of urine following, he thrust it open. A bitter and cold wind swept through the lounge, reminding them it was December 24th, the middle of winter and snow was in the air, not now, but soon. Taking the puppy, still by the ears and fur, he flung him low and hard, and he skidded along the frozen grass while whimpering and giving out a yelp as he landed.
Not knowing what was going on, the pup tried to run, but co-ordination had not quite grasped its young body, giving an appearance of Bambi trying to walk for the first time. Eventually, scrambling to the hedge, the pup looked back with those large doe-like brown eyes, as if to say, "What have I done wrong?"
The door slammed shut, and the light diminished into darkness as the argument carried on inside. Traces of insults could be heard through the wind assisted letterbox, chattering against the door. The word weren't nice, nor the mood inviting; even a dog as young as this did not take much to realise that things weren't right. Snuggling deep into the hedgerow, he tried to hide from the bitterness of both the wind and the goings on at number 47. Shivering from fear and cold, he curled into a ball and tried to sleep, hoping it was all a bad dream and that he would wake up in front of an open fire, with loving children frantically trying to paw him and hold him close to their cheeks, petting and loving him. He was so tired and cold, it did not take long for sleep to overcome him and give a welcome escape from his hopeless predicament.
A bright light beckoned the young pup towards a warm and welcoming place. Panting with anticipation, tail wagging and again leaving that excitable trail of urine behind, he felt himself being drawn nearer and nearer to the heart of what must surely be a happy place. A place where he can pee on the kitchen floor without being shouted at. He was so close, so close but then he started convulsing, the cold once more attacking his body. Shooting pains ran through his head as he jerked his body in spasms. Coughing and spluttering, his eyes slowly opened.
"Nearly lost that one Spike!" said an unfamiliar voice.
As his vision became less blurred and focusing easier, the shape of a mongrel stood over him smiling through his still hazy eyes.
"What? Where is the warm place, why did you take me away?"
"Take you away?" replied a voice some short distance behind the Mongrel, "Nay lad, we never took you away from anywhere. Young Spike here just gave you the pant of life and saved you from passing to the other side!"
"The... the... the other side?" stuttered the pup, "What do you mean other side? I was warm and being welcomed to a better place, a place where people were going to be nice to me and tickle my tummy, pat my head and let me pee on their kitchen floor!"
Roars of laughter bellowed out of the two dogs now standing over the little frightened and confused pup.
"You, my friend, almost passed away. The cold had got to you and you had stopped breathing. Spike here sniffed you out whilst on patrol. Isn't that right, Spike?"
Spike replied in a military fashion, "Yes sir, Gumboot!"
"Who are you? Why did you save me?" enquired the even more confused pup.
"Spike and I," replied Gumboot, "are guardian angels in a sort of way, young pup. We roam the streets this time of year looking for pups just like you who have been bought for all the wrong reasons and then deserted, kicked out on to the cold and dangerous streets to fend for themselves."
"That's right," chipped in Spike, "Five long years ago, I belonged to a lovely family not a million miles from here, and I, like yourself, had been rejected once the novelty had worn off. I mean I am a handsome and majestic creature..."
Muttered barks from Gumboot stopped Spike from rambling on and made him get to the point.
"Well anyway, I was thrown into the frozen water of the canal, only to be pulled out by Gumboot and Lady-Girl, who happened to be patrolling there for those very reasons."
"Yes, I remember your face when we pawed your stomach to get that ice cold water out of your lungs, you couldn't stop licking me for hours," smiled Gumboot.
"Erm, I think you find it was Lady-Girl who I was licking Gumboot, not you," teased Spike, in a slightly mocking sort of way.
"Well, be it as it may," Gumboot replied, in a very authoritive military way, "We rescued young Spike here and many others that day."
Pup was now somewhat confused and felt very scared.
"Why?" Stuttering and tearful, the pup couldn't understand how only hours earlier he had been stroked and petted by this kind man and told that his family would love him and give him a name.
"I often ask that question pup." Gumboot said thoughtfully. "Even with all the best intentions in the world, people still think that a cute bundle of fur is a toy. They think that they can take us into their lives and that everything will be perfect, never stopping to think we need someone to show us the ways of the world. They fail to accept that we pee when we get excited. We chew slippers because no one has told us not to, and when they shout at us for doing it, we think they are playing. They think we are pests when we howl and whine at night, never thinking that we can be afraid of the dark ourselves. We don't like to be on our own and need love and affection as well. They don't think, pup, they don't think."
Spike turns and stares at Gumboot, tail wagging.
"There is still plenty of work to do tonight Gumboot, what shall we do with pup here?"
"We shall take him to Lady-Girl, while we find some more of our brothers and sisters who need our help."
Spike nudged the pup to his feet with his snout and prompted him to walk.
"Come on pup, let's go and meet Lady-Girl, she will clean you up and sort you out!"
Pup was too weary to ask any more questions and slowly walked alongside Spike and Gumboot as they made their way through the streets towards the home of the strays.
An abandoned warehouse made for a makeshift home to the 20 or so strong group of homeless dogs that Gumboot had rescued over the years. There were many, many more he had rescued who had moved on elsewhere or left to forage for themselves, yet still the throng grew each and every Christmas. Most of the dogs were out patrolling the streets, trying to find the abandoned dogs before it was too late, knowing that for everyone they found, they missed two or three more.
Lady-Girl was older than the pup expected. A cross between a Border Collie and an Alsatian, she had an elegant and graceful look about her that defied her years.
"Well, well. What have we here then?" she said, smiling at the little wagging tail of the golden brown pup in front of her. Her smile made him even more excited, and of course the trail of urine started. Embarrassed, he tried to lie down so she couldn't see him peeing over the floor, but she just laughed and said "Don't worry little one. You have no reason to be embarrassed here. Come closer!"
He half walked, half bowed as he made his way towards Lady-Girl, his back legs moving twice as fast as his front ones, causing him to turn in little semi circles. Reaching out with her paw, she cupped him and pulled him into her soft fur. "This will warm you my little one," she said, and nurtured him close to her beating heart.
"Come on Spike," gruffed Gumboot, "He's in good hands now. Let's go and find some other poor little blighters.
Spike turned and followed Gumboot towards the door, but still managed a glance back at the pup, a jealous look soon passed from his face, as he watched the pup shivering into Lady-Girl as he remember the same thing all those years ago. Lady-Girl turned to face the pup. She noticed how beautiful he was. This pup was a pedigree Labrador; not a cross breed mongrel like Spike, Gumboot and herself.
"You come from fine stock, pup!" she asked, or rather stated.
"I don't know where I came from," he replied, "I can't remember a thing."
"Gumboot told me that people give us to their children and families at Christmas and that we get rejected. I don't know what to do," he started crying in little yelps and snuffles.
"A fine pup like you has nothing to worry about. Families long for a gorgeous looking cute little thing like you. You were just used for the wrong reasons."
Pup blushed but couldn't help but gaze into the eyes of Lady-Girl. They were filled with wisdom and love.
"People think that something can mend a failing love, but fail to see that the thing they need is inside themselves, not inside the playful heart of a young pup, or any gift for that matter. You need to go to a complete home, not a broken one little pup."
She licked his face to clean away the trace of any tears he had cried. He felt better now, although still unsure what was to become of him. Outside, the first traces of light escaped through gaps in the breaking clouds, shining through broken tiles in the roof, allowing the pup to see how vast the warehouse was. There were many boxes and old blankets strewn around the floor, obviously places where the other dogs slept when they weren't looking for abandoned pups such as him. Lady-Girl had a large eiderdown, much bigger than the others had.
"Why is you bed so big Lady-Girl?" asked the pup, in that child-like manner that holds no embarrassment of questioning elders. Lady-Girl's eyes darkened slightly, a hint of sadness quickly passed across them, before she turned to pup and said, "They bring many young pups back here for me to nurture back to health, sometimes as many as ten a night over Christmas. I try and help them recover their health and confidence. To live again really"
She carried on in a quieter, deeper tone, a tone of sadness, "Sometimes they just give up, pup. It could be the shock of the cold, maybe even the loneliness that takes them, I'm not sure. But it hurts, that I do know. Each and every one that passes away makes me sad. I cry alone though; it wouldn't help to have the other dogs see me upset. I am their mother in a way, as I have nursed them all back to health they are my children too." She turned to pup, who looked somewhat bewildered now. "You will be fine!" she smiled. "I know that you will be happy soon little one." With that she gave him a playful nudge with her nose, turning him onto his back so she could wash his belly.
Just then Gumboot and Spike walked through the door. Their stride had purpose and meaning. Spike anxiously nosed up to Lady-Girl and whispered something into her ear. She smiled and turned to pup.
"Come pup, you must go now. It is time."
"Time!" said the pup, "I don't know what you mean, time..."
Gumboot piped up, "We have found a family for you pup, not far from here. A family that have lost their own dog, a dog that they loved very much, merely a few weeks ago. They need you!"
Pup turned to Lady-Girl for help, but she smiled and said, "Go now, there are many others we need to help, you have your destiny."
With a small yelp, he turned and followed Gumboot and Spike into the cold morning air. Lady-Girl smiled after him. She always loved it when one of her pups found a home. It made it all worth while.
Christmas wasn't the same this year for the Bridle family. It was their first Christmas without old Harry, the faithful Labrador who had been the family pet for many a year.
"Darling, you look distant," her partner enquired.
"Sorry dear," she smiled, and quickly wiped away the small tear that had slipped out the corner of her eye.
"Look mammy, look!" It was James, her five year old son holding a present he had just opened. "It's a collar for Harry mammy." The look of sadness on his face nearly made her cry again, but bravely she forced the lump in her throat to disappear and turned to James saying, "Put that one next to the fire place so that it can remind us that Harry will be eating roast beef and chomping on big bones in heaven"
"He can't eat bones mammy!" stated Laura, he three year old daughter, "He has no teeth!"
She laughed out loud for the first time that morning.
"In heaven they give you knew teeth Laura, and new eyes and better joints"
Her husband turned and embraced her, also smiling at Laura's observation. A scraping noise from behind made him start and he walked towards the front door.
On the doorstep, Spike stood over a seated pup.
"Don't be afraid, pup," said Spike. "We knew old Harry; he was the dog on this street most loved by everyone"
Pup said, "But what if they don't want me again? What happens if I mess on their carpet or chew something I am not supposed to?" Spike laughed; a dog style laugh that is.
"Pup, loving something or someone is about patience, understanding and growing together. People compromise and you have to learn to fit into their ways as well. You will be fine here, pup, I know you will."
With that, Spike turned and trotted up to gate, where Gumboot was waiting. They shared a smile and waited to see what would happen next. Pup jumped when the sound of the latch turning caught him by surprise. The door swung open quickly, heat lasted out in what seemed like an oven door opening to the little pup, who was by now shivering, not only with the cold, but with his fear of the unknown.
"Who's there?" called the father, unable to see anyone or hear anything. Pup tried to bark, but it froze in his throat with the fear of being shouted at and thrown back onto the street.
"Who's there I said!" bellowed the father again, as he had still not seen little pup shivering below him on the snow covered step.
"Christmas Day and you still have people playing tricks," he said, and was about to close the door when a shriek made him start and look round at Laura.
"Daddy, daddy, look!" she shrieked, and pointed to a small bundle on the doorstep.
"My word! What on earth is a little thing like you doing out here on a freezing Christmas Day?" asked father, knowing fine well he would not get a reply, but it seemed like the thing to do.
"Oh daddy it's Henry, he has come back to share Christmas with us hasn't he daddy?"
"Darling, what's happ... oohhhhh, what a cute little thing, let me see him"
He closed the door and brought little pup into the warm lounge where they put him down near the fire. Pup shivered uncontrollably and walked around nervously wondering when they were going to shout at him and throw him out.
"Can we keep him daddy, can we?" asked both the children in unison.
"He isn't our dog to keep I'm afraid, but let's get him a bowl of water and some of that turkey; he looks famished. We will find out to whom he belongs tomorrow, but he can stay here for now"
"Wheeyyyyyyyy" cheered both the children as they picked up the pup and placed him on the couch. Pup jumped up and stared out of the window at Spike and Gumboot who were waiting to make sure everything was okay before they left. Pup somehow knew that this was his home. They would not find the family who threw him out, nor would they want to be found. This was his home. He wagged his tail and yelped at the two friends he had made, Gumboot and Spike, and of course, left a small trail of urine, as you would expect. Spike and Gumboot walked off. Off to search for more strays and find them homes as well.
Back in the house father said, "Looks like this one is going to be a handful, just like old Harry was when he was a pup. I will get a cloth to wipe up that little mess and put some newspaper down in the kitchen. What shall we call him kids?"
"How about Harry Junior?" said Laura...
And guess what, it stuck.