A Christmas Encounter

It was too exciting to sleep. It was Christmas Eve and Ella was desperate to know what Santa would bring.  She sighed as she stood with her head under the curtains watching the sky.   The clock ticked past midnight.  She should have been asleep hours ago.  She pictured Santa with his sleigh weighed down by presents in big, bulging sacks.  Would he really come?

The night outside was black and twinkling with stars.  The reindeer food glittered on the grass where Ella and her brother had sprinkled it before bedtime.  As she gazed out, Ella saw an aeroplane pass by – twinkles moving steadily across the sky.  Then another.  And another.  Hang on, she thought. That one looks funny.  It’s sort of rolling, like waves.

She kept her eyes fixed on the rolling twinkles, wondering what sort of aeroplane moved like that.  As she watched, she saw them dip down towards the lights of town before rolling back up into the sky again, all the time coming closer.  Her eyes widened, she stifled a squeak.  Could it… could it be him?

She held her breath and quietly opened the window just a crack.  As she stood still, not breathing, she heard a faint tinkling.  It’s their bells, she thought, it must be!  Ella crouched down so only her eyes peeked over the window sill.  She mustn’t spoil the magic, but oh, how amazing it would be to actually see him!

All of a sudden, her ears caught another sound, much closer than the tinkling.  In fact, it sounded like it came from her garden.  She straightened her knees and slowly, slowly peered over the window sill into the garden below.  She stopped, her mouth open, her eyes like saucers.  There was a reindeer in her garden eating the reindeer food!  So it was him, he was coming to their house.  He was REAL.

It was all Ella could do not to scream in excitement.  She couldn’t help her feet dancing a little jig.  The movement must have caught the reindeer’s eye, as it looked straight up at her, antlers gleaming in the moonlight.  Ella stared back, stunned by fear of what this meant and by wonder at this amazing beast in her garden.

In the sky, the tinkling was getting louder.  Ella’s eyes filled with tears of horror – had she spoiled everything by being awake? As she panicked, something suddenly whumped against the window, and hung, snagged on the open corner.  It was a blanket – the reindeer’s blanket.  She pulled it in hurriedly and looked down to see why the reindeer had thrown it to her.  But he had gone.

Ella slumped down the wall, terrified she had ruined Christmas not just for her, but for her brother too.  She wrapped herself in the warm blanket and buried her nose in its animal smell as she thought of how awful that would be.  At that moment, she heard the door creak and saw Mummy’s face peer round to check on her.  Then the door closed again and Ella heard Mummy go into her parents’ bedroom.

But why didn’t she see me?  Ella wondered, puzzled.  I’m not in bed, she should have been really cross.  She looked again at the blanket.  Was the blanket something to do with this?  She poked her head out, and looked down at her arm, covered by the blanket. She couldn’t see it – there was nothing there.  As her pulse quickened, Ella looked down at her legs. Nope, they weren’t there either.  The reindeer blanket made her invisible!

Ella jumped up and twirled around.  She hadn’t spoiled anything at all.  The reindeer must have meant her to watch Santa coming – why else would he have given her the blanket? She returned to the window, wrapped in the blanket from head to toe, her eyes looking through a tiny slit.  She scanned the sky for the galloping, twinkling stars and watched as they continued their journey up and down from chimney to chimney.

As they came closer she gradually picked out the outlines of six reindeer in front of a sleigh, just as she had always imagined.  The wooden sleigh was lit by tiny lights all the way along, and it was piled high with bulging sacks.  Right at the back was Santa himself, his red and white coat flying behind him as he raced through the sky.

Now he was close enough for Ella to watch him go into the houses.  She watched him gently pull on the reins to slow the reindeer, who stopped still in the sky.  Santa pulled a list out of his pocket, reading carefully before delving into a sack.  After a couple of tries he found the gifts he was looking for and jumped down from the hovering sleigh onto the rooftop.  He deftly removed the chimney pot, got himself inside and disappeared, leaving the reindeer waiting patiently above.  A few minutes later he reappeared, a bit red-faced, and a bit sooty.   He stepped across to the next chimney and did the same thing again.  Once he’d been into all the houses in the row, he clambered back onto the sleigh.  Ella saw him reach into his pockets and bring out a carrot for each reindeer and a mince pie for himself.

Then, oh how wonderful. Ella saw something that explained a bit of the Santa magic she had always wondered about: how could Santa possibly carry presents for every child on one sleigh?  As Santa sat there reading his list, Ella saw an elf on another reindeer appear at his side, carrying another sack.  Santa gave the elf a big smile, and patted the reindeer on the nose before taking the sack and pouring the presents into his big sack on the sleigh.  He gave the elf the empty sack, along with a mince pie for him and a carrot for the reindeer.  The elf slung the sack over his shoulder, turned and rode off into the sky until he was a tiny speck in the distance.

So that’s how he does it, Ella thought.  The elves help him.  How clever. We must leave more food out for the elves next year.

Just then, Ella saw Santa look over to her row of houses.  He put his list away, picked up the reins and, with a gentle tinkling of bells, the sleigh set off again.  Only this time, it came closer and closer until Ella found herself looking up at the reindeer standing right above her house.  She could see the clouds of steam from their nostrils as their breath met the cold air.  She could hear the crackling of the paper as Santa unfolded his list, and the ruffling of fabric as he rummaged in his sack.

“Aha,” she heard him say under his breath.  “Here we are. Ella and Tom, number 17.  Elf report says they’ve behaved well this year and shown lots of kindness.  Full complement of presents for them this year, eh, Rudolf.”  The red-nosed reindeer snorted softly as if in answer.

Then Ella saw the sleigh shift a bit and heard a soft thud on the roof above her.  She rushed to her door and tiptoed downstairs to the living room.  As she peeked in, the lights from the Christmas tree lit up the empty stockings hanging over the fireplace, and the food and drink they had left out for Santa the night before.  She barely breathed as she saw Santa’s boots appear in the fireplace, followed by his legs, his tummy and finally his arms and head.  He moved the fireguard away and dusted himself down, before reaching into his pockets for the gifts.  As Ella watched, he filled up the two stockings, drank the drink, and stuffed the carrot and mince pie into his pockets.  Then he bent down and squeezed himself back into the chimney.

Ella raced back upstairs to her window.  The reindeer were still there, standing quietly waiting for their master to return.  Ella heard Santa replacing her chimney pot, walk a bit on the roof and then silence.  He must be visiting our neighbours now, she thought.

After a few minutes, she heard him return and saw the sleigh tilt slightly as he got back in.  No elf appeared this time – it must be an occasional refill.  She couldn’t help herself craning her neck that little bit more to see Santa himself.  Sure enough, she could just see one side of him: his big, thick boot, the red coat trimmed with white, and his gloved hand holding his list.  I can’t believe this, she thought.  I’ve actually seen Santa.  I know he is real.  While she was thinking this, she had a funny feeling she was being watched.  She swung round to her door, but nobody was there.  She glanced at the garden, but no, no-one there either.  She pulled the blanket more tightly around herself and returned to watching Santa and his sleigh.

A moment later, she saw Santa’s hands folding up the list and putting it back in his pocket.  She saw him pick up the reins and turn the reindeer back towards the sky so they pointed away from her.  Ella wanted to hold onto this moment forever.  Did they really have to leave so soon? She felt like crying.

As Santa picked up the reins, he suddenly turned and looked straight at her. Before she could do anything, he winked at her, smiled and tapped his nose.  Then he was gone.  Up into the sky and away.

He knew!  He knew she had been watching him, and still he brought their presents.  Ella found her teddy and buried her face in him.  “Can you believe it, Teddy,” she whispered.  “Santa’s real, he really is, and I saw him!”

While she hugged Teddy, she heard a soft grunting from outside.  She leaned out to look into her garden, where she saw the reindeer again, looking back up at her.

“Oh,” she whispered to him.  “You must be cold without your blanket, you need it back.” She opened the window fully and threw the blanket down to him.  As he shook it into place, she smiled at him.  “Thank you, reindeer.  You made this Christmas the most special ever.  I will never forget you.”

The reindeer snorted and nodded its head before turning to gallop down the garden and up into the sky.  Ella watched as he faded into a shadow and then disappeared completely into the night.

Ella climbed into bed and wrapped up herself and Teddy tightly in a bundle of duvet. What a night.  It almost seemed like a dream, it was so amazing.  She smiled as she kissed Teddy and closed her eyes.  It was going to be a brilliant Christmas.

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(Photo credit: http://www.johnrwallace.com)

A letter to my Dad

Dear Dad

At about 4am four years ago, we were with you as you took your last breath.  In some ways I can’t believe it’s only four years – it feels like a lifetime ago.  So much has changed as our families have expanded, the children have grown up and life has continued apace, as it always does.  So much we would have loved you to be here to share.

I miss you.

When you first told me about the bowel cancer, Little H was a week or so old.  I didn’t want to find out anything about it, I didn’t want to know.  But I had to – no point hiding from it. And the two – five years typical life expectancy was too shocking to accept.  Two years?  Is that all?  And for all the ups and downs, all the hopeful operations, all the ‘maybe this time’s, two years is what it was.

Almost the hardest thing was realising Little H would be too young to remember you as part of her life. I can’t know for sure, but I have a feeling one of the things you fought so hard to live for was to be part of your grandchildren’s lives. You were a great Ganda to them.  It was wonderful to see you relax and enjoy being and playing with the kids, despite how much their noise and chaos must have disrupted the order and peace you liked to have in life.

I wanted to write a chatty letter to you about what the children are like, what’s happened since you’ve been gone. But it seems that’s not where I am today.  I want to remember you and the things I loved about you.  The things I miss.  Sorry if that’s a bit melancholy – you would hate it, wouldn’t you, Dad – you were never one for dribbling on about feelings, except when you wrote to us – those poignant letters and emails when you felt able to share your feelings.

There’s a lot I miss.  I miss your bear hugs.  I miss “Well, quite”.  I miss those times when you deadpanned a joke which had us all looking at you a bit uncertainly until you cracked a massive grin and laughed.  I miss the satisfaction you took from finding a really good wine.  I miss seeing you in your chair by the fire playing with the cat, letting her scratch the hell out of your hand or chase a laser madly around your feet.  I miss your quietly said, well-considered advice (although I don’t miss the expectation that we followed it!).  I miss your voice.  I miss the chats about what was going on in the world.  I miss your irritation with the downward spiral of the English language from its proper form.  I miss your inability to do a food shop without coming home with DVDs, way too much awful packaged sweet stuff and enough drink and snacks to do Christmas all year.  I miss the way you would always do things ‘right’ – house guests meant G&Ts at the yard arm, well filled glasses and good snacks, fun outings and preferably a good pub lunch.

I miss the bond that grew between you and Mr H, particularly during and since those treasured months we lived with you when we got back from Sydney.  I miss the unspoken pride I saw in your eyes, or in a fierce hug, when one of us did something that made you proud.  I miss your quiet determination, your methodical, fastidious approach with your interests and projects you took on, whether genealogy, clocks or helping us with house hunting, car buying or DIY.  I miss your fascination with new technology. I’ll never forget you discovering eBay and suddenly all these clocks appearing as you tested how it worked, Mum worrying about just how much money you would fritter away on your latest obsession, and just how much more stuff you could cram into the house.  I miss your sense of duty and of doing the right thing, with and for family as well as friends and colleagues.  I miss your generosity and desire to help whenever you could – the way you would have a quiet word and offer what you thought was needed, whether I was at school, university or an adult.  I miss the calm way you approached problems, particularly given my own tendency towards overly dramatic panicking.

Recently, I heard your voice on a video clip I opened for Little H.  It threw me quite a bit, but actually it was lovely to hear you.  Moments bring you back to me suddenly – a phrase, a situation.  I treasure those moments – the art of remembering, as I’ve written about before.

I feel sad that you aren’t here to watch the kids grow up and become the lovely little people they are, to share in their joys, triumphs, curiosity and innocent wonder at the world.  Mum is so very present in their lives, which is wonderful.  But wouldn’t it be even more wonderful if you were too?

You always loved this time of year.  The traditions, the carols, the big roast lunch with all the trimmings, all the silver out, the family occasion.  How you managed to resist our petulant nagging about putting up the decorations and tree before Christmas Eve for so many years, I have no idea.  That was just one of your things, and I guess it did make Christmas week feel ultra special in a way we now try and make last the whole of December!

Perhaps if you had to go at some point, it was better you went at this time of year, when we can remember you together as a family, at a time infused with so much memory of you.  Next week we will all be in Aldbourne, where you grew up, married, and were buried, all your children, grand-children, Mum, Granny.  We will drink good wine, eat good food, say hello to you in the churchyard on Christmas morning, sing our hearts out and laugh as the children complain about waiting for presents until after lunch, just as we did to you for all those years.

Love you Dad.  You’re often in my mind, and always in my heart.

Is it the right time to jump into something new?

When I was commuting and working, work was pretty much life.  Plus as much family stuff as possible and the bare minimum to get by for everything else.  I yearned for more sleep, more exercise, more time with friends, less careering from one must do to the next, and more time to do something with all the ideas and interests that reared back up in my consciousness during holidays or the occasional ‘getting away from it’ weekend.

Last year I stepped off the corporate wheel.  Not for the reasons above, but to make sure one of us at least was able to be present in our children’s daily lives, and to keep our family (or me) from going over the edge.

But one year on, I can’t help noticing how life fills the space you give it quite stupendously well.  I find myself wondering where I will find the time to do all the things I’ve taken on – a triathlon, parent governorship, writing picture book stories, potential business opportunities, let alone the current building work at home.

And all that is to be done in the still small pockets of time when I don’t have the children – if my commitments impose on time with the kids, then what was the point of stopping working?

I’ve talked before on this blog about knowing I would return to work – stopping was for 1 – 2 years until Littlest H started big school. But I wanted, and still want, to find a way of working that fits with family life better than commuting up to London, but also doesn’t require me to do something I don’t really want to do or don’t find fulfilling.  But the reality is that working around family feels even harder than working a regular job.  

I’m looking at a new business venture.  It is a risk – we need to test it for a few months before knowing if it could go somewhere.  It will require a modest financial investment to test it, but modest matters right now.  It will also require a huge time commitment.  And I’m wondering how on earth I can manage that without giving up everything else I’m enjoying finally having some time for.

The thing is, I know I need to work – both financially and for myself. I know I have always wanted to do something more interesting than a straight corporate job.  And I know setting up anything takes risk, money and time, at the very least.  But I don’t want to end up in the same position I was when in the corporate world.  Ambition is all very well, but blind ambition obliterates all else.

What to do.  As usual, I want it all ways.

The fact is, one can’t have everything.  And anything worth doing takes effort. (Answers on a postcard: any other pithy sayings I could add?).  As always in life, it’s about priorities, positive realism and will (one of my own).

I’m sure my doubts are de rigueur for budding business-owners.  It’s a massive move to make.  But if I believe the business is viable and could be a route to fulfilling work that fits with family life and pays what I need to earn, I know I have to take the jump and suck up the whirlwind ride.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” says Neale Donald Walsch.  So is it time to live?  Hell, yeah (real answer: umm, I think so, but I’m not quite sure).  I just need to decide which comfort zones I’m going to stay in so I don’t do my usual trick of leaving too many of them all at the same time.  Or indeed missing some third way that magically keeps all the balls up in the air.  Oh, oh wait. I know, that’s called winning the lottery.  Damn.