A Christmas Tail Or Mr. Dickens' Last Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house it was pretty quiet. Very few things were stirring, especially not small rodents worth their cheese who wanted to live to see Christmas Day.

The reason for the subdued hush amongst the meagre mouse population was not so much awe at the imminence of Christmas, as the awesome presence of Mr. Dickens, the household cat.

Mr. Dickens was curled up, in time honoured fashion, on the mat in front of the fire. As close to him as possible, without seeming disrespectful or over familiar, was Li’l Tim, a fine young cat of some six months of age; not really a fully grown cat yet, but no longer a true kitten. Mr. Dickens, on the other paw, was old, very old, at least sixteen winters, and Li’l Tim was almost as in awe of him as the few remaining household mice. Okay, there were times when he thought Mr. Dickens’ ways a bit stiff and old fashioned and there were times when a lack of proper respect for Mr. Dickens, in Mr. Dickens’ opinion, earned him a cuff round the ears from Mr. Dickens’ paw, but despite this, and maybe because of this, Li’l Tim thought very highly of Mr. Dickens. He was also rather scared of him.

In turn, Mr. Dickens was not unappreciative of Li’l Tim. He thought him a fine lad for his age, with lots of energy and enthusiasm, if somewhat lacking in both self-restraint and experience. Hopefully, and all in good time, he would develop both. In the meantime, he had to know his place and Mr. Dickens was the cat to show him.

At this time of the night, however, Mr. Dickens was not unduly aware of Li’l Tim’s presence nearby on the hearth rug, other than subliminally as a minor additional source of heat somewhere over to his right. Mr. Dickens was fully engaged in one of his all-time favourite activities: sleeping. In all, he had four favourite activities: sleeping, eating (which was invariably followed by sleeping), mousing (which involved eating) and entertaining the ladies (which made him both hungry and sleepy). In his youth all four had held equal sway. As he grew older, eating and sleeping easily emerged as the top two favourites, but he still liked to keep his paw in with regards to the other two.

Tonight and the next few nights of the festive season were especially good for eating and sleeping and Mr. Dickens was planning on making the most of them.

He would be the first to admit that, as a cat, he did not understand the human aspects of the festival. He did, though, know and appreciate the feline angle. Whatever the humans’ motivation, he knew they spent a large proportion of the festival eating and drinking and gathering round roaring log fires. Log fires made for fine warm sleeping once the humans had gone to bed, and eating and drinking meant scraps, leftovers and full feline stomachs.

There were other benefits too. Drinking seemed to make humans more sentimental and/or drowsy, which led to cuddles and warm laps, neither of which Mr. Dickens was averse to. Also, at this time of year, humans developed a liking for shiny things –— paper and ribbons and glass balls on thread –— and though Mr. Dickens was a mature cat of significant years, no self-respecting feline ever totally loses the urge to pat, chase and lick shiny, dangly things. Yes, this time of year was a good time of year for cats, in Mr. Dickens’ opinion.

On this night of nights, with Li’l Tim nearby, he was dozing contentedly in front of the still burning fire. It was a good place to sleep. It was comfortable. It was warm and whenever he opened his eyes, the flickering flames made patterns and pictures to lull him back to sleep again. Each time he awoke, the flames were a little lower, but there was always sufficient glow and movement to make his eyelids grow heavy once more.

Around midnight, he briefly woke up, stretched, turned round in a circle and settled back down for another doze. The flames once again seemed to be dancing vigorously, though they gave out more light than heat. This didn’t particularly bother him –— he was warm enough already –— but he was fascinated by the red, green and golden sparks playing amongst the resuscitated flames. They twinkled like the dangly baubles he remembered from his first ever Christmas, when he was only a few months older than Li’l Tim was now. It was as if he was looking back at times gone by through the glow of the fire. His eyelids began to droop and in his dreams he was a young tom again, barely out of kittenhood and already earning a well-deserved reputation as a bold and fearless hunter. He was lying on the hearth rug as it had been then: somewhat brighter and thicker, but without the interesting smells and stains it displayed now. He was sharing the centre of the rug with old Bertrand Russell. At least Mr. Dickens had always thought of him as old, but he was only thirteen winters at that time and that wasn’t so very old, really.

Bertrand Russell had been the household cat until Mr. Dickens had arrived as a lively and curious kitten. He had taken Mr. Dickens in paw, taught him good manners, the rules of the house (and how to break them) and where to find all the best mouse runs. As Mr. Dickens grew bigger and stronger, Bertrand Russell willingly shared the centre of the hearth rug, and the other good sleeping places, with him and seemed content to let Mr. Dickens take on the role of chief hunter. By Mr. Dickens’ second summer, Bertrand Russell had quietly and contentedly gone hunting with the Black Cat, leaving Mr. Dickens in charge of the entire house and gardens. Mr. Dickens had relished the responsibility and had casually wished Bertrand Russell good hunting without a second thought. Now though, he looked back fondly on their Christmas together. There had been good food and plenty of it –— chicken and turkey, milk and cream and illicitly nibbled ham. The house was decorated with boughs of fir and holly and there had been red, green and gold baubles for patting and playing with. It had been a mild winter, but the fires were still roaring and there were so many mice to hunt that Mr. Dickens thought he was in heaven, but it would be Bertrand Russell who would be there within a two season. With hindsight, Mr. Dickens wondered whether he should have shown more gratitude to Bertrand Russell for welcoming him to, and then giving him, such a fine home, but such things had been overshadowed at the time by the enthusiasms of youth. He also wondered, with the first inklings of guilt, whether Li’l Tim would come to remember him as fondly as he remembered Bertrand Russell. What generosity had he displayed since Li’l Tim’s arrival? That would require further pondering after some serious sleep.

The next day was Poultry Day, as Mr. Dickens liked to think of it. On this most excellent of days a clever cat could find himself chicken and turkey and other assorted meats to eat, as well as milk and cream to drink. This year the humans started their feasting with smoked salmon and there were good morsels to be had. The log fires were banked high and there were many soft laps to be tried out. This was indeed a very fine Poultry Day and Mr. Dickens was enjoying himself immensely when, in the midst of a mid-afternoon doze, memories of the previous night’s dream wafted back to him. At the same time he became conscious that Li’l Tim was not trying out the assorted laps available to him, but instead was crouched down, somewhat timidly, behind one of the settees. Mr. Dickens clambered down from the particularly fine plump lap he had been enjoying and went over to the young cat, who trembled at his approach. Polite greetings observed, Mr. Dickens endeavoured to find out what was wrong. Li’l Tim was almost too scared of Mr. Dickens to say, but Mr. Dickens knew how to be gracious if he wanted to be and eventually he prised out of Li’l Tim that he was just too overawed by everything to enjoy the day. There were more humans than usual, more noise, more heat, more choices of food and so much shiny, glittery stuff that a young cat didn’t know what to do with himself. Plus there was Mr. Dickens, who was so big, so strong and so in command of the situation that Li’l Tim felt like a spare part. So he had slunk away and hadn’t eaten the Christmas meats or sat on the soft Christmas laps.

Mr. Dickens was taken aback and felt the urge to cuff Li’l Tim around the ears and tell him to get a grip, but he didn’t. He remembered old Bertrand Russell and instead of cuffs, he gave Li’l Tim reassurance and encouragement. Then he led him out of the living room and off hunting. Together the pair of cats chased down a half gnawed chicken leg, some abandoned chicken giblets, a dropped piece of ham and an unwary mouse who had been stealing mince pie crumbs. It was good hunting and Li’l Tim was obviously proud of his share of the achievements. Mr. Dickens was reasonably content with the warm belly glow the hunting had brought him and if he was slightly breathless after bringing down the mouse, he didn’t let it show. When Li’l Tim remained hesitant about returning to the fire and lap room because it had so many extra pairs of human legs in it, Mr. Dickens only slightly reluctantly gave up those best of comforts in order to snuggle down companionably with Li’l Tim on the cushioned seat in the hallway.

On Poultry Day night, once the humans had gone to bed, Mr. Dickens and Li’l Tim returned to the fire room and took up position on the rug. Mr. Dickens couldn’t bring himself to relinquish the central spot, but he was content for Li’l Tim to snuggle up against him as he had snuggled up to Bertrand Russell all those winters before.

That night, when Mr. Dickens opened his eyes in mid-sleep, the fire was not burning high and there were no sparkles of red, gold and green to fascinate him. He had slept through most of the night and the contents of the fireplace were largely black and ash with the occasional dull red glow, like the glint of hostile eyes in the dark.

Mr. Dickens’ resumed slumbers were less joyful than the night before. He twitched and whimpered in his sleep and in his dreams he chased mice that he could never catch. As he ran he became breathless and the breathlessness grew worse and worse until he could barely breathe. The red glints amongst the fire’s embers turned into the hostile eyes of a tribe of savage rats who were all too aware of his respiratory problems and keen to take advantage of his resultant weakness. The rats closed in and he didn’t have the energy to retaliate. It looked as if he would be hunting with the Black Cat sooner than expected.

He woke with a start. The fire had gone out, he had grown cold and Li’l Tim was nowhere to be seen.

Mr. Dickens padded out of the fire room and into the hallway. As he walked towards his saucer, he saw three mice eating what was left of his food. He lunged at them and raised his paw in the righteous killing blow, but they didn’t run away. He struck the nearest mouse, but his paw passed right through it and out the other side. The mice carried on eating. Mr. Dickens froze and then slowly looked down at the mice and then himself. His once luxuriant fur had grown thin and transparent and through it he could see the floor, his saucer and the contentedly engorged mice. His iron claws had become as insubstantial as a puff of air and the whip of his tail was gentler than a draught under the kitchen door. He had become the mere ghost of himself. What had happened? How had it happened? If he was dead, why wasn’t he hunting with the Black Cat? Had the Black Cat declined to hunt with him? What had he done to earn such shame?

The mice finished off the contents of the saucer and happily scampered off. Mr. Dickens remained miserably in the hall for a while longer and then went off in search of both Li’l Tim and an explanation for his wretched situation.

He found Li’l Tim asleep in the kitchen, curled up in a ball against the draughts from the back door. He was no longer little, in that he had become a fully-grown cat, but he looked thin and miserable and his coat was not in a good condition. There was no separate saucer laid out for him and Mr. Dickens realised that the saucer in the hall, which he had caught the mice stealing from, was actually Li’l Tim’s, not his. How the other cat had slept through the mouse raid, Mr. Dickens did not know, but it was a sorry state of affairs. Li’l Tim was twitching and mewing in his sleep. Mr. Dickens listened and heard the cries of a kitten, not a fully-grown tom. He listened further and heard uncertainty, lack of confidence, loss and finally the cry of an abandoned kitten yowled with the voice of an adult cat. Mr. Dickens felt the cry in the pit of his stomach and wanted to cry out too, but when he opened his mouth there was no sound.

What had happened? Had he died too soon? Had he been too miserly with his skills and his knowledge? Had he failed to teach Li’l Tim all he knew or did he pass on the facts without allowing him to develop the confidence to go with them? Was that why he hadn’t been allowed to hunt with the Black Cat, but was left pacing the rooms of his former house, a shamed shadow of what he had been? Had he been so full of himself that he had denied Li’l Tim his chance to be a true cat and thus his own chance to join the endless hunt? At that thought Mr. Dickens yowled, but all he could hear was a faint, dry whisper. He slunk onto the hearth rug with his tail between his legs and lay with his once proud head slumped on his paws.

When he raised his head again it was morning and the room was cold, but he was once more substantial flesh and fur and the young Li’l Tim was curled up snugly against him. No feral rats glared at them from the grate, no mice were partying in his food bowl and his fur was soft, thick and shiny, as a good coat should be. The memory of the previous night’s dreams still made him shiver and he promised himself they would remain dreams and not be allowed to become premonitions.

On Cold Poultry Day, the day after Poultry Day, he made sure that Li’l Tim got all the best scraps, had the confidence to settle down in at least one soft warm lap and, when he took him hunting that night, was the cat who caught the mouse. In so doing, Mr. Dickens discovered that running a little more slowly and trying a little less hard eased his breathlessness, whilst allowing Li’l Tim to make his first kill. It hurt his pride to give up on the mouse, but he became proud for Li’l Tim.

As Cold Poultry Day gave way to Loud Bangs Day, which turned into the period of cold windy weeks and eventually became the season of warmer soil, which finally grew into early spring, Mr. Dickens continued to train and coach Li’l Tim, while easing back on his own activities. With the arrival of High Spring, Li’l Tim had grown into Timbo the tomcat and Mr. Dickens shared in his feline glory, whilst gently regretting the passing of his own.

By High Summer, Timbo already had many kills to his paw and many kittens to his name. In practice, the house had a new guardian, even if Mr. Dickens still slept in the centre of the hearth rug. Now though, he shared it every night with Timbo. Life was good.

When the chill of late autumn started to enter the house and the first fires of the season were lit, Mr. Dickens started to feel tired. Timbo remained eager for the hunt, but all Mr. Dickens wanted to do was sleep. His sleeps became deeper. He was less likely than before to wake up in the middle of the night, and when Timbo woke up to hunt he invariably left Mr. Dickens sleeping. He slept so well that the full fires of the early night had inevitably given way to the cold black hearth of morning by the time he opened his eyes again. He slept during the day too, always in his favourite spot in front of the fire. He was not really surprised, therefore, when, not long before Christmas, he woke up from the deepest of afternoon naps to find bright flames dancing in the grate, shimmering with sparkles of red, gold and green. When he stretched and turned to find a large, black and somehow strangely familiar cat waiting for him to go hunting, he followed him out willingly and proudly.

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