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Freudesheim was silent. The younger Maynards were asleep and the older ones were being so quiet that any slight noise they made didn’t count. At any rate it wasn’t heard, and that was what mattered.

“Do I really have to do this?” demanded Jack in a muffled whisper.

“Yes! The children would be disappointed if you didn’t,” said Joey in a whisper that was somewhat less muffled, owing to the fact that her mouth was not clogged up with a mass of artificial facial hair.

“The children won’t even see me. That’s the point,” said Jack.

Joey paused for a moment to consider.

“Well, I’d be very disappointed,” she said.

A twinkle came into Jack’s eyes.

“Ah – in that case...” he said and adjusted his sack so that it looked more manly.

***

Her parents might have thought they were all asleep, but Felicity lay awake, listening. She could hear Margot snoring in the next room, a bird singing, apparently under the impression that dawn was near, and her own breathing. But she was listening for something else.

Felicity was on a Quest. It was a Quest she had invented herself a year ago when she had overheard a quarrel between Steve and Chas which had gone (roughly speaking; she couldn’t remember the exact words),

“Of course Father Christmas exists!”

“No he doesn’t!”

“Yes, he does!”

“He doesn’t!”

“Does!”

“Doesn’t!”

It had ended with Chas going off in a huff because Steve simply wouldn’t believe that Father Christmas was at best a figment of the imagination and at worst “a myth invented by capitalists for their own enrichment at the expense of the credible masses.”

Usually Felicity would have believed Chas without any question, since his unlikely theories had a habit of turning out to be true. But this time was different. This was a theory so wild and unfounded that no sensible child could possibly credit it.

She stiffened suddenly. There was an odd little rustling noise, like someone adjusting a sack. She’d expected to hear hooves on the roof, and perhaps someone in the chimney (which ran up past her room). Obviously Father Christmas was cleverer than that. He must have come upstairs to fill the stockings.

Felicity slid out of bed and crept to the door, placing her ear against it. There was no sound. She opened the door very slowly and peered through the crack. There was no-one in sight. Satisfied, she made a dash for the stairs and fled down them, a sudden unreasoning terror seizing her for a moment. She bolted into the living room and flung herself down behind the sofa, her heart thudding and her legs shaking.

By the time the door was pushed open again her panic had subsided. She waited until she heard rustling, then poked her head round the end of the sofa. A great triumph filled her as she saw the red-clad figure with its luxuriant growth of beard, the traditional sack on the floor beside it.

Felicity crawled out from behind the sofa and stood up.

“Hello!” she whispered, careful not to be too noisy and wake anyone up. Father Christmas jumped as though he had been electrocuted and swung round.

“Felicity! What are you doing?”

The light died out of Felicity’s face, to be replaced with bewilderment.

“P – Papa?”

“Oh da – er, I mean, what do you think you’re doing, young lady?”

Felicity giggled at her father trying to scowl at her through his beard. Jack hastily pulled it off and frowned at his daughter.

“All right, Felicity. What’s the game?”

But Felicity’s mind was running on different lines.

“Does that mean Chas is right?”

“Chas is right about what?” Jack sat down on the sofa and sat Felicity down next to him.

“He said Father Christmas was a myth invented by capitalists for their own enrichment at the expense of the credible masses,” Felicity explained.

“He did, did he?” said Jack, concealing a grin at this. “And what do you think about that?”

“Well, if he’s just you, he can’t be real.” Felicity’s shoulders slumped. Jack found himself quite unable to disillusion her.

“Me? Oh, I’m just dressed up. I’m not the real Father Christmas. Just – er – helping him out a bit, you know.”

“Helping him out?” repeated Felicity.

“He brings the – the big stuff. I just fill in the gaps,” Jack invented wildly. “You’ve heard of Santa’s – er – Little Helpers.”

“Oh, I see,” said Felicity, leaning comfortably against her father. “I thought they were elves and pixies and things.”

“There are some of those too. But there are also people like – er – me. Now, why don’t we just put you back to bed? You know he won’t come if you’re waiting for him.”

Five minutes later Felicity was tucked tightly into bed and the door was closing behind her father. A few moments later she heard a soft click as her father went into his own room, a muffled squeak from her mother and the door closed again, rather loudly.

***

Half an hour later, Felicity jerked awake. She sat up in bed, breathing quickly, her mind leaping instantly to Father Christmas. Shivering, since she had removed her dressing gown and slippers when Jack had put her to bed, she stepped out into the hall. Once again she stood listening in the hall. Once again she trotted down the stairs, but this time she hesitated before opening the door. She didn’t want to get into trouble if it was her father again, but if it really was him...

The living room door wasn’t shut properly. Felicity pushed it open slowly and slid inside. The scarlet figure was bending over his half-full sack, but she couldn’t tell from the back whether it was her father or not. As she hesitated, the seconds grew to minutes, until, watching, she finally realised that the man was putting things into the sack, not taking them out. Well, Father Christmas wasn’t likely to be doing that, so it must be Papa again.

She turned to leave the room quickly, but she must have made some noise because a hand gripped her arm, hard.

“Papa?” she whispered, backing away, frightened at the anger she could clearly read in his eyes, despite the beard. “I – I’m sorry. I’m going back to bed. It’s just that I thought it was really Father Christmas this time.”

He glared at her for a moment, then released her arm.

“Ssshhhh,” he said, and gave her a wink. Relieved, Felicity started to breathe again, rubbing her arm. She stood and watched as he went round the room, putting various things into his sack, like Mamma’s pretty vase that she was so fond of. She couldn’t imagine what he was doing, though Chas would probably have had an answer.

After a few minutes, he picked up the sack, swung it over his shoulder and turned to Felicity.

“Good girl,” he whispered and patted her on the head before he left the room.

Felicity followed and watched him go down the hall and out of the front door. She stared at it in bewilderment. Where was he going at this time of night? Why had he patted her head? Papa never patted her. He knew she loathed it. A cold feeling crept into Felicity’s stomach. She went slowly back into the living room and looked round. A lot of things had gone. A small picture. Mamma’s vase. The big radio set. The little sparkling mantelpiece clock. She thought there had been more than that in the sack, too.

Surely Father Christmas wouldn’t have taken their things? Anyway, if it had been him, he wouldn’t have gone out of the front door. He’d have gone up the chimney. Felicity ran up the stairs to listen outside her parents’ door. The last hope died. Though she couldn’t discern any words, she could definitely hear both their voices.

Felicity didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t knock on their door and tell them she’d let a burglar steal all their things. They would want to know why she hadn’t realised – hadn’t captured him and tied him up, like girls did in school stories. And she couldn’t just go back to bed. What if they came downstairs and found out? She crept back down to the living room, but it didn’t seem safe any more. There were dark corners, cold and empty. She curled herself up in a corner of the sofa. What were Mamma and Papa going to say? Tears began to roll down her cheeks.

***

Felicity woke up very cold and uncomfortable. For a moment she wondered where she was. Then she remembered, and found that her face was stiff from crying. The house was quite silent. She opened her eyes, her lip starting to tremble again.

But the tears got no further than a faint stinging at the back of her eyes. There, for the third time tonight, was a red-clad figure clutching a bulging sack. The burglar had returned. A desire to run and hide took her over for a moment and she slid off the sofa, holding her breath. Then there came into her mind the memory of Diana, Heroine of St. Margaret’s, who had taken prisoner two rival gangs of burglars – seven in all – both of whom had been plotting to make off with the Games Trophy.

Felicity stood up a little straighter and gritted her teeth. Diana could have defeated this one measly burglar with both hands tied behind her back. She knew that a houseplant with a heavy pot stood on the windowsill, inches away from her. Carefully she parted the curtains and wrapped her hands around the plant’s stout stem. It made no sound as she lifted it up, moved forward a little, then swung it up and over her shoulder. There was a thud as the pot came into sharp contact with the burglar’s skull. He dropped to the floor.

Felicity stood over him, breathing heavily with triumph, seeing her name emblazoned across the cover of a book: Felicity, Heroine of the School! Nervously she bent over him and pulled at the beard. It seemed to be very firmly stuck. She tugged a bit harder, then peered at it closely. Well! The burglar must have a white beard of his own!

She tried to think what to do next. Diana would have had some rope with her and tied him up, but Felicity didn’t know where to find any, and she didn’t think tinsel would be strong enough. Before she could decide what to do the man opened his eyes.

“Ooooh,” he groaned, lifting a hand to rub his head. Then he spotted Felicity and jumped to his feet. “Merry Christmas!” he cried.

Felicity brandished the plant pot at him.

“Lie down!” she commanded, the memory of Diana strong in her mind. The man merely raised his bushy white eyebrows at her and started pulling things out of his sack. They were parcels, wrapped in coloured paper, ribbon shining around them. Felicity put the plant down and took a step forward.

“Are you – are you – him?” she breathed.

“If you mean who I think you mean – I certainly am!” he said, a wide beam making a split in his beard. Felicity found an answering grin on her own face.

“Chas said you were a myth invented by capitalists for their own enrichment at the expense of the credible masses,” she said.

“For him perhaps I am. But for you –” he folded the empty sack and tucked it into his belt. “I’m real as you are yourself. Now – you didn’t see me, all right?” Felicity nodded, the smile still shining on her face. Standing on the hearth, he paused. “And don’t be afraid. They won’t be angry with you. Merry Christmas!”

With that, he ducked into the chimney and vanished. Felicity stood in the middle of the room, warm and surrounded by packages. A thought flickered into her mind, and she dashed up the stairs as fast as she could, raced into her room, flung the window wide and peered out. For a moment there was nothing. Then she heard a faint shout and some scraping, and a second later, a dark silhouette across the stars, the shape of a sleigh. Leaning out as far as she could, she waved and waved.




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