Christmas Eve at the Cracker Factory.
A row of miniature angels watched over the dog, fast asleep, nose in his paws, only his ears, one torn, visible above the river of blue and green tissue paper that flowed knee-deep down the factory floor.
Boxes labelled ‘Trumpets’, ‘Drums’, ‘Stars’, ‘Robins’, ‘Snowmen’ were stacked on either side of the long tables where the crackers were assembled. Sheets of gold cardboard were piled against the cutting machines, and waterfalls of red streamers ran down the walls.
The spitting, snapping, banging, firing, pistol-shot strips of the crackers were safely in tubes on the shelves. Three giant vats, of the Ali Baba kind, marked HATS, JOKES, BALLOONS, sat under the funnels that automatically topped them up, as more and more crackers were filled, packed and dispatched.
There were cheap ones, economy ones, family packs and de-luxe boxes, and today, the very last, the very special, the giant charity Christmas Cracker, six feet long, and stuffed tight as a sausage.
But not yet, because the bus is just arriving at the gates, and the workers are coming in, and the dog is still asleep in a dream of warm paper, where he crept last night, cold and wet, because somebody left open a small window, and he is only a small dog.
In he crept, under the red safety light that shone on the gold card beneath the waiting angels, and he rolled on his back to get dry, and ate a marzipan donkey, and fell asleep.
In they come, neon lights, radio on, and before the dog can say woof, a golden tunnel opens right before his brown eyes, and a pair of firm spade-like hands shoves all the tissue paper and all the dog right inside the top of the cracker, and seals it with a plastic lid
He can still see out the other end. He buries his nose deeper, the hair in his ears twitching, as an avalanche of chocolates crashes round his head, followed by an army of teddy bears, an arsenal of pop-guns, a barrage of balloons, beads like hailstones, a string of yo-yo’s, a peal of whistles, a masked ball of false noses, a plague of clockwork mice, and a huddle of evil-looking finger puppets dressed in black.
Somebody says ‘Put in the explosives then – this one has to go with a bang!
A fuse-rod of gun-powdery stuff is poked past the dog’s tail and out through a hole in the lid. The dog thinks of all those circus animals fired out of canons, or the ones dropped by parachute behind enemy lines. He thinks of Laika, the Soviet dog shot into space never to come down, and he thinks of the star-dogs, Canis Major and Minor, tracking the dark fields above, glittering guardians of their rougher kind below. Perhaps he can be with them, sky-set, a new-burned star, Canis Fugit, the flying dog.
But he doesn’t want to be a flying dog! He wants all four paws on the ground. Too late! They are tying the giant charity Christmas cracker at both ends, and he feels himself lifted up and carried out like a canine Cleopatra in a roll of carpet, and there he is on a gilded barge, no, it’s the back of a white Transit Van, driving towards a large hotel with a green doorman, and a white Christmas tree,
Himself and his cracker are carried in by elves to the wonderment and applause of all, just in time for the Charity Raffle.
He knows no-one will want him; he lives in the park and drinks from the fountain. He came with the fair when he was a puppy, and ran round the rides in his criss-cross mongrel colours until one day the fair packed up, and the caravans pulled away one by one, and he went to sleep for a bit because he didn’t know what was happening, and when he woke up, everyone had gone.
Sometimes people feed him sandwiches and sometimes they don’t; you can’t rely on people, he knows that.
What will happen when they find him in the cracker?
The hotel ballroom is crammed with children waving raffle tickets. The prizes are being given away, everyone is singing Jingle Bells. Now is the moment for winning ticket 999, and two children rush forward – a fat boy in a red suit, and a slim girl in a fake fur coat. But there’s been a mistake – there are two winning tickets. The children glare at each other and take up combat positions at either end of the cracker. The room fills with feral energy -PULL PULL PULL, and the fat boy wraps his fat hands round one end, and the slim girl digs her heels in and just holds on, like she’s seen her mother do in the Sales.
Just then, a pale quiet boy comes forward and gives the Master of Ceremonies his ticket. He’s got 999 too.
‘Well, whatever is inside, you’ll just have to share,’ says the Master of Ceremonies.‘ After all, it’s Christmas.’
So they pull, and they pull, and they pull, and the fat boy turns redder than his suit, and the girl throws her whole body weight on top of the cracker to stop her enemy the fat boy winning the bang. The pale quiet boy just stands in the middle, holding his ticket, and wondering why he can see a paw beginning to poke through the rip.
BANG! There it goes like somebody split the atom and up in the air is a mushroom cloud made of chocolate and clockwork and yo-yos and finger-puppets and for a second it hangs in perfect space, then its every child for itself, fighting over silver coins and plastic spiders, and nobody notices that free-falling back through the smoky air is a small terrier with a paper hat round its neck.
‘Where the big present?’ demands the fat boy, ‘I won it, I want the big present.’
The dog lands at his feet.
‘What’s that dog doing in the cracker?’ shouts the girl. ‘
The dog is used to being chased and shouted at, but this time he knows he’s in trouble, so he thinks as fast as his doggy brain can, and he says – ‘I’m a magic dog, like the genie in the bottle.’
‘What genie? What bottle?’ says the fat boy, who only ever watches television. ‘If you’re so magic, where are my three wishes?’ says the girl. The pale, quiet boy says nothing.
‘One wish each’ says the dog, pointing at the children with his snouty nose, ‘one, two, three, your wish is my command.’
‘I want a Ferrari ” shouts the fat boy.
‘Right oh’ says the dog, ‘Give me ten minutes.’
The dog dives under a long tablecloth and races to the end of the ballroom. He is thinking only of escape. He skids across the polished floor, over the carpet, past the cloakroom, sees the zig-zag sign for emergency stairs, and reckons that must be for him. He whirls down the narrow concrete helter-skelter and lands on his head in the underground car park.
‘Move that Ferrari in Bay 16 will you?’ shouts the Valet, winging the keys through the air towards his assistant.
And it must be true that for all our planning and plotting, and deliberating and deciding, the moment that changes everything comes when it will, and cannot be coaxed, or invoked, and should not be missed.
The dog didn’t miss. He stood on his hind-paws and leapt. He leapt out of his scraggy, raggy, tooth and nail past and caught the future as it whipped by his jaws. There he is, back up the helter-skelter of the concrete stairs, through the Emergency Exit, past the Cloakroom, into the ballroom, just escaping concussion from a hundred yo-yos, but with one bound he’s on the stage by the remains of the exploded cracker, and there are the car keys at the feet of the fat boy.
‘Underground parking, Bay 16’, says the dog.
The fat boy’s eyes gleam with greedy happiness. He doesn’t bother to thank the dog, just grabs the keys in his fat fist and waddles off, shoving the smaller children out of his way.
‘Me now” orders the girl. ‘I want a real fur coat.’
‘That’s unethical’ replies the dog, ‘who has never heard the word before, but finds it on the end of his pink tongue.
‘I want one! Shrieks the girl with such force that all the glass baubles on the Christmas tree shatter to powder.
‘Better go then, ‘ says the dog, about to turn tail, but the pale little boy has knelt down and given him a drink of water and a ham sandwich from which he has carefully removed the lettuce.
The dog is grateful, and hopes that whatever happens, he can bring the little boy his wish. But first there is the matter of the fur coat.
He’s lucky, because the parents are arriving to collect their children, just at the moment when gentle tinsel snow begins to fall in the bar next to the ballroom, and wouldn’t a drink be nice, and what’s five minutes in a lifetime, especially at Christmas? But these are the minutes some good angel has ear-marked for the dog, who can’t believe his soft brown eyes, as coat after coat is passed over to the girls in the padded cloakroom, and if he just sits quietly, and just waits – yes it’s a Mink!
The girls are busy hanging up the pile and chatting about best value turkeys so they never notice the mink silently sliding away under the counter, and across the floor, dog underneath it, twenty times his size, but he’s a terrier and born with the Holy Law of the Jaw – Don’t Let Go.
‘Darling, there’s a coat running across the floor on its own’ says one very drunk man to his very sober wife. She doesn’t even look round, ‘Don’t be silly darling.’
And so the sleek mink coat, piloted by the rough-coated dog, makes its way across the carpet, into the ballroom, and towards the bottom of the steps of the stage.
There’s a muffled Woof! The girl is on her mobile phone and doesn’t notice that her heart’s desire has arrived. The pale little boy has been waiting, really a bit anxious about the magic dog, and when he sees the coat like a rug on centipede legs slinking across the floor, he knows the dog must be underneath, and runs to pull him out.
‘Are you all right?’ asks the boy
‘Bit hot’, says the dog. ‘Tell her the coat’s here.’
The girl covers her face in her hands, then starts clapping, the way she’s seen winners on those Talentless Contests do. She pulls on the coat, and sashays off the stage, and falls flat on her face, just as the Master of Ceremonies re-appears with a microphone in his hand. He looks grim. He looks serious.
Winning ticket 999 has not been multiplied by three after all. It wasn’t the Christmas Elves, it was two felt-tip pens. Numbers 9 and 99 have added to their stock. The Big Present will go to number 999 only.
The pale little boy still has his ticket in his hand. The Master of Ceremonies examines it through a magnifying glass – yes, it’s the one.
The organ strikes up Jingle Bells, but not loud enough to drown the terrific crash in the hotel lobby.
Everyone runs to the doors to see a red Ferrari driven by a red-faced boy in a red suit, stalled in a shatter of plate-glass, with the white Christmas tree jammed through the sun-roof and the green doorman sprawled over the bonnet.
‘The dog made me do it’ screams the boy, as the security guards drag him out.
The girl in the fur coat is laughing so much that she can hardly hold her phone still enough to take the photo. As she hold both hands above her head a pair of handcuffs slots securely round her wrists
‘That girl has stolen my coat’ screams the Latvian Countess. ‘In my country we would pickle her and serve her with pork.’
‘The dog gave it to me” wails the girl, ‘arrest the dog!’
But the dog is nowhere to be seen. The dog has crept behind the blow-up Santa in the ballroom and he’s not coming out.
As the row in the hotel lobby reaches Babylonian proportions, the Master of Ceremonies takes the pale quiet boy to a gold box with a red ribbon and tells him to open it. Hesitatingly the boy pulls the ribbon, because he isn’t used to big presents. He and his mother don’t have much money. Inside the box is a racing bike.
‘And it’s all yours’ says the Master of Ceremonies. ‘You won it fair and square.’
Left alone with the bike the boy runs his hands over the clean cogs and smooth gears, the leather saddle and the drop-raise handlebars. It’s the best bike in the world.
‘Well, you won’t be needing a wish then,’ says the dog, from behind the blow-up Santa. ‘Probably a good thing, under the circumstances.’
Another shriek comes from the hotel lobby as the Ferrari owner is re-united with the remains of his car.
The boy sits on the edge of the dais, swinging his thin legs and looking at the dog’s head looking at him. He holds out a sandwich. The dog brown eyes dart left, then right, then he trots out, takes the sandwich, and sits next to the boy.
‘I’m not a magic dog’, he says, ‘I’ a stray. I got trapped in that cracker. It was snowing last night, and I usually sleep under the wheelie bins in the park, but they had taken them away, and I was cold and wet, and saw a light, and a window, and found a bench full of coloured paper, and fell asleep, and woke, and here I am.’
‘I came on the bus’ said the boy. ‘I live with my mum. She cleans at the hotel so they let me come to the party.’
‘What were you going to wish for?’ said the dog. ‘If I had been magic?’
‘If I had a wish’, said the boy, ‘it would be to take you home with me.’
‘What?’ barked the dog, his ears vibrating like satellite dishes picking up an alien signal‘ What, woof, what? Woof what what?
‘I’d wish for you’ said the boy.
And Tommy asked his mother, and she said, yes, he could take the dog home, and they waited in the dark empty ballroom until she had finished work, and then they set out, all three into the snowy streets and under the moon to the bus stop, and the dog trotted beside the boy, and looked into the clear sky at the star-dogs, cold and fine, an he knew that whatever you wish, you can’t wish for better than love.