Monday, December 15, 2008

A warm delightful Chrimas treat!

The Greatest Gift:
A Tale for Christmas

by Ian Keith McDowell

Author of The Little Lame Angel,
The Tender Ducklings and other Yuletide favorites.

It was Christmas in the little village of Leaking Festers, and snow was falling from the sky like cold down, to spread across the fields in soft white blankets and pile up against doors and shutters like bags of heavy laundry. It was a day for the roaring hearth and the wassail cup and the smell of goose and pudding and more than anything, it was a day for children. At least, that's what little Simon and Emily's mum had said, before taking the broom to them and driving them outside.

"Go play in the snow, then!" she'd snapped softly, "and for Christ's sake, give me a moment's bloody peace!" Not that she was likely to get that, with the baby screaming and carrying on so, like a cat dropped in a bag of hot coals.

"Not so nice of Mum to toss us out like that," said Simon, picking a particularly fine booger from his frosty nose, inserting it into a snowball, and throwing it at Emily, who ducked instinctively. "And us without good boots, even!"

"Ah, she's just wanting some, what'cher call it? . . . privacy, that's it, so she can drink her gin. You know how Mum is about her gin."

At this point, they met Mrs. Sheepshanks, who lived down the lane. "Why children, you shouldn't be out in this cold without proper boots," said Mrs. Sheepshanks.

"We ain't got none, you stupid cow," said Emily in the forthright manner that made her the darling of the village. "Mum spent all her money on gin."

"Well then, my little dears," said Mrs. Sheepshanks, "you must come and warm yourselves before my fire. My husband's gone to buy a goose for our dinner, and I'll be glad for the company, as the Good Lord has not seen fit to bless us with darling children of our own."

And with that, she took them back to her house. On the way, Simon leaned close and whispered to Emily. "A goose indeed; everyone knows the Sheepshanks haven't any money." "Quiet, you git," responded Emily, elbowing him sharply. "She's bein' nice to us. Besides, they might have something worth stealing."

As it turned out, the Sheepshanks did not, but the children still spent a pleasant hour before the fire, while Mrs. Sheepshanks told them marvelous stories of all the things she and her husband had seen during the Indian Mutiny. Simon especially like the part about tying mutineers to the mouths of cannons, and it made him laugh no end, as he tried to imagine the expressions on the faces of the Sepoys just before
the stout British soldiers blew them in half. Mrs. Sheepshanks, for her part, was charmed by the children's manners. "It's a shame," she said, "that a drunken slut like your mother should have such fine lambs, while John and myself
have remained childless."

"Goose-less too," said big bluff John Sheepshanks as he came tramping in the door. "Prices have gone up, and what few pennies I've saved couldn't fetch a scrawny chicken. It's turnips for Christmas, I'm afraid."

"How unfortunate that we once were wealthy," said Mrs. Sheepshanks, "and could dine on goose and oysters and suckling pig. But the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Would you dear children like to take some turnips back to your mother?"

"No thank you, m'am," said Simon. "We have plenty of those."
Casting one furtive look around the small cottage, the children departed for home.

When they got there, they found their mother sprawled drunkenly in her chair, smelling of gin and snoring, while the baby wailed in his cradle. "Oh, be quiet, Algie," said Simon crossly.

"I think we should do something Christmas-like for the Sheepshanks," said Emily thoughtfully. "Give 'em a nice present."

"Like what?" asked Simon. "We've not got much."

"Well, how about Algie here? He ain't good for much, is he, except bawling and peeing in his diaper. And Mrs. Sheepshanks was all sad they don't have children."

"Wizard!" said Simon. "We can leave him on their doorstep with a note pinned to him, like he was from Father Christmas."

Emily got a pencil and laboriously wrote "Fer you, frum Father Christmaz" on a piece of paper, which she deftly pinned to Algernon. Unfortunately, she pinned it to his little chest rather than his diaper, and he began to bawl even more fiercely
than before.

"Crikey," said Emily as she handed her squalling bundle to Simon. "Can't you shut him up? They won't want him if he's all loud and nasty. We got any of that laudanum stuff?"

"No," said Simon, "but maybe I can stun him a bit." Saying
that, he took Algernon by the heels and swung his little noggin sharply against the stones of the hearth. Unfortunately, he swung a bit too hard.

"Now you've done it, clumsy," said Emily. "His head's all bashed in. What will they want with a dead baby?"

Simon, who was good at thinking quickly, looked about the cottage. "Well, let's see. Mum will be out for a while, and the stove is still hot. We have turnips and such for dressing, and a little of that cranberry sauce you nicked from the
Sexton's house. I bet we could dress him out like a goose and cook him, and the Sheepshanks would never know the difference. They're a bit thick, I think."

And that, dear reader, is exactly what they did. Mr. and Mrs. Sheepshanks opined that it was the best goose they'd ever eaten, although Mrs. Sheepshanks wondered what the children had done to it to make it taste so much like suckling pig.

Little Simon and Emily just smiled bashfully, and Mr. Sheepshanks was so moved, he immediately declared that such clever children should live with him and his wife forthwith, and not with their drunken slut of a mother. And that is what happened, and they lived very happily ever after, or at least until the next winter, when they all died of the Small Pox.


Blogger dubjay said...

Another in your fine series of wonderful, heart-warming tales.

I don't know why there hasn't been a collection of them by now.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

Thanks, Walter. There really should be, methinks. Mind you, I don't have enough stories in THIS particular vein to warrant a collection, just the two Simon and Emily ones (and more serious Christmas themed works of pathos and grue like "Some Old Lover's Ghost" and "The Miracle of the Strigoi").

1:27 AM  

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