BONUS CHAPTER – ZOE’S FIRST CHRISTMAS

“Hello Zoe,” Ben said, as he pushed his way through the front door, arms laden with packages. His yellow Labrador puppy jumped frantically around him, her tail wagging furiously.

“Hello, hello,” she thought. “Ben’s here. Lovely! Let’s play!”

“Is that you, Ben?” Ben’s mother called from the kitchen.

“Yes, Mum,” Ben said, unburdening himself of bundles and his outer clothing.

“Dinner might be a bit late, this evening. Your dad’s delayed at work,” she said, popping her head out of the kitchen into the hall.

“That’s okay,” Ben said. “I’ve still got Christmas presents to wrap.”

“Christmas Eve’s leaving it a bit late, don’t you think?” his mother said, with a wry smile.

“Absolutely not!” Ben grinned, hand on the bannister, poised to go upstairs. “It’s the epitome of efficiency!” His mother rolled her eyes and returned to the kitchen. Ben and Zoe went up to his room. There he unpacked his recent purchases, spreading them out on the bed. Zoe was very interested in all the new things Ben had brought her. It would be lots of fun finding out how each one smelt, whether anything was edible, and what might be a good plaything. She tried to jump up on the bed to investigate, but at barely three months’ old, she couldn’t quite reach. It was most disappointing. But her attention immediately turned to what Ben was doing – he was unwrapping a roll of paper. Maybe that would prove more accessible.

“Hello, can I play with that?” Zoe thought. Her tail wagged enthusiastically as Ben spread the paper out and started cutting it with scissors. Zoe loved the crinkly sound it made. She jumped up to join in the fun.

“Hey, stop that!” Ben said. “I need to get this wrapping done tonight. You’re not helping, Zoe.” He looked around for a moment and said, “Here, play with this bag.”

“What fun!” Zoe thought and began chasing the paper bag around the room, biting it and making it crackle and pop. In no time, she discovered she could tear off bits. Even better! A frenzy of ripping and tearing ensued, leaving a trail of shredded paper in her wake. When there wasn’t a scrap left big enough to play with, Zoe took a breath, very pleased with herself. Ben was still busy wrapping, so Zoe retired to a corner of the room and promptly fell asleep.

When she woke, Ben was gathering up parcels that were now all wrapped in brightly coloured paper. She trailed Ben downstairs to the living room. Garlands and tinsel adorned the walls. There was a large, brightly decorated Christmas tree in the corner. Zoe liked the tree very much. She had already plucked several round shiny things from it to play with. Lovely!

Ben arranged the packages under the tree.

“There! All done!” he said with a sigh of satisfaction. “Now don’t you go “investigating” any of those presents, Zoe.”

Zoe tipped her head to one side. She knew Ben was talking to her. He sounded jolly enough; he must be pleased with her. That always made her happy. Maybe he would play a game of fetch or tug with her now. Ben obliged by rolling a soft ball around the living room for her to retrieve.

They were still playing when Ben’s father arrived. He said he had some news. They all sat down in the living room and Ben’s parents told him their news. His father had been promoted and it meant they would be moving to another town.

Ben’s heart sank. He didn’t want to move. He had a good group of friends and was doing well at school. He was planning to go on to university after his exams. He had thought his future was clearly mapped out, but now he felt like the rug had been pulled out from under him. Life as he knew it was shattered.

His mother must have seen the disappointment on his face because she said, “There’s a lovely big garden for Zoe. The local school has a very good reputation, as well. I hear they get very good results.”

Maybe it was all better than where they lived now, and Ben certainly wouldn’t deny his father any fruits of his labour. He deserved to get a promotion. But as he got ready for bed, Ben wasn’t consoled much by these thoughts.

 

Christmas Day dawned bright and crisp and clear. It had snowed overnight, which was a nice bonus. There was certainly no guarantee of a white Christmas in Whittleby, where Ben and his parents lived.

“Merry Christmas, Mum!” Ben said, as he came into the kitchen for breakfast.

“And merry Christmas to you, young man!” his mother said, as she gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Zoe looked up from her feeding bowl just long enough to wag her tail with pleasure at seeing Ben.

Christmas morning in the Holden household was a rather leisurely affair compared to homes where excited, starry-eyed children rampaged through piles of gifts from Santa in record time. The quiet wouldn’t last, though. Ben’s aunt and uncle and their two young children had been invited to join them later that morning.

Ben and Zoe enjoyed the calm before the storm by going out into the garden to explore the snow. Ben saw his breath come out in white puffs as he stamped his feet to keep warm. Zoe was really surprised to feel the cold, crunchy sensation under her paws. She sniffed the white blanket, but finding it had no smell to speak of, she licked up a bit. Brrr! How cold it was! Zoe wasn’t sure she liked the taste. But she did like running to try to catch the snowballs Ben threw her way. They weren’t like the things Ben usually threw for her. Those bounced. These white things melted in her mouth when she tried to pick them up, or disappeared, smashing into a million pieces when they hit the ground. Very strange!

When she and Ben went back into the house, Zoe caught the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. Just then the doorbell rang and Aunt Beryl, Uncle John, and their kids arrived. The children made a beeline for Zoe. Sophie and George squealed with delight as they chased her around the living room.

“Hello, so you want to play? Lovely!” Zoe liked these Little-Ones-like Ben, but they did make some rather alarming noises. George, the younger of the two, stroked her over and over again. It was more like slapping, really, Ben observed.

“Here, puppy!” George said, slapping her one more time.

Sophie preferred to treat Zoe like some sort of doll. She gathered Zoe up and tried to hold her in her lap so she could play mummy and baby. Zoe squirmed and wriggled out of Sophie’s grasp. She didn’t like being man-handled by this Little-One. Perhaps she would like to play tug, though, thought Zoe. She fetched the rubber ring from her toy box and presented it to the little girl. Sophie didn’t know what to do with it. In the end, she put it on her head, which confused Zoe no end. She jumped up to pull it down to show Sophie the proper way to play with it.

Unfortunately, Zoe bumped the little girl rather hard as she did so, and Sophie started to cry.

The adults looked on over their coffee, and clucked disapprovingly. Beryl fussed over Sophie. But Ben knew it was an accident. Zoe would never intentionally harm a child.

Christmas dinner was a lavish affair. Ben’s mother loved entertaining and was a good hostess. The table was spread with all sorts of culinary delights along with the traditional fare of turkey and all the trimmings. Zoe was beside herself with excitement as she saw the delectable dishes being marched one by one out of the kitchen. But Ben’s mother hadn’t forgotten her. Once everyone was ready to tuck in, she put a bowl of Christmas dinner titbits down for Zoe as well.

“What are you doing, woman?” protested Zoe’s father. “It’s a dog, not a person! You spoil Zoe too much!” But a smile played at the corners of his mouth.

“She’s one of the family!” Ben’s mother said as she took her seat at the festive table. “And besides, it’s Christmas.”

Over the course of the meal, Ben’s father’s promotion and the family’s move dominated the conversation.

“Congratulations,” Aunt Beryl said. “That’s great news, though we’ll miss you all back here in Whittleby, of course. Do you have a place lined up?”

“Oh yes,” said Ben’s mother, excitedly. “It’s lovely. I’ll show you the pictures after lunch.”

Ben felt a pang of sadness as he listened to his parents chatter on enthusiastically about the prospect of their new life. He didn’t have the heart to say how he felt. They were obviously so happy. “Anyway, it might be okay,” he told himself.

The ritual of present opening happened after the meal. Sophie and George dived into their gifts, tearing off the wrappings with glee. Zoe jumped into the pile they created. She thought it was a great game to chase the paper and ribbons around the room. Everybody laughed at her antics.

“We brought a little something from Santa for little Zoe, too,” Aunt Beryl beamed. She produced a package from her handbag. It was rectangular, loosely wrapped in Christmas paper and tied up in a shiny red ribbon. “Here, Zoe, what do you think of this?”

At the sound of her name, Zoe looked up from her play. She saw the package being held out to her. “What’s this?” she thought. “Another plaything?” She trotted over to Aunt Beryl and gently took the wrapped package in her mouth. With a little help from Ben, she got the ribbon off. The paper was much more fun – that she could rip open. Inside was a soft, rubber sausage dog toy. Zoe liked it very much. She promptly started to chew one of its ears.

“We spent quite a while in the pet shop trying to imagine what Zoe would like,” Aunt Beryl said. “There’s such a range of toys for dogs these days! Anyway, we finally settled on this sausage dog – we thought it looked so cute.”

“Yes, it’s lovely,” Ben’s father said. “You can see she likes it. Thank you so much.”

But Ben was a bit concerned. He could see the toy was very cute, but it wasn’t very sturdy. The thin rubber casing was filled with some sort of soft stuffing. He knew it wasn’t going to take long before Zoe bit through one of the protrusions. His aunt and uncle might not be too pleased to see their carefully chosen gift demolished right before their eyes, only minutes after it had been given. But it was too late. It looked like Zoe was just about to amputate one of the legs.

Ben jumped up. “Er, would anyone like a cup of tea?”

“That would be very nice, Ben,” his mother said. “Everything’s ready out there. Tea everyone?”

Ben called Zoe as he went into the kitchen. “Crisis averted,” he thought, as he put the kettle on. Everything was laid out on the tea tray, as his mother had said, so it was ready in no time. Ben was pouring tea for people in the living room a few minutes later, when the doorbell rang. It was Ben’s friend, Jack, on the doorstep.

“Hello, how’re you doing?” Ben said.

“Merry Christmas,” grinned Jack, holding out some gifts.

After a brief “Hello” to Ben’s family, Jack and Ben went upstairs with Zoe.

“So, get anything good for Christmas?” Jack asked.

“Well, Mum and Dad give me mainly money, with a few other bits and bobs,” Ben said. “I got NinjaMaster.”

“I’ve seen that. It’s excellent. I was going to get it next week,” Jack said.

“Yeah, it’s great. Wanna have a go?” Ben asked.

“Sure,” said Jack.

Between levels in the game, Ben told his friend the news about his move. Jack was dismayed.  “Oh no, that’s so not good,” he said. “What am I going to do without you, mate?”

“Yes, I’m not looking forward to it,” Ben said with a sigh. “It’s not straight away, obviously. So, I’ll be here a few more months.”

“Okay, well we’d better make the most of your last days as a condemned man,” Jack said. “Speaking of which, are you going to Paul’s New Year’s Eve party? It was a laugh last year.”

Ben grinned. “Yeah, I remember. Dave, John and Kieran turned up dressed as the three wise men on skateboards, and Sally and Angela did that weird dance on the table. And did you ever work out what Paul’s chilli had in it?”

“Probably best not to ask,” Jack laughed.

The two boys talked and joked and about the time they reached Level III, Ben’s mother brought them up a snack.

“I’d better be going,” Jack said after polishing off his third piece of Ben’s mother’s homemade fruitcake. “We’re driving to my grandparents’ place early tomorrow.”

Zoe accompanied them downstairs.

“Okay, well it was good to see you, mate. Thanks for coming around,” Ben said at the door.

“Yeah, good to see you, too. Have a good holiday until I get back and see you New Year’s Eve.” Jack pulled the hood up on his jacket and headed out into the cold, dark street. White flakes had started to fall softly again.

“’Bye,” Ben said, as he watched Jack go. Zoe was beside him, waving her tail. “Happy New Year,” he said quietly, almost to himself. He looked down at his puppy. “Is that what it’s going to be, Zoe?”

Zoe looked up at Ben, still waving her tail. Ben was so glad he had her. Whatever the future held, they would face it together.