Billy was walking home on his own. As usual. The church party was awful. As usual. Lots of trumped up noise and artificial gaiety.
The priest had made the boys sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. Then he put a bar of chocolate in the middle of the circle. He walked around the group and whispered the name of an animal secretly, he loved secrets, to each one. Then he explained the game to them.
“I cannot remember what animal name I bequeathed to each boy,” he said, staring at them, his eyes golden, like a fierce eagle’s, beneath bushy black eye-brows. “I will say the name of an animal until one of you, whoever it happens to be, hears his own secret animal name. When you hear that secret name, you must grab the chocolate bar before anyone else can get it. Understood?”
The boys all nodded and the mums and dads who had brought them to the party smiled in anticipation.
“Are you ready?” He watched the boys as they nodded and shouted “Alligator!”
“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.
“Tiger!” A sigh from the boys, some of whom were already licking their lips.
“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. I didn’t give the name lion to anyone.”
“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.
“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”
“Yes father …”
“Monkey!” All the boys moved as one. Some crawled, some dived, some leaped to their feet and ran. A surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long awaited fights ensued.
All the boys moved, except one. Billy just sat there.
“I said ‘Monkey’, Billy,” the priest frowned at the boy.
“When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”
Billy nodded again.
“Go now and have some fun. Join in the game.”
Billy shook his head.
“Why not, Billy?”
“It’s a stupid game. I won’t play it. I want to go home.” Billy stood up and walked out of the church. He turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at him while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.
As Billy walked, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets. Billy turned up the collar of his coat and, bowing his head, stuffed his hands into his pockets. He turned the corner onto the last street before his own and stopped.
A house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. He drew closer, pressed his nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, Billy’s heart warmed up. Then he thought of his own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. A snowflake settled on Billy’s heart and refused to melt.
When he got home, the house stood cold and empty. His parents were at work and the fire had gone out. Nothing was ready for Christmas. Billy sat at the table, took out his colouring book and began to draw the cartoon you see at the top of this page.
When his mother came home, he showed her his drawing.
“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.
“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”
Billy’s mother stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside in the snow, peering in through the window.