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2003-12-23 Shadow's First Christmas

The Ox Mountains stood proud, still swathed in its rich autumnal mantle. North of the city of Sligo, a halo of Winter icing gilded the summit of Truskmore. It was almost midnight on a particularly crisp December 23rd, and there was still the slimmest chance that Sligo would see its first "White Christmas" in many years.

 

Meanwhile, out near Cashelgarren, beneath the looming spectre of Benbulben, a little 6 week old black labrador puppy shivered and snivelled in the frosty shadows. Just moments before, Lucky had been pushed from a car and discarded by the entrance to a farm, and only a week before that, he had been the surprise birthday present for an 8 year-old Ballincar girl called Kylie. After a few days as a doggy celebrity, through no fault of his own, Lucky had gone from being a pet to a pest.

 

Besides, the family were run off their feet in Yuletide preparation, and Lucky was quite simply in the way. But Lucky had been looking forward to Christmas too, his first Christmas, and now it was minutes away from Christmas Eve and he was alone, tired, hungry and homeless. He watched, bewildered, as the big bright lights of the car headed back towards Drumcliffe. He followed for a few minutes, but had hurt his back leg as he had tumbled from the car. Every step induced a squeal. Lucky sat for a while on the busy Bundoran road, wondering to himself just what he had done wrong.

 

He limped his way back towards Sligo, failing to notice the "Dog Shelter" sign outside Drumcliffe. He wended his weary way past Rathcormack up Tully Hill and on to Lisnalurg. At last in the distance, just beyond the lights of Ballytivnan and Cartron, he saw the city. By now, it was early morning, still dark, but the road had become quite busy again. Lucky was tired and aching, as he turned into Duck Street and up across the hill. Chased by a few unfriendly dogs in Holborn Street, he persevered, tail between his legs, and made it eventually into town. Lucky was at the top of Castle Street on a busy Christmas Eve.

 

The pavements were packed with last-minute shoppers, and so poor wee Lucky spent most of his time dodging hooting cars on the bustling street. Sligo's Christmas decorations had never been this spectacular, each dazzling tinselled window upstaging the next. The tiny starving puppy passed a butcher's shop where there were still some turkeys hanging for sale, and some mouth-watering fillet steaks and sausages garnishing the window. He peered around the doorway, and before he got a chance to even get a whiff of the butcher's fare, he was kicked back out onto the footpath by a nasty lady in a black mink coat. The poor unwanted pup made his way down O'Connell Street and into the arcade. The aroma of fresh bread wafted from the bakery as the record shop played Christmas music "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light, next year all your troubles will be out of sight".

 

For the rest of the day, Lucky wandered around town, rummaging in refuse sacks, trying to keep indoors as much as possible just to keep warm. He managed to get a short sleep down by the quays under the doorway of a disused warehouse, and when he woke up, the snow was falling faster and heavier. He made his way up Adelaide Street and found himself outside the gates of the Cathedral. By now it was very late indeed, and Midnight Mass had already begun. People were still going in and each time the door opened Lucky managed to catch a glimpse of the beautifully decorated interior. A giant Christmas tree sparkled and spangled in gold. He could hear the sensitive organ and the tuneful choir singing "What I can I give Him, poor as I am, Give my heart".

 

But once everyone was inside, the door remained closed. It seemed as though nobody wanted Lucky. No-one would invite him in. He hung his head, lifted his heavy feet and headed off up Mailcoach Road. "Maybe I should go to Dublin?" he thought. If he left now, he might be there in the morning just in time for Christmas. But how far was Dublin? Was it further than Drumcliffe?

 

The snow tumbled thicker, and was sticking, so the little lame puppy now had several inches of snow below him to contend with as well. Exhausted and weak with hunger, Lucky staggered into a driveway on Pearse Road, and curled up on an icy front doorstep. He was frozen through, his little wet nose and paws now blocks of ice, so sleep was out of the question. Even his tears had turned to icicles.

 

He opened his eyes, looked up, and before him stood a large rotund figure smiling down at him. The corpulent rosy-cheeked chap leaned down and picked the frail pup up in his arms. The old man's heart instantly melted. Lucky was by now beyond fear and was just glad of the warmth and attention. He noticed that the kind plump man had a cart parked outside on Pearse Road, which by now had a rich Christmas icing.

 

The cart was drawn by horses, but no ordinary horses, these ones seemed to have horns. "I've finished work, little man, the old fella chortled, let's take you home, eh?" As the old man offered the small dog some Christmas cake, Lucky snuggled and thawed in a pocket of the big guy's red coat, and off they set.

 

Little Lucky peered out nervously from the spacious but snug pocket, which coincidentally was also where the Christmas cake was kept. Before he got a chance to even say thanks, the baby black labrador was in the air flying high above the city. Houselights were being extinguished one by one in Doorly Park and on the Mall. The hospital remained illuminated. Then suddenly they were plunged into darkness once again. High above Doonally, veering towards Glencar, the old man landed down by the entrance to a farm. It was Christmas morning, just about, and Lucky had seen this movie before, and hadn't liked it very much.

 

The elderly gentleman had spotted a farmer out checking his sheep before bedtime, and knowing he couldn't possibly explain bringing a puppy, however cute, back to the wife, he gave the little dog a warm hug and left Lucky just inside the farm gateway wrapped in a blanket alongside a small food parcel.

Lucky watched, once more bewildered, as the old man took to the air once again and disappeared behind white-washed Benbulben which glinted in the moonlight. Lucky was sad, he had really liked that old man, and thought the old man had felt the same about him too. A bright star high above Lugnagall, lit the entire night-sky, and floodlit the farm driveway.

 

Sure enough, as the farmer returned from the fields, he noticed the spotlighted bundle and lifted the mini labrador out of the snow, carrying him in his snug blanket into the house. The farmer was not entirely sure if Santa had been yet, and so thought it safer to leave the whimpering abandoned soul in an outhouse until the morning. There was an old disused stable next to the cow shed which would do the trick nicely.

 

In the morning, Lucky awoke to see some nosy cattle peering over the barrier from nextdoor, and on the other side three cheerful children knelt by his bed. The caring farmer and his affable wife beamed down at the vulnerable baby labrador. "Why do these people get puppies and kittens without any thought at all to their future?", spouted the farmer's wife, " pup, you're home now".

 

The children carried the pup carefully into the kitchen where their own golden labrador Sally, was a little wary of the tiny visitor at first. Soon Sally's maternal instincts had taken over, and the two were snuggled intertwined in a wicker basket by the old kitchen stove.

 

The children had named their surprise Christmas present 'Shadow', as he had never left their sides for a moment since his arrival. Shadow didn't mind the name-change too much, as his previous name never made much sense up until now.

 

All the ingredients for Shadow's first chocolate-box Christmas were now firmly in place. Later that day, as the family were all playing in the snow down by the main gate to the farm, the eldest child noticed some tin foil almost completely covered by the snow. The farmer opened the parcel carefully. Inside they found a couple of mince pies, some Christmas cake, and a little note which read -

 

"PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS ABANDONED PUPPY, AND HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS". The note was signed "S.C.". Shadow looked up into the bright blue sky, wagged his tail and barked confidently, knowing that he was more than just another Christmas present - he was here for life.