Christmas At Holly Tree House
"Come on Mum!" Tommy called. "There's still the racing tubes to set out and the ferret roulette to do."
Ellie brushed the little silver jill's soft fur against her cheek and placed her gently back with her four friends. These were the ill-treated ferrets rescued from the sack back in July - and one was now hers. Alison had decided to keep them all permanently at the rescue and, after spaying and neutering, good food and loving care, they were as fine and bouncy a bunch of rascals that anyone could wish to meet.
The silver jill had won a special place in Ellie's heart ever since she had cradled her in the lay-by late that summer evening. Her name, chosen by Charles, was Iona.
"There you go," he had teased Ellie a week after the sack of ferrets had arrived at Holly Tree House. "Now you can say: "Iona ferret!" Shortly afterwards, Charles had left for Saudi Arabia and if Ellie's summer had clouded over, she kept it to herself.
Ellie left the ferret barn and crossed the frosty grass to a large stone outbuilding. Michael and Alison had decided to hold a Christmas Social for families who had given their rescue ferrets a home and preparations were well under way for an 11am start. The hospitable couple had also invited friends and neighbours to partake of the mulled wine, barbecue and hot mince pies. There were ferret games and racing and a fun show with prizes for the prettiest jill, handsome hob and best trick.
Tommy was in his element, setting out the racing tubes and helping to put up long trestle tables for the food and drink. He was with Alex Bancroft, the teenager from nearby Greenham Manor Farm who had won the ferret racing cup with Bracken at the country fair 18 months ago. At first, Tommy had been inclined to be suspicious of Alex, telling Mum he was 'too posh'. But the boys had met several times over the months and the older Alex had won Tommy over with his friendliness and obvious interest in his ferrets.
Tommy looked round at the hot flaring braziers, wreaths of winter greenery and sparkling rows of wine glasses. All was festive and welcoming and, best of all, it wouldn't end with today. He and Mum had been invited to spend Christmas at Holly Tree House.
"Let's fetch our ferrets and practice the racing," Alex called. Tommy trotted happily after him, and Bracken and Lemur were soon shooting down the blue tubes vying for first place.
"Hey," joked Alison, who was putting the finishing touches to a magnificent table display of frosted fir cones, berries and red ribbon. "That's cheating."
Mum was soon ferrying foil-covered trays of sausages, bacon and chicken legs from the kitchen to the smoking barbecue. Michael turned on a tape of traditional carols and donned a red and white striped apron. It wasn't long before the building was full of the smell and sizzle of cooking.
The first guests began to arrive and they included the family who had adopted albino and polecat 'Hooligans' Ambrose and Arthur when Tommy was in charge of the rescue centre during the summer. Each 'Hooligan' was resplendent in his fluffy winter coat and each wore a coloured nylon harness. They had travelled to Holly Tree House in a big cage strung with fleecy hammocks and it was obvious that these two lovable boys had really fallen on their feet.
Soon the building was full of the sound and bustle of a Christmas party in full swing. Tommy, Alex and other rescue centre volunteers were in charge of the ferret activities while Alison and Ellie poured drinks and dished out an array of salads and other cold dishes to accompany Michael's barbecue.
At first some of the non-ferrety guests were a bit bemused by the enthusiastic antics of the 'bonkers ferret folk' but soon they were cheering on the racing and clustering round the roulette stand.
Tommy and Alex had done a deal with Alison that if they judged the fun show classes and manned the roulette for an hour they could take part in the racing.
"It's a grudge match," Alex had told Tommy. "We beat you last time, now you want revenge." Tommy felt so happy that he didn't really care - but he didn't like to say so.
He had put his three ferrets in their large show cage in a corner of the barn and Ferret had been doing his bit, padding out of the numbered holes in the roulette game. Linnet had been much admired when she did the rounds in her role of rescue PR ferret and now it was Lemur's racing heat. Alex had already won his easily with Bracken, beating two fat hobs and an albino jill that backed down her tube at great speed to emerge at the start. Lemur's opposition was more formidable and she almost lost her place in the final to a speedy polecat hob.
The racing attracted great interest from the guests. Bets were being taken and children were leaping up and down with excitement.
"Mouse, mouse, mouse!" shrieked an over-stimulated little girl, balloon in one hand, chocolate bar in the other.
"Mouse, mouse! Big mouse!"
After much shouting and encouragement, the final line-up was Bracken, Lemur, a silver hob and an albino jill. They were off! Bracken was quick but Lemur was like lightning. She hesitated only briefly before her dark tail whisked clear of the tube a couple of seconds before Bracken. The albino jill was third and the silver hob pottered home a gallant fourth. There were rosettes for all the finalists, bags of ferret food and boxes of chocolates.
Tommy's pride in his scarlet rosette was tempered by worry that Alex would mind. Bracken, the area's unbeaten racing champion, had been pipped at the post. Surely his new friend's good nature would be sorely tested by this defeat. But he needn't have worried. Alex was a good loser.
"At least I've got some decent opposition now," he said. "There'll be plenty of rematches next summer and we'll show you who's faster!"
Tommy's happiness in his victory was now complete and he rushed to find Mum to show her his prizes. She was chatting to a group of Michael and Alison's neighbours. Although she seemed cheerful enough, Tommy had noticed a change in her since the autumn. Charles had promised to write and Tommy was thrilled when the first airmail letter arrived. Charles had written optimistically about returning to Britain in October but his business interests kept him abroad and the weeks had passed. Tommy knew Mum replied to the letters, she always asked him what news he had for Charles, or Charlie as she now called him. Tommy dictated little stories about the ferrets and told Charlie about his improving school results. He even drew a picture of Ferret and Linnet fighting over a chicken wing, with bristling fur and cartoon-style bared teeth.
Tommy asked Alison about Charlie one damp day when they were in the ferret barn settling in a new arrival. It seemed that he had been engaged but his fiancee had died in a car crash somewhere in the South of England. Charlie had gone abroad soon afterwards, first to Germany and then to Saudi Arabia. Alison had then turned the conversation to the new rescue hob and Tommy had not liked to ask anything more.
Mum was delighted by the racing victory and showed the red rosette to several admiring guests. She then resumed her duties as hostess and Tommy and Alex were tied up for the rest of the party with the ferret show and roulette. It was all a great success and dusk was falling when the last visitors left.
The next day was spent quietly. There was tidying up to be done after the social and the usual busy routine with the animals. After that it was Christmas Eve and the Merediths were holding their traditional evening drinks party.
It seemed to Tommy as he stood in the bright hall at Holly Tree House, with its splendid Christmas tree and garlands of greenery, that he had been coming here forever. He kicked off his wellies after a late check on the ferrets and crossed the hall to the large living room. A log fire blazed in the hearth and the room was filled with talk and laughter. Mum was standing alone in her red party dress. She had her usual gin and tonic but she suddenly seemed rather lost. Tommy was about to move through the throng to her but a hand was suddenly laid on his shoulder.
"Do you think there's room for another guest, Tommy?" Tommy looked up into a sunburnt smiling face. All eyes turned towards Charlie and a chorus of surprised greeting went up. He had made a last minute decision to cancel an urgent project and come home for Christmas. He hadn't even called Michael and Alison to tell them he was on his way. His arrival was totally unexpected.
After a delighted Michael had handed him a drink, Charlie made his way purposefully through the guests to where Ellie was standing with flushed face and sparkling eyes.
Well, Ellie," he said. "I'm home."
(First published in Ferrets First December/January 2003/4)