'Twas the night before Hogswatch...
‘Twas the night before Hogswatch, when all thro’ the house, not a creature was stirring, which was why Alton Barnes was quietly creeping past his parent’s bedroom door towards the big window in the drawing room.
A dusting of frost made the ground glitter outside, the moon cast bright shadows on every surface and the clear midwinter air was still and almost shimmering.
Alton’s eyes twisted round in their sockets like his head was being shaken, they finally alighted on the big primal looking tree in the corner of the room. The only illumination in the room was from the fireplace, where a massive log was half way through its journey to cinders. His gaze travelled downwards but he was somewhat disappointed to find that there was just empty space and a surprised mouse chewing some pine needles at the bottom of the tree.
He looked at the intimidating grandfather clock standing near the doorway and tried to remember how to tell the time. Was the big hand the hours or the minutes? In any case it was as close to midnight as made no difference. Alton pulled on his big brother James’s boots and coat, then shoved his hands into some slightly too large, grey mittens and pulled a furry Ramtop woollen hat onto his head and tried to open the front door without it creaking on its antique hinges.
Outside it was colder than it looked. The water trough for the horses was solid as rock and the ducks on the pond had all fallen asleep in situ because their feet were frozen into the ice. Alton headed purposefully towards the small ark that housed a gaseous but friendly hog Alton had named Colin. ‘Shove over, Colin.’ Alton said as he settled himself down next to the fragrant beast inside the pigsty. The view was exactly as he had hoped, he could see the entire front of the farmhouse including, and this was the important bit, the chimney. Of course, as a boy of seven, he didn’t believe the stories his family told him about where the gifts came from or who delivered them, so he had decided to make some independent observations of his own to corroborate or contradict the tales.
Colin, normally a heavy sleeper, suddenly opened his eyes and made a noise like the Überwald express hitting a livestock cart. His little piggy eyes seemed to focus on a spot some distance away directly through the roof of his shed, the pig’s breath came in little puffs of cloudy hot air and he rolled from his side to be the right way up, as if he was expecting something exciting to happen.
Alton could see the big clock’s face in the drawing room. Both hands were pointing straight upwards! He tried to move his mittened extremities to lever himself off the ground but the air had become as viscous as the pond water around the duck’s nether regions. Colin was panting now, his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
From the yard there was a scraping noise as if sixteen hooves were landing heavily and metal skids were being dragged across cobblestones. It turned out that this was exactly the case as a primordial sleigh, which looked like it had been grown rather than constructed, scraped to a halt. Alton, still frozen to the spot, was watching in awed silence as the incumbent reached into the back of the sleigh then snapped his meaty fingers, appearing on the roof next to the chimney.
It was difficult to tell what happened next as the Spirit of Hogswatch extended one leg into the chimney pot – partly because some kind of magic seemed to happen as the anthropomorphic personification headed down the flue, partly because a pair of shining red eyes blocked the view. Colin lowered his head and lifted up his back legs which, to all intents and purposes looked like the porcine equivalent of a bow. The massive tusked creature standing in front of Alton nodded at Colin in a surprising show of species recognition, then seemed to notice that Colin was not the only occupant of the aromatic shelter.
A snout the size of a dinner plate was pointed towards Alton, who was still stationary, and sniffed the air, almost inhaling Alton’s woolly hat in the process. The snout moved back and the primal pig looked directly at Alton. It felt like his soul was being sucked out and processed via those piercing eyes. Alton got the feeling that the pig was trying to determine if he had been naughty or nice. Alton wasn’t sure himself, but the pig seemed to make up its own mind and snorted before turning to go.
‘Gouger, wait,’ Alton managed to take control of his faculties again before the pig’s head left the sty. The ancient animal turned a questioning eye back to the boy. ‘This is for you,’ he said, fighting to get one of his mittens off and rummaging in a coat pocket to retrieve the biggest, juiciest apple he had been able to find on one of the Zoon trading barges that still sailed past the Shires, even in the depths of winter. He held it out in his still bemittened hand and looked hopefully at the 600 lb pig.
The beast seemed to hesitate for just a moment before swallowing the apple, without bothering to go through the tiresome business of chewing it first. Again Gouger looked at Alton, but this time Alton could have sworn that one of the twinkling red eyes closed in the porky approximation of a wink before Gouger turned around to join the rest of the pigs, in front of the Hogfather’s sleigh.
Alton looked up again as the Hogfather emerged from the chimney, snapping his fingers to appear next to the pigs, who he patted on his way past. Climbing into the driver’s seat, he lifted the reigns and said ’HO!’ as the whole assembly rose up and disappeared into the moonlight followed by a trail of ice crystals, leaving the smell of blood and forests hanging in the air.
Alton looked at Colin, who had his snout in the other pocket of James’s coat, so Alton withdrew the other apple he had bought and placed it carefully on the floor in front of Colin’s happy little face. ‘Happy Hogswatch, Colin,’ he said as he ducked out of the ark and ran back to the house.
After shutting the door and replacing James’s coat, boots and his mittens, he tiptoed down the corridor and saw, without much surprise, that there were now presents stacked up under the tree and the named meat pie and brandy left on top of the fireplace had gone the way of all food and alcohol over the festive period. Alton didn’t even slow down to shake any of the gifts but proceeded straight to his bedroom where he climbed under the covers and put his feet against the still toasty bed warmer.
He was just about to close his eyes when he noticed a piece of paper he swore hadn’t been on his bedside table when he had crept out of his room earlier. He reached over to retrieve it and looked at it in the moonlight streaming through his window, tinged blue from the snowflakes which were now filling the air. There were three words written on the rough yellowing parchment.
HO HO HO!
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