Very late on Christmas night, I realised that the sliced roast chicken I use to bribe my cats to take their tablets had just passed its sell-by date, so I decided to go put it out near the back garden for any passing foxes to enjoy. I was surprised, when I opened my front door, to find that someone had partly pushed through my letterbox a small gift-wrapped presentbigger than a jewellery box but smaller than the average book.
This was particularly curious as I really don't know anyone in the town where I live, which is effectively a suburb of London. As a commuter who used to live in central London, I've made my friends in town and meet up with them there, and they tend to live in other home counties, far away from my home. My life since I moved there (dragged by my ex when we were still married) has been pretty much a matter of walking from the train station to home, and from home to the train station, with occasional excursions from home to the shops. Other than that, I'm happily holed up inside, for far too short a time before returning to the train station to head to town
I know my neighbour downstairs, but we don't exchange gifts and in any case, she and her child had left for relatives earlier that morning if not the previous night. I know my elderly neighbour next door, whose door faces mine but she's on the ground floor whereas I'm on the first, as she kindly often takes in my packages, of which there are far too many as I unfortunately get a bit click-happy when online in the middle of the night, so much so that Amazon would probably declare bankruptcy if I mended my errant ways. But that dear neighbour had left earlier when her son came to get her, and she had already thoughtfully given me a box of chocolates to thank me for returning her rubbish and recycling bins to their usual place after their contents have been collected each week, which I do as I return my own as I figure it takes me less time than it would her.
I know by sight the newish young neighbour who lives above her, although I mostly think of him as the guy who decimated my Weeping Birch (no wonder it's weeping) so that he could get better satellite reception, and I'm certain he wouldn't give me any gift (other than the flowers he handed me as an apology for the tree destruction, which annoyed me more than anything, but that's another story involving, amongst other things, my hatred of men who think 'give her some flowers' will fix anything upsetting a mere woman). He's good for a laugh only in that I scared the life out of him the other night, which had me laughing for hours, and in fact the memory of it has started me off again now, which is embarrassing as I'm typing this in Starbucks and people nearby seem to think I'm a bit mad, sitting here guffawing on my own (how rude!)
In order to get it out of my system, I shall now briefly wander off on that tangent before returning to the mystery of the anonymous gift. About a week before, I was doing exactly the same thing, ie going outside to put out the unused old chicken for the foxes at an unreasonably late hour. It was probably about 1am, but I had only just remembered before going to bed and didn't want the chicken to get any older, lest I make any foxes or neighbourhood cats ill or lest they refuse it so I'd have to go back and pick it all up, which would be gross once it was all mangy and covered in outdoor gunk. So, at 1 am, I decided to go outside and since I live in a first floor maisonette, I have to go out the front door and downstairs and to the side of the house, between mine and the aforementioned neighbours' identical dwelling, to the back where I have a path to my back garden. No simple matter of popping out the French windows. Nor could I throw it out the back window as the chicken slices would undoubtedly land on my downstairs neighbour's conservatory roof or her child, which would probably annoy her.
So I put on my coat just in case the personal alarm that was in the pocket came in handy, given the late hour, and that coat was long, black and cloak-like. The light beside the front door did not go on when I began descending the stairs as the sensor was aimed further down the path towards the front gate, but I knew the way and could manoeuvre it in the darkness, with a faint sliver of dim light from a far off street light behind the house.
The rest of the Close was pretty much dead, everyone long since tucked up in bed. It was astonishingly windy, I dumped the chicken and swirled round to return to the house. As I did so, the fierce wind blew my black cloak-like coat high up behind me parallel to the ground, and I rushed quickly towards the front to reach the stairs so I could return to the warmth inside.
Just then, the aforementioned young newish male neighbour came into view, having entered the Close after a late night and walked along the dark pavement undisturbed by anything save the wind, and no doubt fully expecting to pass his front garden as he was now doing and then turn onto the pavement that led to our doors and climb his stairs in a peaceful and uneventful manner, no doubt believing he was the only person for a mile who was still awake and outside at 1 am.
Instead, he was surprisedclearly VERY surprisednot just to see some movement coming from our generally deserted back gardens and bins area, but something moving extremely quickly towards him that, with a black cloak flying behind her in the severe wind, no doubt resembled a vampire rushing towards him. Now, I am glad to say I have never personally caught a deer in the headlights, but this absolutely must be the effect they describe in that saying.
He went from bumbling along casually without a care, mostly staring at his feet, to bolting upright in a nearly violent fashion. His body went stiff and unbelievably rigid with a quick jump, and in doing so he appeared to grow two feet taller. His spine abruptly flattened and the whites of his eyes seemed to completely fill his face. Then, in this new, odd position, he absolutely froze. Seriously, just froze in that stiffened state, looking like a terrified plank of wood wearing Ichabod Crane's head. I gave him a disinterested glance, rushed up my stairs, turned on my porch to open my front door and headed inside, noting then that he still remained in that frozen position out front on the pavement. I half wish that I'd let out one of my comically evil cackles as I moved along, just for my own amusement. I then shut and locked my door and found myself doubled over in laughter, and I continued to laugh solidly for a good two hours. I suppose it makes a rubbish tale, but it was a hilarious sight to behold.
But back to this anonymous Christmas present. Stuck to the front was a white label that said, "From one pet owner to another. Enjoy." None of the owners other than those I mentioned knew I had cats, and the female neighbours I'm on good terms with would not have sent it anonymously. Some neighbours who are home during the day might have seen me take the carriers into the rental car when I went to collect the cats from the rescue centre or taking the carriers to the taxi during our recent trips to the vet. Or someone who walked as far as my house might notice that one of them sits in the window most mornings. Other than that, no one else would know.
And it said pet owner, rather than cat owner. Wouldn't you say "cat" if both owned cats? There are two known dog owners who constantly scowl and certainly wouldn't give me a gift. There was an older woman who used to walk her sweet looking dog but I fear he's long gone as I've not seen them for a year or so, but I doubt she knew which house was mine. My next-door neighbours on the other side do own pets, including a cat and parrot, but they are loathsome people who illegally converted their loft so that it sounds like I have an elephants aerobics class going on directly over my head 24 hours a day even though I'm on the top floor, and that caused cracks all over my ceiling, and after the 10 months of unbearable DIY noise such as electric drills even late at night and on holidays, they then installed a home cinema in it, or so I'm guessing, given that it sounds like I'm living in the lobby of a loud Cineworld, but without the comfort of popcorn. Then they had the gall to complain that my boiler was noisy, now that they illegally chose to lay their heads beside it in what should be a storage area. Not that I'm bitter. But you'll surely agree it's unlikely they'd give me a present unless it was ticking. Plus I think they would know that they could open the porch door and leave the gift on my porch rather than just pushing it through the letterbox, so that might rule them out completely.
A very sweet elderly couple have seen me take a cat to the vet when I took the taxi that they couldn't use once, but sadly the man had been taken to hospital that evening (he seems to be back and well, bless him), and I don't think they have pets, so it couldn't have been them.
So I'm really at a loss. I opened it expecting it to be cat food that someone didn't want, which I would not have fed my cats as I couldn't trust its origin. But it was a small book about cats. I actually haven't looked through it as I just opened enough to see the spine of the book.
Having on some occasions been the target of deeply unwanted attention, I was hugely creeped out by this. I don't like anonymous gifts at any time, not even flowers on Valentine's Day. I then took some reassurance from the fact that the gift appeared to have been re-wrapped, as though someone had received a gift they hated and decided to pass it on right away to someone they thought might like it.
That is more soothing and somehow more acceptable. After all, there is a long tradition of 'spitbacks', or recycling unwanted gifts, in my family, principally heralded by my grandmother. No matter what you give her, how hard you work to find something she might enjoy, you will rarely see it enjoying life in her house. No, in fact, as was the case with the Charlotte Church tape I gave her back when she was a little known recently- discovered sweet young classical singer, you might even get said gift back as a present from her a few years later, when her record-keeping fails her. And really, there's something admirable about recycling in this way, rather than keeping the clutter out of guilt as I do, or selling it on E-bay as many people do, ie profiting from your acquaintances' kind thoughts.
So some unknown person in the Close who somehow knows I have cats decided to pass on this gift. Sweet? I don't know. There is possibly one other candidate, a man perhaps in his 60s who I greet when passing, and we both feed the birds out front sometimes, but I didn't think he had any pets. He was home on Christmas and would have seen my lights that night. I hope he didn't think I was home alone and pathetic and lonely, so he thought he'd sacrifice a gift in case I didn't have one. Kind thought, but unnecessary as that wasn't the case.
So, what is the answer to the mystery? I don't know, and the mostly-wrapped gift remains on the bookshelf near my front door, as though I feel unwilling to completely accept it without knowing where its provenance. If it's the thought that counts, what exactly were the thoughts behind it?
Perhaps there really is a Santa Claus?! It always did seem unlikely that the fat man would slip down chimneys, particularly with so many blocked up these days, and no doubt like the Council requiring us to put all our bins out front for collection in order to save the workers time, he has decided to increase his productivity by simply pushing prezzies through letterboxes instead. It makes perfect sense to me.