The Red Panda

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Toby, who had a protuberant little belly (over which hung a tag strung from his neck announcing his pedigree), was a Red Panda Teddy Bear made in Germany of mohair, No. 458 of a Limited Edition of 1000 pieces. He "lived" in the Village clock shoppe of Mr. Dilwert Schomberg on top of The Concise Oxford Dictionary (Fifth Edition), which in turn rested upon two thick volumes of telephone books, one of which was the Yellow Pages, the other a listing of Regional Residential numbers. From this vantage atop the old metal filing cabinet, which in turn supported the Regional Listing, Yellow Pages and Dictionary, Toby was afforded a clear view across the room where Mr. Schomberg (squinting through his gold rimmed spectacles) worked assiduously during the day at his well-worn wooden desk, cluttered with a collection of pliers, small screw drivers and other implements of the trade.

Toby’s view further extended over the glass-cased oak counter, and finally to the pine door entrance, appended to the outside of which was a large brass door knocker in the shape of a mighty lion’s head. Fortunately for Toby, in the poorly heated shoppe of Mr. Schomberg, he had the benefit by day of a nearby lamp which poured forth both its light and radiant heat upon Toby, at least that is until Mr. Schomberg at the end of the business day unpocketed his set of keys, turned off the lights, turned down the heat even more, then removed himself from the premises, locking the door with a double click behind him. As a result of Mr. Schomberg’s precautions, the nights were fairly uncomfortable for Toby, and no doubt accounted for the enthusiasm, in his heart only of course, with which he greeted Mr. Schomberg upon his arrival the next morning, when the light and heat were restored.

During the day, as you might imagine, Toby kept very still, never blinking, and never taking his bright brown eyes off the sights which presented themselves to his immediate gaze. Aside from what you would expect to see in any shoppe keeper’s premises, Toby had seen many strange things in Mr. Schomberg’s shoppe, indeed many things which Mr. Schomberg himself hadn’t seen, either because he was temporarily absent from his work area or because his sight, eroded by so many years of examining the intricacies of mantel clocks, cuckoo clocks, watches and time pieces of every other description, prohibited him from appreciating the rapid movements of some of his more indiscreet customers. It also didn’t help that the old Mr. Schomberg’s hearing was starting to go. However, nothing had prepared Toby for what he was about to experience that Christmas Eve.

 Even Mr. Schomberg, who was a hard working man and who took very few vacations from his business, succumbed to the more general habit of society in observing several days’ consecutive holidays at Christmas time, to be celebrated with his aging wife and their spinster daughter who lived with them. While Christmas was for the Schombergs a time of warmth and family, fire places and piping hot meals, Toby had learned over the years to brace himself for what promised to be a long and increasingly chilling experience, one particularly devoid of light in the darkening and snowy days of late December. Toby would never share the delight of a tinsel-laden Christmas tree decorated with an abundance of multi-coloured lights, shiny bulbs and holiday trinkets, nor of the many packages wrapped in playful ribbons and bows at the base of the beautifully scented fir tree.

During the several weeks leading up to Christmas this year, Mr. Schomberg had been exceedingly busy, often working extended hours with the assistance of his wife, Mrs. Gisela Schomberg. The general excitement of the time of year, encouraged by the fresh falling snow almost every day for the past ten days or so, had done much to promote active trade in Mr. Schomberg’s ancient shoppe. It was well-known that Mr. Schomberg sold quality products, aesthetically pleasing and often unique. His clocks and time pieces made excellent Christmas gifts, especially appealing to those of the community who were more blessed than others. Mr. Schomberg’s wife took great delight in packaging the gifts for their delighted customers in fancy paper and bright ribbon with a sprig of red-berried holly and mistletoe.

When at last the clock had wound its way down to Christmas Eve, and it appeared safe for them to assume there would be no further shoppers, Mr. and Mrs. Schomberg together recovered their long winter coats and mufflers from the dilapidated closet, gave a sigh of relief as they glanced back upon the shoppe where they had been so busy for these past several weeks, then took their leave. They planned to go to church at midnight, before which they would enjoy Mrs. Schomberg’s special Christmas pie and likely a glass or two of wine. They were not a minute beyond the threshold of the shoppe than they conclusively left it behind, satisfied, as only an entrepreneur can be truly satisfied, that they deserved the Christmas holiday before them. It was snowing lightly, creating the effect of a minor blizzard in the yellow light of the street lamp.

Things were not, however, so cheery for Toby. The Schombergs, in their haste to remove themselves, hadn’t even thought to pat Toby on the head or utter a "Merry Christmas!" to him. Of course, Toby didn’t expect magnanimity, but in years past he had occasionally been treated to such seasonal niceties by Mr. Schomberg, and he rather hoped to have done so again. No matter. He would do his best to be patient and keep warm. He’d try to sleep as much as possible, to put off having to think about the long, cold hours ahead. He knew the shoppe door would soon enough reopen. But, if the truth be told, he presently felt more than a bit down, and he really was having trouble convincing himself that he’d be able to get through the next few days without any difficulty.

As Toby silently pondered his unfortunate predicament, the most unusual things began to happen in the Village Clock Shoppe of Mr. Dilwert Schomberg. A crack of light appeared at the pine door entrance. At first, Toby thought the light must have come through a window from a passing vehicle outside the shoppe; but, no, it was distinctly from the entrance. Toby rushed to recollect whether Mr. and Mrs. Schomberg had locked the door upon their departure, yet he couldn’t remember. In his sorrow, Toby simply hadn’t been paying attention. Now he wished he had been less preoccupied with his own predictable fate, as it made him feel even more uncomfortable than he had previously been, to imagine that the front door of the shoppe might be left open throughout the upcoming Christmas holidays. Quite aside from what a stiff breeze might do to the door, the prospect of cold and snow making their way into the shoppe was certainly less than appealing, adding an entirely new and unwanted feature to the shoppe. Toby began to shiver.

For the next half-hour, while Toby sat shivering and staring at the entrance, the door never opened more than a crack. Whether it was because there was no wind outside, or whether from some other cause, he could not tell. Meanwhile, the line of light continued, and the more Toby stared at it, the more it monopolized his vision, until the beam of light, once relatively thin, seemed to grow in width to the point where the entire room inside the shoppe was engulfed by it. Admittedly Toby was unaccustomed to having so much light in the shoppe when Mr. Schomberg had gone, but he had not been prepared for the warm feeling that the light seemingly imparted to the environment. As the brightness of the light grew, likely for no other reason than that Toby stared at it so relentlessly, it highlighted the brass face of the lion’s head upon the door. Toby, if he had been able to blink, would have done so. But instead he had to satisfy himself with a feeling of being taken aback when he saw what to him was the movement of the lion’s lips, as though he were trying to speak to Toby. Toby had never even been introduced to the lion, though I suppose he could have said that about everybody, but nonetheless he felt closer to the Schombergs, for example, perhaps as a result of having observed them for so many years.

The lion’s visage wavered in the light, making it impossible for Toby to discern what he was trying to say. Toby very much wanted to speak with the lion, to ask him what he had seen all those years on the outside of the door, from which Toby was certain the lion had a much better view of the streetscape beyond. Toby had heard there was a bank across the street and a café where one could purchase a passable vegetarian sandwich, even though Toby never ate anything. But before Toby could do anything further to advance his communication with the lion, a small bird, much smaller than any Toby had ever seen or imagined, fluttered through the crack of light and into the shoppe. It immediately landed upon the top of one of the cuckoo clocks, and as luck would have it, the clock at the same time began to play its mechanical song to mark the hour of six o’clock, punctuated by the well-known "Cuckoo!", "Cuckoo!". The startled little bird streaked from its erstwhile perch, flying in a panic about the shoppe, obviously reluctant to land anywhere else without prudent investigation. After a moment or two, it came to rest upon the glass counter, only a matter of several feet from where Toby sat. As the bird adjusted its sight to the light in the shoppe, it seemed at last to notice Toby sitting in the darkness. The little bird cocked its head from this side to that, as though to get a better view of Toby. Toby sat motionless as always, not wanting to frighten the little bird by any sudden movement.

Toby wondered to himself where this little bird had come from, why it hadn’t gone south with its friends for the winter, and indeed whether it even had any friends. Toby thought he could be a friend to the little bird, if the little bird would let him.The little bird, obviously not appreciating these kind thoughts from Toby, if he even noticed Toby, simply began hopping about the top of the counter, collecting the few crumbs that Mrs. Schomberg had left there from her noon hour sandwich that day. Toby imagined that those crumbs of whole wheat bread were the little bird’s Christmas Eve dinner, a far cry better than anything the little bird might have found on the snow-covered ground outside.

While Toby’s attention was thus diverted upon the little bird, he hadn’t noticed that the wind had picked up outside the shoppe. Suddenly, with a loud bang, the front door of the shoppe blew open and struck the coat rack behind it, knocking it to the floor with another crash. This was not good at all, thought Toby, as he shuddered atop the books on the filing cabinet. Then he heard voices on the street, people walking by who had noticed the flapping door and the darkness within. "Who were these people?", thought Toby. "What would they do?"

The people were the Hempells, a well-respected family of four who lived in the Village. They were completing their last-minute Christmas shopping, mostly to collect goods from the bakery next door to Mr. Schomberg’s shoppe. The father was Dr. Kenneth James Hempell, a local family physician, who, as it turned out, had frequently done business at Mr. Schomberg’s shoppe. Peering cautiously inside the shoppe from the street outside, Dr. Hempell uttered a restrained "Hello!", as if to invite whoever was inside to reply or to come forward. Of course there was no reply and nobody came forward. "Hello!", again called Dr. Hempell, this time with more force. But again his entreaty was met with silence. Dr. Hempell grasped the door handle and eased the door open more widely, to permit him to step inside, one foot at a time. The place was very dark inside. "Hello!", he said again, almost timidly this time, looking searchingly into the darkness. Nothing. "Well!", said Dr. Hempell to the family members who were crowding about him, "It looks as though Mr. Schomberg has inadvertently left his shoppe door open on Christmas Eve. We’ll have to call him.", and with that, Dr. Hempell pulled the door closed, ensuring the tongue of the lock caught in the groove of the door frame, and gathered his family like a mother hen and her brood to search for the nearest telephone.

Throughout this event, Toby remained inert, studying as best he could in the changing light the faces of the people involved. The little bird, on the other hand, had been less interested in the people and more interested in removing itself from the apparent predatory invasion. Naturally, the little bird hadn’t anywhere in particular to go, so it contented itself to dart silently about in the dark, skipping noiselessly from one landing to another, relying upon movement as a defence. In its enthusiasm, however, the little bird unintentionally clipped one of Toby’s fluffy mohair ears as the bird darted by, causing Toby to lose his balance and tumble off the Dictionary onto the filing cabinet. He now found himself unceremoniously on his back, hidden from view behind the stack of books. This was really too much! In this very uncomfortable position, Toby was now confined to staring at the tin ceiling, something which had never before attracted him, the little of it he had seen.

 Following the departure of the Hempell family in search of a telephone,not an easy thing to find on a Christmas Eve, especially as the bakery had by now closed and the lights turned out, they had resolved to return home and call the Schombergs from there. They didn’t live far away. Thus, shortly thereafter Dr. Hempell connected with Mrs. Schomberg and informed her of the incident at the shoppe. Mrs. Schomberg was naturally alarmed to receive the news, but ever so thankful that Dr. Hempell had been the one to discover the problem and report it to her. Within a matter of minutes, both Mr. and Mrs. Schomberg, having set aside their glasses of wine, were again donning their winter coats and mufflers and heading back to the shoppe.

Upon arriving at the shoppe, Mr. Schomberg found the door unlocked, as Dr. Hempell had reported. Once inside, and having turned on the lights, Mr. Schomberg conducted a hasty review of the premises to satisfy himself that there had been no unwelcome intrusion or obvious theft, examining in the process the latches of the windows out of an abundance of caution. He then openly chastized himself for having earlier hurried from the shoppe without carefully locking up. Mrs. Schomberg comforted him by saying he had been working too hard. As the two of them stood in the middle of the shoppe, discussing the matter and consoling one another, Mr. Schomberg suddenly gave a start and pointed in the direction of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (Fifth Edition) where once Toby had sat. "Look", he exclaimed, "The Teddy Bear is gone!".

Mrs. Schomberg knew immediately what he meant, for it was Mrs. Schomberg who had purchased the Teddy Bear for Mr. Schomberg as a Christmas gift many years before in Austria. "How can that be?", exclaimed Mrs. Schomberg with equal alarm. "Someone must have taken him!", she added without thinking. As the two prudently approached the place where Toby had once resided, they discovered to their instant relief that Toby had merely tumbled off his perch onto the filing cabinet behind the books. Mr. Schomberg picked up Toby, dusted him off and spoke to him with great affection in his voice, asking him what had happened to cause this most unpleasant disturbance. Naturally, Toby knew better than to explain. As it turned out, Toby didn’t have to explain, because at that very moment, the little bird, now greatly agitated by all that had transpired in the last hour or so, began darting about the room once again, and in doing so practically dove at Mrs. Schomberg, who, sensing the whisper of flight about her head, uttered a shout of distress and headed for the shoppe door in retreat. As Mrs. Schomberg opened wide the shoppe door, the little bird liberated itself from its former imprisonment. Toby, in the clutches of Mr. Schomberg who was still trying to piece together what had just transpired, glanced in the direction of the withdrawing Mrs. Schomberg and again imagined that he saw the noble lion on the door knocker speak to him, but without success.

As Mrs. Schomberg, waving her hands about her head, explained to her husband about the little bird, Mr. Schomberg reasoned correctly that it was the little bird which had disturbed Toby. Being moved to sympathy for both his wife and Toby, Mr. Schomberg suggested that they take Toby with them for the remainder of the Christmas holidays and return him to his customary spot upon their return. Mrs. Schomberg, did not see any defect in that line of thinking, and having recovered her composure, agreed. They then proceeded to remove themselves from the shoppe for the second time that Christmas Eve, taking Toby with them, and this time ensuring the place was locked up tight.

Toby, for his part, thought he would never know a better Christmas, and his excitement only grew exponentially over the next three days as he saw for the first time the many new things afforded him in this delightful journey. That night, Christmas Night, Toby enjoyed a very sound and warm sleep on the oak mantle above the glowing embers of the fireplace. Toby was also quite certain he had seen Santa Claus that night, but because he was so sleepy and cozy, he couldn’t be sure.