The whirl of positivity that is December (if you have young children, at least) began in earnest on Saturday with the 'secret day out'.
It was written on the calendar: "Day out". Nora was fascinated. Are we going to the Zoo? No, that's next Saturday. Where are we going then? Aha... wait and see. Her interest and strain grew as the week went on, and spilled over in to a bad mood by Thursday. Tell me! (Duckface very much making an appearance). So, the night before we went, we told her half the story. Under oath not to tell James.
We were going to meet Thomas the Tank Engine.
Didcot Railway Centre is a delight, staffed by energetic volunteers who roll about in ecstasy at their luck to be able to spend their spare time working on, training to, and driving beautiful restored railway steam engines. The journey there was comparatively, monstrously easy for us, comprising as it did of: a bus, 2 tubes and a train. But, leaving the house at 9, we were there by 11.28. Really not bad. James meanwhile, still did not know what we were doing, and I felt a bit mean that he couldn't read. He spotted a silhouette picture of a steam train on a sign at Didcot station and smiled. We feigned ignorance and carried on walking. When we came out in to the grey sunshine from the tunnel, there was nothing to show what was happening apart from a small shed, and a few people milling about. there were rails, but then, we were still at a train station, weren't we.
Suddenly, from the left, came that beautiful, hairs on the back of the neck sound: a proper chuff chuff chuffing as an engine, with green livery, wide and flat bodied rather than rounded came toward us from round a bend. It was carrying two coaches, and it had a vast, circular smiling face on the front.
James stood still in total shock and amazement. Not so much stood, but more like, he looked like he might execute a startled star jump. His face beamed out light and he jumped as he yelled "IT'S A STEAM ENGINE!!!".
Oh yes. Not just one, but a walk along the path revealed a proper engine shed, just like Thomas, with smiling engines on all the lines going in. It was overwhelmingly amazing, and fantastic! So we decided to go on Duck before going to try and find Thomas.
Why are steam engines so glorious? It's not just nostalgia. They weren't going when I was young. More, they were rusting hulks in elephant graveyards, but looking at them up close, they emanate the pride the people who made them so obviously had. They wear their engineering on the outside. They demonstrate their power visibly and on a cold day, the fire in their bellies is visible and tangible. Even though surely, being the coalman in that tiny space with the driver must be a bloody miserable job, you envy the opportunity to feed the mighty beast as its plumes of dragon smoke and steam are ejected with huge force. A modern diesel and electricity fueled engine is a bulk made appliance, in contrast to these forged, elemental beings. They're magnificent.
After we had left Duck's lovely old carriage (third class) we walked up from the other end of the Centre compound. At some point, nora saw the sign "Ride with Thomas and meet Father Christmas". What??! Father Christmas? Smiles of amazement all round, as we walk up towards where Thomas was sitting, waiting. In fact, the whistle was about to blow for that bunch of children, so we stood and watched as Thomas whistled and chugged backwards out of the 'station' and down the line. The centre had really done a decent job - they'd found a proper small sized tank engine and his livery was great, although it could have done with a clean. I told James (who said "Thomas's face is dirty!") that was was dirty from having puff puffed children along the branch line all day.
Waiting for the return of Thomas, we went in to the engine shed. More amazement and awe at seeing really huge engines close up. Then a return to the Thomas queue, with all the other small children, and ridiculously happy, smiling parents. A small glimpse of the not-really-very-fat Controller (James decided he was the Thin controller - aha. Good work). Ushered in to a Christmassy carriages, we edged up the line toward the front, where 'Mother Christmas' was executing through-put.
Now Nora had a bad Father Christmas experience the other day. She saw the person billed as Father Christmas on top of a bus in Streatham, and decided in short order that it wasn't. Why was he pretending to be Father Christmas? It wasn't fair. Nora cried. She's very close to asking the wrong question now, and when she does, I will not lie to her. I have always promised I never would, but have sidestepped the question in the past, with "Well, what do you think?" and other vaguely encouraging noises. So this was a bit of a make-or-break. Mother Christmas was a lovely slightly older woman of quite spherical size and grey hair, dressed up in red velvet, who had the ease with children of a well versed Grandmother, and was full of anecdotes about Rudolph, who has a purple nose currently because he has a cold. She spun tales about the elves and told the children that she had put Father christmas on a diet, so that he could eat anything he liked over Christmas - and presumably become rotund again. By the time we were ushered through, Nora was under a kind of spell, which saw her through one of the worst Father Christmas impersonators I have ever seen. Under 30, slim, and wearing a terrible false bear with straps showing, he made absolutely no effort to be friendly beyond putting on a low voice and saying "Ho ho" a couple of times. He looked like someone who had been pushed in to doing the task at the last minute, and had no enthusiasm for it. Mck and I were heartbroken. Nora was silent, and I was desperately worried she would burst in to tears at any moment. They received their gifts each after relating what they wanted for Christmas (James was a little shy and amazed) and we went out of the carriage.
Nora said nothing.
James was desperate to open his present, which was a rather gloriously oversized tractor. Perfect for a small boy. For this, Father Christmas was a total hero. Nora opened her present - a maths-friendly jigsaw with 36 large pieces. We made encouraging noises about how she'd only been saying she liked maths yesterday, and how Father Christmas must have heard her. Nora remained inscrutable, and stood, basically silent. We went back on thomas, and along to the front of the Centre.
The rest of the day: another ride on Duck (this time in first Class - what stunning carriages they were too - basically equipped with armchairs!) and some 'making things' and playing. And receiving a long balloon each. James constantly playing with his tractor. When we had got off Duck, we went and sat at the front of him, on a bench, so we could see him whistle, and shunt his way back down the line. McK too a video of him chugging. James said "Thank you for giving us a ride, Duck!", and I smiled indulgently. Then later, on our way out, Duck was still masterfully chugging up and down the line. James called across, "Duck! Look at my balloon!". To him, the magical engines really were alive. Their rictus smiles in place for politeness's sake. He decided that at the end of the day they would be able to sigh in relief and yawn before going to sleep. Even Nora half believed, and neither of them questioned the way their faces had been hung on the front of the engines, looking a little battered around the edges from years of storage, and use.
Sitting eating her tea, Nora said "Why was Father Christmas wearing a beard that wasn't real?". We feigned confusion. She had seen the elastic straps on the all too obvious, tatty white beard, and because she hadn't asked 'the question', and because it was clear he had been real to her, I remembered that Raymond Brigg's Father Christmas was recognised everywhere he went on holiday. so maybe he only grows his beard actually at Christmas, and the rest of the time he shaves, so that people won't recognise him. That, it seemed, was the correct answer.
Aunty Clare, Uncle Tim and their lovely zippy little boy came over on Sunday. James told his cousin proudly who had given him his new tractor. "Father Christmas!" "Oh", said Aunty Clare, not aware of when this event occurred: "Who did we meet yesterday? "
...This could all go horribly wrong.
-Who did we meet yesterday, darling? It was Father Christmas wasn't it!
McK stood with a fixed smile, looking a bit desperate. I chimed in. "Wow, he was so busy yesterday wasn't he? He was in Bristol in the morning, and he must have come on the train or used his sleigh because we met him at Didcot in the afternoon, didn't we?" Nods of agreement from the two small people present.
I predict that I will not be writing about meeting Father Christmas in quite the same way for Nora ever again.