Tamsin wrote the letter with her favourite pen. The blue and gold one she had got for her birthday. She formed all the letters carefully, so Santa Claus would be able to read her handwriting. Her grandmother said good children had clear, neat handwriting. She folded the sheet of paper, slipped it in the envelope, licked the flap and pressed it down hard. Then she wrote "To Santa Claus" on the front.
In the living room, her grandmother had laid the table for afternoon tea. She smiled at Tamsin. "Come and have some cake, darling," she said. "Have you finished writing to Santa Claus?"
"Yes. I hope he brings me the teddy bear. I put him at the top of my list and I did say I want the brown one with the yellow paws and a green bow. Do you think he'll bring it for me?"
The grandmother cut a slice of chocolate fudge cake and put it on Tamsin's plate. "I'm absolutely sure he will," she said. "Now give me the letter so I can post it for you."
Tamsin handed her the envelope. "Can't we post it together when we go for a walk after tea?"
"Oh, no, my love," her grandmother replied. "Santa Claus's letters have to go into a special postbox. It's a bit far from here but I can post it on my way home tonight."
Tamsin put a forkful of cake into her mouth and frowned.
"Don't you like the cake, sweetheart?"
Tamsin nodded. "Yes." She swallowed. "Grandma, is Daddy coming for Christmas this year?"
The grandmother had been dreading that question for the past three Christmases. This year too she gave the same answer. "No, my love. I'm afraid Daddy isn't coming."
The little girl toyed with her fork. "He's never coming back."
The grandmother fought the impulse to contradict her. Of course, he is, she wanted to say. After all, that's what she had said last year and the year before that, but there seemed little point in deceiving the child any longer. Someday, someone would have to explain to Tamsin that her father had walked out on his wife and two-year-old daughter but, for the time being, the grandmother opted for silence.
"Is Mummy coming back tonight?" the child asked.
"Of course, she is. Why wouldn't she be?"
Tamsin put her fork down. "She won't never come back from work, will she?"
The grandmother pulled her down from her chair, sat her on her lap and kissed the top of her blonde head. "Your Mummy and I will never leave you, my darling. We love you so, so much."
Tamsin was fast asleep when her mother unlocked the door to the flat. The grandmother was reading on the sofa. She closed her book. "I'm afraid she waited up for you as late as she could, but she fell asleep on the chair, so I put her to bed. You're late, again."
The mother took off her coat and hung it up on the hook by the front door. She slipped off her high-heeled shoes and went to join her mother on the sofa. She sighed. "I'm sorry, I had to finish a report. I didn't dare say no."
"Tamsin hardly ever sees you. Breakfast time and weekends. That's about it."
"I'm doing my best, Mum. I'm doing it all for her."
"I know. Are you hungry? I've made some stew. It's still warm. I'd better get home now. It's late."
She stood up from the sofa and looked at her daughter's drawn face. Then she leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "Eat something," she said. "It's Saturday tomorrow, so you can sleep in. Then you and Tamsin can spend the weekend together."
* * *
Tamsin bounced onto her mother's bed. "Mummy! Where are we going today?"
Her mother's eyes opened with a start. "What time is it? Oh, darling, why don't you cuddle up here and let Mummy sleep a little longer?"
"But it's eight o'clock!"
"Just give me a few more minutes, love. Why don't you go and set the table for breakfast?"
Putting out the cereal bowls, Tamsin wondered if her grandmother had remembered to post her letter to Santa Claus.
The morning was spent in Tamsin's least favourite place: the supermarket. She hated food shopping. It always took ages. After lunch, however, her mother took them into town. All the shops were decorated with tinsel, baubles and fairy lights. Tamsin loved it. Whenever she stopped to look at a dress or a box of paints, her mother asked, "Do you like it, darling? Do you think you might like to have it someday?"
"No, thanks, Mummy," she replied. After all, there was no point in her mother buying her anything when Santa Claus already had her wish list. Imagine if she got two of the same!
When they entered Tamsin's favourite department store, her mother directed them to the toy floor. "Why are we going there, Mummy?"
"We need to buy something for our neighbour Timmy," the mother replied. "What do you suppose he'd like?"
"Oh, Timmy only likes cars," Tamsin said with a huff.
If ever her grandmother could not pick her up from school, she went home with her neighbour, Timmy and his mum. They lived in the flat opposite. Timmy was a year younger than Tamsin, and his mother's cakes weren't nearly as good as the ones her grandmother made.
"Oh, look, Tamsin, isn't this the teddy bear you like so much?" her mother suddenly asked.
There they were, arranged in a pyramid atop a velvet puff: the teddy bears Tamsin had seen advertised on television. Black ones with the red paws, and white ones with blue paws. She tried to look away from the brown ones with the yellow paws and green bows. "Er, no... not really," she said.
Her mother picked up a car that was a model of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "I think Timmy will like this. Look, you can pull the wings open."
They joined the queue to pay. Tamsin was bored and hot. Why were they buying a present for Timmy, anyway? It's not as if it was his birthday or anything.
Tamsin's mother suddenly took a sharp intake of breath. "Oh, darling, don't forget you mustn't tell Timmy we bought him the Chitty car. He's younger than you and he still believes in Santa Claus. You're a big girl now, you don't believe in all this silly nonsense any more, but don't spoil it for little Timmy."
There were suddenly red blotches before Tamsin's eyes. Everything went quiet, as though she was in a dream.
"Tamsin, did you hear me? I'm talking to you. Darling, you've gone all pale. Are you not feeling well?"
"Yes, Mummy, all right, I won't tell Timmy."
The rest of the afternoon was a blur. Tamsin's mother thought they had been out too long and that her daughter was tired. It was unusual for her to be so quiet. She even went to bed straight after dinner and did not insist on watching television.
* * *
On Christmas morning, Tamsin did not wake up with the usual excitement. After breakfast, she sat by the tree and unwrapped a brown teddy bear with yellow paws and a green bow. She wondered whether it was her mother or her grandmother who'd gone to buy it at the department store. It was a beautiful, soft bear. She hugged it and decided to call it Mr Brown. She kept it with her the whole day and when it was time for bed she put him next to her on the pillow, and stroked his velvet nose. "Shall I tell you a story?" she whispered. She felt silly as soon as she had said it.
"Yes, please. I love stories," came the reply.
Tamsin sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. There was no one else in the room. She switched the lamp off again and hugged the bear closer.
"So, are you going to tell me a story then?"
Tamsin was astonished. "Is that you, Mr Brown?" she said.
"Well, who else is here?" he replied in a soft, gentle voice.
"But toys don't talk," Tamsin said.
"I do," said the teddy bear. "Only don't tell anyone."
"It will be our secret," Tamsin whispered.
Then she pulled the duvet over their heads, so her mother would not hear their voices, and began telling him a story.