Eric had really excelled himself. He had organized everything so that this was a proper holiday for the two ladies. There was a reservation at a boutique hotel near Notre Dame. Here Deidre became giddy with excitement, running herself a bath that lit up with rainbow colours and churned all the water into bubbles. Maude thought it was a bit much, but Deidre was delighted.
‘I’ve never had a bath before!’ She flung off her clothes with abandon. ‘What am I saying? I’ve never been human before.’ Indeed, sitting in water was a terrifying idea to her everyday self, as it was to all stuffed animals.
They ventured out into the Latin Quarter for dinner, where restaurant owners stood in busy doorways and called out to them, trying to tempt them indoors. They opted for fondue, sitting in a bistro window, and a waiter brought chunks of raw meat for dipping into hot oil. Maude had ancient hunger pangs stirring inside of her, and Deirdre was happy picking at a salad. The Dodo became happily sloshed on Cote du Rhone.
When they realized it was coming up to midnight they left a wad of notes on the table and dashed out in search of another taxi, this time demanding to be taken to the Jardin des Plantes.
Of course it was, as their driver had tried to warn them, locked and bolted for the holiday. When Maude thrust money into his window and growled at him he hurriedly drove away. Then, without a second thought, she took a run up and leapt easily over the metal gates. Deidre gasped and applauded. She was gobsmacked with admiration.
The gates squeaked open, Maude let Deidre in and together they hurried to the main entrance of the bulky shape of the Natural History Museum.
‘Righty-o,’ said Deidre, gulping hard. ‘This is where I find out if they turn me away at the door.’
‘They won’t,’ Maude said, steadfastly.
‘They’ll know at once I’m not quite… you know… the real thing.’
‘You’ve been worrying too much,’ Maude said, though she was worried too that Deidre was heading for an upset.
‘I must be brave,’ the Dodo said, and marched towards the front of the building.
It looked lifeless and dark in the snow. It looked like there was nothing at all happening within.
But all kinds of things were happening inside.
Even a hundred feet away, if you listened very carefully (and if you had the right sort of ears) you could hear the strains of a band playing a very elegant tune. You’d hear the reckless timpani of a rhythm section at work on the ribcage of a suspended blue whale. And you’d hear the trembling and thrumming as a thousand stuffed party guests jitterbugged, foxtrotted and freestyled any way they wanted across the polished wooden floors.
The place was swarming with endangered animals from the whole world over. All of them were having a fantastic time. This was their only night out in the whole year and they were intent on having a ball.
At the reception area Deidre’s eyes were out on stalks.
‘A Barbary Lion! A Great Auk! A Snow Leopard…! And there’s a whole bunch of Axolotls skipping in a ring! Oh, Maude..! I say…!’
So entranced was Deidre she hardly noticed the bouncers giving her the once-over. One was a Californian Grizzly Bear and the other a Chinese Salamander. They waved Maude through no problem, and spent only a few seconds staring intently at Deidre and her shiny beak.
Her shiny beak..!
‘Maude! We’ve been transformed back… into our everyday selves!’
‘Of course,’ smiled Maude broadly. ‘How else are we to join the jamboree, if not as our natural selves? Come along, Deidre. These gentlemen have no objection to letting you come inside, do you, lovies?’
The hulking great bear and the salamander shook their heads and waved them through.
‘Oooh!’ squealed Deidre.
They were in!
What a fantastic pair they made – Deidre waddling with her chest puffed out, and Maude slouching calmly – into the heart of the party.
A cheer and a ripple of applause for the long-absent Tigon! A whoop and a carillon of welcoming laughter for the ungainly Dodo! Also, perhaps, a not-unfriendly gasp or two. Even in this gathering of the rarest beasts on Earth, there was a range of rarity and a spectrum of the seldomly seen and both Tigons and Dodos were among the most infrequent of attendees.
A space opened up in the middle of the floor.
‘Shall we dance?’ asked Maude, with a purr.
‘Why not?’ squawked Deidre and slapped her turkey feet on the floor and shuffled her bottom and twitched her tufted wings.
‘We’re dancing! In Paris! On Christmas night!’
Around them swept a mad jumble of birds, beasts and reptiles. She caught glimpses of Japanese Sea lions, Leopards, Forest Turtles, Bactrian Camels, Sumatran Orangutans, African Penguins, Volcano Rabbits and Tasmanian Devils. There was even a Steller’s Sea Cow – huge and lousy at dancing – bobbing its grinning head high above the crowd. Dead for more than two hundred and fifty years and game as anything.
And could that possibly be a unicorn?
Deidre blinked in surprise.
‘Are there completely impossible animals here as well?’ she honked at Maude.
‘Oh, I think so!’ the Tigon chuckled. ‘There certainly seem to be. Look there, by the buffet. A Minotaur! I thought he was a bison, but look at his sexy legs! Goodness! And working at the bar – see! A nattily-dressed faun. Oh, how lovely!’ She grinned. ‘Things have changed since I last attended this Christmas Jamboree. The committee have clearly loosened up their membership rules. Well, and so they should.’
‘Fancy that!’ Deidre clucked with relief. ‘I’m very glad.’
‘Things have worked out very nicely. They’re letting in creatures from legend, and I suppose we’re almost that ourselves…’
‘They’re letting in made-up beasts of all kinds!’ whooped Deidre, and they danced with a great deal of brio and vim, until they were completely worn out, and went to check out the buffet.
‘What a wonderful spread!’ Deidre gasped. Marshmallows in every colour, popcorn, puffed wheat and cakes made of multi-coloured rice crispies. Everything was guaranteed to make one bloat up and swell. It was just the kind of food stuffed animals love to eat at parties. All the drinks were bubbly, too.
There were a few snide comments at the buffet table from a nasty-looking Nonesuch – a fake mermaid from a museum in South London. She had taken against Deidre at first glance and muttered something about her head being obviously modeled out of papier-mache. Maude came at once to her friend’s rescue, roaring one, twice, three times so loudly that the glass eyes of the Nonesuch almost fell out of her awful, withered face. And the spiteful ersatz mermaid slunk away.
Everyone else they met that night was very nice to Deidre.
‘And so they should be,’ Maude said, when the Dodo expressed surprise. ‘I think you belong here as much as anyone. More than most, in some ways.’
‘Really? Me?’ asked Deidre. They were lolling on deckchairs on an upper gallery, eating marshmallows and sipping champagne, watching the party in the atrium below.
‘Yes, you,’ said Maude. ‘You’re the original and most obvious of the extinct creatures. I’m just rare and unusual. But you’re really extinct, aren’t you? Not a single scrap of you exists in the world. Well, apart from that daft beak of yours. You are the essence of this gathering of the lost. The epitome of gone-forever. And yet here you are. Having a lovely time. And I think that’s pretty good going, don’t you?’
‘I do,’ beamed Deidre, and burped.
Later, when the party was winding down and it was the early hours of Christmas morning they went up to the museum’s rooftop to watch the snow falling on Paris. They stared at the frosty river and the towers of Notre Dame. And they watched as little groups of stuffed animals took to the air to float back home to the museums of the world. Off they went in fabulous dribs and drabs.
‘If it’s all the same to you, dear Maude, would you mind if we travelled back to Manchester the way we came? I was quite enjoying that hotel. And that wonderfully swooshy rainbow bath that lit up. And then, of course, there’s breakfast…’
‘Ooh, yes, breakfast,’ rumbled Maude. ‘Breakfast in Paris on Christmas Day. Caviar and salmon and strawberry jam. Oh yes. Let’s not hurry home just yet…’
And so they stood together watching the extinct and rare creatures twirling away from the party. Light as snowflakes, fading in the dawn.