Sunny Jim and the Christmas Bunny by Eric Conn

SUNNY JIM AND THE CHRISTMAS BUNNY

“That won’t do,” he said. “The back bumper is still overhanging the yellow line.”

“Catch yourself on, Jim,” I replied. “It’s half past six on a Friday evening in a country village. The traffic wardens are away home to their fish and chips, and the police don’t give a monkey’s. Leave it, it’s OK.”

“I’d rather not. Can’t be too careful about these things, Frank.” And I had to stand and wait while he parked his car about a hundred yards away and walked back.

They call him Sunny Jim. If you met him it wouldn’t take you long to realise that his nickname is a bit of a joke. Sunny Jim is a very serious chap indeed. He seldom smiles and always thinks before speaking, especially if he’s answering a question. And he worries about things. If after worrying all he possibly can about something, he finds he can do nothing about it, he, somewhat surprisingly, retreats into his strict Presbyterian up bringing, and says it’s all part of the Divine Plan.

Before he knew the right way of it, he used to think that the big waves from the Stena ferry - in the early days - were some sort of supernatural disapproval of the nudist group who would meet occasionally for a swim from a secret garden in Carnalea.

Sunny Jim, who, for all that, is a pretty decent sort, lives next door to us - a slight, balding man in his early forties. He has a cheerful wife Sally and two little girls called Lucy and Katie. We live on the edge of that same country village, so both our houses have got fairly big gardens. They have two cats, a garden pond full of fish and a rabbit called Poppy. It’s Poppy I want to tell you about.

I suppose the story began when Sally found the holiday on the Net. It was a cut-price offer of a pre-Christmas trip to Disneyland Paris for a family of four for seven nights. Trouble was, the holiday was scheduled for early December, before the end of the school term. Sally’s biggest problem was in getting Jim to agree to the idea. He spent days agonising over the morality and possible repercussions of keeping the girls off school for a week, even with permission from the school principal.

He did mental risk assessments on the dangers of flying from Belfast International to Paris and back. He looked up statistics on possible terrorist threats, and evaluated the likelihood of a tsunami hitting the English Channel. He wondered about the aeroplanes, and coming up to Christmas as it was, were they being serviced properly at all? But after a week or so, with the family sitting round in silence at every meal, waiting for his answer, he gave in and agreed. Sally booked the holiday with only hours to spare.

They asked us to look after the place when they were away. The day before they were due to go, Jim rehearsed me over my duties until I was word perfect on everything, and I wondered, as he was putting me over it again and again, could I have made it as a Shakespearian actor, and would I still have a chance?

They left very early in the morning. The next day I went round to check on things and feed their livestock. Fenton came with me. He’s our dog – sorry, I haven’t told you about him.

About three years ago, some of the grandchildren got together and decided we needed to get out more, so they bought us a dog, or as he was then, a pup. At the time, I thought we needed a dog like a hole in the head. The little fellow was a springer spaniel/collie cross. They had already named him Fenton, after some YouTube movie they had seen, where a crazy dog chases deer in a park and the owner goes even crazier trying to call him back.

Little Fenton was all wagging tail and licking tongue and unconditional love. Within days, we couldn’t picture life without him. Yes, he messed and weed a bit, and chewed a few things, as pups do, but we forgave him everything. He was one of us. Now he’s two and a half years old, a big dog with a shiny coat and an alert face, ready for whatever fun you can share with him.

I put the bins out and was feeding the fish in the pond at the front of the house. Fenton had disappeared down the back garden. I was just about to go round the back, when he reappeared. He had a small animal in his mouth and was shaking it hard.

“Poppy!!” I gasped, and looked down the garden to where the rabbit hutch was. The door was open.

“Drop it!!” I bellowed at Fenton.

He did so, and slunk away in his guilty, submissive mode. I leapt forward and picked up Poppy. The rabbit felt wet and limp in my hands. I stroked her and massaged her neck and body. There were no signs of life. I carried her into our house. Maggie was working at something in the kitchen.

“Mags?” She turned around and her mouth fell open.

“What on earth is that?” she asked in a strangled, horrified tone, knowing the answer before she spoke. “Did?----“ She pointed at Fenton. I spread my hands and shrugged.

“Well, did he?”

“Looks like he did. He disappeared down the garden and then came back with her in his mouth, shaking her. Really hard.”

We stood in silence for a few seconds, just looking. Then Maggie, as usual moved on into the practical.

“The girls are going to be so upset,” she said. “We’ll have to get them another one, and that will maybe help a bit.”

A thought struck me. “If we could find an identical one, maybe they wouldn’t notice.”

She gave me a look of disapproval. “That would the height of dishonesty.”

“Maybe, but it would spare the girls. We could always tell Sally and Jim. Or at least Sally.”

Fenton was in deep disgrace for the rest of the day. We would never have expected him to do what he did. He knew Poppy, and had shared the garden, quite peacefully, with her on many occasions. He was very quiet now and unnaturally subdued. Now and then he would look up at the little body, lying on the table wrapped in a towel, and whine softly.

In the afternoon I went to the vet’s surgery where our daughter-in law works. She agreed to dispose of the body and gave me a list of places where I might look for a replacement for Poppy. I decided to try and find an identical rabbit if possible. Poppy was completely black with a small white star on her forehead.

Well, I searched every shop in Belfast and Lisburn and Bangor and Newtownards. Although there were plenty of black rabbits, could I find one with a white star on its forehead? No sir! But three days and maybe 300 miles later I found one in a shop in Carrickfergus, a female with an identical white star. She was perhaps a little heavier than Poppy, but not noticeably so. I brought her back to the hutch, give her plenty of food and water, and she seemed as happy as Larry. Only Fenton knew she was a stranger, and kept well away from the hutch every time we went into the garden.

Next week, as arranged, the family arrived home from their holiday. They came at night so we did not see them arrive, but next morning the door knocked, and Jim was on the doorstep. His face was pale and his hair was ruffled – I thought from lack of sleep, until he spoke.

“P – P – Poppy!” he said. “She’s back in the hutch!!”

He sort of caught me on the back foot, as it were, so I decided to play it safe.

“Yes, I put her back. The hutch door was open so I assumed it hadn’t been closed properly. I didn’t think you’d want to leave her out when you were away. Or did you?” I asked.

He gripped my arm and held it tight. He seemed upset about something and I waited while he composed himself.

“Frank,” he said. “She was dead.”

I didn’t have to feign my surprise. “Dead? What do you mean, dead?”

“I mean dead. You remember that awful freak thunderstorm the night before we left? Well, I went out in the middle of the night to check on things, and there was Poppy dead on the floor of the hutch.”

“Had she been sick, or anything?”

. “No, but she was certainly dead.” He was agitated and talking fast. “A vet once told me that rabbits can take heart attacks in thunderstorms. That must have been how she died. So I buried her at the bottom of the garden behind the bushes. I worried all week about how I was going to tell the girls. Didn’t even tell Sally. Now I come back to find her wee grave empty! The cloth I buried her in, just lying there!, And now she’s back in her hutch!” He gripped my arm again, on the verge of tears now.

“It’s a miracle, Frank. We have just witnessed a miracle!!”

I stood silent for a few seconds in private sympathy for poor old Fenton. He had picked up the scent of his wee mate, rescued her from her earthy prison, and had been trying to wake her up.

That was last week. Jim has gone back to work today, for the few days before the Christmas holidays. I’m just opening my gates when little Katie, who’s about six, appears in the drive next door. She’s bursting to tell me something.

“There’s something funny on Poppy’s tummy! Come and see!!”

Her sister Lucy, three years older and about forty years wiser, runs out behind her.

“They’re babies, Katie. Poppy has just had six babies!”

I have never seen more delight on a six-year-old face. “Let’s tell Mummy!” she screams, and the two of them run off into the house.

Well, well, I think, Jim’s got his fill of miracles now. First a resurrection and now a virgin birth. Well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Merry Christmas, Sunny Jim!

Eric Conn