Max was rejuvenated by his new friend, but sadly, he was only to enjoy her for a few months. As 2005 wore on, he seemed happy, but he continued his disconcerting new habit of sitting on our former cat’s grave. He was also increasingly thin and gaunt. However, he showed his usual excitement when we began preparations for the Christmas show, which that year was The Christmas Present of Christmas Past.
XPXP, as we abbreviated the show for its working title, was a particularly lavish production. It began in the present, with Max and Minx as rival household pets. However, Max, along with Santa, a clever schoolboy named Cedric, and Cedric’s teacher, Robert, inadvertently went back to ancient Rome in a time machine.
Here, Max, to his horror, came across what he thought was Minx, also transported in time. However, the cat turned out to be I Clawdia, the pampered pet of the Empress Messalina. In spite of his annoyance at being plagued by another cat, Max fought off a wolf and saved Clawdia’s life.
For this service, she gave him the title of ‘Friend of Felines’. Max was not impressed by this honour, although it proved extremely useful later in the show when he and his friends ended up in the Colosseum facing the big cats. The show was a play on the theme of Androcles and the Lion with a lot of other ingredients to add to the satire.
Since Hugh retired, we had always run a series of performances during the day so that school groups could attend the shows. Max, as usual, took his place in the stage-manager’s corner for these group matinees, although sometimes he would look rather perturbed at the amount of noise emanating from the other side of the curtain prior to show-time. The school groups were lively audiences, but generally settled down once the show started. Certainly, their reaction gave us a good idea of how effective the show was.
Usually the teachers selected the middle elementary grades for these matinees. These students were old enough to follow the story, yet still at an age to be caught up in the magic. However, one of the matinees for XPXP was packed with Grade Six students, who obviously considered it hilarious that they’d been brought to a puppet show. The group arrived a good half-hour prior to curtain time and the noise from out front sounded like World War Three had erupted. Every so often, the teacher would bellow threats to his group, detailing what would happen if anyone misbehaved during the show. Max sat quailing in his corner; Hugh and I stood quailing behind the puppet theatre.
However, much to our relief, silence descended once the show began, and other than the occasional cheery audience comment floating back to us, such as cheers when Max defeated the wolf, or glee at Messalina’s bust size, the Grade Six students behaved impeccably. Feeling reassured, we forged on through the show. When we reached the scene in the Colosseum, the silence out front became almost palpable. Cedric, of course, comes to the rescue of the puppets and hovers above the Colosseum in his time machine, gradually zapping each of the characters forward in time and out of the arena.
First, Santa is rescued, and then the teacher, Robert, along with the beautiful Roman girl he loves. But as the gladiators approach, poor Max remains, sadly alone in the spotlight. But at the last split second, he, too, is airlifted to safety, and as Max shot upwards, there was a huge chorus of “Yes!” from the student audience. What a great moment that was. Even with those ‘cool’ Grade Six students, The Christmas Present of Christmas Past was a big hit.
As we began the public run, we received another nice boost. One of the teachers brought us a package of letters and pictures from the students. The delightful comments and the variety of subject matter in the drawings were most entertaining, but we were particularly struck by one picture that was very different in nature from the others.
Whereas most children had drawn Max, Brandy and Minx, usually with happy faces and Christmas trees, this student had drawn a darkly dramatic picture of Max fighting the wolf. The teacher had included a note along with the drawing. The student was a recent immigrant to Canada. He spoke little English and was from the Sudan. It was fascinating proof that people’s response to Art reflects their own personal experience.
The public run was a happy and successful one. Max was as enthusiastic as ever about our routine of morning walk, afternoon shows and an evening spent relaxing around the Christmas tree. We were sad as the run drew to an end. The final performance was a Sunday matinee, and the theatre was packed. The show was well received, and, as usual, Max came out to bow with his puppet after the final curtain. Then something happened that had never occurred in all our years of performing. A little boy at the back of the theatre started to run down the aisle, and before we knew it, the other children joined him. Suddenly, there was a run on the stage. It was as if Max were a rock star. Our poor dog looked panic stricken, seeing the mob charging towards him, and Hugh quickly whisked him backstage, leaving me to show the children the puppet and answer questions about the real Max. What an exciting finish that was.
But, once I had finished with the children and joined Hugh and Max backstage, a sudden, frightening thought flashed through my mind: I hope this isn’t it. It was irrational, yet something about that grand finale bothered me. I am not a superstitious person, yet I had a sense that the farewell at that last performance was prophetic and I hoped fervently that I was wrong.