Gertrude was a goose like any other goose. Hatched out in the orchard one drizzly morning in June, she spent those early weeks looking at the world from the warm sanctuary of her mother’s all-enveloping softness. It might have come as a surprise to her to know that her mother was not a goose.

Of course, Gertrude was convinced she was, but in reality her mother was a rather ragged speckled hen. She was, however, the most pugnacious, the most jealous and possessive hen on the farm, and that was why Charlie’s father had shut her up inside a coop with a vast goose egg and kept her there until something happened. Each day she had been lifted off and the egg sprinkled with water to soften the shell. The summer had been dry that year, and all the early clutches of goose eggs had failed. This was very probably the last chance they had of rearing a goose for Christmas.

There had always been a goose for Christmas Day, Charlie’s father said-a goose reared on their own corn and in their own orchard. So he had picked out the nastiest, broodiest hen in the yard to guard the egg and to rear his Christmas goose, and Charlie had sprinkled the egg each day.

When Charlie and his father first spied the golden gosling scavenging in the long grass with the speckled black hen clucking close by, they raced each other up the lane to break the good news to Charlie’s mother. She pretended to be as happy about it as they were, but in her heart of hearts she had been hoping that there would be no goose to rear and pluck that year. She couldn’t bear to look at the sweet, sad face she had come to know so well, hanging down over her knee, still smiling.

Now, Charlie’s father was no fool, and he knew his wife well enough to sense her disappointment. It was to soften the news, to console her and no doubt to persuade her again, that he suggested that Charlie might help this year.

‘Charlie’s almost 10 now, lovely,’ he said. ‘Ten years old next January, and he’ll be as tall as you next Christmas. He’ll be taller than me before he’s through growing. Just look at him, he’s grown an inch since breakfast.’

Charlie was flattered by the confidence his father had placed in him and his mother was, as usual, beguiled by both his Welsh tongue and the warmth of his smile. And so it was that Charlie came to rear the Christmas goose.

The gosling turned into a goose, long and lovely and white. Charlie watched her grow. He would feed her twice a day, before and after school, with a little mixed corn. On fine autumn days he would sit with her in the orchard for hours at a time and watch her grazing under the trees. And he loved to watch her preening herself, her eyes closed in ecstasy as she curved her long neck and delved into the white feathers on her chest.

Charlie called the goose Gertrude because she reminded him of his tall, lean Aunty Gertrude who always wore feathers in her hat in church. His aunt’s nose was so imperial in shape and size that her neck seemed permanently stretched with the effort of seeing over it. But she was, for all that, immensely elegant and poised, so there could be no other name for the goose but Gertrude.

They harvested cider apples in late October, so Gertrude’s peace was disturbed each day for over two weeks as they climbed the lichen-coated apple trees and shook until the apples rained down on the grass. Gertrude and Charlie stood side by side waiting for the storm to pass, and then Charlie moved in to gather up the apples and fill the sacks. Gertrude stood back like a foreman and cackled encouragement from a distance. Her wings were fully grown now, and in her excitement she would raise herself to her full height, open them, stretch her neck and beat the air with wild enthusiasm.

‘A grand bird,’ said Charlie’s father from high up in the tree. ‘She’s growing well. Be fine by Christmas if you look after her. We’ve got plenty of Bramley apples this year, good for stuffing. Nothing like apple stuffing in a Christmas goose, is there, Charlie?’

The words fell like stones on Charlie’s heart. As a farmer’s son he knew that most of the animals on the farm went for slaughter. Sick lambs, rescued piglets, ill suckling calves-he’d helped to care for all of them and had already developed that degree of detachment that a farmer needs. But none of these animals were killed on the farm. Charlie had seen his father shoot rats and pigeons and squirrels but that again was different, they were pests.

Now, for the first time, as he watched Gertrude patrolling behind the dung heap, he realised that she had only two months to live, that she would be killed, hung up, plucked, pulled, stuffed and cooked, and borne in triumph onto the table on Christmas Day.

‘Nothing like apple stuffing in a Christmas goose’-his father’s words would not go away. Gertrude lowered her head and hissed at an intruding gaggle of hens that flew up in a panic and scattered into the hedgerow. She raised her wings again and beat them in a dazzling display before resuming her dignified patrol. She was magnificent, Charlie thought, a queen among geese. At that moment, he decided that Gertrude was not going to be killed for Christmas. He would
simply not allow it to happen.

With the frosts and winds of November, the last of the leaves were blown from the trees and swirled round the farmyard. Then the winter rains came and piled them into soggy, mushy heaps against the hedgerows, clogging the ditches and filling the pot-holes. Each day, when Charlie got back from school, he drove Gertrude in from the orchard to the safety of an empty calf pen. Foxes do come out on windy nights, and he did not want Gertrude taken by the fox any more than he wanted her carved up at Christmas. Before breakfast every morning Charlie opened the calf pen, and the two of them walked side by side out into the orchard where he emptied the scoop of corn into Gertrude’s bowl. He talked to her all the while of the great master-plan he had dreamed up, and how she must learn not to cackle too loudly.

Until late November his father had not taken much interest in Gertrude’s progress, but now with Christmas only six weeks away he was asking almost daily whether or not Gertrude would be fat enough in time. ‘She’ll do better on oats, Charlie,’ he said one breakfast. ‘And I think you ought to shut her up now, and I don’t mean just at night. I mean all the time. This wandering about in the orchard is all very well, but she won’t put on much weight that way. There won’t be much left on her for us, will there? You leave her in the calf pen from now on and feed her up.’

‘She wouldn’t like that,’ Charlie said. ‘You know she wouldn’t. She likes her freedom. She’d pine away inside and lose weight.’ Charlie had his reasons for wanting to keep Gertrude out in the orchard by day.

‘Charlie’s right, dear,’ his mother said softly. ‘Of course you’re both right, really.’ His mother was the perfect diplomat. ‘Gertrude will fatten up better inside, but it’s lean meat we want, not fat. The more natural food she eats and the happier she is, the better she’ll taste. My father used to say, “A happy goose is a tender goose”. And anyway, there’s only the three of us on Christmas
Day, and Aunty Gertrude, of course. What would we do with a 15-pound goose?’

‘All right, my lovely,’ said Charlie’s father. ‘I know better than to argue when you and Charlie get together. But feed her on oats, Charlie, else there’ll be nothing on her but skin and bone. And remember I have to kill her about a week before Christmas a goose needs a few days to hang. And then you’ll need a day or so for plucking and dressing, won’t you, lovely? I can smell it already,’ he said, closing his eyes and sniffing the air. ‘Goose and apple stuffing, roast potatoes, sprouts and chipolata sausages. Oh, Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat!’

The days rolled by into December. But Christmas, with all its heady excitement, meant little to Charlie that year, for all he could think of was Gertrude. Again and again he went over the rescue plan in his mind until he was sure he had left nothing to chance. December 16th was the day Charlie decided upon. It was a Saturday, so he would be home all day. But more important, that morning, Charlie knew his father would be out following the hunt five miles away at Dolton. Once he’d watched his father rattle off down the lane in the battered Land Rover, he wasted no time. It was a long walk down to the river and he had to make a detour through the woods out of sight in case his mother spotted him.

Gertrude was waiting by the door of the calf pen as usual, impatient to get out into the orchard. But this morning she was not allowed to stop by her bowl of corn. Instead she was driven firmly out into the field beyond. She protested noisily, cackling and hissing, trying to get back by turning this way and that. But Charlie paid no attention. He banged his stick on the ground to keep her moving on. ‘It’s for your own good, Gerty, you’ll see,’ he said. ‘So stop making a fuss, and walk on.’

He talked to her all the way down through Watercress Field, into Little Wood and out into Lower Down. By the time they reached the marsh, Gertrude was exhausted and had stopped her cackling.

The fishing hut stood only a few yards from the river, an ugly building, squat and corrugated, but ideal for housing a refugee goose-nobody ever went there in the winter. In the last few days Charlie had moved out all the fishing tackle. He had laid a thick carpet of straw on the floor so that Gertrude would be warm and comfortable. In one corner was the old hip bath he had found in the attic. The bath was brim full of water and Charlie had hitched a ramp over the side. By the door was a feeding trough already full of corn.

But Gertrude wasn’t impressed by her new home. She walked straight to the darkest end of the hut and hissed angrily at Charlie. He rattled the trough to show her where the corn was, but the goose looked away disdainfully.

‘You’ll be all right, Gerty,’ said Charlie. ‘But if you do hear anyone, don’t start cackling. You’ve got food and water, and I’ll be down to see you when I can.’

Gertrude hissed at him once again and turned her head away. ‘I love you too!’ said Charlie, and he went out, bolting the door firmly behind him.

Charlie ran back all the way home because he needed to be breathless when he got there. His mother was just finishing icing the cake when he came bursting in through the kitchen door. ‘She’s gone. Gertrude’s gone. She’s not in the orchard. She’s not anywhere.’ Charlie and his mother searched all that morning and through the afternoon until the frost came down with the darkness
and forced them to stop. Of course, they found no sign of Gertrude. ‘I can’t understand it,’ said Charlie’s mother, as they broke the news to his father. ‘She’s just vanished. There’s no feathers and no blood.’

“Well I can’t believe it’s a fox, anyway,’ said Charlie’s father. “Not in broad daylight with a hunt just on the other side of the parish. She’s in a hedge somewhere, laying an egg perhaps. They do that in winter sometimes, you know. She’ll be back as soon as she gets hungry. It’s a pity, though. She’ll lose weight out in the cold.’

Charlie’s mother was upset. ‘We’ll never find her if it snows. They’ve forecast snow tonight.’
And that night the snow did come. Snow upon snow. When Charlie looked out of his bedroom window the next morning, the farm had been transformed. Every muddy lane and rusty roof was immaculate with snow. Charlie was out early, as usual, helping his father feed the bullocks before breakfast. Then, saying he wanted to look for Gertrude, he set off towards the river, carrying a bucket of corn.

* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter

Gertrude hissed as he opened the door of the fishing hut, but when she saw who it was, she broke into an excited cackle and opened her wings in pure delight. She loved Charlie again. Charlie poured out the corn and topped up the water in the hip-bath. ‘So far, so good, Gerty,’ he said. ‘There’s snow outside, but you’ll be warm enough in here. Father thinks you’re laying an egg in a hedge somewhere. Mother’s worried sick about you. I can’t tell her until after Christmas, though, ‘cos she’d have to tell Father. But she’ll understand, and she’ll make Father understand, too.’ Every day for a week, Charlie trudged down through the snow to feed Gertrude. By this time both his mother and father had given up all hope of ever finding their Christmas goose.

One night, two days before Christmas, the wind changed from the north-east and rain came in from the west. By the morning, the snows had gone and the farm looked real and untidy again. Charlie could see the brook from his window. But instead of a gentle burbling stream, the brook had turned into a raging brown torrent rushing down towards the river. The river! If the river burst its bank the fishing hut would be under water, and Gertrude would be trapped inside. She wasn’t used to swimming. Her feathers would be waterlogged and she would drown.

He dressed quickly and within minutes was running down towards the river. As he opened the gate into the marsh, he could see that the hut was completely surrounded by water and that the door was wide open. He splashed through the floods, praying that he would find Gertrude still alive and safe. But Gertrude wasn’t there. Somehow the door had opened and she had escaped. He must have forgotten to bolt it, and the force of the flood water had done the rest.

Charlie spent the rest of the day searching the banks of the river for Gertrude, calling everywhere for her. But it was no use. The river was still high and flowing fast. He could only think that she had been swept away in the floods and drowned. He was filled with a sense of hopeless despair and wretchedness. He longed to tell his mother, but of course he could not. He dared not even show his feelings.

In the evening Aunty Gertrude arrived, for it was Christmas Eve. A tree was brought in and together they decorated it before joining the carol singers in the village. But Charlie’s heart wasn’t in any of it. He went to bed and fell asleep without even putting his stocking out. But when he awoke on Christmas morning the first thing he noticed was his stocking standing stiff as a sentry by his bedside table. Intrigued and suddenly excited, he felt to see what was inside the stocking. All he found was a tangerine and a piece of long, stiff card. He pulled out the card and looked at it. On it was written:

To Charlie, from Father Christmas:
Goosey Goosey Gander, where shall I wander?
From the orchard to the fishing hut,
From the fishing hut to the hay-barn…

It was clearly his mother’s handwriting. Charlie tiptoed downstairs in his dressing gown, slipped on his wellingtons and then ran out across the back yard to the hay-barn. He unlatched the little wooden door and stepped inside. In the farthest corner, penned up against a wall of hay, were two tall geese that cackled and hissed at his approach. They sidled away together into the hay, their heads almost touching. Charlie crept closer. One was a splendid grey goose he had never seen before. But the other looked distinctly familiar. And when she stretched out her white wings, there could be no doubt that this was Gertrude. But his attention was drawn to a beautifully decorated card, which read:

To Dearest Charlie from Gertrude,
I’ve got a message from your mother and father.
Your mother says you should remember that if you walk in snow you leave footprints that can be followed. And your father says: Nice try, Charlie boy. We’re having chicken for lunch today. Aunty Gertrude likes it better, anyway. Look after the geese. You’d better. They’re yours for keeps!
So Charlie, meet Berty-he’s a gander. He’s my husband, a present from Father Christmas, and I hope you like him as much as I do. Oh, and by the way, thanks for saving my neck. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.
Much love for Christmas,
Gerty

By the time Charlie got back to the house, everyone was sitting down in the kitchen and having breakfast. He looked at his mother and then at his father. Both were trying hard not to laugh.
‘Happy Christmas, Charlie boy. Any sign of Gertrude yet?’ his father asked.
‘Yes,’ said Charlie, swallowing his excitement. ‘Father Christmas found her and brought her back-and Berty too-her husband, you know. Nice of him, wasn’t it?’
‘Gertrude?’ said Aunt Gertrude, looking bewildered. She looked over her nose, just like a certain goose. ‘I don’t understand. What’s all this about?’
‘Later, dear,’ said Charlie’s mother, gently patting her sister’s arm. ‘I’ll tell you about it later, after we’ve eaten our Christmas dinner!’

Text copyright © 2012 Michael Morpurgo, illustrations copyright © 2012 Sophie Allsopp. This abridged extract is taken from ‘The Goose is Getting Fat’, published by Egmont UK Limited, priced at £5.99. Country Life readers can enjoy this book at a discounted price of £4.99, including postage and packaging. To take advantage of this exclusive offer, please telephone the Country Life Bookshop on 08430 600023 or visit www.countrylife.co.uk/bookshop

* Subscribe to Country Life and save up to 40% this Christmas