Sunday 14 December 2008

.....for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I wrote this little Christmas story some years ago - but it still bears telling again.

I awarded myself a rare (albeit well-deserved) half-day off, last Thursday. I’d been to Towcester - there’s a monthly drive-in antique fair at the racecourse there, where usually I do very well. However on this occasion the December weather was against any form of serious commercial intercourse, the venue was awash and ankle-deep in mud; and The Trade (except for the few early birds who’d squelched around, snacked on such worms as were going cheap, and gone home to roost) had mostly given up buying for the tag-end of the year; so that effectively by about ten o’clock the fair had tailed off to a miserable miry nothing, and I’d taken all I was going to take. Which was more than enough to pay exes and my wages for the day, so I wasn’t bothered.

Usually under such circumstances, so as not to waste the day or the petrol, I’d probably go buying, but I too was infected with ‘end-of-term-itis’. I’d only one more fair before the New Year, and more than enough stock to cover it. So I thought soddit, packed and loaded the worldly goods, and drove the 30-odd miles south down the A5 to Dunstable with a view to spending some quality time with the most important people in my life, Robbie and Kirsty, my grandchildren. And of course Sara, my daughter and their mother.

As it happens, I got lucky. I’d no sooner breezed in the door than Sara informed me that I couldn’t have picked a better day - it was to be Robbie’s School Play that afternoon.
“And it’s been a long time since you’ve been to one of those” she reminded me archly. And rightly - it must have been a good 25 years since I’d proudly watched her doing an impression of a rather coy angel (as inapt a casting job as one could hope to find, believe me!) at her own Primary School’s annual thespian bash.

“Great!” I said, and meant it. “What sort of a play is it? The statutory Nativity job? So what’s Robbie playing? Joseph? A Wise Man? The Innkeeper?”

“Nah” said Sara, deadpan. “A burglar. He’s dead chuffed because it’s not a speaking part, and so he doesn’t have to learn any lines.”

I couldn’t decide whether to be concerned at Robbie’s apparent lack of ambition (uncharacteristic, in our family) or delighted at his innate distaste for honest toil. (That’sa Ma Boy!) But then it occurred to me that in any account of the Nativity that I’d ever read, including those of Ss Matthew, Mark, Luke and the other bloke, the burgling classes didn’t exactly figure in the dramatis personae. What was he going to do? Grab the Gold? Filch the Frankincense? Mug the Magi for the Myrrh? Weird. This was obviously going to be one of those avante garde productions. Committee of trendy primary school pedagogues rewrites the Gospels ‘to make them more accessible to underprivileged minorities’ - you know the sort of thing.
What I couldn’t know was that this was to turn out (whether by design or default I’m not sure, but it makes little difference) to be The Nativity Story as Low Comedy. Carry On and Follow That Star. Wise Men Behaving Badly. Have it Away In A Manger.

But we’ll come to that in a bit. First things first. In The Beginning, there was The Cake.

And it came to pass that Phil the junkdealer journeyeth a days journey to the Land of Beds (which ain’t anything like as interesting as it sounds, O ye Scribes and Pharisees, perverts) and findeth himself even unto the firmament of a crowded School Hall, overheated like as to the domain of Lucifer the Prince of Darkness himself. Yea, I say unto you, even unto the front stalls did he journey, where he plonketh him on a chair several sizes too small, and which accommodateth not both of his capacious buttocks at once. And Phil the Junkdealer did cry unto the Lord, saying thus: O Lord God of junkdealers help this thy servant to bear this pain with which in thy wisdom thou hast scourged him due to this pathetic little chair, and more to the point help thy servant to get the fuck up again when the time cometh, so that his poor old back seizeth not up. And then Phil the Junkdealer did wax philosophical, as is the manner of his kind, and did think unto himself, “Do we not these days pamper something rotten the children of our loins that we have begatted - we never had central heating at school when I was a lad, and in the winter, O ye children of Israel, we froze our very cods off, for we were arrayed only in T shirts and short trousers, I kid ye not! And Brethren, verily I say unto you - heed the words of Phil the junkdealer - it did us no bloody harm! But it surpriseth me not in hindsight that our schoolmasters did look oft upon the wine when it was red. Thus keepeth they the cold out of their ancient bones.”

Here endeth the first lesson.

So I’m sitting there, minding my own business, chatting to Sara and to Claire, her young baby-sitter, waiting for the off. Suddenly I’m aware of this strident faux-gentille Lynda Snell kind of voice, coming from behind me, getting gradually closer, slicing through the crowd’s conversational white-noise like a surgeon’s knife parting compliant flesh.

“Do you want to guess the weight of the cake? Would anybody like to guess the weight of the cake? Are you going to have a go at guessing.............” and so on, approaching ever nearer. Eventually she reaches us. “Would you like to guess the weight of this cake?”

I should confess at this point that I’d had a couple of large liquid Winter Warmers when I got to Sara’s, and was by now feeling no pain. And bossy wannabee-county-set women with loud voices get right up my nose, even stone cold sober. So. Let’s have a laugh, I thought, and (with some difficulty) stood up. In my experience the only way to deal with that type of person is from a great height. Sitting in a kid-size chair with her towering over me would have been a fatal handicap in the witty repartee stakes.

“Surely by now you must have a fair idea of the weight of that cake. “ Coming the innocent.

“Of course we know the weight of the cake.” Tetchy. Suddenly wary. She scents danger. Reacts like an alarmed Meerkat. And looks a bit like one, come to think, but without all that built-in cutesy stuff.

“So why are you going around asking everybody, then?" Butter wouldn’t melt.

Her face freezes into a mask. She’s fairly sure I’m taking the piss something rotten, but has this vague niggle at the back of her mind that I might just be mentally retarded, and thus to be heavily indulged as a matter of trendy political correctness. Besides, all her peers are watching. Not the time or place to take chances. She decides to play it straight. And patronise, patronise, patronise.

“It’s a competition, dear. You have to guess the weight of this lovely cake, you see.”

Metaphorically patting me on the head.

“Oh goody! I Love competitions.” Thinking ‘ Ooops, James! You’ve picked the only person in the whole of Bedfordshire who’s had a humourectomy.’ Never mind. n too deep now. Carry on. “How do you tell who wins?”

“ThePersonWhoGuessesTheCorrectWeightOfTheCakeWins!!” Teeth clenched. Words gabbled. Expletives deleted. Eyes desperately hunting around the hall for a quick escape route. Voice rising in pitch. “ItsFiftyPeeAGuess!!!”

I unsheath my secret weapon; my trusty Gateau-blaster; and let her have it, right between the eyes.

“So what’s the prize, then, luv? What do I win?”

Panic. You can see it in her eyes. Omigod, I’ve got a weirdo. (She’s the one shoving unsolicited patisserie under the noses of innocent strangers, demanding that they deduce the avoirdupois thereof, and she reckons that I’m a weirdo.)

Cool was rapidly going out of the window. “YOU WIN THE CAKE !!!” Pejoratives (fool! idiot! arsehole! dickhead!) while physically left unexpressed, couldn’t have been clearer if she’d shouted them.

By this time, we had quite an audience. The parents in the seats around us were agog. Sara was studiously looking the other way, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. She’s been out with her Dad before, and knows what I’m like. Young Claire, who I learned later indulges in a touch of babysitting for the Cake-Peddler’s kids as well as for Sara’s two, was shrinking into her seat and trying to hide under her own right armpit. Nothing to do with me, missus, honest. Never seen ‘im before. True. Prior to that day, she hadn’t.

What neither of them know is that things could have gotten a lot worse. But at this point it occurred to me that Lady Cake was only trying to do her bit towards raising money, presumably for the children, and that perhaps I was being a little unkind. Besides, I’d only meant to have a joke with her, not to start WW3. I decided to let the silly humourless cow off the hook. Had I realised then what I learned from Sara later, that she was the local Gauleiter/busybody/do-gooder/into-everything/takes herself veddy veddy seriously/control freak, I wouldn’t have. It was a damned close-run thing, regardless. What I came within a micron of saying was:
“But I don’t actually eat cake! Tellyerwhat - I don’t s’pose you’ve got a leg of lamb about your person that I could guess the weight of instead? Or a chicken or two? Some Stilton maybe? A couple of pounds of mince? Nah - silly me -there wouldn’t be a lot of point your going around saying ‘can you guess the weight of this two pounds of mince?’ It’d be like Alice’s caucus race - everybody would win a prize except the Irish couple in the back row, and we’d end up with one small meatball each. Oh - and by the way - where do all the fifty pees go? To pay for the cake, or what.................?”

.........But all this merry badinage died still-born. I relented, confirmed with her that the requisite weight specifications included the box and the cakestand, (necessary information for proper evaluation of the project, I’d have thought, but delivered to me in a gravel-voiced venomous monosyllable as if I had no right to ask) hefted the confection, dropped the half-a-quid into her outstretched hand, refrained from thanking her for a lovely weekend (coward), told her the weight, and to deliver the cake to Sara when I won it, (I haven’t heard anything yet - I must get my secretary to ring her secretary) and let her go on her way, mightily relieved, and with her amour propre only slightly shattered into a mere million pieces. She’ll never know how lucky she was.

By this time the main event was due, and the players were under starters orders. The Chorus, assorted pre-pubescents of either gender, filed in wearing their best uniforms and sat down on benches beside the empty stage. The music-teacher started to give the piano some wellie. The lights dimmed. The Headmistress, (at least I presume it was she) entered centre stage in the guise (or so I thought until she started to speak) of Prologue. But no - her role was that of Apologia, Muse of Cockup. She coyly pointed out that they’d had a lot of problems lately, half the kids had been ill, some of the teachers likewise, most of them had had no time to learn their lines in between their normal schoolwork, and that the Prompter would thus be running red-hot. And so on, etcetera, blahdiblah. But that she was sure that we’d enjoy the play anyway, although would we kindly not get carried away, and please to hold back on the clapping until the end. This edict presumably aimed at specific parents who might go noisily bananas at the first sight of their own little treasures in Thespian mode, thus interfering with the overall artistic flow.

Such a resigned and contrite soft-sell rather set the tone for the afternoon, as far as I was concerned. What with her speech and the cake-saga, I was in no mood to take things seriously. There sprung to mind unbidden a picture of Terry Hands emerging onto the stage at the National before the first night of King Lear, apologising that the RSC hadn’t been able to learn its lines properly in between visits to the dole office to collect its Giros, that the scenery wasn’t finished because the stagehands had been on the piss all week, that the Assistant Director was out of it on illegal substances, that the actors who’d contracted to play Lear and Gloucester had fallen in lerve and had gorn orf to a villa in Tuscany holding hands, and that their understudies, having been given a mere ten minutes to learn their parts, could only be expected to do their best. Warning us, in effect, that the play would probably turn out to be unmitigated crap. But that he felt sure we’d love it regardless, because the writing was quite good, although would we kindly refrain from breaking up the theatre in our enthusiasm, at least until the Luvvies had had time to scarper at the end of the performance.

We gave Apologia the clap she so richly deserved, and the show got under way. I’m sure you know the story. Chippy meets girl/ Girl meets angel/ Girl pudding club/ Says angel’s fault/ Likely story/ King Herod skint, stamps foot/ All shekels to Inland Revenue PDQ/ Exeunt omnes Bethlehemwards where tax office/ Girl about to drop baby/ Chippy buys donkey for journey/ Hit Bethlehem/ Travelodge full/ No room at wossname/ Don’t care if she carrying sodding Messiah no rooms round here Christmas Week dickhead/ Pssst Wanna renta stable cheap?/ Only one cow sitting tenant/ Any port in storm/ Girl has baby boy/ 9lb 7oz inc. VAT, delivery, number plates and halo/ Dead ringer for 1950s Chad Valley dolly/ Name Jesus after nice waiter parents met Benidorm/ Three Wise men pitch up from points east/ Follow that star, cabbie/ Herod’s? Sorry guv, thought you said Harrods/ Where new King?/ Prezzies for same/ Herod no prezzies, right pissed off/ Shepherds watched their flocks/ Let’s start a religion, guys/ O Come All Ye Faithful/ Order Popemobile, sharpish.

Something like that.

The kids, let me tell you, were brilliant. But every single one of them was a comedian manque, from the ones who couldn’t wait to get their bit done, to gabble their allotted portion and so to escape back into safe obscurity, to the real stars of the show, the Innkeeper and the Camel, who were probably with hindsight meant to be funny. But consciously or subconsciously, they were all playing it for laughs. So that after about ten minutes I was in quiet hysterics. Which is when they had the marketplace scene, where Joseph buys the donkey. The transaction, according to the innocents of Lark Rise Junior School, Dunstable, went something like this:-

“I’d like to buy your donkey. How much is it?”

“A tenner, sir”

“Fine - here’s the money” (hands over some coin and leads beast of burden away)

Now you should know that in a real-life transaction of this importance between a Jewish Carpenter and an equally Jewish market trader and Donkey-Dealer, the commercial process wouldn’t have been quite so neat and tidy. For openers, Joseph would never have been allowed to buy the donkey on his own. This would have been Family Business, and his entire extended family would have gone with him. There’d have been his Bubbeh, his Grandmother, who saw donkeys not so much as transport as pot-roast - many a time in the old days had they had to sacrifice a donkey or two to feed the kids when things got a bit iffy in the Wilderness and they couldn’t face any more Manna. “Not Kosher, such a donkey, but in times of famine - feh! who cares!” She’d have spent hours poking the poor beast in the brisket, checking for quality, mumbling recipes and wondering if the Nazareth Tescos were giving extra loyalty points on carrots and onions. His mother would also have come along - in her younger unmarried days she’d been on a couple of dates with the donkey-salesman; she might even have married him if she thought he could have held down a proper job, but by now she knew him for what he was; she didn’t take any nonsense from him then, and wasn’t going to now. He stood no chance, poor sod.

There’d have been Poppa, tagging reluctantly along behind her, under orders. He was a shepherd by trade, and thus knew all there was to know about donkeys. “Neh, our lad - tha don’t want yon ass - clapped out, is yon ass - when tha’s been around beasts and sooch so long as I ‘ave tha knows a booggered ass when tha sees un!” His sister, Joseph’s Aunt Sadie, would be there as of right, to give him moral support, “so who’d vant a donkey thet colour already - it von’t go mit anytink” along with her husband Leonard, who had once seriously considered buying the Galilee Fatted Calf Ribs-U-Like franchise in partnership with his brother Morrie (before Morrie’s wife Miriam put the mockers on the deal by blowing the money on a new swimming pool) and was thus considered by all to be an expert both in matters of commerce and of livestock.

Mary’s family would also have expected to be consulted. All of ‘em. They’d have turned up in droves. Her mother, for starters, who didn’t for one moment fall for all that Angel-of-the-Lord folderol and reckoned that that schnorrer Joseph had been in pre-marital legover mode with her little girl; and while she was resigned to the realities, (after weeks of hysterics, meaningful silences, threatened suicides, and enough emotional blackmail to garner her a stock of prime scoring-points which would last her the rest of her days) she still felt that a mere carpenter and his family were beneath her. After all - her Uncle Solly may-his-dear-soul-rest-in-peace had been an Articled Scribe and a sidesman at the local synagogue, so they were Professional People, not In Trade like those common Carpenters. Consequently, she was going to contradict on principle every utterance, and countermand every decision, especially those of Joseph’s mother, who she both hated (for bringing her daughter’s seducer into the world) and was jealous of (because she’d had to shell out fortunes to some cowboy Lebanese builders for her new kitchen, whereas Joseph had built his mother a far more stylish one the following month for free.) She’d have also roped in her smartass brother, Uncle Hymie the fixer, who had a friend whose cousin knew a bloke whose wife’s uncle’s boss used to drink with a chap who was knocking off this girl who worked as a part time abacus operator for an outfit whose Sales Manager played golf with the Chief Executive of the firm that was the market leader, donkeywise, (then called Asses’R’Us but now known as Virgin Beasts of Burden, although it’s unclear whether or not this is in honour of the Madonna) and who could almost certainly “get wholesale if thet putz of a son-in-law of mine can vait a couple veeks....”

And so on. What with all this internecine interference, debate, argument, heated discussion and open warfare, allowing time for the asking price to have been chiselled down, sestercius by agonising sestercius, and allowing for time out during the negotiations to ‘let that momser of an ass-peddler sweat,’ it would have taken for ever to buy that beast! Before shekels and donkey changed hands the bloody animal would have died of old age, Mary would have been on HRT, and Jesus would have been shaving and going out with girls. But back to the play.

The story proceeded as per; King Herod was borne on, proudly ensconced on his throne, surrounded by his attendants (and carrying for some unexplained reason what looked like a dish of sprouts); the Nazareans were ordered to Bethlehem; the Three Kings were introduced; (and I betcha Robbie’s is the only primary school within 50 miles of the metropolis, who when faced with the need for a kid to play an African potentate, couldn’t find an ethnically suitable candidate and had to make do with a white one with a Bedfordshire accent. “Ay’m Melchier an’ Ay come from Afrik’er wiv gold ferder noo King” as opposed to “Ah’m Melchior, and Ah komm from Effreekah wid’ de Gold for de niew Kung”).

It was at this point that things started to get seeeriously surreal.

While I’m happy to accept the theory that the Welsh are the Lost Tribe of Israel, I’ve hunted through the King James Bible (the only one that I find readable; all the modern translations sound like they were cobbled together by the same linguistic hooligan who churned out the Customs & Excise guide to VAT) and can’t find, in the Nativity story or anywhere else, mention of a little Welsh girl called Megan. Or for that matter, her camel, known to his intimates (the staff and pupils of Lark Rise School) as Meredith. But maybe Lark Rise School is using a later interpretation of the Holy Scriptures than I have access to, so let’s not carp or cavil. Either way - these two voyagers from the Valleys seemed to have become a pivotal part of the Nativity Story.
Young Megan was a pretty child, sort of a cross between Shirley Temple and Alice in Wonderland, with a pleasant voice, and a good delivery. No gabbling here. And (her relevance to the storyline apart) no controversy, either - it was Meredith the Camel that was remarkable, not Megan.

Whoever made Meredith’s costume must have once heard someone describe a camel, but had patently never seen one. Or even a picture of one. Because, given acres of vaguely camel-coloured fabric and hours of painstaking stitchery, when the end product emerged, it didn’t turn out as a camel at all. It was a Brontosaurus. And as if this wasn’t hilarious enough, design dictated that it should be a two-seater Brontosaurus, in the manner of a pantomime horse; they’d cast a kid at each end, as it were. The trouble was that the drivers of this dun dinosaur had developed a major communications problem. Somehow the Back Legs didn’t seem to be interfacing with the Front Legs, and each end was acting independently of the other. So the hapless creature was staggering around the stage like it was pissed out of its pea-sized brain, audibly arguing with itself, and the puzzled audience was presented not with an indigenous and benignly stupid camel that the traditional story might reasonably have demanded, but with a ratarsed Welsh Brontosaurus with Attitude.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the beast’s head, due to a minor design fault, kept coming unput, falling forwards and closing up the small but vital spyhole in the creature’s neck; with the result that Front Legs couldn’t see where he was going; worse, his arms were hidden and restrained inside his costume and he had nothing to push his drooping bonce back up with; the bodily contortions he essayed in order to achieve some form of comfortable stasis headwise had to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile Back Legs, who was bent double, in the dark, and with such a view as he enjoyed limited by and to the bum belonging to Front Legs, not a vista normally reckoned to enhance one’s sense of direction, had by now no idea at all where he was at. His solution to this disorientation problem was to follow exactly what Front Legs was doing, or rather what he guessed Front Legs was doing; which would have been fine, except that his guesses weren’t always accurate, (unsurprisingly, considering Front Leg’s impromptu unrehearsed head-straightening convolutions) and his reactions weren’t exactly fast, so it was a bit like one of those satellite phone calls to New Zealand or wherever where there is both interference on the line and a time delay between transmission and reception; so that the Party of the First Part finds the Party of the Second Part answering the question before last, and vice versa, and if they’re going to make any sense at all out of the proceedings they both have to remember what happened ten minutes ago, assuming they heard it correctly in the first place what with the static. Tricky.

Anyway - Megan and Meredith did their statutory little song-and-dance number; I presume it was meant to be in unison, or at least in time, but what with one thing and another it came out as a sort of disharmonious trinity, with each participant employing a different beat and a different script. I’ve never seen anything quite so funny in my life. I hope it was intentional.

Anyhow - back to the story. Their dancing done, M and M were then firmly put in their place by the Reigning Classes when they mooted a joint Star-Following expedition, and so opted to Follow the aforesaid Heavenly Body off their own bats.

Who (the bats, I mean) bring us neatly to the next bit. Night. O celebrated and eponymous Night. Silent same; Holy same. That Night. The Night the Shepherds Washed Their Socks by. They (the shepherds) were All Seated On The Ground as the song and the script dictates; the Star had conveniently stopped zooming around the firmament so that everybody could stop Following it and get some much-needed kip in, the Angel of the Lord Came Down, pulled rank, and woke everybody up again, and Glory Shone Around for a bit. These things are traditional, they tell me. Which presumably means that by next year Lord Protector Blair and his New Meddle Army will have banned them outright. New Labour, New Liturgy. God rest ye merry, Mandelson.

Meanwhile Megan was sleeping with her camelosaurus, (funny people, the Welsh) the three kings were sleeping with each other, (Orientals - nuff said) Mary was sleeping with her baby, Joseph presumably got lucky with the donkey, and we were presented with A Tableau.

Which was obviously designed, or at least intended, to represent the aforementioned Night. But what I couldn’t work out, apart from the granting of some gainful employment to some of the kids that weren’t otherwise engaged in the drama, was why they needed it, for it had absolutely no relevance to the story. It was clearly aimed to represent a forest (the Judaean desert is after all renowned worldwide for its lush forestry) so a dozen or so kids came in dressed up as trees, which involved a certain amount of foliage draped round their persons, footwear like oversized wellies covered in bark, and outstretched arms. Once they’d got set up, there appeared divers others, kitted out as badgers, foxes, owls, rabbits, bats, deer, various assorted rodents, and other typically indigenous Levantine nocturnal fauna. It looked more like a wood somewhere vaguely Dorking way, or a traditionally-minded Shakespearean Director’s conception of the Forest of Arden, than an Eastern Mediterranean oasis. Maybe we’ve swopped plays in mid stream, I thought. Maybe Titania, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Bottom, Snout, Quince & Co. are going to come on any minute and do their thing. But no such luck. Or such Puck. This wasn’t Midsummer Night, but Silent Ditto.

So, moving right along, the next participants to appear were a trio of Burglars. I’d been rather waiting for them, because as I said earlier, one was played by my grandson Robbie, who was only on stage for ten seconds, but let me tell you - he was brilliant. Stole the show, he did. definitely deserves an Oscar, the lad..... [ continues interminably in Proud Grandfather mode until everybody’s eyes glaze over...........] How could one tell that they were burglars? They wore masks, that’s how. Although not the statutory striped jerseys and the sacks marked ‘SWAG’, unfortunately. Fire the director, say I, and blame this significant departure from tradition on the Government’s education cuts. Neither did they commit any noticeable burgling; they were just there, it seemed, as typical ‘creatures of the night,’ along with the badgers etcetera. For all the relevance they had to the proceedings, the scriptwriters might as well have slung a few rapists, serial killers and parkers on double yellow lines into the melting-pot (although as I’m not sure of the correct symbolic uniform for any of these offenders, for all I know they may well have done.) Anyway - they all stood there for a minute or so being a Night, and then called it a night and legged it into the wings. The lights came up, and Lo! Morning has Broken. Christmas Day in the Morning, even. Time for The Presents.

Cut to the Stable. Joseph’s busy grooming the donkey. (Another kid-each-end job this, but better behaved and better co-ordinated than the camel.) Mary’s busy giving the baby Jesus a gobful of - well, she should have been, but this particular BVM couldn’t be more than about nine years old, and hadn’t grown any yet, so use your imagination. Jesus looks singularly unconcerned at this lack of mammary nourishment, but then why should he care - he’s a plastic dolly.

The Three Kings tip up. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh are formally transferred to their new owners. Mary thanks them profusely, but the look on her face says “This is all well and good, but I’d far rather have a couple of Baby-Gros and some Pampers.” Enter the shepherds, stage right. Their gifts consist of a carpet (secondhand), a coat (Oxfam) and a lamb (newborn). Which presumably will need bottle-feeding shortly, along with the baby. Let’s hope somebody pitches up soon with the bottle, some formula, some Milton, and a few spare teats.

Megan arrives, with Meredith staggering along amiably drunk in her wake. “What have I, a poor orphan, got that I can give the Newborn King” she asks, half to herself, half to us. Sure and what indeed? the Irish couple in the back row are thinking. The brontosaurus, who’s seen the script, desperately tries to look invisible. And fails, miserably. It’s the long trek back to Nazareth for you, boyo.

Megan, having finally got shot of her familiar, turns into Goody-Twoshoes. And turns to the audience.

“And what would You give the Baby Jesus”, she trills.

This is the cue for the rest of the school to file up onto the stage, each bearing his or her gift (or rather a pictorial representation of same - for practical reasons the real things might have been a tad awkward to handle.)

“I’ll give him my rabbits.”
“I’ll give him my hamster.
“I’ll give him some goldfish.”
“He’d love my pony.”
“I’ve got a white rat.”
“Here’s my dog?
“My cat’s just had kittens”
“How about a jerbil or nine..............”

and so on etcetera, through about thirty of the little dears, each with his own particular species. You’ll notice that none of them was parting with anything significant, like a Spice Girls poster or a Nintendo game.

You should remember, this is a fairly small stable. Ensconced in it by now are two new parents, one new baby, three kings, their attendants, a coachload of shepherds with (presumably) their flocks; thirty-odd schoolchildren from 2000 years in the future, a two-part donkey, a lamb, a litter of kittens, a prodigious quantity of other assorted household pets and farm animals of all shapes and sizes, a pony, the cow whose nice peaceful pad this was before it got hijacked and turned into a refugee camp; the Innkeeper, who’s popped in to see what all the noise is about, his family, who have no intention of missing out on anything, a few chickens, Megan the Cambrian Pollyanna, a brontosaurus from Tiger Bay with a drink problem, two turtle-doves, and a Partridge in a pear tree. It must have been quite a party.

That was about it, really. They all took their bows, we applauded vociferously, an ovation which they all truly deserved, and we went home. An entertainment that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I haven’t laughed so much in years. And if this has sounded like I’m knocking what must have taken considerable dedication, time and planning, just to be clever-clever, I’m not. I loved every minute of it.

It was only later that I got to thinking (the Theatre does this to me - I get lost in the magic and start confusing it with reality) of what poor old Joe might have said to his wife when everybody had left. and he’d finished mucking out the stable and feeding the livestock.
“Listen, darlin. By you this little bugger may be a king, but that don’t mean we’ve won the Lottery an’ we’re made a’ money. ‘Erod’s already nicked the gold - sent ‘is enforcer round afore you can say knife, ‘e did. Name of Gordon. Weaselly little shit. Unearned income, ‘e said. Taxed at 100 pee in the Shekel, innit. Payin’ for a Carin’ Society or some such bollocks. Sumberdy, probly that foreign bird, ‘as ‘alf-inched yer noo perfume; the bloody donkey’s eaten the Myrrh, give itself a narsty case of the squits, we’ve got enough bleedin’ livestock to start a zoo, ‘cep we can’t afford to feed the buggers, let alone find the money for the soddin’ vet’s bills or to get ‘em all back ‘ome, and most of the sods ain’t even edible in emergencies. The goldfishes’ polythene bag’s leakin all over the poxy gerbils, the rabbits are at it already, the cow’s drivin’ itself mad cause it reckons it’s got BSE, and the camel’s got the ‘ump, got ‘imself pissed as a fart and is doin’ dinosaur impressions. An’ I’m fed up to the back teef wiv shovellin’ shit. So do us a favour, willya. Next time you run inter an angel, keep yer bleedin’ legs shut, there ‘s a good girl!
Mindjew - one bitter good news - that newspaper geezer. Murdoch? Maxwell? Summink like that. Matthew, thassit. Sed ‘e might call round termorrer. Might buy our story, ‘e sez. The Noo Testament, ‘e reckons ‘e works for. Neverrerdovit. Must be one of them arty-farty Sundy papers..................