6. Away In A Manger…

…No Script For A Jed
aka: While Shepherds Botch Their Plots
[Not part of the original Heyes and Curry Stories – a DVD extra]

By Calico

THE FIRST FRIDAY IN DECEMBER – 1858

Hannibal Heyes exploded into the snug farmhouse, outrage written all over his face.

“Pa! D’you know what Miss Field told…?”

“Hannibal! Mud!” interrupted his stepmother.

Rolling his eyes, Hannibal pivoted 180 degrees and returned to the porch for serious boot scraping. Women! It was only a floor! If she didn’t LIKE scrubbing floors – why did she do it so dang often?

From the temporary exile a voice could be heard grumbling, “D’you know what she told us? About the Christmas ex’bition?” A still cross but less muddy-footed seven-year old stomped over to the table and scowled at his father. “D’you know what she said?”

“Hannibal, just to preserve the façade of civility in the Heyes’ household, why not say ‘hello’ to your guest before embarking on this tale of woe?”

Sheesh! Couldn’t a fella come into his own house after school without getting nagged left, right and centre? The ‘guest’ was only Jed! Jed came for supper plenty of Fridays and stayed over through Saturday. Jed scarcely counted as proper company any more than Hannibal counted as proper company over at the Curry place. All the same, Hannibal knew he wouldn’t get his father listening properly until he did as he was told.

“Hello, Jed. Pa, y’know the Christmas ex’bition…?”

“Hello, Han,” responded Jed, cheerily

Jed was helping Louisa Heyes stir a Christmas pudding and having a fine time. Hannibal complained his stepmother fussed too much, but Jed, competing at home against six brothers and sisters, was more than happy to be fussed over while waiting for Hannibal to come home from school. He was full of milk and cookies and basking in undivided attention. If it also involved his coat being buttoned right up to his chin before he went out in the cold and having to scrub his nails when he washed his hands – hey, that was okay too.

“Y’know the Christmas ex’bition…?”restarted Hannibal.

“You gotta stir the pudding too, Hannibal,” said Louisa, handing over the wooden spoon.

“Yeah – ‘cos when you stir you gotta make a wish,” nodded Jed, licking a splash of mixture off his fingers.

“Y’know the Christmas ex’bition…?”

“You was s’posed to make puddin’ last Sunday, like my Ma did, but Mrs. Heyes, she didden know ‘bout…”

“Miss Field said…

“Jed’s been telling me all about Stir-Up Sunday…” smiled Louisa at her small helper.

“It’s an English thing,” put in Alex. “I daresay Jed’s mother always helped her own mother with the pudding on the same day every year when she was a girl.”

“About the ex’bition, she said…”

“But, even though it’s a bit late,” pressed on Jed, “Ev’body in the house hasta stir and ev’body hasta make a wish.”

Heaving a deep sigh, Hannibal agitated the thick mixture.

“Whaddya wish, Han?”

“I wish folk’d let me finish a dang sentence! Sheesh!”

A silence. His father and his stepmother exchanged a glance. Jed dipped another finger prior to licking. Hannibal assumed his wish was being granted and made the most of it.

“Y’know the Christmas ex’bition?”

“Uh huh,” nodded Alex.

“Y’know I thought how it couldn’t do no harm if’n I memorised a piece all ready – just in case?”

“Uh huh,” repeated Alex. Indeed he did. The ‘piece’ had been recited at every meal for a week.

“‘Twasder night before Christmasan’ d’all frewder house notta creacher was stirrin’ nodeven a mouse the stockin swerung…” began Jed. He had heard the ‘piece’ a few times too. He received a stern frown from his friend. Ever the philosopher, he shut up and returned to stirring.

“D’you know what Miss Field said today?”

“Consider our breath bated,” obliged Alex.

“She said the younger children – she called me, ME, a younger child! – them under eight, wouldn’t hafta learn nothin’ for the ex’bition ‘cos we weren’t gonna be in it! She said Mrs. Godfrey’s gonna do somethin’ special – with her bible class and we gotta be in THAT instead. She made it sound like we were gettin’ some kinda treat! Like we oughta be pleased! Pleased! Pleased to hafta stay with a lotta little kids ‘stead of exhib’tin’ prop’ly! AND, on top o’ that, havin’ Mrs. Godfrey – Mrs. Godfrey – in charge!”

“Hannibal,” warned Alex, gently.

“Mrs. Godfrey’s very, very nice,” chipped in Louisa. “It’s very, very kind of her to take so much trouble with the children’s Sunday Bible Class.”

Hannibal glanced at his father and decided not to argue with that. He did not have a real problem the weeks he had to go sit with Mrs. Godfrey in the church hall hearing bible stories, instead of in proper church listening to Reverend Thomas. Both were just things to be got through before being allowed to get on with whatever he and Jed had planned for the day. Though she fell well short of Miss Field, he did not have a big problem with Mrs. Godfrey. She combined being sappy with uncomfortable bouts of surprising strictness, but hey, you could say that about lots of ladies.

He contented himself with, “It’s still not fair, not lettin’ me be in the ex’bition!”

“Well, look on the bright side,” consoled Alex, “…You’ll have plenty of other chances to make an exhibition of yourself.”

“Yeah, but I wanted to do it now!” protested Hannibal, the double meaning sailing well over his young head.

“And, there’ll be compensations. In the main exhibition you’d be one of the youngest and all the older pupils are bound to get the bulk of the stage time. If Mrs. Godfrey is taking the sevens and under – well, you’ll be bound to get a key role! Much less competition. There’s a lot to be said for being the big fish in a smaller pond.”

Hannibal mulled. There was a lotta truth in that piece of paternal wisdom.

“And,” Jed’s contribution to the ruffled-feather smoothing was slightly obscured by him being handed a wooden spoon to suck clean, “…If Mrs. Godfrey’s doin’ some’n with the Sunday class, I can be in it with ya, Han.”

More mulling; a lotta truth in that too. Having a best friend still some way off turning six and starting school was a distinct disadvantage to doing as much stuff together as they’d like. A sevens and under show would mean Hannibal had Jed right there. In a supporting role of course.

Hannibal decided to be mollified. Until, that is, he registered what Jed was licking.

“How come Jed gets the spoon!?”

“Because you can scrape out the bowl,” soothed Louisa, handing it over.

Quite right too!

“What do I get?” protested Alex.

“You get to lift down the big copper to boil this in,” she grinned, tying muslin ears on top of the pudding.

“Talk about the unfairness of life!”

“You can have a scrape of my bowl if you like, Pa.”
“You can have a suck of my spoon if’n you want, Mr. Heyes.”

Alex surveyed the spit paths made by small wet fingers and tongues and declined with thanks.

For a minute or so, mixture cleaning carried on in comparative silence. Louisa began to wash up. When not a lick was left, the boys picked up cloths to help dry.

“Pa, this show Mrs. Godfrey’s gonna do – whaddya reckon it’ll be?”

“Oh, she’ll do a traditional Christmas play…”

“‘Twas the night before Christmas? I could be Saint Nich’las…”

“I could be Dasher!” chirped Jed. “I don’t wanna be one of the smuggled children.”

“No, it’ll be the Christmas story…” corrected Alex.

“The Scrooge one?” interrupted Hannibal. “I call Scrooge.” Sudden qualm. “…No – I’ll be a ghost. No – Scrooge.” Thinking. “Scrooge,” he finally decided, “…Jed can be a ghost.”

“No, Hannibal,” tried Louisa, “…It’ll be THE Christmas story.”

Blank look.

“She’ll do a Nativity Play,” spelt out Alex.

Dawning comprehension.

“Oh, THAT Christmas story.” Hannibal’s voice held a distinct edge of disappointment.

“As opposed to Mrs. Godfrey have her Bible class celebrate their knowledge of the good book by acting as flying reindeer or ghosts? Yup, it’ll be THAT Christmas story,” confirmed Alex.

Hannibal did a quick mental review of the plot. Hmm.

“What’d you say is the best part?” he asked, nonchalantly.

“Oh, that’s easy. The part everyone wants is Mary,” said Louisa, wiping down the table.

Hannibal rolled his eyes. Mary! That was no dang use was it?!

—oooOOOooo—

AROUND AN HOUR LATER AT SUPPER

“…I was thinking about shelves for the storeroom when you build the new house, Alex,” said Louisa, adding a knob of butter to a dish of braised cabbage as she set it down. “I was thinking…”

“You could have a word with Mr. Godfrey, couldn’t you, Pa? ‘Cos you’re both on the school board. So, you could say, ‘s’only right your son should have a good part in the…”

“Hannibal! In the first place, let Louisa finish her sentence…”

“I don’t get to finish MY sent…”

“I don’t mind,” put in Louisa, peaceably. “The boys don’t wanna hear about shelves.”

“In the second place, it doesn’t matter what part anyone gets, so long as they do their best. In the third place, are you really suggesting I use my position on the School Board to exercise an unfair influence on casting decisions?”

YES! What’s the point of HAVING a position if’n you don’t use it? Sheesh!

“No! Not ‘sactly,” hedged Hannibal. “…But it wouldn’t BE unfair, ‘cos I SHOULD have a big part!”

Nothing from his father; who simply scooped a ladle of cabbage onto his plate. Hannibal tried another angle.

“How d’you think Mrs. Godfrey will make her…” He searched. What had his father called them? Oh, yeah. “Her castin’ decisions?”

Alex pursed his lips, thoughtfully. “Mary will be the child of whichever mother will make the most fuss if her daughter is passed over…”

“I played Mary once,” chipped in Louisa, “…Back when we lived over at the Fort.”

“I rest my case,” said Alex, continuing without pause before that could sink in, “…Joseph needs to be a docile boy who doesn’t mind being dragged about behind Mary like a spare part.”

“I’m not bein’ Joseph!” declared Hannibal.

“I wouldn’t mind,” chirped Jed. “‘Course, depends who’s Mary.”

“Shy children who won’t walk on stage without their friends, you make Shepherds, or maybe Assistant Angels. Slightly less shy children who can be trusted with a single line part and to carry out a simple motor function if you glare hard enough – you make them into Wise Men. You give the part of Gabriel to the girl who could’ve been Mary but whose mother is slightly less frightening when roused…”

“Alex!” protested Louisa. She nodded at two fascinated small faces drinking all this in. Alex remembered he risked being quoted, verbatim, in a public place and shut up.

“Pa,” Hannibal’s tone was, again, nonchalant, “I know it don’t matter who gets what part, but – apart from Mary – who d’you reckon’ll have the most lines?”

“In a play for sevens and under?” Thoughtful chewing, “Probably the prompter.”

—oooOOOooo—

THAT SUNDAY

“This play will be your own special Christmas offering,” Fanny Godfrey smiled at the faces gazing up at her, “…Not just to your parents and their neighbours, but to – (Millard, don’t do that!) …But to the little Baby Jesus.”

Hannibal, cross-legged next to Jed, wriggled. Mrs. Godfrey was always saying mushy stuff like that, AND, she wasn’t getting on with what everyone, not just him, was waiting for – the all important casting decisions.

“Because the birth of the Baby Je… (Millard! Stop it! Don’t let me see your finger up there again!) …Baby Jesus is what we are celebrating. So what I want you all to remem… (Millard Buellton! Sit on your hands. Now!) …Remember is that it doesn’t matter who plays which…

While this guff went on, Jed became aware of a surreptitious shuffling beside him. Hannah Williams was edging closer. She leant in and her soft voice confided, “I wanna be Mary, Jed. I’m crossin’ my fingers real hard.”

Jed glanced at the appealing eyes meeting his. A faint flush rose to his cheeks. “I think you’d make a real fine Mary,” he breathed back.

“D’you wanna be Joseph?”

“I guess,” blushed Jed, shooting a wary glance at Hannibal in case he was listening. Unseen by Hannah, two more small – masculine – fingers were crossed.

“…Jedediah?” Mrs. Godfrey paused. Nothing.

Hannibal nudged Jed hard and redirected his eyes in the right direction.

“…Huh?”

“I was asking, Jed; would you like to draw a dear, sweet, little woolly lamb to put next to the crib, coming to see the Baby Jesus?”

Jed looked disgusted, as any self-respecting boy might, at being asked to draw a dear, sweet, woolly little anything. However, he’d been brought up to answer civilly when asked a question by a grown-up, so said, “I’d rather draw a cougar, ma’am.”

“But, that’s a mountain lion, Jed. Why would a lion be in the stable?”

“Could be lyin’ down with the lamb. Like in the Bible,” contributed Hannibal. “…Though it really says wolf.”

“What Han said,” agreed Jed.

“There are no lions in the stable,” declared Mrs. Godfrey, giving up sweet reason for the easier path of the dictator. “We’ll be drawing lambs, cows and a donkey. Now, children, let’s all decide who will play which part in our Christmas offering. The part of Mary will be taken by…”

Hopeful intake of feminine breath beside Jed. He squeezed his crossed fingers tighter.

“…Harriet Buellton.”

A little ‘oh’ of disappointment from Hannah.

Harriet beamed, “My ma said if’n I wasn’t Mary she’d wanna know the reason why.”

“The reason why’d be ‘cos you’ve gotta face that’d crack…”

“Millard Buellton! Little gentlemen do NOT talk to their sisters like that!”

Millard piped down and contented himself with thumbing a nose at his older sibling. ‘Mary’ (not yet in full meek and mild character) hooked her fingers into her mouth, pulled it wide as she could and stuck her tongue out.

“Let’s not be silly,” reproved Mrs. Godfrey. “I’m sure Harriet will make a fine Mary. Now, you other girls mustn’t be disappointed because I’ve got lovely parts for you. You’ll all be dressed as beautiful angels and…”

“Me an’ Rachel didn’t wanna be Mary anyhow,” put in Esther Curry. Disdain dripped from her voice as she added, “I get enough of havin’ to carry a baby round back home. We wanna be Shepherds.”

“Uh huh,” concurred Rachel Williams.

“But I thought Esther could be our Narrator; the Angel who tells the audience the story – that’s LOTS of lines, Esther! LOTS. More than anyone else…”

A pair of dark eyebrows snapped together, sharply. “Huh?”

Mrs. Godfrey was still in full flow. “You could be Gabriel, Rachel; and little Hannah can be the Angel who brings the Baby Jesus to the crib. All of you in lovely wings and halos. Wouldn’t you like that?”

The faces of the two tomboys stared back at Mrs. Godfrey with expressions of horror.

“No, ma’am,” said Esther, baldly. “Me and Rachel wanna be Shepherds.”

“With proper crooks,” specified Rachel.

“Shepherds are boys,” objected her brother, Ike Williams.

“Don’t hafta be!” shot back Esther, “…What ‘bout Little Bo Peep? What was she if’n she wasn’t a shepherd?”

“Yeah, but…” Ike floundered a moment then saw the flaw in this argument, “Yeah, but she sucked! She lost her sheep an’ didn’t know where to find ‘em!”

“What about Mary?” challenged Esther.

“You ain’t bein’ Mary, I’M Mary!” put in Harriet Buellton.

“Not THAT Mary. Mary with the little lamb whose fleece was whiddas snow.”

“I’m bein’ Mary an’ there won’t be no fleas an’ – an’ I’m havin’ boys as Shepherds!” A set of handsomely curled ringlets were tossed.

Hannibal was not having that. HE might be allowed to argue with Esther Curry, but he wasn’t about to let Harriet Buellton try and boss her. Besides, the information Mrs. Godfrey had let slip about Esther’s alternative role had to be borne in mind. Esther needed to win this argument!

“It don’t say NOWHERE in the Bible these Shepherds was boys. Just says ‘Shepherds out in the fields’,” contributed the wily one.

Fanny Godfrey glanced at her bible with the marker handily in ‘Luke’, but decided not to bother checking. Hannibal Heyes had a facility for devilish (pun intended) accuracy when quoting scripture for his own purpose.

“I reckon Esther oughta be a Shepherd an’ I oughta be the Narrator with all the lines AND the Prompter, BUT,” Hannibal wanted to make one thing quite clear, “…NOT dressed as an angel. I might dress like a Roman givin’ decrees – y’know in a toga or some’n – but NOT an angel.”

“Hannibal, I had thought you’d be our Joseph.” The cast list crumpled in the producer’s tightening grip.

Hannibal had NO intention whatsoever of spending the show being number two of a couple. “No, thank you, ma’am. I’ll be Narrator. And Prompter.”

“I don’t think we’ll need a Prompter, Hannibal. And Joseph is the best boy’s p…”

“I don’t mind not havin’ the best part, ma’am.” The brown eyes radiated virtuous self-sacrifice. “Like you said, it don’t matter who plays what. So, if’n it don’t matter – I’ll be Narrator.”

“An’ me an’ Rachel can be Shepherds,” declared Esther.

Two sets of arms, one Heyes one Curry, were folded across two small chests. Two stubborn bottom lips pouted.

Mrs. Godfrey breathed deeply. In her view both Hannibal Heyes and Esther Curry were too opinionated by far and her instinct was to send them both to stand in separate corners.
But…
Yes. ‘But’.
They were also the two children capable of remembering pages of text by heart and with enough confidence to walk to the centre of a stage and order a hall full of adults to be quiet and listen. In her role as producer, the wiser course was to keep these potential towers of strength on her side. The alternative was to risk their considerable talents being diverted to dumb insolence or, worse, active resistance.

Hannibal as Narrator was not a problem except it left her with too few boys to fill all the male roles. But, if she let Esther be a Shepherd would that help? It shouldn’t be too hard to transfer lines meant for Gabriel in the field and later lines meant to come from Joseph commenting on the arrival of Wise Men to a confident and eloquent herder of sheep.

“Very well,” she capitulated. “Hannibal will be our Narrator…”

“AND Prompter.”

The put-upon producer let that pass. He was bound to know everyone’s lines anyhow. “…And Esther and Rachel will be our Shepherds. That means Hannah can play Gabriel. She can have a long white dress, shiny halo and beautiful wings. Won’t that be lovely, Hannah?”

Hannah gave a subdued, “Yes, ma’am,” but a disconsolate sniff and a hand coming up to rub at a small pink nose showed the kindly-meant solace of a pretty costume had not consoled the want-to-be Mary.

“As for Joseph…”

The producer’s gaze roamed over the remaining boys. Watching her, Hannibal suspected she was doing exactly what his father had suggested; searching for some docile sap who wouldn’t mind being pushed around by a girl.

She lingered on the oldest possibility, Ike Williams. Hmm? A look of sheer horror settled on Ike’s face. Fortunately for him, Mrs. Godfrey recalled that when it came to remembering Bible verses, despite her best efforts, Ike Williams was still convinced Noah’s Ark had been made from cubed bits.

Her eyes moved to Millard Buellton, also a picture of utter reluctance. Brother and older sister consenting to hold hands? A mother herself, Mrs. Godfrey had learnt the value of picking her battles.

Jed Curry? Jed was a bright boy, but the youngest by many months. Maybe not.

Jed, his uncrossed fingers splayed wide as duck’s feet – Harriet Buellton was a head taller than him and bossy to boot – breathed a sigh of relief as Mrs. Godfrey’s gaze moved on.

Ahhh. George Myers. Currently gazing out of the window, oblivious to the danger, George was delightfully average at memorising lines and cursed with a sweet, obliging nature. Perfect!

—oooOOOooo—

SOME WEEKS LATER – THE AFTERNOON OF THE PERFORMANCE

“What’d ya bring THAT for?” demanded Harriet, looking at the rag doll in Hannah Williams’ arms.

“Charlotte’s gonna be the Baby Jesus.” A set of tawny woollen plaits were being tucked inside a buttercup yellow doll’s blanket. “If’n I hide her long hair she can pretend to be a bo…”

“I brung Arabella to be Baby Jesus!” interrupted Harriet, pointing at her own doll already in situ in a hay-filled crib. “She’s better’n your’n.”

“Isn’t!”

“Is so! She’s store bought! She’s gotta china face!”

“Don’t make her better!” Arabella was plucked from the crib and replaced with a cloth-faced version.

“Does too!” The dolls were switched back. “Your doll ain’t gonna be Baby Jesus ‘cos you ain’t Mary. You gotta be an Nangel! Mrs. Godfrey said! Mary gets to choose Baby Jesus, don’t she, George?”

‘Joseph’, not wanting any involvement in this feminine strife, shuffled his feet and feigned deafness.

“Well…” Hannah searched for a telling argument, “You look dumb in that old curtain.”

“Don’t! You don’t know nothin’, Hannah Williams. My ma made this robe outta a piece of real fine velvet, it’s the perfect blue to match my eyes and I look a real picture, so – pfffttt!”

‘Mary’, arms akimbo, placed herself in front of the crib in a manner reminiscent of a tigress guarding her cub. Since she was taller and broader than little Hannah, that appeared to be that.

Jed Curry, fixing a cloth headdress around his brow, gave Hannah a sympathetic look as she stomped over and slipped her arms through her wings.

“Never mind,” he soothed. “It’s only a doll.”

He received a look which would have wrung pity from Herod. (The historical Herod that is, NOT the performance Herod who was being triple-played by a part-hungry Hannibal Heyes.) It was NOT only a doll! It was the straw breaking the camel’s back! Jed realised his error and tried an alternative consolation. “Your halo looks real nice.”

The said halo was currently slipping both literally and metaphorically as the small archangel glowered, broodingly, at the triumphant handmaid of the lord. “I’m gonna show her!”

—oooOOOooo—

Buttocks of parents, schoolmarm, reverend and community-minded townsfolk wriggled on the hard benches in search of elusive comfort. Alex settled himself next to fellow School Board member, Martin Godfrey. Mr. and Mrs. Curry, their two older boys (who had been given little choice as to whether they came along to support Jed and Esther) and Beth, filled up the row behind. Louisa was minding Ruth and Sarah to allow Elizabeth to come be ‘proud mother’ in the audience. Jed and Esther had promised Louisa a private performance of the highlights – that is, their bits – and Hannibal had consented to narrate for this treat.

“Fanny’s worked real hard,” Godfrey murmured, a nod of his head indicating the anxious producer, seated at the notoriously tinny piano close to a simple curtain screening off the ‘wings’. Ruefully, he added, “Me, too. She had me up ‘til the small hours finishing off the Wise Men’s gifts.”

“I’m sure we all appreciate it,” murmured back Alex.

Mr. Godfrey twisted in his chair to speak to Nathanial, “Thanks for the loan of a manger.”

“Sure, and you’re welcome.”

“You too, Heyes – thanks for the star contraption.”

“Not a problem.”

Mr. Godfrey seemed to feel a little more was needed. “Fanny says Hannibal’s been real keen. Always coming up with bright ideas – working on his words and so on.”

A pause. A pucker appeared at the corner of Alex’s mouth, “I can imagine. In fact, I don’t have to imagine. The subject might have come up a few times.”

As if on cue, a chord rang out from the piano and the Narrator, head held high, toga adjusted elegantly over one arm strode centre stage. A small throat was cleared – meaningfully. Neighbours nudged each other. One by one the low-voiced conversations fell silent as a pair of deep brown eyes swept the hall.

“Isn’t he cute?” came one audible motherly whisper.

Dark brows snapped together. No! He wasn’t! The effect he was aiming at was ‘imposing’. Sheesh!

“Friends, Romans, countrymen – lend me your ears.
Here in fair Nazareth, do we lay our scene…”

Alex resisted the urge to throw an apologetic glance at Fanny Godfrey, ushering the Holy Couple into place.

“…In Nazareth lived Joseph, a humble carpenter and his espoused wife, Mary.”

‘Mary’, wreathed in satisfied smiles and swishing her robes, marched stage centre with a shy-looking ‘Joseph’ in tow.

Aws from many ladies in the audience, the loudest from Mrs. Buellton bursting with maternal pride.

‘Joseph’s’ eyes scanned the rows. A delighted grin; a wave, “Hi, Ma.”

“Don’t!” hissed ‘Mary’, yanking at his arm.

“One day, when Joseph had left to do his work…” continued Hannibal. He paused. ‘Mary’ was preening. ‘Joseph’ was smiling at his family. Hannibal sighed and repeated with firm emphasis, “JOSEPH had LEFT…”

‘Mary’ returned to the plot and gave ‘Joseph’ a shove. He trundled off, happily enough, to lurk in the wings stage right. Meanwhile, ‘Mary’ followed her instructions to mime domestic activity. She wielded an invisible broom and, to the delight of everyone except her parents and Mrs. Godfrey, could be heard chuntering an artless imitation of her mother, “Look at the mess in here! Men! Tchah! Don’t matter how many times you tell ‘em, they never wipe their dang boots! An’ the stink of his dang pipe ev’where. I shoulda listened to my mother…”

“An angel of the Lord appeared…”

An exceedingly grumpy Archangel Gabriel stomped onto stage and raised her arms aloft as she had been directed.

More ‘aws’ from the easily pleased sections of the audience.

“What?” scowled ‘Mary’.

“I am an Nangel of the Lord.”

“So? I’m the HANDMAID of the Lord – an’ that’s better.”

From her stool, Mrs. Godfrey blinked – What? Hannibal, conscious of his responsibility as Prompter, also blinked and moved forward, but – the girls were too quick for him.

“You’re gonna have a baby – an’ you gotta call him Jesus,” continued the annunciation.

“I knew that,” scorned ‘Mary’.

“An’ – an’ he’s gonna have red hair!” added ‘Gabriel’, her voice rising, “…An’ you gotta wrap him in a yella blanket!”

“Sez who?”

“It’s the worda the Lord! Amen!”

Having had a fairly conclusive last word, ‘Gabriel’ exited stage left.

“Behold,” said ‘Mary’, glowering after the departing archangel, “I am the Handmaid of the Lord – I know I said it afore, but it really comes here. Be it so!”

“Mary was amazed at what the angel had told her,” Hannibal informed the seated rows, (with some truth; ‘Mary’ had looked pretty surprised at the hair colour prediction) “And, when Joseph came home…” Pause. ‘Joseph’ trotted, affably, back to position one. “…She made haste to tell him of what the angel had said.”

“I got some’n to tell you,” obliged ‘Mary’. “We’re gonna have a baby. No, that’s wrong. I’M gonna have a baby,” she corrected. To make certain sure her line fluff was repaired, she added. “It ain’t your’n.”

Her speech had missed any scripted references to angels or to God. Nevertheless ‘Joseph’ recognised his cue.

“What a great blessing THAT is!”

He turned a surprised face to the audience. What on earth was there in that to make his big brother laugh?

“In those days,” boomed Hannibal (this was one of his favourite bits, because it sounded properly like a Roman soldier giving decrees) “a decree…” (Told you!) “Went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world had to be taxed…”

While Hannibal (with suitable dramatic arm gestures and occasional striding) filled in the audience on the rationale for the destination of the Holy Couple, ‘Mary’ and ‘Joseph’ began their distinctly circular journey and, once Hannibal had shut up, coupled it with a conversation you might have thought they’d have had before setting out.

“How far is it to Bethlehem, Joseph?” asked ‘Mary’.

‘Joseph’ opened his mouth to reply, but found himself forestalled.

“Many, many miles,” his betrothed informed him, blatantly – though, perhaps not with malice aforethought – stealing his lines. “Yummus stride on a numble donkey.”

‘Joseph’ thought for a moment. He was supposed to say something, but the appropriate words had been filched. Ah! He knew what husbands said! “Yes, dear,” he chirped. “Whatever you think best.”

“When Mary and Joseph reached Bethlehem it was very late. Mary and Joseph were cold and tired,” explained Hannibal, “and, at every inn they tried, there was no room.” He moved over, ready to prompt – because, sheesh, if the performance so far was anything to go by, they’d need it!

“Oh, Joseph,” sighed ‘Mary’, standing stage centre and beaming prettily as she curled a ringlet which had worked free of her headdress around one finger, “I yam so cold an’ tired an’ all the inns awful.”

‘Joseph’ opened his mouth to reply, but was again too slow to stop the flow of lines from the one full of grace.

“Do not loose soap,” ‘Mary’ gabbled on, “…We have nodyed dried this lastin p’raps they will hava room where yuccan reds eye will go knocka ponder door.”

“Yes, dear. Whatever you think best,” replied Joseph. Hey, why change a winning formula? He raised his fist and mimed enthusiastic knocking.

Jed Curry, very proud of the lamp he carried on a long pole, mimed opening a door. In a sudden burst of enthusiasm, he added a loud creaking sound effect.

“Who knocks so loud?” he enquired, beaming at his parents, who had actually heard the line several dozen times before.

“Weave trafferd many my uls,” babbled ‘Mary’, once more not letting her husband-to-be get a word in. “Hav fewer room?”

Hannibal was stealthily moving into place. He had assured Jed he had nothing to worry about. In the first place, if he forgot his lines he could imp’vise – ‘huh?’ – ‘make some’n up, Jed’ – but, more importantly, in the second place, Hannibal would be right there prompting.

“A room?” Jed rubbed his chin and screwed up his face to indicate pondering, as he had been directed, “A room?”

Feminine ‘aws’ drifted up from the audience. Jed decided since it was going so well, he’d do it again.

“A room? Let me think. A room? Hmmmm?”

“No,” murmured Hannibal, sotto voce. “You’ve no room.”

‘Mary’ and ‘Joseph’ were also helping Jed out by shaking their heads, vigorously.

“A room?” Chin stroking. “A room?” Head scratching. Searching of the skies. “Nope. No room at all.” The warmth emanating from the audience inspired Jed to imp’vise. “We’re all booked up. What with it bein’ Christmas an’ all. You shoulda sent a telegram.”

A pause. ‘Mary’, so loquacious earlier, appeared to have been struck dumb.

“But, I am great with child,” murmured Hannibal, faithful to his prompter role.

“And also,” chirped Jed, “I am great with child.” He beamed, happily, “That’s another reason I can’t let ya in.”

“In that case, I have a stable you could use,” whispered the Prompter, doing his best with the cast he’d been given.

“Hannibal’s got a stable ya can use,” offered Jed, cheerily. “You gotta promise not to touch Mr. Heyes’ tools though, ‘cos he’ll skin ya like a jackrabbit if’n they’ve moved.”

Mrs. Curry, it being her turn to feel apologetic, looked to see how Mrs. Godfrey was taking this sudden burst of dramatic license. Fortunately for Jed, the producer appeared to be too busy lecturing a small Angel to have heard the worst. The Angel was hanging her head, but a certain mulish pout to her bottom lip suggested Mrs. Godfrey was not altering the Angel’s underlying opinion.

On stage, the Narrator rolled his eyes and moved back to front centre stage to get things back on track. The curtain was drawn behind him.

“And so, Mary and Joseph went to the stable and there,” Hannibal raised his voice, as a crib was shifted, noisily, into place behind the calico screen, “…the Baby Jesus was born.”

The curtain was drawn back, revealing ‘Mary’ rocking her baby so hard that its reputation for blessed meekness was clearly well deserved and ‘Joseph’ pinning a flopping corner of an ox drawing next to a numble donkey.

Mrs. Godfrey had released her Angel and her hand could be seen cranking. In the audience, Alex crossed his fingers. A metallic grating noise accompanied the Narrator’s next words.

“And, lo! A new star arose, brighter than any other in the sky…”

More cranking. Hannibal cast a stealthy glance over one shoulder. The multi-pronged ball of burnished metal with a lit oil lamp inside, bright in the dimness of the winter day, was still arcing upwards. He imp’vised.

“Higher and higher it rose.” Another glance, “Higher and higher. Until…” The eyes flicked. “Until… Until…” Phew! “Until it shone right above the stable where Jesus lay…” Hannibal could not prevent a delighted smile splitting his face. “It’s a real good star, huh?”

Mr. Godfrey slipped out of his seat and held aloft a board on which the lyrics of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ were chalked in block capitals. The rest of the children emerged and, accompanied by a firm soprano and piano accompaniment from the producer, sang what Hannibal considered a particularly mushy carol. ‘Aws’ from mothers, grandmothers, aunts – you get the picture.

Hannibal moved forward, the calico – squeaking on its rings – closed behind him and he carried on with the story proper.

“In the fields near Bethlehem were Shepherds, keeping their sheep…”

Esther and Rachel, both intensely proud of crooks a yard taller than themselves, strode out carrying white, woolly… Well, let’s be civil; let’s call them sheep.

The girls were to make appropriate conversation while awaiting their glad tidings. Mrs. Godfrey had proposed comments on the bleakness of the night. Esther and Rachel had exchanged a glance and asked if they could throw in a few remarks about their flocks. This suggestion had met with smiling approval. Now, Esther and Rachel, both utterly unphased by the audience, prepared to show Rachel’s twin – AND any other boys who doubted that girls ought to be Shepherds – just how much they knew about ovine husbandry.

“It’s a bleak night out here in the fields around Bethlehem, huh? But THAT won’t bother any of the Scottish Blackface in our flock.”

“Sure won’t. ‘Cos they was bred to have a real thick fleece.”

“Same goes for the Swaledale. They were first bred up in the Yorkshire dales. (That’s in England),” Esther informed the audience in an aside. “‘S’real cold there in the winter.”

“Come spring, we’ll be dippin’ the whole flock, huh?”

“Yup. We’ll be diggin’ a pit ‘bout three foot deep, linin’ it an’ fillin’ it with a real clever mix which has…” A deep breath, “…D’Lute h’arsnic in it. Then we’ll be sendin’ ‘em through one at a time. Anyone who’d grown up round farms with sheep on’d know that.”

Nathanial Curry turned to his wife and lifted a questioning eyebrow.

“She HAS been asking a lot of questions about where I grew up,” murmured Elizabeth Curry.

“Girls have always worked as shepherds, huh? I bet in lit’chure, there’s lotsa famous shep’desses – ain’t there?”

“Sure are; there’s,” Esther cast a nonchalant glance at a small piece of paper in her hand, “…FeeBee. She’s in Shakespeare. She looked after sheep in the Foress Toff Farden”

Her parents exchanged a glance. Their clever daughter had clearly done a little research round at the Heyes’ place too.

“Then there’s Perdita…”

While this fascinating (fascinating to the participants, that is) duologue continued, a small and rather downcast member of the heavenly host appeared through the curtain to stand upon a raised box.

“Be not afraid,” she murmured.

“And Shep’desses come in powems too. Like…” The notes were surreptitiously checked, “…Clowwy.”

“Be not afraid,” prompted Hannibal, moving closer to the Angel, so she could hear his lowered voice.

“Clowwy was carried off by pirates.”

“Be not afraid,” repeated ‘Gabriel’.

“And another one is Clorin, she comes in…”

Hannibal: “Be not afraid.”
‘Gabriel’: “Be not afraid.” An Angel lip started to wobble.

“And then there’s Phillis…”

Hannibal stomped centre stage in front of the garrulous Shepherds and turned to face them. His arms snapped up into classic ‘announcing angel’ mode, making wings of his toga.

“BE Afraid,” he boomed, so loud the audience jumped, “…Be VERY Afraid!!!”

—oooOOOooo—

Backstage, Jed looked up as a woebegone Archangel drooped over and sat beside him.

“‘Tisn’t fair! Mrs. Godfrey scow’ded me an’ didn’ say nuffin’ to Harriet ‘cos she’s on stage nearly ALL the time!”

Jed offered what comfort he could. His hand drew something dusty from his pocket. “Wanna dried cherry?”

“No, thanks.” A sniff. “I wanna be Mary!” Hannah’s gaze rested on the vivid blue shawl Jed was about to wrap around himself for his second entrance as third Wise, but very quiet, Man. A musing look settled on the angelic features. “Jed…?” She leaned forward; a whisper tickled Jed’s ear.

“We musn’t!” he protested. “Mrs. Godfrey’ll be real mad.”

Soft blue eyes blinked at him; a burnished wire halo tilted, beseechingly. Jed gulped.

—oooOOOooo—

“Here is the babe the Angel told us of,” declaimed ‘Shepherd1′, who had no problem remembering actual lines, as well as imp’vising.

“Yes, for he is wrapped in swade ding bangs an’ lyin’ in a manger,” agreed ‘Shepherd2′.

“Surely he IS the son o’ God. Even the oxen an’ this humble donkey bow their heads before him!”

“Ra’dence beams from his yowly face!”

“We’re gonna call yim, Jesus. Ain’t we, Joseph?” simpered ‘Mary’.

“Yes, dear. Whatever you think best.”

“We brung him a lamb. As a present.”

“It’s a Scottish blackface. VERY hardy breed.”

A woolly bundle was rammed (pun intended) next to ‘Baby Jesus’ alias Arabella.

“And so,” declared the Narrator, “the Shepherds were amazed to find everything just as the Angel had foretold.”

‘Shepherd1′ and ‘Shepherd2′ raised their arms and opened their mouths in obedient amazement.

More loud chords from the piano. Mr. Godfrey sprang up and hoisted another board. The cast assembled to deliver a spirited, if occasionally off key, rendition of Shepherd-friendly verses of ‘The First Nowell’.

At least, Hannibal looked around – not quite the full cast. Where was…? Ah! Jed scampered into place. Hannibal felt a tug on his sleeve. To the tune of the carol, Jed softly sang a message to his best friend. Hannibal’s eyes widened.

“Don’t be so dumb, Jed!” he hissed. “Mrs. Godfrey’ll go mad, oh-oh-oh-oh-wel-l-l-l!”
“That’s why you gotta come up with a reason! No.oh.oh.oh.oh.w.ell -ell!”
“Huh?”
“A plan.”
“A plan?! No.oh.oh.oh.oh.oh.oh…. No! Born is the…”
“You’re always sayin’ you can do plans…Ray-Er-El-l-l-l-l!”
“Why should I come up with a plan jus’ ‘cos a sappy girl’s bein’ sappier’n usual?”
“If’n you don’t,” Jed breathed, “I’ll reckon it’s ‘cos you can’t. You can’t think o’ nothin’!”

Hannibal blinked. Did Jed think he was so dumb as to fall for that old trick! ‘Cos if Jed thought that… If HE thought… Couldn’t think of nothing!! Pfftt!!! Hannibal Heyes could always, ALWAYS, think of something. If Jed thought he was gonna fall in with this dumb idea…
Returning to the set lyrics, Hannibal’s brow furrowed in rapid scheming as he warbled up to a high note.
If Jed thought he’d fall for the classic old trick of: ‘Bet you can’t!’ – Jed’d be right!

The carol came to an end; the cast left the platform. Once again the curtain rattled shut leaving Hannibal stage front.

“When Jesus was born, wise men in the East saw the new star which had risen…” A dramatic gesture indicated the star still glowing above the curtain. Ike Williams (Gold) and Millard Buellton (Frankincense) trotted out.

‘Gold’, who was blessed with long limbs if not a facility for learning long speeches, pointed impressively, “Behold!”

‘Frankincense’, meanwhile, looked over his shoulder, anxiously. He twitched the curtain and peered back. Something was missing. He shrugged, helplessly and said his line, “It is the star of a new born king!”

“Let’s foller it!” decided ‘Gold’, hitching up his robes and leading ‘Frankincense’ in a zigzagging version of follow-my-leader.

“The Wise Men followed the star for many miles,” explained Hannibal, as they trotted round and round him, miming mountain climbing and river forging, “for they wanted to worship the new born king. Fine’ly, they came to Jerus’lem and to the mighty palace of Herod the Great.”

Hannibal, with dignity, walked over to the box previously used for Angels to stand upon and reached behind it for a tall and magnificently decorated paper crown, which he placed upon his brow. “When I’ve got the crown on, I’m Herod,” he clarified, for any members of the audience overwhelmed by this dramatic innovation.

Mrs. Godfrey played a few impressive chords to back up his statement.

“I am Herod the Great,” boomed a deepened voice. “Black as night is my heart! I am bloody, lux’ur’us, av’ricious, false, deceitful, sudden, mal’cious, smackin’ o’ ev’ry sin. Look on my works, ye mighty and DESPAIR!” A pause. The Wise Men appeared to have nothing to say to all that. More normal tone, “Who are you?” he prompted.

“We’re three…” began ‘Frankincense’.

“You gotta call me ‘Mighty King’.”

“Yeah. We’re three…”

Slower and with majestic menace, “Call me ‘Mighty King’.”

“Midey King, we’re three Wise Men…” ‘Frankincense’, conscious they were actually only a brace, wavered and cast a last desperate look into the wings. Nothing.

“Your third noble companion is stablin’ the camels in my mighty liv’ry,” helped out ‘Herod’. “It’s gotta solid marble floor an’ water troughs made o’ solid gold,” he added, just for atmosphere.

“I brung some gold,” chipped in ‘Gold’, fearing he had missed a cue and holding out a shiny wrapped box.

Fanny Godfrey, who had begun a stealthy movement to go look for ‘Myrrh’ assumed ‘Herod’s’ line was code for ‘in the outhouse’ and settled back onto her stool.

A pause.

“You were sayin’?” ‘Herod’ prompted, civilly.

“We’ve come from back East,” fluffed ‘Gold’. “Have ya had a baby?”

“‘Cos we’re lookin’ for the Kinga the Jews,” explained his sidekick. “Not you, midey King. The new baby ‘un. ‘Cos we’ve seen this here star. An’ we wanna worship him.”

“So,” summed up ‘Herod’, “You’ve seen the star of a new born King o’ the Jews. And you’re askin’ me, the famously cruel an’ black-hearted OLD King o’ the Jews, who killed a coupla his own sons, to help find this helpless baby who one day is gonna take over my throne?”

‘Gold’ thought about it for a moment. “Yeah,” he agreed.
“Uh huh,” nodded ‘Frankincense’.

‘Herod’ turned to the audience and raised an ironic eyebrow. “Wise Men, indeed – NOT!”

“Look,” said ‘Gold’, getting tetchy, “D’you know where he is, or not?”

“Nope,” admitted ‘Herod’, “but, soon as you find him, come tell me won’t you? ‘Cos,” he turned the audience, with a full-on villain’s grin and exaggerated rubbing of scheming hands, “…I wanna ‘worship’ him too.” Evil secret laugh.

“Sure,” chirped ‘Frankincense’. “We’ll be off then, huh?” He suited the action to the words, with ‘Gold’ trundling after him.

‘Herod’ faced the watching rows, “…Really,” he explained, “I plan to have ‘em tracked and then…” He drew a finger across his neck and made a gurgling throat slitting sound. Following a sudden impulse, he added a reverberating maniacal cackle, straight out of a six-cent story paper, “Muhahahahaha!”

‘Herod’ removed the crown from his head and the villainy from his features. “I’m back to bein’ just the Narrator,” he explained for anyone confused by the doubling of parts.

“The Wise Men went on their way, following the star…”

The curtain juddered open behind Hannibal revealing ‘Mary’, ‘Joseph’, ‘Baby Jesus’ and ‘Shepherds’.

“It stopped above the stable where Jesus lay…”

“Behold!” said trustworthy ‘Shepherd1′ giving the Narrator a break. “Here is the child you seek, lying in a manger. Godhead is made man today! Enter in and worship him!”

‘Gold’ and ‘Frankincense’ joined the gathering throng centre stage. Then, from stage left, entered…

Mrs. Godfrey blinked hard. A second ‘Joseph’, a second ‘Mary’ and a second ‘Baby Jesus’. This duplicate holy infant was maternally tucked into the crowded crib by ‘Mary2′.

“Scoot up,” requested ‘Joseph2′ of ‘Joseph1′, affably.

Surprised, but his good temper unruffled, ‘Joseph1′ complied.

“Thanks.”

‘Joseph2′ sat down his ‘wife’ beside him. Wisely, he positioned himself so two humble carpenters formed a bodily barrier between the two warring ‘Marys’.

“What the Sam Hill d’ya think you’re doin’?!” exploded ‘Mary1′, getting to her feet and putting her hands on her hips.

“Bein’ Mary!” declared ‘Mary2′.

‘Mary1′ poking a spousal finger into own ‘Joseph’, “Are you gonna just sit there an’ let her ruin this?”

“Yes, dear. Whatever you think best.”

“Have you brung some presents?” ‘Mary2′ enquired of the Wise Men, loftily ignoring her fuming rival, trying to push past a restraining ‘Joseph2′.

“Er, yeah,” said ‘Gold’. Inspiration. A hand hoisted up a robe and dug into the pants pocket beneath, “Tell ya what; flip for who gets the good ‘un.”

Mrs. Godfrey, her initial pole-axed state over, was advancing on the stage. Hannibal stepped forward and raised an authoritative hand.

“Hold!” he boomed. So impressive was his tone that not only did Mrs. Godfrey halt, even ‘Mary1′ stopped to listen. “Many of you will wonder why we’ve gotten TWO holy families,”

‘Joseph2′ held his breath. Was his faith about to be justified? ‘Course it was!

“It’s a cunnin’ plan to foil that evil ol’ Herod! ‘Cos, ya see, here we’ve got a DECOY Mary, Joseph an’ Baby Jesus. They can split up an’ it’ll confuse Herod’s soljers when he’s tryin’ to track ‘em. It’s a real clever idea…” On he went.

‘Shepherd1′ with a discreet gesture captured Mrs. Godfrey’s attention. Her gaze rested meaningfully first on the hooking device she held, then on the Narrator’s neck. Silently she asked if one could advantageously be used on the other.

“I reckon this is more’n a cunnin’ plan. I reckon whoever came up with this plan hasta be some kinda genius…”

—oooOOOooo—

The End – And Happy Christmas

—oooOOOooo—

Notes:
Many unoriginal old chestnuts are rehashed in this story, but, particular acknowledgements to many jokes shamelessly cribbed from: 1) The Vicar of Dibley 2) The Flint Street Nativity.

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One thought on “6. Away In A Manger…

  1. Thanks for the laughs. So much to like about this heartwarming Christmas story. I especially liked the not so cherubic cast of the play, and the way you gave us glimpses into the development of two future outlaw personalities! Wonderful!

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