Alice is Gabriel, and Daze is fazed... * by Mari Howard

It’s Christmas 1997, and Alice Mullins is playing the Angel Gabriel in the Reception Class nativity play.**Mum Jenny has an important meeting at the lab where she works, so her sister Daisy (known as Daze), who made Alice’s costume, goes instead. But Daze is stunned to discover a rival in the audience. 


Daze slips in at the back of the hall. Crowds of Headleigh Primary’s parents are seated on quarter-sized chairs arranged in a horseshoe, their chatter like the buzzing of bees. The black blinds are pulled down, improvised curtains open, and a couple of spotlights pick out, on the platform, a bale of hay, and two large Swiss cheese plants. Daze smiles at these: obviously in lieu of palm trees.


‘Hey, need a seat?’ Someone directs her to an empty chair, mid-row. Someone asks the inevitable question, ‘Who’s yours?’

‘Gabriel. I’m her auntie.’

She’s squashed between a plump granny and a pregnant mum. Being tiny, she can’t see over a tall mum with a halo of frizzy hair. A woman in a long, knitted coat and suede boots suggests she sit on the floor at the front.

Knitted Coat has set up a video camera on a stand. Daze resettles, between the camera and a projector, mounted on a box, which throws a panoramic view of Jerusalem onto a screen behind the stage. Hoping she’s got enough wriggle room to catch Alice on her Nikon E2 digital SLR.

There’s much shushing, and Mary, in blue, hurries in and sits on the hay bale. Cameras flash. Alice, entering, moving her wings, gets a big intake of breath from the audience, followed by oohs and ahs. She stops, waits, and repeats her line with gusto: ‘Hi Mary, I have great news. For you.’

This is greeted with spontaneous laughter, obvious pleasure, and clapping. Alice looks around, half smiling. Enjoying celebrity, thinks Daze. More clapping. Daze focuses for another shot: as she depresses the button, she could whoop with joy, for Mary sticks out her tongue, sideways.

Click! What a wow of a picture.

Alice backs off, telling Mary ‘You’re gonna have a baby an’ call him Jesus,’ and retreats, to be hugged briefly by her teacher. Daze grins. That outfit stole the show.

A promising beginning. A series of great shots. Soon, Alice-Gabriel bounces back to announce ‘Tidings of great joy’ to a group of solemn male and female shepherds, one wearing a proper Palestinian checked keffiyeh, who gawp at the ceiling, cuddling toy sheep, while an angel choir plays recorders and everyone sings While Shepherds Watched. Daze’s camera catches it all.

Finally, the Three Kings, resplendent in gold paper crowns and shimmery capes, march up the aisle carrying their gifts in painted, glittery caskets. Daze cranes around to take a photo as they pass. This time, as she depresses the button, she notices, beyond the three small children, someone familiar: good looking, in a boyish way, with gold-rimmed specs. Her stomach lurches, heart pounds, hands sweat. Lowering the camera, she turns and whispers to her neighbour: ‘Who’s the bloke standing near the back?’

‘Where?’

‘Him. By that door?’

‘David Robertson. The Reverend.’

‘Why’s he here?’

‘School governor.’

‘Parent?’

‘No.’ Neighbour makes a silent shush! mouth, finger on lips.

Daze has a mind to ambush David Robertson, afterwards. The rat.

On the stage, the Kings rise from their knees, everyone claps. Next there’s a line-up. Three shepherds one side, three kings the other, Mary and Joseph centre-stage. Led by Alice, the Angels march in, a long line of them, every child without a speaking part. Clap, for all you’re worth. They line up in front of the tableau. Angel Gabriel’s dead centre, carefully placed there by a classroom assistant, waving her wings a little. To a murmur of assenting laughter. Cue another photo or two.

Someone strikes up The First Nowell on the piano, to accompany a group of quivering, reedy recorders. In the third verse, Mary pinches Gabriel on the behind: Gabriel swings around, tongue fully extended. A scuffle breaks out on stage. Joining in the fun, Joseph cries ‘Eff off!’ Classroom assistants ring down the makeshift curtain, to applause.

Everyone is asked to help return chairs to classrooms. Daze struggles through the crowd to find Alice. ‘Brianna’s a bully,’ Alice remarks, screwing up her face like there’s a bad smell, ‘she only got the Mary part to stop her wingeing, our teacher said.’

‘Go, Gabriel! Wonderful wings,’ says a male voice with an Aussie accent.

        Alice turns and grins, ‘Hi,’ and then, smiling enormously, she moves her arms, demonstrating again how the wings move. ‘Power wings. My auntie made them.’ Poking Daze’s stomach, she says, ‘She’s my auntie.’

‘Really? Beaut. What a clever auntie.’ He smiles at Daze. ‘I think we’ve met? David Robertson?’

‘Possibly, I don’t remember,’ Daze says icily. ‘C’mon Ally: Mummy’ll wonder where we are.’ And as they move away from David, ‘Do you know that man?’

‘My Daddy knows him,’ Alice says. ‘We were at his house.’

David who nicked the print shop: or David who received it innocently from the council? 

Daze lets Alice keep the tunic part of her costume on, under her coat, and carries the wings for her, as they walk home. On one level, she chatters with Alice about the performance. On another, she’s stunned to bits. Furious. The guy keeps popping up in her life. Coolly in control, but he must know how much she had wanted what is now his.

What next?

Feeling someone pulling at her hand, she looks down. Alice’s face, looking up, surprises her. They’re stopped by the main road. ‘Hold hands crossing,’ says Alice.

‘Of course: what a big road,’ Daze responds brightly. ‘Look both ways, watch for the green man.’

As they walk up the drive to her house, ‘We should put my wings on me,’ Alice suggests. 

‘Yay! We should!’ Daze folds Alice’s coat into her own capacious bag, and fixes the wings. They ring the bell. Her heart has slowed again. The encounter was meaningless.

‘I was the star. With my power wings. Everyone clapped.’

‘Lovely.’ Jenny sweeps Alice into her arms. 

‘Mind her wings!’

Jenny gently replaces Alice on the ground. ‘Daze, I am so grateful. And so looking forward to seeing the photos. Stay for dinner, why don’t you?’ They go through to the kitchen, ‘Only spaghetti …’ says Jenny. Daze begins laying up.


Bunch of forks in hand, Daze turns and says, waving the forks, ‘Play was hilarious. Wasn’t meant to be. But Mary, who’s a mean little bitch called Brianna, pinched Alice’s butt during the curtain call. Al was like … blah …’ She shoots her tongue out as far as it’ll go, then pulls it in and lays cutlery as if nothing happened.

‘Oh my God,’ Jenny explodes, laughing.

‘Can I share the joke, hey?’ Nobody had heard Max’s key in the door.

 ‘Ally stuck her tongue out at the end of the play. Brought the house down.’

‘She brought shame on the house of Mullins?’

‘No, she defended it!’

Entering as Gabriel, waving her wings, ‘Brianna is a stinky,’ Alice says. ‘She pinches everyone. She pinched my bottom in First Nowell, and everyone,’ her arms go out to encompass the world, ‘saw.’

Max laughs. ‘How were the wings?’ Crouching down to her, he hugs Alice, and she lays her head on his shoulder. ‘Daddy, you smell of cold. Your face is cold!’

‘Outside is getting colder.’

‘Wings were a treat, according to daughter and auntie. I am so jealous.’

‘Of course, it was magical. Had to be. For all those parents. To get us in the mood,’ Daze adds. ‘Here, shall I download my pics? Onto your computer? You’ll love them … Then see who I snapped at the play, and tell me if you know him?’

Once they’re all gathered round to view Daze’s pictures, Alice can relive the moment of Mary’s deliberate faux pas, which she does with squeals of delight.

‘Daddy, Daddy look!’

Everyone bonds over the beautiful angel line-up photo, and laughs at Brianna’s naughty bottom-pinching stunt. Then, ‘Okay—let’s scroll back, the Kings one, tell me who that is in the background?’ Daze says, ‘Alice says you know him?’

‘David? He was at the play?’ says Max.

‘Let me see?’ Jenny leans forwards, staring. ‘Unbelievable.’

‘David? You know him?  School governor and only the guy that nicked my print shop!’

‘Oh no,’ Max clutches his forehead. ‘Not David. He’s my cousin. Jenny told me you’d—’ 

‘The bugger’s a relative? He fucking well pushed forwards and tried to shake my hand. An’ we’d already met once: when he let out that the Council had given him the print shop!’

Jenny’s mouth opens—and shuts, since Max is telling Daze, ‘I am so sorry. I had no idea,’ as if had he known, he could’ve stopped David.

But Daze simply removes the lead connecting her camera to Jenny’s laptop, and pockets it. ‘Look, sorry—I’ve done what I came for—I’m off home. Okay?’

‘Daze—I’m sure David didn’t—shall I talk with him?’

‘Max, leave it. Rich loved my abstract: every moment Daze helped me was worth it.’


* An extract from my novel The Labyrinth Year  (Hodge Publishing 2014)

** Safeguarding has changed since ’97, so there are a few anomalies



Comments

Sandra Horn said…
Wow! How tantalising! Lovely story - must read the whole thing now!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this delightful and quirky Christmas excerpt. I loved its surreal spirit.
Thanks for these lovely comments! (Please read the book Sandra! It is quite fun, with a serious side to it)
Griselda Heppel said…
Wonderful scene! We all remember with joy primary school nativities like that. I was vividly reminded of one of my children's nativity plays, when a shepherd crossed the stage to biff one of the Three Kings with the woolly sheep he was carrying. Some kind of ongoing dispute, hilarious for the parents.

Thank you for this delightful piece, Clare. Cheered me up no end!

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