1—the school nativity play
Six thirty. December evening. Raw weather that whisps in from the playground, following parents through the double doors of the primary school hall.
a child blows
into a balloon—
the balloon blows back
Grown-ups slacken scarves, reduce themselves onto three-foot-six size chairs, suppress seasonal coughs and sneezes as the head teacher haw-hums for attention. Some announcements. Draws a monitory finger out of his trouser pocket to point to a bucket. Hopes no child will feel sick again like last year, but ... Please look out also for the Class 6 children posted by the door when leaving. They’ll be holding out basins. The collection this year is for those with Alzheimer’s.
trapped on a girder
above the Exit sign
Some parents pointing out their favourite bits in the handmade programme. “Isn’t that a lovely drawing my Dot’s done of Santa Claus?” Like a figure made with matchsticks stuck into a potato. Class One will be first on stage.
tiniest girl in school
Mrs Cavendish lifts the piano lid, removes a toffee paper stuck to middle C and begins to play “The First Nowell.” A small child with a fringe and rouged cheeks climbs onto the makeshift stage and says we’re in the fields near Beffliam. The fields creak as the flock plods in, one of the shepherds sneezes over a sheep, one of the sheep waves to his mum.
red face of the angel
coming on too soon
Later, things are made better for the tearful angel. When Mary gets into difficulties extracting the baby from the folds of her dress, the angel helps the ox to deliver the immaculate birth.
Joseph takes the Jesus doll from Mary’s lap and plonks it in a cardboard box, but one of the Wise Men thinks it may suffocate in the straw and uncovers its face. Cue for Mrs Ogilvy to prompt another of the Wise Men, whispering, “Go on, say something to the baby!”
The Wise Man peers intently at the Jesus. “You’ve got your father’s eyes,” he says.
Joseph, shepherds, angels, Wise Men, the ass, the ox, the sheep, assemble under the spell of Mrs Cavendish’s baton and sing “Away in a manger.” Mary turns her toes in and keeps her thoughts to herself.
And outside again.
glimpses through the mist
of fairy lights
We feel our way along the dark path to the village church, each step unsure of its landing, eyes fixed on the belfry, where shadows of ringers flicker against light cast to all compass points by a naked bulb. The peal has two bells missing, the change is never complete, but tonight of all nights this is not a blemish.
the churchyard sloshy—
a solid grave
Mother, past eighty, has my arm around her waist. Hoisted, so her feet barely scrape the ground, I notice her weight is so little now; I feel I shall never hold her again like this; I am carrying almost a ghost.
She is borne to where we are as close to the crib as we can get, leans on me in the pew, gazes milkily at the Christmas tree, gaudily bedecked with baubles, tinsel, but as yet unlit.
The focus of our good nature is the vicar, an ‘ancient and modern’ sort of man. Warning us now, when we start to set light to the candles, not to ignite each other’s coattails as well. Has provided a pail of water by the pulpit, just in case. The verger has a towel, but hopes there’ll be no one this year for an early bath. Chuckles at his annual joke.
My mother’s face expressionless, until the organ pipes croon out hoarsely the first familiar tune. It’s “While shepherds watched” . . .
a song she knows well—
on the back of my hand
a warm drop of wax
Now she has a halo of animation around her lapsed cheeks, she has transformed into a Victorian schoolgirl singing for farthings on a doorstep. They have chosen her favourite, just in time. When we sit down again, she snoozes against my shoulder without snoring.
soft touch of leather
the woman with Alzheimer’s
As we leave through the porch she slips a small coin into the vicar’s hand and wishes him “Happy Easter!”