‘The primary school got a real donkey for last year’s nativity,’ says Colin the Beaver Scout leader in The Perfect Fit. ‘It didn’t go so well.’
It really didn’t, and you can find out why in this free festive short story featuring characters from Mary Jayne Baker’s ‘Love in the Dales’ series. With Baby Jesus AWOL, will the show go on?
First published in the Sunday People‘s Love Sunday magazine on 2nd December 2018.
The Worst Noel (A ‘Love in the Dales’ short story)
All Reception class teacher Ebony Wren wants for Christmas is a hitch-free nativity play. But with a missing Baby Jesus, a chocolate-addicted Wise Man and an incontinent donkey called Raymond in the mix, fate is most definitely not on her side…
Ebony ignored the hand waving in the air and ran to Harry Beeton, who was leaning against a palm tree sucking his wrist.
‘Harry, don’t. You won’t eat your dinner if you finish a whole…’ She glanced at his wrist. ‘…er, bracelet.’
‘Just a moment, Jade.’ She turned back to Harry. ‘And sweetheart, I know Smarties are very colourful, but would you ask Mum and Dad if they could use plastic decorations for your Wise Man costume next time? You get through so much jewellery this way.’
‘MISS!’ Jade was hopping from foot to foot in her little blue Mary dress.
‘Yes, Jade? Do you need the toilet?’
‘Not me, Miss. Raymond.’ She pointed at the donkey chewing placidly on his bale of hay. The suspicious, steaming pile behind him definitely wasn’t growing any roses.
‘Not again,’ Ebony muttered. ‘Mr Blackford! Shovel alert.’
Ash Blackford, music teacher and official wielder of the Nativity shovel, came rushing over.
‘Someone’s had his oats this morning,’ he said, patting Raymond on the neck. The donkey flashed him a self-satisfied look and wandered off to nibble Jackson White’s shepherd headdress, aka his nana’s best tea towel.
Ebony scanned the assorted animals, kings, angels and shepherds of Egglethwaite Primary’s Reception class. They’d been rehearsing for weeks, but now the day had arrived nothing was going right.
Their star guest, Raymond the donkey, was the biggest problem. He’d been the headteacher’s bright idea.
Mr Collingwood’s daughter worked at the local riding school, and the head had said how fun it would be, how it would bring the true meaning of Christmas alive, to have a real donkey. Raymond was terribly polite, Mr Collingwood had assured them, they’d been friends for years. Mild-mannered, fond of children. What he hadn’t mentioned was that Raymond either couldn’t or wouldn’t control his bowels. Ebony was pretty sure a stage full of poo wasn’t the true meaning of Christmas.
‘Well, we’re doomed,’ she whispered to Ash. ‘I swear school nativities were invented to be the ultimate humiliation for teachers.’
‘We’re not doomed. We’re just having a few teething troubles.’
‘Teething troubles? Ash, we’re performing the thing in half an hour.’
He shrugged. ‘Parents expect hiccups, it’s part of the charm.’
‘Do they expect the overpowering stench of manure?’
‘They will after this.’
‘Ok, gang,’ Ebony said, clapping her hands. ‘Are we ready to practise a bit more before mums and dads arrive?’
Jade’s hand shot up again. ‘Miss! I think I actually do need the toilet, actually.’
Ebony sighed. ‘Quick as you can.’
Ash took a seat at his piano. ‘Right. Let’s practise our song while we wait for Mary.’ He played them in and they launched into The First Noel.
Half the kids forgot the words. All of them forgot the tune. And one tuneless little voice soared over all the others.
‘Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!’ it yelled. ‘Barney’s the king of Israel!’
Ash spun round, his face rigid with a long-suffering smile.
‘Tinuviel, is that you?’
‘Yep!’ said a ginger sheep with chocolate round its mouth.
‘Now you remember what we – have you been eating Smarties?’
‘Yep! Swapped Harry for a ’vengers sticker.’
Ebony looked at Harry and groaned. A small Incredible Hulk had appeared on his crown.
‘Take it off please,’ she said.
Harry’s bottom lip jutted out. ‘Don’t wanna.’
‘The Wise Men didn’t have Hulk on their crowns when they visited Baby Jesus, did they?’
‘Yeah they did.’
She put on her no-nonsense Miss face, and Harry reluctantly peeled off the sticker.
‘Now, Tinuviel,’ Ash said. ‘Let’s see if we can remember this time. Barney is not the king of Israel, ok?’
‘Why’s it say he is then?’ Tinuviel demanded. ‘Says it right in the song.’
‘Born is. Born is the king of Israel.’
‘But that’s wrong,’ Pip Donati-Finn, who was playing Gabriel, chimed in. ‘It should be “the king of Israel is born” or it’s wrong way round.’
‘It has to be to make the song rhyme.’
‘S’not allowed,’ the little angel muttered. ‘You can’t make things wrong just to rhyme them.’
‘Who’s Noel then?’ Tinuviel demanded. ‘Is he king of Israel?’
‘Noel isn’t a name.’ Ash’s eyelid had started to twitch. ‘It’s a word that means Christmas.’
‘’Tis so a name. I got a Uncle Noel.’
‘Well, it can sometimes be a name, yes, but –’
Tinuviel’s lip started to wobble.
‘So who’s king of Israel?’ she asked in a tremulous voice. ‘If it isn’t Barney or Noel, who is it?’
‘Jesus is,’ Ebony said.
‘I thought Jesus was king of heaven.’
‘He, er… he’s king of there too.’ Nobody had told Ebony when she’d trained for this job that answering deep theological questions would be part of the gig. ‘Where’s Jade?’
‘Doing a wee,’ Jackson said.
Jackson giggled. ‘Must be a giant wee.’
Ebony turned to Ash. ‘I’d better check on her. Hold the fort.’
When she reached the toilets, muffled sobs were coming from a locked cubicle.
‘Jade?’ Ebony said softly. ‘What’s wrong, my love?’
‘It weren’t my fault,’ Jade whispered.
‘What wasn’t your fault?’
‘I had him in the cloakroom. Someone must of took him.’
‘Baby Jesus.’ The door opened to reveal Jade’s tear-stained face. ‘Someone went and pinched him.’
‘Everything ok?’ Ash asked.
‘Nope,’ Ebony said from behind a fixed grin. ‘I need to find Jesus.’
‘Have you tried that bloke with the sandwich boards outside Costa?’
‘I’m serious, Ash. Jade’s doll’s missing.’
‘So get another. There’ll be one in the storecupboard.’
‘She wants hers.’ Ebony cast a look at Jade, gloomily picking her nose by the manger. ‘If she doesn’t get it back, she says she won’t be Mary.’
It was all hands on deck as they combed the school. They looked all over the stage, behind the palm trees, under the straw. They looked in the cloakroom, the toilets, their classroom. But Jesus was nowhere to be found. By the time parents started arriving, Ebony was pleading with Jade to take the frizzy-haired, one-legged Tiny Tears Ash had dug up.
‘Jade, please. Look, it’s a lovely doll.’ Ebony waggled it encouragingly.
‘That isn’t Jesus.’ Jade shot it a disgusted look. ‘It’s ugly. And it’s a girl.’
‘But sweetheart, we can’t find yours.’
‘Wooooon’t!’ Jade wailed.
Ebony almost felt like joining in with a good, long wail of her own.
As soon as the girl’s parents arrived, Ebony dragged them backstage to see if they could save the day. And much to Ebony’s relief, Jade’s mum was able to bribe her daughter into temporarily adopting Jesus’s one-legged understudy.
However, it was clear once the performance started that Jade was not a happy Mary. She bravely held back her tears while she and Joseph followed Raymond through the streets of Bethlehem. But when it came to her big scene, where she was supposed to pop little Jesus out of her dress and lay him gently in his manger, she yanked him out by his single leg, took one look at him and threw him to the floor before bursting into sobs.
The audience could tell Jesus wasn’t a fan of this kind of treatment from the way his head fell off and rolled under a palm tree.
Ebony cursed silently and dashed to the front of the stage.
‘I’m so sorry, folks. Give us five minutes and we’ll be back with the grand finale.’ She winced as Raymond deposited another steaming Christmas present on the stage. ‘And sorry about the smell.’
‘What’s up, Jade?’ Ebony whispered when they’d dropped the curtain.
‘He’s… not… my… baby,’ she sobbed. ‘He’s not mine and I don’t want him.’
‘We’ll find your baby after, I promise.’
‘Then it’ll be too late. Jesus’ll be born and he’ll be all wrong and it won’t be proper Christmas.’
Ash popped his head through the curtain. ‘Miss Wren, can I borrow you?’
With a helpless glance at the still sobbing Mary, Ebony followed him out.
He led her to the cloakroom, where rows of coats hung on pegs. A pair of feet was poking out under one of them.
Ash pulled the coat aside to reveal Harry in his king costume. Jade’s Baby Jesus was cradled in his arms, chocolate round both Harry’s mouth and the doll’s.
‘Harry?’ Ebony said.
He looked up, and his eyes widened.
‘Miss, I didn’t mean to,’ he stammered.
‘Didn’t mean to what?’
‘Only, my mummy, see, she’s going to have a baby. Maybe on Christmas, same as Jesus. I just lended him so’s I could practise minding babies, I never thought it’d be like pinching him.’
‘You mean you took Jade’s doll?’
‘I was going to give him back, honest,’ Harry said, lip trembling. ‘I thought he was prob’ly hungry, so I took him to give him some Smarties, and then Jade was crying and you was all looking for him…’
Ebony crouched down beside him.
‘And you were worried you’d get in trouble?’ she said gently.
He hung his head. ‘Yeah.’
She looked at the little boy, cuddling the doll with unconscious tenderness, and smiled.
‘It’s always better to tell the truth, you know. You won’t ever get into trouble for being kind.’
‘I made Jade cry. That’s not kind.’
‘She’ll stop crying when she gets her dolly back. Let’s clean his mouth and give him to her, and there’ll be no need to say where we found him.’
When Jesus had been restored to an ecstatic Jade, the curtain rose again.
The delight on Jade’s glowing face almost made her look like a real painting of the Madonna. A collective ‘awww’ went up from the audience when the beaming little girl was revealed, gently cradling her baby, and there was a round of applause as she laid him in his manger.
‘We made it, Ebs,’ Ash whispered. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle.’
‘Every time a bell rings, a teacher narrowly avoids a nervous breakdown. Go on, strike up the carol.’
And as The First Noel rang out through the school hall, one voice soared above all.
‘Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel. Barney’s the king of Israel!’