We return once again to the bum-hole of Bowland, to Worton, where the students of Beiderbecke College have been forced into putting on a Nativity play. Trouble is, that nativity play is a terrible, supposedly ‘realistic’ portrayal of the birth of Christ, one that for some reason involves Julie Andrews leading a crack troop of Palestinian Rebels against King Herod. As you can probably tell, things in this story might be a bit on the nose for some people so proceed with caution if you’re worried. When last we left the story the auditions had ended in dramatic fashion when a Neo-Nazi tosser (who really wanted to role of Joseph but hadn’t got an ice cube’s chance in Hell of getting it,) had leapt through a plate glass window whilst vowing revenge for not getting the part. If you missed them, here is part one and part two.
We pick things up one week after the auditions, and strange things are afoot in the auditorium…
AWAY WITH THE MANGER
A Tale of Worton in Four Parts
PART III: MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
‘Alright… Who’s stolen the Baby Jebus?’ came the cry from the store cupboard.
‘What? Not again?’ Derry griped. She covered her face in exhaustion. It was exhausting all of us for this was now the fourth Baby Jesus which had gone missing.
‘Are you sure he’s missing?’ I snapped at Dan, who came out of the store cupboard looking annoyed. ‘I put him right at the bottom of the sword box…’
‘I know. I watched you do it. But he isn’t there now.’
‘Well you and I were the only ones who knew where he was so if he isn’t there then one of us has taken him. It certainly isn’t me…’
‘You think I’ve been taking the Baby Jebuses?’ he asked back, shocked. ‘Why would I do that? If we’ve not got a Baby Jebus there’s no point to the play!’
‘Please stop referring to him as Baby Jebus,’ I despaired.
‘No… He’s Baby Jebus! Jesus probably wasn’t his real name anyway so it doesn’t matter.’ Derry put her hand up.
‘If this is supposed to be historically accurate then why aren’t we using his real name?’
‘You’re playing Julie farking Andrews! I hardly think Jesus’s real name is an issue here.’
‘Then what’s wrong with calling him Jebus?’ Doug fired from the edge of the stage, where he was sat with Amanda.
‘Because it’s blasphemy!’
‘If we’re going to call him anything we should call him by whatever his real name was,’ Derry suggested.
‘Again… You’re playing Julie Andrews,’ I snarked at her.
‘I still think we should have his real name.’
‘We don’t know what that is,’ Dan stressed. ‘Anyone here take philosophy or know anybody who does?’ There followed some frantic texting from some people who did. The beep of a ringtone gave us an answer- Yeshua Ben Joseph.
‘I think we should go with that,’ Derry suggested.
‘We’ll put it to a vote,’ Dan sulked. ‘All those in favour of Yeshua Ben Joseph raise your hand.’ Only Derry and Dexter raised their hands. ‘All those in favour of Jebus?’ Everyone except myself, Derry and Dexter raised their hand.
‘Looks like the Jebus has it,’ Dan crowed. Derry and Dexter did not look pleased but they sucked it up. I just snorted and turned my back.
‘Whatever… I’m going to tell Harper we’ve lost another one. Rehearse the Julie Andrews song whilst I’m gone.’ Where Dan had got that ridiculous declaration of love I have no idea but I did my best to make sure I wasn’t around when it was being rehearsed.
Harper was going to be livid about another Baby Jesus going missing, especially as we were only a week into rehearsals. Most of our props had come either courtesy of the drama department, other departments, or had been loaned from other schools. It was all available for use on the condition that it had to be returned from whence it came in mint condition. The first Baby Jesus had been borrowed from the child studies classroom and again he had to be returned in mint condition. We at first assumed he had just been mislaid but Dan and Doug spent the whole of the second rehearsal looking everywhere and couldn’t find him. They even went back to child studies to ask if he was there. Mrs Sköte, the teacher, had been incredibly angry. Harper made the entire cast pay for a replacement Baby Jesus but by the next rehearsal that had gone as well.
When the third had disappeared without trace Harper had threatened to cancel the whole play and suspend everyone involved. Then she placed the entire campus in lockdown and had everyone, including the staff, searched. Unsurprisingly there was no trace, doubtless because Baby Jesus had been taken at some time between rehearsals.
Now number four had gone, and from a place that was well hidden and known only to myself and Dan. I knocked on Harper’s door with apprehension.
‘Don’t tell me… You’ve lost another one?’ she grimaced as I sat down behind the desk. ‘This really isn’t on Eliza… I know it isn’t your fault but we can’t be having the Baby Jesus going missing every rehearsal. If you can’t keep hold of him then you’ll have to use something else until the performance.’
‘Use something else?’
‘Yes… Something wrapped in a tea towel. Either that, or do without.’
‘Do without? This is the nativity! We can’t have a nativity without a Baby Jesus!’
‘Eliza… You’ve got Rodriguez and the Palestinian liberation front singing an over the top love ballad about Julie Andrews… Losing the Baby Jesus is the least of your problems.’
I got up to leave and returned to the auditorium to find Derry dancing across the stage and being worshipped by the Palestinian liberation front.
‘What did Harper say about the Baby Jebus?’ Dan asked as I sat down next to him. He kept one eye on the rehearsal as he did so.
‘She said we’ll have to use something else until the performance.’
‘Then what?’ I shrugged.
‘We have a whip round and buy one more baby… Or, as Harper also suggested, we do without.’
‘Right… Hang on a sec…’ Dan got up from his seat and skirted around the dancing rebels (who were in the midst of doing the spoken word section break of the song) to the store cupboard.
He came out again and threw one of the shepherd’s stuffed sheep at me. I caught it, bewildered.
‘What is this?’
‘It’s a replacement.’
‘Until the performance?’ Dan shook his head, which is exactly the response I was worried about when I asked the question.
‘Jebus is supposed to be the Lamb of God so…’
‘NO!’ I shouted at him, stopping the rehearsal and making everyone jump out of their skin. ‘For starters, portraying Jesus as anything other than human will get us all excommunicated…’
‘I’m not religious anyway so it doesn’t matter…’
‘Secondly, everyone is going to lynch us and then we’ll be drawn and quartered and our heads stuck on a spike in the town square… Thirdly… It’s a lamb… You can’t have Mary giving birth to a lamb… What are people going to say when they see a nativity where Mary has a little lamb?’ Across the room I caught sight of a few people who were busy trying not to laugh. I might have found it funny myself were it not for the fact that Mary having a little lamb would definitely get us lynched.
Dan hadn’t appeared to think about this and now he did he blushed crimson.
‘Oh… Shit… Yeah… Well if you’ve got any other bright ideas…’ His idea hadn’t even been bright. It was, like himself, lacking in any kind of common sense. Not for the first time I regretted not attempting to force Will into helping me direct this thing and not doing away with both the script and its writer when I saw it.
‘We could always make a Baby Jesus,’ I suggested on the fly.
‘Sorry… Make a Baby Jesus?’ Dan was astounded.
‘Yeah… I mean… Does anybody here want to pay for another doll only for it to go missing?’ Nobody raised their hand.
‘So you’re going to make a Baby Jesus?’
‘Well I’m sure it can’t be that difficult…’
‘No… Of course not… It only involves what you’ve been doing every day since you were twelve!’
‘Hang on… What?’ I was confused.
‘Who were you planning on making this Baby Jesus with anyway?’
‘Well, anyone who wants to help… If you…’
‘Me? Eliza, you are fucking sick. It’s bad enough that you ended our relationship by using one of my friends as a human dildo but now you’re suggesting we make a baby together? That is perverted, disgusting and you ought to be in Wentworth for what you’ve done.’ He sounded angry and he showed it by storming from the auditorium and slamming the door behind him. I was still confused.
‘What the fuck is wrong with him?’ I asked aloud.
‘Erm… I think he thought, when you said make a Baby Jesus, that you meant make a real baby,’ Amanda pointed out.
‘Why would he think that?’ I said in a tone that came close to screaming.
‘Because you’re a slag and sleeping with every man in town is your thing?’ One of the angels shot, bitchily. That was below the belt and I retaliated.
‘Slag am I? Alright… Hands up all those in this room who’ve ever slept with me?’ Of the twenty or so boys left in the auditorium only Doug raised his hand, much to Amanda’s displeasure. I heard the auditorium door open again and by instinct knew who it was. ‘Right… Now hands up all those who’ve slept with the twat behind me in the last month?’ There were a few hesitant hands, around ten high and proud hands and at least one hand that should have been raised but wasn’t. I smiled. ‘See? So who’s the bigger slag?’ I turned and looked at Will, whose eyes were narrowed in irritation.
‘Yes,’ he admitted. ‘Maybe I am a bigger slag… But I’m not the one who knocked me unconscious with Viagra laced tea… I’ve been meaning to ask about that anyway. What did you use? Besides the Viagra I mean?’
‘Why the hell do you want to know?’ Will shrugged.
‘I thought it might come in useful if ever I need to be knocked unconscious… You know, since anaesthetic doesn’t seem to work on me?’ I wasn’t telling him… For all I cared he could get himself hurt and he could again suffer the agony of being operated on whilst fully awake. It was more than he deserved.
‘Why are you here anyway?’ I interrogated.
‘Harper… She almost caught me in one of the offices,’ he said bluntly.
‘I wasn’t doing anything…’ The way he said it implied there was somebody else involved, as if more proof were needed that he was the biggest, most shameless slag on campus.
‘So you thought that you could hide in here and pretend you’d been here all along?’
‘Something like that!’
He ambled to the stage and jumped up onto it.
‘Alright,’ he began. ‘Shall we practice the last battle between Herod and the rebels? Oh… I wrote down the lyrics for Against All Odds as well… You can work those through some other time though.’
‘Shouldn’t somebody go and see if Dan is alright?’ Derry interrupted.
‘He thought Eliza wanted to make a baby with him.’ He rounded on me, enquiringly.
‘The Baby Jesus…’
‘He’s Baby Jebus now,’ Doug threw over me.
‘The Baby Jesus has been stolen again. I suggested making a replacement and he thought I meant make a real, actual baby.’
‘Oh for crying out loud! Yeah… Go and find him Derry.’ Derry went off to find Dan whilst Will co-opted Doug and two swords into a demonstration of close quarters combat.
‘This is a brutal free for all,’ Will instructed. ‘So Roman or Palestinian, just go for it… The only thing you really need to make sure of is that the scene lasts long enough and ends with the rebels falling back to the inn.’
I watched with interest as he used Doug to model how to hold a weapon correctly and then taught some basic blocking moves. It all looked very simple stuff and I took notes for use when he wasn’t around, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was all a bit much for a nativity. Who would actually care if the battle scenes were realistic or not? If the parries and blocks were all proper? So long as the Romans and Palestinians fought each other in a way that didn’t look ridiculous or camp nobody would care.
Whilst I was watching Will forming rebels and Romans into pairs Derry and Dan came back.
‘I’m sorry about before,’ Dan muttered sulkily under his breath. ‘It was a misunderstanding.’
‘Apology accepted,’ I smiled at him, forgetting the whole thing. I was all for letting it drop but Dan had other things to get off his chest.
‘You humiliated me, you know that?’
‘Humiliated you? When?’
‘That night you… That night you screwed that blue eyed bag of muscle on stage… It was embarrassing, finding out what my girlfriend had done in front of my friends… And the way I found out…’ Aye… I could remember. I could remember all too clearly and I still got the same sickening feelings of guilt and shame and horror when I thought of how that policeman had come out of my bedroom holding aloft Will’s semen soaked underwear. I had to live with the shame of that horrible memory every day.
‘I really never meant to hurt anyone…’
‘You did though!’
‘I know… But I thought… I thought that nobody would ever find out …’
‘That’s not an excuse,’ Dan accused. ‘And on top of what else you did you still called the police!’
‘I didn’t… But if he hadn’t been up to mischief then maybe the police wouldn’t have been after him in the first place.’
‘That’s true I suppose…’ The way he said it made it sound as though he was personally blameless in that whole affair.
‘Why did you want to sleep with him anyway?’ Dan asked me.
‘Because… Look at him… He’s fucking gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want to tap that?’ Derry, who was sat on the other side of me, pulled a funny face.
‘Gorgeous? No sweetie… That’s just a trick of his eyes.’ I begged her to explain. ‘It’s the blue colour… It subconciously cons you into thinking that the rest of his face is attractive when, actually, it’s kind of standard.’ I could tell that Dan thought this was bullshit, though he agreed on the general opinion that Will was bog standard in terms of attractiveness.
‘I really don’t understand how he manages to get all the girls,’ Dan moaned, sounding far too much like Barnes.
‘It’s the eyes, sweetie,’ Derry told him. ‘They’re tricked by the eyes.’ Dan still didn’t believe him. ‘Now Dexter on the other hand…’ Derry started to lick her lips.
‘I’ve been meaning to ask… You two seem close. Are you…’
‘No, unfortunately. I think he prefers girls with a vagina!’ Derry looked really sad and I gave her a friendly squeeze for support.
We continued to watch as Will directed the fight, the fight scenes and Herod’s slaughter were the only parts he directed in the entire play, and when he was done I managed to get ten minutes into a full run through before our allotted rehearsal time was up.
Come the final dress run on the twenty second of December I was despairing. Most of the play was passable. The actors were all doing the best they could but in certain cases their best was terrible. I’m referring to Doug, here. The only bits of Joseph he gave any life to were the numerous smooches with Mary which he and Amanda had added to the script throughout the course of the rehearsals. The rest of the time he was stiff and lifeless. Dan and I had tried to coax some acting ability into him but he was allergic to the stuff. Normally at this stage any director would have recast but our only option after Doug was a Neo-Nazi tosser and Dan and I were both determined that he wasn’t coming anywhere near our play.
The main reason I was despairing was the plot. After living and breathing it for weeks I knew it inside out and not only was I starting to hate it more than I did, I was becoming more and more convinced it would get us all lynched for blasphemy. I was starting to notice subtle jokes which Dan and Doug had inserted, jokes at the expense of Christianity. I managed to remove some of them but for each one I successfully plucked from the script two more then appeared in its place.
I wouldn’t see New Year, I thought. The play would get as far as the Julie Andrews song and then the audience, and the whole Plaza was sold out, would storm the stage and tear our bodies to pieces. There would be a riot. The building would be torn down around our bloodied corpses. The play would go down in history as the worst thing ever performed.
I figured that only a Christmas miracle could save us.
The other problem, and this had only happened since moving from the Beiderbecke Auditorium to the Plaza, was that the lights kept fusing every time the Phil Collins number ended. We’d already had to co-opt an actual Welsh male voice choir into making us a recording because none of our Romans could get their head around the Welsh. Despite my anguished pleas I couldn’t get Will to help. He just shrugged and said it was easy, so I kicked him in the shin. Twice.
The previous weekend Doug and Amanda had gone down to a village in North East Wales, Cawodydd-Aur, and they’d come back with a brilliant recording. According to Amanda they almost didn’t because Doug’s driving is unforgivably reckless.
The recording made that part of the performance much more atmospheric but the first time we played it all the lights in the plaza decided to fuse. By the fourth time this happened the management ordered us to stop playing the song until the full dress run and then we were only allowed one light whilst it was playing. It led to Derry, Dexter and Dan bringing up the vanishing Baby Jesus’ and claiming the play was cursed.
Will, having decided he wanted to see this car crash for himself but not wanting to give up the chance of getting his end away on Christmas Eve, sat in on that final dress run. He and Dan placed themselves in the middle of the theatre and watched the whole thing, arms folded, with their feet on the seats in front. Dan chewed on a bucket of popcorn stolen from the foyer throughout. At one point I saw him offer some to Will but Will refused.
I, meanwhile, was left to sort out all the backstage issues on my own. The girls refused to let Derry change in their rooms, as she wanted to, and she refused to change with all the ‘sweaty, nasty, boys,’ so I had to convince the management to allow us the use of an extra dressing room. They were weirded out but remarkably understanding and compliant.
Mid-way through the run, just before we took a break for the interval, I found that the substitute Baby Jesus, which was still, alas, one of the shepherd’s lambs, had gone walkabout. This confused me for I had seen it in one of the props boxes not five minutes before. I’d turned my back to oversee a lighting change and when I passed the box again it had gone.
During the interval I interrogated the entire cast, who were concerned, and I interrogated Dan and Will but according to both themselves and the cast they hadn’t moved from their seat since the dress run had started. It became apparent that none of us had stolen him and the Plaza, to my annoyance, lacked interior CCTV. As it was the dress run and the next time we would have my hand-made, papier-mache Baby Jesus, it didn’t matter too much but its disappearance still boggled the mind and irritated me.
‘What did you think?’ I asked Will afterwards. I had threatened him into helping me return the props and costumes to Daddy’s shop. It had closed for the holidays so it wasn’t like they would be in anybody’s way there. Will had been surprisingly up for helping and now we were stacking the boxes in the corner of the office. It was coming close to eleven.
‘Honestly? I sort of liked it but I think that Harper is going to want an Easter re-enactment right afterwards, with both of us in the leading role!’ Will looked glum.
‘I don’t think Harper will be the only one. The Plaza management have been told that the Bishop of Clitheroe is coming to see this pile of shit.’
‘I don’t think he will… Not on Christmas Eve. He’ll have much better things to do. He’ll probably send one of his subordinates.’
‘Most of the vicars in town will be there,’ I sighed.
‘How many is that? Four? Five? Six? Not many. Not even enough to fill half a row.’
‘It’s alright for you. You won’t be there… If something goes wrong you’ll be nice and safe at that party.’ He flopped down onto the sofa.
‘Look… You’ve got my number. I’ll only be around the corner and if you need me you can give me a call.’ I sat down next to him.
‘At least the fight scenes look good,’ I said, trying to find some kind of silver lining. ‘That’s your doing I suppose.’ Will grinned at me.
‘Benefits of growing up rough!’
‘Rough? You didn’t grow up rough… Rough means living on the streets…’
‘Well, I as good as lived on the streets. Most of what I know I learnt on the streets and the rest was school.’
‘I didn’t think rough kids went to school… I thought they just wandered the roads causing mischief?’
‘Believe me, I tried to avoid school but the police used to round everybody up and drop them at the gates.’ I laughed, imagining a situation where a tiny Will at the head of an equally tiny gang of hoodlums tried to evade capture by a team of police officers intent on getting them to school.
Will checked his watch. He noted the time and then got up to open the window. Cold air blew in and somewhere out there I could hear something that sounded like barking, something decidedly animal like, going on a few streets away. In the distance was the wail of a police siren and all the noises of a town that was entirely the wrong side of the tracks. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. There was no barking, no wailing sirens, nothing. There was only silence. I joined Will at the window.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked him.
‘That? Christmas! Peace on earth, for once. No crime, no bad stuff, no… Shit! All is calm, all is right…’
‘Round yon virgin, Julie Andrews?’ Will fell against the window, laughing.
‘I’d still like to change the ending, now you mention Julie Andrews,’ he admitted, heading back to the sofa. ‘It’s not possible now though.’ For a while I looked out at the cold, silent street, thinking. Then he was back again but something was different, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I turned to face him and one moment of madness later we were kissing each other, lips locked, tongues deep down the throat of the other, arms wrapped tight into a sexual embrace…
There was a cough from the stairs and we sprang apart. Derry was standing there with another box of props.
‘Brought the last one,’ she said, taking it to the office.
‘Yeah… Thanks Derry,’ Will answered. He had gone beetroot. ‘Listen, I’ve got to go… I’ll see you around… Good luck with the show!’ Our eyes then caught each other, he was mortified, and then he ran away.
I waited until I heard the door of the shop closing and then I fell onto the sofa, my head in my hands. Both of us had wanted that kiss but it was so stupid and so… so…
‘Sweetie?’ Derry came to the sofa and wrapped an arm around me.
‘He’s a bellend,’ I told her. ‘He’s a hot bellend… Harper told me to beware of hot things because they burn you if you get too close but, for fuck’s sake, I think this is more than that. It’s more than him just being hot… I think I’m actually in love with him!’
Next Week: It’s Christmas Eve, the show must go on, but the terrible play is the least of Eliza’s problems as Away With The Manger concludes in…
PART IV: NOBODY MOVE OR JULIE ANDREWS DIES!