By Jac Dowling
Ruthie sat tweedily four-square at the organ, muttering into her scarlet neck wattles and presenting a portcullis of ancient dentistry as she pumped furiously with both feet to fire up the ancient pipes.
Despite the summer heat, she wore her trade mark winter weight tweeds which, over the years, had grown ever more accommodating to the changing seasons of her Pickwickian form.
Inured to most slings and arrows of whatever fortune threw at her, by years of army life, she faced the world with the pugnacity of a bulldog. Chin, lower lip and jaw out-thrust and half-moon glasses on the end of her nose, a bundle of cherries on the crown of her felt hat wobbled in a syncopated and most aggressive fashion as she raised her left hand and brought it crashing down onto the lower keys.
Churchill would have been proud of her at this moment she thought as a rusty breath escaped the pipes, gathered momentum until it grew to a mighty ooooOOOhhhW and ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ swelled in sweet treble from the choir boys processing with candles down the aisle. It was the annual Nativity Play, and Everyone was there.
It was also Freddie’s big night, her magnum opus, her star turn. Tonight she was the Angel Gabriel complete with white crepe paper wings on a large wire frame and a long white satin dress. The wings had to be attached by crossing ribbons on her breasts and tying them at the back. Except she, at age nine, did not have breasts across which to tie the ribbon securely, so the wings, aerodynamically, were slightly less than perfect. But she was a staunch little girl and decided that a statuesque and noble interpretation of Gabriel would probably do the trick. She would glide to centre altar, brilliant in Mr van Wyk’s spotlight, say her piece as Mum had painstakingly taught her, clearly elocuted
‘Hail Mary, thou art highly favoured …’ right to the end, and then glide off.
Perhaps she would smile shyly and ripple her waist-long hair as she moved- it was certainly an option. But what if her mouth dried up and she couldn’t speak because her tongue got stuck? It would really have been much better if she could have been the Golden Angel who just stood (centre altar, but one step up) and glowed, and didn’t speak. Oh well, worry about that later and make a plan.
It actually wasn’t fair, she thought. Carol was always the Golden Angel because her dad was mayor. Freddie had spent years and years working her way up the ranks from being a donkey in a mask, through the hugely boring job of A Woman In A Crowd to an Angel In Waiting, with nothing to say or do except stand still with one arm in the air, pointing at a star which wasn’t there. And sing carols. Not even a solo part, and she had a lovely voice, everyone said so.
All the actors from Port Albert primary school were waiting nervously in the vestries and on the lawn. Oom Dolf had brought his well behaved donkey Smedley, who always played the same part and sent in his account for appearance money very promptly after the play. No-one knew how he came by his extraordinary name, least of all Oom Dolf, but rumour was that there was a bank account in the name of D Smedley where all his modelling fees were deposited. The D they thought, stood for donkey, but they weren’t one hundred percent sure. Not totally. It’s just what they had heard. Annamarie Louw’s pet hanslammetjie Lulu was also there. She looked very clean and fat, probably because she was about to have twins, but not that night, not in church. The sheep, not Annamarie.
Anxious mothers put finishing touches to stripey towels around close shaven heads (in case of nits), adjusted dressing gowns and gave final orders .
‘If I catch you doing that in the church Arnold, you know what comes next my boy, so don’t even think of it – OK?’ and, even worse ‘Koosie, as djy daai vinger weer in djou neus steek…jy ken mos my klap!’ Well, they were only shepherds and extras after all, and life got a bit boring just hanging around on the fringes. But at least they could stay barefoot and not worry about wearing clean takkies and things.
In vestry #2, in an atmosphere ripe with hairspray and cosmetics, the girls donned their silken robes and veils, batting heavily tarred eyelashes at each other, and worked themselves up into a frenzy of first night nerves. Even though they didn’t have to do anything except be women in the crowd.
Mary sat quietly in a corner contemplating her sanctimonious blue self and feeling quite pleased that she just had to sit on a stool and look beautiful and calm and not have to speak, just smile at the baby and Joseph, when she remembered. She practised a few secret smiles, just in case and hoped that she wouldn’t fall off Smedley while riding down the aisle. What if her robe got caught on the saddle and showed her knickers when Joseph helped her down? What if Smedley Eeyored in church or did something even worse? She would feel so embarrassed.
The church filled rapidly with excited parents. The ladies’ tea committee had prepared refreshments in advance and the hall’s trestle tables groaned under piles of koeksusters, sandwiches, flapjacks, Fanta and teacups. Smedley and Lulu were taken for one last walk around the field, just in case…(can’t have that happening in church) and Reverend Kevin gathered his multicoloured flock and led them in. Wise Men and Kings’ turbans, crowns and gifts checked out correctly and shepherds minded their flocks from various distribution points around the chancel. A gentle baa-ing issued from the wings, for effect.
Electric candles lit the interior, Ruthie fired up the organ, her cherries making like maraccas and the Holy Family established themselves around the crib.
Hennie had his ox mask on upside down, but that was soon sorted so he could see what he was doing. He was a bit put-out because Blooutjie Theron’s pet Dexter calf had to share his space. Everyone murmured ‘Ohhh sweet’ when little iStation was led on by his proud owner. Yes, it was a strange name but, given the circumstances of his conception, an appropriate one. His mother took a stroll down to the local train station late one night, as a Dexter bull was being offloaded. The rest was history.
The glorious assembly of biblical persons in the crowd followed the choir down the aisle singing in many sharps and flats and feeling so proud.
Freddie, aka Gabriel, meantime, was getting well and truly steamed up. She knew her words off by heart, and her wings were staying put, Mum had wound pearls in her hair, and her make-up was fine, so she looked ok. But it was sooooo hot and, even though she’d drunk two bottles of Fanta grape, her mouth was still dry. And it was beginning to thunder and she was scared of thunder.
Time to put her emergency plan into action. Reaching under her robe, she sneaked a small packet of Wrigley’s bubble gum, from the pocket in her school knickers, black glazed cotton with pocket and elastic, and popped three bits into her mouth, crunched the sugar coating and began ever so slowly, to chew and release the glorious fruity syrupy flavour.
That took care of the dry mouth. Problem solved, and no-one would ever know.
Her moment had arrived, so had the gathering storm. She glided gracefully into position, mid-altar, Mr van Wyk turned his spotlight on her, everyone drew in their collective breath and murmured ‘Aaaaah’. Gabriel raised her right arm, mindful of the right wing’s precarious position, and, throwing her voice to the back of the church cried ‘Hail Mary, thou art highly F….’ at which moment three things happened; a massive bubble emerged on the aspirate F and popped all over the angel’s face, an apocalyptic thunderclap rocked the church and…all the lights went out.
Picture from MS clipart.