Albert Rowlings, standing at the back of the classroom in his grey school uniform and expensive shoes, looked absolutely shell-shocked. “No, no, no,” he kept saying quietly, his face growing whiter with every passing second. He seemed unable to accept that he had just heard those terrible words uttered from Miss March’s mouth, nor could he believe what was written on the single sheet of white paper in front of him. In the two years that he had been living in the countryside, he had never heard anything so outrageous. No, of course this wasn’t real. His ears must have deceived him. As for the piece of paper, there was probably some sort of mistake. He just had to make sure…
Albert, timidly for once, raised his hand in the air. “Miss March,” he whispered, still trembling. “…what did you just say?”
Miss March turned around to look at him, and then frowned in confusion. Why was Albert shaking as though he had just received the most terrible and heart-breaking news? Did he feel unwell? Miss March tried to think of some other reason for his panicked face, but could think of none. She only repeated what she had, indeed, just said to Albert:
“I said that you will be playing the third shepherd in the Christmas nativity play, Albert,” she said, with a look of mild concern as his face grew yet paler with each word. “Albert….do you feel all right?”
Albert let out a wheezy sort of noise, as if he were having difficulty breathing. He repeated this single ‘sentence’ a few times, before Miss March could actually distinguish what he was trying to say.
“Third shepherd,” was all Albert squeaked. “Third shepherd…it can’t be.”
Miss March stared. “Yes, Albert,” she said uneasily. “Third shepherd. What is the matter with you?”
“Third shepherd,” Albert repeated. “Third shepherd…third shepherd…”
Miss March started to get impatient, and she glared suddenly. “Albert, if you don’t start making sense right now I shall get very cross. How can I possibly help when you just keep saying ‘third shepherd’? Now what is the matter, child?”
It took Albert a few seconds to pull himself together enough to be able to speak normally. He pointed a shaking finger towards his script, specifically to the scrawled words ‘Third Shepherd script’, as though to draw Miss March’s attention to the point he was making. The seven evacuees living with Mr. and Mrs. Baxter had now been living in the country for a little over two years, but this was the first time that anything like this had ever happened. All the children at the village school were assembled in the bottom class’ classroom to arrange the roles for the Christmas school play, which was approaching. Inevitably, Albert was not happy.
“There…there…there must be some sort of mistake, Miss March,” Albert said shakily. “This…this script says that I am the Third Shepherd…and…and I think I must be hearing things, because for a minute I thought that you said I was to play the Third Shepherd as well…..”
“I did say that you were to play the Third Shepherd, Albert,” Miss March confirmed, frowning.
“But…..but……but, I am the son of Lord and Lady Rowlings!” Albert burst out. “Surely, I cannot play the Third Shepherd! I mean, a shepherd? That….that is absolutely absurd! I….I…..I deserve respect! I am not used to this kind of treatment! This is awful! This is terrible! This is ridiculous! This is…”
“Albert!” Miss March barked. “Be quiet! I will not have this kind of babyish whinging in my classroom! You ought to be ashamed; a great big boy like you, setting a frightful example to the younger children! And I don’t know what sort of luxuries you were used to back in London, but this is wartime, boy, and we all have to adapt. You will be playing the Third Shepherd in the Nativity play, and that is final. Now, you will stop this disgraceful behaviour and be a little grateful that you have the opportunity to take part in a nice school play like this, rather than be away fighting like our brave soldiers! Do you understand?”
Albert looked shell-shocked. He stared at Miss March for a few moments, his face not showing any signs of going back to its normal shade, but then gave the tiniest nod.
Meanwhile, almost every other child in the classroom was clutching a sheet of white paper. Olive and Mary, sitting next to one another, were staring at their own sheets. Mary was grinning as she stared at her own thick script; she would be playing Mary, her namesake. Her face had turned pink with pride, and since having been given her script before anyone else, had looked through the whole thing at least twice. Olive, in contrast, had a very moody, ugly look on her face, as she stared down at the page labelled ‘Ox’.
“You’ll make a brilliant ox, Olive,” Frederick had said bravely, as he was handed his own sheet, which was labelled ‘King 1’. “I mean, no one is as good as you at stamping around and being bad-tempered.”
His voice trailed off as Olive gave him the most disgustingly ferocious look anyone had ever seen, and he turned pale and hid behind his piece of paper, as did Augustus and Adolphus, who would be playing ‘King 2’ and ‘King 3’.
“I think she would have been a better Herod,” Mary said, taking her eyes away from her script for a minute. The part she was talking about had been taken by George Periwinkle, a large and obnoxious country boy. “She’s great at being angry about things, and she orders me to kill people all the time.”
Olive here apparently decided to change the subject. “Who’s playing Joseph?” she asked Mary tiredly, thinking to herself that it didn’t matter, and that it was only a stupid play.
“Laurence Faith,” Mary said without looking up.
Olive groaned. Of course, Miss March was sure to choose the most devoutly Christian child in the class to play the part of Joseph. She could see him now, looking out of the window in a dreamy sort of way. She soon got tired of glaring at Laurence when he wasn’t even looking scared at the horrible faces she was making, and proceeded to listen to Mary, who in her keenness had apparently memorised the entire cast, explaining who everyone would be playing:
“And those boys John and Leopold over there are the inn-keepers…”
“What, Leopold Kane gets a speaking part?” Olive objected passionately, pausing to scowl at her newest arch-rival. Across the room, the young boy called Leopold Kane was smirking back at Olive, delighted that it had been he, instead of Olive, who had the honour of being able to speak the words, “There’s no room at the inn” in front of the children’s parents and foster families. Little did Olive know that Leopold hated her even more than she hated him. Meanwhile, however, Mary was not at present interested in one of Olive’s childhood feuds. She merely continued with her overview of the cast:
“…And Jane is playing the lamb, then I think the pretty girls called Margaret and Patricia are the angels. Then Michael, the boy with the golden curls, is playing the Angel Gabriel,” Mary gabbled. Miss March beamed at her, wondering what had happened to that little girl she had thought so odd just yesterday. Of course, it couldn’t have been Mary she had seen standing on Mrs. Baxter’s roof clutching an army rifle the other night as the German planes were flying over.
“Well done, Mary!” she said, as Mary beamed back at her. “I’m glad that she has a lot of enthusiasm, unlike some of you.”
Miss March paused to glare at Albert, who was still pale. “But, children, we will all have to work very hard on this play, if we want it to work!”
“Thank goodness for making our own fun,” Olive said quietly, staring at her script.
“….And I want everyone to try their absolute best to learn their parts,” Miss March continued. “Remember, children, you want to know what to say when everyone comes to watch you, now, don’t you?”
Most of the children nodded, smiling and excited. Olive groaned. Of course, she didn’t have any lines to learn. All she’d be doing would be sitting in a makeshift stable dressed in some sort of ox costume for the entire play. Unless….
Olive hurriedly started whispering to Mary as, in their keenness, many of the children started anxiously reading through their scripts. Miss March glared at Olive. How dare she distract the co-star of the show?
“Olive!” Miss March cried. “Stop distracting Mary! I want her to be word-perfect for this play!”
“Yes, Miss March,” Olive said grumpily, slumping back in her seat. Well, what else was she supposed to do? It wasn’t like she had anything worthwhile to remember for this so-called ‘play’. And she wasn’t even planning to stick to this stupid old script, anyway.
“Well done, Mary!” said Mr and Mrs. Baxter in unison that night, looking proudly at Mary’s script. Olive felt like being sick.
“Just think!” Mrs. Baxter said dreamily. “One of my evacuees! I’ll be the talk of the village! And for something good, this time! Everyone will talk about how brilliant I am at encouraging and looking after all these children, under this one roof! All the women of the village will envy me, won’t they, Lionel?”
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Baxter. He paused for a moment, thinking. “Will they envy me?”
Mrs. Baxter screwed up her face and prepared to answer truthfully; she already knew what the village thought of her idiotic husband. But then, reconsidering, she realised that she didn’t much feel like explaining all of this to him.
“Yes, Lionel, they’ll envy you,” Mrs. Baxter said tiredly. She soon spoke again under her breath. “All of the women will envy a stupid, moronic, over-grown farmer like you. You’ll be positively a role model…”
“What’s ‘moronic’?” Frederick asked loudly, standing quite close to Mrs. Baxter.
“Never mind,” Mrs. Baxter said quickly.
“Well, I think it’s a stupid idea,” Olive announced.
The room went rather quiet. “But…I want all the women of the village to envy me!” Mr. Baxter said, looking extremely hurt.
“No!” Olive said. “I think I should be Mary. I’d be great at it; I could….”
“Olive!” Mrs. Baxter interrupted. “How could you be so mean to poor little Mary? She’ll be a fantastic Mary, I just know it!”
“She already is,” Mr. Baxter said, misunderstanding.
“…And Olive, that reminds me! Miss March has been telling me that you have completed the pieces of homework she has set the class to a horrific standard for the past three weeks!” Mrs. Baxter continued, turning to Olive for a second. She looked very pleased with herself, as if she had been waiting all day to say something to Olive and had just remembered it. “That is a disgrace! An absolute disgrace! From now on, I’m going to check your homework every night, and if I see one little piece of evidence that you have not been working up to your full ability, you will do the whole thing again!”
“That’s not fair!” Olive cried before she could stop herself.
“Don’t argue!” Mrs. Baxter barked predictably. Then she thought for a moment. “In fact, Olive, perhaps you’re right. You children will never learn to take responsibility for yourselves if I insist on checking everything. Well, how about this: if I get one more negative report from Miss March, I will just have to take away your sweets ration, won’t I?”
Olive gnashed her teeth together angrily, but said nothing. She decided not to mention that Mrs. Baxter had already taken away her sweets ration for chasing one of the chickens out into the road. But it appeared that it wouldn’t matter anyway.
“I think you’ve had plenty of warning about this sort of thing already, Olive, so we’ll start now,” Mrs. Baxter announced. She looked delighted at the prospect of depriving Olive of something. “So…that’s five pieces of homework you’ve missed per week over the last three weeks. Five pieces of homework times three weeks equals seventeen sweet rations, so…”
“Fifteen,” said Mr. Baxter suddenly, the proud smile not leaving his face as he watched Mary studiously analysing her script.
“What?” snapped Mrs. Baxter, glaring at her husband as though very annoyed that he had interrupted what was turning out to be a very enjoyable lecture. “What are you talking about, Lionel?”
“Five times three is fifteen,” Mr. Baxter said calmly, still not looking away from Mary.
Mrs. Baxter opened her mouth wide as though she was about to tell him exactly what she thought of his pathetic attempt at mathematics, but then a sudden expression of panic flitted across her face, and, with a slight blush, she apparently decided to change the subject.
“…The play will go beautifully,” she said quickly. “It will be perfect, and Mary will remember her part, and Miss March will be very proud of her, and everyone else, for that matter. Not to mention me. Oh, and Olive, I’m sure you shall be a magnificent ox. And I don’t want you having another silly little fight with Leopold Kane; that’s not very ladylike is it? Anyway, be thankful for what you have. Don’t you remember what Our Good Lord saideth? ‘Thou shalt not envy’!”
“Mmm,” Olive said, by way of an answer. Of course, she’d just have to adjust this play herself. Except now, she couldn’t just confine it to her own part.
Olive had managed to stay awake until midnight. She couldn’t believe her luck. The curtains were drawn, and although her eyes had somewhat adjusted to the gloom by now, it was still very dark, and very easy to fall asleep. There had been several times where she had felt her eyelids closing heavily, but had had to force them open, reminding herself of what an awful mess this ‘play’ would turn out to be without her immediate help.
She had been waiting for a month for this, ever since Miss March had first handed out the scripts. Olive could not have ‘adjusted’ things straight away, as they still had to get the rehearsals done first. Of course, Olive had tried to convince Miss March to agree with Olive’s own amazing ideas for improvement, but as usual Miss March hadn’t been interested in these sparks of genius that remained undiscovered. Olive had done her best to convince Mary that she was doing the right thing, but for some reason Mary seemed satisfied with Miss March’s advice. Olive then decided that, as a loyal friend, she would have to rescue Mary from herself.
Olive, meanwhile, had spent many of the rehearsals sitting backstage doing nothing, when she wasn’t shouting to Miss March or the actors on stage about what they could do differently. Mabel had managed to fashion her a halfway-decent ox’s outfit out of some old sacks (they were very smelly, and Olive didn’t want to think about what had been in them before). She had had several ideas about how to improve her own part, but she wasn’t sure that she was prepared to show them to Miss March just yet.
Very, very slowly, so as not to wake up Mary or Priscilla, Olive slid out of bed, and stepped onto the creaky floorboards.
Cccrreeaaak. Olive winced as the floorboard she was standing on creaked noisily. Mary rolled over, and Priscilla’s snoring lost its steady rhythm for a moment, as if she had heard the noise even in her own deep sleep.
Olive crept over to Priscilla’s bed and stuck her feet into Priscilla’s pink silk slippers. She then crept quietly over to the door, eased it open, and tiptoed out.
The house was noiseless and eerie at night. Along the floor, the light of the moon made pale, glowing patterns through the windows, and Olive half-expected to see a ghost come floating towards her, but of course, she wasn’t scared of a silly old ghost. An owl hooted from somewhere, but other than that everything was completely silent. Well, almost silent. As Priscilla’s snoring gradually ceased as Olive moved further and further from their room, another set of snores could be heard from behind another door; that of both Mr and Mrs. Baxter. Olive restrained herself from sniggering, with difficulty. She momentarily thought about playing some sort of prank on the two of them (she had a lot of good ideas which were currently going to waste), but quickly thought the better of it. Her mission was much more important.
Olive had reached the staircase. Cursing silently to herself as she stepped onto the first, which was even creakier than the bedroom floorboards, she wondered why Mary didn’t just keep her satchel in their room if she was so bothered about keeping her precious script safe. Olive narrowly avoided tripping over one of the stair rods, and there was a sharp creak every time she stepped onto another step, and each time, she paused and listened to see if anyone had heard her, and awoken. But no, each time, the snores of Mr and Mrs. Baxter kept on going, and there were no sounds of movement from any of the other rooms.
It took Olive at least ten minutes to descend the staircase, and she was getting very impatient. Upon arriving on the ground floor, Olive had to very slowly ease open the door to the parlour. It made the loudest squeaking noise she had heard yet, and Olive, suddenly very cross, wondered why everything in this rotten old house had to be so loud; she thought that Mrs. Baxter was trying to stop the Germans from knowing where they were (Olive had finally understood the function of the big black boards which covered the windows every night).
Olive didn’t bother closing the door behind her, and was thankful to see that Mabel had not left any of the dogs in the kitchen. If one of them had started barking and jumping about everywhere she would have been found out immediately. All of her weeks of planning would have been a waste. With this in mind, Olive was even quieter than before as she crept towards the row of pegs on the far wall.
In the gloom of the night, Olive took several minutes to find what she was looking for. Skimming her hands along the pegs, she first came across everyone’s coats. At the far end was Mr. Baxter’s dark raincoat, which brushed the floor. On the next was Mrs. Baxter’s; a horrible dung-coloured thing which she was apparently very proud of, though Priscilla had been quick to turn up her nose at it. Olive then found the posh coats of Priscilla and Albert, covering their bulky satchels, which Olive would come back for later. Then there came the identical jackets of Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus, and then her own little coat, and then Olive found Mary’s, right on the other end.
Olive tore the coat off the peg. She heard a ripping sound, but it probably wasn’t serious. Then she tugged Mary’s satchel off the peg, threw open the flap and delved her hands inside. She felt several flimsy little exercise books and some scattered pencils and things, and then finally came across the thick paper booklet of Mary’s lines.
Triumphantly, Olive snatched the booklet out of the bag. She threw it onto the floor, opened it at random page before pulling her hidden flashlight out from under her pyjamas, along with a pencil, and shining the bright light on the page behind the safety of one of the cupboards. Blinking in the sudden light, Olive’s eyes took a few seconds to adjust before she could even see what was in front of her. Even so, over the last several months she had only just learned to read, and some of the longer words, which had been carefully explained to Mary by Miss March, were a mystery to her. What on earth was ‘Bethlehem’, for example?
But anyway, Olive had to soldier on, for the good of her school and her friends. Miss March would be so proud of her when she would explain that she had acted for the good of her school! Smiling to herself, she picked up her pencil, and got to work.
With difficulty, Olive read the first page or so of Mary’s script, and it wasn’t long at all before she noticed something that simply had to be improved.
What on earth was ‘Bethlehem’? From the looks of the script, this ‘Bethlehem’ was meant to be some sort of place. Well, Olive was perfectly sure that that was a typing error. Who had ever heard of ‘Bethlehem’, anyway? Shaking her head, Olive drew a shaky arrow from ‘Bethlehem’ to the margin of the page, where she resolutely wrote ‘Birmingham’. That must be it. Yes, of course it was. How silly Miss March was! And look, there was the same typing error again, on the very same page! In fact, when Olive looked closely, she could see several. Sighing quietly, Olive started correcting them.
And how could a star tell the three wise men where to go? Olive knew perfectly well that stars always stood still. That word ‘star’ was replaced with ‘road sign’, and Olive drew a small sign with ‘to Birmingham’ written on it in the margins of the page, to demonstrate her point. And the three wise men’s gifts! Well, Olive had heard of gold, but what were the other two? Frankincense and myrrh? Miss March, their ‘teacher’, obviously had no clue whatsoever how to spell. What would a baby want with gold, anyway? The three gifts were promptly changed to ‘nappies, bottles and a cradle’.
Olive’s corrections carried on in roughly this way throughout the entire play. Over the course of the Nativity story, Olive had fun writing about the shepherds playing ‘Hide and Seek’ rather than watching their sheep, and she found a brilliant excuse to allow the ox to do a wild dance around the stable. Feeling that Mary didn’t have that much to say whilst the narrator seemed to natter on for ages, Olive added in a long list of complaints concerning having to stay in a mucky old stable, before replacing the wise men’s camels with pogo-sticks, allowing the animals in the stable to have a little game of hopscotch and finally threw a couple of rude words into Herod’s speeches; seeing as he was the villain anyway she was sure that Miss March wouldn’t mind.
Olive was very proud of herself by the time she finally reached the last page of the script. She finished by changing the first line of ‘Silent Night’ to ‘Noisy Night’, and she was finished. She couldn’t believe it. What a wonderful play this would turn out to be! She was still grinning widely to herself as she silently crept back up the stairs and made her way back to her own room, not taking nearly as much care to be quiet as she had on the way down.
It was finally the day of the play; only a few hours after Olive had returned to bed after improving the scripts, Mr and Mrs. Baxter and all of the children were up. It was a cold December morning, and, for once, the children actually ate their porridge simply because it was hot.
Other than that, the morning at least ran as normal. Mrs. Baxter put on her ugly coat and walked them to school in the freezing December air, and when they arrived everyone around them was talking excitedly about the play. Mrs. Baxter in particular was hurried and excitable, both because she had already had to spend much of the morning mending a mysterious tear in Mary’s jacket, and because she could sense that her finest moment was near.
“Remember what I told you, Mary,” Mrs. Baxter said sternly when they reached the school door. “Do not let any of the other children put you down at this point. I expect there are some jealous types who will try to make you feel anxious. But don’t listen to them; be confident. After all the practice we’ve done, it’s literally impossible for anything to go wrong.”
“Yes, Mrs. Baxter,” Mary said cheerfully, delighting in the attention.
Olive was smirking. “Yes, Mary,” she said. “Nothing at all will go wrong! You’ll be brilliant.”
Mrs. Baxter beamed at Olive suddenly. “Well done, Olive!” she exclaimed. “I knew you’d get over that little sulk you had in time. See, Mary, Olive is here to support you!”
But Mary was looking suspiciously at Olive’s grinning face. Olive’s confidence wavered for a moment. Sometimes she forgot just how well Mary knew her.
Finally, it was evening. For many of the children in the play, the day had passed in a blur. Miss March, believing that one last, final rehearsal on the actual day was unnecessary, had simply done ordinary things like writing and arithmetic, but had found that few children were able to concentrate, particularly Olive Whackitt and Mary Maggott.
Olive Whackitt? Olive Whackitt unable to concentrate because of the play? Well, it was generally normal for Olive to lack concentration. But Olive, excited about the play? Olive excited about anything to do with the school,for that matter? This was certainly strange.
“Olive Whackitt!” Miss March shrieked, as Olive stood up in her chair in order to accurately aim a massive clod of dirt from the floor at Laurence Faith’s jumper. “Sit down right now! How dare you! And apologise to Laurence, at once!”
“Sorry,” Olive muttered crossly, sitting back down in her seat and glaring at the floor….but she couldn’t resist throwing one last mound of dirt over the shoulder in the direction of some of the girls.
“OLIVE!” Miss March shouted, as Margaret and Patricia screamed wildly and stood up, frantically brushing at their skirts. “WHAT did I just SAY?”
“Olive!” Olive told her, frowning in confusion as though it were completely obvious.
But that unpleasant episode was over. The whole countryside was pitch-black; it had to be, for fear that that funny, cross little man in the tin hat called the ‘warden’ would come and scream at them again.
Mrs. Baxter was once again walking the seven children, along now with Mr. Baxter, towards the school, where the play would take place in the little hall round the back. She had chosen particularly to grab Mary’s arm and hold her hand (though, knowing that Olive would only struggle and Priscilla would only shriek, her other hand was empty) as she marched smartly down the street, trying to be as visible to the other women as she could in the midst of the blackout. But, to make up for the lack of light, it was not hard to hear the little party as they approached the school. Mary and Mrs. Baxter were talking about their expectations from the other actors, whilst at the same time Mrs. Baxter raised her eyebrows in a manner similar to the snobbish looks of the Rowlings children, at what she could see of the other women’s coats, and they did the exact same thing to her. The children had, by now, become very acquainted with the talk of the women of the village:
“Well, good evening, Mrs. Jones! What a, errr, lovely second-hand dress…”
“Why, thank you, Mrs. Baxter. And I do love the colour of that coat of yours…”
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Jones. And Mrs. Smyth, what a delightful pair of shoes! What are they, clogs? How inventive!”
“Well, Mrs. Baxter, we all have to do what we can for the war effort. Now, I hear your Mary will be playing her namesake!”
“Oh yes, yes, we’re all very proud, aren’t we, Lionel? But I’m sure your little Jane will simply relish her role as the sheep…”
“It’s the lamb, actually, Mrs. Baxter, but thank you for remembering anyway. And I trust that young Olive will make an inspiring ox.”
Olive, meanwhile, was getting a little impatient. “Mrs. Baxter, let’s go,” she whined, at just the worst moment.
Mrs. Smyth smirked at Mrs. Baxter. “And what delightful manners she has as well!” she said.
Mrs. Baxter glared into the dark patch that currently was Mrs. Smyth’s face, but being at this stage unable to find anything to criticize about Mrs. Smyth’s little girl Jane, simply stalked off towards the school, dragging Mary with her, and calling to her companions to hurry up.
“Hurry along, children!” she practically screamed at them, glancing into the darkness around to make sure that everyone was listening. “We don’t want Mary to be late for her role as Mary now, do we! Her namesake, children! Fancy that!”
Mrs. Baxter let out a panicked, hysterical sort of screech. It took everyone a few seconds to realise that she was actually laughing.
Mr. Baxter grinned. “Muriel, you sound just like one of the horses!” he cried, as though he thought he was saying something really clever and funny. As Mrs. Baxter fixed him with an icy glare, they heard several feminine laughs from various places in the blackness.
“You complete and utter fool, Lionel,” Mrs. Baxter hissed under her breath, her grip tightening on Mary’s wrist. Well, actually she didn’t just say fool; there was a much worse word that she said just before.
“Daddy says that when he’s drunk,” Mary felt inclined to mention. Mrs. Baxter shushed her angrily, and they went on.
It was very busy at the school. Many of the mothers had come in to provide refreshments, and they stood at their little stall in front of the hall, beaming at the children and smirking maliciously at the other parents. Olive, Mary and their fellow evacuees were sent backstage with Miss March to get ready. Mary was put into a funny light-blue wrap-around dress and a tea-towel tied onto her head. Olive was put into her pile of old sacks, or, as Miss March referred to it, her ox costume. The Whinging brothers were clad in costumes suspiciously similar to that of Mary. Priscilla, who had been assigned the position of a star, was, remarkably, fairly pleased. She had been put in a sparkly sort of dress and a prickly headdress that made visible red marks on her pale forehead, but she would have sooner died than have suggested taking it off. Albert, telling himself to make the most of his ridiculous situation, stood with a blank expression on his face as he was put into a stripy tunic-type thing, and another tea-towel on his head.
Olive sat, smiling nonchalantly, by the door to the hall, waiting for Mary to pass. Eventually, the performers came filing past on their way to the stage whilst the parents were all still munching some rather unappetising mince pies. Olive quickly stuck out her foot as Priscilla walked past, and Priscilla immediately fell forward, shrieking, much to the surprise of everyone else.
Miss March ran forward and helped Priscilla to her feet before hustling her backstage to inspect the damage. Olive grinned. This was all part of her grand plan. With Miss March safely out of the way, Olive turned to the approaching Mary and grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Olive?” Mary mumbled, stumbling after her friend as she was dragged to a remote corner of the hall. “What are you doing? The play starts in twenty-three minutes!”
“I know, I know,” Olive said, putting on her best urgently worried voice. “Mary, listen, I was just speaking to Miss March, and there’s been a change with the play.”
Mary frowned. “A change? What do you mean?”
Olive grinned quietly to herself as she bent down to pull the adjusted script out of Mary’s satchel. “Miss March made a few changes because she wanted to make the play more interesting. This one’s meant to be a lot better. Anyway, she told me to tell you that you need to spend the time until the play memorising the changes.”
Mary gasped. “What, in twenty-three minutes?” she said. “Are you sure, Olive? That seems a bit strange. Why would Miss March change the play now? I thought it was good enough! You know how everyone’s been talking about how good it is this year!”
“Well, Miss March was looking through it a couple of days ago, and she suddenly realised how unfair it was that the ox should do hardly anything, and she also realised that the parents would all fall asleep if she didn’t make it better. But anyway, I have to spread the message to the others. Have fun!”
And, with that, Olive ran off, leaving Mary staring after her in astonishment. Mary was very confused. It did seem very peculiar that Miss March would expect her to learn all of these funny new lines off by heart at the last minute. It must be because Miss March had so much trust in her. Mary supposed that that was one good thing about it; when she learnt all of these new lines and performed them so well, everyone would probably be even more proud of her. So, shrugging to herself, she got to work.
Just as Olive finished carefully positioning her carefully-made ‘To Birmingham’ sign behind the curtains, she ran over to a large group of children. “Margaret! Patricia! William! John! Leopold! Robert! George! Jane! Look at this! It’s the new script!”
Olive did have a bit of a hard time explaining the situation to all of these dim-witted country children, who were all difficult to convince that the play had been adjusted for the better. The only person she hadn’t dared to tell was Laurence Faith, who probably knew the nativity story backwards. He was also the only one of the children likely question Miss March about the changes.
Olive waited until Miss March had finished tying the piece of rope around Albert’s waist before approaching to tell the Rowlings children and the Whingings about the changes. She had cleverly given Albert and Priscilla extra lines explaining how intelligent and wonderful they both were in order that they would agree, and had allowed the three wise men to talk about boring things like plants. After this, she was finished, and, in the time that remained before the amazing production was to begin, Olive amused herself by practising the ox’s wild dance around the stable, occasionally peering over at the other children to check that they hadn’t suspected anything.
The parents soon filed into the hall and took their seats. Miss March was conveniently engaged with welcoming people as they came into the room, and fussing around Mr. Baxter when he banged his head on the doorframe. One of the other teachers at the school, Miss Cummings, sat playing the piano, and a few of the older children handed specially-drawn pamphlets listing the cast members to people as they sat down. Olive spotted Mrs. Baxter sneaking back around the hoard of parents coming in to collect more and more leaflets before smoothing them out carefully and putting them into her bag.
“Welcome, everybody!” Miss March called out eventually, and the buzz of chat in the hall slowly died down. “Thank you for attending, and we hope that you enjoy this wonderful school play. The children have all been working very hard to memorise their parts, and I’m sure that their talents will all shine through tonight!”
Olive merely smiled.
Five minutes later, Robert walked onto the stage and began to narrate the first events in the Nativity story. Olive hadn’t altered this part much, as she needed to make sure that the Play would be allowed to continue until the ox’s wild dance, but she did see Miss March frown and mutter something to Miss Cummings as she heard the word ‘Birmingham’ uttered for the second time. By the time the curtains were pulled back to reveal the road signs with ‘To Birmingham’ written on them in messy, miss-formed handwriting, she was looking extremely suspicious, and seemed to be peering in Olive’s direction. Olive froze, doing her best to look as normal as everyone else, and, to her relief, Miss March’s eyes slid past her and focused on John and Leopold, who were also notorious trouble-makers.
To Olive’s delight, Mary and Laurence were now walking onto the stage. They were both in full costume; Mary in her long blue cloak thing with a large cushion wedged into the waistband, and Laurence in a similar garment of stripy cloth, only without a cushion. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on them as they plodded to the centre of the stage. Olive spotted Mrs. Baxter in the audience beaming, despite Robert’s confusing speech about Birmingham. Evidently she was happy that Robert had got something wrong, and would make Mary’s acting look even better. Mr. Baxter also looked considerably happier than the other bewildered-looking parents, but that was probably because he hadn’t understood that the Nativity story had not happened in Birmingham.
Laurence Faith stepped forward. Miss March stared at him with her hands over her mouth, with an expression that seemed to be a sort of cross between terror and hope. But, as Olive hadn’t dared to alter his speeches in any way, everyone sighed with relief as Laurence came out with the same old drivel that had appeared on the script handed to him by Miss March a month ago; something about travelling to Bethlehem. Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief. With a slight hint of anger, Olive watched as a bony hand, probably Miss Cummings’, reached onto the back of the stage from behind a curtain and whisked away Olive’s specially drawn ‘To Birmingham’ sign. However, everyone else in the audience breathed another sigh of relief.
“…Mary and Joseph travelled to Birmingham with Mary riding on a sabre-toothed tiger,” Robert continued, and instantly everyone looked puzzled once more, and Miss March sat straight upright, her eyes wide with horror. A murmur ran through the room.
Olive shrugged, disappointed that the audience wasn’t more impressed. She’d worked hard coming up with the part about the sabre-toothed tiger. Who wanted to hear about a boring old donkey? Sabre-toothed tigers were far more interesting; Olive had seen a drawing of one once in a book about prehistoric animals, and it had instantly become one of her favourite creatures of all time. However, she hadn’t been able to do anything about the donkey costume, so she felt a touch of annoyance as a couple of the school’s younger children ambled innocently onto the stage in a donkey costume, the child playing the hind legs almost running into the child at the front.
Next was the charade with the innkeepers’ hideous face-pulling (which Olive had specified in the script must be as terrifying as possible in order that Leopold Kane, who usually went against absolutely anything suggested by Olive, would agree to it) after some paltry details from Robert about Mary and Joseph having arrived in Birmingham, and the audience was getting extremely confused. In fact, they were not just confused; they were taking this as a delightful opportunity to attack the other parents.
“Shameful!” Mrs. Faith whispered loudly to Mrs. Piper, well within earshot of Mrs. Long, Robert’s mother. “No respect for religion at all! You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if that boy wasn’t awarded his school certificate. He’s clearly mentally subnormal…”
Mrs. Long’s face turned a rather frightening shade of purple, and she was trembling violently as she leant forward in her seat to glare at Mrs. Faith and Mrs. Piper along the rows of parents. Mr. Long anxiously put his hand on her shoulder and tried to gently push her back into her seat, but his wife simply shook him off and continued glaring. Meanwhile, Mr. Saunders was muttering something to Mr. Baxter about the standard of Mary’s acting: Mary had just announced that she would not sleep in a mucky old stable if she were paid one thousand shillings, and Mr. Saunders felt that he had to mention something, if only to point out to the Baxters that perhaps Mary’s upbringing needed a few improvements…
“Muriel! Mr. Saunders said that Mary’s upbringing needs a few improvements!” Mr. Baxter whispered as he poked Mrs. Baxter in the arm.
“What?” Mrs. Baxter hissed, leaning across her husband to stare ferociously at Mr. Saunders. “How dare you! And, might I ask, what precisely is John doing in this play? Standing behind a doorframe and making rude faces at the audience? He’s not even fit to be a non-speaking part! You’re just jealous of our little Mary.”
“Jealous of that pathetic little thing?” Mrs. Saunders piped up, leaning forwards. There were a few smirks and giggles from Mrs. Periwinkle, Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smyth, who were all sitting nearby. “That straggly, messy little outcast? Everyone knows she was only picked to be Mary because everyone felt sorry for her, and the teachers didn’t want to confuse her by giving her a different name!”
“Muriel, Mrs. Saunders said that Mary’s an outcast and she only got to play Mary because that was her name!” Mr. Baxter whimpered, poking Mrs. Baxter again.
Mrs. Baxter, ignoring her husband, clenched her fists and stared Mrs. Saunders full in the face. “You take that back,” she growled, leaving about a second between each word so that she would sound as frightening as possible.
Mrs. Saunders just snickered meanly. “I will not!” she said.
“She said she won’t, Muriel!”
“Yes, I can HEAR her, Lionel!” Mrs. Baxter shrieked suddenly, as Mr. Baxter poked her arm again.
There was a short silence, and Robert’s description of the shepherds’ game of ‘Hide and Seek’ wavered for a moment. Mr. Baxter shrugged and stared at a cobweb on the ceiling with his mouth open. He seemed to be the only person who was still calm. Miss March looked out into the audience and saw many of the parents hissing, glaring and even spitting at one another. Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smyth had actually begun to push one another roughly.
Olive beamed to herself. The play had become even more exciting than she’d thought it would be! But now for the best part: Olive, grinning to herself even more, pulled up the scratchy hood of her ox costume and prepared to dance onto the stage wildly. But it appeared that she wouldn’t have much time to show off.
Miss March had started to panic, and she looked at Miss Cummings in desperation. But Miss Cummings looked as helpless as she did. What were two middle-aged school teachers against a mob of ferocious parents? Miss March tried her best to calm herself down, even though her pulse didn’t seem to get any slower, and she tried to encouragingly alter the children’s actions in her own gentle, loving way:
“Children! What are you doing?” Miss March hissed furiously, ducking under the curtains as she stepped towards the stage. “Albert! Why are you running around like that? Stop it at once and do what you’re supposed to be doing!”
Albert, under instruction from Olive’s script, was running around chanting “I’m so brilliant! I’m so fantastic! I’m the son of the richest shepherd in the country!” as he cheerily sought out the other shepherds from their hiding places.
Miss March had no effect whatsoever. Albert was not going to let any stupid teacher stop him from expressing his incredible wealth and importance to this group of people, no matter what a common and insignificant audience they were. Gosh, wouldn’t his father be proud of him when he finally got home and told him all about his incredible adaptability in times of hardship…
“Well, I say, little Jane is looking rather hot and bothered over there, isn’t she, Lionel?” Mrs. Baxter said loudly out in the audience as she eyed the stable scene being put up as Albert was finally persuaded to dance off stage. Whilst most other people in the room were staring in confusion at Olive’s mad dance between hurtful comments to the other parents, she had her eyes on the nervous-looking Jane Smyth, a mousy girl who was small for her age and who barely spoke. Mrs. Baxter was inching closer to Mrs. Smyth, so that the latter could hear every word she said. “Look at her, poor thing, just standing there in that old pile of rags! Poor, neglected soul!”
“I beg your pardon!” barked Mrs. Smyth all of a sudden, standing up and glaring down at Mrs. Baxter. “Pile of rags? If you must know, I was up all night sewing that costume for Jane! Olive’s ox costume isn’t exactly professional either, is it?”
Mrs. Baxter stuck her nose in the air snobbishly, her manner suggesting that she had taken a page out of Albert and Priscilla’s book. “Actually, Mrs. Smyth, my maid Mabel sewed Olive’s costume.”
“Well, I am sorry!” cried Mrs. Smyth. “We can’t all afford a maid! You evil horror; no wonder they dumped the cast-offs on you!”
“Cast-offs?” Mrs. Baxter roared, pointing at Mary. “That ‘cast-off’ got the lead in the play!”
“Lead?” yelled Mrs. Faith. “What about Joseph?”
“Jesus is the main character!” screamed Mrs. Jones. “I provided the doll; that means I provided the lead!”
“That old thing? That’s not worthy of representing Our Lord!”
“Well, at least I’m trying! There’s a war on, you know!”
“Trying? All you had to do was pick out any old doll!”
“Oh, shut up about the doll, why don’t you? Some of us had to sew costumes!”
“Well, I did as well! I do have a child, you know!”
“A very rude child, if you ask me!”
“How dare you!”
“Yes, well, it’s true.”
“Well, at least she’s not like Mrs. Baxter’s Olive! Have you seen the state of that child?”
“What?” shouted Olive. “What’s wrong with me?”
Olive had strode to the centre of the stage, and was glaring angrily out into the crowd. The rows of adults, now mostly standing up in order to confront one another, stared back at her. Olive stared at the woman who had insulted her.
“Look at the state of you!” Olive shouted at Mrs. Faith. “You’re a mess, Mrs. Faith!”
“Oh, I say!” cried Laurence Faith suddenly, stepping up to Olive. “Please don’t insult my mother like that, Olive!”
“Oh, shut up!” Olive cried, and that was when the riot started.
Olive started by slapping Laurence on the shoulder. Laurence looked shocked, and clasped his hands together in prayer. Olive thought she could make out the word ‘forgive’ on his lips. Leopold Kane, looking delighted, ran up and pushed Olive slightly. Mary, not realising who was responsible for the disaster, immediately ran up to defend Olive, and threw herself at Leopold. Leopold shrieked in pain, and when Olive saw his face she saw with glee that his nose was bleeding. The Whinging brothers crouched to the floor and clutched one another in fear. Albert, who had been narrowly struck by John and Robert in their advancement to defend Leopold, struck John from behind, and soon they were engaged in a rough fight. Patricia saw an opportunity to insult Margaret on her dress, and soon the two angels were slapping at one another as well. Priscilla, having seen that her silver dress now held a muddy footprint made by Margaret’s shoe, joined in. Jane Smyth tried to hunch in the corner away from the violence, but could not escape the chaos, and ended up being pushed from one side of the stage to the other like a shuttlecock. Miss March ran out into the fray and hurriedly started to separate the children, but each time she moved on, they just continued their separate little fights.
Naturally, the fight didn’t stop at the children. The mothers had started to run up to the stage not to help Miss March in separating their children, but in helping them, taking out their anger on the parents of the children whom their own children were fighting with. When Olive momentarily poked up her head from the chaos to observe what was happening, she saw that Mrs. Jones had Mrs. Baxter in a headlock, and Mrs. Smyth was pulling hard on Mrs. Jones’ hair. Mrs. Faith struggled to shield herself as Mrs. Green, another parent, aimed a sharply-pointed umbrella in her direction. Mr. Jones and Mr. Smyth were wrestling on the floor whilst Mr. Green watched in disbelief, failing to notice as Mr. Piper prepared to give him a sharp kick on the shins. Mr. Faith was shouting “Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!” up at Mr. Baxter, though the latter was just looking confused. Mr. Baxter had to think about what had just been said for at least five seconds before thinking to react. He eventually shouted “How dare you…!”, but looked up from his musings to find that Mr. Faith had got bored with the silence and had disappeared. He was seen a couple of minutes later having a screaming match with Mr. Kane. Mr. Long went as far as to pick up a wooden chair and smashed it down onto Mr. Baxter’s back, but it had little effect. In fact, Mr. Baxter barely noticed. He actually looked quite anxious, towering above everyone in the crowd. He looked towards his wife, as if hoping for some sort of guidance in the situation. Mrs. Baxter, having escaped from the headlock, was pelting the leftover mince pies at whoever got in her way as she tried to get towards Mrs. Jones again. Mrs. Piper had managed to tear Mrs. Baxter’s beloved coat up the back, but luckily Mrs. Baxter had not yet noticed. Mrs. Jones was meanwhile shouting at her son William to stop being a wimp and start defending their family’s honour. Mrs. Smyth was bashed with Mrs. Long’s handbag, which had somehow ended up in Mrs. Faith’s possession. Laurence Faith attempted to calm everyone down by looking shocked and telling the oblivious crowd that this was very un-Christian behaviour. He failed miserably.
“Now, let’s all calm down!” Miss March said loudly. “Come now! Oh, Mrs. Baxter, please put that piano stool down! Oh, no, please don’t throw it! Ooh, Mr. Long, are you all right? Oh, dear me, goodness! Mr. Faith, your lip is bleeding! And so is your nose! Oh, Mrs. Jones, please don’t tell William to do that, we don’t need any more fighting! Jane, dear, get out of the way! Albert Rowlings, how dare you hit poor Laurence like that! And Leopold Kane, do not slap Olive! You know better than to hit a girl! I don’t care if you hate her! Mrs. Piper, I’m not sure that Mrs. Baxter would appreciate you tearing up her coat even more!”
None of this had any effect. No one heard the panicking teacher over all the noise, and in time she too was caught up in the crowd. Her spectacles were immediately knocked from her nose and trampled underfoot, leaving her to get down on her hands and knees to search fruitlessly for them. Mr. Baxter ended up standing on her fingers and then tripping over her completely, and with his height he ended up injuring quite a few people in the process. And finally, with such a long body lying helpless across the floor, it wasn’t long before there were several more people collapsing uncontrollably to the ground, and pulling more down with them. Several of the children had already spilled off the stage to continue their fight, and they too ended up sprawling on the floor. Mrs. Baxter tripped over her husband’s head, and she was followed by Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Piper, and most of the rest of the parents. Miss March struggled to her feet only to be mown down again by Priscilla as she ran screaming out of the room, holding up the tatters of her dress. Soon, the people in the hall had all fallen to the floor in an enormous, squirming pile.
Miss March got up for the second time and stumbled over to the stage. She leant on it heavily and held her throbbing head in her hands. She had some trouble surveying the scene without her glasses, but she could distinguish a disordered blur from an ordered one. She stared with disbelief at the audience and her actors, and shook her head. This was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. What would people think of her now? People would think that she had written that script….and speaking of that script, Miss March had a fairly good idea of who was responsible for all of this, and she turned slowly and meaningfully towards the only person still standing on the stage.
“I still think mine was better,” Olive mumbled.
As Mrs. Baxter led home her tattered, confused husband and set of sobbing, traumatised evacuees that night, she could not remember any time when she had felt more miserable. She thought about how proud she had been just a couple of hours before whilst walking towards the school, but now there was only one word on her lips.
“Expelled,” Mrs. Baxter whispered, clutching her sore neck with both hands. She barely noticed that she was leaving a heavy trail of dung-coloured material behind her. “Expelled. Expelled.”
But no matter how many times she said the word, it refused to sink in properly. Several times, Mrs. Baxter had had to turn to Olive and mutter the word, just to convince herself that it had really happened.
Mrs. Baxter, like Miss March, believed that this was the worst day of her life. She was walking home in the blackout, but her eyes had adjusted to the dark, and she could see everything that was happening. She could see Mr. Baxter, covered in dust from the dirty hall floor, with several bruises on his face. She could see Mary in what used to be her costume, trailing along silently, followed by a weeping Priscilla. Albert had a cut lip and was limping along beside his sister. The Whinging brothers still had wide mouths and terrified eyes, and still had not let go of one another. Then, walking behind, apart from everyone else, walked Olive. Olive, having not joined in the pile of people falling over Mr. Baxter a few minutes earlier, looked a little cleaner and less emotionally scarred than the other children. But Olive had been expelled from the village school, and Mrs. Baxter couldn’t quite believe it. She still had to go through the whole scene in her head: getting into the fight and being battered about, looking at her reflection in the piano and seeing that she had a black eye, watching her beloved coat fall to pieces, tripping over Mr. Baxter’s head, but most terribly of all, watching Miss March shriek that terrible word at Olive.
“Expelled,” she said again, shaking her head.
Mrs. Baxter had never realised just how much she hated children.