Continuing extracts from Hidden Faces by Anne E. Thompson – A story to enjoy:
The children were all ready and seated quietly when the message arrived that they could walk to the hall. Miss Mott led her class slowly to the space allocated to them and indicated that they should sit. She found her reserved seat behind them. She lifted her glasses from their chain around her neck and looked around. The parents were all seated on blue plastic seats which had been designed for infants. They were much too small to be comfortable and had been squashed together in an attempt to fit as many parents as possible into the school hall. Now they sat, perched uncomfortably, touching shoulders with people on either side. Some of them looked rather red faced and sweaty as they wore winter coats and the hall was hot.
‘They were told,’ thought Miss Mott, ‘to kindly leave their coats in their cars.’ She sighed, they never listened.
Andrew Smyth and Cherry Class had not yet arrived. This was intensely irritating. There was a lot about Mr Smyth that Cynthia found irritating. He was the newly qualified teacher and she was his mentor. It was not a role she enjoyed. He didn’t seem to value neatness or record keeping. Nor did he seem capable of keeping his classes calm and disciplined, which surely was the most important role for a teacher.
Cynthia had known it was going to be difficult when he first showed her his plans for his history lessons. He had decided they were going to focus on the burnings of martyrs during the reign of Henry VIII. He had enthusiastic plans for a large wall display with tissue paper flames and showers of gold stars, showing how packets of gun powder, tied to the martyr’s necks, had exploded their heads. It would have been a visual feast and would no doubt have scarred Cherry Class for life.
Now he was late for the nativity performance. It had been agreed that her class would arrive last, so that the youngest children would have less time to sit before the play began. Mr Smyth taught Year One, so he should have been waiting. Cynthia heard a noise at the door and turned. Cherry Class stumbled into the hall. Some were not properly dressed and had their costumes draped across their shoulders where they had neglected to fasten the back. Behind them was Mr Smyth. He entered the hall smiling widely, with his shirt untucked at the back. He led his shambolic class to their assigned seating area, tripping over a mother’s legs on his way to his own chair.
Esther Pritchard raised both her hands and eyebrows, then began to play the opening notes on the piano while the children scrambled to their feet. They were mostly all standing in time for the first word. The nativity play had begun.
Miss Mott faced the children, mouthing the words with an exaggerated smile in the hope they would copy her expression. Most of them were looking at the floor of course, or scouring the audience for their parents. Nigel Stott stopped singing to nudge the child next to him, pointing out his mother, who waved back at him.
‘Silly woman,’ thought Miss Mott. She glared at Nigel, who turned red under her gaze, straightened his back and tried to sing with the rest of his class. He joined in loudly but singing the wrong verse. The boy next to him giggled until he too caught Miss Mott’s eye.
She looked at the children. Angel Gabriel was being glared at by Mary, who had a red mark on one arm. Cynthia guessed there had been an argument. It looked as if Mary had been crying and she kept rubbing her arm as though to make a point. Angel Gabriel was grinning triumphantly.
Joseph’s headdress was too large and kept slipping over his eyes. Rather than push it back, he was tilting his head backwards and peering at the audience from under its rim.
One of the shepherds had a cold and no handkerchief. Every time his nose ran, he surreptitiously picked up the fluffy toy lamb, wiped his nose on it, lowered it again. The fluff tickled his nose and nearly made him sneeze. Miss Mott frowned her disapproval and he slowly, slowly, inch by inch, placed the lamb back on the floor.
One of the kings had been ill all week but had returned to school so he didn’t miss the play. He looked decidedly green. Cynthia wondered at the logic behind sending an obviously ill child into school. He was sadly uncomfortable. Her only hope was that all the other children would catch it during the holidays and not have to miss school. It was always tiresome to have children absent when you were attempting to teach.
Unbidden, a thought occurred to Cynthia. She had fastened the bolt on the garden shed. From the outside. Should anyone find the unfortunate gardener, it would be obvious that he had been found previously. She felt dread, like cold fingers through her stomach. Was ignoring a body a criminal act? Could she be put in prison? Would there be a court case? It now was hard to concentrate on the play. The song was finished and the children were shuffling to sit back in their places. The Year Two narrators were standing to attention, waiting for Esther Pritchard to nod and signal they should start reading. Cynthia was feeling sick. She was unsure of her options. She could not leave the school hall before the end of the play, that would cause untold fuss. Neither could she escape before the end of the school day, she needed to oversee the changing of the children and the safe stowing of the costumes.
A small girl crawled towards her and tugged her skirt. ‘I need to go to the toilet,’ she whispered loudly.
‘Can you wait? We did all go to the toilet before we came in,’ she reminded her.
The child nodded uncertainly and crawled back to her place, stepping on fingers as she went, receiving scowls and dark sighs. The children glanced at Miss Mott to ensure that she had noticed.
Cynthia decided there was nothing she could do at that moment and forced herself to focus on the play. She looked around the hall. Esther Pritchard was avidly following the script from her piano seat. Everything about Esther Pritchard was avid. Her fair hair refused to sit neatly and sprung around her face like a wiry bird’s nest. Her eyes bulged slightly and her mouth was always smiling. She was one of those nice people who Miss Mott found thoroughly irritating. She never swore, never gossiped and always spoke softly. She was married to the minister of the local chapel and this also irritated Cynthia. She should not be earning money and having a separate career. Cynthia was well qualified in this area as her own father had been a vicar.
Next she looked at Jane Lancaster. She was the head teacher and had worn a suit for the occasion. She had not introduced the play, such a shame. Cynthia hoped she would give a short speech at the end. Standards needed to be upheld. Jane Lancaster was a naturally shy person and whilst she was competent when making policy decisions and organising the curriculum, she did tend to avoid confrontation and disliked public speaking. Cynthia considered this to be a failing.
The children were again struggling to stand as the piano played the introduction to the donkey song. They were sitting in much too small a space and it was almost impossible for them to avoid stepping on each other. The donkey set off for his walk around the audience, followed by Mary and Joseph. Mary had thankfully stopped rubbing her arm and was now concentrating on not stepping on her long blue gown.
The chairs for the parents had been arranged with small aisles along each side and along the back, so the children could walk around the entire audience. This was a new idea, introduced for the first time this year. Cynthia was not at all sure that it was a good one.
She noticed that the donkey was walking much too fast, the threesome were meant to walk for the entirety of the song, they would be finished before the end of the first verse. Parents sitting next to the aisle shuffled even closer together to make room for them, their chairs scraping on the wooden floor.
Without warning, Mary stopped. She had seen her mother. Triumphantly she rolled up her sleeve to reveal red fingermarks.
‘Timmy Beal slapped me,’ she stated in a loud voice. ‘It’s because I told him that angels are really girls. They are, aren’t they?’
The piano continued playing but very few children were singing. They were straining to see what would happen next. This was interesting, not something they had rehearsed in their daily practice. Parents sitting at the front of the hall turned around to watch, some of the children stood on tip toe to try and see what was happening.
Miss Mott rose from her seat and turned towards the indignant Mary. ‘Carry on, Belinda,’ she said, in a voice that expected to be obeyed, ‘we can discuss this later.’
The child obediently continued walking, Joseph trailing behind, the donkey giggling uncontrollably in the lead. The rest of the school continued singing, some of them giggling to copy the donkey, some looking upset because they knew their play had been spoilt. Jane Lancaster looked ready to burst with anger; Esther Pritchard continued to look peaceful. Andrew Smyth was clearly having trouble containing his own laughter and was pretending to blow his nose.
There was some whispering when the children sat again and Miss Mott raised her eyebrows in warning. They settled down and the play continued.
Joseph knocked on brightly coloured doors which wobbled alarmingly. They had been made from large cardboard boxes which had been flattened and painted. No one knew what doors looked like in the New Testament era, so they closely resembled the children’s own front doors, complete with numbers and letter boxes. Excited innkeepers informed them there was no room, prompted by their wives, who knew the script and wanted to share the lines. The last one obligingly offered the couple his stable and they followed him to a different corner of the hall where a manger stood waiting. The school shuffled round to see.
All the angels clustered around the couple, hiding them from view and singing the angel song. It was meant to be sung by only the angels but some of the school forgot and joined in. There was then lots of nudging and loud shushing as they were reminded to be quiet.
As the angels moved away, the parents glimpsed Joseph throwing a doll, head first, into the manger. Some of them sniggered, which Cynthia thought was rather rude of them. Then the angels walked across to the area that was meant to be a hillside. They walked slowly in their unfamiliar clothing, keeping their heads upright so their halos remained steady.
Gabriel approached, and Mary saw her chance for revenge. Waiting until he was level with her, she stuck out a black plimsolled foot. It caught his leg and he tripped, sprawling on the floor, pink legs sticking out from his tunic. He banged his head on the manger, a loud crack, everyone heard it. Blood gushed from his forehead. He lay very still.
‘You’ve killed him,’ stated Joseph, impressed.
Jimmy Brown started to cry.
After a second, Tommy Beale aka Gabriel opened his mouth and roared. He sat up, blood on his hands and costume, running down his face and dripping onto the floor. His mother rushed forwards and scooped him into her arms. Belinda’s mother also stood, ready to do battle if necessary.
Jane Lancaster rose to her feet. She smoothed down the skirt of her suit and cleared her throat, uncertain as to what she should say.
Miss Mott stood and took control.‘Mrs Beale, if you could please escort Tommy to the office we can ascertain if he needs medical attention. Perhaps you could apply some pressure to the wound, do you have a handkerchief?’
Mrs Beale looked about to argue, then changed her mind when she met Miss Mott’s gaze.
‘Could the remaining angels please stand in your place ready to sing to the shepherds,’ she continued. The children obeyed, happy that someone was taking charge. ‘Lucy, do you remember Gabriel’s words? You do? Well done. Could you be very sensible please and say them, then we can carry on with the play.’
The play continued. All went smoothly until the last song. The entire school was standing, the hall was very hot and Cynthia noticed Sally Marks swaying in the second row. She was very pale and looked rather unsteady. Silently, Cynthia rushed forwards and caught her as she fell. Without stopping, she whisked her past the parents and out into the fresh air. She laid her on her side on a bench and within seconds the child had stirred and was trying to sit. Her anxious mother appeared at Cynthia’s side.
‘One of them always faints,’ said Cynthia, ‘make her lie down for a little while then take her home to rest. Please inform the office on your way out.’
She turned towards the hall. The doors were open and the first class was emerging. There had not been time for any sort of speech, Mrs Lancaster had said nothing. Cynthia sighed and went to collect her class from behind the wriggling mass that was Cherry Class.
Hidden Faces by Anne E. Thompson is available in bookshops for £11.95, but you can buy copies directly from me for £7.95 (with free UK postage). Simply complete the contact form below, and I will send you a copy (payment by sterling cheque or bank transfer is due on receipt of the book).
Who would you like to make smile this Christmas? A signed book is a great gift!