Mrs Moore was a stickler. As head of Infants – a title she insisted on retaining even as names changed (‘Infants: tells the children and their parents their place in the pecking order’ she would maintain) – she really was the most important person at Kingsfield Combined School (OFSTED rating ‘Requires improvement’ thanks to those Junior teachers with their wacky ideas, their group work and their child centredness!)

And tonight was the most important night of the year. The Reception class Nativity. A chance for the whole school to celebrate her work. The stage was set. Literally. It had been for twenty years since Mrs Moore joined the school (back then, as a lowly class teacher – but she was soon promoted out of that.) It had not changed since. Not the costumes, not the props, not the script. Her chair still occupied the central aisle, firmly at the front. From there, she could direct the children. And everybody would know who was in charge.

Miss Thwaites would be there at her trusty piano. Ten years retired, and a little shaky on the key changes, she happily came back to help out and asked for nothing except generous expenses. Thwaites and Moore: education’s finest double act. Rehearsals started immediately after half term, and continued, daily, until the penultimate day of term. During them, the children sat silently until directed otherwise. The class teachers watched and admired (silently).
All the better to absorb the expertise of their seniors.

She surveyed the scene in front of her. It might look like an ordinary school hall to some. But to her it was the Palladium. The gawdy decorations of the houses opposite, Santas climbing ladders and giant air-filled snowmen swaying in the breeze, were not traditions she approved of…sorry, of which she approved – but for one night they were OK. They turned Kingsfield Road into Times Square. One lit by a Christmas star.

Of course, as that celestial body, she needed to get her mind into gear, and for this reason (and this reason alone!) she left her staff to look after the tired and excited four-year-olds waiting along the Reception corridor. Later, her underlings could take their seats at the back of the stalls, ready to take charge of the children after she had led them out to thunderous applause. Then, after modestly accepting the admiration of her parents it was off to the pub for a sherry with Miss Thwaites.

‘Umm, Mrs Moore…’ her reverie was broken by Miss Williams, the youngest and, in her opinion, most uppity of her staff.
‘What is it girl? Can’t you see I am getting into character?’ came the sharp retort.
‘It’s Joanna, she’s still not here.’

‘Joanna? Who’s that?’

‘Joanna Marshall. She’s playing Mary.’

Mrs Moore thought for a moment. ‘Ahh, yes, the Marshall girl. Totally unreliable family. Why did you let her take such an important role?’ Miss Williams decided discretion should come to the fore and chose not to remind the Grinch that she had made every casting decision. Without reference to anybody else.

‘Ahh well, I expect she’ll get here at some point,’ reassured Miss Williams.

‘If you think that, why are you bothering me now?’ boomed the older teacher.

Fifteen minutes later, the hall was filling up and the children sat adorned with stripy tea-towels and mothers’ belts around dressing gowns and sheets. The Star of Bethlehem was shining, and the Angel Gabriel’s coat-hangar halo was large enough to pick up Channel 5 given a clear enough night. Five minutes to curtain, and the phone call came. Sorry, it said. Little Joanna is exhausted from six weeks of rehearsals and fell asleep as soon as she came in through the door. Now she has a temperature and has been sick. The Christmas holidays had arrived early for her. The Marshalls were very sorry, and they were sure the wonderful Mrs Moore would manage.

‘But don’t worry,’ said Miss Williams calmly. ‘We have a plan. We’ve found a spare costume, and Esme here knows all the words and all the actions for the part. She can be Mary.’ Up strode a proudly confident little girl: ‘I won’t let you down, Mrs Moore,’ she said, smiling importantly.

‘Oh, don’t be so ridiculous,’ moaned Mrs Moore in disbelief. She looked at her Reception teachers who were staring at her open mouthed. ‘How stupid can you be? I can’t trust the role of Mary to a four-year-old who hasn’t rehearsed the part. What do you think we are? Amateurs?’

She moved across to Miss Thwaites for a whispered conversation. ‘I shall play Mary!’ announced Mrs Moore. And she would brook no argument.

‘Due to the unavailability of Miss Joanna Marshall, the part of Mary will be played by Mrs Madelaine Moore,’ announced the musical director, to bemused applause.

Now, it is true to say that Mary and Joseph made an odd-looking couple, since he only came up to his new wife’s waist. And the donkey looked a little worried – or would have done had he been made of more than wood and paint.
Gabriel received a sterner rebuke than an Angel of the Lord might have expected when he got his words wrong. ‘‘Found favour with God, not flavour you silly little boy,’ Mary told him in a barely concealed stage whisper.

The Innkeeper was a little too scared to turn down Joseph’s request for a room at the inn. ‘OK,’ he nodded red faced, gulping nervously towards his scary teacher.

And Mary brought her motherly experience to bear in giving birth, with a performance more realistic than poor little Joanna might have managed.

But all in all, thought Miss Thwaites, another hit. She bashed out ‘Away in a Manger’ to the accompaniment of Mary’s dominant soprano and the mixed backing of ten shepherds, a dozen angels and the massed ranks of the townsfolk’s male voice choir. (‘If you can’t behave, then you won’t be a Wise man. Join the townsfolk!’ being a common cry during rehearsals).

Then, for the final chorus, Mary’s voice blended into the cacophony, as thin and untutored as the others
‘Remarkable,’ reflected Miss Thwaites, finally finding the right key.

Mrs Moore had grown into the part. Or, perhaps, the part had grown into her. As she took her final bow, she thought how the show had become bigger under her influence. Now she noticed how much the stage seemed to have stretched, and how surprisingly tall this year’s Reception children had become. Even her little Jesus doll seemed to fit snugly in her arms.

Miss Williams, suddenly seeming old, came up to her, looked down and said: ‘Well done Madelaine, but now it’s time to go home and get some sleep,’ and as much as she stamped her foot and moaned, nobody listened. ‘She’s just tired,’ said Miss Williams.

Madelaine Moore looked up at the tall figures surrounding her, and felt her hand being pulled. The (very) little star was going home to bed, whether she wanted to or not.

‘The magic of Christmas,’ smiled the teachers. ’The magic of Christmas.’

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