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Authors: Trisha Ashley

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BOOK: The Magic of Christmas
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‘Very well. I’ve convened this meeting earlier than usual for two reasons,’ announced Clive, who is like a busy little ant, always running to and fro. Marian is the same, and I have a theory that they never sleep, just hang by their heels for the odd ten minutes to refresh themselves, like bats. Come to that, they’re so in tune with one another they have probably leaped up the next rung of the evolutionary ladder and communicate in high-pitched squeaks us mere bog-standard humans can’t hear.

‘First off, I thought the vicar might need a bit more time to get to grips with the Mysteries, it all coming as a bit of a surprise to him, like.’

The vicar, a carrot-haired, blue-eyed man with a naturally startled expression, nodded earnestly: ‘But I’m delighted, of course — absolutely delighted.’

I wondered if anyone had warned him that the last vicar was currently having a genteel nervous breakdown in a church nursing home near Morecambe. An elderly man, he’d been hoping for a quiet country living, I feared, where he could jog along towards his retirement, not the whirl of activity that is the Mosses parish. But at least the new one was younger
and
unmarried. I observed with interest the way he suddenly went the same shade as his hair when Annie, breathless and dishevelled, rushed into the room.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said, subsiding into the seat next to me. ‘One of the dogs slipped its lead and was practically in Mossrow before I caught him.’

She smiled apologetically around at everyone and, apart from the vicar, who was still looking poleaxed, we smiled back, since Annie is Goodwill to all Mankind personified. Even though I’m her best friend, I have to admit that she is a plump, billowy person the approximate shape of a cottage loaf and, although her hair is a beautiful coppery colour, that pudding-bowl bob does not do her amiable round face any favours. She certainly doesn’t normally cause men to go red and all self-conscious …

‘We were only just starting,’ I assured her. ‘Clive’s called the meeting to familiarise the vicar—’


Do
all call me Gareth,’ he interrupted eagerly, finding his voice again, but I expect most of us will just carry on addressing him as ‘Vicar’ because we are nothing if not traditionalists in Middlemoss.

‘And you must call me KP,’ said Dr Patel agreeably, ‘like the nuts.’

‘And I’m Lizzy,’ I put in hastily, seeing Gareth’s puzzled expression at KP’s old joke. ‘You’ve already met Annie, haven’t you?’

‘Oh, yes.’ He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. ‘At church.’

He was
just
Annie’s type and clearly smitten, but she didn’t seem to notice!

‘Perhaps we’d better get on?’ suggested Clive. ‘Only the Youth Club will be in here tonight for snooker, and I’ll need to set the tables up. First, could you all please read this quote from a recently published book.’

He passed round a bundle of photocopies.

Although called the Middlemoss Mysteries, this surviving vestige of a medieval mystery play, annually performed in an obscure Lancashire village, is in reality a much debased form. At some point in its history it was reduced to a mere series of tableaux illustrating several key Biblical scenes, such as the Fall of Lucifer, Adam and Eve and the Nativity. Then, early last century what little dialogue remained was rendered into near-impenetrable ancient local dialect by Joe Wheelright, the Weaver Poet, and this is constantly reinterpreted by each generation of actors. The head of the leading local family, the Pharamonds, traditionally speaks the Voice of God.

We all read it in silence.

Then Annie said, ‘Well, it’s not so bad, is it, Clive? We can’t hope to keep the Mysteries a total secret, so we always do get some strangers coming along, especially since the Mosses have suddenly become so terribly trendy to live in.’

‘No, it’s the
folksy
visitors who would want to take over and fix the whole thing like a fly in amber that we want to discourage,’ I agreed. ‘The Middlemoss Mystery Play is just for the locals, something we’ve always done, like that Twelfth Night celebration they have up at Little Mumming.’

‘That’s hardly comparable with our play, dear, since I’m told it’s only a morris dance and a small miracle scene of George and the Dragon,’ Marian said.

‘That’s right,’ agreed Clive. ‘But they keep it quiet: I’ve even heard that they block the road into the village with tractors on the day, to deter strangers.’

‘I think the best thing about our Mysteries is the way each new generation of actors adds a little something to their parts, even if we do now stick more or less to the Wheelright version,’ I said, though actually, while the acting itself is taken very seriously, I often suspect the Weaver Poet of having had a somewhat unholy sense of humour.

‘I don’t think “debased” is a very polite description,’ Marian said, looking down at her photocopy again and bristling to the ends of her short, spiky silver hair. ‘And what does he mean, “impenetrable dialect”? If the audience doesn’t know the bible stories before they see it, then they should, so they’d know what was going on!’

‘Er … yes,’ said the vicar, with a gingerly glance at Dr Patel, who was sitting with his hands clasped over his immaculately suited round stomach, listening benignly.

‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ the doctor said, catching his eye. ‘I went to infants’ school right here — my father was the senior partner at the practice — so I know all the bible stories. So did all the Lees from the Mysteries of the East Chinese takeaway in Mossedge, and there’s usually at least one of that family taking part in the play.’

‘We have many mysteries,’ I said helpfully. ‘Even the pub is called the New Mystery.’

‘Little Ethan Lee made such a sweet baby Jesus last year,’ Miss Pym said sentimentally. ‘He simply couldn’t take his eyes off the angels’ haloes.’

‘None of us could,’ Annie said. ‘We’d never had ones that lit up before.’

‘Oh?’ said Gareth, clearly groping to make sense of all this. ‘Well, Clive has kindly loaned me the videos of last year’s performance, which I’ve watched with … with interest.’ He cleared his throat. ‘While I’ve seen the Chester Mystery Plays and, er … although the format of scenes from the Old and New Testaments have similarities to that, otherwise they don’t seem much alike …’

‘They’re not, Vicar,’ Clive said. ‘They might have been at one time — you’d have to ask Mr Roly Pharamond, he’s got all the records. But when the Puritans took over and tried to ban it, the squire — another Roland, he was — he told the players to cut it right down, so it could be performed in one day up at the Hall, instead of here on the green.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Marian, ‘and on Boxing Day instead of Midsummer Day, because fewer strangers would be travelling about then. Then, when it was safe to perform the Mysteries in public again — well, we’d got used to doing things
our
way.’

‘So it’s still performed up at the Hall on Boxing Day?’ Gareth asked.

Miss Pym nodded. ‘In the coach house. The doors are opened wide and the audience stands in the courtyard, with lots of braziers about to keep them warm. The stables on either side are used as dressing rooms. It lasts about five hours, with breaks for refreshments, of course, and musical interludes.’

‘Musical interludes? Indeed?’ Gareth brightened. ‘Hymns, perhaps? I’m hoping to breathe a little life back into the church choir.’

‘No, actually a local group perform — the Mummers of Invention,’ I told him. ‘My husband sings with them and they’re quite good. Sort of electric folk style.’

‘Mummers of
Invention
?’ he murmured, looking bemused.

‘The last vicar had the strange idea that the play was blasphemous in some way,’ Clive said, ‘but you could see yourself from the video that it’s the exact opposite, couldn’t you? It’s all bible stories, and the entire parish is involved right down to the infants’ school. The children always play the procession of animals into the ark.’

‘And they helped me to make the Virgin’s bower last year with wire and tissue paper flowers,’ Miss Pym said, ‘though since it kept falling on Annie’s head (your fifth and last appearance as Virgin, wasn’t it, dear?) it could not have been called an unqualified success.’

Annie caught the vicar’s eye, went pink, and looked hastily away — but at least now she
had
noticed him.

‘And you run the Mysteries committee, Clive, and direct the play?’ Gareth asked.

‘Yes, that’s right. In September we start giving out the parts and rehearsing. No one can play the same role for more than five years except God, so things change, and different people come forward or drop out.’

‘Some of the new actors who’ve moved into the area lately have volunteered,’ I said.

‘Yes, like Ritch Rainford,’ Annie murmured dreamily, and I gave her a look. I hope she’s not going to get a serious crush on the man, since it’s unlikely to lead anywhere.

‘But most of them don’t live here all the time, Annie, and you need people who do, especially when there are more rehearsals just before Christmas.’

‘Yes, so the parts are usually played by local people and someone always volunteers if there’s an emergency, like last year when Lazarus broke both ankles falling off his tractor,’ Dr Patel said. ‘He could have lain down, but there was no way short of a real miracle he was ever going to rise up and walk. So Lizzy’s husband, Tom, stepped in at the last minute.’

‘He made a very good Lazarus: I gave him four stars in the parish magazine review,’ Clive broke in.

Gareth turned to me. ‘So, your husband is Tom Pharamond, and he also plays in a band called the Mummers? I don’t think I’ve met him yet, have I?’

‘I shouldn’t think so, he’s not much of a churchgoer. And he said he wouldn’t take part in the play again this year, it was a one-off, Clive — sorry. You’ll need a new Lazarus.’

‘Pity,’ Clive said regretfully. He coughed and shuffled his papers together. ‘So, we’ll ask for nominations for the parts and rehearsals will start in the middle of September in two groups, one on Tuesdays and the other, Thursdays. As usual, I’ll need a director’s assistant for each scene. Lizzy, will you take on the Fall of Lucifer, the Creation, and Adam and Eve? You
are
still doing Eve this year, I hope?’

‘Yes, my fifth and final go too, thank goodness — even a knitted bodystocking is perishingly cold in December. I had to keep warming myself over a chestnut brazier last year and a couple of my fig leaves got singed.’

‘You could try thermal underwear?’ suggested Miss Pym. ‘Those thin silk ones for under ski suits.’

‘That’s an idea! Not so bulky.’

‘Miss Pym will do Noah’s Flood, of course, and Marian will oversee Moses. One of the tablets broke last time; someone will need to make a new one …’ Clive made a note, and ticked off Moses.

‘Vicar, if you could be in charge of the Nativity — Annunciation, Magi, Birth of Christ, Flight into Egypt?’

‘Yes, of course,’ Gareth agreed, though rather numbly, I thought. But unlike the last vicar, at least he hadn’t started gibbering and lightly foaming at the mouth by this stage.

‘Dr Patel has offered to do the Temptation of Christ, the Curing of the Lame Man, the Blind Man, and the Raising of Lazarus: all short scenes.’

‘Seems appropriate,’ agreed the doctor, adding generously, ‘and the Water into Wine and Feeding of the Five Thousand too, if you like.’

‘I’ll see to the Last Supper, Judas, the Trial and Crucifixion myself this year — the Crucifixion’s always tricky, but you might want to take that on next year, Vicar — and then that leaves just the Resurrection, Ascension and Last Judgement.’

‘I’ll do those again,’ offered Annie.

‘We do the final dress rehearsals for the whole thing up at the Hall in a couple of sessions before Christmas,’ Marian helpfully explained to the vicar. ‘In random order, or it would be unlucky. But since at least two-thirds of the players will have done their parts before, it’s just a question of making sure the new ones know their lines and where to stand, that’s all.’

‘Oh, good,’ said poor Gareth weakly. He looked at his watch. ‘I’d better get back — I’ve got a funeral to prepare.’

‘Yes, our Moses — such a sad loss,’ Miss Pym said. ‘We will have to recast that part, too.’

Clive stuffed his papers and clipboard into a scuffed leather briefcase and then he and Marian started transforming the hall into a snooker parlour for the Youth Club, turning down my offer of help.

When I went out the vicar was already halfway across the green with Annie, heading in the direction of the church. I bet they were only talking about something totally mundane like Sunday school, though, and she hadn’t noticed at all that he fancied her.

Miss Pym climbed into her little red Smart car and vanished with a
vroom
, and Dr Patel wished me good night and got into his BMW.

I wended my way home to Perseverance Cottage, where I did not find my husband or, more importantly, my car, but did find a telephone message on the machine from Unks, asking me to ring him back. When I did, he told me that Mimi, his elderly sister who lived at the Hall with her long-suffering companion Juno, had been arrested by the police at the Southport Flower Show, having temporarily got away from Mrs Gumball, who’d volunteered to keep an eye on her. You can’t blame her, though, since Mimi is very spry for an octogenarian while Mrs Gumball is the human equivalent of a mastodon, so moves slowly and majestically.

Unfortunately, Mimi is a plant kleptomaniac: no one’s garden is safe from her little knife and plastic bags, and she really just can’t understand why anyone should take exception to her habits. Still, the police had merely cautioned and released her this time and, since the coach had by then set out on the return journey, drove her and Mrs Gumball home in a police car.

Roly said she was under the impression they had done it to give her a treat, and was hoping next year’s flower show would be as much fun.

Then he added, rather puzzlingly, ‘And I hope Tom told you that you can stop worrying about ever losing Perseverance Cottage, my dear, because after I’m gone, it’s yours and Tom’s. I would have said before, if I’d known it was on your mind.’

BOOK: The Magic of Christmas
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