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Open Features: Highly Flavoured

Jacqueline Dowling's story tells of apocalyptic events at the annual nativity play.

Ruthie sat tweedily four-square at the organ, pumping furiously with both feet to fire up the ancient pipes. A bundle of cherries on the crown of her felt hat wobbled in a syncopated and most aggressive fashion atop her churchilian head. Bulldog to the end, she raised her left hand, brought it crashing down onto the lower keys and a rusty breath escaped, 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 a 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 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 elocuting 'Hail Mary, thou art highly favoured ' right to the end, and then glide off. 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.

All the actors from Port Albert primary school were waiting nervously in the vestry, and on the lawn. Oom Dolf had brought his well behaved donkey 'Eseltjie', who always played the same part and sent in his account for appearance money very promptly after the play, and Annamarie Louw's pet hanslammetjie 'Mary' 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 boyish heads, 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!' Which roughly translated into 'No fingers up nose or you'll get a clout.' Well, they were only shepherds and extras after all, and life got a bit boring just hanging around on the fringes.

In the vestry, 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.

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. 'Eseltjie' and 'Mary' 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. 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.

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, her 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 bubble gum from the pocket in her school knickers, 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.

Jacqueline Dowling


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