“Nativity” by Malcolm Sharpes

Portrait of the Virgin by Sandro Botticelli


By Malcolm Sharps

She didn’t audition for the part specifically; she didn’t need to. The instant Keith saw Katie at the casting rehearsal he knew that she, and only she, could play the vital, crucial, essential role of Mary in his Nativity. She was a natural Mary, the ideal of every Italian Renaissance painter, clear blue eyes, pale skin with suggestions of ripening fruit, hair coppery gold interlaced with shining strands of every other precious metal.

“Pure in heart,

Gentle in thought,

Kind in deed, modest in word,

Is my Mary in her maidenhood.”

These lines I still remember, being one of the better demonstrations of Keith’s literary skills. Strange how much they stick in my mind to this day. I was cast as Joseph, the most substantial speaking role, and Mary – Katie – responded to my faltering delivery of the lines and turned them into rhapsodic poetry simply by the look of intense rapture in her eyes. She was just nineteen and she spoke her own lines with the precision of a conscientious scholarship student, enhanced by a velvety tone which assured the hearer that behind every word she spoke was the sincerity and conviction of the entire English Reformation. She had recently started University after gaining exam results like a matching line of top scoring fruit on a games machine; I felt academically outclassed but comfortably senior, having begun the third year already at the promoted polytechnic; in reality still a poor man’s University.

To be honest, in spite of his cooing on finding the perfect, crucial, essential Mary, Keith hadn’t actually given Mary all that much to say; perhaps that was authentic writing given the time and the location. For most of the scenes she was to listen with devoted attention, stare meaningfully into space, or make consenting responses of five or six words at most, and sometimes only one. I compensated making the more comprehensive observations of an adoring spouse.

“Strange, though I am not the father of the child she bears,

I feel a kind of pride in it being hers.

My young wife is surely above blame

For she carries in her womb,

Let no one doubt her claim,

One who bears a heavenly father’s name.”

Besides being a virgin, Mary was a mother; and Katie embodied this miraculous contradiction sublimely. Her eyes suggested purity not simply as a void, but as a state of grace filling them to the brim; her glance managed to enfold whatever it encountered in a protective swaddle of maternal warmth, conveying a love not compromised with one single touch of selfish expectation. She offered only an infinite capacity for giving. Katie complemented Mary’s maternal identity with a bosom that could have been a template for all virgin mothers’ bosoms, an organ giving no offence through its over-abundance, simply a container perfect in shape and proportions, fitted to purpose – there could be no other – for the dispensing of the milk of human kindness. I stood beside Katie, in envy of the fortune of the smothered doll she enveloped in her arms and held against herself.

“I’ll tell you right now I think my part is awful and I’m awful in the part.”

“Don’t worry, Vic, old son, it can only get better. Just treat it as a bit of a laugh like the rest of us.”

The encouragement came from one of the shepherds who actually in real life was a shepherd at one of the local farms and – there must be a law to such things – was the least convincing of the shepherds playing his part. Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself. Naturally, I didn’t entirely mean what I said. Self-criticism is always the best safeguard against more wounding charges from outside. Let’s say, I was doing the best job I could coping with the vagueness of purpose in Keith’s stage directions, not to mention the script he had hobbled us with. Keith, director and writer, was our local renaissance man, a former Art teacher who was now a freelance teacher of piano, clarinet and singing and sometime church organist, while still taking on portraiture in oils as a sideline and supplying local scenes in various media to the town’s open air market. Knocking off a verse drama in his odd spare moments between serious work came naturally to Keith. Imagine, all those tens of minutes and quarter hours added up to three masterpieces a year, not works that came to him through scant labour and minimal effort, but through inspiration, the unearned dividend of genius.

“A helpless, homeless child brings in the new dawn.

The son of man, my son, soon to be born,

In time will grow to find his rightful place

In hearts of men of faith, good will and peace.”

It was one of Katie’s longer speeches. She delivered it in the most caring and cared for voice imaginable; with eyes closed I could envisage her as the schoolgirl she had been until recently, loved daughter of proud parents, the perfect prefect trusted by the teaching staff, artistic rather than seriously involved in sports or school politics but still best friend and confidant to the head girl, too modest to seek the position herself. I loved her uncritically for it, it was Katie, it was what she really was. I closed my eyes involuntarily, drifting out of my role into a reverie, drunk on purity, the most potent of all love potions; high on innocence, the most erotic of all aphrodisiacs.

“I can just see the whole thing turning into the greatest, most disastrous, awful, resounding, humiliating flop!”

This was Keith in confidence at a mid-point rehearsal when none of the shepherds and only one of the wise men – a non-speaking one – had turned up and he had been hoping to rehearse the crib visitation scenes. He looked like a man about to have a mental breakdown. Katie and I would be present to support him if ever it happened; usefully, Keith had written us into almost every scene.

“Well, we’ll just have to do the Joseph Mary scenes again. Sorry about that, Katie, Victor. I do apologise. Your scenes, at least, shouldn’t fail.”

Nativity plays have never been known to fail and, indeed, cannot fail – that is the reason for their endurance. A Nativity is a game of numbers where all the advantage is with the bank. Virtually a small town of people is required to represent a not much bigger one. The church puts it around the parishes there is to be a new production, everyone hears about it and in they flock, home congregation and outsiders, the believers, the non-believers, aspiring talents and first-time carriers of wooden swords, all wanting parts. A Nativity cannot fail because even if everyone were to forget their parts, the audience still knows what should happen and can fill in. More importantly, family and friendship guarantee an audience, roughly the number on the stage – multiplied by at least four – filling the pews. The math of Nativity never fails. Nativities are always sell-outs. Nativities are always successes.

“All lodgings are taken hereabout,

Our journey is shadowed now in doubt.

The sky no longer bright,

Together we face an uncertain night

Without comfort, without light.

Look, Mary, a stable, lowly and bare

With whose animals we may humbly share.”

At the end of our scenes together, Mary and I were usually left staring into each other’s eyes. But in this scene – thanks to dear Keith’s directions – Mary and I got to touch. Having found the stable, I help my pregnant wife down from the donkey, a worn leather exercise horse with a papier maché head, and lead her across to the back of the stage strewn with straw. It was in the action of guiding her down that Heaven dipped for a moment as Katie exposed something seen on neither the real Mary nor a Renaissance Madonna. As she stooped, the modestly open collar of her blouse gaped sufficiently to expose a narrow expanse of soft, young neck upon which Christ naked in his passions hung on a small gold cross attached to a fine chain. The chain was tight across its cushion of clear, gleaming flesh and Christ strained in his suffering, held securely, rapturous against the luxuriant background. The potential eroticism of the crucifixion – admitted by Art critics more than by believers – was provoked unendurably by the expressive purity of Katie’s unsullied, unlined, innocent neck. In vain did the intimations of almond and peach blossom work to smooth away more sensual suggestions and keep the statement chaste. The emphasis of her innocence only heightened its violation.

I stared at Katie’s neck, censoring the violence done against the Saviour from my thoughts. I was falling in love, I knew. I might even be turning into a believer. If I could be as close to her neck as the suffering Christ, I would accept whatever belief, undergo whatever initiation, I was willing to be anything Katie was and follow her in any creed she chose to follow, be it Jainist, Hindu, Christian, Jew, whatever. If I could enter into the inner realms of her glory through the disciplines of Buddha, I would become a Buddhist. If I had to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, I would go to Mecca barefoot with heavy stones around my neck, as long as I could be accepted also as a worshipper at her personal altar.

Attendance for rehearsals was still as dismal as ever, in spite of a ‘final warning’ Keith had given several times. We arrived at a particularly chilly, empty rehearsal one evening; nearing the actual night; we were now practising our movements in the church itself. At the end of one of the aisles the light on a small nativity was kept aglow throughout the evening, a scene in paper and cardboard, with drinking straws representing reed thatch over the stable roof; and the holy family, Kings and shepherds and an assortment of animals standing and kneeling in adoration about a lolly-stick crib. Somehow these painted figures had their own internal force of existence they communicated to each other and to the exalted child, a charge of sanctified fellowship passed between them and unified their assembly, an awareness of the hallowed moment they were witnessing overcame the opaque deadness of the brush applied dots that were their eyes and they seemed to look on the scene with spellbound wonderment. Although unskilled in execution, this artless gathering put the raggedness and unpreparedness of our larger staging to shame.

The wise men, the poor shepherds, all have given praise

And full of hope have gone their separate ways.

This is not the place for us to linger on in ease;

Our child has enemies that even love will not appease.

The unoccupied cast hung around in the gloom of the nave, whispering, laughing, the younger ones idly pushing each other, while the only other source of light was directed on the stage constructed at the front of the nave, the spots illuminated the space created for the celebration of the coming of new life, which appeared vacant, disregarded, desperately short of engaging vitality. Keith was filling in for one of the speaking shepherds and Katie and I took up positions out of the spots ready to augment the depleted group. Katie’s eyes looked to the remnants of the cast in the nave, they glowed like droplets of gold from the reflected light of the toy nativity scene as she whispered closely to me.

“Isn’t it terrible, the way people have let poor Keith down? Can you imagine, most of the cast only joined because they want to be seen on stage by their friends in the village. There’s no loyalty, very few of them have any faith, very few of them have the spiritual commitment to the play that we have.”

My eyes widened with something close to shock. But I don’t think Katie noticed it. I was full of fear. What if she asked me why I was here? What if she asked about my spiritual commitment? What if she asked me if I believed or what I believed. What could I answer? “I believe in you. I believe in everything you do, but only so long as you are the one doing it? I believe in the wearer of the cross, not the man god on it. No more than that. I have no faith, I believe in people because I believe in what I can see, and sometimes I doubt people too because what we see is often just a fraud. But I have faith in you, Katie, I want to believe in you. I believe in the miracle which your flesh contains and soars above it pointing the way – as if such a place were to exist – to a greater miracle, to eternity, to Heaven itself. Isn’t that enough for you?” I feared it wouldn’t be.

Somehow, regardless of the disordered state of the play, the dress rehearsal came upon us; Keith wrestled frantically with the logistic problems of so many costumes and so many absent players not filling them. In the impromptu dressing room there was a mood of intoxication with the discovered delights of stage make up, of Leichner sticks and liners and powder, of dyed cotton wool and spirit gum, of wigs and padding; and each had its own glorious narcotic smell. We were fascinated by the strangeness of our costumes and showed them off tirelessly to each other, or waited impatiently to view ourselves in the full-length mirror, one for the entire cast. Our hearts were pumping, even those too young to experience a nervous rush of blood around their veins, to experience the nausea that precedes the first sighting of the audience, were unusually activated and showed obsessive curiosity adjusting sashes, cloaks and belts.

I was timing my own scheme against the progress of the play. I was determined I would ask Katie for a date. I would need to ask before she vanished from the play, the village and my life and went back to her University. I couldn’t leave it later, but I couldn’t risk the possibility of a refusal before the play and then face the final rehearsals and the premier in an atmosphere of awkwardness or constrained resentment. That might wreck my performance as well; and out of the personal pride which anyone who chooses to expose themselves to public judgement knows, I was pledged to its success. This was the only kind of commitment I knew. I planned to wait till the last line of the play was spoken, then in the vestry dressing room I would ask her. If I had rehearsed my own lines a hundred times, who knows how many more times I repeated those imagined words I wanted to say to her?

“No! No! No! No! No!”

Keith’s professional spirit was stoically holding out against a breakdown. He had taken on an air of martyrdom which looked somehow becoming on him.

“This will not do! Who put those two children in cotton wool beards? This is not that kind of nativity. Authenticity, I’m trying for authenticity. We already have enough real old men to play the old men parts, but we are short of children to be children. Really! Can we get the cast from the last scene off the stage and can we have the Roman soldiers, priests, Judean royalty, artisans, merchants, beggars, wailing and non-wailing women on stage for the next scene? And, Jonathan dear, if you do dry again this time, can you at least carry the star over to the stable rather than leave everyone standing around not able to move. If anything goes wrong, everyone, remember to keep the action going, won’t you. And where on earth is our Herod?”

In no time at all the next important scene became the vestry on the night of the performance.        Our Herod had gone down with a bug and Keith had to be crowned in his place, a double performance pretending he wasn’t relishing every minute of this extra opportunity to shine. He sat amongst us in the dressing room in costume like a medieval king with his men, raising them up to face the terrifying field of battle which awaited them at dawn. We were an odd army, some actually dressed as soldiers, unused to handling spears and shields; while others looked insecure in long black beards that strongly hinted they wouldn’t stay the course. From some primal instinct groups kept together with others of their own kind. The ones wearing colourful head coverings kept on with headbands that had recently been their wives’ skirts and jumpers took to one area, the priests in costumes resembling old striped dressing gowns, because that’s what they were, found another.

I came later to the church than for the dress rehearsal. I wanted to cut down the period of tension between changing into costume and going on stage. Keith’s look told me of his terror waiting for my arrival. The rest of them were already well advanced with their transformations into character. I was surprised to find amongst our Eastern bazaar a single young man in contemporary mufti seated coolly next to Katie as she adjusted her classic blue Madonna head covering. He was short cropped, cleanly handsome; and wore a dark, thick, close-fibred coat and an endlessly wound scarf with the thin stripes of, no doubt, some famed place of learning. Dressed in winter street clothes he should have seemed more out of place than he did, but he carried an air of easy presence that would have prevented him from appearing odd in any circumstances. The young man’s glance seemed to take us in and dispose of us in the turn of his head as simply a lot of foolish amateur players. His indifference emphasised our oddity in our fancy dress, our pretences and fantasies and our awkwardly assumed personas that we hardly knew how to accommodate sensibly alongside our true identities. When I saw the easy familiarity with which he spoke to Katie, I felt possessive, wanting to be her protector. I went over to ask how things were going and wish her well. Katie was radiantly exultant and calmly serene: no more a paradox than her virgin mother role sanctioned.

“Vic, I’d like you to meet Greg, my boyfriend. He’s just come down today from Oxford especially to see me, us. Greg, this is Vic, our Joseph. As you’ll see, by far the best performance in the whole play. He puts the rest of us to shame.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

The handsome man stood up and smiled and took my hand firmly in a sporting grasp; I imagined him shaking the hand of the captain of some opposing team in the same way before a game, any game, it didn’t matter what, somehow I knew he would be good at all of them. And he would be wearing the same smile, the smile of the male who had already known triumph and was confident in the knowledge that more triumphs would follow. I flexed my fingers unseen, the assurance of his grip remained with me, and something terrible remained with it, something almost obscene, I sensed in the persisting ache of that grasp the assurance of the male hand that was certain of its own power. No other use for that power occurred to me, none seemed to fit better with that smile, than to take away the innocence of a beautiful young woman. A virgin.

Smiling and saying I was pleased to meet him was the more difficult performance of the evening before the much easier one I had to get through on stage. As I said my lines, my heart no longer beat as before, there was a slow subdued funereal drumming there that replaced the rhythmic pounding, a march to mark the death of someone I had loved, but never really had the chance of loving.

In search of safety our family to Egypt has gone.

Here we trust Herod’s sword will not touch our little one.

Let Rachel and all the other mothers weep and pray

For the lives of their children so cruelly snatched away.

Strange, was it nerves? It was as if we were all stumbling blindly through an entirely different play at a first rehearsal. Everyone was speaking their words without conviction; the flight to Egypt gave no reflection of Jerusalem in chaos, neither on last night’s television news nor two thousand years ago, and when Mary spoke I heard only Katie and not the Madonna that could give birth to God, the sum of human suffering seemed to come to nothing or was mocked by human shallowness. She was a protected nineteen year old, after all, that thankfully had never known bloodshed, as close to the agony of slaughter as perhaps privet-hedged suburbia can know. But against her words of suffering, she sounded comfortable four bedroom semi-detached, she sounded middle management, she sounded last year’s registration Rover in the driveway. Surely I must have noticed it before. Why hadn’t it bothered me until now?

But when I looked into those eyes, there was the seat of a more catastrophic change. I could not find the thing I had grown to expect, that look had gone or I had lost the seer’s eye to see. No, dear Katie, I am unfair, as unfair as I am about the shallowness of your Mary who betrayed the suffering in her lines. In my disappointment and jealousy how could I hear or see anything? Though I’m sure there was love there still, love that was there for everyone, there for me too along with all the rest, but no more than for the rest.

When I had stared into your eyes before I had imagined the belief I saw there could be in myself and I returned the look with eyes which blazed with borrowed conviction. Perhaps it was the nearest I was capable of to faith or would ever be: not for me the embracing of eternity in the insubstantial and unseen; I was a convert to grace and glory of a human kind, such a weak conviction compared to the spiritual, I know. Just a smile of triumph and an assured handshake was enough to crush my nascent faith.

The sound of the final applause began hesitantly, respectful of the edifice of the church. As the audience began to take courage the sound grew to fill the space around my head. Like someone coming out of a trance, I was aware of Keith pulling us all forward in a line towards the audience, directing us to bow. It was his great moment, I could see, he signalled for Katie to make a personal bow, then me, and I made my bow towards him willing to concede all of the triumph to him without experiencing any forfeiture. I felt a double relief that it was all over. Relief that nothing more would be expected of me, that I expected nothing more of myself. I felt released, I felt empty, I was back to my old self, I believed in nothing once again.

3 Responses to “Nativity” by Malcolm Sharpes

  1. David Daniel says:

    A fine little tale within a tale. Sweet and bittersweet flavors for the season.

    Sharpes has a gift for characterization. I loved this (among so many good ones): “Her eyes suggested purity not simply as a void, but as a state of grace filling them to the brim; her glance managed to enfold whatever it encountered in a protective swaddle of maternal warmth, conveying a love not compromised with one single touch of selfish expectation.”

  2. Steve O'Connor says:

    I feel fortunate that I checked richardhowe.com this morning and and Sharpe’s “Nativity.” Not only seasonally apt, but as fine a story of the great expectations and sad disillusions of love as one could find in a long day at the library. Shades of Joyce’s “Araby.” Beautifully written.

  3. Peter Bendall says:

    A cleverly structured and very well-written story, with some brilliant insights into the nature of faith and belief.