The Birth of Jesus and other Mishaps
Chantal Schaul, 2004
“I have a feeling it worked this time”, Annabella said with a glorious sigh. Her husband mumbled something obscure and fell asleep, exhausted. “I’m positive it did,” she smiled to herself. Well done. At last. And just at the right moment.
She shook Basil until he reopened his eyes and gasped for some oxygen. “What?” He’d already drifted off to the land of shadows and forgotten everything. “What’s the matter?” She beamed at him: “I tell you it worked this time. You can’t just go to sleep. Let’s talk.”
Basil gave in. He usually indulged her moods. Hopefully it won’t take hours, he thought. Could she be suffering from PMT already? Surely it was too early in the month.
“It was weird, I didn’t even feel your presence. Your physical presence, I mean. It was as if, as if” she was lost for words, “it was almost divine. Immaculate.” – “Well, I’m glad you liked it”, he said, waiting for her to finish. God, he was tired.
“Yes, perfect”, she continued dreamily. “It’s going to be a boy, I know it. He’ll be born in December.” She nestled her face sideways into the soft pillow and closed her eyes. Good, Basil thought, sleep at last. He’d never been much of a mind reader. He’d never even been much of a listener, or it wouldn’t have escaped him that his wife had been going on a lot about divinity, immaculate births and Christmas recently. And it was only the twenty-fourth of March.
Annabella liked Christmas with a passion. She’d always, since her early childhood, partaken in the preparations. Building the nativity scene was her favourite. Every year she’d make the figures from card, clay or wool, with excruciating attention to detail. She’d feel herself into her characters and guess their thoughts and emotions to provide them with just the right expressions. Mary would have a pale glistening face from the pains of giving birth, Joseph a slightly confused look of self-doubt that, so Annabella thought, was brought about by being stepfather to the Son of God.
The shepherds all had their individual personality. One of them was consumed by jealousy. Why couldn’t he have married Mary when he had the chance? They’d had a brief fling not long before she became pregnant, but he’d turned her down eventually because he didn’t want to have to provide for a child, no thanks!
Another shepherd was nervous and worried because all his sheep were behaving oddly tonight. Were they suffering from some new and unknown disorder? One of them was lying on its back, rolling around on the coarse desert sand, as if it was distraught by severe itching. Another showed red dots on its skin. Most dots were hidden under its thick wool, but the nose and the underside of the ears were alarmingly freckled. A third sheep was staring at the moon, as if it was mentally composing an ode to it.
Then there was the self-obsessed shepherd. He had a sufficient amount of self-conscience to project himself and the surrounding scenery into the future. He saw himself as part of the nativity scene, as it would be reproduced and worshipped in generations to come. He wondered what his own representation would look like, and whether God would have a hand in it. This shepherd was constantly reinventing his pose in front of God’s eye, re-creating his look, renegotiating his mindset. He forgot everything around him.
Annabella varied the personality of her shepherds, and that of the sheep. But the ox and donkey remained the same. The donkey was a tad silly. It had a sniggering look on its face, like an obnoxious teenage girl. It was obvious that it had no idea how serious the occasion really was. The ox Annabella imagined to be a bit like Basil. Constant and devoted, like a rock that never wavered. Reliable, but perhaps a little predictable. Perhaps a little too predictable.
Annabella had met Basil two years ago, at a butcher’s. He was buying neck of lamb. Annabella was surprised and watched him closely. Basil was handsome, tall and broad-shouldered (though God only knows how he could unfold to such a princely stature if he had grown up on neck of lamb), and he had very kind eyes (the eyes she would subsequently use as an inspiration for her nativity oxen). Basil’s hands were clean, she noticed. That was a good start. He paid next to nothing and left the shop.
Annabella had to take some kind of action or he would be gone forever. She ran after him: “I think you lost something in there”, and waved a ten pound note around. He stopped and turned round. “Oh. I don’t think that’s mine. I didn’t have that much money on me.” – “Oh but I’m positive it fell out of your pocket.” He stood lost for a few seconds. “You keep it, I really don’t think it belongs to me.” – “No, no, I’d feel eternally bad. Let’s share it then. Let’s spend it together.” Basil was thinking. “Well. . . ” – “Let’s get coffee.” She pointed at a nearby Starbucks. He looked at his watch, briefly, then nodded.
Basil had to be lured out of his shell. But once that had been achieved, he was as gallant and loyal as she could have wished for only in her wildest dreams. She moved in with him after half a year; he proposed to her another half year later. And now they were married.
The neck of lamb, to get back to that, had been for Basil’s mother, and indirectly for Basil, too, as she used it to cook dinner for him. He admitted that he hated the neck, really, but that she only wanted to save money on food. That seemed odd to Annabella, as his mother wasn’t stuck for money. On the contrary, she had a generous monthly income. Early on in their acquaintance, Annabella suspected Basil’s mother to be a difficult individual, and, as later events proved, she wasn’t far from the truth.
Basil’s mother, Emily (though she insisted it was spelled the French way: Amélie) had given birth to Basil when she was only seventeen. The father, an oil baron millionaire, had snatched her off to a hotel room during his stay in London and impregnated her. But Emily was not as innocent as the millionaire had blissfully assumed. She had secured his address and a few other savoury details about his wife (wives?) and used this material to seek him out with bundle Basil under her arm. He granted her a gracious sum every month, for all eternity, under the condition that she would leave him alone. If he heard but one word from her ever again, the source of money would dry out.
That was all Emily wanted. She gave herself and her son pretentious surnames (she used a variation of the oil baron’s surname: Baltha-Zario) and acted upper class. She said the word “lovely” a lot. And ‘atrocious’ or ‘dreadful’ or ‘frightful.’ Deep down, however, she could not completely exterminate her working class roots. She had a tendency to save money on food, and buy second-hand clothes and shoes, especially if they were meant for Basil. She enjoyed being taken out to expensive restaurants by her suitors, though, and liked wrapping them around her little finger.
Emily was always out to seek her own advantage in all matters, even if it meant elbowing her own son. A particularly detestable deed of hers, so Annabella thought, had been to buy a second house and then sell half of it to Basil, when he was eighteen. He had just got a job in a bank. Emily put two tenants in her half of the house (with extremely disgusting habits, it has to be added), and leisurely reaped the benefits. She let Basil pay for all the bills, but did his washing up and ironing, for twenty pounds a week.
When Annabella moved into Basil’s and Emily’s house, Emily insisted it was her half that Annabella was living in, so she would have to pay rent. A lengthy dispute was the outcome, for Annabella was not allowed to keep a cat or redecorate the rooms (which were done in a rank taste, she thought), or even use the telephone. Eventually, Annabella and Basil moved to a new place, much to Emily’s dissatisfaction. It wasn’t until then that Annabella’s wish for children arose.
Annabella didn’t just want children in the ordinary way. She wanted to fulfill her innermost dream: give birth to a boy in the style of the nativity, and on December the twenty-fourth. Everything had to be done the right way. It would have to take place in a stable, with no electricity or other ‘mod cons’, and there would have to be the ox and donkey, the shepherds and sheep, and, later on, the three kings.
Basil was a man without frills. Annabella didn’t yet know how he would take this idea of hers. She knew it was extravagant and had probably never been done before (at least not to the extent she was planning it). She thought it was best to map out the event in her head and only reveal it to Basil at the last moment, as a sort of hormonal whim almost. She was sure he’d indulge in her pre-birth-giving requests.
She planned the conception to take place on March the twenty-fourth. That way she would give herself the best chance to give birth on the desired night. If the child was premature, that would be extremely unlucky. If it was late, she could always have the birth induced. She was sure it would go as planned. She was very good at making plans.
By August all the groundwork had been done. She’d auditioned her shepherds and kings. The actors were mostly unemployed theatre extras. They were pleased to have one night’s secured salary. And they didn’t have to be ultra-talented for Annabella’s purposes.
Basil would be Joseph, evidently. She hadn’t told him yet, but would do so soon. There was also his mother to be fitted in somewhere. She would be allowed to stand behind the scenes, if she insisted. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t be present at all. Thank God that Annabella’s own parents were both dead (they had been killed almost five years previously by falling from the London Eye). They would most certainly have opposed the idea and ruined everything by their unimaginative pettiness.
The midwife, who (unfortunately) was indispensable, was to play the angel. Annabella had been through a number of midwives, and it had taken her some effort to finally convince one of them to be part of the show. Miss Gabriela (what a fortunate name!) was flexible. She’d done a drama course before her career change into medicine. She was German, which didn’t inconvenience Annabella in the slightest.
Annabella chose a night in early October to expose her plan to Basil. “I’ve had this great idea about the birthday of our little boy.” They hadn’t settled on a name yet. Basil was sitting in front of the telly, uninspired. “Yeah?” – “You know he’ll be born on the twenty-fourth of December.” – “Yeah.” – “You know I love Christmas.” – “Yes, dear, that’s a welcome coincidence, then, isn’t it?” He didn’t even remove his eyes from the screen. ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ was on. “I thought I could have a Christmas-themed birth. Wouldn’t that be nice?” – “What do you mean?” He turned round at her now. “I mean have it in a stable, with shepherds and sheep, and have our boy lie in a crib, and kings come round with presents.”
Basil got up from his armchair and sat next to her on the sofa, one hand nervously playing with the other. “But Bella, wouldn’t that be sort of . . . blasphemous?” – “Blasphemous?” She’d never thought of that, and instantly dismissed it. “No, on the contrary! It would be worshipping God, to recreate his son’s birth, wouldn’t it? He’d be honoured, I’m sure. He’d look down on us and bless us. And he’d be pleased that people remember him well enough after all those years, to still call a baby after his son.” – “After his son?” – “Yes, I thought we’d call our boy Jesus. It sounds quite modern if you listen carefully. Jee-zuz. Jesus. Short version J.”
Basil looked horrified. He was kneading his kneecaps by now. Not a good sign. Annabella had to be firm. “Besides, I’ve already arranged everything. No need for you to do any work. It’s all ready for Christmas.” She smiled. He was sweating. “Now listen, perhaps I could get used to the idea of you giving birth in a stable, and all that, but I’ll never agree to calling our child Jesus. Poor boy, we can’t possibly burden him with a name like that.” She looked at him soothingly. “Ok, maybe you’re right. So what do we call him? Do you have any ideas?” Basil breathed again. “What about Bob? As good a name as any.” – “Bob?” Annabella shouted hysterically. “You might as well call him Average Jo! If you can’t think of a better name than that, I’ll call him Jesus!” – “All right all right, I’ll give it some more thought.” He disappeared into the study.
So that side of things was sorted. Annabella dreaded telling Basil’s mother, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy. They rang the bell, she opened the door and, looking at Basil, said: “Oh, how lovely to see you, sweetheart. Come in, come in. Would you like a cup of tea?” Annabella tottered after her husband, used to being ignored by her mother-in-law. He was the one to break the news to her (had Annabella done it, she would only have been accused of rollercoastering in).
“We thought of, well, because the birth happens on Christmas Eve, we thought, maybe we could do it in Christmas style, you see? In a stable and all that.” At first Emily was shell-shocked and jumped up from her seat. “What? What exactly are you talking about?” – “You know, dress up as Mary and Joseph, and have a few shepherds around, and sheep.” She gave Annabella a death-stare. “That was your idea, wasn’t it?” Annabella nodded defiantly. “Yes, it was. I’ve always liked Christmas, and I want to have a nativity-style birth. It’s all arranged. Take it or leave it.”
Emily stomped off to the kitchen, and came back a while later, more composed. “I didn’t know you were that religious,” she said to Annabella. “I’m not. I just like Christmas a lot.” That was all. Emily gave in. She agreed to stay away from the nativity scene, which was a relief. Annabella wouldn’t have to see her or think of her. Still, Emily had this strange, almost cunning look in her eyes. Annabella knew not to trust her, but little did she know how fast the cogs revolved in Emily’s mind and devised a devilish plan in mere seconds.
Now that consentments had been obtained, Annabella went wild with preparations. She went shopping for costumes and engaged a ‘make-up artist’ from a department store for the night. She combed all the farms in a radius of twenty miles for some suitably docile sheep. The donkey and ox she hired from a special company that provided animals for filmmakers, called ‘Movie Mammals.’
She hadn’t yet found a stable that suited her. They were all far too big and modern, whereas she wanted something genuinely old and almost falling off its hinges. She was approaching despair, when, by sheer coincidence, she came across a newspaper article about an old man who claimed he was the last ‘doll doctor’ alive. He repaired broken dolls and teddy bears, an activity that didn’t meet with much gratitude these days. In the interview he complained about not having any heirs to continue his unique craftsmanship. The photo that accompanied the article showed the old man leaning over a drawer crammed full with spare doll parts. Arms, legs, hands, feet, and torsos of all shapes and sizes, bobbles of hair, egg-like eye balls staring into all directions. There were paint pots and all sorts of tiny instruments and screws and nails. An endless collection.
Most interestingly, however, was the workshop. The walls were made of raw unclad wood with beams going across here and there. The floor was wooden, too, and covered in stains of all sizes and hues. Annabella loved the room at first sight. It wasn’t straightforwardly square, but little extensions had been added here and there to make it grow over the years. Dark recesses loomed in the background and the ceiling was low, so low that people of normal height would have to duck. Marvellous.
Annabella called the newspaper to find out the man’s address. She had an entire collection of dolls that needed repairing, she claimed, and the address was passed on to her without questions. It was on the east side of the city. Strange I haven’t come across it yet, she thought.
She arrived at the address, an ordinary Victorian terraced house. Nothing gave away the enchanting interior. The workshop must be at the back, perhaps in the garden, she thought. She read the small metal plaque on the door, “Theodor Craddle – Doll Doctor” and rang the bell.
The old man from the photo opened the door. He was much shorter than Annabella had anticipated, maybe only half her height. He looked up at her with startling blue eyes, watering with age and surrounded by warts. “Yes?” His knobbly nose moved along with the word. Annabella had bought a doll from a second hand stall that morning and pulled it out of her bag. “Could you repair this, please?” He took the doll, a torn and tattered thing with hardly any hair left and no eyes. “I know this type. I can do it while you wait.” She nodded and followed him inside.
She was right, the workshop was situated in the garden, or where the garden had once been. You passed through the back door and immediately entered the wooden construct. It was what she had been dreaming about all along. Atmospheric, filled with an aroma of ancient air and dirt, gloomy, with many dark corners.
Annabella barely watched as the little man’s swift fingers were dancing across the doll, pulling needles through at this end and that, tapping here and there with oddly shaped instruments, and then finishing off with some masterly strokes of glue. Her eyes explored the location, mapping out where the crib would go, the shepherds, the sheep, the ox and the donkey.
When he handed her the doll, she almost jumped. It looked like new. “How much? she asked. “Five pounds.” She gave him the note. “Do you think you could rent out this workshop? Only for a day or two. I’d pay very well.” She felt anxious. What if he said no? But she needn’t have worried. The man nodded. “Yes, when would you like it?” – “Would Christmas Eve be inconvenient?” – “That’s fine. I will be visiting my aunt in Scotland.”
Annabella left with a cheerful heart. But had she known that, in the upstairs room of the old man’s house, Basil’s mother was sipping a cup of tea and watching her disappear between the rows of houses, she might have felt less joyous.
December was now approaching rapidly. Basil had agreed that they refer to the new-born as ‘Jesus’, as long as his registered name would be Jeremy. Annabella’s stomach was huge and wide, as if it could pop any minute from overripeness. The days passed one by one, without bringing any alarming contractions. On the twenty-third, Annabella prayed that Jesus could stay in there for one more day.
On the twenty-fourth, Annabella and Basil had lunch and then went out. They desperately tried to find a house where she could give birth, but no one would let them in (to be fair, they only pretended to knock, but some artistic licence had to be taken). Annabella cried bitterly. “Don’t cry”, Basil said reassuringly, “we will find a roof by tonight, the almighty God will help us.” He had learned his part.
In the late afternoon, they finally arrived at the doll doctor’s workshop, where they found an open door. The shop had been decorated appropriately (straw on the floor, a palm leaf here and there, but altogether very minimalist touches) and the shepherds were in place with their sheep. So were the donkey and ox. Annabella plumply collapsed on the floor. She was exhausted and actually in pain now. The warm breath of the animals was rather soothing.
And then, as if on command, the contractions became heavier and more frequent. The angel-midwife Gabriela crouched next to Annabella and helped her breathe. Basil started to get nervous. What if it all went wrong? Why had he agreed to this? They should be in a hospital right now, with doctors and technology. He had been a fool to give in to his wife’s eccentricities.
Meanwhile, Emily was inside the doll doctor’s house, watching from behind the scenes. The upstairs back window allowed her to look right through the small skylight and into the workshop. She took a sip from a steaming cup of tea. “Lovely,” she whispered. If everything went according to plan, the ‘voice of God’ would speak as soon as her grandchild was born, and ‘the word’ – her word – would rule.
Down in the workshop, the birth-giving was taking its course. Most of the shepherds had gone pale, apart from one of them, a hard-boiled chap, who was paring his fingernails. Annabella’s screams filled the animals with panic. But that had been accounted for in advance, and there were plenty of sedatives around. A vet had been recruited (in the guise of a King). He briefly appeared, performed a number of injections, and vanished again until later.
Miraculously, and against Basil’s paranoid expectations, his baby-boy was born without any complications. He even screamed, and hence, Basil concluded, he must be alive and healthy. Annabella was so utterly worn-out, however, that she didn’t seem to be physically capable of drawing much pleasure from the joyous event. She reclined feebly against the wall and saw the scene of her making with half-closed eyes. Just as she was about to make one last effort and kneel by the side of the crib in true Mary style, the voice started to thunder. It made everyone jump.
“How could you, mere mortals, have the insolence to measure yourselves up against God? How dare you aspire to create what I created before you?”
There was a dramatic pause, an opportunity that the shepherds and the midwife grabbed to disappear as fast as they could. They felt as if they’d been doing something dodgy in the first place, and wanted to leave the scene of the crime as fast as they could. The voice continued, regardless:
“This innocent child shall be no child to you, Annabella and Basil.”
There was another pause. Basil and Annabella were petrified. Basil felt just like a little boy who had been caught doing something naughty, and was being admonished for it. Annabella was too exhausted to form any quick thoughts. She just held on tightly to her baby.
“If you want to save him from eternal damnation, you will give him to his grandmother Amélie on his eighteenth birthday. And thus you will do with your second child, and your third, and with all your subsequent children to be. And remember, I do not abide with contraceptives, because every sperm is sacred! Now choose between doom or salvation.”
The couple looked at each other with wide eyes. Basil spoke first: “Good God, we will choose salvation and follow your orders. Please forgive us.”
“I will forgive you when the deed is done and no sooner,” the voice thundered once more, and then stopped.
Little Jeremy was crying violently by now, and the animals were slowly waking up, drowsy with drugs. Annabella was sobbing into Basil’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I meant no harm, I meant no harm.” She was unable to form any higher thoughts. Basil stroked her hair.
Emily had finished her cup of tea. It had gone very well, she thought. She would have to wait another eighteen years, but then a youngster would fall into her hands every year or so. She’d have to remind Basil and Annabelle in small ways to remain procreative. Drop in a voice here, a sign there. She was sure of her success.
She was still young, only forty-one. In eighteen years she would need an extra source of income for her pension. Her son’s offspring could be conveniently placed in houses all over the country. Let them get a mortgage for half a house and deal with the tenants that were to live in Emily’s half. Let them pay the bills and insurances. Bind them with a cunningly phrased contract, and they will never be able to get out of it! Her future was secured.
She boiled the kettle for another cup of tea.