When the Virgin Mary came down with chickenpox the day before the Sunday School Nativity, there was a Christmas crisis at St. Michael’s. They had been short on cast anyway; they only had two girls in the class, and the other had been slated to play the Archangel Gabriel. Now perforce she had to slip into Mrs Anderson’s blue chiffon scarf and would be left holding the baby, so to speak. That left the key role of the Archangel vacant.
“But we have to have an angel,” fussed the Reverend. His glasses had quite misted up with emotion.
“Well, we can’t touch the Three Wise Men,” said Peter Wilcox practically. He was the new curate, and it was his daughter Melissa who’d stepped into the Virgin Mary’s shoes. They’d been with the community only just over a month; the gossips hinted at a tragedy, with the young Mrs Wilcox dying dreadfully in some sort of accident… or was it of some thoroughly romantic incurable disease?… and Peter had come here with his daughter to get away from the memories. “And we only have two shepherds as it is. Take one away, and the Archangel would have had a pretty useless job, coming down to warn a solitary shepherd of the great event.”
And that was the trouble. With Jeannie Garnet out of the running, there were only seven other kids in the Nativity – and they all seemed to be essential right where they were.
“Perhaps we should cancel it this year,” suggested Mrs Grace, the organist, morosely.
“Oh, no!” said the Reverend, starting up with shock, his eyes quite wide behind the spectacles. “Why, it would be like… like cancelling Christmas.”
“And the children, they’ll be so disappointed,” murmured Anne de la Harpe. In her Sunday guise she was the new Sunday School teacher, after her weekly stint in the classroom proper of the local primary. “They’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”
“Well, I can’t see what else to do,” said Mrs Grace, determined as ever to put the most pessimistic face on things.
“But we must think of something,” said Anne.
“Well, dear, unless you play the angel…” began Mrs Grace.
Anne shot her a startled look. “I?” she said. “But it’s the children’s show. It’s silly. How can I possibly…”
“No, hang on,” said Peter slowly, “it’s not such a bad idea. It is the Sunday School Nativity, and you’re technically part of the Sunday School. And the kids would love it. And besides, it would give the Archangel the proper perspective as the messenger of God.”
Anne laughed self-consciously, her cheeks going scarlet. “No. No, I couldn’t possibly.”
“But you’d be saving the Nativity,” said the Reverend.
She shook her head. “No, really. What would I wear, for a start? The angel’s costume was made for someone a tad smaller than me.”
“That’s not a problem,” said Mrs Grace, going into an unexpected reverse. “I could run you up a simple white gown in a jiffy. And a bit of silver paint on cardboard… who’s to carp about wings at a time like this? Peter could do it. He painted my front door beautifully last weekend, he’s quite a master with the brush.”
“And whoever saw an archangel with a chignon?” muttered Anne as a last defence, and then clutched at the back of her head as Mrs Grace suddenly and artfully pulled out the master pin and she felt her long fair hair coming loose. “Or with hair streaming any which way like this?” she added, blushing, swiftly collecting it into a tight twist and sitting, undecided, with the thick mass of it held between her palms.
“I couldn’t even imagine an Archangel,” said Peter slowly, his eyes wide an bright, “until today.”
It was the first time any of them there had ever seen her hair in any state except its usual neat French twist at the nape of her neck. Mrs Grace seemed faintly startled by what she had unleashed, the Reverend glancing away as though embarrassed, but Peter looked at her as though she had been a revelation and Anne dropped her gaze onto the rope of hair she held over her shoulder in a sudden attack of shyness. But Peter had recovered his poise almost immediately.
“You’d be perfect,” he said, and it was back to his old practical tone which made Anne feel herself again. “And it would save the day.”
They were all looking at her, the Reverend expectantly, Mrs Grace with an I-told-you-so look looming which Anne suddenly itched to quash right there, and Peter with a gaze that was kind but curiously impersonal. She imagined the Nativity, with her poised over the hapless Sunday School class like some sort of giant, clad in what would probably be some kind of nightgown shift, cardboard wings and the tinsel halo lovingly made by Melissa Wilcox for her own angelic debut, and couldn’t help grinning. It would look ludicrous, totally silly… And yet…
“All right, then,” she heard herself saying. “It’s only for one night.”
Mrs Grace provided a gown which was almost good enough to wear in public, and the children were thrilled at the idea of their teacher playing the Archangel. They all pitched in to strap on the wings, which were indeed a small masterpiece; Melissa helped fix on the halo she had made for herself, stopping to shyly finger a strand of Anne’s thick fair hair.
“It’s so pretty,” she said. “I never knew you had really, really long hair.” She sounded faintly envious, her own dark shiny bob, underneath the chiffon scarf, swinging just below her ears.
“Shhh,” said Anne, maneuvering her into position. “I think we’re almost on.”
They had set up behind improvised curtains in the little side-chapel of the old church, and could hear the congregation cough and murmur in the main hall. They knew that the Reverend would introduce them with a few words, and then the makeshift curtain would be drawn aside. There were to be two tableaux – first Anne, in her starring role, would be seen towering over the two shepherds, giving them the good news; and then the nativity proper, with the children grouped around one of Melissa’s favourite dolls in a little wooden cradle. But moments before they were due to go on, the curtain twitched and Peter Wilcox, in full ecclesiastical regalia, slipped inside.
“Sorry,” he hissed apologetically, “change of plans. Lighting’s gone all awry. Only one tableau; set it all up around the crib, Anne, and you say your piece over that. Kids, you go on as rehearsed, okay?”
“Peter!” Anne called in a panic, trying to shout in a whisper as he started to slip away again. But he was already gone. “Okay,” she said, guiding the ‘shepherds’ to the cradle through the thick straw strewn all over the floor of the chapel. “We’ll skip your words, Mickey and Robin. When they open the curtain, I’ll say what I have to, and then you carry on as we practised. All right?” And then they were out of time as the curtain slowly drew back and they were bathed in the one spotlight that still worked, a brilliant white light that suddenly blazed on Anne’s hair making of it a halo even greater than the puny tinsel gleam that nestled somewhere above her head. Her eyes dazzled by the light, blinded to the audience, Anne instinctively raised her hands… and could have sworn she heard the rustle of wings, real wings, as she did so.
The words that rose to her mouth were not the scaled-down ones they had culled for a child, but the sonorous, ringing phrases from the old Bibles where angels were still awesome and terrible – and yet the words rang with a simplicity all their own: “Behold, today was born unto you a Saviour in the City of David.” She spoke in a voice which was entirely unlike her own quiet one, a voice dark and smoky, very soft and yet intensely penetrating, and there wasn’t a soul there who did not hear every word that she said, and tremble at her words through some irrational and primeval awe which told everyone they were suddenly in the presence of the extraordinary. And when she had finished, there was somehow a sudden shadow behind her and into that she withdrew and vanished. The Wise Child-Men came up with their gifts and the shepherds bowed deeply over their cardboard crooks in the direction of a Melissa lambent in blue over whom hovered protectively the six-year-old Joseph with a bright striped kitchen cloth wrapped Eastern-style around his head. The curtain had been meant to close again after they had finished, but every pair of hands was busy clapping, and so it was that the flushed and excited children ran straight off the straw-strewn “stage” into the waiting arms of their parents; Peter Wilcox, who manned the lights, had at least had the presence of mind to switch off the reflector, and when Anne emerged into the diminished, workaday church light it was as an ordinary mortal once again, her wings as firmly cardboard as when Peter had painted them the previous day. She couldn’t seem to decide whether to laugh or to cry, and was still so high from the rush that had shaken her that she was largely unaware of the bright-eyed, clapping congregation who had risen to their collective feet. Peter hurried over.
“Let me help you with those,” he said, reaching for the wings.
She smiled at him in a way that made his heart turn over, and shrugged obligingly out of the shoulder harness the wings had been attached to. In the process, her hymnbook and a battered old Bible slipped from her hand, and they both bent to retrieve them. She came up with the hymnbook, he with the Bible. There were faded initials embossed in the brown leather cover: A. G. H.
“A. G.?” he queried lightly, handing it back. “What does the G stand for?”
And then he suddenly smiled, knowing in the split second before she spoke what she was going to say. It was as inevitable as the future. He impulsively reached out and took her hand, and she did not withdraw it as she looked at him from within that wealth of golden hair.
“Gabrielle,” she said, very softly. “It stands for Gabrielle.”