"Deck the halls in strawberry jelly,
Fa la la la la la la la la..."
"No! It's boughs of holly," yelled Ms Sposato above the collected voices of the grade 5 choir.
We were getting ready for the St Maria Goretti Annual Christmas Play and Carol Singing Evening and Ms Sposato was looking surprisingly flustered. I thought that the choir was doing pretty well except for when we occasionally forgot all the words and Troy McKenzie fell off the back row of the choir stand and landed on top of the piano.
"Troy McKenzie! Get off that piano and back to your place - NOW!" roared Ms Sposato. Ms Sposato was definitely not enjoying herself. I heard her telling Mr Box that she would rather have her wisdom teeth pulled out than coach the St Maria Goretti school choir and he just laughed and told her that if she ever wanted to be promoted then she would have to do these extra-curricular activities. I'm not sure what he meant but Ms Sposato didn't look like she was enjoying her time as choir director.
After lunch Ms Sposato sat us all down on the floor and talked about the grade 5 Christmas play. It was going to be about Mary and Joseph having Baby Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. I was so happy. Out of all the Bible stories, the Christmas one was my favourite. I wondered to myself whether I would get picked for an important role. I put up my hand to volunteer. Ms Sposato looked around. She looked as though she was having a hard time deciding who should be in the play and as I looked around the room, I suddenly understood why.
Troy McKenzie was busy joining a long line of paper clips together and then wrapping them around Snotty McFee's neck Bronwyn Bunting was sitting right in front of Ms Sposato just begging to be Mary and Jason McWhirter was emptying sand out of his sneakers onto the carpet. Not exactly the cast of Phantom of the Opera and perhaps that was why Ms Sposato had what my mother would call a "frazzled" look about her.
Ms Sposato told us that she was an equal opportunity casting director and that meant that Mary didn't necessarily have to be a girl and Joseph didn't necessarily have to be a boy and she renamed the three wise men into three wise people and the little drummer boy became the little drummer person. It was a bit confusing but I just hoped to get a good part.
"Um," said Ms Sposato looking around the class, "the role of Joseph can go to...," and she looked straight at me, "...you," she said.
"Me?" I asked.
It was final. I was Joseph.
My mind began ticking over straight away and I hardly heard Ms Sposato pick Snotty McFee to be Mary, Jason McWhirter to be Baby Jesus and Bronwyn Bunting to be lowing cattle. I thought about what I could wear. If I brushed my dog Precious often enough between now and the play, I could pull the brown fur out of the brush and make it into a beard. Mum had a great brown table cloth. I could wrap it around myself and that could be my costume. I would finish it off with grandpa's brown leather sandals.
Sharon Amott, the smartest kid in grade 5, was picked to be a wise person along with Troy McKenzie and Mitch Mooney who Ms Sposato said could be "almost wise people". Troy immediately asked Ms Sposato if he could wear his karate outfit for his costume. Ms Sposato didn't answer and instead selected Emma Vigilante to be the little drummer person and Seymour Pereira to be the inn keeper. I heard Seymour grumbling and saying that he didn't want to be the one who wouldn't let Mary and Joseph in and that if Ms Sposato made him be the inn keeper that he would let them in even if he had to give them his own bedroom.
Ms Sposato looked tired as she read us the Christmas story in the Bible. We all listened and thought about what to do with our parts. Joseph didn't seem to say very much, but I could change all that. Ms Sposato put us into groups with other characters and we had to talk to each other about the parts. Snotty McFee, Jason McWhirter and I went together because we were Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We all sat in the reading corner and shared our ideas about what we wanted to do.
"I have a blue sheet at home," Snotty told us.
"I could wear one of my baby sister's nappies," said Jason.
I told them about my dog brush idea and grandpa's sandals. They looked impressed - if not a little jealous. I was about to tell them about mum's brown table cloth when my voice was drowned out by Bronwyn Bunting mooing in the corridor. She was obviously a method actor.
We practised every day for weeks and the halls echoed to sounds of mooing and Snotty McFee going up to people begging for a room because he was about to have a baby. Troy McKenzie would backflip down the corridors saying that he wanted the wise men to make a grand entrance. I practised as hard as everybody else and every night I brushed my dog and collected the fur.
On Tuesday, Ms Sposato took us over to the hall for a dress rehearsal. The play was on Thursday night and Ms Sposato told us it was time to hit the boards. She also told us that tomorrow was the dress rehearsal and we would all have to bring our costumes. I was so excited because I finally had enough dog fur to make a terrific beard. We stumbled through the play while Ms Sposato yelled out things like "frankincense not Frankenstein!"
As soon as the bell rang, I ran straight home and went into my room and got grandpa's old cigar box from under my bed and I opened it slowly. I hadn't bothered to tell mum what my beard plans were. I figured that I would just collect the fur, paste it into a beard and surprise her with the finished product. As I lifted the lid, the smell of my dog floated out - sort of flea powder mixed with dirt. Oh how I loved that dog. I gently lifted the fine brown fluffy fur out and put it on my bedspread. I went in search of mum's superglue. I had it all planned out. I would wipe superglue all over my chin and then stick the dog's fur directly on. I thought it would look much more realistic than the other kid's fake beards. Mum would be so proud of me.
Inside the laundry cupboard, I found the superglue but it wasn't ordinary superglue either. Mum had bought it at a fete from an old man with a really long beard. Perhaps his was stuck on too. I quivered with anticipation. On the side of the tube was writing that said, "Macpherson's Superglue. Stays stuck forever." It was just the thing I needed. My beard wouldn't fall off in the middle of the play.
I got mum's brown table cloth and walked around to the old people's home where my grandpa had lived since he turned strange. The nice man at the front desk wearing the white coat told me that grandpa was resting and I told him that it was all right because I didn't especially want to visit him - I just wanted to take his sandals. Grandpa was snoring when I crept into his room and I slipped under the bed and found his tattered old Roman sandals that would be just perfect for the play. As I was about to creep back out again, I noticed grandpa's bald head reflecting the sun from the window. Wouldn't it be nice if I had any fur left over to share it with my grandpa. I waved happily to the man at the front desk as I left with grandpa's sandals tucked firmly under my arm.
When I got home, I was just about to glue my beard on when I had a thought. If I used up all the fur for the dress rehearsal, then I wouldn't have any left for the play so I tucked the superglue and the fur snugly back into the cigar box and slid it under my bed. It would just have to wait.
When I got to school the next morning, everybody was changing into their costumes in the toilets. Bronwyn Bunting emerged with great long cow eyelashes drawn on her face and Snotty McFee was wearing his new mum's pink lipstick. I looked around at all my friends in their costumes and I quickly decided that mine was the best - even without the beard.
As soon as the bell rang, Ms Sposato herded us all over to the hall to practise, she said, until we got it right. Troy McKenzie managed to stay on the choir stand for most of the song practise but we were still a little shaky on the words.
"Away in a manger,
No creep for a bed.
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down on his head."
Ms Sposato sighed often and that made us feel proud to be kids. If there was one thing that grade 5 had taught us and that was to always keep your teacher on her toes. It was almost a challenge. It had nothing to do with the fact that we really liked her, but it was almost something that we couldn't help. My mum always said that if people chose a career that involved being with children all day then they deserved all the premature grey hair they got.
We all took our places for the play.
"This donkey is killing me," said Snotty McFee as we walked onto the stage from the side. He was wearing a blue sheet and a long brown wig.
"We're nearly at Bethlehem," I replied in my best Joseph voice. Snotty and I walked across the stage. Snotty was holding my little brother's wooden horse which kept getting in the way of the soccer ball that he had shoved up his sheet to make him look like he was expecting.
"Look, there's an inn!" said Snotty theatrically pointing across the stage to where Seymour Pereira stood holding a sign that said "Pereira's Inn".
"Have you got any room in your inn?" I asked, "My wife is about to vote labor."
"No, no!" Ms Sposato cried from her seat in the front row where the audience would sit on the night. "My wife is in labour - not voting labor!"
"Sorry," I muttered in her direction then turning once again to Seymour, I said, "Have you got a room in your inn because my wife is IN labour?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I have," said Seymour.
"No, you haven't!" cried Ms Sposato.
"Yes, I have," said Seymour stubbornly. "I just did a quick calculation and if I put the Donegans in with the Turcarellis then we can fit you in."
"SEYMOUR!" yelled Ms Sposato and then she quickly lowered her voice to sound reasonable. "If you let them into the inn then the baby can't be born in a stable and then the whole story will be ruined."
Seymour thought for a moment before reluctantly turning to Snotty and me and saying in a very sad voice that there was no room at the inn but he did have a very comfortable spare stable with all the modern conveniences - a water bed, a colour television with a Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers.
Ms Sposato told Seymour in a completely exasperated voice that she didn't think Mary and Joseph were in the slightest bit interested in Super Mario Brothers. Snotty McFee and I looked at each other and were about to disagree when we saw Ms Sposato's face and thought the better of it.
The rest of the rehearsal went okay except for when Snotty McFee told the three kings that gold, frankincense and myrrh were all very nice but a month's worth of Nappy Wash and a high chair might have been more sensible gifts. And Ms Sposato had to get cross at Troy McKenzie because he backflipped into the stable in his karate suit and told Mary that he had travelled from afar, following a bright light in the sky which he explained could have either been a star or the police helicopter doing a night shift.
At the end of rehearsal, Ms Sposato sent us home to get ready for the big day. All of the parents had been invited and mum said that she might even get my grandpa out of the home for a special treat and bring him along. I called in to ask him on the way home.
"Hi Gramps," I said happily settling into the chair next to his bed.
"There's a fish in my bed and a rabbit beside me," he replied.
"Cool," I said, "Hey Gramps, want to come to my Christmas play?"
"I can't find my sandals," moaned my grandpa. "I've been looking for them all day and I can't find them. They're the only foot furniture I've got.
"Don't worry Gramps," I said quickly. "I'm sure they'll turn up after tomorrow." I gave his bald head a thoughtful pat.
I stayed visiting until grandpa fell asleep in mid- sentence whilst explaining his preferred method of artificial denture care to his pet goldfish, Fluffy. I tiptoed out and I told the man in the white coat that my mum would pick him up tomorrow night at 7 o'clock. The man told me that it was good that grandpa was getting out. He told me that all the other old people were playing Bingo tonight at the Elderly Citizens Club but grandpa had refused to go.
"So he'll be here on his own tonight?" I asked, trying to keep the excitement out of my voice.
"Practically," the man said.
I would have enough fur left over for grandpa's head and maybe some for a beard. He would be so pleased to have hair again.
That night, mum and dad went next door for coffee but really to find out how much the neighbour's new swimming pool cost and I was home alone. I had it all planned. I would sneak down to the old people's home with my dog fur and my superglue and then I would come home and do my own beard. I grabbed my equipment and snuck out the front door.
The man in the white coat was watching television with his back to the door and I didn't bother disturbing him as I made my way to the bedside of my sleeping grandpa. His lower lip quivered as he forced air out through his mouth in loud snores. I took the lid off the superglue and carefully wiped it all over grandpa's head and chin. I stood back and surveyed my glueing before I stuck the fur on.
I was just about to stick the fur onto my grandfather's head when I remembered Ms Sposato telling us about a man called Elvis Presley and how he had really bushy sideburns. I laughed and put a few globs of extra glue on both sides of grandpa's face. I opened the cigar box and pulled out piles and piles of fluff. I had been fortunate to begin my collection when Precious was moulting. I carefully stuck the fur to my grandfather and even though he did end up looking a bit strange, it was a definite improvement. He was covered in thick brown hair.
Sitting on my bed at home, I repeated the procedure, smearing my face with superglue and carefully sticking tufts of flea powder smelling fur to my chin. I looked fantastic.
The next morning, mum had to go to work early and I was left to get myself ready for school. The superglue sure was super. Even when I had a shower, not one of the hairs came off. I carefully folded the brown table cloth and packed grandpa's sandals into my school bag. I was disappointed that mum and dad had gone already because I wanted them to see how wonderful I looked. They would have to wait until tonight because all the kids were staying at school to set up for the play.
"You can have my stable even though it doesn't have a television or a Nintendo or a water bed," said Inn Keeper Pereira.
I hesitated a moment before remembering my line. The day had been quite stressful. Ms Sposato had been surprised by my beard especially about the fact that it wouldn't come off. The church hall was darkened and filled with everybody's mothers and fathers. My mum and dad were sitting in the second row from the back. Mum had caught me before the play had started and told me that grandpa had run away from the home and she hadn't been able to bring him. She looked so distracted that she hadn't seemed to notice my beard.
"Thanks, we'll take the stable," I finally replied, "Do you take Bankcard?"
"It's on the house," said the inn keeper.
Snotty and I walked over to the side of the stage that was scattered with hay with a manger sitting in the middle.
"Oh, oh, I think I'm going to have my baby," wailed Snotty with his long brown wig falling in his face. The synthetic hair started to tickle his nose and he tried to brush it away with one hand while trying to hold the soccer ball in place with the other. It was no use. I knew a sneeze was coming. I had to stand between Snotty McFee and the audience while he took the soccer ball out from under his sheet and reached into the manger to grab Bronwyn Bunting's Baby Alive which we had to use at the last minute because Jason McWhirter got stage fright.
"Oooooooooh, isn't he lovely," cooed Snotty McFee holding the baby out in front of him for all the audience to see while trying desperately not to sneeze. "I think I'll call him um, ah... ah... AH CHOOOOOOOOOOO!" Snotty McFee sent a tremendous spray across the stage - all over Baby Jesus, the hay, the manger and me. But being a true performer, Snotty McFee quickly said, "On the other hand, Ahchoo is not a good name. I think I'll call him Jesus."
I could see Ms Sposato in the front row breathing a sigh of relief as Snotty went on with the show.
"Yes, Jesus McFee is a terrific name!" said Snotty holding the Baby Alive beaming down on it as if it was a real baby. "And you're going to have a little brother or sister soon," said Snotty looking in the direction of his new mum, Madelaine who blushed.
We finished the play and the whole grade filed onto the choir stand and Ms Sposato took her place in front of us. She lifted her arms about to signal us to start when, instead of a nice singing sound, a thin wail filled the hall. We peered into the blackness just in time to see a hairy, barefooted creature being dragged out by people in white coats screaming, "My sandals, my sandals..."
The temporary disruption over, Ms Sposato dropped her arms and we began to sing...
"Deck the halls in strawberry jelly,
Fa la la la la la la la la."