George Hartley stared down at the rows of assorted parents, parent-governors, teachers and siblings and his stomach tightened like a boiled crustacean. He wiped a moist hand on his innkeeper’s shirt and disguised a dry cough with an acrid smelling palm. Mr Brewer queued George from the wings and directed him to take centre stage. George swallowed and stepped forward to hit his mark underneath sizzling spotlights. Two costumed classmates trudged towards him; one with a false beard and the other bearing a pillow stuffed inside her voluminous gown. They were weary travellers who’d journeyed from afar and needed a bed for the night. Every eye in the house turned to look at George and waited for the answer to their question. “Have you any room at the inn?”
Hundreds of eyes stared at him, waiting for him to deliver his line. This was his moment to be remembered forever or witness his lofty dreams torn asunder.
“Just remember to project your voice, George, and don’t bump into the furniture.”
“But what if I forget my lines, sir?”
“Don’t be concerned, lad,” said Mr Brewer, offering the benefit of his experience. “Just relax and enjoy the show,” he added, with a gleam in his beady eye. “Relish your moment of stagecraft and enjoy taking part in a rich thespian tradition.”
“It’s not Shakespeare,” replied George, breaking the tension and bringing a smile to everyone’s face. “It’s only a school Nativity for goodness’ sake.”
George never failed to be chosen for the rugby team every week. It was an irksome pastime that held little interest for him, however because of his height and weight, he was destined to be battered, bruised and splattered in mud regularly. The school mapped the Winter term out in terms of after school events. Rugby team training sessions and match fixtures occupied three evenings every week and most weekends. George needed an out, and the school’s drama society offered a credible escape.
Mr Brewer had commandeered Tuesday afternoons and evenings to audition hopeful young thespians and rehearse the play in time for Christmas. It wasn’t that George was particularly interested in acting, but he was less interested contact sport and so he volunteered his services.
George was known as the school clown and possessed or exuded a confident charm, accompanied by a mischievous twinkle and an impish smile. He always had a smart-lipped response in class and could often tie his teachers in knots with his mercurial patter and convoluted logic. There was no stopping George, and his formidable personality marched ahead of him.
Years later, George wondered if there was a conspiracy amongst the teaching staff to include him in the Christmas performance in order to deflate his engorged ego. Was it a test of his character or an attempt to bring him down a peg or two in front of a critical audience of parents, siblings and elderly relatives?
Never one to submit and yield, he considered it a challenge to defy Mr Brewer and the collected might of the school authorities.
In many ways, George enjoyed the attention, but now as he stood on stage, it was different to what he’d imagined, scary even. Shuffling about on the stage in the senior hall and delivering lines was one thing, but doing it with confidence in front of an audience was another. In George’s mind, nothing would prepare him for a live event. The dress rehearsal imitated the actual event, but without an audience, it still wasn’t the same.
The costume his mother had made suited his robust form and complemented his ungainly physique. He was a big for a lad of his age and he enjoyed his mother’s plentiful and honest fare. She brought him up on a regular diet of wholesome pies and homemade puddings.
“A big lad who has difficulties,” is what the P.E. teacher had scribbled on his end of term report. George was en route to spend every Saturday of his entire school career clashing heads and crunching shoulders with overweight prop forwards from every school in the district. George had the sense to consider an exit strategy before allowing his ears to be mauled into cauliflower-like stumps of mangled flesh and reducing his nose to a battered mound of dribbling ruddy-coloured offal.
Mr Brewer’s acting workshops gave him a few night’s relief from endless scrummaging, rucking and mauling. Apart from the obvious benefits to his health and looks, he discovered additional social advantages. There were girls involved with the production, and these rare beings added a new and intriguing dimension. Girls were an unknown quantity for lads of George’s age. They were mysterious and other worldly by reputation. However, the ones he’d encountered so far loved his cheeky one-liners and amusing anecdotes. George knew he could get to like girls too, but he wasn’t sure how to introduce himself; drama club offered a way.
His rugby coach, Mr Worth, didn’t express an opinion about George’s newfound passion. However, rumour has it he’d bet money on him quitting before the end of the winter term. Mr Worth had a firm opinion that George was ‘scrum-fodder’ and good for little else but blocking and tackling hefty opponents on the rugby field. The coach said he wouldn’t last the course and expressed his surprise when George got the audition for one of the play’s more memorable roles. He refused to congratulate the lad on his success and, even during the final rehearsals, considered it a waste of everybody’s time.
“You’re the innkeeper?” said George’s father.
“I told you he’d be the next Hugh Grant, love,” said his mother on hearing the news.
“That’s not much of a part, though, is it?”
“I wanted to be Joseph, Dad, but---”
“Every star has to start somewhere, George---”
“Blink and we’ll miss him, more like.”
“Leave the lad alone, at least he’s trying.”
“He should have stuck to scoring tries on the rugby pitch.”
“Don’t listen to him, love,” she smiled. “What does he know?”
George auditioned for several parts and accepted the innkeeper role after struggling with the lines for other characters. Mr Brewer encouraged him to stick it out and promised better parts in forthcoming productions. “It’s all experience, George, and no amount of money can buy time on the boards.”
The dress rehearsal went well for George and he made friends with all the cast, keeping them entertained and distracted from their anxieties about the show. Mr Brewer complimented George on his performance and was overjoyed when his mother volunteered to make all the costumes. The finished garments weren’t quite what Mr Brewer had expected, but with a week to go before the big night, he had little choice in the matter and focussed on blocking the scenes and crafting engaging and credible performances.
The technical performance went according to plan and George was confidant and looked forward to an exciting first night. His parents had bought tickets for themselves and insisted on bringing all George’s aunt, uncles, nieces and nephews. There was a second row filled with neighbours, work colleagues. Various members of their local church attended because of its seasonal appeal and subject matter. George’s mother held her breath, waiting for her son’s appearance, and knew that he would outshine his peers.
George’s moment was towards the end of the first half of the Nativity when Mary and Joseph reached Bethlehem. They had escaped the Herod’s legions and needed a place to stay for the night. Joseph knocked on the door of George’s Inn and he opened the door and listened to their request.
George had worked himself into a bit of a state by the time his moment arrived and he stared at Joseph with contempt. He’d rather fancied the romantic lead himself, having watched Mary from afar, and he thought he’d be better in the role. Joseph cleared his throat and repeated his request to the innkeeper. George took a deep breath. “I’m sorry we’re full,” he said. “Why don’t you try down the road, mate.”
Mary raised her cowed head, smiling at George’s smirking face.
Joseph stuttered a feeble, “Oh, well we could try to…”
Mr Brewer grabbed his headphones and hissed the correct line at George as the audience gasped and exchanged hushed whispers.
“We’ve got space in the barn if you’re interested?” said George.
“That’ll be fine for us,” said Joseph, and turned to help his wife.
“The only thing is,” said George as they stopped and stared at him. “It’ll cost you extra, being as it’s Christmas and all.”
Mary bit her lip, and Joseph’s jaw sagged as the audience disguise their amusement.
George raised his inverted open hands as if to say, “What can I do?”
He shrugged his shoulders and told them low and straight. “That’s business.”
Everyone in the hall howled with laughter as George bowed and invited the couple into his humble corrugated cardboard stable. The welcoming structure had a balsa crib full of straw nestled below a glue-and-glitter painted star.