Sexual Healing

Dave Rodgers rubbed his straggly beard and sighed. Perhaps he should shave it off? Get rid of the grey. It might take years off him. Maybe then he’d have more luck on the dating app. So far, it had been fairly quiet. The only matches overly made-up and overweight; not one stoked the flames of his desire. Having said that, it didn’t take much to get him thinking about sex these days. He was pretty desperate. From habit, he looked down at his left hand, square and solid on the pitted desk, fingers thick like sausages. The pale line where the ring had lived for twenty years was fading. Soon nobody would be able to tell he’d ever been married. Eight months divorced, nearly a full year without getting any. Who was he kidding turning his nose up at those women? More likely they wouldn’t look twice at him if they saw him in person. His profile picture was at least two years old. Too many trashy sandwiches and sugary donuts grabbed from the garage. Too many greasy takeaways from the Indian on the High Street. Too many Big Macs on the lonely journey home from tedious staff meetings. He’d let himself go. Put on a few pounds, half a stone, probably a full stone. These days, his trousers cut into him, stomach rolling over the top button. He no longer wore a belt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had his hair cut or trimmed his beard. Yes, it had to go. He’d look better without it; younger, smarter. Saturday morning, he’d take a trip to the barber. He must start cooking for himself again too. Judy had loved his red Thai curry. And get out on his bike. He used to cycle miles every weekend but that had been with Judy for company. It wasn’t the same on your own.

Dave Rodgers became aware of a low buzz in the room, growing in intensity, an angry wasp at a picnic. He sat up straight.

“Er…” he said, “This is meant to be a silent reading session.”

The class quietened. He surveyed the room, scanning for anyone who had decided Pride and Prejudice wasn’t worth the effort.

“Read until the end of Chapter Three, then we’ll discuss the questions on the board. Any more mumblings and we’ll see who’d like to read out loud for us.” Dave Rodgers displayed his best condescending teacher smile.

There were a few audible moans. Year 10C weren’t a bad lot, not the brightest but fairly well-behaved overall. Getting through this Literature GCSE would be a slog. There were a few bolshy lads at the back, lost causes, probably with their mobiles tucked behind the book covers but he couldn’t be bothered to check. It was Friday and he only had to coast through this lesson and lunch duty and he would be finished for the week. He scanned the class again. Abbie Smith leaned back in her chair and stretched. Her large, round breasts straining at the buttons of her shirt. Pretty girl, Abbie. Bit rough around the edges but she had a spark about her. She could stand up for herself, didn’t take any crap from the boys and she got plenty of comments from them. With breasts like that it wasn’t surprising. He watched the shapely, ample flesh bulging at the buttons. He imagined sliding his fingers between those buttons, bursting the shirt open…

“Penny for ‘em. Mr Rodgers.” Abbie said.

He started. Abbie was watching him, disgust spreading on her face, as if somebody at the next desk had farted.

 “Sorry, I was miles away…”

A rumble of laughter travelled around the room. Abbie had caught him ogling. Had anyone else noticed? His face prickled with heat.

“Quiet! Has everyone finished the chapter?” he said, “OK, let’s discuss these questions then.”

Slowly, he stood up before the white board, bracing himself to face his pupils. What had he been thinking? He was a grown man, a professional, and there he was fantasising about a school girl’s tits. He must be some sort of pervert. He could get the sack for this. Could he get the sack for this? If she reported him, it would be her word against his. And he hadn’t actually done anything.

“So, who can summarise the chapter?” he turned, ready for the fray.

There were some mumbles, some shrugs.

“Anyone like to start?” he looked around the room, avoiding Abbie’s eyes.  

He wished the bell would ring, so he could go and hide in the staffroom. But he remembered he couldn’t. There was lunch duty. Was he a paedophile? No, he’d never actually touch her. But he’d like to. He knew that. A trickle of sweat ran along his spine beneath his wrinkled shirt. He really should get the iron out one day. If he looked tidier, he might get a date. Might not be so consumed with the thought of getting his end away. That was the problem. Judy leaving him, ‘drained and squeezed out like a soggy teabag’ to find a ‘relationship with someone who meets my needs’. Whatever that meant. She was to blame. The bitch.

“I’ll start. Sir.” It was Abbie, her tone confrontational.   

“Go ahead.” Dave Rodgers clenched his knuckles.

“Bingley ships Jane.” Abbie said.

“Ships?”

“He wants to have sex with her. Mr Rodgers.” Abbie’s voice was like punches to his gut.

Another rivulet of sweat dripped down his back, “Well, certainly Mr Bingley is attracted to Jane as a prospective wife.”

“And that other guy, Darcy. He’s a bit of a snob. Thinks he’s too good to ship Elizabeth. But he will…’cos that’s what men are like.”

Where was the bell, for Christ’s sake? Winded, he wanted to give up, plead an excuse to let everyone go early. Pathetic. He was in charge. The adult in the room.

He caught his breath, “I think that’s a little unfair. Darcy is looking for a suitable match. As Jane Austin says, at the very start of the novel, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. These social balls were set up for that purpose.”

“Bit like Tinder.” Ben Andrews piped up from the back. Everyone laughed.

“Quiet!” Dave Rodgers shouted.

“The point is, the women didn’t get much choice in the matter. It’s male entitlement. Us women still have to put up with men treating our bodies as objects. Like possessions to drool over and be taken.” Abbie’s statement was a final fist in his face. A murmur of agreement rose from the other girls.  

He rubbed his hairy chin. Little cow. “Hold on, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel. I think we’re going off topic here.”

A harsh clangour filled the room. With a scraping of chair legs on scratchy floors, everyone jumped up from their seats and began stuffing books into rucksacks.

“Wait!” The class silenced. “Think about the questions at home. We’ll finish the discussion when I see you on Tuesday. Class dismissed.”

Dave Rodgers turned to his desk to sort out his briefcase. He busied himself as the jostling, shouting and laughter receded. When the last pupil left, slamming the door behind them, he collapsed defeated in his chair. Every limb ached like he’d been in the ring with a rhinoceros. He could curl up and go to sleep for a year. Perhaps he needed some time off? The divorce had been difficult. Maybe he was suffering from stress? Yes, that must be it. His mind wasn’t right. After lunch, he’d go and see the Head about taking some sick leave.

Sylvotherapy

I wandered the woods,

followed the narrow dusty track,

skeletons of season on season littered my feet.

Sat beneath an aged oak,

salt tears stung my cheeks

as crows in the treetops taunted my sorrow.

I sobbed for the acrid air and poisoned rivers,

mourned the dying ash,

grieved the stray swallow family,

wailed the loss of lively hedgerow and swaying meadow,

sighed my sadness into the shadows.

“Hush child,” whispered the oak

lowering rough branches to cradle me,

foliage cool as the rippling stream.

“We will be here when human has gone.

When cutting, digging and taking is silent.

When shaping, ordering and reinventing is done.

Our seeds will grow deep in Earth’s warmth.

Our roots will spread wide and strong in the quiet.

Humankind will fall as Autumn leaves.

Flutter away like dust.

Hush now, your time draws near.

Spend it safe beneath our mantle.

Drink in calm, green beauty.

Rest on soft, mossy banks.

Be as trees, use only what is needed.

Grow resilient, face your future without fear.”

Renewed, I rose and began the journey home.

The last goodbye

Goodbyes are the worst.

Shrugging off the snug blanket of freedom,

carefree moments slip from the shoulders on

the station platform.

Back to normal life, cutting the loose yarn,

each passing township, another dropped stitch,

wearing thinner at every announcement.

The train rocks onward, trailing thread on thread,

And home will arrive.

Spring is alive

Bits of beauty,

moments of magic,

sights of something special,

out walking the dog.

Help me to remember,

time will be forgiving.

Remind me that life

is still worth living.

I haven’t felt much like writing recently, which isn’t good, but getting out and about enjoying Spring’s offerings can lift and inspire. I promised Angie at King Ben’s Grandma that I would share pictures of some the flowers here in the Welsh countryside as I’ve enjoyed looking at her photos of the exotic plants of SoCal.

A Woman’s Place

A woman’s place is in the home.

A woman’s place is on her back.

A woman’s place is to be a good girl.

A woman’s place is to be a dirty whore.

A woman’s place is mouth closed and legs open.

A woman’s place is to be kind.

A woman’s place is to show some compassion.

A woman’s place is to listen.

A woman’s place is to shut the fuck up.

A woman’s place is under a man.

A woman’s place is to share.

A woman’s place is nowhere.

A woman’s place is with friends.

A woman’s place is with family.

A woman’s place is at work.

A woman’s place is self-organisation.

A woman’s place is strong.

A woman’s place is to ask questions.

A woman’s place is to get angry.

A woman’s place is to speak out.

A woman’s place is to say no.

A woman’s place is to tell the truth.

A women’s place is a safe space.

A woman’s place is everywhere.

Loss

There has been too much death this past year. As I write this, 111,264 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK alone. Whilst grieving for lost family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, or fearing for the loss of our loved ones, we have been forced to face our own mortality. For most of us, there is a realisation that life is a precious and fragile gift. We do not know how long we have. We must make the most of every moment, appreciate even the mundane or simple stuff. Striving for success or wealth or recognition is maybe not as important as we once thought. Some of us have been made to reconsider how we live our lives, whether we are in the place or the relationship or the job we want to be in. Others of us have reconnected with nature, the environment and community. We’ve remembered what we are here for, that we are part of the world and every living thing in it, not separate or special.

The virus, and the terror at possibly losing someone close, has made me think about how much I love my family and their importance to me. It has brought back memories from my childhood – occasions spent with my brother, Mum, Dad, cousins, Nanna and Grandad. Watching the film, The Dig, made me sob at the soft Suffolk accents, like those of my grandparents. Living in Wales, I rarely hear ‘silly Suffolk’ now. The sad news of Captain Tom’s death particularly made me remember special times with my Grandad, and his death over thirty years ago. Happy memories and upsetting memories.

My Grandad was a gentle man. A little ‘hen-pecked’, as they used to say, by my Nanna’s sharp tongue. He was an animal lover. His father had kept a donkey and cart. He grew up helping to care for the donkey and often talked of how he missed it. After he retired from working in a factory, he became a pigman. I loved the smell of him when he returned home from tending his pigs but Nanna used to shout, “Jack, get your overalls off!” at the back door. When I visited, he liked me to ‘do his hair’. I would stand behind his upright armchair and rub Brylcreem through the few grey strands around the side of his head with my fingers, brush the hair until it looked glossy with his special wooden, handle-free hairbrush, polish his bald pate with a little of the cream on a handkerchief, then take a long hard sniff of the warm, scented skin on the top of his head.

Sometimes, we would sing. He taught me the old songs – Roll Out the Barrel, Knees up Mother Brown, Show Me the Way to Go Home, The Pub with No Beer and, my absolute favourite, My Old Man’s a Dustman. Sometimes, he would tell me stories from when he was a boy, out delivering in the cart with his Dad, vegetables from their garden for the local people. Or other times, stories from the war when his factory started making munitions and he had a reserved occupation due to the skills he had operating complicated machinery. Nanna worked there too. He became an Air Raid Warden and was kept busy because my grandparents lived near Ipswich Airport (sadly now replaced with a housing estate) and there were plenty of US air bases in Suffolk which were often bombed. I had two favourite stories, one funny, one terrifying. The funny one was the time when my Grandad and Nanna were cycling home from the factory when the air raid siren went off. Nanna let out a scream, jumped off her bike, threw it towards Grandad then belted off down the road to the house. For some reason, she thought she could run faster than she could pedal! The terrifying story was when the air raid siren went whilst Grandad was gardening. He called to Nanna to come to their Anderson shelter and she got to the backdoor with baby Uncle Jack in her arms, as a German plane swooped in from the direction of the airport. Grandad said he must have released his bombs, as he could hear an explosion over the rooftops, then miscalculated as he turned his plane. He flew so low, the wings nearly touched the house and managed to steer upwards just in time to avoid a collision. Nanna said she could see the pilot’s frightened face looking at her from the cockpit as she comforted her bawling baby.

In my late teens, Grandad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For some while, there had been signs that something wasn’t quite right. We noticed a slight tremor in Grandad’s hands, a tapping of teacup on saucer, the sweet brown liquid escaping, a telling off from Nanna for spillages. Grandad became slower. He shuffled in his slippers over the carpet. Sometimes, he got stuck, frozen and rigid rising from his chair. Once diagnosed, Grandad quickly worsened. His speech slurred or he stammered or he whispered breathily. He began to be stuck more often. He started being vacant, staring into space and seeing things that were not there, people and conversations from his past. Sometimes he would join in and talk about things that had happened years before as if he were in that moment. Grandad lost himself. Then came the dizziness and falls. When home from university, I visited Grandad to find him black and blue. We still sang together though and he remembered all the words.

At the end of my first year at university, enjoying a restful summer holiday in my parent’s sunny back garden, we got a phone call. Grandad had fallen down the stairs. He was in intensive care and things did not look good. Mum, Dad and me rushed to the hospital. We arrived to find Grandad in a coma. Apparently, he had died in the emergency room but been brought back to life by the doctors. I understood that was their job, but looking at my Grandad, face blackened with bruises, tubed up, heart and vital organs monitored in that white antiseptic room, I wondered why. Why had they brought him back to this? Why hadn’t they let him go in quiet dignity? His body was broken and suffering. His mind was wandering and confused and now retreated deep into himself. Seeing him lying there, I wanted to shout out in angry misery but I choked down the enormous painful lump in my throat. Mum and Nanna needed me.

The hospital staff said they were not sure Grandad would make it through the night, so Nanna could stay in a special flat for relatives if she wanted to. It would save her having to rush back if anything changed. I agreed to keep her company. She looked so small, her face pale and afraid. It hit me then how much she loved him, although she had often appeared cross with him. Dad offered to bring us the things we needed for the night. The flat had a kitchen area, a bed and a small shower room off. The staff had made me a put-up bed on the floor. Nanna fussed with her nightdress and toiletries then sat down on the only chair. She looked spent. I made us tea. We didn’t feel like food. Nanna talked anxiously about whether Grandad would be all right. I didn’t know what to say but tried to reassure. I felt sick with anxiety and was glad when Nanna suggested we got to bed. I lay awake with worry. Nanna managed to sleep, I supposed it was her age. Soon she was snoring and I resigned myself to a restless night. For a while, I wept silently for my Grandad, for his sweet-smelling head and gentle singing. Then, in the way that tragedy can often become comedy, Nanna began to break wind, probably due to the stress of the day. Suddenly, I found myself giggling as each fart erupted. I think it was some sort of hysteria. I bit my lips and dug my nails into my palms to stop myself.

Grandad made it through the night. The rest of the summer was spent visiting the hospital with Mum. We sat with Grandad. Day by day, his situation was unchanging. The staff said we must talk to him, and keep chatting amongst ourselves too, as he could hear everything. It was difficult, thinking of things to say when we were bereft. Sometimes, to fill the silences, we put the radio or TV on. The nurses came in and out doing their checks and care routines. We ate dreadful canteen food with little appetite, washing it down with cups of tea. With nothing to say, I began to sing to Grandad, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. Roll Out the Barrel, Show Me the Way to Go Home and My Old Man’s a Dustman. With that one, I noticed a flicker of the eyelids. I looked at Mum. She hadn’t noticed. Not wanting to raise her hopes, I said nothing but sang it again. A small miracle! Grandad’s lips began to move. He was mouthing the words. I leant near his face and kept singing. I could hear his breathy whispering – ‘He wears cor-blimey trousers’. Tears trickled down my face, “Mum, get the nurse.”

After that, the whole family sang with Grandad every day. He slowly woke up. One morning when we visited, he was sitting up in bed. It was a shock. He was awake but a shadow of himself. A ghost of Grandad. An empty shell. He did not know us. He looked around blankly. He didn’t really speak again. A few words. But Grandad never came back. In many ways, the following weeks were worse. He moved to a ward. He remained in bed. He was fed, bathed, given drinks through a straw. He developed bed sores and a nasty case of thrush in his mouth. Everyone was celebratory – he was getting better – but I was relieved when I had to return to university. Guiltily, I wished I had never woken him with a song.

A couple of weeks after I left, I got a phone call at my bedsit. Grandad was dead. It was terribly sad. It was also a huge relief. For me, Grandad died when he fell down the stairs. His prolonged stay in hospital had not been living at all. I went home for the funeral and cremation. Poor Nanna, alone after fifty-three years of marriage. We buried his ashes in a garden of remembrance. I bought a small statue of a pig to put next to the small plaque to remember him by. Grandad loved his pigs.

Sex and sausage rolls

When I was a girl, I used to enjoy sleep overs with my cousin Stacey who was almost exactly a year older than me. Sometimes, we slept at my Nanna and Grandad’s house. We would share the big double bed in the chilly front bedroom and lay there talking and giggling until late, or until Nanna came to scold us. I relished scaring Stacey silly with stories about ghosts or ‘Creeping Jesus’ – an unfortunate man with long, lank hair, always in sandals, who passed my house every day. He had become a character in many stories of child abduction, stalking and murder. As the passing cars cast shadows across the curtains, I would tell my tales until Stacey shrieked in fear and we heard the bump, bump of Nanna inching up the stairs, “Go to sleep, girls!” One summer, I told Stacey the facts of life. This story was the most horrific she’d heard yet. She exclaimed in disbelief, “They put their thing where? Well, I’m never having children!”

Our favourite game was to pick fluff from the blanket, roll it into a ball, then wet it with spittle before throwing it up at the ceiling. If a ball stuck, it was a win. Uncle Jack, Stacey’s father, had told us all about this game. Remarkably, Nanna never seemed to notice the fluff balls hanging precariously from the ceiling or find them when they finally fell to the floor. Or if she did, she never mentioned it to us, which was a relief as she could have a sharp tongue when she felt it was needed.

Other times, I went to stay at Stacey’s. Auntie Deirdre would make a bed up for me on the floor in Stacey’s room and the same hilarity would occur. We had a little more freedom at Stacey’s because her parents stayed up until late watching the television on full volume. One stay, when I was about twelve and Auntie had gone to her morning job, Stacey beckoned me into the box room, “I’ve got something to show you!” She was wide-eyed and excited. She climbed onto the narrow bed and stretched up to reach a high cupboard. “They’re in here. I found Dad’s porno mags.” I had no idea what she meant but a heap of magazines tumbled onto the bed. Stacey sat down next to the pile and grabbed one, “Look!”

I received an education that morning. Uncle Jack had found new games to play. The magazines were glossy, full of black and white, some might say artistic, photographs of a couple in various acts of carnal passion. It was the Joy of Sex or the Karma Sutra with real people. I had never seen such biology before. Stacey and I gaped and giggled in incredulity, “Why would she want to do that?” We were so occupied, we didn’t hear the key turning in the front door. “I’m home!” Auntie Deidre shouted. In a mad scramble, we scraped the magazines together and threw them back up in the cupboard.

Auntie Deidre smiled as we appeared at the top of the stairs, “Had a good morning? I thought we’d pop into town. I need to go to Woolies and we can have a bit of something to eat in the canteen.” I couldn’t look her in the eye. On the bus to town, Stacey and I whispered and sniggered. Thoughts of the things adults got up to lodged in our brains. It was hard to see the passengers, tightly squeezed together on prickly seats, in the same way now we knew their smutty secrets. In Woolworths canteen, we stood before the glass counter and chose our food. “Sausage rolls look nice,” Auntie Deidre said and we both burst into laughter. We took our sausage rolls and sat at the shiny formica table. Neither of us could bring ourselves to eat them. “Come on, they’ll get cold.” Auntie prompted. I lifted mine to my mouth and took a bite. Stacey squealed and I guffawed, sending meat and crumbs all over the table top. “Whatever is wrong with you girls today?” Auntie tutted.

Pornography was different when I was young. Available only in sex shops, or on the top shelf at the newsagents, it was fairly difficult to get hold of. Now, internet porn is easily available and children are watching it; some surprisingly young. As demand has risen, porn sites have made their pornography more shocking and hardcore to get an audience. Much of it involves violent acts perpetrated on women. Some sites, such as Pornhub, have made material featuring child abuse and rape available. There are links between pornography and sex trafficking. Sex education is poor in schools, so kids learn about sex from porn. They think they are expected to behave like that. Violent, hardcore acts seen in pornography have become mainstream, encouraged by women’s magazines. Young men see women as sex objects. Young women advertise themselves as ‘enjoying being choked’ on Tinder. Desperate to attract a partner, they do not understand the dangers. The porn industry is wealthy, powerful and influential in our society. We have let this happen. We are letting our children down.

War

This morning my dog woke me before light. I crept downstairs on aching limbs; hauled on my coat and wellies to take him out into the freezing air for his first business of the day. There was a hard frost; sparkling over the grass in the lamplight, as if an over-enthusiastic child had sprinkled glitter everywhere making the garden a Christmas card. The world slumbered, frozen in fantasy land, and I expected silence. Instead, the rumble and roar of a mechanical monster stalking the fields beside my home assailed my ears; its two fiery eyes like searchlights scanning the icy darkness. A fountain of stinking, putrid liquid manure gushed from its rear, coating the rock-hard ground.

Nature is not in harmony with farming in the Welsh countryside. A war rages and wildlife is losing the battle. Farmers say the slurry adds valuable nitrogen to fertilise the soil and they are simply recycling animal waste. In truth, they are caught in a cycle of growing monoculture grasses, cutting for silage and spreading muck which depletes the earth of nutrients. Winters in Wales are wet. When it is cold, the ground freezes and muck cannot soak into the earth. Rain washes slurry into streams and rivers, removing oxygen and killing plants, invertebrates and fish.

Farmers are at war with the Welsh Assembly too. New regulations to prevent muck spreading in the winter were due to come into force in January 2020 but farmers protested and the Assembly conveniently buried it under the ensuing Covid crisis. I understand that farmers are in a difficult position and they need to make a living. My farmer neighbour has recently bought up several hundred acres of land surrounding my home in order to double his herd. He has weed killed and ploughed up fields that were laying almost fallow; full of wildflowers, cut once a year for hay. He has cut down trees and hedges, thick with insects and birds. He has planted grass for silage winter feed for his many cattle. Life has become harder for local wildlife. My unruly, overgrown garden is a sanctuary. From my windows, I watch the year-long rotation of cows grazing, grass growing and silage cutting, and muck spreading. I listen for the tractors racing up and down the lanes, holding my breath as they pass while I walk my dogs, fearing for my life and for my cats tentatively crossing the road. Double the herd means double the dung. He has a lot of shit to shift.

There must be a solution. Some way for farmers to work in harmony with nature. I am biased, I know. My concern for the environment and animal welfare means I have chosen a vegan lifestyle (I won’t go into the unpleasant breeding cycle I sadly have to observe living next to a large dairy farm.) If people could cut down on milk and meat consumption that would be a start, as well as Government legislation to support farmers to work in ways that help, not harm, the countryside. Some farms are managing this but we have a long way to go.

For all our sakes, nature must win this war.

A Christmas Star

“Oh, you’ve brought an egg sandwich for lunch. I never bring egg sandwiches to work. They make the staff room smell so dreadfully.” Betty Reid looked as if some poor creature had crawled behind the photocopier to die.

Ellen James sighed inwardly. She didn’t often come into the staff room with its atmosphere of prissy spite. She much preferred eating in her classroom; working on a display, preparing resources for an activity or hearing children read.

“I love an egg sandwich, though…” she smiled, “one of my favourites.”

“Mmm…but not in the staff room perhaps.” Betty peeled and sliced her apple with delicate precision onto a bone china plate.

The action irritated Ellen. What was wrong with crunching your teeth deep into the flesh and letting the juice run down your chin? She imagined the look of horror on Betty’s face. Food was for enjoying, not an autopsy.

The reason Ellen had entered the room of doom this lunchtime was because she had been summoned. Betty, who happened to be Deputy Head due to retire at the end of the school year, wanted to discuss the Christmas performance.

“Well, if everyone is here and finished eating, I’ll begin…” Betty said. The staff room door opened and a thin woman with frizzy hair stumbled through and sat down with a mumbled apology. “Pamela, mmm…we are starting.” Betty stood up and straightened her A-line skirt so that it sat perfectly six inches below the knee. She looked around at the teachers gathered there.

All women, all middle-aged, apart from young Ellen in her second year of teaching, all tired and all enjoying a good gossip. Ellen often wondered whether a couple of male staff might improve the dynamic. There was Mr Brown of course, the Headteacher. In a profession dominated by women, in a school full of female staff, their reclusive Head was a man. He never entered the staff room at lunchtime – that was a women’s domain. He was rarely seen around the school, preferring the safety of his office, though he did have an uncanny way of appearing in the doorway of your classroom at the most inopportune moments. No wonder her colleagues were bitter.

“It’s the beginning of November all ready and we need to decide on our Christmas play.” Betty continued, “I think Pamela suggested we do a Nativity this year when we discussed this briefly at our last staff meeting.”

Pamela Gaunt gave a nervous nod, “Yes, well we haven’t done a Nativity for the last couple of years, have we? And I do love to see the story of the birth of our Lord at Christmas.”

Pamela Gaunt was in charge of Religious Education at the school. The most disorganised teacher Ellen had ever seen, her classroom was a shambles of scattered books, games and resources. Always late for meetings, she never had the right report or folder with her; her class never arrived on time at assembly or often turned up in the school hall on the wrong day. She didn’t seem to do any planning, rambling from one unfinished activity to the next. Much like her classroom, Pamela was a dishevelled mess. Her clothes looked like they had been pulled from straight the laundry basket each morning and she usually wore her cardigan inside out. Ellen liked Pamela Gaunt. She was kind and lacked confidence. The children loved her too, despite the chaos, or perhaps because of it. The rest of the staff were cruel about Pamela behind her back, tut tutting about the state of her attire and the tattered, dusty displays on the walls of her classroom.

“No, we haven’t Pamela, thank you. Any other ideas?” Betty gave a hopeful smile.

The other teachers shook their heads.

“What about asking the children?” Ellen suggested.

A bluster of disapproval travelled around the room.

“The children!” Anne Foster exclaimed. “What an idea. It would be a fiasco!”

Anne foster was the Art Coordinator. She had been in the role for twenty years and had already stated she would be doing the scenery. This would involve drawing everything in outline for the children to fill in with paint – her speciality. Anne Foster was an imposing woman. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, heavy jawed and with hands that could crush a child’s skull to dust, few dared to argue with her. Not that Ellen was suggesting Anne had ever undertaken the crushing of a child’s head but there was still time…she had fifteen years until her retirement.

“What do you mean…a fiasco?” Ellen said.

“Children have no imagination these days.” said Carol Radford, Maths Coordinator. Carol had been Ellen’s mentor in her NQT year and she had the habit of surreptitiously altering the children’s work to make it look better than it actually was.

“Sorry? Surely…” Ellen tried to argue.

“It’ll be Barbie dolls and Action men.” interrupted Anne Foster.

“Or they’ll try and act a favourite film. Disney or Marvel or something awful like that…” said Liz Harris, PE Coordinator. Ellen had fallen out with Liz last summer when she remarked it might be good to try a non-competitive Sport’s Day, where the children worked as teams, rather than the usual races.

“The drivel they write for stories nowadays…all Harry Potter copies. It’s tiresome.” said Maggie Barker, English and Music Coordinator.

A flood of frustration engulfed Ellen. This always happened at staff meetings.

“Well, if there are no other ideas, a Nativity it is. Can I have a show of hands to ensure we are all agreed?” Betty said.

Everyone, except Ellen, raised their arms.

“Good, that’s pretty unanimous. Right, the bell will go shortly, so we must quickly decide who will be running this show. Anne has kindly offered to do her marvellous scenery again this year. Maggie will play the piano. We need someone to volunteer to sort out the play itself. It’s a demanding role but, I think, a rewarding one.” Betty eyed the room expectantly. Everyone avoided eye contact.

Finally, when Ellen could bear it no longer, she piped up, “I’ll do it if no one else wants to.”

“A little irregular for a teacher in only their second year to organise our special event.” Betty said shortly, “Anyone else?” The room was quiet. “Very well, Ellen it is, thank you.”

The bell rang out.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

During Circle Time, Ellen told her children about the Christmas performance and read them the Nativity story. Twenty-five upturned faces listened with wide-eyed concentration.

“Now Blue Class, I’ve said I will organise the show this year and I need your help.” Ellen said when she finished reading. Twenty-five mouths gasped in excitement, “Everyone in school will be in the play and we need to think about the different parts. I’m going to go around the circle and ask you one at a time for an idea about the people, animals and things we’ll need in the story. I’ll write your ideas on the whiteboard. Everyone will have a turn to say something and if you can’t think of anything, that is fine. All right?”

“Yes, Miss James.” the children chanted.

There was soon an impressive list on the whiteboard: Mary, Joseph and a doll for Jesus, shepherds, angels, kings and camels, the usual farm animals, a donkey (‘Oh yes Olivia, we must sing Little Donkey,’ agreed Ellen), an innkeeper, a llama (that had been Ben’s idea and everyone laughed but Ellen said there were camels, so why not a llama too?), a stable with manger, presents for Jesus (Ellen asked if anyone remembered what the three kings brought Jesus and received the confident answer of gold, Frankenstein and mirth from Chantelle), guests at the inn, a drummer boy (‘Another good song Dylan,’ Ellen smiled), costumes, crowns, angel wings and tinsel. Finally, Ellen got to Amy, who was sitting next to her feet, the last child in the circle. Amy had listened carefully to everyone’s ideas, occasionally standing up to excitedly repeat what her friends said. Her hands moved busily as she said the words as she was developing her Makaton sign language. Amy worked the hardest of all the children in Blue Class and was the most enthusiastic pupil in school. Everyone in class loved her and her teaching assistant, Miss Williams.

“Amy, can you think of anything?” Ellen signed the key words in her sentence.

Amy jumped up and down. “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” she signed and sang.

Ellen did a thumbs up, “Amy, that’s a good idea. The star that showed Jesus was born. We need a star.” She wrote the word star on the board and drew a star next to it.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…” Amy sang.

“Let’s all sing and sign ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’, Blue Class.”

Later, when the children were settled at their afternoon activities, Ellen went over to speak to Amy and Miss Williams who were busy making autumn leaf prints.

Ellen crouched down at the desk, “Amy, I think you would be a brilliant star. Would you like to sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ in the play?”

Amy dipped her brush into the orange paint and laughed, “Yes.”

Suddenly it was nearly home time, the children bustled and chatted as they tidied away their things then gathered on the carpet for a story and goodbye song. After waving the children off homeward, Ellen and Miss Williams sorted out materials for a tie dying activity the next morning.

“It’s lovely you asked Amy to be the star,” Karen Williams sliced a length of white cotton sheet into neat squares with pinking shears, “but are you sure? It won’t be popular.”

“Why shouldn’t Amy be the star?” Ellen said, “She’ll be great singing that song.”

Karen smiled, “I know that and you know that but I don’t think the rest of the staff will agree. For a start, it’s normally top class that take the main parts…”

“I’m running the show. They’ll just have to agree.” Ellen folded her arms in determination.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

A week later, the teachers were gathered in the staffroom again to discuss Ellen’s plans. They had to decide who in Anne Foster’s Red Class would be taking the lead roles and what the other classes would be doing. As usual, Maggie’s Green Class would be the choir. There was no negotiation on that.   

“Oranges have such a pungent smell and all that juice is dreadfully sticky.” Betty Reid wrinkled her nose as Ellen self-consciously stuck her thumb into the pitted peel.

“Lovely and fresh compared to eggs, though.” Ellen smiled. 

“Yes, well…we need to begin.” Betty wiped her hands clean of crumbs with a lace handkerchief, “Can we have quiet, please everybody? Ellen is starting.”

Ellen popped the orange in her lunchbox and picked up her papers, “With the help of my class, I have jotted down some plans. Red Class lead roles are: Mary, Joseph, two lead shepherds, three kings, the innkeeper, angel Gabrielle and a drummer boy. Then there are the animals: a donkey for Mary, three camels for the kings, then cows, pigs, horses and a llama…”

“A llama?” Anne interrupted, “Are we setting it in South America? I’ve never heard the like!”

“It was Ben Spencer’s idea and the other children laughed. I said we had camels, so why not?” Ellen smiled.

“Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why not. We’ll be a laughing stock. This is what happens when you insist on asking the children. What did we tell you at the last meeting? A fiasco!” Anne snorted so loudly she blew the froth from her cappuccino.

“Yes, scrap the llama Ellen. There are plenty of parts for Red Class without adding unnecessary animals.” Betty smoothed her skirt, “Go on to the next class.”

Ellen sighed, “Ben will be very disappointed. Anyway…Green Class are the choir. So, then we have Yellow Class. They will be the host of angels. They’ll come on and sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Is that OK, Pamela?”

“Yes, lovely.” Pamela put her hands together as if in prayer, “I do love that hymn it’s…”

“I don’t think the boys in Pamela’s class will want to be angels.” Anne interrupted, “And the parents won’t like it.”

“Angels can be both sexes, Anne. The angel Gabrielle is a male.” Ellen said.

“I’m not giving a boy in my class the part of Gabrielle,” said Anne, “I have Hannah Evans in line for that. Such a beautiful child, with that mass of blonde curls.”

Ellen gritted her teeth.

Pamela said, “I think the boys in my class will be fine as angels when I explain the importance of them in the Nativity story.”

“Good, thank you Pamela.” said Ellen, “Next is Purple Class. They will be people in the town of Bethlehem and at the inn. They will perform ‘Rat at tat tat, there isn’t any room.’ Liz, are you happy with that?”

“Yes, sounds possible. I just hope you are providing directions and a script for this. We don’t want the children standing around like lemons. Christmas is a busy time…we can’t be expected to plan our own scenes.” Liz said.

“I have a script and stage directions in rough all ready. I thought each class could incorporate a simple dance into their songs too. I’ve got ideas written down for those. It’s all here.” Ellen tapped her folder, “You will have to spend time practising your scenes and dances in class though. There won’t be enough time to do it all in whole school rehearsals otherwise. Is that OK, Liz? You are PE Coordinator so I thought you’d be good with the dancing.”  

“Of course. Anyone would think we haven’t put on a play before.” Liz folded her arms.

“Orange Class next. I have you down for ‘While shepherds watched’. There will be shepherds, sheep and lambs. Is that fine for you, Carol?”

“Yes, perhaps Pamela and my class can join forces and if there are any boys who don’t want to be angels or girls that don’t want to be shepherds or sheep, we can swap around a bit?” Carol nodded at Pamela, “Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Not this again, Ellen thought but said, “Then we come to your children Betty, Pink Class. I have you down for the Little Drummer Boy scene, like a marching band of soldiers come to pay respects to Baby Jesus.”

“I’m sure Mother Mary will be thrilled about that, when she’s just got the baby off to sleep.” Anne guffawed.

“What a brilliant idea, Anne. I’ll add that in as a joke.” Ellen scribbled in her folder.

“Interesting, something a bit different. Got to stop the parents falling asleep. They see a lot of Nativities over the years.” Betty said.

“I’m glad you like it, Betty. Finally, my children, Blue Class. We are going to be the stars in the bright sky. Anne, your class will do ‘Away in a Manger’ then my little ones come on as stars. Amy will be the main star singing and signing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ then the whole class join in. Then on come the three kings guided by the star to ‘We Three Kings.’ That’s your class again, Anne.” Ellen blurted the information quickly in the hope no one would say anything. 

“Hold on a minute.” Anne said, “Did you say Amy will be the main star? Leading roles are for Red Class.”

“It’s not a leading role, Anne. There are no lines.” Ellen explained.

“And Amy? Do you mean Amy Mackenzie, the Down’s girl?” Anne said shortly.

“Yes, there is only one Amy in my class and she is not a Down’s girl, Anne. She has Down’s Syndrome but that is only a small part of Amy. She is a hardworking, enthusiastic and funny child who loves to sing and she will be brilliant in the play.”

“Is it really a good idea, Ellen? Amy can be emotional at times. If she feels anxious or under pressure on the day, she might not perform well. She might have a tantrum, or burst into tears, or make a mistake.” Betty said. The other teachers nodded in agreement.

“So might any of the children.” Ellen argued, “Last year, poor Jack wet himself on stage. He was so nervous, he forgot to go to the toilet before he put his Humpty Dumpty costume on.”

Anne chortled, “One shouldn’t chuckle but the egg filled up and he left a little trail everywhere he went!”

“So sad.” Tears shone in Pamela’s eyes, “We do expect a lot from them.”

“Exactly,” said Carol, “and perhaps you’re expecting too much from Amy, Ellen?”

“Karen and I know what she is capable of. She signs the song so well. Can we give her a chance?” Ellen looked around at every teacher in the room, “Please don’t write Amy off.”

“All right,” said Betty finally, “Amy can have a chance but any problems, that will be it. We can’t risk the show being spoilt.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

By the third week in November, Ellen had written up the scripts, stage directions and costume requirements, printed them out and given copies to the staff. Rehearsals were due to begin in classrooms the following week. From December 1st, there would be two or three whole school rehearsals weekly, depending on how things were going. Anne Foster had allocated the lead roles to favoured children in her class and begun drawing the scenery.

The first week of December arrived and classrooms filled with the busy hum of children making decorations, cards and calendars for Christmas. Shiny paper chains hung from every ceiling and cotton wool bedecked displays of Father Christmas and snowmen covered the walls. Glitter trailed along the corridors as if some disco snail had been having a party. As the time of the show got nearer, and every day there was another practise, the children got noisier and more excitable.

One afternoon, Ellen felt fed up of Christmas so she suggested her class go on a Bear Hunt around the classroom. The children liked this game. It was something they had done often. They especially enjoyed the bit where they crawled under the tables to get to the bear cave. This particular afternoon, they were impatient and over-tired. Underneath the tables, there was pushing and shoving.

“Careful children, we must be quiet or the bear will hear us!” Ellen said, “Sssh!”

They carried along, creeping on their knees, a little quieter this time when suddenly Amy cried, “Ow, ow, ow!”

Someone had knelt on her hand. She screamed and screamed. Miss Williams tried to calm her but she would not stop. She held up the inflamed fingers to inspect them, then lashed out with her foot at the boy in front who had inadvertently done the damage, catching him on the thigh. It was Daniel Matthews, a child with a tendency to weep at the slightest provocation. He began to wail in time with Amy.

“Whatever is going on in here, Blue Class?” Mr Brown’s voice boomed from the classroom door, “Where is your teacher? Get out from those tables immediately. What shocking behaviour!”

Ellen scrambled out from under the table, “It’s all right, Mr Brown. We were playing a game and someone trod on Amy’s fingers. That’s all. We’re sorting it.”

“Oh, Miss James, you are there. I thought from the noise, the children were unsupervised. I see you have everything under control. I’ll leave you to it.” Mr Brown turned and left.

Across the corridor, Anne Foster loomed in her doorway, a Big Unfriendly Giant.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

That evening, as Ellen was leaving school, Betty Reid called from her office door.

“One moment, Ellen. I hear you had an incident with Amy today. You don’t think she is becoming overwrought with these rehearsals, do you?”

“No, it was nothing to do with the play. A slight accident, that’s all.” Ellen said, “Amy is doing brilliantly. I’m really proud of her.”

“Well, if you’re sure but remember what we agreed. Any more episodes and we’ll have to reconsider.” Betty went back to her office.

Pamela Gaunt came out of her classroom and smiled, “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“I bet that was Anne telling tales.” Ellen said, “It’s so annoying. The play is only next week, I don’t want Amy to have to stop now. She’s worked hard. She’s so excited, got her costume and everything.”

“It’s just jealousy, you know. The play is really good and you’re an excellent teacher. They can’t stand that. They think you make them look bad.”

“Thanks, Pamela. Why ever did I volunteer? I’ll be glad when it’s all over.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Finally, the day of the Christmas show arrived. Ellen’s stomach bubbled with anxiety and excitement. She had worked herself to near exhaustion for the last month, lost count of the number of times they had practised the play, knew all the lines backwards and dreamt every night of shepherds, angels, kings and stars. The hall was packed to brimming with parents, grandparents and carers. There were no seats left, many stood at the back and the warm air steamed as damp coats, hats and scarves dried on the back of chairs. A tattered velvet curtain hung across the stage, behind which teachers and classroom assistants bumped and scraped with props and scenery. Maggie Barker played a medley of carols on the clunky piano.

Mr Brown approached the front of the stage and performed a short welcome before hurriedly skulking off. The audience clapped, the lights went down, and there was silence. Everyone waited, nothing happened. Whispers began to travel around the hall. Someone was pulling at the curtain. It appeared to be stuck.

“Excuse me.” Ellen apologised, as she stepped onto the stage and gave the velvet a hefty tug. The curtains swept back to reveal Mary, Joseph and a donkey beginning the arduous journey to Bethlehem. Ellen scooted out of the way and Maggie began the intro to ‘Little Donkey’.

After the initial hold up, the performance went smoothly. The audience seemed to enjoy it. They ‘Aaahed’ to the choir’s beautiful voices. There was a rumble of laughter at the Innkeeper’s emphatic, “No, we have no room. Go to the stable!”. They weren’t concerned by female shepherds wearing tea towels and male angels wearing tinsel. There was a gasp as Gabrielle nearly toppled from her bench as she gave her declaration to the shepherds, and an audible “Phew!” when a fellow angel grabbed her wings to steady her. Mary picked Baby Jesus up by his legs on a number of occasions. Several of the shepherds sat picking their noses as they looked upon the stable scene. ‘Away in a Manger’ brought tears to many eyes. Then it was time for Blue Class. Ellen took a deep breath.

Out trotted twenty-five little stars and spread themselves around the stage. There was a puzzled murmur, as one of the stars appeared to be a llama. In the centre stood Amy, the brightest, biggest star of all. The room went quiet, then Maggie began ‘Twinkle, twinkle’. Amy looked at the audience wide-eyed but no sound came from her mouth. Her hands remained still and stiff at her sides. Maggie repeated the intro. Amy stood silent. An expectant shuffling went round the audience. Ellen came forward and gave Amy a double thumbs up, willing her to start with a big smile. The piano tinkled for the third time. With a shared sense of relief, Amy began to sing and sign her song. She performed with gusto and, at the end, did a thumbs up and gave a huge grin. The whole class joined in, singing and signing the song. The audience clapped and cheered. Then Blue Class went off stage.

Amy returned leading the three kings to Baby Jesus. The play continued. Jesus was given Frankenstein as one of his presents. When the marching band woke the Baby and Mary was livid, there was much kind laughter from the crowd. Then the finale, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with not a dry eye to be seen in school. Even Anne Foster choked back a lump in her ample throat. Finally, each class entered the stage for their applause. Ellen couldn’t help but feel glowing pride when Amy and Blue Class received the loudest claps and cheers.

Then Mr Brown was back on stage calling up Ellen to receive her praise and a bunch of flowers. Anne Foster and Maggie Barker were thanked for their contribution too.

“Thank you so much.” Ellen said, “We couldn’t do it without the hard work of the children who were all wonderful. I’d like to give a special mention to Amy. She was a Christmas Star!”

Shine

I wrote this song thinking about the various troubles we’ve experienced this year and how divided people seem to be; whether through race, religion, politics, ideology or belief.

——————

I got my eye on the mountain

I can see far ahead

The sky is clear there

No grey clouds to obscure our way

What we need now is to take our anger and throw it away

What we need now is to cast our fear to the wind

I got my mind on the next year

I can think far ahead

The days are clear there

No worries to obscure our way

What we need now is to sit down here and talk about it

What we need now is to find some friendship and love

I got my hand on your shoulder

I can reach far ahead

The path is clear there

No hatred to obscure our way

What we need now is to recognise we’re both the same

What we need now is to accept our differences

What we need now is to stand side by side and face it

What we need now is to come together and shine

We need to come together

And shine