Dorothy adjusts the robe, breathing in a whiff of it. Wanting to spit out the taste. She is seventy-one years old and she smells like little boys.
Just moments ago, she came into the church and the headmaster from the school steered her into the vestry, shoving the biblical garb at her. It’s Christmas Eve. None of the boys in the village had volunteered and the crib service was about to begin. They needed her to be Joseph.
She shakes her head now, trying to bow out and be civil about it, but the headmaster won’t listen. He has organised this event for so many years that now he believes he’s the boss on high. He tosses a tunic over her head and covers her close-cropped hair with a tatty piece of cloth. Telling her it’s okay, she doesn’t have to wear the beard. Her lips begin to move through her inventory of silent curses, as they do when she’s polite but actually outraged. Dorothy thinks he needs to spend more time with grownups.
She looks down at herself. How completely ridiculous. The robe is much too short. People will see her skirt. In school, they called her Big Dorothy. Claire always said it was stature, she had stature. And her stature made her look elegant, with a neck like a swan.
Carol from the dairy is playing a Christmas dirge on the organ. Old Sue from up Edgwick Farm in her sparkly Christmas jumper, handing out programmes to latecomers. Dorothy wonders: why is she here? She knows this story already. It ends the same way every year. Year after year going back to the beginning when she was a girl.
She’s so flustered that she’s about to pass out. Split her head open on the fifteenth-century tile floor. As people enter, they see her dressed like a man out of the New Testament and awkwardly avert their eyes, as though they just walked in on something they weren’t supposed to see. How mortifying, the looks on their faces. She takes off her glasses and puts them in the pocket of Joseph’s robe.
The pews in the centre are nearly occupied, though the far side of the church is empty. Little children in hand-me-down costumes leave their parents and start to charge toward Dorothy and the headmaster at the back of the church. Dorothy sees their ecstatic little faces approaching and she wants to run.
‘Last year we had a real donkey.’ Dorothy hasn’t noticed the girl standing by her side. She is portraying Mary and she couldn’t be more excited. ‘Did you ever do this before?’
Dorothy doesn’t really want to get into a conversation with a child. ‘Yes,’ she says finally. ‘One time. When I was your age.’
Clearly, this thrills the little girl. ‘Were you Mary or were you Joseph?
‘I was a sheep.’
Without warning the vicar begins to read the scripture, and the little girl who is portraying Mary looks up and smiles and takes Dorothy’s hand. Off they go, down the aisle toward the corrugated cardboard nativity scene at the altar. People sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and Dorothy is swept up in the pageantry, like it or not. This little Mary can’t be older than eight or nine. Dorothy sees that the girl is completely absorbed by her place in this world. She feels moved.
On the right and the left, families turn with expectant faces, their eyes following Dorothy and little Mary up the aisle. All of them seem so close, shimmery without her glasses, row after row, the arched columns, the carved screen, the lanterns, the altar, Carol playing the organ, the plaques commemorating young men from the village who lost their lives in the Great War, flower arrangements on sills beneath tall stained glass windows.
The massive wooden door opens, and some newcomers from London who recently moved into the Old Mill rush inside. Strangers, not yet part of village life. Sue licks her thumb, handing them programs, and they tiptoe to the far side of the church.
Dorothy and Mary take their places in front. When everyone starts to sing ‘Away in a Manger’, little Mary reaches down behind a bale of straw for a doll wrapped in swaddling clothes. She lays it in the manger. Dorothy never really bought the idea of Christmas, or children for that matter, but now, surprisingly, the sight of this plastic little baby touches her. Several angels with tin foil halos join them. So does the carpenter’s daughter, who is dressed as a sheep. A sole child shepherd and two wise men soon follow. Some children wave to their parents, some are shy and weave off the path like drunken little flower girls, the headmaster urging them back on course. The tableau has a kind of cockeyed symmetry.
Everyone falls under the spell of ‘Silent Night’ – and it is silent, with the patter of sleet hitting the windows, with the congregation standing perfectly still, their singing voices filling the church. She has to admit it’s a lovely picture; whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. She can hear herself singing, too. She has never looked out on the faces of the villagers before this, not even when she was returning to her place after communion. They sing to her as though they’re listening to her. They sing as though she’s telling them something they haven’t heard a thousand times before and she feels an uplift. She’s caught up in being here, all of these people together in this place. No one does this anymore. Now they have gone all private about themselves. They never answer their phones. They have lost one another.
Dorothy’s mother and father are buried out in the churchyard. And so is dear Claire. At school, she had a crush on a boy called Morris but it was Claire she fell in love with. The two of them spent all their adult lives together. When Claire became ill, they shut down the shop. Now she’s gone, and every day is the same. At 7 a.m., Dorothy steps out of her cottage and uses a single paper towel to wipe the dew from her car. Then she drives to the garden centre where she has breakfast in the café and reads the Daily Mail. She speaks to none of these people, the ones who have lived here as long as she has or the newcomers. They don’t know her. Schoolboys taunting her behind her back, ringing the bell at her front door like little hoodlums. Mean old Miss May, mean old lezzy Miss May! They don’t understand who she is or what she values in life. They never have.
What kept her in this village when Claire died? A few loved ones out in the churchyard? All these many years and nothing to show for it, except a closed down village shop. No real connections to anyone, and now it’s too late, isn’t it.
The headmaster is belting out the last verse of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, holding his song sheet out before him though of course he knows the words.
The organ starts up ‘Joy to the World’. It’s the moment for the children to begin a triumphal procession around the church. All of a sudden, the little girl tugs at Dorothy’s hand and she’s hit with a flash of uncertainty. Has she forgotten some part of the service? Without thinking, she takes a step forward, and with great joy that’s not anything like her, she says: ‘Behold!’
Everyone is startled, the congregation, the vicar, the children, Dorothy, too. She is more startled than any of them. For the longest time, there’s silence. Only sleet hitting separated colours of stained glass.
Alan Hines wrote the screenplay adaptation of his novel Square Dance, which starred Jane Alexander, Jason Robards, Rob Lowe, and Winona Ryder. Other screenplay credits include Save Me, Ambulance Girl, Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story, and The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, which received a Peabody Award. He was awarded the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship for his novel.
Image credit: Shane Forster