Pierce sits at the back of the hall, wishing to go unnoticed. A man and a woman sit next to him. They’re of similar age but act younger. The couple smile, share a joke; the man holds an expensive looking digital camcorder and makes a big play about not knowing how it works.
Pierce suspects the man knows exactly how it works.
The rows of seats begin to fill up: expectant, excited parents filing into the assembly hall, the murmur of voices mingling with the jagged screech of metal legs from moulded plastic chairs, scratching across the wooden floor. Fond eyes glancing at the stage, hoping to catch a glimpse of their sons and daughters: adults young enough to remember their own star performances of past nativities. Amazed that they have reached an age to be the audience of their own off-spring.
Pierce scans the room; he spots her two rows from the front. Lora. She’s with a man, vaguely familiar. Navy suit, no tie, his arm resting on the back of her seat.
A piano: Away in a Manger.
Children shuffle onto the stage, emerging from behind cardboard palm trees. The adults shift, sway from left to right, craning necks for a better view. Arms at odd angles, red lights blinking on digi-cams.
He’s there. Pierce spots him immediately; small, fragile body draped in a brown robe, wisps of blonde hair escaping the pink tea-towel on his head. Pierce straightens his back, suppresses the urge to shout, to stand, to wave his arms. He looks towards Lora. She’s waving excitedly at the stage; the boy, seeing his mum, smiling. He’s always been a good natured boy.
The man beside him holds his camera aloft, above bobbing heads. His eyes are glazed, a thin wet streak from an escaped tear running down his cheek. He’s crying. I want to cry too, Piercethinks. He doesn’t. His chest feels tight. He hasn’t seen the boy in six months, since before he went away. He’s grown, he thinks.
The play winds its predictable, cute, way to a climax. Each cast member reciting a line, wringing sentiment out of the receptive crowd. From the stage the boy looks out, across the rows, towards the back. Pierce raises a hand, instinctively, giving a thumbs up sign. The boy raises his in response.
Lora turns; she looks back through the rows of parents. They catch each others stare. Pierce shouldn’t be here. They told him to stay away until he’d proved himself. But how could he stay away? He looks at her, pleading.
The children on stage begin singing: Once in Royal David’s City.
Lucy nods, half smiles, then looks back towards the stage.
Dai’s dead now
He wasn’t very old
He caught the dreaded lurgy
He thought it was a cold
People cried and mourned him
A popular fellow was Dai
Dai thought this was brilliant
As he looked down from the sky
Because Dai went up to heaven
He was greeted at the gate
St Peter said “you’ve earned your place”
Dai said “cheers mate”
On earth they planned a party
In memory of Dai
They ate a mighty buffet
And drank the local dry
Dai loved it up in heaven
There was peace and love and joy
He met an old school friend
Who arrived there as a boy
Back home they missed him dearly
“What a shame he died so young”
But they needn’t be too sad
For Dai was having fun
Tied together they dangle from the phone line which stretches between the rows of terraced houses.
Small shoes, black shoes – scuffed toes and well worn soles.
They sway gently on the breeze, an odd hanging ornament over the quiet road, the parked cars.
Along the street the boy stands alone; crying. The socks on his feet are damp and cold and he can’t feel his toes. He sniffs, wipes the snot and blood from his nostrils and starts for home, wondering, again, why they always go for him.