Read The Bad Sheep Online

Authors: Julie Cohen

Tags: #childhood, #christmas, #chick lit, #humour, #free, #twins, #ice cream, #black sheep, #christmas pageant

The Bad Sheep (2 page)

‘Do I look drunk?’ I asked, squinting against the pain and
rubbing my eyebrows.

‘A little,’ said Lee.

‘Maybe I should try to nick a tin of beer.’ I washed my
mouth out with lemonade and spat into the sink. ‘Ugh.’

‘Why?’

‘Because if I’m drunk and tripping all over things, Mum
will send me to my room and I won’t have to do the pageant.’

Lee crumpled her forehead and bit her lip, as she always
did when she was worried about me, but she didn’t have time to say
anything because our mother appeared in the doorway in her green
Christmas suit. ‘Everyone is waiting, girls.’

We loaded the cups on trays and circulated amongst the
grown-up employees, delivering to them the fruits of their labour.
Lee took longer at this than I did, because she stopped to chat
with each adult as she went, offering them pretty replies to their
questions about school and the pageant and what she wanted for
Christmas. I was too busy thinking about sheep, and trying to feel
whether I was drunk or not, to do anything but shrug, even though I
felt the force of my mother’s frown all the way across the room. We
were meant to represent the business by being cheerful and cute and
identical, just as we were in the photos for the adverts.

I went over to Doris Pinchbeck, a wiry lady who’d worked as
my mother’s Production Manager since before I was born. Doris was
about as fond of idle chit-chat as I was; she was standing to the
side of a group of Production ladies wearing tinsel bows pinned to
their coveralls. She took a cup of the ice cream I offered, and
which she’d probably made personally herself, and nodded at me.
‘Merry Christmas, eh,’ she said.

I nodded back at her.

‘Where are my favourite girls?’ boomed a voice, and I
turned to see Jonny Whitehair, my mother’s Sales Manager. He was a
big man with big hair, glossy and dark and combed back from his
forehead in a semi-Elvis pompadour. He reached out for me and Lee,
put a big hand on each of our shoulders and dropped a big kiss on
the top of each of our heads, the same as he did every time he saw
us. He smelled of hair tonic, beer and cigarettes. ‘Hazel sent
something over for you.’ Jonny took his hands off our shoulders and
rummaged in the pockets of his suit jacket. He wore a white shirt,
a tie with poinsettias on it and he had a gold tooth that winked
when he smiled.

‘Here you are.’ He gave us each an identical packet of red
tissue paper tied with shiny red ribbon. I could tell from the feel
that they were his wife’s Christmas biscuits.

‘Thank you, Mr Whitehair,’ Lee said. I nodded and slipped
my packet into the pocket of my dress.

‘Ah, well, you enjoy them. Now is this Mulled Wine Magic?
Don’t mind if I do.’ He took a cup from each of us, and sat on his
desk to eat them, in between sips of his beer glass and
conversation with Mr Sales, our mother’s accountant.

Lee went off to replenish her tray, but I lingered. Our
presents hadn’t been the only thing in Jonny Whitehair’s jacket
pockets; as he sat on his desk his pocket gaped open, and I could
see the top of a gold packet of Benson and Hedges, and a red
plastic lighter.

The room was crowded, and I was shorter than everyone
except for my sister. The adults talked about incomprehensible and
boring things and laughed too loudly. I put my tray down on the
corner of Jonny Whitehair’s desk and looked around quickly to make
sure nobody was watching me. Then I reached forward and lifted the
fags and lighter from his pocket and stuck them into mine along
with the biscuits. I picked up my tray and retreated to the
kitchen.

The party didn’t last long; though my mother pulled out all
her social stops for these important business events, she was the
boss and everyone else was eager to get to the pub where they could
properly relax. Before it ended, Lee slipped off to change into her
Mary costume and appeared to admiring oohs and ahs. She did look
beautiful; the blue dress and scarf over her head and all the
attention made her rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. I stood by the
door, my plastic bag in my hand, my stolen fags in my pocket,
planning. Then it was over and I watched Jonny Whitehair borrowing
a Marlboro Light from Glenys Munt, saying, ‘I don’t know where
they’ve got to, I must have left them in the car. No worries, I’ll
buy some more at the pub.’

Lee practised walking in a Virgin Mary-like glide all the
way from the factory to the school, where the pageant was taking
place. I dawdled. ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister,
Elizabeth?’ my mother snapped.

I kicked a pebble.

The Victorian school hall was a-bustle with children and
parents. Ma Gamble, wearing some sort of hand-woven red sack over
woollen tights, took charge of us as soon as we appeared. ‘Lee, you
look lovely. Go to the stage, Muriel Johnson’s parents are waiting
for you to practise holding the baby. Liza, you need to get into
your costume right away. You can do it in the toilets. Hurry
up!’

I dragged my feet to the girls’ toilets. The window there
was far too small to squeeze through, and the school entrance was
guarded by Ma Gamble and assorted other adults. There was no escape
from sheepdom. I locked myself into a cubicle and put on my
costume. This consisted of black tights and a black jumper, onto
which I had haphazardly glued cotton wool. The jumper was just long
enough to cover my bum. Carefully, I put Jonny Whitehair’s
cigarettes and lighter into the waistband of my tights along with
the tube of crimson lipstick I’d nicked from my mother’s room. I
stuffed everything else back into the carrier bag, and emerged.

Mouse Morrison was leaning over a sink on her tiptoes,
applying a black eyeliner pencil to her snub nose. On her chubby
legs she also wore black tights, and she had a black jumper covered
with cotton wool, though hers was more carefully stuck on than
mine. She looked like a round cotton ball. I wasn’t as fat as she
was, but I looked nearly as stupid. Maybe even more, because Mouse
wouldn’t have her identical double standing in blue robes looking
beautiful and proud.

My face burned with humiliation. Mouse caught my eye in the
mirror and quickly looked away. ‘Hi,’ she mumbled in her quiet
mouse voice.

I had no desire to fraternise with a fellow sheep. Without
a word I pulled my hair back into a tight ponytail and left the
toilets.

Ma Gamble must have seen the desire to bolt in my eyes
because she was outside the door waiting for me, and guided me with
a firm hand on my arm down the corridor and through the doors at
the back of the hall. This was the backstage area, full to the brim
of children in costume jostling each other. Through a black
curtain, I could glimpse the stage. Though the teenagers of
Stoneguard had managed to escape Pageant Hell, they’d been co-opted
to build the set. The stable and manger were made out of scrap
wood, painted a variety of shades of brown. Some bales of hay had
been piled around it, so Mary and Joseph would have someplace to
sit while everyone came to pay their respects. Dust and chaff
floated in the air.

‘The sheep are standing over there, near the curtain,’ Ma
Gamble said to me, pointing to a few little kids in cotton wool who
were standing picking their noses. I took one step in that
direction, which appeased her enough for her to turn her attention
elsewhere.

I threaded through the children until I found my sister.
She was standing near the curtain, carefully holding little Muriel
Johnson, who was standing in for the baby Jesus. Muriel sucked on
her dummy with such fierceness that I suspected she’d burst into
wails the minute someone tried to remove it for historical
accuracy. I tried to imagine anybody ever entrusting me with a
three-month-old baby, and failed.

‘Isn’t she gorgeous?’ Lee whispered to me.

‘She looks like a prune that’s been soaked in water.’

‘Your costume looks good.’

‘No it doesn’t.’

‘You’re not going to do anything horrible, are you?’ Her
eyes met mine, pleading. ‘It really won’t be that bad. It could be
fun.’

‘Here’s your
husband
,’ I said, as the crowd parted
like the sea for Moses and Will Naughton strode in, clad in brown
robes the same colour as his hair. Lee’s face immediately flushed
and her eyes got even starrier.

He was two years older than us, nearly a teenager, and much
taller; in fact he was taller than all of the other children, no
doubt because of his superior genes. He hadn’t done that messy
thing with his hair today, and it flopped around his face so he
looked just like the public schoolboy that he was. He carried
sandals and had a pair of sunglasses perched on top of his
head.

I snorted. During rehearsals, he’d appeared late, with
headphones on, and hardly talked to anyone. That didn’t stop my
sister from gazing at him as if he were her own personal Prince
Charming. ‘Hi,’ he said to Lee, and sat down to take off his
expensive trainers.

‘Hello, Will,’ Lee breathed.

‘Places, everyone!’ boomed Ma Gamble. There was a Mexican
wave of movement as the children all tried to organise themselves.
‘Over there, over there,’ said Ma Gamble, wading through the chaos,
waving her hands at the costumed youth of Stoneguard. ‘Joseph and
Mary, in the front. Lee, right up there where no one will jostle
the baby. Candace, come over here so I can adjust your harness.
Wise men, to the left. Sheep and shepherds, to the right.’

The crowd pushed me away from Lee, but before I let it take
me, I slipped behind Will and plucked his sunglasses from his head.
I put them under my jumper and twisted through the other kids,
losing bits of wool in the process. The air was a potent mixture of
glue, sweat and excitement. The shepherds, Stone and Rock Hamlin,
stood holding crooks near the shadowy stage curtain. Their long
hair was hanging down around their faces and they actually did sort
of look like shepherds, probably because their parents were those
hippies on Rainbow Farm and as far as I knew they spent much of
their lives communing with livestock. Mouse had joined the little
kids; she was about twice as wide as anyone else. I went straight
to the front and peered through the curtain at the audience. The
lights were still on, and adults were picking through the rows of
folding chairs. They were talking more loudly than the children,
which made me think many of them had already sampled a bit of
Christmas cheer from the tables in the back of the room. I spotted
our mother, standing poker-straight and shaking hands. Representing
the business.

A sudden hush fell in the audience and I craned my neck to
see what was happening. Two figures came through the open double
doors, a tall man and a slight woman with her arm through his.

‘Lord and Lady Naughton,’ someone said, ostensibly in
greeting but more in the manner of an announcement, and the hush
grew, in proper respect for the aristocracy amongst us. Lord
Naughton ducked his head, Lady Naughton smiled, and they were
accosted by Ma Gamble. How she managed to get out there so quickly,
I had no idea; the woman had supernatural powers when it came to
organisation.

Though they lived just outside the village in their
enormous ancestral home, the Naughtons rarely mixed with the
commoners. It was typical that Ma Gamble would rush to take
responsibility for their appearing here tonight. I watched as she
led them to two seats specially reserved in the front row, on the
far end from my mother. Lord and Lady Naughton didn’t say anything
to any of the other people in the audience; they just smiled and
sat down in their seats. They didn’t glance in my mother’s
direction, though she did look at them. I wondered if she wanted
Lee to marry Will, too. Probably. She’d love to be related to posh
people. The Ice Cream Queen’s daughter and the local Lord’s son;
how perfect.

‘I think we’re supposed to lead you sheep on?’ Stone said
to me in his gentle voice.

‘I’ll follow you,’ I said. I stopped watching the adults
and gazed around the school hall. I’d had a vague idea of grabbing
one of the gym ropes and making my entrance by swinging across the
stage, Tarzan-style. But they’d been secured high up on the wall,
and I couldn’t get to them without climbing over the audience.

I’d have to do the best I could with what I had.

‘Are you scared?’ one of the little kids asked Mouse. I
didn’t hear her reply, because Ma Gamble had come back stage and
whispered in a sort of shout, ‘Places everyone, curtain in thirty
seconds!’

Across from me I could see Candace in her star costume,
shimmering and looking nervously around her. I wouldn’t have been
nervous. I stood up straight and stared at her, showing her how I
would have acted in her place, and she spotted me and averted her
eyes.

Everything went very quiet, and from the front of the stage
I heard Ma Gamble’s voice. ‘Welcome, everyone. All of our children
have worked very hard to produce this show for you, and I hope
you’ll agree that we’re all very proud of their efforts. So without
further ado, I’d like to introduce what I hope will become another
one of our beloved Christmas traditions here in the village: the
First Annual Stoneguard Children’s Christmas Pageant.’

‘Agh,’ I choked. This was going to happen
every year
if I didn’t do something about it.

Applause from the adults. Above the resumed fidgets and
whispers of the backstage children, I heard the shuffle of feet as
the choir went onstage and sang ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’.
Thank God I hadn’t been put in the choir; the only worse thing than
being a sheep was standing up there on stage in a nightgown for the
whole show, singing.

While Charlie Munt read the bit from the Bible about there
being no places at the inn, I peeped round the curtain again and
watched my sister and Will Naughton slowly make their way across
the stage. Lee cradled baby Muriel in her arms; the dummy was gone,
somehow, and the baby was fast asleep. Lee looked serene and
radiantly happy, like someone who’d just given birth to the baby
Jesus. Will was watching them both with assumed adoration on his
face.

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