Excited though everyone was about the pageant – the first that would not consist of a mawkishly sentimental song which they would all have to pretend to enjoy – the real feature on which everyone’s anticipation was focused was the fact that Grant and Sue would be there together. “I bet she thinks he’s changed.” “Not likely.” “She’s dreaming.” “A leopard doesn’t change its stripes.” “Spots.” “What?” “It doesn’t change its spots. Zebras have stripes.” “Don’t bloody tell me about zebras. What have they got to do with it?” And on it went, as cars drove to the hall and children on back-seats flinched and squirmed in their awkward and overheated costumes. And on it went, in muffled whispers and behind darting eyes, as families stepped from their cars and walked into the hall. And it carried on as they took children back-stage, and on into the stalls and into the rows of seats, punctuated by, “Excuse me,” and, “Which number are you?” and, “That’s my seat. Get out.” It only stopped when the curtain stirred and on the stage stood a boy with a white robe and rat-tail whose parents had, until this moment, been convinced was playing an angel not a…what was he? “Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls.” A pause. Had he forgotten his lines? His little sister squirmed empathetically. His dad turned to his mother and said, “I didn’t know he had lines.” “Good evening, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls,” he repeated. “Welcome to the Christmas play. The title of tonight’s play is, ‘A Scandalous Baby’.” His mother applauded. His sister turned to the mother and said, “What’s scandalous?” Her father said, “Shut up and listen.” “Our story starts in…” A whisper from backstage. “Bethlehem.” Another pause. Another whisper: “Bethlehem.” Then a nod of recognition. “Our story stars in Bethlehem…where…an unexpectedly virgin is giving a baby…” Another whisper: “Where a virgin is unexpectedly giving birth…” A nod. “Yep. That.” Another pause. “Come with us…” Another nod. “Come with us to…a stable where a baby is being born.” The curtain rose. Behind the curtain was a scene familiar to everyone who had ever been to a Christmas pageant before: a mock-agricultural setting more reminiscent of the Manchester section of a department store than the Middle East in the first century, with boys and girls in tea-towels, sheets and bathrobes, and an appropriate number dressed in cotton-wool and brown blankets with face paint suggesting the animals they were representing. In the middle of the stage, gloriously tall, was a tree, with a star on top, moving suspiciously like there was a boy behind it. “Braydon,” whispered Grant. Some of the boys and girls on the stage started whispering. They hesitated at times, as though their lines had only recently been learnt, but there was something unmistakeable about those lines, a quality seen all too often behind curtains, on lawns and in supermarket aisles. To Grant and Sue, the room stank of town gossip. “I’m sorry,” said a boy, dressed slightly differently to the others, with a large, messily-written name-tag that seemed to say, “Inn-kePPer”. “We don’t have room here for your sort,” he added, disdainfully. And so a boy and girl carrying a baby doll and with two children dressed as a donkey beside them moved clumsily around the stage, the donkey trying to avoid bumping into actors and props on the way, with little space available to differentiate between unwelcoming inn and the stable in which they finally settled. Meanwhile, Braydon was beginning to feel quietly triumphant. He had worked out that there was a way that he could move his right leg out first, leaving his left leg securely on the platform for stability. Then, once his right leg was carefully placed against the wall, he could use that and the harness to hold himself in place while he lifted his left leg. He had already done it once without anyone noticing. Was now the time to fly? It was difficult to tell, paying as he was no attention whatsoever to the rest of the action. He replaced his knees on the platform. They were becoming a little sore. On the stage, Joseph and Mary had successfully found a manger in which to give birth (Mary also having mustered up the courage to no longer need her mother with her), and so it was time for the shepherds to emerge. Patrick, previously First Haystack Angel, emerged as First Shepherd, with Ben and Lachlan in tow as his sheep, to the joyful applause of family. “Go Patty!” called out his father. The First Shepherd squinted in the direction of his father. It was difficult to see if he was happy or angry. He momentarily forgot to walk forward. Second and Third Shepherd stalled for that moment behind him. Their sheep bumped into one another. Hearing the action pause beneath him, Braydon wondered if now was the time to fly, while on the left-hand side of the stage Kassie too was preparing for her moment. Kassie, unlike Braydon, being a little unwilling to fly, though her part seemed to call for it, Kim and Craig had had to settle for an arrangement of clouds which would appear at Stage Left and above which Kassie would slowly rise from a seated position to say Gabriel’s lines. What with the delay, however, with the sheep, the stage-hand who was supposed to help Kassie get set up behind the cloud hovered to the side, unaware that his assistance was needed. Kassie paused. Should she come out anyway, cloud or no cloud? What would happen if Gabriel didn’t herald the arrival of Jesus? What if her father never saw her say her lines? “Jack,” whispered Craig. Jack the stage-hand looked over at his teacher. “Kassie’s cloud,” said Craig. “Oh,” said Jack, running over to collect it. The silence on stage continued. Braydon fancied it invited him to fly. “You ready, Kassie?” said Craig. Kassie nodded. Braydon shifted. Jack carried the cloud over to Kassie. Kassie hid behind it. Slowly the cloud moved forward and Kassie with it. Braydon stretched out his right leg. The First Shepherd moved towards the cloud. The Second and Third Shepherds began to move, but the sheep were tangled up in the tree. The tree shook. Braydon positioned his right leg on the tree. “Okay, Kass,” said Craig. Kassie breathed. What was her line again? Held in place by his right leg, Braydon began to lift his other leg towards the wall. Second Shepherd tugged at his sheep. The base of the tree rotated a little to the right. “Do not be afraid,” said Kassie. Sue’s heart stirred. The top of the tree stirred. “I bring tidings of great joy.” That’s my girl, thought Grant. It’s time, thought Braydon. He stretched out his left leg. Third Shepherd pulled at his sheep. The sheep would not move. The manger shook slightly. Tayla, holding onto the manger, moved slightly with it. “Today in the town of…David…a saviour…” Go, thought Braydon. “Come on,” muttered Third Shepherd to his sheep. “What are you doing, Danny?” “…has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.” What a lot of lines Kassie had to learn, thought Sue. Braydon at least was behaving himself. Then Tayla screamed.