Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out
The play looms and there’s further discussion about it in the art room. Miranda says it’s odd they’re all so unreligious about the play and Lawrie makes an unexpected contribution:
“I should have thought,” said Lawrie decidedly, “that it was more important to make the audience feel religious than be it yourself.”
When Miranda asks if that’s possible, if you yourself don’t feel religious, Lawrie says that of course you can – that’s acting. Lawrie has the occasional thoughtful observation, but it has to fight its way through the tangle of ridiculousness that fills her head. No wonder she drives her teachers round the bend. I bet there are lots of priests and vicars and pastors who have given up believing what they preach, but have to fake sincerity each Sunday at the pulpit because leaving their career would be too much of an upheaval in their lives.
Lawrie’s observation only deepens the “chilly sense of inadequacy” Nicola feels in her Shepherd Boy role, especially as even Bunty, the Second Former carrying Sprog in the play, says Nicola and Lawrie should swap roles. But then on the morning of the play – major drama! Esther gets a letter from her terrible mother saying they’re moving to a new flat which doesn’t allow pets, so not only does Esther have to stay at school for the first part of the holidays during the move, but Daks will be sent “to the kennels”, which Esther interprets as the poor puppy being killed (not an unreasonable notion, given the way her parents have behaved so far). This is just too much for Esther on top of everything else, and when neither Miranda nor Nicola can console her, she’s taken off to the san by Matron, who for once, sounds “quite kind” because Esther is so obviously distraught.
I have to say, as someone who was sent off to board when I was ten, LEAVING MY DOG BEHIND, I am having ALL THE FEELINGS about Esther right now.
Anyway, Miranda and Nicola come up with a clever plan. Miranda will invite Esther to her house for the first part of the holidays (Nicola can’t because of Grandmother) and Nicola will buy Daks and then Laurie can bring him to school next term as her pet. They’ll have to phone various parents to organise this, though, and Nicola’s mother loathes the phone, especially phoning strangers, so Nicola has the good idea to call Mr Merrick. The only thing is, he might be at work and “if you telephoned the House of Commons the person who answered would, obviously, be Mr. Churchill”. (I could just picture Churchill, sitting alone at a desk in the foyer, answering phone calls in a fog of cigar smoke.)
Luckily, Miss Kempe spots her two most “sensible, reliable” pupils and sends them into town to shop for last-minute play requirements, so they can call from a phone box. (So much easier to create plot complications when no one has a mobile phone.) Nicola then learns more about Miranda’s life – that she lives at a very grand address and must be “really rich”, but also that “very, very occasionally you get people who don’t like being friends with Jews”, including a girl in IV B who “talks about Jew girls” and “Marie Dobson would like to”. Nicola is shocked and horrified:
“She had a muddled feeling she ought to apologize for the stupidity and bad manners of her countrymen, only, since they were Miranda’s too, it would sound pretty silly.”
Given Miranda is one of the chief bullies of Marie, I wonder what’s cause and what’s effect. Does Miranda bully Marie unmercifully because Marie is anti-Semitic or does Marie use (or think, as she doesn’t seem to do it aloud) anti-Semitic abuse against Miranda in retaliation for the bullying, or are the bullying and the anti-Semitism unrelated? (Miranda also refers to the IV B girl as “that common little soul with the perm and the Jaguar”.) These characters are all so complex, with complicated motivations – even the admirable ones (and Miranda is mostly admirable) are far from perfect.
It also turns out Miranda’s family is Polish and her real family name is some long, unspellable Polish name. I wonder if that’s why Antonia Forest used the example of Polish Catholics being persecuted earlier?
Mr Merrick, by the way, agrees to collect Daks from Esther’s mother and deliver the pup to the Marlow house, even saying he’ll adopt Daks if Nicola’s mother won’t. Mr Merrick is pretty much the only kind, sensitive and sensible adult in this entire series.
Back at school, the girls try to tell Esther they’ve started sorting things out, but Matron refuses to let them disturb Esther or even give her a message. Then there’s a great bit when Val the Head Girl comes in, in utter disbelief, to tell Nicola “Your Member of Parliament wants to speak to you” and hooray, it’s all sorted with Mr Merrick! But when they try to find Esther to tell her, they discover she’s run away home, leaving a note for Miranda! Should they tell the teachers? Will this get Esther into terrible trouble? What if Esther manages to make it back in time for the play?
Then Nicola has her brainwave. She gathers Lawrie and Tim and tells them the news, astutely leaving it to Tim to put it all together and say it out loud. With Esther away, Nicola and Lawrie can swap. Lawrie will be Shepherd Boy, Nicola will go back to singing her solos, and Miranda will be Candle Angel instead of Esther. But they can’t tell the teachers, otherwise they’ll use “ghastly drip Helen Bagshawe”, the official Shepherd Boy understudy.
Miranda would love to be in the play, but worries everyone else will mind, with her being Jewish. She tosses a coin to decide, “tails I don’t”, then when it comes down tails, decides to do it anyway. They make it to the Minster all right, but are pulled up outside the changing rooms by the teachers, including Miss Cromwell, who’s just spoken with Esther’s mother. Then it all comes out. Tim is in big trouble for lying that Esther was on the other bus. Then Lawrie puts her foot in it when she realises they won’t let her be Shepherd Boy after all:
“But I must. It’s why I let Nick play in the match. I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy –”
Miss Cromwell asks with whom Lawrie made this bargain and Lawrie “waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling”, presumably at Athene and Jupiter and St Luke and Zeus and St Therese, and Miss Cromwell nearly explodes. Blood for breakfast! All is lost!
Except, no, here comes Dr Herrick, who explains that Esther’s understudy is Nicola, so of course, Nicola must sing and no, of course, Helen can’t be the Shepherd Boy, she’s hopeless. So it’s sorted, except who will be Nicola’s Candle Angel partner? Miranda is the only logical choice, but Miss Kempe worries that “some people would take great exception” to a Jewish angel in the Minster and anyway, what would Miranda’s father think about his daughter “being shanghai’d into a Nativity Play”? Janice is again the soul of reason, pointing out that outsiders won’t know and a Jewish angel is hardly like “the Oberammergau Christ turning out to be the district’s leading Nazi”. (I forgot to say earlier that Grandmother’s Christ figurine in her bedroom is an Oberammergau Christ, and I wondered at the time if that might be a subtle hint at her Nazi-sympathising.)
Miss Kempe moans that she “can’t start arguing the metaphysics of the case” (you should probably be in a different book series, then, Miss Kempe), but helplessly agrees to go along with it as long as Miranda’s father won’t object. So Nicola finds Miranda, who’s furious about being snubbed earlier, but Nicola manages to convince Miranda that they were only worried about her father. Miranda says he won’t mind:
“I mean, it’s only a play to me. It’s not as if – well, as if I was going to believe anything different, or anyone wanted me to, or anything.”
But as they’re waiting in the Minster for the play to start, a small child is mesmerised by Miranda’s convincing angel-impression and Nicola starts to feel a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of re-enacting the first Christmas.
Next, Chapter Nine: Right Way Round