There is an uneasy silence on the playground as the mothers wait for the classroom door to open. They watch as the letters are handed out. Tess hasn’t felt this nervous since the day her degree results came out. This feels just as important.
All the mothers of boys are hoping for Joseph, although some are hoping more than others. Joseph gets to wear a special headdress that Mrs Worth got from Jerusalem, many years ago. Everyone else has to make do with a tea towel, provided from home.
The children are released, one by one. The chosen Joseph emerges first, tall and proud. He is the son of the Chair of Governors. Which, of course, is a total coincidence. Insincere congratulations are offered, and expectations are lowered. Mary comes next; the prettiest, cleverest, smuggest girl in the class. Tess has no interest in who is playing Mary. She keeps watching the door.
She knows Bradley will not be a Wise Man, because Wise Men require elaborate costumes, and elaborate costumes require mothers with artistic talents. The rewarded ones begin to trickle away. Tess feels like a schoolgirl herself, waiting to be chosen for a team.
Angels, in Mrs Worth’s defiantly non PC world, are generally blonde and blue-eyed. And almost exclusively female.
‘I’m a fairy,’ a floppy haired boy tells his mother, in disgust, throwing the letter at her. His eyes fill with tears. There is nervous laughter.
Shepherds and innkeepers are the children nobody notices. The sheep generally have special needs. Sighs of disappointment are collectively heaved. Only a few remain now.
Thomas is the donkey. His mother rips his letter from his grubby fist, reads what she is expected to provide, and strides angrily towards Mrs Worth, who has seen all this before, many times.
‘He’s not wearing fucking tights,’ she screams. ‘His Dad will go mad. He’s not a bloody pansy.’ Mrs Worth does her teacher face, peering over the top of her glasses. Grey trousers will do, she says.
Alfie is a chicken. His mother, who always stands apart from the rest of them, and seems way too relaxed about the whole thing, laughs out loud as they set off for home. She swings his hand as they walk.
Only Tess is still waiting. Mrs Worth gives her a smile that is more like a grimace. She needs to have one of her little words.
Bradley stands ruefully by the door, his shirt out of his trousers, his laces undone. He has let himself down again, says Mrs Worth. He has deliberately hurt another child. A smaller child, who had done nothing to deserve it. Tess hears herself apologising. Mrs Worth observes that this seems to be happening rather too often. They may need to take things to the next level, after Christmas. Tess doesn’t ask what that means. She just wants to go home.
She is almost at the school gates before she remembers about the letter. She stops to read it. Bradley has been cast as Herod. Tess looks back at the classroom door, where she is sure Mrs Worth is smirking.