AlterNativity - Part 3 - A Room At The Inn
Old Jim sat at the bar, in the grandly named ‘House of David’ Inn, and stared morosely into his earthenware pot. The room was empty, apart from a couple of shepherds in the corner squabbling over whose round it was. Jim wasn’t particularly old, even by the standards of Roman-occupied Bethlehem, but he looked it. Nor, for that matter, was his name Jim, his mother (who really was old) knew him as Jeremiah.
Jim’s morose demeanour had a lot to do with the level of liquid in his pot, which at the moment was practically non-existent, coupled with the lack of anyone behind the bar to do anything about it. Just then a curtain at the back of the bar was dragged to one side and Dave, the eponymous Innkeeper, arrived, coughing and spluttering.
“Ruddy hay’ll be the death of me!” He wheezed as he poured himself a large pot of wine from an urn.
“What you doin’ muckin’ around with hay for at this time of night? Ere, gerrus one of those an’ all while you’re there” Jim grabbed his chance, you never knew when Dave was going to vanish again.
“Just had a couple book in, enni?” Dave coughed
“Are you beddin’ em down in hay these days then?” Jim asked in surprise.
“Had to with these two, they wanted the stable, didn’t they? I wasn’t gonna say no with rooms at the price they’re fetching at the moment”
“It’s the Romans I blame. Herod!” Jim spat on the sawdust floor with feeling, “couldn’t run a kiddies’ playground that bloke”
“Shurrup, Jim, you’ll gerrus all in trouble” Dave hissed as he looked around the bar, anxiously.
“Gerraway with you, they’re not gonna hang around ‘ere are they, not yer Romans” Jim chuckled into his pot, “I mean, if you must count everybody, and mark my words it’ll only mean more tax for the likes of us” He took a deep draught and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “Like I say, if you must count everybody, you’d leave them where they were, wunt you? Not have everyone upping sticks and going back to where they were born?”
“Well, you’re still ‘ere aren’t you?” Dave pointed out
“Born ‘ere, wunt I. Like my father afore me an’ his father afore ‘im”
“I didn’t think you knew who your father was?”
“Well, ‘e must ‘ave been from round ‘ere, mun’t ‘e? Mam’s never been outside the village in ‘er life, an’ we don’t usually get no visitors, so it stands to reason, dunnit?” Jim said with some feeling. “Any road, just imagine if I said to my goats, ‘Now, look ‘ere goats. I wanter count yer, but I’m not going to count yer ere, I’m gonna send yer back to the blokes what I bought yer from, an’ they can count yer. Folks’d think I’m barmy!”
“’Course they would. You’d have been talkin’ to yer goats for a kick off” Dave pointed out, reasonably.
Jim gave him a hard stare. “You can’t move on the roads for folks wanderin’ in all directions. How are yer goin’ to count ‘em when yer don’t know where they are anymore, that’s what I wanter know?”
The sound of a baby crying lustily, echoed around the yard behind the inn.
“Oh ‘eck” Dave slammed his pot down on the bar, “I told ‘em I’d get ‘em some hot water and towels and now I’ve forgotten ‘cause of you and yer grumbling”
“What they want hot water an’ towels for then?”
“Wash the bab with, I guess. She’s not long had it, you know” Dave confided and vanished into a back room. The shepherds continued to bicker in the corner and Jim took another hefty swig from his pot. Dave returned, wiping his hands and inspecting the soles of his shoes.
“Well, that’s them sorted, at least for now” He said, moodily wiping something indescribable off his foot. “Any road, it’s nice and warm where they are, what with the ox and the ass an’ all”
“Yer’ve never left them animals in there, ‘ave yer?” Jim spluttered.
“Where else am I gonna put ‘em?” Dave asked, defensively. “There ain’t anywhere. Any road, it’ll be summat for the nipper to look at.”
Jim shook his head in disbelief. “I’m off round the back to see a man about a donkey”
“See a man about a…? Oh, right, mind your step, it’s slippy round there” Dave set to work piling pots back on the shelf.
“Gerrus another an’ mind me pot while I’m gone will yer? I dunner trust them two” Jim nodded in the direction of the shepherds, who were now arm-wrestling to decide who should be buying the drinks.
Dave busied himself pouring Jim’s wine, trying to ignore the cries of a new-born being washed, and complaining bitterly about the whole business.
“Yer security light’s on outside, yer know?” Jim settled himself back down on his stool
“I’d better go an’ see if my missus has got anything they can wrap the babbie in” Dave muttered to himself, then realised what Jim had said. “Security light? What security light?” he asked “We haven’t got a security light. I don’t even know what a security light is when it’s at home!” He hurried upstairs, calling his wife as he went. “Carol? Carol, love?”
“Bright as day out there” Jim muttered to himself.
Dave came back down the stairs, clutching a pile of what looked like old bandages.
“What yer got there, then?” Jim asked.
“Swaddling clothes” Dave said as he tried to sort the pile out into some sort of order.
“No, swaddling clothes, it was all the missus had got left”
“Seems a bit mean, dunnit?” Jim suggested
“Well, they should’ve brought their own, shouldn’t they. Woman in that state, I don’t know!” Dave said with exasperation, and swept out through the curtain with the pile of fabric in his arms.
“Nice little chap” he said when he came back in again, “adorable. Got his mother’s eyes I reckon.”
“Does ‘e take after his dad though?” Jim asked, touching on a subject dear to his own heart.
“Difficult to say,” Dave admitted, then lowered his voice, “not so’s you’d notice, if I was being honest”
“Gerrus another then, Dave, might as well wet the babbie’s head. Yer’d better get them two summat an’ all, afore they kill each other or drive me mad on the way” Jim said generously, nodding in the direction of the shepherds before noticing they weren’t there. “Where the ‘eck did they go then?”
Dave parted the curtain, “Round the back to see the nipper, I think” he said, “d’yer wanter to see ‘im?”
“Nah” Jim replied with feeling, “if yer’ve seen one, yer’ve seen ‘em all. It’s not as if he’s owt special, is it?” He sipped his drink and considered, “Born in a stable eh?” he chuckled, “Well, I s’pose we’ve all got our cross to bear.”
You can find the complete AlterNativity, along with a whole bunch of other seasonal stories, in Philip's collection 'A Christmas Cracker' out now on Amazon Kindle.