In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. this was the first registra- tion and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expect- ing a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
It’s good to rest at last. It’s been quite a night. If I had the energy I would get up and stoke the fire for some warmth, but all I can do is sit here and think about what’s happened.
My feet are as sore and as swollen as a cow’s udder after milking. I don’t mind telling you that, my lovely. the fire will have to manage on its own.
Up all night, I’ve been. And I mean all night, right till now with the new day almost upon us. And I’ve a story to tell that in one way is the most ordinary story in all the world, another child born, another mouth to be fed, another turning of the world’s endless cycle of being born and ending up dead – and I’m sorry if I sound cynical, but yes, I suppose I am a cynical woman – and at the same time a most fantastic, puzzling story, that I can’t quite make sense of. that’s why I can’t sleep, I suppose.
So let me begin. Bethlehem. It’s never been so crowded, nor business so good. that much I know. Quirinius, the crafty bugger, the governor, has called for a census to be taken and every man must return to the town of his birth to be registered, and then pay more tax into the bargain. Well, there’s a lot been born here in Bethlehem. We are a fertile lot! Good hips. But there is little work here for an honest man, so those what were born here have also departed. Who could blame them! But now the town is heaving. they have had to return. So, good business for Quirinius, and good business for me as well, as it turns out. And those who have returned seem to have money in their pockets. Well, most of them, anyway. As I say, our business has been very good. Yes, very good indeed.
Anyway, where was I? Yes, last night. In the middle of the evening, about eight it was, with the inn at its busiest, every- one laughing and halfway lashed, a couple come to the door. He, older and serious and earnest-looking, and she, young and frightened and heavy with child. I mean very heavy with child. I mean about to drop her load at any moment. I smiled. Because I know that feeling. I’ve had seven children myself and the first is always fearful, and she such a slip of a girl, it was obvious to me that it was her first time. I didn’t think the man was her husband – her father more like! But he was determined, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. And there was no room in the inn. I told him plain: there’s no room, couldn’t he see; the place was chock-a-block. Was he having a laugh, asking for a room at this time of the even- ing and with this many people in town? But he stood his ground. I like that in a man. So I folded my arms and smiled at him and stood my ground too. I told him there was no room. And he gestured towards the girl and told me what I already knew; and I told him that didn’t change nothing, but if he insisted then they could go out the back. there was an outhouse, not much more than a cowshed, where the animals sheltered at night. It was warm and it was out of the wind. I would bring water and blankets for a small price. And wine and bread as well if he was able to pay. take it or leave it.
He looked at me for a long while. He was turning in it over in his head. He was desperate, but what I liked about him was he didn’t show desperate. there was a dignity to him. He turned to her, the girl, Mary her name was, and explained the situation. She too had a crackle of fire in her in her eyes. She was tough. I like that. But she was also desperate. How could she not be? Anything is better than nothing, is what her face seemed to say, and neither of them had the time or the luxury to choose. they needed help.
My heart softened a bit then. I know I’m a hard woman. I’m prone to snap and ask questions afterwards. You have to be that way in this business. Who am I kidding? You have to be that way in this world. I have seen too much hardship and known too much grief to think anything else. But I suppose I also remember the hopes of a firstborn child – the dreams – though the prospects for this one are hardly promising. What a pair! this old fella and this young girl, far away from home in the dead chill of a winter’s night and nowhere to rest their head.
‘We’ll take it,’ he said.
I wiped my hands on the towel that was tied round my waist and gestured to the girl. ‘Come here, my pretty,’ I said. ‘I’ve been this way before. When the time comes, nature takes over. You’ll know what to do and I’ll come and check on you if I can. Come this way.’
I led them round the back of the inn. the barn where our animals sheltered was no more than a rough covering of brush and hay propped against the overhang of the wall and shadowed on two sides by the large cypress trees that grew in the yard.
The animals were restless. they were not usually disturbed at this time of the evening. And it stank. there wasn’t time to clean it out each day, and if we did bring in fresh straw it was in the morning. I felt another rush of pity for the girl then, and called to one of the servants to bring a bale of clean straw from inside. I pushed open the makeshift door of the shelter. I clapped my hands to get the animals – a cow, a couple of goats and a few scrawny chickens – to move out of the way. I made a corner of the stable as comfortable as I could, and when the fresh straw arrived made a seat for the girl and put the remainder of the straw into one of the feeding troughs. ‘You can lay the child here when you need to sleep yourself,’ I said.
Then her waters broke. It just happened, and she stood there looking frightened and amazed. Her skirts were sodden, and she looked at me pleadingly, completely unprepared for what was about to happen next. Had her mother taught her nothing? She let out a whimper. the animals could sense something unfolding. they started banging their hooves against the ground and whinnying. Her husband looked away. He was useless. Men usually are. He just stood there staring hopefully at me. ‘Come here,’ I said to the girl. I held her then and felt the quick fluttering rhythm of her heart. She was scared. But also trusting.
‘I’ve had seven children,’ I told her. ‘I’ll help you with this one.’
And so I did. through the long hours of her labour: through the choppy waters of strong and mounting contractions; through the calm waters of boredom and wondering if it will happen at all; through the screaming and the vomiting, when she cried out that she was too exhausted to go on, and when I myself started wondering if this child would ever be de- livered; I sat with her. I held her hand. I wiped her brow. I told her stories of my own seven births. I felt between her legs to judge whether she was ready or not. After a few hours my husband came out. ‘What pretty sight is this?’ he muttered angrily. ‘there are customers to be looked after and dishes to wash, you know.’ then he stomped back inside.
Her husband – Joseph, I gathered his name was – paced. He was what you might call a traditional father. He didn’t actually do anything. He just kept muttering – or was he praying? – that all this was from God and was safe with God.
‘Well, you’re safe with me,’ I told him. ‘now hold this cloth, and wipe her face when I tell you.’
In the darkest hour of the night, I suppose about two or three o’ clock, the baby’s head appeared. He stared, blinking and gawping at the world for what seemed an age. And she was crying out with the pain of it, and the great longing for the baby to be free. It was one of those strange halfway moments between the womb and the world, between what was and what is. then with the next contraction, on a spasm of pain and joy, he was born.
I pulled him free and held him up for his mother to behold: a boy, all green and grey with the mucus of the womb and the effort of birth. I didn’t need to spank him or pat his little back. the breath seemed to rush into him, and he filled his lungs and let out a loud, piercing cry. I laughed at him. ‘Loud enough to wake the dead,’ I said to his mother, ‘or at least my sleeping tenants. He’s a strong little fella.’
I laid him on his mother’s breast. that was a beautiful moment. It always is. tender. As old as the world itself. As new as the dawn. And she moved his little face to her breast, and he suckled there, and she held him and stroked his head. With the next contraction the placenta was delivered. I took the cord between my teeth and quickly bit it in two, and knotted the end. He was born, this baby. He was oK. He was well. And his mother too, she seemed fine. And even the husband was smiling now: relief as well as joy etched into his tired face. What a place for a baby to be born. What a couple.
Then she turned to me, the mother. ‘His name is Jesus,’ she said, and smiled at me.
Well, I thought that was the end of it and I could get to bed myself. As the girl slept, and as the child slept too, the husband picked him up and laid him in the clean straw in the manger that I had prepared. I told him that he should get some sleep as well. But I knew he wouldn’t. His part had come, and he was happy to watch and wait. So now I’m back here, watching and waiting myself. You see, I can’t sleep. this birth and this odd couple have touched my heart. the inn is quiet. Everyone else asleep. But I’m sitting here awake.
The fire has nearly gone out. there are a few embers just struggling to stay alight, fluttering and flashing but with nothing to feed on. If I get a few sticks and gently breathe upon them the fire will return. But not for ever.
I don’t know where these thoughts have come from. this fire burning low. A new fire kindled. Warmth, security, heat and light. I need them so much, and yet as I turn over the dying embers of my life – because that’s how it seems to me, that’s what I’m thinking about, all the beautiful things that are lost to me, all the hopes and dreams that have died in me – in the end it will all go cold and expire. Where is the fire and where is the light that will burn for ever, radiant and unconsuming?
Now there is a commotion outside. A lot of noise. Probably some drunks. I open the door a fraction. It looks like the shepherds from the fields above Bethlehem. they are little more than vagrants. What mischief have they been up to? And have they been in there? Disturbing the baby? And what is it they are shouting about? A king born in Bethlehem? Peace to the world?
Then they are gone. Silence again. the emptiness of the night; and on the horizon the unhurried beginning of a new day as the approaching sunlight leaches slowly into the darkness.
What is going on? What has happened here this night? Who is this child that has visited me? Whose coming into the world have I shared? there is a strange and ominous fore- boding upon me. Also a spark of pure, uncompromised joy. Who isn’t moved to wonder at the sight of a newborn child?
I turn back into the room. the fire is suddenly roaring. I watch the flames dance in the hearth. What has been kindled here?
• Which person in the story did you most relate to?
• What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
• How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?