Here’s a wonderful little view of the many forms of Christmas from Margaret Merrilees’s Fables Queer and Familiar, complete with illustrations by Chia Moan. Every little vignette in this novel is equal parts touching and hilarious. Read on and you’ll see what I mean …
Mr Stretton, Victoria’s Reception teacher, has reached that pinnacle of school life – the end-of-year concert. Traditionally Reception and Year One open the show with a segment based around the manger.
Since his first year of teaching, Mr Stretton has become used to parental contributions. These generally peak at the time of the concert. This year he has done his best to satisfy everyone.
He stands in the wings on one side of the stage and sends the kids across in small groups. They are received on the other side by Year Seven recruits. Downstage, close enough for Mr Stretton to prompt them, sit three children with a pile of signs to hold up.
The first group crosses the stage banging clap sticks together. KAURNA LAND reads the sign, in wobbly letters. WE RESPECT THE ELDERS AND TRADITIONAL OWNERS.
The audience claps.
The second group is chosen from among the most responsible five-year-olds. Their leader carries a multi-branched Hanukkah menorah. As a result of much discussion, it is unlit. Her companions carry lighted candles in paper cups. Mr Stretton clutches a fire extinguisher, but the children reach the other side without disaster. He wipes his brow.
The third group, in turbans and robes, is announced by two signs. One is a tinsel crescent moon, and the other says MECCA under a large arrow.
The fourth group consists of Mary and Joseph with a swaddled doll and a donkey. TO BETHLEHEM reads the sign. Victoria is the back half of the donkey. Her spirit is bitter. Like everyone else in the class she had passionately wanted to carry a Hanukkah candle.
The audience claps. They like it. So cute, so all-embracing.
But there is more. Fingers crossed, Mr Stretton sends out his fifth group. A donkey, a swaddled doll, but this time, instead of Mary and Joseph, there are two Marys.
The audience is silent, and then there is muted applause, accompanied by some muttering.
At present Mr Stretton is a single man, but he dreams of family, a particular sort of family. He had hoped for a sixth group tonight. Two Josephs with baby. Sadly he tucks his dream away again. The school community is obviously not yet ready.
Marie Symes, who works in the office, slumps in her seat. Mr Stretton has done it again. She can see tomorrow disappearing in a flood of phone calls. They’ll be equally divided, she predicts, between those parents who deplore fire risk and those who deplore gay parenthood.
During the interval Dr Singh approaches Mr Stretton. They have met before. Dr Singh has a little boy starting in Mr Stretton’s class next year.
‘Great work,’ Dr Singh says with enthusiasm. ‘I liked the procession very much.’
‘I did feel that there was a certain Mosaic bias,’ Dr Singh continues. ‘Judaeo-Christian-Islamic. Perhaps next year you could include …’
Mr Stretton squares his shoulders. What is life without a challenge?
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