The date, said James Stanley to his wife, Erica, was etched into his bloody BlackBerry. Yes, he was going to go to the blasted nativity play. He would cancel a long-standing appointment with a valuable client and would miss the GKZ Bank’s Christmas thrash, and instead he’d watch a hapless troupe of children recreate the improbable tale of a tax-paying carpenter’s virgin wife suckling the Messiah in a cattle trough.
James was not a believer in God, despite his and Erica’s recent Sunday visits to St Michael’s Church. Weekly worship was the penance they had been forced to pay to get their five-year-old daughter, Jessica, into the progressive church primary school. And now she was there, he found that he was expected to attend a variety of events he had absolutely no interest in, from One World Day (for parents and pupils to join together in singing cultural songs from the developing world), to the ultimately disastrous Bring Your Pet to School Evening, when attempts by the Stanley family’s rather excitable cocker spaniel to cover a white rabbit led to howls of protest from the bunny’s infant owner – and a distressing case of “handbags at dawn” between the parents.
The nativity play was the highlight of St Michael’s autumn term (and absent parents were noted and rebuked for failing to support their little darlings). Jessica had originally been chosen to play Mary, but was downgraded to a non-speaking “angel of mercy” after she had pulled Joseph’s hair – all because the earthly father of Jesus Christ had refused to give her one of his pick-and-mix strawberry pencils. Erica claimed it was a fix by a jealous mother and demanded that the headmaster reinstate her daughter. James had subsequently been required to absent himself from a meeting in New York to take a call from his tearful wife, and calmed her down with a promise to buy Jessica a Virgin Mary costume in the Big Apple.
Finally, the day of the nativity play arrived. As James later observed, it was no Renaissance picture, about as pertinent to the nativity, he said, as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed was to the Shroud of Turin. The performance opened with Joseph (in a Converse hoodie) sitting next to Mary (with a cushion underneath her Justin Bieber T-shirt), staring at a laptop. A narrator (the Angel Gabriel, decked out to resemble Steve Jobs) explained that the expectant parents of Jesus Christ had been filling in their tax returns online when their broadband crashed and, to beat the January 31 deadline, they had set off for the local tax office. The next scene saw Joe and Molly (as they had been renamed) refused a room at the Premier Inn, and despite Joe searching with his mobile app for a nearby Travelodge, everywhere was full.
The action swiftly moved to an NHS hospital, with Molly giving birth on a trolley in the corridor, while the shepherds were recast as hospital porters. The Wise Men, dressed as Apple technical geniuses in blue T-shirts, arrived bearing iPads and iPhones, and then Tweeted the news of the birth before the denouement, in which a host of children dressed as nurses (the angels of mercy) jigged about to Kanye West’s Jesus Walks.
Among those angels was Jessica, although James found it difficult to recognise her beneath a nurse’s outfit that was, he thought, appalled, more Ann Summers than Florence Nightingale. However, once he had confirmed her identity, he stood up and pulled out his smartphone to video her acting debut for posterity. That was when the woman in the row behind him whispered “pervert”, and the school’s burly PE teacher strode down the aisle, grabbed him by the arm, confiscated his mobile and escorted him off the premises. Erica followed in tears, wailing about not being able to face the other mothers at the school gates.
The following day James called the school, demanding the return of his phone and wishing to know why he had been treated like a paedophile for wanting to photograph his own daughter.
“It was nothing to do with protecting the children,” explained the bursar. “No photography was permitted because we were recording the nativity play to raise money for the steeple fund. We’ll return your phone, of course… after the DVD goes on sale.”