One could never be sure whether Mary Pritchard was telling the truth or weaving one of her stories. Mary, an attractive woman in her late fifties, had a brilliant imagination and had had one or two pieces of fiction published in a women’s magazine. But when she was overheard telling Angie Smith what happened that Christmas Eve …
Mary looked a bit suspiciously at the couple who had knocked on her door. They were dark-skinned, shabbily dressed, of some race she could not quite define – the man much older than the heavily pregnant woman , in her white head-scarf, and blue shawl covering the top half of her long blue dress with faded flower pattern. They seemed to have travelled some way on foot (no car in sight), and from their appearance could be illegal immigrants. Still, since her husband’s tragic suicide, and the break-down of the farm – all caused through the foot-and-mouth crisis – poor Mary had tried to make ends meet by providing bed and breakfast at her home in the country village. There was no good reason why she could not accommodate these people, except …
“I’ve got my son and daughter-in-law and two children coming for Christmas,” she explained in reply to the man’s request. “I’ve got no room at the moment.”
“What shall we do?” pleaded the man. He spoke with an attractive foreign accent, while his wife did not speak at all, but just smiled, perhaps not knowing the language, or maybe it was the custom of her land to let just the husband speak. “We’ve come a long journey. Mary, my wife, is pregnant, and very tired. We’ve nowhere to go … ”
“I’m Joseph,” he said, adding accusingly: “You still have up your ‘Vacancies’ sign.”
A room had been converted from the old stable at the back of the farm. Mary had not
mentioned it at first because she was suspicious of this couple. She was a conventional woman in some ways, but her own tragedy and difficulties had increased her compassion, enhance her natural kindness. She showed them the room now. Jim, the old colly sheep-dog stayed in there with them, and they indicated that they did not mind. Their hostess provided them with a frugal meal of soup, and a “ploughman’s lunch” – or supper, considering the time of day: bread and cheese, pickle and salad.
“Extra?” asked Joseph.
“On the house,” smiled Mary Pritchard.
Meanwhile she reversed her “Vacancies” sign (under the “Bed and Breakfast”) to show “Sorry – Full Up”, for she truly had no other room. When her son and his family were not expected, then she could accommodate paying guests in the main part of the house.
That night a bright star shone over Mary’s house. The man knocked on her door again – in a great panic.
“My wife … in labour,” he explained. “It’s her first …We didn’t know so quick … I think - ” They rang for an ambulance, but Mary had some experience of helping at birth, even if only with animals on the farm, and of course had given birth herself. Making reassuring sounds, she washed her hands, grabbed some clean towels and flannels, and hurried round to the “stable”. Joseph was correct in what he had implied . The baby was imminent – and born before the ambulance arrived.
Strangely, the paramedics did not seem as concerned as Mary would have expected. They did not insist on hospital now that the baby was already born. The older man, the driver, had a distinctly gnome-like quality – and winked at Joseph and at the new mother. The younger one gave the baby a toy lamb they’d kept as a mascot in the ambulance. They made sure that the mother and child were all right, and then drove off, promising that the local doctor and midwife would call.
“A little girl. How lovely!” exclaimed Mary Pritchard. “But how strange! Your names … The bright star and everything … I was beginning to think it would be the Christ-child!”
Joseph looked at her oddly. “She is the Christ-child. Why you think not? Just because she’s a girl?”
Every baby is potentially the Christ-child, but both the Mary’s – like Joseph – were sure that this one was special.
The next morning, when Mary went to clear away the dishes, after the breakfast which she’d taken to the visitors in their room, she discovered that they had left mysteriously. The payment in cash – forty-nine pounds for the double room – plus an extra ten pounds – was lying on the bed-side table.
“Very good of them” she murmured, wondering if it was a mistake. “Didn’t think they could afford it. But where can they have gone?”
She searched to make sure they were not, after all, still somewhere on the farm.
They were not. Surely they could not have got far on foot since the young woman had just given birth. Perhaps there had been a car somewhere after all.
Mary Pritchard’s son and family, who had been expected on Christmas Eve, had trouble with their car, and did not arrive until late on Christmas Day, so could not verify her tale about the strangers (she couldn’t prove to them where the money came from – it could have been payment for some story!). Apparently she contacted the hospital, which had no record of the earlier ambulance call-out – and the local doctor, who was supposed to have been notified, didn’t know what she was talking about. She looked at the visitors’ book, which she swore she had made Joseph sign, but there was no trace of his name.
So when, after Christmas, Mary was overheard telling her friend, Angie Smith (who sometimes came to help her, but had been away for Christmas) about it all at the local café, no one knew whether to believe her or not.
But Jess, the old donkey who lived in the other stable and grazed in the back field, had gone missing.