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A Matter of Angels : Slightly subversive survival stories

By Nox, Nyla

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Book Id: WPLBN0003468489
Format Type: PDF (eBook)
File Size: 120.00 KB.
Reproduction Date: 12/25/2014

Title: A Matter of Angels : Slightly subversive survival stories  
Author: Nox, Nyla
Volume:
Language: English
Subject: Fiction, Short Stories, Christmas play
Collections: Short Stories, Authors Community, Criminology, Recreation, Agriculture, Religion, Education, Sociology, Political Sociology, Literature, Social Sciences, Political Science, History
Historic
Publication Date:
2014
Publisher: Noxbox Press
Member Page: Nyla Nox

Citation

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Nox, N. (2014). A Matter of Angels : Slightly subversive survival stories. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.us/


Description
'The Virgin Mary had more lines but I had the better costume.' After the Christmas play was announced, I had been dreaming all autumn of the Virgin Mary and the essence of femininity that I knew the role possessed if I could only get it. No longer would I have to pull on pants, hide my hair, swagger around with plastic swords or sit in a chair uttering the mild regrets of middle age. No, for once I would be the centre of delight and attention, with a husband, a donkey and various deferential well-wishers from all walks of life to support my soft and vulnerable womanhood while at the same time getting the lion’s share of lines and scenes. Tender, frail, passive and beautiful, I would be the chosen one. The star. But since I had the wrong religion, this was not to be.' For everyone who has ever been in a school play, or whose daughter is in one right now. At the age of nine, Nyla runs into the hard facts of life. Her school nativity play turns out to be a pretty ugly affair. It opens up the cracks in the social divides, religious discrimination and dark family secrets. Told with wry humour and compassion for the pain of children, unseen by adults, a complex web of history unfolds underneath the rivalries and small disasters of Nyla's school play in which she is cast as an angel. Well, at least she’s not a sheep. So far… ‘However, when I saw the costume, I started to love the angel. For the first time in my life, my costume white, like the costume for a princess, it even had little frills and a starchy petticoat. I stared at it and couldn’t believe I was actually going to put this on. Instinctively I looked for my sister but she wasn’t there. This costume was mine. It was shiny and smooth and soft and pliable, except for the bits where the petticoat propped it up. In those places it was grand and majestic. When I tried it on, I could feel the softness all over my skin and I wanted to swoon. Never mind that nobody was there to catch me, for me it was all in the falling. I opened my braids and my hair cascaded over my shoulders and the dress. My hair, of course, was a rich dark brown like the colour of well-polished furniture, as my mother never tired of pointing out. Not that we had a lot of such furniture, but perhaps it was part of my mother’s aspirations, garnered from the romance novels she loved to read when my father wasn’t looking. From photographic evidence I knew that I had actually started life as a blonde, like my mother and sister, and like our Virgin Mary. But now, at the age of nine, my hair had already darkened towards the dark brown that would accompany me throughout adulthood. This process was a process of failure, foreshadowing a dark fate. Luckily my sister had so far retained her honey coloured hair.’

Summary
'The Virgin Mary had more lines but I had the better costume.' Nine year old Nyla is cast as an angel in her school play. Well, at least she’s not a sheep. So far… This school production is not pretty. It opens up the cracks in the social divides, religious discrimination and dark family secrets. Told with wry humour and compassion. For everyone who's ever been in a school play.

Excerpt
At first I had been upset. I was the best actress in class, not just by my own assessment but also as overheard several times in comments from my teacher. So when the roles were handed out, I was stunned. The lead went to a class mate who had never shown a special interest in the theatre. I looked at her. She smiled and acknowledged the privilege, her blonde hair shimmering in the late morning winter sunlight that fell through the class room windows. Was it my hair? Then I looked around in the room and at all the other girls who had been cast in background parts. Why her? The boys, of course, had plenty of parts to share amongst them. Joseph, shepherds, inn keepers, Romans, kings... At least I had been cast in the second best female part – I was the archangel Gabriel. But right then I have to admit I felt nothing but contempt for the archangel Gabriel. A consolation prize, appearing in only one scene. Why? The answer was a lot more complex than I knew. In fact I had fallen afoul of religious discrimination. It was a late aftertaste of the persecution that had made my ancestors walk all the way across Europe in search of a sanctuary. And although I was only nine years old, my life was inextricably entangled in history and politics, overshadowed by the actions of those who had died long before I was born. I cried. But that was before I understood about the costume. Apparently, it was felt, the Virgin Mary had to be a Catholic, but an angel could be any denomination. I wasn’t supposed to know this but I found out through the village grapevine that the matter had been a subject of delicate theological discussions among the teachers. Various experts such as the village priest and the religious instruction lady from the neighbouring market town had been consulted. The non-denominational nature of angels had been agreed on in a spirit of generosity and ecumenical openness, although it was a sacrifice and on the conscience of some. I remember the priest averting his eyes when he saw me. Well, an angel wasn’t a Christian, I thought, my mind being set on paths that I would never have found before this incident. Neither was the Virgin Mary a Christian, really, now that I thought about it. How could she be? Jesus wasn’t even born. I cried. But then there was the costume. You have to understand: my costume was white. That was the most important thing about it. White was the colour of princesses, of beauty and all the female graces. White was the colour that my younger sister wore in all the plays my mother put on at home, writing long monologues for us in verses that could stretch all afternoon before an audience of bewildered grandparents and mutinous uncles. My mother was a conservative director, never casting against type. Since my sister was younger, smaller, blonder and prettier she always was the princess. I usually was the prince, and, since that role tended to be small and confined to the end of a fairy tale and I had a good head for memorizing rhymes and a loud voice that could carry them over the cluttering of plates and forks and the subdued muttering of aunts whose children had not made the cast, I often doubled as the mother, the good fairy, the maiden aunt or even the occasional frog, while my mother herself took the roles of King, Evil Enchantress and any monsters that might be required. I knew if I wanted to be beautiful, and connect with my nascent female nature, I would have to look outside my family. So after the Christmas play was announced, all autumn I had been dreaming of the Virgin Mary and the essence of femininity that I knew the role possessed if I could only get it. No longer would I have to pull on pants, hide my hair, swagger around with plastic swords or sit in a chair uttering the mild regrets of middle age. No, for once I would be the centre of delight and attention, with a husband, a donkey and various deferential well-wishers from all walks of life to support my soft and vulnerable womanhood while at the same time getting the lion’s share of lines and scenes. I would be able to simper and say that I wasn’t worthy, I would be able to shrink and perhaps even sink back into the arms of protectors, ask for nothing and be given everything. Tender, frail, passive and beautiful, I would be the chosen one. The star. But since I had the wrong religion, this was not to be. Just for the record, my case was not the only instance of might above merit in the production of this nativity. The male lead, the admittedly lesser but still substantial role of Joseph, had been given to the headmaster’s son who was as wooden an actor as the cradle the Catholic Virgin was going to put her anatomically incorrect baby doll in. (‘Showbusiness’, said my aunt who had tried out unsuccessfully for various dancing shows in the big city and gave me a tearful kiss. My mother told me to stop crying and be grateful that I had any lines at all. My cousin, she said, had been crying last year because she had been cast in the non-speaking role of a cat in her own school play but apparently had stolen the show with her winsome looks and kitten eyes. Not that I had kitten eyes, my mother hastened to add, but there you were. My aunt sighed. She had auditioned to be a cat in the big city many times.) So I cried alone under my blanket, stifling my sobs against the pillow so my sister wouldn’t hear in the next bed. At school, I rehearsed dismissively, having learned the entire play by heart in a week and being able to prompt everyone in a loud, clear voice, while Joseph, for example, was still desperately clinging to his book. It never occurred to me that he must have felt a huge amount of pressure to perform well at something he was completely untalented in. All I could see was my blonde, Catholic class mate cutely simpering from underneath her shawl. And if I was perhaps angling for Assistant Director I was disappointed in that ambition, too. That role was taken by the religious instructor from the market town who, as I now knew (but could not mention), had voted against me on all counts except perhaps as a sheep since sheep were of no known religion. At home, my sister put her hands over her ears as soon as she heard me speak, as I now frequently did, the opening lines of the play, knowing that I would not stop until I had recited it all, playing all the characters myself. Disdainful but with a broken heart, I attended every rehearsal because, although I didn’t want to admit it, I just loved the theatre in all its forms. I could open that broken heart when the Virgin Mary was not on stage and forgot my grievance while watching my classmates transformed into the inhabitants of Bethlehem and the Kings from the Orient. Strangely, to me, many of those class mates had trouble learning their lines and appeared very anxious when having to recite them. One of them was a girl who was not quite a friend, a girl from whom I was divided by a social abyss too wide to cross, a girl with a very strong rural accent who would never even have been cast as Shepherd Three if there had been enough boys. However, although her people despised me because I was a refugee of the wrong religion and mine despised her because she was uneducated rural low life, we had occasionally and very secretly bonded over exchanging unwanted items of food that were completely alien to each other’s culinary experience. At least once a week, we met behind the bushes at the back of the bicycle rack to conduct our furtive cultural exchange and it was there that I coached her both in her (very few) lines and in their accentless delivery, the only thing that would save her from being a sheep. I was successful. My not-quite-friend shouted her opening line across the stage and she didn’t sound rural at all. She sounded, instead, a bit like me, the archangel Gabriel. ‘What is that brightness in the sky…’ I loved the dumplings her low life mother made and that my own mother would have spit out. Rehearsals improved, and I became so caught up in the creative process that I joined Caspar and Balthasar (but not Melchior who would have to carry it in on a stick) in arguing passionately for a star with a tail for the Kings but was defeated by the props department consisting of our needle craft teacher on grounds of limited resources. No resources, however, were spared when it came to the costume. And that’s when I started to love the angel. For the first time in my life, my costume white. And not only was it white, like the costume for a princess, it even had little frills and a starchy petticoat. I stared at it and couldn’t believe I was actually going to put this on. Instinctively I looked for my sister but she wasn’t there. This costume was mine. I touched it. It was shiny and smooth and soft and pliable, except for the bits where the petticoat propped it up. In those places it was grand and majestic. When I tried it on, I could feel the softness all over my skin and I wanted to swoon. Never mind that nobody was there to catch me, for me it was all in the falling. I opened my braids and my hair cascaded over my shoulders and the dress. My hair, of course, was a rich dark brown like the colour of well-polished furniture, as my mother never tired of pointing out. Not that we had a lot of such furniture, but perhaps it was part of my mother’s aspirations, garnered from the romance novels she loved to read when my father wasn’t looking. From photographic evidence I knew that I had actually started life as a blonde, like my mother and sister, and like our Virgin Mary. The pictures showed a toddler with whitish hair and an uneasy expression. And apparently that toddler was me although I had no memory of it. But now, at the age of nine, my hair had already darkened towards the dark brown that would accompany me throughout adulthood. This process was a process of failure, foreshadowing a dark fate. And somehow also my fault, at least that was the feeling I got when my mother and my aunts were talking about it. It was significant, a major flaw in me, a disappointment and already an indication of not living up to early promise. Luckily my sister had so far retained her honey coloured hair. Still, my hair was long and a little wavy (something that was quite rare in our family, a fact that eluded visual evidence at the time since all females over 18 were heavily permed) and it felt soft and silky like the dress. I put the dress on and was happy to be careful with the frills. I would not touch them with my smudgy fingers and I would not allow anyone else to touch them either. The dress fit me. Somehow I had not expected that. Somehow I had envisaged a scene like the one at the end of Cinderella, when the sisters cut their toes and heels off and still don’t fit into the shoe. I put the dress on and I didn’t feel a thing. Let the Virgin Mary pout out her endless lines, let Joseph despair of scribbling all of his words (already cut to the bare minimum by the director) onto his hands and arms with his illegal biro, let the Kings declaim their wisdom underneath a measly (and somehow still wobbly) standard star that was only golden on one side, I did not feel a thing. After nine long years, I was in my white dress.


 

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