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On the floor a small envelope containing the unmistakable shape of a Christmas card was lying amongst the day’s flyers and leaflets. Charlotte opened it on her way back to the kitchen and then paused, her mind continuing to pour blankly like a waterfall. She finally laughed out loud. She had not seen Louis since his wedding, five years ago, when he was married to…

Charlotte was vexed to have forgotten the name. To her alarm, it was miles away from the tip of her tongue and, indeed, totally out of orbit.

Who else still sent Christmas cards these days? This year Charlotte had received three: one from an aunt back in France which was really a letter, with the whole of the inside crammed with a harvest festival of the year’s dreary gossip; and two from the perms at work. If she had not discarded the work cards, she thought ruefully, she would now have enough for a little display.

Louis’ card showed a robin posing on winter berries. Inside, instead of greetings there was a brief message and a telephone number. Did she have time to come and help out at his church’s open-air nativity? They were really short of talented organisers, he explained meekly. Of course, it would be more for the children than for the Pentecostal regime.

He was still a Christian then. It was probably too late for him to wriggle out of this by now. But Louis was one of those automatic, lifelong Christians who could never turn away from the altar and acknowledge a world in which it did not feature. Just as a cat would never stand up on its hind legs and roll itself a cigarette.

What was the name of his wife, she raged.

Poor Charlotte – a few years ago she would have smiled at Louis’ card and then sat it on a windowsill, where it would have bleached and curled up long into summer. Yet in recent years Edinburgh had slowly broken her heart: its cheeriness had flagged; its parties were smaller and there were greater gaps between them; and its party aristocracy were now all in Berlin or Thailand. She phoned Louis and subsequently met him for a drink (to her relief, he had not given up on the beer). Finally, she was on the nativity committee of his Pentecostal church.

It was a large, popular church because it was thuggish. It was unapologetic about referring to God’s love, and in fact it did so in a tone almost of defiance. However shrivelled the congregations, their hymns were always fleshed out by a nu-metal rock band, whose drum beats slopped and smacked off the walls of the neighbouring buildings. The pouting lead guitarist would drift off predictably into long, creamy solos after every third verse. By now, Louis and his wife had a chaotic gang of small children who trailed around after them. He seemed even younger than before, but with that strained, slightly too emphatic youth of the early thirties, which is tightened a bit more at every gym session and never allowed to relax. His mane of golden hair only accentuated his hardening face and its faintly cavernous eyes. His beauty was now marred by niggling little details. When Charlotte met him at Montpeliers there was a speck of baby sick on his jacket collar and the noise of the students at the next table made him unexpectedly peevish.

“Do you keep in touch with Tycienski?” he asked at one point, brightening suddenly. Something of his old teasing look was fleetingly back.

“He’s still in Edinburgh, skulking about. You have him down as Joseph?”

Louis laughed. “Joseph’s not the most distinguished character. But you’re referring to…?”

Charlotte became serious for a second. “Tychy’s girlfriend ran off with another guy.” She immediately sniggered. “He’s not in Joseph’s league. Imagine having God sleeping with your wife – Joseph must be the biggest cuckold in history. It must be worse than being crucified.”

Whenever Louis was required to defend his faith, he assumed a tone of scientific fairness which always reminded Charlotte vaguely of a mask. “You know, Mary remained a virgin. It’s less miraculous these days. If a woman had never had sex and she was artificially inseminated, it would be a virgin birth.”

Charlotte laughed in his face, but it was she who was tingling with a tiny, generous sense of the miraculous. She had torn through six years, as if they were cobwebs, and taken a seat back in some late night Edinburgh tenement party, to try to henpeck Louis out of his infuriating Christianity one last time.

“You know,” she had once said, “it’s attached itself to you like a gigantic vampire bat. You told me that you have never masturbated. You give out a tenth of your wages as… as a tithe? Is that even a word now?” And Louis had smiled at her, unperturbed but sorrowful, as if he had given up trying to communicate with an eager foreigner who did not have a word of his language. She knew that it was unsporting to attack him because he had removed all of the armour that people normally wore. He obediently confessed every gruesome feature of his life to her, simply because he thought it right to be honest.

Charlotte picked up the thread of 2014 again and realised that they were discussing the open-air nativity. Louis’ church was one of the four at Holy Corner (she could never remember any of the other denominations, but none were Catholic) and they would air the scenes from the nativity at different spots around the crossroads and thereabouts. The performance would take place in the early evening, on the weekend before Christmas. They had recruited some sprightly actors from the Church Hill Theatre am dram soc. As she could imagine, Louis said, now wearing that boyish, dutiful look with which he insisted upon seriousness, there was so much to organise. There would be over a hundred in the audience and Louis knew not how many actors and singers. The scale of the logistics was starting to distress the nativity committee.

It was not for Louis to account for why so many people had agreed to take part in this horrendous operation. It seemed that the Pentecostal regime demanded such a thing and so everybody was obliged to submit. Louis had nonetheless accurately surmised, with that keen, surprising intelligence which frequently shone through his Christian gentleness, that the nativity would appeal at once to Charlotte as an administrative challenge.

As soon as she had a free morning she was out tramping the streets around Holy Corner. She was joined by Mike Sally, the pastor of the Pentecostal mission. He was a thickset little man, middle-aged but awesomely energetic, with eyes that glittered with such a biting blue against the greys of his flesh and overcoat that it looked like the only colour on a hand-painted photograph. She had sought out one of his sermons, on the blogosphere, and for at least ten minutes it was very grand to listen to. Preachers often, to her ear, sounded scared, as if they knew that their sermons were continuously on the verge of being asphyxiated by reality. Sally’s gospel, however, rang out as clear and mighty as a church bell. In person, he seemed mildly perplexed to find himself leading a community mostly of pensioners and children. He would be mentally snug on some desperate frontier, she imagined, rallying the godly against bleak winters and Indian raids.

They first went to Pinks and Posies, one of those wee Morningside shops which display homemade gifts in their windows. The lady behind the till was terrifyingly overexcited to see them. “Please look about,” she hissed wildly. She stepped out from behind her counter, dithered, and then jumped back again. Charlotte wondered whether it would be correct to slap her. She thought how sad it was that the lady was so young and that she had to spend every day in this shop, like somebody confined on a space station.

“This is what makes Morningside such a great place to live,” the little preacher made sure to remark to Charlotte in the lady’s hearing. “These feisty little shops, taking on Tesco and Starbucks and putting some identity and life back into the community!”

Charlotte’s eye fell on the nearest counter and beneath the candles and wooden picture frames, she saw dust as thick as fur.

Sally went obligingly to the counter and began to explain about the nativity crowds. They might block access to the front door of her shop for five minutes. Did she have an alternate fire exit? Charlotte made a study of the shop, anxious to buy something to appease this unfortunate woman. Yet when she picked up the smallest and least expensive item – a felt brooch – a button slipped and dangled on a thread.

They were now out on the streets again. “Starbucks is next,” Charlotte told the preacher. “They’re very keen to get involved. Louis tells me that it’s not one of those cool Starbucks. Every morning it’s teeming with mothers and squawking children. Any hipsters have usually fled after their first espresso.”

Sally smiled, but he was too inwardly peaceful to regard anything in such a satirical light. “Actually before I forget, we should really pop in and speak to this fella Corpusty.”

“Who’s he?”

“The angel [Sally referred to him as familiarly as if he was a beer buddy] will be appearing to the shepherds on that “green,” I guess they call it, opposite this man’s back windows. We should check if it’s okay with him. People usually don’t mind if you give them warning.”

The house waited across the street, an immense, ornate structure with a squat stone tower. They instinctively quickened as they approached it, at once stealthy and exhilarated. The house stood in an unearthly silence, rather as houses do in the seconds after a pistol has been discharged. This house had been undoubtedly designed with the One Thousand and One Nights at the architect’s elbow, possibly leant to him by Stevenson. The Victorians were the last people who toyed, in architecture, with the fantasy that you might stumble upon a lonely, mysterious stone palace in the suburbs of a city.

The noise of the doorbell gargled within the palatial interior.

This must be Corpusty himself who was arriving to answer the door: a neat, spare, somewhat venerable figure, dressed entirely in black, almost doddering, but then shooting a quick, fiery glance at them. Evidently concluding that his visitors were officious but harmless, he immediately grinned and began to roll a chuckle around in his mouth. He was now jocular and plebeian, like a taxi driver on a good day.

Sally began to speak and Corpusty stood in his doorway grinning to himself. Charlotte had the uncertain impression that there were airy, rapid movements in the house behind him, as if an army of decorators was turning everything upside down. She heard grunts and trickling footsteps and then the lumpy sound of furniture being slithered across the floor.

“No,” he said firmly when Sally had finished. His voice was far deeper and more sonorous than Charlotte had anticipated. “I deny all permission.”

The preacher beamed in polite surprise. “Oh dear, I’m sorry to get off on the wrong footing with you sir. But we are not requesting permission. We are notifying you of a very brief event which will take place across the road from your house…”

“Carols?” Corpusty demanded sharply. They both stared at him, expecting him to continue.

“Yes, carols,” Sally resumed. “It’s nice at this time of year – for the children. You know, as somebody affected by this event, you are quite entitled to attend gratis. There will be winter sangria and toffee fig pies.”

The man’s fury was suddenly as thick as the stench of gasoline. He stood frozen and shrunken in his doorway, so rigid that it looked like a single tap on the arm would send him into flames. Sally and Charlotte were promptly backing away, apologising feebly and waving their goodbyes.

Returning to Holy Corner, Charlotte noticed that the preacher was looking dejected; more, in fact, than Corpusty’s rudeness had warranted. She then exclaimed at the misery which was stealing swiftly across Sally’s face.

“I’m sorry, I can’t say why. Talking with that guy just reminded me of when I was in Haiti. I was ministering there after the earthquake. A really low, a really, really black period for me.”

Charlotte didn’t know what to do. “Would you like to talk about it?”

The preacher shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why it came up. Sometimes, you know, a tiny bend in the air or some strange scent can just bring a memory plunging back.”

On the night of the play, Charlotte finally threw up her hands and resolved to leave the administrative machinery running unsupervised. It was too late to make all but the most inconsequential adjustments. The audience was already gathering outside Starbucks, stamping their feet in the cold and with their breath coming out in plumes. Charlotte checked in on the cast and she was pleased to see that each actor was now relaxed and faraway, encased within their gorgeous costumes. The livestock had been delivered earlier in the afternoon and they were being kept out of public view around the back of the Church Hill Theatre, subdued in the shadow of the building.

A small, assured voice piped up above the noise of the crowd and they began to hush and collect around it. This was their guide for the evening: a kitchen hand who had worked in the Bethlehem inn. The audience set off but they had stopped before they had got going, outside the glass façade of Holy Corner’s hair boutique.

Inside, Mary was receiving the angel of the Annunciation. Befitting such a modish venue, the angel’s bare torso was more glossy and vivid than his vast tinsel wings. He grinned sheepishly at the uproar from the audience, handsome in a pantomime fashion. Some of the merrier mothers began to chant, “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Mary, however, remained traditionally po-faced.

The audience was departing when Louis was suddenly flashing on Charlotte’s phone. His voice sounded stiff and bland, as if he was determined not to flinch. The route would have to be diverted immediately. They would need to walk the long way round.

Charlotte ran to brief the kitchen boy. The audience found themselves executing a volte-face and being marched clockwise around the crossroads. The kitchen boy would get quite an earful for this.

Spying Louis and his wife across the street, Charlotte made a run at them and they bundled together in a doorway.

That afternoon, Louis related, the young lady who owned Pinks and Posies had hanged herself. According to a final garbled phone call that the lady had made to her sister, a man in black had come into the shop and announced that he wanted to buy a massive amount of stock – cushions, handbags, and even the eyeless chintz rocking horse. The shop was grossly in debt and this purchase would have allowed the lady to get a hand free. The man had demanded to pay in cash, but when the lady rang up the figure on the till, it wouldn’t open. For several minutes the man had stood and watched the lady try to break into her till, before he had turned and walked out of the shop. At some point over the following hour, the lady had killed herself.

The body was lying on a stretcher in the shop, with the bookends and tea cosies piled up around it like the detritus on a shrine. It would not be fair to make the audience file past.

When Charlotte caught up with the audience again, they had witnessed Mary setting forth on a donkey, with Joseph at her side, to take part in the census, albeit from the entrance of a chocolate confectioner’s which had been generous with the sponsorship money. They had followed the holy couple across a pedestrian crossing and paused again to watch them bedding down for the night in the manger outside the Church Hill Theatre. Charlotte had gathered that this first manger scene had not gone without a hitch. One of the goats had been screaming – literally screaming! – and this had drowned out most of the couple’s dialogue.

Now the audience was heading towards the green where the angel would appear to the shepherds.

Here they encountered a second setback. The scene was intended to begin with a rendition of “Silent Night” by a choir of the local schoolchildren. But that old rascal Corpusty had thrown open all the windows of his mansion and he was playing what sounded like Scandinavian death metal at an apocalyptic volume. Some of the schoolchildren had given up trying to make themselves heard over the building-sized blasts and snorts and they were weeping with frustration. Parents hammered on Corpusty’s front door and one of them had even thrown stones at the windows before they could pull him away. Choir, shepherds, sheep, and a disgruntled-looking angel all reconvened to perform further down in the road. A queue of impatient traffic was building up behind them and the play’s director was forced to double as a lollypop man.

To recover lost time, the scene with the Magi in the Christmas gifts aisle of Tesco was now just a display of costumes, without any dialogue. Yet as the audience were proceeding back to the Church Hill Theatre for the climactic manger scene, they were regaled with a bewildering vision. Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus – a real new-born baby, incidentally – were clinging to the back of their donkey as it scampered furtively down Morningside road. The director tried to give chase, but this was futile. Charlotte stared about in a state of awful confusion, completely at a loss, and then Louis’ wife had swiftly taken her hand.

She was a plain homely woman, who generally, in Charlotte’s experience, looked either bored or worried. Louis rarely alluded to her, although he had once remarked to Charlotte that his wife never came out for drinks because she was always tired.

“This has to stop,” the woman whispered.

“Louis has your children?” Charlotte pressed.

The woman nodded and then quietly, she was weeping.

A swarthy figure in what looked like a mummer’s mask leapt out into the path of the audience. Within an instant Charlotte was flabbergasted to have recognised this mask as the severed head of the chintz rocking horse from Pinks and Posies. “This way please,” the figure commanded, pointing them to the Sony electrical store across the street.

They hesitated in the mouth of the darkened building, but the doors hung wide open.

“Keep going!” another voice urged from a window overhead.

The audience ebbed cautiously into the store but Charlotte and Louis’ wife paused, hand in hand, at the window. On a throne which had been erected beneath a shelf of flat screen televisions, a tiny oriental king, wrapped in twisted robes, sat and wrung his hands. His dull eyes were staring fixedly ahead and his jaw danced wildly in his face. A band of men with their faces obscured by hoods drew near and the king was able to turn and manage a perceptible bob of the head at them. The figures melted away and the king continued to rattle in his throne, like a corpse shaking in its coffin on a bumpy road.

Outside the Sony store the crowd attempted to disperse but a line of men in hoods stepped forward and started to shoo them back towards Holy Corner. Charlotte tried to pull Louis’ wife into the cover of a side road, but a man sprinted up to them brandishing something which resembled a spear and the two women scrambled back, yelping apologies.

A woman stood lamenting in the road. She was slapping at her head remorselessly, with tired but methodical blows.

The streets were all at once deserted – perhaps the traffic had been blocked off. Some parents were falling over each other, frantic to locate their unattended children. A spark of intuition shot through Charlotte’s brain and she followed it without further thought. She made a dash for Starbucks and Louis’ wife paddled along behind her as dumbly as a shrimp. Others followed, shouting recklessly. The banshee behind them was murmuring over and over again, as if her voice was looped in some rhythm of grief, “The prophesy is fulfilled!”

There were stains on the pavement outside Starbucks which Charlotte could pick out from a distance as blood. Otherwise the building seemed to have reared out of whitewash, lit majestically in stark, sterile light from multiple floodlights. Louis’ words pealed in her head: it is always full of children, every day it is like a nursery.

Louis’ wife was slowing them down and Charlotte had to yank her arm to get her going again. “Come on!” she squealed.

The building swam in front of them under the floodlights. Then fumes punched Charlotte somewhere in the stomach and she ducked, retching. She heard Louis’ wife gasp and then scream in a thin sound which seemed to grow wide and white and become suspended in the air above them like a billowing banner.

“Rachel, take my hand,” Charlotte said unthinkingly. But Rachel swirled away into the night, a deranged spinning figure with waving arms.

The earlier voice was now at Charlotte’s side. “The prophesy is fulfilled,” she sobbed thickly. “I cannot ever be comforted.”

Charlotte stared around, not wanting to look anywhere, but her eyes became caught on the sight of bedraggled fleshy shapes which lay across the floor of Starbucks. A yellow wet floor sign had been planted in front of them. She supposed that they must be the frozen carcasses of piglets which had all somehow spilled out of a crate. Then she had found Louis’ face. “Look at my face,” he implored. “Keep looking into my face. Come with me. Nothing is real. Keep looking into my face.” She collapsed into his side and his arm snapped around her. For a while they staggered like a single discombobulated creature with four legs down the street, fanned by the beautifully sweet and gentle night air. Their destination turned out to be a gazebo which had been set up outside the Pentecostal church.

Behind a table, Mike Sally looked up from the wassail bowl in concern. Louis gestured to him to dole out another plastic cup.

When Sally looked up again, Mr Corpusty had joined the queue for the wassail.

“You son of a bitch,” Sally growled. “You’ve the gall to show up here again tonight?”

“An imposition was made upon my privacy,” Corpusty observed. “I gave as good as I got.”

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