And it came to pass that Joe, who was a bit on the old side for procreating, found his missus preggers.
"Bit of a turn-up for the books!" he exclaimed "And the return's overdue. If I don't make it to Bethlehem in time I'm going to get fined; too late to bung it in the post, and the internet's down again."
Bethlehem is a small village near Carlisle. Having benefitted from the rural initiative grant scheme, it was now the HMRC headquarters in the north.
"And I suppose you think I'm going to walk all that way?" Mary replied. "If you'd got the car serviced like I said instead of spending it all on that daft sister of yours we'd be there in an hour. Tell you what, I'll ride the donkey, you can walk. In my condition, 'n' all."
"You don't have to come," Joe returned "I can do it myself. I'll be back tomorrow."
"Yeah, right." Mary said. "You'll be off with your mates to the pub. I'm coming with you."
So off they went, Mary on the donkey, Joe walking. And it snowed.
"Snow, in December!" Joe moaned. "Global warming or what? Someone should've listened to that Michael Fish."
"Told you to wear your hat." Mary said, helpfully.
Just as they got to Bethlehem Mary felt a pain. Joe said she always felt a pain, but this time something was up.
"Oooooh." she cried. "You know, I think I'm having it."
"Having it?" Joe questioned.
"The baby. I'm having it."
"Oh, well, that's handy then. Right here, in the snow?"
"There's a pub. We'll get a room. Someone will know what to do."
"See? If I was on my own I wouldn't be going to the pub. I told you to stay at home. Must have been all that jogging up and down on the donkey."
Joe went into the bar and asked the guvnor whether he did B&B.
The guvnor laughed. "We do B&B, but you've got no chance. It's Christmas, the Plod are out in force, stopping anyone and breathalysing them. Targets, you know. We're fully booked until after new year."
"Yebbut, my missus is up the duff. She's having it. Like, now! Surely you can fit us in?" Joe pleaded.
"Not a chance, mate." the guvnor replied. "And don't call me Shirley."
"And what am I meant to do? She's having it. Large. You can't expect her to do it outside in the road, what with the snow coming down cats and dogs."
"Look, out the back there's a barn. Used to keep chickens in it until the EU said we couldn't. Bit mucky, there's a trough in there they used to eat from. And straw, used to keep the eggs warm. I say, a bit mucky, but you can have it for nowt if you like. We can probably find some blankets and stuff. Not ideal. Best bet would be the hospital, but that closed down in the last load of cuts, along with the Post Office, school and the shops."
"Great." Joe said miserably. "Just great. Here we are, miles from home, car packed up, chucking it down with snow, and we get to sleep in a barn. Great. I'll tell Mary, then."
Mary was not too chuffed. "Do what?" she cried. "A bloody barn? I'm not having it. Where's the nearest hospital?"
"There isn't one, any more." Joseph replied. "It got shut down with all the other infrastructure in the latest cutbacks. It's now the HMRC HQ."
"Right then, let's get on with it. Soap, towels, blankets, gin." Mary said, rather bossily.
"Leave it to me," Joe replied eagerly "I'll be back in a mo."
Joe left Mary in the barn and went to the pub.
"Any chance of soap, towels, stuff like that?" he asked the guvnor.
"Expect so. Are you having anything? Beer?" the guvnor encouraged.
"Is the Pope a catholic?"
"Right you are, pint of Best," the guvnor complied "Marge! Can you get some soap and towels from the laundry room for this chap?"
"Cheers, mate!" Joe exclaimed gratefully. "All the best."
An hour later, Joe went back to the barn with the stuff.
"Where's my gin, then?" Mary asked, brusquely.
"Forgot." Joe replied.
"Forgot? Bet you didn't forget to have one for yourself?"
"Er, hold on, I'll go and get you one." Joe offered.
"Forget it. You'll be gone ages. Anyhow, it's coming. Feels like it's coming nooooooooooooooooow!" Mary shrieked, and with that she had the kid.
Joe put the towels in the trough and popped the little chap on top, then covered it up with his jumper.
"Well done, girl!" Joe congratulated Mary. "I thought that was going to be a long job."
"Off you go and get my gin then. I'll have a large one, ice and a slice." Mary said, relieved.
Joe went back into the bar and got Mary's gin, and another beer for himself. Half an hour later, he went back into the barn, where the new arrival had just disgraced himself all over the towels.
"Cor, what's that smell?" Joe asked.
"The little man, he's done a number two." Mary explained. "Not too good."
"But he hasn't eaten anything yet!" Joe pointed out. "How has he managed that?"
"Better clean it up," Mary said "I'll have my drink."
"Great." moaned Joe. "Just great."
~ 2 ~
It happened that there was also a meeting of MENSA, North of England branch, in the pub that night. All three of them were there. Very clever chaps, but like many clever chaps, not necessarily wise.
One of them, Mel, looked up from his Su Doku and commented "That bloke who just came in, did he say something about his missus being in the club?"
"Aye, that he did." agreed Gaz. "Said he was staying in the barn, upstairs is full again."
"What's happening out back?" Mel shouted, in the general direction of the bar.
"Bloke's missus just had a kid!" the guvnor responded. "They're out the back, in the barn. Too bloody cold, I reckon, but there's no room in the B&B, Plod being on the case 'n' all."
"Aye, that's true enough." Gaz agreed. "Perhaps we ought to take them something round, to cheer them up?"
"Reckon that would be much appreciated." the guvnor said.
The three bright chaps thought about it, and came to a decision. They would get whatever they could, shops being shut not helping, and pop round to see the new arrival and give it something meaningful.
"I've got a gold watch. Won it in the chess championship last year, don't really like it. Do you think that would be a good thing?" Mel asked.
"Aye!" the others agreed.
Gaz offered "I've got one of those joss stick burners, got it from Glastonbury earlier in the year, cheap, it was the last day. Might be handy to disguise those 'baby' smells, don't you think?"
"Aye!" the others agreed.
The third man said "I've got a bottle of Mure in my room upstairs. Use it to mix with the rubbish red wine they sell in here, makes it palatable. It's not open, so it would be a good pressie. No?"
"Aye!" the others agreed,predictably.
So the three fetched their respective presents and went to the barn.
"Eyup!" they said, in unison.
"Who are you?" Mary asked.
"We're just three blokes who were in t'pub." said Gaz.
"Having a meeting, but more having a beer." agreed Mel.
The third man said "So we thought we'd pop over and congratulate you, heard about the nipper, brought you a couple of bits."
They presented the Gold watch, incense burner, and Mure.
"What's this?" Joe asked.
The third man explained "This is Gold," pointing to the watch "and, to be frank, incense; a burner that came from Glastonbury. And this is a bottle of Mure, goes well in cheap red wine."
"Well, cheers, blokes." said Joe. "The littl'un's in the trough over there. Don't wake him up, I've just put a clean nappy on him."
"Ahhh" the three said, as everyone does when they see a tiny asleep. And they left.
Joe and Mary wrapped themselves up in the blankets and went to sleep for the night.
~ 3 ~
Cumbria is one of the few places left in the north that still farms sheep. It's used for wool, milk and for getting massive subsidies from the EU. At lunchtime on Boxing Day, being a bank holiday, three sheep farmers made their way to the Dog and Ferret to have an extended lunchtime beer.
Supping their beer, one of them overhead the guvnor telling one of the regulars "rare old thing the night before last, a chap came in with his missus, had to put them in the barn. Snowing like a snowy thing, it was, and she was in the club, and had the kid right there and then. They'll be over in a minute for lunch. Don't normally do lunch Boxing Day but as it's busy the cook's in."
"Excuse me!" butted in one of the sheep farmers. "Tell you what, I can get you a couple of decent lamb legs, had them just defrosted 'cos sis was coming over with the family, but one of the kids got the flu and they can't come. Be a shame to waste it."
"That'd be really great." said the guvnor's wife. "I'll swap the legs for a free dinner for you three."
"That's good of you!" said the sheep farmer. "You're an angel!"
"Aww, think nothing of it." she replied. "You know there's the couple who came in the night before last, the ones that had the kid? They'll be really grateful. My name's Gabby, by the way. Short for Gabrielle, but they call me Gabby."
The sheep farmer went off to get the lamb, he'd only had one beer so he was under the limit. On the way back though, he got stopped for using the mobile phone and got a £30 fine.
Joe and Mary came over with the boy, enjoyed the lamb. The sheep farmers had a quick look at the kid and saw that Gabby had been telling the truth, though it's difficult to understand why they would have thought otherwise.
But not everything was good news. In the excitement, Joe had forgotten about taking in his return. Tomorrow was too late, and today, being a bank holiday, the HMRC office was shut.
You'd think it was their money, the way they carried on. Threats, paperwork, picky officers going through the returns with a fine toothcomb. The particular officer in charge of Joe's case was a chap called Mr Herod. They don't have first names, the officers. Just Herod.
In a flash of inspiration, Joe hatched a story which even Herod couldn't pick at. He'd use the boy as an excuse. Write a letter to the HMRC office, and send in the return, tell them that he WOULD have sent it back on time, which effectively was about three weeks ago, but the wife had the baby early, that sort of thing. Even Herod wouldn't be so cruel as to penalise him for something so beyond his control.
And that's what he did. Crafted an excuse, popped it in the envelope with the return, sent it off.
Two days later, when Joe and Mary had returned home, there was a knock on the door. Mary answered it, and there stood one of Herod's henchmen.
"Apparently you have a newborn, about four weeks old?" the henchman said. "I'm from HMRC, we've got a cock-and-bull story which, frankly, we don't believe, and I've come to see the evidence for myself."
Mary was taken aback. Four weeks old? What had Joe been up to? She wasn't about to give the game away, though.
Joe, in the kitchen, overheard what was going on. He panicked. He had to hide the baby. Anyone would quickly see that the wrinkly little thing wasn't anywhere near four weeks old. Quickly, he stuffed him into a shopping basket, ran out the back, across the road to the stream, and stuffed the basket in some reeds. He ran back into the house, and was confronted by the officer.
"My name is Mr Crewell." announced the henchman. "I need to see this newborn to validate the story which, quite frankly, we believe you made up in order to disguise the fact that your return is late, and if we find that you have been disingenuous, you will be prosecuted to the maximum extent allowed by law, including, but not limited to, a massive fine and life imprisonment, as well as indefinite interest on any further payments you may make to us in the next twenty-five years."
"Ah." said Joe, rather inadequately. Then continued, after some hesitation "He's asleep."
"No matter," said Mr Crewell, "I just need to see him to ensure that this isn't all nonsense."
"He's asleep, but he's not here either." Joe responded, vainly hoping that this apparition would evaporate into nothingness with a brief and quiet 'poof!'
"If he's not here, how do you know he's asleep?" enquired Mr Crewell, rather obviously.
"Because it's one o'clock, and he's always asleep at one o'clock." responded Joe, lamely.
"And if he's not here, then where is he?" asked Mr Crewell.
"He's at the babysitters'."
"And where, may I ask, is the babysitter?"
"With the boy."
"Good. Then perhaps you can take me there, and the business will be finished."
"We might wake him up."
"I will promise to be extremely quiet."
"Can we wait an hour, until he's awake?" Joe ventured. "He always wakes up about two o'clock, for his feed."
"What do you mean, 'always'?" Mary helpfully interjected.
"Well, he is, isn't he? He was yesterday, for instance." Joe blabbered.
"I see. Yes, then." Mary said, grudgingly.
"Two o'clock, and not a moment later. I have other important business. I really do despise some aspects of this job" grumbled Mr Crewell.
"Cup of tea?" Mary offered.
"Lemon. No sugar." Crewell said, rudely.
"I must pop out. Won't be long." said Joe, and hurried out of the back door.
~ 4 ~
Joe retrieved the shopping basket from the river, with the youngster still intact. Luckily. He needed a plan. He didn't know anyone with an approximately four-week old kid, and it wasn't likely that a complete stranger, even assuming he could find one in the next half-hour, would be willing to lend him one.
One option would be to flee. Not a good option, especially with the little chap in his possession. If Herod and his men didn't find him, Mary would, and his life wouldn't be worth living. Emigrate? Perhaps to Egypt? Not really. The responsibility of the tot in a strange country, without access to any money - a non-starter.
So, a suitable baby needed to be found and quickly. A loan? With his baby as a deposit, a hostage, if you like. Where do four-week old kids hang out? Maternity wards? No, they get them in and out in days. Playschool? Too early. Creche? Too early. Supermarkets? Perfect. Even mothers need to shop. And dads would be dead keen to get back to work, for the rest.
So, faced with a crisis of monstrous proportions in the form of one Mr Herod and his henchman Crewell, Joe went shopping.
In the supermarket, Joe found what he was looking for. A roughly four-week old, in blue. Same colour hair as he, face like a bulldog. Perfect. All he needed to do now was to borrow the thing. Just for half an hour, enough time to nip back, present it to Crewell, and his work was done. The little chap seemed to belong to someone though, a rather pretty lady of comparatively tender years, buying egg custard in a jar. A story was needed, and quickly. Luckily Joe had in his possession a slightly smelly offspring of his own, always a good conversation starter. He approached the mother, gingerly, and sidled up to her.
"I don't suppose there is any chance that you might have a spare nappy about you?" Joe enquired.
"Hm. I think I smell what you mean." replied the lady, with a wry smile.
"I'd really appreciate it. I'm only out for a few minutes and I didn't bring anything with me." Joe said, truthfully.
"Of course. Hold on a moment, there's one in the bottom of my bag. There's a changing room in the loo at the back of the shop. Would you like me to help you with it?" asked Mother.
It's a funny thing. Men alone in shops are always the object of every lady's attentions, whether it be shop assistants or customers. They seem to want to help the hapless man.
"Would you? That would be great!" said Joe, and made for the back of the shop.
The job duly done, Joe was wondering how he could broach the subject of borrowing the stranger's pride and joy. He could think of absolutely no way to start, and did not have the neck to just come right out and ask.
"You seem a bit edgy." said Mother. "Are you all right?"
Joe hesitated. "Er, sort of. You'd think I was mad if I told you."
"Try me." invited Mother.
"Well, it's a long story, and I don't have the time." Joe replied. "It's sort of life and death, sort of, you see. I have half an hour to find a four-week old looking boy to show to someone."
"I'm intrigued." encouraged Mother.
"I have exaggerated a story a little, and my bluff has been called." Joe explained. "And now, I have a Mr Crewell of HMRC in my house, wanting to see evidence of something which I don't have. That being the said four-week old number. And I have this little chap, who obviously is a very recent addition to the human race, and even the henchman - sorry, officer - isn't going to buy that."
"Mr Crewell, you say?" said Mother.
"Crewell by name ..." started Joe.
"So am I!" interrupted Mother.
Joe's heart leaped into his mouth, displacing the foot which had been there only seconds ago. He was taken aback. He had no idea at all what to do or say, and wanted again to wake up from this terrible dream, this nightmare to end all nightmares.
"Well, I was." continued the lady.
"What? Was? Eh? Argh!" Joe stammered, looking round for the nearest exit.
"Crewell." Mother explained. "The man in your house is my ex-husband. Mr Crewell of Her Maj's Moneygrubbers."
"He seems a lot older than you." Joe observed.
"He seems it. He's only a couple of years older than me. And he is truly a horrible man. I honestly don't know what I was doing. Most of the officers are like him, too. Creepy. I'm happy again now, as you can see from Moses here! My new husband is a victim of Crewell, that's how I met him, sort of."
Joe breathed a deep, long and very visible sigh of relief.
"So you want to borrow my little laddie. How long for? Where?" offered Mother.
"For about half an hour, now, at my house, five minutes' walk away." replied Joe, hardly believing his luck.
"No problem. He mustn't see me." said Joe's new-found friend.
"I'll make sure. Can you look after my babe?" Joe asked.
"Of course." Mother replied. "Insurance." And she gave that wry smile again.
They made their way back to Joe and Mary's house, made the swap. Mother, who turned out to be of the name Wendy Wenceslas, was playing with the few-day old chap in the park a block away. Joe returned to the kitchen via the back door, carrying Moses in his arms. He was gurgling away, like small things do. And Crewell was furious.
"Ah. I see." Crewell said, numbly. He wanted his pound of flesh. There was no flesh to be had. People like Crewell want bad things, and they thrive on bad things. Robbed of his opportunity, he hurriedly made his exit.
Just as he left, Mary came into the kitchen from the living room.
"Who's this?" she asked, confused. "And where's ours?"
"Don't worry. Don't be afraid." Joe comforted. "Because it's good news. Ours is in safe hands, and I'll get him back in a few moments. This one is Moses. Don't ask. I borrowed him from someone I met in the shop. Wendy Something. She's Crewell's ex."
"And you really expect me to believe that?" Mary asked. "This is too far-fetched for words."
"You couldn't make it up, could you?" Joe said. "But we're out of trouble. Hold on to Moses for a second, I'll be back."
With that, he went off to fetch Wendy, and the happy chappie. They returned to the house together, much to the relief of Mary.
"Well, all's well that ends well!" Joe said, inadequately.
"Just by way of interest, what's your baby's name?" Wendy asked.
"Er, well, we sort of haven't got around to thinking much about it yet." Mary said. "We were going to call him 'Christmas' but it sounds a bit silly."
"How about 'Jesus'?" Wendy offered. "Why not? It's becoming more and more popular these days."
So Jesus it was. Joe, Mary and Wendy became the best of friends. And Jesus grew up with Moses. And Crewell got his come-uppance.
And Herod? Well, he seems to have vanished somewhere in history.
And that's the story of Christmas.