The Christmas Commission
This Christmas story was published in the Reading Camera Club Newsletter in December 1990. The story of the shepherds, including their names, is "borrowed" from an original medaeval mystery play.
by Steve Wells
I have never liked Christmas. Frankly I think Scrooge suffered from a bad press. After all, its nothing but a chance to spend money which I can't afford on presents (which no-one wants), on turkey (which I don't like) and on Spanish red wine (which I like even less). So, I have to admit I welcomed chance to get out of the country for a few days during the so-called festive season. Festive! - HUMBUG!!
Mind you, I thought at the time that the commission looked a bit strange:
That last bit sounded particularly good, but I was still inclined to proceed with my first plan - to ignore the whole thing and hide in a darkened room until Christmas had blown over. I thought I could just about cope with nothing more than a freezer full of pizzas, a microwave cooker, a bottle of Whisky and a collection of "Blackadder" tapes. Then it occurred to me that I could drop in on Rachel. I hadn't seen Rachel for years; married now to a university professor in Tel Aviv and, presumably, a bit quieter now than when we were at college together.
So I convinced myself that I should take the commission and found myself a few hours later in the duty free shop at Heathrow wondering what kind of perfume Rachel used these days. Eventually I selected a fancy looking bottle labled "Frankincense" - it seemed appropriate for Christmas.
A quick drive to the Left Bank to photograph a few shepherds couldn't, I decided, take more than a few hours so, after landing, I phoned Rachel, arranged to visit the following day and went in search of the promised transport. Now, I may be a bit naive, but I had expected a car, or maybe a jeep. The camel took me a little by surprise. It was towering over a nearby taxi whose driver eyed it with some trepidation. As I approached, it not yet having dawned on me that the camel was mine, the camel did as the driver had feared; what comes naturally in a big pat straight through the sun-roof. The driver exploded and a crowd gathered. I do not speak Hebrew, but it was not necessary; the driver's meaning came across without translation.
By this time I had begun to suspect who the camel was waiting for, and I was just backing off quietly when the camel's handler noticed me. How he knew me I don't know, but there was no doubt in his voice. The crowd parted to allow me through and the taxi driver took a deep breath ready to start again. Three attempts to reach the camel's back did not make for a dignified exit.
Perhaps it has not occurred to you, but modern airports are not designed for camels; an oversight perhaps, but there it is. Perhaps, equally, it has not occurred to you that the camel is not ideally designed for the human posterior. It was, therefore, with bruises both to my ego and to my seat that, more than six hours later, I found myself outside the city on the way to the Left Bank. Clearly I was going to be late for my appointment with Rachel, and camels are not fitted with car phones.
The Left Bank could be a very nice place if they could decide who it belongs to. As it is, there are soldiers everywhere; soldiers and checkpoints. The checkpoint to which the camel was lurching reminded me of border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Concrete blocks on each side to prevent cars straying off the main carriageway; discretely placed machine guns trained on every traveller. It was the kind of place which Robert Capa should have photographed - not me. I didn't even speak the language. Luckily, the camel's handler arranged everything and after discussing the matter for an hour, taking a cup of tea and passing a small note from one hand to another we passed through.
By now the heat was getting particularly oppressive and it was difficult to distinguish the road ahead; in the heat it looked like a great reflecting pool. A body of marching men ahead were just visible of us. Presumably soldiers because they were marching in files, but it was difficult to see detail. Shining glints of metal above their heads suggested that maybe they had bayonets fixed. I turned to the handler to see if he knew who they were.
All of a sudden, despite the heat, I broke out in a cold sweat. The handler had gone. I was alone, on a camel which I couldn't control, on a road in the middle of nowhere, with no map and with a company of unknown soldiers with fixed bayonets bearing down on me. Robert Capa or Don McCullin could have coped with this, but definitely not me.
I did what any right minded person would do under the circumstances. I panicked. I leaped from the camel just as I remembered seeing it done in Lawrence of Arabia. As I hit the ground I remembered that this wasn't Hollywood. I twisted my ankle; not badly enough to stop me walking, but enough to make every step painful. I crawled away from the road and hid behind some low bushes hoping that the cover would be enough to prevent the soldiers discovering me. The camel having been relieved of its burden decided to stop for a bite to eat and, as was my luck, decided to eat my cover. I shrank closer to the ground and watched for the soldiers.
Then, suddenly, I panicked again; this was not good for my nerves. My whole life flashed in front of me as a voice, a very close voice, said, in an impeccable American accent, "I don't suppose the camel is yours, but I can find you a buyer".
I looked round to see a dishevelled shepherd crouching next to me. I guessed he was a shepherd because a rather small lamb was looking out from under his tunic.
"Look stranger" said the shepherd. He said it in a kind of drawl and I wondered if, as a child, Clint Eastwood had ever performed in a nativity play. "Unless you get out of sight before the legion gets here," he pointed to the approaching soldiers, "you won't see dawn tomorrow. Do you understand?"
I was beginning to understand.
He dragged me away from the camel towards some rocks set back from the road. My ankle throbbed as I climbed. Why I should have decided to trust this stranger rather than the soldiers wasn't clear then, and isn't clear now, but I followed. Hidden twenty feet above we watched as a company of Roman Soldiers - not with bayonets fixed, but with long spears held aloft - approached.
"Are they making a film?" I asked.
The shepherd looked at me carefully. Eventually he spoke, "Mighty strange clothes". I was beginning to tire of the Clint Eastwood imitation. "'spose you're from out of town like the others?"
"Others?" I asked, trying not to sound like John Wayne.
"Sure, these two guys came yesterday. They was askin' about a King, and they had camels. Say, you're not one of them magicians are you?"
By now I was convinced that I was in the hands of a madman. I played along. "I think you mean Magi."
"Yea', that's what I said. There were two of them passed through here yesterday."
The soldiers halted. I looked carefully to see if I could see the cameras. I couldn't. Then they killed the camel. It wasn't pretend. The animal was dead. This was for real. The lamb began to bleat. Limping, I followed the shepherd as he slipped behind the rocks out of sight of the soldiers. I didn't have too many choices. I considered whether I should ditch the camera. The heavy bag wasn't helping as I limped along. I decided to keep it.
We travelled for a couple of hours over the rough ground without seeing anyone closer than the far hillsides. I got the impression that it was the shepherd's intention not to be seen. I supposed that it must be something to do with the soldiers. Once we hid ourselves in the scrub as a Roman search party passed. I took a few photographs of the scene. You know the kind of thing, arid desert under a deep blue sky with a strategically placed rock in the foreground to give depth. The soldier's red leather costumes looked good in that kind of setting. They seemed to fit in an odd picturesque sort of way. Eventually they went away and we were left to ourselves beneath the blue sky and a baking sun.
The shepherd, whose name was Mak, helped me over the worst ground. In general, however, he seemed to think that a twisted ankle was nothing much to complain about. To cheer me up he told me about a friend of his whose leg had been bitten off by a lion. I limped on behind him still carrying the camera gear.
As evening approached we came upon a track. It wasn't the sort of track you would normally take any notice of; about eight feet wide with ruts, but Mak began to look about even more warily. Rounding a corner we found ourselves among low buildings. Coloured the same as the earth, they were for the most part in a poor state of repair. Mak pointed to one of them, which seemed to me to be among the poorest of them all, and whispered in my ear. It was, it seemed, an Inn. I was just thinking that maybe they had a telephone and that I could phone Rachel when Mak pulled me down an alley. Roman Soldiers marched past on the road. With one hand he held me down. With the other he comforted the lamb to stop it bleating.
"We've gotta get out of sight. There's an old stable down here. Gyll will be waiting."
"My wife". I looked at Mak carefully. It had never occurred to me that he might be married.
There was a light inside the stable. Mak called out, "Hey, Gyll, it's me. Open up." There was a sound of bolts being moved back and slowly the door opened a fraction. A shadowed face looked out.
"So, you've turned up at last."
"Yea, an' see what I've got." He showed her the lamb. Gyll wasn't looking at the lamb. She was looking at me, and at the large bag I was carrying.
"A guy I found on the road on the run from the Romans."
"You sure he's not a spy. He might be going to run for the priests?"
"He's not goin' to run anywhere with that ankle."
"Oh, Lord, havn't you got any sense, Mak? I suppose you've been dragging him over the hills in that state, and you havn't even bandaged it up properly." She turned to give him a clout round the ear, and saw the lamb. "Not again, Mak! One of these day's they'll catch you and you'll be hanged." She hustled us both inside the stable.
Inside the stable, the remains of the stalls had been curtained off to provide some kind of privacy - for bedrooms I supposed. In one corner was an old manger filled with rather filthy straw.
The arguments continued. Mak expressed his liking for mutton stew and, while bandaging my ankle, Gyll worried that if the shepherds who owned the lamb turned up there would be trouble. I began to realise why Mak had been so secretive on the walk over the hills.
Gyll worried. "If they come before he's killed and they hear him bleat...".
"OK", said Mak, "go and bar the door." She was only just in time. There was a loud bang and the door shook. Angry voices swore vengeance on Mak. The thought that I might have got involved in sheep stealing which was, apparently, a hanging offence in the parts, galvanised me into unexpected action. I grabbed the camera gear and dived behind the curtain into one of the old stalls.
Mak and Gyll ignored me. Mak was holding the lamb.
"What shall I do with it?"
"I've thought of a trick", said Gyll. "Pretend it's a baby. Tie it up and put it in the manger till they've gone - its like a cradle. I'll lie down like in childbed and make a wailing din."
Mak tied the lamb's legs together, wrapped it in a cloth and put it in the manger. "And I shall say that you gave birth to a little boy this very night." He turned to the door and called out in a loud voice, "If you can, good people, speak quietly, for the sake of a sick woman in distress."
Gyll wailed and played her part with gusto. "Go somewhere else! I can hardly breathe. Every step you take makes my head ring." The beating on the door got louder and Mak opened the door; before they broke it down.
I watched from behind the curtain as two shepherds burst in. The room suddenly seemed very crowded. "One of our sheep has been stolen. They say it was you, Mak", shouted a large heavy shepherd.
I considered what Robert Capa might have done in these circumstances. I came to the almost immediate conclusion that what he would have done was not get into these circumstances in the first place. I fiddled with the camera hoping to get some candid shots of the shepherds - after all, it was what I was commissioned to take! The exposure seemed to be something like 2 hours at f1.4. Ah well, maybe I could get someone to boil the film in print developer for an hour or so.
Mak kept his cool, but the wild west seemed to be wilder than ever. "Hey you guys. Ransack the house if you think there's anything to find - but you'll pay when you find there's nothing. Noon in Main Street, then go for your ..."
The Shepherd approached the cradle causing Gyll to cry out with even more histrionic fury. "Get away from my baby. Not so near."
They started to ransack the house, taking no notice of Gyll's cries. It wasn't long before I was found. I looked up benignly, fired a flash gun and said that all I was doing was reading the meter. I don't think they believed me.
Gyll mistook the sudden flash. "Help, they're setting fire to the stable - to my house. Help, I'm swooning. Out, thieves, from my house! You've come here to rob us."
"Who're you", asked the shepherd.
"Oh, he's an old friend of mine," said Mak. He came along to help..."
I caught on. "Oh, yes... I came to help with..."
"...with the baby." Mak completed, pushing me back behind the curtain. The shepherd, convinced that I was hiding the lamb, pushed me back into the room and searched the old stall carefully.
Finally the two men seemed certain that there was nothing to be found; no sheep or meat of any kind. "I swear I can't find any livestock except what's in the manger. And that smells so bad its just like our lamb."
"Aye, we've been tricked". Disconsolently they left. Mak and Gyll looked at each other and started to laugh. As they started to tell each other how clever they were when there was a knock at the door. It was one of the shepherds.
"Mak", he called through the door. "We've been thinking. We didn't give your new baby a proper welcome. We should really."
Gyll dived for the bed as Mak opened the door. The shepherd walked straight over to the manger, his eyes looking straight ahead. He was studiously ignoring me. "Can I give your baby a present?"
"No, said Mak", realising that he shouldn't have let them in again. "He's asleep, you'll wake him."
"No, uncover him a bit. What's this, he's got a lot of hair for a newborn babe! and he's got horns. Its the devil!". He paused for a moment as the truth dawned. "Its our lamb. Look, here's the mark on his ear." He looked at Mak and Gyll, who were sidling towards the door. "Not so fast."
The other shepherd blocked the door. He was large and threatening. Mak and Gyll looked suitably threatened. I smiled as if this was the most normal thing in all the world. I wondered if I should fire the flash again.
Mak opened his mouth and most wonderful music began. For a moment I thought it was Mak singing. But no! These voices were at once beautiful and unearthly. Both Natural and Unnatural. They sang of great joy in the sweetest of harmonies.
All differences between us vanished as we all went outside to the field behind the old stable. The shepherds carried the lamb. Mak and Gyll held each other still recovering from their fright. In the sky were bright figures. They dazzled my eyes and I had to look away - back towards the shack and the Inn beyond. I saw a group of figures move from the Inn to the stable; a man and a woman. Another man led the way with a lamp.
I returned to the bright figures and stood mesmerised as the joy of life thrilled though me. Then I began to wonder how to expose for bright figures flying against a dark sky. I decided that I didn't know. I set the camera on automatic and fired a few frames. Then I set it on manual and took a set of exposures from 1/30th at f1.4 to 1/500th at f22. Then the film ran out.
The singing reached a great climax and suddenly stopped. In the silence I heard a baby cry. We all heard it. It came from the stable: from the place where Mak and Gyll had tried to hide the lamb; where the shepherds had been about to fight with Mak; where I had rested my ankle.
Together, without talking we walked back to the stable. Inside were a man and a woman standing by the manger, and in the manger was a new born child. The child, even though it was just a few minutes old, seemed to smile. No-one said anything; there was nothing to say. There was a commotion outside the door.
"...but Sirs, this is just a small stable. I have much finer rooms - much more suitable."
"This is where we want to be", said a voice with an accent which I couldn't place. The door was pushed aside and in walked two finely dressed men. They were dressed in bright reds and golds and wore turbans decorated with flashing jewels. They each carried an exquisitely carved sandlewood box. I had seen such boxes before, but only in museums.
"I'm sorry for the disturbance", said the Inn Keeper to the man standing by the manger. "I thought it would be quiet here for you and your wife." The woman smiled at him, thanked him for helping them and assured him that everything was all right.
The taller of the newcomers looked to the manger, bowed and presented the child with the sandlewood box. "My Lord, this is gold. I give it so that you may never have need in this world."
The second stranger then stepped forward. "Sire, this is myrrh. I give it that in the time after this life you may be honoured."
I don't know what came over me, but there seemed only one thing to do. I stepped forward and presented, to the child, the bottle of duty free perfume. I don't remember what I said, but the mother thanked me. I was about to step back when I saw that as the child had moved to look at me, a piece of straw had become dislodged and had fallen across his face. I reached out and removed it. I stepped back still clutching the piece of straw.
We stood there for nearly an hour. I considered the scene photographically. How would Cecil Beaton have made a Vogue spread out of it? Then I remembered that my camera was out of film. It didn't seem the right time or place to load a new one, so the opportunity was missed. Eventually we all seemed to decide at once that the child should rest and that perhaps we should leave.
We gathered in the bar of the Inn. Frankly I don't remember much about this part of the events of the day. The shepherds talked in whispers about the figures in the sky - they didn't really seem to understand the significance of the child. Since I and the two other strangers were clearly wealthy and from out of town, the landlord kept plying us with drinks in the hope, I suppose, that we might bring him some more custom later. After a fruitless hour in which I totally failed to explain where I came from, I left.
Dawn was breaking oven the eastern hills and there was a freshness in the air. There was the path down the side of the Inn towards the stable. I thought of going to pay my respects and to apologise for intruding last night, but thought better of it.
I started walking; my ankle wasn't giving too much trouble, but I promised myself that I would get a new, lighter camera.
As the sun rose and the heat increased. I began to regret the number of drinks I had accepted. I began to wonder whether a hangover was part of the original Christmas festivity. Ahead I saw ahead a familiar building. Flat, subdued and concrete. The man with the machine gun was not a Roman Soldier.
This time I didn't have the camel handler to help. I didn't speak the language but it wasn't long before one of them managed to find enough English to ask what I had done with the camel. I explained that it had been killed by some soldiers. There was much shaking of heads and it was made clear this was a slander on the army and that at the very least I would have to pay for the camel. I paid; cash with no receipt. It got me through the checkpoint.
I finally got to Tel Aviv, to a warm welcome from Rachel. I found that I was a celebrity. Amidst all the dark news from the Gulf, my exit from the airport on a camel was the only piece of light relief to have reached the papers. I was on all the front pages. I found that Rachel didn't like the perfume called "Frankincense", so I didn't say that I had bought some for her. Still less did I try to explain what I had done with it.
When I got back home I had the pictures processed. They were good gutsy pictures of peasant farmers eking a living out of a barren landscape. But there was no sight of the angels. No bright singing voices; I began to wonder if it had just been dream.
The photographs were alright; even good. On the back of my new found status as a celebrity I got an exhibition at the "Photographers Gallery"! I even made them into a book which sold tolerably well.
It was a few weeks later that I decided that my camera bag needed a complete clear out. I upended it on the bench in my darkroom and started to sort through the broken lenscaps, used lens cleaning cloths and dry cleaning receipts for clothes I had forgotten to pick up. There was even some dead grass. I was about to fling it into the waste bin when I remembered. I had reached across the child to pick up a piece of straw from where it had fallen across his face. I must have stuffed it into my camera bag.
Now, you may say "rubbish, it's just a piece of dried grass; you're dreaming." The difference is that I KNOW where that particular straw came from. It's there on my desk now; next to the fax machine. When I close my eyes I can see the child, and I can see his mother.
There was another fax waiting for me this morning: