It was the 1st of December. Most children in the village of Cricklemarsh got tingles down their spine and became extremely giggly over their breakfast cereal. But it wasn’t like that for Izzie, not this year. She sat, doodling snowmen in her maths book, trying to blot out the squeaks of Mrs Partridge writing out gigantic amounts of homework on the board. She looked out of the window at the mossy, damp flagstones in the school playground. Doom and gloom. It was far too warm and wet for snow; the weatherman said there was even less chance of a white Christmas than normal.
Izzie’s morning had not begun very well. She had opened the first door of her Advent calendar to find there wasn’t any chocolate in it, only a twee picture of a fat robin.
“Cheap nasty thing,” she said out loud.
“Isobel Watkins,” said her mum crossly, “you’ll just have to put up with the fact that we haven’t got much money this year. Just be thankful that you’ve got a family, a warm home and plenty of food, unlike the orphans in Africa.” African orphans featured a lot in Izzie’s mum’s lectures. Bang went her dream of getting a shiny new flip-top mobile phone, one that could take photos. She blamed a lot of it on her baby brother Josh, he of the purple wrinkly face, stinky nappies and midnight squawking. It wasn’t fair, he was only three months old, but he got loads of new stuff. What was the use in being nearly 10 if your mum wouldn’t buy you any cool things? It didn’t help that her Dad said he wouldn’t waste money on a real tree this year. The old plastic green one in the loft was bent out of shape and had several branches missing. How un-Christmassy could things get?
Later that day, Izzie cornered her best friend Oliver in the school corridor.
“Do you feel Christmassy yet Ols?” she said, looking for a bit of sympathy.
“Yes I do a bit,” he said, “I’ve been picked to sing a solo at the carol concert.” Lucky Oliver; the Christmas Eve carol concert at St Philomena’s was always very special. Nice Fr Tony who organised it was a hit with all the children. He had a singing voice like one of those Italian men in a gondola, did magic tricks if you asked him and even cracked jokes in church!
Even better than Fr Tony was the unveiling at the concert of Cricklemarsh’s famous crib – a set of beautiful half-life-sized figures, carved out of wood and painted with rich and fabulous colours. It had been made by nuns in a convent in Switzerland more than 100 years ago. One of the nuns had once lived in the area and gave it as a gift to the parish. People still came from all the villages and towns around to see it. Some elderly ladies were even moved to tears by the beauty of the Virgin Mary statue (Izzie always thought that was a bit soppy). That’s why it was really exciting if you got picked to do something at the concert.
Izzie tried to look pleased for Oliver, but felt even sorrier for herself. She loved going to the concert, but had never been asked to do anything. Perhaps, she thought, it was because she was short, skinny and mousy brownhaired, with a small voice that wouldn’t fill a lava tory cubicle, let alone a large church. And why did she always go lollipop red if anyone new spoke to her? The trouble is, if you start counting reasons to be unhappy, it’s very difficult to stop.
That night, sleep wouldn’t come to Izzie. The duvet felt too hot and she couldn’t get comfortable. Somehow, it wasn’t even dark on the other side of the curtains.
Suddenly, the frantic sound of fire engines screeched past. Izzie sat bolt upright and scrambled to the window. What was that orange glow? It was far too late for sunset. Then she saw a plume of black smoke rising into the air like a giant dirty ghost – she guessed where it was coming from.
Izzie bounded into her parents’ room and yelled at the top of her voice: “The church is on fire!” Her dad made a loud snort and fell out of bed.
“Whaaaaaa...??” he spluttered. Her mum sat up in her curlers. “Izzie, what on earth are you doing, I nearly had a heart attack! And now you’ve woken Joshua, you naughty girl!” The baby wailed from his cot in the corner.
Fighting to get her breath back, Izzie said, “Dad, shouldn’t we go down there with buckets of water or something?” “Don’t be silly,” came the reply. “The firemen will deal with it. I’ll phone someone in the morning. Now go back to bed.” Izzie stomped back into her room.
On her way to school the next morning, Izzie practically flew up the road with Oliver in tow, taking the long way round to pass the church. Through the gates they could see that parts of the church hall and the old Victorian stone church were streaked with black. There was an acrid charcoal smell and smoke was rising into the air like steam off a barbecue. Shattered glass and rubble lay everywhere.
“Who would do a thing like that?” whispered Izzie.
“Demon worshippers?” suggested Oliver. Izzie rolled her eyes to heaven and said that he watched too much television. Eventually, they were shooed away by a policeman.
At assembly, the school was buzzing with the news. “Quiet please!” said Mr Thorogood the headmaster in his crisp, clear voice. “It is a very sad thing that our church has been so badly damaged by fire, but thank God no one was hurt. The fire service and the police are investigating, so no boy or girl is to venture on to the church grounds until further notice.” That put paid to any spooky games after school; but worse was to come.
“You will also be sad to learn that the fire spread to the basement storeroom and our famous crib was completely destroyed. Irreplaceable, but there you are. With all the damage, and the fact that Fr Tony has just caught chickenpox, we may have to cancel our concert and join in the one at St Teresa’s in Bovrille.” “Boring with knobs on,” mumbled Oliver, but this was more than boring to Izzie. The one thing that might help her feel Christmassy again had been ruined in a stupid fire. The thought of plain ordinary carols with doddery old Fr Crumpton singing flat was too awful. She could hardly bear to go to their art lesson.
“Dear me, Izzie,” said Miss Pretty, the art teacher. “What a long face! You look like an undertaker!” “Miss,” said Izzie quietly, “do you think the convent in Switzerland could send us another crib?” “Gracious no, it closed more than 40 years ago. And there won’t be any money for such luxuries – with all the repairs needed. Now everyone, chop. chop, we have to get on with our Christmas collage.” Typical grown-up, thought Izzie. Well, she would see about that. She started tying a bow in her plastic apron strings and stopped mid loop. Did she really think she could do something? A thrill of excitement went right through her, making her grin for the first time in days. She splashed a bit of red paint on Rudolph’s nose in the collage. “This is stupid,” she muttered. “I’ve got a much better idea.” She drew Miss Pretty to one side and told her about a new plan that was forming in her mind.
When she got home, Izzie flew upstairs to her room and dived into her cupboard. She pulled out a pile of pink paper and began writing in her thickest felt pen. “Six posters, that ought to do it,” she said to herself. Then she cut out circles from old shoe boxes and stuck safety pins to them to make badges. On each badge she wrote the mysterious letters “CCC”.
Very early the next day saw Izzie at school, sticking up posters while no one else was around. The words read: Izzie stuck the last poster on the canteen window and felt very nervous. What if nobody wanted to join? Was she making the biggest lemon cheesecake of herself ever? All through her gym class, she felt sick and wobbly at the knees. People were looking at her in a funny way and whispering. Oliver demanded to know what the posters were about. “Just wait,” she said.
Lunch came and went, but Izzie could only manage one spoonful of her spaghetti bolognese. Then she took a deep breath and strode over to the bicycle sheds. Oliver came ambling over and the minutes ticked by. Suddenly, a group of three girls came along, arm in arm. Then two boys, then a whole gang of children. It was working!
“Well titch,” said one tall boy, “what’s this cricket club about then? This better be good!” His friends sniggered as Izzie tried to speak. “Speak up can’t yer?” Here goes, she thought, and blurted out, “It’s not cricket. It’s the Cricklemarsh Crib Club.” “What?” “You heard.” said Izzie, going pink. “Anyway, you all know that the Swiss crib got burnt down?” “Yeah, course we know egg brain,” said someone.
“Well, the Cricklemarsh Crib Club is about us kids doing something about it. We won’t start moaning about not having any money or anything. We’ll make a new crib ourselves.” “What... all the shepherds and kings and the baby Jesus and everything?” asked a small boy with red hair.
“That’s right, and anyone can join in,” continued Izzie, “but you’ve got to promise to work really hard after school and not show anyone what we’ve done, except Miss Pretty, who’s going to help us. So, who wants in?” “Me,” said Oliver, looking genuinely surprised. “And me,” said a girl with long black braids.
The “and me’s” spread through the group like a small Mexican wave at a football match, even reaching the hecklers at the back.
Izzie glowed with satisfaction as she handed out CCC badges. She felt she had started something really big. It wasn’t gorgeous Georgie, the May queen, or Kevin the sporty class captain, but her small, mousey, shy self. All sorts of people she’d never spoken to before had listened to her, and now they were in her club! There was of course, an awful lot to do by Christ mas Eve. They had to get started straight away.
After lessons, all the club members gathered excitedly inside Miss Pretty’s office next to the art room. There were even more faces than Izzie remembered in the playground and more badges to hand out. Nobody would shush, so she stood on a chair to make herself heard.
“Er, welcome CCC members. Miss Pretty says we can use the art room for an extra hour every day and for two hours on Saturday afternoons. So let’s get cribbing!” “‘Scuse me, but what are we going to use?” said Oliver. “I don’t think there’s anything other than paper and paint in the cupboard”. He had a point.
Just then, Miss Pretty came in and told them all how much she admired their determination. She said the best way to make figures was probably papier-mâché, which meant lots of bits of paper stuck together with a kind of glue made out of flour or wallpaper paste. You could paint over the top when it was dry, she explained. But they would also need a frame to put it on, like wire mesh or something, and lots of other props. Where on earth would they get it all? Wouldn’t it be better just to paint a picture or make a collage?
“No Miss, please no, it wouldn’t,” wailed Izzie.
“Doesn’t anyone have any ideas?” “Um, I do,” said one boy with a big beaming smile. “My name’s Kenny, by the way. My dad’s a newsagent and he’s got lots of old paper at the back of his shop. I know he’d let us have it. And we could ask around the other shops for stuff they’re going to throw away.” “Yah,” said a rather posh girl with pretty fair hair, “We could keep our badges on and say we’re collecting for a special village project.” “Right,” said Izzie. “Let’s split into teams of two and start asking around tonight before the shops shut. Report back to the CCC tomorrow.” It felt really good to Izzie to be in charge of something for a change.
“Make sure you tell your parents you’re going to be a bit late home,” said Miss Pretty. Izzie phoned home on Oliver’s swanky mobile phone and got the all-clear.
Everyone decided on a different direction to aim for. Kenny went off to his dad’s newsagent, shyly inviting the girl with fair hair to join him. Another pair said they would try the shoe shop for old boxes; others headed for the curtain shop, the supermarket, the ironmonger’s and the wool and button shop just to see what would happen. “Remember,” said Izzie, in what she hoped was a club captain sort of voice, “No nicking anything or messing about. You’re CCC members now.” She and Oliver had saved the most difficult job for themselves, or so they thought. Chicken wire mesh, the sort that people used for fencing, seemed the perfect thing to make the frames out of. But where would they find any? Oliver reminded her that they didn’t have any money. Izzie pulled a face and then laughed. “Want chicken wire, find chickens!” she said, slapping him on the back.
It was her idea to catch a bus that went into the countryside outside Cricklemarsh. They got off near a farm track and a battered old sign saying Orchard Vale Farms, pick your own cabbages. “This is the nearest farm I know,” said Izzie, “They’re bound to have chickens or some animals aren’t they?” The two trudged down a deeply rutted path, squelching in the mud, until they reached a run-down farm house. Izzie straightened her CCC badge and knocked at the door.
There was a sound of furious barking. “Quiet down, Bathsheba!” said a voice, as a ruddy-faced woman peered round the door. She was wearing a threadbare green jumper, a baggy old skirt held up by knotted string, and wellingtons.
“Now if you’re here collecting for Save the Whale, I prefer to send any money I can spare to Ethiopia; if you’re from the Green Party, I hardly ever vote, but if you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m a Roman Catholic, so I’ll bid you good morning,” said the woman, faster than Izzie had ever heard anyone speak before.
“Oh we’re Catholics too,” burst out Izzie, putting one foot in the door like a desperate salesperson. “We’re the Cribblecrick Club Crib, er, I mean the Cricklemarsh Crib Club and we’re looking for spare stuff to build a new crib, for St Philom ena’s carol concert.” “Bless me, well that sounds lovely. Wasn’t it a shock about the church crib? But what can I do for you?” “We thought, as you’re a farm, you might have animals,” said Oliver “No, dear, we haven’t kept animals since 1973, when we sold our last long horn. Except ...” “Oh,” said Izzie. “I s’pose that means you won’t have anything like chicken wire.” “Now just a minute,” said Mrs Balderson. “I was going to say we ordered a whole lot of chickens two weeks ago, and chicken wire to make a run for them. But Norman, my husband, couldn’t stop sneezing the minute they came off the truck. We had to send the whole lot back! What a palaver: panicky chickens running round the yard, feathers everywhere and my Norman’s nose blowing up like Rudolf.” “Did you send the chicken wire back too?” asked Izzie, brightening.
“No, dear,” said Mrs Balderson. “The suppliers let me have it cheap and I can’t return it. You can have it, and welcome.” Half an hour later, Izzie and Oliver clambered out of an old farm truck outside the school. Mr Balderson had heard about the crib and was pleased to give them a lift back with rolls and rolls of shiny new wire mesh. He also gave them some spare bales of hay, to help their nativity look more like a stable. “Heaven knows how you’ll make the blessed Holy Family out of this lot,” he laughed. They couldn’t wait to get started and show him and everyone in the village that it could be done.
The next meeting of the CCC saw an amazing treasure trove of unwanted materials that everyone had collected from the village. Izzie felt very proud. There was a whole room full of old newspapers and cardboard from Kenny’s dad and a sack of flour, past its sell-by date, from the bakery. The curtain shop had given them lots of slightly damaged offcuts of fabric that hadn’t sold, including red velvet for the kings’ cloaks and white lacy netting for angels’ wings. The wool and buttons shop had given some faded silky embroidery thread to make hair and shiny buttons for costumes. Mr Leisinger the grocer had given away lots of wooden fruit crates; the ironmongers had donated a lot of old planks and the carpet shop had given them an old sheepskin rug. “What else should we make a sheep out of!” said Liam, the small red-headed boy.
Then the work began in earnest and the next three weeks were busier than any Izzie and the others had known. Nobody minded the odd blister, sore knee or stiff shoulder from bending, lifting, cutting, sticking, stitching, stapling or painting. It was their project and it was going to be fantastic.
Miss Pretty had roped in her boyfriend Jim, who was good at carpentry, to cut up the planks and construct a kind of stable roof. She then showed Izzie, Oliver and the others how to bend the chicken wire with pliers to make a body shape and fix on heads and arms. When they had finished with the frames, Jim used his staple gun to fix them to Mr Leisinger’s wooden crates to make them stand up.
The papier-mâché process was the stickiest bit of all. Everyone got covered in floury glue and soggy paper; bits ended up in hair, in pockets and even up Liam’s nose. Funny things just kept happening. Kenny’s new girlfriend Ellie walked home with a large piece of manger stuck to her bottom; the second shepherd’s arm holding a sheepskin lamb kept falling off at unexpected times and someone accidentally painted King Balthazar with three eyes. Jim even managed to staple-gun Miss Pretty’s sleeve instead of the angel to the stable roof. Izzie thought she’d never stop laughing.
School broke up, but the CCC went on. Gradually, the crib began to take shape. Mary had beautiful blond embroidery thread hair and a bright blue chiffon scarf and dress. Joseph had a realistic beard made out of horsehair from an old stuffed sofa. There were three angels fixed to the roof, each with glittering silver foil and lacy net wings. The kings were resplendent in their velvet cloaks and golden crowns covered in beads from the haberdashery department of Spingle and Spratts. There were four shepherds in stripy deckchair-cover tunics, and a slightly wonky donkey.
All that remained was the baby Jesus. They made it out of wire and paper, but it looked like a surly pink Buddha. That didn’t seem right. Izzie was worrying about it one night when her mum was changing the baby.
“Joshua, Joshua,” singsonged her mum, sticking down the last nappy tape. “Did you know, Izzie, that Joshua is an old form of the name Jesus?” “Really?” said Izzie. A lightbulb of an idea switched on in her head.
Everything was going according to plan. Miss Pretty had a word with the headmaster and the carol concert was on again. On the day before Christmas Eve, the CCC children, Jim and Miss Pretty carried the stable roof and all the figures into the church. They laid them out in a large space between the scaffolding poles, which they decorated with holly leaves, red ribbons and electric spotlights that Jim had borrowed from the local disco. Finally, they hitched up a big curtain to hide the crib, just like a real stage at a theatre. At last, they locked up and went back to the art room to decorate carol sheetst.
Christmas Eve dawned grey and drizzly, but the excitement among the Cricklemarsh kids was like electricity. Izzie had a terrible attack of butterflies as, come six o’clock, people began to queue round the block to get in to the concert. Soon people were settled in their seats. All of a sudden, a slightly spotty figure came out from behind the scaffolding. It was Fr Tony, recovering from chickenpox.
“Welcome everyone, on this festive evening,” he boomed. “I am absolutely delighted that the St Philomena’s carol concert is going ahead and that I’m here to see it, scabs and all. But before we begin our carols, I have something very special to share with you,” he said.
“As you all know, our crib got frazzled, by an electrical fault as it turns out. But thanks to a group of extraordinary young people, we are not to be without such an important symbol of the true meaning of Christmas. So, it is with great pleasure that I ask Isobel Watkins to unveil their surprise!” Izzie blushed to the very roots of her hair, but she stood up with wobbly knees and went over to the microphone being held by Fr Tony. Her parents were nodding furiously at their neighbours and pointing at her with pride.
All eyes were on her as she cleared her throat and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Cricklemarsh Crib Club is proud to present... a new crib for Christmas.” With that, she pulled back the curtains and the glittering scene was revealed to gasps of surprise.
It looked wonderful – a recycled, fun-filled, unforgettable nativity scene built by the CCC. And there, in the manger, nestling in Baldersons’ hay, was ... an angelic baby. It was Joshua, gurgling happily in his role as the infant Jesus.
As the cheering began, Izzie realised she had never felt so Christmassy in all her life.