Friday, May 05, 2006

Playing the Goat

Desdemona Blenkinsop, whose personal particulars I was taking down the other night in the line of duty, turned out to be a former pupil of my old primary school, St. Alan’s in the parish of Clapham, which in itself is unremarkable, one or two of the local children having attended it over the years, but what struck me and set me on the path of reminiscence was the coincidence that she had been born on the very day Miss Chalk put me across her knee in front of the whole class and chastised me for persistently and incorrigibly playing the goat when the script stated perfectly clearly that the part for which I had been engaged was that of a donkey. It’s funny isn’t it, the things an eight-year-old makes a note of in his diary. According to mine, and I’ve kept them all, it happened during a full dress rehearsal in the December of the year that Spartacus Barnett fell from the tower of St. Benedict’s and broke his neck.

I went to visit him last month in the Royal Hospital for Incurable Cripples, though I can’t see how these annual pilgrimages of mine are doing me any good, apart from putting me in rare high spirits for a couple of days afterwards, of course. In fact, to be truthful, for a while now I’ve been considering knocking them on the head entirely; it’s not as if Spartacus knows who I am, or why I'm there, or where he is, or who he is, or anything really. It’s just that somehow when the daffodils are in bloom I am driven by an irresistible compulsion to pick a bucketful of the beastly things and put them in a vase at the foot of his bed.

I landed the role of the donkey despite fierce competition from the likes of such revered luminaries of the drama class as Gervaise Armstrong and Jean-Pierre Braithwaite and felt I owed it to Miss Chalk as a debt of gratitude for her show of faith in my abilities to give it my all, to bring something fresh, perhaps even radical, to what in my opinion has always been a pivotal character in the plot of a timeless classic of the English theatre. After all, without the donkey Mary would never have made it to Bethlehem and who knows what depths of obscurity might have befallen her only son had he been born under some featureless rock out in the desert. Indeed, it’s doubtful we would ever have heard his name.

In my youthful imagination, you see, not only had I become a donkey but I had also somehow assumed the mantle of Protector of the Faith and felt I was bearing the burden of sole responsibility for the very inception and subsequent prosperity of Christendom. Consequently I was quite adamant, with hindsight perhaps too vociferously, that the donkey should be exhibited with far greater prominence and to better dramatic effect than is customary and if it couldn’t take the actual lead, for which cause I argued tirelessly, then at least it should be portrayed as a supporting character of major consequence with a strong and forceful voice delivering a powerful and unequivocal message to mankind. In a word, a goat.

My best friend Spartacus Barnett, I knew, had coveted the role for ages and had, I suspected, been engaging in secret solitary rehearsals at home, having been more or less promised the part already, long before any auditions had taken place. I remember him telling me of his aspirations as we larked about on top of the church tower on that glorious March afternoon a thousand lifetimes ago; how he had his heart absolutely set on the donkey, that it was all he lived for, the only thing he was able to think about; how it was going to be the first step towards an illustrious career on the stage and hopefully the big screen; how one day he would be a rich and famous actor and buy a big house beside the river, drive a Bentley and marry Miss Chalk. Sir Spartacus and Lady Barnett, he chuckled with innocent delight, clasping his hands together, a misty look about the eyes as he gazed into the far distance where a sea of bright yellow daffodils bloomed in the park.

The performance the following Michaelmas term was hailed as one of the finest productions in living memory with Felicity Wilkinson as Mary and Valentine Bottomley as Joseph and featuring Dr. Wolfgang Hardcastle, our hugely popular and always game headmaster who turned in a well-judged comic cameo as the baby Jesus. My interpretation of the donkey having been ruled inappropriate, I had approached Miss Chalk in a last-ditch act of desperation to ask if I might try out for the Holy Spirit as the idea of coming unto Felicity Wilkinson in the night had begun to hold for me a strange and compelling fascination, but the part had been filled already by Geronimo Blenkinsop.

In the end, the part of the donkey was played, in my opinion in a rather stolid and workmanlike fashion, by Tarquin Harrison who had of late become something of a favourite of Miss Chalk’s and who went on to achieve a kind of fame briefly the following spring by disappearing in suspicious circumstances, his hideously bloated corpse eventually washing up in a creek on the southern bank of the wide and bleak estuary on Easter Sunday and funnily enough near the little village of Bethlehem.

And what of Desdemona, the forgotten woman of the first paragraph and unwitting progenitor of the whole sorry tale? Was her role that of mere catalyst, you’ll be asking each other about now, or does she have some greater part to play in all this? Well, Clapham being a small, insular sort of place, you’ll not be surprised to learn that she went on to marry one of the old boys of St. Alan’s; in fact, none other than Geronimo “Holy Ghost” Blenkinsop who sadly left her widowed shortly after the honeymoon when he met with the great misfortune of being struck down and killed very late one foggy night by a hit-and-run driver. There were several low-quality drunken witnesses to the incident but their descriptions of the offending vehicle differed too widely to be of much use to the authorities. The police, who were looking for anything from a pink and white ice cream van to a blue and gold milk float, eventually abandoned the search as hopeless.

The officer in charge of the investigation, my old pal Inspector Bent, gave me an example of the impossibility of the task. Apparently, in all seriousness one short-sighted, half-demented old codger, obviously more than a little the worse for wear, swore blind that Blenkinsop had been run down by an ambulance being driven by a goat.