Joseph slipped out of the stable while the inn-keeper, the inn-keeper’s wife and those three guys who had arrived on the camels with all the sweet-smelling stuff fussed around the kid and Mary. He took a left past the inn’s façade, the red clay of which glowed in the light of that mysterious big bright star, and down the next block he found a place that was still open. After the past few hours of drama, and magic, he was hungry and his throat dry from all the stable-dust.
The man behind the counter was an acquaintance of past visits. And didn’t have to ask what his guest would like: Joseph quickly ordered a plate of falafel, some unleavened bread and a drink of red wine. “You don’t hardly drink,” said the barmen, laying out the plate and the clay mug. “And you look too tired to be celebrating anything.”
Joseph sat back, put his hands behind his neck as his robe fell away from his knees, sore and full of grit from kneeling next to Mary, her clammy hand gripping his during what had happened a few hours ago. It all suddenly felt like a lifetime back.
The barmen filled the clay mug from the barrel, took Joseph his drink and returned to fetch the food. A lonely Roman soldier was sitting at the table closest to the door, and two blacksmiths on night-shift were at another table drinking mugs of warm beer, their faces sooty and shiny.
“Actually”, I am celebrating,” said Joseph as the falafel were put before him. He raised his mug and looked at the soldier, who had a long nose and wet lips, and the exhausted blacksmiths. “I just became a father tonight.”
The soldier rubbed his nose with a sniffle. The blacksmiths looked at each other and then raised their mugs at Joseph, wordlessly. Outside a sharp wind was cutting in from the desert, whistling in the cracks between the roof and the walls.
“I didn’t know Mary was pregnant,” said the owner. He lifted his own mug out in front of him and took a long draught. “I saw her, what, last month out at the olive market and there was no sign of child.”
Joseph put a falafel ball in his mouth, chewed twice and washed it down with a sip of sharp, sour wine. He considered telling the owner that he, also, did not know that Mary had been of child. Nor that she had never been in the situation to become so.
“If I’d known we were having an occasion, I would have brought some better wine along,” said the Roman in a thin voice unable to convey the emotion of kindness he wished it to. “Salut!” he raised his mug and sipped. The others ignored the Roman, as all good citizens of Bethlehem do.
Then owner looked over at the centurion whose armour was dull and dusty, yet he had a youthful face that was clean and soft. “You are not insulting my wine, are you?” said the owner, his voice firm and harsh. “My merchant takes great pride in his offering, only bringing me his best barrels. As I do in giving the wine to those who drink here.”
The Roman smiled with clean teeth. He pointed at Joseph. “All wine is passable, sir,” said the Roman. “But when I meet a fellow man whose wife has just given birth, and that man wishes to toast the new life, I would like to join him with the best wine available.”
The owner raised his arm, moved it through the still air. “What do you think this is, Roman? The Ritz?”
Joseph took another sip of wine. “But it is a good wine, gentlemen,” he said. “Tannins are raw and grippy, just as a winter’s night in Bethlehem calls for.” He sipped again. “There is some perky plummy flavour, and a meaty fullness on the finish.” He was feeling better now, calmer about the whole event back in the stable. The food and wine had settled his frayed nerves and the sustenance had brought a feeling of bodily calm and contentment. Suddenly he missed Mary and the new kid. He’d be heading back soon, as he should. Two were now three.
One of the blacksmiths stood up. A bulky man, struggling to get from out behind the table. “I tell you what, we are beer drinkers, my brother and I,” said the blacksmith, urging his companion to stand up. He looked at the owner. “But tonight, bring us each a cup of that wine the new father is having.” The front of his dark tunic was damp with beer.
The owner poured from the clay jug and brought two cups over to the sooty men, standing at the table. On his way back to the counter he refilled Joseph’s cup, as well as that of the centurion.
They all looked at the blacksmith who had his cup pointed in Joseph’s direction. “A drink to you, sir, for allowing us to share in the new life you have placed on this earth.” The centurion stood up. “To your son and his mother, I also drink on their health.”
Cups were raised and the wine was taken and as Joseph put his cup down on the table, the door opened and the light that fell into the room was indescribably bright and too beautiful. Joseph then knew it was time to get back to the stable, as soon everyone was going to know about this child.
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