Next year Henry will go back to being a sheep, says Mrs Bottomley, flash fiction by Hilary Ayshford at
Ralph Nas

Next year Henry will go back to being a sheep…

Next year Henry will go back to being a sheep,

says Mrs Bottomley

written by: Hilary Ayshford



Henry screws his eyes tight against the glare of the lights. He can feel everyone looking at him expectantly, but panic has stripped his mind bare. The hairy dressing gown that used to be his grandpa’s feels scratchy on his bare arms where the sleeves have been folded back; the stripy tea cloth fastened over his head by the slippery satin cord has drooped to one side, obscuring his left eye and exposing his right ear. His bladder sends him sudden signals he tries to ignore. He crosses his legs and squeezes hard.

Toby/Joseph, also attired in a dressing gown, which belongs to his dad, and tea towel bearing cartoon pictures of cats, digs Henry sharply in the ribs. Alistair, in a grey polyester tracksuit with a painted cardboard donkey mask over his face secured by rubber bands behind his ears, emits a high-pitched giggle.

Sophie/Mary, a lumpy cushion stuffed up her white nightdress, repeats the question, louder.

Unseen in the darkness, Henry’s mum leans forward and nods encouragingly from the third row. The women sitting either side of her don’t notice that she is holding her breath or that her nails are digging into the palms of her tightly clenched fists. They don’t see her lips moving, mouthing what could be a message to her son or a silent prayer.

Mrs Bottomley hisses the words at him from her seat at the piano, ready to strike up the introductory chords of Away in a Manger.
Henry’s tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth. He sucks in vain for saliva, tries to swallow down his terror. He feels his lips crack as he opens his mouth, but no words emerge.

‘Sure,’ he croaks eventually. ‘Come in. Sit yourselves down. There’s plenty of room.’

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