It was a majestic ninety year-old cedar. It had grown to forty metres on the well-watered slopes of Lebanon and been expertly felled in the age-old manner, unchanged since the days when King Hiram had supplied timber to Solomon for the building of the temple. It was floated down the coast to Joppa. There Simeon spied it and knew it was perfect for his needs.
Simeon had waited on the dock-side all morning. He usually relished his bi-monthly trips to the port. The cut and thrust of barter, the camaraderie of fellow tradesmen, the sailors' banter all provided welcome respite from the daily routine of his carpentry workshop. But on this occasion he was pensive and withdrawn. Business had been unbearably slow lately. Just as he began to despair, a Roman official had thrown him a lifeline. In two new moons' time he expected his house to fill with important dignitaries from Caesarea, sent to oversee the forthcoming census. He commissioned Simeon to panel the atrium in his Bethlehem villa. Complete the work on time and to the required standard and Simeon would never suffer financial worries again. Fail to meet the target and he might as well nail his workshop door shut. And thus it was with a mixture of excited anticipation and heart-stopping trepidation that Simeon moved in to barter for, among others, that perfect cedar tree.
Over the following weeks Simeon sweated over his labour from dawn till sundown, measuring, sawing, planing, hammering and sanding. Slowly the Roman"s home took on the look of one fit for a true nobleman, and Simeon glowed with the pride of a job well done.
Some weeks later as he collapsed into bed his wife cheerily asked if Asher had caught up with him yet?
"Asher? The inn-keeper? No. I haven't seen him since last Sabbath. Why?"
"He's asking for a new manger."
"You have to be kidding! I'm on the verge of the biggest break of my life and he wants a common manger! It'll have to wait till I'm through with this job."
"I tried to explain how busy you are, but he was quite insistent. He said his old manger is past repair. He is expecting brisk trade over the census month and needs to bring more animals down from the hills to cater for the extra guests."
"But what am I to make it from? Does he plan to supply the timber? If he thinks I'm using that fine cedar wood to make an animal feed trough, he's got a big surprise coming!"
"I told him all that, and he offered to pay for the timber and double the labour costs if you will just do it by new moon. And...."
"And he'll save your name too."
"Save my name! Now just what is that supposed to mean? I wasn't aware my name was in danger! I haven't lied, cheated anyone, stolen anything. So just how does he plan to 'save my name'?”
"Simeon, everyone knows you're working for a Roman. I can't show my face these days without attracting stares and whispers from the other wives. This is your chance to restore your reputation. Help Asher in his time of need and he'll turn the gossip in the inn to your advantage. Ignore him and we may as well pack our bags and leave town."
Too furious to answer or to sleep, Simeon left the room muttering, "Women! What do they know about business? 'One job at a time', that's my motto. But no, 'keep the neighbours happy' she says!"
He unlocked his workshop, lit the oil lamp and looked around. Most of the timber was at the Roman's house and, truth be told, it was enough. All he had kept back were a few planks from that very majestic tree with which he planned to fashion the door lintels. Now his plans would have to change. "Beautiful timber," he murmured softly as he stroked his calloused fingers down the grain. "Fit for a king's bedchamber, but destined to be a hay box! Such is life."
He left the shop and crept back to bed.
Shortly after the next new moon a young woman gave birth to her first-born son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for him in the inn.
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