All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 30 Christmas on stage
It had always been a tradition that Mum hosted the family on Christmas Day and with only a couple of days to go she was busy preparing the food for Christmas lunch. As a young boy I had done little to help, but now as a grown-up young lady I felt the need to contribute a lot more, especially as Mum was that much older. At the same time I didn't want to give the impression that I thought she wasn't totally in control.
We had a large plastic box which lived in the cupboard under the stairs for most of the year, and which was brought out the week before Christmas to reveal tinsel, coloured lights and tree decorations. The plastic tree that had been in use for many years was starting to look its age, so Mum agreed to my suggestion that I drive into Brid and find us a new one. I took the opportunity to get more coloured lights, a Christmas wreath for the door and also some champagne and other drinks for Christmas dinner.
By the time I came back, Mum had discovered that she needed more things and had made a list, so I suggested we both go back to the shops and stock up. As we shopped it became clear to me that Mum was used to living on a strict budget and several times when I suggested things to buy she said “Oh we can't afford that.”
Finally over a cup of tea in a local café, I spoke to her gently about her financial situation.
“Mum, I'm getting quite well paid now. I'm not going to be stupid with my money as I know there may be times when work dries up and of course my treatment is going to cost quite a bit, but I would like us all to have a really nice Christmas. I would also like to repay you and through you Dad for all the money you spent on me while I was growing up. I'm sure he'd like me to do that so I would like to send you some money each month; not enough to affect your pension, but just to help out with living expenses. Will you let me do that please?”
To my surprise, Mum pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “You're a good girl Harriet, and so is Emma. I don't know what I've done to deserve such wonderful daughters.”
I smiled at her. “Well I do. You and Dad were the best parents anyone could hope to have. I don't know about us being 'wonderful' but I like to think that you've brought us up well. Now how about we buy just a few of those things you said we can't afford?”
Mum managed a smile. “Alright, if you say so,” she said.
The following day was the twenty-third of December and the second dress rehearsal was to take place. We were to have Christmas Day off of course and then Boxing Day* was the opening night of 'Cinderella,' which we were pleased to hear was already sold out.
We started the rehearsal and everything was going well until my scene with Cinderella, and when it came to the point where the flash-pot was supposed to ignite to mask the pumpkin transforming into the coach, nothing happened!
I looked into the wings where the pyrotechnic guy was standing, pressing a button on a box in his hand and looking puzzled. I had two options – stop the rehearsal while we sorted out what was wrong, or carry on, which I'd have to do if it was a performance. I chose the latter, although I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing. Fortunately there was enough room on the stage to move in front of the table while keeping well clear of the flash-pot just in case it discharged late, although I hope the pyro guy had the good sense to stop pushing that button.
Waving my magic wand around I was able to mask the props guy sweeping the pumpkin and cage off the table. The backdrop fell revealing the coach and we carried on to the end of the scene. It wasn't ideal, but at least we didn't hold up the show.
Later David came up to me and said “That was quick thinking on your part Harriet and it didn't look too bad from the audience's point of view.”
“Do we know what happened with the flash-pot?” I said.
“Would you believe the pyro guy forgot to change it over for a new one? His ears are still burning after what I had to say to him.”
I'd never seen David lose his temper, but whatever he said certainly did have the desired effect as all the time I performed in the show, there was never a repeat of that incident. One hiccup could hardly be considered a bad dress rehearsal, but inevitably someone trotted out the old superstition about 'bad dress rehearsal, good show', and if it encouraged the cast and crew, who was I to say it was a fallacy?
That evening Mum and I watched “Carols from King's” the service of 'Nine Lessons and Carols' from King's College Cambridge on the television. It was an annual ritual and for us it meant that Christmas had really started
Mum and I were up early on Christmas morning. We exchanged greetings but not presents as those would be brought out when everyone was present at lunch time. Unlike me, Mum was a regular church-goer and when she invited me to come along to the morning service I could hardly say 'no'. I know there are a lot of nominal Christians who tend to limit their church attendance to Christmas and Easter, and I suppose I'm one of them.
I put on a really nice outfit, a pretty dress, stockings and heels, I also wore a coat since it was a bit chilly. All this met with Mum's approval, but then she surprised me by asking if I'd like to wear a hat? I know that wearing a hat to church was a tradition women followed for many years, deriving from an instruction in the Bible, but I had heard that the practice had almost ceased. Mum went to her room and produced a lovely hat with a broad rim that matched my dress which was a pale lemon colour.
“I bought this a while ago and don't think it really suits me, but I thought of it when I saw the dress you're wearing,” she said. I have to say that it really did complement the dress, so I was happy to wear it. Mum produced her own hat, and knowing that many of the congregation were older women, I suspected that we wouldn't be the only ones to do so on the day.
When we arrived at the church, the Rev James Sutton, the minister, was waiting in the vestibule to greet members of the congregation as they arrived. I suspected that he was hoping for a 'full house' on this, the most popular day of the year.
“Hello Mrs Stow, hello Harriet, Merry Christmas,” he said. I suppose I should not have been surprised at what happened next. Drawing me to one side he said “Harriet, I've been hearing great things about your acting in Stratford from a couple of ladies in the congregation who attended a performance of 'Romeo and Juliet'. I don't suppose you'd be willing to read the First Lesson today? The lady who was to have read it is not well, and I like to have members of the congregation take part in the service. It's Luke 2, verses eight to sixteen. I expect you are familiar with them.”
His confidence in me was such that I could hardly refuse, and in fact I was rather flattered to be asked so of course I agreed. I decided not to disappoint him by confessing that I wasn't familiar at all with the Bible reference he mentioned.
“I'll make sure that the Bible is on the lectern and open at the right place. Do you mind sitting on the front pew at the left-hand side so you don't have to walk far?” he said.
Again I agreed, and as more members of the congregation were arriving, I told Mum what was happening as we entered the church. She seemed very pleased that I had been asked to do a reading.
The service started soon afterwards with prayers and hymns. It was a lovely atmosphere and the time soon arrived for my contribution.
“The first Lesson was to have been read by Mrs Amy Preston but unfortunately she is indisposed, so we have been fortunate in securing the services of Miss Harriet Stow, Elizabeth Stow's daughter, who has recently been performing in the theatre in Stratford,” said the Rev Sutton, much to my embarrassment as I had really hoped he would dispense with an introduction.
I stood up and walked to the lectern, my heels clicking loudly on the stone floor. It's strange that I felt a little nervous, even though the size of the congregation was much smaller than the audiences to which I had recently been performing. Perhaps it was because I was being 'me' rather than pretending to be a character in a play.
I stood before the lectern and was pleased to see that it was the King James Version, as all the poetry has been taken out of the modern translations. I also realised that I was familiar with the verses I was to read:
'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger.'
There was silence as I finished, and I half expected the congregation to clap as I walked back to my seat, since I had put as much expression into the words as I could, but of course this was a church and such things don't happen.
When I sat down, Mum leaned towards me and whispered “Beautifully read, darling”, and that was better than any applause.
At the conclusion of the service, as we walked out of the church I was thanked again by the Rev Sutton who took the opportunity to ask if I could record some more Bible passages for members of the congregation. The man was a past master at ambushes!
Two elderly ladies were also waiting to speak to me outside the church.
“Miss Stow, I'm Harriet Gainsborough and this is my sister Mabel. We saw you perform Juliet in Stratford recently and it was the highlight of our visit; you were wonderful,” she said. “I was reminded of it when you read the Lesson; you made the words come alive. Now I hear you are touring overseas with the show.”
“Thank you so much,” I replied. “Yes it will be very exciting to travel abroad to perform. It will be my first overseas trip.”
“You must be so proud of your daughter,” Mabel said addressing Mum.
“I'm proud of both my daughters,” said Mum. “Emma will be returning to the stage soon, but she recently made me a grandmother for the first time.”
“That's wonderful,” they said in unison. “Do please pass on our congratulations to her,” said Mabel.
As we walked back to the car, Mum said “I'm pleased to see that all these compliments aren't giving you a swelled head. You seem to handle them very well.”
“I'm only as good as my last performance, Mum. I'll try never to forget that,” I replied.
Christmas lunch at Mum's house was a wonderful occasion. I confess thinking at one point that if Reggie had been there it would have been perfect, but we can't have everything we want in this world. I'm sure Mum was thinking along similar lines, wishing that Dad was with us. He always loved Christmas, and the first one after he died was very hard for all of us. We still celebrated it of course because we knew he would want us to, but there were very few smiles that year.
Fortunately time heals the hurt, and now we were able to talk about him and the things that he did, like the time he tried to assemble a bike for Emma on Christmas Eve. He just wasn't mechanically inclined and eventually after several frustrating hours in the garage a kind neighbour did most of the work for him so that Emma wouldn't be disappointed on Christmas morning. It was many years before we were told about that incident.
After lunch we exchanged presents. I expected to receive a clothes or lingerie voucher from a local shop, so you can imagine my surprise when I received from Emma, David, Penelope and baby Elizabeth a present which from its wrapping and weight was obviously a book.
I carefully unwrapped it as we always do, and to my surprise and delight it was 'The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile', a wonderful reproduction taken from the best copies available of each page of the original.
Then Mum handed over her present and again it was obviously a book. When I unwrapped the parcel it turned out to be the two volumes of Professor Alexander Schmidt's 'Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary'.
“Thank you so much. These are wonderful presents and such a surprise,” I said as I went around and bestowed kisses on the cheeks of everyone present. “I didn't realise it was so obvious that I'm a Shakespeare obsessive.”
“You hide it very well, but we did manage to guess,” said David, and everyone laughed, including me.
In the early evening we watched the 'Queen's Speech', had a light supper of cold turkey, ham and salad and played a game of Monopoly, another family tradition. I knew that David and Emma would not want to stay too late as Penny had to go to bed, and anyway, Boxing Day would be the opening night of 'Cinderella', so we all needed to be rested.
When they had left I said to Mum “That was the best Christmas we've had in many years, don't you think?”
“Yes darling. You don't need to spare my feelings; you mean the best one since Dad died. I like to think he's up there looking down at us and smiling,” she said, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears.
I gave her a big hug and said “I'm sure he's doing that too. Goodnight Mum.”
To be continued
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story, also Julia Phillips for picking up my punctuation errors and any typos Louise or I missed. I'm very grateful to them both.
* Boxing Day is the day following Christmas Day and in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries was traditionally the day that servants and tradesman received a gift called a 'Christmas box' from their masters, employers or customers. This custom has largely died out. It is often a public holiday and is now often noted as a day when stores hold sales of discounted goods.
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