All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2016, 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl'
Chapter 51 Special gifts
Two days later Aunt Peggy and family landed at Manchester Airport. I knew that after such a long flight, they wouldn't fancy having to negotiate several more hours on public transport including two trains, in order to get to Bridchester. I discussed the matter with Reggie who suggested that we drive down to pick them up.
“The only problem is that we don't have cars that will accommodate four people besides ourselves,” he said.
I had a brainwave. “Why don't we hire a mini-bus for as long as they're in Brid; one of those types you can drive with a normal driver's licence?” I said.
“You're not only beautiful, you're smart too,” he replied, giving me a kiss. I didn't think the suggestion made me a genius, but I was happy to receive the compliment, and the kiss!
On the day the McDonalds were due to land, we started off early for Manchester. We parked the mini-bus in the airport car park and went to the Arrivals' Hall to wait. There's always a sense of excitement at airports; people coming and going, emotional reunions, journalists looking for celebrities etc. We bought a coffee and sat watching the Arrivals' Board until we saw that their flight had landed. Of course it was the best part of an hour before the passengers started to appear through the doors, with the First Class and Business Class ones first. Then suddenly there they were, trolleys laden with suitcases and scanning the people waiting, but their eyes passed over me and of course they had never seen Reggie.
“Aunt Peggy!” I called out, and she looked back recognition dawning.
“Harriet!” she exclaimed, and they all hurried to the end of the barrier as we rushed to meet them.
Aunt Peggy hugged me. “I'm so sorry I didn't recognise you,” she said. “You've matured and you look more beautiful than ever!”
“Well it's been a couple of years,” I replied, the inevitable blush making my cheeks glow. “It's so good to see you again. This is Reggie, my fiancé.”
“Reggie! I've heard so much about you,” said Aunt Peggy, clasping his hand and kissing him on the cheek. “This is my husband Ron.”
Ron stepped forward and shook hands with Reggie, saying “G'day. How are you going?”
“Good, yourself?” said Reggie, and yes, I had trained him in the standard Australian greeting I learned during my visit.
“Yeah, great, thanks.” said Ron.
Then he turned to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Good to see you Harriet. It's great to be in the Old Country again.”
We were then introduced to Flora and Ron junior. Flora was now fifteen and prettier than ever, and Ron had sprung up like a weed. He had to be at least a foot taller than when I had last seen him, but he was as shy as ever, so I just shook hands with him. Reggie also shook hands with him, exchanging the same greetings as he had with Ron's father. He glanced at me with a flicker of a smile on his face as if to say 'Like father, like son.' Thank goodness they were all dressed in warm coats; I was sure that the weather was decidedly more chilly than what they were used to experiencing in Australia, especially as it was now summer there.
As we walked out to the car park, we explained that we had hired the mini-bus to take them to Bridchester, Why is it that the cases we are looking for are always the last to appear? Once we were on the bus, with Reggie driving, I sat in the passenger seat beside him but turned around to chat with our visitors. First, we talked about their flight, which had been comfortable and hassle-free, with just one stop in Dubai. When I went on my world trip with the Company, the flights were long, but nothing like the Australia to Britain flights which last for over twenty-three hours.
“Poor things, you must be exhausted,” I said, but they assured me that they had slept well on the plane. I suspected that the adrenalin had kicked in with the excitement of landing in England, but I knew that jet-lag would inevitably catch up with them in the following days.
After inquiring how things were going on the farm, quite good apparently, we naturally talked about the wedding. I told Flora that her bridesmaid's dress would be ready for a final fitting the following week and that we had arranged to hire a dinner suit for Ron junior.
“Thanks for being one of my ushers, Ron,” said Reggie.
“No worries,” said Ron junior, a man of few words like his father.
We drove up the M62, heading north-east towards York, before taking the minor roads to Bridchester. It took about two and a half hours driving time, but we did stop at one of the Services along the way for a drink and a snack, although I warned the McDonalds against the high prices.
“There are very few of your namesakes at Services, they're mostly other burger brands,” I said. “If you're really hungry while you're touring around, you'd be better coming off the motorway and stopping at one of the small towns along the way.”
Finally, we arrived in Brid and Mum's house. She must have been watching for us because the front door opened the moment we drew up, and she flew down the path to hug her sister and brother-in-law, and then exclaim when she saw the children.
“You're so tall, Ron, and look at you Flora, you're a young woman now!”
I was thrilled for Mum. I knew how much she missed her sister, and the last time she had seen her was when Mum was very sick, some years previously. She hadn't seen Ron for many years prior to that, and the children only in pictures.
Naturally, she had prepared a 'slap-up meal' as she termed it, and the visitors certainly did justice to it, as did Reggie and myself. I have always enjoyed my food, and as acting takes a lot of physical as well as emotional energy, I'm one of those people who never puts on weight, no matter how much I eat, although I am careful not to overdue it during the Christmas break.
The next few days were most enjoyable. We took the McDonalds to York so that Flora could have a dress and shoe fitting. Thank goodness, she loved her dress. Ron junior submitted to being fitted for his dinner suit and some new black leather shoes. Peggy insisted that the suit be hired rather than bought.
“This wedding must be costing you a bomb,” she said to me. “Quite honestly, young Ron wouldn't have much use for a dinner suit in Australia at his age, and anyway, at the rate, he's growing it wouldn't fit him for long.”
I smiled at her. I've always got along well with Aunt Peggy. “Alright, if you insist,” I said.
After the fittings, we had lunch, and then a walk through the Minster.
“The two cathedrals in Melbourne look a bit like this,” said Aunt Peggy, as we walked through. “But of course they are only about a hundred and fifty years old; this is the genuine article. How old is it?”
“The present church was started in 1220,” I said. “Although there were previous churches on the site back to about AD600. If you're interested, you should come back and spend a few hours here, there's so much to see. There are even Roman ruins down in the basement.”
We also walked through the famous Shambles and saw the city walls. The children, in particular, looked in awe at the old buildings, almost all of them built before Australia was even discovered, but still in daily use.
“I'd love to go back to Australia one day and see more of it than I had a chance to last time,” I said.
“You must come to Yack to see the countryside and stay with us,” said Flora.
I smiled at her. “I'd love to do that, Flora.”
It was a week before Christmas, and the McDonalds had pre-booked a London hotel which wasn't too expensive but near to the centre of the city, so they could go shopping and see the Christmas lights. I drove them to the railway station at York, and promised to pick them up again when they returned on Christmas Eve. Mum was really looking forward to hosting a Christmas Lunch Besides her, me, the four McDonalds, Emma, David, Penny, Elizabeth, Thomas, and Stella, it came to twelve people, by far the biggest assembly we'd had in many years. Reggie promised to spend Christmas Eve with Mum, me, and the McDonalds, although he'd be having Christmas Lunch with his parents of course, and calling in later.
Mum came with me to York when we took the McDonalds to the station, and then we set about purchasing presents and some of the food. It was just as well that we still had the mini-bus since there was quite a big pile of items by the time we had finished shopping. I paid for most of the food, but not all of it; I didn't want Mum to feel a pauper. We had a lovely day together, just doing 'mother and daughter' things, although it was a bit exhausting and I thought Mum looked pale after it. I don't think she even gave it a thought that if things had worked out differently, she might have had a son instead of two daughters. By now she was totally used to having Harriet around.
Reggie told me that his parents had invited me to dinner a few days before Christmas. I'm sure that they would have preferred him to marry a nice girl who worked as a secretary or a nurse, but after their experience with the Vertues, I think they were quite reconciled to him marrying me, even though they knew my background.
The evening was very pleasant, and although I knew I was under scrutiny, it appeared that I passed with flying colours. While they knew I was an actress, I don't think they realised that I was working for one of the most prestigious theatre companies in the country, and they seemed rather impressed when I told them of my most recent rôles. I suspect that Reggie had deliberately not mentioned me while Sophie was alive, in case they made some remark about me which would have caused problems for him.
“We must come to Stratford and see you perform some time,” said Reggie's mother. I didn't know whether it was a polite remark or if she really meant it, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
“Please let me know when you are coming and I'll see what I can do about getting you some good seats,” I said.
“That would be lovely,” she replied.
While the McDonalds were away, Mum and I spent some time decorating the house, with garlands, coloured lights and of course a Christmas tree which was always fun to decorate. Although she never mentioned it, I knew that Mum really missed Dad on these occasions as he loved Christmas. When everything was ready, and we gazed at our handiwork together, she went quiet, and I knew what she was thinking, but nevertheless asked the question.
“What is it Mum?”
“Oh nothing, I was just thinking about your Dad and how he would have loved to see the house with all the decorations.”
I hugged her and said, “And who's to say that he's not looking down on us right now and saying 'well done'?” I knew Mum was shedding a few tears, and she wasn't the only one.
We sat down and had a cup of tea together. I looked at Mum and hesitated, but finally took the plunge.
“There's something else isn't there Mum, something you're not telling me?”
Mum managed a small smile. “It's that female intuition working, isn't it? I wasn't going to say anything before Christmas, but I think you have a right to know. I haven't been feeling too well, so I went to my doctor, and after he examined me he referred me to a specialist who did a lot of tests.” She took a deep breath. “The fact is that I have cancer, and it's spreading.”
I felt a cold chill through my body. “Is there treatment you can have?”
“I could have chemotherapy, but it would only make a small difference to my life expectancy, and it would lower my quality of life, so I decided against it. The doctor said I have less than a year, maybe only four to six months.”
I was so shocked that for a moment I was struck dumb.
“Does Aunt Peggy know?” I asked, and then cursed my stupidy; of course she knew, she and Mum were very close and had no secrets from each other.
“Yes, I phoned and told her,” said Mum. “She asked if there was anything she could do. Maybe it was a bit selfish of me but I said I would love to see her and Ron again, and the two children. I'd never met them, I'd only seen photos. Somehow she raised the money and that's why they're here.”
Now it was all making sense. I thought it was strange that they seemed to come over at such short notice, now I knew why. Ron would know of course, but I was sure that they hadn't told their children of Mum's condition.
“It's wonderful to see them all, it's the best present they could possibly have given me,” Mum said.
“Oh Mum!” I cried and walked over to give her a hug. “You are the bravest person I've ever met. Does Emma know?”
“Well, now I've told you, I must tell her too, but not a word to the children, alright? I don't want to spoil their Christmas, and I want it to be one for me to remember too.”
“I promise,” I said. “Do you want to see Emma tomorrow? I can look after the children if you two want to be alone when you tell her.”
Mum smiled. “You are so thoughtful, thank you.”
I couldn't answer her, I was too choked up.
That night when I went to bed I couldn't hold back the tears any longer. I tried to keep my sobs as quiet as possible. Maybe Mum heard me, or maybe she just knew how I would be feeling, because she knocked on the door, and when I didn't answer, she came in, lay on the bed and put her arms around me. She stroked my hair and murmured soothing words.
“It's alright darling, really it is. I've had a good life, and when I go I'll be with your Dad again.”
“I'm sorry, Mum,” I sobbed. “I'm so selfish, I'm crying for myself as much as for you.”
“Ssssh, it's alright to cry, darling; believe me I cried myself when I first found out, but now I've done my crying, and I'm looking forward to enjoying the time I have left, including my last Christmas.”
The following day we drove over to see Emma. As arranged, I stayed with the children while she and Mum went out for a drive together. When they came back, Emma's eyes were red and Penny noticed.
“Are you alright Mum? You look like you've been crying,” she said.
“It's alright darling, we went for a walk and the wind stirred up some dust that got in my eyes,” said Emma, and Penny seemed to believe her, or perhaps she was grown up enough not to ask any more questions.
“How did the children behave?” Emma asked me, thus changing the subject.
“Like little angels,” I replied, and it was true, perhaps because they had persuaded me to read “Little Red Riding Hood” to them, testing my acting ability by having different voices for each character. They shrieked with laughter when I imitated the wolf. Even Penny enjoyed it.
I picked up the McDonalds from York on Christmas Eve and took them back to Mum's house. They were all bubbling over with excitement after their trip to London.
“We had the most wonderful time,” said Aunt Peggy. “It was pretty cold of course, I don't know how you live with it, but we spent a lot of time in the shops, so we didn't freeze. All those lights, the city looked amazing!
“We saw the Christmas tree lit up in Trafalgar Square, and we went to the Christmas Carol Service in St Paul's Cathedral yesterday afternoon. It was just as well that we arrived early because it was packed. At home we always watch the 'Carols from Kings' service from Cambridge each year. That would be an incredible experience to attend, have you ever been to it?”
“I confess I haven't,” I replied. “I believe you have to queue for many hours to get in, so we watch it on television instead. Of course they do have choral services almost daily throughout the year and I've been to one of those. It was a very moving experience. If you go to Cambridge, see if there's one on while you're there.”
That evening Reggie came over. As we had supper we sat down and watched the Carol Service, and listened to those heavenly voices.
“It's such a beautiful building,” whispered Flora during a break in the singing. “How old is it?”
“I believe it was built between about 1450 and 1535,” I replied.”King Henry VI laid the foundation stone.”
“Wow, that's seriously old,” she murmured.
Christmas Day was memorable. We all went to church in the morning. It's their biggest day of the year of course and it was 'packed to the rafters' as the saying goes. I had been prevailed upon to read the first Lesson, which I didn't mind because it meant that our family had reserved seating in the second pew from the front, and I sat by the aisle so that I could easily walk to the lectern.
We were all dressed up for the occasion in dresses and high heels, with the adult women wearing hats. I was pleased to see that Flora and Penny wore pretty dresses, and Ron junior was dressed like his father in grey trousers, a shirt, tie and a sports coat, together with the black leather shoes that had been bought for our wedding.
When the vicar signalled to me, I stood up and walked to the lectern and started to read. It was that famous passage from St Luke that starts:
'And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed...' and goes on to describe how Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem.
The passage ends with the words 'And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.'
It's a story that everyone knows, but you could have heard a pin drop in the church.
When I sat down again next to Flora she whispered to me “Weren't you nervous reading in front of all those people?”
I smiled at her, thinking that it was my smallest audience in quite a while, but I whispered back “It just takes practice.”
After the service we all returned to Mum's house for lunch, and what a spread it was! She, Emma and I had been very busy cooking for the last couple of days, and I'm glad to say that everyone did justice to our efforts. The turkey was large, but with so many people present, there wasn't a great deal left over for supper. Fortunately, it was supplemented by ham and pork and all the roast vegetables. As is tradition, we then proceeded to the Christmas pudding and custard. Finally, there was coffee and a small glass of port for the adults. The men, I'm pleased to say, insisted on washing up, which was only fair after all the work the women had put into preparing the meal.
Afterwards we sat in the lounge room and opened our presents. The children, of course, had been waiting for this moment with ill-concealed impatience. We had decided on a 'Secret Santa' for the adults, with gifts costing no more than ten pounds, but when it came to me, Aunt Penny gave me a small box beautifully wrapped, which was from her family. Small boxes always mean treasure, so I unwrapped it very carefully, savouring the moment, while Flora and Ron junior looked on excitedly.
“Oh!” I gasped as I finally removed the lid of the box. Nestled inside on tissue paper was a beautiful gold heart-shaped locket and chain. “It's beautiful, thank you so much.”
“It's Australian gold from Ballarat,” said Ron junior proudly. “Flora and I chose it.”
“Ballarat was the site of the great Australian gold rush back in the eighteen-fifties,” said Aunt Peggy. “People still find nuggets there to this day, they even trip over them sometimes! It's a combined Christmas and wedding gift to you, I hope you don't mind.”
I always hate it when people say “You shouldn't have” when receiving a gift, so I didn't, even though I knew it must have been quite expensive and I don't know how they afforded it in addition to paying for their trip.
“It's wonderful and I shall treasure it,” I said. “In fact, I'll wear it on my wedding day.”
With that I got up and gave them all a kiss, even Ron junior who went very red but otherwise didn't seem to mind, even though he ended up with a trace of lipstick on his cheek.
That, of course, turned the conversation to the wedding, and I assured them that everything was organised.
“I think you've got all the details; we get married on the 29th in St Michael's where we went this morning, and the local Women's Institute ladies are doing the catering for our reception in the church hall. It was going to be a very small wedding, but somehow these things have a way of expanding, so there's now going to be twenty-five guests besides us.”
“Twenty-five!” said Emma. “The last time I heard it was less than twenty, but I know what you mean, the same thing happened to us.”
“We could easily have made it fifty if we'd invited all the Apollo people; as it is we have Jeff and Colin Anderson doing the photos and a video, and of course my friend Mary Green, well she's Mary Brown now she's married. If it hadn't been for her appendicitis I mightn't be where I am today.”
There was general laughter at this and David said: “It was bound to happen, maybe not quite so soon.”
“Whether that's true or not, I still feel I owe her, and her appendix, a great deal. My other great stroke of luck was when Mum, Emma and I met Dame Emily Good on the train. If you read that in a book you'd say it was pushing things too far, but it does happen in real life. I've never told you this, but it was only Emma who recognised her!”
There was more laughter at this confession. Fancy not instantly knowing one of the most famous faces on stage and screen, but it does happen sometimes when you see people 'out of context' as it were.
“I did invite her to the wedding but she'll be overseas now, and anyway she said it might have attracted more publicity than we wanted if she was there.”
“The day may come when the same thing happens to you,” said Aunt Peggy.
In the evening, Reggie joined us for supper. When he knocked on the door, I made sure I went to open it so that we could share a rather long kiss before I took his hand and led him into the lounge room to meet the others. They all cheered and Emma quipped "We thought you'd got lost."
I'm sure we both looked embarrassed because everyone laughed, but it was all in good humour.
Then there were more gift exchanges. Reggie had bought me a beautiful gold bracelet, and I had bought him some leather driving gloves which I had seen him admiring in a York shop window. He also had gifts for the children; games or soft toys for the younger ones, bracelets for Penny and Fiona and a 'putting partner' for Ron junior to help with his golf practice.
That Christmas Day was one to remember, and although I took plenty of photographs, the memories of it are burned into my brain, and I can still play them back in my mind's eye and smile. I glanced at Mum at one stage, and she caught my eye and smiled. I had to turn away in case my feelings overwhelmed me. She had done the right thing in not letting the youngsters know that this would be her last Christmas, and as a result, it was one of the best we had ever had.
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.
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