There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 7 Flights of Angels
Opening Night arrived, and the theatre was packed. Bridchester had once again shown its support for the local theatre company. The performance went off without a hitch, and the audience laughed in all the right places. It was great fun to perform and we all enjoyed ourselves.
The newspaper critics were generous in their praise. No-one was singled out for particular attention, but all the cast were complimented. I was pleased about that. I didn't want to be pointed out as a 'visiting celebrity' as it might not help my relationship with the other cast members.
Mum was confined to her wheelchair for outings now and I decided that the only way for her to attend a performance was to organise two seats on the side aisle, so that she could either sit in the wheelchair or be helped across into the seat. It wasn't ideal, but the performances were almost sold out, and my preference was the matinée on the day of the last performance. I did ask the women in the box office to keep an eye out for anything more suitable, and someone 'up there' must have been looking after us. Three days before the last Saturday, Jesse rang me to tell me that they had two seats returned in the middle of the front row of the stalls. This was perfect, as Mum's wheelchair could access the seat from the front aisle without any trouble.
I organised one of the men in the 'front of house' staff to help Aunt Peggy wheel Mum into the theatre, and when the curtain rose and the light from the stage spilled onto the first few rows of seats, there she was, ready to enjoy the play..
The most difficult thing for me was to avoid looking at Mum. I did sneak the odd glance when I was not speaking, and I could see that she was thoroughly enjoying the performance. I had to stay in the theatre for the evening performance, but John from 'front of house' kindly wheeled Mum, accompanied by Aunt Peggy, down to my dressing room. She was on quite a 'high' when she arrived.
“That was such fun darling, and you were brilliant,” she said. She might have been slightly biased of course! Aunt Peggy added to the praise heaped on me. I was so glad that Mum had been able to see me perform one last time.
After the final evening performance, there was the usual 'after party' and I stayed for a while exchanging compliments with the other cast members and crew and saying how much I had enjoyed the opportunity to perform with them.
One of the guys, Len, came up to me and said “To be honest, when I heard about you and how you were taking over at such short notice, I thought you might be one of those stars from the big-time companies who is a bit 'up themselves', but you aren't like that at all, and it's been a privilege to perform with you.”
“Thanks, Len, I've really enjoyed it. To be honest, I was a bit concerned about what people would think when I came in so late, especially with David being my brother-in-law, but it all seemed to work out alright.”
I didn't stay too late as I knew Mum and Aunt Peggy would be waiting up until I arrived back at Mum's house. More compliments, a cup of tea and I was off to bed.
The next two weeks I spent a lot of time with Mum. I could see that she was fading fast and much of the time she spent in bed sleeping. One day when she was quite alert, she spoke to me about my life as an actress.
“Darling, I want you to promise me something; don't put your career on hold after I have gone. The best thing you can do in memory of me is to get back on the stage as soon as possible. I've spoke to Reggie about it and he agrees with me. You know, you've got a wonderful husband there. I couldn't have wished you to find a better one.”
Of course the tears started to flow, but I did promise her that I would do as she asked.
The doctor came on a regular basis to keep up her palliative care. She wasn't in any pain and for that I was grateful. We all knew that her time was short, so I was not surprised when one evening while I was in York, Emma rang me.
“Can you come and spend the night?” she said. “The doctor came again today and he thinks it's more a matter of hours than days.”
Reggie offered to drive me, but I assured him that I was alright, and I didn't want him to miss any lectures; it wasn't as though this had come suddenly. He had already said his goodbyes to Mum. A few days earlier, Emma had taken the children to see Mum for the last time. She had been awake and spoke to them for a while. Penny understood what was happening more than the younger children of course and she tried not to cry. Mum had done her best to comfort her.
“I'm just going to sleep, that's all,” she said. “It's nothing to be scared about.”
When I arrived at Mum's house, Emma was already there. We went up to Mum's bedroom together, hand in hand. For some years she had been sleeping in a single bed because she said a double one reminded her too much of Dad not being there. We sat on either side of the bed and held her hands. She was awake and spoke to us, her voice faint but clear.
“I'm going to be with your Dad tonight,” she said. “Will you stay with me until I go?”
“Of course we will,” we said, holding back the tears. She smiled at us both and after a while she dozed off and we sat there, holding her hands and talking quietly to each other, reminiscing about old times with Mum and Dad. From time to time Aunt Peggy came into the room, and on a couple of occasions she brought us in a cup of tea. I glanced out of the window and was reminded of lines by Dylan Thomas from 'Under Milk Wood':
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black... Time passes. Time passes.'
Eventually and inevitably we dozed off.
Something woke me suddenly and I glanced at my watch. It was five o'clock in the morning, the hour before dawn; 'the Hour of the Wolf' as it is sometimes called when most babies are born and most old people pass away. I looked at Emma and she had woken too. Then we both looked at Mum. She was awake; her eyes wide open as though she was looking at something that we could not see and her face was wreathed in smiles. She slowly raised her right hand as if to reach out to someone, lifted her head slightly off the pillow and in the faintest of whispers she breathed her final word 'Harold!'. Then she closed her eyes, her head sank back on the pillow and she was gone.
Emma and I stared at each other. “It was Dad,” I said in a hushed voice. “He came for Mum and now they're together.”
“I think you're right,” said Aunt Peggy. She had been so quiet I didn't realise she was in the room. She walked up to the bed and kissed Mum on the forehead. “Goodnight little sister,” she said. “May you rest in peace.”
Emma and I kissed her in turn. Her skin was still warm and it was hard not to think that she was just asleep. “Good night, darling Mum,” I said. “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Strangely I did not feel like crying then. Mum was where she wanted to be, with Dad, and that was a reason for joy, not sadness. I know some people claim that in the last moments of life, in our mind's eye we see an image of the person we love most. No-one can say if this is true or not, but the three of us in the room that night had no doubt that Dad had come to take Mum by the hand and lead her to Paradise.
We stood there in silence for some minutes and then Aunt Peggy took over a mother's rôle. “Why don't you two get some rest?” she said. “You look exhausted. I'll do what needs to be done.” Like little children, without argument, we walked to my bedroom, lay on the bed and soon we were fast asleep with our arms around each other.
I was grateful that I'd been given the chance to spend so much time with Mum in those last months of her life. So often I've heard people say that they wished they'd asked things of their parents and delayed until it was too late, in denial and unable to accept that time was running out. Mum and I had spoken about everything that we wanted to, and indeed she had done the same with Emma and Peggy, her sister. Her life was complete.
The days following Mum's death were very busy, organising the church and minister, the flowers and refreshments, choosing a 'casket' (for some reason the word 'coffin' freaks people out) and of course thinking what we would say about her. I decided against writing out my part of the eulogy in too much detail because I wanted it to be spontaneous, not sounding like a learned speech from a professional actress.
Mum had been very pragmatic about her funeral and had made known her preferences which we were happy to follow. For a start she didn't want anyone to wear black, so I wore a blue silk dress, and Emma wore dark red. Penny was allowed to come and she wore a pretty dark pink dress. Mum had also chosen what hymns she wanted and some poetry and music. A friend of Emma's had agreed to stay in their house and look after the young children. We knew the church would be full as Mum had attended it regularly and had many friends amongst the parishioners.
“I know it will go well with you three in charge,” Mum had said. “In fact my only regret is that I won't be there to see it, or if I am you won't see me. Just in case I am there make sure to say only nice things about me!”
I managed a smile. “I can't think of a single bad thing we could say about you Mum, and I really mean that. You've been the most wonderful mother there ever was.”
I was right; the church was filled to capacity and extra chairs were added along the aisles. The funeral service started with Mum's choice of a hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”; later the Twenty-third Psalm was sung and the Lesson came from 1 Corinthians 15:
Brothers and sisters:
Behold, I tell you a mystery.
We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,
in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound,
the dead will be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed...
When it came to the Eulogy, Emma stood up first which was her right as the eldest child. She spoke lovingly about Mum; how she had given up her own ambitions in order to be a wife to Dad and a mother to us and how she had performed this rôle perfectly. She told everyone how much in love Mum and Dad were, and how devastated she was at his premature death. Despite this, Mum carried on, and she was so pleased to see us grow up, supporting us in our choice of career and go on to perform in various plays which she loved to attend. Then she spoke of Mum's involvement in the church and her happiness in seeing us get married and also her joy at the arrival of her grandchildren. There was more, but I can't remember the details now, only that Emma spoke so well. Then she sat down and it was my turn.
I started by acknowledging Emma's contribution “Which leaves me little to say, because all that Emma said was so true, and what more is there to add? We were truly blessed to have her for our Mum. Her life had its share of sadness, particularly when Dad left us far too early, but now we believe they are together again. In the main she lived a happy life and her only regret was not remaining on this earth for longer so that she could see her grandchildren grow up, but she never complained. That was Mum.
“As you know, she had a great input into this service, choosing hymns, music and readings which she loved. She told me that since Mozart was her favourite composer, she thought that one of his symphonies should be played. 'It will only take an hour, and after all, no-one can leave, so there'll be a captive audience,' she said.”
I paused for dramatic effect.
“She was joking of course; for such a good person, Mum had a wicked sense of humour.” A ripple of laughter ran through the congregation, just as I had intended. “However she did choose some Mozart to play. It is very short, just three minutes in length, but then precious jewels are small. So now we are going to play the famous trio from 'Cosi Fan Tutti' titled 'Soave sia il Vento' – 'May the winds be gentle'. It's a most appropriate choice, since it's a song about a farewell.”
I nodded to the young man standing at the side to play the disc, and the glorious sounds of Mozart at his finest filled the church.
When it was over I spoke again. “Finally, Mum chose a poem she asked me to read. It was written by the American author Mary Elizabeth Frye.” I paused. Up until now I had spoken in a low-key manner, but now I released the actor in me and let my voice ring out, infusing every word with meaning, just as I did while on stage:
'Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.'
The church was absolutely silent when I finished. I saw a few ladies wipe their eyes. Had I been overly dramatic? I didn't think so; this was something I had to do for Mum. As I walked back to my seat, I lightly touched the casket and then on the spur of the moment I bent and kissed it. A single tear fell on the polished wood and sparkled in the reflected light of the candles, a tiny part of me for Mum to take to the grave with her.
When I sat down next to Reggie, he took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze; that was all I needed. The service continued with prayers and a blessing and concluded with the recessional hymn for which Mum had chosen another favourite – 'Jerusalem'. As it was sung, her casket was slowly wheeled out of the church, with first the family and then the others present following.
We had decided that Mum's burial at the cemetery would be too confronting for Penny, so Reggie's parents, Mr and Mrs Staunton, kindly agreed to take her to the church hall for the refreshments following the service. Emma and David, Reggie and I, Aunty Peggy, together with the minister Rev James Sutton travelled to the cemetery. I must confess that the moment when Mum's casket was lowered into the earth where she would lie next to Dad, was very hard for us all. It suddenly occurred to me that Emma and I were now orphans. Mum had always been there for us and no longer could we talk to her about our hopes and fears and listen to her great good sense and comforting words. This was truly the end of an era.
We returned to the church hall to greet the congregation and thank them for coming as we were obliged to do, and this was hard too with the way I was feeling. Mum had been an active member of the Women's Institute for many years, and was fond of quoting the famous saying “It's not all jam and Jerusalem”. Many of the members had come to visit her in recent months, so who else would we ask to provide the refreshments for the mourners? Expecting a big attendance, we had catered generously and as a result there was a lot of food left over. Anticipating that this might be the case I had asked the ladies to distribute it among the people who would benefit from it the most, especially the widows. After a token reluctance, most were glad to accept it as a way of providing another meal and making their pensions go a little further.
I was pleased and humbled by the number of people I knew who attended the service. Dale and Frank were there of course, and also Reggie's Aunt Jane who had driven all the way from Swansea. Vi Edwards also turned up from Stratford, and she was accompanied by Mike Jacobs who had been in the cast of “Two Gentlemen”. Reading the body language, it seemed they were an item. Perhaps, after all, Mike was just waiting for the right person to come along.
One person I didn't expect to see was Penny Lane, Duncan Morgan's secretary at Stratford.
“Duncan intended to come but an urgent meeting at the last minute prevented it, so I'm representing the Company,” she said. “He sends his sincere condolences; we all do. He asked me to tell you to take your time, and when you're ready, come back to Stratford. He thinks a lot of you, you know?”
“Please thank him,” I said. “It's really kind of you to come.”
“You recited that poem beautifully,” said Penny. “You mother would have loved to have heard it.”
“She did,” I replied. “It was from a book of modern poetry she had. She asked me to read it one day and after I finished, she said she wanted it included in her funeral service. She organised almost everything, we just followed her instructions.” I even managed a smile.
Two incidents of note which I still remember were as follows: One elderly parishioner came up to me and after expressing her sympathies said: “You read the poem so well, my dear, almost as if you were a professional actress.” I must confess I nearly choked on my tea, but managed a 'Thank you very much.” Obviously what little fame I had was slow in arriving at Bridchester.
The second incident was when another parishioner, probably in her eighties, came up to me and said: “Is your brother here?”
“Er, there's just me and my sister,” I replied and she seemed unconvinced.
“I thought that Elizabeth had a son and daughter. I must be getting old,” she said as she walked off, shaking her head. Well, I hadn't told a lie.
Finally, the ordeal finished and the last person left the hall. Despite it being only mid-afternoon, I felt exhausted and was glad that it was over.
It had occurred to me that Aunt Peggy might not want to stay at Mum's house on her own, so after consultation with Reggie, (yes I was learning!) I asked her if she would like to come and stay with us in York where we had a sofa that converted into a bed.
“Thank you, darling, but I'll be quite alright for the time being,” she said. “I've been meaning to talk to you and Emma but the time wasn't right until now. I was very happy to be here looking after my sister, but now it's time for me to get back to my family; they need me too. I hope you understand?”
“Of course,” I replied. “We owe you a debt of gratitude which we can never repay, but we know that you must be missing your family terribly. Would you like me to ring up and book your return flight?”
“Yes please, as soon as you can. Now get yourself back to York and rest. You look terribly tired, and no wonder.”
We dropped Aunt Peggy off at Mum's house and then Reggie drove us to York.
That night when we went to bed, I finally released the pent-up emotions which I had managed to hold in check ever since the day Mum died. Reggie held me in his arms as I sobbed my heart out, and when there were finally no more tears to be shed I fell into a deep sleep.
Some time that night I had a strange dream. It was so realistic that afterwards I couldn't be sure if it was a dream or if it really happened.
In my dream I woke up and there was Mum standing by my bedside. She was dressed in a long white robe and her face seemed to glow in the darkness as she smiled at me.
“Harriet darling, Dad's here,” she said, and sure enough I saw Dad standing there too, similarly clad and with a smile on his face. “I came to tell you that we're both very happy and you are not to be sad for us. Have a wonderful life darling; we love you, and remember we will be watching over you always.”
Then she and Dad faded away into the darkness and it seemed in my dream that I fell asleep again. Most dreams seem to disappear like mist the more we try and grasp them, but the next morning, I remembered it in every detail. I didn't know whether to tell Reggie as he might think it was just a result of all the emotional strain I had been under during the last few days, so I kept it to myself, but I did draw great comfort from it.
It was some years later that I told Emma about my dream and she turned white.
“I had exactly the same dream,” she said.
To be continued.
Author's note: For anyone who wishes to hear the Mozart trio “Soave sia il vento”, there are numerous recordings of it on Youtube. You will also find there a delightful musical rendition of 'Do not stand at my grave' sung by Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins with orchestral accompaniment and choir.
I would like to acknowledge with thanks the assistance I continue to receive from Louise Ann and Julia Phillips in correcting errors and alerting me to 'typos' so that they can be eliminated before I post chapters.
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