I'm sitting in the office and there's a wren singing in one of the trees outside, belting its tiny heart out like the hope of spring personified. Such a magnificent voice from so small a bird. Above him, over the richly textured grey sky, gulls float by, cruising on the mild, damp breeze. It has not rained once all day (so far), the temperature is well above freezing, and on Kew Green the muddy grass is starting to grow again...
Last night I was at "The Elixir of Love" at the ENO with my mother and my friend Alan. It's a lovely, happy production, full of neat details, very succesfully updated (ENO have a pretty good record on updating operas, going by those I've seen) and well sung. Sarah Tynan continues to be deliciously good, as she has been in everything I've seen her do; John Tessier was a sweetly-sung, credible Nemorino, and Andrew Shore was just marvellous. It was frivolous and touching and romantic, it had a happy ending, and it was just what I needed, after the angst and anguish of "Mayerling" a few days ago. Not that I didn't revel in the brilliance of "Mayerling"; but this was fun, and sometimes you need fun.
We were reminiscing during the interval about other things we've seen at the Coliseum; in Mum's and Alan's cases, going way back to pre-ENO days, in mine only to about 1976. My father took me and my future stepmother there to see English National Ballet in "Les Sylphides", "Graduation Ball" and "Le Tricorne". It was my first ever live ballet and I was so excited I felt ill for most of the day; I said nothing, for fear I'd be forbidden to go and sent to bed instead. We had Dress Circle tickets (gods know what it had cost him) and I can remember exactly what we all wore: Dad in his "orchestra suit"; Jane in a blue and white dress with a low neckline, and a white shawl with a silver lamé fringe; me in my best dark pink blouse and the long skirt patterned with elephants which Aunt O had made me for my birthday. Oh-my-god that's a long time ago! Oh, strange and happy memory. It was an enormous thrill; beautiful ballerinas in floaty dresses, and wonderful music, and colourful sets... everything an excited little girl's first trip to the ballet ought to be.
After that we got onto joking about the names of the characters in "The Elixir of Love" - Dr Sweetbitter, Sergeant Goodheart, Little No-one... Belcore is usually played as a bit of a jerk, and was here, yet the name implies he should be seen as essentially decent. It's like the way that Shakespeare's characters' names often give one a clue as to who they are: in "Romeo and Juliet", for example - Benvolio literally means "I mean well", while Mercutio evokes Mercury and mercurial. And of course the Italian name Tebaldo, which is what the character Romeo kills is called in the original source, is more usually anglicised as Theobald. Theobald Capulet; he just doesn't sound very aggressive, does he? Theobald Capulet is fluffy and a bit wet; a drunk Sloane Ranger throwing up on the stairs. Whereas Tybalt Capulet sounds tough, snappy and short-tempered, from the moment you hear his name. Short vowels and sharp dentals versus long vowels and soft, labial consonants; it's all given away in the sound. Theobald is an Old English Sheepdog; Tybalt is a Jack Russell Terrier.
Hmm. Hard to imagine Thiago Soares or Gary Avis as a Jack Russell Terrier... Very tall Jack Russells.
After the opera, I walked back to the car park on the South bank with them and we sat in Alan's converted camper van chatting for a few minutes. Out of the blue my mother produced a small bundle of tissue paper and handed it to me, saying "I've been meaning to give you this, it's just a little present to say how much I admire how well you're coping with this broken wrist". It was a very light package of hastily-folded white tissue paper; I unwrapped the paper saying "Oh Mum, you shouldn't have - " - and my great-great-grandmother's Victorian rose gold five-bar gate bracelet slid into the lap of my skirt.
I daresay a Victorian bracelet doesn't amount to much in some families; not so in mine. This is one of my mother's few pieces of "good" jewellery. It is a simple thing, almost plain in appearance, but it is the plainness of something that does not need fancy decoration. It has graced the wrists of all those beautiful and indefatigable McLaughlin/La Faunte/Smith/Dent women whose pictures hang in Mum's hallway; and now it slipped over mine and lay there heavy and shining while I gasped my stunned thanks.
"You'd have it one day anyway," she said. "I wanted you to be able to enjoy it now."
I didn't know what to say. I still don't. I will cherish it as I cherish Mum herself, and all the heritage of my blood. I'm proud of my ancestry, of the mixture of places and cultures, of the history of brave decisions and strong determined people, of risk-takers, crossers of boundaries, holders-together of families... If only I had a daughter to pass the bracelet, and the bloodline, on to in my turn.
Strange and happy, indeed.
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