A tragedy non-Shakespearean

In the summer of '95 whilst home from Bahrain I wandered into an antiquarian bookshop in downtown Winchester. This was not unusual. Dee liked to tour the shops; I didn't, except for this one. In any case Dee was as captivated by old books as much as I, hence the massive library we have carried around from home to home like the heavy shell on the back of a tortoise. On this particular occasion I picked up a slim and dusty volume that was to become one of  three books to affect my life.Written by Professor Logan Pearsall-Smith in the USA and published in 1928 it was entitled On Reading Shakespeare.

Now, although I had done very well at school with English Literature and had kept up a steady regime of reading both fiction and no-fiction since then, I had never really got to grips with The Bard, even on those rare occasions when I had seen the plays on stage. Something about the archaic language and the odd mix of prose and verse perhaps. Now here was the good Professor telling me to see the plays in the theatre of my mind by reading them in the fully interpretive Arden paperback editions, rather than through the voice and actions of actors on stage. But what first affected me so dramatically was the purity and beauty of the Professor's actual prose. The combination of his words and his message struck home. Between the summer of '95 and the autumn of '96 I read, one by one, all of William Shakespeare's plays plus each of his narrative poems and sonnets. Indeed, aided and abetted by the Arden translations, (on my bookselves to this day), throughout that period of time I read nothing else!

And so it was that I was reading in bed at 11.30 p.m.on Monday the 6th of August, 1996 when I came to this passage in The Merchant of Venice ... Lorenzo is at last alone with Jessica in a forest glade ...

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."


Just at this very point the bedside telephone rang. It was matron at the South Winds nursing home. Gently she informed me that my wife Joan, the mother of my children, had breathed her last. Don't come now, she said. The morning will be soon enough. Ignoring that I explained the situation to Dee, got dressed and drove off, arriving at the nursing home just as the ambulance was leaving. So instead of going in through the gateway I drove down to the nearby marina, switched off the engine and sat looking out over the starry black mirror of yacht studded water ...Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night ... the passage above reverberated in my head alongside all the good memories of long before: the dance in York where we had first met, our holiday up in Ayr when we had ended up sleeping on the beach, living in tiny little Moulton with my sister Shirley and her husband John, the birth of Karen, (no letter 'i' in her forename then), our flats in Bateman Street, Cambridge then houses in Kings Heath and Solihull and Southport and Lee-on-Solent; the inevitable onwards and upwards not always welcomed by my girl whilst along came the new babies. All the countryside perambulator walks, the camping holidays, the family Christmases. I thought about our making of love at a time when love was all we had, and so was very precious; (Love does not just happen; it has to be made, doesn't it? And protected);  All the fun and the adventures and misadventures. I thought about my weekend visit with our visitors from York and afterwards, the two of us on our own, the things she had said on the eve of her death. Things that will remain with me and only me for ever. Bi-ig boys, they don't cry-ey-ey, goes the song. I cried all right, for such harmony is indeed in immortal souls. But for the first time in years, there in that Marina car park at one o clock in the morning my belief in an afterlife - in a world with and of beauty and with neither pain nor tears - re-awakened itself.

There was much suffering in the aftermath, especially in the passing on of the news to my family and Joan's family. I recall waiting outside Kairen and Roger's north London home late into the evening that following Saturday as they and their family were due home from the airport after their overseas holiday. It was for them a devastating return.

All of our children - even Bob, who fortunately fitted the clothes I lent him - and all Joan's people and all our grandchildren attended the funeral service at Southampton Crematorium but the event was somewhat sullied by the appointed Reverend forgetting actually to turn up! Fortunately our funeral director had the necessary qualification to officiate. I had spent much time in writing Joan's eulogy and I'm afraid it caused the service to overrun, thus stacking up the following funeral services. In that eulogy I quoted a line from one of her favourite songs; You flying high in the air, me on the ground / Bring On The Clowns: Bring on more tears.

Delia had elected out of respect to stay away from the funeral. We had been living together for some ten years and it had been eight years since Joan had needed to enter professional care. Yes, there was an element of guilt on Delia's side but I can testify that there was also a great deal of mutual respect between the two women in my life. And Joan knew well that I may not have been able to make it through the night without Dee.

Soon enough I would again be a married man. One love does not necessarily destroy another. On the contrary, if one is lucky and tries hard enough it can re-inforce it.


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