Reluctantly, Olive closed the large, red card folder, and placed it on the table at which she was sitting. The haunting words of Ethel’s latest essay (‘What I did in the summer holidays’) seemed imprinted on her brain. Opposite her, an overweight head mistress with fluffy yellow hair and large glasses with square frames smiled gravely.
“As you can see, Mrs. Whinging, we are becoming a little concerned with Ethel’s ability to write down her thoughts; some of the experiences which she records are not altogether in accordance with the truth. I specifically told the class to be honest about what they had done during the holidays, and it seems that Ethel allowed her imagination to run away with her slightly…”
“What do you mean?” demanded Olive. “What isn’t truthful about this? Ethel was simply writing about what we did in the summer!”
Mrs. Gryme stared at Olive in amazement. “You mean…your husband actually did take part in a protest in London over the stamp tax?”
Olive hesitated. “Well, I wouldn’t really call it a protest as such,” she said thoughtfully. “It was more of a one-man rally. Augustus and Adolphus would have come too, but they were busy, and they’d probably have just embarrassed us anyway…”
“And…you actually did have a competition over the phone with your friend to see whose toilet flushed the fastest, causing the room to fill up with sewage?”
“Yes,” said Olive uncomfortably. “It wasn’t just my fault, because Edith was being really provoking. She’s so proud of her stupid toilet just because she needs it to work all the time with her bladder, and…”
“And…you actually did take your children to watch their father being interrogated in court?”
“Yes!” said Olive impatiently. “The kids really wanted to see their daddy speaking in front of the court. We were all so excited, and Fred needed us to be there for him during his special moment. I would have stayed there the whole time if those stupid guards hadn’t made us leave just for taking a few pictures…”
Mrs. Gryme stared at Olive, and then down at the red folder on the table in front of them both. “Well…,” she stuttered uncertainly, looking at a loss of what to say. “I…I think that’s all, Mrs. Whinging. As I said earlier, Ethel can be a challenge, but I’m sure…I’m sure she’ll be fine as long as we all persevere with helping her progress. Well…good night then, Mrs. Whinging. I suppose I’ll see you in a week’s time for little James’s parents’ evening? As you know, his teacher is Mrs. Pax, but unfortunately she has been rather unwell recently – something to do with alcohol poisoning – so I’m covering the reception class’s parents’ evening. Anyway, I really must speak with you about him.”
Olive had stood up and was pulling on her coat ready to leave, but suddenly she glared at Mrs. Gryme. “I thought you said James was doing fine?” she snapped.
“Oh, he is!” Mrs. Gryme said excitedly, her face growing pink as she thought about her favourite student. “Better than fine! In fact, that’s precisely what I need to talk to you about, Mrs. Whinging…”
“Look, the last thing I need right now is someone telling me I need to come back to this rubbish hole simply to find out how incredible my son is,” Olive barked. “Unless there’s a problem, I don’t see why you teachers can’t just leave us alone. If James’s doing fine, leave him to it, for heaven’s sake…”
“Oh! But, Mrs. Whinging!” Mrs. Gryme protested, but in a second Olive had already slammed out of the door.
When Olive got home that evening, Frederick was gluing things into one of his albums, eight-year-old Ethel was drawing pictures and five-year-old James was playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto on his father’s old keyboard. Olive’s attention was immediately with her daughter.
“Ethel!” she yelled. “What have I told you about writing silly stories about what we do in the holidays? What do you think everyone else will think of us if they know we had to go to Brussels simply because your father had to apologise to the EU? That was silly and bad, Ethel! What have you got to say for yourself, now?”
Ethel peered up at her mother briefly, and shrugged. “Don’t know,” she muttered icily, and continued to crayon all over the piece of paper.
Olive reached down and snatched the drawing away. As Ethel started to wail and tried to grab it back, Olive held it way out of her reach and examined it. It appeared to be a picture of a pretty little girl (who strongly resembled Ethel herself, except that she looked much older and seemed to be wearing very fashionable clothes and masses of make-up) stabbing with a pencil at a plump figure with fluffy yellow hair and large glasses with square frames. The plump figure, which seemed to be in the process of falling painfully to the floor, had been drawn in the middle of a distinctly red area.
“That’s all her blood,” Ethel explained proudly, forgetting her anger for a moment. “She’s been stabbed in the heart with a pencil.”
Olive wrinkled her nose and tossed the drawing aside with contempt, and Ethel’s face instantly returned to its usual expression of scorn. She grabbed back her drawing and started to add to it. Olive did not look at the picture again. It was probably best that she didn’t, because she would have seen that Ethel was drawing a woman with straggly blonde hair and a ferocious expression chained up against a wall whilst the pretty little girl aimed multi-coloured clods at her.
Olive collapsed into a chair. “Oh, thank heaven that silly racket’s stopped,” she muttered. “It was giving me a headache.”
“Oh, you mean James’s piano-playing?” said Frederick, looking up briefly from his album. Olive could see that he had glitter all over his face. Spotting her confused expression, Frederick grinned. “Oh, you’re wondering what I’m doing! Well, I thought I’d decorate the stamp albums a little more, so I’m using glitter and stars and those little ‘Happy Birthday’ sequin things. What do you think?”
Olive opened her mouth to tell Frederick exactly what she thought of his idea, but she was interrupted by a little voice:
Olive looked around angrily. James, having stopped playing the keyboard so that he could run and get something from upstairs to show to his mother, was standing to one side of the doorway, clutching in both hands an extremely thick wodge of paper. His hands were ink-stained, and Olive could see that he, not having had reliable access to a plentiful supply of paper, had appeared to have scribbled his neat, distinctive writing over everything from the copyright page of a book to a discarded speeding fine. The paper was in a variety of colours and sizes, and there were two pieces of string tied around two of the edges of the wodge to keep it together. At the sight of his mother’s furious and impatient glare, James predictably slunk backwards further into the hallway, looking very much like he wanted to melt into the wall. He probably would not have spoken again if it weren’t for his father.
“What’s that, Jamesy?” Frederick asked in his usual cheerful manner. It was unclear whether he was asking what James wanted or what the enormous pile of paper was.
James decided to answer both questions: “I’ve written another novel, Papa, so I thought I’d come down and tell you,” he whispered with five-year-old innocence. “It’s my third. I know Mama didn’t have time to read the first two, but I thought she’d especially like this one, because…”
“James!” Olive interrupted suddenly. The effect of this one exclamation on her young son was extraordinary: he squealed and leapt back even further into the hallway. A couple of Post-it notes, nearly completely black with ink and too small to be kept within the boundaries of the string, fell out from the pile. James was terrified of his mother, and Olive knew it. She continued: “James, you know perfectly well that I’ve got very important Mummy business which must be dealt with. If you want to show one of your little stories to someone, show it to Mrs. Pants or whoever…”
“Mrs. Pax,” James corrected almost inaudibly, referring to his teacher at school. “But I can’t show it to her; she always has a hangover, and she’s been unwell…”
“James, go away!” Olive shouted, and James gave out a frightened squeak and scuttled off upstairs without a word, a few more Post-it notes flying out behind him.
“Oh, Olive, he’s only a kid! You shouldn’t be so hard on him!” Frederick said, bending forward to pick up a fallen Post-it note which was in fact the front page of the novel. Frederick glanced at the title for a moment (‘The Success of the Plotting Woman’), before placing it onto the coffee table and turning back to Olive. “What’s the very important Mummy business you need to get on with?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Olive muttered dismissively. “Just make me a cup of tea, will you, Fred? That Mrs. Gryme went on and on about Ethel for hours. Next time you should go, Fred; you need to stop being so selfish.”
Frederick nodded obediently, and sloped off into the kitchen. Meanwhile, still sitting on the floor to one side, Ethel aimed a malicious glance at her mother and continued to ferociously scribble jagged lines up and down the piece of paper she was currently drawing on.
The next day, James approached Olive again.
“Mama,” he whispered.
Olive looked up from her bowl of cereal. Her son was already dressed in his neat, crisp school uniform with brushed hair and polished shoes. She was somewhat relieved to see that unlike last night he wasn’t holding one of his stupid little-boy stories that he expected her to read, but had a single sheet of pristine white paper.
“What is it?” she demanded.
“You remember I told you that I won that prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Magnificence, don’t you, Mama?”
Olive didn’t remember in the slightest. It seemed that every so often James came up to her with news that he’d won some stupid prize – outstanding this and remarkable that – that she was meant to be proud of (even though it wasn’t her who had won it) and so she didn’t understand how she could be expected to remember one specific conversation. “No,” she said simply.
James hadn’t thought she would, so he wasn’t particularly disappointed. “Well, I did win it, Mama,” he replied, glowing. “And the awards ceremony is next week at school at 7pm. Mrs. Gryme said I should consider bringing my parents so they can come along and finally start appreciating how outstanding I am.”
Olive whipped her head around and glared at James. “What does that mean?” she demanded.
James bent his head. “That’s just what she said,” he whispered mournfully.
Olive thought for a moment but then just shrugged. “Yeah, well, I’d love to come, James, but you know it’s Mummy’s night to buy the drinks for the girls down at the Barmy Duck on Thursdays. I mean, you understand…,” she said carelessly.
James nodded and left the room. He understood.
That afternoon, Olive watched with reluctance and exasperation as Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus ran, squealing piercingly with excitement, into the room where Olive sat cutting out pictures of male models from the magazines to go in her private scrapbook. All three of them were jumping up and down with glee so that the whole house seemed to shake, and Frederick was waving a piece of paper. Then, to Olive’s surprise, her eight-year-old daughter, also squealing with excitement and jumping up and down, followed her father and uncles into the room. She looked a lot happier and much less sinister than usual.
“Ethel’s got the lead in the school play!” Frederick shrieked.
“I’ve got the lead in the school play!” Ethel shrieked.
Olive blinked, staring at them. Something about this seemed painfully familiar. “What do you mean, school play?” she demanded. “It’s June!”
“It’s an end-of-year play; not a Christmas one,” explained Frederick, still beaming with pride and excitement. “Can you believe it, Olive? Our little Ethel, the star of the show! Everyone will see how brilliant I am at being a father and encouraging children! All the guys down at the Stamp Collecting Society will envy me, won’t they, Augustus, Adolphus?”
“Oh, yes,” said Adolphus, and Augustus nodded vigorously. But then Adolphus frowned. “Will they envy us?”
Frederick thought for a moment, then he shrugged. “Yes, Adolphus, they’ll envy you,” he decided. “I mean, you’re her supportive uncles, aren’t you?”
“What’s ‘supportive’?” Ethel asked suddenly.
“It’s where three grown men think it’s appropriate to run screaming into a room just because one little girl gets the lead in a school play,” Olive said sourly just as Frederick opened his mouth to answer Ethel.
“…Anyway, Ethel gets to play Juliet,” Frederick said, not sure what to reply to Olive. “It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.”
Olive raised her eyebrows. “Never heard of it,” she scoffed.
“Oh, it’s rather famous,” Frederick said nervously. “It’s by that chap Shakespeare. Actually, I think it’s one of the most famous love stories of all time …”
“Don’t be stupid,” Olive snapped. “If it was one of the most famous love stories of all time, I’d know about it, wouldn’t I?”
“Well, why don’t you read it?” Frederick suggested brightly. “It’s rather good. Dad used to have a box full of Shakespeare’s plays, and Augustus and Adolphus and I used to read them whenever we were bored.”
“If that’s the case, it must be a load of rubbish,” Olive muttered. “It’s not about stamps, is it?”
“Oh, no,” said Frederick, appearing vaguely disappointed. “No, there’s nothing to do with stamps in it. But it is good; I promise. You really should read it.”
“Well, if it’ll stop you whining on at me, I will read it,” Olive cried. “Do we have a copy?”
“Oh, yes!” said Frederick. “Augustus, Adolphus, do you know where Dad’s Shakespeare books are?”
“You put them into the wardrobe, didn’t you, when you moved in?” said Augustus. “We’ll go and get ‘Romeo and Juliet’!”
In a few seconds, Augustus and Adolphus were dashing (well, falling) back down the stairs. Augustus was holding an old, dusty dark-blue hardback book with ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies’ printed on the spine in gold letters. “Here you go, Olive!” he said cheerfully, handing Olive the book.
“Right,” Olive muttered, and, opening the volume, walked into the other room to begin reading.
Five minutes later, Olive stomped back into the kitchen, where Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus were poring over Ethel’s script and asking her to recite certain parts. Olive immediately interrupted the little rehearsal by slamming the book down on the counter, sending a cloud of dust wafting up into the air.
“You call this rubbish the greatest love story of all time?” she cried, jabbing at the cover of the book with her forefinger. “It’s all nonsense! You can’t make sense of most of the words they’re saying! Who in their right mind would be able to get any kind of meaning out of this sort of drivel; that’s what I’d like to know! All ‘thou art’ this and ‘thou wilt’ that! And what’s this I’ve been reading about biting thumbs?”
“That was rude in Shakespearean times,” Frederick said quickly. “It still is in some countries. Basically Abraham and Sampson were being rude to one another because one was a Montague and one was a Capulet…”
“Who?” Olive interrupted.
“Abraham and Sampson,” Frederick repeated. “You know, the characters who were talking to one another?”
“Load of rubbish,” Olive muttered again. “Why did this Shakespeare give his characters such stupid names, anyway? Abraham! Sampson! Balthazar! Chorus! What was he playing at?”
“They’re not stupid,” Frederick said, sounding mildly hurt. “Shakespeare was a genius, Olive!”
“If this is what you call genius, Fred, you must have really low expectations,” Olive grumbled just as her son padded into the room and picked up the book. “If Ethel’s in this play, who’s going to want to come and see it if all she’s going to be talking about is this sort of thing?”
“I will!” Frederick said defensively. “Anyway, they’re not making the kids recite the whole play. They’re only eight, after all. They’re doing a simplified version. But seriously, how can you hate Shakespeare when James’s named after a Shakespearean character?”
“I don’t care who or what James’s named after,” Olive growled, peering at James as he looked up from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for a moment.
“…And your middle name’s Juliet,” Frederick pointed out.
“Don’t care,” Olive insisted. “Anyway, I’m not discussing this anymore. I want nothing more to do with that stupid play.”
“Oh, but you’ll come and see Ethel, won’t you?” Frederick cried. “She’s going to be so fabulous, and everyone will see what brilliant parents we are! They’ll all envy us!”
“Only if Ethel promises not to show us up,” said Olive. “Oh…wait a second, what’s the name of the hero in the play?”
“Romeo,” Frederick answered her.
“Hmmm. Who’s playing Romeo?” she asked, trying not to look too interested. “Another silly little eight-year-old, I suppose?”
“Of course,” said Frederick, and Olive drooped with disappointment. “It’s that rather charming little lad from Ethel’s class….what’s his name…Mark Samson!”
“Mark Samson,” Olive murmured suddenly. “Ah yes…I remember him. Awfully pretty, isn’t he? My, I bet he’ll be ever so handsome when he grows up…”
“’These violent delights have violent ends’” James suddenly said as he peered at the volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Olive stared at him. “What are you on about, James?” she demanded.
“Nothing,” said James quietly, abruptly closing the book and putting it back on the table. Then he swiftly crept out of the room, and Olive shook her head in exasperation, muttering something about everyone in this family being soft in the head.
“Daddy, you and Uncle Augustus and Uncle Adolphus are meant to be testing me!” Ethel suddenly cried, stamping her foot. She glared at her mother, as though attempting to remind her that she ought to be the main focus of attention. “I got the main part in the play! My friend Olivia only got Lady Montague, and Dean only got Benvolio, and Peregrine only got Friar Laurence! I got the main part!”
“I know you did, Sweetie,” said the adoring father, picking up the script again. “You’re the cleverest and most talented little girl in the whole wide world! Right, I’ll read Romeo…”
“I wanted to read Romeo,” Adolphus grumbled, glaring at his brother.
“I’m reading Romeo!” said Frederick sulkily. “You two can read whoever else we need in the scene!”
“And I’m reading Juliet!” Ethel cried.
Olive mimed being sick, and she moodily swept out of the room.
“…And you remember how disastrous and stupid school plays end up being, Mary!” Olive moaned to her best friend the following week, as she, Mary, Hetty, Edith and Alice were sitting in their usual dark corner of the pub.
Over the last couple of years, Hetty’s beloved pub had gone slightly downhill: Archibald Grease had retired from the bar-tending business so that he could devote more time to his new hobby of tightrope-walking, and his son Herbert proved to be a little less capable at running the pub. Herbert Grease was even more surly and unpleasant to customers (at least those who weren’t regulars) than his father had been, and as a result only the very loyal customers generally visited the pub nowadays. Also, he saw fit to change the name from the Crown to the Barmy Duck. No one really understood quite why this was, but the name certainly gave the impression that the Barmy Duck wasn’t exactly full of the most normal, highly sociable people in the world, so its popularity had plummeted dramatically. The lights were never blazing on Saturday night anymore, and the whole building had turned into a rundown, forlorn sort of place. The five women were currently the only people sitting out at the front of this miserable scene.
“School plays aren’t always awful,” Alice said, looking up from ‘War and Peace’. “Sometimes they’re rather fun.”
“They’re not!” Olive insisted crossly. “They always go wrong! Mary, do you remember that play at the school when we were in the countryside? I got some ridiculously trivial role, and then you ended up ruining the whole thing by messing up as Mary! That play got me expelled!”
“Yes, I think I remember that,” Mary said thoughtfully. “I don’t actually remember changing my words or anything, though.”
“Don’t be silly, Mary,” Olive muttered. “Anyway, Fred was saying that if Ethel’s the main part in her school play and she does it well then all the parents will envy Fred and me. That’s one good thing because those stupid snobs will finally realise that I am a good parent.”
“I’m sure they will,” Alice muttered wisely, smirking into her glass of sherry.
On the day of the play, Olive, Frederick, Augustus, Adolphus, James and Mary (Frederick had invited Mary along to watch in order to prove to her just how marvellously talented his daughter was) walked into Ethel and James’s primary school and found the lobby full of people. A number of mothers sat behind some school desks which had been pushed together and covered with a white tablecloth on which biscuits and paper cups of orange juice sat, and the mothers were smiling at the children and smirking maliciously at the other parents.
The school hall had its own set of scaffolding for the rows of fold-up chairs to sit on, so that it was a little bit like being in a real theatre, and headlamps beamed down on the as yet vacant stage at the front. The Whingings and Mary found themselves spread across the middle of their own row, which was about half way between the stage and the back wall, and Olive insisted on sitting in the very middle, inbetween Frederick with his brothers on his other side, to ensure that they didn’t make a fool of the family, and James, to ensure that he wasn’t as badly behaved as usual. Mary sat beside James, and Olive also eyed her every now and again to make sure that she wasn’t doing anything improper or embarrassing.
Frederick and his brothers were so excited that they were bouncing up and down in their seats. The three of them had practised for hours with Ethel in her role as Juliet, even when Ethel had sulked and said that she’d rather be raiding Olive’s make-up box, and the look on Frederick’s face said, ‘Yes…yes…my daughter’s got the leading role, you know…’.
Frederick had been just as excited earlier that day: “Remember what I told you, Ethel!” he said boisterously as he escorted his exasperated daughter to the bus stop. “Don’t let any of those other children ruin your confidence! They’ll probably be some less talented ones who’ll try and make you feel like you can’t act or whatever, but don’t listen to them! After all the practice we’ve done, it’s literally impossible for anything to go wrong…oh, hello, Mr. Finn! My, what a splendid pair of green trousers! Vomit-coloured; my absolute favourite…!”
Something very similar to this happened as they were on their way to the school in the evening, but then Olive simply tugged on Frederick’s arm, unwilling to listen to any more of his sarcastic remarks towards the rival fathers at the school. Frederick looked disappointed, particularly as he had worn his favourite multi-coloured sweater with the express purpose of being able to show it off on this fabulous night. He looked especially disappointed when he looked back and spotted the horrified expression on Mr. Finn’s face, and the self-conscious glance at his trousers, and the way in which Augustus and Adolphus wrinkled their noses at the fashion disaster and very visibly stalked ahead with their heads in the air. But Olive had no time for any of Frederick’s nonsense at the moment.
Mark, Ethel’s newest boyfriend, had been going to play Romeo, but there had been an issue. Earlier that afternoon, Mark’s mother had cheerily waved him off for his final rehearsal and told him to ‘break a leg’, and he had promptly obeyed her by slipping and tumbling down a very steep hill just outside his house. The school had, for obvious reasons, therefore had to bring in a new actor to play Romeo, and Frederick couldn’t wait to see who it would be.
“Olive!” Frederick objected. “I’ve been waiting to get back at Mr. Finn for ages…!”
“Shut up, Fred,” Olive snapped. “I don’t care.”
“But you remember when he insulted my favourite shoes!” Frederick whined. “This isn’t just vanity; it’s a struggle for dignity…”
“I don’t care!” Olive repeated angrily. “If you’re so worried about making a good impression tonight, stop showing us all up!”
Frederick mumbled something in complaint, his bottom lip stuck out sulkily, but he continued to trudge along beside Olive without making any further remarks. Soon enough, he had found something else which was apparently worth Olive’s attention:
“Look at the moon, Olive,” he said dreamily. “Isn’t it remarkable how the moon can light up an entire building, whilst at the same it can creep into even the darkest and tiniest corners? Don’t you find that amazing, Olive?”
Olive thought about it, glancing at the ugly brick building that Frederick was pointing to. It was indeed covered with the light of the moon. Olive didn’t find it amazing at all.
“’That tips with silver all these fruit tree tops’,” James murmured absent-mindedly.
Olive rounded on him. “What are you talking about, James?” she demanded.
James squeaked in fear and bent his head without answering.
“What did he say, Olive?” Frederick inquired.
“Some rubbish about silver growing on fruit trees,” Olive huffed. “I’ve already told you millions of times that money doesn’t grow on trees, James. Don’t you ever listen?”
“No, Mama, that was a quote…”
“Be quiet and stop saying stupid things. Right, where are we…?”
And now that they were seated in the hall, Frederick had completely forgotten about both Mr. Finn’s trousers and the moon.
“I don’t expect that that Pincer boy will last long against an audience,” he remarked haughtily. He was referring to a small, geeky boy named Martin Pincer who always wore a very, very long tie. “They’ll tear him to pieces.”
“Frederick, it’s an audience made up of the relatives of small children,” Olive pointed out. “People don’t get into riots at school plays. Not like the audience in the olden days at the Lobe.”
“The Globe,” Frederick corrected automatically. “Golly, I bet they’d resort to throwing rotten fruit if the acting was bad enough, though! And secretly…” he leaned in towards Olive confidentially, “I personally don’t think the Jefferson boy’ll last for more than five minutes either!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Fred,” Olive muttered, leaning away from him as though he had the plague. Then she suddenly noticed the sack that he had been carrying with him the whole evening, and finally understood. “Oh, Lord…Fred, give that sack of rotten apples to me.”
“They’re not rotten!” Frederick cried, doing his best to look completely horrified that Olive could have such a poor view of his conduct. “They’re perfectly fresh! I just brought them in case…you know…in case we wanted a snack or something…”
“Don’t play games with me, Fred,” Olive snapped, and she abruptly snatched the sack from the floor by Frederick’s feet.
Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus all drooped with disappointment. Actually, Frederick opened his mouth as though he was planning to say something else, but he was interrupted. The music which had been tinkling from a couple of loudspeakers was suddenly cut off, and Mrs. Gryme waddled onto the stage.
“Good evening, everyone!” she cried cheerfully, and the rows of children from the rest of the school who sat just in front of the stage obediently chanted back, “Good evening, Mrs. Gryme!” Olive rolled her eyes across at Mary, but Mary was staring intently at the stage. Mrs. Gryme continued: “Thank you for attending, and we hope that you enjoy this wonderful school play. The children have all been working very hard to memorise their parts, and I’m sure that their talents will all shine through tonight!”
“Indeed,” Frederick said.
“Shut up, Fred,” said Olive.
“I do love it when someone is allowed to show their talents in acting!” Mary hissed down the row icily. “You know, without being sabotaged or anything…”
“Shut up, Mary,” said Olive, not listening.
“She always tells me to shut up,” Mary muttered to five-year-old James, who nodded understandingly and patted her hand. He also whispered to her, but Olive wasn’t concentrating.
The play began. Frederick and his brothers had their knuckles in their mouths as though this was the only way of preventing themselves from screaming with excitement. A few people in the audience turned around and glared at them because of the squeaky noise their chairs made as they impatiently bounced up and down, but after a few seconds they had calmed down and begun to mutter quietly to one another as the play progressed:
“I told you the Jefferson boy would be useless.”
“Yes…very poor quality acting.”
“That child….what’s his name…Peregrine something…isn’t faring too well, either. Listen to that monotonous voice!”
“Poor silly boy. It’s probably best to simply ignore him. Funny how no one’s throwing fruit or shouting or anything.”
“What’s he pulling that stupid face for?”
“Frederick, Peregrine’s got a lazy eye.”
“Well, couldn’t they have picked someone without a lazy eye to play Friar Laurence? If there’s one thing I hate about school plays, it’s poor casting.”
“Hmmm…I see what you mean.”
“Be quiet, Fred!” Olive growled as a few more adults turned around and frowned at the three brothers. “People are looking at us!”
“Let them look!” Frederick said smartly. “Our daughter has the main role, Olive!”
“They won’t know our daughter has the main role if you keep disrupting people!”
“Don’t be silly; it’s on the cast list in the pamphlets the teachers were handing out! Look!” Frederick showed Olive one of the many pamphlets he had collected over the first few minutes of being in the hall before the play had started. “Plus, it’s not like these kids are anything special. Look at that acting! Atrocious!”
“Sshhh!” said someone from the row in front who didn’t turn round.
“Yes. Sshhh!” Olive muttered.
The three brothers were silent for the next few minutes, even though they continued to privately gesture to one another in a sort of secret code that Olive had never understood. Before long, they were whispering again:
“Who does Jamilla Davies think she is; strutting around the stage like that?” Frederick demanded. “She’s playing Lady Montague, not Juliet!”
“Disgraceful!” said Augustus, shaking his head.
“Shameful!” agreed Adolphus.
“Thank heavens she doesn’t have many lines.”
“What a rotten costume as well! Look at her headdress! Someone should tell her mother that that is a mid-to-late fourteenth century headdress, not a fifteenth century headdress!”
“You’re right! That’s an outrage; has she researched this role at all?”
“And I don’t know what Duncan Pith is smirking about. What a dreadful haircut! He looks like Henry V.”
“Yes. Shame he’s playing Benvolio.”
“Golly…I say, what do you think of Raymond Calzone? He’s actually all right, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes…head and shoulders above the other boys, most definitely. And he’ll be an utter dreamboat when he grows up, too!”
“Shows you that they’ve been wise for the casting of the main roles at least, doesn’t it?”
“Raymond Calzone!” Olive yelped suddenly.
“That’s Duncan Pith, Olive…” Frederick replied. “He’s got an awful lisp, hasn’t he?”
“Not him!” Olive cried. “I know who Duncan Pith is. Just look at little Raymond! Look at that blonde fringe!”
“Hmmm. Very handsome, eh?”
“Oh, yes,” murmured Olive. “I bet he’ll be gorgeous when he’s older. And doesn’t he have rich parents…?”
“Sshhh!” hissed the voice again, a little louder than before.
“Hang on!” Frederick cried suddenly, causing several more people to look round and stare at him. “Olive…Olive, I think it’s Ethel now. It’s….yes, it is! Oh, golly, here she comes!”
“Big deal,” Olive said as the three brothers leaned forwards, grinning manically.
Ethel Whinging swaggered onto the stage, wearing the somewhat ostentatious fifteenth century costume that her father and uncles had had professionally made for her in Milan. Smiling proudly and a little uncharacteristically as a girl called Rosie Loop who was playing Nurse called her, she was absolutely the main focus on the stage, and the Whinging brothers were not the only people waiting with anticipation for her to open her mouth.
“I will not cry…I will not cry…,” Frederick promised himself, his lip wobbling as his daughter adjusted the microphone in front of her. Olive rolled her eyes at Mary.
Ethel took a deep breath, and closed her eyes in a saint-like way, turning up her face towards the heavens. Then she opened her mouth and began to speak: “How now! Who calls?”
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Frederick cried, reaching his arms up and bursting into tears. “Gorgeous! Marvellous! A work of genius!”
“Fred, shut up!” Olive hissed.
This was the loudest that Frederick had been yet. Olive finally found out who their constant remonstrator was. A hideous woman with tiny glasses so far down her face that Olive wondered how she could look through them turned around and ferociously said, “Sshhh!” It is not easy to increase the volume of “Sshhh!” beyond a certain point, but this woman was making a fairly good job of it. Judging from the unattractively flat nose and small, expressionless eyes, Olive thought that this must be some elderly relative of a young boy named Dorkus Finn, the son of Frederick’s arch-rival in the world of fashion.
Meanwhile, Ethel was continuing to speak. And, just as loudly as before, so were the Whinging brothers.
“Marvellous! Absolutely marvellous!”
“Oh, you’re right! I couldn’t be prouder!”
“The best piece of acting I’ve seen this year! You know, we should apply for her to act at the Globe…”
“Ha! Did you see that little wink at the audience? I told her to do that! It really gives Juliet’s character a fantastic modern twist, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, I know! Gosh, she’s always so saintly in all the other versions! I can’t wait to see the reaction to the balcony scene!”
“I tell you what; that was our best piece of adaptive thinking yet! I’ve just never felt before that Juliet really conveys her desirability much. But I mean, when Ethel starts going on about how she’s had millions of boyfriends before it’ll really give an insight into modern life…”
Olive did notice that, throughout the play, Juliet did seem to be doing an awful lot of prancing about and twittering on about how wonderful and beautiful and intelligent she was, particularly when she was standing on a makeshift balcony where no one could possibly not pay attention to her, whilst Romeo seemed more focused on proving to the audience his amazing skills at jabbing his rival Capulets none-too-carefully with plastic swords. In a later scene, Tybalt, rather than lying still as Olive imagined he was supposed to, was doubling up on the stage and groaning as he clutched at his stomach, where Romeo had aimed a particularly sharp shot. Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus continued to discuss the quality of the acting throughout, never ceasing to point out to one another the aspects of Ethel’s acting where they had held particular influence during the rehearsals back at home.
A few of the children and a few of the teachers looked puzzled, staring at one another in confusion as Juliet said some things which they apparently didn’t remember from the original script, but as the play didn’t appear to be disastrously failing yet they didn’t intervene in any way. Ethel was allowed to carry on jumping around and ‘improving’ Juliet’s character whilst the other children around her remained solemnly in their traditional Shakespearean roles. Well, apart from Raymond Calzone. Though he stuck to his original lines from the script, the manner in which he said them and the style of his acting also shone something of a new light on the character of Romeo. The other parents watched Raymond icily (aside, of course, from Raymond’s own parents), silently acknowledging that they had never thought of Romeo as being such an arrogant and violence-loving character, but Olive, Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus behaved as though they were watching William Shakespeare himself performing on the stage. Not that Olive would have been particularly ecstatic to see William Shakespeare performing in front of her. But she looked extremely approving, and actually seemed to be paying attention. And at the end, when Romeo took the draught of poison, she wept aloud just as her husband and his two brothers did.
“Beautiful!” Frederick sobbed, as he, Augustus and Adolphus mopped their eyes with the large supply of tissues they had brought in preparation. “Tragic and beautiful! Oh!”
It was Adolphus who spotted Olive’s face. He jumped in surprise. “Olive! You’re crying!” he said in astonishment. He jabbed at his brothers. “Frederick! Augustus! Olive’s crying! Do you know, I think she might be crying at the play!”
“Olive?” Frederick inquired, tapping her timidly on the shoulder. “Olive?”
“Beautiful!” Olive sobbed, snatching a couple of tissues and blowing her nose loudly. “Tragic and beautiful!”
“Wow. She’s wasn’t appreciating Shakespeare much before, was she?” Frederick whispered to his brothers. But Olive didn’t hear him.
Next it was Ethel’s turn. As she woke up and apparently had an authentic emotional breakdown when she spotted Romeo dead on the floor, she stood up, and, deciding to miss out the lines which her father and uncles had told her were pointless and only delayed the most climatic part of the play, she grabbed the plastic dagger and stabbed herself gruesomely in the stomach, ejaculating a piteous wail as she dramatically collapsed to the ground. There was some confusion after this scene, as the stage hands seemed unsure of the correct time at which to remove Ethel and Raymond from the stage. Even after Ethel had pretended to die and Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus had burst into a fresh bout of tears (Olive was also crying, but her eyes were still fixed on Raymond), she occasionally jolted upwards in order to piercingly shriek, “Why? Why?” at the ceiling before finally bursting into violent tears herself and lying still.
Olive, Frederick, Augustus and Adolphus (and, less noticeably, Mary) continued to sniff and sob all the way through the last part of the play, and even through Mrs. Gryme’s little speech at the end, in which she congratulated the actors and praised the production, in a rather uncertain voice, as having been the most original thing she’d seen in a long time. As the audience began to file out of the hall, a few people, including the old woman who looked like Dorkus Finn, glared at them, but they continued to cry. Even James looked dreamy and very, very thoughtful. When Frederick saw Ethel, he behaved as though he hadn’t seen her in a year.
“Ethel!” he yelled, running over and lifting her up, ignoring her grimaces and struggles. “That was completely fantastic! Genius! Remarkable! Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if you became a Hollywood actress!”
“Yes, Daddy, I know,” Ethel said crossly, pushing her father away and anxiously brushing at her costume.
“Ethel Whinging, Hollywood actress!” Augustus said dreamily. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Oh! Can you imagine the number of letters she’d get, Adolphus? From all over the world?”
“Oh! Stamps!” Adolphus squealed. He suddenly grabbed hold of his niece’s shoulders. “Ethel, listen to me! You have to become a Hollywood actress, do you hear? That’s what you’re going to be; a Hollywood actress!”
“I want to be a model,” huffed Ethel, pushing Adolphus away.
“No, no; you don’t want to be a model, do you?” said Frederick, laughing. “That’s boring. You’d make a wonderful actress, Ethel. So would that little Raymond Calzone, actually.”
“I like Raymond,” said Ethel thoughtfully. “But he’s not as good as me, is he, Daddy?”
“Oh, no no no no no, Precious!” Frederick assured her, but even he looked unsure. “Raymond was a good actor, but you were fabulous! No one could hold a candle to you. Most of all Peregrine what’s-his-name. Or Duncan Pith. Or any of the others, for that matter.”
“They’re all terrible,” Ethel agreed.
“Yes, little Raymond is brilliant, isn’t he?” Olive said suddenly. Her eyes looked cloudy. “Very pretty.”
“Oh, he was!” Mary agreed. “Very pretty.”
“Be quiet, Mary,” said Olive. She suddenly turned to her son. “James, why can’t you be more like that? All I ever see you doing is reading stupid books and things like that.”
“Oh, Olive, children are different,” Frederick said, but he looked slightly disappointed as he looked down at his son. “Plus, James might change as he gets older.”
“Doubt it,” Olive said meanly.
“Yes. But anyway, what did you think of Ethel? Wasn’t she utterly brilliant?” Frederick asked.
“I suppose,” Olive said carelessly. “A bit arrogant, perhaps…”
“What?” Ethel shrieked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Olive muttered tiredly. Honestly, how could her own flesh and blood be so pathetic? Sometimes she felt as though she had been specially cast to put up with annoying little brats, and couldn’t help wishing that she’d had some more helpful children. More often, she wished she’d never had them at all.