This post was prompted by today’s Daily Prompt, “Tell us about the most surprising helping hand you’ve ever received.” Mine is not quite a traditional helping hand but one that has stayed with me for many years, nonetheless.
There I was in that small church in Stratford-on-Avon sitting in the front pew looking at a stone set into the floor with tears flooding my cheeks.
My first trip to Europe was only a little over ten years ago and I was over 40 after a lifetime of reading English literature and seeing English drama (I went to rehearsals of the Scottish play when I was three).
My trip started in Rome where I was overcome by the age of everything that surrounded me and finally I found myself in St Peter’s standing in front of the Pieta and was so overcome by the beauty of mother and child that I wept.
Florence was another revelation. The art was breathtaking and a trip through the Uffizi will live in my memory forever.
The ultimate however was England. I had spent virtually my entire life reading books set in this foreign land thousands of miles from my home. I had seen the movies and watched the television.
Walking out of the terminal at Heathrow started the experience. Right there in front of me was a London cab to take my mother, brother and I to our hotel. As we got close there was a double decker London bus, a red pillar box and a Bobby in his hat. The England of my imagination, of my reading, the country of my dreams was right there in front of me.
The next day we went to the British Museum and my brain was almost exploding when we saw the Elgin marbles and the Rosetta stone when I walked into the Reading Room.
As I looked around me the emotion started. Right there in a case was T.S. Eliot’s reader’s card. Over there were the favourite seats of Lenin and Conan-Doyle. Once again the tears started flowing, this was my world, the echoes of my teachers, my friends surrounding me.
After a week in London of museums, tourist spots and theatre (oh, what theatre — plays at the Old Vic, the Globe and the National’s opening season of Stoppard’s ‘The Coast of Utopia’ at the Barbican!) we went to Stratford for the weekend.
We spent the early part of the day looking at various bits of the town before finding ourselves late in the afternoon at Holy Trinity Church. After paying a small fee we walked into the Chancel of the Church and that small room has a number of pews before in the front, set into the floor, is Shakespeare’s grave.
I sat down in the front pew to the left of the aisle and right in front of me, on the other side if a short red rope between the two front pews was that most famous of playwrights. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t say a word. I sat there with tears streaming constantly down my face, my shoulders shaking as I sobbed.
I could barely see as the old man sat down beside me but after a moment I noticed him there and wiped my eyes. He must have been at least in his sixties if not seventies.
“Have you travelled far?” he asked.
“Australia, Sydney, Australia.”
“An actor?” was the next quiet question.
“No. Just the audience. A long time watching.”
“Just a moment,” he replied, “there’s something I do for the real friends when it’s quiet.”
He got up from the pew beside me and lifted up the red rope. “I’m a Sexton, it’s OK but don’t walk on the stone.”
He was a Sexton of the Church. A man who spent his days maintaining the Church and grounds watching thousands of tourists every year and for some, the lucky few who in his eyes were more than tourists, he extended a special treat.
I walked through between the pews and stood for a moment before kneeling beside the grave stone. I reached out a hand and before putting it down I looked into the gentle face of the old man and as he nodded I touched that stone and looked down for a moment to watch the tears hit the simple surface.