The noise was ear-splitting. An almost indescribable mixture of squawks, laughter, shrieks, shouts, general chatter, with the odd scrape and crash of a chair on the hard floor. Forty children between about 5 and 15, were ready and waiting for the rehearsal to begin. The room was full of movement. The younger children were zooming about chasing each other, the older girls chattering in small groups. The older boys were affecting indifference to the girls while they actually tried to get their attention - largely by pushing and joshing each other. Their breaking voices added depth to the general hubbub.
Peering through the diamond-shaped glass pane in the door and glancing round the room, Tabitha could see clusters of parents - mostly, but not exclusively, mothers - chatting happily, catching up on the week, the occasional burst of laughter giving a peak to the noise levels.
She allowed herself to gaze warmly on this scene. She loved all the children - yes, even Kieran, who had tried everyone’s patience for a while till he decided he wanted to join in. She was also fond of the parents, who were a loyal band who truly appreciated what Tabitha did for their children - for their whole family, in fact - and repaid her work by supporting her with their time and their energy, first helping with rehearsals, then helping to fill the hall for performances. She felt a surge of pride as she stood watching, appreciating their devotion. Some had been there since she’d first started, and were now bringing their third or fourth child!
She could spot the new parents immediately. They looked stiff and uneasy as they witnessed the mayhem - a little uncomfortable, unsure, wondering if bringing their precious child to this madhouse had been a good idea, while the “old lags” worked their magic to draw them into their groups. They did their best to involve them in their conversations, chat about their children, get them to join in. But it was uphill. Either they saw the results or they didn’t. And if they didn’t, they weren’t there long.
Tabitha smiled to herself. Actually practically no one ever left unless they were moving far away from the area. Once they saw how much their child loved her drama school, and - more importantly - they started seeing the results in their daily lives at home, they stayed.
Involving some of the parents in the school was one of Tabitha’s brainwaves. She needed “minders” for when something went wrong, a child got sick or injured or upset, someone to be able to take the child to hospital if necessary. And she thought at the start that having them there would help with the “discipline” of the group. But she soon found that she didn’t need any help there. The children were gripped by what she asked them to do, and - in fact - would do anything to please her.
Her little school, which had started with a handful of young children, children who were now the teenagers looking suave and at home, the girls with their long hair and gangly legs, and the boys with the broken voices, had grown far beyond anything Tabitha had anticipated. She had never guessed how popular her school would become locally. She had so many doubts about her ability, from being so undermined at home, belittled. But there were now sometimes as many as fifty children at rehearsals. As many of the parents chose to stay and watch, this made for a full and noisy hall and a busy session.
Tabitha’s approach to rehearsals was very different from what people would expect - the noise and excitement was encouraged, indeed nurtured. It wasn’t meant to be at all like school. It took new parents a while to accept that their child was not being turned into a hooligan - rather that the creative side of their mind was being opened up.
This was the most important part of Tabitha’s life. A place where she was valued, supported - loved, in fact. A place where she could be truly herself, without fear of folks’ opinions. In truth, she knew she could do this, and she could do it well. She didn’t have ambitions - any ambitions had long ago been crushed, at home.
Then, she thought, it was one of the most important parts of her life ... For a blissful moment her mind went back to her lazy afternoon in Jamie’s arms, smiling up at her lover’s warm gaze – time with someone who loved her just for herself ... Then her thoughts leapt forward to the invigorating and restorative dog walk in the fields she’d enjoy after the rehearsal. Those walks were her escape hatch, to fields, woods, and the wonders of nature: the open views across the fields, the majestic trees in the copses and hedgerows, the wildlife she saw - hares, deer, birds, the stalwarts of the farmyard, the wind causing the grass to sparkle and shine in the spring sunshine; the tiny flowers growing at the foot of the hedge, the brash stalks of last summer’s docks, the perfect flat rosette of a large thistle; the sheep calling their lambs, the sound of the cattle peacefully cudding; the wrens in the hedge, the seagulls following the plough, and the glorious v-shaped skeins of hundreds of chattering geese heading home for the night. The landscape fed her soul.
And she’d set off as soon as she got home.
Home to Angus.
With a deep breath, she prevented the lurch in her stomach turning into the sick helpless feeling she got at the thought of her husband.
She realised that a couple of small children were quietly waiting behind her. She smiled at them, saying “Hi Annie, hello Jasmine, did you come together from school today?” She breathed in, held her head high, pushed open the hall door for the two girls to scamper in, and entered the hall.
The noise was so much greater and more immediate once she stepped inside! She was immediately greeted by a gaggle of small boys who grabbed her hands, all shouting at once in their excitement. Two of the youngsters were shoving each other to take her bag to carry it. “Now Luke! Let Matthew carry my bag this time. I don’t want you to pull it in half! I’d love you to go and make sure the table is ready.” Luke raced ahead proudly, while Matthew walked beside Tabitha with her heavy bag, crammed with scripts, attendance sheets and all the rest. “Do you always have to carry bricks in your bag?” he asked in his slow, ponderous voice, as he held the handles up under his chin, using his legs to bounce the bag forward as he walked. Tabitha laughed in reply.
The noise of the room! Tabitha smiled fondly at them all, then nodded to Sally, her indefatigable helper, who was organising chairs and supervising the tending of a bruised knee and its sniffling owner. The girl who was comforting the child was Jennie, one of those teenagers who’d been in the School for ever. She was dealing with the anguished child gently and calmly and with such a caring manner - the older girls were brilliant at mothering the little ones.
It was a family atmosphere that Tabitha had taken great care to foster in the group as it grew. She had no time for factions or fights. Shooting Stars worked because everyone was on the same mission - to put on plays that they all enjoyed. To dwell for a while in another world, one without cares.
Sally was one parent who had been outstanding from the start. Her daughter Maisie was shy and really not very gifted at drama at all, but attending the school had helped to bring her out of her shell. It was a joy to Tabitha to watch the transformation in the children. From bossy to co-operative, from shy to confident, from awkward to accomplished. It was the change she effected in the children which was in fact more rewarding to her than even the success of the surprisingly polished productions. It was the change that she wished she herself had experienced as a child and which she was now passionate about bringing to as many children in her small town as she could reach.
This close family feel in the school included even the most gauche and untalented of the children, the trickiest parents. Sally was a marvel at resolving problems. And she had the opportunity to spring into action right at that moment. One of the new parents was heading towards Tabitha with a steely expression, apparently determined to give Tabitha a piece of her mind about the chaos in the room.
“Mrs. Morpeth?” she said firmly as she homed in on her target. Tabitha felt her heart-rate going up, but just at that moment, Sally skillfully intercepted the parent and listened attentively to her protests, allowing Tabitha to continue across the room, in her pre-rehearsal bubble of focus.
“.. but I really think ..” “I suppose you know best ...” “Alright, I’ll give it a try, just for today ...”
Tabitha could hear shreds of the conversation - just the booming voice of the new parent in fact, as Sally was speaking much more quietly - while she detached and centred her mind again.
Not for the first time, she blessed the day Sally’s quiet daughter Maisie had joined Shooting Stars and brought her mother with her. Sally managed somehow to approach an issue so that the complainer ended up apologising and thanking her for everything she did and offering to join in and help. She had great gifts!
Right on cue, the new parent was saying, in a much calmer voice, “Yes, of course I can help with the chairs ...”
Tabitha smiled and nodded to the groups of parents as she followed the small boys across to the chair and table put out ready for her. Gauche little Maisie was weaving her way carefully through the moving gaggles of children carrying a glass of water. Most of it remained in the glass, which was deposited in a wet puddle on the table.
“Thank you, Maisie!” said Tabitha. “That’s so thoughtful of you. You look after me!”
Maisie was dumbstruck, but gazed up at her teacher as if her heart would burst.
The older children were already gravitating towards the stage and getting into rows. Some of the younger children, especially the young boys, were still racing around chasing each other until one of the mothers came and touched her son on his shoulder and nodded meaningfully towards the stage, at which he stopped his whooping, clapped his hand over his mouth, and clattered up the steps noisily, hotly pursued by his fellows. So by the time Tabitha was ready for the rehearsal to start, there was already a largely silent mass of squirming, expectant, children waiting for her.
Tabitha clapped her hands quietly and the whole room was instantly quiet. The last couple of children rushed to their places on the stage, the old wooden floor giving up its particular woody scent with all the feet on it, and the parents took their seats with eager anticipation. The noise of thundering feet on the wooden steps and the scraping of the chairs on the floor subsided. The electricity of forty children in a room still vibrated, and Tabitha was about to channel it into some warm-up exercises. As ever, the children’s eyes shone with anticipation, because they knew just what was coming. Apart from the wriggling of the younger children, they were all still and attentive.
“Let’s start with breathing,” said Tabitha. “How far should the breath go into your body?”
“As far as it will go!” chorused the children in unison with an enthusiastic stamp at the end - the impact on the old stage of so many feet making a huge percussive sound. Each child placed hands on tummy so they could feel the breath going right down “as far as it would go”, so they could support the sound they needed to project. After a variety of slow, fast, and deep breathing, Tabitha launched them into some vocal exercises - a mixture of singing and humming, declaiming and chanting.
This is where the new parents were always bowled over. Tabitha could see out of the corner of her eye that the new parent Sally had been pacifying was sitting on the edge of her chair, watching intently, mouth open with amazement at the sheer volume of sound the children made, their clear voices singing together with precision. What had been a rabble a few minutes earlier, was now a machine producing a loud penetrating sound. The newcomer’s own child, Philip, was joining in as best he could with the group he was already feeling a part of. Tabitha was channelling the energy and excitement that had looked like chaos a few moments before into the focus on producing the sound and the projection that she wanted.
Each child was totally focussed on her, as they carefully used their bodies to make the quality of sound Tabitha was asking for, without forcing, without straining or pushing, without hunching up their shoulders or becoming stiff and rigid. Just allowing the great sound to come out of them. The warm-up finished with singing some fast tongue-twisters:
“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers - a peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked,” they chanted in a fair rhythm. Tabitha started them slowly then repeated it, gathering speed, till most of the smaller children gave up and collapsed laughing.
They moved quickly into “Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran,” with an emphasis on bringing the sound forward in their mouths and not swallowing it, then finished with “She sells seashells on the seashore - the shells she sells are seashells I’m sure!” As always these resulted in much laughter and delight.
“Now here’s something new for you!” The children waited in absolute silence, round-eyed, to hear what new fun they were going to have.
“I want this half of the stage,” Tabitha waved her arm to indicate who she meant, “to start, with Round the rugged rock. THEN,” she added with a dramatic pause, “this side will repeat it, only faster!”
The children in the middle of the stage jumped and shuffled towards one side or the other – wherever their friends were – and waited eagerly to start.
“Remember, I want to hear every single word!” said Tabitha, as she stepped forward from her table and got one side of the stage going. The older children worked hard to enunciate clearly, keep the rhythm, and go faster than their friends in the other section. They got into it physically too, and the stage became very animated. Inevitably it all ended in disarray, and everyone was laughing, all the children, and most of the parents too. Even Philip’s mother was now relaxing and joining in with the fun, nodding with a smile to the “older” parent Sally had strategically placed her beside.
After a few minutes of this, Tabitha - completely engrossed in her work - called for Act II, Scene 3 to stay on the stage. All the other children scrambled off the stage and sat on the floor or chairs, with rapt attention. There was no need for discipline in this school. The children “disciplined” themselves. They had a thirst for learning, desperate to be up on that stage.
Even the shyest or most awkward new child could find expression. Tabitha had watched young Philip copying his neighbours - his new friends - and making an effort in the warm-up. Some, like Sally’s Maisie, took weeks and weeks before they would utter a word which wasn’t a mumble. Some had been so conditioned by school to keep quiet and not rock the boat that they were afraid of being themselves. Here was a place where they were encouraged to be themselves.
Tabitha had created a school which gave children everything she felt she hadn’t had in her own life. The children were her. This was her way to help the Tabitha of old, to reach out a hand to the introverted and suppressed child she had been. To show children that everyone could be the best they could be, no matter their circumstances, gifts or lack of them.
When the rehearsal was finished, the children were tired and fulfilled. All of them had had a turn at doing something - plays with lots of crowd scenes were always an essential choice. Sometimes this meant Tabitha would improvise and adapt the material to enlarge the cast, and she happily remembered a Christmas play which had had at least seven shepherds and a huge flock of small, wriggly, “sheep”!
Now Tabitha came back to the moment and dealt with queries, laughed, smiled, acknowledged all the thanks and greetings, and started packing up her things.
“Yes, I think Jason did brilliantly too!” “Of course, see you next week!” “Bye, Cynthia!” “Mind you get those lines learnt, Cassidy!” “Bye, bye-bye ...” Her work finished, she relaxed and was able to chat to the parents and laugh with the children. Some of the parents just wanted to be sure to say thank you, others had questions to ask about their child’s progress. They crowded round her, eager to get their goodbye acknowledged before retrieving their child from the melee and heading home.
Johnny’s mother was worrying as usual, “Do you think he’ll ever be any good?” she asked confidentially, so Johnny wouldn’t hear. She needn’t have worried, as Johnny was at that moment across the room playing chase rowdily with his friends.
“He’s great, Eileen, really! Just you watch how he’ll come on. Give him time.”
“I have to tell you, Tabitha,” laughed one of the keener parents, moving into the space left by Eileen, “I was running through Jason’s lines with him the other day, and he said ‘Bring the sound forward, Mum, I can barely hear you.’ I had to laugh!”
Tabitha laughed too, recognising her exact words from a previous rehearsal. “I love that!” she said, as Jason’s mother added more seriously, “He’s doing better at school too. Holding his own. He used to be afraid of making mistakes, you know? I’m so pleased to see him getting braver, and I’m sure you’ve had a lot to do with it.”
She reached out and squeezed Tabitha’s hand as she scrunched her lips together to prevent tears. Tabitha returned the gesture warmly, placing her own hand over hers.
“Thank you, Tabitha dear!” chipped in another mother, “it’s just amazing what you can do with this bunch of street-urchins!”
Tabitha gave her a beaming smile in response. She knew that she was glowing outwardly as well as inside. She tossed back her dark hair, loose today, as she turned to find another eager parent.
“Are you going to want some sewing help with the costumes, Tabitha? I’m pretty good with the machine ...”
“That’s wonderful, Beatrice! Do chat to Sally - she’s organising everything. The sewing group could always do with some extra needles - and biscuits!”
Owen, who was the boy currently experiencing a crush on Tabitha, gazed adoringly at her with a lovestruck expression while he waited his turn. Tabitha was patient and kind speaking to him - she knew his crush would pass and she always tried to head him off to join the others his age.
“Well, Owen,” she said, “You really looked the part of the handsome young man today - you’ll be snapped up by one of the girls at this rate!”
Owen blushed, smiled, and darted off to catch Jennie and Amy as they reached the door.
“Mummy says you’re to come and see her again,” recited Daphne, standing squarely in front of Tabitha.
“I’d love to!” said Tabitha, resting a hand on Daphne’s shoulder. “Tell her I’ll drop round very soon - this week.” It was true it had been a while since she’d had one of her coffee-and-set-the-world-to-rights sessions with her dear friend and near neighbour, Maureen. She would have to make time for this.
“Yes, Celia,” Tabitha turned to a rather tubby eleven-year-old who was yearning to be noticed, “you will be getting a bigger part in the next production. I’ve been watching you - you’re doing great! No more talking into your chin - we all heard you loud and clear!”
Celia positively bounced away, grinning widely, chin jutting upwards, while pretending that she hadn’t been waiting at all.
Sally waded through the throng round Tabitha to say hello and goodbye - it was the first chance she’d had. But before she could do more than catch Tabitha’s eye, a couple of the other mothers came over together, with their children at foot, still playing their parts and laughing. Sally mouthed to her, “talk to you tomorrow” as she left her to it.
“Tabitha, you’re a marvel!” said Angela. “The way you get this rabble to concentrate is amazing!”
“You should do this professionally,” chimed in Linda, the other mother, then blushed and stammered in confusion. “I mean I know we pay a little for this, but I mean - you should be famous!”
Tabitha smiled and reached toward Linda’s hand briefly to reassure her. “I know what you mean, don’t worry Linda,” she said. “But I could never be famous. I’m ... just me. I love what I do, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who are better than me.”
“Well, we think you’re the greatest!” rejoined Angela, whose young son Thomas appeared beside her chanting, “You’re the greatest, you’re the greatest!” before running back to Sharon, who had tucked her skirt into her knickers and was attempting a cartwheel.
“And I think you should be famous,” said Linda stolidly. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for my Sharon. But actually I’m happy that you’re content with just us here. We’d hate to lose you!”
Tabitha noticed Sally smiling secretly at the two women. She knew Sally felt she was her discovery, and was happy with this level of reflected fame. And she wondered if she’d ever be able to develop the School as she’d really love to - impossible at the moment, of course.
And after locking up and bidding Sally good night, she drove home, reflecting on this exchange. Yes, she loved Shooting Stars. It was what gave the rest of her life meaning. She was still glowing from the rehearsal, where she was immersed, truly herself. It was what gave her her place in life. Instead of being exhausted after all she’d put into the session, she felt invigorated, energised! She had thought that being a wife and mother would be her place, and that that would be sufficient reward. But being a wife to Angus was so hard – and now she knew there was no hope of any children.
Her euphoria of the day began to ebb away, the nearer she got to home. She was beginning to realise that she used the school as an escape valve for her situation. The thought hit her amidships - she was hiding in her school to avoid facing the realities of her messy and tangled existence.
First there had been her stolen time with Jamie. Bliss. Another escape? Jamie always promised her so much, and she knew he did truly love her. But it was a fantasy. He’d never leave his wife and kids - nor could Tabitha want him to, except in their dreamland time together. She could never take a father from his children. No happiness could be built on that.
She avoided the thought of how Angus would be this evening. Time enough to find out when she got home. She thought instead of the greeting she would get from her dogs. She loved these two uncomplicated creatures so much! They and their predecessors had been her solace down the years. Walking in the fields and woods with them was always wonderful. It allowed her soul to breathe, to rest, to know what was important to her. And these dogs were important! Though they were dogs and she didn’t mistake them for children, they were in a way the children she didn’t have. They were the warmth in her cold home. But for them she may have given up on life long ago.
And so she could no longer avoid thinking of Angus.
How would he be today? Would he be angry? Again. Would he have been drinking? Again. Would he be lurking in his study and not be anything at all? Would he perhaps feel good and be like he used to be, solicitous and attentive, enquiring after her day, sitting her down, making her a coffee ...?
Tabitha shook her head sadly. Those times seemed so long ago. Before they were married he swore to her daily how much he loved her, how he wanted her happiness. But things seemed irrevocably different now.
She drove past Paddy’s woods and the big 50-acre field where she found such escape from her life at home, opening her window to inhale the earthy smell. She saw the lights on in Maureen’s warm and always-noisy house. And as she crunched onto the gravel of her drive, drawing up beside Angus’s car, she could hear the excited welcome barking of Esme and Luigi - the simple devotion she could always rely on.
She turned off the engine and paused for a moment before getting out. She took a deep breath - transitioning from the pleasure of her school to the friction of her home - gathered her bags, got out of the car and headed for the kitchen door. As she put her hand on the handle she got a very different feeling from when she had opened the door at Shooting Stars just a couple of hours ago. She felt suddenly weary. She knew exactly what to expect from her dogs, but what version of Angus would she get this evening?
Chapter 1 from Keeping Tabs by Beverley Courtney ©2020