Sherbet Lemons

When the Fourth Form heard that they were to go a week hence by train to London to see a stage performance of Macbeth, they were elated. Young people had fewer diversions in those long-gone days, especially at the small private ‘prep’ school these boys attended. Their joy at the prospect of such an outing, it must be admitted, had less to do with their love of Shakespeare, and more to do with the prospect of escaping for a day from the dreary routine of geometry and Latin, Nature Study and cross-country running, although a twinge of regret assailed Paul, one of their number, when he realized he would also miss Mr. Dawson’s animated reading of another chapter of Kon-Tiki, that enthralling account of a Norwegian sailor’s attempt to prove that Easter Island might have been settled by peoples from South America thousands of years ago. For though it would take Paul years to acknowledge it, his favourite subject was English, if only because it allowed his essentially dreamy nature to indulge in yet more escapism, and yet earn academic credit for doing so. It was certainly easier than mathematics.

Paul’s parents were enthusiastic about the trip. His father said it should always be called ‘the Scottish play’ and for an actor to call it by its real name was to invite bad luck, so superstitious were actors. His mother kept quoting lines from the play she had learned in school decades earlier: “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!” she squeaked in a quavering voice. “Those are the witches,” she confided. “You’ll get to see them, too. What a treat!” Paul, at eleven, was less impressed. “You should have been an actress, Mum.” His mind was on the implications of a day pass from the ‘shades of the prison house,’ and on what sweets he and his classmates would spend pocket-money on to bring along on the trip. He loved all sorts of chocolate, of course, but even he knew that these could melt in the warmth of a theatre. Crothers was going to bring the kind that ‘melt in your mouth, not in your hand,’ but these only came in a box, and were too expensive for Paul. Simpson loved sticky buns, but knew these were not a good choice. Jamieson warned that unwrapping toffees made too much noise in the quiet moments, and what if the play had a lot of these?

At Gorman’s old-fashioned confectionery around the corner where great jars of candy lined the wall behind the counter, Paul dithered over Fox’s Glacier Mints, Trebor’s Bullseyes, and Palliser’s Sherbet Lemons, finally choosing the latter because they were cheaper, and you could get more of them for tenpence, which is all he had. He bought a packet despite his father’s cautionary tale about a friend of his who had nearly choked to death on a boiled sweet. He knew he would suck each slowly and then safely crunch through it to release the rush of sherbet powder inside before it became small enough to lodge in the windpipe. He would be careful. He always was.

For days before they were to leave, Paul dreamed about the tenpenny bag of sherbet lemons he had hidden behind the bookshelf in the bedroom he shared with his brothers. He had put it there not because he distrusted either of them, but because he did not trust himself in the interim not to help himself to the hoard. Out of sight, out of temptation, and so it proved until the day he was to leave for The Old Vic. In fact, it was not until he was half-way to the mainline station before he realized he’d forgotten them, and had to pedal furiously home to retrieve his treasure.

The train left on its twenty-five minute run from suburban Surrey to Waterloo Station, with eight boys and the masters accompanying them sandwiched into a single third-class compartment. In their teachers’ presence, the boys dared not surreptitiously help themselves to their sweets. The talk among them was conducted mostly in subdued whispers. Crusty Mr. Jackson stared into space in dignified silence, while his younger colleague Mr. King, after a few failed attempts at polite conversation with the boys, pulled a paperback detective novel out of his pocket and began to read. Paul and his friend Clutterbuck, owlish in his National Health glasses, each at a window, both ogled a young red-haired girl in a straw hat on a station platform. Girls were strange bewitching beings not quite like them. Paul wondered what it would be like to approach this one:

“Hullo. Are you going to London?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“We are students of Shakespeare. We are going to see Macbeth at The Old Vic.”

“Bully for you. I’m going to London to see the Queen.”

“Are you really?” Paul’s eyes went round.

“No, silly. I’m meeting my fiance. Sucks to you.”

And just then, the girl greeted a young man who came up to her and they walked away together. Crude disillusionment. But perhaps, Paul reflected, as the train pulled away from the station, he was just her older brother…He certainly hoped so.

At Waterloo Station, amid the bewildering bustle of passenger traffic, passing porters manhandling oversized luggage trolleys with repeated calls of “Mind your backs!” and the raucous bellow of unintelligible announcements on the loudspeaker combined with the hissing and clanking of railway activity, the boys were cautioned to stay together. A short walk along Waterloo Road took the group, resplendent in their school uniforms—caps, blazers and ties in the school colours, corduroy shorts and long woollen stockings, even in summer—and they were in front of the unassuming façade of The Old Vic itself, then more than a century old.

The theatre is named for Queen Victoria. It has been home in its time to Edmund Kean, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peter Hall, and to Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre. Until quite recently, its artistic director was the American actor Kevin Spacey. It was once owned by Toronto’s ‘Honest Ed’ Mirvish. All of this was, of course, unknown to Paul at the time. His mind, I regret to say, was firmly on his sherbet lemons, and on the bliss of consuming them uninterruptedly in the dark. Once ensconced in his seat in a small box in the dress circle, with a panoramic view of the stage, then hidden by a heavy curtain, and of the seething mass of humanity taking their seats far below, Paul smiled conspiratorially at Clutterbuck patting his pocket in silent complicity. This would be, he mouthed, in schoolboy slang, a “wizard feast!”

The doors behind the boxes were closed all around them, one by one. The lights dimmed, the curtain lifted, and the play began. Paul had never seen live theatre before. Awestruck by the silence that had descended like a blanket over all the chattering spectators below, he concentrated on the action before him. He recognized the witches conspiring together in an early scene lit by an unearthly blue light from above which distorted their features (or were they wearing masks?) and made them more fearsome than he had imagined. He was gripped by the scene before King Duncan’s murder, when Macbeth imagines he sees a bloody dagger urging him on in the direction of the king’s bedchamber. But the scene that transfixed him, held him to his seat with horror, was the one in which a silent figure, covered in blood, emerges from the darkness , and unnoticed by the feasting nobles in front of him, moves to the banqueting table at which they are all seated, and sits down at the only empty seat available. Paul wanted to cry out, to warn the nobles that a strange spectral figure was among them. The impulse became stronger: it would not be denied, especially when one of the guests invites Macbeth to sit down with them, and points to the seat where the ‘blood-boltered Banquo’ sits, for it is he, Macbeth’s former friend, secretly murdered on the orders of Macbeth, come back from the grave, an unwelcome rival at the feast. Why could the assembled company not see what the audience could? Unlike the bloody dagger, this was not the product of a fevered imagination, but a real presence, ominous and purposeful, occupying a real chair. Paul could see this, and so, now, can Macbeth! “Which of you have done this?” he cries to the others, who can clearly not see the ghost, and are perplexed and troubled by Macbeth’s sudden change of mood. “Thou canst not say I did it: shake not thy gory locks at me!” But the nobles can see only a deranged Macbeth, their new king, talking to an empty chair. At his wife’s urging, he regains his composure when, at last, the ghost leaves. Paul settled back, only to be overcome by a curious sadness he could not explain when he hears Macbeth near the end of his life, deserted by all his allies, alone and despised, his wife dead by her own hand, express a yearning for his old life, before ambition led him astray with all of its false promise now revealed:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

In the buzz of conversation that followed in the theatre foyer and then on the way home, the boys re-enacted sword fights, pretended to be ghosts, and outdid one another in praise of the play. The outing had been a great success. Seeing frowns of disapproval from other passengers in the new open-compartment carriage that whisked them all home, Mr. Jackson had to curb their enthusiasm.

Paul watched the passing countryside, and struck by a sudden thought, thrust his hand into his pocket. His sherbet lemons! He had been so absorbed by the play that he had forgotten them. With growing alarm, he discovered that they had disintegrated into an unappetizing sticky mass of paper and sugar that had glued itself to the inside of his pocket. He shuffled off the train, hand in pocket, guiltily concealing his secret and preparing to meet his mother’s undoubted censure at the gate. To think that a stage feast had destroyed his own! It was mortifying. How could it have happened?

Fifty-five years later, he recalled the incident, still vivid in his mind, as he settled down to watch yet another stage production of Macbeth, this time with his wife. He slipped into his mouth a sherbet lemon bought from a Stratford, Ontario “confectionery emporium” nearby, and prepared once more to be transformed by a play by the world’s greatest playwright. Life was good.


Sherbet Lemons

Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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