There aren't many of you reading this who'll know what it's like to watch their mother or father on stage. I've been doing it all my life, of course, so I rarely think of it as something out of the ordinary, but last night, the first time I've heard mum do a concert in quite some time (though I saw her in opera over Christmas), reminded me of just how extra-ordinary it is.
Everyone in the audience knows who she is. That's the first slightly odd bit. In the foyer you'll hear snatches of conversation about things she did before you were born, or you'll hear someone say 'She's getting old now, of course' and not be allowed to hit them because, somewhere inside, you know it must be true. To me, she doesn't sound any different, any older, than she did when she was singing me to sleep when I was two. But people who go to concerts all the time - other people's concerts, too - have a keener critical ear than mine for recital performances. Maybe they're right.
So you're desperate that everyone there should enjoy themselves. You want them all to love her, however much you tell yourself that it doesn't matter if they don't because you know she's wonderful. Apart from anything else, half the damn audience know you, and if they don't like what she does, they'll come up and tell you you must be 'disappointed'. You're not allowed to hit them, either.
The thing with half the audience knowing you is quite strange in its own way. Many of them will have met you when you were a young child being bounced from country to country in the wake of your mother, and you won't remember them in the slightest ('Why yes, I recognise your knees') but you'll have to pretend to, otherwise they'll tell your mother you're 'ungracious'. (But lying makes you gracious. Aren't people odd?) Most of the rest of them will be people either you loathe ('Didn't you go to that school full of A-rabs? Nasty lot, full of diseases.') or you know your parents loathe, but of course you still have to pretend to like them. Sometimes you can let slip through a particularly tight smile that it is a pretence, but you can't often get away with it. You've to be light and charming, gracious and sweet, accept fifty bloody people telling you 'Gosh, aren't you tall?' and act as though you've never heard anyone say it before and furthermore believed yourself to be eight inches high. Last night a friend of the family walked up and painfully yanked my hair, declaiming loudly, 'I should have this hair. Nobody as young as you deserves it.'
That's just the audience, though, and once the lights have dimmed a little and your mother walks onto the stage, nothing they've ever said or ever will say matters. Depends on the programme, of course, but often you've heard her practising the songs, you know which ones she finds difficult, which ones she's asked you to go over the words for with her; you're tense when you know a tricky line is coming up. When she makes a mistake you flush bright with contact embarrassment and are amazed by how unconcerned she is herself, but then, that's why she's a star. Half the audience would never know there was a mistake at all.
But that's the negative moments, and there are far fewer of those than there are of the moments where you just can't believe how wonderful she is. You hold your breath and you cry, and the people around you cry, and you think My mother is doing this to them and it barely even makes sense, as a thought. The long, long, almost unbearably quiet high note that she holds, longer than you think is possible. The fact that the emotions she pours into the songs are real ones, very clearly real ones - another of the reasons she's a star. The songs you haven't heard before, but especially the songs you've known for years. And at the back of your mind these days, because you know it's a real possibility, the horrible thought - What will we do when she stops? It's a more terrifying, more horrific thought than you can ever comprehend. It leads to family arguments where she's sobbing because she's so tired and all you can think to say is 'But I want you to go on', and then feel bad for months afterwards. We live on razor-edge nerves all the time. Performer's household. Just the way it is.
And when I say 'we', we were all there last night. Me, my nan, my dad's sister, and through it all my dad, sitting beside me, radiating love.
Which is an extraordinary thing in itself, really. My father isn't the world's most emotional person. That's an understatement; he can be cold, cruel, he's pretty much always solitary, he's not fond of the company of people and very often mum and I despair as to what we're going to do with him. But concerts, operas, that's different. Always has been.
When I was at secondary school, there were so many girls whose parents were divorced - filthy rich, but divorced - that I was almost an anomaly, with my parents still together after twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years. It's something I value deeply but quietly, because I think talking about it too much comes across as pointlessly hurtful to people whose parents have split up, or people whose own relationships have broken, but just this once I want to say it : My mother and father love each other so much. They do. They really do. And it's nowhere more evident than when she's on stage singing a song of love and she catches his eye in the audience, like she's been doing for twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years, or when she hits a beautiful note and I feel him sigh beside me, turn to look and see he has tears in his eyes. They're not ever going to stop loving each other. It's never been something that made me feel secure, for some reason - I think the emotions I see in them are too huge and volatile for that - but I value it, nevertheless.
That wasn't a digression, just another part of why last night was strange, but back to my family - my dad's sister Eileen was there, whom I haven't seen for several years, mostly because she's a ghastly old harridan, really. She asked me how college was going, and I laughed and said I'd slightly botched the first year of it. And she nodded and said, "Yes, you're good at that, aren't you?"
I couldn't help laughing, and then I couldn't stop laughing. I do hope she wasn't offended. Oh, wait.
But that's what happens, after a show - people are either wearyingly gushing ('You must be so proud! You must be so amazingly proud! Oh, your mother is wonderful. Don't you think?' Well, yes. Would I be here otherwise?) or paralysingly vicious, always with a painted smile on their faces. So far, so average, I'm used to it. I don't think anyone said anything unkind to my mother last night, she usually passes them on and we have a good laugh. Evidently it was my turn again. I'd find it hurtful if I didn't hate Eileen so much already.
Further, somewhat unexpected strangeness came from running into Jean, the lovely French boy who was, for a time, looking after me at college. I'm glad he was there, but he's moving back to France at the beginning of July and he told me that while he looked at me as if his heart was breaking, and me there thinking, Oh, dear, I think I might have missed something here. But he's older and far wiser than me and belongs in France, and I'll see him when mum passes through because I know that's how these things work. And he'll find himself a nice French girl. Who isn't mad, and whom therefore he won't have to look after.
And then, because my mouth hurt so much I could barely think, I left everyone else to the upmarket post-show dinner and walked out to the nearest bus stop, where I waited in the cold for half an hour and thought how good it was to be old enough that mum and dad would let me do that now, instead of making me stay and having me fall asleep in a plate of melon. (I have never actually done this. I've always been very, very good at post-show dinners and suchlike. I've never actually liked them, though.) It was cold, and dark, and I stood under a flaming torch outside a restaurant and read a book while I waited, and thought, One day it'll be me. And perhaps it will.