There are times that a word I have been quite innocently mulling about detonates without warning. It usually happens when I have read the word and then pondered the concept it represents, with the written word still floating in the background of my mind somewhere like a banner from an old advertising aeroplane. Perhaps it comes from all those Sunday afternoons spent nutting out cryptic crosswords with Uncle Ratty and his sister, and Papa, of course. Not only then, it has been a delicious weekly treat that has stayed with me over the years; one that comes packaged with memories of Russian Caravan tea and Madeira cake and a hint of Papa’s pipe tobacco. There is no doubt in my mind that messing about with double meanings and contractions, and seeing words as bundles of letters waiting to anagram themselves into different ones has permanently confused my neural pathways.
The word I was mulling about was ‘rehearsal’, and this had set me off into a reverie about Boxing Day, when the entire extended Mole family would descend on and down Great Uncle Mole’s burrow for charades and high tea. These were not the kind charades where one creature mimes a word to an audience, but rather an elaborate series of playlets in each of which crucial syllable is casually dropped into the script. We conspired in whispers, we ransacked trunks, raided the burrow for props, unhung curtains for cloaks, dusted our pelts with flour, wore saucepans on our heads. I have never been in any other kind of play, but I was bitten by the bug. All these years later there is still an inner Thespian bursting to get out.
But that was not how my mulling about rehearsals was set into motion. I had been berating myself for faffing, for not planning my day in advance. There was in my mind a whole scroll, a sort of NOT DONE list that blared like an out-of-tune trumpet. If only I could have that day over, I thought. And then I remembered a line from poem by Wisława Szymborska: ‘your character like a raincoat buttoned on the run.’ This was the line that set me off into Boxing Days of the past, but then I came back to the present and sought the poem out. ‘If only I could rehearse just one Wednesday in advance’, Szymborska writes, ‘or repeat a single Thursday that has passed. But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.’ I can almost see her, speechless on a stage as she faces her audience. ‘I know nothing of the role I play … I have to guess on the spot … just what the play’s about’.
Rehearsal. Rehearse. Suddenly the hearse leapt out at me. Re-hearse. Hearse again. Another day wasted, consigned to the grave. There surely couldn’t be an etymological connection between the one word and the other; although whether there is or not becomes immaterial to the imagination which loops and swirls letters and objects, tingles and tastes, colours and shapes with irreverent abandon.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. I moseyed along to the bookshelf where I keep Great Uncle Mole’s Oxford English Dictionary. They are weighty volumes, almost too much for my tired paws, but it takes barely a flicker to kindle my insatiable curiosity. Hearse and rehearse do indeed stem from the same old French word. ‘Harrow’ was their English root. Preparing somehow, I suppose, – the ground, a play.
Life. Unrehearsed. Harrowing.
But what those charades didn’t have was a rehearsal. They didn’t need to be perfect. That was why they were such a hoot.