My heart thuds as my father's coffin sinks into the ground. A chink of my life, like a great cliff of ice, has just plunged into the depths: Rupert Everett recalls the death of his beloved dad.
22:30 GMT, 16 September 2012
In our first extract from Rupert Everett’s brilliantly written new memoirs, in Saturday’s Mail, the actor unleashed his wicked wit on fellow celebrities, comparing Alan Sugar to Sid James and Alastair Campbell to Hitler. Today, the Mail reveals a more compassionate — yet still searingly honest — side, as Everett recalls in haunting detail the death of his beloved father.
A window opens as I approach the house. ‘Is that you, darling’ says my mother. ‘I’m just bringing Daddy downstairs.’
I come in through the back door — the same noisy latch. But in the six months since my last visit, it dawns on me, the place has become an old people’s house.
There’s a faint smell of disinfectant; the loo off the hallway has arms. A chairlift brings my dad catapulting down from his bedroom.
At the heart of the family. Rupert with his mother and father, taken from his new book – Vanished Years
It’s a great entrance, and he beams with pleasure as he’s transferred from the lift via the wheelchair to his magic armchair, which rises and falls like a slow-motion ejector seat at the touch of a button.
We have tea. My father laughs occasionally but says little. My mother is lively and funny and happy — as far as she’s concerned, I’m the most famous and successful actor in the world, and that’s that.
At least she brings some high spirits into the room where otherwise there’s only the grim reaper for company — and the TV news.
Rupert Everett arriving for the UK premiere of St Trinian's 2 in Leicester Square, in 2009
‘Shall we have some news’ suggests my father casually for the tenth time today.
‘But you’ve just had it, darling,’ my mother says, pouring us all more tea. ‘Oh, really’ he asks, with deep interest. The news is one of the rocks to which he clings, reminding him briefly of himself.
With shaking fingers, he reaches slowly for a crumpet. His health — a stroke, a burst spleen — has seriously deteriorated over the past two years, although his will to live still overwhelms his body’s desire to call it a day.
Meanwhile, my darling mother, still
verging on hyperactivity, screeches around the house performing her
chores, swooping down on my father every 15 minutes for a spot check.
‘Do sit up straight, Tony, for God’s sake!’
he rises to her bait and snarls back as of old, at which point she
canters off, satisfied that she’s keeping him going.
One by one, their vast network of acquaintances has begun to die, the men going on ahead.
They’ve fought a war, after all, and have drunk seriously ever since,
so they slide into the fog, mistaking a birthday for D-Day and their
wife for the postman, while these poor wives, who’ve never signed a
cheque, suddenly find themselves in charge.
Rupert Everett, actor at the Badrutts Palace Hotel, in St. Moritz, Switzerland
For the time being, though, funerals are the cocktail parties of the over-80s. One catches up with a vast network of friends and relations, with people one has watched getting married and divorced and married again.
After all the wars and the weekends, now they meet in a funeral pew or waving from a passing wheelchair on the rickety pathways of graveyards, or later over a box, bending low to look at the messages on the floral bouquets.
My parents embark on these trips with their signature Blitz sangfroid. ‘That was a marvellous funeral.’ ‘Terrible hymns, though. Not one tune I knew.’ ‘Boring address. General X looked goofy.’ ‘He hasn’t been right for a long time.’
Rupert Everett and Madonna in New York in 1999 before they fell out
Back home in Wiltshire, summer wanes and my father’s breath shortens with the days.
He calmly observes the world from his electric armchair by day or his electric bed by night — all operated by Mummy with a dial — watching the news from different positions.
MADONNA'S LATEST POSE PLAYING GOD
At a party in 1999 to launch Talk magazine (now defunct), Madonna leans on my arm. If I’m developing skin cancer from too much basking in her reflected glory, I don’t care.
Our film The Next Best Thing, which in a few short months will tear my career to shreds, is still in that ideal phase, made but not seen. And if our friendship is approaching its sell-by date, we don’t know it yet. Or at least I don’t. (She probably sets a time limit on everything, including orgasm.)
For the time being the world is fascinated by us, and so are we. We swerve flirtatiously past the phalanx of cameras, which flash like a fabulous firework as we pass by. The screams and shouts blow at us in the breeze: Madahhh-nna! Ruperrrrt! We ignore them, knowing that it will be a great photo op. Madonna’s never looked prettier. She’s in the last days of her prime, perched on the edge of a new and delicate reinvention as spiritual leader and offshore earth mother.
Tina Brown may be launching a magazine. Madonna is launching a new religion [Kabbalah]. It’s the only thing left when you’ve had it all. Becoming God.
Sometimes he stares like a cat at a parallel universe. ‘Yes, vu-rry,’ he says, answering some complicated philosophical question.
‘Very what, Daddy’
‘I forget. What was it’
Sometimes, he searches your face for a clue. Often, he nods off. Occasionally, he’s on form.
One night, I bring up sex — a subject that’s always sure to get both my parents laughing, coming as they do from a generation unequipped for discussion about such personal issues. So I ask my mother if she can remember her best sexual experience.
This question, needless to say, brings the house down. ‘Making you,’ says my father, after the laughter subsides.
‘Darling, what do you mean’ asks Mummy, aghast.
‘Making you,’ he repeats, to arpeggios of glee from his wife.
‘Oh, Tony, you do make me laugh.’ Then she’s on the move again, off to the kitchen to finish dinner.
Like a character in a computer game, she’s always storming around the house, ducking through low doorways, swinging around corners and zooming up the stairs.
She keeps her husband going by the sheer force of her personality.
Daddy longs to retire permanently to his bed, but she knows that as soon as that happens, it will be the end — and although he drives her mad, she can’t let him go.
They’ve been married, after all, for 50 years. And so he is moved around like a valuable vase.
Each morning, Mummy tiptoes to his bedroom door with her heart in her mouth. Will he still be alive Reassured, she speeds off — clomp, clomp, clomp — down the stairs to get his breakfast tray ready.
There’s a nurse, Marianne, who comes in daily, but Mummy harbors a competitive streak, born years ago on the lacrosse field. So, while she needs to have help looking after my father — she’s exhausted — she hates to relinquish even one hair-brushing.
Rupert's parents, Major Anthony Everett and Sara McLean were married at St Jame's Church, Spanish Place in London in 1955
I sit in the middle of this rush-hour traffic, trying to keep calm, but it’s impossible. My mother is happy only when everyone’s on the run — and she’s right in a way. The grim reaper can’t operate amid all this movement, so Daddy plods on.
All in all, his old age has been a great success, and I can’t find in myself a heavy heart. ‘After all,’ I reason to my mother, ‘I will die alone in the actors’ rest home. If I’m lucky, some dresser fairy from the theatre where I have my final seizure will come to prise the amethyst ring from my bloated finger, but otherwise . . .’
‘That’s why I wished you’d got married,’ says my mother sympathetically.
One Tuesday we have dinner in my father’s room. Mummy and I sit at a card table. I’m perched on the corner of his bed — she sits in his wheelchair.
Daddy lies against the cushions with his glasses off and his hair brushed back. His eyes glitter as he watches us with all his strength. My mother and I chat at him and he beams back.
Then, suddenly, he gasps and lifts his hands in defence, eyes wide and glassy. The moment passes.
‘I think you had another TIA [a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke], darling,’ says my mother, scrutinising him closely.
He’s used to the process now. Rooms
expand and contract, colours flare and fade as his faltering heart pumps
blood into the far reaches of the optic nerve, slowly and weakly.
he’s no longer concerned; he’s given himself to the flow. It’s carrying
him now through eddies of consciousness, from the shallows to the
depths and back again.
‘Do you mind awfully if I say good night’ he says.
‘But darling! Ru has come all the way down from London.’
He looks at me for a long moment, lips strangely pursed. ‘Has he’ he finally asks in a dreamy voice.
I wiggle his big toe through the blanket. I never see him alive again.
I return to London, though my mother tells me how the days unfold.
Wednesday morning, they both fall over in the downstairs loo and can’t
get up. The wheelchair has got stuck against the door. My father is too
heavy for my mother to lift, so they have to wait to be rescued.
must have been a funny sight: a woman of 72 sitting on the loo and a
90-year-old man with his trousers down, lying at her feet.
walls of the small room are covered with mementoes: Spy and Giles
cartoons; a Playboy calendar from the Seventies; photographs of the
family — me in films, my brother in helicopters, school groups, Army
groups. Their whole life is looking down on them.
‘You’ve been a great support to me,’ Daddy says deliberately to his wife. ‘Thank you.’
On Thursday morning, with the usual clatter, my mother appears over the horizon with a smoked haddock.
‘I don’t want it,’ he says flatly.
‘You’ve got to eat.’
Rupert Everett at the Badrutts Palace Hotel , in St.Moritz ,Switzerland
My mother puts it down in front of him, whipping round the room like a force ten wind, opening curtains, fixing a napkin to his pyjamas, preparing medication, before stopping for a moment to watch him. He’s sitting up with his eyes shut.
‘Darling, come on. You’re going to die if you don’t eat.’
With that, she clatters back downstairs and my father dies alone with a haddock on a plate, simply and without fuss, in his cream-panelled bedroom, looking through the window at the wintry garden that he will wander from now on only as a ghost.
I arrive from London. Coffee is at eleven o’clock as usual: the nurse, the cleaning-lady, the vicar, a neighbour and Mummy are all sitting around my father’s bed, each with a cup and saucer.
Daddy lies dead between them.
‘He looks so peaceful,’ says my poor mother, who’s holding herself together remarkably well. He doesn’t actually, but everyone says that.
The dead look dead. Drained. His lips have sunk. His skin is ice-cold. He lies on the pillow with his hair brushed and his hands over his chest, and the room is an empty shell.
My mother holds his finger. ‘Oh dear, he used to say this finger always hurt. I’m afraid I wasn’t very sympathetic.’ She cries.
Grief turns her back into a young girl before my eyes, the mother who used to weep as the school train pulled out of King’s Cross; a young, tender, unsure creature.
A little later, I creep back into Daddy’s room to sit with him alone. The silence buzzes. The face of my father has sunk further. We’ve never discussed serious issues — such as my sexuality — and we never will.
The nearest Daddy and I ever got to ‘one of those chats’ was a conversation in a taxi in the autumn of 2001, by which time he was already frail. We were driving down Pall Mall on the way back from lunch, looking at a grey London afternoon passing by.
‘Mummy says you and Martin have split up,’ he said casually.
Sudden tension. ‘Yes,’ was all I replied.
My father was thoughtful for a few minutes. ‘Is there nothing you can do to fix it up’ he asked finally.
We looked at each other for a moment. ‘Not really. No. I don’t think there is.’
The rest of the ride went by in silence. When we got back to his flat, I had to push him up the stairs, my hands on his bottom, and hold him up as he rummaged for the keys . . .
At my parents’ house in Wiltshire, the undertakers have arrived. They’re typical of their trade: grey and puffy-eyed, with long fingers to handle the dead.
One of them takes Daddy’s legs and another takes his shoulders and they expertly roll the body on to the stretcher. That is the last I ever see of Tony Everett.
On the day of the funeral, it’s bucketing down with rain. The church is packed. The vicar, Colin Fox, administers — even though my father was a Catholic.
Once she’s on stage, Mummy is perfect. So this is where the acting gene comes from. Hers is a great performance because, inside, she’s falling apart. Nobody wants hysterics in this practical country world.
The world of the dead person has come together for one last singsong — an amazing congregation of my parents’ surviving friends and colleagues, of local people and my mother’s family.
There’s no one left from my father’s side, and many of his acquaintance are already dead.
Nonetheless, marvellous old generals and colonels, stockbrokers and bankers with eye-patches and regimental ties, sunspots and liver spots — all the ravages of time, sun and drink — sit to attention with their mostly younger wives, pretty and resilient in the Victorian pews, as the rain pours down the windows.
Rupert Everett on set of 'St Trinian's 2: the legend of Fritton's gold' on London's south bank in 2009
They’re a breed verging on extinction:
wartime soldiers and sailors who relinquished Sandhurst for
Threadneedle Street in the Sixties.
sexual revolution, the Beatles and the Stones had little influence on
them. And, of course, these ex-soldiers have nerves of steel in a
crisis, a sangfroid their successors never learn.
They live in modest wealth — by today’s engorged standards — in Georgian rectories and Tudor manors up and down the country.
and experience have softened their hard-line conservative edges. A
lesbian daughter here, a heroin addict there, HIV in the Eighties:
they’ve learnt to adjust their views.
love dogs and gardens and holidays in India, with bottles of whisky
bought in Duty Free and tucked into briefcases. And funerals.
They stand up now at the invitation of the organ. I wish I could say it grinds into a grandiose wall of sound and that the air throbs, but ours is an old tubercular wheezer, so it impotently tweets the introduction, with wrong notes thrown in, but Daddy’s friends make up for it.
They’ve sung these words on parade grounds at Partition, and ever since at a hundred similar send-offs, and they stand to attention now and bellow fiercely at the coffin: ‘Thine be the glory, risen conquering son, Endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.’
The service is over and the moment has come for the coffin to leave the church. It’s a feeling similar to the train leaving for boarding school. This is it.
The men from the funeral home — where I went last week to deliver Daddy’s pyjamas, lovingly washed and ironed for the last time by his wife — pick up the coffin and carry it out, followed by my mother, my brother and me.
Two old soldiers clinking with medals hold regimental standards, and we march out into the driving rain.
The pallbearers hold the coffin suspended over the grave. A little way off, the old soldiers stand to attention, soaked and bedraggled.
They’re going to catch pneumonia — so I take my umbrella over to them.
My mother stands by the grave with the vicar. The rain pours down his face, his hair is stuck on his cheeks and his Bible is waterlogged. The rain covers any tears.
Rupert Everett in 1987
My heart thumps up my neck as they lower the coffin into the ground. A whole chunk of life — like the cliff of an iceberg — has just plunged into the depths.
My mother’s face is concentrated, my brother’s blank. We leave the churchyard through the lych-gate, covered with the names of the dead in two wars, and go back to the house for the wake.
My father is wearing his blue pyjamas and his old red slippers in the cold ground tonight.
He has been dead for over a year. It’s Christmas Night 2010: I arrive at the church for Midnight Mass but don’t go in. Instead, I stand by his grave, smoking.
The old stained-glass window behind the altar throws a strange spangled light on the snow, and the organ and the singing sound muffled.
A hymn ends, replaced by the friendly voice of the vicar proclaiming the good news in that comfortable Anglican brogue — caring and slightly sung, simple and familiar to villagers up and down the British Isles who still worship tradition, if not God.
In the silence after the song, the nearby river gurgles towards the bridge. A barn owl hoots far away. Inside the church, the congregation begins to chant the Lord’s Prayer.
Extracted from Vanished Years by Rupert Everett, published by Little Brown on September 27 at 20. Rupert Everett 2012. To order a copy at 15.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 000.