There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 5 Aunt Peggy arrives
The season of 'Two Gentlemen' started. The house was nearly full each night and the critics were kind. The play doesn't have a major star in the way 'Hamlet' has, it's more of an ensemble piece. All the main actors got a mention and there were some nice comments about my performance. To my surprise, I received a credit as Assistant Director in the program, and there was mention made of this in the critiques.
When I say the play had no stars, I meant human ones, since Phideaux the dog who 'played' the part of 'Crab', Launce's dog, while he only appeared in one scene, certainly received the biggest applause when Alan led him onstage during the curtain calls. 'Crab' is the only dog that actually appears in a Shakespeare play. He did behave himself very well during his single appearance. I remember reading that 'Lassie', the star of many films and television shows was a male dog called Pal, because male dogs are easier to train. I suppose we girls can't win them all!
Mum had confirmed the date that Emma would drive her down to Stratford. I organised the tickets, ten rows back in the stalls and right in the centre, and I also arranged a hotel room with twin beds for them both. They arrived mid-afternoon and I met them at the hotel and made sure that they were comfortably settled in. Mum looked tired and I felt that there was a definite decline in her health. Fortunately, they were both able to have a rest before the evening performance.
I know some actors who get nervous when they know someone in the audience. I always find that it gives me a special lift, and so it was that evening, knowing that Mum and Emma were right there watching and listening to me.
At the conclusion of the performance we took our bows as usual. The house lights were half raised and I could see Mum and Emma clapping enthusiastically. The curtain fell and rose again, and still they applauded. Suddenly Mum stood up, then Emma, and gradually the whole audience stood and clapped.
One by one the cast took individual bows again as the applause continued. I only had eyes for Mum, seeing her standing there, her face wet with tears, and when it came to my turn, on the spur of the moment I performed a deep curtsey, just to Mum as a gesture of love and respect. For those few seconds it seemed as if there was no-one else present, just us two. She nodded her head in acknowledgment and, I confess, tears were pouring down my face as I realised that this was the last time she would see me perform. The enormity of the occasion overwhelmed me. Three more times the curtain fell and rose again, and it finally stayed down only when the applause began to tail off. A few of the cast looked at me curiously as I walked off the stage, my face still wet from my tears, but they didn't say anything. Perhaps they guessed.
A little later, Mum and Emma came around to the dressing room that I shared with Vi. By now I had composed myself, although I'm sure my red eyes were a giveaway. They waited while I changed and exchanged my stage make-up for some more appropriate for the rest of the evening. Then we all went off the 'Oppos' for supper, and Vi came along too. It was the perfect end to the evening and one I can still replay in my mind all these years later. I half expected that someone would remark about the curtsey but no-one did. It was something special just between Mum and me. The following day, I had lunch with Mum and Emma before they set off for Brid and I had to prepare for the evening performance.
“I'll see you both next Sunday,” I said before I kissed them both goodbye.
After the car disappeared around the corner I stood there for a while staring into space. A tear ran down my cheek. Mum had definitely deteriorated and I wondered if the time was near to call Aunt Peggy and see if she was able to come over to England soon. I decided that the best thing was to ring her and give her an update on Mum and perhaps leave it to her how she would respond, but first I would talk to Emma.
I rang my sister a couple of days later. “Do you think it's time to ring Aunt Peggy and ask her to come over?” I said.
“I think so. She needs some notice to arrange things over there with her family. You saw Mum; she seemed stable for a while but I think she's definitely sinking now.”
“Will you ask her if she'd like Aunt Peggy to come over? We can't just spring it on her and quite frankly I don't know what to say.”
Emma laughed briefly. “I guess it's the job of your older sister. Alright, I'll speak to her.”
She rang me the following day. Mum had made it easy for her by guessing immediately what she wanted to say and agreeing that the time had come to call Aunt Peggy.
“I'll get her a flexible ticket because we don't know how long she might stay,” I said.
I rang Aunt Peggy the next day, allowing for the time difference which I knew was eleven hours later in Victoria where they lived. That meant I could ring at nine o'clock in the evening which coincided with Interval time, and it would be ten o'clock in the morning over there. The moment she heard my voice she said: “Is it time for me to come over?”
“I've discussed it with Emma and we both think it's the right time, but we know you need some notice, so when would be right for you?”
“How about two week's time?” she said. I agreed and said I would organise the ticket for her. “I'm going to make it a flexible one since we don't know how long you might want to stay.” I realised there was something I'd forgotten. “How did young Ron take the news?”
“I was proud of him; he was very brave, but he went to his room, and afterwards his eyes were red. Ron, Flora and I had agreed not to notice.”
I felt my eyes stinging. “Please let me know when the ticket arrives,” I said.
A week later Aunt Peggy rang me. “The ticket's arrived but I thought I'd better ring you as I think there's been a mistake. It's Business Class,” she said.
“That's right,” I replied. “It's such a long trip that we thought the least we could do was make it as comfortable as possible for you.”
“But it must be so expensive,” she replied. “Can you still change it?”
“Only if you insist, but I hope you won't. Emma and I really want to do this for you, so please let us.”
The sigh over the phone was audible. “Very well, but I'm going to feel like the Queen,” she said.
“Don't forget your tiara,” I responded, and she laughed. I really love Aunt Peggy.
Aunt Peggy arrived a week before the season of 'Two Gentlemen' ended. I had chosen a flight that arrived in Manchester on Sunday morning so that I could drive to pick her up and take her to Bridchester. I was up very early as the trip to the airport would take the best part of three hours and I wanted to make sure I was there in plenty of time.
When she appeared out of the Customs Hall I hurried over to give her a big hug.
“How was your flight?” I said.
“It was amazing; luxury all the way. You know that you've ruined Economy Class for me now? I'll just sit there envying the people up the pointy end of the plane.”
“Well I'm really glad. I've never travelled that long on a plane and I couldn't imagine it cramped up all the time, although I know that's how many people do it,” I replied. It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps that wasn't the most diplomatic thing to say since that's how the McDonalds had travelled to England a few months previously, but fortunately Aunt Peggy didn't seem to take offence.
“Tell me about it,” she said and laughed. “How's your mum?” she asked, turning to the most important matter in hand.
“I saw her last weekend and she seemed quite bright. She's really looking forward to seeing you again of course.” Suddenly the enormity of what was happening caught up with me and unbidden tears sprang into my eyes. “Oh Aunt Peggy, I can't imagine life without her, but there's nothing I can do about it.”
She took my hand. “Death is the last great taboo, and yet it comes to us all in the end. The best thing is to do what your mum is doing and face it bravely. That's what she wants from all of us.”
I brushed away the tears. “You're right of course. I'm really only thinking of myself. You must think me a terribly selfish person. I'm afraid there's something about being an actress, standing up there on the stage and having people applaud you which tends to give us a swelled head and think we're the most important people around.”
Aunt Peggy laughed. “Nonsense. You're one of the most down to earth people I know.” Changing the subject, she said. “Now where have you parked the car?”
As soon as we loaded Aunt Peggy's luggage into 'Bluebird', I rang Mum to let her know that we were just about to set off from Manchester, and that I would ring her when we were at York, just over an hour away. Then I handed my phone to Aunt Peggy while I drove out of the airport and worked my way through the traffic, which was quite heavy even on a Sunday.
Aunt Peggy chatted with Mum for about ten minutes before hanging up.
“She just told me that if we keep on talking we'll have nothing left to say when I get there. As if!” She laughed. “She sounded quite cheerful anyway.”
“I'm sure she's really looking forward to seeing you again,” I said.
The trip to Brid was very enjoyable. We chatted about everything under the sun. She told me how well the two Rons and Flora were going. It seemed Flora had her first boyfriend, a shy young lad called John, who lived at a nearby property.
“It's so sweet to see them sitting out on the porch holding hands when they think no-one is looking,” she said.
“She's so pretty, I would have said she'd break boys' hearts, but I think she's too nice to do that,” I said.
“You know she wants to be an actress just like her cousin, don't you?”
I smiled ruefully. “I did try to talk her out of it, or at least point out that she needs a 'proper job' to fall back on. It's a bit difficult to say that when I don't really have one myself.”
“Does your current play have long to run?”
“'Two Gentlemen'? Just one more week and then I'm going to take some time off. It's been quite a while since I had a proper holiday. Later this year they're proposing to have another season of “Romeo and Juliet” with Richard Jenkins playing opposite me again.”
“I understand from Elizabeth that the last season was a sell-out,” said Aunt Peggy.
“Yes it was. Richard's a marvellous actor.”
“I understand his co-star is not so shabby too,” she commented and of course I blushed.
“When you play opposite a really good actor, it lifts your own performance,” I said. I didn't know whether to mention my 'artist in residence' arrangement which was still on hold and decided to say nothing at that stage.
When we reached York, we stopped for a drink and I rang Mum to let her know we were just over an hour away. I didn't want her sitting at the window waiting for a long time. I also ran Reggie to let him know where I was. He was playing football so I left a message.
As I stopped the car outside her house, the front door immediately opened and Mum walked out to greet us. I caught my breath, remembering how she used to almost fly down the path, and now her progress was slow. She was using a stick and it was almost painful to watch. I gave myself a good talking to saying that I must not cry, at least not when she could see me.
The two sisters hugged. It was almost as if they had been apart for years whereas it had only been a few months. I think there were a few tears but that was to be expected. I lifted Aunt Peggy's suitcase out of the boot and followed the sisters up the path. Naturally, they were already talking nineteen to the dozen. Inside, Mum sat us down while she put the kettle on for a cup of tea.
“You're looking remarkably well for a twenty-four-hour flight,” said Mum.
“Well you can blame that on your two daughters,” said Aunt Peggy. “Would you believe they bought me a Business Class ticket? Honestly, now I know how the Queen feels when she flies!”
Mum smiled. “Well, they're good girls and brought up well if I say it myself.”
She served tea and freshly made scones with strawberry jam and cream. She was a great scone-maker and they were delicious as usual. After a brief chat about the flight, Mum turned to me and said “Can you stay for tea Harriet? I've made a casserole.”
Mum's casseroles were equally legendary and that put me on the horns of a dilemma.
“Mum, would you think me very rude if I didn't stay? Reggie's expecting me and it's been nearly a week since we've seen each other.”
“That's alright darling; I know that your married life is a bit unusual at present, with you in Stratford and Reggie in York.”
“It's fine really, we make up for lost time when we're together,” I said, and then saw the look on the two faces and realised what I had said. As they both burst out laughing, I turned crimson of course.
Trying to catch her breath, Aunt Peggy said “It's alright Harriet, we were young once too.” I started to laugh too.
Mum said “It's a big casserole. Why don't I put some in a container for you to take with you? That way you won't have to waste time cooking.” There was a twinkle in her eye as she said that, and I suspect that she winked at Aunt Peggy.
“Thanks, Mum, that would be great. Actually, the play only runs for another week and then I'm taking a bit of time off, so you'll be seeing plenty of me.”
“Oh that will be lovely, darling,” said Mum. “But have you got more work lined up?”
“I'm probably going to play Juliet again later in the year. They are trying to get Richard Jenkins to play Romeo again. We should know this week if it's confirmed.”
After a bit more chatting, I kissed them both goodbye and walked back to 'Bluebird' carrying my precious cargo of casserole. Now that Aunt Peggy was there with Mum I had no concerns about her being looked after. It was a load off everyone's mind.
When I returned to our flat in York, Reggie hadn't arrived back from the football match, so I placed the casserole on the kitchen table and unpacked my suitcase. I was only back for one night, so I re-packed it with different clothes for the last week of the season in Stratford. I was getting used to the gypsy lifestyle although I did miss being with Reggie. Still I only had one more week of the play to go and then I would be back, dividing my time between York and Bridchester. Inevitably that made me think about Mum and it was difficult to avoid the tears starting. She had perked up so much seeing Aunt Peggy but I know it could not last.
By the time Reggie arrived, I had the casserole warming in the oven, the table set, and myself looking presentable.
“Darling, it's so good to see you again,” he said as he came through the door. He took me in his arms and kissed me. “Something smells good.”
I wrinkled up my nose: “Well it's not you Reggie, you smell of mud!” I exclaimed.
He laughed. “Well I did have a shower, but the mud does tend to stick. Perhaps I'd better have another one.”
We enjoyed the night together and as I had rather carelessly said to Mum and Aunt Peggy, 'We made up for lost time'.
The alarm buzzed quietly in my ear at 5.30am and I quietly slipped out of bed, being careful not to wake Reggie. I had my breakfast, showered and dressed before waking Reggie to kiss him goodbye. Then I loaded my suitcase into 'Bluebird' and set out for Stratford again.
One evening during the last week of the season, Vi and I were in our dressing room after the performance. We had removed our stage makeup, changed out of our costumes and were making up our faces when there was a knock on the door and a familiar voice said “May I come in?”
“Of course,” I said, and stood up as Dame Emily entered the room.
“Good evening my dear. I was in Stratford and managed to get a seat this evening. I enjoyed the performance very much,” she said.
She looked enquiringly at Vi and I said: “Dame Emily, this is Viola Edwards.”
Vi looked a bit stunned as Dame Emily said: “You performed Silvia very well, my dear.”
Finally Vi found her voice and said “Thank you very much, Dame Emily.”
“Well I must be getting on; Duncan wants to take me to supper. I'd like to speak to you soon as there's something I wish to discuss with you. I'll be away shooting a film for the next couple of months, but I'll be in touch when I get back.” With that, she left the room.
Vi said, “I could hardly believe that, and she spoke as if you are friends.”
“Yes, I'm very privileged to call Dame Emily a friend,” I said. “But I'll never take that for granted. Knowing her has done great things for my career.”
I wondered what Dame Emily wanted to talk to me about. Perhaps there was another rôle she thought might be suitable for me.
The final performance arrived and was played to a packed house. Afterwards, we had the usual 'drinks and nibbles' in the rehearsal room. I kept off the alcohol, intending to drive to York early the following day, but I stayed and mingled with the other cast members and crew as we always did, thanking everyone for their hard work. Most of them knew that Mum wasn't well, and asked me to convey their good wishes. They knew she wasn't going to recover of course, but it was kind of them and I managed to stop the tears until I was back at the flat.
I made a point of thanking Chris once again for allowing me to be his assistant.
“I've learned so much from you,” I said. “If the opportunity ever occurs again, I'd be very happy to act as your assistant.”
“You've been a real help to me,” Chris replied. “I've never had an actor assist me before but now I've done it once, I'd be happy to do it again. I've got some good news which just arrived and which I was asked to pass on to you. Richard Jenkins has agreed to perform in another season of 'Romeo and Juliet” later in the year and I'll be directing. Apparently, he agreed on the understanding that you would be playing Juliet!”
Inevitably I blushed. “We got on so well last time and I'm sure we'll do so again.”
It did occur to me that I was now a married woman, and I hoped he didn't expect any 'extra-curricular' activities like happened last time.
Dale and Frank were well settled in together and showed no signs of being in a hurry to move, which made me very happy. I knew they would look after the flat well while I was away. If anything, Frank was tidier than me. We had a cup of coffee together, while I told them that I would be driving up to York the following morning and didn't really know how long I would be away. They suggested that I shouldn't have to pay my share of the rent while I was gone, but I insisted that I would continue to do that. I also told them about 'Romeo and Juliet' and Frank was almost as excited as I was about that.
The following morning I was up early for a shower and to pack the clothes I wanted to take with me. By the time I had finished, Dale and Frank had already left for work. I looked around, making sure everything was switched off and put away, and then loaded up 'Bluebird' which Dale had kindly serviced during the week, and headed north. I was very used to the trip from Stratford to York now and arrived at our flat without incident. I unpacked my suitcase and then drove to Bridchester to see Mum. Reggie was at Uni, so I left him a note and also sent a text to let him know that I had arrived.
Mum and Aunt Peggy were pleased to see me. I tried not to look too obviously at Mum to gauge how she was going. She looked tired but otherwise not much different to when I last saw her.
“I'm glad you're here,” said Aunt Peggy. “I do need to get some shopping, and you can keep your mum company while I'm gone.”
I wondered about that remark; had something happened to make Aunt Peggy concerned about leaving Mum on her own? I determined to find out. After she left and I'd made Mum and me a cup of tea, I broached the subject.
“Mum, Aunt Peggy sounded worried about leaving you on your own; has anything happened?”
“Oh, it was just a silly thing. I stood on a stool to try and reach a book and I slipped and fell over. I was just bruised, nothing broken.”
“Did you go to see your doctor?” I asked.
“Yes, Peggy insisted. He checked me over and said I should just rest, which is what I'm doing now,” she said.
“And no more climbing on stools,” I said, and she laughed and agreed with me. Then she changed the subject.
“You'll never guess who telephoned me yesterday, Dame Emily Good! She phoned to see how I was. She told me she saw you perform in 'Two Gentlemen' last week and how well you are going. She also mentioned something else, your invitation to be an 'artist in residence' in America. She obviously thought I knew, so I pretended I did. Why didn't you tell me? Was it because of me being sick? More importantly, when are you taking it up?”
'How did Dame Emily know?' I thought. 'Oh of course, our agent Richard must have mentioned it.'
“I've put it on hold at present, “ I replied. “Mr. Thompson understands. It's not entirely because of your illness, although that was a factor of course. I also wasn't sure that I was experienced enough to do it, even though he thought I was. That's why acting as Assistant Director in 'Two Gentlemen' has been such a bonus for me. I haven't been told exactly what is involved, but I think they expect me to do some acting, especially Shakespearean techniques, but also provide tuition in staging his plays. I feel a lot more confident now.”
To be continued.
Many thanks to Louise Anne and Julia Phillips for their on-going assistance with checking the text for errors of fact and also typos. Both I and I'm sure my readers are very grateful to them.
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