All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 27 A surprise engagement
On the Monday morning we had the usual cast meeting where David went over a few minor changes in the production – 'tweaks' as he called them. At the conclusion he asked us all to sit in the front stalls as the CEO Duncan Morgan wanted to speak to us.
A moment later the boss strode onto the stage and looked down at us. “This feels a bit strange,” he said. “You should be up here on the stage and I should be down there looking up at you.”
He received the anticipated laugh and went on “For the past few months, the Executive Department has been secretly working on a project. We didn't want to reveal it in case it didn't come off and you'd all be disappointed, but now I can tell you that we have organised an overseas tour by the Imperial Shakespeare Company, starting next February.”
There was a buzz of excitement at this revelation.
“We'll be visiting three continents – first Singapore in Asia, then Perth, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia; Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand, and then across to America, first Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, then Washington D.C., and ending up in New York. We will be presenting two of our recent productions, 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Twelfth Night', since we thought a tragedy and a comedy would be a good mix.
“We would like to take as many of the original cast members as possible, although we realise that for various reasons some people may not be able to make the trip. Another thing is that while it's exciting, it will also be very hard work. We will be going through many time zones, so there will be a lot of jet-lag, and presenting the plays at so many different venues, each one different in performance space, will require a lot of re-staging and only a limited amount of rehearsal time to get used to it.
“At the first stop in Singapore, we will be performing in the Kallang Theatre which used to be a cinema and seats about 1700 people. I should mention that in New York we won't be on Broadway since those theatres are tied up years in advance with long-running shows, but we won't be too far 'off Broadway'.
“We will be speaking to all the original cast members to see if they are interested in going, and we hope that most if not all of the principal players will be able to make the trip. If not, we will have time to re-cast the vacancies and give them time to learn the parts and rehearse. Are there any questions at this stage?”
Thinking of my proposed surgery I asked “When will we arrive back in England?”
“About mid-April,” said Malcolm. “'Oh to be in England now that April's there', you know? Well of course you do.”
Indeed I doubt if there was anyone sitting the the stalls who was not familiar with Robert Browning's famous poem 'Home Thoughts from Abroad.'
As we left the auditorium I said to Cassie “Will you be going?”
“Try and stop me!” she exclaimed. “What an exciting challenge it will be, but I wonder about our older cast members. It will be very tiring.”
That evening I rang Mum to tell her about the overseas trip.
“If you're going to Melbourne perhaps you can meet up with Aunt Peggy,” she said.
“That would be great,” I replied. “I'm not sure how far her place is from Melbourne, Yackandandah wasn't it? It might be hours away.”
“I get the impression from Peggy that Australians are used to driving long distances,” said Mum. “Why don't you write to her as soon as you know when you'll be there? I'm sure she wouldn't miss an opportunity to see you acting again.”
“That's a good idea Mum. I'll give her my email address too. That would help her send a quick reply if she's got a computer.”
While waiting in the wings with Richard before the next performance I said to him “Isn't it exciting about the overseas tour? I'm so looking forward to it.”
“I've got a slight problem with it,” he replied. “My agent's been in touch and he suggests I audition for a film that's going to be made next year, but shooting is due to start in March.”
“Oh!” I said, not bothering to hide my disappointment.
“Don't get me wrong, I'd really love to do the tour as well, but they're likely to clash so I've got to decide which one to pick. The film will pay a lot more, but then money isn't everything.”
“Except it allows you to be miserable in comfort,” I said with a smile, intending my remark as a joke.
Richard looked at me seriously. “Are you miserable Harriet? It just seems that you aren't as happy as you were previously.”
I flushed. Was it that obvious? Meanwhile Richard looked like he was making up his mind to say something.
“You know what a hotbed of gossip theatres are and I've never been one to play that game, it's just that, well, I heard a story that someone you were keen on has married somebody else recently.”
Now I really did flush beetroot. Did nothing stay a secret here? I took a deep breath.
“Yes it is true, but I don't blame Reggie one bit. Unfortunately I'm sworn to secrecy, so I can't go into details. If you knew the facts, you wouldn't blame him either.”
“I'm sorry,” said Richard, and he took my hand and squeezed it. It was somehow comforting. “I shouldn't have mentioned it, please forgive me.”
“There's nothing to forgive, really. Sometimes life doesn't work out quite the way you expect or want.”
“Will it mean a lot to you if I do the tour?” said Richard softly.
“Of course it will. We act so well together that it feels very special and I think the audiences feel that way too. But of course you must do what feels right for you. We all want to have a successful career and sometimes that means being a bit, well 'selfish' isn't really the word, maybe 'focussed' is a better one?
Richard laughed. “Actually I think you're right, doing the tour might be the best move for my career. You never know, many people have told me that signing up for films can be a risky business. Sometimes they fall through or get delayed, so I might even be able to do the tour and the film, assuming it goes ahead and I get the part. I'll talk to my agent and tell him what I've decided.”
“I hope I haven't talked you into this Richard; if it all goes pear-shaped I don't want you blaming me.”
“There's no chance of that,” he replied. “It's entirely my own decision. In this life you win some and lose some.” He stopped abruptly. “I'm so sorry, that was an incredibly tactless thing to say.”
I managed a laugh. “You must think I'm awfully sensitive,” I said. It was only then that I realised that we were still holding hands, and I wondered how many people had seen us standing there in our own little world.
I didn't know where or for how long Reggie and Sophie had gone on their honeymoon, indeed I had no wish to know. However since the academic year was in full swing, I assumed that Reggie would be back at university by now.
I decided I should send him an email using Hotmail, letting him know I was alright, but decided that I should not mention the overseas tour just in case he spoke about it by accident and Sophie would guess where he found out. There was bound to be a press release before long, and no doubt it would appear in the newspapers.
It was strange, but I felt a little awkward in writing to him, as though I really shouldn't be doing it. Despite the way in which he had been 'persuaded' to marry Sophie, the fact remained that he was now a married man, and somehow writing secretly to him just felt plain wrong, like we were having an affair. However, there was the point of view that a large part of the reason he had married her was to protect me, so not to be in contact with him now would make it seem as though I didn't appreciate all he had done for me and had abandoned him. I suddenly felt very confused. Another problem, how should I end the message? To write anything less than 'Love, Harriet' was unthinkable. In the end, I wrote as follows:
I'm writing to tell you that I am alright. The play continues to have great audiences, often full houses, so that is taking up most of my time.
I hope you are going well. I expect that you are now back at university and I hope everything is going well there.
I drove to Bridchester to see Mum and Emma last week and it was good to catch up with all that is happening there. Emma has asked me to be godmother to my niece Elizabeth. She is growing very quickly and weighs over nine pounds now. They are all keeping well.
I'll write again soon.
I read it through several times. It seemed stilted, like a message written to someone I didn't know very well, certainly not to a lover. I didn't know what else to write, so in the end I sent it as it was.
A reply came the following day. It almost seemed as if Reggie was waiting to hear from me.
It was so good to hear from you. I'm sorry we didn't get more time to talk at the reception. Yes, I'm back at university now and so is Sophie. The course is going well, and my tutors seem pleased with my progress. I now have a place in the University Football Team and will play my first game with them next week. I will let you know how it goes.
Do you know what you will be doing when the season of 'Romeo and Juliet' comes to an end? Do you have another play lined up? I guess that being an actress means constantly having job interviews which is hard, but I couldn't imagine you doing anything else.
I read it over several times. From the way it was written it seemed as if Reggie was having trouble writing too. I supposed we would just have to get used to it.
On Friday when Richard and I were waiting in the wings to go on-stage, he said “Are you doing anything on Sunday?”
“Probably washing my hair,” I replied with a smile. “Why?”
“I was just wondering if you'd like to go for a drive in the country and have lunch somewhere? I know that's a bit of a cheek since you've got a car and I don't, but I'd be happy to pay for the lunch and the petrol.”
Richard's offer was in fact very welcome. I knew that Dale was going to London for the weekend to see Frank, and I didn't fancy hanging around the flat on my own. One thing that did surprise me about Richard's suggestion was that I understood he had a girlfriend. I wondered if they'd had a row?
Sunday dawned bright but cold with some frost on the ground, after all it was now late November. I decided on my tartan skirt with black opaque tights, and a woollen jumper over my camisole. I also put on some boots in case we decided to go for a walk wherever we ended up, and I took a 'Tam o' Shanter' to keep my head warm.
I drove around to Richard's flat and knocked on the door. When he opened it he was well wrapped up against the cold too. He invited me in while he put on his shoes. As women do, I glanced around the room. It was a bit untidy and there didn't seem to be any sign of a female presence, but it seemed tactless to enquire about his present circumstances.
We drove north along the Birmingham Road to Henley-in-Arden, a small town with some interesting old buildings and to give ourselves an appetite for lunch we parked the car and walked to the site of the Beaudesert Castle, although apart from some earthworks and a single stone there is nothing else to see. As we walked we chatted.
“We might be wondering why I asked if you were free today,” said Richard. “The fact is, I've split up with my girlfriend and didn't fancy hanging around the flat on my own.”
I laughed. “Well I was on my own for the weekend too, so your invitation was most welcome,” I said. “Is it a serious split-up or do you think you'll get together again?”
Richard smile ruefully “I rather think it's permanent.”
“I've come to the conclusion that the sort of life an actor leads makes it hard to have a permanent relationship,” I said. “Of course you could say the solution is to start a relationship with another actor, but when you see how many divorces take place in Hollywood, that doesn't seem to work either.”
Richard laughed. “It is a bit of a gypsy lifestyle. We have to go where the work is. Before I landed 'Romeo' I was working in Edinburgh.”
“What about your family?” I said.
“My parents, two sisters and a brother all live in Swansea. They have 'sensible' jobs; I'm the only actor in the family.”
His mention of Swansea made me think of Aunt Jane and inevitably from there my mind went to thoughts of Reggie.
“What is it?” he asked. “You suddenly look very sad. Did I say something that upset you?”
“It's nothing,” I replied. “My ex-boyfriend Reggie has an aunt who lives in Swansea and I just thought about him. Why don't we head back to Henley and find somewhere to eat?”
We ended up at 'The Bluebell' and had a very nice lunch. I had a Caesar Salad and Richard had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which surprised me as he was thin as a reed. Some people just don't have to watch their diet, whereas others like me can put on pounds by just looking at Sticky Toffee Pudding, which is why I shouldn't really have had one but I did anyway. Comfort food?
We had plenty of time, so finished off with coffee and didn't leave until the 3.30pm closing time. When we arrived back at Richard's flat he invited me in for coffee and I accepted. As I left he kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for a really nice day.
“I must thank you too,” I replied. “Let's do it again sometime.”
There was a postscript to Sunday. Monday morning my mobile phone began to ring.
“Harriet? Harriet Stow?” said a female voice that sounded very angry.
“Who is this?” I asked cautiously.
“My name's Stella,” she replied. “And you're the bitch who stole my boyfriend.”
“Just a minute, I haven't stolen anyone’s boyfriend.”
“Oh yes? Well the facts say otherwise. Just try and deny that you went out with him on Sunday.”
It was a funny thing but when I arrived at Richard's flat I did have a feeling of being watched, but thought I was imagining it. It's amazing how many people can sense that. I wonder if it's inherited from the time when stone-age man had to watch out for sabre-toothed tigers and the like?
“Richard and I work together and we are just friends,” I replied.
“Friends you call it? I've seen you two on the stage, sister, and you aren't pretending.”
“So you've seen Romeo and Juliet'?”
“Sure. Richard got me a ticket. A total waste of two hours of my life. I couldn't understand hardly anything you actors were saying.”
“Well, it is Elizabethan English,” I replied mildly, trying to humour her.
“But I didn't need to understand what you were saying to know what was going on between you two.”
“But it's called 'acting'. It's meant to look real but it isn't really. When I stab myself at the end of the play, you know that's not real.”
“I'm not stupid. I know that's not real, but those love scenes are and don't pretend otherwise. Anyway it's not just that, When Richard was at home in the flat it was 'Harriet this' and 'Harriet that'. He couldn't stop talking about you.”
“Well I'm sorry if you've been upset, but I assure you Richard and I are not in love; we're actors and we are playing the parts of two people in love – there is a difference.”
“I can see I'm wasting my time here,” Stella replied. “Anyway, you watch out, and tell Richard to watch out too.” With that she put the phone down.
To be continued
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story, also Julia Phillips for picking up my punctuation errors and any typos Louise or I missed. I'm very grateful to them both.
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