All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2016, 2017 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl'
Chapter 45 Handling the press
When a reporter surprises you at your door with a very personal question, you have a few options. One is to slam the door in their face, in which case they will go off and make up a sensational story which bears little resemblance to the truth; a second is to try to put them off by denying that there is any truth in their allegations, but of course they won't believe that, and again, they'll go off and make up their own story.. The third choice is to do what I did, put them on the back foot, so in reply to his question about what it was like to grow up as a boy, I smiled sweetly.
“It was quite interesting,” I said. “But it's hardly something I can discuss on the doorstep, won't you come in?”
The two men looked at each other. This was not the response they had expected. The younger one recovered first. “Yes thank you,” he said, a little less sure of himself now.
They followed me into the lounge where I indicated two seats.
“Would you like tea or coffee?” I asked.
“Black coffee, two sugars please,” said the older man, clutching his camera like a lifeline. He kept sneaking glances at me and I could tell what he was thinking 'Was she really once a boy?'. I smiled at him and he looked embarrassed. He had the tell-tale signs of a drinker on his face, red blotchy skin, bloodshot eyes, and a tinge of jaundice.
I felt sorry for him, thinking 'You don't really enjoy this job but perhaps it's all you could get.'
“White tea, no sugar, for me please,” said the younger man.
I happened to have very good hearing and while I was in the kitchen preparing the drinks I heard the older man mutter to the younger one “What's she playing at?”
“Trying to put us off, but don't worry, I know how to handle her and get the story,” replied his companion.
I walked back into the room with their drinks, plus a coffee for me, and a plate of sweet biscuits. They thanked me and I sat down on the couch facing them and crossed my legs, the picture of relaxation, well that's what I intended.
“Gentlemen, you have the advantage of me. May I enquire what your names are and for which publication you work?”
The younger one said “I'm Les Dawson and this is Harry Marks. We work for 'Fan Mail Express'. I know you've heard of it since we featured you on the front page not so long ago.”
“You did indeed,” I replied, and turning to Harry I said “Did you take the pictures of Richard Jenkins and I in the café?”
“Err yes, that was me,” he replied.
“Only I wondered about the flash going off, that would have drawn attention to you, although the camera was out of sight before I turned to look out of the window.”
Harry smiled ruefully “That was a mistake; I forgot I had it switched on.”
“Harry was your name originally, wasn't it?” said Les, slightly impatiently.
“Indeed it was,” I replied. “I was named after my father. That seems so long ago, but let me ask you a question; there are many transgendered women and even a few transgendered men around nowadays, so what makes you think your readers will want to read about me?”
“Well, you're a famous actress nowadays and the public are interested to know about you.”
“Really?' I said. “So it's a case of public interested. Alright, where shall we start?”
“Why not start at the beginning when you were born a boy?” This came from Harry.
“Well, I would prefer to say it was when I was born with the body of a boy since I'm quite sure that I never really was a boy. Incidently, did you know that everyone starts life as a girl in the womb? It's just the effect of hormones that makes some people develop as boys and some as girls, and then of course there's those of us whose mind does not match our body.”
Les started to look impatient again. “Sure, but when did you know that you should have been born a girl?”
“I'm sure that happened quite early on. I always felt more comfortable interacting with girls, and then there was my first stage experiences. As I'm sure you know, I went to an all boys school. They had an annual play, and unlike today when they would invite girls from a local school to play the female parts, in those days they selected the boys they thought could pass most convincingly as girls, and it won't suprise you to learn that they picked me. Of course I made a token protest, but secretly, I really enjoyed being a girl on stage and it seemed I did it quite well.”
Les was scribbling notes as I spoke. “So you enjoyed being a transvestite?” he asked.
“I was never a transvestite as we understand the term,” I replied. “I didn't get a special thrill from wearing women's clothes, I just felt 'right' wearing them, if you know what I mean? I was expressing who I really was.”
I wasn't sure how much of this was really getting through to Les.
“I read that you got your big break at the Apollo Players in Bridchester when a cast member fell ill.”
“That's right,” I said, thinking 'He's certainly been doing his research.'
I went on to describe how I had taken over the part in 'Dear Brutus', and how, when the play moved to London it was thought that I should present as a girl full-time in case having a boy play a girl's part attracted unwanted publicity.
“What about the people you worked with, how did you hide who you were from them?” asked Les.
“I didn't; they all knew, just like the people I work with now know about my past,” I replied. “They all accept me for who I am.”
“So why keep it a secret from the general public?” he asked.
“To be honest, I didn't think anyone would be interested,” I replied. “After all, I'm not a soap star; the type of theatre I perform in isn't of interest to a lot of people. It's mainly Shakespeare and other classics. I don't want to sound snobbish, but only a small percentage of the population attend those plays, (and they don't read 'Fan Mail Express'),” I thought but didn't say out loud.
“I'm guessing you've had surgery now,” said Les, looking pointedly at my breasts.
“I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions,” I replied. “Let's just say that I am now happy with my body.”
“Yeah, I see where you're coming from,” said Les, glancing at his watch. “Well I guess that about wraps it up.”
“One thing before you go, call it women's vanity if you like, but I'm sure the picture you took on the doorstep won't look very good. If I put on some makeup and changed my top, would you like to take some more? I'll be less than ten minutes getting ready; we learn to be quick in the theatre.”
Les laughed. “Yes, why not?”
I felt comfortable leaving them in the lounge, there was nothing they shouldn't see. I quickly put on some makeup and a pretty top and reappeared in just over five minutes.
Les had one final try at finding scandal. “I see that there's a guy who lives here, is he your boyfriend?” he asked.
“I share with a man who's a friend, it's more secure than a woman living on her own. He's not a boyfriend, I don't have one, nor a girlfriend for that matter,” I said with a laugh.
Harry was a good photographer. I wondered if he had run a studio in the past before the alcohol caught up with him. Was it a marriage break-down? It wasn't my place to ask. He actually seemed to enjoy posing me and when he showed me the pictures on the little screen at the rear of the camera they were really good. I asked if he could arrange some enlargements for me. “I'll be happy to pay for them,” I said.
So it was that we parted, if not exactly friends, at least not enemies. We seemed to understand each other and I had hopes of a sympathetic article as a result.
Two weeks later I bought 'Fan Mail Express' again from the local newsagent. I heaved a sigh of relief that I wasn't on the front page. In fact I appeared on page ten. It was a quarter page article and about a third of that was taken up with one of Harry's excellent photos.
“SHAKESPEARE (sic) ACTRESS REVEALS PAST”
“I always knew I wasn't meant to be a boy,” says Harriet Stow.
Les wrote the article in a more sympathetic style than I thought him capable of doing. It seemed that I had made the right choice in the way I had handled the 'home invasion'.
Of course I had reported the incident to Duncan Morgan, the CEO at ISC, including the fact that I would probably appear in 'Fan Mail Express' once again. I was thanked and told that it made absolutely no difference to my employment there.
“If it puts more 'bums on seats' then so much the better,” he said laughing. “Somehow I don't think it will make much difference.”
One more thing that derived from that incident. I showed the pictures that Harry took of me to the other actors at the theatre and they were so impressed they asked if he could take some of them too. Harry had left me his contact details when he delivered the enlargements, so I put them in touch with him and he got quite a bit of work from it. One morning there was a knock on the door and it was a courier delivering a large bunch of flowers. The card with them read 'Many thanks from Harry'.
A few years ago, I was performing at the 'Globe' theatre in London, and quite by chance I ran into Harry in the street. I hardly recognised him. He was wearing a suit and looked dapper and quite healthy.
“Miss Stow, it's great to see you again,” he said. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
I had free time, so I agreed and we sat down in one of the many cafés in that part of London.
“You're looking well,” I said.
“And it's largely thanks to you,” he replied. “When you ordered those pictures and some of your theatre friends did the same, it made me realise that I'm a better photographer than one who spends his time trying to catch out celebrities in embarrassing situations. I left the 'Express' and I joined 'Alcoholics Anonymous'; I'm sure that's no surprise to you. I managed to get work in a proper photographic studio again, thanks to an old friend who had never given up on me, and I'm doing very well.”
He produced a business card. “If you ever need more photographs taking, please give me a call, no charge, it will be my pleasure.”
It gave me a good feeling to think that I had in a small way helped someone turn their life around.
However, I digress. The day after I met Les and Harry I was to audition for 'Lady Macbeth'. I should mention in passing that while superstitious thespians, myself included, tend to refer to 'The Scottish Play' when not involved with a production, when you are it's perfectly acceptable to call it by its proper name.
I had been told that there was to be a new director and I wondered who it would be. Much to my surprise, when I arrived at the theatre, Hannah Barrow who had directed 'Othello' was standing there. She greeted me with a hug. “It's lovely to see you again Harriet, how have you been?”
“Very well, Hannah,” I said. She must have seen the curiosity on my face because she laughed and said “Yes, I'm directing 'Macbeth'. I was as surprised as you are. It seems that Keith Nobel who was to have directed has been taken ill and they contacted me at short notice and asked if I could replace him. I was looking for something a little lighter after 'Othello', but work is work, so here I am.”
I was very pleased to see her. We had got on very well during the run of 'Othello', and while I wasn't looking for something that would be to my advantage in getting the part, I felt that our previous association could only work in my favour. Hannah and her assistant went to sit in the stalls and I waited with three other young women, none of who I had worked with before. I was called up to the stage first.
As requested, I had prepared Act 1 Scene 5 which starts:
'They met me in the day of success: and I have
learned by the perfectest report, they have more in
them than mortal knowledge...'
It is a fairly long speech in which Lady Macbeth starts by reading a letter from her husband, where he reports on his meeting with the three witches, and then she starts to speculate on how to fulfill their promises.
I was asked for another speech, so followed it up with the next major speech where Lady Macbeth learns that King Duncan will visit her home, and she determines that he will not leave it alive.
'The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements...'
This speech contains the lines:
'Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,'
That final phrase has caused generations of school children to snicker, and I dealt with it by being careful not to overemphasise it, which is fairly easy since the whole speech is declaimed with passion and at high volume.
When I had finished, as I expected, they thanked me and said they would let me know. This is standard practise. Looking at the other contenders for the part, I was sure that I was the youngest, and wondered if I genuinely stood a chance. I sat in the stalls and listened to them audition, and at the end felt rather gloomy since they were all very good.
Once the session was over, I went home and waited for the phone call. Auditions are effectively job interviews, and as actors we have more of them than most people. We go along and sell ourselves as well as we can, and hope that we have impressed the producer and/or director suffiently well that we are given the job. If anyone tells you that they are blasé about waiting for the phone call, don't believe them.
I waited a good hour, drinking coffee and trying to read a book, only to realise that I was going over the same page time and again without even taking in the words. Then the phone rang, and my heartrate increased.as I picked up the receiver.
“Harriet Stow,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Hello Harriet, it's Hannah Barrow here; how are you?”
“To be honest, a bit stressed,” I replied with a forced laugh feeling my heart pounding.
She laughed too. “In that case I'l put you out of your misery right away. We would like to offer you the rôle of 'Lady Macbeth,” she said.
I nearly said 'Really?' but realised that would sound stupid, so instead I said: “Thank you very much Hannah, I am happy to accept.”
“Good,” she replied. “Now I have some exciting news for you; David Lodge had agreed to play Macbeth.”
My heart leapt. “That's excellent news,” I replied. “I was in the production of Hamlet where he took the title rôle and I played 'Ophelia'.”
“So he mentioned when I told him who was likely to play Lady Macbeth. He also told me that you stepped in at short notice to play Queen Gertrude for a couple of performances when Dame Emily and her understudy had food poisoning. He was very impressed.”
Thank goodness we were not on a video phone so she couldn't see me blush with pleasure. David Lodge had actually remembered me!
“As you know it was after that incident that ISC made it a rule that actors and their understudies should not eat the same meal, the same rule that some airlines apply to pilots and co-pilots. Anyway, I digress. We look forward to seeing you when rehearsals start in two week's time.”
When I put the phone down I still had a rapid heartbeat. David and I acting together again! I should stress that I wasn't in love with him, but he is a very dishy man as any woman will tell you.
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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