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 2 A married woman
Our flight left New York at 10pm and we arrived back in Manchester at about 10am the following morning. A night flight is really convenient; we slept for most of the time and were woken up with a light breakfast about ninety minutes before landing. Although the flight lasted about seven hours, there was also the five hour time zone difference to add, and after the usual ninety minutes or so retrieving our bags and clearing Customs, we went to the long-term car park and picked up Reggie's car.
We drove straight to our flat in York, only stopping off at the shops in Heslington where we lived, near to the university, to buy some groceries. Emma and David had invited us to a 'welcome home' dinner the following evening, and the guest list included Reggie's parents as well as Mum. Naturally enough, I telephoned her after we had settled back into the flat. She suggested that we stay overnight with her after the dinner and this invitation was gratefully accepted. We didn't fancy driving back to York late at night, especially if we'd had a few drinks.
The following day we did some housework in the morning. It's funny how places acquire a musty smell when they've been closed up for a week or more, but after opening all the windows and the vigorous application of the vacuum cleaner, the flat soon smelled as fresh as a daisy. In the afternoon we showered and packed a change of clothes suitable for a dinner party, a favourite dress for me and a grey suit for Reggie. We set off for Bridchester, and just over an hour later pulled up outside Mum's house where we were greeted with hugs and kisses.
“I won't ask you about your trip,” she said. “I'm sure the others will want to hear all about it and you won't want to repeat yourselves.” That was Mum – always thinking of others.
I had been very anxious to see her, despite only having been away for a week. Emma had been right, Mum was actually looking better than she had when I had last seen her on the day of the wedding. We took our suitcases up to my bedroom and changed.
The 'dinner' was more of a tea, starting at five o'clock so that the children could participate. We had bought everyone small gifts from New York of course; baseball caps, mugs, keychains, snow globes and models of the Statue of Liberty. The children were delighted with them, as were the adults. We also agreed that we would get together another time to let them see the pictures that we had taken. I remembered how 'slide nights' used to be notorious as the ultimate in a boring evening. We had taken pictures with new digital camera which we had bought ourselves as a wedding present. These could be shown on the television, much easier than setting up a projector and screen, but I determined that we would not bore the viewers and would select only the best images to try and leave them wanting more.
Something that had surprised me about Emma was how comfortably she had slipped into the rôle of a housewife and mother. After all, when I had first stood on the professional stage, she had been an established actress with the Apollo Players in Bridchester for some years and the theatre was her life. My only acting experience up until then was a few school plays. Now I was the established actress, and Emma seemed to be permanently retired. I just couldn't imagine myself doing anything else, but she seemed very happy with her life, looking after her husband David and the four children, Penny, who was David's daughter from his first marriage, Elizabeth and Thomas, the two children they'd had together, and Stella, Reggie's daughter who had been living with them since her mother Sophie had died.
The question of what to do about Stella was still unresolved. She was perfectly happy and content living as part of her adopted family, and it really wasn't practical for her to live with Reggie and me at that time, particularly as Reggie was still at university in York, and I would be spending a lot of time in Stratford when I was acting. It would have meant her being looked after by other people a lot of the time, a very unsatisfactory arrangement. Living with Emma, David and the other children, she had a stable home environment.
We were both very fond of her and intended to see her as often as we could. Of course we were paying for her living expenses as Emma and David were surviving on one income and I suspected it was not a very large one, him being a Director in a regional theatre. Everyone knows that those theatres barely scrape by financially, and it was only due to the support of the local community that they were still in business. It was fortunate that David had been employed part-time to teach drama at one of the local schools and I knew that when Apollo was in the middle of a new production he was very busy indeed fitting in both occupations. Nevertheless they were a very happy family.
After the children went to bed, the adults stayed until about ten o'clock talking, mainly about our trip to New York. We told them about everything except our encounters with Hiram Thompson. I had sworn Reggie to secrecy about that, just in case Hiram changed his mind about the offer.
One good thing was that I was now very well accepted by Reggie's parents. Perhaps the only silver lining of the cloud of his first marriage was them realising that despite my past, I was a much better wife for him than Sophie had been, especially since he actually loved me. As for Stella, they loved her too; in fact everyone did, she was such a sweet little girl.
Eventually, I could see that Mum was getting tired and I suggested that we call it a night. After farewells and an agreement that we would get together soon to show off our pictures of New York, we drove back to Mum's house, 'and so to bed', as Samuel Pepys so often wrote at the end of a day's record.
We drove back to York the following morning, after promising to come back and see Mum soon. She said that she was feeling quite well, and I wondered how long that would last, but could only hope for the best. She had decided upon palliative care rather than more intrusive treatment, and we had to go along with her decision.
Two days after we returned to York I had a phone call from Richard, my agent. He sounded very excited.
“I understand you spoke to Hiram Thompson while you were in New York. I know him quite well and I've just had some documents from his secretary with the offer of a contract for you to be an 'artist-in-residence' at his theatre in East Devon. Are you sitting down?”
I wasn't, so I complied with his request and told him to go on.
“You won't believe what he's offering you for two months' work!”
He was right, I did find it hard to believe, and I was glad I was sitting down. I felt I was on a good salary at the Imperial Shakespeare Company, but this offer was for about the same amount as I earned in a year. Perhaps I should have been excited, but I actually found it unnerving. Richard was surprised by my silence, and asked what was wrong.
“To be honest, I'm worried, Richard,” I replied. “Mr Thompson seems a nice man, and perhaps, since he's a billionaire, it doesn't seem so much money to him, but he's also a businessman and he'll want value for his money. I'm not sure if I can deliver, after all, I'm still fairly early in my career.”
It was now Richard's turn to be silent. “Well, he wouldn't have asked you if he didn't think you could deliver,” he said. That was a predicable response I suppose.
“There's another problem,” I said. “My mother is very unwell and I don't want to leave England at present. I did tell Mr Thompson that and he seemed willing to allow me to take a rain check on the offer.”
“So I can at least reply that you are interested in the offer and will make a decision on when you can take it up?”
“Yes, you can do that,” I replied. I decided to talk to Mr Morgan at ISC, and also Dame Emily and ask their advice before I took this any further. On the one hand, if I was successful, it would be a great entry on my CV, but if it didn't work out to Mr Thompson's satisfaction, it would have a negative effect on my career. Maybe it was better if I just stuck to acting.
I spoke to Reggie about it. I was still officially on my honeymoon, and not due back in Stratford until the following Monday, the same day that Reggie's spring term at York university started, so he suggested that I phone Mr Morgan's office and try to see him while we were both still on holiday. We could drive down for the day, so I did as he suggested and rang Mr Morgan's secretary, Penny Lane. When I first met her she was rather reserved with me, almost frosty, and I put this down to so many people asking her if her parents were Beatles' fans (they were), so I made a point of never mentioning it until eventually when our relationship became quite cordial she mentioned it herself.
“If one more person starts humming that wretched song in my presence, I swear I'll throw something at them,” she said and actually laughed, so I joined in with the laughter.
I was able to get an appointment a couple of days later, so then I gave some thought about what to wear. I don't suggest that everyone who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon goes to the theatre, but it's probably a higher percentage than in many other towns of the same size, and it seemed that my face was becoming known, judging by the number of people who gave me that half-smile of recognition when I was out shopping. I would respond with a similar smile and a slight nod of the head as if to say 'Yes it's me'. Thank goodness the typical British reserve prevented the vast majority from asking for a picture or an autograph. Those that did, I always treated cordially, after all most of them were paying my wages.
This increasing chance of being recognised meant that I felt the need to always look smart, not least because I felt I was representing the ISC. I always preferred wearing a skirt or dress with stockings and heels in winter, and bare legs and sandals in summer. Perhaps this was a result of not being able to wear such clothes when I was young. It was very cold, so my final decision was my woollen tartan skirt and white cotton blouse over a full silk slip, another favourite item of clothing. Black opaque tights and four inch black heels completed the outfit, and I wore the thick coat that I bought in New York. Reggie told me that I looked great, which was all that I needed to know.
When we arrived in Stratford and parked at the theatre, Reggie said he would have a coffee in a local cafe while I went to see Mr Morgan. I walked into the main entrance acknowledging several people I knew, and thanking them for their good wishes on my wedding. A number of the staff had clubbed together and bought us a really nice dinner set as a wedding gift, and I had already posted a nice 'thank you' card which I hoped would now be on the noticeboard in the staff cafeteria.
Arriving at Penny's office I greeted her as usual “Good afternoon Miss Lane.”
She replied “Good afternoon Miss Stow”. It was a running joke to greet each other so formally. I should point out that while I was now legally Mrs Staunton, like most theatre professionals, I would continue using my original name which was the one by which I was known.
“Mr Morgan has someone with him, but he shouldn't be long. Please take a seat,” she said. “Did you go away?”
“Yes, to New York. It's an amazing place. I hope to play Broadway some day.”
I sat down and picked up a recent issue of 'The Stage' and flipped through the pages. I was reminded once again that I really should subscribe to it myself, to keep up with what was going on in my professional world.
I was half-way through an interesting article when Mr Morgan's door opened and he walked out with one of the theatrical knights of the realm who gave me a nod although I'm sure he didn't know who I was. After he and Mr Morgan shook hands and he departed, I was beckoned into the inner sanctum.
As it was an informal meeting, Duncan gestured towards a comfortable armchair and took a seat on one facing it. It was very comfortable, but just in time I remembered not to cross my legs, he was my boss after all.
“Congratulations on your wedding, Harriet. I hope you are enjoying married life?”
“Yes, I am, very much,” I replied. “But I am looking forward to returning to Stratford to start rehearsals next week.”
“Ah yes, you're in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, aren't you?”
“Yes, I've been asked to play Julia,” I replied. This was true. I had now reached the stage in the Company where in some cases I was actually asked to play parts without having to audition.
“I'm sure you'll perform it as well as you always do,” he said. “Now why have you come to see me?”
“It's about Mr Hiram Q Thompson,” I replied. “After you introduced me in New York, he invited Reggie and I to lunch and asked me if I'd be interested in being an 'artist in residence' for a couple of months at his theatre in Massachusetts. I expect you know about that?”
“Yes indeed, He asked me if I could suggest a young actor who might be suitable for the position. That's why it was so serendipitous that we met in the theatre. I had thought of you of course, but didn't know I was going to actually see you. Have you received a formal offer yet?”
“Yes I have, and it's very generous,” I replied. “There are two problems; my mother is very unwell and her time is limited, so I want to stay in England at present. Also, I'm not sure if I'm qualified to teach anyone while I'm still learning so much myself. In some ways it would be like directing and I've never done that.”
“I'm sorry to hear about your mother. Does Hiram know about that?”
“Yes, I told him during the lunch and he said there was no hurry to take up the position and I could do so at a more suitable time. He was being very tactful.”
Duncan Morgan sat back in his chair. “I have a suggestion for you. Chris Johnson is directing 'Two Gentlemen', you know him don't you?”
“Oh yes, he directed me in 'Twelfth Night',” I replied. “We got on very well.”
“Excellent. I'll have a word with Gwyneth, our Artistic Director, and if she and Chris are in agreement, we'll employ you as Assistant Director for the play. This will mean more work for you of course, but it means you can sit with Chris and see how he directs. I think you will learn a lot from him, plus earn a little more money.”
I was thrilled. “Thank you so much Mr Morgan, that is a great idea. I don't think I'd be doing enough to warrant extra income, but thank you all the same.”
He laughed. “I think you'll find that Chris will work you quite hard, so you'll earn your extra pay.”
Things moved quicker than I expected. As we drove back to York I told Reggie about my interview and Duncan Morgan's suggestion. It was only a short time later than my mobile phone rang and it was Duncan ringing to say that he had consulted Gwyneth Soames, the Artistic Director, and also Chris Johnson, and as a result I would now become the Assistant Director for “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”. I felt stunned but excited too.
“Thank you very much, Mr Morgan. I'll see you next week,” I said before hanging up.
“Well done,” said Reggie. “This will be another string to your bow.”
I was thinking that even though I'd already memorised my lines as Julia, I had better study the whole play.
As we returned to York with Reggie driving, I must have been unusually quiet, because he reached over and squeezed my hand.
“What's up darling? I may be only a man but even I can tell that something's bothering you.”
I smiled at him. “You're not 'only a man', you're my man and I adore you. I suppose what's bothering me is that we will soon be apart for many days at a time. I know we agreed that's how it would be, but now it's getting closer, I'm worried about it. Perhaps after all I should have retired and become a housewife and a mother to Stella.”
“We agreed to it because it's the right thing to do. You know that you would never be happy if you left the stage. Anyway, we will be catching up every weekend and that will make it even more special.”
I looked at him and squeezed his hand back. “I know you're right, you always are.”
He laughed. “Now don't make me out to be a genius because I'm far from that.”
That night our love-making was even more intense than usual. I held onto him tightly as if I was afraid that he would be taken away from me.
The following day the McDonalds arrived back from their trip around Britain. They only had a week left before they flew back to Australia, so we arranged for another family get-together, this time at Mum's house.
I made a point of getting to speak to Aunt Peggy privately as I had a big favour to ask of her.
“Aunt Peggy, you know about Mum's medical problems and how her time is limited. I've talked to Emma about this and we wonder if it would it be possible for you to come over to England again when...” I choked up and nearly started to cry and Aunt Peggy kindly stepped in.
“When you all need me? Of course I will,” she said gently.
“I know you'll have to discuss this with Uncle Ron of course,” I hurried on, but she was a step ahead of me.
“We've already discussed it and we've put some money aside for the air fare.”
“Emma and I have spoken about that and we want to defray your costs, so we are happy to pay for the air fare and your expenses while you are here,” I said, recovering my composure. “I hope you'll let us do that. I know I'm just an actress not a brain surgeon, but they do pay me quite well, rather more than I'm worth to be honest. I’ve spoken to Reggie about it and he's in complete agreement with me.”
Aunt Peggy smiled. “Elizabeth is a lucky woman to have two daughters like you.”
I managed a smile in return. “We've always thought of it as the other way round. So is that a 'yes'?”
“Very well, if it will make you happy.”
I sighed with relief, and Aunt Peggy reached out and gave me a hug.
“I've already had a word with Elizabeth, so she knows I'm coming back,” she said. “I won't tell her about the air fare if you don't want me to.”
I smiled. “It will be our secret,” I said.
The rest of the week was spent in visiting the family, taking them out for meals, the cinema, some shopping and just generally spending time together. One evening we showed everyone a selection of our pictures taken in New York. Flora and Ron Junior were especially impressed and said that they would go there one day. Flora had already confided to me that she wanted to be an actress too. I explained to her that it entailed a lot of hard work and wasn't all red carpets and glamorous gowns.
“I've been very fortunate so far, Flora, but there's always a chance that the work will dry up. If it does, I don't have anything really to fall back on, so you might find me being a waitress one day. That's why I save money for the lean times,” I said.
She smiled. “Aunty Elizabeth showed me the scrap books she's kept of your career. I've read your reviews and I don't think there's much chance of you becoming a waitress,” she said.
“Well I certainly hope not, but actresses are always advised to have another career to fall back on,” I said. “I really should have taken my own advice.”
One day, Flora and I had a 'girls' day out' shopping in York. I told her that I wanted to buy a new dress, which was true, and we had a fabulous time together, discussing various styles until we both decided on the perfect dress for me. Flora was a very feminine young girl and just loved clothes. I did ask Aunt Penny if it was alright for me to buy Flora something, and she agreed, so long as it wasn't more than twenty pounds. We found a lovely cotton skirt, white with coloured flowers and she instantly fell in love with it. Fortunately, as so often happens nowadays it was £19.99, so we came in just under the limit!
We stopped for lunch and were chatting away when she broached the question I was afraid she would ask.
“Harriet, Aunty Elizabeth doesn't look very well, is she very ill?”
I knew that this was not the time to lie. “Yes Flora, she is, very ill.”
“Is she going to die?” Her eyes were wide and I could see tears brimming. I reached over the table and took her hand. I felt like crying myself.
“Flora, you are growing up now so you deserve the truth. Did you wonder why your Mum suddenly decided to bring you over here? That's because we don't know how much longer Aunty Elizabeth's got, but she's being very brave about it so we must be brave too. It was her dearest wish to see your Mum and Dad, you and young Ron. Do you think your brother knows?”
“I don't think so,” she said and her voice was wavering.
“Then perhaps it's best of you leave it to your mum to tell him. She'll know when it's the right time. Boys don't like anyone seeing them cry, and that's what he might do.”
A few tears were rolling down Flora's cheeks now. “Boys don't have it easy do they?”
I smiled at her feeling that the worst was over. “No they don't, so we have to be gentle with them,” I said.
Reggie and I had to get ready for the following week. Reggie was going back to university on the Monday, and I was bound for Stratford. While I was rehearsing, I would be driving back to York on Friday evening and then back to Stratford early Monday morning. Once the performances started and I would be busy on the Saturday with a matinée plus the evening performance, Reggie said he would drive down on Friday afternoon and stay until Monday morning. It was the best we could do to spend as much time as possible with each other.
The day that the McDonalds were leaving, Reggie and I drove up to Brid. I knew that the parting with Mum would not be easy, but they managed it very well. There were tears of course, but there always are when families part. We drove them to Manchester and had a final cup of coffee after they checked in.
“Will you come to visit us in Australia?” said Flora.
“I certainly hope so. I didn't spend nearly enough time there last time and Reggie hasn't been there at all. Meantime, we'll keep in touch with you by email and send pictures.”
“I wish we could have seen you on stage, but maybe you'll perform again in Australia,” said Aunt Peggy.
“I certainly hope so,” I replied.
I had managed to get some time alone with her and told her of my conversation with Flora.
“I'll tell young Ron when we're back in Australia,” she said.
We watched them go through the doors to the Departure Lounge, and then we drove back to York.
I was up at five o'clock Monday morning for an early breakfast and then the drive to Stratford. Reggie insisted on getting up too, although I told him there was no real need. While I was having a shower and getting dressed, he kindly cooked me bacon and eggs for breakfast and then made a Thermos flask of coffee and some sandwiches for me to have a break half-way to Stratford. I was quite happy to pull in to one of the Services and use their toilet facilities but I drew a line at paying for over-priced junk food.
At about six-thirty I was ready to leave and we exchanged a last lingering kiss before I put my suitcase into 'Bluebird' and took to the road. I made good time and despite a thirty-minute stop, was entering the outskirts of Stratford by about nine o'clock in plenty of time for the rehearsal start at 10am.
As I drove I started to think about the day ahead in the theatre, and realised that I was experiencing an unusual emotion for me; I was nervous. It wasn't about the acting, although I know some actors insist that if they aren't nervous they won't put on a good performance, and I'm sure for them that is right. I have always totally immersed myself in the character, and thanks to my God-given memory, I've never worried about forgetting my lines. No, what was worrying me that particular day was the thought of being announced as Assistant Director. How would other members of the cast, especially the older ones react to it? I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I very nearly ran into the back of another car stopped at traffic lights. I jammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt just in time, giving both myself and the other driver the fright of our lives. After that I drove very cautiously to the theatre car park, my heart still pounding as I arrived.
I sat for a few minutes while my heart-rate returned to something approaching normality, and then got out, carrying my script plus a notebook with me. It was then that I noticed a young woman about my age, standing looking at the theatre building with a lost look on her face.
“Can I help you?” I asked. She turned to me with the look of a drowning sailor just thrown a lifeline.
“Oh could you? I'm one of the cast for 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' and I'm not sure which door I should use to get to the stage.”
“That's easy, I'm in the cast too; we use the Stage Door. Come on, I'll show you where it is.”
“My names Viola Edwards, and I'm playing 'Silvia', she said. “My friends call me 'Vi'.”
“Well there's a co-incidence, I've played Viola in 'Twelfth Night' at this very theatre,” I responded. “By the way, I'm Harriet Stow, pleased to meet you.”
Viola stopped in her tracks, starring at me with a stunned look on her face. “I thought I recognised you. I saw you here in 'Romeo and Juliet', you were awesome.”
I had learned to accept compliments gracefully, so I replied “Thank you. It helps when you are performing with an amazing cast.”
“Oh yes, Richard Jenkins, what a dreamboat. You really looked like you two were in love.”
I smiled. “Richard's a good friend, nothing more. The rest is acting.”
“I know, but you made it look so real. I cried at the end even though I knew what was coming. Sorry, I'm rambling on, what part are you playing today?”
“'Julia',” I replied. “We'll have some scenes together.”
“That will be amazing,” was her gushing response.
Fortunately we had now reached the Stage Door. As we opened it and stepped inside, I turned to an elderly man sitting inside the little office.
“Hello 'Hoppy', Happy New Year,” I said.
“Hello Miss Stow, same to you,” was his reply.
“Hoppy, this is Viola Edwards, she's a cast member. Can you tick her off please?”
“Nice to meet you Miss Edwards,” he said with a smile.
“Thank you, err 'Hoppy',” she replied uncertainly.
As we walked down the corridor to the stage, Viola said “Hoppy?”
“His surname is Cassidy, and there was a cowboy film character in the nineteen fifties called 'Hopalong Cassidy, hence 'Hoppy'. I don't think anyone knows his real first name. He won't forget yours though and he'll always call you Miss Edwards, but you must call him 'Hoppy', alright?”
“My goodness, I'm learning so much and I haven't even reached the stage yet,” she said, as we turned a corner and entered the auditorium. I suddenly realised that I wasn't nervous any more.
To be continued
I would like to thank Louise Ann, Julia Phillips and Karen Lockhart, for their advice and proofreading of this story, which is much appreciated.
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