All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 16 One door closes, another opens.
Chapter 16 One door closes, another opens.
Five months had passed since I came to Stratford, and the 'Twelfth Night' season had come to a close. It had been a great success, and I had enjoyed myself enormously playing comedy. There's always a tinge of sadness at the end of a season. We had the traditional party with drinks and finger food, and everyone walked around and hugged everyone else. It was a parting of the ways. No doubt some of us would meet up with people from the cast in other productions, but it might be years in the future; others we might never come across again.
Somehow Scarlett encountered me, by accident or design, I'm not sure which, in a corridor outside the main room.
“Well this is goodbye for now,” she said. “I'm off to Birmingham tomorrow. I've enjoyed working with you. You're star material whether you know it or not, and some day I'll be dining out on the fact that I worked with you early in your career.”
She had me blushing, as I'm sure she knew she would. Then before we parted she came close and I expected a kiss on the cheek as I'd been exchanging with other members of the cast. However, this time it was a kiss full on the lips, no tongue but still quite intense. When our lips finally parted she said “I just wanted to know what it was like to kiss you, just once.”
“And?” I said.
“It was nice, very nice,” she said. “You know, you should 'take a walk on the wild side', you might enjoy it.”
I nearly burst out laughing, thinking of the Lou Reed song of the same name, and some lyrics that were not a million miles away from my own situation. However, all I said was “I'll bear that in mind.”
With that we both returned to the room where everyone was enjoying the largesse of the management.
The following day Mary was leaving for Bridchester. I think we both felt a bit sad that we were parting company, even though I knew I would see her from time to time when I visited Brid. During her time in Stratford, she had accumulated more than a few extra clothes; in fact she had had to buy another large suitcase to accommodate them all, and her little car was quite loaded down. We gave each other a hug and there were wet cheeks on both sides before she finally got into her car and drove away. When I walked back into the flat it seemed suddenly very empty.
I wondered what I should do. Ideally another flat-mate would be good to have, both from the company and financial point of view, but there were problems of course. It couldn't be just anyone, because, particularly with my surgery coming up, anyone I shared with would have to know more about me than I wanted to make public.
Sometimes serendipity happens in real life as well as in stories. From time to time I still met up with Dale for lunch and this happened to be one of those days. It wasn't really a coincidence. I knew I was going to feel a bit lost when Mary left, so I had phoned Dale a few days earlier and asked him if he was free for lunch that Sunday, and fortunately he was.
We met up at a pub a few miles out of Stratford, since it gets so crowded at weekends. It was a warm day, and I wore one of my flowery summer dresses with bare legs and sandals. We sat out in the beer garden which was fairly empty, and passed a pleasant couple of hours eating a pub lunch and chatting about what had been going on in our lives.
Dale had been down to London to see Frank the previous weekend. “His exams are coming up and he's getting very stressed,” he said. “I said I shouldn't be coming down and taking him away from his studies, but he sounded so upset at that suggestion that I just had to go.”
“Well, I'm sure that cheered him up, and he probably went back to his studies with renewed vigour,” I replied.
“Thanks for that, Harriet,” he smiled. “You always manage to say the right thing.” He sighed. “You know, I wish I could afford to leave home. I'm much too old to be still living with Mum and Dad, and it does place a lot of restrictions on me.”
Nowadays, since I am older, I like to think that I engage my brain first and then open my mouth, but I didn't always do it in that order, and that was one of those occasions.
“Well I've got a spare room now that Mary's gone back to Brid,” I said, and then almost gulped, realising what I had said.
“Really?” said Dale. “So are you looking for someone to take it?”
I could hardly say 'no' now, and in fact I wondered if I really wanted to. Dale didn't know about me of course, but if I could trust anyone with my secret, it would be him. I looked around, and the nearest people were sitting some distance away, so I lowered my voice and said “Well before you make a decision, you need to know something in confidence about me.”
Dale laughed. “Don't tell me, you're really a boy.” He stopped laughing when he saw the look on my face. “I was joking Harriet, you're the most feminine girl I've ever met. I'm sorry, that remark was in really bad taste.”
I took a deep breath. “Well, that's what I was going to tell you Dale. Yes, I'm a girl and always have been, but the fact is that I was born with a boy's body and at present I'm taking steps to change it to the way it should be.”
Dale was staring at me in amazement. “I meant what I said Harriet. I never for a moment thought you were anything other than a one hundred percent female.”
It was my turn to laugh now. ”'How very reassuring', as the Queen is said to have responded to someone who told her how much she looked like the Queen. The fact is I'm ninety female, but I'm getting there.”
We were both laughing now. “Seriously though, you had to know if you want to share with me, because in the not too distant future, I will be having some surgery.”
Dale blushed, and I felt bad. “Sorry. Was that too much information?” I said.
“No, it's alright,” he replied, but I wondered if he felt a bit uncomfortable with me now.
“Look, why don't you think about it and let me know?” I said.
“No, it's fine, that's if I can afford it. How much rent am I looking at?”
I told him, and he replied that he could cope with that.
“One thing you might be wondering. It will be your room, and if you want Frank to stay over, that's not a problem for me.”
His face broke into a smile. “I hadn't thought that far ahead, but that would be wonderful,” he said. He hesitated, and then said. “Since we are sharing confidences, t here's something I should tell you too. Sometimes when I visit Frank in London, he likes to dress as a girl when we go out together, and he's then called Frances.” He looked at me. “You don't seem very surprised.”
“That's because I'm not,” I replied. “When I first saw Frank, I knew that with the right wig, makeup and dress, he would appear very convincing as a girl. There is a difference between him and me, though. Unless I'm mistaken, even when Frank dresses as a girl, he's still Frank, whereas I'm Harriet whether I'm in a skirt or trousers.”
“Yes, I understand that now,” said Dale.
“So, when do you want to move in?” I smiled.
“Within a week,” said Dale. “I'll tell Mum and Dad of your offer when I get home this evening. I don't think Dad will mind, although Mum might be sad having to face the fact that her 'little boy' has grown up and wants to leave home.”
“I think my Mum was a bit sad when I moved to London. We thought it was only going to be for a few months, but it's getting on for a year now, and I can't see myself going back to Brid any time soon. Reggie told me that I'd outgrown the Apollo Theatre. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm boasting, but I think he's right.”
“How is Reggie going?” said Dale. It occurred to me that perhaps he was waiting for an opportunity to mention my boyfriend.
“He's in York as you know, and he seems to be doing well. I hope to see him soon, but he needed the time to get settled in. I'm afraid that we are going to have a long-distance relationship for a while, but it can't be helped. We both have careers to develop.”
Actually, I was a bit worried about how the relationship between Reggie and I was going to cope with the distance between us and our commitments, and I decided then and there that I must get to York to see him. I planned to visit my family in Bridchester soon, and York was only about an hour away from there, so I could combine the two visits.
I was now officially 'resting'. This was the first time I hadn't had continuous work in the theatre, and it made me feel a little uncomfortable. Supposing I didn't get the rôle of Juliet, what then? I decided that I must ring my agent Richard Green, but he saved me the trouble by ringing me the next day.
“Hello Harriet, how are things going?” he asked.
“I'm fine thank you, but it's rather a strange feeling not to be working.”
“Well now, that's where I might be able to help you. I know you've got to stay in Stratford to audition for Juliet next week, so I haven't looked for anything that requires you to move, but I've had an enquiry from one of the companies that produces audio books. They've become very popular with people who listen to them while driving or taking the train to work. They have decided to make a new recording of 'Alice in Wonderland' and they are looking for a young female voice for their recording. I immediately thought of you. How would you feel about doing it?”
“That would suit me very well, Richard. I've had a little experience because I recorded some bible passages for the minister at Mum's church in Bridchester.”
“Excellent!” he responded. “Could you possibly record the first chapter of 'Alice', put it on a CD and post it to me to send to them as an audition?”
“Well the audio guys at the theatre loaned me their Nagra for the bible recording and then put it on CDs, so I'll ask them if I can borrow it again. They're very accommodating, so I'm sure it will be alright.”
The following day, I walked to the theatre, and made my way down to the basement of the building where the audio technicians Pete and Des plied their trade. I knocked on the door and entered. Pete had both hands deep in the bowels of a box of electronics on the bench, and he looked up and smiled when he saw me.
“Hello Harriet, do you have to record more bible passages?” he enquired.
I blushed. “Is that a way of saying that you only see me when I want something?” I asked with a smile.
“Not at all, but we are a bit out of the way here, so we normally only see someone when something needs doing or fixing,” he replied.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I did come down to ask if I could borrow the Nagra again,” I replied, and told him about the proposed recording job.
“That sounds great,” he said. “I guess it means you'll get paid too. I'll probably embarrass you again if I say you have an excellent voice, but you do, so yes, you can borrow the Nagra, and we'll transfer the recording to a CD for you.”
“Thanks Pete, you're a brick,” I said.
“Now you're here, you can do something for me,” he said. “Des is up in the auditorium at the moment, and I need three hands. Can you hold a couple of wires for me while I solder them please?”
“Sure,” I replied, and walked over to the bench. Pete gave me a wire to hold against a piece of metal, and I watched fascinated as he took the iron in one hand and the solder in the other, and with the delicacy of a surgeon touched the two together, dropping some liquid solder onto the joint. I held it there for about ten seconds and then Pete told me to give the wire a tug. It was solidly fastened. He got me to repeat the process with a second wire.
“There! We'll teach you to be an audio tech yet,” he laughed.
“It might be a useful back-up if I don't get another role,” I replied.
“I hear you'll be auditioning for Juliet, and stand a good chance,” said Pete. He smiled at my puzzled look. “You wonder how I got to hear. You forget, we're often working in the theatre. Sometimes we're up in the flies rigging audio gear, and people forget that we're there when they're having private conversations.”
“Well I hope you're right,” I said. “Yes, I am auditioning for it, but so is every young Shakespearean actress in Britain. I rate my chances no better than fair.”
“Have it your way, but I'd put them rather better than that,” he said. “I've seen you on stage and you know what you're doing alright. Anyway, I'm embarrassing you, so I'll go and get the Nagra.”
When I first arrived in Stratford I had joined the local library and borrowed a few books on acting and stagecraft. I was aware that they had some audio books available to borrow, so now I made my way to the restored 15th century timber-frame building in Henley Street and had a look at what was on offer. I was particularly interested to see who was making the recordings, and saw some very famous names from the British stage, including Roy Dotrice and Paul Eddington. I didn't see any narrated by Dame Emily, but later discovered that she had recorded a few books. The people making these recordings were amongst the cream of British acting, so if I secured this contract I would be amongst some impressive company!
I selected a couple of audio books to take back to the flat so that I could gain an impression of how the actors approached their task of making the recordings, and I also managed to borrow a copy of 'Alice in Wonderland' which saved me having to buy one.
That afternoon, I set up the Nagra in my bedroom, closed the curtains to deaden the sound, propped 'Alice' open at the first page, and began my recording:
“Olympic Audio Books presents ‘Alice in Wonderland’, by Lewis Carroll, read by Harriet Stow. Chapter One – Down the Rabbit Hole.
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’....."
I recorded the text of the first chapter twice, and listened to the two versions critically, before deciding that my first effort was the best. Then I packed up the Nagra so that I could return it to Pete the next day. As promised, he had the recording on CD for me a day later, and I had a quick listen before posting it off to Richard Green. What could I say? It sounded alright to me, although everyone thinks their recorded voice sounds a little strange. Since neither Pete nor Des were drinkers I expressed my thanks with a large box of chocolates.
Two days later, Richard was on the phone to me. “Thanks for the CD, Harriet. That sounds great to me, but it all depends on the voice they want of course. I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything.”
It was a week later that he contacted me again. “Good news. They want you to make the recording. They said your voice is exactly what they were looking for, and while what you did was excellent for an amateur recording, they will want you to go to a professional recording studio. They suggested one in Warwick, which isn't too far from Stratford.
“Another thing they want is a professional photograph of you to go on the CD case. They'll organise that in Warwick too. I'll post the contract to you in the next couple of days, and if this recording goes well, there may be some more work coming up.” He then told me how much I would be paid, and I was very happy with what he had negotiated. It had been a great day for me when Dame Emily suggested to her own agent that he handle my financial and professional affairs.
The contract and details of whom to contact at the recording and photographic studios arrived two days later, and I made appointments at both, as well as signing the contract and sending it back.
I decided to wait until Dale moved in before I drove to Bridchester. Stratford isn't exactly a hotbed of crime, nevertheless there seemed no point in leaving the flat empty overnight just for the sake of a couple of days. He phoned me to tell me he would arrive a few days later if that was alright, so I made sure that the flat looked tidy, with all the breakfast things put away before he was due to arrive. It was just as well I did so, as when his car drew up outside, I saw that there was an older woman sitting in the car.
They both got out and walked up to the front door.
“Good morning Harriet, this is my mother Mrs Swenson, I don't think you've met,” said Dale. He looked a bit embarrassed, and I guessed that his mother had decided at the last minute to accompany him and check out me and the flat.
“Harriet, how nice to meet you; please call me Jean,” she said, holding out her hand. I shook it in the approved female manner, not too vigorously, before asking them both to step inside.
Jean Swenson had a sharp eye, and I was so glad that the flat looked tidy. She nodded approvingly as I gave her a guided tour and showed her the room which would now be Dale's.
“Dale tells me you are an actress at the theatre. That must be an interesting occupation,” she said. “What are you performing in at present?”
“I've just finished a season of 'Twelfth Night',” I replied. “I'm about to audition for 'Romeo and Juliet', and in the meantime I'm going to record an audio book of 'Alice in Wonderland'.”
“Excellent,” she replied. I could tell what was on her mind. She was concerned that I might be out of work and would be relying on Dale to make the rent payments, so I wanted to make sure she realised I could pay my own way. Dale was standing behind her and he winked at me. He knew what she was thinking too.
“Well, I won't get in your way, Dale. I'm sure you want to start unpacking your things, so if you just drop me off at the driving school, I'll let you get on with it,” she said. It seemed that I and the flat had gained the tick of approval.
Dale drove his mother back as she requested and ten minutes later arrived back at the flat.
“I'm sorry about that,” he said. “I think she had it all planned to check you out, as it was a last minute decision for her to come too. Well, she made it look that way.”
“That's alright Dale, she's not likely to keep popping round, is she? Fortunately I had washed up after breakfast, but I can't say the flat will always look so tidy.”
He laughed. “No, you passed the 'Mum Test', and she spoke highly of you on the way back to the driving school.” With that he went to his bedroom to start unpacking his things, so I left him to it.
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.
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