All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 22 The worst of times.
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...' 'A Tale of Two Cities', Charles Dickens.
I only had to perform in the Saturday matinée after speaking to Reggie. This unfortunately gave me plenty of time to think but my thoughts just went around and around in circles. Finally it was Sunday morning and my wait was nearly over. I didn't know what train Reggie was coming on so although I was already up at six o'clock I decided to stay at the flat rather than go to the railway station.
The previous evening I had mentioned to Dale that Reggie was coming to talk to me and while I didn't know what it was about it sounded serious.
“In that case I'll go out for the day and give you some privacy,” he said. He was as good as his word, getting up soon after six and driving off in his car after an early breakfast. I tried to eat a piece of toast but gave up after a few bites and settled for a cup of coffee.
Reggie knocked on the door at about eight o'clock. My heart was pounding as I opened it. I was shocked; he looked gray and drawn and seemed to have aged ten years in appearance. I invited him in and asked him to sit in the lounge while I made some tea. I knew I was putting off the moment when I would learn what had happened, but there is something calming about holding a cup of tea, and I felt sure I was going to need it.
I handed Reggie his tea and sat down on the armchair facing him, cradling my cup in my hands. I would normally have sat on the sofa with him, but somehow it seemed better not to on this occasion, I needed to sit facing him.
“Reggie, all I ask is that you give it to me straight. Don't leave anything out please and whatever you do, just tell me the truth.”
Reggie took a deep breath. “Alright, here goes. Do you remember when you came to York and a young woman passed us as we were leaving the college? You asked what her name was and I said I thought it was Sophie. That was the first time I've ever lied to you, because I knew very well what her name was.”
“I know,” I said.
“You did?” He seemed surprised.
“Reggie, when a man says he thinks he knows a woman's name, he is usually not telling the truth.”
Reggie flushed. “I've been such a fool,” he said. “I met Sophie with the other new students only a few days after arriving at York and it was pretty obvious that she was making a play for me. I made it as clear as I could that I wasn't interested, and I was glad when she saw us together because I thought that would make it clear to her that I already had a girlfriend. Well, I was wrong.
“We have quite a lot of social evenings at the college Dining Hall, and on this particular occasion I was sitting at a table with a few of the other students when Sophie came up and sat beside me and starting chatting. I was looking for a means of escape when my friend Don came over and asked me to meet the coach of the University football team. It seemed they were interested in me trying out for them, so it was a good excuse to get away from her. However, when I had to return to the table because I had left a book behind, Sophie was still there. She told me she had saved my seat and had bought me a drink. Fool that I was I drank it. The next thing I knew I woke up in bed. Sophie was beside me and, well we were both naked.”
You've heard the expression 'my blood ran cold', that's how I felt at that moment.
“She started telling me what a great lover I was, but I swear to you Harriet that I'm sure nothing happened between us. She must have spiked that drink because I'm sure I was out cold all night until I woke up. I made an excuse that I had to see the football coach, leapt out of bed, grabbed my clothes and got dressed. When I got outside I realised we had been in a hotel, but I've no idea how we got there. I flagged down a taxi and went straight back to the college. I thought that was the end of it but I was wrong, so wrong. That was about six weeks ago, and then on Wednesday I had a call from Sophie to tell me that she was pregnant and I was the father.”
I had been holding my cup of tea up until now, somehow the warmth of it was a comfort, but now I dropped it. It bounced on the wooden floor and tea went everywhere. My hands were shaking. Reggie jumped up.
“I'll get a cloth,” he said. I just sat there stunned. I couldn't say a thing.
He mopped up the tea and picked up the cup which somehow hadn't broken.
“Shall I make some more tea for you?” he asked.
“What? Oh no, it's fine. Just tell me what happened next,” I replied. 'Surely this is a nightmare and soon I'll wake up,' I thought.
“Well I said to her, 'It's not mine', and she said, 'Are you calling me a liar?' “
“'But I don't remember us having sex', I said to her. 'Well I do,' she said, 'You were.....' “ Reggie paused, embarrassed.
“Amazing?” I suggested.
Reggie blushed scarlet. “Something like that. Then she said 'So when are we going to get married?' ”
I groaned. Every moment I thought things couldn't get worse, they did.
“Surely you didn't agree to that? The baby, if it actually exists, isn't yours anyway, so why not wait until it is born and demand a DNA test?”
Reggie didn't answer. He just looked sick.
“There's more isn't there,” I said.
“Yes, on Thursday her father paid me a visit. He's Sid Vertue, have you heard of him?”
“The name is vaguely familiar but I'm not sure, who is he?”
“He runs some so-called 'gentlemen's clubs' in the Blackpool area. They're really strip joints, pole dancing and that sort of thing.”
“Classy,” I said. “So what did he want?”
“He said he understood I had put his daughter 'in the family way' as he phrased it and what did I intend to do about it?”
“'That's what she says,' I replied and he wasn't happy with that.
“'I hope you're not calling my daughter a liar,' he said, well it was more like a snarl really.
“'I'm just not aware of doing anything to make her think that I'm responsible,' I said.
“'You're not implying she sleeps around?' he said. He was getting really angry. 'She has photos of the two of you together. I'd hate to see those get to your Head of College. I understand she frowns on that sort of thing.'
“Then I made a mistake,” said Reggie. “I said 'but it didn't even happen at the college'.
“'So you admit you went to bed with her,' he said.
“What could I say? He outsmarted me. Then he changed tack and made an implied threat.”
“I hope you told him you didn't respond to threats,” I said.
Reggie hesitated. “It wasn't about me, it was about you,” he said in a low voice. “He said he understood I was going out with a young actress at Stratford who was very pretty and successful by all accounts. He went on about how important it was for a woman actress to be good looking and how it would affect your career if you had an accident and lost those good looks. That's all he said. He's very smart. It wasn't a threat in so many words but there was no doubt what he was saying.”
“I can't believe this,” I said in a whisper. I thought I was beyond getting shocked, but every revelation was worse than the one before. “This is twenty-first century Britain, not nineteen twenties Chicago. How does he think he'd ever get away with it?”
“Oh he wouldn't be directly involved, he's too smart for that. He's got a bunch of goons who do his dirty work for him. I did a search for him on-line and found a link. He provided an alibi for one of his associates in a nasty assault case. It seems this low-life took a shine to a young woman who rejected his advances. One night she had her face slashed by a mugger. It left an ugly scar, but no-one was ever charged, and there was no direct connection to Sid nor his friend.”
Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Two days ago I was on top of the world, now it had fallen to pieces around me. “Oh Reggie, what are we going to do?” I wailed.
“Believe me I've tried to think of a way out but in the end there's only one thing I can do,” Reggie said. “Marry Sophie.”
“No!” I screamed, and running across the room I threw myself into his arms and started to sob. He held me for a long time as my body shook. “No, no,” I moaned. “You can't. I won't let you.”
“I love you Harriet,” he said quietly. “I don't love Sophie, but I can't risk them doing something like that to you. I'm so, so sorry.”
I looked up through my tears. “It's not your fault Reggie, none of it is. You made one mistake, that's all. You trusted her because that's the sort of person you are.”
I was holding onto Reggie as though he was a lifebelt in a stormy sea. I certainly felt that I was in imminent danger of drowning.
After a while I somehow pulled myself together and took a deep breath. “There must be a way out of this, there has to be.”
Reggie looked grim. “I wish there was, but if there is I can't think of it.” He paused. “Perhaps I'd better go. I'm sorry I ruined your day, but now you know why I couldn't tell you what's happened, over the phone.”
I clung onto him. “Please don't go Reggie. I have a horrible feeling that this might be the last time we are alone together.”
So Reggie stayed. Yes, we ended up in bed together, but we didn't make love. We just clung to each other and somehow I managed not to cry again, although every time I thought that I might never touch his body again, the tears started to well up.
About five o'clock, we got up and Reggie made us an omelette, his specialty. I ate it slowly, thinking to myself 'This is the last time I'll do this'. Then we washed up together and I thought, 'and this is the last time too'.
“Shall I drive you to the station?” I asked.
“I think it's better if I walk,” Reggie said. “I'll be in touch, I promise, but I won't do anything to compromise your safety; that's the most important thing to me. I love you Harriet, I always will, no matter what happens. Remember that.”
“I love you too Reggie, and I will forever.”
I kept it together as through welling tears I watched him walk down the street and turn the corner. Then I walked back inside the flat and closed the door. It seemed so empty. I ran into the bedroom, flung myself on the bed and sobbed.
Exhausted, I must have fallen asleep eventually, because I was woken up when Dale came in at about seven o'clock. I sat up and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were puffy from crying, but there wasn't much I could do about it. I cleaned myself up as much as I could and walked out into the kitchen where Dale was making himself some tea. He took one look at me and was shocked.
“Harriet! What on earth has happened?”
“It's Reggie,” I said. He told me to sit down while he made some tea, and then he gently held my hand as I told him all that Reggie had told me.
“I can't believe this,” he said. “It's not right, it's not fair. Can't anything be done to stop it?”
“Believe me, I wish there was. I'm racking my brains to think of something.”
“Can't you go to the police?”
“We discussed that, but what can they do? Sid didn't even make a direct threat, he's too smart for that.”
“Oh yes, I've heard of Sid Vertue. I was with some friends at Blackpool once and they took me to one of his clubs. They didn't know that I am gay, and I suppose they thought I'd enjoy it. It was awful, overpriced drinks and those women gyrating around poles and wearing nothing but a smile, and even that looked false. I told my friends I had a splitting headache, which wasn't far off the truth, and got out of there as quickly as I could. Vertue! No-one's ever had a more inappropriate name. He skates on thin ice but he's never been charged with anything, I don't know why.”
If I'd had any doubts about whether Sid Vertue was as bad as Reggie said, those doubts didn't exist any longer. This was a man who got what he wanted and didn't let anything stand in his way.
“Thanks for listening, Dale,” I said. “I think I'll go to bed, I feel as exhausted as if I'd run a marathon, and I have to perform tomorrow night; the show must go on, you know?”
“Couldn't Cassie perform for you?” said Dale.
“I'm sure she would if I asked her, but it's not fair to her, and anyway, it might help me take my mind off what's happened,” I said.
I had little rest that night. My mind just kept going over and over what Reggie had told me. I even considered appealing to Sophie's better nature before realising that would be counter-productive. She'd probably laugh at me. Never for a moment did I think of blaming Reggie. He had been caught in a classic honey trap. It must have been dawn when I finally fell asleep and even then my sleep was disturbed by horrible dreams.
When I arrived at the theatre that evening Cassie was already there. I was a bit late which was unusual for me, and Cassie looked anxiously at me.
“Are you alright Harriet?” she asked.
“Not really,” I replied. “But I'm alright to perform, in fact I want to. If you've got time after the show I'll tell you about it.”
She was kind enough not to press me further while I got changed and had my hair and makeup done. I think she must have warned the other staff because no-one said anything. I was just glad to lose myself in Juliet, in fact the tragic events of the play seemed to match my mood.
After the performance I gave her an abbreviated version of what had happened. She looked shocked. “I can hardly believe it,” she said.
“I don't want to believe it,” I responded, “but I'm afraid it's all true.”
“You poor dear,” she said and hugged me.
I will never forget the support I received from Dale and Cassie over the following few days. It would have been so easy to curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep every day but I didn't. I am reminded of that quote from Friedrich Nietzsche 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger'. I was determined to get through this crisis whichever way I could. I had wonderful support from my 'family' at the theatre, for that's how I saw the cast and crew. No-one asked me, but I think they knew that something serious had happened in my life.
Two weeks passed by, and no word came from Reggie. Perhaps he was afraid that if he contacted me, word would somehow get back to Sophie or Sid and put me in danger.
Meanwhile I threw myself into the rôle of Juliet with even more vigour. It was wonderful to become another person for a few hours and put my own troubles at the back of my mind. Perhaps it made me understand the character of Juliet even better.
The closest I came to falling apart was on the day that a large envelope arrived in the post. My hands were literally shaking as I eased the heavy card with ornate lettering out of the envelope. It read as follows:
request the pleasure of the company of
Miss Harriet Stow and Partner
at the wedding of their only daughter
Reginald Arthur Staunton
only son of Mr & Mrs Edward Staunton,
at St Mathews Church, Blackpool
on Saturday 10th November 2001 at 2pm
and afterwards at Regal Receptions, commencing at 6pm
Dress: Black tie
Up until that moment I had almost managed to convince myself that it really wouldn't happen, but here it was in black and white. I wondered what Reggie's parents thought about it? I know they had never really reconciled themselves to me, but surely the daughter of a cheap spiv wasn't exactly what they had in mind for their son either.
Holding the invitation as if it was contaminated, I dropped it in the bin. Wasn't it enough for Sophie that she had stuck a knife in me, did she have to twist it as well?
When Dale came home from work I told him about it.
“So what will you do about it?” he asked.
“I threw it in the bin,” I replied.
He paused and then said “I wonder if that's a good idea, it's like a win for her.”
“I think so,” he said. “She probably thought you'd react in exactly the way you have. If you accept the invitation, then you'll put her on the back foot.”
“But I couldn't go on my own, that would be too humiliating,” I replied.
“Who says you have to? I could be your boyfriend for the day. I'm sure Frank won't mind if I explain the situation to him. In fact if you remember, you arranged theatre tickets for us, so he's coming up again this weekend. We could both talk to him about it.”
I had completely forgotten about the tickets, which isn't surprising really. I thought to myself that I must get all the cast to sign a programme for Frank too. Life goes on.
“Alright, I'll think about it,” I said, and fished the invitation out of the bin. Perhaps Dale was right, I shouldn't be predictable in my response.
The more I thought about it over the next couple of days, the more I decided that Dale was right. After all, I was a damn good actress, even if I said so myself. If I turned up at the wedding, seemingly with a new boyfriend and without a care in the world, I might make Sophie think that I had no further interest in Reggie and wouldn't be any trouble to her. If she was going to fight dirty, so would I. After all Reggie was worth fighting for, and just because I lost one battle, didn't mean I was going to lose the war.
Now, what should I wear? I thought of Princess Diana and the so-called 'revenge dress' she wore. Well, I wouldn't be attempting anything like that, but on the other hand this might be just the occasion to appear as the glamorous actress with the handsome new boyfriend with whom she was madly in love.
There was a slight problem, I had to get word to Reggie and I was worried about phoning him in case Sophie was there when I did so. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that it might turn out like a modern version of that part of Romeo and Juliet where Romeo doesn't get the message that Juliet isn't really dead. I certainly didn't want my own ploy to end in disaster with Reggie thinking I really had dumped him, unlikely though it was since he knew Dale was gay.
Thank goodness a couple of days after I received the wedding invitation, Reggie rang me. It was so good to hear his voice again.
“Harriet? It's Reggie, I'm sorry I haven't rung you before.”
“Oh Reggie, I wanted to ring you so much, but I was afraid I might pick the wrong time,” I said, feeling the tears start to well up again.
“I'm guessing you've got the wedding invitation now? I wanted to ring you about that. I don't expect you to come of course,” he said, and his voice sounded so flat and miserable.
“That's part of the reason why I wanted to talk to you, Reggie. I've talked it over with Dale and I think I should come, just because Sophie and her parents won't expect it. Dale has offered to be my 'boyfriend' for the day. What I'm proposing to do is put them off the scent by making out that Dale and I are madly in love, but I had to tell you first, so you know it's all an act. Fortunately they don't know that Dale is gay.”
He laughed briefly and I think it was the first time in a long while. “That sounds like a plan,” he said.
“I'm not giving up on you Reggie. Do you remember when I recited that poem 'How do I love thee?' to you? Well that's how much I love you, and I always will. What you are doing for me right now is more than anyone should have to do for another person. 'Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friend'. In many ways that's what you're doing and it only makes me love you more.”
“Oh Harriet,” whispered Reggie, and I could here the heartbreak in his voice.
“We'll be together one day Reggie, I know it.” I paused , wondering if I should say what was on my mind. “Only one thing bothers me, you might actually have children with Sophie. That will make it difficult for you to ever get away from her.”
He laughed again, but it was a laugh without mirth. “That's not going to happen Harriet.”
“You can't be sure,” I replied.
“Yes I can, I've had a vasectomy,” he responded. “It will be completely healed before the wedding day, she'll never know.”
I confess I gasped. This was a side of Reggie I hadn't seen before. Of course it didn't matter to us, since I could never have children, but to most men their fertility is important, and it had even crossed my mind that we might have had a child by Reggie and a surrogate. Reggie had made yet another sacrifice for me. I didn't know what to say, so I changed the subject.
“Reggie, I wish I could send you emails but I can't in case Sophie sees them.”
“Well actually you can,” he replied. “There's something called web-based emails. A few years back an American guy developed one called 'Hotmail'. The messages don't download onto computers, you access them on the internet. It's free to use too. I've already set up an account, can you write down my user name please?”
He told me what it was and then how to set up my own account and a user name. I promised I would send him a short message as soon as I had it set up, and he would reply.
I suddenly felt a touch of conscience. “Reggie,” I said. “What is this doing to us? Are we turning into devious people?”
“No Harriet, we're fighting back,” he said.”I'm going to marry you one day and nothing is going to get in the way of that.” There was something in the tone of his voice that scared me. I think he realised that from my silence, because he laughed and said, “Don't worry, I'm not going to murder Sophie.”
I laughed now and tried to make light of it by saying “Well you had me worried, but no, I never really thought that for a moment.”
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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