All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 25 Putting on an act.
I think Dale and I actually dozed for a bit, because the next thing I knew, my alarm clock was buzzing. It was time for Act Two. Dale went into the bathroom to put his suit trousers back on, wash his face and brush his hair. Then he came out to finish dressing and give me use of the bathroom. Men have it easy really; Dale would be wearing exactly what he wore during the afternoon, whereas I was changing to a new dress and completely revamping my makeup for the evening. Did I envy him? Not a bit.
Dale knocked on the bathroom door and called out that he was going to wait for me in the lobby. I came out to change my hair by sweeping it up into a chignon. Then I changed my makeup to 'evening' mode, with mascara on my eye lashes, eye shadow for the traditional 'smoky eye' look and deep red lipstick. Next I changed to a new black strapless bra, some sheer black tights, and wiggled into my glamorous new evening gown, doing up the zip with some difficulty. Finally I stepped into my matching new shoes with six inch heels, picked up my second clutch bag with lipstick, powder and a spare pair of tights, gave myself an approving look in the mirror and went down to the lobby to meet Dale.
This time his reaction was even greater than last time. “Wow Harriet, you certainly know how to do Glamour with a capital 'G',” he said.
“Well I'm playing the part of a top actress!” I replied.
He laughed. “You're not playing a part, that's who you are,” he said.
You've got to like someone who comes out with a compliment like that!
Dale asked the receptionist to order us a taxi. We were both adamant that we don't drink and drive, and while neither of us intended to get drunk (tempting though it was for me), why shouldn't we avail ourselves of Sid's French champagne, assuming that's what was on offer?
The taxi arrived a few minutes later, Dale opened the door for me and I slid into the back seat. It was only a few minutes' drive to the reception rooms and we arrived there at six o'clock and entered the foyer. I was pleased to see that most of the women had changed into evening wear so I did not stand out in the crowd. Waiters were circulating with canapés and drinks, so we helped ourselves while waiting for proceedings to begin.
Apart from the Staunton family and Aunt Jane who stood together chatting, I didn't know anyone there so we just stood by ourselves until the big double doors to the main room were opened. A tall man in a tuxedo appeared and announced himself as James the M.C. and asked us to take our seats. A young woman standing beside him carrying a clipboard asked our names and directed us to a numbered table. I was rather glad that we weren't sitting with the Stauntons for fear that they might say something inappropriate about me. Instead, we were seated at a table of eight with Aunt Jane, an older gentleman who turned out to be a great uncle of Sophie, and two young couples who were school friends of Reggie and Sophie, together with their partners.
We introduced ourselves with first names only, Dale, Harriet, George (the great uncle), Jane, Rob (Reggie's friend) and Elly, Max and Stella. As strangers do, we enquired of each other how we came to know the bride and groom. I recognised Rob from school and had my fingers crossed that he wouldn't see any similarity between me and the young Harry at the school he had attended. However it seemed my appearance triggered something in his mind.
“If you don't mind me saying so, Harriet is an unusual name nowadays,” he said. “Actually, you look vaguely familiar. Since you know Reggie, do you come from Bridchester too?”
“Yes, I grew up there,” I replied, thinking that the truer my answers, the less likely I was to get caught out.
“Harriet is an actress, currently performing in Stratford,” said Dale. I think he was trying to distract attention away from my past life.
“An actress!” said Stella. “How exciting! Are you currently in a play?”
“Yes, we're doing 'Romeo and Juliet' and I'm sharing the 'Juliet' rôle with another actress,” I replied.
“Goodness me, and in Stratford too, you must be good,” Stella enthused.
I couldn't help blushing. “Well I guess the director must have thought I was good enough,” I said with a laugh, trying to make light of it.
That lead to an enquiry about my surname.
“Stow!” said Rob. “Now I remember; I was at school with a Harry Stow. Are you any relation?”
I was ready for that. “He's my cousin,” I replied. “The last time I heard he was in Australia.”
He seemed satisfied with my explanation, and the conversation went on to other things. One hurdle successfully surmounted and I breathed an inner sigh of relief. Stella, who had swapped with Max to sit beside me was very interested in my career and I was happy to chat to her about it, hoping Rob wouldn't ask any more awkward questions. I noticed that George seemed to be doing his best to chat up Aunt Jane, and the others were happy to talk to each other.
Now the M.C. took up the microphone and asked everyone to be upstanding while the wedding party entered the room to the band playing a jazzy version of 'Here Comes the Bride”. Once they were seated, he invited Sid to take the microphone and welcome everyone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he began. “I'd like to welcome you all to the wedding of our Sophie to Reginald. As a business man, it's great to have an economist in the family.”
'He's not an accountant,' I thought to myself, 'but perhaps you don't know the difference'.
“When Sophie told me she was going to marry Reginald, I tried to talk her out of it. I said 'Soph, you're too young; you're at Uni, why don't you wait a couple of years?' But you know what the young people of today are like, they want it all and they want it now. Anyhow Reginald is a fine young man and I'm sure they'll be very happy together, so I'd like you all to be upstanding while I propose a toast – the bride and groom!”
We all stood up, raised our glasses and drank. Then the entrées were served and conversation lapsed as we ate. I had salmon and I must say it was very good, although thinking about how Reggie might handle his speech blunted my appetite to a degree.
The main course followed and as the plates were cleared away, James the M.C., called for silence and the speeches and toasts began. Reggie was on first, and as he rose to his feet he looked nervous.
“On behalf of my wife and myself,” he started in the traditional way which always gets a laugh, though not from me as it felt like a dagger in my heart. “I would like to thank you all for coming here today, and also for the beautiful gifts you have given us. Sid and Mildred have done an amazing job in organising the wedding and reception, and of course for being responsible for Sophie, my beautiful bride.
“I must also thank my own parents who have done their best to bring me up as decent human being and someone who will make a good husband. I hope they are proud of me.
“I confess that when I arrived in York to start my university course, the last thing on my mind was the thought of getting married, but sometimes you get an offer you can't refuse,” he said, looking down at Sophie.
There was general laughter at that remark, but I was watching Sid who fortunately joined in, and I thought to myself 'Careful Reggie, you're treading on thin ice. I hope Sid never watched 'The Godfather', although it might have been his favourite movie.'
“We first met after a lecture when she asked me to explain a point in our economics course and naturally, being a typical male, I puffed out my chest and described it all in a very superior manner. Somehow this was only the first of a series of occasions when my help was called upon. (Much laughter from the guests, but I confess that I was mortified. This was something I hadn't heard about before.)
“Many thanks to everyone else who helped today be such a success, including the bridesmaids and my Best Man and Usher. Everyone thinks that these are ceremonial jobs, but they actually have to work quite hard to make sure everything goes smoothly, for example not forgetting the rings. (More laughter)
“Now I know that Tom is champing at the bit to deliver his speech, but before he does so, I must mention that he suffers from a rare medical condition which causes him to invent fanciful stories about his friends, so by all means enjoy his speech but don't believe a word of it. But before I turn Tom loose, I'd like you all to be upstanding and join me in a toast to the bridesmaids.”
Then Tom the Best Man stood up, produced a large piece of paper which he theatrically tore up into small pieces, saying “Well, thanks to Reggie that's all I can do with my original speech! Seriously though, I first met Reggie in primary school and we have been firm friends ever since. He's a guy you can always rely on, what he says he will do, he does. I wish him well, as I'm sure we all do in this new stage of his life.
“I've only just met Sophie but I'm sure she will be a wonderful wife and they will enjoy their future together. So, Reggie and Sophie, I know that this isn't a typical 'Best Man' speech full of embarrassing stories, but truly, there aren't any to tell about Reggie – he's straight as a die and always will be. Now it is my great pleasure to propose a toast to the Sophie's parents, Mr and Mrs Vertue. To Mildred and Sid.”
The speeches continued and the telegrams were read, some genuine and some not. In fact some were downright embarrassing, but that seems to be a tradition in most weddings. Then Sophie and Reggie stood up and walked across to the small table where the wedding cake was waiting, and of course the ceremonial cutting of it was recorded with more photos and video. After that they walked onto the dance floor and danced a waltz together. After one round of the floor, the rest of the wedding party joined them, followed by both sets of parents and then the rest of the guests.
Dale was a very good dancer, and in fact had been teaching me back at the flat. I had received some dancing lessons at school back in my former life, but of course had to learn all over again. I'm reminded of that remark about Ginger Rogers being the better dancer because she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Surprisingly, it seemed that I managed to display my new skills quite well.
The bridal waltz finished and the band started another one. It's a tradition that the wedding party and guests change partners at this point, and it didn't surprise me in the least when Sid appeared and asked Dale if he might dance with me, although I didn't expect it to happen so soon.
“I'm so glad you were able to come today Miss Stow,” he said.
“Call me Harriet, please, “ I replied, and I even managed a smile, although it wasn't easy, looking into those cold eyes. 'So that's where Sophie got them from,' I thought.
“And you must call me Sid. So, no hard feelings about Sophie and Reginald then?” he enquired.
In a confidential tone I said. “To be honest with you, our relationship had been on the wane for some time. Maybe Sophie coming along just accelerated things.” I was surprised how easily and convincingly I lied. Being an actress has its advantages.
“And the young man you're with today?” he asked.
“Dale? He taught me to drive,” I said, embellishing the facts a bit. “Then he moved in to a spare room in my flat, just as a friend at first you understand? Things developed from there, so it's all worked out for the best. It's not serious, but has certain benefits which is just the way I want it at present.”
“I see,” he said and then changed the subject, apparently convinced. “I understand you're a successful actress.”
“I've been very fortunate so far,” I said with a self-deprecating smile.
“Well I'm sure you're going to have a great career,” he said.
“That's my top priority at present,” I replied.
The music stopped then. Sid smiled. “I'd better get back to my wife. I wouldn't want her to get jealous seeing me dancing with such a pretty lady.” With that he escorted me back to my table. After he left, Dale said quietly “Everything alright?”
“Couldn't be better. Maybe it's time we had another dance,” I said. Dale took my hand and we returned to the dance floor again, dancing cheek to cheek.
“Maybe time for a kiss?” I murmured, and Dale lowered his lips onto mine. He was indeed a very good kisser; not as good as Reggie, but still very nice.
When we sat down, Aunt Jane was missing but a few minutes later Reggie escorted her back to our table and then he held out his hand to me. “Shall we?” he said.
I took his hand but wondered if this was wise.
“I hope Sophie doesn't mind,” I said.
“On the contrary, it was her idea,” he replied. It seemed that we were going through a series of tests, and she was calling the shots.
“I danced with her father,” I said.
“I know,” replied Reggie. “I saw you. I saw the kiss too, very convincing.”
“That was the idea,” I replied. I wasn't dancing too close to him, like friends but not lovers. This would be my greatest test yet since the urge to cling to him was almost overwhelming. I knew we were being watched, and I didn't dare say too much in case we were overheard, but there was one thing I wanted to know.
“Will you have to leave university and get a job now?” I asked.
“Sid says I should stay there and get my degree. If I do a bit of work for him part-time he'll make sure we have enough to live on. Sophie will have to defer of course, that's assuming things are as she says.”
I wanted to ask what sort of work Sid had in mind for Reggie, but the music stopped then and he escorted me back to my table.
The reception ground on and I couldn't wait for it to finish. Finally after disappearing for a while, Sophie and Reggie reappeared having changed into 'smart casual' clothes, and then headed for the taxi waiting outside, which disappeared down the road in a clatter or tin cans tied to the bumper bar. For me that was the hardest moment of all, and I was glad that it was dark and no-one could see my face.
A series of taxis arrived and Dale and I were able to share one with another couple who were staying at the same hotel.
Back at the hotel we went to our room and took it in turns to get undressed in the bathroom. Dale offered to sleep on the sofa, but I said that if we kept our dressing gowns on, why shouldn't we share the double bed. I had a feeling that was the best thing to do. Sid had seemed convinced about the relationship between Dale and I, but I had a niggling feeling that he might want further confirmation. It wasn't long before I fell asleep and I was glad of that. One thing I didn't want to think about was what Reggie and Sophie might be doing at that moment.
The following morning Dale and I awoke to the sound of a knock on the door. We hadn't ordered breakfast, and I knew immediately that Sid had indeed decided to check on my story.
“You answer the door while I slip my dressing-gown off,” I whispered. When Dale opened to door, there I was lying in bed, déshabillé, one nightgown strap off my shoulder, hair in disarray, doing my best to look like I had experienced a night of passion.
A young maid wheeled a breakfast trolley was into the room.
“We didn't order breakfast in our room,” said Dale.
The maid looked at the order form on the trolley. “This is the right room number,” she said. “Maybe there's been a mistake. Do you mind if I phone the kitchen?”
After a short conversation she put down the phone and said “I'm sorry, there was a mistake. It's a full English breakfast and if I take it back they will only throw it away, so would you like to have it free of charge?”
“What do you think darling?” said Dale to me.
“I think we should keep it. Please thank the kitchen for us,” I replied, and Dale took a five pound note out of his wallet and gave it to her.
Once she had left the room Dale smiled. “Well we might as well enjoy Sid's bounty,” he said. I put my dressing-gown on again and joined him at the table.
“It seems like he did want to check that we were kosher,” I said. “I hope he's satisfied now.”
When we had finished breakfast, we took it in turns to shower and dress.
“Are you in a hurry to get back to Stratford?” asked Dale.
“Not especially, why?”
“I just thought that since we're at the seaside and the sun is shining we might as well make a day of it.”
There's something about the sea air, the mewing of the seagulls and walking barefoot on the sand which I had missed since I had left Bridchester, so I was happy to agree with Dale's suggestion. I knew that he was doing his best to divert my attention from the events of the previous day, and I really appreciated it.
We walked along the promenade, hand in hand at Dale's suggestion, watched the holiday-makers and even had fish and chips for lunch, with plenty of salt and vinegar of course. It was mid afternoon before we took the road back to Stratford. Dale suggested I drive for the first hour, then he took over and finally I drove the last part of the journey back to the flat. What a strange weekend it had been, but at least I could feel assured that Sid and Sophie were convinced that I was no longer a problem to be solved. A few days later I wrote a nice card to Sid and his wife, thanking them for inviting us to the wedding. I debated with myself and decided it might be better not to mention the breakfast.
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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