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 50 Wedding preparations and a lovely surprise.
Some weeks went by. Reggie still phoned me regularly to let me know what was going on. After that strange weekend when he came to Stratford and we went to dinner, didn't go to bed, got engaged but didn't buy a ring, and finally to cap it off, Sophie died, he returned to Blackpool to help Mildred arrange another funeral. Fortunately, having had the experience of Sid's funeral only a short time before, everything went very smoothly.
I asked if any of Sophie's organs had been used for donor recipients.
“They did take her corneas and I understand they were used, but there were some technical issues with the organs and they couldn't use them. Perhaps too much time had passed, I really don't know,” said Reggie.
“Well she's inspired me to sign up as an organ donor,” I replied. “It's something I never thought of before, and now I've been looking it up on the internet, I find that there are a lot of people waiting for organ transplants and not nearly enough people signing up to donate. After all, once we're dead, they're no use to us, but they could save someone's life.”
“You're right,” said Reggie. “Sophie did suggest that I sign up and I'm ashamed to say I never got around to doing it, but now I will.”
It was strange in a way that since she was now dead and no longer a threat to us, I found myself looking more kindly on Sophie. What's more she had produced a beautiful little daughter to whom I was beginning to feel very attached, almost like a surrogate mother. One day Stella would be told about her real mother, and by then I was sure I could speak about her without prejudice.
Mildred was devastated, of course, having lost both her husband and her only daughter in the space of a couple of months. After Reggie questioned her about relatives, it turned out that there was a distant cousin living not too far away, even though they hadn't communicated in many years. She was invited to the funeral and prevailed upon to stay with Mildred for a while afterwards while she adjusted to the big changes in her life.
Reggie drove down to Stratford again while I was rehearsing, and again he stayed at a hotel. The main purpose of his visit, apart from seeing me, was to fulfil his promise to buy me an engagement ring. We decided that I was perhaps getting too well known in Stratford, and if we bought a ring there, the news might get back to the press. Instead, we went by train to London and visited some jewellers in Bond Street. I took my time deciding what we should buy; after all it was too important a purchase to rush.
Finally, I decided on a lovely fourteen carat white gold marquise-shaped three stone diamond ring, which was not too expensive. When it comes to diamonds, the sky's the limit, but I didn't want to stretch Reggie's budget too much, he was still a student after all. It looked wonderful, sparkling on my finger, and I found it hard to tear my eyes off it.
“Oh Reggie, it's lovely!” I gasped, tears of happiness filling my eyes. I couldn't resist hugging him there and then, while the shop assistant looked on indulgently. No doubt she had seen the same scene played out many times before. We even had time to catch a matinée performance of 'Anything Goes' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This was a special treat. When I was working, it was very hard to get to see other shows, so this was a rare opportunity to visit an iconic theatre. I wondered if I would get to play on that famous stage one day. I hadn't forgotten that this theatre is said to be the most haunted in the world, but I wasn't going to let that worry me.
Reggie returned to York and took up his studies once more, although it seemed likely that he would have to add another year before graduating.
Meanwhile, I was playing 'Katherine' in 'The Taming of the Shrew'. The main theme of the play is often questioned. The fiercely independent Kate, the 'Shrew' of the title, who insults every suitor found for her, becomes tamed and domesticated by Petruchio. She is in fact one of Shakespeare's most complex female characters, and it becomes apparent that she is deeply unhappy, quite possibly because she believes she will never find a man whom she will happily marry. Her younger sister Bianca is also unhappy, because their father has told her that she cannot wed the man she loves until her older sister is married.
When Kate meets Petruchio, they immediately start to spar but he proves her intellectual equal and when he insists he will marry her with or without her consent, she suddenly changes her behaviour. At the end of the play, when she alone of the three wives, instantly obeys her husband's command that she come to him, thus winning him a wager, she speaks one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches rebuking the two recalcitrant wives, part of which reads:
'Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one who cares for thee.
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour, both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience--
Too little payment for so great a debt...'
Modern-day feminists may be outraged at this turn-about, but some people believe that Shakespeare is leaving open the possibility that Kate is smart enough to tell her husband what he wants to hear, since being married establishes her status in the society of the day. That's one of the things I love about Shakespeare, there are so many ways to interpret his plays.
One can almost imagine Kate winking at the audience as she makes this speech. However David, the director, wouldn't consider something so obvious but instead suggested that I gradually widen the subjects of my speech by breaking the theatre convention of the 'fourth wall', which of course didn't exist in Shakespeare's time when the theatres had a thrust stage surrounded by the audience.
“Let's try it for a couple of performances, gradually turning from Bianca and the widow until you are addressing the whole audience and see how it plays out,” he said. “Perhaps even add the ghost of a smile, thus letting the audience make what they will of it.”
I followed his advice and indeed from their audible response at each performance it was obvious that the audience, particularly the women present, enjoyed being taken into Kate's confidence, while Bianca and the widow took her at face value.
I was pleased with the newspaper reviews, especially as I was undoubtedly playing the lead rôle in this play.
“HARRIET STOW LEADS A GREAT PRODUCTION WITH A STELLAR PERFORMANCE” was one headline, and who wouldn't be pleased with that?
Due credit was given to all the cast as indeed it should be. I will merely record an extract as follows:
“Regular ISC member Harriet Stow gives a sparkling performance as Kate, the 'Shrew' of the title, and in her final speech where she urges her younger sister and the rich widow to be subservient to their husbands, in a clever twist, David Lodge, in his directorial debut, has her turn to the audience and include the women in her exhortation, but with a knowing glance as if to say 'But we know who really wears the trousers in our households don't we ladies?' The response from the audience showed that they understood her perfectly.”
Enough boasting. Of course I had to send all the critiques to Mum for inclusion in that ever-expanding pile of scrap books. Dale and Frank came to see a performance as they always did, and I basked in their compliments too. Perhaps I should have remembered that quote from Shakespeare's Richard III,
”They that stand high have many blasts to shake them,
And if they fall, they dash themselves to pieces.”
But I was riding the crest of a wave and it seemed I could do no wrong.
Some months passed by. Reggie was busy trying to catch up on all the time he had lost dealing with Sid Vertue's business and the death of Sophie. Now that he was a widower, with the legal formalities concluded, there was nothing, in theory, to prevent us marrying, and indeed we discussed it, but the main factor which seemed to stand in our way was that marrying so soon after Sophie's death was not 'seemly'.
Shakespeare, of course, had something to say on the matter, as indeed he did about most things. As a student of his work I was only too well aware of the lines Hamlet speaks with bitterness to his friend Horatio when describing how hastily his mother Gertrude marries his uncle soon after his father dies. 'The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish the marriage tables.'
I was all for ignoring what was 'seemly' but Reggie cautioned me that if the press should come across the news, it might well damage my reputation by leading to all sorts of unfounded speculation that we had been lovers all the time Reggie was married.
I confess that I burst into tears and cried “Don't you want to marry me, Reggie?”
He took me in his arms and hugged me. “Of course I do Harriet, you know I do, but I'm prepared to wait a little longer if it protects you.”
He was right of course, as he so often was. I tended to act on impulse, whereas he was a steadying influence. Finally, after much discussion, we decided to get married in Bridchester soon after Christmas before I had to return to Stratford; that way we would have time for a short honeymoon. It would be a small private affair with only our families and a few friends present.
Reggie drove down to Stratford on a Saturday afternoon in September, and after the evening performance, he drove us to Bridchester. He dropped me off at Mum's house and went on to stay with his parents. Although neither Reggie nor I were particularly religious, we'd settled on getting married in Mum's church, just like Emma and David had done. We all attended the Sunday morning service, and afterwards, Reggie and I met up with the vicar, the Rev James Sutton for whom I had made the bible recordings. We explained our situation to him and how we wanted a low-key service and he understood perfectly.
That reminds me, I spoke to Dame Emily quite frequently on the phone and had told her about our wedding.
“I'd love to invite you if you are free at the time,” I said since I regarded her as my 'theatrical mother'.
“That is so kind of you, my dear,” she replied. “As it happens I'll be in America then, but in any case, it might have brought you unwanted publicity if I had attended. Being well-known has its drawbacks, unfortunately. However, the next time you're in London, I hope you'll come to tea again and bring your husband with you. I'd really like to meet him.”
I was disappointed of course, but I understood what she was saying. The attendance of such a well-known person at our wedding would undoubtedly have attracted the attention of the local press, and the national newspapers might have picked it up as well. It's not that we were doing anything wrong, but there are always people who delight in finding something to criticise in other people's behaviour.
Even a simple wedding requires quite a deal of organisation. I wasn't going for the full 'meringue dress'. I can understand why some young women want to look like a princess for a day, but in my line of work, I was actually paid to wear costumes more glamorous than the most ornate wedding dresses, so I wanted something simple and elegant. Nevertheless, I knew that Penny would love to be a bridesmaid and wear a pretty dress, and Elizabeth was old enough to be a flower girl, provided that Penny kept hold of her hand.
I started filling a ring-binder with pages of details about the wedding, and then something happened to make me do some re-thinking. An email arrived from my Aunt Peggy in Australia, with a copy to my sister Emma. She and her husband Uncle Ron had decided that they wanted their children to experience a winter Christmas, and what better place to come to than Britain? They would be arriving in mid-December and staying for about six weeks, returning to Australia at the end of January when their school summer holidays were coming to an end.
Naturally I hoped that they would be able to attend my wedding to Reggie, and thought that their daughter Flora who would now be fifteen from memory, would surely like to be a bridesmaid. I immediately rang my sister Emma, who was going to be Matron-of-Honour and asked what she thought. Would Penny feel she would be upstaged by an older cousin? (Yes, I know they weren't actually cousins, but perhaps could be considered honorary ones.) Emma promised to discuss it with Penny and get back to me.
“I'm not sure about asking Ron junior if he'd like to be an usher. He seemed a very shy boy when I met him a couple of years back. Perhaps if it was explained that he doesn't actually have to do anything apart from stand at the altar and sit at the bridal table and get served first; what do you think?”
Emma laughed. “I know what you mean, but if Flora is a bridesmaid, we wouldn't want him to feel left out. If he declines the invitation, that's fine, at least you offered.”
Emma rang me the following day. It seemed that Penny jumped at the chance of having a second bridesmaid with her. I think she was feeling a touch nervous about being the only one, and Flora being slightly older, that would work well. I immediately emailed Aunt Peggy with the invitation for them all to attend the wedding, and the offers for Flora and Ron junior to be part of the wedding party. Mum had said she was happy to provide accommodation for them for as long as they wanted to stay
It was a couple of days before the reply came, but when it did, it seemed they were thrilled with the news that Reggie and I were getting married, and for the children to be asked to take part. As I expected, Flora was bubbling over with enthusiasm to be a bridesmaid, and I was also delighted to hear that after some hesitation, Ron junior was prepared to be an usher.
For the sake of some readers, I should explain here that 'ushers' in Britain are the equivalent of 'groomsmen' in America and Australia. They are normally the same in number as the bridesmaids. That's not essential, but it does help balance the numbers for the photographs. They may actually be involved in ushering guests to their seats before the ceremony, but that's not always the case, especially in small weddings like ours. The groom also has as his chief supporter a 'Best Man', and this term seems to be used in all English-speaking countries. Reggie had chosen Desmond Brown, a cousin who had the advantage of having lived in Manchester for most of his life, so he knew nothing about my background. In addition, Reggie had explained to him the reason for us wanting a low-key marriage and was assured of his discretion.
Reggie and I discussed the matter of where we should live, or perhaps it was better to say where our 'home base' would be. He understood that due to my work we would inevitably be separated from time to time. Indeed it had been the subject of long discussions, and I had suggested that I give up the theatre for a while, but Reggie insisted that I shouldn't.
“You would soon get very bored being a housewife chained to the kitchen sink,” he said, and I had to admit that he was right. “If you stopped work, then the offers of parts would dry up. We'll be together as much as we can. I promise you that I won't play the 'jealous husband' because I trust you in the same way that you must trust me. If we couldn't do that, there would be no point in getting married.”
It was logical for us to be based in York while Reggie finished his studies, but I had no wish to live in the same flat that Sophie and Reggie had occupied, and he understood that. He also understood that, whereas I could cope with the furniture that they had bought together, one thing that had to be purchased was a new bed, and on a rare day off for me, when my understudy was given a chance to perform, we chose one together.
The same day we called into the estate agent from whom the present flat had been rented. We explained that we wanted to change to another flat near the university and were extremely lucky that one had just become vacant, What's more, after inspection we were both very happy with it; I thought it was better than the one that Sophie and Reggie had shared, but perhaps I was biased. The important thing was that it was part of our new start.
We decided that for the time being, I would try to stay working at Stratford since it wasn't too far from York and I could spend Sundays with Reggie even when I was performing, even staying overnight if I didn't have to be back in Stratford before Monday afternoon. I would keep sharing the Stratford flat with Dale and Reggie was fine with that.
A few weeks after Sophie died, Reggie had driven Mildred up to York and she had packed up all of Sophie's clothes and other personal items. I believe they went to a charity shop, and I'm sure that some young women with limited funds were able to acquire some lovely items very cheaply.
When the season of 'The Taming of the Shrew' ended in mid-December, I travelled back to Bridchester and all of the women in the two families enjoyed a 'girls' day out' at York where we visited several bridal boutiques, only pausing to have lunch. I finally chose a sheath, floor-length off-the-shoulder lace dress in ivory. It had long lace sleeves, and a sweep train, and was made by a top designer of wedding dresses. Being quite slim, I was actually able to buy it “off the peg” with no adjustments needed. The other women told me I looked like a model.
"Now that's something you could do if the acting work ever dries up,” said Emma. While I appreciated the compliment I hoped that I would never find out if she was right.
We also found some really pretty white bridesmaid dresses for Penny and Elizabeth. I will never forget the look on Penny's face when she walked out of the changing cubicle.
She came over to me and gave me a big hug, whispering “Thank you so much, Aunty Harriet, I feel like a princess.” I confess that nearly brought tears to my eyes, she is such a sweet little girl.
Flora had not yet arrived from Australia, so I gave the boutique her measurements which had been passed on by Aunt Peggy, and it was arranged that she would attend for a final fitting as soon as possible.
Both the mothers and Emma were buying special outfits for the day of course, but we had spent so much time on the bridal party's dresses that they said they would travel to York together on another day to chose something to wear.
Then it was off to a shoe shop to choose something special. I chose some ivory lace court shoes with six inch heels, and we chose white 'Mary-Jane' flat leather shoes for Elizabeth. I had privately consulted with Emma, and with her permission, we selected a pair of white satin shoes with an ankle strap, a bow, and a tiny heel for Penny, which would be worn with white tights. I could see that the thought of wearing heels, however small, made her feel very grown up. Having tried them out walking around the shop and nearly stumbling, she looked in awe at the heels on my shoes and whispered “How do you manage to walk in them Auntie Harriet?”
“It just takes practice,” I whispered back. “So don't forget to practice in your shoes too.”
“Oh yes, I promise I will,” she said very solemnly. I think a vision had just come to her of falling flat on her face walking down the aisle.
"Don't worry, you'll soon get the hang of it," I reassured her with a smile.
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.
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.