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
Curtain up – Prologue
My name is Harriet Stow and I am an actress. I know some people insist on using the term 'actor' for either gender, but words are my stock in trade and must, in my humble opinion be clear and unambiguous; therefore I repeat – I am an actress.
This is the third volume of my memoirs. In the first one, titled “The Might-Have-Been Girl” I gave an account of how by accident I came to perform on the professional stage and through good fortune made it my profession. In the second, “All the World's a Stage”, I recorded how I developed into a woman and furthered my career. I respectfully suggest that any reader who has not read them will, by doing so, find the following record much easier to understand. You will note that I have carefully avoided 'spoilers' in what I have written. Now, without further ado, I will continue my story.
Chapter 1 The 'Big Apple'
“There is nothing like a daaaame,” I warbled cheerily, stretching out the last word as I sang along with the radio. My hands were deep in the soap suds in the sink as I did the washing up in our flat in York. To say I actually enjoyed housework is to invite ridicule from most housewives who might find the time to read this. I'm sure most of them would say 'She only enjoys it because it's a novelty. I'd change places with her in a heartbeat and be on the red carpet in a glamorous gown at premieres, or up on a stage acting, while she does my housework!' Now that I can understand because there was still some novelty in being Mrs Harriet Staunton at home, even if I was still Miss Harriet Stow when I was at work, acting.
“...a girly, womanly, female, feminine daaaame!” my voice rose to a crescendo as the song came to an end. The sudden silence that followed the end of the song was broken by one pair of hands clapping. I spun around.
“Reggie! I didn't hear you come in.” Reggie, my husband, had been out in the garage tinkering as men love to do. In this case it was with 'Bluebird', my car, which had developed a bit of a cough. I was used to it being fixed by my flatmate Dale, but he was many miles to the south in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I wasn't sure that poor Bluebird would make it back to where he could administer T.LC.
In case that paragraph raises some eyebrows, I should explain that while I was acting in Stratford I shared a flat with Dale who was a wizard mechanic. He happened to have a partner called Frank so my relationship with Dale was that of a good friend and perfectly acceptable to Reggie. In fact, he was happier that I was sharing with Dale than living on my own while I was there.
“You know you're a really good singer. Have you ever thought of auditioning for musicals?” said Reggie. I blushed, a bad habit I've never been able to resolve.
“Now you're pulling my leg, Reggie. There's a world of difference between singing to the radio and doing it on stage where people are paying good money to see and hear you perform. No, I'd better stick with my 'day job' and leave singing to those who can do it properly,” I replied.
I should explain for those who haven't read my first two volumes of memoirs, that I am a serious dramatic actress, specialising in Shakespeare and other playwrights of his era and following centuries. Some people seemed to think that I do this tolerably well and as a result, I often perform with the Imperial Shakespeare Company based in Stratford, as well as some other notable organisations.
“Did you find out what's wrong with poor Bluebird?” I asked, neatly changing the subject.
“As a matter of fact, I did. One of the spark plug leads was loose and it wasn't firing all the time, hence the cough,” he said triumphantly. That definitely deserved a kiss as I'd had visions of having to pay someone to solve the problem for me.
When our lips finally separated, which took some time, I said “You're sure that's all that was wrong?”
“Never surer. She's purring like a kitten now,” was the reply.
“Well that deserves a reward. What would you like?”
The look in his eye said it all. “Reginald Staunton, you're a wicked man!” I exclaimed in mock outrage. “I thought maybe a nice roast dinner because that's what's in the oven at present. Anyway, I'm up to my elbows in soap suds right now, so maybe later.”
Reggie laughed. “What's a few soap suds among friends?” he said as he drew me to him, and we locked lips once more. It was thrilling how quickly the feel of my body against his aroused him, and when he took my hand and led me to the bedroom, there was no reluctance on my part; anyway, the roast still had a good forty-five minutes to cook!
Married life was still a novelty; after all, we'd only been back from our honeymoon a few weeks, and what a honeymoon it had been. After our wedding, we had driven down to Manchester for one night before flying to New York the following day. I won't go into details about our wedding night – some things are best kept private; just the one word 'fabulous' is sufficient.
I quickly discovered that there is all the difference in the world between giving yourself body and soul to a man you love deeply, and having intimacy with a man who is attractive and a friend. Reggie did not ask me about any other relationships I might have had while he was married to Sophie. If he had, then I would have answered him truthfully and told him about Richard Jenkins, but the fact that he hadn't asked, led me to assume that he preferred to leave the past in the past.
On the flight to the 'Big Apple' I slept most of the way, for fairly obvious reasons and when we landed, we took a taxi to our hotel which was just off Broadway, a most suitable location for an actress to stay. Reggie had already booked tickets for four shows and given me the option of seeing some more if I wished. However, I didn't want to spend the whole time in theatres in a city with so much to see. We decided to go sightseeing in the mornings and afternoons and then see shows in the evening. As for the nights – well they made a perfect end to the day! It was a very busy holiday!
Reggie had never been to New York, and my first visit had been very brief, so we did a lot of the conventional touristy things like the Empire State Building observation deck, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Battery Park, the Circle Line boat trip, movie location tours; I could go on and on. Even if we'd had a month there we wouldn't have seen it all.
Then there was the shopping! Most stores still had their Christmas decorations on display, and I certainly couldn't go home without visiting Macy's and Bloomingdale’s among the more famous ones. On New Year's Eve, we stood with the crowds in Central Park to watch the fireworks. It was very chilly and snow began to fall as the night sky lit up. I shivered, despite my thick coat. Reggie put his arm around me and I snuggled up to him. Married life was good!
One place I didn’t think it appropriate to visit was ‘Ground Zero’ where the Twin Towers had stood prior to the 9/11 attack. I knew that it had become something of a tourist attraction, but it struck me as insensitive since it was clear to me that two years on, the city was still quite raw from the disaster. Then something happened to change that.
Reggie had told Mum in confidence where we were going for our honeymoon (all he’d told me was to bring my passport). Two days after we flew to New York, Mum happened to meet a friend, Mary, from her church and told her where we had gone. Mary’s niece had died in one of the towers. She had hesitated, then asked Mum if she thought I would be willing to leave flowers and a card at Ground Zero for her, as being a pensioner she couldn’t afford to go herself. This request was relayed to me via Emma and of course I agreed to do it. The hotel told me where to find the nearest florist, and the next day after purchasing a bouquet of flowers and a card, Reggie and I took a taxi to the site.
The taxi driver saw the flowers and when we told him our destination he asked if it was for a relative.
“No, it’s for the niece of a friend of my mother’s,” I replied. “She came from England, and had only been working in one of the towers for a month.”
“That’s too bad,” he replied. “There were people from all around the world in those buildings, even Muslims. It just don’t make sense.”
The scale of the disaster was almost overwhelming. We’d seen pictures of course, but the sheer size of the site could only be appreciated by being there. Another thing that we had not anticipated was that the temporary safely fence that surrounded it had been turned into a memorial, covered with flowers, pictures, cards and poems.
On the card I had purchased I had written as requested:
'In loving memory of Heather, a native of Bridchester, England. Beloved daughter of Josie and Jack, loved niece of Mary. Always remembered. Rest in peace.'
I attached the card to the flowers and used some ribbon to tie the flowers to a free space on the fencing. Then I took a picture so that Mary could see what we had done in her name. We both stood there for a few minutes in silence trying to come to terms with what we were witnessing. Snow had fallen and the white blanket had softened the starkness of the scene before us, but it’s something I’ll never forget.
I kept in touch with Mum while I was away. She hadn't looked well during the lead-up to Christmas and our wedding, but assured me she was just a bit tired from everything that had been going on. When I rang her the following day, she assured me that she was fine. I told her about Ground Zero and how we had left the flowers and card and she promised to let Mary know. To confirm that she wasn't just saying she was well in order not to spoil our honeymoon, I checked with my sister Emma, and she said that Mum seemed quite well.
“She's been back to her doctor for more tests. He said the cancer didn't seem to have spread any further at present. If anything she looks better than she did recently, but that might have been because of Christmas, the McDonalds arriving and your wedding. I think it's been rather tiring for her, although she wouldn't have missed any of it for worlds,” said Emma.
I have to admit that no-one stages musicals quite like the Americans. Of course most of the famous ones were actually written by them and they have that special pizzazz that you just don't find elsewhere.
Reggie had managed to get tickets for the opening night of a new production of “South Pacific”, one of my favourite musicals. I originally had a VHS cassette of the film which I later replaced with a DVD, but I was really looking forward to seeing it on stage. I had read the Pulitzer prize-winning book 'Tales of the South Pacific' by James A Michener, on which it is based. It is an altogether much darker work, relating his experiences during the Second World War. While the stage musical and film contains many of the characters from the book, it is with a much lighter touch and the war is very much in the background.
We had seats in the front row of the Dress Circle and this was a 'black tie' occasion, so in anticipation, I had brought along a favourite dark red full-length gown, and Reggie had packed his dinner suit. I must say he looked very handsome and he assured me that I was the most beautiful woman present. We made a great 'mutual admiration' team!
We were standing in the bar enjoying a glass of champagne before the performance started when a familiar voice said “Harriet Stow as I live and breathe!”
I spun around. It was Duncan Morgan, the CEO of the Imperial Shakespeare Company.
“There's no need to ask what you're doing here,” he said. “It seems you can't keep away from theatres even when you're not part of the cast. Incidentally, I must congratulate you on your marriage. Will you introduce me to the lucky man?”
“Oh yes; Mr Morgan, this is my husband Reginald Staunton. Reggie, this is Mr Duncan Morgan, my boss at the ISC.”
The two men shook hands. “You're a lucky man, Reginald,” said Mr Morgan. “Your wife's not only beautiful, she's a fine actress, but then I don't need to tell you that.”
“I'm very well aware of it, sir,” said Reggie. A gold star for saying the right thing!
As we were chatting, Duncan Morgan said “Actually, this meeting is most serendipitous. Tonight I happen to be sharing a box with someone I'd like you to meet, Harriet. It could be to your advantage. Would you come out to the bar at the first Interval?”
Just then the warning bells started to ring and we had to take our seats.
“What do you think that's about?” asked Reggie.
“It sounds like a possible job,” I replied. “I'm sorry, Reggie, this was supposed to be a complete break from work.”
“It's not a problem,” he replied. “If he wants to get together to talk business, go along with it.”
Just then the house lights started to dim and the overture started. After a few minutes the curtain rose and we were transported to a beach in the South Pacific. I relaxed and immersed myself in the story I knew so well.
When the curtain came down at the end of the first act, we made our way to the bar again. I looked out for Duncan Morgan and spotted him with an elderly couple. At a guess, they were in their seventies. The man closely resembled Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, right down to the white hair and beard. I wondered if he was doing it deliberately. Beside him was a statuesque lady, presumably his wife. Reggie and I walked over and introduced ourselves to them.
“Miss Stow, Hiram Q Thompson at your service,” said Hiram, taking my hand and raising it to his lips. His hand was soft; he obviously wasn't used to hard manual labour. “May I say it's a great pleasure and privilege to meet you. May I introduce my wife Magnolia?”
In turn, I introduced Reggie to them both and accepted the offer of a glass of champagne.
“I had the great pleasure of seeing you perform in 'Romeo and Juliet' on your last visit to New York; it's a performance which will remain in my memory for a long time,” said Hiram.
His wife cut in: “Hiram shares your passion for Shakespeare, Miss Stow. He has even sponsored a theatrical troupe near our home in the Berkshires, which regularly presents Shakespeare's plays. He does it so that he can see them as they were meant to be seen, on the stage.”
“And that's why, when Duncan said you were here, I insisted on seeing you,” said Hiram. “I have a proposal I would like to put to you, but we don't have time this evening. Would you be free for lunch, possibly tomorrow? We're staying at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.”
I glanced at Reggie and he nodded slightly. “We'd be delighted to accept your invitation, Mr Thompson,” I said.
“Excellent, shall we say twelve o'clock?” he said.
The bells began to ring again, and we said 'au revoir' and returned to our seats.
“What do you think he wants?” said Reggie.
“My guess is that he wants me to perform Juliet again with his theatre group,” I said. “He must have run it past Duncan Morgan and had his agreement before saying anything. From what his wife said, I suspect he is very well off and can afford to pay to get what he wants.”
“So long as he doesn't want you,” said Reggie.
“If you mean what I think you mean, there's no risk of that,” I replied, slightly shocked at the implication. Reggie had never struck me as a jealous person, but perhaps things had changed now we were married. Just then the lights dimmed again which was probably just as well. Nevertheless, it got me thinking; actresses, well some at least, have a risqué reputation. If Hiram Q Thompson thought I was one of them I would quickly set him straight.
Our hotel had computers available for the use of guests, so the next morning I took the opportunity to seek out information about Hiram Q Thompson. The 'Q' stood for 'Quincy', and he had been born in Missouri in 1930, which made him seventy-three years old. He had moved to Texas in his twenties and become involved in the oil industry, and now owned the Lubbock Oil and Gas Company. I puzzled over the name Lubbock for a while and then remembered that it was the birthplace of Buddy Holly the 1950's rock and roll musician and singer. He was only twenty-two when he died in a plane crash, far too young, although he left a large body of work and influenced many other musicians. How much more might he have achieved if he'd been given the time?
Dragging my wandering mind back to the present, I concentrated on Hiram Thompson again. There was no mention of his wealth, but surely someone who owned an oil company must be at least a billionaire? That would explain how he was able to fund his own theatrical company. I made a point of deleting the computer history before logging off, and then returned to our room to get ready for our lunchtime meeting.
We arrived at the Ritz-Carlton a few minutes before twelve. It was our second to last day in New York and we had planned on some more sight-seeing, but Reggie said we could always do that another time.
I wore a grey skirt, a silk blouse over a camisole, stockings and four inch heels. Reggie wore a grey suit. It had snowed overnight and was still very cold, so we both wore the thick woollen coats that we had bought in Macy's. I thought we looked very smart, but it was probably just as well that we took a taxi to the hotel so that I didn't have to navigate snowy sidewalks in my heels.
Entering the hotel, our coats were taken and we were escorted into the restaurant where the Thompsons were waiting for us. Hiram stood up as we entered and greeted us cordially; he was certainly a real gentleman of the old school. I was pleased to see that Magnolia Thompson was wearing a grey woollen dress, stockings and heels, as I was concerned that I might appear over-dressed.
The meal was excellent as you would expect. We made light conversation as we ate. Hiram asked what rôles I had performed recently, and when I mentioned Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew”, he said he wished he'd have known that as it was one of his favourite plays and he would have flown over to England to see it.
“You probably would like to know a little about me,” he said. “Our home is in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, about three hours drive from here. I own a little oil company in Texas near a town called Lubbock that you won't have heard of.”
“It was the birthplace of Buddy Holly wasn't it?” I responded. Hiram face broke out in a smile.
“I would have guessed you were too young to remember him,” he said.
“My sister Emma has all his records and I grew up listening to him,” I responded.
He sighed. “He was taken from us far too young. I met him once you know? A clean-cut young man who always wore a suit and tie when he was performing, not like those long-haired characters today. You could even understand the words he was singing.”
It was when we reached coffee that Hiram began to talk about his proposal.
“I've discussed this with Duncan of course and he agreed to me approaching you. As Magnolia told you, I support a troop of actors who perform at a theatre in East Devon, near to our country home. They are good, but I think they would benefit from interacting with someone like yourself who has Shakespeare running through her veins. What I'm proposing is that, when convenient, you come to East Devon as an 'artist in residence' for a couple of months, during which time you would give master classes in acting Shakespeare and also take part in some performances.”
I was shocked. This was far more than I was expecting.
“Mr Thompson, I'll be frank with you. I've never been one for false modesty and you know that Mr Morgan wouldn't have hired me if I wasn't a reasonably competent actress, but shouldn't you be looking to engage someone older, with more experience than me?”
Hiram smiled. “I would have said you are more than competent, young lady, I've seen you perform after all. The average age of my acting troop is around twenty-five. I've engaged older actors previously, but Magnolia suggested that maybe someone of your age would interact better with my group, as you would mutually relate to each other. I think she is right.”
I paused. “It's a wonderful offer Mr Thompson and I think I would learn as much as I taught, but I do have a problem at present. Unfortunately my mother is sick and I can't leave England again for an extended period.”
His face fell. “Maybe when she is feeling better?” he responded.
“I'm sorry to say that won't happen. She has cancer and her time is limited,” I replied, and to my embarrassment a tear rolled down my cheek.
“My dear, I'm so sorry to hear that,” said Magnolia, and she reached out to pat my hand.
“As am I,” said Hiram. “Maybe we can put it on the back burner as something for another time. If you let me know the name of your agent, I'll write him detailing my proposal, and we'll leave it at that for now.”
“His name is Richard Green. I'll get you his contact details if you like.”
He laughed. “Oh I know Richard Green very well. You being on his books makes me think even more highly of you; he's particular in whom he represents,” said Hiram.
I'm fairly sure I blushed. “I was fortunate that Dame Emily Good persuaded him to represent me when I was just starting out. I'm sure he wouldn't have taken me on if I'd approached him myself.”
“Dame Emily? You move in exalted circles, young lady,” said Hiram.
“I'm sorry, you must have thought I was boasting,” I said. “It was just good fortune that I happened to meet her and she came to a play I was performing in.”
Hiram laughed. “You've got every right to boast about knowing Dame Emily. If I was a friend of hers I'd be shouting it from the rooftops,” he said, putting me at my ease again.
With the conclusion of lunch, we made our farewells and promised to stay in touch.
“If you get a chance, come and visit us in the Berkshires,” said Magnolia. “I'd love for you to stay with us, and you could see Hiram's theatre; it's his pride and joy.”
The following evening, we were driven to the John F. Kennedy airport for our flight back to England. It had been a short holiday and a very enjoyable one, but now it was time to face the real world again.
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.
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.