There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 & 2018 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 31 A chance meeting
Back in York, I devoted myself to the rôle of 'domestic goddess', doing everything I could to make Reggie's life run smoothly while he studied for his final exams. I also made several visits to my sister Emma, her family and Stella and spent some happy times with them. It was certainly a contrast from my life onstage, but a very pleasant interlude.
Finally, the days of Reggie's exams arrived. I had no doubt that he would do well, but it seemed like tempting fate to say so. The day of his final exam he came home and I could tell that he had something on his mind. In reply to my enquiry about how it had gone he replied:
“I don't want to sound overconfident but I think it all went well. Something happened today; just as I was leaving the exam room I ran into the Dean of the college. He said ' Staunton isn't it?' and when I admitted to it, he continued 'I understand that you have been doing very well. Have you considered going on to do an 'Honours' year?' I was a bit surprised and replied that I was thinking about it. I didn't know what else to say.”
“And are you thinking about it?” I asked.
Reggie looked a bit embarrassed: “Yes and no. I've been living the life of a 'kept man' for a couple of years now, with you providing all the funds for us to live on. I really feel that it's time I found a job and started to make a contribution.”
“But wouldn't it help you find a better job if you had a “Hons' after your 'BA'?” I asked. “It's your decision of course, but if you really want to do it, I will support you any way I can and that includes financially. I'm earning enough for us to live on, so the choice is yours.”
So it was decided that if Reggie's results were good enough and I had little doubt that they would be, he should continue on to do an 'Honours' year.
Now that his exams were finished, and because I still had a couple of weeks before I had to return to Stratford to start rehearsing 'Romeo and Juliet', we decided to have a week's holiday in the Lake District. Emma and I had been taken there by our parents when we were young and images had stuck in my mind. We toured around, staying in old pubs and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
At one point we went to Wastwater, a glacial lake surrounded by spectacular mountains, including Great Gable and Scafell, which, together with its neighbour, Scafell Pike are the two highest peaks in England. We stayed overnight at the Wasdale Head Inn, visited the tiny church of St Olaf and the next day climbed Scafell, carrying water bottles and the famous Kendal Mint Cake, a staple of mountaineers the world over, and by that I mean serious climbers of the world's highest peaks, including Hilary and Tenzing on their ascent of Everest. I hasten to add that it is not 'cake' as we know it but a white slab of solidified glucose, milk and mint essence, a great source of energy.
The climb took us about three hours to the cairn at the summit. It is more of a steep walk and scramble rather than a climb but quite tiring. Reggie was surprised that I kept up with him but I pointed out that I have 'actors' lungs'. We rested for fifteen minutes and took pictures of each other to prove that we had 'summited'.
I have debated with myself whether I would recount the following as unlikely coincidences are a staple of rubbishy novels, but they do happen in real life too. I decided that it would be nice to get a picture of Reggie and me together, so I approached a couple of young women who were resting before they tackled the descent, and asked if they would mind taking a picture of us.
“Sure, we'd be glad to,” said one, and recognising her American accent, just to be sociable, I mentioned that we had recently been in the United States.
“Where did you go?” asked one of the young women who had introduced herself as Jen and her friend as Jan.
I thought I was on safe ground when I said: “It's a little place you've probably never heard of, called East Devon in Massachusetts.”
“No way!” Jen exclaimed. “My Mom lives there, it's where I was brought up.”
Jan said “Didn't she say an English lady was there recently teaching the local theatre company how to act Shakespeare's plays? Was that you ma'am?”
I could hardly deny it. “Yes, that was me, but I wasn't really teaching them, they're very good already. It was more like mentoring and I learned things from them as well.”
“Well she told me that the last production of 'Romeo and Juliet' was the best she's ever seen them do and I'm guessing that was after you were there,” said Jen.
I felt a bit embarrassed. “Yes, we did work on it together.”
“Are you performing here in England at present?” asked Jan, so I had to tell them that I was about to start rehearsals for 'Romeo and Juliet at Stratford.
“Mom loves Shakespeare, and we promised to go to Stratford and take some pictures for her. We'll have to see you perform too. I'm guessing you are 'Juliet', right?”
I agreed that was the case, and when I mentioned that Richard Jenkins was playing 'Romeo', that seemed to make their attendance obligatory. They both looked ready to swoon!
“You're playing opposite Richard Jenkins?” gasped Jen.
“Sure,” I said nonchalantly. “We're old friends.”
“Wow!” said Jan, and that single word seemed to sum up her feelings.
Then, of course, they had to have a picture with me to send back to the States, and I ended up telling them that if they made it to a performance, to tell one of the ushers that they are Jan and Jen from Scafell, and he would bring them to my dressing room after the performance.
After a few hugs, Reggie and I started on our way down the mountain.
“I can't get over how kind you are to people you've never met before,” said Reggie.
“It's called 'public relations'; after all they make up the audience who come to see me perform and pay my wages,” I replied. “I think they deserve a little extra for doing that, don't you?”
He rolled his eyes but said nothing more.
The descent took about two hours but needs care and is actually more difficult than the ascent. We were proud of ourselves when we reached the bottom and returned to the inn for a substantial evening meal. As we tucked in, Reggie said: “You know, the news of your meeting with those girls will go all round East Devon, it's a small place after all. You might even make it into the local newspaper.”
“I hardly think so,” I replied, but he was right as he so often was.
A few weeks later, I received in the mail a brief note from Magnolia, saying I might like to see the enclosed newspaper cutting; also how much they were all looking forward to coming over to see me onstage in a couple of weeks. I opened the cutting which came from the 'East Devon Gazette':
Under the heading 'Local girls meet famous theater actress on mountain top', was the picture Reggie took of me with Jen and Jan on Scafell. Beneath that was the following text which I reproduce exactly as it was written:
“Recently, local girls Jen Harris and Jan Scott, students at Boston University and currently on exchange with Durham University in England, were surprised to meet famous Shakespearean actress Harriet Stow on the summit of Scafell Mountain in England's Lakes District. Miss Stow, who recently spent two months mentoring our local theater company, was happy to pose for photos. Currently rehearsing for 'Romeo and Juliet' with superstar Richard Jenkins, she graciously invited the girls to meet up with her when they attend a performance in Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-on-Avon next month.”
When I showed the article to Reggie, his reply was: “I told you so.”
We spent the rest of the week touring around the Lakes, including visits to Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, homes of William Wordworth, who is buried in the graveyard at St Oswald's church Grassmere. As the Poet Laureate I was surprised he wasn't buried in Westminster Abbey and his gravestone is surprisingly modest, but it certainly attracts many visitors. Everyone knows his poem 'Daffodils' which starts:' I wandered lonely as a cloud...' even if they know nothing else that he wrote.
On our last day we visited the Castlerigg stone circle on a hill outside the town of Keswick. Built on a low rise about 3200BC and surrounded by some of the highest Cumbrian peaks of Skiddaw, Helvellyn, Blencathra and Grassmoor, it is a magical place. I remembered being taken there by my parents when Emma and I were quite young and of course it was exactly how I remembered it, and will be for thousands of years to come. Standing in the middle of something so ancient makes us aware of our own fleeting mortality.
We drove back to York for a few days and then it was time for me to return to Stratford to start rehearsals for 'Romeo and Juliet'. I was very pleased for Reggie's sake that he had obtained a short-term job in the university Administration Department during the recess between semesters, replacing someone on long-term sick leave. Ever since he had commented that he felt like a 'kept man', I had worried about his feelings of self-worth and hoped that doing a job and earning money would make a difference for him. Of course I would have liked him to come to Stratford with me, but then, what would he do while I was rehearsing and later acting? No, it was better that he stayed in York. Some people might think that ours was an unusual marriage, but it worked for us.
Just before I returned to Stratford, I had a phone call from Hannah Barrow who was directing the play.
“Harriet, how are you?” she said and not waiting for a response continued. “I have news for you, Dame Emily is going to play your nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet'.”
I was shocked as I had understood another famous actress was in the running for the rôle and expected to get it. I managed to pull myself together.
“That's wonderful news, Miss Barrow,” I replied.
“Call me Hannah,” she replied. “It's a great coup for the Company. She was shooting a film and it finished early.”
“I will look forward to working with her again. We were both in 'Hamlet' together.”
“Really? Well you have the advantage on me. It will be my first experience of working with her, but I'm really looking forward to it.”
When I put the phone down, I stared into space for a few minutes. I was surprised to find that I felt a little ambivalent about the news. Of course it would be wonderful to act with Dame Emily again, but I was also aware that she had played 'Juliet' to great aclaim when she was a young actress and I wondered if she would inevitably compare my performance with hers.
Arriving at the theatre for the first rehearsal, Dame Emily greeted me with a hug and said she was so looking forward to working with me! Then Richard stepped up and gave me an even more enthusiastic hug. It was great to be among old friends again.
I have previously written about rehearsals, so suffice it to say that all went well, as indeed it should have done, we were all professionals after all.. Some people have asked me why actors need to rehearse when they know a part so well, but I compare it to a top symphony orchestra rehearsing works with which they are very familiar. Each conductor has his own interpretation of a work, just as a theatre director has.
It was my first experience of working with a female director of 'Romeo and Juliet' and it was interesting to experience a female take on the play. I had worked with many of the cast before and we all got on very well together.
I still felt some trepidation about performing such a major rôle in front of Dame Emily and I think she sensed my unease. One day when Richard and I were rehearsing the 'Balcony Scene' I suddenly realised that Dame Emily was sitting near the back of the stalls watching us. I was surprised as she had a couple of words to say in the scene when the nurse calls to Juliet from within the house even though she doesn't actually appear. When the voice came though, it was Hannah who spoke the words.
Later, we had a break and Dame Emily came up to me: “That was truly excellent, my dear. You remind me of myself when I was younger, if that doesn't sound like I'm boasting,” she said with a smile. “Now stop worrying about what I think and just go out there and slay them.”
'Thank you, Dame Emily,” I said. “I didn't realise that my concerns were so obvious.”
“I was young once too, my dear and I know what it was like to act in front of someone with more experience, but you have nothing to worry about. It helps too that there is such obvious chemistry between you and Richard.”
I could feel myself blushing: “That can be a problem too. Some people think that we are doing more than just acting. Thank goodness Reggie trusts me.”
She sighed: “I know exactly what you mean. When I was young and just married, some of the press seemed to take a delight in implying that I was having an affair with every leading man I acted with. My late husband was very good about it and knew it was all rubbish, but there's nothing you can do about it, so just ignore them.”
We both laughed and after that I was able to relax.
While the rehearsals were in progress, I returned to York and Reggie every weekend, but this would stop when the season began and I had to perform on Saturday nights and instead, he would make the trip to Stratford.
I must confess I was happy to be back onstage, and there was something else to look forward to – Dale and Frank's Commitment Ceremony and Reception which fortunately was taking place on the Saturday two weekends prior to the start of the 'Romeo and Juliet' season. I think they planned it that way as they knew I couldn't attend once the season started.
Surprisingly the problem for them wasn't finding a 'gay-friendly' reception centre so much as finding one which was prepared to cater for only about thirty guests. Fortunately they found the perfect place a few miles out of Stratford on the banks of the Avon, with a wonderful view of the countryside, looking much as it must have done in Shakespeare's day. Dale took me to see it one morning when I wasn't required for rehearsal; I think he wanted my approval and he had it.
Reggie and I discussed what we should give them for a present. We knew that they were trying to save to buy their own place so we finally decided to offer to pay for the reception. Sometimes it's more difficult to give a present than to receive one. Both Dale and Frank were slightly shocked when we told them what we had in mind, but were finally persuaded to accept our offer. I had another surprise gift for them which was two tickets to the opening night of 'Romeo and Juliet', in the centre of the front row of the Dress Circle, Frank's favourite seats. I was going to present the tickets to them on the evening of the reception. I knew they would be back in time as they were only going away for a week to Edinburgh as a 'honeymoon'.
I discussed with Frank what I should wear as 'Best Woman'. He and Dale would be wearing 'black tie', so logically that meant a floor-length gown, and I had my eye on the perfect one in a Stratford boutique. No woman needs an excuse to buy a new dress but this was the perfect one. It was in blue chiffon and stretch satin with a beaded halter neck, sleeveless and backless, so rather sexy if I say so myself. Not something you'd wear to go shopping! I economised by not buying new shoes since I already had the perfect pair of heels to go with the dress. When I modelled it for Reggie, his comment was “Wow!” I think he must have been taking lessons from the American girls!
To be continued.
Many thanks once again to Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for spotting my 'typos', thus allowing me to correct them before publishing.
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