All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 6 How do I love thee?
I could hear a lot of noise and some music in the background and I wondered if he could hear me.
“Reggie?” I said again, louder this time. “It's Harriet.”
“Harriet?” he responded after a pause. “Shesh not here. Left me.” He was slurring his words and my heart sank. He was drunk. This wasn't the Reggie I knew.
“Reggie? This is Harriet.”
He mumbled something in return and I couldn't make out what it was.
“Where are you Reggie?”
His reply sounded something like the 'King's Arms', so he was in a pub. This was getting rapidly worse.
“Do you have someone with you Reggie? Do you have a friend there?” I felt like screaming but now was not the time to lose control. I had to keep calm. I had to repeat the question before I had a response.
“Yes, John, he's good frien'.”
“Let me speak to him, Reggie, give him the phone.” I spoke slowly and distinctly to get through to his befuddled brain.
There was a pause and then a new voice came on the line, fortunately sounding sober.
“John? What's happened to Reggie, he sounds like he's drunk.”
He laughed. “You're right there. He's upset because his girlfriend's left him. He wanted to drown his sorrows but he's in at the deep end and still going down.”
I didn't think it was funny, but thought it better not to say so.
“John, I am his girlfriend, Harriet, and no, I haven't left him. We just had a little disagreement, that's all.”
“Well that's not how he sees it, he says you must have broken up with him because he hasn't heard from you since.”
This wasn't the time to start arguing the finer points of the situation. I was in Stratford and Reggie was in London and in a bad way.
“John, could you possibly do me a great favour? I'm in Stratford, but I can come down and see Reggie tomorrow morning. Is it possible for you to see him safely home? Even if you have to put him in a taxi, I'll reimburse you for the fare. John, I'm really worried about him. If he starts wandering about London in the state he's in, goodness knows what will happen to him.”
At long last it seemed I was getting through.
“Yeah, you're right Harriet, he's not safe the way he is. I'll pay for the taxi. I work with him so you can get the money back to me later.”
I heaved a great sigh of relief. “Thank you so much John, you're a real pal.”
“Is it true what he said about you?” he said and my heart gave a lurch.
“What did he say?”
“That you're an actress playing Shakespeare.”
“Yes, that's right, and they're just ringing the bell now to say the second half of the play is starting.”
“You'd better go then, and don't worry about Reggie, I'll make sure he doesn't have any more drinks, I'll tell him you're coming to see him and I'll make sure he gets home safely.”
“Thank you so much John,” I said again. “I won't forget this, and just to be clear, I love Reggie and I want to marry him some day.”
He laughed. “O.K. Harriet, I'll be your 'knight in shining armour',” and with that he rang off.
I imagine this is where my experience kicked in. I went back on stage and performed the rest of the play as though nothing had happened. Straight afterwards I went to see Tony and told him that Reggie wasn't well and I needed to see him.
“I'll go down on the early train and and I should be back in time for the evening performance. But do you mind if Mary takes over if I don't make it? I promise this won't happen again, but it's really important that I see him,” I said.
“I understand,” said Tony. “Alright, just this once.”
“Thanks so much Tony,” I said, and kissed him on the cheek.
I put Mary in the picture, and as soon as we arrived back at the apartment, I packed an overnight bag, just in case, and checked the train timetable. A train left at ten past six in the morning and arrived at Marylebone Station at eight thirty-two. I set my alarm for four-thirty to make absolutely sure and went to bed.
The alarm seemed to go off in no time. It was dark and I felt exhausted, but I struggled out of bed and into the shower. I dressed quickly and went into the kitchen, trying to keep quiet so that I didn't disturb Mary as I made myself a drink and some toast. I was surprised that as I was having my breakfast Mary appeared in her dressing gown.
“I'll drive you to the station Harriet, you don't need to take a taxi,” she said.
“That's so kind of you Mary. I'll make you some breakfast if you like,” I said, and while she went for her shower, I prepared some more toast and coffee.
I arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare, and I slept most of the way to London, only waking up as the train pulled into Marylebone Station and everyone started to stand up and get their bags. Once I had left the platform, I rang Reggie's apartment, and it was his flatmate Richard who answered.
“Hello Richard,” I said. “Is Reggie there?”
He laughed. “He is, but I don't think he's in a fit state to come to the phone. He went on a real bender last night.”
“Yes, I know. He's got some silly idea that I'd broken up with him and he was drowning his sorrows.”
“Is that what happened?” said Richard. “One of his workmates brought him home in a taxi. It took two of us to get him into his room and put him to bed. I've never seen him like that before.”
“Richard, I'm at Marylebone, I've come down to see him. Can you make sure he stays home please? I should be there in about an hour.”
“Well he's in no condition to go to work, so I'm sure he'll be here Harriet. For what it's worth, I'm glad you two haven't split up.”
“Thanks Richard, I'll go and get on the tube now.”
The trip out to Southgate took just over an hour as I had to change trains at Baker Street. Anyone who hasn't experienced London's 'rush hour' can't imagine what it's like. The crush of people is frightening if you are not used to it. Fortunately, once I was on the Piccadilly Line I was going out of London and so the train wasn't quite so crowded, but I had to stand most of the way. I've been told that in the 'old days' gentlemen would often give up their seat to a woman, but it seems those days are long gone. Instead they bury their faces in their newspaper or phone and steadfastly ignore everything around them. I was so tired I almost felt like fainting, and I finally got a seat just in time.
Arriving at Southgate I took a taxi to Reggie's apartment. I couldn't face the thought of walking. I paid the driver and added the obligatory tip and walked up to the door of the apartment. My heart was pounding as I rang the bell. There was a long wait and then the door opened and Reggie stood there, swaying slightly. His face was grey and he had dark rings around his eyes.
“Harriet! What are you doing here?” he said.
“I came to see you Reggie,” I said and then rushed into his arms and started to cry. He held me tightly and then the effects of the stress and lack of sleep caught up with me and I felt as if the earth was moving under my feet and everything went black.
When I came to, I was lying on a couch and Reggie was looking down at me, his face full of concern.
“Thank God,” he said when I opened my eyes.
“Oh Reggie,” I said, and the tears began to flow again. “What happened? Did I pass out?”
“Yes you did,” he said. “You had me so worried. This is all my fault.”
I reached out for his hand. “I think we've both been at fault Reggie. I had no idea you thought I'd broken up with you.”
Reggie looked embarrassed. “How did you find out that?”
“You friend John told me last night on the phone. He brought you home when I asked him to.”
Reggie looked embarrassed. “We went out for a few drinks when I told him what had happened. I think I overdid it a bit.” He glanced up at the clock. “Oh Lord, look at the time! I'm late for work.”
“I don't think you should go to work today, Reggie. I think you should use the day to recover.”
Reggie grinned ruefully. “I think you're right. My head feels like it's splitting in two and my mouth tastes like the bottom of a bird cage.”
“Please ring them at work and say you're not well, Reggie, because it's true. You don't have to say it's a hangover.”
Reggie went off to ring work and I carefully sat up. I couldn't ever remember fainting before. Was this partly due to the hormones I was on? I knew women tend to faint more than men, but I always put that down to tight corsets and anaemia, neither of which could be a cause in my case.
Reggie came back. “Alright, that's fixed; have you eaten today?”
“About five o'clock this morning,” I said. “And now you come to mention it, I really am hungry. What about you? You must be dehydrated. You'll feel better if you have a few glasses of water.”
Reggie smiled and then grimaced. “Oh my head, but I feel better just for seeing you. Harriet, we mustn't let a silly disagreement get out of hand again.”
“I agree. I kept thinking to myself, what was that all about?”
“Harriet, I think I said something about who you should and shouldn't see. I apologise for that, I had no right to say it. Did you have lunch with Dale? How was it?”
“It was very pleasant Reggie. I'd like to have Dale as a friend, but you must know that he would only be a friend; he would never replace you in my heart, even if he wasn't gay.”
Reggie sat beside me on the couch and took my hand. “I know that, and I'm so lucky.” He looked down and said almost in surprise “You're wearing the ring I gave you.”
“Of course I'm wearing it! I wear it all the time except when I'm on-stage and then I lock it away in my dressing room.”
“Oh Harriet,” Reggie murmured and he kissed me tenderly. “I love you so much, I couldn't bear the thought of losing you. I thought having a few drinks would ease the pain, but it made only made it worse.”
“You'll never lose me Reggie. I'll love you for ever. I was reading a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which I'm sure she wrote to her future husband Robert.“
And with that I started to recite the poem, and I meant every word of it --
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. ”
Reggie looked at me intently. “That's beautiful,” he said. “But it's almost frightening in its intensity. I'm not sure I deserve such love.”
“I don't want to scare you Reggie, but it's how I feel, it's how I've always felt about you from even before I knew who I was. As for deserving my love, yes you do in so many ways, and it's mine freely to give to you.”
“You say a woman who wrote the poem?” he asked.
“Yes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was a famous Victorian poet who eloped with and married the poet Robert Browning. I don’t think Elizabeth had a particularly happy life, other than her marriage to Browning. She had persistent ill health, maybe even tuberculosis; her father was over-bearing, he even disowned her following her marriage. Her poetry was very much admired though, and she was even considered as a candidate for poet laureate after Wordsworth died.
“It's funny,” Reggie said. “You look at those pictures of Victorian women in their heavy dark clothing, never smiling in case the photo was blurred because of the long exposures, and you never think that under it all beats a heart that could express such passion.”
“Well she did, and now here's a funny thing; I was reading her biography and she was a friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the woman people confuse my name with.”
Reggie smiled. “I think you're well on the way to becoming famous in your own right.”
I blushed, just as he intended. “Oh Reggie, you are a tease. Now how about I cook some breakfast?”
“I'd love some,” he said. “But how long are you here for, don't you have to get back to Stratford to perform tonight?”
“I spoke to Tony the director and he said I could miss a performance if I needed to, and Mary will play the part.”
“I'd love you to stay the night but I don't like the idea of you seeming to be unreliable this early in your career. What time would you have to leave in order to get back for the performance?”
“Well, I suppose I'd need to leave here about three o'clock,” I said.
“Well that's alright, it gives us plenty of time. I want you to be there for the evening performance. Will you do that for me Harriet?”
“Yes sir,” I said with a smile, and he hugged me.
I walked into the kitchen and found some eggs in the refrigerator. “How about I cook us an omelet?” I said. “And how about you drink some water to re-hydrate yourself?”
Reggie smiled, “Just having you here has made my headache start to fade, but I'll do as you say.”
As we ate our breakfast, I decided to discuss with Reggie something I'd been thinking of for a while.
“Reggie, I think this has all happened because we live so far apart and I don't want to risk it again, so I'm thinking that when you go to York University, that I'll see if there's a place for me back at the Apollo Players at Bridchester. Then I'll only be about an hour away from you.”
Reggie looked very serious. “I don't think you should do that Harriet. The fact is you've outgrown Apollo. It would be like a cricketer who has just made the test match team deciding to throw it all away and go back to district cricket. It just wouldn't work. Oh they'd welcome you back and you'd be the star, but you'd soon be dissatisfied with their standards, and they would get jealous of you hogging the limelight. Promise me you won't do that.”
I saw the sense in what he was saying. “But otherwise how can we see each other more often?”
“Well in Britain we are never more than a few hours apart, if it's by car, train or even aeroplane. There are plenty of people keeping up longer distance relationships than that. Imagine if we lived in America and you were on the west coast and I was on the east? Now that really would be a long way apart. No, I think the thing to do is that if we ever have a disagreement again, and let's face it we are human, that we should never part before it is resolved. What do you say?”
“I say that you are an incredibly intelligent and smart man and it's no wonder that I love you so much,” I replied.
The rest of our time together we spent like an old married couple pottering about. We did spend some time in bed together but we didn't make love, we just cuddled and held each other and it was so lovely. I knew Reggie still had a bit of a headache despite taking a few tablets and plenty of water, but he looked a lot better than when I had first seen him. When three o'clock came around, all too soon, I agreed with him that I should return to Stratford for the evening performance.
It was only then that I noticed he was limping slightly.
“Oh that,” he said. “I forgot to tell you. I sprained my ankle slightly during fielding practice , so I'm not playing this coming weekend. The finals are coming up and they want me one hundred percent fit for them. I could come up to Stratford for the weekend if you like?”
“If I like? Oh Reggie, of course I would like it, but only if you are not putting more strain on your ankle.”
“I need to do light exercise, so it's fine. In fact I've had an idea. Would you like to see if Dale can join us for lunch on Saturday and I can get to meet him?”
“That's a great idea,” I responded. “But Sunday is reserved for us two alone.”
He laughed. “I was hoping you'd say that.”
Before I left, I asked Reggie for John's number at the bank and rang him to find out how much I owed him for the taxi fare.
“How is he today?” asked John.
“Much better thank you. He's still got a bit of a headache but we've sorted things out. He'll be back at work tomorrow. I'll write out a cheque for him to give to you tomorrow, and thank you so much again for making sure he arrived home safely.”
He laughed. “You're most welcome. I'm glad you've sorted things out.”
My trip back to Stratford was such a contrast to my trip down. I rang Tony and Mary to tell them I was on my way. Mary asked if I had sorted things out and I assured her that all was now well, and when Tony asked, I told him that Reggie was feeling much better; different versions of the same event but both in their way true.
I felt like singing all the way back on the train. I arrived at Stratford just before six o'clock, in plenty of time for the evening performance, and it went very well since such a load had been lifted from my mind. I felt bad in a way that my return had prevented Mary for performing in the evening, so when I next had the opportunity to speak to Tony, the Director, I told him that I would not object if he let Mary perform one evening in place of me. His response surprised me.
“That's my decision to make Harriet, and I want you to continue with the evening performances. Mary does a good job in the matinees for which the tickets are cheaper, but although you may not realise it, you are getting a name for yourself, and the audience expects to see you perform just as much as they expect to see David, Dame Emily, and Sir John.”
I found myself blushing at his comments, and realised that to say anything further on the subject would only be counter-productive.
The next day I rang Dale and asked if he would like to come to lunch with Reggie and I on Saturday.
“That's really nice of you Harriet, but Frank is coming up to Stratford to see his parents, and me of course.”
“He's very welcome to come too if you like, but if you have something else planned, I totally understand,” I said.
“I'll ask him,” said Dale. “He loves theatre and when I told him about meeting you through the driving classes he was quite envious. Apparently he saw you in a play in London; he keeps all the programmes and checked that it was you. I know he'd love to meet you, so I'll get back to you on that.”
When Dale rang back, it was to say that Frank would love to come to lunch with us, so we organised to meet at a restaurant in Alveston, a few miles from Stratford. This was a wise move as Stratford is busy with tourists at the best of times and at weekends it gets really crowded.
“This is a long shot, but I don't suppose there's any chance you could get two tickets to Hamlet on Saturday evening? I tried and was told they are totally sold out,” he said.
“I will try for you,” I replied. “We do get returns and the box office will give priority to cast members if we want to buy them, but there is a hierarchy of course, and if for example David wanted some, he'd get priority over me.”
“I appreciate you trying,” said Dale. “I know that sometimes it's just impossible, and it is the hottest ticket in town after all.”
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.
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.