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'
Chapter 6 On stage again.
The next few weeks I spent a lot of time with Mum. Most weekdays I drove to Brid and spent most of the day with her. Sometimes we chatted and sometimes we just sat in companionable silence. Sometimes she dozed, and I read a book. It was the most time I had spent with her in years. She spoke about her childhood with her parents and Peggy, and also her life with Dad. Theirs was a great love affair and she described how devastated she was when he died suddenly and much too soon.
“But he gave me two beautiful daughters,” she said smiling.
“I've sometimes wondered how you felt about having a son who turned out to be another daughter,” I said. “You treated me so well when you found out, and I'll always be grateful to you for that.”
Mum smiled and reached out to pat my hand. “I suppose in a way it was a surprise, but not entirely. I always thought there was something different about you. Anyway, you are my child, and that can never change.”
She paused for a while and then she said “You know, I'm not afraid of dying. I believe I'll be with your Dad again, and I'm so looking forward to that. The only thing I regret is that I won't be here to see Emma's children grow up, and see what amazing things you do with your career. Dame Emily told me that you're one of the finest young actors she's ever seen and I know that she meant it.”
“Do you remember that time we met her on the London Underground and you were the only one who recognised her?” I said.
“Yes, we talked about that and she was very amused. I thanked her for all she's done for you, and her reply was that each generation has a responsibility to the next one, especially someone as talented as you are.”
I was to remember that in light of what was to follow.
David was busy directing the annual Apollo Players pantomime. This year it was 'Puss in Boots'. In addition, he was also rehearsing a short season of Oscar Wilde's most famous play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, which was to follow the pantomime.
One Saturday afternoon, Reggie and I took Mum and Aunt Peggy to see the pantomime, while Emma met us at the theatre with all the children, so the party consisted of nine in total. I'm not sure that the youngest members of the family understood what was going on, but they did love the bright lights, the colourful costumes and the music. I suspect they thought it was television on a giant screen! In pantomime, participation by the audience is encouraged, so when Thomas called out “That's a BIG pussycat'” in a very loud voice, the whole audience erupted into laughter.
One unseasonably warm day Mum expressed a desire to see the sea once more. By now she was having trouble walking, so I had hired a wheelchair for her. I rang Emma and asked if she would like to bring the children along and we would meet her at the beach. This she agreed to do, so I put the wheelchair in Bluebird's boot and Mum sat in the front with me while Aunt Peggy sat in the back.
Bridchester stands on the shores of a wide semi-circular bay with fine white sand. When I reached the promenade, I easily spotted Emma's car as there weren't many holiday-makers at that time of the year, and I parked behind it. Aunt Peggy and I helped Mum into the wheelchair. She was wearing a thick coat but we also put a blanket over her. Despite the sun, there was a cool wind blowing and we didn't want to risk her getting a chill. We walked along the esplanade until we came to a ramp leading down onto the sands, and sure enough there was Emma with the children, Penny, Elizabeth, Thomas and Stella. Penny apparently had a day off school because she was supervising them like a little mother. They had brought along their buckets and spades and were busy trying to make sandcastles without a lot of success, but they were greatly enjoying themselves.
We eased the wheelchair down the stone ramp to the beach and stopped where it reached the sand. The children looked up and with cries of 'Grandma!' they came racing up to greet her. Each of them had collected some seashells to give to her and they poured them, together with a quantity of sand into Mum's hands. I looked at the smile on her face and suddenly the thought struck me that this would be the last time we did this, and I nearly lost it. Thank goodness my stage training had taught me to control my emotions.
Mum laughed. “Children are amazing. They don't seem to feel the cold at all,” she said. I took this to mean that she did, so after a few minutes I asked: “Who would like an ice cream?”
Naturally enough the replies were all in the affirmative and since the summer ice cream vendors were nowhere to be seen, it was agreed that we would go to a local café to buy them. I couldn't help feeling that I'd been very devious, but only the adults recognised that!
We had the café to ourselves and I think the proprietor was rather glad of the business since the adults all had a cup of tea in addition to the four ice creams we purchased for the children.
“Will you come to the beach with us again?” said Penny, and Mum promised that she would try. At that point, I did have to go to the 'Ladies' as the emotion was getting too much for me. When I returned, Penny said “Your eyes are red Aunt Harriet. Have you been crying?”
“No, I just got some sand in them,” I replied. Sometimes white lies are justified.
It was a couple of days later, and Mum and I were sitting in her lounge room. Aunt Peggy had gone shopping.
“Are you missing being on the stage?” said Mum suddenly.
I paused. You can't lie to your Mum, they know if you do anyway.
Mum laughed. “I think that answers my question,” she said.
“Mum, there's nowhere else I'd rather be at present,” I replied.
“Thank you my dear, but I have a reason for asking. David wants to come over and ask a favour. You know he's rehearsing “The Importance of Being Earnest” at present?”
Indeed I did, and I was hoping that Mum would be well enough to take her to a performance as the season started in just over a week.
“Oh no, has someone got appendicitis or pneumonia again?” I said, laughing.
“Nothing like that. We'd better wait for him to explain it to you,” said Mum.
Sure enough, the doorbell rang about an hour later and I went to answer it. I couldn't resist teasing David so I said “David! What a surprise. I was just saying to Mum how much I wasn't missing the theatre, and now here you are!”
That stopped him in his tracks and when I saw the way his face fell I immediately felt guilty and said “I was just teasing you David. Come in, sit down and tell me what it's all about.”
I made a cup of tea for him and then he told me the story. One of the young actresses, May West, who was playing the part of Cecily Cardew, had recently gone to Birmingham to audition for a play with the city's major theatrical company. She did so with David's permission since neither of them expected for a moment that she would get the part, it was merely to get auditioning experience with a major company. However, things worked out a little differently; the actress who had been offered the part pulled out and it was given to her understudy. The director then phoned May and asked her to be the understudy instead. That morning she had told David and said she realised she would have to decline the invitation, but he told her to hold off as he had an idea. No prizes for guessing what that idea was!
“Before you say 'why me?' there is no-one else I know who could learn the part quickly and be able to start performing it with only a week's rehearsal,” he said. “I know this will be the third time you've helped us out, and if you say 'no', May will have to stay with us, but she's a really talented young actress and deserves this chance.”
What could I possibly say but 'yes'? I knew as well as David did that I could step in with a week's notice, and what's more I knew that Mum wanted me to do it too. Perhaps this was to be the last time she saw me on the stage after all.
“Very well, I'll do it,” I said. “But I'll just be one of the cast, no special treatment on the posters, and of course the same pay as all the others.”
I knew David was well aware that my usual salary was well above what the Apollo Players could afford, so I didn't want him to worry on that score. I was doing this for him and Mum as well as May.
“Did you happen to bring the script with you?” I asked, suspecting I already knew the answer.
David reached into his pocket and produced the book. It looked a bit dog-eared.
“This is May's copy. I hope you don't mind. All the lines for Cecily are highlighted.”
“Thank you. I'd better learn them tonight. I'm assuming you'd like me at the rehearsal tomorrow?” I said.
As I drove back to York, it occurred to me that there was just one small cloud on the horizon. Now that I was a married woman I knew that I should have discussed this with Reggie first, and I hadn't. The problem was that David needed an instant answer so that he could tell May that she could accept the Birmingham offer. I had to keep my fingers crossed that Reggie would understand when I told him that evening. I thought he would, but the more I thought about it, the more I started to worry. As a result, I felt very nervous as I arrived back at our flat in York. I made our tea and waited for Reggie to arrive from the university.
Halfway through our meal, while I was still wondering how to broach the subject, Reggie commented that I was unusually quiet.
“Is something the matter?” he inquired. There was nothing else for it, I had to tell him the whole story. He listened in silence which I found very disconcerting.
“I know I should have told them that I had to discuss it with you first. Instead of that, I put May and David first and that was really wrong.”
I had done my best to hold it together but now I realised that tears were starting to run down my cheeks. Reggie reached out and took my hands in his.
“Do you think I'm an ogre?” he said. “You look really frightened. I've never seen you like this before.”
“I know I'm in the wrong,” I replied, “Now I've agreed to help them out there's nothing I can do about it, except promise that I'll never do anything like that again without discussing it with you first. Will you forgive me? Please?”
Reggie laughed. “Your problem is that you're too soft-hearted. As for forgiveness, there's nothing to forgive.”
“I'm not looking to blame anyone else, but Dame Emily said something about it being up to all us actors to help each other. I've been helped so much that I suppose I felt I must give something back.”
“You're not to worry about it any more, just go ahead and put on a great performance. I'll be coming to see you of course. I hope they realise how lucky they are to have you.”
“And I know how lucky I am to have you,” I said as we started to kiss.
That evening, as we sat in our lounge room, with Reggie busy studying, I read through and memorised my part. If that sounds boastful, I claim no credit for what is often called a 'photographic memory', it's just something I was born with, and of course it is extremely useful for someone who makes her living on the stage. Some people have said to me 'if you have such a good memory, why aren't you a doctor or lawyer?' My response to that is while a lawyer's courtroom appearances most closely resemble an actor on stage, neither occupation held any appeal for me, and anyway they probably required more intelligence than I've got.
I rang my agent Richard to tell him what I'd signed up for, and he sighed and told me I was too generous with my time. “I suppose I'll have to get used to it,” he said.
“I'll make up for it when I go to America,” I replied. “Don't forget 'Romeo and Juliet' is coming up again too.”
During the evening I had a telephone call from May West. She wanted to thank me for taking over her part so that she could be released to go to Birmingham.
“When David told me he'd found someone who could take over from me at such short notice I thought he must be joking and when he told me who it was and that you are actually his sister-in-law I could hardly believe it.”
“I've been fortunate in my career so far, so I'm happy to help a fellow player,” I said. “From what David tells me, you have a great career ahead of you, so I thought it would be a shame for you to miss this chance. Did he mention that I started out with the Apollo Players too?”
“Yes he did,” she replied. “It's been a great learning experience working with them, but David said they've done as much as they can for me, and now it's time I took the next step.”
“Well, 'break a leg',” I said. “Let me know how you get on.”
By the time we went to bed, Reggie and I were best friends once more and demonstrated that to each other in the usual manner, but I made a firm resolution to remember in future that now I was a married woman, I couldn't make instant decisions like I could when there was no-one to answer to but me.
The next morning I was up at about six o'clock, had my shower and breakfast, then got dressed before making sure that Reggie was awake. By seven o'clock I was in 'Bluebird' and driving to Bridchester. I had arranged with David that I would meet him at the theatre early so that he could go through the blocking with me before the rest of the cast arrived.
When they were all assembled, David told them that May had left the production because of the offer in Birmingham and for those of the cast who didn't know me, I was replacing her. I think they were stunned that someone would take over at such short notice, and looked rather doubtful about David's decision. However, by the end of the day's rehearsing and finding that I was already 'off book', they seemed to have a better opinion of me. Perhaps others in the cast who already knew me had reassured them that the part was in 'safe hands'.
One of the scenes didn't require me to be present, so I went to see Mrs Arthur the Wardrobe Mistress, known to all and sundry as “Aunty”, to get measured for my costume.
“Well, look who's here!” she exclaimed as I walked through the door.
I laughed. “I'm back in my usual rôle of 'go-to girl', Aunty,” I replied.
“I heard about you offering to replace May. You're a good-hearted girl Harriet,” she said.
She ran a practised eye over me before producing her tape measure.
“As I thought, you're a size larger than May. I'll have to let out some seams a bit, but I'm sure I can fix up the costume by tomorrow.”
'Aunty' had been with Apollo for as long as anyone could remember, and when she said 'tomorrow', I know she meant it. She and I go back a long way as she was the first person to dress me as a girl for performing in professional theatre. It wasn't my first female part, but the others were in school plays where everyone knew I was a boy. In 'Dear Brutus', the intention was that the audience believed I really was a girl performing the rôle. [This episode is related in detail in 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' Chapter 2]
When we finished rehearsing for the day, I called in at Mum's before driving back to York, just to let her know how the day had gone.
“I'm so glad,” she said. “I can't wait to see you on stage once more.”
I couldn't help thinking that the thought of seeing me on stage was helping to keep Mum alive and that was a scary responsibility.
The next day I returned to 'Aunty's' workroom to be fitted for my costume. The play was first performed in 1895, the time of 'La Belle Époque' or the Edwardian Era in England, and our costumes reflected this, with a skirt flaring smoothly from the hips over some petticoats and widening to the hem which was just above the ground. Thank goodness the bustle had disappeared, but it was fashionable to have a tiny waist, and luckily I had one of those which was even more accentuated by a corset. The other notable feature of dresses at that time was 'leg of mutton' sleeves which had become quite large. All this had been faithfully copied by 'Aunty'.
Once I had put on the dress, she added a brown wig in the 'pompadour' hairstyle and this was crowned with an extravagant hat of considerable size. Checking myself in the full-length mirror, even without stage makeup, I still looked every inch the Edwardian lady and 'Aunty' professed herself to be very pleased with the result. She also had suitable stockings and shoes which would complete the costume when we had a dress rehearsal the following week. I walked up to the auditorium for David to see how I looked and he was thrilled with 'Aunty's' handiwork in adjusting the costume for me to wear.
“You look like the perfect 'Cecily',” he said.
I had had further discussions with Reggie and it had been decided that I would stay overnight Monday until Saturday with Mum and Aunty Peggy for the two weeks of the play's season.
“It's much too far for you to drive back to York each night,” he said, and I was glad of that, even though I would really miss sleeping with him. So much for the gypsy life of an actress.
The pantomime season came to an end and there was a rush by the stagehands to install the sets for 'Earnest'. They only had two days to do it, but they were professionals and knew their jobs. At last, we could rehearse in the proper set for the play and so there was a little fine tuning to do with our moves. Then came the dress rehearsal, which went remarkably well, and we were all set to go.
To be continued
Many thanks to Louise Ann and Julia for their assistance in identifying 'typos' and errors. Their help is much appreciated in making my writing look accurate and error-free.
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