There is Nothing like a Dame Chapter 40

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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 40   Of mice and men

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley”
Robert Burns 1785

Life seemed to be going so well. You could say I was 'living a dream'. Just as 'Camelot' finished, I had a phone call from my agent Richard.

“I've got another opportunity for you to earn some real money,” he started off.”How would you feel about a trip to Australia?”

“Where in Australia?” I replied. “It's a big country.”

“Melbourne as it happens,” he replied. “A group called 'The Chimes Theatrical Group' that specialises in Shakespeare is planning to perform three of his plays in repertory, 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Henry V' and 'The Taming of the Shrew'. They are particularly interested in having you play 'Juliet', 'Katherine' in 'The Taming', and possibly 'Princess Katherine de Valois' in 'Henry V'. The season runs for a month and starts in six month's time.”

“Interesting name, like the 'chimes at midnight'? I mused. "Most appropriate for 'Henry V', though it's really from 'Henry IV Part Two'.”

Richard said: ”Have you memorised every play Shakespeare wrote?”

I laughed. “Just about. Did they say which theatre?”

“Yes, it's the Princess Theatre; it seats about fifteen hundred people. You've performed there haven't you?”

“Oh yes!” I replied. “I've even seen their famous ghost.”

Richard laughed: “What is it about theatres, actors and ghosts? Almost every old theatre has at least one. I wouldn't go telling people outside the theatre scene that you saw one; they might think you are a bit quirky.”

I laughed too. I decided not to tell Richard that I'd had quite a close encounter with another theatre ghost in London. What I did tell him was that I was interested in the proposal. The thought of playing three parts, although 'Katherine de Valois' is quite a small one, didn't bother me at all. It seemed that I was starting to get a name for myself outside of England.

“I'll do some negotiations and let you know how I go,” said Richard.

--ooOoo--

I returned to York for my break before heading off to America. It was lovely to be 'Mrs Staunton' for a change. I really missed Reggie while I was performing at Stratford, although I knew as well as he did that if I stayed away from the stage too long, I would inevitably start to miss it.

While I was gone, I suggested to Dame Emily and Madge that we could do worse than ask Sue Berryman to give tuition in singing on stage to our youth theatre group. Of course, we would have to pay her, but both ladies were very receptive to the idea, and I'm glad to say that Sue was happy to join our small band of tutors. We were also looking for other suitable people to help out since our commitments meant that Dame Emily and I were not always available. A few more of the youngsters had dropped out but we didn't mind as it meant that those remaining were really committed to working towards a theatrical career, and realised that it wasn't all glamorous gowns and red carpets.

Back at York, after a few days sorting out our flat (Reggie was very good for a man but any home needs a woman's touch) I had a phone call from my sister Emma asking if I would come over for lunch. We have always been very close and I could tell from her voice that something was worrying her. However I decided that it would be better if we discussed it face to face, so the next day I drove to Bridchester.

It hadn't been that long since I last saw the children, but they were certainly all springing up. Penny was at school, but Elizabeth and Stella were thrilled to see 'Aunty Harriet'. I did notice that Thomas seemed a bit subdued and I thought he looked rather pale. Before we sat down to lunch, I asked Emma what was bothering her.

“It's Thomas. He's been a bit off-colour and not eating like he usually does. I felt some swellings in his neck which I thought was lymph nodes, soI took him to the doctor yesterday. She checked him over and said it could well be a viral infection, but she'd like to do a blood test just to be sure. Poor little chap, he was very brave when the needle went into his arm and she gave him a sticker because he hadn't cried.”

“When do you get the results?” I asked.

“Sometime today,” said Emma. “Anyway, I've got to stop worrying. Let's start lunch.”

We had almost finished our lunch, and I was pleased to see that the children were now managing their own food a lot better, even though Thomas only picked at his, which was unusual. Then the telephone rang. Emma went to answer it, and when she came back into the room I could tell it wasn't good news.

“That was Dr Henry. She told me she had the blood test results but she wouldn't tell me what they are. She just asked if I could take Thomas back to see her right away, and that I should ask David to meet us there if he possibly could. Oh Harriet, now I'm really worried. Could you possibly look after the other children while I take Thomas back to the clinic?”

“Of course,” I replied. I was worried too. It sounded like Thomas might have something seriously wrong with him than a virus.

Emma rang David who was taking a rehearsal for a new play. She had their car, so drove down to the theatre to pick him up before going on to see the doctor. While they were gone, I entertained the children by reading them a story, which they loved, because as they said 'I made up all the funny voices'. Then we played with their dolls' house until Penny came home from school and asked where mum and dad were, so I told her about them taking Thomas to the doctor.

The moment Emma walked through the door, my heart sank. I could tell she had been crying, and David looked grim. Penny sensed there was something wrong and asked what it was.

“Penny darling, I'll tell you soon, but would you look after the children for a minute while your dad and I talk to Aunty Harriet,” said Emma. We walked into the dining room and all sat down.

“Dr Henry got the results of Thomas's blood test,” said Emma, trying not to cry. “It seems he's probably got leukaemia – acute lympho-something.” She looked up at David.

“Probably acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, it's the most common type in children, but he'll need another test to confirm it,” said David in a tight voice. I sat there stunned. My heart felt like it had just been stabbed with a shard of ice.

Finally I found my voice: “But there is treatment?” I asked.

“Oh yes, chemotherapy and possibly a bone marrow transplant,” said Emma, and now tears were rolling down her cheeks. She reached out and grasped David's hand. “The poor little chap will really have to go through the mill, but there's a good chance of a cure.” I could tell she was clutching at that hope.

'A good chance,' I thought, 'So not one hundred percent.' but I didn't say it of course.

“I hate to ask you, Harriet,” said David. “But we have an appointment to see a specialist in the hospital at York tomorrow. Could you possibly come over again and look after the children?”

“Of course,” I replied. “Anything I can possibly do, just tell me and I'll do it.”

--ooOoo--

The day had started off sunny, but it had clouded over in the afternoon, and by the time I headed back to York, the rain was bucketing down. This, together with thoughts about Thomas whirling about my head and distracting me, meant that I nearly ran into the back of a lorry that had suddenly slowed down in front of me. With my heart beating wildly, I drove on much more cautiously. If I'd ended up in hospital, that would have made a bad situation worse.

When Reggie arrived home I told him all about Thomas and he was as shocked as I had been. He too asked about treatment. By then I had done a computer search about leukaemia and discovered that the acute forms were more common in children and whereas some years back, leukaemia was a death sentence, now there was a good chance of recovery with suitable treatment. This made me think of another problem.

“Reggie, we know that Emma and David live off a tight budget. He has a regular job as Director at the Apollo Players but I don't think he's paid a lot, and it's lucky that Emma is a very good housekeeper. Even if they get Thomas's treatment on the National Health, there will be expenses they hadn't budgeted for and this is going to cost them money. I'd like to help them but I don't want to upset David by making him think he's having to rely on the charity of others even though I'm part of the family. How do you think I should handle it?”

“I understand what you are saying Harriet,” said Reggie. “We men like to think that as the head of the household we should be able to manage everything. We feel it's demeaning to have to rely on someone else to pay the bills,” He smiled. “It's just as well that I'm not like most men since you've been keeping us both while I'm at university, but I hope that will end when I get a job. But, how about this? You've often told me that it was due to David, and Emma of course, that you started performing in the theatre. Perhaps you could say that this is your way of paying them back for giving you the start which has led you to being where you are today?”

“That's a great idea, darling,” I replied. “Anyway, I could never forgive myself if Thomas had a worse outcome because I didn't do everything in my power to help him get better. Perhaps I should speak to Emma about it first?”

“I think that's a good idea,” said Reggie.

--ooOoo--

I was up early the next morning to drive back to Bridchester to look after the young children. Penny had already gone to school when I arrived and I asked Emma if they had told her about Thomas's illness.

“Yes, we had to, but we downplayed the seriousness of it as much as we could, so she just thinks it's a case of him having some treatment and then he'll be well again,” said Emma. She looked a bit better than she had the previous day, and I was glad to see that. She made us all a cup of coffee before they left for York and I decided that now was as good a time as any to discuss the question of money. I realised it was probably better to talk to them both at the same time, so I took a deep breath.

“Emma, David, there's something I need to talk to you about. Do you remember how you were both responsible for me getting a job in the theatre, first as ASM and then acting? I've always felt that I owe you so much for me being in the position that I'm in today, and I've never really repayed you. Well now, maybe I can. I'm on quite a good wage at Stratford...” I paused, this was more difficult than I thought. Emma managed a smile and reached out and took my hand.

“Are you saying you want to help us financially with Thomas's treatment?” she said gently.

“Well, yes. It can't be easy bringing up four children on one wage. I know we help out a bit with Stella, but children have lots of expenses,” I said. I knew I was blushing hotly and felt I was making a hash of this. Then David spoke.

“I know I speak for Emma, and indeed the whole family when I say I'm not too proud to accept help in the current situation; after all you are family,” he said quietly. “We'll make it a loan and then we can pay you back one day.”

I felt so relieved that they had made it easy for me. “Thank you, David. I really didn't know how to do this, but I wanted to take a bit of the stress off you, and goodness knows you'll have enough without worrying about money. There's just one thing, I don't want to pay the bills directly, that's for you to do, so just let me transfer funds into your bank account as necessary, please.”

Emma got up and coming over gave me a hug: “Harriet, we are so grateful, we really are.” She was followed by David who also hugged me. I could see a glint of a tear in his eye. Fortunately, before I started crying, Emma said that it was time for them to drive to York. I smiled at Thomas who had no idea what was going on. I just hoped he didn't find the treatment too traumatic, but I knew that there was a hard road ahead from him, and indeed the whole family.

As they got into the car and we waved them goodbye, Elizabeth and Stella wanted to know why they weren't going too.

“Mummy and Daddy are taking Thomas to see a doctor,” I said. We had agreed that we shouldn't make up stories but tell them the truth but in a very simple way. I felt it was going to be a long day for me, but then I had the easy part, I just had to keep the two youngsters entertained.

A couple of hours passed and then David rang me: “Dr Butcher is a really nice woman. She has the blood test results but says that Thomas needs a bone marrow test to confirm that he has leukaemia and if so, how serious it is. The sooner that happens the sooner he can start treatment and she is able to do it today. I'm ringing you because he'll need heavy sedation and we'll have to wait until he is fully awake again and given the all-clear to go home. We might be back quite late. Are you able to stay there until we get back?”

“Of course I can,” I replied. “I'm really glad to hear that they are able to start his treatment so quickly. Please ring me when you are leaving York and I'll have tea ready for you.”

I didn't have suitable belts in my car to take Elizabeth and Stella out, so I waited until Penny came home from school. She was a very responsible young lady, so I asked her to look after the two youngsters for a short time while I drove down to my favourite French bakery in Bridchester. It had been a few years since I last went there, but I was pleased to see that they were still as popular as ever.

“Bon jour, madame. Comment ça va?” I said to Madame Bellerose who was standing behind the counter.

“Mam'selle Harriet! How nice to see you,” she said in that wonderful French accent which she'd never lost despite living many years in England. “Your sister tells me you are doing very well acting in Stratford.”

I blushed: “I'm one of those lucky people who gets paid for doing what they love,” I said with a smile. “It's a pity that I don't get a chance to visit Bridchester more often, but I see you are looking very well.”

She laughed: “I think you mean I am putting on weight, but that's what happens when you marry an excellent pastry cook.”

We chatted for a few more minutes. She asked what plays I had been performing, so I told her about 'Juliet' and 'Guinevere'. She seemed very impressed and said she really must come down to Stratford and see me perform one day. I wondered if that day would ever come as she always seemed so busy when I saw her, but I said nothing.

I bought a large Beef Stroganoff pie, a large quiche and a big box of pastries, explaining that I was looking after the children while Emma and David were out for the day and I wanted to prepare tea for them.

“All I have to do is warm up the pie or quiche, cook some vegetables and 'voilà', tea is ready,” I said with a smile, and that's exactly what I did.

When Emma, David and Thomas arrived home, both the adults looked exhausted and Thomas was actually asleep when David carried him inside. He took him into the bedroom and laid him on his bed, covering him with a blanket. I had cooked some new potatoes, peas and carrots and had warmed up the pie in the oven. Emma looked very grateful to have tea waiting.

“Harriet, you're a star!” she said as all the family sat down at the table to eat. I don't claim to be a great cook, but even I can manage a few vegetables! I wanted to ask them how things had gone but didn't like to say anything in front of the children, so had to confine myself to small-talk while we ate. Once the children had eaten their main course, then the pastries were revealed and of course they were a great success.

Finally, with the younger children put to bed, and Penny watching the television, we were able to sit down and discuss what had happened during the day.

“We didn't see the doctors do the bone marrow test on Thomas because they took him into a treatment room and the fewer people there the better, in case of infection,” she said “After they sedated him apparently they put a needle into his hip bone and drew out some of the marrow material to examine. They will have the results in a couple of days and assuming it is leukaemia, then Thomas will need to start chemotherapy for about a month. This means he will have to stay in hospital for much of the time.” Emma was holding it together well but I could see that tears were not far away.

“Can you stay in the hospital with him?” I asked.

“Yes I can but of course there are the other children to think of too,” replied Emma. “I really don't know at this stage how we can deal with this.”

“Well I am here for another three weeks before I have to go to America and I'm happy to look after the children, even stay here if necessary,” I said. “That gives us a bit of time to think of something.”

Although I was the younger sister, it seemed to me that because I wasn't directly involved, I would have to play the part of 'big sister' for a while.

--ooOoo--

As I drove back to York, it occurred to me to check with my agent, Richard, if there was some way I could get out of my contract to play 'Juliet' in America, so I pulled over at a parking bay and rang him on my phone. When Richard answered I explained the situation to him and asked if anything could be done.

“I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Harriet, but I don't think you can get out of it. In the standard contract you signed, there is an option to cancel without penalty but only if you suffer severe illness or accident, or a close relative dies or has severe illness or accident. 'Close relative' means a spouse or legal partner, parents, or children. Unfortunately, a nephew doesn't qualify.”

“Supposing I walked away from the contract?” I asked.

Richard laughed: “Don't even go there. Our friends across the Atlantic tend to be a bit litigious. It could cost you a six or even seven figure sum. It might even bankrupt you and of course, there's also the damage to your reputation for reliability.”

“I see. Well, in that case, we'd better forget this conversation ever occurred,” I said.

“What conversation?” said Richard. “I meant to ask you how 'Camelot' went. Was it a success?”

“Yes it was, but I'm not saying that was because of me. They are a very good amateur company and I enjoyed performing with them.”

“How were the ticket sales?” said Richard.

“It sold out most performances.”

“And you're saying that had nothing to do with one of the stars of the Imperial Shakespeare Company performing with them? I don't believe you! You should have let me ask them for more money, they paid you a pittance.”

“It was all they could afford,” I replied. I wasn't going to tell him that I actually gave them the money back. If he knew that he really would think I was crazy. We chatted for a few more minutes about the Melbourne season of Shakespeare. He was still waiting to finalise the contract, but it seemed it would go ahead. I had already discussed it with Reggie and obtained his support of course. Then I continued my drive back to York.

So that was one idea out of the window. What else could I do? And then I had one of my 'bright ideas'. It just might work.

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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