Today I move on again, but not far. As I start to pack I have a sudden, wonderful, realisation that I am going to be driving everywhere for the next week, so don’t need to squeeze everything into my cases.
I have a bit of time before John calls for me at 8.30, so I take the opportunity to load the first few things into the car.
Of course this is the replacement vehicle, which I haven’t driven yet and as I open the boot I notice that its license plate pronounces it to be from Colarado: I wonder how it got to Lincoln? Who drove it before; what business are they in? Were they rushing for the airport to catch an important flight, or was it rented to a family on a vacation? Has it been driven from Denver to here in one journey, or has it made the trip via a series of shorter hops? The life of a rental car would be interesting to chart.
Punctual to our 8.30 appointment John knocks at the door and we make our way over to the assisted living (aka – better breakfast), dining room. Our friend Chan is waiting for us and greets us cheerily.
As we eat we have a very interesting conversation about how Chan experienced the show, without being able to see it. He says that listening to the inflections of my voice he could picture the individual scenes in his mind’s eye. He asks us lots of questions about my costume and the arrangement of props on the stage etc. so that his perception of the show can be completed.
John asks Chan an interesting question: how does he cope with the different value of the currency in his wallet? In the UK each note (£5, £10, £20 and £50), is a different size, whereas in America they are all the same. Chan makes sure that he always knows what he is receiving and then folds each one in a different way.
At the next table Dorothy (our one hundred year old new girl), is being fussed over by other residents and seems to be thoroughly happy and at home.
Breakfast finished we make our way back to the main block and our journey is interrupted often as people talk about the show and congratulate me. They are a very friendly bunch here and I feel as if I’ve known them all for years.
I go back to my room, pack up the last of my bags and return to the lobby to say my goodbyes. There a few extra book signings to be squeezed in before I finally hug John at the main door and get into my car.
I set the beloved SatNav unit and head out onto the icy roads on Lincoln, towards Omaha.
Once on the freeway I start to run through The Signalman again. Because of Top Hole! a few days ago, I have left all of this too late and I am not going to be nearly as well prepared as I’d like.
The journey to Omaha is not long and I am soon pulling into the parking garage of the Hilton hotel. I have not stayed here before and it looks very plush and elegant.
At the check in desk I am told I have a package waiting: it is the replacement fountain pen that I ordered online, after I had lost my previous one in Norfolk. I feel complete again.
Even as I am checking in, my good friend Lee Phillips, who is always responsible for driving me when I am in Omaha, is waiting for me. We make arrangements to meet up in about forty minutes and I go to my room to get ready.
Up on the third floor and out of the lift, I take the direction for room 3097. The corridor is very, very long and my room is right at the far end.
I have just about enough time to have a quick shower and get my costume sorted out for this afternoon’s event, before I start the hike back along the corridor and to the lobby where Lee is waiting.
My first venue today is the Omaha Central High School and as we drive through the city Lee points out the building to me. It is certainly impressive, situated on a prominent hill it is built in the Palladian style and looks not unlike Buckingham Palace. I never went to a school like that!
We find a parking space and go into the main entrance to register our presence. The first thing that I see is a banner hung across the entrance hall proclaiming: ‘Welcome class of 2018. Where Great Expectations are Met’. I think Dickens is going to work just fine here.
We are shown to the theatre by one of the English staff who fills us in with a bit of the building’s history, and then hands us over to the head of theatre. The auditorium is magnificent, with a huge stage and a lavish lighting in the main house.
As there is a class going on Lee and I are taken down into the basement and shown into the dressing rooms, where we are to wait.
I hang my costume up and we chat for a while, until it is time to go back to the theatre and get the stage prepared for my show.
There is a bustle on stage now, the lighting is being prepared, mics are being checked, and lots of students are moving here and there on various errands.
Also in the theatre are Kathy Aultz, who is the director of the Douglas County Historical Society, who sponsor my events in Omaha, and Susan Phillips, who was responsible for first bringing me here, having seen me perform in Williamsburg a few years ago.
Susan is Lee’s wife and they have become great friends over the years. Indeed this Summer they travelled in England and stayed with Liz and me in Abingdon. We had a wonderful day exploring the sights of Oxford and taking a boat trip on the Thames. It is lovely to see them both again now.
Once I have got the furniture arranged as I want it, a student approaches me and introduces herself. She is the reporter for the school newspaper and she would like to interview me, if that is OK?
We spend about fifteen minutes chatting and I am sure she has an excellent career in journalism ahead of her. She has a list of prepared questions, which she occasionally refers to, but listens intently to my answers and lets the conversation grow out of them.
When the interview is over, I do a quick sound check as the tech guy walks all through the auditorium making sure it sounds good from all quarters and then it is back down into the dungeons, to change.
The show itself is interesting and I can’t quite gauge how it is going. The students are all honors students, studying English literature. There is very little reaction or feedback from them, but equally it doesn’t feel as if they are bored or restless. I just concentrate on the performance and hope that they are enjoying it.
At the end there is good applause and some nice questions, so I think it has been well received.
Having got changed and collected all of my belongings (it would be just like me to leave my new pen here), I meet up with Lee and we drive back to the hotel, where I have a couple of hours to try and drag the Signalman up to where I want it to be.
Firstly I order some lunch from room service: it will be forty minutes, which is excellent. Time for a complete run through of the script.
Five minutes in and the phone rings: room service, would I like cream with my coffee. Yes, thank you.
Resume the run. The phone rings. It is Abby from the Historical Foundation, could I call a radio station in an hour to record an interview. Of course, that is fine.
Resume the run. The phone rings. It is the front desk, I have a package to collect. I have already collected my package. No, this is another one.
I walk along the corridor (two city blocks I am informed by one of the housekeeping staff) and take the lift to the lobby. Nobody can track down the new package until someone appears from the back office with a bag of goodies which was supposed to be in my room on my arrival. I thank everyone very much and go back to 3097.
Resume the run. The phone rings. Room service tried to deliver my lunch but I wasn’t there, am I ready for it now?
I give up! Let’s just hope that there is enough in the memory banks to get me through this evening.
My lunch arrives and I watch the television as I eat. In my mind the Signalman lines are still rolling about. I don’t want them to roll about; I want them to be in straight lines!
At 5.45 I get into the sombre all-black costume for the show tonight and meet Lee in the lobby. We drive out to one of the Historical Society’s properties, and a favourite venue of mine: The General Crook House.
The General Crook House is a house built for General Cook (I love history), in 1879. It has been lovingly restored by the Society and is a perfect venue for Victorian performances. It oozes atmosphere from every nook and cranny.
In one of the downstairs rooms there is a small stage set up, which is well lit. At the back of the stage are three further lights up-light the lace curtains in front of the bow window. One light is green and two are red. As the story of the Signalman revolves around a single red danger light at the mouth of a tunnel, I ask for two of the lights to be disconnected, leaving me with a single red glow.
The guests arrive and enjoy a convivial hour’s cocktails and chat, eating from a superb buffet.
I chat and pose and sign with many people who have been to my performances over the last three years and it is nice to be among friends.
At seven, Kathy makes the introductions, I take a deep breath, say a few silent prayers and step onto the stage. I hate being this under-prepared, but it is what it is and I have to make the most of it.
I start by talking about Dickens’s involvement in the Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865. Before I’m five minutes in, a buzzer sounds from somewhere and I am aware of people scrabbling about on the floor.
I stop the show and the situation is sorted out (this room was actually a dining room, and under the carpet is a switch, so that the lady of the house could surreptitiously call the servants to clear the table. One of the audience chair legs is on the buzzer).
I restart. A cell phone goes off. The poor lady in question is mortified and tries to dig it out of her bag, but can’t find it. It rings and rings and rings. She finds it and takes it out. Now it is ringing louder. Fumble, try to turn it off, fumble. And at last it is silent again.
I restart. There is no magic about theatre: miracles just don’t happen and my performance of The Signalman is horribly approximate. However the atmosphere in this small, dark room; the proximity of the audience to me; the low voice I am able to maintain; the eerie glow of the red light, and the story itself all come together to create a suitably Victorian telling of a ghost story.
I have got away with it, but it is certainly not in the way I had wanted it.
After the performance I take a few questions, before we all move into the next room and gather round the lavish buffet table as Susan makes a toast. She does this after every performance in the Crook House and writes them so carefully to reflect that particular performance. Today she uses the opening phrase ‘Halloa! Below there!’ and talks about Omaha’s links to the great USA rail network. It is a wonderful toast.
There follows a short period of signing, but people drift away into the icy night quickly, and I am soon dropped back at my hotel.
Back in my room I find a wonderful email from the English teacher at Omaha Central High, thanking me for my performance earlier and saying how rarely she has seen a group of students so attentive and captivated. I am very relieved to know that it was a success and so touched that she should have taken the trouble to write.
Tomorrow is going to be a busy day, but I feel much more confident about the two shows I am to perform: Doctor Marigold and Nicholas Nickleby.
The last thing I do before I go to bed is to ceremoniously pack The Signalman script deep in the bottom of my case.