Today I have the longest drive of the trip and also the one with the greatest delay potential as I have to negotiate the cities of Baltimore and Washington DC before arriving at my destination, the gorgeous sleepy town of Occoquan in Virginia. The whole trip should take me around three and a half hours.
The breakfast at the Quality Inn is as standard motel breakfast of cornflakes and waffles, which I eat in a deserted breakfast room, with the exception of an incredibly helpful member of staff who watches my every move and tries to pr-empt everything I do. I’m on my way to the waffle machine and she is filling batter for me. She gets my plate. This is getting competitive now and I stealthily move to the knives and forks, disguising my actions before she can beat me to it. ‘Do you have a knife and fork?’ she asks from the waffle machine. ‘Yes!’ I do now. She has one more trick up her sleeve and a fresh cup of coffee is waiting for me before I get back to the table. She is very helpful.
I check out and get onto the road at about 8.15. Christmas songs playing and speeding happily along the Interstate I suddenly realise that a police car is parked on top of a bridge and as another car and I pass underneath he starts to move to join our carriageway. There is an exit coming up so I gently peel off to the right and watch the mirror. The cops carry on their way, presumably chasing my companion down. Beads of sweat had broken out on my brow and I take a few moments to breath deeply and calm down again. I’d expected to simply be able to rejoin the main route but dear Ms SatNav takes me across country for a few miles to join another road South.
The new route takes me onto a large suspension bridge and as I am crossing the Delaware I reflect on the ton of washing I have done on this trip.
Onward I go, and soon I am crossing my old friend the Susquehanna River, broad, wide, majestic, shortly to flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
I hit my first traffic delay on the outskirts of Baltimore and sit looking at the squat city skyline to my right. The traffic is not held up for long and I am on my way soon enough.
The Maryland (pronounced Marylnd, not Mary Land), interstate runs through woodland and there are no barriers at the side of the road. At alarmingly regular intervals there are vivid, lurid black tyre marks scribing huge S shapes on the tarmac before disappearing into the trees. I can only imagine the fear inside those cars as they headed towards the woods.
As I get closer to Washington DC the cars begin to change. Now there are more Mercedes, BMW’s, Porsches and other exotic sport scars. Everyone is talking on cell phones, urgently doing business.
In no time the road ahead is filled with brake lights shining like a Christmas display and I pull slowly up behind the car in front and to a halt. I can see the queue of traffic stretching way ahead. My SatNav confidently tells me the delay is 2 minutes. Bless her. I now realise that I was wrong to be angry with her in Philadelphia when she tried to take me to a nonexistent petrol station. She just doesn’t like to disappoint me with bad news. she is only trying to be kind. I sit in the traffic for 25 minutes and never once does she budge from her assertion that the delay will be 2 minutes.
Eventually we all edge to the scene of the accident. A car has run into a truck showing a large arrow cautioning drivers to move to the left, as the right lane will be shut. The lane is certainly shut now, blocked by the truck with a maroon saloon car wedged in underneath it front completely smashed. I can only hope that everyone who was talking on their mobile phones understands the possible consequences of their actions.
DC by CD
Released from the traffic and I am passing the DC skyline to my right: there is the dome of the Capitol building and the slender needle of the Washington Monument. I am only flirting with DC though, as I’m headed further South.
Charles Dickens came to Washington DC in 1842 and didn’t find the place to his taste at all:
It has no trade or commerce of its own: having little or no population beyond the President and his establishment; the members of the legislature who reside there during the session; the Government clerks and officers employed in the various departments; the keepers of the hotels and boarding-houses; and the tradesmen who supply their tables. It is very unhealthy. Few people would live in Washington, I take it, who were not obliged to reside there; and the tides of emigration and speculation, those rapid and regardless currents, are little likely to flow at any time towards such dull and sluggish water.
Ebenezer in Occoquan
I leave it behind me and in no time I am arriving at Occoquan. Nestling on the banks of the Occoquan River (the name means literally ‘at the end of the water’), Occoquan has a population of under 1000. It is a lovely town.
I have arrived in good time and am able to check into my hotel and have a shower to wash the slough of the journey away and then at 1.00 I pull my car up to a parking space outside my venue for today, the Ebenezer chapel. Yes, really.
The show is actually promoted by The Golden Goose store which sells a huge array of Christmas decorations, ornaments and collectables, including the Byers Choice range.
The shop is run by Pat and LaVerne, two amazing ladies. I have been coming here for every single one of my tours, dating back to 1996. As soon as I walk in through the door Pat gives me a huge hug of welcome. Would I like some lunch? We have plenty of time.
We go across to the Virginia Grill across the street and order a bowl of peanut soup for Pat and a plate of chicken tenders for me. We chat. And chat. And chat. Presumably they are harvesting the peanuts by hand and chasing the chicken around the back yard, for the order seems to take forever to arrive and when it does, I have about 15 minutes before the start of my first show of the day.
I wolf down a few of the tenders and then run over to the shop to change. Of course when you are in a hurry nothing goes right and I can’t get my buttons to do up properly and can’t get my cufflinks through their holes. I put on my shoes and think that inevitably this will be the day that my laces break, so am very cautious pulling them tight.
At last I’m ready, grab my top hat, cane and scarf and march off along the street up towards the Ebenezer Chapel which is already full. LaVerne is waiting for me there. Straight away she walks to the front of the tiny hall and makes her introduction.
The audience is full of people who have been to my show multiple times. There is no stage, no sound system, no lighting to speak of but there is an amazing atmosphere and the show is more like an English Pantomime than anything else. Some members of the audience are mouthing along the lines and laughing before a gag, in anticipation.
I am giving it everything, probably too much, if truth be told: I will pay for it later, I am sure. The audience is such fun however, so alive that I feel like a surfer riding a huge wave and I don’t want to lose a second of it.
About half way through, my tentative shoe tying comes back to bite me, as my left lace unravels itself and drags across the floor lying in wait to catch me out. Once I am aware of it I make sure that I place my feet very carefully.
I have a special ‘adlib’ here in the Ebenezer Chapel. I use it every year and every year everyone laughs as if it is the first time I’ve ever said it. When Scrooge goes to Church and kneels in front of the altar, he turns his head back to the audience and says: ‘they even named it after me!’
At the end of the show there is only one way off stage and that is right through the middle of the audience, so there is much hand shaking and backslapping. I grab a bottle of water and stand at the door, like a minister at the end of the Sunday service as everyone files out.
The signing session for this event is back at the store, so we all make our way along the street back to the Golden Goose, where I sit in a little room surrounded by Christmas trees. I am assisted by Alyssa, one of the staff members, who takes pictures, chats and helps to unwrap various items ready for me to sign. It makes so much difference having someone like this at the signing sessions and makes the whole process pass much more quickly.
So many familiar faces. One lady used to see me in Californian and now lives in Virginia and comes every single year. She has the sleeve to an audio cassette of A Christmas Carol that I recorded in 1994 and having asked me to sign it, she gives me a gift of her own. It is a British Ha’penny, minted in 1861. A good luck charm that she would like me to have, it is very lovely of her and very moving.
The line finishes, although I am waylaid a couple of times on my way to get changed by people who want yet more things signed, but at last I get out of my costume, ready for dinner back at the Grill.
This time we had pre ordered so there isn’t such a delay and I spend a very happy 40 minutes or so sitting with friends talking mainly about British TV drama. I have the upper hand and valuable information: I have seen the latest season of Downton Abbey….
All too soon it is time to get changed again and the afternoon’s events are repeated with slightly less panic. I arrive at the hall, which is filling up again and LaVerne is waiting once more. She makes her introductory remarks and I walk through the audience to begin.
I am paying for the excesses of this afternoon and the evening performance is more of a struggle both vocally and energetically but the audience loves it just the same and the reactions are just as powerful. The ‘Ebenezer’ chapel gag gets the same reaction and the groupie audience love the additions that I’ve made over the past 12 months.
Another backslapping walk through the Church, more meeting and thanking at the Church door and another brisk walk back to the Golden Goose.
The line is shorter this time as a lot of the second audience joined the first signing session. Alyssa and I work through the happy crowd until there is nobody left. Except for 2 people waiting for me. An old friend from my first performances in Williamsburg has come to see the show. Carol Godwin used to be in charge of Public Relations at the Williamsburg Inn and we worked closely together for many years there. She has brought her friend Mary with her to see the show and we are going to grab a drink somewhere afterwards.
I get changed and gather up all of my belongings from where they had been spread throughout the day. There is a slight delay while I locate my cufflink box which actually is in the bottom of my bag and I am ready to go. I bid fond farewells to Pat and LaVerne and all of the staff at The Golden Goose and they send me on my way with a bag of cookies and treats. I love coming here and will return for as long as they invite me. It is such a happy shop!
Carol, Mary and I go to the Virginia Grill, being the only place open in Occoquan, and have a lovely hour or so talking about old times at the Inn. Mary is an International flight attendant for American Airlines and it is fascinating to talk about her job too.
Soon it is time to leave. Carol and Mary back to DC and me back to my Hampton Inn a mile away.
I hang my costumes, sit in bed, munch some cookies and let my body relax. It has been a tiring day and a stressful one in many ways, but oh, such fun.