Having had an early night last night I, of course, have an early morning this morning.  I don’t even have a blog to write, as I did that before I dined yesterday.

What I do have to do, however, is book hotel rooms for the UK leg of my Christmas tour.  I am so used to Pam making all of the arrangements on my behalf, that I had completely overlooked the need to stay somewhere in Milton Keynes and Leicester.

After a short spell of internet research I find a suitable hotel for the night of the 22nd.

For my final night away, the 23rd December, I treat myself to a hotel which is a stone’s throw away from the Guildhall in Leicester, even though it is a little more expensive than I would normally pay: Ebenezer would be proud of me for thinking such a thing

I have a three hour drive ahead of me today and need to be on the road quite early.

There is just time to have a continental breakfast before checking out and getting into my car.  Actually, that is not as easy as it sounds.  The last time I was in the car was after my show on Monday night.  By the time I got back to the hotel the car park was very full and I struggled to find a spot.  Yesterday, of course, I used public transport to take me into the city.

Now, on a cold, wet, foggy morning, I can’t actually remember where I left my car.  Losing a pen, or my phone is one thing, but a Ford Escape with New Mexico licence plates?  That takes some doing.

I tug my cases around the parking lot for a while, zapping the key fob until I see an answering blink of the lights.  My day is back on track.

I think I have overcome the situation regarding my Christmas playlist, which has remained imprisoned in my phone ever since I picked up the Escape.  I have a little speaker, which Liz and I bought on a cruise ship a few years ago, to listen to audio books on.  I can plug my phone into the speaker and will be able to enjoy Christmas songs for the entire journey.

As I set off Elvis is bemoaning his Blue Christmas.  Within ten minutes the speaker’s battery gives out and once more I am destined not to listen to the fruits of my downloading.

Fortunately there is a New York station playing ‘Holiday Hits’ so I will have my fix for a while yet.

The roads are very crowded, as I suspected they would be. The low cloud and heavy spray makes visibility very bad and I witness a lot of near-misses, one of which involves me.

I am maintaining a good distance to the car in front, and register that his brake lights are on, so lift my foot from the accelerator and start to brake.  Suddenly I realise that is braking HARD, so I do the same, instinctively glancing in my mirror at the same time.  The sight I see makes me wince and brace for the inevitable impact.

A fast moving car is in the process of pulling into my lane, and accelerating to overtake, just at the moment as I am slamming on my brakes.  Somehow he manages to swerve back to the right, just missing clipping my bumper.

As he goes by me he makes a series of gestures, which might mean: ‘I’m really terribly sorry, old fellow.   Rather misjudged your speed and hadn’t appreciated that you were having the brake quite so hard.  Well, lucky for both of us that nothing worse happened. Enjoy the rest of your day!’

That MIGHT have been what he meant, but somehow I don’t think so.

A difficult journey

A difficult journey

The drive is not an exciting one, it has to be said.  I get on I 80, shortly after leaving the New York City environs, and stay on it for three hours.  It is not a pretty road.  There are promises of lovely things if only I had the time to explore: ‘The Land of Make Believe’ in the city of Hope sounds almost too good to be true.

As I drive further west I begin to lose the Holiday Hits radio station, so search for something else to listen to.  I happen upon a classical PBS station, which is playing an arrangement of some of JS Bach’s tunes taken from his notebook and written for his second wife.  It is lovely, and I decide to stay with the station for as long as the signal allows me to.

Across the state line, and into Pennsylvania.

A brown pick up passes me which has the name ‘BECKER’ emblazoned along the side.  On the tail gate it proclaims that ‘We Cover Pennsylvania.  It’s a successful marketing to a point, in that I know the company name and where they operate.  What they actually do, however, is a complete mystery.

The clock ticks on and I get to the stage where there is less than an hour to go.  In my mind this means that I am very nearly there and it is easy to lose concentration: ‘The Final Hour Syndrome’, I call it.

The minutes tick on until at last I see the sign to The Country Cupboard, a beautiful store in Lewisburg, PA, where I have been performing for the last three years.

The store is a destination in its own right, and has a hotel on the property.  I pull up, check in and am immediately at home in the room that has become mine, by tradition.  A magnificent bag of cookies and pretzels and muffins and other assorted delights is on the counter.  I notice that the kitchen area has a Keurig coffee maker…….

I have a little bit of time to myself before walking to the store itself, to meet up with the team here, as well as doing a sound check.

The room is beautifully set out for a very large crowd and sat at one of the tables are Missy and Colleen from the store, and KJ, a singer-songwriter who plays for the crowd before my show.  All have become close friends and we hug our hellos.

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Last year there were a few issues with the microphone that we used, so this year Missy as asked for a sound engineer to come in and help out.  Tom duly arrives and looks rather dismissively at the regular microphone, before pulling out a very small omnidirectional unit.

I rather feel like James Bond being handed his latest gadget by Q.

We clip the mic onto my shirt and after a bit of fiddling with switches and screws, we arrive at a lovely sound.  KJ walks the room and says the levels are great.  Missy is pleased, I am pleased.  Tom, thank you: I think we have tracked down our perfect microphone at last.

The crowd are clamouring at the door, even though there is an hour and a half before show time. Whilst I am getting ready, they will avail themselves of the delicious buffet that is waiting for them in the restaurant:  there is a dazzling array of foods simmering in hot plates, which makes my mouth water.

As the guests surge into the ballroom, I go to the hotel, where I iron shirts, shower and relax for an hour before making my way to the little storage room behind the stage, which is doubling as my dressing room today.

I lay out my replacement costume, before joining Missy at the back of the ballroom, where we watch KJ singing carols, and encouraging the audience to join in.  She is a wonderful warm-up act.

People are still coming to the buffet and many stop to chat and shake my hand.

Missy, who knows the routine well now, provides me with a hot cup of tea and a packet of honey, which is one of the best ways of keeping my voice intact.

Guests eat, KJ sings, I sip.

Eventually we are ready to go and the manager, Steve, takes the microphone and welcomes everyone to Country Cupboard.  After the requisite announcement regarding cell phones and photography has been made, he asks who has seen the show before and over 50 percent of the hands in the room go up.  (actually, that’s not true, because that would mean everyone put one hand up and a few put two up.  What I mean is, more than fifty percent of the people in the room put a hand up).

Steve welcomes me to the stage and I begin.  I must have placed the microphone a little closer to my face, than when we did the sound check, for it distorts ever so slightly, but I reduce my volume to compensate and soon the sound is perfect once more.

The show goes well, although the row of powerful footlights at the front of the stage makes it very hot going indeed and I am drenched in sweat before Marley makes his appearance.

The crowd are good and responsive and we all have a lot of fun.

I am very happy with the show: for the first time in quite a few performances, I get every word absolutely correct.  I seem to have been fumbling a few lines recently, so it is good to get a perfect one under my belt.

In my storage room I get changed and then join Missy to go to the store and my signing table, where another friend from years past, Jess, is waiting for me.

At the signing table

At the signing table

The line is a long and chatty one, so it takes a little while until there is nothing left to sign and I can go back to my room to change.

I add the recently used costume shirt to a bag of white laundry and set a load going, before joining Missy, Colleen, Jess and KJ to enjoy the buffet ourselves.

We have a lovely time together, chatting and laughing. KJ tours a great deal at this time of the year too and we both have some wonderful anecdotes about life on the road.  She once performed at an event with Jon Bon Jovi, and Missy is beside herself with envy – Bon Jovi is her idol and she can’t believe that she is so close to someone who was so close to him!

Our time for fun is soon over however, as the evening crowd starts to gather at the doors.  I go back to my room and get ready for round two, Missy and Colleen check that everything in the ballroom is ready, Jess returns to the store and KJ tunes her guitar.

When I return KJ is about to start.  She pulls out a spare battery, in case her microphone fails.  Missy says that she also is carrying a spare, as am I.  paranoid, us? Never.

Batteries (l-r: Missy, me, KJ)

Batteries (l-r: Missy, me, KJ)

Traditionally at The Country Cupboard the evening audience has always been a more reserved group and harder to get going.

When I join Missy again, and I have my tea in my hand, it looks as if history is repeating itself: KJ is struggling to get the crowd to join in, and most of them just continue talking as she sings.

KJ performing

KJ performing

They do get a little animated during ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, but it has been a struggle.  I take note: forewarned is forearmed.

Sure enough the responses are muted, but the audience are definitely engaged in the story and listening intently.  There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ audience – different groups simply behave in different ways and here, tonight, they are a quiet bunch.

The show is good and I start getting more reaction as the story goes on.  Of course, dear Mrs Cratchit comes to the rescue, as she so often does, and gets the crowd giggling.

At the end, there is a standing ovation but the applause is dying and people are sitting almost before I’m off the stage.

In my little room, I change again, covering myself with talcum powder and leaving two tell-tale footmarks on the carpet.

Talc footprints

Talc footprints

The signing line is shorter than the afternoon’s but everyone is in high good spirits and the comments about the show, especially from those who have seen it for the first time, are effusive, which puts me in a good mood.

Eventually everyone has gone, so I say goodnight to Jess, and walk with Missy back to the ballroom, where I collect all of my belongings together to take back to the hotel room.

Across the car park there is a grill, Damon’s, and Missy has arranged for them to provide me with supper, charged back to The Country Cupboard.  I sit at the bar, watching the basketball on the TV and eating a delicious piece of salmon in a Thai sauce.

Soon the buzz of the day begins to wane and I feel tired.  I say my thank yous to the staff in Damon’s and return to the hotel.

I have another fairly early start tomorrow and another three hour drive.  My little speaker is fully charged, ready for the journey and I have added a few more songs to the playlist: tomorrow is the day when I can finally listen to it in all of its glory!

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