Today definitely feels as if one part of the tour has ended and another, the final stage, is beginning. Geographically it is not a big journey today, but emotionally it is a big leap.
I have agreed to meet Bob for breakfast this morning, which will be fun. I write as much of the blog as time allows, before showering and going to the restaurant for eight thirty.
Bob is already sat at a table nursing a cup of coffee, and he looks as tired as I feel: It has been a very hectic few days for him and the whole team at Byers’ Choice.
I join him, and we spend a very chatty hour over breakfast, during which the coffee cups are replenished by the attentive Joseph Ambler staff, on a regular basis.
This is a time during which we can talk about the tour: what has worked and what we can do better, and also next year’s itinerary too. It is probably the nearest thing I ever get to a business breakfast, and it feels very grown up.
We also talk about the possibility of Pam and Bob visiting us in Oxford next summer, which would be fabulous.
We finally sip the last of our coffees and say goodbye. I return to my room to finish the blog, which seems to be a very long one.
I had planned to be on the road by ten thirty, but the writing keeps me in the room until eleven. I pack in a very hurried and haphazard way, which rather offends my love of a neat, ordered suitcase.
The staircase at the Ambler Inn is very narrow and steep, so I make two journeys to get my cases down. There is a very tame squirrel outside the door, who watches me curiously as I appear, disappear and reappear with my various pieces of luggage.
Whilst yesterday was grey, misty and wet, today is clear, cold and sparkling, which will make for a lovely drive across the Pennsylvanian countryside to Hershey.
The SatNav tells me that I will arrive shortly before 1pm, which is perfect, and I settle in to the journey.
One of the nice things about writing a blog is that I make sure to look at everything along the way. I look at street names, advertisements, the behaviour of other drivers and so on. On today’s journey I keep seeing things of interest, before realising that I wrote about them on the corresponding day last year.
I pass a sign to Dry Tavern Road, which apparently leads to the community of Dry Tavern, which has a population of around six hundred. If their tavern is indeed dry, I’m not surprised that so few chose to stay there.
At one point of the journey a car comes the other way flashing his headlights continually. I don’t speak American Road language well, but the British translation for a car doing the same would be: ‘slow down, there is a traffic cop around the next corner.’ I instinctively slow down, just in case, and am delighted to discover that the brotherhood of the road transcends national boundaries; for, sure enough, there is a cop. He is probably very confused as to why all of the traffic is passing him at precisely 54 mph.
I turn off the main turnpike to join highway 322 and pass a site where wrecked cars are scrapped. There is something mournful about the yard, the more so as it is terraced, almost landscaped. Each car stands on its own lot and the whole place looks like an automobile cemetery. In most cases the damage is so severe that I am sure the analogy goes further: I would imagine that each car does stand as a monument to a soul lost.
I drive on, with a renewed level of awareness and concentration.
Soon I know that I am nearing the town of Hershey, as I pass a sign to ‘East Chocolate Avenue’.
The Hotel Hershey is one of my longest standing bookings: I think that I have been coming here for fourteen or fifteen years now. I navigate my way up to the beautiful twin-towered hotel, which stands proudly overlooking the town.
The lobby is busy and noisy, as it always is. Families are checking out and carts laden high with cases, bags and souvenirs are being pushed by cheerful bellman.
As I walk in I am greeted from various corners of the lobby: ‘Hey Mr Dickens, great to see you?’; ‘Can I help you with those bags Mr Dickens?’; ‘Is it really a year? Wow good to have you back!’
The girl at the front desk is equally effusive and welcomes me like an old friend. ‘You must forgive me, but remind me do you prefer milk or dark chocolate?’
I go to my room and am settling in when my US cell phone rings. It is Bob saying that the folks at Hershey have called him and are worried about me, as I haven’t arrived. I tell him that I am actually in the hotel, in the room and about to have a sound check. Presumably word has not filtered into the corporate offices from the front desk.
I make my way to the Fountain Lobby where tables are being laid out for my tea event.
Throughout the tour my show develops. With each performance it changes in little ways, as I try new movements, or subtly alter the pacing of a scene. Here in Hershey I have to forget all of that.
The Fountain Lobby is a beautiful covered ‘courtyard’ furnished in a hacienda-style. The floor is tiled and there is a fountain in the centre. At one end of the room windows look out across the town of Herhsey. All of this is very beautiful, but it makes performing very difficult.
Because the guests are seated all around the space, I can’t focus the show in a particular spot and I have to keep moving. In the same way I can’t leave long pauses, as I might on a stage, for some guests might think I’ve left altogether. In a way I have to treat the whole show as an audio presentation, rather than a theatrical one.
The beautiful weather is not helping either, for the sun is streaming straight into the eyes of guests, meaning that I will be completely invisible to them when I’m at that end of the room.
However, I have been coming here for fifteen years and they keep inviting me back, so it must be working!
I do a brief sound check and the system sounds good, albeit a little echoey, but that should improve when people are seated and all of their winter coats can soak up the sound.
I go back to my room and have a bit of a rest until my performance at three thirty, or thereabouts.
When I return to the lobby the guests have already arrived and are tucking into sandwiches, scones and cakes. The superb Hershey servers are almost floating surreptitiously around the floor, topping up hot water and clearing plates.
When the final plates of goodies have been set it is time to start. For some reason they never have anyone to introduce me here, so it is simply a matter of marching into the centre of the room and beginning.
Once more I remind myself, to forget all of the theatrical experiences on the trip: this is a different group, in a different setting. They will not respond in the same way.
As I begin I try to gauge how the audience are reacting. At one end of the room (near to the large windows), there is a group of ladies spread across three tables. They are in good spirits and laugh a great deal. It is very difficult not to play just to them, but I make myself continue to sweep the room.
The script for a show like this is shorter than the full theatre one. The charity collector doesn’t appear in the opening scene, and therefore not at the end either; and Scrooge doesn’t ask ‘are there no prisons? Are the workhouses still in operation?, which means that the Ghost of Christmas present does not repeat the question to him later.
The Carol singer does not sing at Scrooge’s door on Christmas Eve and so Scrooge never remembers him, saying ‘I should just like to have given him a little something.’
But the story still shines through and the guests are listening intently.
I get to the end and actually get a standing ovation, which is far from the norm in the Fountain Lobby.
There is a table set up for my signing and lots of people have brought books with them. Many have seen me before: some here, some in DC, some in other areas of the country and many memories are shared between us.
As soon as I have finished signing, Eoion, the banquet captain for this evening’s event, is hovering anxious to go over the running order.
At dinner I will be performing each chapter of A Christmas Carol between courses: five chapters, five courses. It is a logistical nightmare and we have to coordinate very precisely with the kitchens.
We bash out a suitable running order, and the plan is that we be finished by ten o’clock. We will be lucky to do that, I think.
I return to my room, hang my costume up to air and lay on the bed for an hour or so.
Back in England Liz has been decorating the house and has sent pictures. It makes me feel very homesick. Because of the touring I never actually get to decorate our house, which is very sad. It would be lovely to be there now, hanging ornaments on the tree, swearing over the tangle of Christmas lights, and sitting down at the end of the evening admiring our handy work.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and know that I am very fortunate to be doing it, but there are things that I miss very much.
I scroll through Facebook and happen upon a video of the recent Orion rocket launch. Suddenly it is if I am six again, watching Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blast off from Cape Canaveral.
I can remember my Arfix model kit of the Saturn Five rocket and ‘flying’ it round my bedroom. I remember looking up at the moon and being amazed that men were actually walking on it. Fuzzy black and white images, as James Burke introduced the BBC coverage of the moon missions.
Oh, my word it was so exciting! The future lay before us and there were no limits to what the human race could achieve. Space was truly the final frontier.
And now I am older than my father was then, and a new era of space travel is starting: we are planning to go to Mars.
I know there are many issues about space travel: not least the obscene amount of money spent on what many see as a futile exercise, when there is so much that needs doing here on earth. But….it is SO exciting!
Coming back down to earth, I shower (the shower gel smells of chocolate), and get dressed ready for the evening show.
I am performing in the Castilian Room, which is a very nice, small function room. A stage has been set in the centre of the room, with tables all around it, so once again a straight theatrical show is out of the question. The advantage of having a central stage is that everyone in the room is very close and can feel involved. It all makes for a lovely atmosphere.
Events at Hershey follow a well trodden path and there is a wonderful sense of tradition here. One of the nicest aspects of my first day is that I get to dine with Richard Wyckoff and his party.
Mr Wyckoff is in the media industry and has close links with the Hershey Corporation. Every year he hosts a table which includes the hotel’s manager Brian Day and various other guests. This year at the table are Bill and John, two young executives from the Hershey group.
Introductions are made and hands shaken, before the dinner starts. Brian introduces me and I take over the running of the evening. It is like Cape Canaveral handing over to Houston once the rocket has cleared the tower. OK, obsessive. Enough of the space thing.
The evening’s events go well although I don’t feel quite on top of the performance and I’m not quite sure why, which is frustrating. Everyone is having a good time though.
The conversation back at the table is fascinating. Bill and John are responsible for booking big name acts to perform at the Giants Center in town. They have been trying to book a particular star to appear. I cant say the name, but it rhymes with Naylor Twift. Unfortunately they cannot afford her, as her minimum fee is exorbitant. For her solo act it would cost more than to have the Rolling Stones play and there are four of them! Professional courtesy prevents me from naming the figure. But it rhymes with Clive Sillion…..
Another wonderful story: Bruce Springsteen was appearing. Early in the evening he dropped his daughter off to her prom night, got in a helicopter, flew to Hershey, handed his band the hand-written play list for the night, played the gig, flew home and was still back before his daughter!
I am in the wrong branch of the entertainment industry.
Once the desserts have been served, I get up to perform the final segment and as I crouch down I feel something ping. A waistcoat button? No, they all seem to be there. Shirt button? Don’t think so. Trouser button? Well, they are staying up and are not around my ankles, so probably not.
The show finishes and everyone stands and applauds. I lead the company in a toast to the spirit of Christmas, before sitting down. I look at my watch I am amazed to see that it is only 9.40. I am trying to work out if I have missed a complete chapter, or something. We never usually finish this early.
As at this afternoon’s events, a lot of people have brought books to be signed, including a wonderful 6th edition of A Christmas Carol, lovingly framed and presented.
Some of the guests have grown up with this performance and among the audience is Hannah, looking glamorous and beautiful. Hannah is there with her boyfriend and her parents. When she first saw the show she was so young that she curled up on a restaurant chair and fell asleep! And here she is now, on the point of marriage. It all makes me feel very old.
We all pose for pictures and say our goodbyes, with promises to meet again next year.
I return to my room, where I can investigate the costume and to my confusion, nothing is missing. I have no idea what it was that was pinging.
I wind down with a glass of wine in the bar (having been suitably abstemious during dinner), before returning to my room and getting into my bed.
The final week of the tour has begun.