After my wonderful day of rest, it is back to the routine of life on the road today.  I have a flight from Richmond Airport at nine twenty and want to be there by eight o’clock, so that I can return the rental car without too much panic.

As always I build in extra time into any journey to allow for traffic delays, so I have decided to leave the hotel at seven – which is exactly when the breakfast service starts.  Sadly, therefore, I must forego the delights of the Williamsburg buffet and throw myself upon the mercy of the Richmond International Airport’s food outlets.

It is another clear, crisp morning and the hotel looks beautiful against the first light of a new day.  I load my bags, check out and start the drive through the historic area of the city.

The Inn at Dawn

The Inn at Dawn

Once on the Interstate, the traffic is heavy, but flows well and I am soon seeing the signs for the airport, at which point my SatNav unit starts to misbehave as it did way back on Thanksgiving Day, when I picked the car up.  For no reason it suddenly announces that it has lost external power and will shut down in 14,13,12,11…..

It is very odd!  Apart from on my journey from Boston to Worcester all those weeks ago, it has behaved impeccably and now, just as I am about to return it, it becomes sullen and grumpy again.

At the Thrifty drop-off the agent asks if everything was OK and I, like a benevolent uncle, say ‘Yes, everything worked perfectly’.  The secret of the SatNav’s strops will remain between us – no need to tell the parents.

The airport is fairly quiet and I am soon in the security line.  The TSA agent is a cheery gentleman, who scans everyone’s ID and makes some comment about their home city, or their name.  I know what is coming.

‘Hey!  Do you know anyone called Charles?’ he asks, as he sees my name.

‘I’ve got the right name for the season, haven’t I?’  I reply.  It’s not a moment for self-promotion.

I find a restaurant and the breakfast when it comes is worth waiting for.  I have plenty of time, so I eat slowly whilst looking out across the apparently deserted runways.

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My flight today is to take me back to Philadelphia and, being a short one, US Airways have laid on a Dash 8 for the job.  The Dash is a little prop-driven aircraft and we have to walk across the tarmac to board it.  Somehow it seems more exciting and somewhat nostalgic to board a plane this way.

As I walk, I feel like Bleriot or Lindbergh ready to take to the skies.  Neither Bleriot or Lindbergh had the good fortune to see their suitcases being loaded into the hold, as I do.  I can relax in the knowledge that my costumes will be waiting for me in Philly.  Assuming they remember to close the hold door.

The flight only takes an hour but the poor little aeroplane is buffeted by low-level winds and we are tossed this way and that, meaning that the flight attendant can’t provide a beverage service.  Oh, the hardships that we pioneers of flight have to deal with.

Catching forty

Catching forty

Once safely on the ground I walk about the same distance as we have flown to retrieve my bags, and then take the courtesy bus to the Enterprise car rental office.

The very helpful agent completes the paperwork in good time and takes me out to the lot.  He can’t find a car in the category we have booked, so chooses a silver Mazda 6 as a free upgrade, which is very nice.

The first thing I do is to try and Sync my phone to the car and it works!  I can actually listen to my Christmas playlist properly at last.  I plug my phone’s power cable in but it does not start to charge, and I see that the lead has frayed and split.  I will have to pick up another one somewhere.

My venue today is in Burlington New Jersey and it is not a long drive.  I have plenty of time, so I go to my hotel first, where I can get everything sorted out for the day.  I go through the well drilled routine of getting the costume into my small case and then set off for the Broad Street United Methodist Church.

In the car park I suddenly panic that my car has been stolen –  it is not where I left it: and then I realise that I’ve got so used to my black Ford Escape,  I didn’t even notice the silver Mazda sitting exactly where I had left it.

As I drive I look out for a store where I can buy a new charging lead for my phone and in doing so find myself in a lane which takes me onto a highway and away from Burlington.  I forget my need for an electronics store and concentrate on the road; I can ask the team at the Church about buying a lead later.

At the Church preparations are in full swing and I am straight away greeted by the event organiser Laura Jaskot, who is making sure that everything is ready for the events.  She is an energetic organiser and has a fabulous team around her

I have been coming to the Broad Street Church for six years, so it is a well known routine and I go straight to my dressing room (actually a counselling room), and unpack my things.

I grab a cup of tea and dollop some honey into it, before going upstairs into the sanctuary itself, to do a sound check.  Bob looks after the technicalities and always does a superb job, I trust him completely and if he says it sounds good, then I know it does.

Sadly for Bob he has had a difficult year and recently has broken his wrist as well as cracking some ribs.  However he is great good spirits, as always.

We play around with the various lighting options in the Church until we arrive at a combination that works.  By now the first audience members are arriving, so it is time to withdraw.

In the dressing room there is a large set of shelves upon which canned foods are collected ready for distribution throughout the city.  It is always fun to see what is there, and this year I think a donation has been made by the Warhol family:

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I set my phone and speaker up and listen to Rhapsody in Blue until the battery finally gives out.

The perfect preparation

The perfect preparation

I get into costume and go upstairs to the little ante-room next to the stage.  Laura appears and at precisely two-thirty she steps out and greets the audience.

After the standard spiel about cell phones and photography, and a little history of the Church itself, she turns the afternoon over to me and I walk out to the applause of an appreciative crowd of about a hundred.

The sanctuary is a beautiful place to perform.  The main part of the stage is quite narrow (front to back), so doesn’t give much room for movement, but there are four different levels that I can play with, and I can experiment with some different moves, which is always fun.

Many of the audience are old hands at this and know how the show is going to work.  They ooh, and ahh at the Cratchit’s lunch; and titter in anticipation as I become Topper homing in on ‘the niece’s sister.’

The show is good and there is plenty of applause as I take my bows.

Once off the stage I change and make my way to the signing reception, which they do so well here.

My table is set in the corner of a large room, and as the audience mingle they are served with tea and cakes and cookies and muffins and all sorts of good things.  On my signing table stands a china teapot, cup and saucer and a plate filled with delights, including a selection of my favourite British biscuits: McVitie’s Rich Tea.  I am in biscuit Heaven!

There is already a long queue waiting for me, so I pour myself a cup of tea and begin. Most people are bringing event programmes, or the Arthur Rackham illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol that the Church are selling, to be signed.

One lady, however has a very special copy of the book and takes her time before speaking.  Her father used to read the Carol to the family every Christmas and today would have been his one hundred and first birthday. Please would I sign his old copy, as it would mean so much to the family.  The volume dates from 1937 and is well loved. It is an extremely moving moment for all at the table.

Another lady gives me a book to be signed and then places a programme in front of me, saying ‘will you sign that to….’ I miss the name in the general hubbub of the room, although I think it begins with P.   I ask her for the name again. ‘Oh, no name, just sign it.’  And then I realise that what she said was ‘Can you sign that, too please?’ not ‘can you sign that to Prince’, or whoever.

Once the tea party has disbanded, I get back into my normal clothes and the whole team walks around the corner to go to dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant that has become our regular haunt in recent years.

Tables are pushed together to accommodate our party of fourteen and we all order.  I chose ravioli in a tomato sauce: pasta is always a safe bet before show.

When my dish arrives eagerly tuck in and am horrified to discover that the ravioli is filled with cheese.  I had assumed they would be meat filled and hadn’t thought to ask.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cheese in all of its varieties, but cheese, or indeed any dairy product, doesn’t like my throat. For a performer, dairy lines the throat and constricts it, making it difficult to project properly.

Other actors and singers had told me this for many years and I had always thought it was rather faddy.  However on tour a few years ago I started to have a lot of trouble with my throat, and was constantly struggling to perform well.  I decided to try the ‘no dairy regime’ and it has worked superbly.

I should just ask for a simple salad instead, but time is pushing on and the team needs to be back at the Church before the audience starts to arrive.  I decide to eat.

I drink as much water as I can, and with any luck all will be OK.

When we are done, we all walk back to the Church, everyone mans their stations and I lay on a couch and grab thirty minutes sleep before getting ready.

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I drink more water, suck on Fisherman’s Friend lozenges and do some deep breathing exercises.  However, as I feared, my throat is tight. Damn! (Actually, I probably shouldn’t be cursing in a Church, when I need all the help I can get).

The most important thing is not to panic.  I know what the situation is and I know that Bob will do a great job with the sound.  Don’t overdo it, don’t try too hard.  Don’t panic.

As soon as I start the show I know that I haven’t got away with it.  My voice is strained and I struggle with the more delicate dialects (Ghost of Christmas Past and the boy signing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen).  But I obey my mantra and calm everything down.   Gradually it begins to work and the show comes back to me.

I am helped in no uncertain terms by a superb audience who are out to enjoy themselves and give me just as much as I give them.  The standing ovation at the end is noisy and boisterous and I clap them too.

Downstairs at the reception the high spirits remain.  The line is long and here are lots of things to be signed.

One gentleman has driven for eight hours from North Carolina with his family, just to be here.  He has seen me on previous occasions at Hershey and Williamsburg and apparently I have picked on him more than once to be Mr Fezziwig.  The reasons for that choice are obvious!

He has taken to reading A Christmas Carol to his friends each Christmas, and this year has decided to buy them all books.  A stack of sixteen is placed on the table.  Would I inscribe God Bless Us Every One, in each and sign?

There is a long line forming behind, so he suggests we wait until everyone has finished, and then do them.  The stack of books remains on the edge of the table.

As the queue dwindles a mother and her son come to the table and she sees the pile of books: ‘Oh, great, you have more!  They said you’d clean sold out.’  I explain that these books have already been sold and are just waiting to be signed.  She and her son look crestfallen.  ‘Oh, that’s a shame, he really wanted a book.  We’ll just have to get one next year instead.  Come on David.’ And they start to leave.

‘Mr Fezziwig’ has heard this exchange.   He picks up one of his books and gives it to her:  The spirit of A Christmas Carol is alive and well in Burlington.

I sign the copy for David and a very special Christmas moment has been played out before me.  I’m sure that CD is looking down with a twinkle in his eye.

At the very end of the line, waiting patiently, are Bob and Pam, who have come to see the show for a final time this season, and to say goodbye.  It is lovely to see them again and we chat for a while, and catch up on some news, before they leave to drive back to Chalfont.  I change and pack up my things ready to drive back to The Quality Inn and Suites.

All of Laura’s team are packing up their own things too and gradually the Broad Street Methodist Church is being returned to its natural state.  I say good bye to everyone and drive back to the hotel

On the way I pass a Wal-Mart, where I successfully find a new lead for my phone. I plug it in and the battery begins to recharge.  Not very many minutes later I am in bed, and metaphorically the same process begins for me.

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