Saturday, November 28
I wake at 4: ping! knowing instantly that I have left my scarf on stage again. At this early hour my mind is completely consumed with the importance of this realisation, and there is no chance of getting back to sleep. I search for solutions and work out that I have plenty of time to drive back to the Wilton High School this morning before heading to Massachusetts. Except, it is Saturday. There may be a rehearsal or something in the theatre: it’s worth a go I suppose.
I slowly get myself gathered and ready (not many sit-ups this morning, I’m ashamed to say). I take huge delight in packing my new suitcase, which seems to swallow all of my clothes most efficiently.
At 8.30 I leave the room, abandoning my lonely old case, and load the car before returning to the lobby to start the orange juicer juicing, and coffee grinder grinding. I order a plate of salmon and hard-boiled eggs and settle down to enjoy my breakfast.
I leave the Even Hotel at 9.15 and drive to the theatre, which is of course firmly locked up. I knock hopefully on a few doors, but there is no reply, which is not surprising. From the theatre I drive back to the Historical Christmas Barn, so that I can let Gary and Jenn know about the scarf, and hopefully make arrangements for them to send it on to me. Unfortunately the store is deserted too. There will be no scarf rescue this morning.
I set the sat nav unit and head my Nissan towards Sutton, Mass. The road is clear, and the weather, although overcast, is dry.
I am amazed at the amount of damage to the crash barriers and arresting cables along the route: they have obviously been hit on many occasions, and many look to be little more than ramps ready to launch a wayward car into the trees beyond. At one point a long stretch of barrier separating the two carriageways is completely flat, meaning that any out of control vehicle would create havoc and result in major, albeit needless carnage. I concentrate a little harder as I drive on.
The journey is going well, and I am soon approaching Hartford, with its beautiful skyline – one I will never tire of admiring. It is only a brief glimpse, however, as I take the I84, which sweeps me away and towards Boston.
The roads are still clear and I am making excellent time, although the weather is closing in now. As I cross the Massachusetts state line a few drops of rain splat onto my windscreen, which proves to be the precursor to a major storm. Soon the road is flooded.
I am still scheduled to arrive very early, so rather than heading straight to Vaillancourt Folk Art in Sutton, I reset my navigation unit to take me to the Beechwood Hotel in Worcester, where I can sort out my costumes ready for the performances ahead. I leave the I84 to join the I90 Mass Pike and instantly hit traffic. Mile after mile after mile of stationary traffic: red tail lights fragmented by the rain stretching ahead, and similarly kaleidoscoped white lights in my mirror. There is nothing to do but sit it out.
I am due at the Vaillancourts premises at 12.30, and at 12 I am still crawling only a few feet at a time. I call and speak to Gary Vaillancourt to let him know that I am close (only twenty miles away), but stuck. He confirms that a truck has turned over and I90 is as good as gridlocked.
The minutes tick by and I edge my way forward. Paul Simon’s Graceland is playing and I sing along loudly (don’t damage those vocal chords, Gerald), until I reach the scene of the accident, which has now been cleared away. There is sand on the road, to soak up the spilled fuel, and the steel barrier is curved like a piece of modern art, but the truck and its occupants have been removed.
All of that pent-up traffic is released and there is a serious possibilities of further accidents as impatient drivers accelerate hard, swerving from lane to lane in order to make good their escape.
All thoughts of a hotel check-in now gone, I leave 90 and am soon driving on familiar roads towards Sutton: there is dear old Oxford, and the road to Purgatory Chasm, where I walked in the snow last year. There is Armsby Roadm where the Vaillancourts live, and then I am making my way to Main Street, and pulling into the Vaillancourt Folk Art parking lot, which is already filling up ready for my show.
I am on familiar ground here, as I have been performing for Gary and Judi for six years. I walk into the Christmas wonderland of their store, and instantly see Luke (2nd generation Vaillancourt), holding Nathaniel (3rd generation). Luke’s wife Anna is here too and little Nathaniel is being fussed over by a full complement of grandparents.
Gary shakes me warmly by the hand, and welcomes me ‘home’.
Although time is not too pressing, I do need to get the sound checks done before the audience can be admitted, so I head straight for the theatre that is created in the converted mill building. As ever Judi has created a wonderful set, complete with windows, portraits, an impressive clock and an elegant chandelier hung at a perfect height, so that I can grab it as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
I know that the sound guy, Randy, will do a superb job with the microphone levels and we spend five minutes tweaking bass, treble and volume until everything is perfect. We repeat the process with a back-up mic, and then run the musical introduction.
I then return to my car, where the costumes are on the back seat of the car. Because I have not come directly from a hotel I have not been able to ‘steal’ any coat hangers, so I carry my clothes to the dressing room in an unseemly bundle, which I deposit messily on the table.
Fortunately there is a hanging rail, complete with hangers, so I can soon restore the frock coats, waistcoats and trousers to a more traditional state.
The audience are filing in now, and I spend some time just trying to calm down and relax before the show. I pace around the warehouse, where there are little bits of Dickens everywhere I look: a huge cut-out illustration of Mr and Mrs Fezziwig, a replica of Dickens’s reading desk, and glass Christmas ornaments depicting Marley’s Ghost.
There are shelves upon shelves of chalkware santas, some of which are beautifully painted, others which are in their virgin state awaiting decoration, for this is what the Vaillancourts produce here.
As 2 o’clock approaches I go to the theatre and sit quietly at the back, watching the folk duo playing fiddle and harmonica on the stage, entertaining the audience.
Gary makes the introductions and the show begins. Although the theatre holds around 170, it is a very intimate setting, and the close proximity of the stage lights make the performance a serious work out. The audiences here are great, and many of them return year after year, which is very gratifying.
It is a passionate and physical performance and I am sweating feely as I move around the stage.
I am happy to give everything this afternoon, as this evening I am due to perform another of my ‘Behind the Scenes of A Christmas Carol’, which proved so popular in Missouri. Although a fun show, it does not require a great deal of energy, so I can work extra hard now.
I finish to a loud standing ovation, and as Gary leads the audience in a sing-a-long of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, Luke hands me a cold bottle of water and I go to change ready for the signing session.
Judi looks after me at the signing table, opening books ready for me to sign and chatting to people waiting patiently in line. Many are familiar faces and it is a lovely friendly session.
When I have signed all that needs signing, I go and change out of my costume and chat with Gary. And now I realise that the Vaillancourts have not scheduled the ‘Behind the Scenes’ show, but another performance of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure where the confusion arose, but my schedule says one thing, whereas the reality is another. Of course there is no question of disappointing the audience, so A Christmas Carol it will be. I hope that I have enough juice left in the tank after my exertions of the first show.
It has become traditional over the years that we all eat dinner together between the shows, and the catering company (close friends of the Vaillancourts) lay on an amazing spread of meats, salads and soups. It is delicious but I am aware that I need to grab some rest before the evening, so return to my dressing room, where I fall asleep on the little sofa, waking eventually at 6.20.
I walk back to the store and realise that this is going to be a major show, the place is packed, and I think we will have a full house. I drink lots of water and change into my costume and wait for 7 o’clock.
As you know I travel with two costumes, so that I can always be wearing a fresh set. The frock coats differ in two ways: firstly, one is black and the other green but the main difference is that the black one is made of a much thicker material.
I had worn the green one for the early show, thinking that I would be wearing the black one for the less physical ‘behind the scenes’ show. But now the only dry coat is the thick one, and I face a very hot evening ahead of me.
Almost as soon as I start I can feel the sweat starting to trickle, flow and then gush. I am soaking even before Marley’s Ghost appears and there is a very uncomfortable journey ahead not just for me, but for the front rows of the audience too – It must be like being at a heavyweight boxing bout.
Quite apart from my discomfort the show does have plenty of energy. I start a little quietly, but soon I am in full flight and the performance is a good one.
I gratefully take my bows and soak up the applause, before hurrying backstage so that I can get out of these clothes as soon as possible and take on as much water as I can.
The signing is a repeat of this afternoon, with many old friends, including a family originally from Crowborough in East Sussex, where my parents used to live.
When I have finished I hang all of my costumes on the rail, where they can stay overnight and get ready to drive back to Worcester and my hotel.
The drive is about thirty minutes, but it is a familiar one to me. I am greeted at the reception desk like a VIP, and there is a plate of fruit and a bottle of wine waiting for me in the room. I feel very pampered!
I go to the bar, where Luke, Gary and Judi join me for a drink, which is another tradition of my visits here. We talk about a tour to England that Gary and Judi are organising next year and that I will be joining for a couple of days as a guest tour guide. We will have a more detailed meeting on that subject tomorrow.
It is late when we say goodbye, and I return to my room. It has been a busy and tiring day and I think that I will sleep rather well tonight.
Vaillancourt Folk Art: https://valfa.com/