Wednesday, December 9
Following my day off yesterday it is back on the road today for the final leg of the tour: a leg that includes Liz flying out to join me tomorrow, which is so exciting, and something that we have both been looking forward to for the last five weeks
This morning I am driving from Hershey to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: an hour north. I had packed most of my things yesterday, so don’t have too much to do this morning.
I make sure that I have a is a much healthier breakfast (well, it is a working day after all). The service in The Circular Dining Room is a three-pronged affair: The maitre d’ welcomes and shows you to your table, then your designated server introduces him or herself (herself this morning) and asks if you would like coffee and juice; at this point a third presence appears who fills your water glass and clears any used plate from the table. It is the third man who interests me this morning, as he displays a subtle change in American conversation.
Ever since I have been travelling to America I have become used to the phrase ‘thank you’, being followed by ‘you’re welcome’ (we don’t say that in England – maybe ‘it’s my pleasure’, or something like that, but rarely you’re welcome). This morning, however, it is different: ‘you’re welcome’ is replaced with ‘absolutely’. To illustrate:
Him: ‘May I take your plate, sir?’
Me: ‘Oh, yes, thank you.’
Him: ‘would you like more juice, sir?’
Me: ‘No thank you.’
Him: ‘shall I take the glass?’
Me: ‘Yes, thank you.’
I may be witnessing the very start of a seismic shift in linguistics.
When I get back to the room I still have plenty of time before I have to leave, but rather than sitting at Hershey watching TV I decide to get on the road early. I check out at 9am and as I’m waiting for the girl to print off the receipt I see one of the saddest things that I have seen for a long time: on the counter there is a large bar of Hershey chocolate wrapped in colourful paper, it has a specially printed label on it which reads ‘Happy 32nd Anniversary Mr and Mrs Richards’. There is also a small yellow post-it note on the bar with two words scrawled across it: ‘No Show’.
The weather is misty this morning and my route takes me back to Harrisburg and then north, following the course of the magnificent Susquehanna river. This has become a regular journey for me, as I have been performing in Lewisburg, PA for four years, and the views never fail to impress.
I have driven along US15 in almost every weather condition, including snow and icy rain, but today the fog sits low in the valley. The further north I drive the thicker it gets: a white cloying shroud that swallows up the other cars on the road.
At Liverpool I pull into a small car park (I have stopped in the same spot in previous years,) to take some photographs. The trees are like ghosts in negative – shadowy forms somewhere deep within the white.
I drive on through hunting country, passing the many diners and adult book stores on the route. I mentioned in a previous post that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of dental practices in Worcester, Mass, but here the main businesses are truck or boat related: car washes, tyre and exhaust dealerships, crash repairs. In these hills trucks are more important than teeth, whereas in Mass, crowns scoop cars.
I arrive in Lewisburg in good time, and drive straight to the Best Western Hotel that serves the Country Cupboard store and restaurant. As soon as I walk through the door I am cheerfully welcomed by name and given the key to my room with no delay: it is only 10am, but the management here always have a room prepared for me (that sounds very James Bond like: ‘Ah, Mr Dickens, your usual suite is ready for you….’)
When I get t my room I find a bag filled with of cookies, pastries, peanuts and other treats waiting for me. There is also a Country Cupboard mug, complete with tea bags and honey: Missy at the store obviously has a good memory!
I iron a couple of shirts and generally get things ready for the day ahead and at 11.30 walk the few hundred yards to the store itself, where the events will take place in a large function room. The Country Cupboard has been hosting me for four years and everything is pleasantly familiar. Missy is sat chatting with KJ, a singer who entertains the crowd with Christmas songs before my show. We all hug and chat as if we had last met yesterday, rather than twelve months ago.
The room is laid out with tables for the audience to dine at before the show. Missy says that numbers are slightly down this year but honestly I can’t see how they can have fitted any extra tables in.
The stage is well furnished, with a mantelpiece strewn with fir, cherry-cheeked-apples and luscious pears. Lighting is provided by a row of good old fashioned footlights at the front.
We do a sound check and all sounds good and then discuss the issue of the musical effect. Once again, as in Omaha, there is no simple way of playing a CD in the room, so Missy’s phone will be plugged into a separate amplifier, and then she will hold a microphone in front of the speaker to broadcast through the room’s built-in system. The problem here is that Missy will be making the introduction at the front of the room, whilst the secondary amp is at the back. In the end we arrange for KJ to leave the stage after her set, and look after the music.
When I had the idea of a simple sound effect I never imagined that things would prove so awkward at so many places!
Sound check complete it is time to retire to my room for a while. The audience are gathering (indeed some were here long before me), and they will be sitting down to an amazing buffet feast before I perform for them.
With half an hour to go before the show I return to the hall, where KJ is just getting ready to sing. I stand at the back with Missy, watching the crowd and sipping tea and honey. We are stood next to the dessert table which is groaning under the weight of such creamy trifles and mousses, that I’m sure my cholesterol levels rise a few points just by looking at them.
On stage KJ encourages people to sing along with some of the songs which they lustily do – that bodes well for a fun show.
At 1.30 Missy stands, nervously, at the front of the room (she doesn’t want to take the stage) and welcomes all of the guests. She finishes her remarks, KJ hits ‘play’ on the phone and amazingly the music is broadcast through the room. I make my slow way from the back, through the tables, and a little Mexican Wave of applause follows my progress, which is rather nice.
It is a hot show, but a good one. During this year’s trip I have discovered that I have two opportunities to mop my brow, when Scrooge falls asleep. If I lay in the chair with my face turned sideways, the fabric becomes an impromptu towel. As I do the same here I notice that the chair has a price tag on it: somebody will be getting more than they bargained for: ‘Genuine Dickens DNA with this item!’
It is nice to be back to the full script, after the shortened versions that I performed at Hershey. All of the little bits of business work a treat and the audience have a lovely time. They stand up at the end, and give me a wonderful ovation.
My dressing room is a little store cupboard behind the stage, so I am able to quickly change into my dry costume before joining Missy for the signing, which is held elsewhere in the store. There is a short line of people (one of the advantages of having the signing away from the theatre is that only the fully dedicated make their way to it – not so many of the ‘will-you-just-sign-my-programme-set’)
People chat and tell me how much they’ve enjoyed the show and how many times they have seen me, etc. I sign a lot of Byers Choice Carollers here, which is nice. Country Cupboard are a good customer of Byers, hence our first connection five years ago.
In between shows I change and meet Missy and KJ for our own buffet lunch. I have some beef, with vegetables and potato. We chat about this and that and nothing, and it is a lovely relaxing, inconsequential bit of down time.
I now have two hours to relax in before I’m back up, and take the opportunity to avail myself of the huge deep Jacuzzi bathtub in the room, before having a quick nap.
6.00 comes round all too quickly and in no time I am standing at the back of the room with Missy again, watching KJ. It is the same scene as the afternoon, but with one subtle difference: KJ is struggling to elicit any response from the audience – no lusty signing this evening and when I start my show I find the same. It is hard work.
There are a few giggles and quiet responses but on the whole the room is quiet for the duration of the show. Over the last couple of years I have been better at not ‘chasing’ an audience response – at just allowing the story to unfold, but tonight for the first time this year I over-stretch myself and try too hard, which I am annoyed about.
It isn’t a good show for me, and this is an audience that I struggle to engage with. Usually when I write something like that, I follow it up by saying ‘however at the end they leaped to their feet and cheered and shouted loudly’. Not tonight. There is polite applause, which sees me through my routine of bows, but little more. (One very kind man stands up just as I am leaving the stage). Ugh! Frustrating! I know it can’t be perfect every time, but it’s not easy to take when it isn’t.
I change back into my first costume again and meet Missy for the signing, who kindly assures me that the show was just as good as this afternoon’s. Strangely there is a longer signing line tonight and many people have made multiple purchases, so I am sat at the desk for quite a while. Everyone says how much they have enjoyed the evening and that they will be back next year, so that makes me feel a little better.
After signing I return to the hall to pick up my hat, my cane AND MY SCARF, before saying goodbye to Missy and returning to my room, via the laundry room where I pile a huge load of white shirts into the machine.
Just over the parking lot there is a small restaurant bar called Matty’s, and The Country Cupboard have an arrangement with them to give me a late dinner, which is a lovely way to wind down.
As I walk from the hotel to Matty’s I am met with the strange sight of four huge trucks apparently mating: I told you that they were obsessed with trucks in the mountains, but I hadn’t realised that extended to auto husbandry!
In the bar I enjoy a delicious Thai Salmon dish, whilst watching my football team (soccer for the benefit of my American readers) on a big screen. The surreal nature of my evening continues when Chelsea actually manage to win – a rarity this season.
Before bed I transfer my load of washing to the drier. I will pick the shirts up in the morning before departing from Lewsiburg and driving to Delaware, and to Liz.
Country Cupboard: http://www.countrycupboardinc.com/