Monday, December 14
Here we go again: It is time to move on, and our luxurious time in the Historical Hotel Bethlehem is coming to end all too soon. The alarm rings us awake at 5.15 and we both get up before falling back to sleep.
For the first time in a week I have to carefully pack my case to include my top hat and cane, which I do while Liz showers and gets ready. When she is finished in the bathroom we swap and by 6.00 we are both prepared for the day ahead.
As we have been driving Bob and Pam’s Volvo during our Pennsylvanian trip it has been arranged that Bob will drive Pam to meet us at the hotel, and drive us to Philadelphia airport, from where she can easily drive home again.
We have a somewhat bleary-eyed reunion among the beautiful lobby decorations and, with the help of the man behind the front desk, discover that our flight to Richmond Virginia will be flying from Terminal F – a tiny alarm bell rings somewhere deep in my mind, as I remember the day in September when I was stuck at Philly (in F) for an entire day.
We load the car and Bob says his farewells to us both. Liz sits in the front with Pam, while I sit in the back and try something new: writing my blog on my phone. There will be lots of spelling mistakes (even more than usual) but at least I am getting something down that I can email to myself at the airport and finish.
There is thick fog this morning, but Pam (assisted by Liz’s navigation) makes good time to Philadelphia and we arrive at the airport at around 8am, with plenty of time to check in and have breakfast. I close my Word document on the phone and we unload the car, before hugging Pam for the final time this year.
Check in and security is un-problematic (although Liz’s case requires an extra search), and we are soon in the terminal where we check the monitors: our flight to Richmond is delayed by about an hour and, more worryingly, the previous Richmond flight had been cancelled. Good old terminal F.
We walk to the central food court, which serves as a hub to the three spokes of terminal F, and sit at a restaurant I now know well, where we order a large breakfast each, which we can spend plenty of time over.
After browsing in some of the shops (Liz spends plenty of time looking at organic skin and hair treatments, while I look at a carry-on bag mounted on a little scooter), we walk all the way down one of the spokes to gate 23, from where our flight will depart. No plane. We sit patiently: the fog is playing havoc with the schedules and planes are not where they are supposed to be. Eventually an announcement is made to say that as gate 23 is still waiting for a different inbound flight, the Richmond passengers now need to go to gate 4, which is all the way up our spoke, and all the way down the opposite one. At 4 we are quickly re-located to 2, and after twenty minutes or so a further announcement sends us to gate 21 (yes, that’s right, all the way down the first spoke again). We sit patiently at 2 for a few more minutes until the inevitable announcement is made: ‘For passengers flying to Richmond, we regret to announce that the flight has been cancelled. Please make your way to the American Airlines desk next to gate 37 for re-booking’ Gate 37 is at the far end of the third spoke, so we have now covered every inch of terminal F.
As we stand in line I call Pam and Bob, and they get to work on dealing with the situation from their end, while we wait to see what American Airways can do for us. It is looking tight for my show that is due to begin at 3pm. Bob calls back, there is one flight to Norfolk, Virginia, but there is only one seat on that – however it will get me there in time to drive to Williamsburg and perform. Three years ago Liz and I stood on the same spot, in the same situation, and I had to leave her behind to perform: we definitely do NOT want to do the same this year – although in the end I am here to work and if that is the only way to get to a show, then we will have to.
While Bob works on the airline schedules, Pam contacts Williamsburg to explain the situation to them. When Liz and I reach the desk the American Airlines agent couldn’t be more helpful. We explain the need to get to Williamsburg in time for my performance, and she does a detailed search of all the airports in that part of Virginia. Initially she comes up with the Norfolk flight that Bob had found, but even as she looks the final seat goes, thereby solving the issue of us being separated.
With more tapping she discovers a flight to the tiny airport at Newport News, which is very close to Williamsburg, and manages to book us, and our bags, onto that. It is due to leave at 1pm, arriving at 2, and then a twenty five minute journey to The Williamsburg Inn. It will be tight but doable.
I call Bob with the good news, and after a few minutes Pam calls to say that the Inn will send a car to pick us up. We can relax again.
As we sit at the gate I remember the unfinished blog on my phone, but when I open up the Word file has gone. I couldn’t have saved it properly when we arrived earlier, and my great words of wisdom have been cast aside forever. As we sit at the gate waiting for our plane to arrive (now showing as delayed by twenty five minutes), I start typing again.
Eventually the inbound flight pulls up at the gate and disgorges its passengers, meaning that we will soon be boarding. Amazingly I have reached exactly the same point in my recollections of the previous day as I had when we pulled up at the airport all those hours ago.
Our plane is packed, which is not surprising as two Richmond flights have been cancelled and all of those passengers need to be in Virginia. I settle into my seat and watch another episode of House of Cards, while Liz sits two rows behind and reads.
The flight is very short, and soon we are skimming the woodlands of Virginia and landing at Newport News. It is 2.15.
In the baggage claim area we are hoping to see a driver with a sign saying ‘Dickens’ or ‘Williamsburg Inn’, but there is no such sign, which is worrying. As we stand I look anxiously towards the door, hoping that a driver will appear. Near the main entrance there is one suited older gentleman who watches the proceedings unfold, and eventually he walks to us and says ‘are you Mr Dickinson? I thought it must be you, from the worried way you were looking round. I am Howard Smith, your driver’ It seems an odd way of meeting passengers – just to wait until you work out who is looking most nervous.
Mr Smith has a huge black Suburban, with blacked out windows, meaning that we look like part of a presidential motorcade as we swish out of the airport. We explain the situation to him, and he eases his foot down a little further, meaning that the huge V8 engine (actually it may be more than that), pushes us onward with greater urgency.
We reach the Inn at 3pm, and as we climb down from the car we are met by our old friend Ryan Fletcher who introduces me at the Williamsburg events. He is already in costume and ready to go. In the hotel there is some confusion as to what is happening; we are actually not staying here but at another hotel in the group, The Williamsburg Lodge. However with the performance so imminent I need a room to change in: people scurry here and there until eventually I am shown to an empty guest room (it doesn’t need to be empty, we would quite happily stay in it, surrounded by the kind of luxury enjoyed by the Queen when she stayed here).
Liz takes her bags over to the Lodge to check in, and I change as fast as I can, before going to the Regency Room, which must be one of the most elegant hotel restaurants in the world. The room is set out for a tea service for around 100 guests, but there are only about thirty seated when I arrive.
My show this afternoon is a private one, for the USA Chamber of Commerce from Washington DC. The hotel has invited the group to spend time here and to have the run of the facilities, in the hope that these powerful business men and women will book conferences and meetings in the future: my show is just a small part of the entertainment package laid on for them.
With so few guests here, I can see that the start will be late and am greatly surprised when Ryan gets up to begin his announcements. Thirty it is, then. Seventy delicious servings of tea will go to waste and the room will feel very empty.
My performing area is a large dance floor in the centre of the room, with the tables arranged around it. It really is difficult to get myself up for this performance, after the mad start to the day. The guests (including quite a few young children) are very quiet, yet very attentive. This is not a show for audience participation, so no ‘oooohs’, and ‘ahhhh’s’ over Mrs Cratchit’s pudding, and no ‘nooooo Bobs’ on Boxing Day morning. There is however a suitably blushing Topper’s girl, who joins in, even to the extent of loudly repeating the line ‘It’s not fair!’ which is good.
Actually the performance is a good test for me, as I am determined not to let myself just go through the motions and get it finished and out the way. The audience may be small, and spread widely across the room, but they are there, and listening closely: they deserve every bit as much effort as the seven hundred at Byers Choice two days ago.
When the show finishes all of the guests clap very loudly, and as I stand at the door with Liz they all shake my hand and thank me so much for performing for them. Children and adults alike are excited and there are lots of ‘that has really put me into the Christmas spirit’ comments.
I sign a few books, and pose for a few photographs, before returning to my swish ‘changing room’.
Liz walks me over to the Lodge and takes me to our room, which in any other hotel would be grand, if only we didn’t know what life is like at the Inn itself! In previous years we have always stayed at the Inn and it is amazing how used you become to luxury.
I change and at last am able to finish and post the Bethlehem blog before having a nice hot bath.
When we were in Chalfont Bob had suggested a very good restaurant in Williamsburg, and Liz has managed to get a reservation for us at The Fat Canary at 8pm. It is only a ten minute walk, so we stroll in the warm night air hand in hand, enjoying the historic surroundings of Colonial Williamsburg, until we are brought sharply up to date by the bright garish appearance of an ice rink, with modern holiday songs blaring out. There is a modern tourist kiosk next to it, and it all seems very out of place here.
The Fat Canary is a wonderful modern restaurant, with an imaginative menu. We order a bottle of Viognier from the Williamsburg Winery and settle down to share a wonderful evening together: no shows, no audiences, and no commitments. No Gerald Charles Dickens and his wife. No, this just us, Liz and Gerald enjoying each other’s company and having a perfect evening.
The perfect end to an imperfect day.