After my lazy, recuperative day it is time to move on again. I am still feeling full of cold, but a few tentative explorative lines seem to suggest that my throat is back with us, which is the important thing. A cold can be coped with (indeed Dickens tells us that Ebenezer has a slight cold in the head, so my performance could be even more complete than before), but without the ability to push the words out, things get awkward.
I go down to breakfast and sadly there is no impressive buffet today. I am the only person in the restaurant at this early hour, and order a relatively healthy collection of fruit, granola and pastries. The orange juice and coffee keep flowing, until I have cleared the various plates that have been laid before me.
I sign the check and return to my room to finish packing, before checking out. I am astounded when the girl tells me that there are no charges: Mr O’Day was true to his word when he said ‘use the hotel’, and has been remarkably generous in his hospitality.
The car’s screen is iced, so I run the engine while I set the SatNav unit for Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a distance of 49 miles. It is a drive that I have made a few times now, and I always enjoy it. I head towards Harrisburg, and then strike out along the bank of the Susquehanna River, one of the most beautiful in the world. I look out for the tiny Lady Liberty, who stands with her torch aloft on the crumbling pillar of a long demolished bridge.
As is so often the way in this part of the country, I could be driving in England, as the road signs direct me to Carlisle, Halifax and onto Liverpool. A very slight mist, nothing more than an ethereal presence, hangs over the river and lends a sense of mystery to the scene, as I drive North. A greater and more base sense of reality is presented by the many stores on this road selling ‘intimate apparel’ and ‘Adult DVDs’. Of course, there are also the inevitable firework stores too. At one point I pass a sign advertising a local McDonalds restaurant which boasts that it has a ‘Unique Victorian Dining Room’ Unique in that the words McDonalds and Victorian appear in the same sentence.
Traffic is light today, and despite the warnings of overhead signs promising ‘Winter Weather Alert’, the conditions are dry and sunny. I am listening to You Only Live Twice now, which is the last of the three Bloefeld books, but I don’t like Martin Jarvis’ reading of it as much as I liked David Tennant’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Sevice, which in turn I didn’t like as much as Jason Isaac’s Thunderball.
The roads takes me through small communities; the houses are mainly made of wood, and are in varying stages of rot and decay, from pristine to collapsing. I drive on and reach Shamokin Dam whose town sign announces it to be ‘A Friendly Community!’ I don’t have time to stop and find out if this boast is true, and I have no doubt it is, for I am nearing my destination now: The Country Cupboard store and restaurant, where I will be performing twice today.
I pull up outside the Best Western Hotel that is associated with the venue and unload my cases confident in the fact that I will be able to check-in, despite the early hour: they always have my room ready here! The room is one of those mini suites and on the kitchen work counter is a magnificent basket of cookies, pretzels, chocolates and biscuits (the English kind) and other delights.
The first thing to do, of course, is to catch up on laundry so I make my way through the warren of corridors to the little laundry room, where I put a load of my dark regular clothes into the machine (I will do the white costume shirts tonight, after the performances have finished, so I have a full stock again for the next few days.)
It is getting on towards 11.30, which is when I am due to meet Missy and the team from Country Cupboard in the function room that doubles as my theatre for the events here. The stage is beautifully dressed, and lit with footlights which give a very Victorian feel (rather more so I assume, than the McDonalds restaurant!) There is a slight issue with the microphone, in that the clip won’t hold the cable in place. I am on the point of searching for more bulldog clips (butterfly clips, file clips), which proved so successful in Burlington, until a pair of pliers is produced and by brute force the cable is clamped tightly in.
I do a sound check and am relieved that my voice sounds alright. I must remember not to try too hard, even though the room is large, and will be full. Missy has the sound effect on her ipad, but it is one from last year which has 5 minutes’ worth of tolling bells. I suggest that I email her the version with only 4 bells on it, and she gives me her address.
I return to my room (via the laundry to collect my clothes), and immediately email Missy. The message is returned: I haven’t included the ‘inc’ at the end of the address. I resend, and the message is returned again: this time I haven’t put a U in the word country. Third time lucky and the message goes through successfully.
I have an hour or so to relax, before getting into my costume and walking back to the room which is already filled with over 200 guests, eating their lunch from the huge buffet which is the speciality of the Country Cupboard restaurant.
I stand at the back chatting to Missy, and members of the audience come up to ask for an autograph or a picture, or just to chat. It is a relaxed build-up to the show and everything feels good, although the room itself is very hot, even though the air conditioning is turned right up – I am in for a work-out.
At 1.30 Missy makes a speech of welcome and starts the show: How will I fare? First indications are good, and when I sing ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentleman’ as the carol singer my voice is clear (this, along with the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs Cratchit, is a tell-tale sign as to the state of my throat). And the show is not only good vocally, but I am much happier with the movement too. Over the last week, and actually maybe throughout the tour, I have been aware that my progress around the stage has been slightly heavy and leaden; today it is back to being more balletic.
The audience are reacting well and joining in – the lady who gets my top hat on her head won’t give it back until her friend has taken a photo of her. To the right of the stage a couple are following my lines in a copy of the book, and it is amusing to watch them flicking pages as I skip forward in the story.
As the performance continues I begin to be aware of the room feeling much cooler and assume Missy has cranked the aircon up to 11. Although it feels nice, I am also worried about the effect on my voice (air conditioning dries out your throat). I make sure that I rely on the microphone a little more and don’t force anything.
I get to the end of the show and everyone stands to applaud, I am so relieved as today has been another step forward in the right direction.
I retire to the little room behind the stage where I change. The signing session is in a different part of the complex, so I go outside to meet Missy before walking over there. The weather has changed, it is raining and feels icy – this is the first hint of winter weather that I have seen on this trip and I hope that it doesn’t effect my drive tomorrow morning.
As we walk to my signing table Missy explains that the air condition unit was malfunctioning through the event, hence the very hot beginning and the very cold end. Fortunately, it can be fixed for the evening performance.
There is never a huge signing line here, as only the dedicated want to make their way to a different location and queue patiently, so the signing is over and done with quite quickly, although those that do make the effort are very keen fans, and there is plenty to talk about.
I return to the hotel and change back into normal clothes, and then go to the restaurant to have a bite to eat with Missy. It is tempting to pile the plate high with a bit of everything (as the guests at the show were doing earlier), but I restrict myself to a slice of prime rib, accompanied by roast potatoes and vegetables. After dinner, I re set the stage for the evening show, which involves moving Bob Cratchit’s stool from its down stage centre finishing position, back to down stage left, and then return to my room to relax.
I am fortunate here that my room has a magnificent deep whirlpool bath, so I set the taps running and potter around the room as it fills – which takes quite a time. When it is ready I slide in and hit the bubble button! MMMMMMMMMM wonderful.
I have a couple of hours before the evening performance, and spend the time doing nothing, which feels good. As the clock moves on I get into costume again and head back to work. Out of the hotel, and snow is laying on the ground! It is wet and slushy and only on the grass and flowerbeds, but snow it certainly is!
Once more the audience are tucking into their platefuls of food as Missy and survey them from the back. One gentleman immediately stands out from the crowd: he is wearing a huge Stetson, with feathers in it, and has wraparound sunglasses, even though it is dark outside, snowing, and we are in a theatre. Beneath the shades, he has a large moustache and the grizzled looks of a man who has lived life a few times over. He, in fact, looks not unlike the King of NASCAR, Richard Petty.
Missy and I chat, and I drink more tea with honey, until this cowboy man comes to talk. He is definitely what you may call a character. Loud, abrupt and likes his own way: ‘Hey! I am here with my fiancée and her mother and a few others, I want to buy a book. I don’t want to stand in a long line afterwards, so I’m goin’ to get ‘em now, and you will sign ‘em before the show, right?’
With that he disappears, and only returns with six books just as Missy is preparing to make the introduction. ‘Hey, let’s do this’, he says. ‘Don’t want to be standin’ in line now. Sign mine to The Pickle Man, right?’
Missy waits patiently as I scrawl as quickly as I can. She goes to the stage as Cowboy walks through all the other tables proudly holding his signed books – oh yes, he likes his own way.
So, the show starts. As is always the way here at Country Cupboard, the evening audience is quite. Very quiet. I was prepared for this and don’t let it worry me. Quiet, that is, except for my cowboy, who is sat right at the front beneath the stage. At very odd places in the story he barks out comments, in an incredibly loud voice, which completely throw me. As people who have seen the show will know, I don’t mind, and positively enjoy plenty of audience reaction, but this is different.
When I don’t answer back, he becomes sullen, and talks to his fiancée. Then he gets up to go to the bathroom, and makes a very public exit from the room, before returning a few minutes later just as ostentatiously. Once back in his seat, he is morose (presumably upset because I’m not his buddy and not responding to his calls), and sits head down reading one of the books.
It is all very unnerving. On one of the occasions that I fall asleep, and start to snore he calls out ‘That sure sounds familiar!’
Although his occasional interruptions (and that is what makes it awkward, there seems to be no pattern to his comments), are difficult to me, they do have a benefit, in that the rest of the audience sort of gather round me metaphorically: ‘don’t worry, we are with you! Keep going! They become more responsive as cowboy man becomes increasingly glum. At one point, I have a flashing fearful image that he may just stand up at any moment, say ‘Hell! I’ve had enough of this!’ and pull a gun to put his evening out of its misery. The newspaper headlines flash through my head. That’s the sort of effect he has on me.
Well, he doesn’t shoot me, and in fact doesn’t really interrupt for the second half of the show, which goes well. When I come to the stage to take my bows, everyone is standing and applauding, except him. He is standing, but with his back to me, and not clapping. A tricky evening, one might say.
I go through the process of changing and come into the store to meet those audience members who have stayed behind, which do not include the ‘Pickle Man’
The comments and congratulations are kind and sincere, and despite everything it has been a good performance once more. When everyone has left I chat to Missy and Steve about the evening. They had been at the back of the hall while all of this was going on, and didn’t know how to handle the situation. They thought about coming and talking to the cowboy, maybe asking him to leave, but feared that he would cause an even bigger scene, which is probably correct.
I say good bye, collect all of my things and crunch across the snowy, icy paths back to the hotel, where I put all of my costumes shirts into wash, before walking across the car park to a small bar where I have a piece of cheesecake and a glass of wine. After that I return to the Best Western, transfer my shirts to the drier, where I will leave them overnight, and return to my room.
I think that my sleep will be filled with scenes from the wild west and moustachioed gunslingers!