Today is ‘E’ Day! I sleep through to a reasonable time (that is typical: just as I stop waking in the early hours, Liz will be arriving jet-lagged). From Heathrow Liz has emailed to say that she is boarding the flight ready to depart, and it is a bizarre thought that while I sit in my bed, she is already on her way, but won’t arrive until I have started my evening show.
I finish my blog and go down to breakfast, which is a wonderful buffet. It is 7.45 but service doesn’t officially begin until 8; however, the cereals and pastries are laid out and that is all I want this morning. I grab an orange juice and coffee and sit in the restaurant with a few others who have made the same error in timing.
I don’t have to be at Byers’ Choice until 11 this morning, but want to take the opportunity to a large load of washing before moving on tomorrow morning. I have found a nearby laundromat, so set the address into the SatNav and head off. The coin-operated laundry is in just the sort of area of town where you would expect a coin-operated laundry to be, and is surrounded by other small businesses including, rather charmingly, a typewriter repair shop.
I load 2 machines: one with white costume shirts and the other with black socks and other day-to-day clothes, and settle down to continue reading Familiar London, and play some backgammon. After an hour or so everything is cleaned, dried and neatly folded and I head back to the inn and get ready for the day ahead.
I am a little early arriving at Byers, but that is nice as I can just potter around for a while. I chat with Dave about the sound effects and we are both really pleased with the way they worked, and will keep them in today’s shows. I pop my head into Tish’s office who deals with the finances, and chat with Bob who is placing extra chairs out for the afternoon show, which always has the biggest attendance of the three. It is nice not to be rushing around, and I return to my board room to sip a coffee and relax before the show. In honour of Liz’s arrival, I play her CD as I sit, and almost drift into a light sleep.
At 12.15 I start to change into my costume and at 12.45 I make my way through the racks, stands and boxes that make up the parts of the warehouse not given over to theatrical entertainment. It is an incredible insight to the creation of a Caroller to walk through these rooms: on one rack there are wire frames, whilst on another the tissue bodies have been added. Rather alarmingly there are trays of clay heads, without bodies looking like the great Easter Island statues. In another part of the building there are huge fabric cutting tables with rolls of brightly patterned cotton, silk and satin. Through another door and I am in the packing and shipping departments where the completed Carollers are all boxed up and waiting to be sent on their adventures.
This afternoon’s crowd is the largest audience of the tour and when everyone is in their seats there should be over 700 people in the room (701, including me). The carol singers are entertaining the early arrivals, and everyone seems to be in good spirits. There are lots of red Christmas sweaters in attendance, as well as quite a few Santa hats. There is definitely a buzz in the room.
The logistics of moving such a large group from car park to visitor centre to auditorium is quite remarkable, and it is a huge tribute to the team that the whole project is completed by 1 o’clock.
The afternoon show is the best of the tour so far. Somehow, something just seems to click into place and it feels easy. I am taking it slightly easy as I am aware that I have another show this evening, but nothing feels strained or heavy. The audience is wonderful (the Saturday afternoon audience always is), and they laugh and respond when they are expected to, and listen in wrapped silence to the rest of the story. The sound effects work just as well, and I hot all of my marks for the lighting effects.
There is one little cheeky adlib, which may have been unfair to the lady in question, but I think not: As Scrooge leans out of the window to call to the boy, a lady in the front row stands up, collects all of her many bags and sneaks out – I rather think to be at the front of the signing line – so as Scrooge shouts: ‘What’s today my fine fellow’ he waves to her retreating back, and then mutters to himself ‘oh, well. Goodbye!’ She either doesn’t hear or pretends not to hear but the rest of the audience love the moment and laugh and clap.
The ovation at the end is magnificent and this show has been an absolute pleasure to perform.
The length of the signing line is in direct proportion to the popularity of the show, and I am sat at my desk for well over an hour this evening. I am beginning to feel tired and wishing that I could just relax, but those guests at the back of the line have waited cheerfully and patiently and deserve just the same amount of attention as do those at the front (which included a lady with lots of bags…..just saying…)
When the final couple of autographs have been signed I go back to the board room and start to work on a salad that Bob had bought for me. It is a nice moment of down time, and I just sit alone, wondering where Liz is at the moment. Almost in answer to my thoughts and email comes in saying that she has landed early: with any luck and a kindly immigration official she may get to Byers’ Choice before the 5.30 show, which will be wonderful!
I chat with Bob, and Joe from finance about the souvenir programmes and what the current financial situation is, and then go back to the board room to sit and wait……
As the audience builds, I am getting more and more nervous that Liz won’t arrive before the start of the show. I find that my heart is racing and I can’t quite breathe properly: I make sure my hot, cane and scarf are behind the scenes, and then go back to the boardroom. Then back to look at the audience. Then to Dave’s lighting desk. Then to board room. Then back to the production floor, and just as I am passing the back-door Liz and Pam come in! She is here and we hug and hold each other for the first time in five weeks. It is wonderful.
Suddenly, I am completely ready for the show, and Liz is by my side. Everyone is so pleased to see her: Bob hugs her and Dave hugs her.
It is time for the show to start, and the choir leaves the stages. I give Liz one last kiss and then walk through the warehouse with Bob. Now, to concentrate.
The audience, as has become the pattern, is quieter than the afternoon group, but are very attentive indeed; they play along in the correct places and the show develops into another very good one. Although I am still feeling the effects of my cold, it is not affecting my voice and I am able to give the full vocal range to the performance.
When I have taken my bows, I rush to the boardroom to change costume, for there is a group that I want to meet before going to sign. My cousin Rowland and his wife Andi live in New Jersey and always bring their sons to the Saturday evening show at Byers’ Choice. This year Rowly has bought a group of twenty friends and neighbours and I have promised to say hi, so that they don’t have to wait until the end of the evening.
Rowland’s family play an important part in this story as it was his father, my uncle Claud, who first read A Christmas Carol to me when I was 4 or 5. The memory of that Christmas Eve has always burned strongly and I have always wanted to communicate the feelings of excitement, horror and wonder that I felt then into my current show.
It is great to see Rowland and Andi, however briefly, and we do a big group picture, before I have to bolt and take my place in the Nativity room. The line is very long again (the audiences at Byers’ have been impressive, as they always are), and it takes a long time to get to the end. Bob, Liz and Pam have been chatting and waiting for me. A few more books are produced from the store to be signed, so I am not quite off duty yet. More scrawls, more flourishes and this time I am properly finished.
I change and gather all of my belongings from the board room and Liz and I go to the car where we transfer her case from Pam’s VW. We say goodbye and then drive back to the Inn. The houses along the route are beautifully decorated with lights, and it is as if America is welcoming Liz.
At Ambler’s we lift the cases up to the Penn suite and then head to the restaurant where we sit and talk, as we eat delicious steaks. The bar is a cacophony of noise, with a large Christmas party taking place in the function room next door, and the cocktail pianist (who greeted us as old friends) banging out songs from the shows. In the midst of all of this noise we are in our own little bubble, and it is a very special time.
We are both very tired from the stresses of our respective days, so we sign the bill and head back up to the room. The tour is entering a very busy final stage and we are moving on again tomorrow morning, but for now it is just wonderful to be together again.