I wake at a decent time and can reflect on a good evening and a job well done. The Maine Historical Society are particularly active on social media and there are a good many comments swirling around Twitter and Instagram.
In the restaurant I am greeted by a young man checking guests in, so give him my room number: 403. I must have mumbled because he asks for confirmation. ‘403’, I repeat. He looks a bit confused, but picks up a menu and leads me to a big table. This seems a bit strange, considering there is a small one right next to it, so I ask which one he actually wants me to sit at. ‘The large one’, his expression seems to suggest that as far as he is concerned I have lost my marbles. And then I realise: we have both been stuck in our own conversation, hearing and saying what we each believe is expected. I was giving my room number, he was asking how many guests (‘4 or 3, doesn’t he know?),
Confusion cleared up I sit at the small table and enjoy a delicious plate of eggs (sunny side up), bacon and potatoes.
I have quite a relaxing day today, as I don’t have to be in Boston for my next event until 6pm. I do have some work to do this morning, though, as two journalists have sent me lists of questions relating to events later in the tour. I sit at my desk and try to compose answers that are informative and entertaining, which all takes quite a bit of time.
The next job is to decide what I am going to read at this evening’s event in Boston. I am to be guest of honour at a swanky dinner in the Parker House Hotel (which was Charles’ home in Boston during his reading tour of 67-68), and they would like me to read an extract from the story lasting around 15 minutes. The event is being held to raise money for a hunger charity based in the city, so somehow I want to reflect that issue in what I perform. In a somewhat selfish way I chose one of my favourite passages from the book, that doesn’t appear in the show, and that is when the Ghost of Christmas Present first takes Ebenezer into the London streets on Christmas morning, and together they observe the bustle:
‘The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed’
I decide to read from where the spirit first booms ‘Touch my robe!’ to Scrooge, all the way to the moment that they stand at Bob Cratchit’s house. I read it through aloud a couple of times, before saving the passage to be printed when I get to Boston.
By the time I have finished all my work it is time to leave pack my scarcely disturbed bags and leave Portland, headed to The Parker House in Boston (exactly as Dickens himself had done on the morning of March 31st 1868.
I am still in no rush so I eschew the main Interstate, and amble down route 1 which is a much nicer drive (although the lady deep within my SatNav unit gets very frustrated with me). The road is beautiful and the small communities along the way could have come from a previous age – motels the like of which you never see now, with their single storied cabins, are numerous, and they have wonderful non-corporate names: ‘Woodside motel’, ‘Shore view cabins’ and the like. Perfect New England Churches stand proudly over every town, their slender white needle-like spires piercing the blue sky.
I drive through the busy but charming town of Saco and on (confusingly) to Arundel via Biddeford. Soon I see a sign to Kennebunk and as I am still in very good time deviate again from my route.
The coastal town is beautiful, almost too much so, and it sort of reminds me of Amity in Jaws- it doesn’t seem quite real. Elegant and no doubt very expensive houses teeter on the cliffs overlooking the vast dark expanse of the Atlantic ocean.
I stop to fill up the car with fuel and to buy a sandwich for lunch before heading on towards Boston. The sun is low in the sky as I arrive in the city, and I appear to be driving west which makes navigating through the busy streets of the city very difficult. However with a combination of my own memories and the assistance of the SatNav (I’m sure that I can still detect a tone of grumpiness in her voice), I guide the car to School Street and the Parker House Hotel.
It is lovely to walk back into the lobby and I instantly feel at home, even though I have stayed here for maybe 20 years or so. The Parker House is one of the great Historic Hotels of America, and celebrates its connection with Charles Dickens vigourously.
Having checked in to my suite (they are spoiling me), I call the front desk and ask if they have a business centre where I can print out my reading. ‘Sure, Mr Dickens, lower lobby, next to the gift store.’ I take the memory stick and return to the busy lobby, only to find that to use the computers you need to swipe a credit card – the charge cannot be billed to your room. I get back in the elevator and suddenly realise that I have no idea what room I am in (the curse of the frequent traveller). I think it may be 406? I go to the 4th floor….no. Key doesn’t work. 403? No. Maybe third floor? Take lift down one. 303? No. Try to remember where I walked when I checked in. 306? YES! phew. I imagine that the front desk is fielding calls from worried guests ‘someone just tried to get into our room!’
I collect my wallet (and the little card sleeve with my room number written onto it) and return to the business centre, where I put in my card details and gain access to the system. I open the document and click print, but the printer is not working! I go to the front desk and ask if they can help me, and they direct me to the concierge, who says ‘of course we can print, but not from a memory stick, you will have to email it to us’. Once more I return to my room and send the file, before returning to the lobby to collect it. Never has the printing of 5 pages taken so much time and energy!
I am due to meet the various staff in the rooftop ballroom at 6, so I shower and get into costume ready for the evening and take the lift to the 14th floor, where I am greeted by Lori, in the marketing department, and John Murtha the general manager of the hotel, who greets me warmly as if welcoming me home. Also present is Susan Wilson who is the official historian at the hotel, and who has written a fabulous book which of course features Dickens’s visits.
The guests are arriving and soon I am posing for photographs, and signing copies of the book, before dinner is served. Susan and I are at the same table and she is able to tell me many fascinating anecdotes about the hotel. The current building was actually only built in the 20s, on the site of the original structure that Dickens knew. During the demolition they managed to keep a tiny annexe with just a few rooms open, so that it can be truthfully claimed that this is the longest continually running hotel in America!
Dinner has been created by the Executive chef and is inspired by the kind of fare that Charles Dickens would have known during the winter of 1867. WE start with a delicious soup or celeriac and bacon, with apple lending a delicious sweet crunch, followed by a small plate of goose breast before the main course of beef in a rich mushroom gravy.
My other dinner companions are George Montillo and his wife. George is a baker, who supplies the hotel with pastries. A baker is rather an inadequate description, actually, as George’s company has supplied cakes to almost every celebrity and politician in Boston – including the Kennedy’s wedding cake, George Bush’s inauguration cake, and a huge creation that was presented to the Queen when she visited in 1977.
They are good company and have just returned from a visit to Ireland. ‘Where did you go?’ ‘Oh, a little south of Dublin.; ‘Did you happen to visit Kilkenny?’ George’s wife’s eyes light up ‘Yes! my favourite place!’ ‘My sister Nicky happens to own a bar in the middle of the city: Kyteler’s Inn, maybe you saw it?’ Eyes light up even more: ‘We went there, twice. We loved it!’ and in no time her mobile phone is out showing me pictures of Kyteler’s, where I have spent so many happy hours. Nicky – you are truly international!
Soon it is time for the performance aspect of the evening to start. Susan is first up and gives a short speech about Dickens’ time in Boston. The evening of the dinner is the 150th anniversary of the very first reading by Dickens of A Christmas Carol in America (maybe a little tenuous, this one, as it is documented that Charles read it to his close friends in the hotel, before his first public reading on the 2nd December). When Susan has finished I walk to the podium and read my passage, which is very well received, and even gets a standing ovation, which I wasn’t quite prepared for.
Dinner is over (although my duo of Christmas pudding inspired deserts is waiting for me), and lots of guests come up to have their books or menus signed, and to have photographs taken. I say good night to my new friends, and soon am going back to my room (306!). I take a slight detour to the Mezzanine level where the mirror that originally hung in Dickens’ suite is located. It is imagined that he would have stood in front of this mirror rehearsing before making his way to the theatre next door.
These past two days have well and truly seen me walk in Dickens’ tracks, and they have been very emotional and moving.
The sounds of Boston outside my window lull me to sleep.