In my anonymous hotel somewhere in Delaware I wake up at an annoyingly familiar early hour, which gives me time to write and catch up with the news from home, where the first snow of winter is wreaking havoc on the roads, and also allowing Liz a day off.
When breakfast time comes around I go down to the lobby Bistro and order two eggs, over-easy, along with some bacon and toast. My table is a little booth, with its own TV set into the wall: it is a little breakfast-pod, designed to prevent any interaction with anyone else who are also hidden in their own little pods.
At 9 o’clock, having given the worst of the rush hour traffic a chance to clear, I take my case back to the car and get on the road to continue my journey to the little riverside town of Occoquan in Virginia. It will be a drive of just over two hours, and I settle down with Mr Bond as the countryside of Delaware, Maryland and then Virginia passes by outside.
I am driving down the i95, a road that has featured so much in my various travels on this trip, and soon I am crossing the Millard E Tydings Memorial Bridge, which takes me over the mighty Susquehanna river, that I admired so much when I drove to Lewisburg a week ago. Here the river is bloated and swollen, preparing to empty its contents into Chesapeake bay, which in turn will flow into the Atlantic.
I drive on, passing the skyline of Baltimore where I say a silent ‘hello’ to David and Theresa who live here, and continue towards Washington DC. My first glimpse of the city seems almost accidental and apologetic – it is not like driving towards New York City where the Manhattan skyline is visible from miles around – DC is a low level city, as no building is allowed to be taller than the Washington Monument, and the first time I realise I am actually here is when I get a glimpse of the Capitol Building’s dome between a couple of run-down tenement blocks. Further on and there is the Washington Monument too and for a while I am driving parallel to the magnificent Mall, before curving away to the left and over the Potomac River. I drive past the Pentagon, low and squat, and then the three-pronged Air Force Monument which is shining bright in the sunlight.
And almost as quickly as DC presents itself to me, it is gone again and I am driving past Ikea stores and car dealerships which fill the southern suburbs.
Occoquan is only about twenty minutes south of DC and it is a road I have driven many times. I do not actually have an address for my hotel, but as I have stayed here so often can navigate myself without electronic assistance. Well, almost. As I near the hotel I realise that I am in the wrong lane, and that I am about to curve right back onto the 95, I glance in my mirror and see a car coming VERY fast on my left, so I brake to let him fly by before moving over into the left lane. Unfortunately just as I start brake, he also realises that he is in the incorrect lane and swerves to the right bringing him right behind me, on a collision course. He must be doing eighty and I am still braking hard. Fortunately I glimpse his sudden lane change and I am able to swing the car to the left seconds before what would have been a major and catastrophic collision. He races by me on the right and away. Wow, that was close.
I navigate to the Hampton Inn, and am soon checked in, giving me an hour or so of rest before I need to be at The Golden Goose Christmas store in Occoquan itself.
I open up the laptop to check emails and discover that I have one from Ian Fleming Publications. After I had written my Bond spoof a few weeks ago, I thought I would send the link to the publishers, just for fun. I am amazed to see that they have replied and for a moment allow myself to be seduced by the images of headlines announcing a lucrative new book deal – ‘DICKENS TO WRITE BOND’. My dreams are crushed in two lines:
Dear Gerald. Thank you for sharing this with us. We hope you continue to enjoy the Bond novels.
It was very nice of them to reply at all though!
The next thing to do is ring home, as I know that Liz is not working today, and will be at home. We chat for a long time, and it is so lovely to hear her voice. In a week’s time I will be getting ready to fly home and neither of us can wait to see each other again.
All too soon it is time to get ready for the day’s events, so we say our goodbyes and continue with our respective Mondays, which for me involves having a quick shower and driving to The Ebenezer Chapel, in Occoquan. It is 1 O’clock, an hour before show time, and yet the sweet little wooden church is filling up already. LaVerne, one of the owners of the Golden Goose store, is manning the door and confirms that people have been milling around since 10!
I rearrange the furniture at the front of the room, and exchange greetings with many audience members who have been coming to this event for as many years as I have – 23 or something like that, which is amazing.
Having set up (no sound check here as the hall is too small to merit a microphone, and there is no equipment to play my CD sound effect on), I walk to the store itself and greet the other owner, Pat, and the rest of the staff, including Brittney who acts as my ‘minder’.
The routine is a familiar one and I change in the little rest room that doubles as a stock room, before I am ready to be escorted back to Ebenezer. There really is no need for Brittney to accompany me, but it is nice to catch up with her news: she is just about to finish university and will soon be on that great job market treadmill.
The audience is packed in and when I arrive LaVerne walks to the front of the hall and begins one of her carefully researched and beautifully delivered introductions, but as she starts so a car alarm begins to sound outside, and this will be a constant companion all the way through my show – 90 minutes, which leads one to question the value of such a device in that nobody takes any notice of it.
The show is a complete contrast to that of yesterday at Byers’ Choice when I had so much space to roam and move. The hall at Ebenezer is intimate and there is only a very narrow piece of floor for me to do my stuff on. I feel a little heavy of limb as I move around, but the audience are always amazing here and its a pleasure to perform for them. I try a little adlib about the constant car alarm when Scrooge sends the boy off to collect the turkey, but it doesn’t work and falls flat.
It doesn’t matter though for the show is very well received one again, and I bow to cheers and whoops. As the audience leaves I stand at the door with Lavern and shake everybody’s hand, wishing them a Merry Christmas, in my best vicar’s voice. As ine gentleman shakes my hand he says ‘that wasn’t acting, that was living it!’
When everyone has left I stride back to the Golden Goose, change into my dry costume and then go to the signing table where Brittney is on duty once more to control the queue in the cramped space of the store and to take photographs which she does with the enthusiasm of a professional, getting all sorts of artistic close ups of my signature, as well as the more formal posed shots.
The signing comes to an end, and my luggage will be heavier to the tune of a charming children’s Christmas book, beautifully wrapped complete with a Christmas cracker, and a Victorian ha’penny from 1870, the year of Dickens’s death. People are just so very very generous.
I go back to the stock room and change before walking to the Secret Garden restaurant where I dine with Jean, Peter and Joe – another wonderful Occoquan tradition. WE always come to the same restaurant and sit at the same table, and to some degree have the same conversation. It is wonderful and relaxing, but we all miss Liz, who is usually here with us.
I have a delicious pasta dish, topped with salmon, but our time together is all too short, and I have to absent myself from the table to go and change once more, ready for the 6 O’clock performance. The chapel is filled again, and once more LaVerne makes her welcoming speech and I walk through the audience to the front of the hall.
Whilst I was eating dinner, and again while I was changing, I was worried that my throat was tightening up, but as I start the show there is no evidence of it and it is in pretty good shape considering the length of the tour. It is an energetic performance, considering the small space, and the audience are fully engaged, especially a younger group who obviously know the show well and are laughing at almost every line. One girl, maybe in her early twenties, particularly is enjoying it, and I just know that she will want to be involved….Topper, do your worst! Sure enough as the flirtatious friend of Fred makes his move, she blushes just as deeply as the text suggests she should! The rest of the family love it.
The performance comes to another rousing end and the audience welcome me back on their feet, before we all traipse back to the store for the evening signing session, which is slightly shorter as some of this audience had their books signed this afternoon.
Before I can change Brittney has me sign a few pieces for the staff in the store, and as I am signing the collection of badges and playbills LaVerne asks about the significance of my little red flower pin and cufflinks, I explain that they represent the scarlet geranium that was Dickens’ favourite flower. ‘Oh!’ exclaims Pat, ‘That is the town flower, LaVerne made it our flower when she was the mayor.’
‘Yes,’ confirms LeVerne modestly, ‘I had such power then!’
I finish signing, and although it is only around 8.15 it feels so much later. I collect all of my things up from the store room and the office and say good bye to all of the team at the Golden Goose, giving special warm hugs to Pat and Laverne, and thanking them for providing me with such a fun place to perform.
I finish the evening in Madigan’s Bar, where I order a piece of Apple Tart, which never arrives, but I have a lovely conversation with some locals, one of whom had seen the afternoon’s show. Hardly anyone in the town knows about the event as The Golden Goose markets it to their customer base and it sells out instantly, meaning that further publicity is not necessary. However, my praises are sung by the lady who had seen it and other customers in the bar are intrigued and want to know more!
Eventually I say my goodbyes, collect my car from the Ebenezer Chapel and drive back to the hotel. I eat a few biscuits (the remains of a gift earlier in the trip) in lieu of the apple pie that never was (but for which I was not charged), and then get ready for my bed.