Wednesday was another travel day, and to be honest for the most part it wasn’t a particularly thrilling one! I was reversing the journey that I had taken two days previously, for I was returning to New England to continue my tour in New Hampshire.
I took a leisurely breakfast and then, having caught up with some emails and admin, watched TV for a while. I had decided not to leave until after 10am to give the commuter traffic into New York time to clear. The weather outside looked beautiful, with a bright sun in a clear sky, it was to be a perfect day for driving.
I packed up my bags and at 10 on the dot I checked out and loaded up my car. I set the SatNav for the good old Beechwood Hotel in Worcester, so that I could retrieve my two costume shirts, and then started North. The Great Gatsby was still playing through the audio system, and as I rose up onto the Throgs Neck Bridge to leave the Island, and looked at the skyline of Manhattan to my left, a quote from the book which had appealed to me the day before came back: ‘The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.’ When I crossed the bridge two days before the skyscrapers had been hazy, backlit by a setting sun, but now they were clear, sharp and starkly defined. It seemed impossible that there was an inch of space left on Manhattan and quite how that little strip of land can support the sheer weight of concrete, steel, and glass is beyond my unscientific mind!
The traffic was pretty clear, and as I left New York City behind me the driving seemed to become less aggressive and intimidating. Gatsby came to its conclusion, and I instead started listening to the soundtrack of The Blues Brothers, which is an excellent soundtrack for a road trip.
After a couple of hours on the road I found a Panera Bread, at Berlin CT, and had a lovely, leisurely apple salad and a coffee, before driving on towards Worcester. When I was driving in Massachusetts a few days before I had noticed that all of the road intersections have been renumbered, so every exit has not only the official green sign informing the driver what junction this is and where it leads to, but also a smaller yellow one reading ‘Old Junction…’ and then whatever the number may have been. I had first assumed that this change in numbering had only been on the route between Worcester and Sutton and was the result of some new construction, but it seems to be a state-wide phenomenon. You may suppose that there may be some logical reason behind it, that all of the new junction numbers would be two different from the old ones, for example, but no: sometimes new junction 13 was old junction 10, whereas further along the road the new junction 25 was the old junction 11 – very curious, and I wonder how long the signs will need to stay until everyone is confident with the new system.
I pulled up at The Beechwood and in just a few minutes had been handed the bag with my two shirts, so was able to continue my journey on towards Nashua, New Hampshire. There is something beautifully familiar, and yet confusing, about driving to New Hampshire, as so many of the town names come from old England: signs for Bolton, Southampton, Dunstable, Manchester, Billarica, Tewsksbury and many others paint a geographically challenged map of Britain.
Soon I had arrived at my hotel and as I walked from the car to the lobby with no coat on, I recalled that last time I was here in 2019 it was snowing heavily and at that time I was glad of my all-wheel drive car, whereas this year it has so far seemed to be a rather redundant luxury.
Jody Gage, my event sponsor in Nashua, had reserved a very nice hotel room for me, a mini suite with a separate bedroom, which felt very grand.
I didn’t have long in the hotel, as I had been invited to supper at the house of an old friend, Sandy Belknap, who has worked on my Nashua appearances for many years and who also worked with Bob Byers and me last year to promote my film version of A Christmas Carol.
Although it was relatively early, it was dark as I drove to Sandy’s neighbourhood and colourful Christmas lights twinkled on houses and in gardens. It was a lovely evening, and so nice not to be in a crowded restaurant or bar, not knowing who is close by.
Sandy rustled up an extremely flavoursome chicken dish and salad, followed by some homemade chocolate chip cookies, and it was a very pleasant, relaxing evening.
Back at the hotel it was still early, but as my body clock is still playing tricks with me and I am continually waking at silly hours of the morning (although it is gradually getting better), I was ready for sleep and the episode of whatever detective drama I had started to watch played on unseen
Tuesday morning saw the first of what, as regular followers will know, is an important ritual on my tours: laundry. Having woken and written my blog and made my first coffee of the morning, I emptied the two bags of clothing that needed cleansing and sorted them into coloured and whites (the latter pile comprising mainly of the shirts I have been wearing in the show), but with the dilligence of an accountant, I discovered that my numbers were out: I had performed over two days at Vaillancourts, meaning that there should have been be four shirts, but there were only two. I let my mind wander back and remembered that I had hung two shirts to air in the closet at The Beechwood and must have left them there.
You may remember in yesterday’s post I made a big point about sweeping through my room multiple times to check that I hadn’t left anything there, and you may (quite justifiably) imagine that I wrote all of that already knowing that I had left the shirts there, ready to reveal my folly for comic affect today, but that is not the case! I had genuinely thought that I had everything with me, and that for once I hadn’t left a trail of belongings in my wake, but sadly a leopard does not change its spots so easily, and there were my shirts back in Worcester.
At the Marriott hotel in Uniondale I am situated on the 7th floor, and the guest laundry is in the basement, so early in the morning I bagged up what I did have to clean and made my way to the lift which took me down the eight floors and opened to reveal a warren of corridors, with no signs to guide me to the laundry. As if I were in a maze at some large stately home I started to explore, turning this way, then that, following a direction and discovering it led nowhere, until at last at the end of a long corridor I discovered a lost subterranean city comprising a salon, a gym and the laundry room.
I had a bag of quarters with me, which I collect during my travels for such circumstances, but imagine my surprise to discover that these particular machines didn’t take quarters, they actually had terminals for credit cards.
My emotions at this point were conflicted, on one hand there was an amazing realisation that this innovation meant that the days of hauling bags of loose change around the country will soon be behind me, but on the other end of the scale was the sheer frustration that my wallet was up in room 768! Back through the corridoors, back up the lift, back to my room, collect my wallet and back down again. Soon two machines were spinning and splashing whilst I went up to the lobby to have some breakfast.
The restaurant at The Marriott is spread out around the spacious ground floor, and diners were dotted here and there lost in their own worlds. I was greeted by a lady dressed in jeans and a sweater who I had taken to be a customer, but who asked me if I would like orange juice and coffee, and then I attended to the impressive buffet. As I sat at my table another guest came in, an older man with a white beard (no, not HIM!), and a t shirt, it soon became obvious that he is a very regular guest as almost every member of staff came up to greet and converse with him, and he had a gentle charm with each, asking about their Thanksgivings, and their families, discussing their jobs and their lives. Quite how he had time to eat is beyond me, but he gave everyone as much of his attention as they needed, and did it with good grace. A very impressive individual who just by being in that restaurant, where everyone else sat at anonymous little islands, spread happiness and made people feel good about themselves. OK, on reflection, maybe he WAS that guy with the white beard, after all!’
After breakfast I returned to the laundry and loaded my clothes into the drier, which after another swipe of the credit card, started rumbling away, and I went back to my room to be lazy for an hour.
By ten o’clock my morning chores were done and I could go out for the day. As I was on Long Island, I had decided to visit the area which had inspired one of my favourite American novels, and ater a little research I set my sat nav to take me to Great Neck, better known in the literary world as West Egg, the home of Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby. I had even downloaded an audiobook version of The Great Gatsby to accompany through my travels.
The first part of my drive took along one of the parkways that run the length of the island, and which apparently act as a guide to the international jets flying into JFK airport, for a constant stream of Boeings and Airbuses flew low over me with landing lights blazing and wheels down. Eventually I reached Great Neck, and drove to a neighbourhood that seemed to be the sort of place where Gatsby could have stood in his grounds gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock across the water. Unfortunately, I could’t say for certain, for there was no way to get to the water’s edge, all of the properties privately protecting their own stretch of ocean front. The best glimpse that I got was through the locked gates of a yacht club.
I drove on, still listening to the book. I had studied Gatsby at college but I have either forgotten, or never realised, how funny parts of it are, and I found myself laughing out loud in the car. Of course, a student will never find a book funny, especially if a teacher says: ‘Now make a note of this, this is the author using humour for effect, this is a very funny passage…..’
My drive took me further east to Port Jefferson, where I alighted and strolled around a nature reserve and said hello to a family of swans who glided curiously up to me, and deciding that I was of no interest, glided away again.
The weather was cold, so I didn’t walk for long, but returned to my car to cross the island to the south shore and then ‘home’. Whilst I drove, I called the Beechwood Hotel and inquired about the two white shirts and to my amazement they said yes, they had them, and could I pop by and collect them? By a fortunate quirk of this year’s tour, it so happens that I will be driving straight past Worcester again on Wednesday, so a slight detour will not affect me at all. It is amazing when the stars in the universe all align and everything works out.
Finding the ocean at the south shore proved to be as difficult as finding it in the North had been and as flurries of snow were starting to swirl, I decided to head back to The Marriott. I had a couple of hours before I needed to go out, so I flicked through the TV guide to see what was on and to my delight discovered that Apollo 13 had just started, so I wallowed in nostalgia for a while – nostalgia for the events themselves, and for the film, which I remember watching for the first time in one of the large London cinemas and feeling the whole floor trembling during the lift-off sequence. The TV channel that was screening the movie gave it a rather uninspiring description that really didn’t do justice to the bravery and ingenuity of the characters involved, it read: ‘April 1970. Astronauts try to return alive.’ Not thrilling. I wonder how the same TV company would describe A Christmas Carol? ‘December 1843. Man sleeps and wakes kinder.’
As I watched the film, I also did some research into new Covid regulations that have been announced this week in the UK and discovered that I now have to take a PCR test on my return and not a LFT one. These tests have to be booked and paid for before a passenger returns and I had already booked the previously acceptable Lateral Flow Test kit, but now I had to spend another £50 for the PCR. These tests (one prior to each of my departures from the UK and 2, now 3, for my returns) have considerably added to the expense of this year’s tour!
As Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise came back to Earth, I gathered a costume shirt and black socks for the evening and made my way to the East Meadow Public Library where I was due to perform. On entering the building, I instantly felt at home, for it was like returning to one of the branches of The Mid Continent Public Library in Kansas City. I was greeted by Jude, who had kindly treated me to supper the evening before, and she showed me to a room downstairs which was to be my dressing room. Boxes of pizzas and a bowl of salad sat on the table for the staff to grab as they made preparations for the evening.
The actual performance was to be in a small auditorium on the main level and when we entered, the floor was covered with leads and cables as the sound system was being set up. The acoustic in the room sounded pretty good but we tested the microphone anyway, and my sound man (whose name, I am ashamed to say, I never caught), did a fine job in balancing the levels. We then went through all of my sound cues, rehearsing each one so that he had an idea as to how to bring the effects in and how to fade them out again, and when I needed to speak over them. He was very diligent and as I left the room, he began to clear his equipment away and tape down the cables.
Jude had sourced items for the set from a prop hire company and so Scrooge had a very nice chair and table, but unfortunately, we didn’t have a hat rack to hand, so I simply placed another table behind the chair, on which I would be able to lay the hat, cane and scarf as required during the show.
Back downstairs I set to signing copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ which had been pre-ordered, and when I had finished that, changed ready for the 7pm start. It is always an interesting challenge coming to a new venue – the show doesn’t change of course, but the atmosphere around presenting it does. For example, at somewhere like Vaillancourt’s or at Byers’ Choice the whole team has done this so often that we all know exactly how it is going to work. Likewise, the audience at those venues is usually made up with a large percentage of people who have attended multiple times and know the style of what they are going to see and are excited to see it again; their anticipation also gives a sense of confidence to the ‘newbies’ in the crowd. But in a venue such as The East Meadow Library it is all new, so there is a sense of heightened consciousness and even nervousness in the build up.
Just after 7 Jude welcomed the socially distanced and masked audience and then handed over to me. The music started and I walked onto the stage. As was to be expected, the audience was quiet at first, not knowing if they were going to see a simple reading, or a rather dry Brit reciting a Victorian novel (albeit a much-loved one), but soon they began to warm up and I began to relax, meaning that the show got better and the audience became even more involved. It was a great shared experience for us all and by the end we were the best of friends!
Having taken my bows to a standing ovation, Jude turned the auditorium lights on and we started the Q&A session. There were quite a few children in the audience and their questions were especially good, one asked me ‘What is your real voice like?’, whilst another inquired ‘What is your favourite Christmas food?’ Other questions took us into the world of the minor characters’ back stories and of course favourite movie choices. But soon it was time to wind up and after taking another bow I returned to my dressing room as the audience left the building.
By the time I had changed it was just the library staff left and they congratulated me on the show as we all packed our things up.
A new connection has been made on Long Island and hopefully it is one that we can extend to future years and, maybe with restrictions eased, we can fill the auditorium to its capacity and really have a fun party. You never know, I may even be able to find the ocean…..
I said my goodbyes and drove back to the hotel where I had a delicious plate of grilled salmon and rice, before rising to floor 7 once more and bringing the day to a close.