I sat in the van as we waited underneath an oak tree by the side of the London bound A3 in the late afternoon sun for the charabanc and Malcolm’s car to appear. The van sat half in a ditch wheels caked in mud from the morning rain as the red and gold leaves of the oak drifted slowly to the ground around it. How we had lost them I could not say, having left Portsmouth in our usual convoy that morning heading for the Surrey Hills. I had been dozing in the passenger seat while Mack had been driving.
Now Mack prowled up and down on the verge chewing on the end of his cigar, his rotund figure a study in agitation. We had scenery to erect, costumes to lay out, fliers to distribute and Mack was eager to get to the Three Horseshoes, where we were staying, before last orders. Standing by the side of a road in rural Hampshire was not getting that done, but props, scenery and costumes were moot; if we had managed to lose the cast there would be no performance tomorrow. Mack shot me a consoling look for we both knew what Malcolm would say “Joshua you oaf.”
Malcolm was the guiding light of our little company as we wended our way around the grey highways of Post War England bringing Shakespeare to the great unwashed. “It was his mission” he said “just like my dear friends Larry and John to popularise the words of the Bard of Avon.” But Malcolm did not follow their exalted paths; his name was not destined to be up in lights. Rather it was found plastered on village noticeboards and lampposts declaring that “Malcolm Stanford-Leigh presents Shakespeare (abridged)” in the Parish halls and British Legions of the land.
I had applied to join the company as an actor, but Malcolm had been dismissive of my audition, a scene from Hamlet “far too provincial boy,” being more interested in my ability to drive a truck. This I had learned while in the army. I had been only eleven when the war ended but National Service and patriotic duty led me to spend two years with the British Army of the Rhine based in Westfalendamm near Dortmund, Germany.
Though as my Father had said, and he a man born to an Italian Father desperate to prove his own loyalty to Queen and Country, serving my country had turned me into a man. I had left a gangly youth, all strange angles and awkwardness. When I returned, I had grown gaining the muscle and bulk to compliment my dark Latin looks; though at twenty-two, I still lacked the adult confidence to match my physique.
This made me perfect as Malcolm’s factotum and general dogsbody. I was young and malleable enough to take his abuse. To move sets and costumes about, to be there first thing in the morning laying out scripts for rehearsals and last thing at night packing away props, long after the cast and Mack had retired to the pub.
I did it all for love of course. Just being around actors, watching from the wings, butterflies in my stomach prior to a performance was enough for me, well almost. Celia at least encouraged me and allowed me to help her with her lines. Celia was an exotic beauty, well as exotic as this lad from Gloucester had ever seen. She talked of Paris; of New York as places she had been to, but which to me were just a dream. As we shared long luscious kisses hidden from view amid the racks of costumes in the van our bodies pressed close together. Breathing in the heady scent of her French tobacco and exotic perfume, I dreamed I would one day get to travel to some of those places with her.
She was to play Third Witch in the production of Macbeth we were meant to perform the following night in the Village Hall, Thursley, as well as understudying Marion as Lady Macbeth. Marion was Malcolm’s amour, and the only one privileged enough to journey in his car with him. Their romance was an open secret, for in a closed society like our Company your private actions soon became public record. It was the only explanation for the parts she got for as Celia eloquently put it she was “A hatchet faced shrew with the dramatic range of a haddock.”
“Coach is here.” shouted Mack, as he banged urgently on the side of the van.
I must have fallen asleep for it was now fully dark, the reflection of the charabanc’s lights dazzled in the mirrors as it struggled up the hill behind us. The driver responded to Mack’s frantic gesturing as he waved his cheroot like a distress beacon and pulled to a halt behind us.
But where was Malcolm’s car. The cast, stiff from far too long sitting, emerged slowly from the interior of our rickety pre-war coach. The last to disembark being Marion on crutches, limping with her arm in a sling assisted by Celia who gave me a sly wink from beneath her tousled fringe of blonde curls. Malcolm was nowhere to be seen.
“Well?” Mack asked.
“A dog rang out in front of his car.” said Bernard, an elegant cove who was playing Duncan to Malcolm’s Macbeth, as he absentmindedly twirled the end of his RAF moustache “Dash bad show but the quacks have kept him in won’t be out before tomorrow pm. Without an understudy we have no Scottish play.”
Malcolm did not believe in an understudy for himself. He prided himself on never having missed a performance in twenty years, for him the show always went on. But with Malcolm’s abridgements baring only a passing resemblance to the source text. It left us in somewhat of a pickle.
Celia eyes sparkling piped up “Joe knows it, Joe knows all the parts and I know Lady Macbeth”
The company turned as one, all eyes upon me.
“Ahh” mused Bernard “but can you act my dear fellow?”
The agent Mr Gross who happened to be staying with a maiden aunt in Thursley, and found himself dragged along for an evening’s entertainment obviously felt that we could.
Malcolm, who had arrived during the second act, making a dramatic entry as Mack pushed him in in a wheelchair, had tried to take the credit and a pay-off for releasing us from our contracts. Mr Gross who recognised a shark when he saw one sent Malcolm packing and the last I saw of him was as Mack pushed him away his wheelchair squeaking ponderously.
The next morning both Celia and I found ourselves aboard a London bound train, taking the first tentative steps towards our respective fates. First step London, but then Paris, New York, Hollywood. Who knew?
© 2014 | Frank Regan, All rights reserved.
Originally Published 22 August 2014