Chapter 9 – AMPLE MAKE THIS BED. March 17, 2020

by admin on March 17, 2020

LATEST INSTALLMENT OF MY NEW NOVEL –   Ama’s gloom over leaving Spike is soon replaced by further bad news about her runaway daughter, Ocean and a blow to her theatre plans when her designer friend Claire tells her of her personal health problems which they both struggle to deal with…

 

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CHAPTER NINE

Ama drove back to Arcadia in a state of deepening sadness, tears leaking down her face. She felt too depressed to bother to wipe them away, occasionally licking the salt taste off her lips. The old red Toyota went slower and slower until she finally drifted to a stop on the shoulder of the road, put her head on the steering wheel and gave in to the sobs which convulsed her body. She got out of the car and walked first in one direction, then turned and stumbled along the gravel shoulder back towards Bridewell.

After she had been walking for some minutes, her crying stopped. She stood uncertainly at the side of the road, looking back at her little red car in the distance. She tried to analyse what had come over her to cause this outburst, as she walked back to the car but could come to no conclusion. Whatever had triggered it had released something inside her and she felt unaccountably better, almost light-headed by the time she sat again behind the wheel.

On the rest of the drive to Arcadia she was full of plans for the joint theatre venture with Spike and Justin and Emily. It was only when she was pulling into the driveway in front of her big rambling house-sit that she realised what had overwhelmed her. It was a feeling of despair about Ocean. She let herself in and dropped her bag in the hall. She went through to the large open-plan kitchen with its old harvest oak table, still cluttered with things just as she had left them, to go to see Spike in Bridewell.

Her laptop stood open on the table and she switched it on to see what messages had accumulated while she was away. She checked her email and almost marked one as junk before she recognised it. It was the law firm of her old friend and former lover, Jasper Falkenham. She opened it with mounting nervousness.

 

      Sorry to have been so long getting back in touch with you, Ama. I finally have some news for you. Not all good, I’m afraid. As I suspected, your daughter’s boyfriend Clay had gone to ground in Ontario and I managed to track him down to a trailer park in Stratford. But the police had got there before me and he was already in custody by the time I arrived. Fortunately, Ocean had been absent when the police took him away. She was staying in a farmhouse outside the city which belonged to his supplier. They were using it as a marijuana grow-op and she had been working there with them when I finally found her.

 It took awhile to gain her boyfriend’s confidence and persuade him to tell me where she was hiding. I offered to defend him in court in return for providing the information of her whereabouts. It turns out that he has a string of charges against him in several provinces, because they moved about staying one jump ahead of the drug police. To his credit, Clay hasn’t implicated her, saying that she was only his girlfriend and knew nothing about his drug dealing. The police didn’t believe him and want her for questioning but so far haven’t found her.

I advised her to leave with me, because if she were found at the grow-op she would definitely wind up in jail. I persuaded her not to go on the run but to return to Montreal and stay with her father while awaiting a court appearance. With a little help from my wife Delphine, your ex-husband has reluctantly agreed to this arrangement, as she has him completely in her sway and they have become fast friends.

 I must admit to finding Ronnie amusing and entertaining and not quite the black-hearted villain you led me to believe. He has even offered to find Ocean a minor role in his new TV mini-series, after I told him it would help me to get her leniency when her court case came up. And Delphine assured him the courts always rule in favour of any attempts at rehabilitation, rather than prison.

So that is where things stand at present, with one proviso. Ocean is adamant that she does not want to return to live with you, but only with her father. I have my own views on this, and will give you chapter and verse on the whole situation when we meet – soon – for our next boozy lunch in Halifax. Give me a call in my office and we’ll arrange something. Your devoted solicitor, Jasper.

 

Grinning with relief, Ama re-read the email twice before ringing his office, but it was after hours in Montreal and she only got his answering service. She left him a fervent thank-you and said she would call again tomorrow. Pouring herself a large glass of red wine, she tried to do some work while she ate, but couldn’t settle to anything. She needed to talk to someone. Spike? No, something warned her against it. She finished her meal and got back into her car to drive across town to see her old confidant.

It was still early evening as she parked in front of the big Georgian colonial house with its wrap-around veranda and fine view of the harbour. Mrs. Spengler and Kitty were sitting in rocking chairs knitting and chatting.

‘You two look very industrious – knitting socks for our troops, or Gerald?’ She climbed the front steps to hug each of them in turn.

Mrs. Spengler shook her head and held up a partially finished child’s cardigan. ‘Neither. These are for a new family at the refuge. You’ve been neglecting us, Ama. For that old flame, I expect.’

‘I heard you’d disappeared suddenly,’ said Kitty. ‘I thought maybe you’d had news of your daughter.’

‘You’re both right. I’ve just been to spend a couple of days with Spike in Bridewell on his old boat. And when I got back here there was a message from an old friend who’s been helping me locate Ocean.’

‘Good news, I hope,’ said Kitty. ‘Sit down and tell us all about it. This tea’s gone cold, maybe we should have something stronger, Sarah. Let’s have a whisky sour to celebrate your news. Sarah makes a wicked cocktail. I can never get them to taste as good as hers.’

‘Be right back,’ said Sarah. ‘You two go ahead, Kitty can fill me in later.’ She padded off into the darkened house.

‘It’s not all good news, Kitty. Jasper, my lawyer friend, has tracked them down to Stratford, Ontario but he says the police found where they were and arrested her boyfriend, Clay. Ocean had gone to a farm to stay and he didn’t tell them where she was. Jasper has spoken to her and advised her to leave immediately before the police find her there.’

‘Leave the farm – why?’

‘Because it’s only a cover for a marijuana grow-op, he said, and if she’s caught there she’d be arrested too.’

‘Where did she go. Does he know?’

Ama nodded, ‘You’ll never guess. She’s with Ronnie.’

‘Ronnie – your ex?’ said Kitty. ‘But I thought you told me he wouldn’t help…’

‘That’s just it, he wouldn’t when I asked him but apparently Jasper’s wife persuaded him to take Ocean in – Delphine’s a juvenile court judge and thinks Ocean might get off with a suspended sentence in her father’s custody, so Ronnie agreed to do it.’

‘This Jasper must be a very good old friend, Ama, to get so involved.’

‘You’d love him, Kitty. He’s wonderful. Long ago we had an affair but he’s married with three children and three grandchildren. He’s doing all this as a favour. I told him I could only pay some of his expenses.’

‘Perhaps he’s hoping for some other kind of payment, Ama.’

‘That’s what I said and I told him I was in love with Spike and couldn’t sleep with him or anything.’

‘And he’s doing this just as an old friend?’

‘That’s when he told me the story of his own daughter, who ran off and disappeared for over two years. He travelled half the globe trying to find her and his wife had a nervous breakdown,’ said Ama.

She recounted the tale of Jasper’s daughter Elvire and why he wanted to help her find Ocean.

‘He does sound a wonderful man, Ama. I’m sorry I sounded so cynical. You don’t often meet people like that. If he ever comes down here to see you, you must bring him round. I’d love to meet him and so would Sarah.’

Mrs. Spengler pushed open the screen door with her ample backside and set a tray of drinks down beside them. ‘Who’s this I’d love to meet, Kitty?’

‘Another one of Ama’s old beaus – a lawyer from Montreal.’

‘By all means, bring him around, Ama. Kitty and me will entertain him while you’re busy with your old sailor,’ said Sarah.

‘I could use a good lawyer,’ said Kitty. ‘My one here is getting too old, he says, and wants to retire.’

‘Well, I’m supposed to call Jasper tomorrow to meet him for lunch – that’s our deal – I take him out to lunch and we exchange information on Ocean. He mentioned that there’s some fish restaurants in Arcadia he’d like to try.’

‘He can come here for his lunch and we can proposition him, Ama,’ said Sarah.

‘If it’s something unusual he just might take you up on it. I got the impression Jasper’s not overly busy with clients but he likes to keep his hand in. If he does come down here all the way from Montreal for lunch, I’d like to show him the theatre and ask him for his ideas. He still loves theatre, that’s how I met him.’

‘If he’s coming from Montreal, he’ll need to stay over, Ama. We can offer to put him up here for the night,’ said Kitty. ‘He’s bound to enjoy the view of the harbour from the front guest room.’

‘I’m not sure I should trust you two with Jasper from what you’ve told me,’ said Ama. ‘Especially as his wife is being so kind about helping Ocean.’

‘Ancient history,’ said Sarah. ‘We’re boringly respectable nowadays, aren’t we, Kitty?’

‘Sad but true,’ said Kitty, ‘However we can still appreciate the company of a handsome man. I take it we can assume any ex-lover of yours is good-looking, Ama.’

‘I’m afraid he’s more than that, Kitty. He will charm the pants off you. He nearly did with me again. The only thing that stopped me was being in love with Spike. And his wife, Delphine. And his three children. And his three grandchildren.’

Sarah handed them each a whisky sour. ‘Here’s to Jasper and his three grandchildren, lucky devil.’

‘Invite him soon, Ama and we’ll arrange a dinner party with some of your theatre friends. That will appeal to him more than an evening with two old widows,’ said Kitty. ‘You can take him to lunch at the Lobster Pot and discuss news of Ocean, then show him around the theatre and come back here for the party. How does that sound?’

‘How can he refuse,’ said Ama, ‘he’ll be putty in our hands.’ They drank off their whisky sours and Mrs. Spengler poured them another from the cocktail shaker.

‘We’ll get him in a good mood with a few of these,’ said Sarah, ‘before we hit him with our propositions.’

‘You haven’t told us why you raced off to Bridewell to meet Spike,’ said Kitty. ‘Nothing wrong, I hope, between you two?’

‘The only thing wrong is that he’s stuck in Bridewell for the time being. His boat’s automatic steering has broken down and he and his friend Fergus are trying to fix it.’

‘How long before he arrives, Ama?’ asked Kitty. ‘You must be getting way behind schedule at the theatre.’

‘I tried to wring a date from him but he couldn’t say. Maybe another week – depends on his friend.’

‘What with going to Halifax for the wake, then chasing off to Montreal after Ocean and then again to be with your sailor in Bridewell, they must wonder who’s minding the store here, Ama,’ said Sarah.

‘I know, and that’s not all. Spike wants me to take on a joint project with the Bridewell theatre group. As if I don’t have enough on my plate.’

‘What kind of project, Ama?’ Kitty asked. ‘Anything I can help you with?’

‘It’s all still at the discussion stage, Kitty. Basically, it’s a new approach to doing Shakespeare by modernising the language, to make it understandable to contemporary audiences.’

‘But isn’t that why people go to see Shakespeare – to hear the language?’ said Kitty.

‘Up to a point, yes, I suppose. But if they can’t understand it, then it’s sort of like watching a play in a foreign language. You can’t follow it.’

‘Just like the opera – you haven’t got a clue what they’re saying,’ said Sarah. ‘Kitty likes to go but I gave up on it. Sit there for three hours and only hear two or three good tunes.’

Ama said, ‘It all makes a change to live in that fantasy opera world for a few hours, before coming back down to earth in our old theatre, where we have to do everything on the cheap and expect the actors to work for nothing.’

‘Not nothing, Ama. For love. Isn’t that why we all do it?’ said Kitty.

‘At least you get paid a little, Ama, to make it all happen,’ said Sarah. ‘And I’m sure I’ll enjoy whatever you do, more than the New York Metropolitan Opera with all its millions.’

Ama hugged her. ‘Thanks for reminding me, Sarah. I’d better get moving. I have a ton of things to do at the theatre in the morning, if we’re ever to keep to our scheduled opening date in September.’

‘Do you think you’ll be able to keep to it, Ama, if Spike won’t be here for another week or more?’ said Kitty.

‘I’m determined we’ll have some kind of opening, even if it’s just a taster and a party. Right now, I’m heading for bed so I can make up for lost time in the morning. I always feel better after visiting both of you.’

‘It’s the whisky sours, not us,’ said Sarah. ‘Drive safely.’

 

Ama had set her alarm for 8am and was about to leave for the theatre when she remembered Jasper’s email. She knew it was too early to call him. He told her he wouldn’t be in his office before ten, so she sent him a quick email, knowing if she waited till after ten, she would be embroiled in other stuff and unable to call him till the evening.

Dear Jasper, What a relief to hear from you with your news of Ocean. I’m amazed at how soon you’ve found out so much, when I had spent fruitless months and got nowhere. I had no idea you intended to get so personally involved. I assumed you would just phone some of the people in your network you told me about, to see what you could learn.

Although I’m very happy you’ve done all this, I’m embarrassed to have embroiled you so deeply in my personal problems. Are you sure you want to defend Ocean’s boyfriend in court? Stratford is a long way from Montreal. The fact that you and Delphine have persuaded Ronnie to take on Ocean’s custody just bowls me over – I can’t quite believe it yet.

I want to hear all about it but I simply can’t take anymore time off from the theatre. I’m already hopelessly behind and Spike is delayed with his old boat in Bridewell. He can’t join me for another week or so. You mentioned that you might like to come down to Arcadia so I can take you to lunch again and we can talk about Ocean’s situation. I can do better than that. Two very dear women friends would like to host a party for you, with some of our theatre actors and designers at their lovely old colonial house, where they have offered to put you up for the night while you’re here.

I have to confess that I painted such a glowing character portrait of you that they can’t wait till you arrive. I, too would love it if you will say yes and I promise to take you to the Lobster Pot, which is the best fish restaurant in Arcadia. Short of offering you my body, which is already spoken for, this is the best I can do by way of recompense for all you’re doing for my daughter.

Please say yes.

Much love, Ama.

She clicked send, closed her laptop and headed for the theatre.

 

There were only two other vehicles in the Regency Theatre car park. This must mean that Frankie, her costume maker, was here already as well as Arthur, the stage carpenter. She went in through the unlocked stage door to look for them. Nobody was in the wardrobe department or onstage but she could hear loud voices arguing in the front-of-house foyer when she walked through the darkened stalls.

 

‘You’ve got it inside out, Arthur, we’ll have to take it all back down,’ said Frankie, who stood at the bottom of the long electrician’s step-ladder. He was bracing it for Arthur at the top, almost invisible under the voluminous folds of gauze draped over his shoulders.

‘Are you crazy? It’s taken me half an hour risking my neck to get it up here. No way I’m taking it all down again.’

‘I’m back,’ said Ama. ‘Sorry I had to rush off and leave you to it but I’m here now, rested up and ready to work.’

‘Ama, thank god you’re back,’ Arthur called down to her. ‘Will you please tell this finicky fusspot that it doesn’t matter which side is showing. It’s just bloody gauze.’

‘It matters to me, all the seams are showing, aren’t they, Ama?’ Frankie said.

‘Nobody will even notice once it’s back-lit. I can’t tell the difference and I’m right in the middle of it,’ said Arthur.

‘Well we can, can’t we, Ama, and I want it back down to turn it right side out,’ said Frankie.

‘No sense asking me, my eyes aren’t adjusted from outdoors yet. It’s brilliant sunshine this morning.’

‘I had it all folded properly so it would fall the right way when you attached it, Arthur. I don’t know how you messed it up.’

‘To hell with it, do it yourself. I haven’t got time to fiddle around with this. I only offered to do it as a favour because I know you hate climbing ladders. If I take it down, Frankie, I’m not putting it back up again,’ said Arthur.

‘Why don’t we leave it for the time being and see how it looks fully unfolded,’ Ama said. ‘Come on down and we’ll have a coffee and go over our work schedule, Arthur. Maybe we’ll have time later to change it.’

‘Claire’s going to notice it straight off,’ said Frankie. ‘She’ll insist we put it right.’

‘Then she can climb up there and do it herself,’ said Arthur. He dumped the bundles of gauze off his shoulders and they floated down, billowing out like a parachute over the foyer.

‘It looks wonderful, Frankie, just like Claire said. Once we have it back-lit it will transform the whole front-of-house,’ said Ama.

Arthur climbed down and the three of them gazed up at the shimmering cloud above them. Mollified by her remark, the grim set of Frankie’s face relaxed as he smiled at his handiwork.

‘That Claire is a wonder alright. I have to admit this wasn’t such a crazy idea,’ Arthur said.

‘Let’s bring our coffee out here and we can talk while we admire it,’ said Ama.

They fetched coffee from the Green room and sat at the bar to drink it and consult the work sheets which were long and daunting.

‘No way we’re going to get through all this by ourselves, even with a wonder-worker like Claire,’ said Ama. ‘Spike won’t be here for another week or so to help us.’

‘We need to organise a work party,’ said Arthur. ‘With a bunch of volunteers, I could start to make inroads into this backlog. Lots of it is unskilled. Like hanging that canopy.’ He winked at Ama.

‘Couldn’t do any worse than the skilled help,’ Frankie said.

‘But who could we ask? Gloria is always so busy with her bakery,’ said Ama. ‘Kitty and Mrs. Spengler have offered but they’re getting a little old for heavy work.’

‘Better not let Sarah hear you say that,’ said Arthur, ‘she reckons she can work as well as any man in this town. She always worked right alongside her husband before he drowned.’

‘I’m gonna need plenty of extra hands, making all the hangings Claire has in mind to cover up the shabby auditorium,’ said Frankie. ‘Did she tell you she wants to make slipcovers for all the seats in both the stalls and the balcony? Can you imagine how long it would take me? I’d want a dozen volunteers just for that.’

‘What time is Claire coming in today, did she say?’ asked Ama.

‘Around ten,’ said Arthur. He pulled out his old pocket watch. ‘It’s quarter past already, she’s late.’

‘That playboy friend of hers must be pretty demanding,’ said Frankie. ‘She’s always late.’

‘Don’t forget she’s holding down a big museum contract. We’re only a sideshow and lucky she can spare us the time,’ said Ama. ‘Let’s be grateful we have her at all.’

‘No wonder she’s so skinny, everybody is wearing her out,’ said Arthur.

‘Claire’s not worn out, she’s anorexic,’ said Frankie. ‘Have you seen what she eats? God knows where all that energy comes from. I reckon she’s on drugs of some kind.’

‘Stop gossiping about her and leave her alone,’ said Ama. ‘As far as I’m concerned, she’s a godsend and her personal life is none of our business. We need her help. Something’s got to give and I don’t know what.’

‘That’s what I been telling Frankie – we haven’t got time to waste fiddling with gauze canopies.’

‘And I’ve told him, that Claire said it was a priority. She says it’s important as it sets the tone when people arrive,’ said Frankie.

‘Stop bickering, darlings. Mother Theresa is here to perform more miracles. But first I require a handmaiden, Ama.’

‘Claire – thank god… we’ve ground to a halt,’ said Ama, as Claire air-kissed her.

‘Stop whatever you’re doing and come with me, all of you.’               She linked arms with Ama and led them back out the stage door to her big silver SUV van. Opening the rear access, she began pulling out a large rolled up poster. ‘I’ve been to my favourite poster shop in Halifax and brought you these to cover up all the mirrors everywhere. Look at this.’ She unrolled a colourful railway design of a steam train running out of a tunnel in the Rockies. ‘Go ahead, open them up. See what you think.’ She hauled out an armful and passed them round.

‘I love this one,’ said Frankie. ‘It’s the Banff Springs Hotel at Lake Louise.’

‘There’s a whole series of those we can spread around the front of house as people enter. From Atlantic to Pacific,’ said Claire.

‘Look at this sepia tint of street jazz musicians,’ said Ama. ‘Is there any more of these, Claire?’

‘At least a dozen. I can’t decide whether to group them or intersperse them around the theatre. What do you think?’

‘I’d have to wait and see when we get them inside.’

‘What have you brought for behind the bar, Claire?’ asked Arthur. ‘There’s an acre of de-silvered mirrors to cover up.’

‘Well, we are in Nova Scotia so I thought it ought to be a maritime theme. I found lots of Cunard steamship posters, with all these elegant art deco people posing on sweeping decks of ocean liners.’

Ama gathered up an armful of rolls. ‘Let’s bring them all inside and spread them out to see what you’ve got. We can hold them up for you to decide, Claire.’

They emptied the back of her car and carried them into the theatre foyer to unroll on the faded red carpeting, while Claire paced about looking at the empty mirrored spaces, deciding how to display them. For the next hour, she tried differing combinations around the foyer and up the curving staircase to the balcony. Ama and the two men held them up for her, turning and swapping them at her dictates while she photographed them on her cellphone and tried to make up her mind. At last, she paused.

‘Alright, I think I have a tentative layout, so here’s what we’ll do. Ama and I will put them up with sticky-tack temporarily, so you and Frankie can get on with your own jobs,’ said Claire. ‘Frankie, I saw some bolts of cloth in your car for the seating in the stalls. Will you cut out and roughly pin one seat cover in each of the patterns we chose and then we can make a choice which to use. Arthur can start removing the centre seats from the first four rows so we can begin framing the thrust stage. This is just donkey work, Arthur, so get some volunteers in to help you, and you can supervise while you rough out the side ramps. Okay?’

‘We were talking about a work party when you arrived, Claire,’ said Frankie. ‘I’m going to need lots of help to recover all these seats here and in the balcony, too.’

‘Well, we all have networks so let’s each put the word out. Nobody shows up here tomorrow without at least two volunteers in tow. Tell them we need each of them to find two more and we’ll work out a rota, so they come when it suits them.’

‘I’ve already lined up my first two,’ said Ama. ‘Kitty and Mrs. Spengler have volunteered and between them they know everybody in Arcadia, I think.’

‘You mentioned using some old fishing nets for our canopies, Ama. We could use a few of those unemployed fishermen as well, to help Arthur with our new staging. Do you know any of them, yourself?’ asked Claire.

‘Not personally, but Sarah – Mrs. Spengler, is a fisherman’s widow and she knows all the families.’

‘Good. When you bring her in, she and Arthur can start recruiting. Meantime, let’s see what we can do ourselves.’

 

Ama found a package of adhesive blue tack in the office and she and Claire used it to stick up the posters in a montage on the old bar mirrors until they were covered to Claire’s satisfaction.

‘I’m longing to hear about your latest liaison with your old flame, Ama. When am I going to meet him?’

‘Not for awhile yet, I’m afraid. He’s having problems with his old boat. And he has to wait for his friend to fix it and sail down here with him.’

‘Did you do any sailing with him?’

‘No, we didn’t have any time, we were too busy. But we stayed on the boat while I was there. It was a lovely break from here. Things have been snowing me under and I needed to get away.’

‘And is he still as keen on you as before, or has he cooled down after your first encounter?’

‘You wouldn’t believe us, Claire. We were at it like two ferrets in a sack, to quote Spike. I don’t quite understand what’s happening and neither does he, but whatever it is, we want it to continue.’

‘Takes you by surprise, doesn’t it? At our age, to still have those powerful feelings for someone. Even if it doesn’t last,’ said Claire. ‘Enjoy it while you can.’

‘Oh, oh… are you trying to tell me something. Are you having problems, Claire? I thought you told me Antony was devoted.’

‘He’s not the problem, Ama. I am. I’ve had some tests done recently and the results are not good.’

‘What do you mean tests, what sort of tests?’

‘Blood tests. You know how I haven’t been able to put any weight on and my GP was getting worried. She ran some tests and she was right. Something is wrong. Seems like I might have pancreatic cancer and that’s why I’m so thin.’

‘Oh Claire, you’re so full of energy. I can’t believe you’re ill. Are you sure?’

‘That’s what I said. I feel okay but I keep getting thinner.’

‘I’m not surprised, you eat like a sparrow. What will they do? Will you have to be in hospital?’

‘More tests for now, until they’re sure. Then treatment, I guess. I didn’t want to ask.’

‘Does Antony know?’

‘I haven’t told him yet. He’s so emotional I couldn’t handle it – he’d upset us both.’

Ama climbed down from the stepladder to hug her. ‘This is awful, Claire. What will you do?’

‘Keep working, that’s what my GP said. She says it’s not the end of the world so I’m not to start imagining the worst, there’s lots they can do these days.’

‘Well, that sounds promising anyway.’

‘Oh, she’s very upbeat, my GP, talks a good line. But then she’s not the one with the cancer, is she?’

‘Are you sure you want to keep doing this, Claire – shouldn’t you be resting?’

‘Definitely not. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself would be fatal. I want to be occupied with something that takes my mind off my diagnosis.’

‘But you’ve got your big museum project looming. Won’t doing two projects be too much?

‘Not if they stop me from brooding on myself. The busier the better. And if this isn’t enough, I may look for something else as well.’

‘Oh god, Claire, I feel terrible. Is there anything I can do? Will you come and stay with me for awhile till you get the results of these new tests?’

‘I couldn’t, Ama. Antony would get suspicious. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you, but I had to tell someone and Antony’s hopeless. He’d probably try to send me to some Swiss clinic in the Alps or somewhere.’

‘We’ll tell him I asked you to stay, as I’m stressed out because my daughter is missing and the theatre is in a critical state. Both of which are true. And besides, it will switch the emphasis on to me, so he won’t suspect anything.’

‘I’m tempted, Ama. I’m all over the place since I heard the news. I’m frightened I might start to cry at any time and give the game away.’

‘You can cry on my shoulder as much as you like. And any time in between, we can keep busy with all your plans for the theatre. Perhaps you’ll let me help with your travelling museum project, too.’

‘Maybe just a few days with you, till I come to terms with this new me.’

‘Good. That’s settled then, you come home with me tonight and I can make you some of my comfort food and fatten you up. You can keep me company till Spike arrives.’

‘This is such a relief for me to have someone to talk to about this. I’ve been going round and round in my head and getting panic attacks…oh Christ, Ama, now I really am going to bawl.’

Ama steered her to a faded plush banquette and held her, while big gulping sobs shook her thin frame. Ama stroked her back and waited for the emotional turmoil to subside. She gave her a package of tissues from her pocket to mop up the aftermath.

‘Sounded like you needed to get that out, Claire. Did it help?’

‘Wonderful, I loved spilling it all out. I’m such a drama queen, Ama. I hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for. I told you, I’m all over the place.’

‘So am I these days. We can take turns. Let’s go to the Green Room and have some coffee and you can repair the damage. We wouldn’t want Arthur and Frankie to see you and have to explain everything.’

‘God forbid. They’d want to sort me all out and tell me what to do. Men love solving our problems for us, don’t they?’

They avoided the main auditorium and went backstage to the Green Room. Ama made fresh coffee while Claire washed her face and re-did her makeup. Ama found an open package of chocolate brownies in the fridge and they sat side by side on an old sofa, eating and drinking.

‘Chocolate, the best medicine. The cure for everything, Claire.’

‘That and a good weep. I feel better already. Thanks, Ama. It will be like having a sister, living with you for a few days. You can be the big sister I never had.’

‘Neither did I. We can regress to being teenagers. Watch old Cary Grant videos.’

‘Paint each other’s toenails.’

‘Eat pastries in bed,’ said Ama.

‘Do each other’s hair,’ Claire said. ‘Try on our clothes.’

‘None of yours would fit me and you’d drown in mine, Claire. Except for our shoes – we have the same size. I tried your kinky boots on, remember?’

‘I suppose we’d better get back to work, Ama, or Arthur will come looking for us.’

‘Okay, but only if you feel up to it.’

‘I’m raring to go, thanks to you, sis.’ She stood up and hugged Ama and they went upstairs and onstage to find Arthur.

‘Where’ve you been?’ he said. ‘I wanted to ask you about these seats and you weren’t in the foyer.’

‘Claire needed a coffee break – we were in the Green Room. What’s the problem?’

‘I saw what you did with the bar mirrors. Looks great. Big improvement already. Claire, can you spare me some time to figure out exactly where the ramps will go? I phoned a couple of my retired pals to help me remove seats and they’re coming after lunch. I don’t want them taking out the wrong seats.’

‘I can’t do any more posters without Claire. You two go ahead and I’ll make some phone calls while I wait,’ said Ama.

 

She went through the stalls to sit in the foyer and study the montage Claire had created behind the bar. The gauzy canopy stirred above her head from a draft in the balcony. Although this had already made a difference to the shabby front of house, she realised it would take a lot more work on Claire’s part to achieve the transformation she had promised.       Ama wondered how much longer her friend could continue if the diagnosis was correct and she did have pancreatic cancer. Surely once she had to begin treatment, it would knock her frail body about so badly she would be unable to work. Ama knew only too well from other friends and family members who endured cancer treatment, the debilitating effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

With a guilty start, she realised she had been thinking of the effects on her plans for the theatre, rather than on the devastation it would bring to Claire’s life. She chastised herself for even contemplating these selfish thoughts and tried to put them out of her mind. She needed to talk to Kitty and tell her of the dilemma she foresaw. Or Spike. Perhaps it would be better to talk to him instead.

In the end she did neither, for when she opened her phone to call, she saw there was a message from Jasper. As she had predicted when she sent him the email, she had forgotten all about him once she became caught up in the distractions at the theatre. She hadn’t expected to hear from him so soon. The message only asked her to call him back. As she called his office number, she wondered if he had more news of Ocean. He picked up on the second ring.

‘Jasper Falkenham here,’ he said, in his aloof lawyer’s tone.

‘Hello Jasper, that was quick. I hope it means your answer is yes.’

‘Ama. I didn’t recognise your number. I’ve cleared my desk and my calendar for the next two days. If it suits you, I can arrive tomorrow in time for our lunch engagement.’

‘That’s great, Jasper, shall I meet you at the airport? When does your flight get into Halifax?’

‘All taken care of by Madame Laurent, my legal secretary. She has arranged a car rental and a scenic route along the lighthouse coast to Arcadia. The flight arrives in plenty of time for me to avoid the motorway.’

‘And Delphine can spare you for a night? She won’t mind you consorting with an old actress from your past?’

‘Au contraire, she positively urged me to go, now that she is championing Ocean’s cause. Your wayward daughter is now firmly tucked under her wing, while she awaits your ex-husband’s takeover of his parental duty. Ronnie is in thrall to her and she is his keenest admirer.’

‘I long to meet her in person, Jasper. Do you think she could bear to meet me, or has Ronnie painted too black a portrait of me?’

‘All in good time, Ama. For now, you are my sole responsibility and I have much to tell you.’

‘I hope it’s not more bad news, Jasper. I don’t think I can handle another dose.’

‘What happened, the theatre roof collapse? You told me the fly-loft was condemned.’

‘Worse. You know my amazing designer who’s been transforming the place for us? She’s ill and may not be able to continue.’

‘I’m sorry, Ama. Is Spike there yet to help out?’

‘Not for another week at least. Boat problems.’

‘Sounds like you could use my assistance in more ways than one. We can talk about it over lunch when we catch up. I’ll see you at about one tomorrow at the Lobster Pot. I looked it up online. Very impressive reviews.’

‘Thanks for agreeing to come, Jasper. I’ll phone my friend Kitty to tell her you’re on the way.’

She rang Kitty next to warn her of the short notice.

‘Plenty of time for Sarah and me to get organised, dear. His room is all ready for him. Who would you like to ask to the party from the theatre?’

‘My new stage designer, Claire, for a start. You should see what she’s done to the foyer already, Kitty. And Gloria, the baker from the market. You’ve seen her act in our last show. When we did the revival of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.’

‘Yes, she played that insufferable busybody neighbour, didn’t she? Marvellous.’

‘Who were you thinking of inviting, Kitty? Any of your former paramours? Or Sarah’s?’

‘Sarah wants to ask one or two from the women’s refuge, to see if they can persuade your friend to be a patron and tap into all that old money in Montreal. I want him to meet some of our theatre board and ginger them up with some new ideas.’

‘They sound a bit stuffy, Kitty. I was hoping it would be a bit livelier for Jasper. He likes a good time, as I remember. It won’t be a sit-down formal dinner, will it?’

‘Don’t fret, Ama. Sarah and I are well-known for our parties. He won’t be bored. Sarah has lined up several of her musician friends to play. And we’ve already planned to make it buffet-style food.’

‘Sorry, Kitty. I didn’t mean to tell you how to hold your own party. It’s only that I suspect with Jasper’s wife being a judge, they have to go to a lot of formal white-tie affairs. I was hoping this could be more casual and fun.’

‘I promise you I’ve been honing my party skills since before you were born, Ama. He’ll have a good time and so will you. I won’t let anyone button-hole him for long. We want him to enjoy himself so he’ll come back again. I have a feeling we’re going to need his expertise if your theatre is going to be a success.’

‘Let me know what I can do to help prepare, Kitty.’

‘You just take him to lunch and discuss Ocean’s plight. Then give him the grand tour of the theatre to meet the crew and see what you’re up against. After that you can show him the town. Then leave the rest to us.’

 

Ama hung up and went to see Frankie in the costume loft. She found him cutting out upholstery materials for the auditorium seating.

‘Hi Ama, have you come to help me cover 150 stalls seats, or would you rather make another canopy out of burlap sacking instead?’ He grinned at her and indicated an empty stool for her to sit.

‘I’ll have to pass on both for now, Frankie. I’ve got something else to tell you. A change of plans. Are you ready?’

He put down his shears and faced her. ‘I’m all ears.’

‘You know how Claire’s ideas to drastically change the staging to a multi-level open space will alter what we’ll be able to do. I’ve been thinking, instead of doing a modern dress version of Twelfth Night, we should do a commedia del arte version of ‘Oh What a Lovely War,’ to take advantage of our radical new staging. What do you think?’

‘But you’ve already started rehearsing for Twelfth Night.’

‘I know. We haven’t started building any of the set, though. Or making any of the costumes, either.’

‘Because Claire has us side-tracked into making canopies and new seat covers.’

‘If we can manage to form a work party to do the seat covers and revamp the stage, it would free you up to focus on making new costumes for ‘Oh What a Lovely War.’ I think you like commedia style costumes, don’t you Frankie?’

‘I love them, Ama. Is it a large cast? I don’t really know the play. And commedia outfits are very elaborate.’

‘I’m afraid it is a big cast, so we’ll do lots of doubling. And I know we have some old costumes already. I’ve seen them in here somewhere.’

He got up from his stool and began browsing through the racks. ‘I haven’t seen them for ages either but you’re right, they’re in here somewhere.’

The two of them searched up and down the aisles until Frankie emerged triumphant, holding up a Harlequin diamond patterned costume. ‘Here we are. There should be more in around here, Ama.’

‘Yes, I’ve found a Pierrot white outfit,’ she said.

They found several others which had been made for a Christmas panto and carried them all back to Frankie’s cutting table.

‘When you’re fed up with making canopies and seat covers, Frankie, you can start refurbishing these. I’ll order copies of the script online so we know what we’ll have to make for the show. I haven’t even begun to think about casting yet, so you can spend time researching costumes and props. I want to tell Claire about this change of play to get her thoughts on staging it.’

Ama returned to the stage and found Claire in one of the box seats off the balcony. A ladder was leaning against it from the stage with Arthur perched on it, dangling a measuring tape to the floor.

‘It’s going to be a steep staircase to the downstage area,’ he said, ‘unless we angle it further upstage.’

‘Perhaps we’ll put in a half landing, Arthur, to break it up and give us an extra acting area as well,’ Claire said. ‘What do you think, Ama?’

‘Great idea. Will you do the same on the other side?’

‘That’s what I thought at first. Now I’m thinking of something asymmetrical. Provide more interesting opportunities for staging. Arthur wants a mirror image of this side and I want to reverse the stairs to project out over the audience and angle back to the front of stage from another half landing. You can be the final arbiter, Ama. We can go either way.’

‘Will it block the ramp entrance, Claire? I love the idea of actors running up the slopes with banners and signs and stuff.’

‘Not if we cantilever it over the ramp and run it back above head height. Will we, Arthur?’ said Claire.

‘I’d have to put in at least one support for the half landing,’ he said. ‘Easier to make both sides symmetrical, Ama.’

‘What I had in mind allows a continuous flow from stage to box to balcony on one side, and back to stage on the other side without repetition,’ Claire said. ‘The same with the ramps from the stalls, one longer and shallower, the other shorter and steeper. The asymmetry opens everything up and integrates the auditorium with the stage. Makes it all more visually interesting with more possibilities for different kinds of staging. Symmetry will look more like a set for an opera or Hollywood musical.’

‘You’ve convinced me, Claire, but Arthur has to build it. Is it do-able, Arthur, or too difficult?’

‘I can do it but it will take longer and we already have a lot on our plate with all the front of house revamps Claire has in mind.’

Claire swung her long pencil-thin legs over the balcony and began to climb down the ladder, backing him down to Ama on the stage. ‘This is simply a problem of logistics, Arthur, and the solution is simple, too. Delegate. You supervise and demonstrate. Put volunteers to work and only do the tricky bits yourself. I’ve learned not to assume all volunteers are just free labour. They all have skill sets we can use. We just have to find them. Put out the call for whoever you need at the moment. This is a community project so let them take part. You might be surprised how many respond. An hour or two on the odd afternoon or evening isn’t asking that much. Get them involved, find the movers and shakers out there and get them onside. End of pep talk. It’s time to get back to work. Come on, Ama, those posters are waiting for us and Arthur’s pals will be here soon to yank these seats out.’

 

Ama and Claire continued covering the mirrors in the entrance foyer and up the wide staircase walls to the balcony landing. Along the corridor to the washrooms, the walls were lined with blistering mirrors, with the silver backings peeling off. They left the ones over the hand-basins uncovered, as Claire said they would have to replace these with cheap mirror tiles, for people to see themselves. When they finally ran out of posters, they had managed to cover every old mirror except those in the box office.

‘We’ll make those ones big posters of the current and upcoming shows,’ said Claire.

‘What shall we do about all these threadbare entrance carpets?’ said Ama. ‘They make the place look so shabby.’

‘We rip them all out and up the staircase too,’ said Claire. ‘I have a contact who’s an exhibition display contractor in Halifax. Arnold let’s me have slightly used exhibition carpet by the mile for almost free. All we need is a good carpet layer to fit them. We can use volunteers to collect the stuff and help him, but it has to be a professional to make it look good. Maybe Arthur knows someone local we can ask to take charge, in return for some free advertising.’

They decided the auditorium carpets could be revived with a rental carpet cleaning machine.

‘Refitting all this carpet would be a mammoth task unless we took all the seats out first and we haven’t the time. The new seat coverings will brighten things up enough, I hope,’ Claire said. ‘Let’s go and see if Frankie has finished the samples yet.’

In the wardrobe department, Frankie was hunched over his heavy old industrial sewing machine, surrounded by lengths of the patterned cloth he had brought that morning.

‘I like this one, Frankie,’ said Ama, holding up a piece of bold Art Deco material.

‘I’m just sewing up the last one if you wait ten minutes. We can try them out in the stalls,’ he said, not stopping as he fed the cloth under the chattering needle.

‘We’ll take these finished ones through and start laying them out for you,’ said Claire.

She and Ama carried the covers into the auditorium stalls and draped them loosely over the seats, separating them in different rows to gauge how they looked. A few minutes later, Frankie appeared holding the last one.             Taking a mouthful of pins, all three of them covered a seat each, separated far enough apart to judge. They studied the end results from different angles, trying to decide.

‘I like the plain dark green best,’ said Claire, ‘but the zigzag pattern will disguise the old carpet better.’

‘My choice, too. I like the Art Deco pattern because it fits with the theatre period,’ Ama said.

‘This dull gold corduroy is my pick. It will look rich when the whole house is done out the same. The zigzag is too jazzy,’ said Frankie.

‘Let’s see what Arthur says,’ said Claire. She shouted his name until he appeared on the stage, with a heavy pipe wrench in his hand.

‘The bolts on some of these seats are rusted solid,’ he said, peering into the darkened stalls.

‘Which seat cover style do you like best, Arthur?’ asked Ama.

‘I like the cheapest one,’ he said.

‘Don’t be such a philistine and give us your opinion,’ said Claire.

‘Okay, I like the same one you do.’

‘And which one do you think that is?’ she persisted.

‘The navy blue with the jagged red pattern, of course.’

‘Correct,’ said Ama. ‘Almost a unanimous verdict if we don’t count Frankie.’

‘Don’t mind me,’ said Frankie. ‘I’m only the drudge who makes them.’

‘Now don’t sulk, Frankie,’ said Claire, ‘you’ve been consulted. And if everyone hates them, think of how you can gloat about it later. Anyway, you’re not making them, your volunteer work party will stitch them all together, like Santa’s elves.’

‘Don’t remove the covers yet. We’ll leave them overnight and look at them again in the morning,’ said Ama. ‘Now I have some good news for you. I’ve persuaded Claire to stay with me for a few days, so we can go over what to do next in the evenings and she doesn’t have to drive in all that way. We can plan how to stage our first production which is not going to be Twelfth Night, even though I’ve started rehearsals. Instead, I want to take full advantage of Claire’s makeover of the theatre and do a commedia del arte style production of Oh What A Lovely War. It’s perfect for all these levels and acting areas. She’s even promised me a trap door to do the trench scenes, isn’t that right, Arthur – you will be able to make one?’

‘Yep. I looked up some different plans on the internet that all looked too complicated, so I’ve come up with my own version. Claire’s already approved it.’

‘Frankie and I went on a hunt in the costume loft and located some old Pierrot outfits already that we can use.’

‘I found a few more costumes that might work, Ama. Columbine and Pulcinella.’

‘Will you want to use masks or makeup?’ asked Claire. ‘I love designing masks but we need a good prop maker. Do you have anyone, Ama?’

‘No, I’m hoping the drama students in Dartmouth will help out. Spike and I met some of them at the wake I went to in Halifax.’

They were interrupted by the arrival of Arthur’s two retired pals. They left them to remove the redundant rows of stalls seating, to make room for the new apron staging and auditorium ramps. Claire and Frankie went back to the wardrobe department to continue searching out possible commedia costumes from the loft stores.

 

Ama drove downtown to Gloria and Garth’s bakery, to speak to her friend about the work party and tell her of the change of plays. She had already cast Gloria in Twelfth Night. The G&G cafe and bakery looked empty when she arrived. She went around the back and found Garth having a coffee break, at one of the outdoor tables overlooking the inner harbour.

‘If you’ve come to steal my wife away from her duties, you’re outta luck. She’s on a delivery. Should be back soon.’ He heaved his bulky frame out of his chair. ‘Sit down, Ama, you can have a coffee with me while you wait.’

He disappeared into the shop and came back in a minute with a mug and a plate with a Chelsea bun on it. ‘These are still warm from the oven. Nice and sticky.’ He set the mug of coffee and plate in front of her and sat back down. ‘Fill me in, Ama. Haven’t seen you around for a bit. Gloria said you’ve been off gallivanting around the country, instead of working on your show. When’s the grand opening?’

‘More like a grand fiasco, Garth. We’re hopelessly behind and Gloria’s right – I have been neglecting my theatre duties for personal reasons, haring off to Halifax and Montreal and Bridewell.’

‘What were you doing in Bridewell – checking out the competition? Gloria said they’re doing a Shakespeare there as well.’

‘That’s right. Taming of the Shrew. We saw it, me and Spike, my new co-director. I stayed on his boat.’

‘He’s not much good to you in Bridewell. When’s he due to get here?’

‘Not till his boat’s fixed. Another week or two, he thinks.’

‘Anything I can help you with in the meantime? The cafe’s pretty quiet these days, as you can see and I do most of my baking early morning.’

‘Arthur could use some extra muscle with the new staging we’re installing. Lots of heavy lifting and carpentry work, Garth. You any good with a hammer and saw?’

‘I fitted out this place myself when we took it over. I did all the shopfitting, counters and such. Gloria did the painting and we both did the baking at the same time.’

‘Between the two of you, you must know most of the people in Arcadia. We’re trying to organise some work parties to get things done in time for our September deadline. Do you think you could press gang any of your customers who might have some free time over the next month? There’s so much to do and I hate to postpone our official opening.’

‘When would you like me to come, Ama? I can’t do mornings or late nights. Have to get up at four.’

‘Just turn up whenever you’re free and tell anyone else the same. Male or female, we’ll take all comers. And if they’d like to be in the play, I’m looking for a large cast for our first show.’

‘Gloria’s already started learning her lines for Twelfth Night. Gives her something to do when I go to bed early.’

‘That’s what I wanted to talk to her about. I’m changing the order and doing the Shakespeare as our second show, so the rehearsals for it are on hold till Spike gets here.’

Garth rose and cleared the table. ‘I’m free this afternoon once Gloria gets back with the van. Do I need to take any tools?’

‘Arthur has most things in the scenery dock. What he wants is extra pairs of strong hands. He’s going to make good use of your carpentry skills, Garth.’

While she waited until Gloria arrived, Ama helped Garth wiping down tables and display counters, until the G&G bakery van pulled up in front of the shop.

 

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